Bestselling Kindle Author Karen McQuestion

- by Dara Girard

Karen McQuestion is an example of  perseverance, gumption and belief in oneself.  After nearly a decade of trying to persuade NY publishers to give her fiction a chance, this freelance writer decided to self-publish on Kindle. The result? Bestseller status, a movie option, a publishing contract, six books to her name and many more to come. She was gracious enough to take time out of her  busy schedule to answer some questions.

In essays and interviews you’ve shared your frustrations of getting rejections for your novels. Fifty for your middle grade fiction Celia and the Fairies and a top agent requesting revisions, then opting out of A Scattered Life. How did you maintain your drive during these low periods?

I always felt that somehow, some way, I’d eventually get a book published. I knew it was doable—after all, bookstores and libraries are filled with books, and all of those writers started off being unpublished. So for the most part, I was hopeful.  I did have times where I felt like giving up, and then I would give up, but it would only last a day or two and then I’d have another idea that wouldn’t let go. I was always driven by the thought that the next book would be “the one.”

Why did you decide to self-publish on Kindle?

Prior to that time, I had two different agents represent my work, submitted to small press and large publishers, and entered novel contests. In short, I was open to any avenue that led to publication. Self-publishing on Kindle intrigued me because it had all the positive aspects of self-publishing, namely control, and none of the negative: expense, and the need to market outside of my home. Also I had a “why not?” kind of attitude.

How difficult was it for you to format your work for Kindle?

Uploading to Kindle is easy, but getting books formatted correctly can be a challenge. I had help from my husband, a computer guy, and we kind of went back and forth trying different things. We’d get the chapter headings centered, and then find out that the paragraph indents were all wrong. We discovered it was necessary to insert page breaks between chapters. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Now it’s my understanding from talking to other writers that it’s recently gotten easier, and some of them swear by Smashwords for formatting purposes. I’m glad to hear that there are more options available to new writers, because the first time around we spent an entire weekend on one book and it was very frustrating.

Do you think being a successful freelance writer gave you an edge over others who’ve decided to self-publish?

I do think it helped in that I worked with editors and agents, many of whom gave me feedback over the years. In my newspaper and magazine work I learned to write on deadline and to self-edit for length and tone. It shaped me into the writer I am today.  Now having said that, I know of other successful indie authors who don’t have the kind of background I have, so it’s not absolutely essential.

How did you promote your Kindle ebooks?

My most successful marketing strategy involved the message boards on Kindleboards.com and on the Amazon site itself. I tried to be low key and participate in the conversations as a reader and Kindle owner. My ID tag on the boards was “Karen McQuestion, Author,” but most of the time I didn’t mention my books, unless the thread allowed for self promotion. The readers on the message boards were really nice, and I found that they were usually willing to sample pages (which they could do for free) from unknown authors. I was fortunate in that a few posters really loved my books and recommended them to others on the boards. The word of mouth made all the difference and then those sales improved my rankings and put the books on Amazon category lists, which increased visibility.

At present your ebooks are only available on Kindle (versus using Smashwords to get them on Sony/Nook/iPad etc…). Why are you so loyal?

Loyal is definitely the right word! Did you ever try to do something for years and years and have lots of close calls, but nothing ever panned out and you felt like a miserable failure, and then suddenly someone gave you a wonderful opportunity and your whole life turned around just like that? If you have, you’ll know exactly how I feel about Amazon and Kindle. To me (and a lot of other indie writers), Amazon is Santa Claus, the Golden Ticket and the Book Fairy all rolled into one.  And being on Kindle is really not that limiting, now that there’s Kindle for PC, and Kindle apps for Blackberry, Mac, iPad, iPod, and iPhone.

 

What are you doing now to promote yourself and your ebooks?

 

I still visit the message boards, but not nearly as often because I’m using my time to work on a new novel. I do blog and am on Twitter and Facebook. And I’ve been lucky that sites such as yours give me the opportunity to talk about publishing and my books.

In a prior interview you mentioned that four elements—price, title, description and cover—are essential to Kindle book success. Could you expand on this?

Amazon makes it so easy to purchase anything, but it’s especially easy to purchase Kindle e-books. You can sample pages for free and one click brings a book to your device in no time at all. As a Kindle author you don’t have to go and find buyers for your books, the buyers are already there searching for books. Now the challenge is to direct readers to your book. And how do you do that? First off—know what category your book fits into and be sure the description, cover, and title accurately reflect it.

You don’t want a love story to look like a mystery, or vice versa. Ideally, the cover art should be professional in appearance. You want to give your book every chance to succeed. Keep the price low—less than $3.00. You can always increase it in the future if you decide that’s what you want, but first you need to build some momentum and get some reviews. I’d also like to mention that the writing itself needs to be in really great shape. Readers are generally forgiving of an occasional typo, but no one wants to read the equivalent of a rough draft.

With your success you probably have a pick of agents. Why have you decided not to use one?

I’ve now signed contracts with AmazonEncore for five of my books and I haven’t used an agent for any of them. It was an option, one I seriously considered, but I ultimately decided against it. I already had an offer in hand, and I negotiated the terms on my own using some industry resources. It’s entirely possible that I may have gotten a better deal using an agent, but I’m happy with what I ended up with, and I don’t have to give up fifteen percent of my income.

A Scattered Life has been optioned for a film. Can you tell us more?

An option is the first step in a long list of steps from book to movie. The last time I heard from the head of the production company, a writer had been hired to write the screenplay and there was some studio interest. As far as I know, nothing is definite yet.  Sometimes these things take years and many times the movie never gets made at all. Frankly, I’m thrilled that someone could envision my novel as a movie and was willing to make a financial commitment to the story. Anything else is a bonus.

 

 

Find out more about Karen McQuestion at: http://karenmcquestion.com/

 

 

14 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your story here, Karen! And to emphasize another feature that led to your success, you’ve been writing and polishing book after book after book. A writing career–regardless of what venue one publishes in–is about doing precisely that.

  2. Marketing and packaging is definitely the key to attracting attention in the crowded online marketplace. If a writer isn’t careful, though, the time spent on promotion can overtake the writing time.

  3. Thanks, Dara, for featuring my story and for the thoughtful interview questions!

    Laura, you’re right about the writing and polishing. One of my novels was completely rewritten three times, and I mean completely–new ending, characters changed, a subplot taken out and a new one added. That aspect of my publishing story doesn’t come up as often, but it’s something worth mentioning, so I’m glad you brought it up.

    Nancy, I agree about promotion. It’s important to get the word out, but not at the expense of the writing time. It’s such a balance. You keep hearing you should be everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc. but then where does it end? And not just the time, but the emotional output. It can suck a person’s creativity dry. Or at least that’s the case for me. Others may find it energizing. :)

  4. Fascinating story. Thank you for sharing. I have to admire your determination and perseverance. Do you see your career continuing with Amazon and e-books or are you looking to expand, if that is an appropriate word, to other forms of publishing down the road?

  5. Hi Ann! At my age I’ve learned to never say never, but at this point I have no desire to look beyond AmazonEncore and I will always want my books to be available as e-books.

    I have several reasons for being loyal to Amazon: they were the ones to publish me when no one else seemed interested, they treat their authors as partners in the process, and I love their “thinking outside of the box” way of doing business. I’m about as happy as I can be, and I don’t see any reason for a change.

  6. As I read this I was amazed at the similarities between our stories. I’ve written several books, had 2 agents and spent most of the past four years reading rejection letters. Almost had a pre-pub movie deal last year bit that fell through. One difference though is that I also recorded and podcasted them as free audiobooks. The fact that the audiobooks have been downloaded over 100,000 times tells me folks like them. So now here I sit teetering at the edge of self publishing via kindle & createspace but hesitating. I think your interview here just nudged me a step closer. My toes are now over the edge of the precipice.

  7. Basil, our stories do sound similar, except for the part about 100,000 downloads on your audiobooks. Whoa–how did you do that? Amazing. It sounds like you’ve got a terrific platform already in place, which is always a good thing. Whatever you decide, I wish you the best of luck.

  8. Thanks Karen.

    How on the downloads? Word of mouth I guess, and a couple good stories. That and they are free.

    Have you also put your books in paper form or strictly ebooks?

  9. People don’t download anything, even for free, unless they’re interested. And 100,000? Wow, I’m so impressed. They must be good stories

    The only one of my books that I self-published in paperback was my kids’ book, CELIA AND THE FAIRIES. I used CreateSpace and was really happy with the finished product. In fact, when I compared the quality of the print and paper with books published by the “Big Six” it was comparable or better. It was nice to have a paperback version, but the e-book sales outnumbered the PB by a lot (10 to 1), which surprised me because I didn’t think there’d be much of a market for a childrens’ book on Kindle. The low price played a huge part in it, I’m sure.

  10. Karen, thanks so much for sharing your experience! I’m in the process of getting some of my OOP backlist into hape for e-pubbing, and it’s writer like you who have helped create a vital, growing e-book market.

  11. I have been following Karen’s blog since May, when I heard her interviewed on NPR’s The Story. Hearing of her experience with self-publishing was a light bulb moment that inspired me to fully embrace my writing with no reservations and no excuses. I intend to spend the next year writing and editing my first novel — then off to Amazon for my own turn at self-publishing. I’m having a blast!

    As soon as we wrap up the book we are presently reading each night before bed, I plan to read Celia and the Fairies with my children.

    Thanks, Karen!

  12. Mary Jo, E-books are a perfect option for your OOP backlist. You already have professionally written and edited novels, which puts you ahead in the game. How exciting to see out-of-print books take on a new form for readers and generate an income for the author. It’s a whole new world.

    Hi Mark! I’m having a blast too, so I know what you’re saying. I hope your kids like Celia and the Fairies. :)

  13. Great interview. And a very inspiring story. I learned about Karen McQuestion when I decided to self-pub one of my books. I’ve always believed in paying attention to those that have been successful and Karen’s path to publication was inspiring and informative. I wish her nothing but continued success.

  14. I’m sorry I didn’t see your comment until now, Phillip Thomas Duck! I’m glad my story was helpful and I wish you all the best. You certainly have a memorable name which, is very helpful for an author (and I speak from personal experience here).