A Sticky Inheritance by Emily James is the grand-prize winning entry in the 5th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published e-Book Awards. It bested more than It bested more than 575 entries to take home a prize package that includes $5,000 and trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. For an extended interview with grand-prize winner Emily James, click here. For a list of all winners, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from our winners, click here. To read the opening chapter of A Sticky Inheritance, click here.
Emily James is a 36-year-old, full-time writer who lives in Ontario, Canada, with her husband and houseful of pets. Emily grew up watching TV shows like Matlock, Monk, and Murder She Wrote. (It’s pure coincidence that they all begin with an M.) It was no surprise to anyone when she turned into a mystery writer. She writes books with twisty plots, quirky, loveable characters, and a touch of romance. She keeps them clean because she wants her books to be the kind you could share with anyone. If you'd like to know more about Emily or send her an email, check out her website: authoremilyjames.com.
What is your A Sticky Inheritance about?
When struggling criminal defense attorney Nicole Fitzhenry-Dawes inherits her uncle’s maple syrup farm, she thinks it might be time for a career change—one that allows her to stay far away from murderers and liars. She couldn’t have been more wrong. Her uncle’s suicide quickly begins to look like it wasn’t a suicide at all, but the police chief is reluctant to investigate and soil the reputation of his serene tourist town. Murder’s bad for business. Nicole has no choice but to search for the killer on her own, with a little help from the handsome county medical examiner—who’s exactly her type and all wrong for her. And as she closes in, she not only risks becoming the murderer’s next victim, but also starts to wonder if knowing the truth is ever worse than believing the lie…
Where did you get the idea for this book? What was the writing process like?
I like cozy mysteries, I’ve done a lot of reading in the genre, I live in Canada—maple syrup is very popular around here and in Michigan, and so I hadn’t seen any sleuth in the cozy genre who worked on a maple syrup farm, so I thought that would be fun. My husband is from Washington, D.C., and I knew how much of a culture shock it was for him to come from the big city to more of a small town setting, so that was where I got the idea of my sleuth coming from a metropolitan area and having to adapt to life in a small town.
I’d wanted to write fiction—I’d known that I wanted that to be the focus of my career for a long time—and I got to the point where I was like, “Do or die, I need to do this now or never.” I plotted the book in about a week and wrote it in about six weeks, working from who I knew the murderer was going to be and plotting backwards from there to plant clues along the way.
Did you always know that the book was going to turn into a series?
It was always going to be a series, and it was always going to be nine books. I’m actually working on the final book now. But when I started, I knew the character arcs that I wanted for the course of the series, but I didn’t know what was going to happen in each individual book. I would finish one and pull up the next one and start working on it right away.
Why did you choose self-publishing? Why did you choose to self-publish as an e-book?
Self-publishing came down to two things that drove my choice. The first was that I wanted creative control; I didn’t want to put anything in someone else’s hands. I wanted to either succeed or fail based on my decisions, not a decision someone else had made for me, even down to pricing, promotions, all the things I knew I could do to make the book successful. The second thing was I wanted to do this full time, and I didn’t think I could do that based on the percentage of the royalty I would get from a traditional publisher. I knew that the chance of making a full-time income was better as an independently published author.
Do you have a day job? If so, what is it?
This is it. At this point, they earn me a very comfortable, full-time living.
[Previously,] I worked within the writing industry. I was a freelance developmental editor [working with self-published authors], and I taught some online classes on writing.
How long did it take to go from published with a day job to full-time author?
About 3–4 months. Once I got the third book in the series out, that’s when it took off enough. I feel very blessed that it worked out that way because I know it could have gone the other way and I could have made pennies.
What was the publishing process for this book?
The first thing I do when I finish any of them is I send it out to a few beta readers to make sure they don’t find any holes in the plot or strange issues with the characters. I did hire a copy editor, so when it was off to my copy editor that’s when I was having the covers designed professionally. I do not have those skills—I don’t think most writers have the skills to do a cover on their own, so I definitely hired that out. I did the formatting on my own. I already knew how to code books—I taught myself how to code because I had done a couple of nonfiction books prior to this, and then I decided to do Amazon exclusive, which made it a lot easier because I only had the one site to upload to.
With the overall arc of the story, I was pretty confident in my abilities that if I used beta readers they would point out anything I’d missed with the story and the characters, but when it comes to copyediting, with the grammar and the punctuation … I’m not bad—I do have a masters, so I knew I had the basics—but I didn’t want to risk having too many errors. I wanted it to be as clean as possible for the readers, and have nothing distracting for them. Even when you have a solid grasp of grammar and punctuation, your brain fills things in. I knew there would be too much that I would miss.
[For formatting,] there’s a lot of tools out now. I currently use Vellum [Mac only], which I love because it does both [e-book and print formatting] at once. It’s a lot easier than what I was doing before—with A Sticky Inheritance, I was doing the e-book coding by hand, and then I was using book design templates. But now I use Vellum and it’s so simple, and it helps me get both the e-book and the print book ready at the same time.
Do you sell more hard-copy or e-books?
E-books. I sell an OK amount of print books, but definitely e-books make up the majority of the sales. It’s cheaper and easier to get an e-book than it is to get a print book. One click and it’s downloaded to your device, and nowadays that could be your phone, your iPad, your computer, a dedicated e-reader, it could be anything. There are a lot of advantages to reading electronically.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing for your intended audience?
I mostly write for people who—women generally, women who want a story where there’s a good, twisty, interesting plot, interesting characters, and they don’t have to worry about being uncomfortable with other parts of the content. They want that great riveting story, but they don’t want to think, “That’s too much profanity for me,” or, “I really wish they would have kept that open-doors sex scene out of the book.” They want that great book, but without some of the stuff that would make them squirm. Especially if they’re thinking, “I’d love to recommend this book to so-and-so, but I know they’re not going to like that content.” So I really wanted to make that accessible in that way.
The biggest challenge would be sometimes, especially with a murder mystery, you have to walk that fine line between making the murder clear and not making the murder too graphic. That’s been a real challenge—knowing where that line is, knowing where there’s too much violence for my readers. How can I make it enough, make it alive, make them feel like they could solve the mystery, but not make them feel like, “ugh, that was really more than I needed to know.” Toeing that line has been really challenging. The benefit is these are books that my readers could share with pretty much anybody. They’re not going to have to worry about anyone seeing them read the book, about their kids coming in and finding it on their bedside table.
Why does your audience enjoy e-books?
A lot of them would like print books too, but I think they like the e-books because a lot of them are avid readers. They read a lot of books. And you really only have so much space in your house, and you only have so much discretionary income. And eb-ooks solve both of those problems. You don’t have more books piling up, and you can buy more e-books for the same cost as one print book. And you don’t have to wait for it to ship to you. A lot of cozy series are longer, and so when you’re following these longer series and you want to see what comes next with the characters, you don’t always want to wait even a few days for that book to ship to your house—you want it now.
Do you write in any other categories or genres?
I’m definitely going to continue with mystery, but I’m also going to be publishing a fantasy series under a different name.
How—and why—did you choose your pen name?
I chose it because the last name is my husband’s middle name, and the first name is the name that my mom was going to name me [originally]. I wanted to write for the joy of writing again. And I’d gotten so tied up in the fact that I was a developmental editor, and everyone was going to look at the books thinking, “Well, they need to be perfect, because she’s a developmental editor.” I almost got tied up in this knot of self-doubt, and the only way I could see to get out of that was to recreate myself as someone else. I wanted the freedom to write for fun again.
I also really wanted to see how important different marketing is. We hear about how important social media is, and about developing the social media platform, and yet so many authors are driving themselves into the ground and burning out trying to maintain all this. So I wanted to see if it was possible to do this with basically no social media platform. So I created her and she had no following from the start: She has no Twitter, she has a Facebook that she almost never uses … I post new releases there, that’s about it. She doesn’t have an active blog. She doesn’t do pretty much anything except she has a newsletter, and she always answers her readers’ emails. I’m talking about myself in the third person. When I created the pen name, I thought of her as my own alter ego—it’s what I did, but I think of her as a separate someone, almost. My life was not conducive to having to feed the constant social media.
What do you think characterizes your writing style?
I can only tell you what my readers tell me. The most common comments that I get are they love the characters, and they find that the plots always keep them guessing until the end, but I never cheat them. When they reach the end, they didn’t know who the murderer was until they got there, but when they looked back, all the clues were there. Those are the things that they mention as really keeping them going on the series.
Who and what has inspired you—in your writing and otherwise?
My mom and my grandma are the kind of people who never give up, and they’re very giving people. They always see the needs of others, and they’re always thinking, “Yes, this person may be struggling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean …” They see people where they are, and they give them grace. They try to help them rather than judging them. That’s one of the things I like to include in my writing—showing little bits of someone else’s life, so maybe you think, “There’s more going on in the people’s lives around me than maybe I know.” So the way I watched them live their lives really inspired what I wanted to do with my books. I wanted to encourage compassion and grace and giving, being very generous with your time and yourself. That drives the type of character I created for the series.
[In writing] I like J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series, but that’s very different than cozy mysteries. She took a look at different people and their motivations, and that was definitely something I find inspiring from a writer’s perspective. And also Jane Austen, I like her quirky sense of humor, that very tongue-in-cheek, offbeat look at the world.
How long have you been writing? How did you start?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid. When I graduated from my masters I wrote magazine articles for a couple of years, and I was working on a fantasy series at the same time. As I shifted over into editing, I set my own writing aside for a long time and came back to it just with this series. I realized I was spending all of my time and creative energy on other people’s projects, and that made me sad because my dream had been to write my own books. As much as I loved helping those other people, it had gotten to the point where it was unfulfilling because I knew what I really wanted to be doing was creating my own projects. I wasn’t able to find that balance. And I do still want to help other people, I still have a series of nonfiction works that I do, and I do still teach, so I am still doing things to give back to the writing community. I just had to cut back.
What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author?
Make use of every little minute. My husband and I had some health issues, so we spent a lot of time in hospitals, and instead of bringing a book to read, I brought along a laptop and just started working in those minutes. You’re not usually going to be able to cut something big out of your life and carve out a huge chunk of time, so the only way you’re going to be able to get back into it is using those little tiny minutes.
[Also,] always keep learning, and stay humble. There’s always room to grow, as long as you’re still open to the fact that you still need to grow. Writing is not one of those careers where you reach a point that you know it all, and that’s true as a person too. As soon as we stop pushing ourselves to be better, we backslide, and we actually become worse versions of ourselves.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
My computer. I went away on vacation and I was writing by hand to take notes on a couple of lectures we attended, and my hand ached for a week after. And I was thinking, “Wow, I am so grateful for my computer.” If I had to write by hand, it would be one book a year.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I don’t have typical days based on our life. I still spend quite a bit of time at doctors appointments, so I guess it’s a typical day when I don’t have a bunch of appointments eating my time. I get up, exercise, and I break the rule—I answer emails first. They always say don’t do that, but my brain doesn’t want to write first thing in the morning. My best writing time is the afternoon. So I get up and do a lot of email answering, I read blogs, I study or do business stuff in the morning. And then right after lunch I write. I like to do writing sprints, so I’ll shut down everything else and just write for a certain time period. I find 45 minutes to an hour works really well for me, and I can usually get probably 1500 words in that time. So by doing two or three of those sprints in the afternoon I hit my quota for the day.
Why do you write?
I think fiction can help people, sometimes in ways that nonfiction can’t. Even if all your fiction does is entertain, you’re still helping people have that relaxing break that they might need. Life right now is very scary and stressful at times, let’s be honest. So giving people a safe place to relax, and have fun for a minute, and de-stress is really important. But I also think … people don’t expect to find deep messages in what we would call lighter fiction—like cozy mysteries—but they still can. They can make us think about other peoples’ situations. They can show compassion. Probably helping people to find joy and think—that’s probably why I do it.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
My characters would be my strengths. I’m naturally someone who likes to think about why other people do something and not jump to conclusions. People are like a puzzle. I like to know their motivations, I like to listen to them, I like to find ways to be interested in what they’re doing, and I think that probably helps me as a writer because my characters feel real to me. I always start with them as people and go from there. And I like the puzzle of creating an interesting plot. Plotting is not easy, but I think it’s something that I do fairly well.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
Description. I don’t like to write description. I really have to focus on making sure that I describe people and the world enough that readers can see it. I tend to lean more towards the action/internal dialogue/dialogue part of writing, and having those first readers who can say to me, “I have no idea where this is taking place, I can’t see this, I need you to describe this more,”—having people to point out where I’m weak really helps. It’s just not something that I think of.
What is your proudest moment as a writer?
The reader emails, where they write and they say how much they love the book. Those personal moments when someone actually took the time to reach out and email me, those are the most special—because that’s another person reaching out and connecting with me, and that means something I wrote touched their life. So that’s really the big moment for me.
What did you do right in self-publishing?
I’m really glad I didn’t fall down the social media rabbit hole. I’m glad I didn’t make accounts everywhere and actively start blogging, and take my time away from writing. For nonfiction books, you have to have that platform. And some [fiction] authors do make the platform work for them, and that’s how they connect with their readers. But that’s not the only way to connect with readers, and as long as you have some way to connect with readers, that’s all you really need. It just doesn’t always have to be through social media.
If readers like your writing, if they like you, they’ll tell their friends.
How do you market your books?
I purchase ads—Facebook ads, Amazon ads, newsletter ads, BookBub ads. I run ads, and I talk to my readers.
What are your goals as a writer?
I want to continue to grow this business to make it more stable. Right now I just have the one series as Emily James, and she is the primary earner between the two of us. I have this one main fiction series, and that limits some of the things that I can do. And I am less stable financially than I will be when I have multiple series and have built up a backlist. So my main goal is to make sure that this is going to be a lifelong career rather than a few years at a particular career.
What are the most important benefits of self-publishing?
Timeline. I was able to get this whole series out in just over a year, which I don’t think is something I could have done if I had gone traditional. So definitely the ability to produce at your own speed, and the flexibility to work around your own life, too. So if something came up and I couldn’t hit my deadline for whatever reason, that’s ok. I’m not hurting anyone else by doing that. So the flexibility is huge, and the creative control is huge. I can write the kind of stories that I want to write, and content-wise, plot-wise, that gives me the ability to be creative in the ways I want to be creative or stick to the genre in the ways I want to stick to the genre.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing?
Distribution for print books and audiobooks. I’m in discussions with an audiobook publisher to license the rights to produce audiobooks of the series. I don’t feel that I can devote the time and attention it would take to put out a good product. And print distribution—you can get your books into bookstores as an indie, but it’s a lot harder. And it’s really time intensive. So your main focus is going to be e-books. I think quality control—making sure you’re putting out a good quality product—is a lot harder as an independent publisher. You have to find the contractors you’re going to work with, you have to make sure they’re doing their job well, and you have to know your own writing well enough—to be honest with yourself about whether your book is really ready to go out into the world. And that can be really hard if you don’t have a group around you to say, “No. Stop. Go back.” You can end up putting out something that you wish you hadn’t, and it won’t do well.
What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing? As an e-book?
The biggest misconception held generally is still about quality. Self-publishers can put out books that are just as good as books put out by traditional publishers now. We have the resources, we have the abilities. From a writing perspective, the biggest is that it’s quick and easy. It’s not. You have to be a business person as much as you have to be a writer. So if you don’t have that business mindset, and you can’t independently motivate, you would probably be better going with a traditional publisher.
What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors? Other e-book authors?
Make sure your writing is ready. Go hire someone who can tell you where your areas of weakness are, where your areas of strengths are, if you writing is ready. This is not a plug, because I don’t edit anymore, but there are really good developmental editors out there. There are workshops you can, there are critique groups you can join (make sure there is someone in there who is publishing successfully already), but get that feedback. Not everyone’s going to be able to earn a full-time living. But if you don’t earn something, even if it’s just some nice pocket money, the book probably wasn’t quite ready. And that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been ready, it just meant you needed to learn a little bit more first.
What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make? E-book authors?
A really bad cover. That’s why I don’t do my own covers and trust a professional. If your cover is really bad, you might still be able to gain momentum, but the fact is, that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” is there because we do judge books by their covers. I worked with a cover designer that made it really easy.
Any final thoughts or advice?
Don’t give up. Don’t let somebody tell you that this is impossible and stupid and that it will never work. WE hear a lot of discouragement, but if you really love it, even if you never make money from it, it’s worth it.