Today, I’m delighted to be interviewing indie author, Joanne Phillips, whose books regularly appear on Amazon’s bestseller lists (Can’t Live Without was an Amazon top 100 bestseller in 2012.) She’s the author of romantic comedies Can’t Live Without and The Family Trap, and the Flora Lively series of mysteries. Before becoming a writer, Joanne had jobs as diverse as hairdresser, air hostess and librarian, but now divides her time between writing and freelance indexing, a job she loves. She’s also a fan of super-dark chocolate, iced coffee and Masterchef, so I can tell we’re going to have a lot in common.
Jane: Joanne, I made the decision to self publish last November after attending the Writers’ & Artists’ conference on Self-Publishing in Digital Age, and yesterday I went back to remind myself how far I have come in a year. You made the decision to self-publish in May 2012. Had you explored alternative routes and what made you decide that self-publishing was right for you?
Joanne: Can’t Live Without received interest from the first agent I sent it too, back in 2007. This was massively encouraging, and the agent (from Darley Anderson) suggested a couple of changes, which really improved the book. Unfortunately the relationship didn’t proceed to a contract, but by this time I was a new mum and had other things on my mind! At the beginning of 2012, when I started my blog, I knew I wanted to do ‘something’ with Can’t Live Without, so I published chapters on the blog – and got a wonderful response from readers. I’d been reading about self-publishing for years, and I knew the ebook market had given it a boost and made it a more viable alternative for reaching readers. I am a bit of a Do-It-Yourself kind of person, so it was a natural thing for me.
Jane: You’re a huge cheerleader for self-publishing and you have an enviable sales record. With the number of self-published books increasing by 59% last year alone, how do you ensure that it is easy for readers to discover you and, when they do, that they will pick one of your novels?
Joanne: I’ve no idea! ‘Write a Marketing Plan’ is still on my list of things to do after 18 months at this, and I lurch from one activity to the next, never quite sure what is working and what isn’t. One thing I do know is that no one can read your book if they don’t know it exists, so visibility is key. Amazon are very helpful with this, and I think their recommendations system is brilliantly targeted. When your books have been selling for a while they do show up on customers’ recommended reading lists, and if you’ve done your job well – written a good book, crafted a great blurb, and sourced a fantastic cover – there’s no reason why a customer shouldn’t give your title a go. But in the main all I do is write books and share information. Enthusiasm and passion are important, both in your writing and in your ‘platform’ (hate that expression), and being completely authentic and genuine, with readers and on social media etc, gives you an edge.
Jane: Given your sucess as an indie author, if you were now offered a traditional deal would you grab it?
Joanne: People are often surprised when I say I’d love a traditional publishing contract – they think I’m so entrenched in the indie movement (and it has been a movement these last few years) that I would never turn away from it. But that’s nonsense – all I want to do is reach readers. If a trad deal put me in front of more readers I’d snap it up. Then I’ll come back and answer your question.
Jane: You have recently released what promises to be the first in a series of cosy mysteries, Murder at the Maples. I know that you cite Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers as being major influences, but readers may not be familiar with the concept of cosy mysteries. What can they expect?
Joanne: A ‘cosy’ mystery is basically a crime novel with all the gory/upsetting/horrible bits taken out. There’s usually an amateur sleuth, a touch of romance, and a fair amount of humour along the way. But I’m not glued to the cosy label, to be honest. This market is big in the US, but here in the UK – where the genre has been around for a long time, albeit in the form of Midsummer Murders, for example – readers aren’t necessarily turned on by the very specific cosy themes which make up much of the US market. So I’m going to thinking of something else to call them – contemporary mysteries, perhaps. When I created the Flora Lively concept I was thinking ‘Bridget Jones meets Midsummer Murders’ – a kind of modern mystery series with a contemporary heroine. Really, the mystery label is nothing but a vehicle for Flora, who sprung into my head and demanded attention!
Jane: Now, Flora Lively is the heroine who will be featured in your series, isn’t she? Can you tell us a little about her?
Joanne: Well, she’s complicated, for one thing. Flora was adopted as a baby, and her adoptive parents died recently so she feels twice abandoned. Left in charge of her father’s business, Flora is struggling to assert herself in a traditionally man’s work environment, while trying to work out how she can hold on to her own idea of how she imagined her future might pan out. She’s a feminist in the way I’m a feminist – it’s not about rejecting men but about rejecting limiting labels and ideas – but apart from that we’re not very similar. Flora was a troubled teenager, and still has hang ups – along with physical evidence like tattoos and piercings – even at the grand old age of 29! Giving her mysteries to solve is about letting her spread her wings, and make use of her psychology degree – like me, Flora is fascinated by people and motivations.
Jane: As an author, why choose to write a series of novels?
Joanne: There’s only so much you can do with a character in one novel, unless you are going to span the narrative over their life from birth to death (like the wonderful Stone Diaries by Carol Shields); in a series you have the chance to extend a character’s journey of development on and on. The Flora Lively we meet in book five will be a very different person than the Flora in Murder at the Maples – which is exactly as it should be. People grow and change, experiences affect them. Something I personally can’t stand about series is when characters remain static.
Jane: You also write commercial women’s fiction. Have you ever been pressured into pigeon-holing your work, or to write something aimed at a specific market?
Joanne: Well, I’m lucky to be indie, I guess, as no one pressures me into anything. That said, I’m studying for a Masters in creative writing at the moment, and I do feel a certain amount of pressure to produce something more ‘literary’ for my MA project. Which is great, because I want to challenge myself – that’s the whole point. I recently said to a friend (who asked why I keep writing different kinds of books and haven’t just stuck to rom coms) that I don’t know what kind of writer I am yet. In ten years maybe I’ll know, but right now I’m just writing and learning and enjoying the whole thing immensely.
Jane: Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel?
Joanne: To me, a great novel needs three things: a strong and engaging narrative voice, a question or theme that feels bigger than the novel itself, and a real emotional pull. I’ve read romantic comedies that have all three, and I’ve read works of literary fiction that are considered great where all three were painfully absent. Readers are subjective – my great novel will be different to yours.
Jane: And life would be so boring if it wasn’t. Is there a theme that you find yourself returning to again and again in your writing or do you use each project as an opportunity to explore different themes?
Joanne: I often return to relationships, love and loss, how we live our lives. And lies – especially the lies we tell ourselves. My latest project is about fear – how we cope individually and as a society with crippling fear. I like to take a ‘big’ theme and use humour to lighten the load on the reader – and the load on the author!
Jane: That’s very interesting, because although the subject matter of our books might be very different, it is relationships – humanity, if you like – that will always be central to mine. You’ve also touched on the subject of fear, which is a subject Linda Gillard spoke about last week in our interview, and I know you’re a great fan of her work.
If I can take you back a little, could you please share with us how you came to be a writer.
Joanne: I stammered as a child and I’m sure this influenced my desire to be a writer. I’d have conversations in my head – dialogue comes easy to me – and would avoid talking if at all possible, retreating into books and making up stories. One of my early speech therapists noticed that I substituted difficult words (difficult for me to say, that is) and commented that it had given me a large vocabulary for my age. But mostly I just loved to lose myself in a novel, and I wanted to be able to ‘speak’ to other people in this way.
Jane: Yesterday at the conference I attended, Alison Baverstock suggested that one of the main reasons writing is so satisfying is that it enables you to ‘talk without being interrupted.’ This got a huge laugh, but it was clear that wasn’t Alison’s intention. Coming from a large family, that idea really resonated with me and I imagine it would with you, albeit for different reasons.
Joanne, I know that your home is rural Shropshire and that, in addition to dark chocolate (Green and Blacks, please), we share a love of walking. Can I ask how your environment influences your writing?
Joanne: I need silence to think, which is lucky as it’s really quiet where I live! I’m naturally a bit of a hermit and have to force myself outside – hence the walking. We’re doing our bit for the environment and are down to one car only, so there are times when I can go for almost a week without even leaving Whixall. I feel like Jim Carey’s character in The Truman Show. The upside of this is that it forces me into my own head, mining my emotions and reactions for material. My fiction isn’t so much about experiencing exotic events or locations – it’s more about examining inner lives.
Jane: Can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
Joanne: Oh yes! Does any writer forget that moment? My book was first on the shelves of Bookshrop in Whitchurch and I’ll always remember that amazing buzz of seeing a dream I’d nurtured for years finally come true. It never fades, either – I always get a buzz seeing one of my books on the shelf of a bookshop or library.
Jane: Have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know!) reading your book in any unusual locations?
Joanne: No, but I was in a local bistro a few months ago, where the owner had kindly offered to put out bookmarks for my novel, The Family Trap. On the table next to mine a woman picked up a bookmark and said: ‘Oh, this is Joanne Phillips, she …’ and then the rest of her sentence was drowned out by talking behind me. I never found out what she said, but she clearly had no idea I was sitting a few feet away. That was pretty surreal.
Jane: How much marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Joanne: As a self-published author I do everything myself. All the marketing, all the promotions, everything. For book one it was fairly straight forward – you push the book – but once I’d released another book, suddenly it was all about me. That was an interesting move, but now my blog/website is much more focused on readers who may be interested in finding out more about me or my writing, and my promotional activities take into account my primary goal which is simply to reach out to readers.
Jane: I know that your books are available as eBooks? What was your experience of publishing in that format? And do you prefer eBooks or ‘tree books’?
Joanne: I love my Kindle, but I also love paperbacks. Often I’ll read a book on my Kindle and then buy the paperback so I can ‘keep’ it. But only for the books I really love. (I’ve done this will all Linda Gillard’s books.) I think there is a place for both formats, along with audio and large print, and whatever new formats appear in the coming years. My experience of publishing in eBook format was illuminating! EBook formatting is difficult to get perfect – and nothing short of perfect was good enough for me – so I had to buy specialist software and learn how to use it. Because of discoverability, most of my book sales come from downloads, so I’m bound to be a big fan of the eBook format.
Jane: I think I may have to speak to you about eBook formatting. I do find it a trial!
Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?
Joanne: What a lovely question! My two contemporary romances have dedications, one to my husband – who supported me without question through every stage of writing and publishing – and the other to my daughter. The Family Trap is partly about the challenges of parenting, and I liked the thought of her reading it when she’s older and knowing that I wrote it when she was only four years old, and that I was thinking of her the whole time.
Jane: I’m sure she’ll treasure that. We were reminded at yesterday’s conference that eBooks have no shelf lives so I suppose that must mean the dedications go on and on as well.
Who designs your book covers – if you did it/them yourself how did you choose what to go with?
Joanne: I’m lucky that my best friend is a graphic designer who had turned his hand to book covers just around the time I published Can’t Live Without. I tend to source some images and then we take it from there, it’s very collaborative. But Chris Howard adds that extra polish and the skills that an amateur like me simply doesn’t have.
Jane: Book covers are such a vital part of the package readers buy into, so it’s vital to work with someone who shares your vision. I too have the great fortune to have a graphic designer friend called Andrew Candy who does the artwork for my covers, so I understand the value of that.
Do you have a method for creating your characters’ names and what do you think makes them believable?
Joanne: I don’t have a method, but I wish I did! I’ve used baby name books, looked at names in indexes, watched the credits of TV programmes for ideas – but in the end it’s just a matter of trying out ideas and waiting until one resonates so strongly it has to be ‘the one’. I can’t get into a character until I have the name, though, so this work tends to be done early on in the process.
Jane: Who is the first reader you share your finished work with?
Joanne: I have beta readers, who volunteer to read the book at the third or fourth draft stage. My husband also reads my work at this stage – usually I’m working to a tight timescale so it helps to have all the feedback in one go, and I do my own final read-through ready for final edits at the same time!
Jane: Speaking of early drafts, do you write your first draft on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Joanne: Always a computer, but I do make a lot of notes on paper. I love my notebooks, and always have a few on the go at any one time.
Jane: And what point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Joanne: I’ve written in both and I don’t really have a preference – I think the character and the style/tone of book will dictate it if you focus on the story and the best way for it to be told.
Jane: I think that one of the reasons books take so long to develop is because there is always an element of waiting to understand how the book wants to be written.
Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Joanne: Oh, yes! Many. There is a novel written to 70,000 words called ‘Denial’ that will never see the light of day because it’s just not very good, and many others that I’ve started and not finished, either because I could see they weren’t working or because I just ran out of steam. There are a couple that will live on in the future, though, once I’ve worked through a few problems and found a way to make them sing. I never permanently delete anything – not even the rubbish.
Jane: That’s the great thing about writing. There is no wasted time: it’s all part of the learning process.
Readers can find out more about Joanne and her work at:
Jane: Thank you so much for taking part in this interview. I’m very grateful that you took time out from your writing to answer these questions and wish you all the best with your future projects. I have one final question that I have been asked in the past. If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
Joanne: Even though there are loads of things I regret – personally and with my writing – I’d have to say no. The lives we live make us the people we are, and at 43 I’m comfortable being me – mistakes are all part of the picture.
Readers: if you enjoyed this interview, you might like to scroll down to my interview with Linda Gillard.
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