Self-Publishing Interview with Melissa Leong

April 27th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

After talking about my experiences with self-publishing, I reached out to a few other Canadian authors to talk about their experience. First up is Melissa Leong, personal finance columnist for the National Post, who wrote the What Kills Me series under her pen name of Wynne Channing. What Kills Me is a bestselling young adult vampire thriller, so she’s able to provide some great insight into what self-publishing is like outside of Canada-specific non-fiction. Moreover she’s been hugely successful, having sold approximately 50,000 copies of the first two books — What Kills Me and I Am Forever — in the series, with fans clamouring for a third.

Before I get into what we talked about I want to note that Melissa has been very open about her writing and publishing experiences, including publishing a two-part set of articles in the National Post about her experience with the first book, and has had plenty of other interviews about her writing and the content of the books themselves. I didn’t want to use up her valuable time rehashing that stuff, so I encourage you to go and read those articles — here we’ll build on what’s happened behind the scenes since the first book and the related Post articles went up.

I started by asking about her thoughts on editing and using beta readers:

“Editing was extremely important to me, especially being in journalism – I know the magic that an editor can do. They can make a huge difference […] Rewriting is key, as well as having an editor. You need a second eye, and not just beta readers, you need someone who’s a professional.” She used a mix of substantive and copy editing from professional editors, but relied on beta readers to spot plot holes and characterization issues. After that, she used a proofreader for a final polish, and a formatter1 to convert the manuscript into a reflowable e-book file.

For more on her use of beta readers and the questions she put before them, see the end of this post.

For myself and The Value of Simple, the content is intrinsically Canadian, whereas vampires and thrills are international. I was wondering whether her Canadian roots helped build a disproportionate local fan base. Melissa says that most of her readers are from the US and UK, as would be expected from the distribution of the English-speaking population. That was likely helped a bit because she used a UK-based blog promotion service to help drum up interest there. Most of her sales come through Amazon, so many of the Canada-specific issues I talked about earlier in the series would be pretty minor for a more global kind of book like this. She’s also a fan of SmashWords, which gives her the power to generate coupons there for giveaways and reviews.

For the minor debate in cataloguing on whether to use a separate ISBN for each version of the book (e.g. Kindle vs ePub), Melissa chose to go with just one number across her e-book formats.

With two books under her belt, I was really interested to hear what lessons she had learned going in to I Am Forever and what had changed in the intervening years between the first and second book.

“The processes of self-publishing were definitely streamlined between the first and second book,” she told me. Kobo in particular made a big effort to improve their accessibility for self-publishers (and I can back that up — it’s a snap with Writing Life now, vs. my initial experience with Kobo in 2011 where they basically told me to get stuffed if I didn’t have 10+ titles as a publisher).

She was more disciplined the second time around, and got more sleep (cf. her anecdotes in the Post articles from the first book). She set a specific goal, with a deadline (purposely set early, working backwards from a planned timeline), and thought of it as a job. She aimed to write 5k words per week, with a bit of time each day set aside to write.

The second time around also came with a better idea of what was involved in the publishing side and the costs, so she had a budget ready. The first time she just wanted to break even while building her brand and her audience. High on her priorities was to not cut corners — she wanted to pay what it cost for quality work, and focused on what was important. So she paid more for editing, but less on promotion and advertising after having a better idea of what was cost-effective — many ways to advertise books don’t pay for themselves.

To help get people into the series — now that it is a series — the first book is currently available for free, and has otherwise been offered at a low cost. “If you have many books on the shelf under your name, that’s how you make your money, and hope the fans keep coming back for the work.” Also with that interest and audience from the first one she had a pre-order period before releasing the second book, with cover releases, blog book tours, and the ability to pre-arrange reviews to help build buzz.

One thing she was unprepared for with her popularity was pirating, and was surprised to see the book available “for free” on sites so soon after publishing.

“Being a self-published author means that you are an entrepreneur, and that’s something I wasn’t prepared for. I know how to write, how to tell a good story, but I don’t necessarily know how to sell myself or how to sell a product. So that was something I had to work on. And those skills did transfer back to journalism [her day job]. I always found self-promotion really difficult, but I realized that if I didn’t toot my own horn that nobody would do it. Then when I took over the personal finance beat [at the National Post], branding and expanding my personal brand became a goal, to also help the paper.”

A big thank-you to Melissa for taking the time to chat with me. Check out the What Kills Me series on Amazon, and follow Melissa on Twitter (or her alter ego Wynne Channing here).

Footnote 1: and she’s happy to recommend him: Michael Mandarano.
Note that all quotes are my transcriptions from a conversation and any errors are mine.

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