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Inspirational Indie Author Interview. Debbie Young: Cozy Mystery Author Keeps Indie Mindset In Negotiations With Traditional Publisher

Inspirational Indie Author Interview. Debbie Young: Cozy Mystery Author Keeps Indie Mindset in Negotiations With Traditional Publisher

My ALLi author guest this episode is Debbie Young, who many of you already know from our ALLi member forums on Facebook. She's usually there to answer questions about indie publishing. Well, Debbie, a writer of cozy mysteries, recently signed a deal with a trade publisher. But, as she says in our interview, she approached her negotiations with a traditional publisher with the mindset of an indie author.

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Inspirational Indie Author Interview. Debbie Young

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Inspirational Indie Author Interview. Debbie Young: About the Author

Debbie YoungDebbie Young is the author of 11 cozy mystery novels, three collections of short stories and various nonfiction including advice books for authors. For eight years she was the editor of ALLi's Self-publishing Advice blog and now teaches a self-publishing course for Jericho Writers. Still a UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors, she now has trade contracts with Boldwood Books, DP Verlag for German translations and Saga Egmont for seven English-language audiobooks. Two of her novels were shortlisted for the Bookbrunch Selfies prize for Best Independently Published Adult Fiction in the UK. She writes in the Plotting Shed at the bottom of the garden in her Victorian cottage in a little Cotswold village where she has lived for half her life. She is married to a Scotsman and they have a teenage daughter now studying English Literature at university.

About the Host

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.comLinkedIn and Twitter.


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Read the Transcripts: Inspirational Indie Author Interview. Debbie Young

Howard Lovy: My guest this episode is Debbie Young, who many of you already know from our ALLI member forums on Facebook. She's usually there to answer questions about indie publishing.

Well, Debbie, a writer of Cozy Mysteries recently signed a deal with a trade publisher, but as she says in our interview, she approached her negotiations with a traditional publisher with the mindset of an indie author. I'll let Debbie tell her story.

Debbie Young: My name is Debbie Young, and I am an English writer living in the Cotswolds. I have always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a small child, and I've been gradually, traveling quite an interesting journey, starting out with working for my previous career in public relations and in marketing and in working for a children's reading charity, before deciding that I was going to take my writing seriously, to write and self-publish my books because this decision, this big, life-changing decision was happening at around the same time that all Orna Ross was founding ALLi and I discovered self-publishing in its new form with all the wonderful digital technology that was making it so much more attractive and so much more commercially viable as well.

I started by publishing collections of short stories, the first one in about 2014. I published three collections of short stories before deciding that actually what I really wanted to do was to write novels.

I launched my first novel in 2017, self-published first in series, published seven in that series. Also started a second series to give myself more variety and scope, and I published two in that series before everything changed with an offer from a trade publisher.

Howard Lovy: Okay, well, we'll take it from there first. Let's talk a little bit maybe just very briefly since we handled it before on what it is you write, you write mainly cozy mysteries, and maybe you can just explain what that is?

Debbie Young: I write cozy mysteries, as they're known in the trade. For those who don't read them and might want a little bit more of an explanation, they are gentle, traditional-style mysteries in the same sort of tradition as Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers.

They're gentle stories, generally with happy endings and lots of good outcomes. They don't have gratuitous violence, they don't have gory scenes, any real violence graphically described. They don't have sex scenes. They don't have bad language. So, they're family friendly. They're the kind of book you could leave lying around and it wouldn't matter if your children or grandchildren got stuck into it.

I do have readers as, as young as about 12 who enjoy them. So, they're fun, enjoyable reads, generally uplifting, strong sense of right and wrong, and you feel at the end of them that the world's a better place, rather than despairing at terrible crimes or awful scenes of violence that you might get in other kinds of thrillers.

There's room for all kinds of thrillers, and this is the one that I really enjoy reading and writing. When I was a teenager, I read all of Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy L. Sayers, a lot of Agatha Christie. So, that was my foundation, and that gave me a lifelong addiction to traditional-style mysteries.

Lastly, there have been people like Alexander McCall Smith and M.C. Beaton with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Agatha Raisin series continuing the tradition, and that's where I feel is, kind of, my spiritual home.

My mysteries are set largely in The Cotswolds, beautiful, idyllic English countryside setting. I've lived in a Cotswold village myself for over 30 years. I love the sense of community here, and I love the surroundings and the sense of the seasons, and I wanted to write my first series, my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, to celebrate the sense of community there and also to celebrate the kind of eccentricity and the quirkiness that you have in these little village communities where everybody is free to be themselves.

My second series is set in a girl's boarding school, classic English setting, also in the Cotswolds. There's a little bit of crossover, so I've set it just down the road from the village in which my other series takes place so that I can have the characters meeting at different points. I worked in an English girl’s boarding school for 13 years, another tight knit engaging community full of interesting people.

All my characters, I should say, and all my situations are completely made up. So, it's those two settings; the village where I lived and the school where I worked, that were the inspiration for that kind of community. And then I went away and invented entirely fictitious communities, inspired by those places and celebrating what I loved about them.

Howard Lovy: Wonderful. I'm finding that as I age, I have less of a stomach for gratuitous violence in books and in TV shows and in movies. It's just not for me anymore. It never really was, but even less so for some reason, because I think of all the violence that's happening in the real world and I want to escape that when I watch or read fiction.

Debbie Young: Yeah, I agree with you. We only have to open a newspaper or tap into our phones or put a news program on television, and we have more than we can stomach of real-life horror material there, and these days we have more than ever because we can't get away from the news.

I was chatting to my aunt who is 91 recently, and she was saying that when she was a child, she was evacuated to The Cotswolds during the Second World War, but she said even growing up initially in London with bombs falling around them, they never felt scared because they didn't have the constant exposure to news updates that you would have these days, they didn't have television. They obviously didn't have all the social media and stuff that we have nowadays, and so they believed what politicians told them. There was a trust. They believed what their parents told them. They believed that they would stay safe.

Now, it seems like all the media, news media and social media, are conspiring to make us terrified all the time, whether it's of environmental issues or of social issues. I'm not for a moment saying there aren't things that we need to be really, really worried about in terms of the environment and society, but I think for the sake of our own sanity, we need books like Cozy Mysteries to restore our faith in humanity and to comfort us.

I mean, they're real comfort reading, they're comfort reads. I still like to pick up an Agatha Christie or turn on Poirot on the television, that kind of thing where you have gentle, humane mysteries with characters that you really care about who are telling you that all will be well.

Howard Lovy: Right, yeah, the antidote to what they call “doom scrolling” on your social media.

Okay. So, let's talk about your transition, I don't know if it's a transition or just an additional element to your career of traditional publishing, was this something that you actively sought out? Was it a happy accident? How did this happen?

Debbie Young: That's a very good question, Howard, because it wasn't something that I was planning for at all. I was very happy self-publishing. I think there's never been a better time to be an author than now when we are so empowered by all of the self-publishing tools and information and advice that we have at our disposal.

I was very contented self-publishing, but I think what the trigger was, was that I entered a competition, and I don't usually enter competitions because although I'm competitive in some ways, I can't be doing with all these awards and prizes and things, I think that they are a cause of stress rather than a cause of comfort.

But a friend of mine had entered, or had won, Jane Davis, I think had won the Book Brunch Selfies Award, which at that point was just in the UK. Now, they have an equivalent in the US as well, and Jane was encouraging her friends to enter the following year after she had deservedly won, and I had a book that happened to time right, so I put it in without really thinking anything about it. Thinking anything more {inaudible} story by it, and that book was shortlisted, and that was one of my, Sophie Sayers mysteries, and then feeling good about having been shortlisted. So, that was down to the final six of an award that was given for the best self-published adult fiction in the UK. So, nice recognition.

I entered again the following year with a book from my other series, my school series, and I was shortlisted again, so that is lovely validation, but I thought, oh no, I've had enough of this. I'm not going to spend any more time stressing about competition entries.

But I think, and I don't have absolute evidence of this, but I think that was what brought me to the attention of a company called Saga Egmont, which is an audiobook specialist, and that led to a deal for seven audiobooks in English for worldwide distribution of the Sophie Sayers series.

Howard Lovy: So, that first deal was audiobooks only?

Debbie Young: Audiobooks only, yeah. I published one audiobook in each series, self-published one audiobook in each series, which was fine, but it was just another thing to worry about and another expense, because as we all know, audiobooks have a much larger setup cost than an eBook or a paperback, or any kind of print, and I was thinking, oh, well, I probably ought to do the rest of them at some point for people who wanted audiobooks, and I saw this as being a, kind of, get out jail free card for me because if I accepted this contract then I could just hand over the audiobooks to somebody else.

Then not long after that, I then had an approach out of the blue, which I hadn't sought at all from a company called Boldwood Books who started up three years ago, founded by Amanda Ridout, who has led imprints, had high level jobs in various British publishing companies. She'd also assembled a team of other staff who had also been high achievers in various publishing, and it's a digital-first publishing company who was seeking to build a cozy mystery list, and they'd seen that I had, what they described as a healthy footprint online; lots of books on Amazon and other places, that I've shortlisted twice for this prize, and I had lots of reviews. I'd done all the usual stuff of marketing my books. I'd had some BookBubs, which has resulted in some really healthy numbers of reviews and sales.

I had a phone call out of the blue from them, no, an email out of the blue saying, oh, we'd like to talk to you, can we have a chat?

So, I thought, yeah, okay. I'm always an opportunist, and I'll say yes to everything, at least to open a discussion without having any prior expectations, and I just thought, well, this is nice, this is flattering, without really expecting anything to come of it.

I also thought that they would be interested in me starting to write a new series for them, and I wasn't sure that I had enough head space to run a third series because I was now, at this point, I was alternating between a new book for my Sophie Sayers series and the new book in my school series.

So, I outlined an idea for what might be a third series if it had any mileage before I had the meeting with them, they said, well, no, actually what we'd like to do is to acquire the rights in all formats for both your existing series and then have you add one new book a year to each series for the first two years, and then hopefully it all goes well add in {inaudible}, which was quite a surprise to me.

Howard Lovy: I was going to say, how did that make you feel?

Debbie Young: Yeah, I was enormously flattered and very gratified. Again, it's the validation that as an indie you don't have in the same way that you would if you have publishers beating a path to your door, that is quite unexpected.

So, I kept an open mind about it, and as with the Saga Egmont contract, I followed ALLi's advice and sought out the services of Ethan Ellenberg, the New York agent who very kindly vets contracts for ALLi members on request.

Howard Lovy: Right. We should add here that part of what you do is help advise indie authors through online forums. So, this is you sort of taking your own advice.

Debbie Young: Yes, exactly. So, I ran it past Ethan and also past the Society of Authors, which is the British Membership Union for authors of all kinds. I got some good advice from the Society of Authors, but have to say Ethan was much more geared up to understanding the indie mindset and looking at what would work best for me as an individual.

He gave me some really good advice which, which echoed Orna Ross's advice of making sure you don't have all your eggs in one basket, not tying up everything with one publishing deal, but selling your rights piecemeal. So, for example, I wanted to make sure that I was only offering them the rights they would actually use.

So, things like film rights and TV rights, which a lot of publishers will just bundle in automatically with any contract because they'll want to wrap up as much as they can, I had those removed, and I also said it was going to be, on Ethan's advice, said it would be for English translation only.

I was happy to go with all formats, but I wanted to keep the translation rights separate, and they were happy with that, and Ethan tied up a few more details of the contract that made it. I mean, it was already a good contract for me.

Howard Lovy: So, they don't have film rights, or they do?

Debbie Young: No, they don't.

Howard Lovy: You have those, so when they make the BBC or the Netflix series based on your books, that's all yours.

Debbie Young: That's mine, yeah. But I mean, at the moment Boldwood is a relatively young company, hugely successful, winning awards left, right, and centre. It's fantastic people, I wouldn't have done the deal with any company. There are other digital-first companies that I wouldn't have even had a conversation with if they'd offered, but Boldwood, I'd heard great things about, and all my dealings with them so far show me that they are the future of publishing, I think, and that's what Ethan said as well.

Howard Lovy: So, you went into it with an indie mindset, keeping what you can for yourself. So, does finding a traditional publisher like that mean you can just relax now, and they'll do all their promotion and everything for you? I'm being slightly sarcastic.

Debbie Young: Yeah, I think it depends on who you sign with because I have indie author friends who have signed with other kinds of publishers who have got zero marketing out of them at all, but Boldwood have been doing a fantastic job. They've got me book a BookBub with one of the series. They're running blog tours for me. They're providing marketing collateral. They've got a mailing list for me, but I keep my own mailing list as well. I keep my own website which I need to overhaul now to reflect all of these changes, but they are doing a lot of promotion for me. They've got Facebook groups and so forth that they promote my books in.

So, they're doing a lot for me, that is all in addition to what I would, it's stuff that I wouldn't have had before. I mean, I've never got around to doing a blog tour before, for example. I've had BookBub's, but obviously BookBubs are very expensive, and they are funding BookBub's which is fantastic. So, it's win-win really.

So, they're doing all those things, I still have to do a lot. Well, I still feel I should do a lot of marketing as well, and it'll be silly not to. So, if we're both working on the marketing, then it's going to be greater than the sum of the parts, the end result, and they are happy with any marketing that I do. They're very supportive, but they don't demand it of me. So, I'm still doing things, like in the runup to Christmas I'm going to have stalls at different Christmas fairs and things, which is under my own steam. I've just run an event, a very successful event at a local book shop, which again, that was something entirely down to me.

I'm doing an interview with a charity who I've assigned one-off rights to some of my short stories for, which will also help bring direct people to my novels published by Boldwood as well. So, there's lots of other things that I'm doing. My blog, I'm on social media, so there's lots of things that I continue to do.

Howard Lovy: Now, you're also teaching a self-publishing course, and you continue to help moderate the Facebook page for indie authors. Do you get any sort of, I guess, ‘vibe' from self-publishers that you've gone over to the dark side?

Debbie Young: Well, that's funny you should say that because I thought that when I decided that I was going to go down this street, I thought, oh gosh, will people think I've been a traitor, that I've gone over to the dark side or whatever? But actually, people have been really lovely, and I've had nothing but congratulations and support.

Although, for eight years, I edited that the ALLi blog, and I was an official moderator of the forum until recently. Now I just go on and make the odd comment. I'm not officially a moderator, but I'm still a UK ALLi ambassador. So, I'm still very much an advocate for self-publishing.

I also had it put into my contract that I could continue to self-publish books, because I'm conscious that trade publishers, they have very specific ideas of what their list is, so they wanted me for the cozy mystery list.

I've also got an idea for a children's book that I'm keen to write in the next few months, which they didn't do children's books at all. So, I can do what I like with that. I think they have first refusal of other books, but they totally accept that if they refuse a book, then I will take it elsewhere.

Howard Lovy: Right, that's a big deal. When I talk to other indie authors who used to be with traditional publishers, the problem was that they were pigeonholed. They had to write specifically what their publisher wanted them to write, and they felt very constricted. But you're saying that you included that in your contract, that if you wanted to write something separately in a different vein or different genre, you can go ahead and do it on your own.

Debbie Young: Yeah, that's right, because I've written nonfiction as well and I've always got loads of projects that I want to do that I need to find time to get around to somehow.

Also, another surprise actually was that I thought, well, I don't want them to change what I write. I don't want them to say, oh, we like your books, but we want it to end this way, or to really dictate what I wanted to write, because that was another horror story that I'd heard from indies who had gone trad, was that they had then found their writing being changed against their wishes.

I have to say, the editing team at Boldwood are fantastic. They are really, really good. So, my books will go through a structural edit, copyedit and proofreading, and my experience so far with what they've done so far, I think they're excellent, and my books are better for their input.

Howard Lovy: Great. So, they're not going to say, please include more sex or violence, or something that you're opposed to, right?

Debbie Young: No, and I was expecting that I would have to provide an outline at the beginning for their approval, to make sure that I was writing to order for them, but in fact, I had it written into my contract that I would provide an outline at my own volition, because they literally said to me, oh, no, no, no, we're not worried about that, you write what you want. We just want you to keep doing what you're doing, write what you like, and I thought, well, that is immensely flattering. But at the same time, I don't want to spend a few months writing the book and send it to them and then have them come back to me and say, oh no, that's not really what we wanted. It's not really what we expected.

So, I've literally just sent them off my latest book, last night. I wrote an outline for them at the beginning and went through that with my editorial director there to fine tune that, so then I could crack on and write it confident that it was what they would want.

That was a real surprise to me. It seemed odd that I should be the one insisting on an outline for approval first, but it was very refreshing. So, the Boldwood strapline really is that they are publishing reimagined, and I truly think they are. They're taking the best of both worlds. They're taking a lot from indie wisdom, and a lot from trade publishing wisdom, and they're bringing them together.

So, they also follow the indie model in that they use print-on-demands. They don't have a warehouse, they don't have the costs of warehousing or the hassle of warehousing, and they don't do sale or return, which is interesting when there's always the debate about, should we offer sale or return or not, and they're just saying, no, not doing it, and it's working for them. So, that's interesting for indies who are wondering whether that model can work or not, and it truly can.

Howard Lovy: Well, it sounds like you were very fortunate. Well, maybe not fortunate, it took your skill as well to find a very indie-friendly, traditional publisher or trade publisher.

Debbie Young: Yeah, well I didn't even look for them, they found me, so how lucky is that?

Howard Lovy: Wonderful. What kind of advice do you have for indie authors who might want to go your way, kind of a hybrid combination, trade and indie?

Debbie Young: Respect the publishing tradition of sticking to lists, identifying, establishing lists of the books that they're interested in and aim at publishers with the lists that match your output. Retain your rights for all of the rights that you can and license your rights piecemeal only to the publishers that will use the rights that they buy. So, keep your translation rights, sell them only to companies that will use them, for example.

No matter how good a reputation of a company, still examine your contract very closely, get expert advice from whatever organizations you belong to. Obviously with ALLi, Ethan Ellenberg is a fantastic advisor.

I was told by other authors that Boldwood was so good I didn't need an agent to look at the contract, but if I hadn't, I wouldn't have got as good a contract as I ended up with, or a contract that suited me. It wasn't that they were trying to rip me off or anything like that, it was just a contract that suited my indie mindset which perhaps other authors weren't concerned about, but it worked for me.

Don't assume that a trade publisher will do all the marketing for you, most won't, but treat them as a partnership. As indies, we are used to building teams around us, with our own editors and cover designers and other advisors, and I think you can treat your publisher as another member of your team. So, it's not a case of either one or the other. It's a case of everything working together.

The right trade publisher will respect your indie credentials and realize that if you are also continuing to be a successful indie publisher, that can only help them, because it will drive more readers to the books of yours that they are publishing, it won't take them away from them, it will all work together; it will all harmonize and synchronize.

Howard Lovy: Well, wonderful. Thank you, Debbie. It sounds like you really found the best of both worlds, and I like the way you said that your publisher is just another member of your team. You're not owned by them. You're not beholden to them, necessarily. You have a contract with them like you would any other person you deal with.

Debbie Young: Yes, that's right, and you can have more than one publisher as well. Not only can you be an indie publisher and have a trade contract, but you can have multiple publishers that you deal with.

So, for example I now also, thanks to the good offices of Ethan Ellenberg, I now also have a German translation deal with DP Verlag in Germany, which is doing very well, and he's investigating translation rights for me as well.

I sleep better at night knowing that I have different deals in different places, and again, it's in keeping with Orna's message, and ALLi's message about having a business model with lots of different income streams. It's healthy to have income streams coming from different places. So, I also have an income stream for my self-publishing. I have an income stream from my teaching, and for Jericho writers, and that all makes for, especially in these straighten times, it makes for a healthier, more robust indie business.

Howard Lovy: Absolutely, yes. Well, wonderful. Thank you, Debbie, for giving us your insight.

Again, finding a traditional publisher is not necessarily the be all and end all, but it certainly works for you and you're incorporating it into your indie publishing career.

Debbie Young: Yes, thank you very much. I'm very happy, very excited as well about what the new year is going to bring with lots of different writing and publishing projects with Boldwood and in my indie world as well.

Howard Lovy: Wonderful. Thank you, Debbie.

Debbie Young: Thank you. Bye.

Author: Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads.

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