Susan Higginbotham is the most successful iUniverse author reviewed on this site so far. The Traitor’s Wife has already sold a ton of copies and been re-released by iU with a new cover and a discounted price at Amazon. Hugh and Bess has just been released by Lulu. Susan lives with her husband, four cats and a dog. She has also released Edward II: His Friends, His Enemies, and His Death (Lulu / September 2005 / 131 pages). This interview will focus a little more than usual on the sales success of iUniverse books. You know you have arrived when you and your book are mentioned in Wikipedia!
Tabitha: Let’s get the serious stuff out of the way first. Who exactly is this Boswell Baxter that appears in your e-mail address?
Susan: Boswell is my cairn terrier and my chief writing buddy. I got him when I started my at-home day job for a legal publishing company, and he usually sits near my computer while I’m working. Baxter was my (now deceased) black and white cat.
Tabitha: What inspired you to write The Traitor’s Wife?
Susan: A few years ago, I came across an online version of Marlowe’s Edward II. I’d read it before in graduate school, but on this re-reading, I became fascinated by the historical background to the story, especially by Edward II’s relationship with Hugh le Despenser, who in the Marlowe play is little more than a stand-in for Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s first male favorite. Along the way, I learned that Despenser had a wife, Eleanor de Clare, and when I learned the details of her life—or at least, the few that are known to history—I knew I wanted to tell her story.
Tabitha: Are there particular, actual persons who inspired your lead characters?
Susan: All of the major characters, and all but a handful of the minor ones, are based on historical figures, although in many cases we know nothing about their private lives. We don’t know, for instance, how Eleanor felt about her brother-in-law, the notorious Piers Gaveston, or what sort of relationship she had with her many children.
Tabitha: The characters in The Traitor’s Wife seem to come to life as I hold the book in my hands, reading their conversations. Have you envisioned what a movie version would look like?
Susan: Well, I would hate to be the one who tried to condense it into three hours! But I’d love to see it on the big screen, or even as a mini-series.
Tabitha: Do you have certain actors in mind that you would like to see cast in the lead parts of the movie?
Susan: I confess that I got a vision of Keeley Hawes as Eleanor into my head early on, and I could live with Ioan Gruffudd as Hugh le Despenser the younger. But since I don’t get out to the movies much or watch much television, I don’t know enough big blond male actors to have a good Edward II in mind. Scarlett Johansson might make a nice Isabella.
Tabitha: We have always been advised as authors to show, not tell, the characters and storyline to the reader, and you have apparently taken this concept to heart. Did you simply begin composing in this manner, or was it a concerted, learned effort?
Susan: Probably a learned one. I have three novels—not historical ones—in cardboard boxes, and that’s where they deserve to stay, except perhaps the first one. It was a young adult novel about censorship of a high school newspaper, and an editor took the trouble to write a detailed rejection letter suggesting revisions. By the time I revised it, however, the editor had changed houses and edgier YA fiction, with more emphasis on sex and lifestyle issues than on social issues, had come into fashion. I’ve been tempted to redo it, with some updating of course, but now I can’t find the damn thing.
Tabitha: The Traitor’s Wife has received the Editor’s Choice and Reader’s Choice awards from iUniverse. Do you feel as if any of these has aided your book’s success?
Susan: I was awarded Editor's Choice before the book came out, back in July 2005. I think it became a Reader's Choice about a year after, and it was reissued as a Star Book in May 2007. The July 2005 version ("old brown" as I call it) pops up used on Amazon from time to time and can be found in a few libraries, but I don't think it can be bought as a new POD anymore.
Tabitha: The Traitor’s Wife won a silver medal in the historical fiction category in the 2005 Book of the Year Awards sponsored by ForeWord Magazine. Do you think this award has helped your book sales, and how do you feel in general about awards for POD books?
Susan: I think it definitely has helped sales—it gives a stamp of third-party approval that self-published books usually lack. It helped that with this award, I was up against not only other self-published books, but small press books and university press books, so it gave the award credibility. I think that an award from a reputable party, such as ForeWord or the Independent Publisher Awards, can help a self-published book a great deal. Some awards, though, seem to exist just to milk writers for money. I doubt they help much.
Tabitha: Did you attend writer’s classes or workshops before releasing the book? Did you hire a professional editor or proofreader?
Susan: Outside of a semester of creative writing in high school, I’ve never taken a writing class, except for a college creative writing class that I dropped out of after the second or third meeting. I did work on my college newspaper, though, and take some journalism classes, and I think that’s some of the best training a writer can get. It teaches you to organize your thoughts and to cut to the chase, and since you’re focused on giving your readers information instead of showing off, it tends to cut down on the self-indulgent prose that creative writing classes sometimes foster.
I didn’t have an editor or a proofreader for the 2005 edition of The Traitor’s Wife. For the 2007 edition, iUniverse provided a proofreader, but to be honest, there were mistakes that I picked up that the proofreader missed, and changes the proofreader tried to make that made no sense. I have worked as a freelance proofreader and copy editor, so I’m fairly good at picking up errors on my own. But proofreading one’s own work is notoriously hard to do, so there were a few things that slipped by me.
Tabitha: Who designed the two covers for The Traitor’s Wife? How much of the cover designs were your own ideas? Did iUniverse create them strictly from your ideas, or did you supply the artwork or other elements? Are you satisfied with the covers?
Susan: iUniverse designed both covers from stock photos. I asked for a castle for the first cover (actually, the cover shows a ruined monastery, but I didn’t know that at the time). For the second cover, I asked for a “headless woman”—one of those pictures showing a woman whose face is obscured, which are very popular on historical fiction these days. But headless women don’t come cheap, I suppose, so I got another castle.
Tabitha: Which cover do you like better and why? Would you like to shed some light on the details of your experience with iU concerning the two separate cover designs?
Susan: I prefer the second one; it’s prettier, though someone on Amazon who didn’t like the book said that the first cover was a better representation because it was dark and gloomy, like the book. (You gotta love Amazon customer reviews.) The only problem I had was with the first cover—the original design had a castle, but when you looked closely you could see modern communications equipment on a turret and a man in blue jeans sitting on a window ledge. Needless to say, I rejected that one!
Tabitha: Did you consider other publishers before you selected iUniverse?
Susan: I thought of Lulu, which is right down the road from me in North Carolina. But it was a bit too do-it-yourself for me at the time, so I went for iUniverse after reading about it in The New York Times.
Tabitha: How satisfying has your experience with iUniverse been?
Susan: I’ve been pleased. I knew from the outset that I was going to have to do my own promotion and marketing, and iUniverse is upfront about telling new authors that. I think it’s a well-run outfit.
Tabitha: What is the most significant thing you have learned as a POD author? Do you have any advice to offer to new or prospective POD authors?
Susan: Probably the most significant thing I’ve learned is that marketing is an ongoing process—you have to keep at it. My advice would be to get a strong web presence and to maintain it. Once in a while I’ll be Googling and I’ll see a self-published title I’m interested in because of the subject matter, and I’ll look for an author website or an excerpt and find absolutely nothing. It’s almost as if the author doesn’t want anyone to read the book—which makes me wonder why he spent the money to have it published in the first place.
Tabitha: Have you expended much effort seeking out an agent, and have you had much success in that regard?
Susan: I haven’t really tried. For my novel in progress, I’m inclined to try to find one once it’s finished, because it’s set during the Wars of the Roses, which is a fairly popular period with readers of historical novels.
Tabitha: I am quite surprised to see that you have released your second novel, Hugh and Bess: A Love Story, with Lulu. Can you tell us your reasons for switching to Lulu for your second book?
Susan: In a word, money. With a kid’s tuition to pay and other obligations, I just couldn’t justify the expense of paying $800 or so to publish with iUniverse when I could publish with Lulu for $50. And Hugh and Bess is a much less typographically complicated book than The Traitor’s Wife—it’s short, without all of the front matter that was in The Traitor’s Wife, so it was easy to do my own formatting.
Tabitha: Pretend you are in school and compare and contrast for us your experiences with Lulu and iUniverse.
Susan: Lulu is a much more do-it-yourself process. I do regret not having the cover design service that iUniverse provides—I went for one of Lulu’s prefab covers, though I managed to find one that suited my book and that hadn’t been overused. Even in traditional publishing, though, you find the same images popping up again and again on book covers, especially in historical fiction. Lulu seems to be a little clunky on the distribution process. I’m still waiting to have my book approved for global distribution, which is frustrating.
Tabitha: What is your opinion of Amazon’s new CreateSpace?
Susan: I considered going with them, but the publishing process didn’t strike me as being very user-friendly—as I recall, you had to download your own cover, which meant of course that a cover designer would have to be used unless you had the technical skills and the software to do it yourself. I think it’s something that could take off if they made it easier. Speaking of Amazon, I’ve used their new Kindle platform for Hugh and Bess—again, it was such a short book, it was quite easy to download. I’d like to get The Traitor’s Wife on Kindle too—I’m waiting to hear back from iUniverse about the mechanics.
Tabitha: What percentage of your sales has been through Amazon? Does this issue indicate any predictions as to the future role of CreateSpace?
Susan: Probably 95 percent of my sales are through Amazon. I think CreateSpace has great potential, if Amazon can just make it more hospitable for the technologically less adept.
Tabitha: Which other online retailers have sold significant quantities of your books?
Susan: Barnes and Noble is really the only other one.
Tabitha: Have you ordered quantities of your books and sold them through direct means? How well has this worked for you? What outlets have provided you with the most sales success?
Susan: I’ve sold a few on consignment, but most of my efforts are focused on online sales.
Tabitha: How successful have you been at getting The Traitor’s Wife onto bookstore shelves? Which stores have been the most cooperative? Which ones have sold the most for you?
Susan: The most cooperative bookstore was a small bookstore in a small town that’s now defunct (the store, that is, not the town). The stores around here just aren’t prone to risk-taking, it seems. I may be selling it in one store that carries Renaissance-themed items; it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out.
Tabitha: Tell us about that magical, mystical relationship between Barnes & Noble and iUniverse? Have the two companies come through as promised for a successful iU book like The Traitor’s Wife? Is the book on many B&N shelves? How well has it sold in the face of the walking, browsing public?
Susan: Sadly, I don’t think it’s on any Barnes and Noble bookshelves. It does sell on the B&N website, but not as well as it does on Amazon.
Tabitha: I understand you have also recently published a twenty-page short story entitled The Justiciar’s Wife for sale at Amazon. Do you think this has helped your sales of The Traitor’s Wife?
Susan: I think it’s probably been the other way around, actually. There’s still a lot of resistance to buying e-publications, at least as far as historical fiction seems to be concerned. I might try some more Amazon Shorts in the future, though—probably nonfiction. It’s a good way to keep a presence up there.
Tabitha: You have links to short stories and other novel projects on your website, as well as a couple of blogs. Pardon the pun, but you seem to have a novel approach to the marketing of your work. Would you like to elaborate on this concept for us?
Susan: Since most of my sales have come from the web, I’ve tried to maintain sites that draw in readers through search terms—I have a PDF file about Edward II, for instance, that leads a lot of people to my website. The blog is also a great way of connecting with readers—it’s brought people to my book who wouldn’t search for “Edward II,” for instance, but who read historical fiction and who are interested in learning about an era that’s less familiar to them.
Tabitha: What would you say has been your most successful marketing technique?
Susan: Probably the website. I think that having it on Search Inside the Book on Amazon helps a lot too—it gives people a chance to look through the book instead of buying it sight unseen, which most readers, including myself, are reluctant to do unless the book’s really cheap.
Tabitha: What has been your biggest and/or most disappointing failure in the marketing of your books?
Susan: Probably getting them into bookstores. I was never really expecting to make many sales on that front, but I did hope for more success in getting them in at least on a consignment basis.
Tabitha: Here comes the sneaky, pointed question of this interview. You are probably unaware that I barely accepted The Traitor’s Wife for review last year because the subtitle and subject matter skirts the delicate area I refer to as cheating. The reason I think this is true is related to what I affectionately call The Diana Syndrome. There are millions of Americans, mostly women, who seem to be clearly obsessed with The British Royal Family, particularly when any sort of scandal is involved, and the story of Edward II was nothing if not scandalous. How much of your success do you think can be attributed to this phenomenon?
Susan: Quite a bit of it, I suppose, because most of my marketing has been directed at people who are disposed to read historical fiction to begin with, and American readers definitely prefer European-set historical fiction to that set in their own backyard. On the other hand, there’s an element out there, particularly among academics and pseudo-academics, who regard historical fiction in a very negative light. They assume it’s all shoddily researched fluff about pretty people in pretty costumes having lots of sex, and they’re not about to pick up a novel and risk having their belief contradicted. So it really works both ways.
Tabitha: I feel proud to have reviewed such a deservedly successful iU book early in its justly honored history. Did you have any idea you would become such a notable success when you first sent in your manuscript?
Susan: Why, thank you! I went in with no clear-cut expectations, really. I thought it was a good book and I knew that it was well researched, and I just hoped for the best.
Tabitha: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What genres do you like to read?
Susan: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Anne Tyler, and P.D. James are my favorite writers, with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend being tied for my favorites. These days, I read a lot of historical fiction and straight history and biography. Other than Anne Tyler and P.D. James, I really don’t read much fiction set in contemporary times. I’m just not the least bit interested in reading about alienated people in the suburbs, women in New York City trying to find the perfect man or the perfect apartment or the perfect purse, women trying to juggle work and family, or men having midlife crises.
Tabitha: What have you been reading lately?
Susan: Mostly Wars of the Roses nonfiction, for my novel in progress.
Tabitha: What sort of educational experience do you have, and is it relevant to your writing or the subject matter you have chosen?
Susan: I have a B.A. in political science, a major I chose in a moment of temporary insanity and which has been of no use to me whatsoever. I have an M.A. in English Literature, which has helped a great deal in my writing because the coursework focuses on reading critically. And I have a law degree, which also helps in writing because you’re trained to look at all sides of an issue and to put forth cogent arguments. And the real property course first-year law students have to take was a great help to me, since things like life estates and entails that are the bane of a law student’s existence were of vast importance in medieval England.
Tabitha: What about your work career? Has your choice of profession influenced your writing?
Susan: I’ve worked as a secretary, an editor, and a lawyer, and I’m currently working as an editor for a legal publisher. They all helped—probably the secretarial work as much as anything for the computer skills! In my job at a legal publishing company, I have to abide by a strict character count when writing, which means that I’ve gotten into the habit of writing quite concisely and that I have to cut and revise my own work. That’s helpful when I’m revising my fiction.
Tabitha: Do you have any further books in the pipeline?
Susan: Not near publication stage.
Tabitha: What’s next for Susan Higginbotham, the writer?
Susan: I’m in the early stages of a novel set during the Wars of the Roses, featuring Katherine Woodville, sister to Edward IV’s queen and wife to the Duke of Buckingham, who helped bring Richard III to the throne and then, for reasons that are still unclear, rebelled against him. It should be a fun novel to write, since I get to put forth my own opinion about who killed the Princes in the Tower.
Tabitha: Do you have any final words of advice for aspiring authors?
Susan: Write constantly—if you’re a blocked novelist, try a blog or some nonfiction just to keep your writing active. Read widely in the area in which you want to be published, so you’ll get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Above all, do what works for you. Some writers swear by critique groups, for instance; others find them a distraction or a source of back-biting. If someone tells you that you have to be in one to be successful, or that you shouldn’t be in one, run the other way. There’s no one right way to go about writing.
Tabitha: Do you have any final remarks to address to our audience?
Susan: Just thank you for reading this!
Visit Susan Higginbotham's website.