Liza Perrat interviews author, Libbie Hawker
Libbie Hawker is one of the few self-published authors I know who can earn a living solely from her novels, especially historical fiction novels. Indies who are able to quit their day jobs are usually writing crime, romance or sci-fi. The high quality of writing I found in Libbie’s books surely has a lot to do with this, but we’ve invited her onto the Triskele Books blog today to enlighten us a little further about what it takes to become a successful indie author.
LP: I guess the most obvious place to start is to ask how you got into writing historical fiction?
LH: Well, I’ve always LOVED historical fiction, ever since I was a kid. The only books I liked more were books with talking animals in them. There’s just something about history that excites me. I love to think that humanity is and was essentially the same no matter where we are in the world or when we are in time. So when I began to write seriously, the stories I most wanted to tell were those about fascinating people from history.
LP: Can you tell us a little about your indie publishing journey? Was self-publishing a conscious choice, or was it because you couldn’t get a traditional publishing deal? And would you make this same decision today?
LH: Not only would I DEFINITELY make the same decision today, I’d do everything differently if I had it to do all over again, and I’d self-publish first!
I finished The Sekhmet Bed in 2009 and it took me until the end of that year to find my first agent. At the time, self-publishing was beginning to take off, but I was stupidly not paying any attention to that. I was focused on doing it the “right” way: agent first, then publisher. I went through two agents in two years, neither of whom managed to sell any of my books, and when The Sekhmet Bed had been turned down by pretty much every historical fiction imprint, I just decided to stick it out there as a self-published book. I thought, “I might as well; I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Much to my surprise, it found its audience pretty quickly, and a little less than a year after I’d first published it, it was earning a very respectable chunk of money, with no promotion.
At that point, I woke up and realized I needed to get serious about this self-publishing thing. I finished the rest of The She-King series (four books total), self-published another novel I had kicking around, a contemporary literary story, and the rest is history!
LP: So how were you able to give up the day job for writing: blood, sweat and tears hard work and good writing, or is there any other magic secret?
LH: Mostly it was writing relatively quickly, and writing well. I knew I had a pretty small window of time to recapture those first readers who’d fallen in love with The Sekhmet Bed, so I really buckled down and focused hard on getting that series completed.
I wrote Book 2, The Crook and Flail, in a three-week window while I was between day jobs. I wrote for about 10 hours per day, seven days a week, to finish it; my wrists were aching for weeks afterward from all the typing. Book 3, Sovereign of Stars, was finished about four months later, writing every night after work and my hour-long stint at the gym. The Bull of Min, the final novella in the series, was written between Thanksgiving and the New Year. In between Sovereign and Bull, I got married, so I had an excuse for slacking off with my writing for a few months.
I wrote those books with insane focus, because I didn’t want to let those initial readers slip away. By the time I finished The Bull of Min, I was kind of used to writing at speed. I could tell by February 2014 that it was definitely time to take this writing thing full-time, so I put in a three-month notice, which gave me time to train my replacement at my job. In March I started work on Tidewater, and had half of that monster book (510 pages!) finished by quitting time. I completed the latter half of Tidewater in 25 days.
I just can’t stop writing “like my face is on fire,” as my friend Lori Witt says. (She’s a romance author with multiple pen names and her high word counts and dedicated routine are very inspiring to me!)
I think if circumstances make you are desperate enough, high production just becomes a habit.
Beyond the output of lots of books, writing in at least one series really seems to help. You can do some cool promotional stuff with series, which can increase sales of all your other books whether they’re part of the series or not. I’d strongly advise people interested in indie publishing to think up at least one idea that will lend itself well to a series. Fortunately, history is littered with fascinating stories that span generations or decades, so we have a nice choice in this genre!
LP: How much of the self-publishing process do you do yourself? And for what parts do you hire people?
LH: Initially, I did it all myself, although I swapped editing duties with other friends who were self-publishing. We’d trade manuscripts and edit one another. As long as you’re working with a fellow author whose work you know is good, and who you know can bring a valuable perspective to your own book, this is a great way to start out for authors who don’t have the budget yet to hire a professional editor.
Now, I work with an editor who does light developmental stuff and careful line editing. If you have the budget for it, or if you can trade a valuable skill (you’d be surprised by the kind of work-trade many editors might find handy!) it’s worth it to find one person who really gets your writing and whose editorial style is a good match for your personality.
I also am now commissioning digitally painted covers for my historical fiction. I found an artist whose work I adore, and while he’s not cheap, his rates are still very reasonable for the quality of work he produces. I’m never letting this guy go, for as long as he wants to keep working with me! Lane Brown is his name; I absolutely love what he does.
Covers are astronomically important to a book’s success, and this is one place where I think no author should cut corners if at all possible. Covers sell books more than any other factor! If you have only a little money to invest in your business, get the best cover you can and find ways to work out the rest of the production process until your budget increases.
That being said, if you’re decent with graphics software, you CAN make your own covers. I did my own covers for The She-King series, using public-domain art from the Victorian era. GIMP is a fantastic free program that mirrors Photoshop in many ways; you can learn how to use it and practice making lots of mock-up covers until you hone your skills, if you have more time to invest than money!
While Lane does the artwork for my covers, I do the typeface and layout in GIMP. I find the visual side of this business really fun, so I enjoy taking on that task even though I could hire it out now if I wanted to.
I also do my own ebook formatting. It’s so simple and was so quick to learn, and I love the ability to change my back matter (crucial to selling new books!) whenever I need to, without any wait. I think this is one part of the process that virtually any indie author can learn to do for herself, but for those who don’t want to bother with it, there are lots of good formatters out there. Print formatting is also something I’ll be taking on in-house, though my husband will be taking over that slice of the pie soon.
LP: Would you prefer to be part of an author collective, or do you prefer to go it entirely alone?
LH: I just recently joined up with a small historical fiction authors’ collective and I’ve found it to be a really nice resource. It’s invaluable to have a like-minded group to bounce ideas off of. It’s great to have a collective whose members all work with the same genre (mostly), too – some promotional tactics work better for this genre or that, and it’s nice to have access to multiple authors’ experiences to help you decide what to try next.
I’m pretty independent-minded, so I haven’t turned to my collective yet for cover art or formatting or anything like that, but it’s also really great to know that I have that kind of assistance available if/when I need it, too.
I love that collectives are springing up. Self-publishing is such a friendly, open, sharing community, and it’s just nice to be a part of this kind of idea-pooling and brainstorming with so many other creative types.
LP: For you, what are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
LH: Pros: money.
Honestly, I wouldn’t be working as a full-time author now if it weren’t for self-publishing, and it’s been my dream since I was eight years old to be a full-time novelist. Given the average advances and royalty rates in historical fiction, I wouldn’t make enough to survive, let alone thrive, if I were working with a major publisher.
In fact, I’ve been approached by five publishers now regarding my historical fiction, and I’ve turned four of them down. The fifth… we’ll see. The terms might be limited enough that I’ll find them useful. At the time of this interview, that remains to be seen, although by the time this interview is published, we’ll have it all settled, yay or nay.
I love that my experience in self-publishing has given me the knowledge and confidence I needed to walk away from four book deals knowing that I had made the best decision for my career, no question.
And I love that with this current potential deal, the experience I’ve gained has allowed me to discuss the fine points of working with a publisher with intelligent self-interest. I’ve been able to truly evaluate whether this deal could benefit me long-term or restrict me more than it might benefit me, and the ability to make such decisions on my own, without the intervention of an agent who might be working toward her own agenda more than toward my particular interests, is a massive blessing.
So I’d have to say that the sheer amount of business knowledge I’ve gained from this venture has been crucial and wonderful and fun. I get to be savvy all on my own, without relying on any middleman to guide me. I guide me, and as strong-willed as I am, that’s a huge plus.
Cons: I honestly can’t think of any. Truly. Unless it’s the fact that it’s harder to win literary awards if you’re self-published. I do want to win some major awards someday, just because I like a good feather or two in my cap. But I think it’s only a matter of time before indies bust through that ceiling, too. I can wait until the tides turn.
LP: Can you tell us about your different pen names?
LH: Certainly! I have a few of them. L.M. Ironside was the first – I tossed The Sekhmet Bed out there under a “throwaway” name because I didn’t think it would do much as a self-published book. I wanted to save my “real” name for my “real” writing. Well, surprise! The Sekhmet Bed took off, so I merged it under my “real” name of Libbie Hawker. (My real-real last name is hard to pronounce and spell, but it sounds similar to Hawker, so I went with an easier-to-remember version for selling my books.)
The She-King series is the only stuff that’ll ever be released under L.M. Ironside. Everything from here on out will be written as Libbie Hawker if it’s historical fiction or contemporary/literary.
I also write steamier paranormal romances as Lib Starling, a totally new venture that I’m enjoying immensely. And soon I’ll be launching an additional “sweet” romance pen name, Kestrel West. Kestrel will be doing some fun historical things that will appeal to the audience that just wants a fun, light-hearted, sweet-as-pie read.
I write some pretty heavy stuff as Libbie Hawker, so it’s really nice to have these other identities to retreat to when I need to scrub my brain with some fun, goofy shapeshifter romance or some fluffy-bunnies-and-unicorns sweet Victorian love stories. It only takes me about a week to write a romance, so I get a little emotional vacation, some time away from the heavy stuff, and I still have a book I can sell at the end of my “vacation” time.
Sometimes you need a break from all the wars and the back-stabbings and the angst and the bloody flux, you know?
LP: Oh yes, I can imagine it's great to have such fun breaks/ Can you tell us about co-hosting New Books in Historical Fiction.
LH: It’s fun! I used to co-host a radio show/podcast called Ask An Atheist, so I came to it with some experience with audio production and interviewing guests. I love that New Books in Historical Fiction lets authors get a little expansive and really dig down into the history behind their books. Since I know what it takes to write a historical novel, I get to have some really cool conversations with the authors I interview. And of course I love reading all the books beforehand!
LP: What are you working on now? Future novel ideas?
LH: Let’s see… currently, as I write this in early September, I’m working on a novel about Empress Zenobia. It’s still untitled, darn it. But by the time this interview goes out into the world, it’ll have its title and it’ll be published, too! My fall release will be a longer novel that returns to ancient Egypt, with a story about a bed slave-turned-spy who ends up working as a double agent for the Egyptian Pharaoh and the king of Persia. Then in December or January I’ll be releasing the first in a new Egyptian series, which delves into the Amarna era of the history.
I’m also working on turning the Amarna series into a screenplay, a drama miniseries. Will that ever go anywhere? Goodness knows. But I found it necessary to work out this incredibly complex plot and cast of characters as a screenplay before I could really put the novel together, so I figured I might as well polish the screenplay up and try to do something with it!
Goodness, I’ve got a busy fall and winter ahead of me. I’d better get to work!
You certainly will be busy with all that, Libbie! Thanks very much for answering my questions and keep a look out for my review of The Sekhmet Bed, on the Triskele Books bookclub later this year, as well as information about Libbie’s exciting new Egyptian series.
Libbie Hawker is the author of several books, including the reader-acclaimed She-King series, a family saga of one of ancient Egypt's most fascinating royal families. She is wildly enthusiastic about literature's indie revolution and is an advocate for self-publishing. Libbie lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and can often be found writing outdoors at the Ballard Locks. She gets plenty of work done there, since there's no wi-fi.
Blog: at website
Libbie Hawker's The She-King series:
THE SEKHMET BED...
Is Ahmose's divine gift a blessing or a curse?
The second daughter of the Pharaoh, Ahmose has always dreamed of a quiet life as a priestess, serving Egypt's gods, ministering to the people of the Two Lands. But when the Pharaoh dies without an heir, she is given instead as Great Royal Wife to the new king – a soldier of common birth. For Ahmose is god-chosen, gifted with the ability to read dreams, and it is her connection to the gods which ensures the new Pharaoh his right to rule.
Ahmose's elder sister Mutnofret has been raised to expect the privileged station of Great Royal Wife; her rage at being displaced cannot be soothed. As Ahmose fights the currents of Egypt's politics and Mutnofret's vengeful anger, her youth and inexperience carry her beyond her depth and into the realm of sacrilege.
To right her wrongs and save Egypt from the gods' wrath, Ahmose must face her most visceral fear: bearing an heir. But the gods of Egypt are exacting, and even her sacrifice may not be enough to restore the Two Lands to safety.
THE CROOK AND FLAIL...
The son of the god must take her rightful place on Egypt's throne.
Hatshepsut longs for power, but she is constrained by her commitment to maat – the sacred order of righteousness, the way things must be. Her mother claims Hatshepsut is destined for Egypt's throne – not as the king's chief wife, but as the king herself, despite her female body. But a woman on the throne defies maat, and even Hatshepsut is not so bold as to risk the safety of the Two Lands for her own ends.
As God's Wife of Amun, she believes she has found the perfect balance of power and maat, and has reconciled herself to contentment with her station. But even that peace is threatened when the powerful men of Egypt plot to replace her. They see her as nothing but a young woman, easily used for their own ends and discarded. But she is the son of the god Amun, and neither her strength nor her will can be so easily discounted.
As the machinations of politics drive her into the hands of enemies and the arms of lovers, onto the battlefield and into the childbed, she comes face to face with maat itself – and must decide at last whether to surrender her birthright to a man, or to take up the crook and flail of the Pharaoh, and claim for herself the throne of the king.
SOVEREIGN OF STARS...
The third volume of The She-King, a saga chronicling the lives of the Thutmoside family of ancient Egypt.
"Remember the Mistress of the West, the Sovereign of Stars. If she asks any gift of you, you must not deny her, God's Wife."
Hatshepsut has fulfilled her divine destiny and taken the Pharaoh's throne. But she knows her position is precarious. In all Egypt's long history, never has a woman ruled as king -- and Hatshepsut must use all the cleverness and bravery at her disposal to keep the reins of power from tangling in her fist.
As she wrestles with foreign enemies and domestic politics, her heart becomes ever more troubled. Her daughter Neferure, distant and strange since infancy, is chosen by one goddess in particular: Hathor, the Sovereign of Stars, she who wears seven faces -- and not all her faces are gentle.
Her fight to retain her hold on power, peace, and Neferure will carry her on an incomparable journey from Egypt's Black Land across the deadly heat of the Red Land, over the sea to the legendary kingdom of Punt. There, in the god's own valley, she must confront the bleakness of fate, the totality of loss, and the terrifying frailty of eternity.
THE BULL OF MIN...
The final volume of The She-King, a saga chronicling the lives of the Thutmoside family of ancient Egypt.
“I know,” Satiah called. Her voice was musical, light, confident as a king's. “It's the Bull of Min you remember, Thutmose. You remember, and you fear.”
Conspiracy and treason simmer in the northern reaches of the Two Lands. Thutmose is crippled by guilt over past wrongs. Hatshepsut is subdued by the grief of betrayal and loss. Meryet, the new Great Royal Wife, is the sole force holding the royal family – and Egypt – together.
When an unexpected challenger to the succession arises, all three are faced with impossible choices. To protect what she most loves, Meryet will match wits against a demon from the past. Hatshepsut stands on the brink of the ultimate sacrifice. And Thutmose, torn between throne and family, must commit an unthinkable act against Hatshepsut...or allow Egypt to fall into the hands of an unpredictable killer.
The box set of all four novels - http://www.amazon.com/She-King-Complete-Saga-L-M-Ironside-ebook/dp/B00ILWP6QM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1412698128&sr=1-1&keywords=the+she-king
To the nation of Powhatan, it is Tsenacomoco, rightful home of the Real People. To England, it is Virginia Territory, fertile with promise, rich with silver and gold. Against the backdrop of this wild land, the fates of three unforgettable people collide:
An outcast among his own, despised for his low birth and his unchecked tongue, his is the only mind capable of solving the deadly puzzle of the wilderness. Smith knows the only hope for Jamestown Colony lies with the Powhatan people. He knows, too, that they would rather see the English starve than yield their homeland to invaders.
Disgraced and embittered, he sees in the English a chance to restore his reputation. He knows the invaders can be used to expand his brother’s empire and improve the lives of the Real People. He knows, too, that such a tool can turn in the hand, and become a weapon pointed at the heart.
Though not of royal blood, she dreams of becoming a female chief. When the English build their fort on her father’s land, she finds an opportunity to rise above her lowly station. But she is young, and doesn’t understand the implications of the game she plays. When at last she realizes the English are a force beyond her control, she must choose between power and servitude – between self and sacrifice – for the sake of her people and her land.
Control of the Tidewater can only rest in one nation’s hands. It is a conflict of desire and hatred, of friendship and fear, of stark ambition and desperate survival.
BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD...
The perfect Mormon wife in the perfect Mormon town has a secret: she doesn’t believe in God. Her husband has a secret, too: he’s in love with another man.
She’s stood by her husband for two years, tending their secrets, fading into the easy background of Rexburg, Idaho. But when she meets a man who calls himself “X,” an artist on a rambling sabbatical through the Western States, her resolve to be the perfect wife finally crumbles.
At first her affair with X is just another secret to keep. But she quickly realizes she can no longer be content with the structured, wholesome life of a Rexburg woman. Though she fears her husband’s reaction and the town’s rejection, she leaves to join X on his journey through the Rockies.
Amid mountains and deserts, surrounded by art and creation, she discovers the realities of eternity. But just as she is beginning to build a life without religion, a death in the family pulls her and X back to Rexburg. She must return to the place that created and confined her, this time not as the perfect Mormon wife, but as something monstrous to the people she loves.