Sorry about the long absence. I was backed up putting together the quarterly newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, and I just went through a bout of the flu. That’s the bad news. The good news is there’s a lot of material from the newsletter that I figure I could run here. Just need to get permission from the editor, and … Oh right. I’m the editor. Well, OK then. Here’s a very good interviewer with Robb Cadigan, author of “Phoenixville Rising.” Since the newsletter is for a writers group, the emphasis is on the practicalities of the writing business. But even if you’re not a writer, I hope you find it interesting.
Interview With Author Robb Cadigan
by Tom Joyce
Editor’s Note: Author Robb Cadigan was recently spotlighted in “Poets & Writers” magazine’s feature, “The Savvy Self-Publisher,” for his efforts publishing and promoting his novel “Phoenixville Rising.” He agreed to an interview with “The Speculator” about self-publishing strategies.
Q: Could you tell us something about your background, and about “Phoenixville Rising?”
A: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a writer. As a kid, I thought I would grow up to write and illustrate comic books. My love of reading and writing definitely came from DC Comics and an obsession with Batman.
I went to Bucknell University to study English and Creative Writing. But when it came time to get a job, I didn’t know anyone who actually had a career as a novelist. I had no role models for that path. So I headed for the next closest form of fiction: advertising.
For thirteen years or so, I worked in marketing and broadcasting at QVC and helped to build the shopping channel into the world’s most profitable television network. Although I enjoyed my career at QVC, I was still writing fiction during any spare time I could find. In fact, sometime around 2000, I took a sabbatical from QVC to finish a novel. I ended up getting an agent with that novel and, although that manuscript never sold to a publisher, the agent gave me the confidence to get serious about following my dream of being a full-time writer.
“Phoenixville Rising” came about when my wife and I moved to Phoenixville, Pa. After we decided that this small town was the place we would raise our family, I started to investigate the history of the place my kids would call their hometown. It really started just as a hobby to learn more about local history. But writers are always filling the well. And the more I discovered about this little town, the more the story of “Phoenixville Rising” started to take shape in my mind.
I actually wrote the first version of “Phoenixville Rising” more than ten years ago. My agent loved it and shopped it around, but again there were no takers. It’s a tough book to market, because it’s cross-genre: it’s a coming-of-age tale, with a crime story and historical romance woven through it. The original version even had a ghost story in there. Sales departments at big publishers had a hard time with it. So after it got rejected, I put it in a drawer and went back to working on my craft. My objective is always to become a better writer.
About two years ago, I took the manuscript out of the drawer and rewrote it into the book it is today. And by the time the novel made it through the rewrite, I was happy to see the world of publishing had drastically changed …
Q: Why did you decide to self-publish?
A: I had a top literary agent and navigated the rough waters of traditional publishing for years. We received some of the “nicest” rejections letters around, but sadly no takers for my work. I just put my head down and kept working, trying to get better at the craft, networking with other writers (published and unpublished), and attending workshops. My goal was — and is — to be a better writer. I honestly didn’t think too much about publication. I just wanted to get these stories out of my head.
In recent years, with the advent of CreateSpace, Ingram Spark, KDP, ebooks, etc., the world of self-publishing underwent a revolution. And consequently the opportunities available to new writers to get their work out into the world exploded. Which is a good thing. Usually.
BUT, just because anyone can publish anything nowadays doesn’t mean they should. The market is now flooded with poor-to-mediocre manuscripts that have no business being out there. A bad book doesn’t exactly help us evolve beyond the unfair self-publishing stigma that remains in the eyes of some readers and booksellers. I felt a responsibility towards other writers to put out a quality book that helped in a very small way raise all boats.
After I made the decision to self-publish the reworked “Phoenixville Rising,” I approached it with as much professionalism as I could muster. I saw myself as an indie publishing house and tried to do what the big boys would do (albeit with comparatively minuscule resources). So I took off my writing hat for a while and put on my business hat. By the way, I had a very hard time juggling this split personality. When I was in business/marketing mode, I didn’t write very well. Some writers are obviously much better than I am at wearing those two hats simultaneously.
Q: What kind of services did you need to get the book published, and where did you find them?
A: First and foremost: if you are considering self-publishing, please please please find a great professional editor. Someone who will look at the book as a whole and identify what works, what doesn’t, and what to do about it. This step is vital and far too many self-pub writers skip it. It is a significant expense, but if you are serious about your craft and want to have your work seen as professional, then you absolutely must hire an editor. I actually hired two editors along the way, who each brought a unique point of view to the work. One was the catalyst for a rewrite and one served to tighten that rewrite into the finished book. I found each of these editors through my networking with other writers and academics. Then you need copy editors and proofreaders and beta readers, all in the quest to make your book the best it can possibly be.
After that, you should find a skilled cover designer. Another significant expense, but again well worth it. I hired a designer (Larry Geiger Designs) who I knew from a previous project. Even better, Larry read my book and really “got” the story. The cover was very collaborative and I was fortunate to find a designer who liked to work that way. In the end, I’m quite proud of the cover and we’ve received a ton of positive feedback about its ability to grab and entice readers.
Q: How did you promote the book?
A: Promotion for self-publishers is without question a difficult area and probably our greatest challenge (after writing a good book). Before I decided to self-publish, I frequently heard that one of the key things a traditional publisher provides is “promotion and marketing muscle.” But when I spoke to traditionally published authors, every single one of them said the bulk of promotion is on the back of the writer himself. They were all unhappy with the lack of promotion they received from their publishers. I figured there was no way a traditional publisher was going to sink any money into promoting my little book about a small town in Pennsylvania, because “Phoenixville Rising” was never going to be the next international bestseller.
Because my primary audience was within a certain radius of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania (or perhaps Philadelphia), most of my promotional efforts were on the local level. I spent very little money on marketing, beyond bookmarks, posters, and a Website. I did a lot of book signings and author events at area bookstores and libraries. After the book sold well and readers began passing it around, I started getting invited to speak at area book clubs. I accepted every opportunity and for a period there I was doing one or two book club visits a week.
Another important event: I sent the manuscript to one of my writing heroes, William Lashner. Bill is a Philadelphia-based New York Times bestselling author and I’ve been reading him since his debut (“Hostile Witness,” literary crime at its finest — go get it!). Bill was gracious enough to read the book. After he read it, he called me to tell me how much he genuinely loved it and he surprised me by offering to write a blurb for the cover. I can’t convey how much that endorsement meant to me. And you’d better believe I used that blurb at every opportunity to promote the book.
For social media, I use Facebook quite a bit, but really just as a vehicle to build my “brand” as an approachable working writer who is just trying to get these stories down on paper. I try to give glimpses into the life of a writer, provide snippets of works in progress, funny stories from the world of promoting your own books, and just general goofy thoughts about my day as a writer and stay-at-home dad.
My robbcadigan.com Website features material that I hope is interesting for writers and readers. Sometimes I promote my book on there, but usually I just write about authors and creative works I admire. I’ve interviewed a lot of my writing heroes, including Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Reed Farrel Coleman, Brad Meltzer, and so many more over on the blog. The interviews have been a lot of fun. But I do have a hard time keeping up a blog when I really should be working on my next novel.
I don’t use Twitter all that much, because I don’t really get it or enjoy it. It just looks like one giant chaos of people shouting “Buy my book! “Buy my book!” A huge turn-off. But maybe that’s just me. I also messed around on Goodreads a little bit, but I didn’t really take to it. There’s just not enough hours in the day to feed all these opportunities for promotion and I’m skeptical about the return on that investment of time.
I strongly believe that most readers find a good book when someone they trust puts it in their hands. Word of mouth between readers is much more compelling to me than buying a billboard on the Pa. Turnpike. Write a good book and trust that readers will tell each other about it.
In the end, my marketing strategy was pretty much the old shampoo commercial: you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on and so on …
Q: What was the biggest challenge in self publishing?
A: Promotion beyond the Philadelphia area to a nationwide audience. Getting noticed in a sea of books. The usual struggles of today’s authors, whether self-published or traditional. Also, the stigma still attached to self-publishing for some readers and bookstores. It’s fading for sure, but it’s still there.
On a more personal level, I found another challenge in the feeling of standing naked in front of strangers. It’s a heck of a thing to work for years in solitude on your writing, finally getting these stories down on paper for all the world to read, and then putting it all out there. Fortunately, the reviews for “Phoenixville Rising” have been wonderful and affirming, but it’s still an odd feeling to be so vulnerable. Ah, but that’s the life of a creative, right?
Q: What kind of response did you get from the book?
A: I have been overwhelmed by the positive response to “Phoenixville Rising.” The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have been terrific. The enthusiasm readers — friends and strangers alike — have for the novel is really extraordinary. Obviously, it’s all incredibly rewarding after working in solitude and chasing this dream for so many years.
When I released the book, I had my fingers crossed that the small town of Phoenixville (where the story is based) would enjoy the book, but the way the town embraced the book really exceeded my hopes. It became a hot gift during the holidays last year and continues to have some buzz even today.
I saw local independent stores as true partners in the book. All local stores had signed copies of the book and I hand-delivered boxes to keep them in stock. A big team effort and I know the local stores enjoyed sharing in the success of the book. A bunch of individual booksellers really loved the story and did an incredible job promoting and hand-selling the novel to their customers.
In fact, “Phoenixville Rising” is the bestselling book of all time at a gift shop in our area — and the bestselling Philadelphia-region novel in the 27-year history of another local bookstore!
Also, the most recent issue of “Poets & Writers” magazine featured the book and my writing journey in a really nice five-page article entitled “The Savvy Self-Publisher.” Very surreal to see my story in a magazine I’ve read cover-to-cover for years.
All in all, the whole experience with this debut novel has been more than I dared hope.
Q: Do you have any new projects in the works, and do you think you’d go the self-publishing route again?
A: I am very enthusiastic about my next novel, which should be finished within a few months. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it is a more straightforward mystery/crime story set again in the Phoenixville area, this time in the 1950s.
Not sure about self-publishing the new one. I think every work has to be judged on its own merits when it’s finished and then the decision about publishing should be made. Right now, I’m deep into the writing phase. All I’m thinking about is the writing of the manuscript. I’ll worry about publishing after I’m happy with the finished story. But I’m looking forward to getting the book into the hands of readers soon, no matter how it gets there.