Novelist, journalist, and celebrity ghostwriter Holly Robinson attended college thinking she would become a doctor, but fate offered other prescriptions. Now a hybrid author of several books, Robinson’s articles and essays appear frequently in publications such as Cognoscenti, the Huffington Post, More, Parents,and Redbook. She and her husband have five children and a stubborn Pekingese. They divide their time between Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island, the setting for Robinson’s latest novel, Chance Harbor, published this month. She shares insights here about her path to publishing success.
When did you get started as an author, and how? What was your first success?
I originally went to college to study biology because I planned to become a doctor, took a creative writing course, and discovered that I could lose myself in writing fiction. I ended up working odd jobs for a while—in construction, as a waitress, and as a marketing assistant for a publishing company. Eventually I decided to go back to school for an MFA. Once I had the MFA, I had no choice but to go back to work, first as a math teacher, of all things, and then as an outreach coordinator for a university engineering program aimed at disadvantaged inner-city students. All along, I kept writing fiction and trying to publish it, and failing miserably. Finally I decided to try writing nonfiction. Before long, I was writing feature stories for various newspapers, and eventually I found a job working for a wire service that demanded that you write fast and accurately. Journalism was great training for fiction writing: there's no such thing as writer's block in that world. Eventually I worked my way into writing articles, essays, and columns for national magazines and also became a ghostwriter for celebrity memoirs.
What genre do you write in? Is it difficult to do research to create your stories in this genre?
The simplest answer here is that I write the sorts of books I love to read. I grew up reading mystery novels and am still addicted to them. I also love reading literary fiction. I need narrative tension if I'm going to stay with a book. My choice has been to marry these two genres, in a way, creating complex character dynamics and vivid settings through (I hope) creative imagery while giving readers mysteries they can sink their teeth into as they keep turning pages. The result is what I call “emotional family mysteries.” If I haven't made my readers laugh and cry, then I haven't done my job. Researching these stories is easy: all I do is listen when people talk. Everyone has great family stories to share.
Why did you decide to become a hybrid author? Describe the traditional path of that equation and how you got a contract with a traditional publisher.
Despite all my success as a nonfiction writer, I was still having no luck with fiction. After writing a memoir of my own, which my agent sold on the basis of a book proposal to Random House, I thought that surely now my fiction would sell. The bottom fell out of the publishing industry right about then—this was in 2009. I finally decided to self-publish my first novel because I didn't want to go to my grave without having published any fiction. And guess what? The agent who had been representing me all along sold the novel just two weeks later. That was in 2012. Since then, I have sold every new novel to the same editor at Penguin Random House. I am now about to publish my fifth work of fiction—four novels with a traditional publisher plus one indie novel.
What advice would you give to a beginning author who is looking to publish? Self/indie or traditional?
For authors who are prolific, write in popular genres such as mystery or romance, and want to have total control of the process, I would suggest self-publishing. These authors should be aware, however, that they may need deep pockets to fund the creation and promotions of their books before the sales start rolling in. (I have one indie novelist pal who says it takes about 10 books for that to happen.)
For literary authors or for authors like me who write stand-alone books rather than books in a series, I'd recommend traditional publishing. You don't need to write books as quickly, and there is a lot of help with publicity and sales in traditional publishing, though you'll still need to do a lot of it on your own. Oh, and did I mention the elephant in the room? The fact that indie authors keep a much larger share of the royalties than traditional authors do? We give a percentage of sales to our agents as well as to our publishers, but there is one financial advantage: traditional authors do get advances against royalties up front rather than having to shell out money throughout the process. Traditional publishers can often accomplish wider distributions of your books, too, because of their marketing machinery.
What kinds of marketing techniques have you adopted? Why do you believe it's important for authors to embrace social media?
In today's digital world, if you don't exist online, you don't exist. Books are products that are being sold, and to sell your product, you need to make it available and appealing to your readers. It means offering readers a way to get to know you and doing that in the way that seems most genuine. I'm fairly slack about using Twitter, but I write for a number of online sites. I also love to post guest blogs on websites about travel or women's issues. The other advantage of using social media is that you will meet other writers, you can join author groups, and you will find the resources and support you need, whether you're going indie or working with a traditional publisher. Writers are a friendly bunch.Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor with a passion for books.