Peg Herring interview with David Alan Binder
Post date: Mar 8, 2017 4:22:59 AM
Peg Herring interview with David Alan Binder
Bio from her website:
Writes: Mysteries, mostly. There's suspense and death but no graphic violence, sex, or language.
Unique Qualities: In each book/series, the characters have an interesting view of the world. Though single, small-town females who just opened a business is all the rage for protagonists, but I don't find that interesting unless something about their character makes me want to get to know them. So yes, I have some books about small-town women, but the stories explore their character, their relationships, and their personalities along with a puzzling mystery.
Recognition: Authors these days love to tell how they're Amazon Bestsellers and such. I've received those kinds of benchmarks and more, but my favorite thing is when a reader contacts me to say, "I loved that book!"
Current projects: I'm at work on something new that's a little hard to categorize. It's a caper novel (my editor says) that throws together some unique, wonderful characters. If I ever get through the edits, it will be out in the first half of 2017. Maggie is also at work on Sleuth Sisters #5, slated for about the same time
1. Where are you currently living?
Northern Lower Michigan
2. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?
Talent is nice. Persistence is key.
3. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?
I noticed recently that I often have a major character with some sort of disability. I didn’t start out to do that, but one has a withered arm (the Simon & Elizabeth Mysteries), one is missing a hand (KIDNAP.org), and one lost his leg in the Vietnam War (Her ex-GI P.I.) In addition, there are several who battle mental issues like autism or PTSD. For the record, I have none of these things, nor do I live with people who do.
4. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher? Both
I started as a traditionally published author of historical mysteries with Five Star Press, part of Cengage, which has offices nation-wide. I also picked up two small-press publishers who released some of my other books. One was a mistake, but the other was great to work with, and for several years I was happy with Five Star and LL Publications.
After some years in the business, though, I figured out that the author is on the bottom of the totem pole and often out of the loop (to mix metaphors!) Small presses allow more input but don’t sell many copies, so the earnings and recognition are low. My big publisher wasn’t very good at letting me know what was going on, which was okay for a while, since I was clueless about publishing. Then they went through bankruptcy, and I lost a whole year’s revenue (Authors got paid last, and the money was gone by the time they got to us.) A year later they were back on their feet but decided not to publish mysteries anymore. During that time, I found out that most authors never sell through (make enough money on book sales to pay back the advances they’re given). That convinced me that having a publisher, though easier overall, wasn’t a guarantee of success.
I had been toying with the prospect of self-publishing, so I went to a conference focused on that. I learned a lot there, and though it wasn’t always a smooth road, I became an independent author. I like choosing my own release dates, being able to manipulate book prices to generate sales, and being responsible for every aspect of the book. Because I recognize my own limitations, I hire experts to edit the books and design the covers. I used to hire formatters to set the books up correctly, but I’ve learned to do most of that myself to save time and money. Keeping up with the learning curve is tough, but these days the money, the credit, and the blame are all mine!
5. Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
Books should be available in print, e-format, and audio these days. It isn’t hard to do, but it is time-consuming. Readers demand different things than they used to, and the big publishers are having a hard time getting them to fork over twenty-five dollars for a book, no matter how pretty the cover is. Indie authors can offer e-books for a lot less, even free sometimes, to generate interest in their work. Many still want a “real” book though, and if they don’t find it available in print, they’ll simply go on to the next author.
6. Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?
There aren’t any secrets. You just work hard and hope someone notices—and that what you write fits with what people are reading this year.
7. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?
For several years I sent out ten letters (that’s how long ago it was—letters!) to agents every Monday. I studied their websites and sent them exactly what they asked for, which was different for each one. I scoured their personal notes for things that made us alike, such as owning an old house or loving cats, so I could connect with them. None of that worked. My story finally caught an agent’s interest, but even that wasn’t enough. She sent my letter back with a note I could hardly read scrawled in the margin. We thought it said This isn’t long enough.
What was I supposed to do with that? I decided to add to the book and send it to her again. That was the right thing to do, and she took me on as a client. Two years later she sold the book, Macbeth’s Niece, which was my first published novel.
8. Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?
You can see from the story above that persistence is key. Most of my letters to agents came back with impersonal, unhelpful “No” responses. I didn’t know why. I was afraid I must be a bad writer.
Then I started going to writers’ conferences, where I heard many, many stories like mine from people who’d tried to break into the business for years before finding success. One author said that once she got published, “Everything they said was wrong with my books is what they’re praising now.” I began to see that writing and reading are subjective, and for almost any piece of writing there will be readers who’ll pass on it and others who say, “That’s good!”
With self-publishing so easily available now, the process of getting published is different, at least it can be. Still, it was invaluable to me to go through the traditional system. I know now that I’m not a terrible writer, because Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist and many others liked my books despite the fact that I was nobody they’d ever heard of. (Your friends and family will tell you how great your writing is, but try this: ask them for fifteen dollars before you let them read your next piece. See how many are actually willing to pay to read what you write.) The fact that reviewers I’d never met liked my work gave me confidence. Once readers started following and urging me to “write faster!” I gained the confidence to step out on my own.
Connecting with other writers is invaluable. You learn you aren’t the only one struggling. You learn what’s going on in the business. You learn ways to improve your writing and marketing. Conferences can be expensive, but you’ll feel like you’re (to paraphrase John Denver) coming home to a place you’ve never been before. If you can’t travel, join groups online that allow you to ask questions and commiserate with each other about how difficult it all is. It really is cathartic!
10. What was one of the most surprising things you learned with your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?
By far the most surprising (and disheartening) thing in is that talent counts so little. An author struggling to write the best book she can might feel defeated when some famous name puts out the same story again this year with a new title/cover (or hires someone else to put it out in his/her name).
There are lots of talented writers out there, and editors admit it isn’t so much the quality that matters—it’s what will sell. So some movie star’s tell-all or some politician’s paranoid rants will be bought while stories that are inventive and highly crafted get rejected.
As far as my own creative process goes, I’ve learned I’m a writer of layers. I’m no Lee Child (who claims he only writes a book once), I write a first draft, then a second, third, fourth, and on and on. When I think the book that’s in my head matches the book that’s in the computer, I send it to an editor and beta readers who point out the weak spots. Then I rewrite again. My books get better with each edit, and lots changes before it’s finally ready to be copy-editing and published.
11. How many books have you written?
Twenty-two, counting the two slated for April. One is written under my pen name, Maggie Pill, and is the fifth of the cozy Sleuth Sisters Mysteries: Eat, Drink, and Be Wary. The other book is a new idea from Peg Herring called KIDNAP.org. It’s funny, more of a caper novel than a mystery.
12. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?
One of my favorite tips is to listen to the book read aloud once you think it’s pretty well finished. I use a computer program (Dragonspeak) to hear how the book sounds to my ear. In this way I pick up places where I’ve repeated words or phrases too often, recognize dialogue that doesn’t match the speaker or the time, and even hear copy-edit mistakes like two spaces between words, because the computer voice reads everything just as it’s written. (I used to read it to myself, but I tended to mentally correct the errors or read right over them—I knew what I meant!)
Another tip I heard from an editor for a big publisher: Make sure that on every page of your manuscript you have at least one sensory detail that is NOT visual. Good stories include touch, smell, sound, and taste along with sight, but we tend to describe things in terms of what we see.
I mentioned earlier that I do lots of drafts, and I also recommend time between edits, at least a few days and at least once where you leave it for weeks (like six!) When you return to it after that long, you’ll find things you were too “into it” to see before. I do publishing workshops, and I’ve had lots of people tell me they returned to their books after they published them and then saw what was wrong. Invariably they wish they’d waited. (I also hear, “I wish I’d hired an editor.”) There’s a huge temptation to toss your story out there as soon as it feels done, because you’re eager to see what people think. But if it’s bad, or badly done, most readers will never give you another chance to prove you can write well. You’ll be that author with all the spelling errors.
13. Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story?
Twists are fun, and I’ve always been a fan of authors who do it well, like Saki, Bierce, and O. Henry. To be successful, the twist has to be set up earlier in the story, and it’s hard to do that without giving it away. It needs to be planned, so the reader gets subtle hints that add up later. One of my favorite comments from a reader concerned my historical Poison, Your Grace. She said, “I didn’t see the end coming, but I should have.” That’s a successful twist: the reader is surprised at what happened (who the killer was in this case) but realizes she was given all the information she needed before it was revealed. That makes the twist logical and believable.
14.What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?
Books stand out for different reasons for readers, and sadly, sometimes the reasons aren’t very good (IMHO). For me, a book never stands out because it has great sex scenes, a new and more disgusting form of violent death, or a heroine who’s so dumb she’s funny. I like books where good people struggle against the odds and win in ways the reader finds satisfying. If that’s not realistic enough for some, they can go read noir!
For those who read my books, what stands out is the triumph of humanity over the odds. Loser, the character in three of my books, has faced the worst life can throw at her, and she is down for a while, but she prevails over the course of the books. Seamus, the protagonist in my Dead Detective series, is no longer alive, but he just keeps solving crimes, because that’s what he knows. And Robin, the main character in KIDNAP.org, has come to the “We’re not gonna take it” moment in her life when she feels she has to fight back against injustice, even if she’s working with an odd—okay, weird—gang. My characters persevere, just like wanna-be writers must, and the reader is happy for them in the end.
15.What are some ways in which you promote your work?
I do a lot on Facebook, which is probably the lazy way. I have connections all over the US because I was a teacher for many years and have former students as friends, and they’re very generous about sharing my news.
I also use or have used lots of promo sites. BookBub is great if they’ll take you and if you can afford it. Great Books, Great Deals is one of the most active sites I’ve used. Kings River Life is great, as are Awesome Gang and many like it who allow either free promos or paid. I speak at libraries. I tweet (probably not often enough). I do signings at bookstores.
The problem is that none of the things we do to promote a book has measurable results. An author never knows what it is that “catches on” with a book. Example: A few years back I wanted to try to write a cozy mystery, since they sell well. I was afraid I couldn’t be funny, and I didn’t want to wreck the name I’d built for Peg Herring as a serious mystery writer. So I took my grandmother’s name (Margaret Pillsbury) and turned it into Maggie Pill. I put out a book about three middle-aged sisters who start a detective agency. They love each other but have very different personalities, so there are often glitches in their relationship. I published it myself as an e-book, thinking, “There. I did it.”
The book went wildly popular, and I had a reader write to ask if she could get a print copy for her mother. That was how I learned to do my own print books with CreateSpace (for Amazon) and LightningSpark (for bookstore orders through Ingram). Later another fan asked if The Sleuth Sisters would ever be available as an audio book. I investigated that and found out it isn’t hard to do with Audible.com. The hardest part is finding good narrators, but I got lucky in that a studio in Chicago, Actors’ Audio, bid on the job, offering three actresses who fit the sisters to a T. That led to a sequel, and another, on to now, when Book #5 is about to release.
All my traditionally published books were expected successes, or the publishers wouldn’t have taken them on. They were well-planned releases from businesspeople who knew what they were doing and had the connections to get my name out there. On the other hand, the success of the Sleuth Sisters series was a complete surprise. That’s what makes publishing so strange. Nobody can predict what people will want to read, and it what sold this year might not next year.
16. What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?
I signed up with a poor publisher early on, flattered that somebody wanted to publish my work. It was a bad experience with a terrible editor, an apparently crazy person in control, and no sales. In the end it took a lawyer (and a couple hundred dollars) to finally get my rights to the book back from them. After that I learned to consult PreditorsandEditors.com to find out who is considered reputable.
17.What saying or mantra do you live by?
When I’d been published for about a year, I made a list titled: What I Want from Publishing. I go back and read it periodically to remind myself why I write, and it boils down to this. I want to write stories I’d like to read, and I’ve found that many other people enjoy those stories too. So I guess my mantra is “Write what you want to write for the people who’ll like it, and ignore the rest.”
18.Anything else you would like to say?
As to the above mantra: It’s hard to keep in mind. Authors are constantly bombarded with ideas for how to “sell more books” and “get more readers.” That can make us think we need to be different than we are so we can be more recognized and better paid. The reality is that writing is a tough business, and very few authors actually make the kind of money we imagined way back when we watched Jessica Fletcher wander the globe, riding in limousines and dining with the upper crust. Most of us are happy to sell a few books each day, so knowing what you want from publishing is important.
I guess if you’re writing for a living you need to spend a lot of time considering how to attract more readers, but my reasons for writing aren’t money-based. I resist the urge to waste tons of time and money on advertising and promotion, especially in areas that don’t work (despite what they promise). Few sites that take your money can give the ROI you’d like, and most of the time you’re tossing that cash away.
I also recognize that as an indie writer I will never get the recognition some authors get. Indie writers are excluded from the upper levels of the publishing world, never considered for awards or invited to speak at banquets where industry insiders gather. It’s often for good reason, I admit, since there is a lot of junk published by those who aren’t ready and don’t even know why. Still, it’s irritating that the same big names are awarded writing prizes every year. Again, I remind myself that’s not why I write. I’m one of those who can’t not write, so I’m happy to get those wonderful emails from readers who ask, “When is the next book coming out?” or even the occasional online poke: “Shouldn’t you get off Facebook and get back to your writing?”