West of Mars: An Interview with Susan Helene Gottfried

Susan Helene Gottfried runs the website West of Mars, where she will tell you she does very little talking about her writing. Instead, she writes. She engages readers addicted to her Demo Tapes, described on her website as “collections of short fiction that introduce you to Trevor, Mitchell, and the rest of the fictional band, ShapeShifter — as well as the world in which they inhabit.” But West of Mars, winner of twenty blog awards, isn’t all about Susan and her own writing. She also promotes other writers who want to reach readers. In the following interview, Susan discusses ShapeShifter, writing, reading, and what prompted her to help promote not just herself, but other writers.

Kristen Tsetsi: First, what’s the story behind the website name?

Susan Helene Gottfried: It’s where I live. West of Mars. Mars is a small town in the Pittsburgh suburbs; I’ve actually only been there twice in the almost fifteen years since I left my swanky(?) digs on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh’s city limits. Once to yell at the post office and once to tour the recycling center with the Cub Scouts. Sexy, huh?

The people who live near me get the joke behind the name.

But everyone else? They *remember* West of Mars. In some circles, I’m known as Susan from West of Mars. That could be my full name for all they know. That’s why West of Mars is also featured prominently on the book covers of both Demo Tapes collections. I suppose it’s become my branding. And it gives me an excuse to walk around town wearing Martian antennae — or would, if I ever got up from in front of my screen here.

KT: How many unique visitors does your site receive on average, and who are these visitors most likely to be? Writers or readers? And what is it you believe most attracts them to West of Mars?

SHG: I have no idea how many unique visitors I get; that’s never been a stat that’s concerned me. I’d rather run around and meet people and watch them fall in love with the characters on the Meet and Greet — and there are more than only ShapeShifter. There’s a music journalist, a roadie who tells of his adventures in poetic form, and a lousy, dumb baby band in search of their first break. And a groupie. We can’t forget Pam. I have plans for her.

What’s important to me isn’t the number of books I sell, or the traffic the site gets (and as I write this, I’m just short of 250k hits since May 2006). No, not true. Traffic is important because it lets you show up higher on Google searches.

But I don’t concern myself with SEO keywords or any of that. I concern myself with having fun, liking what I do, and putting good content out there. I’ve been amazed at some of the people I’ve met, some of the people I’ve gotten to know. I’ve been as fascinated by them as they are by the fiction!

I feel very much the center of my own little community here with the West of Mars empire (as small as it currently is). I had a friend back when I worked in college radio who said that I would be happiest as a big fish in a small pond.

He was a wise friend.

However, I’d be happy to be in an ever-growing pond, of course.

KT: Your website bio begins with an anecdote about you and your father looking in the window of a bookstore at bestsellers, and you deciding at that point that you wanted to write. Your participation in all things “books” points to “I love reading and writing,” and your website has a large focus on fiction, both reading and writing it. But a quick look at all those navigation links could be overwhelming to a curious first-time visitor. How would you describe your website to someone looking at all of those options thinking, “What is this ‘West of Mars,’ anyway?”

SHG: When I launched West of Mars, I always knew it would be bigger than just me and my fiction. Exactly how, I couldn’t tell you. But I always wanted my own books to be a mere part of what I am known for in this world.

In a nutshell, West of Mars is about promoting literacy. In its own unique way. But like my character Trevor [in Shapeshifter], that’s the way I roll — in my own way.

KT: One of the primary pages on your website is “Win-a-Book.” You said in an email exchange with me recently that there’s actually a story behind why you decided to announce book giveaways. What’s the story?

SHG: When a few friends and I started doing book giveaways, one friend found all these great online sites that listed giveaways. Problem was, they listed the books right alongside diaper bags and baby bottles — the sites were aimed at the Mom bloggers. Which was fine; moms read, too. But I was spending a lot of time wading through those gives for other things. My kids were well past the board book and infant romper stage.

I wanted a site that listed book gives and only books. I wanted to know what books people were reading, what books people were talking about. So… I filled the hole I saw.

Quickly, I realized that a strong site wouldn’t merely attract the contest groupies, but could potentially have a positive effect on an author’s sales — particularly for the emerging or independent author, for whom sales are so vital. That’s when I began to expand my listings from simple contests to the occasional sale at a publisher’s site, to guest blog posts or interviews conducted by authors, even if a give isn’t attached.

My friend Shelley Munro conducted an interview with a marketing expert who said an author’s name has to pass under a reader’s eye seven times before that reader then buys the author’s book. I figured that by expanding my listings, I’d help with that magic seven. I want to be part of helping an author build his or her audience.

KT: I appreciate that you announce contests, because at Backword Books (where I’m a member) we often have giveaways, and I know a lot of other writers and authors like to give their work away for free, too. You’ve probably seen a lot of contests come through your website, and I’m curious – what’s the most interesting contest you’ve announced?

SHG: I think it was the recent collaboration between Stephen King and Wal-Mart. I was flabbergasted. Not that either entity had contacted me to post it — the contest host had. But that someone as best-selling as Stephen King would be involved in an online giveaway. Bookselling has truly changed.

I would prefer, given the choice, to focus exclusively on emerging and mid-list authors. When my inbox is empty and I’m trolling the Net as I take a break from my own writing, I do focus on the less-famous writers if I post something without being asked to. But so long as I’ve got these great book bloggers sending me things, I post whatever they want — if it’s book-related. Whenever someone asks me to deviate from the books, I remember how I felt reading all those listings for diaper bags and gently explain that nope, Win a Book is about books, authors, and readers.

Everyone’s busy. I know that. That’s why I ask for only a permalink to a give. And yes, I have some book bloggers who send me nothing more than a permalink! On the flip side, I have some who have taken the time to get to know me. They’ve bought my books, talked me into sending them review copies, helped promote *me*. As I promote others.

I figure it’s book karma. And I love it.

KT: Speaking of book karma, promotion, and the like…you note in your bio that it was the popularity of your blog that allowed you to publish Shape Shifter (and it looks now like there’s a second one out – congratulations!). How so?

SHG: Yep, there are now two Demo Tapes anthologies — cleverly titled Year 1 and Year 2.

I began the Meet and Greet, which is my official author’s blog, as a place to post short fiction that includes the characters but doesn’t give away what happens in the novel I was marketing. This was back in 2006, when I was one of the few doing this. By posting my outtakes, as I called them, out of order, it would eliminate the problem of someone dropping into the middle and feeling lost and confused — and never coming back.

My goal was to prove to publishers and book industry professionals that the audience for my characters existed — books about rock stars are notoriously hard sells. I’d be so successful, they’d come to me.

Well, something funny happened along the way. I built those readers, all right. I even met a lovely literary agent with a great track record who offered to represent the project — but who then vanished before the contracts were signed. Vanished from my life, anyway. Her blog was continuing nice and strong, the last I checked. I guess I had ceased to be part of her vision for her agency. It would have been a lot classier if she’d come out and said so. We’d probably still be friendly if she had.

So. Back to my fans. In addition to clamoring for the novel, they also wanted to have a timeline for the outtakes. They wanted the chronology I’d so far denied giving them.

And thus the idea for The Demo Tapes was born. It was actually born before the bru-ha-ha with the agent, but she asked me to hold off until we’d tested the market for the novel. When it was obvious she had burned the bridge with me, I went full-steam ahead with The Demo Tapes.

Response has been very good, I’m pleased to say, even for a project as odd as this one. I can’t wait to get the novel out there.

KT: I’m sorry you had such a negative experience with the agent. Are you still open to working with an agent and going the traditional route if and when another comes along?

SHG: I think it’ll depend on who they are and what they have to offer me. I’d be looking for someone who can help me grow as a writer, who can help me push myself to go places I may not want to, and who’ll help make sure that promotion happens on the publisher’s end.

Btw, that was only the most recent literary agent disaster. There have, sadly, been others. Yet I remain optimistic that it’ll work out… eventually. Maybe.

KT: Even though the ShapeShifter anthologies are self-published, you used to “loathe” self-publishing.

SHG: Like you wouldn’t imagine.

KT: Why?

SHG: Just on principle. I bought into the hype that a self-published book couldn’t measure up to what the big houses in New York were publishing. And then… I read some winners.

KT: Do you remember the first self-published book you read that made you think, “Hm…maybe all this stuff isn’t so bad…”?

SHG: Nope. I know that my friend Ann Pino was able to fully convince me; she’d done what I was doing, publishing parts of her fictional world and getting readers hooked. I bought both her books and we spent a long time discussing the viability and the pros and cons of self-publishing. She was very supportive when I stopped wavering and took the plunge. It’s been a hard road, but I’ve not regretted it once.

In the years since I launched the Meet and Greet, I’ve watched a lot of really good writers lose their contracts due to bad sales. That’s not just a contract they’re losing; very often, it’s their entire career. They are faced with having to change their name to avoid the stigma of having bad sales associated with themselves — which means they have to start building up their audience from the ground all over again.

Or, they can self-publish.

As I watched the industry change over the years, as I’ve spoken to authors who are literally churning out their books to meet a twice-a-year (or more) production deadline, as I’ve heard of authors who have sold out their entire print run only to be told they didn’t sell enough books for the publisher to continue supporting them (think about THAT one), as I went through a period of daily reports to my husband about the latest celebrity to get a multi-million dollar publishing contract — a contract that the publisher knew was too big for them to ever break even, let alone profit from — I began to really think about this business of writing. I didn’t like any of that stuff. I didn’t want to be part of it. I don’t want the pressure of putting out a really good book that only 20,000 people love, only to vanish into obscurity, leaving those 20,000 people wondering what happened to me. Don’t those 20,000 people deserve to read more of an author’s works???

In a nutshell: for the authors who do the work and the close, careful editing that books demand, self-publishing is a great way to establish a literary voice. Every single person who publishes books publishes garbage. And every single person who publishes books publishes winners.

It’s that simple. And when I see publishing industry people encouraging writers to self-publish and establish a sales record, I know that self-publishing is going to be a viable path for many writers. Some will go on to best-seller status. Many won’t. There will always be the chaff in there with the wheat, moreso than with other publishers. But this is a subjective field. What’s chaff to me may be your idea of an overlooked best-seller. And you know what? We’re both right.

So… I’m now a fan of self-publishing. Besides, I’ve done it myself. Twice. It’s hard, but it’s a hella lotta fun. I’m having a ball and I’m so glad I defied the people who warned me I was shooting my career in its foot. They can have their big publishing houses. I’ll take the West of Mars empire anyday. It’s a fun place to be. And if it’s not fun, why bother doing it?

KT: Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview, Susan.

You can learn more about Susan Helene Gottfried, The Demo Tapes, book giveaways, and more at West of Mars.

  • Thanks for taking the time to set up the questions and handle (me and) all the logistics involved with this, Kristen. I appreciate it!

    Vive la Trevolution — and send Win a Book your links!

  • Ahhh, so that’s what West of Mars is about. I’ve been wondering for a while. (Carefully removing “Martians Rule” button from antenna-bearing beanie)

  • Ann

    Great interview, and thanks for the shout-out, Susan!

    I noticed several years ago that we’re living in the publishing equivalent of the Wild West – there aren’t a lot of rules and there are more ways than ever to build a personal reader-empire.

    Rather than complaining about not being able to attract a big-name publisher because one’s book is too short, too long, too weird, or doesn’t meet current trend guidelines, we writers need to celebrate the opportunities we have. At no other time in history have writers had so many ways to reach their audience.

    The popularity of West of Mars proves that even though a door may be slow in opening, every window is wide open.