We’re so pleased to welcome author Katja Millay to The Midnight Garden today! Both Tonya and I loved her debut novel The Sea of Tranquility (here’s Tonya’s review, which was apparently so persuasive that K bought the book over the weekend), which is a contemporary romance that has swept readers off their feet with its poignant story and unforgettable characters.
What you may not know is that this book started out as a self-published novel, and that it’s turned out to have quite the Cinderella story. How does an independent book get picked up by a major publisher after just three weeks?
Katja is generous enough to share the details of her astonishing story with us, but I suspect the answer to this particular question is pretty simple: The Sea of Tranquility is a great book. As publishing continues to evolve in our digital age, we’re very lucky that there are editors out there who are looking for these gems in unconventional places.
From Self-Publishing to Traditional Publishing
By Katja Millay
How it Began
Sometime late in December of 2011, I started imagining a girl. At that point I wasn’t worrying about plot points or character arcs or thematic threads. I was just fascinated by who she was. I couldn’t tell you where she came from; she didn’t come to me all at once, but rather in fragments. I thought about her more and more. And the more I learned about her, the more I wanted to know. And that’s where the story began.
I picked up a pen a few weeks later and on the first page of the first composition book, I wrote the scene that described what happened to that girl; that scene wouldn’t end up coming in until much later, but it is what started everything for me in the process. I would write whenever something came to me – pieces of dialogue, partial scenes, images. Before long, I had scraps of paper everywhere. There were conversations written on receipts and business cards. My nightstand had one notebook, then two, then three, then four and all of them had scraps shoved between the pages and post-its scattered throughout. It was a mess. Some of it was written in first person. Some of it was written in third person. None of it was written in order.
Months later, I reached a point when I was staring at a computer screen trying to talk myself out of walking away because the prospect of making sense of the mass of words on the masses of paper and working them into some semblance of narrative order was too daunting. I think the only reason I continued to do it was because I didn’t have to. No one was looking over my shoulder. No one was judging it. I had no deadlines or rules. If I finished it, I finished it. And if I didn’t, the only person who would ever know would be me. There’s an incredible amount of freedom involved in writing with no demands, for an audience of one.
I finally did work my way through all of the paper and somehow found myself with what looked suspiciously like a book. It needed work and I knew I wasn’t done, but I was close, and for the first time, I sat in front of a computer with well over 100,000 words of a first draft, I let myself ask, “Now what?”
Deciding to Self-Publish
“Now what?” wasn’t part of my original plan. I know that may seem absurd. Why write a book you never plan to let anyone read? But the prospect of letting people read it scared the hell out of me. I wrote it because I wanted to tell myself a story. I wanted to see what happened to these characters and yes, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could. I’d had half stories in my head for years; unfinished characters and narratives that I would never write a word of, much less, see to conclusion. And for a lot of reasons, I was at a point in my life where I needed to see this one through.
I was aware of self-publishing. I knew that a lot of people were going that route and that it was fairly accessible. I had read an article a year earlier by a self-published author discussing his experiences. I thought it was interesting. The vague possibility flitted through my head for a moment and then I had promptly forgotten about it. Until that moment. But the publishing industry has been changing rapidly and continues to change by the day. I didn’t know much about that at the time but I did know enough to realize that there were opportunities. There were options and I had them. And so does every other writer out there.
I never once entertained the thought of going the traditional route. I had read horror stories about the long, arduous querying process, and even if I had known where to begin, nothing about it appealed to me. And to be honest, I believed I had a very unmarketable book in my hands. I wrote the book I wanted to write and I wrote it for me. Does that mean I thought it was perfect? Hell, no. No book is. Did that mean I thought everyone would love it? No, that doesn’t happen either. But I knew that if I kept it the way it was, at the end of all of this, at least one person would be happy with it. I didn’t want to turn it into something it wasn’t for the chance to get it to a marketplace. And because of self-publishing, I didn’t have to. Not to mention, querying agents is time consuming. I knew that if I waited I probably would have found eight ways to talk myself out of doing it. So I didn’t give myself the opportunity. I decided that if I was going to send it out into the world, I would do it myself.
And this is where my ignorance came to light and my education began.
I knew next to nothing. The amazing part is that that was okay. It’s okay if you don’t know how it all works and as overwhelming as the process may seem from the outside looking in, it’s nothing you can’t learn. It will require work and time and effort, but the resources and tools are there to help you every step of the way.
I started with tutorials on the websites for the online retailers where I planned to sell it. I read them once and then I read them again. I scoured the blogs of successful self-published authors and read the posts where they would offer tips and insights into the process and I went from there. I researched cover artists and formatters and how to put a book on Goodreads and about a hundred other little things that had never crossed my mind before.
Revising the Manuscript
In the meantime, I was revising my manuscript non-stop. I revised and read and revised again. I cut and polished and tweaked until my eyes were close to bleeding and I finally had it to a point where I felt I had done everything I could do and I was at peace with it – or at least as close to at peace with it as I was going to get. To this day, I could pick it up and still find words I think I should change.
In the weeks leading up to the release, I thought about marketing and promotion and how I would get the word about the book out. No one knew me. I had no social footprint at all and if you’re going to self-publish a book, you need a presence in online social media. And that’s something that most people already have, at least to some extent. I think I was in the minority, being someone with no social media presence whatsoever. Learning to navigate Facebook and poring over Twitter tutorials to figure out what a hashtag is and how to use one probably won’t be aspects that most people have to worry about. I can still recall the day I picked up the phone to call my husband at work to say “HA! I know what a hashtag is!” I don’t think he was particularly impressed with my newfound knowledge but I was pretty satisfied with myself.
I was able to meet some people through those social media avenues as my release approached and even those few contacts helped give me a sense of comfort because up until that point I felt very, very alone in the entire process. I wished that I had at least one author friend to ask for advice because it was stressful and scary and intimidating. This was the point where I probably should have been sending out ARCs, scheduling a blog tour and posting teasers. But I wasn’t even remotely savvy when it came to the ins and outs of promotion. My marketing campaign consisted of submitting a total of four or five review requests and posting a link to my Goodreads description on FB and Twitter.
I hit the publish button in the first week of September 2012. Then I waited. The first weekend it was out, I sold a grand total of 45 books. One of those was bought by my mom. Seven of them I bought myself for giving away. With the exception of my mother, husband and one beta reader, I still hadn’t told anyone I knew about the book, so I was reasonably sure that the other thirty seven copies were bought by people who did not know me personally. I realize most people wouldn’t necessarily be so excited about selling 37 books over the course of three days but I had come in with no expectations so 37 books, bought by people who weren’t my friends, made me pretty happy. Then over the course of those first couple weeks, the reviews started posting and the sales started to inch up a little bit. And that’s when things began getting surreal.
I wasn’t selling a huge number of books, but the books I was selling were getting a reaction. The response was overwhelming and emotional in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Writing is an incredibly personal process. When you put so much of yourself into a piece of work and you decide to send it out in the world, you hope that people connect with it and that they see in it what you do. You hope that it makes them feel something for the characters whether it’s sympathy or happiness or fear or relief or disgust. But it’s frightening – which is actually a euphemistic way of saying gut-wrenchingly terrifying – at least for me.
I can’t describe what it was like to hear the initial reactions. Reader response has been more than I ever imagined. I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the incredibly personal reactions that readers have shared with me. One by one, I began “meeting” some of the kindest, most incredible people. Since the time those first responses began coming in back in September, connecting with readers has continued to be the greatest blessing of this entire experience.
A little more than three weeks after the release, I was online waiting for a blog review to post when a message popped up from an editor at Simon & Schuster. I blinked. I blinked again. I chose one or two of my favorite expletives to commemorate the moment and from there everything happened very quickly. At that point TSoT was probably sitting around five hundred or so in the Kindle Store rankings on Amazon – respectable enough for a book that came out of nowhere and pretty exciting to me but not the kind of numbers that would catch the eye of traditional publishing professionals or get it any real visibility. The notice that the book was getting wasn’t coming from the sales numbers but from the readers and the blogging community. When I asked my editor not long ago how she found TSoT in spite of the fact that it had never come close to the top one hundred, she said that it was a blog review that caught her attention and spurred her to read the book and contact me. Within days of receiving her message, I had secured an agent, and by mid-November the book had been taken over by Atria.
The Power of Word of Mouth
The indie book market has exploded recently. In the less than one year that I’ve been involved, the sheer volume of self-published books being released has increased exponentially and continues to do so. What gets one book noticed over another? Any of a number of things. In my case, I believe it came down to word-of-mouth.
I don’t think the manner in which TSoT was picked up was common but I do believe we may begin to see it happening more and more. I’ve learned that while impressive sales numbers are incredible, you can never discount the power of readers and the force that is word-of-mouth. Passionate readers and bloggers are an author’s best friends. They are the reason TSoT found its way into the hands of an editor who loved it and scouted it, not because of how many copies it was selling, but because she believed in the book and saw others who believed in it too. These days it’s becoming more and more common for indie authors to secure traditional publishing deals. The self-publishing industry provides a market testing ground for books. If they find success in the indie market, then it stands to reason that there’s a good possibility they’ll continue to find that success with a traditional publisher and the publishers have begun recognizing that.
One of the questions I was frequently asked after the takeover was – how much did they make you change? The answer – nothing. With the exception of the cover and a light copy edit, the book is virtually the same. The only content edits that were made to the original text were the changes I personally wanted to make.
Some people have asked if I regret not having pursued a traditional publishing route from the start. I have never regretted the choice to self-publish and I would absolutely consider self-publishing in the future. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to experience both indie and traditional publishing and I’ve had amazing experiences in both.
There are reasons so many indie authors choose to keep one foot in the self-publishing world even after they’ve signed with a publisher. There are pros and cons to both sides. With self-publishing, you have complete creative control. You have the final say on every word, on the description copy, on the cover, on the price. There is also an immediacy in self-publishing. Once you’re done with the process – you’ve written the book, revised & edited, approved the cover, done the formatting – you can hit publish and in a matter of hours your book is available to the public. It takes months of work; it’s certainly not instant gratification but it’s about as close to instant gratification as you’ll get in the publishing world. I think it’s natural for a writer, once they’ve done all they can do on their story to want to share it. Waiting can be painful. Self-publishing allows you to avoid that wait. And, in the end, the rights to your work are your rights. You own them forever.
However, when you self-publish a book, you become a one-person publishing company responsible for everything from putting the words on paper to the marketing and publicity. Everything that needs to get done you must either do yourself or oversee. It is time consuming and when you’re doing it for the first time it can seem daunting. It helps if you have an entrepreneurial spirit because you won’t just need to be a writer, you’ll need to be a businessperson too. Your hands will be in every aspect of the publishing process. This is great for those of us who are control freaks because we are the be-all and end-all of decision making power when it comes to our books. But all that control comes at a cost and that cost is time – time many of us would probably prefer to spend writing.
That’s not to say that you won’t have to worry about all of those aspects as an author signed with a publishing house. You will and you should. It’s your book. You just won’t have to be the only person worrying about them. You have a team of people working to support you who have a vested interest in your book and your success; a population of experts with the experience you need in every area are there to work with you through every step of the process.
So, is one any better than the other? Possibly. Which one? That depends on you and what your priorities are. In the nine months since I hit the publish button on TSoT, the self-publishing landscape has changed dramatically and continues to do so. Every day provides new scenarios and new insights. The only certainty is that the publishing world is evolving rapidly and everyone is running to catch up. The next few years are going to be exciting to say the least. I think it’s an amazing time to be an author – and a reader.
The Joy of Storytelling
As for myself, I’m continuing to write. I don’t feel so alone in any of this anymore. I have been embraced by some of the most open, generous authors on both sides of the publishing world and I’ve learned more than I ever expected. And for as much as things have changed for me since this all began last year, I’m trying to keep some things the same. I still don’t feel comfortable talking about what I’m writing until it’s finished. And I still want to be able to write for me, for the joy of simply telling a story, surrounded by torn paper and indecipherable words that I will curse myself for having to sort out later.
Last week I walked into a bookstore and saw a copy of The Sea of Tranquility sitting on a shelf looking back at me. If you had described that scenario for me a year ago I would have laughed rather maniacally and suggested you seek help. Today I would simply smile, shake my head and say, “Who knew?”
The Sea of Tranquility is available in stores and online now. Don’t miss this one if you’re a fan of romantic contemporary YA/New Adult fiction!
Win a copy of The Sea of Tranquility!
Thanks to our friends at Atria Books, we’re giving away a finished copy of this lovely book. All you have to do is to leave a thoughtful comment below telling us why you’re excited about reading this book, and to fill out the Rafflecopter form.
Our thanks to Katja Millay for sharing her story with us, and to Atria Books for providing the prize for this giveaway! Photos appear courtesy of the author.
About the Author
Katja Millay grew up in Florida and graduated with a degree in film & television production from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has worked as a television producer and a film studies and screenwriting teacher. Currently she resides in Florida with her family. The Sea of Tranquility is her first book, and is available now in stores and online.