In this Episode
Carla King is an author and founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp series. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Carla about her background as a writer, how she got into motorcycles and travelling solo, the impact of 9/11 on travel writing and publishing in the United States, why every self-published author should set up their own company, and more.
This interview was recorded on May 24, 2018.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, this is Len Epp from Leanpub. In this episode of the Backmatter Podcast, I'll be talking with Carla King.
Carla is the founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp series, which you can find at selfpubbootcamp.com. It's a comprehensive set of resources, including guides, workshops and courses for people looking to self-publish, where you can learn everything from book formatting and design essentials, to setting up your own publishing business. She's also the host of the Author Friendly Podcast, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about how to be a successful self-published author.
Carla's also a writer. She's the author of a number of books, including the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide, a popular book associated with the previous services that I was describing, that is now in it's fourth edition. She's also the author of a number of travel memoirs, including American Borders: A Solo Circumnavigation of the United States on Russian Sidecar Motorcycle and Stories from Elsewhere.
In this interview we're going to talk about Carla's career, her travels and her travel writing, and her expert views on the current state of the book publishing industry and self-publishing generally.
You can get a free copy of Carla's guidebook by signing up at selfpubbootcamp.com/books, and you can follow her on Twitter @MissAdventuring, and you can find her on Facebook at facebook.com/missadventuring.
So, thank you Carla for being on the Backmatter Podcast.
Carla: Hey Len, I'm really glad to be here, thanks.
Len: I always like to start these interviews, as I think you might know, by asking people for their origin stories. I know you have a really interesting one, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you're from originally, and your path to becoming an author?
Carla: Well, the first time I was recognized for my writing was in second grade. It was Miss Anderson, she was my favorite teacher of all time still, all through school. She really encouraged me, and I remember getting an award for writing a Haiku. There was a Haiku contest. So it started then, I've always been a writer, I've always been an introvert. I've always journaled.
My mother is an artist, and a big reader, so we always had books around the house. My dad is/was an engineer, a field service engineer for IBM. I started correcting his inter-office memos when I was 12 years old. He was terrible at spelling. We lived on kind of a farm in Greensboro, North Carolina area, way out on the tobacco fields. I'm the oldest in the family, so he always had me out helping him fix the tractor and just helping him with all the mechanical stuff.
Len: And you discovered motorcycles?
Carla: I discovered a motorcycle, yes - my escape vehicle. My sister has a horse, and I really wasn't interested in maintaining the existence of a horse. I saw this motorcycle, and I went, "Wow, can I have that?" He said, "Sure." It didn't start, and he just said, "If you could fix it, you can ride it." I set about trying to fix it. He didn't? help me. I was 14 years old.
Pretty soon I was riding around the tobacco fields and the woods of the rural area where I lived in. I just loved it. I would either push it home or ride it home, so I had a big incentive to figure out how to fix it so I could ride it home, because I would get pretty far away.
Len: When did you start traveling solo? I'm really curious about this, with respect to your travel memoirs that you've written about. How did that get started?
Carla: That got started later. Our family moved from North Carolina to San Jose, California, when I was 16 years old. I traveled solo first. I didn't want to travel solo. I was married for a brief period of time, you'll find out why in a second. My husband and I had always planned on going to Europe together. We both were motorcyclists - and renting motorcycles and exploring Italy, where he was - his origins are, and France, where I've always been interested in France.
For four years he didn't do this, he didn't even take a vacation. The fourth year, I just said, "Hey, if you don't go with me, I'm going to go by myself" - never fully intending to go by myself. But I did indeed walk up those stairs to the airplane to Milan all by myself and descend and take the motorcycle straight out of Milan and into France as soon as I could.
It wasn't a happy, happy trip until maybe the seventh or eighth day when I just started to talk to people in the campgrounds around me. Campgrounds in Europe are just full of families and a lot of people who are just staying in one campground for the whole summer. So when they see somebody new come in, they're very welcoming.
I was very shy. But one day I just stopped being shy and joined the community of travelers, and I started enjoying myself. I really realized that I loved traveling alone.
Len: This might be a thing particular to me, but how do you know where you're going to end the day when you start out traveling just alone like that?
Carla: Well Len, I didn't. At first, I had the trip all planned out. Of course, my husband not coming with me put a wrench it, because we had planned to spend all that time in Italy. This was pre-internet as well, so it was harder to find out about campgrounds and such. The thing that really helped was - I was just wandering around in the French countryside. I had intended to go to a particular spot, a particular village, a particular campground - and it had started raining.
I could see that toward the west, where I was headed, it was raining harder, and there were black clouds. To the north, there was sunshine. Without even thinking about it, I turned the motorcycle toward the sunshine, and I ended up at this tiny little village, a medieval village in the mountains.
They were having a festival there. There was a circus, and clowns and jugglers and people from the other villages in the area were there. It was crowded, and it was just so much fun. A lot of people gathered around my motorcycle. It had Dutch plates, so they thought I was Dutch, because it was a rental.
I just struck up so many conversations. A couple of old men, World War II veterans, told me about this beautiful campsite that I could stay at. They actually invited me home, but I was a little reticent to do that. Today I would in a heartbeat. To go home with and enjoy a family in foreign country is one of the best things you can do. But I didn't really know that then.
I just really enjoyed myself. From that day on, I put my maps away, and enjoyed myself. I had four more weeks there, so it didn't really matter where I went. Europe was small and - France, people don't realize, has more camp grounds per capita than any other country in the whole wide world. There was always a campground there.
Len: That's news to me, and that's really interesting. I know from a little bit of experience I've had traveling in France, about the festivals. They seem to have more of those per capita as well, than a lot of other places. The friendliness and the sort of neighborliness of rural life there is just a fantastic thing to experience.
You talked about putting your maps away, and actually that reminds me, I had a question I wanted to ask you. You started writing about travel technology quite some time ago, partly as a result of your travels. My specific question is, how has the smartphone changed travel?
Carla: Oh wow, the smartphone, and just computers and generally - they have changed it enormously. I really love the serendipity inherent in the old way of travel. When I travel today, I do often use my phone to tweet or to communicate. But I try to let myself get lost and I don't book ahead, unless I'm meeting somebody. I do leave my route up to chance.
Sometimes that chance might be a feeling. I remember one time in India - and as a woman traveling alone, especially at first, you worry a lot about being taken advantage of or overpowered by all those potential axe murderers in the world that you hear about, that somehow never manifest. You learn to listen to your intuition. Intuition just tells me when I shouldn't turn right or left, or when I shouldn't stop in a place that I may be approaching. The weather might have something to do with it.
In Morocco, I met a man at a gas station when I was riding my sidecar motorcycle there, who was just so completely thrilled that I was a strong woman. He kept saying, "Strong, strong, you must meet my mother and my sisters and my grandmother and my aunts and uncles - and come with me." It wasn't the first time in Morocco that men had asked me to come home to their families with them and I had said, "No." But this man was just so enthusiastic that I went, "Okay."
I tootled along behind him. Sure enough, the whole family came out, and I spent the whole afternoon with the females of his family. It was amazing. If I had had a reservation - I knew where some of the kasbah's were that I wanted to go to. But I hadn't made reservations. If I had made reservations, I would've had to say, "No," right? Or I would've lost my money. Which for $13 a night, a kasbah isn't that expensive. It's changed a lot, and I wish people would put their phones away more and not make reservations.
Len: You spoke about your sidecar motorcycle. Is this the same one that you drove around the United States, testing it out, as I understand, for a Russian company?
Carla: This was where my writing career started really. In 1994, I had been a Silicon Valley technical writer for several years, I was a consultant, and I was getting really bored. I would work, and made quite a bit of money. I would work for a project which was four to eight months perhaps, and then take off traveling for the rest of the year till I ran out of money, and then come back and work some more.
I had lived in Europe. I went back to France many years after I had gone that first time, to work for Hewlett Packard in Lyon. Of course, when I got there I was like, "I want to be a travel writer." Because I was journaling and writing letters about all the wonderful things that was France, right? The cafes and the marketplaces and the at the crux of the Rhone and the Saone rivers. The gastronomic capital of the world was Lyon, maybe still is Lyon.
I didn't know how to write for travel. I didn't really even know how to be a journalist yet. When I came back, I went to a travel writing conference in Corte Madera, north of San Francisco. It was the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference, which goes on still today. I think it is actually combined with photography and cooking, which is too bad, because travel writing is enough.
I met a lot of editors. But the first person I met was in the parking lot of the book store where this was held. It was a man named Alan Moran, and he worked for O'Reilly & Associates. Of course, you know about those guys, right?
Carla: Alan had ridden his BMW motorcycle to the event, and so we stopped and talked for a little while about motorcycle and travel. Then we had to run in. It turned out that he was presenting - this was 1994 - to the Travel Writers Conference this concept of this thing called the internet and the World Wide Web, and their efforts to create a property where travel writers would go off on trips, and in real time, report back to their internet audience about what was happening on their trip.
I was thrilled. Because I love technology. I had my background within technical writing, even as far back as my dad. I love experimenting with all kinds of new machines, whether it be computers, smart phones or motorcycles. I told him, I said, "I would love to try this." I said, "I have come back from France."
I wanted to ride a motorcycle around the United States, to explore my own country, because my friends in Europe were kind of pissed off that I couldn't tell them a lot about the United States. Because I hadn't explored it. I vowed to learn what my own country was all about. Especially the borders, because Europe had made me fascinated with borders and the changes that happened.
I planned this trip called "American Borders," where I would go around and explore the borders of the coast and Canada and Mexico. But I didn't know what motorcycle to ride. I proposed to Alan that I write for the Global Network Navigator, which this property was called. I did tell him that I didn't really know how to be a travel writer, and he was fine with that, because he was having a hard time finding big name travel writers who knew how to use a laptop and knew how to FTP things, or even knew what FTP was. I completely lucked out. I was in the right place at the right time.
Len: What was the term for - real time, online travel log - what it was before they shortened it to blogs?
Carla: Yes, now they're called weblogs, of course, or blogs. I don't think people even know the word "weblogs" anymore. Let's see, what was your question? How did I motorcycle around, right?
Len: Yes, so there was a Russian motorcycle, a sidecar motorcycle?
Carla: My dad's friend, Chuck, who's since passed away, had showed me this amazing picture of a motorcycle in a magazine. There was this company in Washington State who wanted to bring over these Russian euro motorcycles as a speciality import to the United States. They were in Vellum, Washington. I wrote them a letter, and I said, "Listen, I'm going to take this trip around the US. I'd love to ride your motorcycle."
I didn't want to ride a Harley. That was too predictable. I got a call back on the phone. Remember this is kind of pre-email still. The guy told me, he goes, "Wow, this sounds great but we have no idea if this motorcycle is going to last for three or four hundred miles before it breaks down. We've actually never ridden it outside of Siberia in snowfields at 35 miles an hour."
He said, "We'll need a mechanic to work on it." I'm like, "Hang on, I'm a pretty good mechanic." I flew up there and I tested it, and we tested each other. He was a great guy, Bob Jarand. He's not in the business anymore. But he said, "Yeah, let's go for it." I took the Ural home. It didn't break down all the way home to Santa Cruz, which is where I lived at the time.
I planned on leaving June 21st, 1995, on the first day of summer - the summer solstice, and tootling around the United States for, oh, four or five months. Just testing the motorcycle, fixing it if it needed it, and sending back live, real time reports to the web.
Len: It must have been quite an adventure. How did you deal with breakdowns?
Carla: I fixed it. I'm actually a pretty good mechanic. You know what? This motorcycle is based on a 1928 BMW. It's air cooled, there's not - you see motorcycles today, and underneath the plastic they've got a lot of diodes and wiring and stuff. But these are old, old motorcycles, so they're pretty simple.
I would either limp along to a town, or find somebody who had a garage full of tools or a motorcycle. I would sometimes spend the night at somebody's house in the middle of nowhere, waiting for parts being shipped from Ural, so that I could fix it and go on my way. It made for some really good stories, I have to tell you that.
Len: I can only imagine, what it must be like to be broken down and just go up to someone's, I imagine, farmhouse. Are they accustomed to things like that?
Carla: A lot of times, people would just tow me along, because the sidecar has a big support between the sidecar and the motorcycle itself - so they just towed me along to the next town, or to a farm. Every farmer has a ton of tools, and they're really good at fixing everything. It wasn't really a problem. I did go through four alternators. The electrical problems were a little bit more difficult to sort out. But I'd got that fixed by - I think, Ohio?
Len: On the subject of your writing - it's interesting, when I was reading your bio, it reminded me I once came across an interesting anecdote about Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize Winning poet. Where, for his first book, he went to his mom and he borrowed some money. He got his poems printed up as a book, and just went out onto the street and sold it to anyone he could convince to buy it. That's how he got going.
I really like that anecdote, because in so many ways it captures not just the drive and energy it takes to get started as a writer, but also the often mundane nature of what it's like to put yourself out there. As I understand it from your experience, like many of us, you got rejected from some overtures made to publishers. But you ended up going around in France, just selling your book to bike shops and book stores. Is that correct?
Carla: That's right. That was pre-internet. After I had worked in Lyon, I fell in love with the country and I wanted to go back. So I carved out six months from my schedule, and went to live in Nice. I was a monster mountain biker back then, and when I got to Nice I was mountain biking everywhere in what they call the Préalpes, which are the hills before the Alps. Which is pretty hardcore really.
There were a lot of bicycle clubs, but there were no guidebooks to the area. I kept trying to find the best little roads, the best trails. I put my tech writing hat on, and just documented all of the rides that I took. I put the 10 best rides - it's a small area - in a little book called Cycling the French Riviera. I queried a bunch of travel and guide book companies, and they all loved it. They loved it, but they wanted me to create a bigger book, like all of the south of France. Or even all of France. So they said, "No."
When I came home, I just created the book. I did it in Microsoft Word. I hired a cover designer that a friend of mine knew. She actually worked on magazine covers, and you can tell from my book cover that it really does look like a magazine book cover. I had a friend to create maps for me. I flew back to Nice. I rented a car, and I had a trunk full of books.
I sold them to - like you said - English language book stores, bicycle shops, and the tourist offices. For Nice, they had two big tourist offices. Then the tourist offices for all the little towns and areas where I had bicycled. It was such a success, I completely fell in love with self-publishing. I had total control, and I made all the money of course too.
Len: It might be a bit particular - so, you were like walking in with like a bag of books?
Carla: I was. I'd walk in with one book, and I said, "Here I am." I just told them my history. I was a bicyclist, I lived here. Actually many of them knew me already, because I had been in their tourist offices gathering brochures and asking them about the routes - any secret little villages that I should visit.
It wasn't like I was cold calling. I already knew where I was going and why. I knew the owner of the English language bookstores. There were - oh, I think - three in the whole Riviera area. I didn't know all the bicycle shops - but I knew the ones in Nice, near where I was living. But I hit all of the other ones up, and they happily bought it. Because I wrote it in English, but the maps were completely decipherable to French speakers, who mostly could read English anyway. There were a ton of English language tourists in the south of France as well.
Len: I've spent some time there myself. I had a friend who lived up the road from Monaco. What is it? The Promenade des Anglais?
Carla: Yes, on the Nice waterfront.
Len: Yes, a famous destination historically for tourists from English speaking places.
One of the things I really found interesting in your bio, and liked, was the story that you had a self-published book that I think you put together with a bunch of other women writing about travel. It got picked up by a conventional publisher, and it was a big success until that happened. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? Because I think for a lot of people, the conventional story is, the big success is when you get picked up by the big publisher, the big New York publisher, and then you're off to the races. But in your case, it didn't work out that way.
Carla: No, and this happens a lot these days with self-published authors who are successful. So it is a kind of a warning story.
After I had come back from my American borders trip in '95 - and then I'd gone on a similar trip to China, on a similar motorcycle, breaking down all around China in '98 - by then I was becoming a writer. I knew how to write for travel. I had had a lot of help. I had gone to the Writer's Conference, and that's where I met the members of my writing group who were called, "The Wild Writing Women."
You have to remember, San Francisco is a hub for travel writing. So there are an awful lot of travel writers there. We were 12 professional, published women adventure travel writers, in all different kinds of arenas. I was the motorcycle one. There was a dancey, spiritual one. There was a food one. There was one that specialized in the Middle East, and one that specialized in Asia. One was the editor of AAA Magazine travel section.
We were getting really frustrated, because our best travel stories were not being published, largely because advertising dictates what gets published in travel. And a story about headhunters doesn't go well next to an advertisement about a Hawaiian cruise, right?
We decided that we were going to put two stories together each, to make 24 stories, and self-publish the book ourselves. This took a little bit of doing, because at that time, in 2000, most of us - me excluded, of course - weren't in love with the idea of self-publishing. The ones that were - I think four out of the 12 of us were really gung-ho about it, we pushed it through. Everybody helped a lot. They're great writers, great editors. One or two of us were designers. We really did it completely on our own. We hired my friend, Lyn Bishop - who is an award winning designer, to do the cover - which is gorgeous. Go look at it. It's, Wild Writing Women: Stories of World Travel.
We printed 1,000 copies, went to Book Passage - that same independent bookstore where I had gone to the Travel Writer's Conference - people couldn't even get in the door of the bookstore when we launched the book. It was so crowded, and you can imagine why. You can imagine how many people I knew, right? What one of us knew, times 12. All of us had marketed the heck out of it.
It was packed, and the bookstore had marketed the heck out of it. There were people in the parking lot, and spilling out into the street. It was awesome. We had ordered 1,000 books, and we had to hold back some books so that we can sell them at our next talks.
Len: Wow. So it got noticed.
Carla: We went to BEA, so that year we got very excited. Like I said, many of the Wild Writing Women were still not convinced that self-publishing was a good thing. It still was stigmatized to them. Much more than it is today. We argue that it isn't so stigmatized today. So we went to BEA and we passed out little postcards and we talked to publishing companies. When we got back, we got 18 letters of interest from publishers. 18.
Carla: It was crazy. Now mind you, the offers - when we explored them - none of them were offering over $5,000 and 12% royalty. It's not very good, is it?
Carla: So I was saying, "No. That's not even worth it. It's absolutely not worth it." We brought it to a vote, and one of the offers was accepted, seven to five. So the majority of us voted to give it to Globe. Honestly, that was 2001. In 17 years, none of us have received a penny in royalties. Zero.
Len: Why is that?
Carla: Well, part of it was 9/11. That took a lot of travel books off the market. Also, the travel industry suffered greatly. Travel sections of newspapers and magazines actually shut down after that, because nobody wanted to go out of the country or fly. That was part of it, and that coincided with the launch of our book at Globe. But there was zero marketing. There's been zero marketing ever since then. Without any marketing, it's just dead, it's back-listed.
Len: That's really interesting in a number of ways. I just hadn't really internalized how 9/11 would've affected travel from Americans in that way. But it seems very straightforward, now that you describe it that way.
It's a bit of a coincidence, but the last interview I actually did for this podcast was with an author named Marie Force. I don't know if you've heard of her?
Her husband was on an aircraft carrier when 9/11 happened, and it was the one that was brought into New York Harbor. Anyway, sorry for the tangent - I'm just taking the opportunity to reflect on what a momentous event that was, and how far-reaching its consequences were.
It sounds like your experience losing the vote worked to convince you to get into the self-publishing world. So you've built this little - well not little, you've built this business around self-publishing. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that got started?
Carla: Well despite the failure of the Stories of World Travel book - for obvious reasons - self-publishing started to boom, because traditional publishing was suffering. In the mid-2000s, more and more of my author friends in San Francisco, who had kind of turned up their noses at my self-publishing efforts before, started kind of sheepishly coming to me and saying, "Carla, my publisher just lowballed me on my next book. I cannot possibly make a living on their advance and the royalties. Can you tell me about self-publishing?"
I was suddenly teaching people how to format books, and how to write, how to create an author website, how to write for the web. I had already been teaching people how to write for the web for a number of years, and creating author websites. Because writing for the web can be very different, of course - and how to blog as well. People wanted to know how to blog and get their own audience and create mailing lists.
I was teaching that, and the demand just became larger and larger. I started Self-Pub Bootcamp, just in answer to my friends bombarding me with questions - and friends of their friends. It just became so much of an effort that I said, "I need to start a business and start making money out of this. Because it's taking half of my time."
I did, and I wrote a little workbook for my classes, which turned into the first edition of my book, which is now in its fourth edition. I was holding Self-Publishing Boot Camps all around the Bay area. In fact, all the way up into the Pacific Northwest, and Southern California too.
Len: Wow, so it just kind of grew organically from that experience. It's interesting, I wanted to ask you - have you seen a change in the stigma in the last couple of years that's noticeable? That's been my experience.
Carla: Yes I have, and I think it's largely due to the efforts of people who are self-publishing successfully. Hugh Howey of course. The people in the news, the big names, that give authors hope, and make us all realize that we can also succeed with a quality book. I love teaching authors how to create a quality book. Because that's just the difference between success and failure.
Right now, I'm really interested in helping people get early readers and developmental editors, and making their book look exactly like those that are published by the traditional industry, so that there's no discernible difference to the general public. A quality book is a quality book. I know self-publishing has a bad name in many circles, but the numbers prove that it is a good business model.
Len: It's interesting. That does seem to be one of the things that I would say like really changed in the last just couple of years - is that you can make money now, in a way that you couldn't in the past, or couldn't quite so readily.
On that topic, I was reading through your websites and found that one of your first tips is for people to get an ISBN number.
Carla: Mmm hmm.
Len: I wanted to ask about that. That actually kind of surprised me. Why is that?
Carla: Oh yeah?
Len: The first thing you recommend.
Carla: It is always the number one thing that I recommend. Because when you own your own ISBN, you have the freedom to move your book from one service to the other. You're not trapped with the service because you're using their ISBN. No matter how well-meaning they may be in providing you with a free or low cost ISBN, that ISBN still belongs to Amazon or Ingramspark or BookBaby or whoever, right?
So when the bookstore looks up your book - if you're pitching your book to an independent bookstore near you, and you're saying, "Okay, here's my book," they look it up and they see an Amazon ISBN on it, they're not going to buy it. They don't like Amazon, that's another reason. So if you print your book with Amazon and use their ISBN, and then decide to print your book at Ingramspark, you have to get a different ISBN for the same book. So you could use a ISBN from Ingramspark, and that would be an Ingramspark ISBN. But if you just go to Bowker and buy 10 ISBNs - it's expensive in the US, it's free in many countries, and low cost in many more - it costs $295 to invest in the freedom for your book to buy 10 ISBNs. So you can put it anywhere, so the book industry can track it. So that you're the owner, you're the publisher.
Len: On the subject of tracking, actually, recently in the news, there was another report that ebook sales are down in the United States generally. Do you think that's true?
Carla: Oh I don't think that's true. I think it depends on where the statistics are coming from. If they're coming from Bowker - they don't track ASINs, which is the Amazon identifier. They just track ISBNs, right? Did that make sense? A lot of authors who publish on Amazon, Kobo - I think Apple does require an ISBN - they don't use ISBN's. If the data's coming from sources that only track ISBNs, they're just wrong.
Len: And what's your sense of that? Of course, given that it can't be tracked, or some things aren't being tracked - is the view actually much more optimistic than one would get from the New York Times book section?
Carla: Yes, I think so. I mean, I think it would be better to go to the Data Guy website. They're cobbling together some real numbers. But the fact is, self-published authors mostly sell ebooks, because it's very difficult for self-published authors to get placed in bookstores.
Now there are hybrid deals that are going on. Some years ago, the romance writer, Bella Andre - very famous - she negotiated a deal with Harlequin to keep her ebooks as self-published, and Harlequin would handle her print book rights. It's been very successful on both ends. I think that really started a conversation between authors and publishing companies about hybrid deals like that. I really love that she paved the way for self-published authors, and traditionally published authors, to separate those formats, and to start getting creative with book deals.
Len: You mentioned that some people don't like Amazon. What do you think about Amazon?
Carla: Oh I love Amazon, and I hate Amazon - like everybody else. I love technology, and I followed all the self-publishing technology creators over the years, and Amazon was very early in enabling authors to publish. Now, everybody who publishes a book isn't going to publish a great book. But we have the freedom to create what we like, what we want - and to succeed or fail on our own merits.
If you don't do your market research, or if you write a bad book, or if your editing is terrible, you're formatting your cover - that's too bad. But I think the democratization of publishing overall is a really good thing. A lot of self-published authors really are only publishing for a small group or as a personal project. I think authors who are serious, who want to make a business out of it, who want to write multiple books, really are delving more deeply into the correct publishing processes, and following the model that the traditional publishers have set down to make sure that the book is of the highest possible quality - and that's a good thing.
Len: That reminds me of something I read. You've taken the position that independent authors should create their own publishing company for themselves. I was wondering - that sounds daunting, I think, to a lot of people. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why it's important to sort of do that boring work, to set yourself up that way.
Carla: This really is boring, isn't it? All this business stuff. But all the business stuff is essential if you really do want to make a living as a self-published author. You have to wear the business hat as well. It's difficult to pass it off onto somebody else, unless you have a lot of money - and some people do have the money to spend to hire business types to help them with this.
But it's not really as hard as it might sound. What you do is you make up a nice name. Okay, mine is Misadventures Media, right? It encompasses all of my travel writing and my Self-Pub Bootcamp and my Author Friendly brands. It's really because I don't want to be Carla King Publishing, right? That's just blatantly self-published. All you have to do is get a DBA, right? A "Doing Business As" in the United States. You probably have something like that in Canada, right?
Len: Like what, sorry?
Carla: A DBA, a "Doing Business As," or a fictitious business name, so you can separate your personal business and your checking account. You have a separate checking account for your business than you do for your -
Len: Oh yeah, that sounds - but I wouldn't want to give a professional kind of commitment -
Carla: So in the US, you get a fictitious business name. I think you can go to LegalZoom, and they'll do it for $120. Then you buy your own ISBNs. Which is easy. Which is about $295. I think it's really good to get an EIN, which is a tax identification number in the US, which is different than your Social Security number.
A lot of people just slap their Social Security numbers into Amazon and Smashwords and Ingramspark, and wherever else they publish. That's okay, but when it comes time to do your taxes, everything gets very confusing. If you have an EIN, which is free from the Federal Government website in the United States, you can separate it. So really it's those three little things that will set your business apart from your personal finances and income.
Len: That's really great advice. It's nice to get the details. People often skip them over with vague statements. That's awesome to be so clear.
Carla: I'm sorry I don't know what this is all in the other countries - like in Canada and in the EU and Great Britain. But I think everybody's set up kind of similarly. So there must be an equivalent.
Len: Yes, I would imagine that in many EU countries, it's probably a little bit more difficult and involved. We were talking just before we started this interview about the GDPR, which is - the deadline just passed, it just ticked over into midnight in Europe as we speak. I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about that? Is that something that you've been looking into, or?
Carla: I am mystified by it. So the GDPR - I've been getting all these emails that say, "You have to opt in to my newsletter again if you want to keep hearing from me because of this law." But I looked a little bit into the law, and actually - my very brief take on it is that, if you've been signing people up honestly, like when you have a sign up form on your website that says, "You will be getting my newsletter. Sign up for it" - I have, "Sign up for my email newsletter to get my free Consumer’s Guide." So they're going to get my free Consumer’s Guide. But they also know - because I've stated it, that they're on my newsletter. So long as I haven't said, "Get my free Consumer’s Guide by signing up here," omitting that you're also on my newsletter, right - that would be bad. That's a dishonest way to get people on my mailing list. It seemed to me that that was it, but I could be completely, completely wrong and deluding myself, because I don't want to send out all these emails.
Len: I can say from my experience in the last couple of weeks, I've been pretty pre-occupied with it - I'm now the official Data Protection Officer for Leanpub. I think the main thing, in addition to everything which I think you accurately described, is basically, if you've been opt-in up until now, and explicit about what's been going on, you don't need to email people about that.
But there are obligations going forward about - people can email you and say like, "Give me the information that you've gathered on me, so that I can take it to other services. Delete my information." Those are new obligations that forthcoming and resourceful people would have done anyway in the past. But now they have been kind of formalized. Essentially what's happened is, the EU has passed some rules that are now being imposed on everyone. It's good in intention, but is imposing a burden on everyone going forward, unfortunately.
One thing I would say to anyone listening, is you're not going to go to jail. I was saying before our interview, I saw someone online saying you might get detained in Europe if your Terms of Service aren't updated on your author website. That's not going to happen.
Carla: Like the TSA really needs something else to do, right?
Len: Yeah, yeah. No - exactly, the punishment is fines. The enforcement of it is something that's just, I think, actually irresponsibly unclear. So everyone's worried about it, but no one knows exactly how it's going to be enforced, or even if.
I don't know if this is still true, but I saw in one of your bios that you're on the advisory board for IngramSpark. My last question is, when you're sitting around with the other advisory board members, if you do that kind of thing, what's the biggest thing people are talking about these days in your self-publishing community conversations?
Carla: Well, I don't think I'm allowed to tell you what we talk about for IngramSpark, but I don't think it's too different than everybody else. Let's see, what is the thing that everybody's most concerned about? I don't know if this really answers your question, but all I get all day is, "How do I market my book?" Also from companies, "How do I help authors market their books?"
This is something that's at the forefront of my mind right now. Creating this course, online courses. I've been struggling, because the first step that people want to make in self-publishing, is to get their book formatted, designed, and onto Amazon, right? But that's not the first step. I mean that's so far down the chain of publishing. A lot of publishing, whether it's self-publishing or traditional publishing, starts when you start writing the book.
In the traditional world - well, I've only heard this, because I haven't worked with an editor this way, or a publishing company this way. But I know people who have. They talk the book over with their editor, who takes it to their team, and an acquisitions editor looks at the idea, does the research, knows the landscape, knows that this topic is hot or not. Right then and there, the book either lives or dies.
"No, this is last year's topic." Right now, it's about diversity. So whatever novel or whatever book you're writing, it had better have multi-cultural, multi-racial, gender diversity - everything in it. Especially in romance and young adult. I don't think authors think about that, the viability of their book, and doing the market research and doing the competitive analysis - and measuring the viability of their book. Getting beta readers and critique partners to make sure that the market wants it.
This actually isn't really in the conversation when we talk with the publishing industry about how to publish, or how to self-publish. Because self-publishing and publishing is just that. It's all about publishing. I think the piece that's missing, that we should be talking about, is when does that start? When does the writing - when does the book want to be written by someone other than the author?
Because when you get past writing it, editing it, formatting it, designing it, putting it up on social media, spending the money for a PR company and all that - that marketing - people think that the marketing comes after. But this planning for marketing really starts before, at the inception of the book. That's the piece that's missing from the self-publishing talks. It always starts with formatting.
Len: Right - you're talking about competitive analysis, which is - I think you've got blog posts about this, but it can be as detailed as, like, if you're thinking about writing on a topic, go into Amazon, do searches. Do searches for titles. What are the titles of successful books in the area that you want to write about? How do you differentiate yourself from those? And do all these things even before you get going, so that you have a sort of specific direction that you've already -
Carla: It's kind of impossible for IngramSpark, and for Smashwords and for Amazon to talk about this, right? Because they don't have a tool for that.
Carla: Right? It's exactly like starting your own business. I think a lot of authors, as well as many artists - everybody wants to be a writer or an artist. But unless you're super lucky, you're going to need to know about the industry that you're entering. You're going to need a business plan, you're going to need those pesky little bank accounts and EIN's and things that I talked about earlier. You're going to need to know that the market wants your product.
Whether we like it or not, a book is a product. There are plenty of people who are just writing, self-publishing for their family or for themselves. But I see over and over again, writers who are creating whole series of books who aren't getting the message from the first book that nobody wants it. It's a very limited audience, and they're still writing the second book and the third book. Because they want to. That's fine if they're doing it as a personal project. But being frustrated because it's not selling is silly. It's not a good reaction. They need to start over and write to the market.
Now I'm not saying - and I hate to say this, because with fiction, that's hard to do. I mean, you have a vision and you have a story. But sometimes it just takes beta readers and critique partners to tinker with it a little bit. I've learned this from being in many writers' groups in my life. To just push it in another direction. Your narrative arc may be wrong. Your character may not be sympathetic. There are small things that you can do to make your book a good, sale-able, interesting story.
Len: Just closing off the interview - we've been talking for a while now, and thanks very much for your time, I really appreciate it - I just wanted to ask where are you going next?
Carla: Well, I have accidentally bought a house in Baja, so I'm going there next. I do a lot of dirt bike riding and adventuring there. But my heart is longing for France again. So I'm split.
Len: Well, either option sounds fantastic.
Carla: Doesn't it? It's not bad.
Len: Best wishes wherever you go. Thank you again, Carla, for taking the time to do this, and for all your helpful advice and insight.
Carla: Thank you Len, it's been fun.
Len: Thanks very much.