Spotlight 16: Roseanne Cheng
Mark Dawson: I’m Mark Dawson from The Self Publishing Show and this is Self Publishing Spotlight, where we shine a light on the indie authors who are changing the world of publishing one book at a time.
Tom Ashford: Hello and welcome to the Self Publishing Spotlight. We meet indie authors at all stages of their careers and ask them a series of five questions. Five questions about their process, their mistakes, and their successes. Five answers that will help you level up your own author career.
My name is Tom Ashford, and I’m part of the self publishing formula. Don’t forget that you can get your self publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
This week’s guest is Roseanne Cheng. She’s written four books in the middle-grade fiction and nonfiction genres, and she lives in Minnesota. Welcome, Rosanne.
Roseanne Cheng: So great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Tom Ashford: Not a problem. It’s great to have you on.
Do you want to talk a little bit, maybe about your middle-grade fiction and nonfiction books?
Roseanne Cheng: Sure, yeah. I have a strange writing journey myself, and it’s kind of taken me on different paths. It all started with middle-grade fiction. I was a teacher for seven years, and I just had this book idea in my head. I really wanted to write a book that I wanted to teach in the classroom, meaning I would have something that would spark a lot of conversations. The chapters would be perfect homework-length chapters. I would have just the right amount of vocabulary sprinkled in there, essential questions, so all the things that a teacher kind of looks for when they’re just using literature to teach in the classroom.
I wrote my first book, which is called The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, and it’s about a middle school, a junior high school that takes corporate sponsors over federal funding. And I really just wanted to spark a conversation with kids about what money does buy and what it doesn’t buy in education.
I wrote that book. I created kind of a teacher’s guide in the back for it. I did a lot of visits to classrooms and talking to teachers and students about how to use the book in their classroom. That one inspired my second book, which is called Edge The Bare Garden, and that one is also a middle-grade fiction book about digital citizenship, another topic I liked to discuss in the classroom.
What happened after I published those two books and went through all the marketing for it and really enjoyed the process is, I had just created this really close relationship with my publishers. I went through an indie hybrid publisher here locally in Minneapolis called Wise Ink Creative Publishing, and I got so close with those people who were helping me bring my books to life, that I decided that I really wanted to work with them and help other authors do the same thing that I was doing.
I worked there for three and a half years, and in that time I co-wrote a book on book marketing called Buzz: The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing, with my wonderful friend Dara Beevas, who is the founder of Wise. And then after we did all the work for that, I was inspired to write a teacher’s guide, which is called The Tireless Teacher Toolkit. That just came out this summer.
It’s 50 of my favorite 15-minute lessons in the classroom, just to maximize time in the classroom. If you’d asked me five years ago, “Will you be writing nonfiction?” The answer would have been no. I am totally devoted to fiction, and now five years later, I think I’m really kind of in love with the nonfiction space and I don’t know how much more fiction I have in me.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Wow. That kind of answers question one a little bit, which is why do you write, but did you always want to be a writer, and this is how you sort of got into it, or was it through teaching that you first got the idea for it?
Roseanne Cheng: Yeah, I think a lot of the people that you’ve interviewed on this podcast have said a similar thing, which is I’ve always sort of felt myself to be a writer. Even at a young age, I felt like I couldn’t process the world unless I was writing it down, whether in a diary or in a silly short story or some sort of angsty poem when I was a teenager. That was just my way of figuring out what life was all about.
I think when I became a teacher, I was so caught up in just making sure that other kids loved books the way that I did, especially if I was teaching a book that I was really passionate about. I just wanted to pass that on to them. And I felt, as a teacher, that some books were easier to teach than others. And so as much as I had been writing for myself and had this kind of dream, someday I would write a book, when I had the idea for The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, it really felt to me like it was the first story and the first book that I could really see making an impact, and that felt right to me.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. You mentioned working with, was it Buzz?
Roseanne Cheng: Wise Ink is the publisher and the book that we wrote is called Buzz: The Ultimate Guide To Book Marketing.
Tom Ashford: Okay, so you’re traditionally published?
Roseanne Cheng: No, I’m self-published. I went through hybrid publisher. They basically help authors independently publish and make beautiful books, because that is definitely not my expertise. I can write but I don’t know that I could publish them very well.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, fair enough. Do think, would you therefore go for a traditional publishing contract if so? Like one of the major publishing houses came along and offered you one?
Roseanne Cheng: Oh gosh, that is a hard question. I don’t know, maybe. It’s so interesting, because I did go for a traditional publishing contract with my first book and I had quite a bit of interest and I felt like this was the track that I wanted to go on. And then I met Dara, who founded Wise Ink, and I felt like if I went the indie route, I was going to have more of a partnership, if that makes sense. Instead of feeling like my books belong to someone else, they would always belong to me if I did it independently. And yet I’d still have these partners that kind of believed in what I was doing beyond just trying to make money off of my books. I have no regrets going the self publishing route, especially with a place like Wise Ink, but I feel like, never say never. If someone wants to offer me gobs and gobs of money, I don’t see that happening, but if they did, I would entertain it.
Tom Ashford: Question number two is how do you write? I guess with the middle-grade fiction, were you more of a plotter or a pantser?
Roseanne Cheng: I am as a teacher, I am very strict about my lesson planning and keeping to my schedule. For me, I am definitely a planner. I am a chapter plotter. I actually, when I present to classrooms about the writing process, I go through the whole hero’s journey and how I did that with both of my main characters for both of my fiction books. And before I write, I need to have a beginning, middle, and end, and I also prefer to have chapter titles. I might not use the titles, but the titles help keep me tethered to the story and moving along. I know lots of writers who don’t do it that way. What I tell my students or anybody who is interested in writing is that part of the process is figuring out the process that works for you, and that is certainly what worked for me.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. And what sort of software do you use? Like Scrivener, Word, that sort of thing?
Roseanne Cheng: Yeah. I have tried Scrivener. I have tried all kinds of different things. Honestly, Google docs, they’re where it’s at for me, because I can just have a very simple page with my chapters and some notes in there. I can access it if I’m at the library or if I’m visiting family in another state. I just find that the simpler the better. Yup, I’m a Google docs girl.
Tom Ashford: Is there a particular time and place that you like to write?
Roseanne Cheng: I wish. I have two young children, so I envy writers who can find that ideal time and place and stick to it, but that is just not what life offers me. I prefer to write in the mornings when I have been thoroughly caffeinated. I need a quiet house, for sure, to write. I prefer to just be kind of isolated. And one thing I have learned about myself with the writing process that I think kind of came as a surprise to me was, I don’t think I do very well in writing groups while I’m writing. It’s very difficult for me to submit a chapter to somebody for feedback and then continue the process. I don’t know why. For some reason that just sort of feels like a huge roadblock for me. If I’m really determined to finish writing something, I commit as much time per day as my children allow, but I need to just finish it without having any sort of extra input, at least the first draft.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Well that leads me to question number three:
Are you a full time author? If you are, how did you get there? And if you aren’t, what steps are you taking to make it happen?
Roseanne Cheng: Yeah, I think my full time job is being a mom, but my other full time jobs all revolve around writing. The answer to that is kind of yes and no. I do try to write every day. And again, like I said, I just had a book come out and I’m kind of taking a break from that, but I have since left my marketing role at Wise Ink to start my own author marketing website called Evergreen Authors. What I’m doing on that site is creating courses about creating an author platform and making sure that you are launching your book and that feels right and organic and sustainable to you, and kind of just taking in all that I’ve learned as an author, all I’ve learned working with other authors, and going back again to my teaching roots, of teaching other authors how to do this work.
I think, I’m not earning a living just by book sales per se, but I think if you’re a creative, then working in the creative field is just where you’re going to find your fulfillment and the bills do get paid, usually.
Tom Ashford: Nice.
Question number four is what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
Roseanne Cheng: Oh my gosh, I love this question. I have the luxury of being able to say that I have made so many mistakes myself, but I’ve also seen so many other authors make mistakes and we have learned together. Same on the opposite spectrum. I’ve done plenty of things right and I’ve seen other authors do things just brilliantly that I’ve never thought of. I would say for myself, looking back, one of the biggest mistakes I made really revolved around marketing, which I think is why I’m so passionate about that subject now, about authors finding a way of marketing their books that is sustainable and fulfilling for them. I felt really [inaudible 00:12:37] with the first book to spend a lot of money on a publicity campaign, and I didn’t need to do that. Sometimes when I look back on that, it was really just me not having faith in my own ability to do some of the publicity work.
I think I thought of publicity as just kind of yucky self-promotion, but it really doesn’t need to be that way. I spent a lot of money on a publicity campaign, which was fine, but I wish I would have spent more time on a personal, a mail marketing campaign, a [inaudible 00:13:16] campaign to just reach out to all of these educators and connections that I had made through my career. I think that might’ve been a much better use of my time and money and energy. I often use that as one of my mistakes. Can I add one more mistake?
Tom Ashford: Of course, yeah. As many as you want.
Roseanne Cheng: My other big mistake, I think, was feeling like I had to be anywhere and everywhere that all authors were. I needed a Facebook page and I needed a Twitter account and I needed a Tumblr and I needed a blog. Really, what happened was I ended up burning out. And I know it now, after working with so many authors that it’s not just me. This happens often.
And so one of my biggest pieces of advice to authors is don’t do that. Choose a platform that you enjoy being on. If you love being on Facebook, then be on Facebook and go all in on Facebook. Run some really great ads, make that work for you and enjoy it, and just forget the stuff that you’re not into. And I tell authors that all the time. They often feel like they have to be on Twitter, because every author is on Twitter, and I just remind them, you don’t have to be on Twitter. Trust me. If you don’t enjoy that, then it’s not sustainable and it’s not going to work for you in the long run. Find what works for you.
Do you want my biggest mistake? The thing that I did right?
Tom Ashford: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.
Roseanne Cheng: Okay. I think the biggest thing, and it’s honestly something that I still [inaudible 00:14:56] to do to this day is, I created in the back of my first two books, which are fiction, a teacher’s guide. It was a chapter by chapter, I pulled out vocabulary, some essential questions, some activity ideas for teachers to use, and I did that because I’m a teacher and I enjoy doing it, but what I realized when I was marketing the book and selling it was that this standalone content, this extra content that I created made my book and my message and even my speaking career so much more valuable, because I had something tangible to give to a teacher who wanted to teach my book.
It’s not just like, “Hey, here’s my book, read it. And if you love it, do a lot of work to teach it.” It was more, “Hey, if you love my book, I’ve already done a bunch of work to help you teach it.” And what I tell authors now is no matter what genre you’re writing in, you can always create supplemental content that either lives on your website, or hidden away in your newsletter, or it’s something that you’re doing to connect with your audience beyond the book itself. That was a big win for me.
Tom Ashford: Nice. Okay.
The fifth and final question is what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
Roseanne Cheng: Yes. Okay. Honestly as of today, I would say that for authors starting out in indie publishing, the first thing that you need to do is focus on creating a product that you are willing to stand by for the long term. That means, if it means having your book edited several times, do that. If it means going through different versions of your cover until you find just the perfect cover for you, then do it. Because I think what I mean is a lot of, especially indie authors who are really excited about going the indie route, they know that it can be done quickly, and so they’ll do it quickly and not put all of the time and thought behind it that needs to happen. I would say focus on creating a beautiful book that you can stand behind for the long run.
And then, this is a piece of advice that I got when I was helping coach another author in writing his nonfiction book, which was hire someone better than you. If something is not your expertise, if you are not an interior designer, don’t interior design your book. Hire that out to someone else who can make it beautiful. If you’re not a web designer, hire that out. It doesn’t have to be very expensive, but I think part of the creative process is really figuring out who you are as a creative person, and you don’t have to be all those things. You can just focus on the things you are good at, and then hire out the things that you might not be so good at, because I do think that when you make those types of investments at the front end, they’ll come back to you at the back end when you have just a much more professional website and product in general.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, that’s good advice, because it is like you say. It is possible to self-publish very, very cheaply or entirely for free, but it will most likely impact your sales in the long run.
Roseanne Cheng: And you can always tell. I think one thing that I’m learning more and more nowadays is this ad space, because so many of these platforms where we’re putting our books, on Amazon, on Facebook, any of the social media sites in general, it’s more and more every day is pay to play. That means that that book cover that we all know is selling your book, it needs to be perfect. It needs to be beautiful. If you cringe at a book cover, part of my heart just breaks when I see that, because I know how hard these authors are working, and they should have a book cover that just makes them excited every time they see it and it should sell your book.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, very true. Well that’s it. You’ve got your five questions out of the way.
Roseanne Cheng: Oh great. I hope I was a good student for you.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, that’s fantastic. Thank you very much for coming on.
Roseanne Cheng: Thank you very much Tom.
Tom Ashford: That’s it for this week’s Self Publishing Spotlight. Don’t forget that you can get your free self publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit, and if you want to appear as a guest on this show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing at selfpublishingformula.com/spotlight-guest. I’m Tom Ashford and I’ll see you again next week.
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