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Selling lots of books and winning literary awards can sometimes be mutually exclusive, but today's guest has managed both, so I'm thrilled to be talking to Rebecca Cantrell.
In the intro I give my own writing update and talk about my progress on Destroyer of Worlds. In publishing news, there are rumors of Amazon opening more bookstores across the US, and a kerfuffle about KU pages read now being calculated differently.
I also mention the release this week of How Authors Sell Publishing Rights by Orna Ross and Helen Sedwick, which is all about how you can sell foreign rights, translation and many more rights as the industry continues to open up to business minded indies.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling and award-winning thriller and mystery author.
Her series include the Hannah Vogel historical thrillers set in 1930s Berlin, the Joe Tesla contemporary thrillers, the Order of the Sanguines supernatural thrillers with James Rollins (which I love!), and the Malibu Mysteries with Sean Black.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- An overview of the series Rebecca writes, including two co-written series; one with James Rollins and one with Sean Black.
- On researching times and places where and when one doesn't necessarily live, and the tools available to do that including YouTube and historical diaries and newspapers.
- Rebecca and I had an awesome conversation about the gates of hell, vampires and more. You can find an audio and transcription here.
- Rebecca's advice about having fun while doing research and her suggestions for how to create a successful co-writing partnership.
- How co-writing partnerships can help an author learn new skills, and grow and stretch as a writer.
- How Rebecca manages and markets her books across several genres, and how she chooses what to write next.
- On winning awards with writing and being a hybrid author.
- The challenges and benefits that come with being traditionally published.
- The shifting attitudes of traditionally published authors toward independent publishing.
- Where the German market is on paper books vs. ebooks, and also what genres are popular in that market vs. the US.
- On some of the challenging rules and laws in Germany that affect book pricing, titles and royalties.
You can find Rebecca at www.RebeccaCantrell.com and all her books on Amazon here, and at the usual online stores.
Transcript of interview with Rebecca Cantrell
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn. And today I am here with New York Times and USA Today bestselling and award-winning thriller and mystery author, Rebecca Cantrell. Hi, Becky.
Rebecca: Hi, Joanna. Thanks for having me.
Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. And we've known each other a few years now, but you actually haven't been on this podcast before. You've been on my other show, on the Thriller site. So, I'm really thrilled to have you on this show today.
So first off, tell people a bit more about you and your writing background and why you're in Berlin.
Rebecca: Those are complicated questions. I'm one of those writers, like most writers, who always knew this is what I wanted to do from the time I was a little girl. And then after my son was born I think I kind of realized the clock was ticking.
And so, shortly after he was born I started the novel that would become my first published novel, which was set in Berlin in the 1930s. So that was called ‘A Trace of Smoke', and it's set in 1931 Berlin. We moved here and as soon as we moved here, I stopped writing Berlin novels because I like to make my life complicated.
I wrote them all from Hawaii, and did all my research remotely, and then got to come here once for a research trip. But otherwise it was all using stuff from the 1930s, which is fine because Berlin has changed so much in the ensuing 80 years that it's not the same city that I ended up writing about.
I wrote those books, and then I also wrote a series with James Rollins. That’s a trilogy, The Order of the Sanguines trilogy.
Those are vampire books. Vampire thrillers that are set between the birth of Christ and now. So, we cover a lot of time and a lot of turning point.
Joanna: A lot of ground, yeah.
Rebecca: Well, vampires. They have a long life span, so it's kind of epic, usually. And then I wrote the Joe Tesla series which are set in New York in the subways underneath New York City. That's about a software developer named Joe Tesla who gets agoraphobia and can't go outside. So he decides to make the inside bigger and moves into a house under Grand Central Station. All the stories take place under there.
And then I'm also working on a series with Sean Black, who's a British thriller writer, and those are set in Malibu. The first one's called “A” is for Asshat, and I'm working on the fourth one now.
It's wonderful to try to spend all day in Malibu when you're in Berlin in January and February. Because the sun is always shining there. There's beaches, there's seagulls, and I lived in Hawaii for 10 years. I really miss it in the winter when it gets kind of dark and cold. It's nice to be able to escape to Malibu and just fun comedy romp stuff for a while.
Joanna: Yeah, and we're going to come back to your multi-genre writing, because you really are dipping into all kinds of things. First of all, I just want to come back on your research. You were writing about 1930s Berlin from Hawaii, and now you're writing Malibu from Berlin.
Going back to the 1930s Berlin, how were you doing that research? Because a lot of writers can't travel to the places they want to write about.
How do you research a place and the time where you are not?
Rebecca: For 1930s Berlin, I was very, very lucky because there is so much primary source material available.
So for that one, there's a lot of diaries and books that were written by people who were there. And since it was the run-up to World War II, those materials got published and were part of the public consciousness. I read a lot of diaries and newspapers. Things like that are online now, although they weren't when I started.
And I bought this giant bound edition of the Berlin Illustrated newspaper called Berlin Illustrierte Zeitung. And it had six months of newspapers from 1931, and they were illustrated. So it had all the pictures of the city, and what was going on, and what jokes were, and it had you know little crossword puzzles at the end, and ads.
So when you read through that, you were kind of immersed in the world.
Then Berlin was also, because of the economic condition, they were creating a lot of films and exporting them. So a lot of Hollywood exported films came from here. So, like, “M” with Peter Lorre was filmed in Berlin in 1931. Berlin: Symphony of a City was filmed in 1928. That is the movie where you're kind of…it's a silent film where you walk through Berlin all day long. So it starts out, you're going to factories, and you get to see factory workers and women at desks and typists and all this kind of stuff through the whole day through the whole city and you get a really good sense of what it was like. So there's a ton, ton of information available.
Then by the time I got to the later books, there was more stuff on YouTube.
So when I wrote A Game of Lies, which is set during the Olympics, you could find peoples' home movies from 1936 on YouTube. British BBC did a little…or Germany did an ad that they sent to Britain about, “Come to the Olympics. It's wonderful.” So they had all these film clips of Berlin, and it was in color. So it was a very early color movie. And so you could see the colors of cars. I had no idea that the cars…they had like yellow cars and powder blue cars and bright green cars. I don't know. I guess because you see all the black and white movies you think, “Well, the cars back then were black, white, and gray.” But it turns out they were completely as bright as they are now. So that was a lot of fun to see that and just look at all the images from that time.
And so, you really can get a lot done. And I had lived in Berlin for years, and that helped a lot. I knew the feel of the city and the smell of the city and the cobblestones and those kinds of things that you could work in. But I think you can do a lot with primary sources, but I would really say…this is my historian background. I would say, “Go to the words of the people who live where you want to write when you want to write it.”
It's good to get a background from historical texts that have come out later, like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. That was written by William Shirer, but he also wrote diaries when he was in Berlin, and those are more interesting because your characters don't know the future.
Joanna: It takes a lot to find the gems in some biographies. But you can get quite a lot from that type of detail. And of course, YouTube is amazing.
I've been looking at Ellora's Cave, wait, not the romance site, the actual caves in India. There's all these home movies of the caves, just with people talking, and it's just awesome.
YouTube is brilliant for research.
Rebecca: For the Joe Tesla stuff, which is set in the subway under New York, there's a lot of urban explorers who go down there with cameras and they just film themselves walking through the tunnels and what's going on.
And so you get to see all these hidden places. Even 10 years ago, unless you happened to be in New York, you'd never ever see that material. So it's a wonderful time to be a writer.
Joanna: It's funny because you and I both get obsessed with the same things, and I used the same urban explorers in ‘One Day in New York'.
I was in Prague recently and you used Prague in the last Sanguines book, didn't you, as well? What I love is when we all do a different take on the same places.
Rebecca: Yeah, there's so many places that seem kind of magical. Where you go there, you're just like, “Oh. This place has some kind of energy or some kind of story inherent in it.” I think that writers pick up on that, and that there's something about this moment and this place that strikes you. And it strikes every writer differently, but I think there are certain places that just resonate a lot.
Joanna: Yeah, and learning to follow that curiosity as soon as you feel something like that, that is the feeling to me that means I should write about it.
If you wind back time, how does a new writer or someone who doesn't trust their instincts so much, how do you learn to trust that writer's instinct and choose to write story?
Rebecca: That's a tough one.
I think that you need to trust your instinct and then really do the research and immerse yourself in it. I think it's something we don't tell writers enough, and we really should, is that it's okay to have fun.
It's okay to go someplace that you think is fascinating and wander around and sit in. I had a book that I was going to set in Venice and I happened to be in Venice. I actually didn't write that book 12 years later. But I sat in a cafe in Venice on St. Mark's Square, and I drank hot chocolate in this little cafe that had been around since the 1700s. And the hot chocolate, it was a real chocolate that they melted in the milk.
That feels completely indulgent, because it was nothing but fun. This fantastic hot chocolate, and the setting was gorgeous. You know, Venice, you can't take a bad picture of Venice. I'm not sure you can sit anywhere in Venice that isn't just beautiful.
But as a writer, it's okay to have fun.
It's okay to enjoy those moments. It's okay to really indulge your senses because that's where the gold is. Those specific moments that you love and you connect with will connect with the readers. It took me a long time to really believe.
I think I was working with James Rollins on something. And I was like, “So I think this, but is that dumb?” And he's like, “No. I found that if I think it's cool, other people think it's cool.” I think, trust the readers, and trust yourself. Have fun. If you have fun, it'll show.
Joanna: Absolutely. So, coming on to your co-writing. You've written with James Rollins, which is how I found you in the first place. Because I've been a Rollins fan for years, and with the Sanguines I discovered you, which was cool, and then Sean Black. Now the Malibu mystery is, that's a funny…like, that's humor, isn't it? Whereas the Rollins stuff is supernatural thriller, but it's not funny. I really love those books, but they're not funny.
Rebecca: They're not funny. There might be a funny moment here or there, but they would not be shelved under comedies, no.
Joanna: No. So these are two very different books, two very different co-authors.
What are some of your tips, first of all, for successfully collaborating within such different projects?
Rebecca: I think part of it is you need to find a writer that you mesh with. You need to find someone that you can work with who you trust.
And then I think you need to check your ego at the door, and you need to get a shared vision and concentrate on the story and the characters, and where those are going to take you. So for both projects, one of the things we did is we created a world bible early on where we talked about what our vision of the characters were, what our vision of the world was.
Then for the series with James Rollins, we did a lot of backing and forthing on the same scenes, writing scenes and then moving them back and forth.
Whereas with Sean, he used to be in television, so he kind of set it up with more of a showrunner mentality, where we brainstorm all the content of the outlines with much more structured outlines than my project with Jim. And then we go in and each write a book. He wrote A. I wrote B. He wrote C. I'm writing D. Then we edit it at the end to make it be consistent, but it's a very different way of working.
Then we're kind of brainstorming for the scenes and then the humor within the scenes. He'd written a lot of funny stuff, and one of the reasons I did the project was because I wanted to learn to write more funny stuff.
Because I have some funny moments in my books, but they're not funny. I thought that would be a cool skill. That would be kind of a fun thing to go off and do as a writer. I know this is probably not the advice you'd get from an agent, but as a writer I always am trying to challenge myself and do something new and do something different, and push, and grow.
And I know all my readers won't like all my books. I know that some of my thriller readers will not want to read a comedy-mystery because that's not their genre.
But I think as a writer you owe it to yourself to follow your muse and to follow your interest, even if it's not necessarily what would be considered the most commercial thing at the time.
It comes back to challenging yourself and not being afraid to have fun.
Joanna: That's important.
You started off there by saying, “It's about finding someone you can work with.” But how do you find someone you can work with?
Rebecca: That is tough. I mean, with James Rollins we had met years before. So we'd known each other for, I don't know, we've known each other five or six years now. So we'd known each other for two or three years. And he had been my instructor at the Maui Writers' Conference. So, he was familiar with my work and my working style. And I was familiar with his books. And I knew him as a person. And we worked on various projects for ITW. So I knew him fairly well when we started.
And the same thing with Sean Black. His first book came out the same year as my first book, A Trace of Smoke. His first book was Lockdown.
We've known each other since then as we'd kind of grown up as thriller writers together. We'd been emailing back and forth. And he got in to self-publishing earlier than I did. So he had books that were quite successful in the UK and he self-published them in the US. and did really well. He was encouraging me through that stage of, “What do I do now? How does this work stuff?” I'd known him for years. I don't know if that helps.
But I knew them both fairly well and I'd worked with them on smaller projects before we got to the bigger, writing a whole giant novel or series together phase.
Joanna: I think that's important and J. Thorn, who I've co-written with, I've known online for years. I've never met him in person. Maybe we never will meet in person, but there's a level of trust when you know somebody over time, and you've read their books, and you can trust what level they're at, I suppose.
That trust is so important, isn't it? Because it's a big commitment. It's basically bigger than marriage, because it goes on after your death.
Rebecca: It goes after your death, and it takes a huge amount of time. Writing a book is a huge creative commitment because you have to sit down and spend a large part of your day in that universe.
Unless you want to be in that universe and trust everybody in that universe, it could be a miserable experience. So how did you do collaboration? Did you guys do alternate chapters, or alternate books, or…
Joanna: We did a whole podcast on that, so I won't go into it on this show. For the listeners, J. and I did a podcast on collaboration back in November, I think. It was October or November, I think it was. I should also say in the show notes, I will also reference the thing you and I did on vampires as well. But we did a really great conversation about Gates of Hell and vampires. So for everybody listening, there will be more audios in the show notes.
Coming back onto the different genres. You started off in really historical fiction. And then supernatural-paranormal, the humor-mystery. What's so interesting is, I fit squarely into the middle as a reader, and as a fan. I sit in the middle with the supernatural thriller. But you've got this quite disparate arch. You also did some on the Bekka Black, sort of YA.
Rebecca: Yeah, I did. I did, iDracula and iFrankenstein. iDracula was one of the first cellphone novels. So it was this retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula using just what you would find on a phone. So it was cellphones, text, and browsers, and phone messages and things like that. It was kind of a different narrative structure, which is a lot of fun. It was a very interesting way to tell a story. And then iFrankenstein was another one in that vein.
Joanna: Obviously you said as a writer, it's very important to you to be able to explore these different things.
But as a businesswoman and a full-time professional author making a living this way, how are you making it clear about these genres and how are you marketing across genre?
Rebecca: Well, so for the Joe Tesla books, those are traditional thrillers. I make sure I have a traditional thriller type cover, so when people look at it, they know what to expect.
Whereas with the Malibu series, those are mysteries. And so, comedy-mysteries so they have a very different cover. They tend to have the more…it's a silhouette of a woman, and there's a background in Malibu or something and there's the big letter, so that's kind of branding that as kind of a fun, light mystery.
Then over here I have the darker, more abstract thrillers. There's the choices you make with cover, and I'm very, very explicit in my product description. So people know exactly what they're getting, because I don't want someone to buy “A” is for Asshat and think it's like Joe Tesla. Because it just isn't. And iDracula isn't like The World Beneath and it isn't like A Trace of Smoke.
So you start off with making sure that it's visually clear, that it's clear in your marketing material. And then when I do blog tours or when I do advertising, I make sure that I kind of point it in the direction where it goes.
For example, for the “A” is for Asshat mysteries, those are more fans of Janet Evanovich, comedy-type stuff. And for Joe Tesla, those are more fans like James Rollins, Steve Berry. Traditional thriller writers with a bit of high-tech in them, and maybe a little bit of history too.
It's about finding your readers and making sure that you give them what they expect. A story is a promise that you make to the reader, and you want to make sure that you're promising the truth. Because you don't want to disappoint the readers.
You want to be upfront and let them know what they're getting, because otherwise they will be rightfully angry, and they won't like it. You might get some that'll be happy. They wouldn't have expected that genre was something they loved, and then they did. But you get others who are like, “Okay. I read “A” is for Asshat and there were no vampires.” So, you want to make that clear.
Joanna: How do you know what to write next?
Because of course Joe Tesla is an ongoing series, the Sanguines was a trilogy, although as a fan, I would like another one, but I don't think I'll be getting one, right? And of course as soon as you start an alphabet series like, what's the famous woman who…
Rebecca: Sue Grafton.
Joanna: Sue Grafton.
Rebecca: A is for Alibi through. She's on X I think now.
Joanna: Isn't it just called X as well?
Rebecca: It's called X, yes. She didn't want to do X is for x-ray, because that's all you got.
Joanna: So, obviously with that, well, you're going to have to carry on, but how do you know when…I mean that's a risk in a way because if it doesn't take off, do you want to do 26 books? And what if people want Tesla books? Or what if the Hannah Vogel historical stuff takes off?
How do you know where to spend your time over your year? How do you plan out your production?
Rebecca: Artistically, I plan it out where I have the most energy, which projects I'm the most obsessed with. But as a businessperson, I know that I should write a Joe Tesla book this year, and I should write another alphabet book this year.
With the Hannah books, right now the copyright is with MacMillan. And so I can't produce anything more in that series without getting that back. For that one, I'm trying to figure out where to go with that one. But the other two, it's just, “Yeah, I know I need to do it.” And then I just kind of plan out. I'm finishing up the “D” is for Dirtbag in the next couple of months and then I will turn to a Tesla, and I'll probably be alternating those.
Because the alphabet books are quick, and they're funny, and they're light, and they're quicker to write because they're shorter and there's a lot more dialogue and a lot more humor.
So those go a little bit faster. I usually do those in between books to kind of give myself a palette cleanser, as I switch from one to the other. My books do better in the fall, and the end of the year, so I want to plan my releases around the time of year as well.
Joanna: Okay, that's interesting. I want to ask you about the award-winning thing too, because I had somebody email me and it said that I only ever interview best-selling genre writers. Why can't I interview people who win awards?
You are an award-winning author. You've won quite a few, haven't you?
Rebecca: I won the Macavity Award, the Bruce Alexander Award, and the International Thriller Writers Best E-Book Original Award.
Then I've been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark which is part of the Edgars, the Barry, RT Best Historical, I don't want to leave anything off. Goodread Choice. So I've been nominated for several, and won some, and yeah. So yeah, I could also fall in that category if you need me to.
Joanna: Well I want you to. So essentially you write genre fiction about vampires who do stuff and you're an award-winning author.
If people want to win awards, and some people do, do you have any advice for writing something that could be entered into an award? Is there a literary quality that you're adding that has put you into that sort of vein?
Rebecca: Well, part of it depends on the award. So, for my self-published books, I can't even be nominated for a lot of the awards that I've already won. So the Edgars, and Barry, and I think also the RT award.
For some of them you're just out of the running all together unless you're traditionally published.
I do try to make my books as well written as I possibly can, and to be as thorough as I can and take my time and go over them. I do read a lot of literary fiction, and I did get a degree in creative writing.
So I am coming from that tradition, but I don't think I sit down and consciously decide to make the book more or less literary.
I think it's just a story that you want to tell to the best of your ability, and you want to have as much depth in it as you can, and do the best job you can, word for word. But beyond that, I don't have any great advice on how to do that. So, I don't know if that helps at all.
Joanna: Well, no, I think it's interesting that your career has kind of spanned both sides, and I don't think a lot of best-selling genre fiction authors have won a lot of awards. I think it is quite unusual unless it's within the ITW, you know, the International Thriller Writers. People winning Thriller Awards for genre thrillers. But I think it's really interesting and maybe something for us to think about and come back to.
You mentioned about being a hybrid author and that you span traditional publishing and indie publishing. What made you look at self-publishing, and how's it going for you?
Rebecca: When I finished the Joe Tesla books, I had a lot of friends like C.J. Lyons, and you, and Sean Black, Robert Gregory Brown, Brett Battles, who were already doing self-publishing and they were like, “Come on in. The water's great.”
So, I thought, “You know, I can give this a try,” and I like the idea of having control. And I like the idea of being able to publish what I want, when I want. And I like the idea of being able to branch out as much as I want.
So, I gave it a shot, and I love it. Oh my God, it's fantastic. I am very, very happy with how it's been going.
It's just wonderful. I have a terrific cover designer. I have a strong editor. And both of them work in traditional publishing as well.
So I have the same caliber of people working for me as I did in traditional publishing, so I don't think the quality is any different than it was before I became a hybrid author. Which was important to me, I wanted to make sure that the quality of my books didn't go down. So, I have a copy editor. I have my developmental editors. I have my cover designer. And I make sure that everything is as good as it can possibly be before it goes out there. Because you owe your readers nothing less than the best that what you can produce.
I love self-publishing. I love being able to change my price. I love being able to change my cover. Change my description.
When things go wrong, as they often do, I love being able to fix it right away.
If somebody sends me mail and says, “There's a typo on page 27.” I can have it fixed by the next day or the day after depending on how long it takes Amazon to roll it out.
But before, you would have to hold it for a year, and hope that it got in your next release. Oftentimes things don't, and so it's just wrong forever, and that drives me crazy. So, I love all of that, and I love being able to do sales, and respond more to my readers. It's a good gig.
Joanna: It's amazing hearing that from you, because of course you're amazingly traditionally published and hit the New York Times.
Maybe you could share that story of what happened in that situation and how traditional publishing sometimes gets it wrong.
Rebecca: The first time I hit the New York Times bestseller, I was with a project that I did with James Rollins, and they left my name off the list.
The publisher had rolled the book out without my name on it. So, the first time I hit the list, I didn't. It was corrected afterwards, but yeah, that happened. It happened a couple of times. More than once.
So when it happened, that's the moment you've waited for all your life, and then when you see your book up there and your name isn't on it, it's tough.
It reminds you that there's a heart to the writing of books and to these things that you want to do and plan to do, and that does need to be addressed. I think it's easy to forget that, when it's just a product that someone puts out and it's 1 of 100 books that they'll put out in that 2-month period or whatever.
The advantage of being self-published is the person that cares the most about the book, me, is in charge of it and fixing it and getting it out there.
There's wonderful things that happened, too. I could see my book in airports. My book was in Costco. When I did tours for the Hannah Vogel books or the books with James Rollins, when you went into a bookstore they have this little shrine where they have your book up everywhere, and that's wonderful. Those are things as a writer you always wanted to see.
As a kid, I hung out in bookstores, and so to see myself in a bookstore gave me that sense of place. And traditional publishing is the best way to get that. I mean, like Joe Tesla books, certainly you can order them from independent bookstores and I think people do. But they don't have them there on display on a shelf for anybody to see. It's a different kind of relationship with the print and the visibility that you have. So, there's tradeoffs between both.
Joanna: There's trade-offs, but right now, you're only indie?
Rebecca: Right now, I'm only indie. My last traditionally published project was Blood Infernal, with James Rollins. And the paperback for that comes out today and that's the last in that series. That's the last edition of that that's coming out. And so right now, I'm only indie.
I would go back to traditional publishing. But I would have to have a very good contract.
I know what I can do on my own, and I would have to get a contract where I believe that they could do more than I could do on my own.
Joanna: I think that's what's so interesting now, and I talk to a lot of people who are not super A-list, super famous. Where most authors, unless they are that super A-list, can't actually get the contract that we all now say we would want. It's like there's this shift now where authors know the contract that they want. But unless they're super A-list, they're unlikely to get it. It would be interesting when that starts shifting again.
For most of the contracts in the UK right now for mid-list authors, we all know we can make more money self-publishing.
Rebecca: Yeah. Exactly. At some point that has to switch, or I don't know what traditional publishing is going to do. They need content. They have their established writers.
It used to be they would nurture you up across multiple books, and so they were developing talent in-house that would eventually become the bestseller that would then have a sense of loyalty to them. That's not the case now.
So as a mid-list author it's hard to get contracts. It's hard to get good contracts. And it's hard to get contracts that span enough books to get a following because it's a very rare series that gets a big following with book one or even book two.
I think Lee Child said was book four or five before his books started being really successful. He's the poster child for a successful traditionally published author.
Joanna: So, on the attitudes to traditional publishing and self-publishing. You know a lot of these A-list guys.
Have you noticed the attitudes towards indie authors changing as people like yourself, respected authors, have shifted?
Rebecca: I think it depends on the person. I think there's definitely starting to become a shift, and there's a lot of A-list writers who are kind of looking at indie published books with a new eye, and are less quick to discount them.
I think there are still some old guard people who feel that it's all crap, and that there's no way that good stuff can come out of that world, but I think it's a much, much smaller group of people than ever before.
I think it is starting to gain mainstream, even in the A-list writers, is gaining mainstream acceptance.
Because as writers, a lot of them have moved houses and they know how much of their work they're responsible for. I didn't become a crappy writer because I moved from St. Martin's to Random House. They know what they did.
I didn't suddenly become a worse writer when I moved from MacMillan or HarperCollins to working on my own. It's not as if there's a magical switch that was flipped and my quality just went down.
When I won the Best E-Book Original Award for instance, that book was up against a slate of traditionally published books, and yet it won. That shows that the quality is there.
I think if more of the awards were open to indies, I think people would be very surprised at how many indie books would start winning them if they were able to.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. I think the year before, C.J. Lyons won that same award also for another year. It is really interesting how that is changing, but I want to talk about Germany now, because you're in Berlin. The correspondent in Berlin.
I wondered if maybe you could just talk a bit about what do you see the current state of reading and books in Germany as compared to America or the UK?
Rebecca: I don't know about the UK, but in Germany there's definitely more people reading paper books. So, when you're on the subway or you're on a plane, there's people just sitting around with paper books. There's not as many Kindles. Some people might be reading on their phones, but it's tough to say without looking over their shoulder.
There are also just more book stores everywhere. So within, I don't know, a kilometer of my house, there's three…yeah, three book stores. Four book stores if you count the comic book store. And if you go two kilometers that widens out to probably seven book stores.
So, there's a ton of just paper book stores where you go in and get paper books and specialty stores, that I think have disappeared in the US. So there's three comic book stores within walking distance of my house. There's a book store that's just for Italian books within walking distance of my house. There's a big German book store called Dussmann. There's an English version of that bookstore, also both within walking distance of my house. So there's a lot of paper distribution here.
I think there are E-book readers, and I know that there are some German writers who are having a lot of success with E-books, but I think it's definitely behind where the US is.
For example, they have a lot of vinyl record stores. I remember when I lived in Berkeley in the '90s, where there was Rasputin and Tower Records and Virgin and all these big giant music and record stores and they're all gone now. And so are the big, independent bookstores that were in Berkeley at the time, like Cody's and Moe's and those kinds of places that are just gone.
In Germany, those places are still alive. There's a vinyl record store right around the corner from my house, and another one a couple of blocks away. I don't know if it's a time machine, or if they're ahead of us, and they've kind of moved back to where we're going to be. Because I think vinyl is also starting to gain in the US as well. So maybe, we'll come back around, or maybe they'll switch to E.
Joanna: And Germany has the Tolino, doesn't it? Which in terms of the E-book market that exists, I believe it's around 50%. Can you explain what the Tolino is? It's not like Amazon, is it?
Rebecca: I don't know. I mean, because I use the Kindle and all my friends use Kindles. I don't know anyone who uses Tolino, although I know it does have a huge part of the market, and I think I've just fallen into a little Kindle corner of the universe here.
Joanna: So do you shop? So you shop on Amazon.de?
Joanna: And you read in German and English, presumably.
Joanna: Are you aware of the differences between say Amazon…what people are reading, like what are the popular genres in Germany? Are they different to the US or are they similar?
Rebecca: They're very similar, so thrillers and romance are the biggest market here as well. I think they have a little more literary fiction and they have a lot more stuff in translation than the US does.
Germans are much, much, much more likely to read an American novel in translation than Americans are to read a German novel in translation. So if you go to the bestseller list there's like Lee Child and James Patterson are up there as well as German authors. But they also have a lot of Scandinavian authors that are translated into German that people are reading too. It's a much more international market.
Joanna: And you don't have your books in German.
Why have you not jumped in to self-publishing in German. What are the challenges?
Rebecca: Well, translations in Germany are particularly expensive. I think more than other places.
There are issues with ownership, so the German court has ruled that translators have rights to your books. So if you have your book translated in German and you sell the film rights, the translator of your book into German might be legally entitled to a percentage of your film sales. And it doesn't happen often. It has happened. It's gone all the way up to the federal court, so their equivalent of the Supreme Court. So it has happened. It could happen again, and I just worry about giving over a percentage of my book to someone who spends just a few months translating it.
So I have been hesitant to jump into that, particularly in Germany where the rights are so different. In the US, there's a standard work for hire contract and you hire someone and you pay them and whatever you guys agree on, that's what you pay them. And then when you're done, the person who paid for the work for hire owns it, whereas in Germany that's not the case.
The case that went to court was about a woman translator who'd been paid to translate a book and she was paid exactly what she wanted. She was paid the market rate for the book, and then when the book was successful she came back and sued the publishing company. Said because the book was successful, she deserved a share of that.
They decided that that was true, even though her contract had stated otherwise. It makes me uneasy to jump into that.
Especially as an indie, because if you're hidden behind a publisher, the publisher can absorb those legal costs and they can absorb the accounting cost, and they can deal with it. But if you're an author, I don't want to be stuck having an accountant figure out what I made, and having myself get audited, and paying all those payments going forward forever. Particularly, if I were to sell film, that could be a substantial amount of what the books ever earn. I wouldn't like to just give that away. That's where I stand.
I know a lot of other people have made a different choice on it, and I know that it doesn't happen very often that the translator comes back and says, “You know what? You're successful. Give me more money.” But the fact that it can just makes me…
Joanna: Yeah it is interesting. Both my German translators, neither of them live in Germany. So that kind of changes things, I think.
Just on other things that are weird in Germany; copyright on book titles. I think they are going to run up against problems as self-publishing takes off, don't you think? I just can't see how they're going to manage.
Rebecca: I don't know either. In Germany, book titles and movie titles are copyrighted.
So you end up with these just ridiculously long movie titles where they have to describe the whole plot of the movie. It's something that's a two-word movie title in English and in German it's a 12-word movie title, because I guess they couldn't come up with anything that wasn't copyrighted. They end up saying, “This is the story of the man and the woman who went in a boat and sank.” Wow, we just call it “Titanic.”
I think as the volume of titles increases, I don't know how they can sustain that.
Joanna: It is something for if indies listening are doing translation, it's something that you have to keep in mind because you can't…even if you're not in the country you can't publish a title in German and sell it on Amazon.de with the same title as something else. So, that's kind of crazy.
I think we're still in early days, and I think things will probably change over time.
Rebecca: Well, I think that Germany and France, I don't know about the UK, but Germany and France are definitely trying to protect their local print book marketplaces at the disadvantage of the E-book marketplace. So if you're primarily selling e-books, which of course indies are, you're already disadvantaged tax-wise and price-wise and in a lot of other ways.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. Really interesting to talk to you about all this stuff. Where can people find you and all your books online?
Rebecca: Well, I have my website, rebeccacantrell.com. Or I'm on Facebook. You can find me there, and on Twitter, and my books are online everywhere. They're on Amazon. They're on Nook. They're on Tolino. They're on the iBooks Store for Apple. Everywhere, so just…and if you go into any of your local book stores and request my book with a title, the book stores will order it for you. So you should be able to get a hold of anything, anywhere, anytime.
Joanna: Maybe. Well, all the best with the book launch today, and thank you so much for your time, Becky.
Rebecca: Thanks for having me.
Chelsea Field says
Thanks Joanna. It’s always a lovely learning experience spending an hour in your company. I especially enjoyed hearing from an author who has written in the comedy-mystery genre, as that is what I’m writing and it’s very rare to hear about it in the indie author world of podcasting.
I also hadn’t heard that Germany copyrights titles!
Aleshia Robinson says
I normally don’t leave reviews like this but I didn’t connect with this interview at all! She has had zero struggle in her writing career it sounds like. The grass has always been a lush green with an array of diverse colored peonies planted in front of the 1920’s renovated bungalow.
Even as she spoke on self publishing, she referred to it as a “gig” where she uses “traditional editors and graphic designers because she didn’t want the quality to suffer” saying, without saying, that self published books lack quality. She’s known A-list authors for years which is how she co-writes and offered no sound advice to the listener who requested that you interview an award winning author which I believe was one of the main purposes of her presence on the show. This interview was not helpful at all but I guess it is good that you are rubbing shoulders with a variety of authors now. I’m sure she’s very helpful in person.
I am however excited about Helen Sedwick returning to the show. I purchased her first book after you interviewed her and it has been super helpful to me. I love her sound legal advice! I plan to buy her second book this week so thanks for sharing that. Looking forward to that!
Joanna Penn says
Hi Aleshia, I have learned from podcasting for many years that each episode finds it own audience – and so I continue to do interviews that I enjoy in the hope others will enjoy too. Like our books, none of them are for everyone!
Becky is a friend and also a great writer – and learning from someone so far ahead in the field with years of experience is incredibly valuable to me, and hopefully others too.
Yes, Helen will be back 🙂
Aleshia Robinson says
Thank you for responding Joanna. I love the service you provide with The Creative Penn. I have learned a great deal from you and your interviews since March 2011. (I can’t believe it’s been almost 5 years since I published my first book!)
Keep staying true to you! Your content has kept me from returning to school and paying thousands of dollars to study writing, marketing and publishing. lolol. SERIOUSLY!
Elizabeth R. Monnet says
I found Rebecca’s story very inspiring. She intelligently compared her experience working with traditional publisher with being an indie author. Just to add to the conversation, a friend of mine walked away from her first publishing contract because her publisher-to-be wanted to sex up and dumb down her book. I took note and decided to self-publish. I may never be an award winner or best seller – but I’m having a ball! As Rebecca reminds us, it’s OK to have fun.
I enjoyed this podcast, as ever I do. There’s always something to learn from every guest, no matter how diverse!
Just thought you’d like to know that the link to Rebecca’s website is broken (or her website is just down at this moment).
Rebecca Cantrell says
Thanks, everyone! I thought of one more thing. If you’re interested in winning awards, it might help to judge an awards contest. Contests are always looking for volunteer judges, so finding a judging slot isn’t usually too difficult. Once you are reading 150 novels in six months, you’ll get a very good idea as to what makes certain novels stand out while others don’t and you can apply those lessons to your own work.
Thomas Diehl says
AS a German, I wonder where the idea book titles are copyrighted over here comes from. The law states any creative endavour is protected under “author’s right”. Unusually creative book titles may be ruled to be protected, but I never heard of any examples. However, they may be trademarked.
I’ve also never seen one of those alleged 12 word titles.
The translators however, that is true. You might have noticed I said author’s law instead oft copyright before. There is a reason to this: Any creative endeavour is protected and, more importantly, unlike copyright this right is inalienable. A translation is considered a creative collaboration, creating shared rights among author and translator. Because those rights are inalienable an American-style work for hire contract cannot be enforced under German law, its terms would be considered illegal, null and void at any German court. In Germany, creative workers of any kind only ever grant licenses, they can never give away all rights because no matter the contract terms, it is still considered their property.
Joanna Penn says
My German publisher made my own book title into a hybrid because of the copyright rules. It’s called ‘Desecration-Verletzung’ because of that.
Thomas Diehl says
Oh, that’s where these weird “English title followed by German title” hybrids come from. I really dislike those.
Yeah, while a simple word you can find in any dictionary like Verletzung (literally “injury”) certainly does not qualify for copyright, and I did not find a trademark entry for that one, publishers tend to be very cautious about this to prevent confusion and accusations of false advertising. In this case, there is a traditionally published German crime fiction novel by the same title. Funny enough it’s sold by the same publisher as your book.
Hi Joanna. I really enjoyed this post and found all of Rebecca’s points to be quite interesting. The bit about checking one’s ego at the door resonated particularly. I look forward to more interviews like this one.
Colin Braidford says
Hi Joanna, another fabulous interview and, having spent a few hours today listening to some of the podcasts from 2009 and 2010 during my break from writing, I must say that without exception all of your podcasts are great to listen to and full of inspirational information.
I’ve subscribed to newsletter and updates from Alan Baxter, Jeremy Robinson, Chuck Wendig, Phillipa Ballantine and now a free ebook from Rebecca Cantrell.
A big thank you for both the information and entertainment
Joanna Penn says
It works 🙂