Not so long ago, as I was preparing to release my first ebook The Boston 395, I would go to the indiereader.com Top 10 list and day dream what it would be like to be listed among those books. More often than not the Top 10 would be a a collection of romance, sci-fi and fantasy novels. Indie.writing is not like indie film or music where you want to push back against the corporatization of art. Indie.writers are the people who did not get past the gatekeepers of the writing game or who have an entrepreneurial spirt, a DIY ethic.
It was not long, though, before I began to notice a book that sat on the top of that list for what seemed like ages. In a sea of genre here was a book of literary fiction. As a writer drawn to the literary (though the Kafka and Vonnegut inspired sides of literary) this was powerfully inspiring. Darcie Chan and her The Mill River Recluse not only made it onto the indiereader.com Top 10 but also onto the New York Times Bestseller list.
Since then Darcie has made the move from indie princess to emerging talent with a mainstream press. The Mill River Recluse has been reissued and followed by The Mill River Redemption Darcie was very gracious to participate in this first entry of the 10 Questions for Indie.writers series.
Darcie, it wasn't so long ago that you were the darling of the indie book world. I am not sure how long you were in the number 1 spot on Indiereader.com but it seemed every time I checked there you were. I felt you were an important contribution to the indie writer world: where so many others were doing genre work you succeeded with a book of literary fiction. What lead you to decide that the world of indie book princess was not the path for you and to instead go mainstream?
You made me chuckle with this question, because I neither set out to become, nor saw myself as, an "indie book princess." It's important to keep in mind that choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing is a very personal decision, and what's best for one writer or one book might not be best for another. The wonderful thing about self-publishing today is that it provides another way to establish a successful writing career.
I wrote The Mill River Recluse around ten years ago, and I unsuccessfully tried the traditional publishing route with it. At that time, the e-book boom hadn't happened, and no other path to a writing career existed for new authors.
Fast forward several years...e-books exploded in popularity, and my manuscript was still sitting in a drawer. Unlike indie authors today, though, who self-publish their books as part of a conscious choice to go the indie route, I first uploaded my novel hoping to get some objective feedback from readers, not launch a writing career for myself. However, I did intend to write a second novel someday, and I thought I could use criticism from readers of the e-book version of The Mill River Recluse to improve my chances of being successful in that next effort.
Once sales of my novel took off, and it became clear that I might have the option of writing full-time as a career (which has been my dream since childhood), I had some tough choices to make. I had a successful career as a practicing attorney, but since I worked for the federal government, once my writing became more than a hobby, I became subject to certain restrictions on outside employment. In other words, if I wanted to work as a writer and derive income from that pursuit, I wouldn't be able to continue working as a federal attorney. While I loved my legal position, I decided that I couldn't forego the opportunity to write and wonder "what if?" for the rest of my life.
The choice then became whether to continue to self-publish or accept a traditional book deal. The latter seemed the better choice for me, for several reasons. Obviously, financial concerns are important. Since I have a family and bills to pay, I didn't feel I could give up the security of a paycheck and continue to self-publish having had only one hit book. A traditional publishing contract (with an advance) offers more financial security.
Another reason I went the traditional route is that I really want to be able to use as much of my time as I can for writing. Yes, I did my own formatting, editing and cover design for The Mill River Recluse. But, if I could do it over again, I would outsource those tasks to professionals with expertise in each area. And while an indie author can certainly hand-pick an excellent group of experts to handle those elements of book production, having such a team at a traditional publishing house really appealed to me. Not only would I be able to focus on writing, but the people helping to produce my book would already have great expertise and a working relationship with each other, and would share a vested interest in making the book the very best it could be.
Finally, to be able to maintain a career as a writer (and avoid going back to practicing law), I'd like to reach as many readers as I can. The statistics vary from book to book, but I understand that sales of print books account for between 50 to 80 percent of all sales of a title. In my case, that is an awful lot of potential readers to leave on the table by publishing in electronic format only. For that reason -- and to honour the requests of the many, many people who have e-mailed me asking for a print edition of The Mill River Recluse -- a traditional publisher seemed the way to go. Although the market is changing, as of right now, most print books are sold in retail stores, and those stores will not stock self-published print titles. Even if they did, it would be almost impossible for me to effectively print and distribute copies of my book. I don't have the up-front budget to print and ship the copies, and I certainly don't have a warehouse!
The Mill River Recluse was a huge indie success. Can you tell us a bit about your process of making that book the hit that it was?
I've thought a long time about how and why my book sold the way it did. I think luck is a huge factor, because when I uploaded the manuscript, I had no clue about book marketing or publicity. Only after the fact did I set up a website and social media sites. I started thinking about marketing and advertising once the book was already available as well, because it occurred to me that no one would ever know about my book unless I did something to help readers find it.
The best thing I did, I think, was to get features of my book onto websites that cater to e-book readers. Those readers formed my target audience, after all, and the websites I used to promote the book had tens of thousands (and now have hundreds of thousands) of followers. I also designed some banner ads and purchased display time on some smaller sites frequented by e-book readers.
No amount of advertising on my part could have driven the sales of The Mill River Recluse that subsequently occurred. Only word-of-mouth recommendations from one reader to other readers can propel a book onto bestseller lists and keep it there for any length of time. My working theory is that by running features and promotions of my book on the e-book websites, I got it in front of enough readers to allow a word-of-mouth chain reaction to start. And, when you think about it, that's what all advertising is designed to do -- introduce a product (whether it be a book, a new smart phone, shampoo, or whatever!) to the people who might purchase it. The hope is that the product catches on with enough people to become popular.
What was the view from inside the run-away success of The Mill River Recluse? Did you expect this kind of response?
Frankly, when the sales of my book started to really increase, I was dumbfounded. It was surreal to see sales first in the hundreds, then the thousands and eventually tens of thousands. I certainly never expected anything of the sort. I sold about 100 copies during the first month after I uploaded the book, and I was so thrilled! I couldn't believe 100 complete strangers had bought my book! You can imagine my shock when, only a few months later, more than 100,000 copies had sold and my agent called to tell me that The Mill River Recluse would appear on the New York Times bestseller list! It was happiness, excitement, disbelief and a feeling of being completely overwhelmed....
What was your process of becoming a writer? Was this something you set out to do?
I remember writing letters and poems when I was very young. In middle school, when I was eleven years old, I entered a one-day writing contest and ended up winning the short story category. I came home and announced that I wanted to be a writer, and I think that was the first time it really occurred to me that writing was something I wanted to do -- if not as a career, then at least as a serious hobby.
Writing fiction for my own personal enjoyment went on the back burner for several years, through college and law school and for the first several years while I worked after finishing my education. I always intended to try to write a novel, though. After I had been in my legal job for a few years -- long enough that I had been promoted and felt comfortable in my position -- I thought that it might be time to attempt a first novel. My husband was still in his residency, so he was working long hours and was often gone overnight or at least until very late in the evening. With lots of "alone time," I started to write each night after work. It took me two and a half years to finish a first draft of The Mill River Recluse.
As a child of the 90's I am in love with anything 'indie' -- I grew up with indie movies and music. To be an 'indie author' just seemed the logical extension of that. What are you glad to leave behind as an 'indie' and what skills and gifts from your time an independent will you take with you?
I know that lots of indie authors love to have complete creative control over all aspects of their book, but I don't feel that way. As I explained in one of my earlier responses, I'd like to focus mostly on writing and leave the editing, formatting and design that go into creating a book to the experts! I will tell you that, even though my publisher has taken on those tasks for my books, I have still had an enormous amount of input into everything. I'll detail more about the editing process in the next question. Ballantine used my self-published cover as the basis for the upcoming version of The Mill River Recluse, and the image on the jacket for my second novel, The Mill River Redemption, could have come straight out of my mind. Both are everything I could have asked for! And, the typeface and formatting of the text for each book are simply beautiful.
In addition to a good understanding of all the work it takes to launch a book, I now carry with me a deep appreciation of how difficult it is to "break through" as a writer and a profound sense of gratitude for my readers. Regardless of whether a book is indie or traditional, the readers are the deciding factor as to its success.
How is the editing process different for you now as opposed to when you were an independent? I remember turning a short story into a journal once and they wanted all these edits and I railed against them -- but in the end those edits forced me to create one of the best pieces of work I've ever done.
Frankly, I think I enjoyed the editing process almost as much as the writing! Before I self-published The Mill River Recluse, I sought out criticism from perhaps a dozen "test readers" whose opinions and honesty I trusted. I used the comments I received from them, and from my agent, to improve the manuscript as best I could. The book ended up being well-received, yes, but in hindsight, a good editor could have made it so much stronger.
My editor at Ballantine, Kara Cesare, is absolutely brilliant, and I've enjoyed working with her immensely. It is as if we have operated on the same wavelength from day one. She "gets" my books and my characters, and her feedback is fabulous. Still, I've never felt forced into making any change; she leaves it up to me which (if any) of her suggestions to follow and how to execute them. It's a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and I think my second book will truly shine because of it.
What is your 'writerly education'? One of the best decisions I've ever made was to study creative writing at Eastern Washington University -- it gives a young dreamer a space to say 'I want to be a writer' and to be taken seriously. Did you have a formal writing education or have you put together a growing knowledge base on the go?
As an undergraduate, I majored in English at Indiana University. I did take a few creative writing courses there, but since I decided upon that major rather late -- as a junior! -- I didn't have the time left to take as many as I would have liked. After college, I attended law school, which requires a great deal of writing, albeit not the kind of creative writing that results in fiction. As a practicing attorney, I was writing about 95 percent of the time. My job was to draft environmental and natural resource legislation -- to take the policy of senators and committees and translate it in to legislative language in the form of bills, amendments and conference reports. It was demanding and exacting work, but I still enjoyed the writing aspect of it. It was actually the experience of handling a lengthy bill (with more than 400 pages of legislative text) that gave me the confidence that I could write a novel-length piece of fiction.
Besides this practical writing experience, I've always been an avid reader. I think reading a wide variety of books -- and not just those in the genre of your own writing -- is so important. And, I view learning how to write well as an ongoing, lifelong process.
The writing life, I like to say, requires the 'Three C's' -- Craft, Community and Conversation (some might add Coffee and Cigarettes to that). Where do you go for these things in your own writing practice?
Craft - I try to learn what works and what doesn't writing-wise by reading a wide variety of books, and I believe that there are lessons to be learned from each book that I read. My favorite book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is timeless, and such a beautiful, heart-wrenching, uplifting story. I read it every few years, and I learn something new every time I do.
Community - I have a wonderful family and a circle of close friends who are incredibly supportive and who keep me laughing.
Conversation - For "writerly conversation," there is only one place to go. I've been a member of the Backspace online writers' community (www.bksp.org) since its inception, and I think the discussion forums there are undoubtedly the best resource out there for writers, regardless of whether you go the self-publishing or traditional route.
I've never smoked a cigarette, but I LOVE coffee!
I think most of the world thinks of the world thinks of the writing life as being one of sitting around all day making things up. But the pressure of deadlines, staying on task and meeting the demands of editors and agents (and not to mention annoying bloggers) can be its own type of stress. I like to think of self-care as having four quadrants -- Diet, Exercise, Medication/Doctors and Meditation/Spirituality. What does self-care look like for you and what do you recommend to young writers who need to make sure self-care is part of their process?
I am as busy now as a full-time writer as I was when I was working as an attorney -- and that is something I didn't expect when I switched careers! In addition to writing and all the other demands on my time that come with it, I am a mom. I've learned the hard way that the best thing I can do for myself is to get a good night's sleep, even though I LOVE to write late at night when my family is asleep and the house is quiet. If I'm well-rested, ideas flow and writing is much easier and more enjoyable. Besides that, I enjoy walking and playing volleyball for exercise, and I try to eat well. My son and I plant a veggie garden every spring.
In the words of Joni Mitchell you have seen publishing from 'both sides now' -- as an indie and as an emerging 'star' with a big publisher. What advice do you give to emerging talents?
To a new author, I would say, first, that it's vital to produce a high-quality book. If you go the indie route, use attractive cover art and professional copyediting or other editing services (if editing is not your strong suit or you don't have time to edit thoroughly), etc. If you go the traditional route, work closely with your editor and take his or her suggestions to heart. After all, if you're going to ask someone to spend his or her hard-earned money and valuable free time to read your book, you should provide a good reading experience.
The second piece of advice I would give is to come up with a story that you feel passionate about telling -- a story that moves you emotionally -- and then put your heart into the telling of it. Hopefully, your emotion will carry through your characters and move your readers. The books that people remember and recommend to others are those that make them laugh or cry, or sometimes (in the case of books by Stephen King) those that give you a good scare. My experience has convinced me that if you don't have a story that touches readers emotionally in some way, nothing else you do to try to make your book a success will matter.
To conclude what can you tell us about the future of Darcie Chan. What projects do you have on the horizon?
I'm currently writing my third novel, which, like my first two, is set in the fictional town of Mill River, Vermont. Beyond that, I'm not sure where my writing journey will take me, but I am thrilled to be living my dream!
Darcie Chan is the New York Times bestselling author of the eBook sensation The Mill River Recluse and the novel The Mill River Redemption. She has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. For fourteen years, Chan worked as an attorney drafting environmental and natural resource legislation for the U.S. Senate. She now writes fiction full-time and lives north of New York City with her husband and son.
JASON DERR is the author of The Boston 395 and the young adult short story Her Red Wings. He has studied creative writing at Eastern Washington University and has his MA in Theological Studies from the Vancouver School of Theology. He lives outside of Portland, Or with his wife and son.