Jim Hamlett is every bit the born and bred southerner. He lives with his wife of thirty-five years in a house he built himself. They’re tucked in a quiet corner at the foot of a mountain. He has two grown children and three grandchildren.
Jim is a professional pilot, and for three decades has flown throughout the continental U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. He manages and crews three aircraft. Before his flying career, he spent ten years in theatrical work. He wrote, produced, directed, acted, and did a lot of grunt work in a variety of productions: simple music/speech presentations around a theme, a lot of Shakespeare, and even Grand Opera (he did not sing).
Jim’s debut novel, Moe, was one of five finalists in the Christian Writers Guild contest, Operation First Novel. He is currently writing the sequel and has several other projects in development.
Tell us a bit about your journey. What avenues did you pursue before self-publishing?
My whole journey began as an answer to prayer, which is a story in itself. The answer to that prayer led to my first writers conference. I’ve attended six others since, and highly recommend them. They’re good learning experiences and the best path to getting an audience with an agent or editor.
In addition to conferences, I’ve had a friend (a conference contact) open a door for me to present my manuscript to an acquisitions editor outside the normal path. That editor, who encouraged me to continue, said he couldn’t sell a novel to his committee that didn’t have a female protagonist. That left me scratching my head.
Six years of conferences, which are not cheap to attend, netted several contacts and a few serious inquiries about Moe. But in the end, agents and editors said it wasn’t a “fit” for them, whatever that meant. This led me to question a few things. Was something wrong with my craft? Was the story faulty?
As a test, I printed twenty copies via an online POD printer. (This is cheaper than getting copies at Staples, Office Depot, etc. Just make sure you check the “not for sale” box at the POD website.) I distributed them to a bevy of readers I trusted to be honest with me. Along with the book, I gave them a questionnaire. The readers varied from stay-at-home moms to professional businessmen to a retired English professor who used to write for the Miami Herald.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. I took the information from the questionnaires, reworked the manuscript for a final time, and hired an editor—another PhD in English who’d edited before at a publishing house.
Then I faced the dreaded decision. Should I continue to seek a publisher, or take the bull by the horns myself? I’d reached a high level of frustration with the traditional publishing world. And since I intended to form Graceful Word at some point anyway, the decision wasn’t hard to make. After a season of serious prayer, I entered the publishing rodeo, where the prizes are small and the opportunity for injury great.
Graceful Word? What exactly is that? Are you an indie publisher now?
I’m glad you asked! Graceful Word is not a publisher, per se. It is intended to be a fellowship of writers—who happen to have their own publishing arm by the same name. It’s similar in concept to what Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith did when they formed United Artists in 1919. They were tired of what the major studios were doing with film and wanted to have greater control over their craft.
But Graceful Word does not have the funding and name recognition to make our start as successful as United Artists. At present, Graceful Word is a fellowship of one: yours truly, who has limited funds and is a nobody. I’m under no delusion that this will be easy. As we say in the South, it will be a tough row to hoe. But with God, all things are possible.
As soon as I can get established, I’ll be in the hunt for the next writer. I’d like to have a minimum of three, but never more than seven. Ideally, I’d like for us to live in close proximity, but with today’s technology, it’s not necessary. Our main focus will be fiction, but there’s room for non-fiction, and perhaps poetry, if we can find a good poet.
At some point in the future, I’d like Graceful Word to reach out to other cultures, build and equip libraries for our brothers and sisters in places where access to good books is difficult. Plus I’d like to find writing talent in those places, cultivate them, and help them reach their own people with the gospel through stories.
There’s a lot more to say, but that’s a different interview.
A ministry platform almost guarantees self-publishing success with non-fiction, but with the exception of some runaway successes, it is rare for a novel to take off. Why did you take that risk?
I believe in story as a great avenue for teaching. Jesus used it. And I firmly believe in this story. Moe is everyman. Though the main characters are men, the story is equally true for women. We cannot survive this life without at least one true-blue friend to help us up when the inevitable trials of life put us down. “Two are better than one….”
Moe is the first in a series of books that will be similar in nature to Jan Karon’s Mitford series. Readers who enjoyed those books will like Moe and the adventures of the Blue Ridge Fellowship church. The stories are about real people in a real world with real problems—and how they can find a real answer.
What would you do again? What would you avoid? What does successful novel self-publishing look like? And what might guarantee a closet full of unsold books for an ill-prepared novelist seeking to publish his or her story?
I would repeat my attendance at the conferences. They have a wonderful way of removing the rose-colored glasses so many of us have in the beginning. And they provide a solid foundation for understanding how the publishing industry works.
I would avoid most of the self-publishing routes that are offered, unless you’ve written a book intended primarily for family and friends. I used a POD printer only to print my test copies. None of the POD outfits I researched could produce a book whose unit cost led to a reasonable retail price using the standard formula (unit cost x 7 = retail price). Do the math before you sign up and remember that they will make money before you do.
So what does successful self-publishing look like for fiction?
If you’re going to produce a hard copy, then I think you have to closely follow the traditional model: get a sound manuscript that’s professionally edited, find someone who can design a cover for you, contract with a printer who can produce a quality product with the lowest cost per unit, get the product in a distribution network, and then market like mad.
I haven’t yet reached what I’d call the “success” level. But I can suggest a couple of ways to avoid a closet full of unsold books. First, don’t write a poor book. But if you’ve thoroughly tested your book and are convinced it’s well-written and relevant, then don’t give up on it. Unless the Lord shuts the doors, I have no intention of giving up on Moe or on Graceful Word.
Publishing has changed radically over the years. But one thing remains consistent...self-publishing still carries a bit of a stigma for the serious novelist. Convince us why this attitude needs to change with the climate...
Publishing is undergoing seismic shifts in its crust. There’s no better time for writers to connect with an audience outside the traditional publishing model. And though the stigma of being self-published is alive and well, it is waning. Ask Amanda Hocking, J. A. Konrath, and John Locke, just to name three that have gotten a lot of press, if the stigma bothers them.
What they’ve demonstrated is this: publishing is a business. If you can make a lot of money “doing your own thing,” then no one will care if you’re self-published. Not even the traditional publishers. They’ve signed Hocking and Locke to contracts. And that didn’t happen because of the quality of their writing, an arresting elevator speech, or a captivating one-sheet. The publishers saw the audience and smelled the money. The decision had little to do with craft.
For those who love the “take away,” here it is: make a ton of money selling your book (poorly written or not), and you can put a torch to the stigma of being self-published.
Marketing challenges you've run into and how you've handled them: How difficult is it to find reviewers for a self-published novel? The out of pocket cost ARC copies for reviewers? Any creative ideas to handle either of those challenges?
Finding reviewers for self-published books is easier now. If you want a review from one of the big names like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus, you can pay for it. At PW, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be reviewed, but the fee ($149) will get you listed in their quarterly catalog of self-published works, PW Select. They pick about 25 titles to review with each edition. At Kirkus, they will do a standard review (about 300 words) for $475, or $575 for express service. And, as with any of their reviews, there’s no guarantee it will be a good one.
I haven’t done either because of what I’ve read from other sources. Self-publishing is booming. It’s a four billion dollar a year industry. Both these companies see a revenue stream they’d like to tap. No one can blame them. Whether the value is worth the cost is still a question. Having said all that, I’m considering both now.
I haven’t pursued a lot of online reviews, but I’m going after them now.
Ideas for finding an audience?
My kingdom for the keys to Jan Karon’s audience. If I could get in front of them, I think the sales of Moe would increase significantly. I suppose there’s a marketing firm out there who could provide a list for a hefty sum. If they dangled the list in front of me, I might be tempted to mortgage the house.
Ideas for self-promoting?
I hate promoting myself. It’s one of the hurdles I’ve had to get over. I’ve owned the domain jimhamlett.com for a long time because I was told I should. But I’ve refused to launch a website where I’m the center. However, the counsel of others has changed my mind. I hope to have the site active soon. That’s where I’ll showcase most of my writing—blog posts, short stories, non-fiction articles about flying, and (take a deep breath) a few poems. The site will share a link to Graceful Word.
With respect to promoting Moe, I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary. I always have a copy or two of the book with me. I’ve sold several out of the back of my computer bag, and I’ve given away a lot, too. I pass out business cards like candy. I have no idea how effective that’s been, but it’s cheap advertising.
I’ve been interviewed by one of our local TV stations, but most of the media outlets are difficult to penetrate if you’re self-published. I’ve tried to get copies of the book in front of some decision makers, but they’re all busy. It’s tough.
Ideas for creative marketing?
As a pilot, I thought of sky writing and banner towing. Creative, but both are pricey, and the novelty is soon gone.
I plan to do more at Goodreads, and as soon as Bookshout launches, I’ll tap into that. (If you don’t know about Bookshout, check it out.)
Recently, I met with a sales organization that is going to share a list of significant Christian bookstores throughout the country. I plan to send a flyer, a sales letter, and a copy of the book to all the stores on that list. That’s not what I’d call creative, but I’m convinced that if I can get folks to read the book, the interest will grow.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from self-publishing?
This is hard work (capitalize that, bold, italicize, underline, and exclamate it). There is no letting up. And while there’s plenty of folks who will encourage you and cheer you on, very few will step up and offer to help. For the most part, you’re on your own.
The greatest blessing?
That’s easy: the reactions of those who’ve actually read the book. While there’s been a couple who’ve shrugged, the overwhelming majority have been very generous in their praise. You can read some of them at the website.
Also, being one of the five finalists in the Christian Writers Guild contest (Operation First Novel) has been a huge blessing. It not only gave credence to my self-published book, but introduced me to four other writers with whom I’ve developed a wonderful friendship. Peter Leavell won the contest, and you should be looking for his debut novel from Worthy Publishing. Terrie Todd, Clarice James, and Kimberley Graham are still pursuing the dream. Keep an eye on them. They’ll make it.
And I’ve had a couple of other unexpected blessings. Cec Murphey wrote a kind review at Amazon. Jamie Langston Turner, whom I’ve known for a long time, doesn’t do reviews, but she sent a wonderful email to me. It’s that kind of encouragement that fuels perseverance.
Finally, what has been the hardest part of the self-publishing journey for you?
Without question, it’s been finding the time to do everything. I have this thing called a job—a very full-time, highly unpredictable enterprise of managing and crewing three aircraft. Something is always going on that requires attention (especially when flying).
And I have a wife—a very accommodating person who probably wonders from time to time who the man is that’s wandering around her house. Thankfully, she has pictures to remind her. And she’s always grateful when I fix things.
If I could figure out how to survive without sleeping, eating, or going to the bathroom, I think I could get it all done. Maybe.
But I’m committed to seeing it through, not only because I believe in what I’m doing, but I’m convinced I have the Lord’s blessing to pursue this. And whenever a reader takes time to send a note saying how much they enjoyed the story, I’m rejuvenated.
Hang the naysayers, and stay tuned.