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November 20, 2018
By Daniel Lefferts

In its third year, the BookLife Prize—an annual writing contest sponsored by Publishers Weekly and BookLife—received more than 900 submissions. Of those, 30 books advanced to the semifinals. From there, a panel of six judges selected six titles to advance to the finals. The grand prize winner, set to be announced on December 17, will be selected by the judges and PW’s editorial staff. PW caught up with the six BookLife Prize judges to talk about self-publishing, writing, and a whole lot more.

Eleanor Brown: The Power of an Editor

Is there a difference between self-published and traditionally published work? According to Eleanor Brown, a returning judge and the author of three traditionally published novels, there sometimes is, but its not what one would expect.

“The difference I find is not about the writing but about the editorial process,” Brown says. “Folks who choose to self-publish—their writing and their stories are often just as good. But someone else weighing in could have helped them strengthen the book.”

That’s why Brown thinks it’s a good idea for self-published authors to work with editors or critical readers, even if they’re still in the middle of a project. Editorial insight, even on a single story or chapter, can be useful in the long term, she says.

Brown knows the value of editorial advice firsthand. “I have a tendency to want a really happy, tight, tidy ending,” she says. “With my first novel, my editor said, ‘This is too tidy.’ So, I always make sure I untie it just a little bit at the end.”

As a judge, Brown looks for signs of editorial sophistication in submissions: “Making sure the story arc is satisfying without being obvious. Making sure the question the story is answering is the same one it asks at the beginning. Making sure loose ends are tied up, that subplots and themes are rich enough to support something book length.” Working with an editor on these and other matters, she says, can help indie authors “take their work to the next level.”

And BookLife Prize entrants are clearly committed enough to their work to take that step, Brown says. “If people are serious enough to enter and serious enough to get to this stage, it usually means they’re serious enough to have developed their work until it’s something really solid.”

Brown selected Anne and Louis by Rozsa Gaston for the BookLife Prize finals, calling it “a lively, engaging story, rich with historical detail.”

Adam Croft: The Elusive Happy Ending

The story of Adam Croft’s self-publishing career is the kind that inspires novice writers. Since 2011, when he self-published his first crime novel, Too Close for Comfort, through Amazon’s Kindle Direct program, Croft has sold hundreds of thousands of books. As of 2016, according to a profile in the Guardian, his proceeds were up to almost $3,000 per day.

But Croft advises aspiring writers not to read too much into such tales. “People often see the success stories out there and think it’s easily or quickly emulated,” he says. “It’s very, very possible, but it does require applied effort over time.”

Croft gained renown with his 2015 novel Her Last Tomorrow, which sold 150,000 copies in the first five months after its publication. “The truth is that was my ninth book,” he says. “It’s a case of sticking with it.”

Croft does believe in the power of self-publishing, however. After he published Her Last Tomorrow, the author signed a book deal with Amazon, but later ended his relationship with the company and says he wouldn’t work with a traditional publisher again. “Not unless the deal was extraordinary,” he says. “I’ve been there, and it’s nowhere near as good.”

In Croft’s view, the line between self-publishing and traditional publishing has blurred to the point of almost no longer existing. The self-published authors “who do it properly tend to use the same editors and the same cover designers as a traditional publishing house,” he says.

For readers of crime novels, of course, it’s the story that counts. According to the Guardian, in 2017 crime overtook general and literary fiction as the most popular book genre in the U.K. That doesn’t surprise Croft. “I think the reason for that is that we seek happy endings,” he says. “We like to see the bad guys get caught.”

Croft selected A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Kelly Jameson for the BookLife Prize finals, calling the book a “fascinating and intriguing twist on the crime genre.”

Julie Powell: The “Tricky Genre”

After an author publishes her first memoir, does she start looking at her life as a potential second memoir? For a while after writing her bestselling debut memoir, Julie & Julia (which later became a film starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep), Julie Powell, a returning judge, did. She compares the experience to affecting an “authentic” personality on social media.

“On social media I try to present myself in an unvarnished way,” Powell says. “But, still, you’re composing: ‘Oh, this is an incident.’ All of us do some of that now.”

For memoirists, though, it can be more extreme. “Immediately after writing Julie & Julia, I was definitely like, ‘What does this mean? How is this going to weave into the warp and weft?’ ” she says. “I’ve kind of let go of that now, maybe just because my life is really boring.”

After all, for Powell, a good memoir is one that brings context to a life, rather than one that focuses on its every particular. “Memoir is a tricky genre,” she says. “You want to hear this person’s innermost unique thoughts. At the same time, you don’t want to spend 300 pages reading navel-gazing.”

Memoirs also need to balance pathos with humor. Readers don’t want to feel that they’re “slogging through the Bataan Death March of despair all the time,” Powell says. “Levity is a vital thing.”But at the same time, it shouldn’t come at the expense of seriousness, she notes. “There’s a difference between bringing humor and warmth to a story that might have some difficulties and being blithe and glib. Glib is the enemy of memoir.”

Powell also says that she finds herself drawn to memoirs by people with a “vastly different—or even subtly different—experience” than she’s previously encountered. “You want your eyes open to something you haven’t seen before,” she adds. “There are only so many memoirs I can read about middle-aged white ladies having a renaissance.”

Powell selected Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches by Oanh Ngo Usadi for the BookLife Prize finals, praising the author’s “empathy and vivid storytelling.”

Tim Pratt: Honor Thy Fans

Tim Pratt, a returning judge, began his career in self-publishing in order to feed his fans. In 2009, he published the fourth book in his Marla Mason series, about an adventurous witch, with Bantam Spectra, which was then a Random House imprint.

Around that time, the industry entered dire straits. “About a third of publishing was laid off,” Pratt says—including his editor. The Marla Mason series looked to be dead.

Pratt had ended the fourth book in the series on a cliffhanger; he and his editor had planned to publish a fifth title. When it became evident that the series would not continue, readers wrote to him expressing frustration that the story had been left unresolved.

Pratt decided to serialize the fifth title on his website. He set up a PayPal account for readers who wanted to pay for the book. He ended up taking in five figures.

Since then, Pratt has self-published myriad novels and short stories, sometimes collaborating with a small publisher on distribution and design. These include several more titles in the Marla Mason series, which he crowdfunds on Kickstarter. His income from these books tends to be similar to his income from traditionally published works. Random House paid him $20,000 per book in the Marla Mason series. The Kickstarter campaigns for self-published Marla Mason titles have brought as much as $18,000 per book.

Still, Pratt likes to keep a foot in the door of traditional publishing, partly to grow the readership for his self-published output. “I’m fundamentally a lazy person, so if I can have a publisher get my books out in front of tens of thousands of people through their distribution channels, I like that,” he says.

Pratt isn’t actually all that lazy. He works full-time as a senior editor at the science fiction and fantasy magazine Locus. He has one weekday off, Thursday, and that’s his writing day. “I have no hobbies,” he jokes. “I write, and I hang out with my kids.”

Given that Pratt lives and breathes science fiction and fantasy, he’s looking for entries that feel fresh: books that couldn’t just as well have come from a mainstream publisher and that don’t fit an already robust niche in the genre.

Pratt selected Fid’s Crusade by David H. Reiss for the BookLife Prize finals, calling it “one of the most refreshing and lively takes on the superhero genre I’ve seen in years.”

Rebecca Sky: Know Your Audience

By the time Rebecca Sky published her debut novel, Arrowheart, with Hodder Children’s Books earlier this year, she already had millions of readers. That’s because she originally published the novel in serial format on the user-generated storytelling platform Wattpad. At present, Arrowheart—which is about female descendants of the Greek God Eros who have the power to take a man's will with a kiss—has been read more than 12 million times on that website.

Publishing on Wattpad, Sky says, helped her hone her craft. With millions of people reading each installment of the book, “I learned how to take feedback and assess what worked for me and worked for my story and my vision,” she says.

It also helped Sky shape her story so as to maximize reader satisfaction. “I was learning what my readers were anticipating as I was writing,” she says. “I was able to change direction or surprise them.”

Sky no longer publishes on Wattpad, but she remains connected to the community of readers and fellow writers she found there. She’s also drawing on her experience in publishing to counsel writers who are just starting out. In addition to judging contests such as the BookLife Prize, she works as a mentor with Pitch Wars, a program through which established writers help novices find agents.

“I’m picking writers out of the slush pile who I think have what it takes,” Sky says. It would appear that she has good instincts. All her mentees thus far have landed agents, and a mentee of hers from two years ago went on to sign a six-figure book deal.

Sky’s success story might inspire first-time writers to publish their work as soon as possible, but she advises caution. “Once you put your work out there, that’s it,” she says. “That’s your first work. Don’t rush into that.”

Sky also recommends that writers do their research. “Take time to explore the genre,” she says. “Read a lot of what’s been successful in self-publishing and what’s been successful in traditional publishing and compare that to your work.”

Sky selected Ray vs. the Meaning of Life by Michael F. Stewart for the BookLife Prize finals. “This author has a new fan in me,” she says.

Rebekah Weatherspoon: Creating Space for Diversity

According to her website, Rebekah Weatherspoon, a returning judge, has held the following jobs: “library assistant, meter maid, middle school teacher, B-movie production assistant, reality show crew chauffeur, D-movie producer, and her most fulfilling job to date, lube and harness specialist at an erotic boutique in West Hollywood.” In addition to all that, of course, she’s built a career as a romance author. Though she started out as a self-published author, she eventually began working with traditional presses and recently signed a deal with Kensington.

Given Weatherspoon’s robust résumé, it’s perhaps no surprise that her first advice to novice writers to is to figure out what kind of authorial output they can sustain. “I don’t write as fast as some really prolific authors,” she says. “I can’t set myself up for, say, a Nora Roberts career. I just don’t write that fast. It’s important for people to sit down, think about what resources and tools they have at hand, what kind of time they have.”

It’s also important for writers to take care of themselves. “Sleep is really important,” Weatherspoon says. “If you’re sleep-deprived, you’re not going to put out a good book, or it’s going to take you even longer.”

Weatherspoon finds it odd that, in the writing world, people don’t often talk about the actual labor of composition. At writing conferences and seminars she’s attended, “there’s always a lot talk about what to do after you finish your book, and there’s not a lot of talk about finishing the book,” she says. “A lot of people who are thinking about publishing or working toward publishing, they haven’t really sat down and thought about finishing the book yet.”

And, ideally, when that book is finished, it’ll offer readers something they haven’t been expecting. As a judge, Weatherspoon says, she’s looking for something “a little bit different.”

That reflects her tastes as a reader more generally. When Weatherspoon looks for stories that reflect her experience, she often looks to self-published books. “I’m a black queer woman,” she says. “It’s easier for me to find more romance novels with black heroines and queer people in the self-published realm. There are plenty of wonderful traditionally published books by black women. But there aren’t as many.”

Weatherspoon runs the website WOC in Romance to promote the work of women of color in the genre, and her community of fellow readers shares her sentiments. “We share new releases every week, and 80% of the books we share are self-published,” she says.

Does Weatherspoon think that self-publishing is putting pressure on traditional publishing to be more diverse? “I would hope so,” she says. “But I think if the pressure were actually there, traditional publishers would have done something about it already. And they haven’t.”

Weatherspoon selected After the Gold by Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese for the BookLife Prize finals, calling the book “a light yet magnetic tale of life and love.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the plot of Rebecca Sky's novel Arrowheart.