An Author Interview: Zoe Winters

Zoe Who?

A few years ago I took some time off from writing and publishing. When I returned to the scene in early 2009, I found the landscape had changed. Self-publishing was more accepted. The stigma was starting to wear thin.

I joined Twitter, realizing that it was an excellent way to link up with like-minded folks. If you’re a Twitter user and you dabble in publishing, it’s only a matter of time before you cross paths with Zoe Winters. Her name kept popping up in my feeds, so I decided to follow her and see what she’s all about. I’m glad I made that choice.

Zoe Winters is an author of the Preternaturals series, a set of paranormal romance stories that have found a home with many, many readers. She’s also a champion of all things indie, advocating the DIY approach as a legitimate route. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind on the matter, either, and I have to be honest: I totally dig her style.

Full disclosure: I’ve never read her romance series. That’s nothing against her, or her craft; rather, it’s merely a matter of preference. However, I have read her articles, blog entries, and her nonfiction book, Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming An Indie Author. It’s an excellent resource, one in which she shares her own experiences and methods that have worked for her, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is considering taking that leap into the publishing world.

I asked Zoe if she would submit to an interview about her experiences, and thankfully, she agreed. It’s a huge honor to have her on SPR. So, without further adieu, I’ll turn this over to her:

SPR: How did you get started in indie publishing?

ZW: About 4 years before I released Kept (so around 2004), I stumbled upon the idea of self-publishing and bought several books on the topic. It seemed like something I would really enjoy doing, but there was all that stigma… and this idea that the only people who self-publish are total noobs who don’t know anything about publishing or writing. So I shelved that idea.

But I kept coming back to it. And the more I learned about the traditional method of publishing the less appealing it became to me until it was sapping my energy in my writing. I’d go months without writing because I knew at the end of it I’d have to find an agent, then find a publisher, then lose control of everything. And I didn’t really like any of those ideas.

So finally I released Kept. And at first I was still thinking that “maybe” I wanted a trad pub but that I could start building a platform this way, cause publishers like platforms. But the more I got into it, the more I knew it really WAS for me, and I was like “oh screw that. I’m doing this myself!” For me indie isn’t a stepping stone to anything. I want to be the best indie I can be and it’s not about someone else later validating me. I’m feeling plenty validated at the moment.

SPR: Did you attempt the traditional route? Any war stories to share with us?

ZW: War stories? No. Paper cut stories? Maybe. But probably not even that. I submitted Save My Soul (in a much earlier draft) to an agent. I got as far as the partial stage and that agent rejected it. And  then I lost interest in sending letters. I just really couldn’t get into it. I can accept rejection as part of the process, but ugh… that whole system just wasn’t for me.

And I submitted Kept to one publisher. But I had already decided I wanted to self-publish while Kept was out there, so I was bizarrely hoping for a rejection so I wouldn’t have a “hard decision” to make. Now, it wouldn’t be hard. Back then it would have been.

SPR: Something you touched upon in your book is the necessity for self-publishers to approach their work from a business standpoint. Specifically, the creation of a business plan, a list of short- and long-term goals, and so on. Would you care to share some of those tips for readers?

ZW: I haven’t read that in awhile so I have no idea what I said. LOL. I think writers in general have very little business sense and you really need to learn business. Learn how to run a business, principles of marketing (not just inside the publishing industry, but in general), etc.

One thing I’m looking at and dealing with a lot right now is my personal author brand. So one piece of advice I’d like to offer is to think about who you want to be and what you want to be known for five or ten years down the road, not just “right now.”

I started out with this “scrappy little indie author” image and it worked for me initially. But then I outgrew it. I can’t engage with people in arguments/debates the same way I could a couple of years ago because the response to me is different. So really think about the image you’re creating around your name and if you want it sticking to you a few years later. Try to be the person you want to become. Think in terms of how you would behave if you had the kind of career you dream of. If you’re acting in a way that contradicts your own purposes, change course as soon as you can.

SPR: Publishing can be an expensive endeavor. Do you have any suggestions on how to trim overhead costs?

ZW: It can be expensive, but it can also be cheap. When you’re just starting, really all you need is an ebook. So that means you need to have editing and cover art and formatting. You can get editing from good critique partners, so no actual cost there. You can format using the Smashwords Style Guide at Smashwords.com. You don’t need ISBNs if you work with Amazon and B&N. And if you do premium distribution with Smashwords they can provide you an ISBN for free for the retailers you need or for $9.95 each if you don’t want their name on your ISBN. Cover art you can get for probably under $200. And ebook covers tend to be less expensive than “full wraps” for print anyway.

So really, this is not prohibitive at ALL. There is no need to falsely inflate the costs when you’re starting out. But like, this year I’m doing audio book releases, I would never have dreamed of doing that my first year out. It was too expensive for me at that time.

Start with the less expensive forms of publishing and move up when you can afford to. So ebook, then print, then if you’re feeling frisky and control-freaky, audio.

SPR: What are your long-term goals with your work? Where do you want to see yourself in five years? Ten?

ZW: Hmmm that’s hard. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint different goals for both of those time frames. I will say that within 5-10 years I would like to be a top name in paranormal romance. Like I want people to be saying my name in the same breath as authors that everyone in the genre knows. And mainly I want to just keep growing my fan base and doing my thing and making a living. I think it’s cool to be able to “get” to this stage, but being able to have staying power and maintain something like this over the long haul is where the real test is. And I hope in a decade I’m still able to say I’m doing that. I want a long-term career, not a flash in the pan. Right now, it could go either way. So I’m certainly not “out of the woods” and “set up for life” or anything.

It’s a bit too soon to start playing “We are the Champions.”
SPR: You’ve had tremendous success with your Kindle editions. How did you go about promoting your work?

ZW: Blogging, Facebook, Twitter, guest blogging, some people reviewed it, word of mouth happened. I’ve done little videos and was vocal commenting on blogs and just getting my name out there… interviews, podcast interviews, Kindle giveaways, newsletter drives. I make people tired with this list. I make ME tired with this list. I’m doing a little less now because right now the most important thing to me is building backlist and nurturing the fan base I already have. I think if you appreciate the fans and engage with them, they will tell others about the work. And that brings in the new readers.

It’s a hard sell to get total strangers to read you based on YOUR say-so. It’s often got to be someone else that brings them to you. Then once you have that fan, it’s important to feed them more work and if they reach out to you, to be there and respond and be gracious. Nobody likes a writer jerk. Nobody wants to know a writer jerk. We all have our moments, but always always appreciate your fans. When a reader is genuinely appreciated they know it, and they give a bigger crap whether you succeed or fail.

I do think if you only have time to write or market, you should write. I’ve got another pen name I don’t really market at all and sometimes she sells better than Zoe. And yet Zoe is the one that has been omgwtfbbq crazy.

SPR: Would you recommend fledgling authors try their hand with digital formats before jumping into the expense of print publishing?

ZW: Oh yes, definitely.

SPR: Regarding print publishing, what led you to publish a paperback edition of Blood Lust? Has the print version been as successful as its digital counterpart?

ZW: Honestly, a big part of it was and is vanity. I like having a bound print copy of my work with my name on it on my shelf staring back at me. I just do. If not a single person bought print, I’d still do print. I’d do it as signed giveaway copies for readers (because readers love to win signed copies) and just for me. I don’t sell a lot of print. Most indies don’t. Especially if they aren’t selling through the stratosphere with ebooks. I think of print as something for the uber-fans who want print copies and for giveaways. It’s a nice extra bit of pocket money, but right now it’s not a big earner for me. But I didn’t really expect it to be. If my work ever really breaks out big, it might be a bigger income stream later.

SPR: Let’s speculate for a moment. Do you think there will be a day when everyone will have their own e-reader? Will we see it in our lifetime?

ZW: I think there will be a day when most people have one, but never a time when EVERYONE has one. Some people don’t read, and some people will never switch over from paper. My grandparents don’t have a computer. Those evil devil boxes freak them out!

SPR: Furthermore, given the recent first-quarter figures posted by Amazon, do you think print editions will become less common?

ZW: I think there will always be print books. Just like we still have vinyl records. But it’s going to be more of a niche market. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the print market shrank and the audio market grew larger than the print market. Audio is experiencing some growth, not as fast as ebooks, but still, growth. Whereas print was flat for awhile and now seems to be declining.
SPR: I recall reading on your blog that you’ve turned down offers from agents before, so allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. What would it take for you to accept 3rd-party representation?

ZW: I don’t think working with an agent is right for me. So many agents now want to put together this whole big group of services I neither need nor want. And many of them want to “manage your career”. I don’t need someone to manage my career. I want to manage my own career. And I want to maintain control of my career. I’m not afraid of contract negotiation and I’m not afraid to walk away if something isn’t what I want.

If I ever licensed foreign language rights or anything like that, I believe I would work with an IP attorney. I just think that’s more my speed. And I know there is no conflict of interests with an attorney. With an agent you don’t know about the politics going on behind the scenes and who they really work for (i.e. do they care more about keeping you happy or the publisher they want to continue a relationship with). Plus a lot of agents seem to think you somehow work for them, or at the least that you are “equal partners” or that you answer to them in any way and are obligated to take every bit of advice they give you.

Attorneys know who they work for. Since I’m a control freak, you can see why agents aren’t for me, personally. Again, not a slam on agents. Many are very nice people who love books and want to help authors. Just not how I want to run my business.

SPR: I always close with this question: Why should others reader your work?

ZW: Let me answer that question with a book trailer: (because you know I have to pimp this everywhere. LOL.)

Book Trailer: Save My Soul by: Zoe Winters from Zoe Winters on Vimeo.

Zoe says she’s looking forward to your comments, and will give away a digital copy of her latest book, Save My Soul, as well as a digital copy of Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming An Indie Author, to a randomly selected commenter. So if you have any questions for her, don’t be shy! There are prizes to be had.

Many thanks to Zoe for taking the time to respond to my questions. Her latest novel, Save My Soul, is available now. Check out her site, and be sure to follow her on Twitter.

  • Well_there is real excitement in this space right now and this interview raises the excitement even more. I may have not published a book on this space, but I can with certainty say its all about you. Your writing life is not a concern of anyone else unless they can make a buck off of you. Very similar to the stock market IPO’s. Its exciting to know anyone can be a “best selling self-published” author with money in the bank. Then your value to the old boy establishment publishers is high. And you will be in the position like Stephen King to partner with them sharing the risk of a book as well as the big budget marketing campaigns that come when your talking millions of dollars on the table. ~thefox

  • A great interview. I noticed you didn’t say you spent time on Kindle Boards when you were building your presence. Any reason why not?

    I already have SMS, so leave my name out of the giveaway.

  • Zoe’s trailer is fantastic!And so is her “Smart Self-Publishing” book.I purchased mine on Smashwords.I also intend to read her novels: not because they are specifically in my genre interests, but I must see what the buzz is all about. If she can write non-fiction as well as she does, her fiction must truly be outstanding.I follow her blogs, facebook, etc. I am very impressed with her skills.

    Enough with the mushy stuff. If you want to read a marvelous tome on becoming an Indie author, buy her kick-ass book.

    Thank you, Todd, for interviewing this remarkable lady.

    One question I do have is: how much does it cost to produce a trailer of this quality?

    Once more, thank you both.

  • Holy cow! I hadn’t seen the book trailer before. Incredible. Those looked like more than just the standard stock images. How did you create it?

  • I don’t want to take the prize from other commenters (so don’t draw me, LOL!) but I have to say: this is a good interview.

    So many people are afraid of bucking the system, when much of the system is straw men standing in a row. Granted, there’s a steep learning curve, and you have to be brazen. But this is a great reminder that–for those who are–successful indie pubbing is far from impossible.

  • @thefox, yup. Which is why I wouldn’t sell out unless the money was ridiculously high. Basically, make me rich, or leave me alone and let me do my thing. I’m certainly happy doing it. 🙂

    @Edie, I don’t like the atmosphere of forums. And they are a time suck. You have to be somewhere “all the time” for anyone to care what you have to say, and it’s just more than I want to mess with. I’m comfortable commenting sometimes on blogs, but I don’t really like forums in general and any time I actually participate on one, I generally regret it. Personal experience/viewpoint only. Your mileage may vary.

    @Robert, thanks! I hope you like the fiction. You wouldn’t be my only male reader. 🙂

    Re: trailer cost, around $500. But keep in mind, I picked the music and images and wrote the text and storyboarded it. Michelle brought a LOT to it, she did the backgrounds for the text, the text font and effects, the extensive photoshopping on some of the pictures that looked too “studio”, the camera panning effects, and basically putting it all together so it looked awesome. So it was collaborative. If you went to someone and didn’t come that prepared with what you wanted, it would likely cost more.

    This also isn’t something I would have ever done in my first year or two of doing this. I need the tax write-off. So a marketing expense like this for me isn’t expensive. For an indie just starting out it probably wouldn’t be a wise expenditure. You need cash flow for your business and book trailers aren’t high-priority when you’re starting out.

    @Jami, Some of the images, like Beatrice (the witch), and all the Luc and Anna shots were Photoshopped pretty heavily by Michelle. She’s a whiz at Photoshop.

    @Tracy, thanks! 🙂 Fortune favors the brave. 😉

  • I’m not usually a reader of romance, but I recently picked up the first volume of the Preternaturals series and was very glad that I did. I loved the book and am really looking forward to seeing more of Zoe’s world!

  • hehe. Thanks, Heather! Glad I could convert you to the dark side. 🙂

  • Great interview, Zoe. I love the “Let me answer that question with a trailer” part. 🙂

  • LOL Guido… I’ve watched too much Buffy. I swear in my head I heard the line: “Let me answer that question with a head butt.” It’s mangled my speech patterns forever!

  • I used Random.org to pick a winner. The winner of the digital copy of Save My Soul and Becoming an Indie Author is Guido.

  • Congratulations, Guido!