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Author Marilyn Brant on Traditional vs. Self-Publishing, Critique Groups, and the Eternal Jane Austen

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For this month’s author interview, I’m thrilled to introduce the wonderful Marilyn Brant, whom I first met at a writers convention in New York several years ago. It has been great fun following her career since then. Welcome, Marilyn!

About Marilyn:Marilyn Brant--GR1

Marilyn Brant is the award-winning women’s fiction author of ACCORDING TO JANE, FRIDAY MORNINGS AT NINE and A SUMMER IN EUROPE, all from Kensington Books. She’s also a #1 Kindle bestseller and has written a series of fun and flirty contemporary romantic comedies, available exclusively as original ebooks. She’s worked as a classroom teacher, library staff member, freelance magazine writer and national book reviewer. She now lives with her family in the northern Chicago suburbs, writing her next novel and hanging out with her friends at coffee shops whenever possible. Visit her website: http://www.marilynbrant.com.

AM: You’ve had extensive experience with both traditional and self-publishing. What are some pros and cons of each that authors should consider? Is there an “ideal” path an author should take in the changing world of publishing?

MB: First of all, thank you so much for inviting me here today, Anita! I love your new blog and am thrilled to be one of your guests : ).

As for an ideal path, I really don’t think there is any one “right” way. Publishing has never been a one size fits all kind of profession—and I feel that’s even less the case these days. I do believe, however, that traditional publishing is the preferred option for some authors and/or some book projects, while self-publishing lends itself better to the writing and marketing style of other authors and certain literary genres (i.e., mystery, thriller/suspense, romance and erotica tend to do well in the indie arena). I’ve personally enjoyed getting to be a “hybrid” author, who interacts within both worlds…even if saying that makes me sound a bit like a shapeshifter on some sci-fi show, LOL.

The pros offered by traditional publishing include things like professional editing, an expert cover designer assigned to create the image for your novel, a marketing department working to get your book distributed across the country (or the world), publicists who get your novel out to reviewers in a timely manner, and a team of people who take care of the formatting of your manuscript—uploading it to digital sites or having it printed, stored and shipped to retailers. When you self-publish, you need to wear all of those hats yourself and/or hire specialists to edit, design, format, market, etc. for you. Self-publishing takes a lot of work!Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match - medium

On the other hand, self-publishing offers quite a bit of freedom in exchange for all of the responsibility. The authors themselves have veto power over any cover image they don’t like. With traditional publishing, one can’t always alter design details, even with an agent’s help. The authors choose their own release dates—something else that most writers would have almost no control over in a traditional publishing setting. The authors can change book prices or create a sale whenever they’d like. For example, my romantic comedy, On Any Given Sundae, will be on sale next week as part of a special promotion, and I get to decide when it starts, when it ends, what the price will be, and so on.

The financial outlay to self-publish a novel can vary greatly, depending on how many skills the author can handle on his/her own but, typically, most writers will need to hire a good editor, hire a talented cover artist (unless they have a design background) and either learn the skills for formatting/uploading books or hire someone to do that, too. In some cases, authors might also choose to work with their agents to get formatting and marketing help. However, once these costs are taken into account or payments for specific services are made, the vast majority of the profits belong to the author, and royalty rates are significantly higher when self-publishing on Amazon or B&N, for example, than they are in a traditional publisher’s contract.

Of course, regardless of which path is taken, there’s still a LOT expected from the author as far as advertising the new book. Authors everywhere are encouraged to take an active role on social media sites—doing blog tours, giveaways and promotions or tweeting/FB chatting. Unless an author is a bestseller at his or her publishing house, getting these activities lined up and paying for the ads will still generally fall to the author. So, in that area, both traditional and self-publishing have a great deal in common.

Your latest book is called Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match, which has been an Amazon Top 100 Bestseller in Humor and Single Women’s Fiction and a “Nook Feature” at the B&N General Fiction Book Club—congratulations! You have a long-standing love of Jane Austen. Why do you think there has been such a resurgence in reader interest for Austen’s writing, characters, and themes of late?

MB: I credit Colin Firth and his famous jump into that lake in the 1995 BBC “Pride and Prejudice” film adaptation. (Just kidding…well, not entirely! : )accordingtojane_300x500

Austen’s novels are, in my opinion, universal and timeless. They can be easily adapted across cultures (take the Bollywood “Bride and Prejudice,” for example) or modernized (think “Clueless”) or filmed again in various decades (see Mr. Darcy played by Lawrence Olivier, David Rintoul, Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, and several other actors) and, still, the stories never grow old.

I’m a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), which I joined before I’d even sold my debut, According to Jane—a novel about a woman who has the ghost of Austen in her head, giving her dating advice. That novel and Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match are the only two books (out of the seven) I’ve published that give such an obvious nod to my literary idol, and both have easily been my strongest sellers in the digital market. There is definitely a readership out there that loves Austen as much as I do!

Jane Austen’s brilliant way of seeing characters strongly influenced me as a writer. To my eye, she was a genius at depicting human behavior, and she created several flawed but very lovable protagonists, as well as some of the most memorable villains in literature. These characters have been portrayed by famous movie stars from Jonny Lee Miller to Hugh Grant to Jeremy Northam…and from Emma Thompson to Gwyneth Paltrow to Kate Winslet. And now, with the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” there is even more of an interest in grand British houses, courtship rituals and the social interactions of a tightly knit group.

But I think at the center of the Austen resurgence is the joy of reading a love story that’s so masterfully told. Every heroine in each of Austen’s six novels gets her well-deserved happily ever after ending and, deep down, many readers—like me—are true romantics at heart.

You and I have talked about the value of critique groups for writers at all stages of their careers. What are the main benefits you have gained from being in a critique group, and what should writers look for when they decide to join one?

MB: I found my critique group through my wonderful local Romance Writers of America chapter, Chicago-North RWA, which is known for its strong critiquing, so I’m very fortunate to live where I do! As a professional writing chapter, we encourage critiques of members’ work at every meeting (twice per month) and, from that large group, I became good friends with a handful of writers, and we’ve been critiquing manuscripts for each other for over 10 years. In fact, two of Nelson Literary Agency’s clients—Simone Elkeles and Lisa Laing—are members of my personal critique circle. I’d be lost without their brainstorming help, story feedback and thoughtful input at every stage of writing and publishing process.

As for what writers should look for in a critique group, I think it depends on what your own strengths are as a writer. If you tend to be the one to pick up on every missed comma in a manuscript or have a great eye for continuity details, you’re most likely going to need critique partners who’ll bring different skills to the table—i.e., someone who might challenge your plot logic or someone who has an unerring ability to tell if character dialogue rings true or not or someone with a deep knowledge of story structure who can point out where, precisely, the conflict lags.

I think we ought to be in a critiquing environment where everyone contributes equitably and where every member respects and appreciates each others’ storytelling abilities. There are definitely times when helping a less experienced writer is rewarding or getting a detailed critique from a master-level author is truly enlightening but, day to day, for a close-knit critique group, I feel the strongest, longest-lasting partnerships come when we grow, share and learn with others who are at a similar place to us in our writing journeys. It also helps being around people we can have fun with, genuinely like talking to and really trust!

Thank you for your wonderful insight! One more question: what’s up next for you?

MB: I’m working on a story that will be a companion to Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match. I’d gotten so many reader requests for a sequel to that book, using two of the secondary characters as the leads, that I found myself writing it!

I also have a couple of different women’s fiction projects in the works. One is finished and will hopefully find a perfect home soon. The other is plotted and almost half written. And, one of my already published Kensington novels, A Summer in Europe, is being translated into Polish for release in July/August. I’m looking forward to getting to hold in my hands that first foreign edition of the book this summer.

And, just between all of us, I’d love to come up with a story idea that takes place in exotic Tahiti or tropical St. Lucia, so I’ll have an excellent reason to visit there for “research” in the near future!!

Cheers to that! Marilyn, thank you once again for sharing your amazing in-depth advice and experience with me and readers. Best wishes for those current and future projects!