Some say you can only be successful if you focus on one thing, but what if you are a multi-passionate creative? What if your Muse is inspired to write song lyrics as well as poetry, non-fiction as well as novels and heart-wrenching memoir? Jessica Bell manages to juggle many aspects of a creative career and shares her experiences in this interview.
In the intro, Jeanette Winterson burns her own books in protest at the publisher's rebranding [The Guardian]; book research serendipity [my pics on Instagram]; Hollywood vs the Author book; Ads for Authors open for a limited time.
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Jessica Bell is an award-winning author and poet, singer/songwriter, graphic designer, small press publisher, and voice-over actor. Her books include memoir, literary fiction, and the Writing in a Nutshell non-fiction series for writers.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How a creative life can involve many passions
- Writing memoir and dealing with self-doubt and vulnerability
- What can authors learn from musicians?
- Why Jessica made the switch to publishing other authors' books
- The challenges of running a small press
- What is required from authors who want someone else to publish their book?
Transcript of interview with Jessica Bell
Joanna: Jessica Bell is an award-winning author and poet, singer/songwriter, graphic designer, small press publisher, and voice-over actor. Her books include memoir, literary fiction, and the ‘Writing in a Nutshell' non-fiction series for writers. Welcome to the show, Jessica.
Jessica: Thank you very much, Joanna. It's great to be here.
Joanna: I'm excited to talk to you because, of course, we know each other in person but we haven't caught up for years.
Jessica: We met, what, 10 years ago or something?
Joanna: It does feel like a long time. I usually say to people, ‘Tell us a bit about how you got into writing,' but you are a multipreneur. Obviously, you've got all these different strands.
How have the various aspects of your creativity emerged over your career so far?
Jessica: It really all began when I was a kid because I'm a child of parents who were songwriters and musicians and also artists in other ways, such as painting and drawing. I was pretty much singing before I could speak.
Around the age of 11, I would say, I turned to poetry writing and then songwriting. I got piano lessons and learned guitar myself by just watching my parents play.
When I reached high school, I became extremely passionate about creative writing as well. And already, by the age of 16, I was writing short stories and at least one new song a week.
During my last year of school, I had a strange obsession with graphic design. But, as I was terrible at maths, I failed my graphic design class. And didn't pursue it because the school put a huge emphasis on graphic design leading into a career as an architect. I just wanted to be creative and I was told to sign up for an art class.
Meanwhile, my music was going strong but my grades weren't perfect, I was getting all A's and B's in English and creative subjects, and mostly D's and fails and maths and science, etc. Even those D's in subjects that I had wanted nothing to do with meant that I couldn't even get into my first choice of university course of professional writing.
I had to settle for an arts course at La Trobe. At university, I majored in English and focused all my energy on my band. We were called ‘Spank.' And we won some major competitions, got radio airplay, TV appearances. But then, unfortunately, I fell in love with a boy in Greece and moved here.
Joanna: From Australia, right? Just so people know, you were in Australia and then you moved to Greece.
Jessica: Yes. I pretty much left everything I had achieved music-wise behind by the time I turned 22.
The responsibility of being an adult in a foreign country wasn't so easy. Many of my first years were spent earning a living, working in bars and restaurants. By the time I turned 25, I'd finally landed a job at a publishing company as an editor for English-language teaching books.
There I pretty much learned the ins and outs of editing, publishing, and I eventually got into writing ELT textbooks as well. I stayed in that career for 11 years straight.
And except in the middle of that, I had an urge to write a novel. I was around 29-30, so, I did and. I snuck writing time before and after my day job, that novel was called String Bridge and was published in 2011 by a small press.
Unfortunately, 6 months after its release, they liquidated, so, all my work was going down the toilet. And I chose to self-publish it, I wasn't letting this go to waste.
Basically, it was a blessing in disguise because this was the beginning of me becoming my own boss.
By that time, I had the publishing and editing know-how, so, I thought, ‘Why not try my hand at designing my own book covers?'
Turns out the teacher in high school who told me to do art didn't know what they were talking about because now, being a self-taught freelance graphic designer, is how I learned it earning a living.
Designing book covers is basically my main income but I'm still writing books and playing music as well. So far, I've published four novels. I've got a fifth one coming out this September. Three poetry books, four writing and publishing reference books.
In 2016, I joined a band called Keep Shelly in Athens. And I also have my own side music projects, one called Bruno and the other Mongoa. And, last but not least, I'm the publisher of Vine Leaves Press, which has been going strong since 2014. And that's my career in a nutshell.
Joanna: I love it because I think so often people think you need an MFA in writing to become a novelist and you need a degree in publishing to become a publisher. And like you said, you were a ‘failed,' in inverted commas, mathematician who became a graphic artist. And it's so interesting because I feel like there's an obsession with degrees and all the things that people tell us you should be educated in.
It sounds like everything you've done is self-taught.
Jessica: From the beginning, I was taught you need a degree as a backup plan. My parents totally supported my desire to become a rock star but they said, ‘You need to do something else to earn some money because we know firsthand that you're not going to earn that much money from being a musician.'
So, I did have that backup plan. I got my degree but, in the end, what I'm earning money from, what I'm making a living from has absolutely nothing to do with that degree.
Joanna: Me too, because my degree is in theology. I think that's really good and for people to hear.
I also wanted to talk to you because there is this school of thought, and perhaps it is true, that it's easier to be successful if you only focus on one thing. And I often use the example of Lee Child and the ‘Jack Reacher' novels and just write the same book over and over again and people will love it. Or, as a singer/songwriter, write the same type of thing over and over again.
What do you think about focusing on one thing? Is it even possible for people like yourself?
Jessica: There is no way I could just do one thing. Though I have fantasized about it many times. When I joined Keep Shelly in Athens, I let my other projects and passions dwindle a little bit to focus on singing for them. But I really very soon realized that I could not stop my brain from creating new business ideas.
So, instead of bearing away from all the things I've spent years to establish, I just launched back into doing everything at once again. And I'm so much happier that way. I'm just not the type of person to be doing one thing.
Joanna: Right. I'm totally with you. Like I've said over and over again, ‘Right, I just need to focus on writing fiction,' or, ‘I just need to focus on…' Or even one type of fiction, you know, ‘If I could only just write action adventure thrillers, I could be Clive Cussler.'
And then it's like, ‘That's just not going to happen.' So, there's obviously a negative side of it, which is, ‘Yeah, sure. If we just did one thing, maybe we'd be more successful there but we'd be miserable.'
How do you think your various aspects of creativity feed each other?
Jessica: Well, of course, I use a lot of my creative energy from writing music in my fiction writing. I think that's because music is so emotional as well and it brings up memories and makes you feel nostalgic or happy or sad. So, it really sparks my writing ideas.
And also, because I'm a graphic designer as well, I'm able to design my own book covers before my book's even finished. And that even helps me finish writing my book because, one, I get motivated, and two, I get other story ideas.
Joanna: I think that's really interesting because I'm not a designer but I get a lot of ideas from visual things, things that I see in, say, museums or in picture books or on the internet. Like visual things stimulate ideas for me. Is that what you mean with the cover design, it stimulates other ideas?
Jessica: Yes. Well, obviously, because I'm working with stock imagery, I'm not an illustrator, I use already existing imagery to create my book covers. So, I'm forced to search for imagery that not only portrays some thematic element of a story, but evokes some kind of emotion.
So, it's not all about telling the story in the cover, it's about attracting a reader to it and making them feel something. Obviously, I can't find images that are going to represent my story 100%, so, there're always variables in the imagery that spark ideas for me in the storyline.
Joanna: When you get a spark of an idea, how do you know if it's a song, if it's a poem, or a novel, or something else?
Jessica: I don't, it's just I usually have a schedule for myself, for either work or creativity, books, music, whatever, but it's very hard for me to follow that schedule 100%. The only schedule I follow 100% is for anything that someone else is relying on.
If it's for myself, it keeps getting pushed down the list. So, basically, whatever I'm inspired to do in any free moment, be it writing or songwriting or design, I just go with the flow. I can't really explain how one feeds into the other exactly. You know how inspiration hits you and you don't really know where it's come from?
Joanna: So, you almost say, ‘Okay, my muse wants to write a song,' and then the ideas come for a song, as opposed to you get an idea and then you decide where the idea fits?
Jessica: Yeah, exactly.
Joanna: I find it so interesting. Very very very occasionally I'll have an idea and know that it's a short story, but I've not written very many short stories, but sometimes that idea is small enough that it feels like a short story. Whereas most of what I get ideas about I slot into a novel, in some way, I guess.
Jessica: Right. Well, I think everyone, even when you're not writing what you know – everyone does write what they know in some form or another. Because I think everyone's feeling the same feelings and experiencing the same things with a different perspective.
Joanna: You've mentioned emotion there, and I've read your memoir and you've opened up emotionally and written about your family and your life. And, of course, your songs are quite obviously emotional. Many people want to write memoirs, including myself, but it's very hard to be open.
How have you managed that with yourself, with the strength to do that and also with your family who you write about?
Jessica: In the beginning, I was extremely scared about publishing my memoir. But something inside me was really pushing me to write this thing and I just couldn't avoid it for my own sanity, as there's quite a lot of sensitive information in there about my mother, it was totally possible for her to ask me not to publish it.
So, I pretty much just wrote the book for myself to get everything off my chest. And I said to myself, ‘If I can't publish it, it's okay, the job has been done, my story's been told, it doesn't have to be read.'
When I completed it, I sent it to my mother and I said to her, ‘If you're uncomfortable with this in any way, I won't publish it.' But, the very next morning, she told me she'd stayed up all night reading it and told me I'd be stupid not to publish it. So, of course, I was overjoyed.
But then my own doubt set in and the things I'd revealed about myself and I thought, ‘Do I want to publish this?' I pretty much had to disconnect myself from the content for a while before releasing it. But, eventually, I'm glad I did because, apparently, from the reviews I've read, the story's resonated with a lot of readers. It's nerve-wracking but it can have positive effects.
Joanna: I think that's so true. I definitely have fear of judgment around what will people think of me. Is that what you felt too?
Jessica: Yes. Because I was reckless when I was younger and I was also not very kind. So, that was definitely about judgment. And I guess I didn't want my current reputation to be tarnished in any way. But it didn't turn out like that. It seems that people have realized that the hardship I experienced made me who I am. So, that's reassuring.
Joanna: That's true. But do you worry? This is what I worry about, I'm asking you as someone who's done it, do you worry that you are somehow trapped as a person in that book? Obviously, your life has moved on from who you were in the book but you don't have a memoir about the new stuff.
Is there any way that your past self is preserved in amber, in a way?
Jessica: It was until I decided to write a sequel. And I also rebranded the first. The first original one was called Dear Reflection, I Never Meant to Be a Rebel, but I recently rebranded it, made a new cover, and entitled it ‘Go: Tackling Being Drinking and Finding Happiness, something like that.
I decided to write a sequel called Stay, which will be my life from the ending of the first memoir. Because, basically, the main theme of the first memoir was about how I ran from my emotions and I would, therefore, run from everything in my life. But in the end, I decided to stay. So, the second one will be about my life deciding to stay and how much more wonderful it is that way tackling head on.
Joanna: That's great. And that's interesting, because, of course, you didn't have that second book when you wrote the first one.
It's interesting with memoir, isn't it, because, in my mind, in a way, they can be thematic, they can be more life-based, like yours is. And many memoir writers say that you get kind of addicted to writing memoirs.
Jessica: I don't know about that!
Joanna: You've got a long way to go. Life's not over yet.
Jessica: That's true.
Joanna: That's for sure. I think that's a really good tip for people. And then I guess a lot of the sharing, honestly…I mean not everyone's going to read the book.
Do you share as openly on things like social media in a way that's the same or different or do you protect yourself in that way?
Jessica: I used to share very much in the same way but, eventually, stopped sharing so much because I wanted to be more positive. Mainly for my own outlook on life.
I didn't want to be complaining and airing my dirty laundry on social media when I didn't air my dirty laundry in real life. So, why should I do it to people? Being more positive online and editing myself actually makes me a happier person because I don't dig holes.
And then, also, reading horrible comments from people who are degrading your feelings when they know nothing about you, and why should I deal with that?
Joanna: I think that's very sensible. I'm usually really careful about what I do on social media. And it's definitely become a difficult place. But everyone has to decide where they want to share.
But it's funny, isn't it? Because in a book, even though it feels like this is the most open you can be, actually the people who end up reading your book all the way through end up caring about you more than someone who just sees some tweet and says something negative?
Jessica: It's so true, isn't it? People have knee-jerk reactions on social media. Whereas, if it's in a book, it's such a different kind of experience. And it makes you wonder too. would someone's derogatory comment, would they say that if they were saying it to you face-to-face? It's so much easier to say horrible things online I find.
Joanna: Exactly. Coming back to the word ‘kind' that you mentioned, I always feel with reading a memoir where someone has been hurting, you feel like you want to be kind to them because they struggled.
Sharing the difficult things is what draws people to you more.
Jessica: I think so. I mean I remember reading a review that said, ‘It's really difficult rating and reviewing a memoir because this is someone's life, so, I'm just going to tell you what I thought of the story.' Which is really logical. It would be nice if everyone did that.
Joanna: You span the world of books and music and I feel like there are so many similarities and so many differences.
What do you think authors can learn from musicians?
Jessica: Creatively, I'm going to go back to the emotion thing because music makes a person feel things. Be it happy, nostalgic, melancholic, thrilled, you name it. I think books should have a similar impact on a reader.
Every book, you need to make your readers feel something. That's how they will remember you in your book because I think emotions have a very strong impact on memory. So, that's my creative lesson.
And my business lesson is…I'm not entirely sure that there are similarities anymore that I think there used to be because now I find that, when you publicize your music on social media, it is so ignored, unless it's YouTube.
Like you, I find that advertising on Facebook, for example, a book versus a song, the book will do so much better than the music. I just think people don't want to spend the time sitting listening on social media, they want to download it and leave it for later, for example. That's what I found anyway.
Joanna: I wonder that also with the productivity angle, because it feels like, to be a successful songwriter and a musician, you have to be really productive. Most people are not going to just write one song and expect that to do really well. It feels like you have to be a lot more prolific, as a songwriter or a band.
Jessica: That's true. I think that's why many artists are releasing singles regularly now on Spotify. They'll bring out a new single every month, rather than an album every year. It's keeping them and their brand visible and their music available to stream something new constantly.
I think we're all craving something new consistently nowadays. It's a little harder with books because you can't write a whole book…I think that's where the Kindle singles came, from people's need for new material and getting through it fast.
Joanna: Although, of course, a song might only take 3 to 5 minutes to listen to, generally, whereas…I mean still even the quickest readers can't read a book that fast.
Jessica: I think it's about 2 hours you could probably get your quickest book…
Joanna: And what about collaboration? I feel like a bit of a lone wolf. I generally work alone, I like doing everything myself, and I'm not very good at collaborating. But I feel like musicians have to collaborate.
Most musicians are collaborating in order to be successful. Is that something you've seen?
Jessica: In my experience, the collaboration is still very individual and isolated though. Because, for example, in Keep Shelly in Athens, the founder of that band is the one who produces the music and I write the lyrics and he does the melodies himself as well.
So, he basically sends me a guide track with his thought of a melody and I write lyrics to that. So, we each have our roles as well. We don't sit down, like some people think, trying to write a song, music together, for example. That's not how we work.
I'm sure that other people do it differently but I think it also works well with my personality and the founder's of ‘Keep Shelly' personality as well. We very much like to work alone, so, I think that just works better that way.
Joanna: Probably works better in a pandemic as well.
Joanna: I think that's really interesting because we all have so many images in our heads from movies, generally, of people in some recording studio playing the piano together. I wanted to also ask about ‘Vine Leaves Press,' because being an individual indie author is hard enough.
Why did you start Vine Leaves Press and what types of books do you publish and what's your vision for that?
Jessica: Vine Leaves Press is actually a natural progression of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, which I started in 2010. The journal eventually ran an award called Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award, that's what we specialized in. And one of the prizes was having that collection published.
So, that started us off publishing books. And I soon realized I wanted to publish more than just vignette collections, so, the journal was renamed and rebranded as Vine Leaves Press around 2014.
The books that we publish now straddle the line between experimental and mainstream. The motive being to show readers of mainstream works that they can also enjoy something a little more experimental, and readers of experimental works that they can also enjoy something a little more mainstream.
Joanna: There's a lot of work involved in working with authors. I love all you authors out there but authors are hard to work with.
Why did you want to go from just publishing your books to publishing other people's books?
Jessica: They are very hard to work with, and you need to be very patient. And I think being an author myself has helped with that because I know how sensitive I can be about my writing, if someone wants to tear it apart.
I have a partner now, Amie McCracken, and she's also an author. So, we work together on that. And we also only publish authors that we think would be a really great addition to our team, because we've become a family as well. We're very picky. And we only publish around 10 titles a year as well, so, that's, of course, also picky.
Joanna: What are you picky about, if people are interested? Who are your ideal clients, what are your ideal types of authors or books?
Jessica: Our ideal types of author is someone who is willing to work as a team. For example, I get some queries that will say, ‘I already have a cover designed by my brother and, when you publish me, we must use it.' And I'm like, ‘No, we mustn't.'
By simply saying that, I will pretty much reject them regardless of whether it looks any good. Because I don't want people like that in ‘Vine Leaves Press' because we are a team and teamwork does not drive one-man-band attitude, there's always self-publishing for that.
Joanna: ‘Literary' is such a broad term and you mention experimental. What types of books would you be looking for? What should people pitch?
Jessica: We publish poetry collections, short story collections/fiction collections, we publish a lot of memoir. We have coming-of-age novels, historical novels, contemporary novels, a few anthologies. Also writing reference books. Pretty much all very character-driven, I would say.
Joanna: I think you had an interesting example on the website about one of your best sellers. It was something about a graveyard or something like that…
Jessica: The Walmart Book of the Dead.
Joanna: Yes, The Walmart Book of the Dead, which is fantastic. And it did actually make me go, ‘Oh, I'm going to buy that.'
Jessica: It's very original. And it's readable, it doesn't have to be so experimental that only die-hard poets will understand and be unique.
Joanna: With Vine Leaves Press, what have been your challenges in running that business on top of everything else?
Jessica: Pretty much the financial aspect of running it. We still are very volunteer-based, or token-payment-based, or we offer a certain percentage of royalties. If someone's edited a book, they'll get a percentage of royalties for that book because we just don't have the means to pay out right at the moment.
We're hoping we will soon. We've been going since 2014, and, really, only the past year and a half we've started making a profit. So, it's been a hard slog.
But we did manage to break even every year, which was reassuring. But I think, in the beginning, we were publishing…I mean this is going to sound a little shallow but you have to think now that it's business. We were publishing authors that had absolutely no social-media presence with brilliant books and really just wanted to be the mysterious writer sitting at home and not connecting with anybody in the world. And that doesn't work anymore.
Eventually, Amie and I had to sit down and say, ‘Look, this is a business. I know we love these brilliant experimental-literary genius books, but, if they don't have any social-media presence, we just cannot do it anymore.'
We decided to actually make that one of the stipulations. If they did not pitch us not only their book but also their social-media site, where they're active on social media, then it's a no-go. Everyone needs to pitch in with their marketing.
And since we have done that, it's been so much better. It's not as if we don't do anything. We offer our equal share in marketing, but we want our authors to match that as well.
Joanna: This is very common now, in the publishing world, this is not unique to you guys at all. Even in the big publishers, they want to know about the author platform. Although, I would question there why it's just social media? For me, for example, I have two podcasts and I have an email list that are far more significant than my social media.
Jessica: Yeah, I meant author platform, not just social media.
Joanna: Right. So, if people have a blog, for example, and subscribers to a blog, that's completely fine?
Jessica: Yes. And if they're doing conferences or host on a radio show or something, that's an equal measure as well.
Joanna: So, ‘What is your author platform?' is really the question. What do you say to authors who really just aren't interested in that. Obviously, you say no, but, in order to encourage people listening, what do you find are the best ways to sell those kind of books?
What are you finding are the most successful platforms or the ways to sell literary fiction?
Jessica: You need to find authors who are really passionate about their book and if you've got someone who just wants to publish their book to see it in print, to hold it in their hands, it's not the right kind of author.
I want someone who's going to actively promote their book and believe in it. We want to believe in that book too. So, if we believe in the book and you've got the platform, then there's high chances that we're going to publish it.
Sometimes we look at trends but it's not a deciding factor of what we publish. Because, as seen with The Walmart Book of the Dead, there was no trend to be seen with that kind of book, and it did so so well.
Joanna: Maybe it's got quite a quirky title, it's an unusual title that makes you stop and think about it.
Jessica: They need to have some element of surprise or some unique angle. And I know nothing can really be unique these days but, to some certain extent, yes.
Joanna: And then, as you say, this has been a really challenging business. What do you see as your future? Because you've done so many things and you do so many things, do you see yourself in 10 years time as still doing everything? Now you've got a baby son and you've got other things going on in your life.
Do you see yourself honing things down in the future?
Jessica: I would hope to. And that goes back to one of the questions in the beginning, doesn't it, trying to focus on one thing. But I would love, I would absolutely love to build Vine Leaves Press to a point where that could be mine and Amie's main income so I could just do covers on the side and write and play music.
Vine Leaves Press has been a passion of mine from the beginning. And, a couple of years ago, when there was a threat that we might have to close it for financial reasons, it just devastated me and I just knew I had to do something about it.
Joanna: That's really interesting. I do feel that a lot of authors are now becoming small-press publishers. And that's, obviously, how a lot of the big publishing houses came about; there was originally someone who then did it and that's developed over time. So, it's a good tradition.
It's interesting that that is where you see yourself as running that business, and your own creativity comes second.
Jessica: Not really because I publish my own books through there and I design all the covers. So, I'm very involved, I'm not just a publisher. And I'm also communicating with all the authors on a regular basis.
We have a Facebook group where all the authors and staff are members and everyone supports each other in there and chats in there. And, so, we've become a real nice little community of authors and artists in there. Which is really encouraging as well for new authors that we bring on to know that they've got this support network already established for them. Everyone reviews each other's books and shares each other's books.
Joanna: I was going to ask about that, about economies of scale. And presumably, you also have a Vine Leaves Press email list.
Are you finding it's getting easier to do promotions the bigger you get?
Jessica: It is much easier. This last November actually we started a little flash fiction series in newsletter called '50 Give or Take,' it's basically just 50-word stories that are delivered to your inbox daily. And it's becoming really popular and the sign ups are soaring on there.
As well as signing up to that series, they're signing up to our news-and-announcements newsletter as well. So, we're gaining an audience for our general book sales, book-sale campaigns, as well as the flash-fiction newsletter.
Joanna: That's really good. I think that is basically offering free content and getting email sign-ups. Right?
Jessica: And it's exclusive, it's in their inbox only. We don't share them on social media so they need to sign up in order to get them. I get emails all the time saying how much they enjoy it, and it's really nice.
Joanna: That's experimental and quite a different thing which suits the press anyway. Fantastic.
Where can people find that and you and your books and Vine Leaves and everything you do online?
Jessica: I've got a portfolio site, that's iamjessicabell.com. On that site, there are summaries and links to all the different mes. So, you can access everything there.
Joanna: And just say that flash-fiction thing again as well…
Jessica: It's called '50 Give or Take.' If they just go to vineleavespress.com, they'll find the link there to sign up.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Jessica. That was great.
Jessica: Thank you so much for having me, it's been great fun.