Publish AND Self-Publish: an Interview with Bestselling Author Lorraine Bartlett

I’ve got a delightful surprise today: an interview with one of the savviest writers I know, Lorraine Bartlett. Lorraine writes fiction under several names, including Lorna Barrett. If you don’t already know her work, waste no time! The immensely popular Booktown Mystery series is what put Lorraine Bartlett’s pen name, Lorna Barrett, on the New York Times Bestseller list, but it’s her talent — whether writing as Lorna, or L.L. Bartlett, or Lorraine Bartlett — that keeps her there. This multi-published, Agatha-nominated author pens the exciting Jeff Resnick Mysteries as well as the acclaimed Victoria Square Mystery series, and now the Tales of Telenia saga, and has many short stories and novellas to her name(s). Check out the links to all her works here.

A lot of writers agonize over publishing vs. self-publishing. Lorraine does both very successfully. I’m delighted to pass along some of her insights into the advantages of having the best of both worlds.

Q: When did you first know you wanted to write? Was that realization prompted by any particular book you read?

A: As a teenager, I discovered Star Trek fanzines.  Regular people were writing fan stories that were good—and expanded the boundaries of the series.  I though t to myself, “I could do that, too.”  And so I did … although not very well.  It took many years to get where I am now. I never thought I’d have a career as a writer.

Q: Earlier in your career, you wrote stories for romance magazines. Did that contribute to selling your first novel?

A: No, but it got me the professional sales I needed to join Mystery Writers of America.  I wanted that kind of credibility. At the time, I felt it was necessary in order to get noticed by literary agents.

Q: How did that first book sale come about? Did you go through the traditional agent search?

A: I was rejected by literally hundreds of agents (and only tossed all those rejection letters last year).  It was my third agent who finally sold my first book to a small press where it failed abysmally.  Currently, thanks to self-publishing, that book (and series) is my best seller.

Q: What made you choose mystery as your genre?

THRESHOLD-sm A: I knew I’d never be able to write sexy romances, and mystery seemed the next best genre.  Although now I’m trying my hand at what I call “fantasy lite” with the Tales of Telenia novels. (They are THRESHOLD and JOURNEY … and I’m plotting a third now.)  I write character-driven stories, and I like strong women with an entrepreneurial flair.

Q: You’ve published under three names: Lorraine Bartlett, Lorna Barrett, and LL Bartlett. Why is that, and will you continue to write new books under each name?

A: When I sold the Jeff Resnick series, my agent suggested I write under the name L.L. Bartlett as she felt (and was right at the time) that men wouldn’t buy a book written by a woman.  I’m happy to say that things have changed in the last decade and that I’m finding more and more male readers every day—even for my cozy mysteries.  It just goes to prove that people like character driven stories—be the protagonist male or female.

As psychological suspense and cozy mysteries are quite different, I was asked by my publisher to take a pseudonym for the Booktown Mysteries.  By the time I sold the Victoria Square Mysteries, I wanted people to know (okay—all the kids in my high school graduating class who thought I was some kind of geek) that I could be successful under my own name.  Two of the three books under that name have hit the New York Times bestsellers list, but my Lorraine Bartlett website gets far less hits than the other two.

If I had it to do over, I’d only write under one name.

Q: You’ve written several different series and they’ve all done well. What do you think are the key elements to a successful series? And a related question: What mystery series (plural), past or present, do you particularly admire?

A: Character-driven stories.  The reader must be able to relate to or feel something for the characters.  I get letters from readers telling me they can’t stand Angelica Miles because she’s a bossy, opinionated person. In other words, she’s a big sister and acts like it.  Despite the fact I never had a sister, I’ve somehow managed to capture that love-hate relationship sisters often have.  I’ve had many more letters from readers telling me the relationship between Angelica and Tricia mirrors the relationship they have with their own sisters.  I also write about brothers in the Jeff Resnick Mysteries.  Brothers I understand.  I’ve got two of them.

Gee, I don’t think I have a favorite mystery series, though I’ve read a lot of them.

Q: I’m fascinated by your combining of mainstream publishing and self-publishing, and would like to pursue that subject a bit. You’ve had multiple books hit the New York Times bestseller list, most recently One Hot Murder, so it would One-Hot-Murder.large_seem that your publishers have done well by your books. And yet you have chosen to self-publish some of your work. What led you to that decision?

A: See above.  My small press experience was a disaster.  I had faith in my characters.  My friend Sandra Parshall (author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries) once told me that I’d be best known for my Jeff Resnick characters.  I don’t know if that’s true, because being successful as a self-published author is far different than success with traditional publishing, but I sell a LOT more copies of those books.  Oddly, the crossover audience is small.  I’ve had better luck convincing my cozy readers to try the darker Resnick stories than having the Resnick readers try the lighter cozy mysteries.  Price is also a factor.  My Resnick books sell for $4.99 as opposed to $7.99 for my traditionally published books  in e format.  The price difference gives them more of an incentive to try the books.  My Resnick mysteries are also available as trade paperbacks, but don’t have the kind of distribution the cozies have.  Still, the royalty for self-published books is far greater than an author gets with a traditional publisher.  But the most important thing an author needs to be successful in self-publishing is experience.  One really does need to write millions of words, figure out structure, plotting, and characterization, and present the best story they can write before readers will buy their work.  Have there been flukes?  Sure.  J.K. Rowling may not be the best writer in the world, but there’s no doubt she is a spellbinding storyteller.

Q: As a writer with a major publishing house, you have the support of professionals in all sorts of areas, including editing, proofreading, marketing, sales, promotion, publicity, and design. How do you replicate all the work they do for your self-published books?

A: You can buy the same services as a one-shot  deal and you’re not an indentured servant to a publisher or an agent.  The profit margin is all yours, and is often recovered in a surprisingly fast time period.

Q: What are the best methods you found for promoting your self-published work?

A: Social networking.  I rarely do face-to-face promotion anymore because it’s just not worth the time and effort.  I had some very lovely signings for the earlier books, but people don’t show up any more.  It’s not good for the author or the bookseller.

Q: Have your publishers encouraged your forays into self-publishing?

A: No. But when I offered my editor my Jeff Resnick series, I was turned down because he felt it would only garner a niche audience.  I’m happy to say he was wrong.  They haven’t discouraged me, either.  I suspect that’s because I’m making money for them and they want to keep me happy.  Should I be presented with a contract that says I can only write for them, I wouldn’t sign it.  I write other things besides cozy mysteries, if only for my own entertainment.  I wrote the fantasy novels while on vacation cruises.  It was fun.  I don’t want someone telling me what I can and cannot write.

Q: How does your self-published work sell in comparison to your published work? Or are we comparing apples to oranges?

A:  It is apples and oranges.  But I also make a lot more money with my self-published titles.  Why not?  I’ve got 30 of them, although the majority of them are short stories.  Some were projects that were rejected by traditional publishers.  It’s gratifying to be able to say, and have the numbers to back it up, that editors and agents were wrong.  I believed in my characters and my work when others didn’t.  I worked hard to make this happen.

Q:  There’s a lot of controversy in the blogosphere about pricing of e-books. Some people feel that pricing books at ninety-nine cents makes a joke of the author’s work. Others complain that pricing them above ten dollars, as mainstream publishers do, arouses furious buyer resistance. What do you think? Is there a sweet spot for self-published books?

A: No doubt about it, a 99 cent book by an unknown writer has a better shot at selling than a $7.99 book by yet another unknown writer.  I do have 99 cent titles, but they’re for short stories.  My first was an Amazon short.  I liked the idea of being able to sell a short story for 49 cents.  When Kindle took off, they abandoned that program and made the minimum price 99 cents.  I worried no one would buy short stories, but they do.  Not in huge quantities, but doesn’t take long to earn out the cost of production.

A good starting place is $2.99.  It rather depends on length.  My shorter novels go for $2.99.  The longer ones for $4.99.  That seems reasonable to me.  I think traditional publisher shoot themselves in the foot by charging the same price for an e book and a mass market paperback. (I haven’t really investigated the price relationship between e books and trade paperbacks.)  They argue there are costs for formatting a manuscript for an e book, but that’s also called overhead.  They’d do far better selling a high volume at a lower price than a lower volume at a higher price.

Often 99 cents is a loss leader.  Price the first in a series at that price (or free) and if readers like it, they’ll try the rest of the series.  It works well for grocery stores selling milk, etc.  It also works well for authors.

Q: What does the advent of low-cost self-publishing mean for writers and publishers today? I used to see publishing and self-publishing as two completely separate tracks. More and more, though, we are seeing writers cross from one track to the other or, like you, straddle both. Can you venture an opinion about where this is heading?

A: I have no idea.  But I like the freedom of writing what I want and that work finding an audience.  Publishing used to nurture authors.  They don’t do much of that any more.  I don’t have to sell 100,000 copies of any given book to be successful as self-published author, simply because the royalty structure is so different.  Authors who never earned out with their work now can earn a living wage from the titles that “failed” when traditionally published.  Genres that were said to be dead (such as Regency Romance and horror) are finding plenty of new readers via e books.

Q: Would you advise a first-time novelist to pursue mainstream publication or to self-publish? Why?

A: It would depend on how well they wrote.  Tossing a book up on Kindle and hoping it will fly is a crapshoot.  What makes self-published authors successful is backlist, and putting out new material on a regular basis.  When you’re tied to a traditional publisher, you’re often in the one-book a year trap.  Stephen King and Nora Roberts were far too prolific for their traditional publishers and had to take pseudonyms.  These days, they wouldn’t have had to.  Traditional publishing still has a lot of old-fashioned ideas they’re holding onto for dear life … like if you saturate the market with your work, it won’t sell.  I’m happy to prove that old saw wrong.

Q: What’s the most useful advice about writing you ever got? Who gave it to you?

A: Rewrite. A lot of people said it over and over again.  And one of the beautiful things about self-publishing … you can rewrite a story and put out a new version.  As technology changes, so do my books.  I just refreshed one a couple of weeks ago—keeping it relevant.  I like having that ability.  Younger readers are going to be better able to relate to the story if it doesn’t read like history.

Q: What’s the most important advice you have for aspiring writers?

A: Read a lot. Write a lot.  Rewrite a lot.

Q: Thanks so much for visiting, Lorraine.  What’s next on your agenda?

A: After my next contract works…I have no idea.  But no matter what I write, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy the journey.


I hope you found Lorraine’s remarks as interesting as I did. She’s a busy lady, but if possible she will drop by and respond to comments and questions, so please feel free to join the conversation. 

Some exciting developments on my end, too, with A DANGEROUS FICTION coming out in July with Viking Books. The one I can share now is that we’ve scheduled two appearances in the NY area. I’ll be reading and signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Carle Place, NY, on July 29, 2013 at 7 PM and at the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, NYC. I’m hoping Lorraine is wrong in this one thing at least, and that lots of people do come, because I love meeting readers face to face. See you there!


29 thoughts on “Publish AND Self-Publish: an Interview with Bestselling Author Lorraine Bartlett

  1. Excellent interview!!! I’m a huge fan of Lorraine’s work (under all her names!) and she is very generous to her fellow authors. I am thrilled that you are writing in different genres and more and more happy readers are discovering your work.

  2. It’s so important that aspiring novelists hear from pioneers like Lorraine. That she has succeeded in both arenas says volumes (is that a cliche? Oops). There were so many take-away words of wisdom: “you really do have to write a million words,” having a book “rejected by literally hundreds of agents” and “Currently, thanks to self-publishing, that book (and series) is my best seller.”

    I cheered to Lorraine’s answer about how an indie-publishing writer can get the peripheral services that make all the difference in a professional presentation: “You can buy the same services as a one-shot deal and you’re not an indentured servant to a publisher or an agent. The profit margin is all yours, and is often recovered in a surprisingly fast time period.”

    I think many writers without Lorraine’s success and savvy might not know that they have to lay out the money for these services. I’m glad she’s mentioned it.

    Thanks Lorraine and Barbara.

    Elizabeth Lyon

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. I agree on all those takeaways. This is one of those rare interviews from which I came away with a different perspective. I still think that self-publishing is a tough row to hoe for first-time novelists, in large part because so many rush to publish before their books are fully cooked. Those who really are ready, and who are able to publish at a great clip, can really do well. And self-publishing has certainly made a difference for “midlist” writers who can finally make a living from their writing. I really think that idea of combining both modes is smart.

  3. As a writer in many genres and having been published by Bantam, Avon, and Pinnacle, and busily publishing both my back list (and some new stuff) and my wife’s backlist (NYT bestsellling author Kat Martin) I can say that I TOTALLY agree with everything said here. WELL DONE.

  4. Barbara–
    Useful, actionable information–thank you, and of course thanks to Lorraine Bartlett. What also deserves to be emphasized is the importance of providing readers with multiple offerings. When writers have more work for sale, the separate titles help to sell one another. Or so I keep being told.

  5. Great interview!
    Funny, though, that one-book-a-year “trap” doesn’t sound so bad to me, coming from an as-yet unpublished standpoint. You could work on as much as you wanted and even have a backlog of ‘saved’books, like King’s main character did in Bag of Bones.

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  7. Would-be self-publishers need to heed Lorraine’s warning: She had written millions of words, her short stories had been published in magazines, she suffered through years of rejection by traditional publishers but finally, once she mastered the craft of writing, she did become a successful traditionally published author. THEN she started self-publishing. In short, taking the time to learn how to write good, character-driven fiction was her road to success. Once you are already have a big following, self-publishing can be very profitable.

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