Every author slaving away on their first novel needs to know the story of Victorine Lieske. She wrote the rough draft of “Not What She Seems” in a week back in 2006 when she was letting her back heal. She took four years to refine it before publishing in April 2010. Sales of the romantic suspense novel were solid but not great for the first six months — 1,300 copies. What happened next? You’ll have to read my interview with her.
ALEX: Everyone likes to talk about your blockbuster sales, but let’s discuss the writing first. “Not What She Seems” opens in a town in Nebraska, the state where you live. I’m guessing there’s a real-life seed that led to this story.
VICTORINE: I’ve always loved small towns. I grew up in a small town and my husband and I moved back to a small town when our kids were small. We just love the feeling and closeness that a small town has. I think that’s where the story started with me. I was wondering what it would be like to have a rich businessman hiding out in a small town, and meeting a woman who has secrets of her own.
ALEX: It took four years for “Not What She Seems” to get to the point where you were ready to publish. Were there times when you were you were tempted to publish it earlier? And how did you know when it was finally ready?
VICTORINE: I was not tempted to publish it early, mostly because I had no idea there was a thing called Kindle Direct Publishing. But even if I did, I really wanted to be sure my book was polished, so I might not have been eager to release it before I felt it was as good as I could make it. How did I know it was ready? That’s a tricky one. I was submitting chapters to a critique group, and when other authors started telling me that my story was the first one they opened, that they couldn’t wait a week until the next installment was up, that’s when I knew I had something special. But I did everything I could to get as many eyes on it as possible. I got a lot of great suggestions from other writers and I knew their help was invaluable.
ALEX: What do you think was the toughest thing to learn when it came to writing?
VICTORINE: I didn’t know a thing about storytelling when I started, so I had a hard time catching the meaning of showing vs. telling, and passive voice. Those two concepts were tough to grasp, but it helped a lot to critique a ton of other writers. You can see things in other writing more than your own, and that’s where I learned.
ALEX: I’m guessing that writing uses different brain muscles than designing rubber stamps, which is the business you run out of your home.
VICTORINE: I think I use my creativity for both things, but drawing and writing are different. When I’m designing rubber stamps, I’m trying to figure out what my customers might like to use on their cards. When I’m writing, I mostly write for myself.
ALEX: So April 2010 arrives and you publish. This novel you’ve been revising for four years is finally out there … and you sell seven copies. Authors like to say they’re delighted by even one sale, but that’s got to be frustrating.
VICTORINE: When I uploaded the book, I wasn’t sure what to do next, so when I clicked to check on my sales and it said I had sold one, I was shocked and elated! Someone out there bought my book! And then a day went by, and another. When you check and no one has bought it, that’s when the high goes away and you start to feel depressed. But I figured out that I needed to get the word out so I joined a forum and started chatting with people. Each sale was a joy and a celebration! Each stretch of time without a sale was hard. That’s the life of an indie author. You have a lot of ups and downs. So the seven sales were great, it was just the stretch of time in between sales that got depressing. 🙂
ALEX: Sales took off last October — you sold more books than month (1,401) than the first six months combined. November was another big jump (2,670) and then things go crazy — 11,162 copies in December, 21,484 in January, 28,745 in February. New York Times bestseller list. 100,000+ copies sold. How often did you pinch yourself? That’s got to be a surreal experience.
VICTORINE: It definitely was surreal. I would wake up to 100 sales overnight. I was shocked that my book was reaching that many people. I’m so thankful readers out there took a chance on me.
ALEX: Did you make any adjustments to your marketing last fall or did the earlier efforts become some sort of critical mass that caused sales to explode exponentially?
VICTORINE: I was basically doing everything I could think of marketing wise to get the word out. I think as I made others aware of my book, I got some sales. And Amazon picked up on that and started recommending my book to people who bought similar books. That’s when sales exploded. There was nothing I could do to hand sell 1,000 books a day.
ALEX: Social media is the big thing the gurus preach to authors, yet you’ve had all of this success with 875+ followers on Twitter and 400 friends on Facebook. Is it more about how the author conducts himself or herself online rather than having the big numbers?
VICTORINE: It’s both. I know when an author says something inflammatory on an online forum, it makes me think twice about buying their book. I try to do unto others as I would have them do to me. And being professional in all things is important. As you do these things, the big numbers will come.
ALEX: Time after time, I see new authors seeking out marketing tips … like there’s a magic formula to it. It’s really about three things: (1) A great cover, (2) a great plot and (3) good storytelling. You don’t have to write like Ernest Hemingway if you have those three things.
VICTORINE: That’s totally true. If your cover isn’t eye-catching, you lose people right away. If they look past your crappy cover, and your blurb is a jumbled mess, you lose even more potential readers. And lastly, if they buy it anyway and the storytelling doesn’t grab them, you can bet they won’t be buying another book by you again.
ALEX: Do you think any of this could have happened without Kindle Direct Publishing? I’m not saying that it’s impossible for a first-time author from Seward, Neb., to land a deal with a big New York city publishing house … but the odds aren’t much better than buying the winning Powerball ticket.
VICTORINE: Well, I haven’t landed a deal with a N.Y. publishing house yet, but I do have a wonderful agent who I feel is totally on my side. And I did end up turning down an ebook offer from a large N.Y. publishing house because the royalties I can make on my own are better. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen an offer from anyone had I not first published on the Kindle.
ALEX: The publishers are going to have to change their way of thinking if they’re going to sign authors who have self-published and generated their own success. They’re going to have to offer guaranteed advances on future works, promise a large marketing budget for the novel, or bring a film adaptation deal to the table. Otherwise, what’s the upside for the author?
VICTORINE: Publishers are in this business to make money, and I totally understand that. Print sales are down. It’s a scary time to be offering large advances to authors for huge print runs with sales diminishing and bookstores in trouble. In my opinion, the best thing publishers can do is offer better royalties for ebook sales and online marketing to ereader owners.
ALEX: After the success of “Not What She Seems,” a lot of authors would have jumped right back into the same genre. Yet you surprised people with “The Overtaking,” a sci-fi romance novel.
VICTORINE: I didn’t expect “Not What She Seems” to sell so many copies, otherwise I might have finished a different novel that I’ve started about a girl in the witness protection program. But “The Overtaking” was something I’ve been working on, so I decided to finish it and didn’t think about it being a different genre until “Not What She Seems” took off.
ALEX: Do you mind sharing what genre you’re writing right now? Or are you keeping it a secret?
VICTORINE: Right now I’m working on the second book in “The Overtaking” series. The working title is “The Under Trodden,” but that’s subject to change as I write. It starts out with Trenton taking Danielle into the Holodome by force and placing her into a psychiatric facility. She can’t tell the truth, they’d think she was crazy. And her lies aren’t exactly working for her either.
ALEX: In addition to the home-based business you and your husband have four kids. How do you juggle everything? Is your writing muse cooperative or stubborn?
VICTORINE: My house does get kind of crazy sometimes. The house resembles Grand Central Station, especially in the summer when all the neighbor kids are over. I try to get away for a couple of hours each day to write. We live in a small town so often we travel to the bigger city for things. I like to write in the car while my husband drives.
ALEX: Independence Day is a big, big deal in Seward. I read that 40,000 people came for the bicentennial — and Seward is a town of 6,000 people! What are your family’s plans for the holiday?
VICTORINE: You’re right, we celebrate Independence Day with a passion here. We have family that has come from Minnesota to spend the holiday with us, so we plan on taking part in a lot of the fun. There’s an air show at our little airport, a carnival downtown for the kids, vendor booths, and a parade in the afternoon. We’ll grill out for dinner, set off some family fireworks, and then go watch the big show at the park. The kids have a blast on the Fourth of July.
MORE ON VICTORINE LIESKE
Her website is http://victorinewrites.blogspot.com
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