Interview with Kelly Simmons

WivesofBilliesMtI recently had an opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Kelly Simmons, self-published author of The Wives of Billie’s Mountain. OK, full disclosure, Kelly graduated from the MFA program at Queens with me, and we shared a few classes, so I already knew her quality as a writer.

Kelly is no stranger to the publishing industry, having worked throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s for a packaging and publishing operation, Falcon Press, which was eventually sold to Globe Pequot. I have a theory about corporations – eventually everything will be sold to a subsidiary and either Disney or Microsoft will own everything. It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of self-publishing for the simple fact that it’s relatively easy for anyone to put anything out, which creates such a staggering amount of crap content that the average consumer has trouble weeding out good work, like Billie’s Mountain, from bland writing, like Aunt Gertrude’s expose on her secret love affair with the mailman in 1967. My opinion on self-publishing has undergone a transition over the past year, and I wanted to speak to Kelly about her experience, and her thoughts on the industry.

Your Book, Wives of Billie’s Mountain, was self-published on Amazon in April of this year. At what point in the writing project did you consider self-publishing?

Kelly: I had no interest in self-publishing and never set out with that in mind. When I finished Wives of Billie’s Mountain I started looking for an agent. Three different agents requested the manuscript for months at a time. One agent requested rewrites, which I did, and I also had three publishers who had it for several months. I waited for over two years with my book in limbo, and was told ultimately each time that they liked the book, but they just didn’t think there was much interest in Mormons. It didn’t matter how many times I told them about Big Love or any other Mormon titles. It’s frustrating. I’ve received great reviews but wasn’t able to get a foothold.

That’s pretty hard for anybody, having to wait so long just to get a rejection.

Kelly: Yes, I think this is a common complaint among writers. And these weren’t just big publishers, either. I went to some independent publishers, but they publish so few books a year that they weren’t willing to take a risk. They’re very limited in what they can publish. After two years, I just wanted to get my story out. I took a class with Kim Wiley at a Queens Alumni conference and she mentioned that self-published books were becoming the new slush pile.

I hadn’t heard that before – Kim is advocating for self-publishing?

Kelly: Kim has experience in both traditional and self-publishing. She has an established following for her self-published books and advocates for both.

Anybody can publish anything as an e-book. Were you worried your work would get drowned out?

Kelly: Sure, but I was tired of submitting and waiting again and again. I was ready for my book to see the light of day.

As far as a professional look, I wasn’t worried about that. I have a lot of experience in publishing and marketing, and I was even a proofreader at one time. I did get my book professionally edited.

You hired an editor?

Kelly: Yes, but not a proofreader. At least not at first. I had several other people read my manuscript, and after working for so long I assumed it didn’t have many mistakes, so I hit “send” on publishing through Amazon only to find out later that it had a lot of silly errors most of my readers didn’t catch but most of my colleagues did. It was extremely embarrassing. I walked around mortified for a few days, and then sucked it up. I pulled my novel off-line and hired a proofreader friend of mine. Proofreaders are expensive, some just as expensive as editors, or even more so, but you must do it. I thought I had it, and I was wrong. This was something that wouldn’t have happened with an agent and a publisher.

So you were able to de-list your book from Amazon?

Kelly: Yes. It was very easy to do, and once my proofreader had finished with the manuscript, I submitted the re-edited version and it went back up. One of the good things about print-on-demand!

Did you hire your own cover artist?

Kelly: My nephew is an artist and did the cover art. I was lucky. He’s very talented.

What about Amazon made you choose them as a publisher?

Kelly: I looked at Kobo and a few others, but Amazon gave the most bang for your buck, so to speak. My novel is published as a print-on-demand title and an e-book. Through Amazon, you can pay as much as you are willing – pay to have a cover designed, pay for their editing and proofreading services. They offer the whole publishing package, but this can get a little pricey. The templates are easy to use, and I was able to drop in my own cover art. The inside template was a little more difficult and took some time to get right. You don’t want your book to start with the first page on the left-hand side, for example. There are certain things that can be tricky, and if you aren’t paying attention you can really screw up. I did end up paying Amazon to help with the internal design. But if you are comfortable doing it yourself, you can do everything on your own, at very little expense to you.

How did you find the experience, working with a company as large as Amazon?

Kelly: They were great, very responsive. You call a number and they’ll get back to you within seconds. Seriously. The Amazon crew was generous with their time, even when I had a complaint or a problem. They have an incredibly responsive model, and they really do make it easy for the writer. They also put out a pretty professional product. Amazon offers marketing specials through KDP select, and you can contribute to the lending library but you are still on the hook to do all of your own promotion. I did originally post the manuscript on kobo, but nobody saw it.

Joe Konrath is a successful self-publishing author who recently squared off against Rob Spillman over the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Konrath is a vocal advocate for self-publishing and cites the unfavorable royalty rates of the big houses over the 70% rate Amazon offers (if your e-pub title meets certain criteria). What’s your stance on the argument?

Kelly: I agree with a lot Joe had to say – the thing that struck me was his argument about the rest of us who are (hopefully) good writers with good stories to tell, but we’re not invited to the party, so what are our choices? The big publishers aren’t taking many chances or risks, which means a lot of new authors are left out. But I didn’t go into self-publishing to get higher royalties, which was one of Joe’s arguments. My goal was simply to be published, and I’m still hoping to find an agent or a publisher.

So you haven’t given up on traditional publishing?

Kelly: No, not at all. After everything, I sent a copy of my book to an independent publisher who told me they would have published it if I hadn’t gone first with Amazon. Can’t win sometimes. I also have been in contact with a publisher, and agent both who are interested in a prequel, and if they decide to adopt it, would take on the original manuscript.

How do you feel about the Amazon/Hachette dispute?

Kelly: As Joe Konrath said, Amazon has “…outright stated that their goals are to topple old-school publishing.” The old system probably does need to change because it doesn’t fit with the way people buy books and read today, but at the same time we can’t trust Amazon to be the curators of good publishing. There’s a lot at stake, and that’s why the smaller presses aren’t taking a side in the argument. If Amazon decided to flex their muscle against a smaller press, it wouldn’t be a contest. Big business can be scary.

Amazon does have an awful lot of power. The Hachette dispute shows how far they’re willing to go. If it was a dispute with a small press, the little guy would be out of business long before any lawsuit went to trial, and even if the courts decided on the side of small press, the decision would come years later and they’d still be out of business.

Kelly: Exactly!

Regarding your recent accolades on Kirkus, did you contact them for review, or did they find your book and review it for you?

Kelly: As a self-published author you must pay them. They keep the process reputable by still giving you an unbiased review. The deal is—if you don’t like what they write, it never has to see the light of day. But fortunately I got a good one.

Amazon offers a marketing bundle on CreateSpace. Did you choose to market through Createspace? If so, why? If not, why not?

Kelly: I didn’t. I chose instead to just release my book and then to focus on my next one. It’s really hard to market your own work. In the end, it comes down to a very individual decision. Sometimes writers just get tired of all the rejections, especially after reading some really bad stuff. But then you come across a great book like, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” that has only sold about 26K last look (after it won the Man Booker Prize!). So we’re not in this for the money, most of us, but sometimes it seems as if the agents and publishers are.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering self-publishing?

Kelly:  Yes, do your homework. One, make sure your book is ready to be on display—editing, proofreading, editing, editing, editing, proofreading. Two, make sure this is really what you want to do. You could be patient and eventually find an agent and/or publisher. You earn less royalty-wise, but I believe it is a more legitimate process for most writers. Three, if you do decide to self-publish, then really commit. That means doing your own promotion and marketing. I’m not sure after all this that self-publishing was a good route for me. But having said that, I still feel somewhat frustrated about the publishing process in general.

Thanks for your time, Kelly! For anyone interested, check out Kelly’s book on Amazon. I understand it makes an excellent late holiday gift. Just saying…