Donna Fasano’s first novel was published by Harlequin Silhouette in 1990, and it was chosen by the Romance Writers of America as a finalist for its Golden Hearts Award. In the twenty years that followed, Fasano–sometimes using the pen name Donna Clayton–published over 30 novels via the traditional publishing route, won the HOLT Medallion three times, and sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide.
In December 2009, however, she tried something different: she self-published her new book The Merry-Go-Round, which had at one time been in the hands of a large publisher (more on that below), through Amazon’s Kindle Store. Now it’s also available through Smashwords, BN.com, Apple’s iBookstore, and KoboBooks, and a print version could be hitting Amazon’s virtual shelves as early as this month.
I spoke with Fasano about her experience with self-publishing, where suddenly the author has to do everything from prepress to customer service, and whether she plans to do it again.
Why did you self-publish The Merry-Go-Round?
[In the mid-2000s] I sold Where’s Stanley? to Harlequin Next, and my editor liked it so she bought two more women’s fiction novels. It took me some time to write those two novels, and The Merry-Go-Round was one of those. The other manuscript was called Hindsight.
By the time I finished those two manuscripts, the Harlequin Next line had folded, so they returned the rights to me. But this took about a year’s worth of time because they purchased a lot of inventory, and they were trying to slot some of the books and put them in other places [within Harlequin’s lines].
For many authors, like myself, the books didn’t quite fit anywhere else, so they returned them to us. I was trying to decide what to do with the book and didn’t like the idea of it sitting gathering dust, so I decided to try Kindle.
What did your agent think of this move?
He read The Merry-Go-Round and Hindsight and he said they were too… they were written for Harlequin, they’re women’s romance fiction novels, and Harlequin is very specific in things like word count. When women pick up a Harlequin, they know what they’re getting. So he felt that he wouldn’t be able to sell them anywhere else, unless I did a lot of work to them. And I liked them just the way they were.
So I didn’t ask my agent. I just did it. I mean, he freed me up, he said he didn’t know where to send these, so he was okay with me doing whatever I wanted to do with them.
So how did you choose Amazon and what was that experience like?
I knew absolutely nothing. I probably Googled “upload my manuscript as a Kindle book” to try to find some information somewhere, and that’s where I learned about Amazon’s DTP [Digital Text Platform].
It took quite a bit of time because I had to read two different formatting guides. I had to do everything. You know, formatting, cover, blurbs, everything, which is very different for me. A writer usually just writes the manuscript and sends it in, and then starts thinking about the next book.
Then I learned about Kindle Boards. [Kindle Boards is an online community of Kindle readers and writers. -Ed.] I went there and the writers there are just wonderful, just so helpful and supportive, and that’s where I learned about Smashwords, and that through Smashwords I could offer my book for sale in other venues.
When did you do this?
I believe I uploaded my book to Amazon in December ’09, and I did absolutely nothing for several months just because I didn’t know what to do.
It was after that, probably in January or February that I found Kindle Boards, and slowly but surely I have been improving the marketing of the book. I’ve changed the cover twice and worked on the product description a couple of times, and I’ve done interviews for blog writers. I feel so out of my element because I don’t do this part, I’ve never done this part. It’s been very exciting but very different and difficult.
This explains the different covers I’ve seen depending on the store.
The evolution of a cover, December 2009 to July 2010
Yes. The very first cover is the orange one, and that was my very first cover that I made and I was very proud of it. (Laughing). But the book was not selling, and a Kindle Board author–Karen McQuestion, who just had her book optioned for a movie–said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I don’t want to be insulting but I’m wondering if your cover is hurting your sales.” She explained that at first glance it looked like a children’s book. So I licensed a couple of pictures and put another cover together, and it was much better but I don’t think it was professional looking. So the cover with the large carousel horse and the couple in the oval–that’s the newest one. And it’s brand new.
Have you been able to measure how the different covers have impacted sales?
Well it’s difficult to tell, but I can tell you that once I took the orange cover off and put the second cover on, my sales tripled. However, it’s difficult to say that it’s just the cover because I also was contacting all these blogs and offering reader copies for reviews and I just started to do things, I started to do marketing.
How did you handle tasks like copyediting, layout and design? Were those things already pretty far along because of the past deal with Harlequin Next?
Actually, Harlequin hadn’t edited it, so I read it and had a writer friend read it.
[As for formatting,] Smashwords has a formatting guide and Amazon has a formatting guide, and also there’s a Kindle Board author named Edward C. Patterson who has a formatting guide, and I read that too.
A reader sent me an email saying she found seven or eight typos in there, so I fixed those typos and then re-uploaded it. So it’s an ongoing process.
Are you going to offer it as a printed book at any point?
Yes. I just uploaded The Merry-Go-Round to CreateSpace. In fact, the proof copy is in the mail to me.
So it should be available in a month or two?
Oh, it won’t take that long at all. I was absolutely shocked. I just uploaded that book this week and the print copy is already coming. I just have to go in and click a button if the proof is okay, and then they’ll put it up for sale. So it may be within days.
Looking back, it seems you’ve been in a crazy, compressed learning phase for the past six months.
Yes I have!
How would you describe it?
It was fun. It was exciting. (Laughing.) I am very lucky to be married to a man who earns enough money so that I am able to do this, because the money’s not anything like the money that I made at Harlequin.
But have you seen ebook sales trending up each month?
Very much so, yes.
Does this mean you’re prepping Hindsight for self-publishing as well?
In fact, I’ve gone further than that in that I have contacted Harlequin and got the rights reverted to my first eleven books. [Usually, after a book remains out of print for a certain length of time, the rights revert back to the author. -Ed.] But I don’t have electronic files of those books so I’m scanning them in and turning them into Word documents. I’ve never done anything like that before either, so I’m learning all kinds of new things.
I’m going to do everything. (Laughing.) I’m going to do it all!
Having experienced all this, do you think you’d go back to a traditional publisher in the future if the opportunity was right?
I haven’t thought about it. (Thinks.) If I could sell both, I would. I’m not in a place right now where I’m creating new stories. But I could see myself [in the future] submitting my work to a publisher. I love publishers, and having somebody else do your marketing for you is great! And proofreading, and editing–all of that.
How did you settle on a price for it?
I started out at $1.99. J. A. Konrath on his blog said that was a good price. There are some indie authors who sell their work for 99 cents, but because I have twenty years’ experience and I know I can deliver I felt it was worth a little more than that.
So I started at $1.99, then Amazon changed their royalty payment schedule, so I increased my price to $2.99. [On June 30th, Amazon announced an opt-in royalty program that provides much higher royalties on Kindle books, but requires a minimum price of $2.99. -Ed.]
I’d love to jump 10 years into the future and ask a writer whether running the business side of things has a negative effect on creative output. Is it too early for you to gauge that right now?
It probably is too early, but I can tell you that I spend a lot of time [on non-writing activities]. The readers on the Amazon discussion forums and on the Kindle Boards, they don’t want me to just go in and say, “Hey, buy my book!” They want me to come in and chat and get to know them.
And can you do that?
I’ve been doing that, but if I didn’t currently have [extra time], I wouldn’t have very much time to write. I could spend all day online, because there’s Goodreads, and LibraryThing, and Kindle Boards, and MobileRead. You know, everywhere you go, there are readers!
Finally, do you own a Kindle? If so, what’s your experience with it been like?
Oh, yes! And I have about 50 books in my TBR pile.
I love my Kindle because it enables me to carry all my books around–all the time. I’m a big reader and I have always carried a paperback everywhere.
I love books! I love the feel of a book in my hands. I love the tactility of turning the pages. Books just feel warm and inviting and comforting. That might sound strange, but books were an escape for me when I was a kid.
At first, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get used to the metal of the Kindle. But I found a way around that–a leather cover. (Laughing.)
I believe there will always be a place for print books. But I also believe that, in these techno-savvy times, the e-book is here to stay… and it is destined to grow. I’m very happy to be a part of this new… hmmm, not sure what to call it. Age?
Editor’s Note: this is reprinted with Chris’ kind permission from his blog Kindlerama. We previously published an article about Donna here. The offer in that article still stands. PB