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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On Cats, Aliens and Writing for Children: Author Interview with Meg Welch Dendler

Though you worked as a freelance writer for a decade writing for newspapers and magazines it wasn’t until a few years ago that you put your hands to the keyboard to write children’s books. What motivated you to move forward?
I actually have a few children’s books in the drawer, and they have made some rounds in queries to publishing houses. I’ve gotten some nice feedback, but no bites. I’ve always loved books that were focused for young children (not YA) because the themes can be lighter and funnier.

Of course, I have far more adult readers for my Cats in the Mirror series than I do kids. A good story is something everyone can enjoy, and I hope my books don’t talk down to kids so they leave the door open for adults to enjoy them too.

Did you ever write for children’s magazines?
I have not written for any specifically children’s magazines, but I have done some articles for young readers. That is something I would like to do, but time has just not allowed for it recently.

Who encouraged you to write?
No one encouraged me to specifically write for kids, but as Kimba’s story evolved it was very clearly a book more focused for young readers. My original goal was very early readers, but that limits the vocabulary and length of the story. As it progressed through edits and revisions, it moved up to a later elementary level (considered “middle grade”) and evolved into a whole series of stories.

How did you come up with the ideas for your cat stories?
The idea for the books was rooted in a story from my childhood about cats being aliens and communicating through mirrors. I think my mom told me about this from a book she read. She doesn’t remember anything about it, and I haven’t been able to find the story, so there’s some controversy there. When my husband and I adopted Kimba and Hiro at just a day or two old, my heroines were literally born. Kimba is a complete nut, and it wasn’t hard to imagine her as part of an alien race with an agenda.

 I love the name of your publishing company which is Serenity Mountain. What made you decide to start your own publishing company? 
Self-publishing has become so accessible, and publishing houses are becoming less and less so every day. I was meeting with some agents and editors at SCBWI conferences, but it is just a really slow and ponderous process. I knew people from my freelance days who were self-publishing successfully, so I decided to try that route.

Serenity Mountain is where we live, so the name was easy. We actually formed a publishing company for tax and legal reasons. Good, professional self-publishing is not a one-man job. I hire editors and designers and all kinds of other people along the way. These days I have learned to do much of that myself, but at the beginning I hired it all out.

What type of assistance did you get in putting your book together? 
I hired a “book guide” to help with the whole process the first time. Carol Hohle Communication walked me through the entire process and suggested people she trusted for the cover art and ebook formatting, and that was beyond helpful. For Book 3, I learned to use InDesign and take on all of that work myself, but that was only because I had learned how things should be done.

Did you hire an editor?
Yes, I absolutely hired an experienced editor for each book—along with having my mom, who was a technical writer, read and edit for me. Never pass up hiring at least a proofreader. I taught Language Arts, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to catch everything. Your own errors are the hardest to catch. Even with all of that attention, I still find errors after publication. Of course, in self-publishing you just go back and fix the book file and redownload it to CreateSpace. Problem solved.

Did you work with a critique group?
I have never been a part of a formal critique group, but I have had trusted friends read all of my books along the way. My husband is always the first set of eyes and comments.

How did you go about picking a cover? 
I had some idea on how I wanted the cover to look that involved the image of the real Kimba and a mirror, with her reaching up to it like she does in the story. My interior designer knew of a woman she trusted to work on the cover, so Lesley Vernon joined us. We started with the model of the Humphrey the Hamster book series—using a real image along with cartoon/drawn ones. We went back and forth on the color for the cover several times, but from square one she hit me with the cover art of Kimba standing on the planet and batting at the space ship. I loved it. She has designed all three covers in the series, and by Book 3 it was pretty much perfect on the first try.

How many rewrites did you do of each of your books? 
 Why Kimba Saved The World, the first book, evolved over about three years. Some of that time it just sat in a drawer, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I always like to let things sit for at least a few weeks between edits. I usually have someone else read it during that time. At one point with Kimba, when I knew I was going to self-publish, I sat down and just spent a couple of hours thinking “what if” for events in the story. I added notes on this and that, and once I had it all worked in the story was twice as long and 50x better.

Vacation Hiro didn’t take quite as long because I had a pattern down for how the story would go. Most of it was already in my head before Kimba was done. Book 2 stalled out for a while, so I went away for four days and wrote the second half. It went through edits and revisions after that, but getting the first draft down is the most difficult part for me. I can know exactly what I want to have happen, but I have to force myself to write. Revisions are the fun part because I can watch it get better and better every day.

How did you decide the time frames to add the books to publication?
Kimba came out in February of 2013. I wanted to keep the momentum going and get Book 2 out in time for Christmas, so Hiro came out in November. I knew how I wanted the first three books, like a trilogy, to go, so I kept plugging ahead with Miss Fatty Cat’s Revenge to get it out this year. There may be a gap now before the next ones come out, but I feel good knowing those three are out in the world finding readers.

With print on demand and eBooks the cost of printing your books can be minimal. However, if you want them to sell you need to promote them. How much money do you think an indie writer/publisher should put aside for their initial marketing campaign?
I hear lots of different advice on this front. I originally paid for some advertising, but none of it produced anything. Unless you really mean business, and I’m talking in the range of $20,000, most advertising is not going to get you where you want to be.

Word of mouth is your best bet. Get out to places where you can put your books in reader’s hands and meet them face to face. Advertising is also highly dependent on the genre you are writing and what sources are available to you. Kid’s books have a rough advertising road. Actually, one of the best things I have done with the series is offer free kindle days through the KDP program. I paired free days for Why Kimba Saved The World (Book 1) with an advertisement with BookBub, and there were 14,000 downloads through in those five days. That directly increased sales for Book 2 and then in the end hopefully Book 3.

If you have a series, using the first book as a bit of a sacrificial lamb can work really well. People LOVE free, but once they have found you they will get your other books. You need them to see that you have a great product. Eighty percent of the self-published books I have run across are poorly edited and very disappointing. Give readers a chance to find out that you are in the 20 percent that are worth it.

And I would also add that there are some substantial costs with self-publishing well. Book 1 and 2 each ran around $3,000. That’s better than lots of other ways of doing it, but you can’t just type it, download it, stick a stock model on the cover, and have a quality product. Publishing has a price, and you need to be willing to step up and be professional about it.

What are some of the promotions that you’ve done for your books that have been the most successful? Have you hired anyone to work on your social media presence or do you do it solely on your own? 
I already mentioned the KDP program, and I have found that highly successful. I know everyone is down on Amazon these days, but they offer wonderful author services and I take full advantage of them. You can bang your head and claim that Amazon is ruining the book business, or you can ride the roller coaster and make it work for you.

Have you hired anyone to work on your social media presence or do you do it solely on your own?
I take care of all of my own media presence—including 4 Facebook pages, two twitter accounts, my website/store, and my blog. I know there are companies that you can pay, but I’m kind of a control freak. We run another business from our home, so I have the know-how to do all of those things already.

What sources did you use to learn how to mount a campaign?
I mostly watch what other authors are doing, retweet and Facebook share them so they will do the same for me, and pay attention to articles and blogs on the topic. Bloggers are an indie writer’s best friend. Find the ones who blog/review your genre and submit your book. Getting good reviews on Amazon is a huge promotional tool. Paying for them is a slippery slope (and Amazon will take them down if they catch you), but most bloggers just enjoy what they do and want to support good authors.

You’ve got an aggressive promotional campaign for your books for the next three months. For a new author, how were you able to set up all those different signing venues? How do you decide which signings to set up?
It has come a little at a time. Sometimes I take advice from readers (“You should go to cat shows!”). Sometimes I go to an event myself, like the War Eagle Craft Fair, and realize it would be perfect. I pay attention to where other authors talk about going on Twitter and Facebook. I attend meetings of the Ozark Writer’s League and the Northwest Arkansas Creative Writers and find out about events that way too. For me, face to face has been the best way to share my books. People love the cats on the front, we chat, and they want to read and find out more. On Amazon, there are literally millions of choices.

When you are at an event, there may be only a few other authors. Some events have turned out to be flops and wastes of money (you often have to pay a fee for a booth). We are still just in our second year at this, so we are still learning. I hope we have selected better this year than last.

With so many options for entering your stories into awards contests, how do you determine which ones to enter? Do you have a maximum entrance fee you’ll consider?
I won’t enter a contest that has fees over $100. I also try to make sure that I think my odds are good and that there is a focus on children’s books. Be sure it is credible. There’s no point in winning an award that is not going to impress someone else and make them think “Wow.” That’s why you want that symbol on your book. It sets you apart from the crowd. Readers will think “Hey, someone thought this was worth an award.” That will lead them to want to read/buy it.

The only time I paid more was for the Mom’s Choice Awards. That’s not really a contest anyhow. It’s an endorsement, and it’s a big one. I shied away from it at first, but discovered that traditionally published authors were impressed when they earned this endorsement so I thought it was worth the cost. Some awards/endorsements also have additional licensing fees to use their symbols on your books. Be sure you know the whole picture before you get into it.

I entered several contests for Book 1. I only entered Book 2 into the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards (results are not in yet). With Book 3 I probably won’t do any. I figure by the time readers are on the third book in the series they are on board and no longer worried about awards. They’ll read the third book because they like the series.

What has frustrated you the most about the publishing process? What has pleasantly surprised you in the process?
I think the most frustrating thing is how hard it is to get a book totally perfect. I’m not even talking about the story. No writer is ever 100% happy about that, especially a year later. I’m just talking about little errors and production issues. My most horrifying moment in the whole process was to discover that during a minor ebook edit to the front matter of Book 1 the first paragraph of every single chapter had been deleted—and then the book had been downloaded to 14,000 people like that.

It never even occurred to me that anything big within the book had been altered, so I didn’t double check. Fortunately, with an eBook Amazon can send out a correction to everyone who downloaded it. There is a solution. It takes weeks and they can decide not to do it. I’m still waiting for that to happen. Horrifying. At least I caught it within a couple of months and was able to correct it. The best part would have to be that I have three books published, and I didn’t need to get permission from anyone else to do it.

The way my books are done, with real photos and such, might never have appealed to a traditional publishing house, but most readers love them. Instead of compromising how I wanted the books to be and waiting years to have them published, I can have all three of them out and done and looking wonderful. There is still a pace to the writing/editing/publishing process, but it is significantly less than the traditional route.
What is the writing best advice you’ve been given?
Edit, edit, and then edit some more. Hire an editor. Read your own book over and over. Nothing makes an indie writer look more like a hack and gives him/her a bad reputation more than a book full of errors. Reviewers will rip you up. Be as close to technically perfect as you can be.
There's a lot of great info and ideas here. I hope you have found it useful. If you would like to learn more about Meg's books, here's a few options for you.





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