I met Jeri Westerson at her reading at Vroman’s Pasadena, for her then new release Booke of the Hidden and, having attended several author readings for research, I was stunned at the quality and detail of her event. I had already devoured her novel in seven hours straight, literally unable to put the book down, and had considered myself a fan of hers for life. However, I held her in much higher esteem after meeting her in person, and seeing how much she cared for the fellow authors in the audience and how she had a knack for making everyone feel welcome. It is my honor and pleasure to introduce you to her.
Interviewer: Joanna Celeste
Q: You have worked with publishers on both sides of the pond and have self-published. What are the advantages of each experience?
A: There’s always an advantage to being traditionally published. Right now I have—and it blows my mind a little—four publishers: St. Martin’s still has the rights to a few of the Crispin books, mostly the first one; Severn House (my UK publisher) picked up the rest of the series of all new books; Diversion publishes my current paranormal series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN; and a small LGBT publisher, MLR Press still holds the rights to some of my Skyler Foxe Mysteries. In between all that, I have published a few historical novels, the rest of the Skyler Foxe Mysteries, and one Crispin book on my own. That makes me a hybrid author. The advantages to being published traditionally is the “discovery” aspect. In other words, how will readers find you? And if you are traditionally published, and with a big New York publisher at that, being in their catalogue is a huge push forward. It’s the imprimatur to booksellers, libraries, and reviewers, that your book is worth reading, which in turn puts it in front of the eyes of readers. You still have to do the lion’s share of promotion yourself, but when they take care of sending books to reviewers and setting up other things, with a publicist at your disposal, it helps a lot. The UK publisher is no different from US publishers, except for two release dates; one there and one here. Why they aren’t on the same date, I have yet to determine. Tradition, I guess. With a larger publisher, you can expect an advance. It’s nice to have operating funds. A small to medium publisher won’t offer you an advance.
So, once you’ve been publishing for a while, understanding some of the nuances of publishing, publicity, and marketing, then you might wish to venture into self-publishing. I certainly wouldn’t have done it out of the gate, and I always advise people NOT to do that. But many are impatient. I laugh when I hear they sent queries to two whole agents and got rejected. Good grief, if I had stopped at that I wouldn’t have 24 books out there published right now. Books that are well-written, well-reviewed, with multiple award-nominations. What’s wrong with paying some dues and learning along the way?
Q: In the twenty+ years you have been involved in this industry, you have been front row to a lot of change. What has been the most notable to you?
A: I suppose ebooks and self-publishing. The only way to self-publish in the old days was to go to a “vanity press” and pay them to publish you. You can still find them today, but there’s no reason to go with those who will promise you the moon, and deliver little. There are several platforms today (Amazon being the biggest and easiest to navigate), but there’s so much more to it than pressing the “publish” button. I mean, if you want to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal—and you do—they have a four to six-month lead time. In other words, the book can’t be published for at least four to six months. So what’s your hurry? All that money you’re going to rake in? That’s not going to happen. In that case, take your time. Hire yourself a content editor, then a copy editor. Hire a good cover designer. This is your face to the world. Don’t half-ass it.
And then there are the ebooks. When they really started exploding on the scene in 2010-11, something in there, they saved my skin with St. Martin’s, at least for a while. My series would have been dead if it hadn’t been for the ebook market. The books were cheaper, for one. And convenient, for the other. My overall sales are still higher in ebooks. But that’s changing too.
Q: How do you imagine or anticipate the industry moving forward from here?
A: There’s a real problem with piracy, and with readers who think that artistic content should be free. I don’t know what can be done to change those attitudes. But overall, book sales are down. Book tours aren’t profitable for the mid-lister, like me. Who knows how it will evolve? I know there will always be people who enjoy reading genre fiction, who want a good size 300-400 page book, who will pay for the privilege of buying it or encouraging their library to get it in the stacks. But right now, where are those younger readers? I’m trying to tap into them with my paranormal, but it’s tough.
Q: Your reading was one of the most engaging I had ever attended. What do you consider critical elements to a successful reading?
A: The first thing is, do NOT read more than five minutes. Even if you are the best actor in the world, the attention span these days means you must keep it short. And for those who aren’t used to reading aloud, practice. Practice by yourself and in front of someone. Read more slowly than you think you should. When we read to ourselves we zip through it, but when reading aloud, you need to Say. Each. Word. Be lively! As if you are reading to your child. Do voices. Pick an interesting scene with dialog. Have fun with it.
Q: Would you recommend new authors set up readings, even if they only get a few attendees?
A: Yes, because if you’re a newbie then no one has ever heard of your books. And this is a way to help them hear it. Being in a bookstore setting for this is the best because people just wandering through might be engaged by your reading. In a library, it’s harder because you will likely be in a closed room for your event. But do schedule those, too. Make sure the person setting up your event will advertise to whatever reading group they might have at the library. Have them schedule you accordingly. (Have an “event,” and that means doing more than a reading. Have an interesting presentation that only has to do with your book peripherally. I talk about aspects of medieval history when I do a library event, not just talk about my new book) Your event might be to speak at their book club meeting.
Q: You served two terms as president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America (https://mysterywriters.org) served a term as Vice President of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime (http://www.sistersincrime.org), and two terms as president of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime. At the reading, you strongly recommended authors network. What were some of the best things you learned from your vantage as president and vice president of those organizations?
A: Being welcoming. You have to welcome the new, the shy. Don’t just hang with your besties. Go out and talk to people you don’t know that might have been coming to the meetings a while. These are the people you want to invite to volunteer to be on the board. And there is nothing like volunteering to learn the ins and outs of organizing, to feel better about networking with others, to learn to be a little less shy. You’re now one of the team.
Q: Booke of the Hidden, your new paranormal book series, is a different direction for you, paranormal and urban fantasy. Are there any resources you can cross over from your medieval mysteries, the Crispin Guest series?
A: I still have to do research, but it isn’t as extensive as the medieval mystery research. It’s a cakewalk! So one does use those skills. Then it’s just telling an interesting and involving tale.
Q: Speaking of, your latest Crispin Guest medieval mystery novel, The Season of Blood, was just launched Christmas Eve last year, with your next, The Deepest Grave, set for a UK release in April, with a US release in August. What do you do to keep track of details and Crispin’s history or character development across the series?
A: I have not only an historical timeline of events with real people and what they’re doing, but I have a parallel timeline for Crispin. This helps me to establish when I want him to cross over the line into what was really happening in London or elsewhere. Chaucer pokes into the story from time to time. He was once Crispin’s best friend when they both worked for the duke of Lancaster. Then Lancaster shows up occasionally. Katherine Swynford, Lancaster’s mistress makes an appearance. Henry Bolingbroke, Lancaster’s son, who becomes Henry IV, is also an important addition to the series. Jack Tucker, Crispin’s apprentice, grows up with the series. In the latest book, SEASON OF BLOOD, he is engaged to be married. And in the upcoming book, THE DEEPEST GRAVE, Jack is going to be a father and Crispin has to cope with Jack’s wife living with them. It helps the series to grow right along with the characters, rather than keeping it static like a Hercule Poirot. Poirot is the same from the first book to the last. These changes that have happened in Crispin’s life have truly seasoned him and allowed him to grow as a person, and I find this a fascinating place to go with these characters.
Q: How does your writing schedule usually go?
A: I write every day, including weekends and holidays, unless I skive off. I used to have a really regimented schedule, but I find that as I’ve gotten older and my attention span has gone all over the place, my best laid plans are all for naught. I start at seven in the morning and mess around on emails and on Facebook. Usually around 9 or 10 I will begin to write, and that means reading over what I wrote the day before, sometimes going farther back in the manuscript to read it all for sense and to get into the rhythm again. But I find I write a few paragraphs, and mess around on social media. I write a page, and then stop to do research. I stop and start a lot. And sometimes I will stop in the middle of the day to watch movies. I’ll get a second wind about three and write for several hours. It all depends. And there is no right or wrong about it. As long as I meet my deadlines. And I try to make sure I get nine months for each book.
Q: What are some things you wish were talked about more in your industry?
A: What writers make. We really make very little for all the work we do. Maybe they wouldn’t pirate books so much if they knew how important each sale is.
Q: You have had quite a host of careers and occupations! What was the moment you decided to become a full-time author? (Though, you are also an expert on the Middle Ages, with talks around the country and acting as a guest lecturer. Where you get to demonstrate medieval weaponry, how awesome is that?)
A: Well, I wasn’t doing all that lecturing and talking until I was published. And that took a decade+. That’s why I had so many silly careers. I was a full-time mom, and writing part time with a part-time paying job. Before all this, I was a graphic designer and art director. That was a great career. With absolutely no intentions of becoming a writer. I wrote for fun in my free time and never let anyone know I wrote. So I fully intended to continue to be an artist. But I semi-retired to have a baby. And when he was about two, I decided to get back into freelancing. But the whole industry had gone to computer graphics and I knew nothing about it. I couldn’t afford the Mac I would have to acquire or the lessons to learn how to use it. So by necessity, I was trying to think of something I could do at home and also raise my son, and it occurred to me that I might try to be an author. How hard could it be? (Insert laughter) Harder than I thought, even with all my researching and getting an agent (I’m currently on my fourth). But eventually—with my husband always standing by me—I prevailed.
Q: You had shared excellent advice for new writers to read a lot, write a lot, and network; to not do this for the money; that this had to be their passion. What was some of the best advice you received when starting out?
A: I didn’t get any. I was on my own, writing historical novels in a vacuum before I started writing mysteries and finally getting to network with other mystery writers. But I soon learned the best advice for me: listen to the experts, the people further along than you. They’ve already been through it. If they make a suggestion—or a critique of your work—listen to what they have to say. Also, my training in graphic design helped me, too. It taught me that I’m creating a product for an audience. It isn’t “art” per se. It fulfills a function but it also has to work artistically. So do works of fiction. Your clients are your editor and the reading public. Yes, you are the creator, using your artistic skills, but it still has to please those readers out there.
Websites: http://www.jeriwesterson.com/ http://bookeofthehidden.com/
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/jeriwesterson/ https://www.pinterest.com/jeriwesterson/booke-of-the-hidden/