A Primer on Independent Publishing: Lessons Learned from Author CL Walters
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
This week's blog features an interview with special guest, author CL Walters. LCP asked Walters about her extensive experience self-publishing her writing. Here, she shares tips, insights, and pitfall avoidances navigating the independent publishing world.
Hi, Cami! Thanks for sitting down with LCP. Will you tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing career?
I started writing from a young age - 8 or 9 - and knew writing was something integral to who I was. Fast forward many years later, now a wife, mom, high school English teacher for twenty-plus years but still writing all of that time, I had collected a bazillion rejections. I’d transitioned into an attitude that quit writing with serious designs at a career, and instead dabbled with poetry and writing for my students, content to just teach.
Then my dad died unexpectedly and that’s when the words dried up completely. I sat in that grief unable to even put together coherent words. I’m not sure I’d ever faced desolation like that before complete loss of my identity: my father and the words. And then the words came back where my father couldn’t, and the characters I’d put away started talking to me again. Four books later, I’m still writing and pursuing writing as a career.
We know that you have independently published several books. Will you tell us about those and why you chose the independent publishing route?
I would love to tell you! I published The Letters She Left Behind which is a romantic suspense novel set in Hawaiʻi. Then I have a completed young adult contemporary series called The Cantos Chronicles which consists of three titles: Swimming Sideways, The Ugly Truth and The Bones of Who We Are which explores a series of events from three different perspectives; a core theme in the series is the cause and effect of choices, and the ramifications of bullying specifically from the point of view of the victim and the perpetrator. I just finished writing a fifth novel - a new adult contemporary romance - which is set to publish later this year.
"To that end, going independent was a necessity for me, I suppose, to share these stories."
I wish I could say I researched both traditional and independent roads and made a conscious decision to go Independent. I didn’t. I struggled with the traditional road for over twenty years. Rejection after rejection (which in hindsight has made me a better writer; I look at my first book and know it needs to stay in the notebooks where I’ve stashed it even if it was so important for me to write it to prove to myself I could). Fast forward all of those years, and all of that rejection, I believed in Swimming Sideways, and The Ugly Truth (because I’d already written both by this point), so all it took to ignite the idea was for another writer to read them and say “Oh my god, Cami. These are so good. You need to publish them. Do it independently.” To that end, going independent was a necessity for me, I suppose, to share these stories.
Can you guide us through your thought processes when deciding between the independent (self) versus more traditional publishing routes?
My dream has always been to be traditionally published; and I’d still love that validation (who wouldn’t?). I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there’s a part of me that looks at a traditionally published book with longing. I do. It’s an emotional response, because the logical side of me also understands that it’s a paradigm created in my own head that somehow there’s only value in traditional publishing. Of course, I can stand on my soapbox and declare the value in Independent Publishing, now, because I jumped on that train. It means I’m partial, right? True statement. I am, but having ridden these tracks like a hobo in an empty boxcar, and I’ve learned a ton on the journey so far.
In retrospect, here’s what I’d say: independent publishing isn’t for everyone. Why? It’s a lot of work if you’re doing it the right way and when I say the “right way,” I mean facing the challenge like you’re part of that traditional publishing world. There’s writing book, but it’s a tiny fraction to the rest, namely the financial investment: editing, book design, marketing and publicity. Traditional publishing has this on lock and a lot of financial backing to make it right.
Part of the struggle of being “seen” as serious in the Independent Publishing world is because there are so many other authors self-publishing as hobbyists. Not a knock just a fact. The struggle then for the Indie Author is to attempt to find purchase in this raging river, climb out of the morass and scream so someone will hear: “Hey! Look over here!” While waving her arms wildly. “I promise it’s a quality book!” because let’s face it (my own paradigm included) book culture still looks down on the independent market. But even traditional publishing isn’t a guarantee. You might get the deal, and then what if the book doesn’t sell? In today’s market, the name of the game is following - so regardless every author (unless you’re a big name who’s already got the movie deal) has to develop a platform.
"It’s hard work to be sure, but my journey and my success is in my hands."
That said, I wouldn’t trade this independent experience away for anything. I have learned and am learning so much about this business. I just opened my own imprint (Mixed Plate Press) and I have full creative control of my titles. I own my ISBN, I hired a cover designer, I get to hire and work with an editor, I get to build my press release and market myself. It’s hard work to be sure, but my journey and my success is in my hands.
Was there any research you did before you began the self-publishing process and/or resources for self-publication you’d recommend to our readers?
No, and I wish I had, but then I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about ISBNs or book marketing. I just thought: I wrote this book. I’ll put it out there. And then Swimming Sideways sat on Amazon after friends and family said, “Oh cool.”
In retrospect, I wish I’d known more about what walking into the Independent Publishing swamp meant, but that is often how we learn, yes? Step into the water and see if we sink. Part of the struggle to research is all of the mixed messages. I remember trying to sift through all of the information out on the world wide web and feeling so overwhelmed because I didn’t know what to believe; I didn’t know which source was reputable and which wasn’t, so my choices really were like, “Okay. I’ll give it a try.” But in the two years I’ve been doing this, I’ve found some amazing sources.
There are some excellent blogs (Jane Freidmann, Bookbub) but Instragram, especially, has probably been one of the best places for me because the community has been so helpful. From other authors to readers to bookstagrammers, I’ve learned so much from others. A couple of excellent resources for authors at all kinds of stages in their journey who I think have helped me learn a ton are Monique D. Mensah with @makeyourmarkups (IG); another is Jenn dePaula @Mixtusmedia (IG) and independent author, Natalie Banks @officialnataliebanks (IG), who also started The Writing Champions Project for Independent Authors. And on a side note: all of those IG mentions have blogs/websites, too.
Which tool(s) were helpful in formatting your books to get them ready for publication?
"It’s a steep learning curve."
Truthfully, I’m still learning this part of the process. I write in Google Drive, format in Word using templates. I’ve hired a book cover designer, Sara Oliver, who’s incredible. I’m in the process of rebranding all of my books because I’m shifting everything over from Amazon to my own imprint. I’m now using Ingram Spark for my printing. There are sources out there who express buying programs for your interior work. The only program I purchased was Vellum to support my work in creating ebooks, and feel the interface has been the easiest to use, so I’m happy with the outcome . Again, I’m still learning; It’s a steep learning curve.
Did you outsource or consider outsourcing any parts of the process (editing, formatting, cover art, etc.)?
As mentioned, I’ve outsourced the book cover art, and am in the process of looking for a professional editor for my next book. I remember initially thinking: I can’t spend money on this, but then I realized, I have a dream. What do I need to do to make that happen? It was time to begin investing in myself, but small manageable steps that work within the budget. If I could, I'd hire a cook, a housekeeper, a publicist, a marketing firm, a social media assistant, and a researcher. Maybe someday (LOL).
What is the most important lesson you learned after publishing your first book?
Don’t expect anyone to read it, especially if they don’t know about it. I think this holds true for traditional or independent authors. Traditional Publishers only have so much budget for publicity, and as an independent author that is a part of your job now if you want to get your book out there (and you probably thought it was only writing). Had I known, what I would have done was begin by building the platform first: a social media presence, the website, blogging, the email list. Then I would have begun the marketing process for that first book before publishing it. The third thing I would have done was slow down. I didn’t need to rush; it was just my excitement getting in my own way. Fourth, I would have committed to some financial investment; I would have purchased my own ISBNs, hired an editor and book cover designer to help me. Hindsight is always 20/20 (maybe a theme for this year).
What should a first-time self-publisher think of and/or look out for in the process?
"Do your homework."
Well, see steps 1-4 in the previous question. If you’re going the independent route, I would say the most important thing you can do for yourself whether you’re publishing on Amazon or some other forum is to purchase your ISBNs. This allows you to hold ALL the rights to your work so if you want to move them or change printers offer them in bookstores, etc, it allows you complete control (remember, bookstores don’t really want to carry a competitor’s books, i.e. Amazon). Be careful of predators. Publishing is a business, independent publishing is a pool of sharks looking to make money off the dreamer - so beware the vanity press or the entity that claims to want to help you publish. There are a lot of horror stories out there of the “cover designer” or the “editor” or the “publisher” who takes your money and then suddenly can’t be reached. Do your homework.
Did you experience any major pitfalls along the way?
Aside from self-doubt and other obstacles I just needed to find the work around for? I feel as though my road has been delightfully enlightening and beautifully written so far. I feel blessed to have found a community of people who are so supportive. I’ve been able to reach out when I’m struggling or have questions about the process. I have a supportive family and friends who love that I’m pursuing my dream. It may have taken a long time, but I've always believed in the importance of the journey, even if I do get impatient a lot. (LOL). This journey has been wonderful and I still get to ride on the train!
Of all the books you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
THAT is a loaded question. I love them all in different ways (My husband would tell me, “YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE!”) so I feel like that’s choosing one of my children over the other. I can say The Ugly Truth holds an extra special place in my heart because Seth was the loudest in my head and I would have given up the story if not for his nagging. The newest release, The Bones of Who We Are, required so much emotion because Gabe’s story was so difficult and for that I am really proud of it. I know that doesn’t answer your question, but there is something magical about all of them for me: Abby’s Hawaiian heritage and Adam’s and Alex’s second chance. The new book - still untitled - about Emma and Tanner and their journey was so much fun to write. They moment the characters come into being, they become a part of who I am - it’s too difficult to choose.
We’d like to give you a lightning round. You can play as yourself or one of your characters:
Cami chose to answer as her character Gabe, from The Bones of Who We Are:
A. Tea or coffee? Neither, but I like water.
B. Musical preferences? I like hip hop, but not all the time. I like music that flows and calms me too. It helps when I write.
C. Are you a night owl or morning person? Neither; I’m moody when I’m tired, but once I’m up I’m good. I don’t like sleeping because I don’t like to dream.
D. Favorite food? Martha’s cookies, but I’ll pretty much eat anything; didn’t have much as a kid.
E. Do you prefer the beach or being in the woods? Can I change it? I like being in the warehouse at the hardware store. It feels like a cocoon. Too much history in the other two.
F. Favorite childhood book? Curious George Goes to the Library
G. Favorite book from adulthood? I don’t turn 18 until March, but I really liked TaNehisi Coates Between the World and Me.
H. Favorite quote? Coates, quoting a woman whose son had been murdered: “‘You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.” (p.113).
I. Recommend either a book, a movie or music. I read a lot, so I have lots of recommendations. If you’ve ready Coates Between the World and Me, then I would suggest Cisneros The House on Mango Street or Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Thank you, Cami! Walters and her work can be found on Instagram @cl.walters, on Twitter @peeledandcored, and www.clwalters.net . Her latest re-release, The Letters She Left Behind came out on January 14th, under her own imprint, Mixed Plate Press and is available at retailers, including Amazon.