When Kimberla Lawson Roby didn’t have any luck convincing the publishing gatekeepers to take a chance on her, she took a chance on herself. She self-published in the ’90s, before it was fashionable—or affordable—to do so, and cracked the Essence magazine bestseller list on her own.
That got their attention.
Where there’s a lot of debate about diversity (or lack thereof) in publishing—and, more to the point, on bookshelves—Roby says she hasn’t “paid a whole lot of attention to that.” Instead, she decided to make reader outreach a priority, hosting giveaways and contests for book clubs, interacting with fans daily on social media, even funding her own book tours when necessary, cultivating a loyal readership that is diverse “more so than ever before.”
That cracked about every major bestsellers list there is.
To date, Roby has sold more than 2 million copies of her 19 published titles. And 2013 has already been a banner year: January marked the hardcover release of her novel The Perfect Marriage; May brought the 10th installment in her Reverend Curtis Black series, A House Divided; she’s hard at work on a novel and a holiday novella, both forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in 2014; and in the midst of it all she was honored with the NAACP Image Award for outstanding work of fiction for 2012’s The Reverend’s Wife.
In the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, Roby discusses her process, her journey, and how believing in yourself can make all the difference. (Download the issue instantly to read the complete interview.) In these bonus interview outtakes, she goes into more detail about her story development process, lessons learned from self-publishing, advice to fellow writers, and her all-time favorite books.
I’ve read that you outline the first half of every novel before you begin. Why only the first half?
Actually, to be honest, I wish I could do the entire thing—I’ve tried to do that and it does not work out. What I’ve found is by the time I’m halfway with my outline, I don’t know any more in terms of where the story is going. I can’t even make it happen. Once I’ve finished [writing] that last chapter I’ve outlined, it really is the characters driving it the rest of the way. They do that in the outline as well, but even more so when I’m writing the actual chapters.
Is it an outline in the strict sense of the word, or does it look more like chapter summaries or notes?
I will say, this is Chapter 1, and I will write a full synopsis that could be one to two pages—sometimes it’s two to three pages—and then I’ll go on and do the same thing for Chapter 2, and so on. When I’m ready to go back and start writing the actual full-length chapter, I’ll read that synopsis and turn that into, say, eight to 10 pages. And I’ll just keep going from there.
Do you ever deviate?
I do deviate, where even though I’ve decided a lot of what is going to happen for that first half of the book, my characters can take me in a different direction. So sometimes, say, chapter 6 or 7 may end up being 10 or 11, because three or four other chapters have been added in between that I was not counting on.
With all that preparation, are your first drafts fairly clean?
They are. For the most part when I’m doing my rewrites and my edits, I’m really just working on any problems that I see with the characters or the story line—maybe something has slowed down a bit, or maybe I feel like the reader will need more information in a certain chapter, but for the most part the story is [set] when I finish that first draft, the overall story. And I think that is because of my outline.
A lot of writers would envy you that!
[Laughs] Well, I have author friends who tell me it would drive them crazy to know where they’re going, even halfway. They just have to start with Page 1 and freestyle all the way to the end. And for me, I don’t think I’d be able to write a book if I had to do it that way.
You self-published in 1996, when it was much more expensive and much less common to do so. You really took a leap of faith to do that—you even had to take out a bank loan. So many writers struggle with self-doubt in the face of rejection. Where did you get the confidence in your work to go for it?
Yes, yes, yes. This is where my family comes in, because once I received all of the rejection letters—I started out with 14 rejections [from literary agents] … and then I received rejections from 7 editors at major publishing houses—at that point I really had decided, enough is enough. I really wanted to do this, my heart was in it, I loved the writing process, I really wanted to become a published writer, but when I saw that it wasn’t working, I decided it was time to just move on.
My mom was hearing me say that a lot for a good month. And she said, “You know, I don’t know anything about publishing, but what I do know is that we have passed around copies of your manuscript to women here locally”—at our church, people she worked with, people I worked with, those who worked with my husband—and she said, “These women are saying they couldn’t put Behind Closed Doors down until they finished it, and I just believe that means something and you shouldn’t give up.”
My mom had been telling me I could do anything from the time I was a little girl—so I didn’t know if I really believed that. I heard her, but I was sticking with my decision to just move on. Finally my husband said, “Well, your background is in business. Why can’t you just start your own company and publish the book yourself?” And that’s how the whole idea of self-publishing came about.
I had never entertained the idea, knew nothing about it, but I read every book that I could on the subject. The book that helped me tremendously was The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter. And my business background helped me create a business plan and a full-fledged marketing plan. In 1996 I started my company Lenox Press and printed that first 3,000 copies. And then my husband—I tell people, I’m not the risk taker in the household, but he is, he really believed in it—I have to admit, I think he believed in it more than I did. And he said, you know, you’ve got to give your two weeks’ notice, because if you don’t give this 100 percent of your time, I don’t think you’re going to be successful with it.
So in November of 1996 I gave my notice and I have been writing full-time ever since.
And you blew through those first 3,000 copies.
Very quickly—it really took off. At that time there were a lot more independent African-American bookstores in the country, and so I’d created a list of about 300. I sent them each a personal letter, with a copy of the book, asking them if they would please read it and if they liked it would they buy copies and recommend it to their customers. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what many of them did, and the word sort of traveled to other bookstores, and then readers started selling the book for me by word of mouth.
It didn’t take long before I ended up on the Essence magazine bestsellers list. In the May 1997 issue it was the only self-published title on their list. I went back to literary agents, letting them know my sales numbers and what was happening publicity-wise, and I found someone to take me on, and she sold my next book, and I’ve been published with major publishers ever since. My first agent was Christy Fletcher at the Carol Mann Agency, but then in 1998 I signed with Elaine Koster and she remained my agent until she passed away in 2010. She did probably more for my career than I ever could have imagined. It’s been a tough time, not having her any longer. [But now] I feel as though I’ve been in the business long enough and I love my publisher, so now I just have an attorney who handles anything contract-related.
What did you learn from your self-publishing experience that still applies today?
I think it really is reading and doing as much research as you possibly can about the business of publishing. [Also,] you want to create a very informative and reader-friendly website, you want to create a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, you want to stay in contact with your readers on a daily basis. I realize now that requires a lot of time and a lot of work, but it really is necessary to see your readers as people who you have a personal relationship with.
What would you say to writers who say they just want to write—they don’t want to do any of that?
You have to ask yourself what it is you want in terms of a writing career. If you really want a successful writing career, you have to do all of the above. If you are just writing for the joy of writing, that’s fine too. But you can’t expect to build your audience if you’re not willing to interact with your readers on a regular basis.
Are there any other lessons you feel are important to share with other writers?
I think that it is very important to write what you believe you should be writing, what you feel extremely passionate about. You really have to do you. It’s been said a lot, but I just think that they key is to do what it is you want to do and not really worrying about what everyone believes you should be doing. There’s not one right way.
I guess if you’re putting in 12-hour days at your keyboard the way you do, and then interacting with your readers on top of that every single day, you’d better love what you’re doing.
You have to love it. If you don’t love it, it’s not worth your while anyway.
Finally, would you like to share some of your all-time favorite books? What’s on your bookshelf?
Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, Bebe Moore Campbell
Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan
Playing the Hand You’re Dealt, Trice Hickman
Still Alice, Lisa Genova
To read the full interview with inspiring bestseller Kimberla Lawson Roby, download the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest now.