From the Pro’s: USA Today Best Selling Author Samanthe Beck

Brain to Books: I have had the privilege of interviewing the USA Today bestselling author, Ms. Samanthe Beck.  Her latest book, Light Her Fire, is now available from Entangled Publishing’s Brazen imprint where it is ranked as one of their bestsellers this week.  First, Ms. Beck, I want to say thank you so much for speaking with us.
Samanthe Beck: No problem. I’m thrilled to be here!
B2B: To help the aspiring authors new to publishing terminology, could you provide us with your definition of an indie author vs. a traditionally published author?
SB: The lines are really blurry these days, what with self-published authors, digital only publishers, digital first publishers, hybrid authors, etc., but if we’re breaking the various permutations down into two categories, I’ll assume an indie writer means an independent, (a/k/a self-pubbed) writer. By that definition, I think I’m what you’d call traditionally published, in that I submit a manuscript to Entangled, (or, nowadays, a synopsis), and if they wish to move forward, I sign a contract with them wherein they get certain exclusive rights to my manuscript, (including the exclusive right to publish it), for a period of time in exchange for paying me an advance and a royalty per book sold once they’ve recouped the advance. They, via their arrangement with Macmillan, control the publication date and distribution channels.  The distribution channels, thus far, have been online, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes and KOBO. A couple of my books are available in print form via Amazon & Barnes and Noble, but you can’t walk into a brick-and-mortar book retailer and find them on the shelf. However, Entangled/Macmillan does also distribute books in traditional print formats through those retailers.
B2B: After signing on with Entangled, how long did it take to get your book from manuscript to readers?

SB: Well, funny, but the first book I contracted with them for still hasn’t come out!  I signed 3 separate contracts with Entangled in July and Aug. of 2012 for 3 separate books, (I think they were sold under separate contracts because none of the books were related as a series. They were all submitted and sold as stand-alones). My debut, “Private Practice,” published in February of 2013, so I guess that’s 6 or 7 months from signing to publication. The next one in that batch, “Lover Undercover,” came out in April of 2013. Both did well, and then I got wrapped up writing sequels to those books, and the first manuscript has been on the back burner for me and Entangled ever since. I am enthusiastic about that story and I WILL get the edits done someday. But I think there’s a lesson in here for new authors…something about writing & selling books as a series rather than as stand-alones. :}

My debut novel, “Private Practice,” is a testament to the power of the Brazen line. As a first-time author I had next to no fan base, (my mom, my best friends, the ladies in my RWA chapter…hello LARA!), but thanks to a f*ckhot cover and Brazen’s promotional efforts, the book peaked in the top 10 on Barnes and Noble and cracked the top 200 on Amazon. No “Fifty Shades of Grey” I’ll grant you, but not bad for a category romance debut.

B2B: Rumors haunt the writer’s world as to what it is an author actually does between the book contract and book release.  What exactly does an author do after a publisher takes on their book?  What responsibilities, if any, do they face?

 SB: Good question.  For me, that magical time between signing my first publishing contract and my first release date was filled with: 1) a flurry of celebrations with family and friends who supported my writing journey, followed by; 2) a whole lot of waiting, and then; 3) several rounds of edits I scrambled to turn around as fast as humanly possible. I also worked on new stories in the interim, but other than keeping on with the writing, I kind of squandered the time.

What should I have been doing, aside from writing? I should have polished my website and made sure the look, feel and features appealed to fans of my genre, (as opposed to just me). I really didn’t have a clue, but looking at the websites of some of my favorite authors of sexy contemporary romance would have been a simple way to start. I should have investigated blogs established to review, discuss and promote the type of books I write, and subscribed to the ones I found most useful and informative, which in my case meant the ones posting the hottest pictures of shirtless men. 😉 Bonus points for actually interacting on those blogs. I should have established my author profiles on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads and made sure those profiles appeared consistent and had a vibe that suited my genre.

Of course, you may look at my website, my Facebook presence, my Twitter profile, Goodreads profile, Google+ account, Amazon author page, etc., and think, “Sam, you still haven’t done all those things you mentioned!” To which I would guiltily look away, toe the ground and mumble, “I know. But that’s what I should have done.”

B2B: laughing You mentioned your fan base a moment ago.  Most of us have the support of our mothers and best friends.  Should a writer with a finished manuscript, fret about having no fan base while submitting to publishers or agents?  Does a lack of promised consumers hurt your chances of selling your novel?  Furthermore, how does an author go from having no fans to having a following?  Who is responsible for building that platform? (a lot of questions, I know.)

SB: I would have to say, no.  When I was an unpublished author shopping manuscripts, I didn’t get the sense anybody expected me to have a fan base. That said, I know my publisher looked at my website before they contracted with me. They may have looked at my FB page too. My guess is if a publisher or agent is interested, they’re going to check out all those links you include in your email signature and/or the signature block of your query letter. If they’re at all on the fence, I suspect a professional looking website is a check mark in the “Let’s sign this author” column, and an active blog with a steady readership is a really big check mark. Ditto a FB page/Twitter profile that demonstrates lots of interaction.

Even if they don’t like what they see, that’s not necessarily fatal. I do think the story rules the day. My publisher hated the website I had at the time I queried them. I blame the fact that I had my headshot on the landing page, though the PR team claims that wasn’t the problem. Rather the overall design was a little too sweet for my genre. (Yeah, I know…it was totally the headshot. They’re just too nice to say so).

Once an author is signed, I would say the publisher and author share responsibility for optimizing discoverability, (if it sounds like I’ve been talking with the marketing peeps, I have). The publisher should do some promo, which may include making the ARC available on NetGalley or a similar service to generate reviews, placing paid ads, setting up a blog tour, hosting a Facebook party or Twitter party, sending out FB/Twitter/email blasts and spotlighting the book in their online newsletter. An author should be prepared to fully support these efforts. Be ready to interact with bloggers, write some kick-ass blog posts, bring her A game to that FB or Twitter party. Prepare fun stuff to talk about. Engage and entertain the audience the same way she strives to engage and entertain a reader—because that audience is made up of potential readers.

Should an author establish her own promo budget? I think it’s a good idea, even if the publisher is setting up all the initial promo. Why? Most blog tours and social media parties include a giveaway. From my experience and from speaking with other authors, I find the giveaway is typically provided by the author. On top of that, there are lots of things an author can do on her own for promo, (Facebook or Google ads, a Goodreads ad or giveaway, a self-sponsored blog tour or release-week blog blitz with a Rafflecopter giveaway, direct ARC outreach, a self-hosted FB party or page takeover, to name a few).

That said, in these days of small or non-existent advances, I don’t think it’s fair to expect a debut author to shoulder significant promotional expenses. Ideally, the author and the publisher have a conversation about the promotion plan a decent amount of time in advance of the release date, so both have a clear understanding of who’s doing what, when, where, and why.

 B2B: To some aspiring authors, becoming a bestselling author seems like it happens the moment the book is released.  How long does it really take to go from debut author to being a USA Today bestseller?

SB: Some writers make a list with their first book, and some very talented and successful writers never make a list. It’s super-hard to predict, because there’s no magic number. 5,000 sales may put you on a list one week, while 7,000 sales won’t make the cut another week. My fourth book, “Falling for the Marine” made the USA Today Bestseller list a couple of months after it was released, in conjunction with being a Kindle Daily Deal…so, you know…thanks Amazon! But, honestly, I don’t know the perfect formula. It probably involves Satan and my soul…if I had one.
B2B: laughing Earlier, you mentioned that your first manuscript has been on the back burner for you and Entangled, which brings me to my next question.  How much say does an author have over which project they work on next?

SB: The nice thing about being an author is you’re your own boss. Yes, the author needs to fulfill her contractual obligations. The ones I’ve entered into spell out a date by which I need to submit the first draft of the manuscript, the amount of time within which I need to turn the various rounds of edits, the copyedits, and galley proof. But if an author has the bandwidth, she can work on multiple projects at once, and, (assuming her contracts permit), they could all be for different publishers.

I’m not at the stage in my writing career, (or my life!) where I have that kind of bandwidth, so, for me, it’s one project at a time. The first manuscript Entangled contracted for was a holiday story, so once it became clear the other two manuscripts they bought around that same time would publish first, the initial one kind of naturally went to the back of the line. Then, when the first two books did well, Entangled suggested extending them into series and I jumped on the chance, so…

I still love the holiday story though. I’m working on it!

B2B: What is the “copy edit” and a “galley proof”?  These terms, I believe, are unique only to this level of publishing.

SB: Copyedits are (typically) minor edits from the gurus who know when to use “who” versus “whom” and whether a sentence needs a semi-colon or a comma. Entangled’s copyeditors are eagle-eyed though. They’ve caught minor story inconsistencies too, (stuff like, “Your heroine was pushing a cart through the grocery story earlier in the scene, but now, here at checkout, she has a basket…wanna fix that?). The galley proof is a .pdf version of the manuscript the publisher sends the author after the manuscript has been formatted. They ask the author to give it one last proofread, mostly to pick out any errors that occurred during formatting, and email any corrections. It’s a bit tedious, but the .pdf is locked-down and they don’t want anybody going in there and making changes directly to the manuscript. Typically, I catch things like line spacing irregularities, a lost italic, or a chapter heading that isn’t bolded and in the correct font. The galley proof stage is also the point where I lose my mind, along all confidence in the manuscript, and try to wedge in a bunch of substantive changes that are well beyond the scope of the galley proof. I send a long, tortured email to my editor, which I assume she deletes, (I have no proof of this, but that’s what I’d do if I were her), and the book releases in the next couple weeks and everything is fine. The sun doesn’t crash into the Earth because I couldn’t make a last minute change to black moment or what have you. B2B: Another rumor that thrives in the writer’s forums is whether or not a manuscript has to be perfect before it is submitted to a publisher.  Of course, you want the manuscript to be as close to perfect as possible, but almost always, we notice a typo or misspelling after we hit “send”…and then we die inside. smiles Once a publisher signs on an author, what kind of edits does the manuscript undergo?  We’ve heard stories of publishers, agents, and editors cutting out entire scenes from a book (do they really?).  How much editing can we look forward to when we sign and how much is too much editing?  Or should we just let the pros handle it?

SB: Definitely submit the manuscript in the best shape possible. The author needs to proof her work and, if possible, bribe a friend, critique partner, family member—someone with “new” eyes—to do a read-through, because it’s impossible to catch one’s own errors. I tell people I have an eye for detail, which means I’m fast to pick up the errors of others, but slooooow to notice my own. 😉 A handful of small typos in a 60,000-word submission probably won’t cause the publisher to put it in the reject pile if they otherwise love the story, so don’t die inside when you notice a typo directly after you hit “send.”Once an author signs with a publisher, she’ll get edits. Entangled typically does a first pass, a second pass, copyedits and the galley proof, but there could be a third pass of edits (or more) if the story evolves substantially at the second pass stage. I guess the thing to remember about edits, (aside from keep a large bottle of bourbon handy), is that the author and editor are on the same side. They both want the story to be strong, entertaining…neither aims to send a book out into the world to underperform in terms of reviews and/or sales. So, anyway, toward the mutual goal of producing a strong, entertaining story, yes, an editor may ask an author to delete scenes, rewrite scenes, remove or add characters. Anything is fair game. In a good author/editor relationship, the author feels empowered to question any edits she doesn’t agree with. Editors are pretty convincing people though, and they have a bigger view of the genre, the market and their imprint than the author typically does. I tend to give a lot of weight to my editor’s suggestions.

B2B You make a small manuscript sound really nice right about now.  I have 140,000 words out there now. So glad I cut it back from 250,000!  phew! I’d like to ask you about agents.  Do you need one?  Do you have one?  What does an agent do for a writer?

SB: So, your information about your word count actually factors into my answer. In general, an author writing a single-title, (a/k/a full length, a/k/a 90,000+ word), manuscript needs an agent, because the publishers who publish those types of stories only accept submissions from agents. For someone like you, Angela, with a 140,000 word manuscript, an agent is a gating item because the target publishers won’t accept your manuscript directly from you, (again, generally speaking…exceptions may exist).

Does an author who only writes category romance, (a/k/a series romance, a/k/a 40,000-60,000 work stories published by an imprint that releases batches of similar-style stories on a regular schedule), need an agent? It’s not mandatory. Publishers like Harlequin, Entangled, Samhain, Crimson Rose and others accept un-agented submissions. So assuming your manuscript otherwise meets their submission guidelines, you can submit without an agent. But should you?

Depends. Seriously, it depends on a number of variables I can’t answer…only the individual author can answer them. For example, how well does she understand publishing contracts? How comfortable is she negotiating a contract? How much time does she have to focus on what might turn into a long and complex negotiation? If the answers are, “Not well,” “Not comfy,” and “No time,” then she should consider having an agent. Are there any other strategic advantages to having an agent if an author is writing category romance? Do publishers who accept un-agented submissions give preference to manuscripts they receive from agents?  Does having an agent allow your manuscript to leapfrog the slush pile? Entangled simply states they accept agented and un-agented submissions at this time. But if an editor has an existing working relationship with an agent, the strength of that relationship could keep a manuscript out of the slush pile. Or, you know, I imagine it could have the opposite effect if the relationship between the agent and the target editor/publisher isn’t such a great one.

Do I have an agent? No. I write only for Entangled right now, and I didn’t need an agent to submit to them. On top of that, sometime back in the early ’90’s, I indulged in a few too many judgment-impairing activities, and decided to go to law school. After graduating, I passed the next thirteen years as an in-house lawyer for several companies, negotiating contracts and royalty-based license agreements. With all that experience under my belt, I am somewhat able to comprehend the publishing contracts I’ve been presented with, and I was comfortable negotiating the handful of changes I wanted. Would I ever seek an agent? Sure. When I write something that doesn’t fit into the category romance box, I’ll need to find an agent willing to represent me and submit my manuscript to single-title publishers.

B2B: “When I write something that doesn’t fit into the category romance box” implies you have a story in mind.  smiles May we pry?

SB: I’d love to do a single-title series. Possibly NA or something straight-out erotic. Time is my issue, so…we’ll see.
B2B: Speaking of contracts, what can a new author expect to see when it comes time to review a publisher’s contract?  Should we consider hiring an attorney or (if we have an agent) will the agent suffice?

SB: I recommend a new author, (or an experienced author reading a contract from a new publisher), talk to a trusted advisor to make sure she understands the terms. This could be an agent, or an attorney. If budget mandates a DIY approach, the good news is, typing “Publishing Contracts” into the search box on the Romance Writers of America website yields 3,074 results. So joining RWA and leveraging the knowledge of others is a cost-conscious option…or at least a place to start.

B2B: And one more for fun, because I’ve always wanted to ask a romance novelist this…do you find yourself blushing when you write the intimate scenes in your novels?

SB: Ha! No, I don’t blush when I write the naughty stuff, but when I see the graphics bloggers, fans and/or my publisher create, which highlight short, sexy passages from the books, I do sometimes think, “OMG!! Did I write that?!”

B2B: That is it for this interview.  Thank you so much, Samanthe, for taking the time to speak to us.  It has been a mass of informative fun!

For more information on Samanthe Beck, visit her Facebook page at Samanthe Beck.  She frequently offers a #FreebieFriday eBook give-away featuring a book or author she loves, and a #TeaserTuesday post of a short, steamy scene from her work in progress, or her most recent release.  You can explore her book list, read blurbs and excerpts, and purchase her novels from her website, www.samanthebeck.com.  You can also follow her on Twitter at @Samanthebeck1

The views and opinions expressed herein are solely the views and expressions of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Brain to Books.  Brain to Books makes no claim as to the truth or accuracy of any claims expressed herein.

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