A condensed version of this profile appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.
Name: Nikesha Elise Williams
Books, Genre, Self-Publishing Imprint: Four Women; The Appeal of Ebony Jones; Love Never Fails; Adulting; Lessons We Were Never Taught; Beyond Bourbon Street (African-American fiction, women’s fiction, literary fiction, poetry, NEW Reads Publications)
Why did you choose to self-publish? Had you considered traditional publishing?
I had no other choice. When I finished my debut novel, Four Women, in March of 2015, my goal was to find an agent, get signed, get a book deal, and have a storied literary career. Clearly, it didn’t work out that way. I spent months querying agents. Some sent back form rejections. Many didn’t respond at all. One agent who rejected the manuscript told me I was a good writer but needed to do some revision on the format of the book. I asked if I made those changes and resubmitted would she consider it, but never heard back.
Shortly after experiencing these months of rejection, I remembered seeing an article from ESSENCE magazine about why writers should consider self-publishing. I took it as a sign and began setting up an account on CreateSpace and BAM Publishing. I took head shots for my official author photo, had a website built, and a designer create the cover. As I was taking all of these steps preparing to self-publish, I saw another article with the basic premise of, we all know someone who can help us reach our goal.
And I did.
At the time, I was working in television and a lot of the reporters and anchors had talent agents. I asked a good friend—who wasn’t agented—if her boyfriend’s agent knew any literary agents. She did, and he did. I connected with the literary agents who liked the manuscript and wanted to represent me. I signed with them in November, December 2015. I took Four Women through one revision on format as the one agent suggested and another revision to vary my sentences as well as add three chapters to give balance and some back story.
By early fall of 2016, my agents began pitching to editors. Two said yes to receiving the full but in the end, there was no sale. Toward the end of that year the Jacksonville Public Library announced its inaugural Jax Book Festival for 2017. I told my agents about the festival and we agreed that I should go and pass out galleys and samplers to people who were there. Additionally, me being the TV producer I was at the time, I created a trailer for the novel to get more people excited for this book I’d written. As I was making the trailer it occurred to me that when you watch a TV or movie trailer it includes a release date. As I sat there trying to figure out what to do I felt in my spirit to go ahead and put a release date in.
When my agents saw it they asked if I was firm on the release date, I said I was. That if it hadn’t sold by that date I was going to put it out myself.
At the book festival, I connected with a husband and wife editing team who’d worked at Urban Books. When my agents were unable to sell my book, they said all I needed was a copy edit before it was good for publication. I took their advice, reached out to the editors I met at the book festival, and published the novel myself. I’ve been self-publishing ever since.
Order a copy of Four Women by Nikesha Elise Williams today.
[WD uses affiliate links.]
Self-Publishing Appeal: I like the autonomy of self-publishing. With five novels and a poetry collection that I turned into a one-woman show that ran for four days before the pandemic, I have been able to bring my wildest dreams to life. There is something very fulfilling about that for me. Though this was not what I imagined, I can’t say I’m not living an author’s life. It’s hard but it has been rewarding.
Biggest Challenge: One, how expensive it can be. Self-publishing is exactly that. You do everything yourself, therefore you pay for everything yourself. It can get out of hand very quickly if you’re not strategic about it.
Secondly, trying to break through the crowd and stand out and build an audience is extremely difficult. Self-publishing has democratized the publishing industry in a way allowing anyone with some words and some know-how to release a book and call themselves an author. It is one of the reasons self-publishing is so stigmatized and traditional publishing itself is seen as prestigious and elite. Breaking that stigma and proving that I’m self-published because of gatekeeping, not because I can’t write, has been extremely difficult. Yet this interview, this feature, has come about because of my consistency and my work ethic to set myself apart.
Wish I’d Known … : I wish I had known then to fall in love with revision. To enjoy the writing and rewriting–not that I didn’t–because it’s truly the easiest part.
Writing Advice: I think the biggest piece of craft advice I have is to be open, especially for us plotters. Be open to changing directions. Be open to your characters’ point of view and what they have to say. I truly believe I am a conduit through which these stories are being told. I don’t try to force my characters into something that doesn’t feel authentic to who they are. I keep myself open and change course and change direction if need be. Yes, I’m writing but I’m also discovering just the same.
Order a copy of Beyond Bourbon Street by Nikesha Elise Williams.
Publishing Advice: Remember that publishing is a business. The end goal is to make money. Yes, we write for the love and the art of it all. But love doesn’t pay the bills. Love the art. Work the business.
Marketing Strategy: In a number of ways. I’m not the best at marketing, being a journalist by trade, but I am ambitious and relentless. With that said I’ve done some crazy things. I mentioned my debut novel came out in 2017. I worked in television until 2019 on the 2:30 p.m.–midnight shift. Because of my schedule I would drive across state (I’m based in Florida) or even out of state to do interviews on local morning TV because I had friends who worked in those markets who would put me on their show and then drive back to my city and go to work. We’re talking 4, 5, 6, hours roundtrip for a five-minute interview clip (if that) that I could post to my website and share on social media to make it look like I was this big-time author.
I attended a lot of book festivals paying vendor fees that ranged from $50 to $500 or more. This is what I mean by being strategic about the money being spent. Not all book festivals are created equal. However, each one helped me expand my audience.
I’ve also done a lot of workshops. This profile is a result of one of my workshops, my most popular workshop really, one I asked my local library if I could give in an attempt to market myself and my books. The first time I gave the workshop in February 2020, it was for free. Every time I’ve given it since, I’ve been paid as a speaker and been able to sell books as well, be it virtual or IRL.
The difficulty in book marketing is the main reason I started my podcast “Black & Published.” I knew how hard it was for me to get my work and myself out there as an indie author and wanted to provide a platform for other BIPOC indie writers to come to talk about their work.
Whether indie or traditionally published, but especially for BIPOC authors, it’s not just about marketing the book. It’s about marketing yourself as an author. The author is the brand. The book is just one of the products.
Where Shouldn’t You Skimp? The one part of self-publishing where authors should never skimp is on the craft and the production of the book. When I realized that I was going to have to self-publish, my goal was to make sure that my novel looked like anything you would buy out of a traditional bookstore. I do numerous revisions with myself before the manuscript goes to my editors and then I go back and forth with them so I can get the book into the very best shape it can be so to make the reading experience easy and pleasurable.
I do all of my own page formatting and typesetting and I am anal about it. In the beginning I would grab my favorite book off the shelf and match the interior layout page for page. Now it’s nearly second nature. Yet, if I’m ever unsure of how a book should look, I’ll find a book on my shelf that has a format similar to one I’m trying to emulate and use it as a model.
I also don’t skimp on cover design. Let’s face it, we judge a book by its cover. We just do. We’re visual creatures. I’ve worked with the same graphic designer since the first iteration of Four Women in 2015. We’re six covers and a podcast logo deep. Whatever she tells me her fee is, I pay it. Same with my editors.
Pay the people who can help you make your work shine.
2021: Beyond Bourbon Street–Best Fiction, Black Caucus of the American Librarian Association Self Published e-Book
2020: Beyond Bourbon Street—Outstanding Book, National Association of Black Journalists
2018: Four Women—President’s Book Award, Florida Authors and Publishers Association
2018: Four Women—Outstanding Literary Work, National Association of Black Journalists