Lorna Sixsmith in conversation with her editor Sally Vince
Thanks to Clare for letting Lorna and me have this discussion on this stop of her How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife blog tour. (It’s a bit long, but we both do like a good old natter.)
Lorna has recently published her second self-published book, How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife. I was honoured that Lorna asked me to be her editor for this book and chuffed to bits to have this conversation with her. The book has already had some lovely reviews (links at the end), and here we’re going to concentrate on the writing/editing/publishing process.
First, Lorna, thank you for asking me to edit How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife. I really enjoyed working on the book and working with you. This is your second self-published book; what did you learn from publishing your first that you put into action on this one?
Even though I felt that self-publishing my first book was a major learning curve, I still had plenty to learn for my second book. What most surprised me when publishing my first was that it was possible to get national radio interviews, that my social media followers were keen to buy it and that it was very possible to get the book stocked in bookshops. I also discovered that although the book was in bookshops, that didn’t mean that my work was done. I still had to work at getting press coverage (I used to let it lapse and then go for another surge) and that authors should also contact suitable gift shops or smaller bookshops to see if they will stock it – they often say yes. Don’t rely on your website and the bookshops for all your sales.
I’m delighted to say that it is true what many authors say, bringing out a second book will increase sales of your first book. I’ve probably sold about 200 copies of my first book since my second came out.
You did a fair bit of research for the book and I loved the historical bits, as with your first book. How did you go about the research?
Thank you Sally. I must admit that I loved the historical research, so much so that I had to wrench myself away to concentrate on the actual writing. I used a combination of methods for the research: I used the Irish Newspaper Archives to research for articles on farmers and farm wives and for the personal advertisements. I interviewed a number of women about their upbringing and married lives in farming. I also used secondary sources by reading a number of academic research books (some of which I had from when I did my MA in Irish Studies in 1997!). Doing more historical research is something I would really enjoy and I will be doing more for the next book.
What was your writing/editing process?
I’m not so sure that I’d recommend other writers follow my methods. I think it was last December that I decided on the title and content for this book and yes, I worked on the first draft during the spring. I’m very conscious that I work best when against a tight deadline but was determined to finish this in plenty of time and had pinpointed my dates throughout the summer so I’d have plenty of time to spare before self-publishing in September. I had planned on having a book launch on 11 September and doing a stand at Ireland’s largest agricultural show, the three-day Ploughing Championships event, from 21 September.
I feel like I did many “first drafts” but that was partly because I wasn’t overly happy with my structure for the different chapters and a weekend away in July brought clarity. One evening (around midnight) I started scribbling with ideas and drawing spider diagrams. I rewrote 20,000 words and decided it worked so yes, I ended up rewriting all 55,000 words so it was a busy summer. [Sally: Yes, I remember that email ...] I’m not sure whether it was the break of a weekend away or the impending deadline that brought clarity but I was glad it happened.
I lost track then of how many drafts I did, some sections had more than others but being able to send it to you for feedback was a great help. Apart from giving me confidence, the feedback meant that my next edit was more purposeful and fierce.
I cancelled the launch but made the deadline for the Ploughing Championships. Instead of having a launch, I’ve organised a “farm author” event with seven authors coming to meet and greet readers in a Kilkenny bookshop on 20th November. [Sally: I think this is a great idea for anyone a bit nervous of holding a launch on their own. Having a theme and involving others can spread the work and the stress around.]
How did you go about finding an editor?
I think it was Twitter that we first met. I’d recommend it as a method as after all, it is a type of networking. Even though writers may like to think that we have thick skins, our books are our babies so it is reassuring to know (and a huge bonus) if your editor has an interest in your genre. I know an editor can edit any genre but it certainly bolstered my confidence that my editor was going to help me create the best work possible.
I liked the way we worked together – sending things back and forth and mulling over issues together. Were you happy with this? Would you recommend it as a way of working with an editor, and do you think it is important to build a relationship with your editor?
I loved it. I was a bit concerned that it was driving you mad so I’m glad to hear you were happy with that too. As I have never published a book traditionally I’m not accustomed to the different stages of editing such as copy editing, line editing, proofreading and the other stages in between. I found getting feedback on different stages to be really useful as I could try to implement your feedback when editing another section before sending that section to you for an edit. It also gave me confidence that I was on the right track (I was just panicking slightly in mid August!). Your time management was brilliant too, getting feedback back in good time so I was never waiting (I had plenty to be working on but it also meant that I was continually implementing what I was learning from you).
What do you wish your editor (note the strategic non-use of “I”!) had done differently?
Well, I can think of plenty that I could have done differently – namely, don’t change my mind on the structure and angle two months before publication and sending you then what was in effect a first draft, not realising initially how “first draftish” it was.
You went over and above what I expected an editor to do. I really felt that it was in capable hands and the fact that you did the formatting for the paperback saved having to outsource that to someone else or giving myself even more grey hairs. I formatted my first book and apart from the fact I pulled hair out over it, it didn’t look as professional at all. [Sally: I enjoyed doing the formatting. One benefit of the editor doing it is that when there was a paragraph that was maybe just one word too long, I had the confidence and knowledge of the book to “edit to fit”.]
I love Joanne Condon’s illustrations and I think they are a great addition to the book. Would you recommend including illustrations in a book? It’s an extra expense that a lot of authors might baulk at.
It probably depends on the genre. I really wanted illustrations for my first book Would You Marry A Farmer? feeling that it would add to the humour and I got a great response so it seemed sensible to do the same again. I think the illustrations are good fun. It is an expense but I hope to use the illustrations within merchandise too (putting some of the images on mugs, T-shirts, tea towels, etc.).
Are you pleased with the way the book has turned out? And what have other people’s reactions been?
I’m very pleased; I think it looks as professional as traditionally published books. When I was interviewed by Sean O’Rourke, he turned to the back to see who the publisher was and it was only on seeing “Write on Track Press” that he realised it was self-published.
People have been amused by the front cover and indeed, Ciara Meehan, a history lecturer who is researching the lives and representation of Irish women in the 1960s, who will be reviewing it next week, commented to me on how fascinating she thought the front cover is in terms of all the messages that could be decoded within.
Who is your target reader?
The target readers are women dating, engaged to or married to farmers. It was the same for the first book but I found that male farmers really enjoyed it too, as well as people interested in Irish rural life and history. It’s early days to hear if male farmers are reading this and enjoying it. I have to admit I’m intrigued.
I’m loving the comments that people are asking me to write on the book when signing them. Men are buying it for wives and getting me to write comments such as “Dear xxx, I hope this will help you be a perfect farm wife to xxx, best wishes, Lorna.” It’s all good fun. My husband reckons men buying it for their wives are very brave, saying that I’d probably hit him over the head with a book entitled How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife but I think many of the recipients have heard of it and know from the reviews and from my first book that it is a humourous read as well as a realistic look at farming.
Do you belong to any writing or critique groups, or any other writing organisation? If so, how helpful has this been?
No. It is on my to do list but I think it is something that I would get more from when I turn to fiction. I am a member of a couple of Facebook and LinkedIn groups for writers and find them particularly useful for comparing situations when marketing and selling more so than writing and editing.
Do you have beta readers? How did you find them, and how did you instruct them?
Not this time. I did for my first book and asked learned friends but this time, time was just too short. I did ask one writer and she read part of it which was valuable as she also used to be a farmer.
What do you particularly like about publishing your own books?
I like the satisfaction I get when there’s a surge in sales after some press coverage; it’s particularly noticeable after national radio interviews. I know it would also happen if traditionally published but I get to see the results almost straightaway. Having had my own small business, I enjoy the challenge of marketing my own books too.
You decided to get physical copies printed to distribute yourself. There is a lot of advice around on writing, editing, using print-on-demand and preparing files for ebooks, but little on organising your own hard copies. How did you find a printer and how did you learn what was needed from you to supply copy to them?
It was down to word of mouth in terms of finding the printer as I asked a couple of people who had self-published their own books and I was impressed with the quality of printing. Naas Printing have been so helpful, I’d highly recommend them. Apparently many Irish publishers get books printed abroad as it can be cheaper but apart from the fact I didn’t have time for that, I really wanted to work with people I could connect with easily. Of course, shopping local was a nice added extra too.
In terms of finding out, I simply asked the printer what they needed, what was the best way to present it to them. For my previous book, I provided the Word document and they created the PDF for me but of course, this time, you had done all that so it was much more straightforward and didn’t need as much checking from me.
Cost is a big issue for printing, of course. How many will you have to sell to break even?
I’ll be honest, I got a shock when I worked it out. I decided to print 2000 as my book should be a popular gift purchase in the run up to Christmas. Printing 2000 means the cost per copy is less than printing 1000 but it’s a significant start-up cost. Additional costs were editing, illustrating, the printing of bookmarks, address labels, stickers for the ploughing championships, the cost of the stand at the championships, the formatting for the ebook and I invested in a new website too.
Depending on where people buy my book, the profits vary from €2 to €6. This depends on whether they buy them in a bookshop (as wholesalers take 55%), in a gift shop (the margin is usually 35%) or from my website. Going on the average, I will have to sell about 800 books to break even. 800 books have been dispatched to date but of course, many may still be on bookshelves and I’m awaiting payment for most. I have a goal to sell 1200–1500 by Christmas so there’s a long way to go.
Would you recommend authors print their own books as well as do print on demand and/or ebook?
I think many readers prefer to read a paperback and if authors can get their books onto bookshelves, readers see it as a “real” book. By that I mean it then doesn’t matter to them whether it is traditionally published or self-published, as long as the quality looks good. Printing on demand reduces the risk but probably ends up more expensive per copy.
As mine can be read as a “dip in and out” book and will probably be a popular gift purchase, I think it works better as a paperback and my paperback sales far exceed my ebook sales. Much depends on the genre of the book plus the reading habits of the target readers I think.
Would you like to publish through a traditional publisher? Do you think there is anything they would be able to help you with that you can’t do yourself?
I certainly wouldn’t say no if a traditional publisher came knocking on my door but the main reason would be to sell and market the book abroad. I’d love if an editor of a publishing house were to help me to prepare the book for a US audience for example – perhaps it needs to be more Irish or perhaps less. Perhaps it needs to incorporate more references to ranches and huge prairies of wheat. It’s hard to know.
Another advantage of having a publisher is getting the book into Christmas gift guides and catalogues, getting it placed on those central tables in bookshops and of course, getting it reviewed in newspapers. I’m chuffed to have had one national newspaper review and need to try for more!
What have you learnt from publishing two books, that you will use to make writing the third book go even more smoothly?
I think I’ll set up a convincing yet “fake” deadline so that I don’t put myself under as much pressure this time round! Beyond that, I’m very happy with how it all went to be honest.
You have sold an enviable number of books. What would you say is the best way to get you and your book noticed? I know that you have been using social media for a long time and train others how to use it. From your experience with social media, how much do you think you are part of the reason for people buying your book?
I think timing the publication of the book to coincide with a suitable event is a good method if that is possible. It’s also important to send press releases that are either impressive, humorous or fit in with another event. Writing a press release that needs very little reworking for an article is a plus too. I think my best performing press release for my first book was when it was already published a year (and its publication wasn’t news) – it was “5 ways to attract an eligible farmer at the Ploughing Championships”. The journalists did little to change it. I’ve noticed too that many have included the full blurb of the new book which is great (and much of it is down to your help with it).
Even though I know I have a lot of readers of my blog and many followers on Twitter and Facebook, I’m continually amazed by the numbers of people I meet who say that they follow me on those platforms as quite often, they have never commented on my blog or updates. They seem pleased to meet me too. I was amused recently to receive an email from an American lady who had purchased my book bundle of six books. She lives on a beach in California (so certainly isn’t in my target readership) and although she has never commented on my blog, she said she has been reading it for years.
I’m not sure how much of the reason is down to me as a person but I guess people enjoy my writing and it convinces them to buy the book.
You are very immersed in farming, of course, and the book’s title is aimed at farmers, but I think that it will have a wider appeal than just the farming industry, so how do you sell it to non-farmers?
Yes, the title is very much aimed at the farming community but I hope non-farmers will be inspired to read it if they hear of its humour (and perhaps its historical content) from other reviews or from other readers telling them about it.
Within this book tour, I have a variety of bloggers reviewing it which should help it to be discovered by people from different backgrounds. There are a number of farmers reviewing it but there’s also a book reviewer, a lifestyle blogger and a historian.
Have you had any stick, by the way, for the title, which could be considered non-pc?
Very little and I was expecting quite a lot. Well, to be honest, I thought I would get a lot of flak from people thinking that I was describing myself as a perfect farm wife. Of course, maybe that hasn’t reached my ears yet. I was expecting interviewers to ask me if I was a perfect farm wife too but to date, only one radio interviewer has asked. Most have seen the humour in the title for what it is – a take on the 1950s type title. I suppose having a first book out helped too. I did have one lady who stopped at my stand to argue that I was being misogynist so I was glad to point at Ann Fitzgerald’s review (which I had pinned to the wall) which described me as a feminist in my writing.
How do you get your books into shops? Just bookshops, or others as well?
Initially, Argosy Books accepted it. Argosy are the wholesalers for independent bookshops in Ireland and are so helpful. It takes a little longer to get it into Easons (they supply their own shops and also supply independent shops too). I also contacted some gift shops and farm shops and some have accepted it which is great. I need to contact more – it’s on my to-do list! It’s also on some online stores that suit its title, for example, Henparty.ie is stocking it.
Are you firmly in the non-fiction writer category, or is there a novel or short story waiting to be written? Do you think you’d go down the independent publishing route with fiction?
I really enjoy writing about farming and I love doing the research too so it’s a marriage made in heaven as far as I’m concerned at the moment. I do have an idea for a novel and am having a go at NaNoWriMo this month. The first draft is going to be pretty dire but I feel that once I have it on paper, I can decide if it has potential or not. I wouldn’t show it to anyone until I’ve edited it a couple of times though.
I did have a short story published this year, well, more of a short memoir really. It was published in Around the Farm Gate (edited by P.J. Cunningham and published by Ballpoint Press), a collection of fifty farm stories, so that was a nice start to short story writing too.
I think I will try to get a publisher if I succeed in writing this novel. Partly because I'm intrigued to see the differences between independent and traditional and it would be an interesting experiment, and partly because I think the novel would fit into the more typical material that is published. I have a good social media following which should be an advantage, although of course it's no advantage if the book is rubbish! I would get the book edited so it's ready to go, either as a self-published book or to an agent /publisher.
One of the reasons I went down the independent publishing route was that I felt it was going to take a very, very long time to get a publisher, that it was different to other material out there. While Colm O'Regan published a humourous non-fiction before I had mine out and of course Tara Flynn has published a couple since then too, both of them are comedians and columnists and had a reputation behind them. I didn't have the patience to wait nor to send out lots of letters. I wanted to write it, do it well and get it out there.
Time will tell is the answer I guess.
What’s next on the writing agenda (other than your widely read blog, of course)?
I’d like to post twice a week but that isn’t always possible due to time constraints. I really need to write some posts playing on the content in the book too as well as write some articles for publications. I’d love to get a regular column but I never seem to have time to go looking due to the ghost blogging and social media training (and farming) that I do too.
I have a number of ideas for books but I think the next one will have to be “How To Be A Perfect Farm Husband”. I’m sure farm women will buy it for the man in their lives and of course, they will read it too.
Thanks, Lorna, for being so candid. There’s some great info here for independent publishers. If anyone wants to ask any questions about the writing/editing/production/selling processes, do ask in the comments, or you can contact Lorna or Sally through the links at the end.
Reviews for How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife
Available to purchase from:
Kenny's in Ireland (with free postage worldwide)
Amazon as an ebook or print on demand