Published Author – Meet Paula

I loved hearing about Paula’s experience of the publishing and self-publishing scene in South Africa.

1. Please tell us a bit about yourself and the book(s) you have written, including the genre you prefer:

Paula Gruben; author of Umbilicus
Paula Gruben; author of Umbilicus

I am a writer, inspirational speaker, mom, and wife. I live in Jo’burg and self-published my first book, Umbilicus: An autobiographical novel, in mid-2016. It’s a coming-of-age story, set in Durban 1995, and is based on my personal journey as an adoptee going in search of and reuniting with my birth mother. I am currently working on Incomer, which is due for release in late 2017. It’s a direct follow-on from Umbilicus, although both can be read as stand-alone stories. Incomer is set in 1997, and is based on real events, which took place during my two crazy years living in London and working in an adult store in the heart of Soho, the city’s red light district. Umbilicus is marketed as Young Adult (YA) realistic fiction, and Incomer will be marketed as New Adult (NA) realistic fiction. My preferred genres for both writing and reading are autobiographies, memoirs, crime fiction, and psychological thrillers.

2. What was the process of getting published like?

Like most budding authors at the start of their careers, I was lured by the thrill of potentially securing a contract with a big name traditional publisher, which supposedly meant utter validation of my worth as a writer. But after about six months of querying and not getting any joy (there were exciting flashes of interest, but no firm offers), I grew increasingly impatient and finally decided to call it a day. I figured I could spend the next year, two years, five years even, embroiled in the submission process, with absolutely no guarantee of ever securing a contract. Or I could take the bull by the horns, stop the soul-destroying cycle with immediate effect, and self-publish instead. It was a no-brainer. I don’t regret the traditional submission experience one bit, as I learned an awful lot about the industry, and grew a much thicker skin. But, in retrospect, I’m so glad I decided to go the self-publishing route, as it is far more in line with my more maverick ‘indie sensibilities’, which extend to just about all aspects of my life.

3. What kind of feedback have you had from your readers and editors?

Mercifully, Umbilicus has been extremely well-received. These are just some of the words that readers have used in reviews to date: affecting, authentic, beautiful, bittersweet, brave, candid, captivating, compassionate, consuming, emotive, engaging, enthralling, exhilarating, fascinating, fearless, gripping, heart-rending, honest, humbling, important, informative, insightful, inspiring, interesting, motivating, moving, open, original, poignant, powerful, raw, real, refreshing, relatable, remarkable, revealing, sad, soulful, thought-provoking, touching, truthful, unforgettable, unique, uplifting, well-crafted, and well-paced.

4. What are the publishing houses looking for, based on your dealings with them?

Unless you are a Trevor Noah or Helen Zille or Chris Hani’s daughter, you stand a snowball’s chance in hell of a local non-fiction publisher picking up your memoir. You will have to fictionalise your story and try submitting to their fiction imprints instead. Even though I ended up self-publishing, I am grateful for the advice and insights I gleaned from traditional publishers, mainly about current market trends and optimal shelf positioning for a story like mine. Although I didn’t take every single bit of advice on board, I did end up changing Umbilicus from a memoir to an autobiographical novel, from non-fiction to fiction, and it’s worked out really well.

5. We’d like to know the results of your decision to self-publish. Would you consider it successful? Why? What does success mean to you?

The average novel written in English by a South African will sell 600 – 1,000 copies [] in its lifetime. Taking into consideration I’m about halfway there already with Umbilicus, just seven months after its release, I guess I’m not doing too badly. But, to achieve my goal of seeing this book included as recommended reading in high schools around the country, much work still needs to be done. Perhaps with the clout and connections of a traditional publisher behind me, I’d have achieved this goal by now. But, there’s no way of knowing. For me, over and above not-too-shabby book sales and phenomenal reviews, surprising personal fulfillment has come in the form of a steady stream of invitations to do author talks. This has not only created another income source for me in the form of speaker fees, but also a valuable platform to engage with and sell my book directly to readers at each event. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my talks, but I tailor the content and the message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience. The feedback from these talks has been incredibly gratifying.

6. If you knew then what you know now, what would you tell yourself?

Stop doubting yourself! Your story does matter. You are a good writer. You are a good public speaker. Your testimony will touch hearts and change lives.

7. Please give us a quick list of pros and cons for the traditional publishing route:

Sure, there’s still an element of ‘prestige’ attached to being offered a traditional publishing contract. And it’s nice having someone handle much of the marketing and publicity on your behalf, leaving you more time to actually write. But realistically, your odds of landing a publishing deal in the first place are slim to none. And, even if you do, there’s no guarantee of commercial success. As a writer, you have to decide what you want most – the ‘prestige’ of a traditional publishing contract, perhaps only years after you start the submission process, or the reward of seeing your work in the hands of readers, now. For me, it was the latter. And thanks to technology, plus lack of ego, I was able to embrace the idea of self-publishing as a truly credible alternative. During the process of birthing my first book baby, I acquired a whole new skill set, which I can use again and again in the birthing of all my future book babies.

8. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Read, read, read! You cannot write unless you read. Attend writing workshops and courses – online or in real life. Write like you speak; simple is always better. Dialogue makes up about seventy percent of contemporary novels so learn to master the art of writing dialogue and you’re well on your way to producing marketable material. Go to book launches and don’t be shy to ask authors and publishers questions. Put yourself out there – network, network, network! And use Google – Google is your friend, as are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest – to connect with other writers and potential readers down the line. If you’re like me and write in ad hoc chunks rather than full, chronological chapters, then yWriter is a marvelous little tool. It’s a free downloadable programme that helps you sort and structure your work into scenes, chapters and, eventually, a complete, coherent whole.

If you decide to try your luck with the traditional publishing route, be prepared for rejection, and probably lots of it. To help soften the blows, follow @LitRejections on Twitter. Their daily tweets of ‘inspiring rejection stories’ (not an oxymoron, believe it or not!), motivational quotes, and genuine empathy will encourage you to persevere, and most importantly, remind you of why you started this publishing journey in the first place.

If you choose to go the self-publishing route, make sure to outsource the services of professionals, like Staging Post and MyeBook, for areas where you know you lack expertise. Very few authors are able to single-handedly see the entire process through from start to finish, from first draft to physical paperback. From the editing, proofreading, and typesetting of their manuscript, to ebook conversion, cover design, website design, distribution, marketing, and publicity, it’s a pretty Herculean task, by anyone’s standards.

Luckily, I had the experience needed to do everything myself, but what I didn’t have was the capital needed to do my first print run. I used Indiegogo to raise enough funds to cover the costs of my first print run (200 units), and I used the profit from the sales of those books to bankroll my second print run (another 200 units). If I need to crowdfund again, I will give Thundafund a go. It’s apparently the leading crowdfunding platform for South Africa (it wasn’t around when I used Indiegogo a couple of years ago).

9. How much time do you spend writing per day / week?

When my son is at school, I try to spend at least two to three hours every morning working on my books – either marketing the first, or writing the second. During school holidays, however, this routine goes out the window. Then I take whatever free time I can get – an hour here, half an hour there. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Like Franz Kafka once wrote: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”

10. How long (on average) does it take you to write a book and how many times do you edit it?

With Umbilicus, the research, writing, and assembling of all the puzzle pieces into an identifiable narrative arc probably took around two years. Although the end result is a work of fiction, the book started life as narrative non-fiction, and I wanted to get all my facts straight. The sociopolitical setting of the story, and details of the locations and historic events narrated by the protagonist are all factually sound. It went through at least a dozen edits, maybe more. Now that I’ve got templates to work from and systems in place, I’m hoping Incomer will take around 18 months. Being the perfectionist that I am, I reckon this manuscript will also go through around a dozen edits to get to the point where I am completely satisfied. But, I know that, in the end, it will all be totally worth it!

Check out Paula’s website and Facebook page for more.



*Note: all interviews are published as submitted, and not edited*

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