Hi Bettye. Thanks for taking time to chat with me. I have the greatest respect for you as a writer and contemporary and now as an entrepreneur in the publishing industry. I know the readers will be inspired by your journey.
Q. Your career as an author began many years ago. “Back in the day,” as the kids would say. Tell the readers about your very first deal. How and when did it happen?
Donna, thanks so much for your kind words. Not to turn this into a syrup-fest, but I’ve admired your work for many years. You were one of my earliest influences back when you were writing for Odyssey (remember them?) and I was still dreaming of getting my work published.
About my first deal, it was soooo long ago, but I remember submitting the entire manuscript of my third effort (after two rejections) to Monica Harris at Arabesque. Months and months went by, and I began to think that I’d had the bad timing t submit before an extended sick or maternity leave, or before she took another job. I then learned it was the latter scenario, so I patiently waited while the editor chair was filled and the new editor went through what had to be a mountain of manuscripts. After another two months I called the new editor (Karen Thomas) to follow up, only to have her say she was just going to call me. She wanted to buy my manuscript. At Long Last Love was published in late 1998.
Incidentally, I did get to work with Monica Harris. Years later she edited one of my mainstreams, If These Walls Could Talk, on a freelance basis during a period when the editor’s chair at Dafina was vacant. She said some very nice things about my work that I still remember.
Q. Since you began, how have you seen the publishing industry change?
Most of the changes have come in recent years. People have always self-published, but with the development of print-on-demand and the eBook, it is easier and more economical than ever…and profitable, too, so more and more people (only some of whom are skilled writers) are doing it. Also, many independent bookstores closed (remember the black bookstore?) as the superstore chains expanded, and now I think the trend might be reversing as superstore chains close stores, but it won’t be easy for the remaining indie stores to stay open, either. Booksignings have become rare, too, but literary events still allow for personal interaction between readers and authors.
Q. How have you had to adjust your writing and your focus to adapt to the new literary landscape—if at all?
I’ve pretty much always told the stories I wanted to tell, and of course now that I don’t have an editor to answer to that won’t change. Even though connecting books about members of the same family are popular, I never wrote them because I just don’t care for them much. Likewise, books today are containing more sex because readers seem to love it (sometimes I wonder, isn’t anybody out there getting any, teehee?), but I let the placement of sex scenes be dictated by the storyline, not because I feel I have to have a sex scene in the first 50 pages or risk losing readers. I hate to sound so blatantly unfeeling; I do care about my readers’ satisfaction, and I try to please them by writing entertaining stories. But the way I see it, if I don’t enjoy what I’m writing, what’s the point in doing it in the first place? I like money as much as the next person, but I’m not a hack.
Q. During your years as a published author with a major publishing house, you at some point decided to take your career into your own hands and embrace technology and e-books. What led you to this decision?
I had a story I believed was just charming that my agent was unable to sell. The storyline just wouldn’t leave me alone, so in 2009 I started Bunderful Books (my husband’s first initial is also B., and our last name is Underwood, so I was going to call it Bunderwood, but then did a little finagling) in 2009 I wrote the damn thing and published it myself as Save The Best For Last. My intent was to publish any stores I couldn’t sell plus my backlist, since I’d already been dropped by Arabesque in 2007. When Kensington dropped me as well in 2010 (good thing I’m not sensitive about these things), Bunderful Books became my primary outlet. My agent has since gotten my rights reverted to me for all ten of my Arabesque titles, although my six mainstreams are still owned by Kensington.
Q. How has that transition worked for you so far?
As they say, it’s the only way to fly! The clincher was when I approached an editor at St. Martin’s about the book I had wanted to write for Dafina when my editor there, who loved it, was unable to convince the powers-that-be to offer me another contract. I knew it was a great story, and I was thrilled when the editor at St. Martin’s replied within a week and asked to see a partial. After a reasonable three months I requested an update with no response. After four months I asked my agent to get involved, again with no response. After six months I wrote a letter withdrawing the project from consideration (and stating I felt it was pretty tacky for her to ignore my and my agent’s polite requests for updates). That experience pretty much soured me on traditional publishing. My thoughts were, who needs this sh*t when I can just do it myself? (I hope to have the eBook of this story out next spring; it’ll be my first indie published women’s fiction title.)
Q. Which of your titles have you personally uploaded as e-books?
All of the ones I have published myself to date: Original titles Save The Best For Last and The Heat of Heat are available in print and eBook format, and my first backlist title, A Love of Her Own, and my 3-book bundle of the aforementioned titles are available in eBook format only. Learning the correct formatting was challenging, but I think I’ve got it now, and I now write my books with the same template.
Q. Are these all original titles or are they your earlier books or a combination of both?
To date I have independently published two original titles, one backlist title, and one collection of all three. My next two books, both coming out this fall, will consist of one original title and one rewritten backlist title.
Q. Did you form an actual business (publishing co) in order to market and distribute your e-books?
It wasn’t necessary for me to incorporate. Filing for a legal fictitious name with the state of Wisconsin, where I live, which was sufficient for my purposes; my little operation is hardly Random House. My distribution is handled through various eBook sites, and all of my profits are paid to me under my legal name, so I don’t have to bother with setting up a business bank account. Some people skip that step altogether and simply publish under their own names, i.e., “Mary Smith.”
Q. What tools did you find most helpful in converting your books?
I keep it simple with MS Word formatting. I had help from Mark Coker’s free eBook available at Smashwords about formatting eBooks. I have since learned that the Kindle does not indent new paragraphs that fall on the top of a page, so I now use block formatting with an extra space between paragraphs to keep everything clear for the readers.
Q. What is your most recent book? Can you tell us a little bit about it? Whet our appetites.
I’d rather tell you about my upcoming original title, A Kiss of a Different Color. This is, as you’ve probably guessed, an interracial romance. The premise is of unemployed physical therapy assistant Miranda Rhett, who out of desperation leaves her home in Racine, Wisconsin, to take a job in the employment-rich state of North Dakota, specifically Bismarck. When she gets there she pursues her lifelong dream of ballroom dancing and pairs up with a charming recent transplant from Minneapolis, Jon Lindbergh. In an unexpected turn, Miranda makes wonderful new friends in a wide multicultural arc, to the point where she has more of a social life in Bismarck than she did in Racine. She also finds herself falling for Jon, whose family history of four generations of failed marriages has made a non-believer out of him. His primary interest seems to be hooking up with someone to spend a cold North Dakota winter with. Miranda doesn’t believe in pursuing failure, plus they learn they have the same employer, who in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal instituted a no-dating rule among employees on different rungs of the corporate ladder. But with those magical sparks that pass between them every time they look at each other, and with an average high winter temperature in the single digits and frequent dips below zero, what’s a girl to do?
Q. Readers often think that writers are only writers but there are so much more to them. When Bettye is not in writing mode what is a typical day like for her?
Bettye is always in writing mode, or promotion mode. Aside from that it’s the usual stuff most women without kids at home do. I dust, vacuum, defrost, cook (a particular favorite), pay bills, pull weeds, plant flowers, watch old movies, etc. This being Wisconsin, where the temperature is currently 43 degrees at 10 in the morning, I do try to limit my trips outdoors during the coldest months to two or three times a week. The thing I’ve learned about a typical day is that there is no typical day. It seems that something always happens…I could be sitting working with my laptop (or taking a bubble bath) when my husband calls and tells me he forget his Blackberry and can I bring it to him…or, if he’s feeling romantic, invite me to lunch, or the newspaper editor will call and remind me my column was due three days ago, or the doctor or dentist’s office will call and tell me an earlier appointment just opened up if I can get there in half an hour, etc.
Q. Is there a book or an author’s body of work that sent you on your journey as a published author?
Not really. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was very young. But you, Donna, were one of my she-roes, as was my husband’s cousin, who wrote romance novels under the name “Ebonie Snoe.” Books about contemporary black people were rare prior to the early 1990s; the only books that were published were about slaves or sharecroppers or people being persecuted in the 1940s or 1950s. Real depressing stuff I personally couldn’t relate to.
Q. When you are not writing, what kinds of books do you like to read?
I’ve become an eReader fanatic, and right now I’m discovering some talented unknown writers (Tiphanie Thomas and Erin Kern, to name two) who sell their books in the popular price range. The only way I will spend more than $3.99 on an eBook is if it was written by a traditionally published author whose work I really enjoy. Women’s fiction is my favorite, with intelligently written romance (in other words, without stereotypes or wildly improbable situations) a second. By the way, Donna, your What Mother Never Told Me blew me away. It was told in a breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical fashion often not seen in books today, many of which paint no visuals whatsoever but merely tell everything.
Q. What are you currently working on now?
I was hoping to publish the eBook version of my 2006 romance One on One this month, but I moved up a pivotal scene that ended up changing the dynamics of the entire story, requiring much more extensive rewriting than what I planned on (I’ve been married long enough to have forgotten how sex complicates things among uncommitted lovers). I might still have it ready to go, but it will most likely be mid-October, depending on my editor’s schedule.
Q. Would you advise authors to do their own thing and bypass traditional publishing and do e-books instead? If so, what steps do you recommend that they take?
I’m not much for giving unsolicited advice, but I do recommend it highly. I can only scratch my head when authors continue to look for someone to publish the numerous manuscripts they have stockpiled, since true writers write whether they have a deal or not. I’m already hoping I live long enough to see my entire idea file come to life as completed books! Some writers just prefer to go through a publisher for their own reasons, although I can’t imagine what those reasons could be. Let’s see, 18-24 months until publication for a publisher, vs. whenever it’s ready when done independently…stress to earn out that advance for traditional vs. no stress for independents…profits of as little as 8% of cover price for traditional vs. 35% to 70% for independents…I personally don’t see any contest. And yes, I might have been dropped by two different publishers, but I also know I’m a damn good writer (she said modestly, teehee) and certainly don’t need the validation of a traditional publisher. The sense of immediacy is priceless, especially if it’s been several years since your last book came out. Readers have short memories, and they quickly form new favorites. Stay away for three or four years and they may well forget who you are…uh, were.
I would recommend hiring a professional editor (although experienced authors who are more likely to know more about plotting and grammar and can probably get by with just a proofreader) and a cover designer. I use Kimberly Rowe-Van Allen for editing and Sean D. Young (also an author) for cover design. I believe that the aforementioned two former editors, Karen Thomas and Monica Harris, are both currently involved in offering services to independent authors, and my former editors Chandra Sparks Taylor and Rakia Clark both do freelance editing. I absolutely would not recommend that traditionally published authors simply download the manuscripts they submitted and start selling it, because the publishing house had it edited and generally cleaned up and it is likely not ready for prime time in its raw form. I’ve read reviews on Amazon where annoyed readers have complained about multitudes of typos and grammatical errors in the work of authors whose names had previously gone on polished projects, so at least get a proofreader. These steps, in my mind, are both essential. Doing one and skipping the other…well, do you remember the stinky guy in high school who played basketball all afternoon and then put on clean clothes over his funky body and went to the party? Yeah. Major stink.
Also, if you’re doing a backlist title, see if it needs to be updated…or at least stick a date at the beginning, i.e. “2002.” My heroine in A Love of Her Own (originally published in 1999) “had been meaning to get one of those new cell phones” and drove an Oldsmobile, ha!
Finally, formatting can be tricky to master, but if you try it, take a thorough look at the previews to make sure it looks good throughout (I have sat and skimmed every page). If not, I’d suggest hiring someone for that as well. And learn to write compelling cover copy. Remember, you can always tweak it later, but try to hit the mark the first time out. Finally, price it reasonably. There’s nothing worse than a book with a homemade-looking cover and a $7.99 price…unless the book has a homemade-looking cover, a $7.99 price, is unedited, and is only 75 pages long. The consumer in me won’t buy an independently published eBook that’s more than $3.99 in today’s climate of lower prices, because I feel the author is just being greedy.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
Visit my two web sites…www.bettyegriffin.com and www.bunderfulbooks.com. You can read excerpts from both One on One and A Kiss of a Different Color, at least once I get them loaded. I’ve got to do some writing!
Thank you so much Bettye and continued blessings and success to you!