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  • Too Old to Publish? No, You’re Not: Here’s My Story
This blog was featured on 01/29/2018
Too Old to Publish? No, You’re Not: Here’s My Story
Written by
carol novis
January 2018
Written by
carol novis
January 2018

After retiring from many years as a newspaper writer and editor, at the age of 71 I had what seemed to me a brilliant idea. I decided to write a book.

The idea came to me when I visited my mother, who at the age of 90 and in excellent mental and physical health, had moved to a luxurious retirement home in Winnipeg, Canada. Never one to complain, she nevertheless had a wicked sense of humor and a sharp eye, and she filled me in on the local gossip. There were popular kids and social rejects, dining room drama, intrigue, rich ladies from the fancy part of town lording it over those from less posh areas, and even the odd romance. It sounded like the goings on in a junior high school.

Age 80, it seems, is the new 13. Who knew?

What a great story this would inspire, I thought.  I would make it a detective novel; a cozy mystery, in which my mother would figure loosely as heroine and the slapstick plot would include  mahjongg games, visits to the local casino and shiva condolence calls – all of which she and her friends were  familiar with. Since the majority of residents in my mother’s retirement home were Jewish, a denouement revolving around an arcane point of Jewish law would be part of the plot. I would also include a cute dog as a character, a romance and recipes. I would touch all bases. How could it fail?

And so I wrote my book.  It took quite a long time, but I found working out the plot and characters challenging and interesting.  Cozy mysteries tend to have puns for titles (groaners like “The Quiche of Death”), so I called mine “Long in the Sleuth” and subtitled it “Tension on a Pension.” When I finished writing, I was pretty pleased with myself.  Now I could sit back and let the world discover my book, and with all the money I would make, I could take the grandchildren on a trip.

Man thinks, God laughs

The sad truth was that the world was not waiting for my book. No wonder. There are too many of them out there! About a million new books were published in the US in 2015 while at the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources. In other words, the world is drowning in books.

But I hadn’t discovered that yet. Still optimistic, I started by researching agents and publishing firms that specialized in cozy mysteries and confidently queried dozens of them.  Well, that didn’t work. The only publishing contract offered was from a small firm in Minnesota, which expected me to fund my own author tours of the US and Canada. I was delighted they liked my book, but the math just didn’t work out.

So, on to plan B. I would self-publish and become an indie writer. Unfortunately, I was not the only one with this idea. More than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, up from just over 100,000 in 2010.

Since any idiot can now publish a book, and many of them do, how good can most of these books be? I leave it to you to guess. There’s a lot of nonsense out there, which makes readers justifiably suspicious and makes it even harder to sell books. Even if the book is good, it is competing with millions of other books available for sale. At the same time, people are spending more time surfing the internet on their I Pads instead of reading books, further reducing the potential number of buyers.

But my book was different – right? I knew there had to be a market out there for a Jewish senior themed cozy mystery. It was just a matter of publishing the book and finding the readers.

So, I entered the world – and it is a world – of self-publishing.  I had absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for. Writing the book was a piece of cake in comparison. Totally clueless, I spent hours of research on the internet, printed out reams of paper and discovered a new vocabulary.  Who knew from algorithms, metadata, html, trim sizes, URLs, ISBNs? Not me. Everything was new.

Eventually I learned, though in the process, everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. I drove the “help” people at KDP (Kindle Digital Printing) batty.  I am quite sure that my 9 year old grandson would have fared better learning the ins and outs of the digital publishing process than I did, and I would have asked him, except that he doesn’t know English.

There are many options for indie publishing, including Nook, Smashwords, Kobo, Pronoun and others. Once I knew something about the process, I opted to publish an e-book on Kindle and a print book on Create Space, both associated with Amazon.

Some people design their own covers, but I was not that out of touch with reality. I researched the kind of covers used on cozy mysteries (realistic illustrations, bright colors) and hired my talented niece Sara Israel to design a book cover featuring a dead guy’s feet peeking out from under a table in the Menorah Retirement Home dining room, with a challah on the table and menorah on the wall. (That was meant to be a subtle hint that the book had Jewish content, without driving away non-Jewish readers.) 

I am an editor myself, so I thought I didn’t need to hire an outside editor to go over the copy. (I was wrong.) Although I read the manuscript over and over, a friend who also read it sent me a list a page and a half long of typos that I had missed and people are still pointing out the odd mistake.

I blundered on, researching, making decisions, making other decisions, progressing slowly and painfully. The only thing that really proved too much for me was formatting the book. In the end, I hired Dana Delamar from the well-named firm “By Your Side Self Publishing”, a writer herself, who was reassuringly helpful and took over the task of formatting and uploading as well as answering all my questions helpfully and patiently.

By this time, I had spent about $400, and was quite convinced that I would never see that money back. Take the grandchildren on a trip with my earnings? They would be lucky to get an ice cream cone. They could buy me an ice cream cone!

After the book was published, what then? I put a notice on my Facebook page and sold, maybe, 25 copies. I was miffed – what, my friends wouldn’t buy my book, even for $3? Apparently not.

So, on to plan C.

I learned that to attract readers and raise your visibility with Amazon, you need people to write reviews of the book. A few people, including some I didn’t even know, plus my ever-supportive sisters, wrote reviews, but Amazon is not dumb and eliminates those that the algorithms figure were solicited. (I guess in retrospect, it wasn’t the best idea to have my daughter write a review under her name, which happens to be the same as mine.)

I had to prepare publicity copy, a bio and keywords for an ad campaign, which are words that people click to find books. Amazon suggests that you find at least 300 keywords, a job in itself. In fact, almost everything is a job in itself.

People in the know recommend offering some enticement to readers to get them to sign up on a special e-mail list, which you can then use to badger them but I, perhaps unwisely, decided not to do that. I wasn’t going to be a nudnik.

I tried an advertisement on a site called Fussy Librarian and a three day sale on Amazon, during which my book was offered for 99 cents. That actually worked quite well.

Then I decided that I would write to people who had blogs and ask them to feature my book. It took awhile, because there are literally hundreds of book blogs. Facebook alone has some 220 book groups. A few of them printed my information, and it helped, but the majority asked for payment for including my book’s information on their site.

That was my first hint that if you want to make a living by writing a book, unless you are very lucky or very talented, you will do it not from the product itself, that is to say, the book, but from promoting that product.

According to a survey, just over 77% of self-published writers make under $1,000 a year. Some make only $100. Plenty lose money.

This brought back a familiar memory. On a trip to a gold rush town in North Dakota some years ago, my husband and I had noticed a plaque in the synagogue which read that it had been built at the time of the gold rush by a Mr. Cohen who ran the grocery and supply store in town. It was clear that this gentleman hadn’t been foolish enough to become a gold miner himself and run the risk of losing his shirt. No, supplying gold miners was what had made him rich.

And that is the secret. There is a vast army of suppliers out there, ready and willing to provide services, some legit, some not, to needy indie writers. Do you want a literary award that you can publicize? That’s for sale too. Some vendors even sell books on how to sell books. They will also ghostwrite your book in case you want to outsource the whole thing. Just to give an idea of how many have leaped on the “milk naïve indie writers” bandwagon, there are some 3000 book cover designers currently offering their wares on Fivrr alone. (Fivrr is a site in which people offer their services for as low as $5.)  Here are some other services writers can pay for: book teaser graphics, promoting on social media, promotional videos, web banners, wordpress customization and PHP (whatever that is), web analytics… and these are just a drop in the bucket. Caveat Emptor.

At that point, I figured that I had spent enough time in front of my computer. My book would have to sink or swim on its own merits, and I have left it paddling merrily away, not yet sunk. It now sells about half a dozen copies a week, without any effort on my part.

So was it all worth it?

Yes, it was. In retrospect, I am proud that at an age not much lower than my retirement home heroines, I managed to write a book. My children are proud, and that makes me happy. One granddaughter is now writing her own book and has asked me to help her.

I have accomplished something, exercised my brain and had some fun. Do I care that I barely broke even?  Not a bit. Would I do it all again? You bet. And I am sure that my mother, if she were still alive and enjoying life in her retirement home, would agree.

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