With 80 published books under her belt, you’d think that nothing ruffles the feathers of bestselling author Carolyn Haines, but just like burgeoning authors whose knees knock in tandem with their typing, strong and successful authors have their share of anxieties. In this interview, Carolyn puts it all on the page and talks about quitting her day job, her journey as an author, making the leap into indie publishing, the evolution of publishing and writing, and how to get over fears that are holding you back as a writer.
The Full-Time Author with the Full-Time Job
When I met Carolyn in the early 2000s, she was a professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. Carolyn had already had a successful decade-long career as a print journalist covering stories for newspapers throughout the South. She was actively publishing with Harlequin Intrigue (HI). Between 1989 and 2009, Carolyn published 37 novels with HI under the pseudonym Caroline Burnes. The majority of these publications were part of her Fear Familiar series, which featured Familiar, the black cat detective. (Note: The only reason she eventually stopped writing about Familiar is because Familiar’s inspiration, Carolyn’s beloved cat, E.A. Poe, to whom she was deeply attached, passed away. At that point, writing Familiar was too difficult.)
Carolyn was also on her third Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery series title, Splintered Bones. (The series’ 18th title is due for publication from St. Martin’s Press in 2018.) Splintered Bones was the last title in a three-book contract auctioned to Random House. The Sarah Booth Delaney series also signified Carolyn’s transition into being a mystery writer.
As far as I could tell, Carolyn was living the dream; she was obviously succeeding as an author. I assumed that she taught college kids creative writing because it was fun; I couldn’t imagine there being an actual need for her to teach. As it turns out, I was wrong.
On July 11, Carolyn posted a response to a comment on her Facebook page.
“You should have quit teaching years ago,” author Ritter Ames wrote after Carolyn revealed that seven of her books were (at that time) on Amazon’s top 20,000.
Carolyn’s response to Ritter surprised me:
“I was really afraid to try all of this until I fell in with you (Ritter Ames) and Joanne Pence, Connie Shelton, Amanda Lee, Pamela DuMond, and LeighAnn Dobbs.”
What was Carolyn afraid of? As a young writer and editor in the digital age of publishing, I thought my generation had the market on professional anxiety; however, fabulous successful authors get cold feet, too.
“I was raised by a father who believed in health insurances and a pension—offered by a work place. So even though USA paid terrible wages, they did offer health care and the state retirement system is a very well-managed program.”
This I understand. I also grew up with a traditional dad who did (and still does) advocate for the retirement securities slowly accrued through corporate employment (let’s just hope the economy doesn’t crash between now and when I’m of age to collect **pauses for knee-slapping laughter**).
“After a certain amount of time put into a retirement plan, it’s just foolish not to finish out the commitment, so that compelled me to stay on the day job.” Thus, Carolyn stuck with it even though writing brought in a lot more swag.
Of course, teaching was more than a job. “I simply loved teaching, too. I live a lot in my head, but the interaction with young people was a fun part of the day. It gave me a structure and balance.”
“I was a little worried that if I didn’t have that structure, I might fall into slothful practices.”
Having What It Takes to be a Writer
Discipline, according to Carolyn is essential to being a successful author and to pushing past authorial anxiety. “There are two things I must do—be able to be flex and bend with whatever comes at me, and work my ass off. I work at least 8 hours a day every day.”
(So, if you thought that being a professional writer meant you’d have endless hours of leisure time, consider your bubble burst.)
“You have to be disciplined in closing that office door and focusing. This isn’t about ‘when the muse strikes’ or when you ‘find time’ to write. If you want to be a writer, then you sit at the keyboard and write.”
“As to flexing and bending—always, always expand your writer horizons and keep fresh. You never know when you’ll need a new direction. I’d like to give YA a whirl. Who knows?”
Keeping fresh is something Carolyn has done throughout her career. Even while writing for Harlequin and Sarah Booth, Carolyn has consistently written something on the side. She has done so under her actual name (Carolyn Haines), her pseudonyms Caroline Burnes and R.B. Chesterson (Pegasus Press), and “a couple of other pseudonyms along the way. Some I’ll keep private.”
“As Eugene Walter always told me, a girl needs a certain amount of mystery.”
Another way of keeping it fresh is to continually move forward. In other words, don’t write a book and wait until that book is ‘in the can’ (to adopt an expression used in film) to start your next project.
“When you are putting a book out for public consumption, start writing something else immediately. That way all your eggs aren’t in one basket.”
This also helps when dealing with the burden of rejection. “I didn’t sell my first book(s). I got rejected and learned from those rejections—and tried again. I didn’t give up, which is the biggest hurdle. If you quit, you’re done.”
“I received two rejections on two difference manuscripts in the same day,” Carolyn admits. “That was pretty bleak. I survived.”
It’s in those times when the news isn’t great that writers focus on what they’re writing—on what they can control.
“Everyone from the oldest pro to the newest newbie wants his story to be loved and cherished by readers. We all worry that this book won’t be good enough. It’s part of the gig. If you’re totally engaged in your story, you won’t have anxiety. The only thing you can control is your story and your skill in telling it.”
“The story is a gift. The only job you have is honoring that gift and telling that story. Don’t make it any bigger or smaller than that job. Keep the focus.”
Surveying the Publishing Landscape
That’s sound advice. It’s especially important to keep focused and to keep your head up in an ever-evolving publishing landscape. When Carolyn started with HI, she said, “They had their own book club (huge numbers!) and there was almost no marketing required by the author.” (The kind of book clubs Carolyn is describing purchased advance copies of books for special rates and could make up a massive portion of a title’s sales. These book clubs are vastly different from the more commonly-known book clubs comprised of like-mind people who like to read, to analyze plot, and to drink wine.)
That’s a vastly different landscape than what we have today. Now, rather than staying on shelves a year or more, books may have three, maybe four, weeks to find an audience, according to Carolyn.
“Discoverability is all up to the author.”
Carolyn adds, “It is very competitive and brutal, and publishers pour the big money into big names. Mid-list authors are pretty much on their own in many ways. Advances are way down. It’s easier to get published, in some ways, but much, much harder to stay alive and have a career.”
Staying Traditional & Going Indie
For Carolyn and others, staying alive and having a career means evolving. Many traditionally-published authors have transitioned to indie publishing. Carolyn’s evolution (when she quit teaching and pursued full-time writing) included going indie; though, in her case, she kept her traditional relationships in tact.
Carolyn explains, “I love that relationship (with big publishing houses) and how it works.” However, she says, “I’ve also stopped into the indie publishing world, and this is not for the faint of heart. Yes, anyone can publish a book now, but now so many people can make money doing it.”
Carolyn says that it was the authors mentioned in her earlier Facebook shout-out who “encouraged me to try. They gave me advice and helped me locate sites and people who are successful professionals in the indie world, and gave me an idea of the necessary skills to do this.”
“This (indie) is a business commitment and requires a ton of different skills other than writing. I’m confident in my writing skills, but I know that I am not great with business and technology.”
To address this, Carolyn recruited several wing-women have been integral to the aspects of her operation that are not her strengths.
Cover design, the intricacies of publishing, scheduling, accounting, and media relations are headed up by Priya Bhakta, Jennifer Haines Williamson, and fellow author, Rebecca Barrett.
“It’s about knowing your strengths and finding someone to supplement your weak places,” Carolyn says, echoing sound advice that some of the most successful members of the finance industry and of business in general put into practice on a daily basis.
Starting New Chapters
With this approach to her business –and yes, being an author is a business where you are your brand and your writing is your product (sorry it’s not as Walden Pond as we grew up dreaming it was going to be) Carolyn is moving forward, full steam ahead.
One of her more recent projects is Familiar Legacy. This is a collaborative venture where Carolyn and other authors publish under the same series (Familiar Legacy). The stories have different characters and events transpire in different places; the only thing in common the books share is the feline character, Trouble.
- Book one Familiar Trouble is off and running (published in July)
- Trouble in Dixie was published by Rebecca Barrett in August 2014
- Trouble at Summer Valley Tallahassee by Susan Tanner will be published in October
Familiar Legacy titles will drop quickly because of the collaborative nature of the authors’ ventures.
Speaking of Familiar, Carolyn’s first three Familiar books, Fear Familiar, Too Familiar, and Thrice Familiar are available on Amazon. Carolyn promises to release more “familiar” titles as she gains her rights back.
As noted, Charmed Bones of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series is slated for release in 2018. Sticks and Bones came out in May 2017. The first three books, Them Bones, Buried Bones, and Splintered Bones are available in paperback and digital formats.
The House of Memory the second in Carolyn’s Pluto’s Snitch series was released in June. Pluto’s Snitch is set in the 1920s and it thusly named because Pluto is the ruler of the underworld (the dead) and in the 1920s, the word snitch was a word used for a private investigator (PI). The Book of Beloved is the first title and is set in Mobile, AL. Book three, The Specter of Seduction, is set for release in 2018.
Stay in touch with Carolyn by signing up for her newsletter at www.carolynhaines.com, keeping up with her blog, and by following her on social media. Carolyn loves to tell stories about her friends (some true, some embellished!). Carolyn is a passionate animal advocate. She runs an animal rescue and always has many animal adventures. “I love animals and writing, and I am fortunate to be able to do both every single day of my life.”
Anxiety about making it as a writer happens to all authors. Overcome yours by staying focused on your passion, writing. Look to authors who inspire you for guidance when it comes to succeeding. Though publishing is a tough industry, writers and editors are supportive and are always looking to help one another, so find people you can trust and who will be honest with you and who also want to see you thrive as an author.