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Dec 22, 2014
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Feather the Clutch: My Journey to Becoming an Indie Author

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Twenty-six years later, I think I finally know what “feather the clutch” means. Do that thing that I can’t really tell you in words how to do but when you’re doing it right you’ll feel it and that sickening grinding sound will stop and you’ll sail along in the direction you want to go.

Crossing Over, Homepage Sub  •  Dec 19, 2012

 

By S. W. Hubbard

Twenty-six years ago my husband attempted to teach me to drive a standard transmission.  This undertaking had all the elements of good suspense fiction: plenty of conflict, mounting tension, hair-raising close calls, sudden jolts, and finally, a cryptic message from the frantic hero.  “Feather the clutch! Feather the clutch!”

This rather oblique advice didn’t help me, and I’ve been driving an automatic ever since.  However, I do understand how to shift gears, not as a driver, but as a writer.  When I began writing fiction, I didn’t know squat about genres and markets.  Innocent that I was, I just sat down and started writing the kind of book I liked to read: a traditional police procedural set in a small town, with a detective who spends more time talking than shooting.

Ten years of work produced TAKE THE BAIT and got me a wonderful literary agent.  In a nifty stroke of luck, my manuscript crossed the editor’s desk just as Pocket Books was expanding its mystery line, and I landed a three book deal.  Three years later, in a less nifty stroke, Pocket Books decided to scrap its mystery line, and my series lived no more.  I took the news with equanimity.  After all, once I had broken into the rarefied world of traditional publishing, how hard could it be to get another contract?  “Write something different,” my agent advised.  “There’s no market for traditional mysteries.”

Full of hard-won knowledge, I considered my options for producing a best-seller. Go bigger and add some crimes against humanity?  Go woo-woo and add some undead?  Go zany and add some madcap escapades? I tried them all and couldn’t get past 50 pages and some really convoluted synopses.  Finally, I shifted from police procedural to romantic suspense, from a third person, male point of view to a first person female point of view, and from a murder-driven plot, to a character-driven story about a woman whose life is changed by a long-ago crime.  A novel emerged, devoid of terrorists, or vampires, or screwball criminals.

My agent called it a personal journey thriller.  I liked that description!  I wasn’t aware it was a sub-genre, though.  Apparently, neither was the rest of the publishing world.  Every New York editor who read the manuscript loved it, but alas, none of them could buy it.  Because they didn’t know where to “place”it.  Or how to market it.  Or how to guarantee it would make a ton of money.

Despair set in.  Should I go back and weave in some wacky vampire serial killers? I know all about sub-genres and markets now.  I know all about revision. But one thing hasn’t changed.  I still only want to write the kind of book I love to read.  ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE is that book.  It’s got a heroine who’s funny, and brave, and stubborn, and a nervous wreck at cocktail parties. It’s got some good guys who screw up and some bad guys who try to do the right thing.  It’s got a scroungy mutt named Ethel.  You can read the first chapter here.

What it doesn’t have is a traditional publisher. Just me, in a new role as author, publisher and marketer.  My choices were to throw the manuscript in the bottom drawer to collect dust or to self-publish.  I chose self-publishing.  My agent cautioned me, “It’s brutal out there.  It’ll be very hard to attract attention.  You’ll have to do all your own promotion. Only a few authors make any money by self-publishing.”

All true.  But guess what?  Traditionally published mid-list authors face all the same challenges.  They get no support from their publishers, have to do all their own promotion, receive miniscule advances, and rarely make any money.  What’s more, they live under the constant threat of being dropped by their publishers.

As an indie author, I have plenty of worries.  But at least I know my contract will always be renewed.

Oh, and 26 years later, I think I finally know what “feather the clutch” means.  It means do that thing that I can’t really tell you in words how to do but when you’re doing it right you’ll feel it and that sickening grinding sound will stop and you’ll sail along in the direction you want to go.

I still can’t drive a stick.  But I can feather the clutch.

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S.W. Hubbard’s most recent novel is Another Man’s Treasure. She is also is the author of three mystery novels set in the Adirondack Mountains: Take the Bait, Swallow the Hook, and Blood Knot. Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the anthologies Crimes by Moonlight, Adirondack Mysteries, and the upcoming Mystery Box. She lives in Morristown, NJ, where she teaches creative writing to enthusiastic teens and adults, and expository writing to reluctant college freshmen.

  • http://stephenstark.me Stephen Stark

    It’s almost funny that your agent said that it’s brutal out there after a whole slew of editors loved your novel and then in the same breath said they wouldn’t publish it.

    From despair to midlist invisibility to your discovery of how to do that thing you can’t explain, every bit of this post is true, true, true, and probably rings as such to a whole lot of writers.

    I ghosted a “national bestseller” and get half the royalties and I can tell you that even it has gotten essentially NO support from the publisher in terms of advertising, publicity or anything else, and it’s been selling, in several editions, since its publication in 1997. I imagine that it could’ve sold a whole lot more if they’d advertised just a little. Gotten the doctor on some talk shows. Anything. Nope. It’s all fine and dandy with them. It’s earned out its advance and in their view, it’s doing just fine.

    When my second novel was published, Holt promised a lot of stuff that they never delivered on, and then the publicist, who was very nice, but had the whole list on her hands, gave me a lot of bad advice, which, foolishly, I took. Ah, what joy it is to be a novelist, some days.

    My dad, when he taught me to drive, told me to “caress” the accelerator. As a 15-year-old, that was the last thing I wanted to caress, and I hated it that he even knew the word.

    • http://www.swhubbard.net S.W. Hubbard

      Yes, I think I’d prefer my book marketing to be done by Nabisco or Proctor&Gamble. Those people know how to launch a product!

  • http://www.msauret.com Michel Sauret

    I plan on doing a blog post about all of the bad news of going into the world of self-publishing as an indie author, but will follow that up shortly with the triumph of the freedom you also get as a result

    • http://www.swhubbard.net S.W. Hubbard

      Triumph! That’s a good word. I’ll remember that on days when mysales numbers haven’t budged :).

  • http://www.pamelahegarty.com Pamela Hegarty

    Great article, Susan. Congratulations on gearing up to indie publishing. I agree that authors who are slated to be traditionally published as mid-list are way better off controlling the content, timing, distribution and prices of their books. And you can make more money. As you know, I took this road a year ago, and my thriller continues to show up on Amazon best seller lists. I hope you’ve inspired other authors to reach their readers through indie publishing. The adventure begins…