Spotlight 43: Karen Inglis
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 or 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 selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
This week’s guest is Karen Inglis. She’s written seven children’s books and she lives in the UK.
Karen Inglis: Hello, how are you?
Tom Ashford: I’m good. Some people may recognize your name if they came to the self-publishing show live event a few weeks ago because you are one of the panels. It was a thousand times, 100 K authors I think.
Karen Inglis: That’s right, yeah.
Tom Ashford: For those who didn’t attend, would you like to introduce yourself and talk about the seven children’s books that you’ve written?
Karen Inglis: Yes. So I’m Karen Inglis. I live in London, UK. I’ve been self-publishing since 2011. And yes, as you say, I’ve got seven children’s books out now. Three of those are picture books. I then have a short chapter book for ages six to eight and then three short middle grade novels for sort of ages seven to 11, two of which are illustrated and one of which is not illustrated. That’s called The Secret Lake.
By accident rather than design I write across all age groups and it wasn’t intentional, but that we’ll probably be talking about my writing methods as to why that happened. And I suppose the big thing quite a few people have now heard is the fact that one of my books, The Secret Lake became a best seller in the last couple of years. It’s now sold over a 100,000 copies actually, which is in print, which is quite uplifting
Tom Ashford: That sounds amazing.
Question number one is why do you write? Why did you want to write in the first place and why did you choose children’s books?
Karen Inglis: Right. So in terms of why do I write, because I’ve been writing for a lot longer than I was writing children’s books. In a way I’m not sure, but all I do know is I’ve always had the urge to write and to tell my story.
When I was little, I kept lots of diaries, I had pen friends back in the day. I had a pen friend in Africa, I had another one in the North of England and another one in France when I was quite young.
I still remember my first ever essay I wrote when I was about age five or six, probably six, and when we’d all be down to Spain on holiday and it was called The Journey and I remember it went on, an on, and on.
There’s just something in my DNA that liked writing things and my business career up until I was writing for children was actually professional writing for the financial services industry to cut a long story short. So it’s in my DNA and when I had my children, that then translated into me after reading children’s books to them, suddenly thinking, actually there some of these stories aren’t as, some are great and some are not so great. Then stories started coming to me.
Tom Ashford: Did you want to be indie published from the beginning or did you look for traditional publishing first?
Karen Inglis: Well, way back in around 2000 even, I want to say 2000, it was very early on, when I first started writing children’s stories I did send off manuscripts to traditional publishers. Those were in the days when you sent it by post and you waited for six weeks for something to come back. And it was the usual thing of the six week to 12 week wait, and then a brown envelope up coming back saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
After doing that for a while and my children were getting to school age, I just thought, “Actually this is never going to get anywhere.” And I just put everything back in my box in my office and went back to my day job for 10 years and it was only when I took a sabbatical from work for a year in 2010 that I pulled the stories out again and started looking at them and thinking, “Actually these are not bad at all.”
I then investigated what I could do about finding agents and publishers again, I discovered the world of self-publishing, mostly over in America and I very quickly made the decision that I was not even going to try to get traditionally published after that. Because I was a professional writer, I’d been working in web design for government and stuff and I suppose I had that sort of confidence, but it was finally giving me that control that I really wanted, which I’d been so frustrated not to have before. I did investigate trying to get books printed myself back in the day and it was just not viable. So no, laterally, definitely I did not seek traditional publishers.
Tom Ashford: Question number two is how do you write? Do you tend to plot the stories out first or just sort of see where they take you?
Karen Inglis: Well, interestingly with The Secret Lake, I didn’t plot at all. I just saw where the story took me and I learnt the hard way with that, even though it ended up being a fantastic book. I probably have something like 50 drafts of it, if I’m honest and I keep going back and looking at them all.
Particularly because it was time travel, an historical novel and so on. But I learned from that and going forward I plot, I have plotted, done an outline.
The way I do that is I always do it pen and paper first and bullet points or whatever, and once I feel I’ve got the outline of a plot I suppose, I would then move to my computer and there I will be usually writing in Word. I did try Scrivener but didn’t really work with me.
I do have a grownup novel in the drawer, which I may come back to, which is plotted out using Scrivener, but I’m in two minds about it. You know how it is. It’s just one of those things. People work in different ways. But yes, the plotting on pen and paper, then moving to word.
And then with picture books, there’s another element to it, which is you’ll come up with a story and then you’ve then got to get it to flow over usually 32 pages and in order for that, to really test that out once I’m pretty happy with the story, I would actually create a physical mock up of the book and place the words on it.
In fact, I’ve come to that stage recently on a picture book I’m just working on with an illustrator friend and it was getting the physical mock-up to make sure that the page turns worked. That was my sort of final step in the planning and plotting stage and she’s now working on the draft in illustrations. So yes, variety of methods.
Tom Ashford: It sounds like a lot of work goes into it.
Is there a lot of difference between the picture books and the chapter books and things like that in terms of your approach?
Karen Inglis: In terms of my approach, what? To plotting or just to writing the story or-
Tom Ashford: Just, I guess generally. What sort of changes are there in terms of plotting and in terms of just how you approach the story.
Karen Inglis: Oh, I see. Well in terms of the story, in a way it’s the same principle that there’s got to be a good beginning, a good middle and a good end and something has to change during the story, and whether that’s a character going through an emotional change or other things. And keeping the interest going.
I suppose in the way that in a chapter book, you want every chapter to end on a cliffhanger so that the child wants to go carry on reading, in the same way that you want them to get to the end of the page and want to carry on reading. Yes, you them to get to the end of the chapter and carrying on reading and then you want them to read the whole book and then hopefully read more of your books.
It’s just the same with picture books. And my last picture book, The Christmas Tree Wish, that’s quite long for picture books. It’s 780 words or something. But getting that story to work, it was a huge effort to make it work within there within the length of the story. And so the approach isn’t different in a way.
In some ways it’s no easier whether it’s a picture book or a full size middle grade novel, it’s just that it takes less time if it’s a picture book, ultimately.
Tom Ashford: Question number three is, 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?
Karen Inglis: I am a full time author in that I would say 95% of my time when I’m at my desk and in my office is all to do with being an author. But a lot of that time I can’t do it full time, put it this way, I can’t do it 40 hours a week because I have things that I have… I know this sounds very strange. I have a bad back. So I absolutely, typically when we’re not in quarantine have to go to the gym every day and that takes up quite a lot of time because I’ve had a slipped disk in the past.
So sitting for long periods of time and even now I have a standing desk so I can change my position. It just doesn’t suit me. I have to get out of the house so that normally will mean I’m gone for two and a half hours in the morning, by the time I’ve gone out, come back at my shower and so on. So that sort of eats into my time.
Although I do, by the way, when I’m at the gym, listen to podcasts, Self-publishing Formula and all the rest I’m always learning or reading.
But apart from that I am writing, but in terms of being an author that again doesn’t take up… It’s not something I do every single day because I have so much business stuff to be getting on with in terms of whether that’s organizing school visits, carrying out school visits, doing the admin after the school visits.
I’m also constantly keeping up to date with what the latest courses are that are available or how to do things well in terms of advertising, new tools that are available and just managing my ads. A lot of that and more lately translation. So yes, I suppose the answer to the question is I am a full time also but that encompasses a lot more than writing.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. It’s a full business.
Karen Inglis: To be fair, I enjoy the mix, but I would still wish I had more time to write. And I keep saying to myself, “If I didn’t have to spend two and a half hours out, always making sure my back doesn’t go into spasm perhaps I would do more sitting down and actual writing than I do.”
But that said, the way I write is I don’t have a production line of books that I know I want to write. Stories come to me. And so all of my stories, from The Secret Lake to my Fern and Fox stories, to the Christmas Tree Wish, the one I brought out at Christmas, they were all based on things I saw and they kept going round in my head and I knew I had to write the story.
And the latest one, which I’m just saying to you, I’ve just mocked up and I’m working with the illustrator, again, that’s another example it’s something I saw probably a year and a half ago, have been going around in my head. Couldn’t quite work out what the story was going to be until I then read something else in a Facebook group that was totally unrelated to what I’d seen, but suddenly the two came together and actually very quickly. And so that one’s underway at the moment. So it’s full time but in a sort of haphazard king of way in a way.
Tom Ashford: Question number four is, what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
Karen Inglis: I’m sure most authors will tell you the same thing when they first started out. The biggest one was probably typos in my book. I did use editors early on and I would always recommend that, but once the book came and I got my proof, I proofread it, a colleague who’s a business writing friend, and had also helped me work on the book with an editorial role, she proof read it.
My mother who’s an eagle-eye proofread it, but still, the first lot of print on demands of The Secret Lake, to my horror, I discovered, I don’t know, they probably had about 30 typos in it that somehow none of us had caught.
Around that time I also had made some bookmarks that I was giving out at local bookshops when I was taking in the consignment deliveries and there was a typo on the bookmark and I just spent something like 80 pounds these bookmarks. I remember sitting on the bus suddenly reading and thinking, “Oh my God, that’s 80 pounds just completely wasted.”
You live and learn, you live and learn. And in some ways I think you do learn from those mistakes.
The other thing I did wrong in the early days, although again, you have to do things wrong to learn from them. I wasted quite a bit of money, not horrible money, certainly not horrible money. I did waste quite a lot of money on Facebook ads in the early days. This is before really all the, I mean, it’s very the days of when the courses were available.
To this day I’ve not really made them work for children’s books, but I will be going back. I am to turn into see if I can make them work. But that was the other mistake I made. And I just think that Amazon ads seem to be a better place for children authors to advertise.
Those were my main ones.
And in terms of what I’ve done right, I would say, right from the get go, I have always done a lot of research and learning about the self-publishing process. And that’s always, it’s given me confidence and it’s really helped me do things well I think. I’m a bit of a stickler for detail and those sorts of things.
Back in the early days before self-publishing had really taken off in 2000 January 8th, and I spent a huge amount of time in what was called the creative space forums, talking to formatters, learning how, because in those days the tools didn’t exist that we now have that made life so much easier such as Vellum. And I continue to do that learning and studying now around Amazon ads.
Facebook ads, even though I’m not doing them. I’m constantly looking at courses around them because I do want to come back and master them. So that’s one thing I’ve done. That’s right.
Joining the Alliance of Independent Authors is something I, to this day, think was a great thing to do because I found my tribe. I think this was pre Self-Publishing Formula days. We’ve also obviously got the whole SPF community as well. So that was that safe place to get together with people who are like minded.
The other things I did right, I think from the early days which everyone will all agree with, is using an editing service. Even in the very early days, again, back when I first wrote The Secret Lake, there was a service I use called The Writers Advice Center for children’s books. They were trailblazers actually in their day and they would do a manuscript appraisal.
It was not with a view to being an agent or anything like that. You paid them and the people who work there have a strong industry in children’s publishing. So they gave me some great advice in terms of The Secret Lake and things I was getting wrong with the early drafts. I’ve since used Reedsy for one of my books.
Other couple of things I’ve done right. I’ve produced an audiobook last summer and I did get, and I still have sitting in a box behind me in my office, the equipment to do it myself, but I realized that I was just never going to get round to it and that the quality probably wouldn’t be right so I outsourced the production.
I went and paid a studio in Brixton and I’m so glad I did because even though at the time it felt like quite a lot of money, that has earned itself back now and the production, it went very well so.
But I could afford to do that then. So I will only really spend, I will invest, but you have to be careful. And then probably just the other thing what I’ve done writing is writing from the heart and believing in and knowing that the stories I truly believe in are the ones that I’m writing about and not giving up on them.
If the evidence says that they’re popular, don’t give up on them. You have to just keep making sure, you’ve got to work on how to target them to find the right audience. And that’s where all the research comes in. So long answer.
Tom Ashford: No, that’s good. It all led to you, selling was it, 100,000 print copies of single book?
Karen Inglis: It might even be more by now, but yes, The Secret Lake has sold 100,000 copies now. And it had sold, I mean to give you an idea in terms my determination, it has sold 7,000 copies by the end of 2000… I’m trying to get this right. I think it was the end of 2017, I’d already sold 7,000 print copies and probably 90% or 85% of those sales was at events because in those days, before Amazon ads really took off or came about for us, really, that was the main way you could sell children’s books.
Because if you weren’t well-known, even though Amazon was there and the books were on there, the chances of somebody finding your book on there were quite remote because you didn’t have that word of mouth PR behind you. Now, what Amazon ads did when they came along in 2018 in the UK, they suddenly put my book in front of people because I was able to advertise against books that were like mine. And the world changed after that.
And really, because I’ve known, I always remember the schools saying to me, “It’s such a lovely book and,”, blah blah blah. And I thought, well, if these women, these teachers in schools are saying so, it’s got to be a good book. What a shame more people can’t find it.
So if you’re getting that sort of feedback on your book, I would just say don’t give up.
Tom Ashford: Fifth and final question is what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
Karen Inglis: Probably I’m going to repeat myself a bit here. I would first of all say write from the heart, I would secondly say, this is kind of as a granular level, but it’s something we all know, leave your story to rest after you’ve written it. Don’t sort of thinking, “I’ve written it now, I’m going to go off and get people to look at it and get all excited about publishing it.”
Leave it for a week, two weeks, however long it is. Go back and reread it because you’re bound to find that it’s not as good as you thought it was or you’ve got ways to improve it.
After that, then test it with readers, appropriate to your target market, preferably not readers you know. And then after that, that’s the point at which you must use some sort of an editor, somebody who’s qualified to give you professional feedback on the book. And don’t publish until you’re show the stories the best that you can make it.
I think one knows when it’s not and although it’s never going to be perfect, you do know when it’s not quite right and just don’t kid yourself. You’ve just got to wait until you know it’s right.
And then two more things. Invest in learning, whether that’s investing your time in learning about self-publishing and the process. And there’s so much free information out there now, it’s unbelievable. And paid courses of course, and Facebook groups.
And then finally, the last piece of advice is help other people and share what you know. Because I do believe that you get as good as you give in a way. And I’ve always, literally from the first day I started self-publishing, I’ve got a blog called selfpublishingadventures.com and that’s pretty much where I recorded everything I was doing, as much for my benefit as for other people’s.
I had been so happy to get advice from other people for free. I wanted to then share what I was learning and okay, I have since now got a nonfiction book out but the blog is also there. And it’s good to share what you know, we can all learn together.
Tom Ashford: There’s a beginner friendly, self-publishing community out there.
Karen Inglis: Absolutely. Yes.
Tom Ashford: Well those are your five questions. Thank you very much for coming on.
Karen Inglis: My pleasure. And yes, happy quarantine.
Tom Ashford: Yes. Let’s hope we get through.
Karen Inglis: The first big day of the lockdown today, isn’t it?
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
Karen Inglis: Maybe I’ll get that grown up novel written in the next few months, you never know.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Good luck and stay healthy.
Karen Inglis: And you, take care. Thanks 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 selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit and if you want to appear as a guest on this show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing selfpublishingformula.com/spotlight-guest.
I’m Tom Ashford and I’ll see you again next week.
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