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Please inform us a little about your latest book, Sister-in-Law and what makes it so different from your previous works.

 

Sister-in-Law is, like Made in China, a political thriller, but they are quite different. Made in China conveys a serious message about our dependence on foreign-made goods. I hoped it would create a bit of a dialogue on the issue. Sister-in-Law has no such pretensions—it’s purely entertainment. And it could not be more unlike my “Mrs. Kaplan” cozy mysteries, which is why I use a pen name for it, so followers of Mrs. Kaplan wouldn’t inadvertently pick up Sister-in-Law and be, well, a bit shocked. Cozies have no sex, no bad language, a minimum of violence, and often humor. While Sister-in-Law has minimal violence or bad language, there is a lot of sex. I began it when Fifty Shades of Gray had become so popular, and publishers were asking for more of the same. I wanted to write a book that would use sex not for its own sake, but as a logical part of an otherwise compelling story. Sister-in-Law has the excitement of a thriller with a protagonist for whom sex has dictated the stages of her life. Sex is only the mechanism by which the story unfolds. 

 

You’ve self-published, have signed with a small press, and have even managed to get a contract with the well-known New York publisher, Random House. First, please tell us a little about your experiences as a self-published author.

 

How did you get started?

 

As a lawyer and law professor, I wrote briefs, articles, casebooks, and treatises. When I retired from teaching, I wanted to continue writing, but unlike legal writing, where everything must be absolutely accurate, I was now free to use my imagination, create my own world. When an issue came along about which I felt strongly and which lent itself to an interesting plot, I turned it into my first novel, Made in China.

 

Why did you self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?

 

I sent the manuscript to several agents, but there were no takers. I became impatient and anxious to get my story “out there,” so I decided to just publish it myself. I signed up with one of the many self-publishing companies and paid them to create and publish the book.

 

Were you successful and how do you gage success?

 

I think I was very successful, in that I ended up with a well-designed book that I could be proud of. What reviews it received were excellent, and it has led to fascinating conversations with readers, such as at book club presentations. That was most important. But in terms of sales, it has never paid for itself, nor did I expect it to. I would have had to spend considerable time promoting the book on social media and considerable money purchasing advertising to get substantial sales, and I was more interested in writing my next book.

 

How many books did you self-publish and what are they?

 

Just the one, Made in China. Although a company in Australia has translated it into Chinese and made it available to the entire Chinese-speaking world, so in a way that’s a different book. 

 

Is this an experience you would re-visit––why or why not?

 

Not if I had a choice. I know self-publishing has come a long way in recent years, and some authors prefer it, but it’s still much different, and to me less rewarding, than having a traditional publisher. 

 

You eventually elected to try the traditional route and signed with Random House.

Why did you choose to try traditional publishing?

 

First, I did not want to spend again the considerable sum that Made in China cost to publish. I also felt that to be a credible author, one had to have the imprimatur of the professionals who are the gatekeepers of the industry. In other words, I needed “street cred.” At least at that time, self-publishing did not offer any, unless you were one of the few whose book somehow caught fire and became a best-seller. I also had written several law books for major publishers like Little, Brown, and I had enjoyed that experience.

 

What was the process that you used?

 

I sent the manuscript of my first “Mrs. Kaplan” book, Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death, to several agents, most of whom either replied with a form rejection or said they didn’t think an “ethnic” mystery like mine would have a large enough audience. (They turned out to be wrong.) I then looked for publishers who accepted un-agented submissions. Random House had recently started several new digital imprints to address the rise of digital books, and they were accepting submissions from authors. I submitted Mrs. Kaplan to their Alibi imprint, and it was accepted.

 

How long did it take to get a contract?

 

 Fortunately, the editor at Alibi loved Mrs. Kaplan and almost immediately offered me a contract.

 

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?

 

Nothing, really. I still would have preferred to have an agent and not be limited in what publishers I could submit to, so I still would have made that effort first. (I now have an agent, so in the future that shouldn’t be a problem.) 

 

What are some of the perks and drawbacks of traditional publishing opposed to self-publishing, in your opinion?

 

The “perks” are considerable: The publisher pays for publishing the book—editing, cover artwork, printing, distribution, and at least some marketing. (Independents and even some larger publishers these days expect the author to do most of their own marketing and promotion, especially on social media.) Major publishers and some independents offer an advance on royalties. They generally have experienced editors and designers who really know their business. Being traditionally published not only enhances one’s resume, but it makes the book easier to sell. Some bookstores still won’t handle self-published books, especially if they are “print on demand,” as most are. And major organizations like Mystery Writers of America won’t accept self-published authors. But there are drawbacks. A major publisher has thousands of authors, so although you’re the “flavor of the month” for a short while, they soon move on to the next in line and you become just a name on their long list. Also, it’s vital to read the publishing contract carefully to be sure you can live with all the terms. For example, I had to give Random House all the rights to “Mrs. Kaplan”—print, digital, audio, etc.—although they were only publishing it digitally. Not having print copies restricted potential sales and made signing events at stores, book clubs, etc. impossible. (In fact, that’s why I decided to find another publisher for Mrs. Kaplan, and why until I do those books have temporarily ceased to exist.). But I knew what I was signing and was glad to do it, for the benefits I mentioned.  

 

 

Today, you also have a contract with Black Opal Books, a small press.

How does this compare, both good and bad, to the traditional and self-publishing experiences that you have had?

 

In my opinion, there is nothing about self-publishing that I prefer to publishing with Black Opal. I don’t have out-of-pocket expenses, except perhaps for promotion. I have experienced professionals, themselves authors, helping to make my book as good as it can be. Also, I have the support of other Black Opal authors, who exchange information and share experiences among themselves. Compared with Random House, I feel I am receiving more personal attention, and that my book is a more important part of Black Opal’s business. Furthermore, my contract assures me of all the publishing features I want, without taking more of my rights than necessary. (In contrast, one of the three publishers that offered me a contract for Sister-in-Law refused to put in writing some of the assurances they had given me in our discussions.) The royalty rate is also better. On the down side, there is no advance, and there is less prestige than with Random House. When it comes to marketing and getting reviews in national media, although Black Opal has far more influence than a self-publisher has, it has less than a major publisher. For example, bookstores are more likely to stock books published by Random House than by an independent. So it’s definitely better than self-publishing, but both better and worse than publishing with the Big Five.

 

What was the process used to get a contract with Black Opal?

 

I followed their submission guidelines, sending in my manuscript with a query letter and synopsis. In time I received a nice response offering me a contract. I asked a few questions about the contract and what I needed to have, and when we were in mutual agreement, I signed on.

 

What has been your experience with Black Opal so far and would you recommend your author friends to submit their work to them?

 

So far, my experience has been quite positive, and I certainly would recommend them. I’m very pleased with the quality of the editing and the finished product, including the cover artwork. The folks at Black Opal have been easy to work with, open to suggestions and ready with advice, and as I mentioned, many BOB authors lend each other support and encouragement.  I feel I’m part of a close family of authors. Of course, Sister-in-Law won’t be launched until March 24th, so there is still part of the process to go, but so far, so good.

 

 

Having done all three types of publishing, what do you think can be improved upon to benefit the author more in any (or all) of these publishing paths?

 

It would be nice if the major publishers loosened the rules a little to allow authors to submit directly, perhaps during a limited period (as a few already do). When agents, who vary greatly in their judgment like anyone else, are the only gatekeepers, a lot of fine writing may be turned away. For self-publishing, I would like to see some way to ferret out the scams that take advantage of authors. For small publishers, perhaps contracts could be more standardized, so an author was less likely to inadvertently sign away more rights than he or she realized.

 

Do you favor one of the three publishing paths more than the others, and why?

 

I would prefer a traditional publisher over self-publishing if given the choice, and all things being equal, a major publisher over an independent, provided I could negotiate a satisfactory contract. But if I couldn’t, at my present stage I would prefer a good independent to a major offering a less-than-desirable deal.

 

What is one thing you’ve always wished you’d be asked in an interview, but haven’t, and what’s your answer?

 

I don’t think anyone ever asked me why, as a lawyer and law professor, I don’t write about the law, as most lawyer-authors seem to do. The answer is that I tried it, and I learned an important lesson: An author should write about what he feels, not just what he knows. Many years ago, I tried to write a mystery story featuring a law professor as amateur sleuth, merely because I was a law professor and knew all about law schools and such. It was so bad I never even sent it out. But much later, when an issue came along that I felt strongly about—the risks behind outsourcing almost all our manufacturing to foreign countries—I turned it into a pretty good story. It required a lot of research about manufacturing and recent Chinese history, but it didn’t require knowing any of that in advance. Similarly with Sister-in-Law: I knew very little about escort agencies and call girls, not to mention the inner workings of the White House, but I researched what I had to know. (Strictly academic research, of course.) As another BOB author, Paul Sinor, said in a recent blog, “it’s more important to know about what you write than to write about what you know.”