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Lisa Nowak: Interview and Book Giveaway

Today I'm happy to offer you an interview with Lisa Nowak. Lisa is a longtime follower of Literary Rambles and a friend. I read an early draft of her debut Running Wide Open and we've exchanged countless e-mails over the past couple years as she's navigated the publishing process. While I have reservations about non-proven writers self-publishing, I totally support it when it's right for a book and its author, and for Lisa, I think it was. I'm thrilled to have her on the blog to share her experience and book with you. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments. Lisa might have time to drop in and answer!

Before we begin, here's the book summary:

Cody Everett has a temper as hot as the flashpoint of racing fuel, and it's landed him at his uncle's trailer, a last-chance home before military school. But how can he take the guy seriously when he calls himself Race, eats Twinkies for breakfast, and pals around with rednecks who drive in circles every Saturday night?

hat Cody doesn't expect is for the arrangement to work. Or for Race to become the friend and mentor he's been looking for all his life. But just as Cody begins to settle in and get a handle on his supercharged temper, a crisis sends his life spinning out of control. Everything he's come to care about is threatened, and he has to choose between falling back on his old, familiar anger or stepping up to prove his loyalty to the only person he's ever dared to trust.

Hi Lisa! It’s so awesome to have you on Literary Rambles. Can you introduce yourself and your novel RUNNING WIDE OPEN?

Running Wide Open is a coming-of-age story about 15-year-old Cody Everett. After a lifetime of abuse from his manipulative mother, he gets busted for tagging and shipped off to live with a laid-back uncle who calls himself Race, eats Twinkies for breakfast, and drives a stock car at the local track. Cody’s sure his new situation won’t work out, but he finds himself drawn into the racing community. Even more importantly, Race becomes the friend and mentor he’s always wanted.

I’m a retired stock car racer, a cat whisperer, a landscaper, and a professional smart ass. (Yes, I can provide credentials.) People tend to confuse me with a certain diaper-wearing astronaut, but I assure you I’m well housebroken and I’ve never been higher than 30,000 feet.

Cody’s story manages to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and I think teens (and adults!) will find elements to relate to even if they aren’t into stock-car racing. What led you to write this particular novel? Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote it?

I had two audiences in mind. The first was teens, particularly those who come from difficult family situations. I often escaped into books when I was a kid to escape my dysfunctional and depressing life, and I wanted to pay it forward in that respect. The second audience was the stock car racing community. I think of Running Wide Open as a crossover novel because I’ve had so many adults come away from it commenting that it’s more than “just a kids’ book.” For that reason, I think it will be as popular with adult race fans as it is with teens.

My biggest reason for writing this story was to provide a glimpse of the stock car racing community. People tend to poke fun at circle track fans and racers, dismissing them as rednecks, but that’s really selling them short. These folks are family-oriented and fiercely loyal. Once they’ve welcomed you into the fold, woe be it to anybody who goes against you. They also have their own particular ethic code. For example, finding ways to get around a rule without directly breaking it might be considered creative engineering rather than cheating. And when someone breaks down, it’s not unusual for a competitor, even a sworn enemy, to lend that driver a part so he won’t fall behind in the points. I was fortunate enough to spend four years as part of the Eugene Speedway community. That experience left an indelible mark on my life—in fact re-wrote the entire course of it.
It only felt right to pay tribute.

Do you have a favorite quote or scene from the book you'd like to share or talk about?

You know, Race and Cody both have a lot of great zingers, but when it comes down to it, I think Denny Brisco, one of the secondary characters, has a line that best sums up the book. “Family is everything to us racers. If you happen to lack one, someone just takes you into theirs.”

You’ve had an interesting journey. At one point you had a literary agent, at another a contract with an epub on the table, but you decided to self-publish. What was involved in these decisions?

Actually, I had offers from both an epub and a small traditional press. As for the agent, that came about as a result of four years of relentless submissions. Running Wide Open and its companion book, Driven, were not an easy sell. I got great feedback, but everyone said they just weren’t right for his or her list. Maybe I would’ve had better luck if I’d written about stock car racing vampires. When I finally did sign with an agent, she didn’t have any more success than I had, but again, we got plenty of positive comments. I came to the conclusion that the powers that be simply couldn’t see the market potential for my books. Which is kind of amusing, considering politicians realized the power of this community when they coined the term “NASCAR dads.”

My first serious thought to the idea of self-publishing came in August of 2010, when I saw Colleen Houck speak at the Willamette Writers Conference. Her ebook had become a best-seller on Amazon.com, and as a result, she’d lured in an agent and a movie deal. That told me it could be done, but I knew it was a one-in-a-million kind of thing, and I didn’t think it was for me. Fast-forward to Januar
y of 2011, when I heard agent April Eberhardt speak at another Willamette Writers event. She talked about the ebook revolution, and how it was changing the way agents were doing business. A friend of mine, also in that audience, was starting up an ebook publishing company. She wanted my entire series. Once I’d heard April’s speech, I was pretty well sold on doing it myself, but after conducting more research I decided to join forces with my friend. We worked together for a couple of months, at which time RainTown, a small press specializing in YA and MG fiction, finished reviewing the submission I’d made to them the previous fall. They wanted Running Wide Open and called me into a meeting. Let me tell you, it was a rush sitting down with five people who loved my book and believed in it. I had a great time discussing characters and setting, as well as brainstorming marketing ideas. One editor gave me the ultimate compliment for a woman writing from a male perspective. She said that while they’d been discussing the book, she’d kept referring to me as “he” and having to be corrected, because my teen boy voice was so convincing.

But, nice as it was to finally get some validation by securing a traditional deal, by that point I’d had a taste of empowerment. I’ve always been independently minded. It just took a shift in awareness for me to realize I could apply that to my writing career. Books take time to build a following, especially when you’re relying on wor
d of mouth advertising. I didn’t want to be at the whims of a company who could decide after a month or two that Running Wide Open wasn’t doing well enough by their standards. I didn’t want to live in constant fear that my next book wouldn’t suit the needs of an industry that tries to guess what the market will be doing two years in advance. I also realized that with self-publishing, I’d have the opportunity to make a living from my writing, something that rarely happens for traditional authors. I guess the simplest way to put it is, I wanted to be in the driver’s seat.

All that said, I’m really glad I had an agent and a traditional offer. Those two things give me legitimacy in a world where self-publishing hasn’t fully gained the respect of the majority.

I love the final cover of RUNNING WIDE OPEN, but I know you had a different cover initially. What’s the story behind your cover(s)? How important is the cover of a self-published book, in your opinion?

My first cover featured a helmet and a notebook, two items that have significance in the story. But the feedback I was getting said those images weren’t telling people enough about the book. Starting over was a gut-wrenching decision for me. First, I was afraid of offending my designer, Robin Ludwig. With every little change I asked for, I felt like I was knocking her talent. (I’ve since learned that cover design is all business, and artists are accustomed to clients asking for changes.) Then there was the pressure of coming up with something new. My friends said they wanted to see a car and a kid on the cover, so I started searching through stock photos. I invested five hours looking for a boy, and even then a good friend of mine said he didn’t look like the Cody she’d envisioned. That’s the problem with stock photos. And I never did find a car that would work. Finally, I dug out my old racing pictures, came up with a negative (remember those?) of a car I drove at Hickory Motor Speedway, and had it scanned at high resolution. I had to Photoshop the heck out of it to remove all identifying logos and fix the glare on the hood and roof. Readers will note that the car number and color aren’t an accurate representation of the one Race drives in the book, but at least it’s a Dodge Dart. The background image is also nothing like Eugene Speedway, which was a run-down short track. But there’s only so much you can do. The experience of facilitating this design really gave me some perspective. Now I know why covers often don’t match the story. Artists are limited in many ways, and unless an author is willing to pay big bucks for a private photo shoot, she’s not likely to get exactly what she wants.

As an indie author, a good cover is probably the most important promotion
al tool you can have. Some might argue that a well-written book is even more vital, but the fact is, if your cover doesn’t catch a person’s eye, he’s never going to give you a chance to impress him with your story.

What did you have to do to prepare for the release of RUNNING WIDE OPEN? What did you have to learn? How much time and money (if you’re willing to share) went into its publication?

A lot of preparation went into the release of this book. I started doing research in January, intending to publish in late March, but it was the first of June before the ebook was ready for public consumption. The paperback didn’t become available until mid-July. Among the things I had to learn were how to format an ebook and convert it to mobi (Kindle) and epub (Nook) and how to upload the various retailers. One of the biggest hurdles was forcing myself into situations where I wasn’t particularly comfortable, like filing a copyright, working with a cover designer, and negotiating the application process at Lightning Source. I had to learn how to ask for what I wanted and stand up for myself. I’m sure a lot of writers can relate to that difficulty. Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. You’re responsible for everything, right down to fact-checking your book. You can’t just shut your eyes and hope someone else will take care of that stuff for you.

As far as money, this book cost more than future ones will simply because I invested in 100 ISBNs (that’s the number used to track book sales). If you buy o
ne it costs $125. You can get 10 for $250 or 100 for $575. Since you need a minimum of four for each book (each format requires its own) and I plan to publish at least six books, it only made sense to get this out of the way from the start. There were also some expenses due to the learning curve (such as the second cover). In the future, I estimate it’ll take about $600 to publish a book in both ebook and paperback forms. That includes editing, cover design, POD set-up, and copyright.

RUNNING WIDE OPEN is available as both an e-book and print book. Are you happy with your decision to do print-on-demand as well as e-publishing? Would you recommend the POD company you’ve been working with?

Definitely, on both counts. POD usually isn’t where most indies make their money, but I think it’s a nice perk for readers. I kept my price low in the interest of getting the book out there.

POD has its own challenges because you have to understand a little about book design, something that’s not important with ebooks, where the user determines how th
ings look by adjusting the settings on their ereader. I chose to go with Lightning Source because they’re a professional printing company associated with Ingram, who distributes books to bookstores, and Baker and Taylor, who deals with libraries. Lightning Source isn’t an author services company. They won’t tell you how to format your book or market it. The learning curve is a bit higher, but the advantage is dealing with a professional company who’s independent of Amazon and who can get your books into foreign markets. I strongly recommend Lightning Source, but be aware that until you actually have an account, they’re not easy to get a response from.

How has marketing and promotion been so far? What is your approach?

It’s been both exasperating and fun. The exasperating part is the online stuff. It’s impossible to keep up with Facebook and Twitter, let alone things like Google+ , Goodreads, Linked-in and the like. I’ve been hearing more and more about how pointless these avenues are for promotion, though, since authors tend to target other authors, rather than their audience, so I’m not sweating it too much. My efforts have been concentrated more on in-person promotions. I’m sponsoring a 12-year-old racer at Sunset Speedway, and more recently I did a book giveaway at River City Speedway in St. Helens, Oregon. That track was a bit more relaxed, so they let me bring in my books and sell them directly to the fans. The announcer, who remembered me from my racing days at Portland Speedway, did a bang-up job of promoting the book, and because of him I made seven sales. The highlight of the night was seeing a boy reading Running Wide Open right there at the track while the racing was going on in front of him.

I think real-life marketing is more fun and effective than online promotions, but it takes time to build a following by word of mouth. I intend to do more speedway events next summer, and this fall I have other promotions scheduled. I’ll do several book signings, have a table at Wordstock, Portland’s writing extravaganza, and present to a class of future middle and high school teachers. I’m also trying to line up some gigs teaching others how to self-publish. I think it’s important for potential indie authors to understand that this is a business, and they have to conduct themselves professionally.

One other thing I’d like to note is that I never look at a book signing or author visit in terms of potential sales. I see it as an opportunity to network. Word of mouth isn’t about making a sale today. It’s about establishing a relationship that will lead to multiple sales down the road.

Has the writing community been supportive? Have you run into any resistance as a self-published author?

For the most part my local writing community has been pretty accepting. There have been a few skeptics, but the majority of authors are curious or even approving. They tend to view self-publishing as something they might use in the future to handle their backlist or books they’ve had a hard time selling. Others even seem to have a little admiration, seeing indies as pioneers. Frankly, I don’t worry too much about getting anyone’s approval. The only opinion I care about is the reader’s. On that front, I haven’t had any trouble getting support and respect.

I know you’ve gained a lot of knowledge about self-publishing since choosing to do so and are happy to educate others. What would you like to share that we haven’t covered already?

First, do your homework. Don’t go into this in a rush, throwing together any old thing and expecting to make a million dollars over night. Self-publishing is hard work, and you need to approach it with the proper planning, the same way you’d start any other business. I recommend reading Zoe Winter’s book Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author to gain an overview of what to expect and how to get started. When you’re ready to format your first book, go to Smashwords and download The Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker. If you start there and then convert your Word file to mobi and epub, you shouldn’t run into any of the typical problems many beginners have. For those whose brains just don’t get the whole computer thing, you can hire someone to do the formatting for you for a nominal fee. Smashwords keeps a list of people who can provide this service, and it’s something I’ve been thinking of getting into myself. When you’re ready for POD, get Aaron Shepard’s book, Perfect Pages. He details how to do the formatting using Word. While he tends to make some assumptions about people already knowing the various tools in the program, after reading his book, you’ll be able to create a professional-looking PDF that’s ready for submission to a printer.

My number one piece of advice is, be professional. Get feedback from critique groups and beta readers. Hire a professional editor. There are some qualified, affordable ones out there, you just have to keep looking. Have your cover designed by someone with experience. Create good sales copy, which is one of the three things (along with a cover and great writing) that will sell a book. All this can get expensive or it can be very affordable, depending on who you hire and what you can trade.

For those who are interested but haven’t yet started reading e-books, is there a particular device you recommend? Any words of encouragement you’d to like offer?

Since my only experience is with a Nook, I can’t really say which device is best. I’m happy with what I have, and I understand the new models have even better features, but I think it’s a matter of personal preference. People should do their research, maybe play with a friend’s ereader to see how they like it, and decide from there. I understand that there are some inexpensive off-brands as well.

Where can readers buy RUNNING WIDE OPEN?

It’s available as an ebook through all major online retailers including Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, Smashwords, Sony, The Apple Store, and even those obscure ones like Kobo and Diesel. The paperback can be purchased at Barnes and Noble.com or Amazon.com.

When will we be seeing other books in the series? Are you working on anything else?

There will be five books total in the Full Throttle series. Four are written and the last one is in outline stage. At this point I’m going through revisions to the second book, Getting Sideways, based on feedback from my editor. It should be available by the end of September in ebook form, and in paperback before Christmas.

Where can readers stay up-to-date on you and your books?

The best place to follow me is at my blog, the Tao of Webfoot. I’m also pretty good with Facebook. I’m not an active Twitter user (to me it feels like getting caught in a flash flood) but I do have an account and people can get in touch with me there if they want to. If you’d like occasional email updates, you can sign up for my newsletter . By “occasional” I mean less than once a month, so you don’t have to worry about being spammed.

Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your extensive knowledge of self-publishing, Lisa! I hope Cody’s story makes it into the hands of a lot of readers. His story deserves to be read, so I’m thrilled you’ve made it happen.

Thanks, Casey. I’ve been a fan of your blog since the early days, and being featured on it is an awesome opportunity.

Great insight into the self-publishing process, right? Lisa has graciously offered to give away a copy of Running Wide Open in e-book form. To enter, be a follower (if possible) and leave a comment. That's it! Feel free to enter even if you don't have an e-reader. E-books can be read on your computer, too. The giveaway is open until October 4th. Please consider spreading the word. Happy Wednesday!


Natalie Aguirre said...

Great interview Casey and Lisa. Lisa, that's so awesome you tapped into your own experiences in the racing community.

I will definitely come back to your interview if I ever decide I have the energy to self publish. You've given so much helpful advice on resources and what to think about in self publishing. Thanks.

Matthew MacNish said...

He gets busted for tagging? Like writing Graffiti?

If so that sounds awesome. Thanks for introducing me, ladies!

Carmella Van Vleet said...

Wow. Great interview. Thanks for all the insight on self-publishing and best of luck on the book. It sounds very interesting.

Kristin Lenz said...

I love the picture of the boy reading at the track, and the editor who kept referring to you as "he." What an amazing journey - you are very brave. Congrats, and all the best for you and your books!

Theresa Milstein said...

Running Wide Open sounds like it would fill a gap. I get a great voice just from reading the blurb. Good luck with the book, Lisa. Thanks for introducing her, Casey.

Michael Ferrari said...

Lots of great info on e-publishing and self-publishing, Lisa. In high school we used to go see local stock car racing on Saturday nights and I always wondered what a peak inside that life might be like. Sounds like an interesting book.

mplanck said...

There are so many great tips on writing, promoting, and self-publishing in Lisa's interview. But don't stop there. Read Running Wide Open. Unique, funny, educational, and compelling. And did I mention great characters and a fascinating background?

Michael G-G said...

Lisa, you've done a great job and worked really hard to make this a reality. You are a true Trailblazer. (From one Portlander to another!)

Thanks for this post, Casey. I really admire what Lisa has done.

erica and christy said...

Thanks, Matthew MacNish, I had NO IDEA what tagging was!

Lisa - you made the process really clear to follow for anyone who's interested. Good luck with the book!!

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

I think it's brave to step out on a limb like she is!

Linda A. said...

Race fans should love this one. I love that Lisa was open-minded about self-publishing. Best of luck to you.

Paula said...

Such an interesting post, and the book sounds awesome!

Good luck.

Lisa Nowak said...

Thanks, everyone, for your kind comments. It's nice to know people think of me as "brave" instead of "crazy." :) Interesting that some of you weren't sure about the term "tagging." It's not used in my promotional material, I just included it in this interview because it's supposed to be the popular term for graffiti these days. I guess I'll avoid that one in the future. If any of you decide to self-publish and need advice, feel free to email me. And Michael, if you make it to Wordstock, come by the Starving Writer booth and say hello. :)

Samantha Jean said...

I also don't know what tagging means but the story sounds incredible! It's so brave of you to undertake self-publishing even after a tradition publishing deal was offered. Kudos to you & best wishes too!

Do you have your book listed on goodreads.com? I haven't checked yet but will.

Thanks for the giveaway!

GFC: Samantha Jean

mr.boardgame AT yahoo DOT com

Angela Ackerman said...

Lisa, thank you so much for sharing your story and your experience! This was so incredibly helpful! You sound like someone who has a good bead on her future and I wish you all the best!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Jennifer J said...

Great interview! And it's nice to have some hard info about indie publishing. I also have a MG novel that defies easy marketing for publishers, so I've been looking at options. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, thanks for linking it on Facebook so we knew to look for it. I hope your indie quest is going well.

There's a Starving Writer booth at WordStock?

Anonymous said...

An awesome book! Definitley Book Award material. Thanks for a great read!

Lisa Nowak said...

Samantha, yes it's on Goodreads. Angela and Jennifer, I'm glad the information was helpful. Thanks, Robin and Anonymous. And yes, there is a Starving Writer booth at Wordstock. :)

Casey McCormick said...

Thank you again for the interview, Lisa! It's so fantastic to feature you here after following your journey these last few years. Wishing you much success!

Good luck with the giveaway, everyone!