08 May Taking the Stories of the Blue Continent to the World

Lets talk about writing – then and now. Traditionally, writing has been a somewhat solitary activity where the writer creates in seclusion and is separate from their audience. The hermit in their cave… The writer also has little or no control over the publishing and marketing process, and the final product, is a static literary work. What you see is what you get and you cant change any of it – not unless a revised edition comes out several years later. The advent of blogging and electronic book publishing is changing this. With effective use of social media, writers can now engage with a global audience through every step of the creative process, publish their own material economically and efficiently and market their work internationally.  With the widespread use of internet-enabled mobile phones, particularly amongst young adults – electronic books can ‘go viral’ – reaching an unprecedented number of readers in a short period of time.

How do I know this?

18months ago I finished writing my first novel – a fantasy romance book set in contemporary Samoa. It tells the story of a young woman called Leila who returns to Samoa in search of her mother’s family, instead she  falls in love with the beautiful Daniel (captain of the First XV  and Headboy of SamCo) and then she discovers she’s heir to a spirit woman heritage and she’s got some fiery elemental powers.

It wasn’t easy to write a 400 page novel in between work and chasing after five children – but I did it. I thought the hard work is done. All I have to do now is send it to a publisher to read it, they’re going to see how amazing it is and then my book is going to be more famous than Harry Potter.  Right? No. queried more than 30 different publishers and literary agents in NZ, Aust and America. All of them said the same thing. No. There is no market for a fiery Pacific romance. Not even one with a boy as wonderful as Daniel. I was a little bit sad. Okay, strike that, I was devastated. I was tempted to chuck that book in a drawer and forget all about it.  And then I heard about an American woman called Amanda Hocking. She’d had her  zombie vampire books rejected many times. She needed a little extra cash for the holidays so she put her books up on Amazon.com  which is the worlds largest electronic book distributor. With Amazon anyone, anywhere in the world, can upload their book for free and make it available for sale. With an e-book, anyone anywhere in the world can browse millions of books, read a sample, buy one and have it download to their computer, e-reader or phone. Takes half a minute. It’s that quick, that simple. Amanda Hocking put up her six book series. To cut a long story of hard work short – she went on to sell 1.5 million copies of her books in two years.

I decided to try ebooks. What did I have to lose?

I uploaded Telesa to Amazon as an e-book. I also made it available in print worldwide by using Createspace Amazon which is an international print on demand company.  That was in October last year. By December Telesa was number one on the Top Rated Fantasy Romance Listing. In June this year I released the second book in the  Telesa series, ‘When Water Burns’ and it hit number one on Amazon’s ‘Hot New Releases’ listing within the first 24 hrs.

Amazon has regular free download promotions for e-books and more than 40,000 people have also grabbed themselves a free copy that way. The support for these books has been phenomenal and so very humbling. I have been invited to launches and book signings throughout NZ, Australia, Samoa and next year I will go to the US after I release book three in March. Ive always said Telesa was my fun book  – strictly for fantasy escape purposes only. But it’s now a required course text at universities, recommended reading in several high schools and you can’t borrow a copy at any of the 55 Auckland libraries right now because there are buckets of people on the waiting list.  To date, the book that publishers told me would not have an audience – has been avidly read and embraced by thousands of people of all ages worldwide.

A few things I have learned from my writing journey thus far.

The face of books is changing from this to this ( SHOW BKS VS> PHONE and KINDLE) – and this change has huge potential for Pacific writers and readers. Books are expensive to print and even more expensive to distribute. It costs more to post this book to NZ then it does to print it. But an e-book is instant. And so much cheaper. Ebooks sell for between 99cents up to 9.99. Ebooks are forever. They have no shelf-life, never expire, get dusty, faded or worn out. Electronic publishing is the fastest, cheapest way to get your stories to a global audience. Not only that, it’s the fastest cheapest way for your students to get their hands on a book.  There are currently thousands of free e-books available online, including the classics.

What does this mean for educators?  If you’re an English teacher wanting to read Macbeth with your class of 30 sixth formers – you can have them all download the free reading app to their phone, download the book.

What does this mean for the writers in the room? There is nothing stopping you from getting your novel, your collection of poetry or short stories online for people to read. For the established authors in the room? If you own the e-rights to the back titles of your books, your earlier works? You can easily format them for e-book, upload and sell. This is exactly what I’m helping Albert Wendt do right now. We just published his classic ‘Sons for the Return Home’ electronically on Amazon, making it readily available for a whole new generation of readers. ‘Leaves of the Banyan Tree’ will soon follow.

The world of publishing is changing – and this means almost unlimited possibilities for writers everywhere. Before, writers had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get their foot in the door. Even if you scored an agent to represent you, you could wait months for them to get you a publishing contract. From there, up to a year before your book finally made it to the shelf in a store. Now, you can pay for an editor to check your book, get a graphics artist or a clever IT friend to make your cover and then upload your book immediately.  Not only that, but you get to keep the bulk of the profits. Traditional publishing offers its authors 10 to 15% on each book sold. Which means Stephanie Meyer gets 2.99 every time you buy a Twilight book for 29.95.  Whereas the author of a self-published e-book priced at 4.99 – gets 3.49 every time she sells a copy.  Today there are self-published authors with books on the NYTimes bestseller list. They are earning over $100,000 USD a month with their books. I am not one of those authors. But thanks to e-books and indie publishing, I am helping to put food on the table for my family with my writing.

The reading process is also changing. Readers can now engage with a book, other readers and with the author in an unprecedented way thanks to social media. This creates a shared reading experience that goes well beyond that of a print book.

I was a blogger before I was the author of a book. I blog at a site called Sleepless in Samoa.   When I started blogging, it was just me talking to myself. Now, Sleepless gets 70,000 readers visits a month. Blogging is a powerful tool for writers to connect with readers worldwide. Social media makes it possible for a hermit writer in her cave to interact with her readers on a daily basis.

Readers can also connect with each other. There’s a Telesa Fan Page on Facebook where readers chat about everything Telesa book related.  There’s a  Facebook Pacific Book Club where readers have spent the last few months discussing the Telesa books, covering issues of culture, tattooing, the status of women, relationships, family and more.  If you type in the search word Telesa on Twitter, it will bring up every single tweeted conversation that anyone is having at any given moment about the book. There are readers calling themselves Team Daniel, Team Jason, Team Telesa. Laughing over Simone’s jokes, sharing pictures of who they think should be the actor for Daniel in a movie, complaining about work and wishing they had telesa powers so they could lightning blast people, sharing their fave quotes . When I was a kid, reading a book was what nerds like me did while all the cool kids did super cool stuff. Thanks to THESE [phones] reading can become cool. And book buzz can spread like wildfire. Or a contagious virus.

By taking a multi-media approach to our writing – we can engage with even the most reluctant of readers. We can light the fire of their imaginations. I work with other Pacific artists to create film clips and photo presentations that are inspired by the Telesa books. Many people only read Telesa because they first had watched the book trailer produced by the brilliant young Samoan artist, Jordan Kwan. Others were first captivated by the cover model photographs of the lead character Daniel which were taken by the fabulous local photographer, Tim Rasmussen. There are online photo sharing sites called Pinterest and Instagram where readers can post photographs of different places mentioned in the book, the yummy food, recipes for the food, even the clothes characters are wearing in diff scenes. Every book launch, book signing and Telesa event is shared online with short film clips of the dances, interviews with readers, photos – making it possible for readers anywhere in the world to participate in that shared sense of community. YouTube is another powerful tool that is being used to enhance the reading experience. An example – many authors share links to the songs the listen to when they’re writing. Readers post links to music videos that they think match particular scenes in a book.  Authors then compile a playlist on YouTube with notes on each song, identifying which scene it connects with. Readers can then listen to these as they’re reading. All these multi-media extras help to bring a book alive – which is especially helpful for those young people hate to read.

Rather than being a solitary individual activity, writing can be an interactive process we engage in with our readers. Fifty Shades of Grey started off in a serialized format online. The author EL James was writing instalments and readers engaged in ongoing commentary and discussion with her and with each other as she wrote new sections.  Thousands were tracking each new instalment of that work as it happened. Many of todays authors do this – regularly release extracts of their works in progress,  inviting reader commentary and drawing on feedback. By having readers participate in the writing process even in a small way means there is an increased sense of community and reader ownership of the text. For eg, I had created a new telesa character for the second book. I asked readers to submit possible names for her. There were more than 300 entries and so in book two, we meet Lesina Agiao who was created with the help of Leitu Peseta Filo.

What I like most about electronic publishing is that your book is not etched in stone.  You can revise a text countless times and upload a new version every other month if you want to.  You can play around with different covers and blurb wording. It means authors can release short additional stuff to go with a book when they feel like it. Deleted scenes, the R18 version, extra back stories, alternative ending.

I have had to accept that Writing and publishing your own material is a business where you create the product, package it, brand it, market and promote it AND all while still creating more new products. There are some who are uncomfortable with this approach to writing. You write books for money? You have a production schedule? Shock, Horror. What about the artistry, the creative urge to write your soul and create art for yourself and not for a consumer!

My answer to that is simple – no, I write books because this is what I love to do. But if I can’t earn a living from it, then I will be forced to work at a job I don’t love and only write in the stolen hours of the night. Digital publishing is not a get rich quick scheme though. While getting your book online may be easy – getting it noticed and having people buy it is hard work. There are over one million e-books on Amazon.   A recent survey showed that the overwhelming majority of self-published authors, earn less than $500 a year from their books and only a few earn a full-time income from their writing. Self-publishing is not for the faint hearted. Or the lazy. Or those in search of a quick buck. It’s a constant battle to overcome the stigma associated with self-published work. It requires creativity in one’s approach to promotion and marketing and relies heavily on teamwork. I have been blessed to have the support of many other professionals in their fields, ranging from photography to writing/blogging to sports to fashion and blessed with the support of fantastic readers. I am so grateful for the overwhelming support from our Pacific people, especially Samoans here at home and worldwide who are taking this book into their schools, community libraries, harassing their bookshops to stock it. With everyone’s help, the Telesa Trilogy has been able to find readers worldwide.

Albert Wendt said, “We need to write, paint, sculpt, weave, dance sing and think ourselves into existence. For too long, other people have done it for us – we have to write our own stories.” Very true, but I don’t think just writing our own stories is enough. Because there are still so many gatekeepers (mostly of the Western world persuasion.) in the form of publishers, agents, book councils and mega chain bookstores – who tell us whats good enough to publish and what isn’t, what’s literature, what’s marketable and what isn’t. Yes we must write our own stories but we must also be fierce enough to advocate for our stories, and do the work that’s required to take them to the world.

For me, the most valuable feedback from my Telesa books has been from Pacific youth who write that, “I hate reading…I’ve never read a book before…I haven’t read a book since I left school…- BUT I read Telesa in two days…I couldn’t put it down…I want to learn more about my heritage now…I want to visit Samoa one day…I asked my parents to tell me more about my fa’a Samoa after reading your book…”

I wanted to write a book that young Pacific people could see themselves in, that was written for them, about them and by someone ‘like them’. I visit schools and libraries and I tell students – I always wanted to read a fantasy adventure book about brown people. I couldn’t find one, so that’s why I wrote Telesa.

I am grateful that with electronic book publishing I am making my dream a reality and that social media is helping to make it possible for my stories to be shared with the young adult worldwide audience I wrote them for.

An edited version of a keynote presentation given at the 2012 SPACLALS Conference (South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Languages)  in Apia, Samoa. 



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