The View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border, by Judith Gille, is the grand-prize winning memoir in the 1st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published e-Book Awards, besting more than 500 entries in the two-category competition. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from the competition.
In this bonus online exclusive, Judith candidly shares her decision to self-publish, as well as the processes she went through, and the unique experience that led to her memoir.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m the founder and owner of City People’s stores in Seattle, but my passion is writing about Mexican art and culture and immigration issues. My articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, the Florida Sun-Sentinel, in magazines, online journals and numerous anthologies. My memoir The View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border was released by Davis Bay Press in October 2013. I divide my time between Seattle and San Miguel de Allende.
What’s your book about?
The View from Casa Chepitos is the tale of two women, one American and the other Mexican, who are crossing the US/Mexican border in opposite directions. The story puts a human face on the immigration debate and explores issues women of all cultures and ages face: affirming their self-worth and purpose, building enduring relationships, and discovering where it is they truly belong.
Describe your writing process for this book.
I’d been writing travel articles and essays about my life in Mexico for a couple of years when I took a train trip into Mexico’s Copper Canyon. On that trip I contracted salmonella and became violently ill. One night, I was in a semi-hallucinatory state with a 104 degree fever when it dawned on me that the essays I’d been working on were meant to be a book.
I like to say that The View from Casa Chepitos was the result of a hallucination.
Describe the process of publishing this book.
I looked at lots of options, from Archway and Abbott, to Createspace, Bookbaby and Lightning Source. They all offer various services and expert advice to authors who want their books to see the light of day. In the end I decided to create a micro press and save money by doing many of the tasks myself. I did, however, hire expert editors, a cover designer, and a book designer. The money I spent was well worth it.
Why did you choose self-publishing?
I attended a couple of writer’s conferences and pitched the book to about a dozen agents. They pretty uniformly loved the writing, the book’s themes and the story (several agents even referred to it as the next Under the Tuscan Sun). But I didn’t have a platform, so they all passed, saying it would be very hard to place the book with a major publisher since I was a complete unknown.
Then, at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference, I talked to the people at Abbott Press and a couple of other publishers who work with independent authors. I saw the quality of books they were producing and heard one speaker talk about the dynamics of self-publishing. The positive energy swirling around the presenters talking about self-publishing was so much more uplifting than the dour talk about the trends in traditional publishing that I decided to look into doing it myself rather than continue searching for an agent.
Why did you choose to self-publish as an e-book?
I started with the e-book because it was cheap and easy to get online (and I could do it from Mexico where I live part-time) The e-book was doing well, but my demographic is middle-aged women who still like to take real books to bed with them. So I did a print run, too.
Why did you choose to start your own press?
I started Davis Bay Press because it was important to me to have an imprint. There’s still a lot of prejudice against independent publishers and I think it helps to have an imprint.
I also hope that someday Davis Bay can publish other worthy authors who aren’t getting picked up by the majors.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing?
The challenges of selling paperbacks are different than the e-books. Distribution is the big issue when you have hard copies to sell. Having a distribution plan from the get-go is critical to your success in selling actual books.
As an e-book?
Finding your tribe is the biggest challenge in e-book publishing. You can have a great product, but if you can’t connect with potential readers, you’re sunk. I’m working a lot on that right now. So it was back to Platform Building 101 for me, just like those twelve agents all recommendedJ
What are the most important benefits of self-publishing?
I was talking with a friend recently who has published three cozy mysteries (over the last two years) and is under contract for two more with the same big publisher. She just received her first royalty check and even though they’ve sold 13,000 copies of her first book, her royalties were less than what I’ve earned from my book since the book launch in mid-November 2013.
As an e-book?
Total control. I love it!
What surprised you about the self-publishing process?
I thought it would be easy to get an attractive, well-written, award winning book into independent book stores. After all, I own retail stores in Seattle and we sell lots of products from local artists and producers. But it’s been a struggle to place books with indie book stores and an even bigger hassle to constantly check stock and deliver books.
As an e-book?
What surprised me here is how critical building an audience through social media and other connections is to the success of an e-book. If you can do this, the author’s life can be pretty sweet. If you can’t, your book is likely to languish.
What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing?
I totally underestimated what it takes to market a book. Building a relationship with your readers is like working on any other kind of relationship, it takes time and effort and good intentions.
As an e-book?
That your book is going to be the next Wool or Fifty Shades of Grey and you’ll be instantly rich and famous.
What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors?
Produce the best book with the highest quality production values you can afford. It’s hard enough to convince book buyers to pick up a title by independent author and impossible if it looks unprofessional.
Other e-book authors?
Don’t just throw your writing out there. Hire an editor and a proofreader. Just because it’s an e-book doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be well-written, well-edited and well-designed.
What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make?
Writing a book without an audience in mind. It’s very difficult to market a book if you don’t know who your audience is and how to connect with them.
Same goes for e-books, only three-fold. The most successful e-books are in specialty genres that already have built-in readerships. All an author needs to do, in that case, is learn is how to tap into that particular market, some of which are huge.
If you were to self-publish again, what is one thing you’d do differently?
I’m working on a second book, with some of the same characters but all new themes. It’s about a year down the line. Next time I’ll have my distribution channels in place and do a big online build up for the launch through the social media presence I’m now building.
The one thing you’d do the same?
Create the most well-written, beautiful book I possibly can.
Who and what has inspired you—in your writing and otherwise?
I’m a voracious reader and am inspired by many authors, but the author I most admire is Harper Lee. To write with the moral consciousness and clarity she did in To Kill A Mockingbird was an incredibly courageous act in 1960.
What are the challenges of writing nonfiction?
Creating a story with a clear narrative arc. Most of the time life doesn’t hand out stories that are quite so neatly arranged. I can see why so many people prefer writing fiction.
What elements do you think make a successful nonfiction book?
The same things that make a successful novel: a great story line, compelling characters, vivid description. But in memoir I think a sympathetic narrator with a lively, personable voice is essential.
What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author?
I screwed up a lot when I was a kid. In 9th grade I was voted least likely to succeed. I knew it was a joke, but still it stuck with me. Proving those people wrong has been very motivating.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
Time to myself to reflect. Contrary to the stereotypical writer, I’m very gregarious and spend a lot of time socializing. When I expend too much energy being social, my writing suffers. Finding a balance is the trick.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I do my best work in the morning and since I work full time, my writing time has to be squeezed in before I go to work. When I was working on The View from Casa Chepitos I’d get up at 6 a.m. and write for two or three hours, then go to work. Now I’m up at around 6 or maybe 7 a.m. working on promotion.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I’m a stewer. I have a tendency to mull over an idea for a long time and then suddenly it erupts onto the page. Sometimes the flow is interesting, other times it’s a stinky mess.
I recently wrote an essay that was published in the NY Time’s Modern Love column. It came out fully formed and needed very little editing. But I’m not often that lucky.
What are the keys that have made your book a success?
The quality of the writing, the book’s themes and its characters resonate with readers.
I feel fortunate that The View from Casa Chepitos is not only selling well among my target demographic (educated women 40+) but younger people are also reading it and loving it.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing nonfiction?
Biggest benefit: you can learn a lot about yourself and others if you’re paying attention.
Biggest challenge: making a living at it which I’m so grateful I don’t have to do.
Why do you write?
I write to learn about the world and to better understand my place in it.
Have you published any other books?
TVFCC is my first book, but my stories have appeared in numerous anthologies.
Won any other competitions?
Yes, the first writing contest I ever entered: a Book Passage Travel Writer’s competition.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer?
A close friend once looked at me and said: “Your life is really about creating community, wherever you are.” She’s right. From founding an iconic chain of community-oriented retail stores to fundraising for public schools to immersing myself and my family in a Mexican alleyway, my life has been about building relationship and community. I think we all yearn for community, expatriates in particular.
How have you developed these qualities?
I’m naturally out-going and have an easy time connecting with people. And though it may sound odd, the skills I’ve developed as head buyer for my stores also helped a lot.
A successful buyer has her finger on the public’s pulse, she understands what people want.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with?
I was a very enthusiastic and prolific writer when I first started out. Most of what I wrote was really lousy but I couldn’t see it. So, the first thing I had to learn was how to distance myself from the work enough to see its flaws. Second, I had to learn that the real work (for me anyway) is in the revisions. I’ll revise an essay or article sometimes up to 30 or 40 times.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
When more than 200 people showed up for my book launch at Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle. We rocked it that night, with a great reading, a friend’s sumptuous photos of San Miguel set to music, a taco bar and lots of Dos XX. Everyone had so much fun.
What are your goals as a writer?
To continue developing my craft. While I now know my first book is pretty good (it did win this prize and has been very enthusiastically received by readers), I think I’m capable of writing an even better one. So stay tuned…