Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing and Publishing Team Melanie and Brian Jackson

The eBook revolution has some married couples shooting it out together in the literary trenches. Publishing a book isn't easy. The hardest part sometimes is the time and energy needed even after the writing is done. If a writer is working on a budget, there are a lot of costs to consider: covers, editing, and promotion. Couples like Melanie and Brian show how a partnership can be helpful: One takes care of the publishing aspects, while the other does the creative. I had a chance to talk to them, so I asked them how they do it, and how it's going.

CJC: Did either of you always know you wanted to be in writing and publishing,or did you have other career ambitions?

Melanie: I always knew that I would be a writer. It was the most magical and wonderful career I could imagine, and from the moment I understood what books were--and that people thought them up--I knew it was what I wanted to do.

Brian: I always wanted to be a writer but chose to earn a decent living instead as a software developer. My last job was with a company named Cisco Systems where I made a great deal of money off stock options before the .com bubble burst. This allowed me to retire in my mid 40s and pursue writing as a full-time hobby.

CJC: My understanding is that Melanie had a traditional writing gig a few years ago. Who was that with and what happened?

Melanie: I wrote for Dorchester Publishing, one of the NY publishing houses. My first book, a Scottish historical romance called Iona, came out twelve years ago.  I did twenty odd books for Dorchester's various imprints without ever making it beyond the 'mid-list'. When the company decided to go all e, I decided it was time to strike out on my own. After all, there was nothing they could offer me that I (with Brian's help) couldn't do for myself.

Brian: I wrote about how we got started in my blog entry entitled "How the Heck Did We Get Ourselves In to This Racket"  It might be worth summarizing here: In July, 2010, I got bored. I had recently received my latest rejection letter and was fed-up with trying to get myself published. I decided to use my copious free time by self-publishing the huge pile of rejected material that was cluttering my PC. At the time I began self-publishing, Melanie was being published in paperback by Dorchester Publishing in New York. Just as I started to experience some success, Dorchester Publishing came upon hard times and terminated Melanie’s contract. Melanie took note of what I was doing in self-publishing and decided to join me. 

Note that our overnight success was some 10 years in the making.

CJC: How has self-publishing been better or worse?

Melanie: For me, it has been much better. I like being in control of all aspects of publication. I no longer have to worry about the disconnect that often happened with the art and marketing departments. Nothing would make my heart sink like getting a book cover that looked like it belonged on a feminine hygiene product for a book that was about goblins with flame-throwers. There is also no editorial interference. We have all our books professionally edited--but not for content. There is no dumbing down of the writing because a publisher feels that it best to appeal to the lowest common denominator. My readers--our readers--are intelligent people and can handle the kinds of things we write about.  They don't need a nursery school version of an adult story.

Brian: I can't think of any ways in which self-publishing has been worse. It's been better in being able to publish what I want when I want. There is also transparency into sales and I actually get paid (quite well). There are no middle men (agent, editor, ...) to have to placate. It's great being in control of my own destiny.  It's fun doing it all. Again, see my blog entry "Why I Self-publish"

CJC: Brian, you're also a writer, but my understanding is that you handle most of the publishing aspects for both of you.  How do you balance it all? What is your work day like?

Brian: Yes, I'm Melanie's current publisher.  I spend my days trying to get her to write faster.  I find the whip works best. Seriously, I spend most of my days writing.  I find that the publishing part of my day takes up very little time.  It's fast and easy to format a Word document for publication and publish the work via the web interfaces provided (e.g. KDP, PubIt, and Smashwords).  The rest is just tracking numbers using a set of spread sheets I've developed which I do for my own enjoyment. I think that if every writer knew how easy it is to self-publish and how much money there is to be made in it, they'd all be self-publishing.  The secret that New York is still successfully hiding from most is that publishers are no longer needed.  See "Do New York Publishers Have Anything to Offer"

CJC: Do you recommend working with your spouse versus say a publisher or an agent?

Melanie: This has worked well for us, but I think it is because we can agree at the start of the project who will be taking lead for that story. If it's Brian's book--he gets last say on art, pricing etc.

CJC: Because Brian is also a writer, do you read each other's work and offer critiques? Does it ever get ugly? Be specific (especially if there's hair pulling), my readers like drama.

Melanie: Opinions are given only if sought :-). And that is done respectfully. This is art, not math. Tastes vary.

Brian: I'm really horrible at this. Melanie does the majority of the reading and critiquing. Because I possess a fragile male ego, she's very gentle with me. Sorry to disappoint your readers, but there's no hair pulling.

CJC: Have you ever written a book together? How did that go?

Melanie: We have written several books together and I think it worked well.
My favorite collaborations are the dream books (Metropolis, Meridian and Destiny).
Brian: We wrote three books together: The Book of Dreams Trilogy.  The hardest part for me was ceding control of the project to Melanie.  Once I decided that Melanie was going to get the final word (the one in the driver's seat), things went very smoothly after that.  I look forward to writing together again. Note that there was a bit of a power struggle during the writing of the second book, Meridian, during which I wanted to make the story about the lead character seeing through the eyes of a murder and Melanie had some idea about an ancient druid.  The book suffers from a bit of schizophrenia as a result.  Being in the driver's seat, Melanie had to pull it together as a cohesive unit and I think she succeeded.

CJC: How are your sales? Does it pay the bills, or do you have day jobs?
Melanie: Sales are good.  Certainly better than when NY took the lion's share of the royalties.

Brian: Come now, sales have been better than just good. Since people have probably skipped ahead to this question, I'll try to provide some detail without being too specific. My first month self-publishing, August, I made a few hundred dollars.  I thought, "Wow, this could turn out to be a nice paying hobby."  Then just before Christmas, sales skyrocketed. This year, 2011, we'll make more in our worst month than Melanie made during her best year publishing with Dorchester in New York.  By the end of July (six months), we had made more money than Melanie made during her entire 10 year career with Dorchester. That's as much as I'm willing to say, but I think you get the picture.

CJC: For Melanie: You've written A LOT of books and you're so young (cheap flattery).  What is your writing process and how do you stay so prolific?
Melanie: I am what is sometimes called a 'pantser' (as in writing by the seat of one's pants and not to an outline).  I don't chase trends and rarely know what I will write next.  Often characters introduce themselves in my dreams and start telling me their stories.  If they are persistent enough, they get a book.  This was how I ended up writing Saint Nicholas' biography (The Saint) and a book about Alexandre Dumas (Divine Night).

Brian: For what it's worth, I'm a 'plotter'.

CJC: For Brain: Your covers are great. It was the first thing that drew me to Melanie's books. What software do you use? Would you advise others do their own covers, or do you just have a special talent?

Melanie: Brian does great covers but I will take some credit for having an eye for the right image. Covers are tricky because they should distill the essence of the book--genre and mood both.  Font, general color scheme and images are all a part of it.  Covers for e-books also have needs that are different for books in hardcopy.

Brian: And I like your covers too, Chris. Melanie and I do covers together. She likes doing it and I just like getting it done.  I drive while she throws out ideas. I use the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), a free Adobe Photoshop like tool that runs on my Windows 7 PC.  Mostly what I do is lay text over images that I buy off the net.  See my blog entry "Create a Professional Looking Book Cover on Windows 7 for $18.50" for details. Until you become really successful (and even then if you're having fun), you should create your own book covers to save lots of money and, once again, to be in control.

CJC: Your next book "The Secret Staircase" will be out soon. Because we have the same copy editor, I've gotten the inside scoop and apparently it's your best story yet. Can you tell us a little about it?

Melanie: It's one of those unexpected, panster things. I was reading about some islands off the coast of Maine that are claimed both by the US and by Canada and I got to wondering about smuggling and if this would be an easy way into the states for smugglers since no one has definite jurisdiction.  And once started, the Gothic atmosphere was a given.

Brian: I'd like to add that the common copy editor of which Chris speaks is none other than Jessica who is fast, efficient, and affordable.  You can contact Jessica at '' after visiting her web site She was a great find. Thanks Chris.

CJC: What advice would you give would-be writers?

Melanie: Do all you can to master your craft. I'm all for breaking rules--once you know what rules you are breaking. Beyond that, it is about being persistent. This business will grind you down if you listen to the nay-sayers. Listen to advice, but only you can know what process will work for you. Also, no one will take your writing seriously if you don't. Respect what you do. You stand on the shoulders of giants. Do them proud.

Brian: I began getting the creative juices flowing by taking a creative writing course at my local junior college.  You can only learn how to write by writing.  So write.  While you're at it, you may as well take the little extra time required to publish what you write and, who knows, what you've written may take off. So: 1) write, 2) self-publish, 3) begin again with step 1.

Check out Melanie's website: 

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