The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, Sheila Lowe lives in Ventura with Lexie the Very Bad Cat, where she writes the award-winning Forensic Handwriting mystery series. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, Sheila is a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases. Despite sharing living space with a cat—a Very Bad one at that—Sheila’s books are decidedly non-cozy. Visit her at www.sheilalowe.com.
Thanks for letting us interrogate you! Can you give us a go-for-the-gut answer as to why you wanted to be an author?
I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I started with poetry, wrote a novella about the Beatles (it was England, 1963, and I was a Beatlemaniac—Ringo was my hearthrob), then a historical mystery/romance. Went on to study handwriting analysis and wrote technical articles and books on handwriting. Finally, when I was about fifty, I got back to what I really wanted to do—write a mystery. Why did I want to be an author? I don’t think there is an answer. It was just something I always did.
Tell us (we won’t tell promise!) is it all it’s cracked up to be? I mean what are the perks and what are the demands?
Getting published is a heartbreaking business, but if you’re a writer, you have to write. It’s one thing if you write just for fun, as one of my good friends does. He doesn’t care how many books he sells, he just enjoys the whole process. But if you want to be published and succeed, it takes a strong commitment, not only to writing the book, but to getting it published, whether you have a publisher or do it yourself, and then market it. But first, make sure your work is ready for publication, which means working with an independent editor along the way. That’s an investment, not a cheap one, but vital to your success.
Which route did you take – traditional or self-published – and can you give us the nitty gritty low down on what’s that like?
I’ve done both. I started with Capital Crime, a small press, which sent Poison Pen out for review and got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. That brought it to the attention of a senior editor at Penguin, who ended up publishing the first four books. When my wonderful editor left and the one who replaced her did not offer to renew my contract, I self-pubbed a standalone titled What She Saw, about a young woman with amnesia, something that has always fascinated me. Eventually, I got my rights back from Penguin and gave them to Suspense, a smaller house (they publish Suspense Magazine). They re-issued the first four books with great new covers (which gave me a chance to go back and do some editing), plus the next three.
One of the great things about going with a small house or self-pubbing is that you have total, or at least way more control over your cover, title, and content. At Penguin, for each book I would receive the same boilerplate email, “here’s your cover, we hope you love it as much as we do.” And if I didn’t love it the response was, “there’s no time to make changes.”
Unless you are discovered(!), You can probably make more money self-publishing or with a small publisher than a big one. A big house might pay an advance, but if they do, the amount will be no more than they expect to make back on your book, a few thousand bucks. They usually pay 8-10% of the cover price in royalties on a mass market paperback, which means you have to sell a lot of books to earn back the advance. A small house is unlikely to pay an advance, but will offer a far higher percentage. If you self-publish through Amazon’s CreateSpace as I did that one book, you’ll receive around 70%. Amazon keeps 30% for their trouble.
Most of the time, to be published by a big house, you’ll need a good agent, which is almost as hard to find as a publisher. Go to writing conventions where you can meet agents and at least start a relationship. Agents attend those things because they expected to be pitched. Just make sure you have your elevator speech ready. You have about 14 seconds to grab their attention.
Further Very Important Advice: If you are lucky enough to get a deal, make sure you do are not selling your characters. Read the contract carefully and license the characters only for the book or books covered by that contract. That way, if the series takes off and becomes Harry Potter-sized, and you want to change publishing houses or make a movie deal, you will be able to. Otherwise, if you don’t protect yourself, you’ll lose all control over those fictional people you have created and love.
Tell us for real what your family feels about you spending so much time getting your book written, polished, edited, formatted, published, what have you?
My younger son is 39 and live in Germany. The older one is 42. I live with Lexie the Very Bad Cat, and when she complains that I’m not giving her enough attention or it’s time for a meal, I generally stop and listen, but she’s pretty tolerant. The truth is, my tendency to much work and little play has interfered with a couple of relationships. Bottom line, published authors and their families need to understand that there are sacrifices to be made. Not everyone sits at their desk from 9:00 a.m. to Midnight like I do (with bathroom and food breaks), and I really don’t have to. But that’s the way I like it. Which is probably why I’m not currently in a relationship.
This is for plant lovers... Are your plants actually still alive?
They are, because I pay a gardener to keep them alive.
In writing your book, how did you deal with the phone ringing, your family needing dinner or your boss calling you saying you’re late?
With my other career as a forensic handwriting expert, unless I am testifying in court, I’m mostly able to make my own schedule. I’ve been my own boss since 1989, and having worked in the corporate world in another life, it’s a luxury I deeply appreciate.
How about the social networks? Which ones do you believe help and which ones do you wish you could avoid?
I spend a significant amount of time on Facebook, my personal page, where I’m never sure new “friends” come from. I check to see if they’re friending me because they are readers or writers, or in one of my networking groups, or if they are on the same political page. Otherwise, I delete a lot of requests from men in cammo who have no profile and no mutual friends. All of my posts automatically go to my Twitter feed (I’d rather be more selective), but who has time for all the others? I know some authors do a super job with this, but I am not one of them. I do have an author’s FB page, but rarely go there.
Book sales. Don’t you just love them (or lack of?)? How are you making the sales happen for you?
My greatest success in sales has come from BookBub ads. When I advertised my then-self-pubbed book, What She Saw, for free, I had 117,000 downloads, which led to sales of all my backlist titles over the next two months, plus over 400 reviews, mostly 4 and 5 star. I made more in royalties for that $500 investment than my Penguin advances. It’s hard to get accepted by BB, as I’m told they only take 20% of submissions. But you can keep trying. That doesn’t cost anything.
What is one thing you’d like to jump on the rooftop and scream about?
Scream in a good way or a bad way? Having to do sales and marketing. Even the big publishing houses do little-to-no marketing for midlist authors—most of the money goes into promoting the big names. My publicist at Penguin told me she had 200 authors and could devote 10 minutes a month to each one. So, be prepared to put time, effort, and some money into publicizing your work. I’ve retained publicists for several of my books, which means they get to do all the stuff I would rather not spend time on.
Okay, too much sugar for you today! Here’s a nice cup of Chamomile tea and come on over and sit under the cabana and watch the waves roll in. Now…can you tell us what you love about being a published author and how all those things above don’t matter because it’s all part of the whole scheme of things and you wouldn’t have it any other way?
I feel very lucky to have been published by a major publishing house, and to have landed with Suspense, who treat me well. If they had not I probably would be self-publishing, but I’m very grateful not to have to worry about issues like formatting, cover design, and getting ISBNs. With each book, I ask myself if I should write another, and somehow, they keep on coming. I guess I must be a writer 😊.