Monday, August 27, 2012

How Rachel Higginson Overcame Rejection From Traditional Publishing to Achieve Indie Ebook Success

Independent author Rachel Higginson lives in Nebraska with her husband and four young children. A year ago, she was an unknown, unpublished writer with a growing pile of rejection slips from literary agents.  Undeterred, she decided to self publish in early 2011.

Over the past three quarters at Smashwords, her sales have broken out, growing 25-fold with thousands of copies sold each month. Rachel spoke with David Weir about her journey from unknown writer to someone making a good living while achieving her lifelong goal of becoming a successful writer.

She has published four Young Adult novels in her Star-Crossed Series at Smashwords, and -- as is usually the case with self-published ebook authors -- her sales were slow at first. But Rachel never gave up and eventually found the keys to connecting with readers. Once she did, she's never looked back. 

David Weir: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Did you always want to be a writer?

Rachel Higginson: I have always wanted to be a writer, for as long as I can remember. I think my mom still has a copy of a play I wrote in fourth grade as a sequel to Alice in Wonderland that I made all the neighborhood kids act out in the middle of the street! During high school, I was positive I would pursue journalism and had great pipe dreams of traveling the world. I pictured myself wearing khakis and colorful scarves as a war correspondent covering Pulitzer Prize worthy pieces! However, when it was time to choose a college, I decided it was better to stay close to home. My dad had the first signs of a cancer that would eventually take his life, and so I stayed near family and picked a college that dropped their journalism program the same year I started school. During college I temporarily gave up on my writing dream, but was still able to travel the world by participating in a six month study abroad/internship program in Europe and spending a summer helping with the 2005 Tsunami relief in Sri Lanka. By the time I graduated, I had a BA in Intercultural studies, I had gotten married and my father had passed away. Dreams of writing were very, very far away.

DW: And when did you write your first book?

I wrote my first book in 2007, so just a year after I graduated college. This book still doesn’t have a title and will hopefully, for everyone else’s sake, never be published! But I started writing it and kept writing it as a way to heal over the trauma of the year before. My husband Zach and I were married my senior year of college, and were very young at the time. My dad passed away just four short months after he walked me down the aisle. And a month after I received my college diploma I found out I was pregnant! By the time we had our firstborn I think I was a bit traumatized. I was at the very least emotionally depressed. I started writing a novel as part experiment just to see if I could do it, and part healing process to find myself again through everything I had been through. And that is exactly what happened.  Through writing I was able to heal and remember who I was and what I wanted out of life. Writing also became something I couldn’t live without, something that healed me on a daily basis, that made me healthy and whole. And from all of that I started writing the Star-Crossed Series.

DW: You wrote the first of your four novels in the Star-Crossed Series, Reckless Magic, in 2009 -- did you try the traditional publishing route and, if so, what happened?

RH: I definitely tried the traditional publishing route then. At that time I wasn’t aware of the possibilities through ebook self-publishing. I looked at the traditional publishing industry as my only option and researched the life out of how to get published. I couldn’t even tell you how many query letters I sent to agents or how many times I edited Reckless Magic so that it would be a better version of itself to present to agents. Although, it didn’t really matter how many times I tweaked that first chapter, no agent ever asked to see even the first few pages. Out of the hundreds of rejection letters I received, I began to give up on the idea that I would ever be published. It was definitely a hard couple of years struggling with rejection. On one side I had this manuscript that I believed in with all of my being, and a love for writing that had dug down deep and began to define part of who I was. And on the other side I had letter after letter telling me that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn't writing anything the industry or public would find worth reading and that my dream would not be coming true. I think even to this day I am affected by the dichotomy of those emotions.

DW: When and how did you discover the self-publishing option?

Self-publishing was first presented to me in the fall and winter of 2010 by my husband. Kindle was really making itself known at that time, and as an avid reader I had been very interested in just owning an eReader. But Zach started reading and looking into authors who were being self-published through Kindle and asked me if I would ever consider going that route with Reckless Magic. At first I think I laughed at him; I was convinced self-publishing was just another form of failure. To me, if I didn’t have an agent and publishing house behind me then I could never be successful. But then, in February of 2011 I received my very own Kindle for my birthday and instantly fell in love with the whole e-reading process! I discovered self-published authors, with their discounted prices and started reading their work. It didn’t take me long to realize there was definitely something to this Indie way of publishing. Zach had been persistently encouraging me to look into it for myself and go that route and after seeing the success of indie stars like Amanda Hocking, I couldn’t find valid reasons to put it off any longer. As soon as I published on Kindle, my eyes were opened to the eReader world and I published to Smashwords just days later.

DW: So once you had Reckless Magic up on Amazon and Smashwords, how were your early sales?

I published Reckless Magic in March 2011 and didn’t really know what to expect. Even though self-publishing had worked great for other Indie authors, I knew I had a long, hard road ahead of me. In those first six months of Reckless Magic being live on Kindle and Smashwords I sold about fifty books total. I doubted myself constantly, feeling like more of a failure every day. I was working hard to finish the second book in the series, but self-publishing, at times, became just another form of the rejection I had experienced for two years while trying to get traditionally published. At the same time though, every time I sold a book was a small victory over those fears. And with the support of my family, especially my husband and mom, rejection turned to hope for a career to come, and for a successful future, even if doubts and insecurity nagged at me daily. At one point, I remember asking Zach what he would think of me if I never sold any more books than what I had. He changed my whole way of thinking by reminding me that it didn’t matter if I sold one book or one million books, I was doing what I loved and I was publishing manuscripts that I really believed in and that was what was most important.

DW: The second of the series, Hopeless Magic, came out in August, and then you made a strategic decision the following month -- can you tell us about that and what happened as a result?

RH: During the time Reckless Magic was alone on the market, Zach and I looked at a lot of different models for publicity and marketing. One model that really caught our attention was pricing the first book of a series lower than the subsequent books. This seemed especially appealing to me, knowing I was completely unknown and people were already taking a chance by downloading my book. So when Hopeless Magic came out in August, we made the decision to offer Reckless Magic, as the first book in the series, for free. The price change took about a month to make its way to every retailer, but when it finally happened on September 15th, it changed everything for me. I had been in the habit of checking my sales on a daily basis, cheering for every sale, especially when there were days in between them. I would even call Zach at work, every time I sold a book, just to let him in on my excitement. But September 15th, after dinner I happened to check my sales and I had gone from a month total of 2 downloads to 357 downloads. I immediately screamed at Zach to come look at what I was looking at and tell me what was wrong with the computer! We were both convinced my sales were a computer error, until we saw that Reckless Magic was now being offered for free. In the first week of the price change, I saw over 30,000 downloads of Reckless Magic. We were blown away.

DW: Now you've achieved success, how has that affected the way you approach writing and your life overall?

This is a great question, because it is an issue I am working on daily to define. I am a writer who is blessed enough to make a living by my work, so I have to find a way to make writing a priority in my life. At the same time, I am also a stay at home mom of four beautiful children all under the age of five and they would very much like to keep all of my attention to themselves! Together with my husband, we have made an active effort to give me the time I need to write. Of course, I say that and realize the four hours of writing I had planned to do today were dwindled down to half of that, and in thirty minute spaces of time I snuck in here and there, instead of the big block of time I had planned…. But, we’ll figure it out! What we are learning though is that success takes hard work and sweat and tears at every single level. At the very beginning of this journey, I was convinced I would never work harder than I did to get Reckless Magic out there and selling, but now I can laugh at that. If anything, I am sacrificing more of my time to write. This career will, thankfully, always take hard work and sacrifice and that is just fine by me. As long as I am putting everything I have into it though, and putting out the best work I have in me I will consider myself successful.

DW: Can you share with us some of the makeup of Eden Matthews, the lead character in your series?

What I really wanted with Eden was a strong female teenage heroine. From the very beginning of writing the series, I knew it would be this long, dramatic love story and I was terrified that Eden would get swept up in that and lose who I wanted her to be. So I purposefully set out to make her set in her convictions, which I think translated more stubborn than anything. I also wanted a very genuine and authentic heroine, someone that was really relatable but also imperfect. She makes mistakes, she gets tripped up in her own pride and hard-headedness, but she also loves deeply and means the best. Writing for me is very personal; I said earlier how I use it to heal or stay healthy. Because of that, I couldn’t help but write pieces of myself into Eden’s character. She is definitely a version of myself that at times can be hard to admit since I’ve put her out there for the world to see. But because I put so much honesty and authenticity into her, I would like to believe that she came out as I imagined her: flawed and at times completely oblivious, but also strong, sincere and absolutely authentic.

DW: You've said Eden encounters a world "more make-believe than reality" -- how important is fantasy in the Young Adult Fiction genre?

RH: For me, fantasy is the driving force behind everything I write. Fiction has the rare power to inspire and motivate every kind of person and I find my most motivating factors in the thread of a fantastic beyond-reality storyline. There is something about a hero or heroine facing unrealistic odds and overcoming them that is so absolutely inspiring and life-changing. I can name countless books along the course of my life that have helped shape and develop me into who I am today. But those moments of solid self-reflection that turn into actual action are the result of only the most challenging fictional scenarios. And I don’t think that Young Adults will ever outgrow the pure enjoyment of reading about a peer facing unrealistic odds or adversaries and coming out on top.

DW: Now that the series is finished, what are you writing?

I am working on the first book in a new series that I have dreamt about writing since before Reckless Magic was even daydreamed. The title of the book is called Starbright and I hope to have it out in the early part of September. Starbright is another young adult book set in Nebraska, but this one follows a young Star living on Earth to protect our planet from a great evil. It’s more of an epic good vs. evil story line, but something I am really, really excited to share.

DW: Do you envision sticking with Young Adult Fiction or exploring other genres?

Ah! Great question!! Right now, in my immediate plans I have only Young Adult in the mix. And since my immediate plans include the next three series I want to write, including a few spin-offs of The Star-Crossed Series I should probably say, yes I absolutely plan on sticking with Young Adult Fiction. However, after that it’s hard to say. I don’t have a different genre story in my head right now, but all it takes is that one special thought, or daydream for something to blossom into a full blown story line and then I could be off writing who-knows-what!

DW: Do you have a sense of your core audience and if so who are they?

I write Young Adult Fiction, so you might expect me to say teenagers, ages 13-18. That is the age group I had in mind anyway when I wrote the series. But in reality my core audience are women just like me, who fell in love with the genre just like I did! And I love it! I love connecting with my fans, going through the same struggles of motherhood I am or balancing work and home life and feeling like both are dangerously tipping the scales. As far as audiences go I have one of the best and most supportive and I am really blessed by each and every one of my fans.

DW: What is your writing process -- do you set aside a certain amount of time every day to write?

Every day I set aside a certain amount of time to write. And then every day that amount of time gets divided by three and mixed in with grocery shopping, making dinner and taxiing kids around from some activity to the other. But through all that time being the mom instead of the writer I am a perpetual daydreamer, plotting and planning the next chapter, or conversation or third of the book. Then, when I can finally get to my computer I’m ready to use the little time I have to the fullest.

DW: Do you work with an editor and if so how did you find her?

I do work with an editor now. I definitely didn’t start out that way, and I am still in the process of going back through my first series and cleaning it all up. But I’ve learned a lot along the way and my editor is so extremely valuable to my entire process now. Plus she just makes me sound so much smarter! I have kind of stumbled through this whole process of learning how to self-publish, so when I decided it was time to hire an editor I went about it the easiest way I knew how. I found an indie author that I really respected and enjoyed and that continually put out great works and I emailed her editor! I went to her asking for advice on how to find an editor, but thankfully she was willing to work with me and excited about the series I already had out and the one I’m working on now.

DW: Your story of persistence and overcoming rejection is sure to inspire others -- what advice do you have for others who have not yet achieved success in the indie publishing business?

RH: I just want to encourage every Indie writer. I’ve talked a lot about how I faced rejection and feelings of failure throughout this whole experience, and I wish I could say that at some point those feelings go away, but I am convinced they only get worse! As writers, our work is so impossibly personal and emotional that a negative review by a reader can feel like the deepest cut. That definitely doesn’t change no matter how many books you’ve sold or positive reviews you’ve received. My advice is to push through it all, face it head on and stay true to your work. The most important thing is to write something that makes all of rejection and emotional trauma worth it. If you’re writing something you believe in, something you are passionate about and something you are just down right in love with then you will find success. And I would also say, play around with how you approach marketing. There are countless success stories in this industry and we’ve all taken different paths to get here. If what you’re doing now isn’t working for you, try something different and keep trying and working until something does work for you.

DW: Thank you and good luck!

Smashwords distributes Rachel Higginson to the following retailers:

Apple iBookstore
Barnes & Noble


Vern at said...

I like how you said your editor makes you sound a lot smarter. I need that too Rachel! I've been considering it and have come to the conclusion that there is a difference between the best work I read, and my own work... I think an editor would help me immensely. My books are of a different sort than yours, and will need to find someone that specializes in my niche.

Another thing that hit me as I read this interview was that I need to sell my first book for - free. Once my second book in the series is ready to go, I'll drop the price of the first from $4.99 to zilch and try to bring more readers on board.

Best of luck to you... I left Patong Beach, Thailand just 2 days before the Boxing Day Tsunami hit. Sri Lanka was devastated, I heard. Glad there were good folks like you around to help out.

Best of life,

Mike Fook (.com)

Mandy IReadIndie said...

Rachel this is such a wonderful interview! You rock!!

Unknown said...

Rachel, you are an inspiration to all new authors.

Your last sentence, "If what you’re doing now isn’t working for you, try something different and keep trying and working until something does work for you." should be tattooed on the brain of every author, even though it may sting a bit at first.

Best wishes for continued success,

Grace Brannigan Romance Author said...

I love receiving your blog posts in my email inbox! They're great personal stories about other writers on Smashwords and very encouraging. Based on the posts I've seen thus far, I think I've been writing the longest out of any of your writers on Smashwords! Thanks again for the continued encouragement. Grace Brannigan

Anonymous said...

I'm publishing my debut novel in print and e-book this Friday (8/31) and I'm very excited and also nervous that I won't sell more than a dozen copies to friends and family. I love reading stories like Rachel's because it gives me hope than in a year or two I will be successful enough to go full-time.

Brian Lawrenson said...

Rachel, a wonderful story and an inspiration to us all. Keep up the writing and lead the Indie charge.

Best wishes

Anonymous said...

It's a joy to hear stories like this one. Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

Four children under five years old?! How do you even sleep? (;

It was really reassuring to read that you set aside time to write every day... and then it gets divided by everything else. I'm constantly beating myself up about not spending as much time writing. It's an uphill battle, and I'm glad I'm not the only one! Thank you for being so honest.

Gabriella West said...

Wow, this really encapsulates what Young Adult fiction (and maybe all fiction) is about: "And I don’t think that Young Adults will ever outgrow the pure enjoyment of reading about a peer facing unrealistic odds or adversaries and coming out on top."

Wonderful stuff. Thanks, Rachel. As a freelance editor, I also appreciate your shoutout to good editors.

Gabriella West

Unknown said...

I love this blog Rachel and often I think that us fellow indie authors really do need to hear from those who have found success in order to keep us focussed and believing. This one does the trick. I particularly like the part where you saw the increase in sales on your Smashwords stats. That's my dream.

Well done and thank you.


Unknown said...

Thank you Rachel! Your story is indeed inspiring!

Each person is a valid and equal part of the Cosmos, and we CAN do ANYTHING we want if we put enough effort into it!

Thanks for sharing your story.
Mirti Venyon Reiyas
Fellow Indie Author and fellow Mother of two lively boys)

Cherie Marks said...

Very inspirational! Thank you for sharing!

Bryon said...

Thank you for this interesting interview. Like many new writers I too traveled the same path with agents and publishers and also decided to self publish through CreateSpace/Amazon, Kindle and Smashwords. My problem came with marketing. Being a writer meant I had no idea about this subject and I desperately believed in my books and naturally wanted them to sell. Being a 24/7 carer for my wife I have little time for personal promotion and am now attacking the problem through the web. This is a completely new field for me and no doubt I'll make many mistakes. I now have 7 novels available in paperback and ebooks and I recently compiled the first 2 into a single 2 part volume, A Novel Approach, which I have listed as free on Smashwords. Part 1, The Withered of Oz, is really a comical and I suppose sometimes touching autobiography of my life since my wife suffered a devastating stroke, (well you've got to laugh to survive) the subsequent demise of my career in the Entertainment Industry, the frustrations of approaching old age and my decision to become a novelist. Part 2, the bawdy, comedic, Twilight Escort Agency, is the result of this decision to throw my talents out into the uncertain world of publishing. I have attempted to write in different genres from comedy to paranormal romance to mystery and action crime and even a whimsical piece, Code Name Millicent, about a cat who is an agent for the Cat Intelligence Agency who is sent on a mission to investigate the drug market in a country town and becomes involved in the murder of the local vet. What a pity I can't just get on with my writing and not have to worry about marketing and getting my name out there. But that's not how it works, is it?
If you're interested, you may like to take a look at the website below and give me your opinion.

Unknown said...

Hi! I'd like to say first off, what an inspirational and interesting article. Thanks very much for sharing your story with us, it really makes a difference to hear it.

I realised my first book this July, and so far have also made about 50 sales or so. I have used up my five free promo days in two blocks, two days (weekend)and three days (Thursday-Saturday). In total I had about 1500 downloads, and I am waiting now for reviews to come in, and hoping that this, along with my second book out next month will be a bit of a kick in the butt to the sales figures. Free is good. As an additional tip to all who are reading, if you only have a few free days promo, definately use weekdays. These days were more productive for me, and I tweeted the hell out of it.

Unknown said...

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