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An Interview with Indie Star Barbara Freethy

[1]from Barbara O’Neal:  I am delighted to have had the chance to interview my friend Barbara Freethy, who has experienced a truly astonishing trajectory as an Indie publisher this year. A traditionally published author for two decades, Barbara started experimenting with indie publishing late last year.  Listen in as she talks about her journey, her tips, and her insights on the digital market.

Hi, Barbara.  We here at Writer Unboxed are SO excited about your astonishing success as an indie publisher, which has far outstripped some of the more….um…vocal men blogging on the subject.   Tell us how many books you’ve sold.

Hi Barbara – Thanks for having me on the blog – I’m excited to be here. It has been a phenomenal nine months for me. As of now, I’ve sold over 1.1 million units of self-published ebooks in 2011.

Over a million.  In less than a year.  That’s incredible. And how many weeks have you been on the New York Times bestseller list since June?  How many weeks as number 1?

The New York Times Bestseller List has also been a dream come true. I never imagined that I would hit the top twenty and not in my wildest dreams could see myself hitting #1, but SUMMER SECRETS hit the #1 spot on the Ebook list in July. Since then I’ve had eight different books appear on the list. I don’t know the exact number of weeks.

I’ve honestly been so focused on all the work involved in getting the books up online that the bestseller lists were a happy, fantastic consequence, but nothing that I set as my goal. I just wanted to give the books great covers and make them available and hope that readers would find them.

It isn’t like you weren’t successful as a traditionally published author.  You’ve been writing successfully for a number of publishers for what…20 years? You have a RITA award (for Daniel’s Gift [2]) and a powerful publishing history in romance, romantic suspense, and contemporary romance.  What made you decide to try your hand at indie publishing?

I have been writing for twenty years, so definitely not an overnight success! I do have a RITA Award for DANIEL’S GIFT, thanks for remembering that! It’s one of my personal favorites and probably one of my all time fan-favorite books. The reason I went into Indie publishing was to bring my backlist to life. Along the many twisting curves of my up and down career, I changed publishers a few times. When I left those houses and books went out of print, I always asked for the rights back, hoping I’d one day sell them to the next publisher. Well, unless you’re a huge star, publishers aren’t interested in buying backlist, so those books were basically taking up space in my closet. When Amazon and B&N opened up their doors to self-publishing authors, I took the opportunity to give those books a new life.

It’s been an exhausting but overwhelmingly wonderful experience. I don’t think I’ve worked so hard in my life as I have in the past nine months. But I love having total control over my product. I can set the price, design the cover, change the title, but more importantly, I can see the sales data on a real-time basis. I’ve always been author who likes to know her numbers, and I don’t know why it’s been so difficult to get that information from traditional publishers. We’re all on the same team. Being able to see how a book is doing on an hourly basis has been fascinating.

Were you successful right out of the gate, or did it take awhile?  What kinds of things did you do to help fuel the sales of your backlist?

I was not successful right away. I put up SUMMER SECRETS at least five months before it hit #1 on the NYT. I was complaining to one of my friends who was doing really well that I wasn’t seeing her kind of numbers. I put up two more books and had mixed results. Because I was watching everything so closely, I found myself playing around with my covers. I changed the cover for DANIEL’S GIFT probably three times before I found the one that worked for me. I began to focus on developing a brand look for my work. And that really helped. Having multiple books to sell also was of great value to me. I think it’s much more difficult for authors with just one book to sell.

Not everyone who puts their books online has the kind of success you have enjoyed.  My personal belief is that your books have always been that good, that they deserved to be NYT bestsellers all along, but they never had the kind of packaging that branded them all as a group. What other insights can you offer about the process? Is it all just luck and good timing?

Thanks Barbara – I appreciate the sentiment. I think luck always plays a role in publishing, Indie or Traditional. I have a lot of bad luck stories in my arsenal — horrible covers, distribution glitches, editors leaving houses, a book that came out the week of 9/11 — some tough breaks along the way. But I had some good luck, too. Any long-term writing career is going to see peaks and valleys. Very few authors don’t struggle at some point, whether it’s in the very beginning or several books into their career. Whether writers are hoping to sell to traditional publishers or go it on their own, there are going to be dips. You can’t think book to book – you have to think of writing as a career. And the great thing is — you can always write another book. Good luck could be just around the corner.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of suddenly finding such a huge audience? It must be wildly satisfying. 

I’m thrilled I’ve found new readers. I love to write stories that are complex. I blur the lines of romance all the time, adding in women’s fiction elements, or suspense, or a little bit of magic. In traditional publishing I’ve always been that author who doesn’t quite hit it on the nose, but in Ebooks, my stories don’t have to be one thing, they can be anything. I don’t have to worry any more about where the bookstore will shelve the book, where it will fit on the publisher’s list. And that’s really freeing. That’s one of the most exciting things about self-publishing, not having to fit the genre exactly.

What are your top five tips for writers who want to try self-publishing?

1. Prepare yourself for a long run. Success can take a while to build. Try not to compare yourself to other authors. Just focus on what you do. Ultimately, it’s all you can control anyway.

2. Make sure your cover is right. And if sales are lagging or non-existent after a few months, change the cover, shake things up.

3. Write more than one book. A few authors have made it big on one title, but thousands have not. If readers like your book, they’re going to want more. If you can connect your books through a series, that can also help sell more titles.

4. Add excerpts and links in the back of your books to your other titles so that the reader can easily find them.

5. Watch your pricing. Mix it up. Try different price points to see what works for you.

Aside from those tips, I wanted to add in a few thoughts on self-publishing in general. There are many rumors about how the retailers could suddenly shut down self-publishing or cut the royalty rate, and while it could happen, I don’t think it’s likely to happen any time soon. The retailers are making a tremendous amount of money with self-publishing. Also, the fear that the Big Six will get all the advertising/promo space – again it could happen, but I have found that the ebook retailers, especially Amazon and B&N’s PubIt! have been very democratic in including self published titles in their promo email blasts and other opportunities. Maybe all that will change, but the game is not just two players. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google, Kobo, Sony and many more ebook retailers are selling books. That adds competition.

And the ebook sales world is global. I am starting to translate some of my books into other languages. Other countries are developing their own readers and those readers are going to need content.

As Barry said in his previous blog, the new publishing world is all about “choice.” This is what I’m most excited about. Whatever decision or path an author wants to take is fine. Everyone has different goals and time commitments. Self-publishing does take a lot of work. So I can see why authors might want a publishing partner. But now because there are other options and ways to publish, the author has more power to negotiate in whatever arena he/she wants to participate in. And that power is the best thing that’s happened to writers in the twenty years I’ve been writing.

And what’s up next?

On the self-publishing front, I’m working on a series of novellas based around wishes. The first title, A SECRET WISH, will be out in a few weeks. It’s about three women, three birthdays, and one night that will change their lives forever. On the traditional publishing front, I have a book being published by Pocket Books next July entitled THE WAY BACK HOME. Fans of my Angel’s Bay Series met Gabe Ryder, a wounded warrior in GARDEN OF SECRETS, and he’ll have his own story that takes him away from the bay to a small town to a beautiful river.

Thanks again for having me here on the blog. I’d love to answer any questions!

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].