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Online Exclusive: Q&A with Steve LeBel

The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty, by Steve LeBel, is the grand-prize winning novel in the 2nd Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published e-Book Awards. For complete coverage of this year's awards, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer's Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from the competition.

In this bonus online exclusive, LeBel candidly shares his experiences as a first-time, self-published author, and all the ups and downs that come with trying to market and sell your book.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Muskegon, Michigan. Armed with degrees in Psychology and Counseling from both Michigan State and University of Michigan, I set out to counsel and save the world. After several years of counseling, I spent 17 years as president of a psychiatric hospital. I changed careers, starting an Internet company, which I sold after 11 years. Marge, my wife of 44 years (and counting), and I returned to Muskegon to retire. I wanted to start another business, and Marge said fine – so long as I agreed not hire anyone. So I decided to write. Two years ago, I met a great group of writers, and we formed a publishing co-op called Argon Press, through which we publish our work.

Tell us about your book.

My book is a humorous scifi / fantasy about a young god who just graduated from God School. Bernie lands his dream job as a Universe Builder. Unfortunately, the god working in the next cubicle is a school rival doing all he can to destroy Bernie’s world and get him fired. Bernie is the ultimate underdog, even though he has the powers of a god. It is a good vs. evil and coming of age story in a unique setting.

Describe your writing process for this book.

Having never done creative writing before, I read a lot of writing about writing. I drafted complex outlines about the story. My writing was continually interrupted as I discovered new skill deficits, sending me back to a new book or article. Several times, a future chapter begged to be written, which helped focus the rest of the work. At one point, I had 120 chapter descriptions on strips of paper laid out on the kitchen table.

Marge was not happy.

Fortunately, 14 beta readers gave me excellent feedback, while dozens more helped by voting on titles, book covers, and book trailers. Finally, two great editors helped me put the book into final form.

Can you describe the publishing process?

A year and a half ago, I organized a group of five writers, none of whom had published before. We met weekly, sharing ideas and expertise in areas ranging from website design, professional writing, the retail book industry, graphic design skills, and more. We struggled through formatting, platform development, ISBN and LOC, marketing strategies, and blurbs. As a result of our collaboration, each of us published our first book in 2014 in both ebook and print and finished the year with a book signing at Barnes & Noble’s in December.

Did you publish exclusively to Kindle? Through what platform did you do this?

Yes, the e-book is currently exclusive to Kindle, although I plan to offer it elsewhere by May. After writing the book in Microsoft Word, I stripped out all non-standard formatting elements. Then Calibre was used to convert the .docx files to Kindle's .mobi format. Then I uploaded the .mobi file to Kindle Direct Publishing.

Did you decide to publish in paperback and then e-book? Or did you do both simultaneously? In which format have you seen the most success?

The e-book was published on June 1, 2014; the paperback was published August 1st. The e-book has been far more successful (online) than the paperback. The paperback has seen several hundred sales through book signings, local sales events, and people who contacted me for signed copies which I send to them.

How did you arrange for such a cool cover design?

The image is a stock photo I found online through Google Images. I used to find out how to license it. With slight alterations, it was perfect for the book. I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out.

In what ways did you promote and market the book? How did you find your audience, particularly since you have so many strong reviews on Amazon (100+ overall, over 100 5 stars)?

My initial marketing effort focused on reviews from bloggers, offering them a free copy of the e-book in exchange for an honest review. Most were swamped with similar requests, but, over time, many followed through. Through social media, if I found people who read the book, I asked them to leave reviews. People are also reminded to leave a review in the book, on the website, in emails, in handouts, etc. So far, it has been successful.

Why did you choose self-publishing? Why did you choose to self-publish as an e-book?

I chose to self-publish an e-book because I wanted to get the book out. The writing is the fun part for me, and everything I heard about finding an agent and a traditional publisher seemed like a big delay and a distraction from my goal.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing? 

Our publishing group had to master all the skills normally handled by a publisher (formatting, cover design, blurbs, etc.). Fortunately, we had five books to work on, so once we learned a skill, it was used again for the next book.

What are the most important benefits of self-publishing? 

I like the control and the accountability. If something doesn’t happen, I know it is my responsibility to fix it. No finger pointing. No waiting for some other guy. And, of course, there is the financial benefit. Agents and traditional publishers do a lot of work, and they need to be paid, which means less for the author. In this model, we do more, so we get more.

What surprised you about the self-publishing process? 

My biggest surprise was finding how hard it is to break out of the pack. There are a lot of great self-published e-books out there. How do you make yours stand out? The answer is marketing. But it’s not easy. A lot of great books will never get the recognition or readership they deserve because they aren’t marketed successfully.

What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing?

Many authors believe as soon as they get their e-book published, the money starts rolling in. In my experience, this is not true. Looking at book rankings and other indicators, it’s pretty clear most authors are not making a lot of money. I’m sure most of us hoped to do better when we began our books.

What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors? 

Answer these questions: Why are you are writing? What do you want out of it? What can you do to promote your book? The answers will help focus your effort on the key tasks. You can’t do everything. Build a plan that works for you. I know people who do this. One writer loves talking with people about his book; he has no interest in ebooks or selling online, so he doesn’t waste time there. Another is introverted, so he spends time online with e-book marketing rather than direct sales. You get the idea.

What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make?

The worst mistake is not having your book professionally edited. No matter how hard we try, we don’t see all our mistakes and neither does our word processor. It takes fresh eyes. Lots of self-published stories are excellent, but grammar and punctuation errors undermine them. If you can’t afford an editor, find someone with strong skills and barter with them. It’s critical.

If you were to self-publish again, what is one thing you’d do differently? The one thing you’d do the same?

I would try not to be in such a hurry. There is value in advance promotion, cover reveals, book launch parties, and more. Many book reviewers want pre-publication copies of your work to review. Advance notices to friends and fans can produce big sales on opening day. The media has no interest in a book published a long time ago.

I will continue seeking input from others during the writing and publication process. This means beta readers, advance review copies, bloggers, and online voting for book covers and titles. Their feedback, although often conflicting, is invaluable. It is up to me to make the best decision I can.

Who and what has inspired you—in your writing and otherwise?

I have always loved science fiction and fantasy. For each management book I read, I used to reward myself with a book of scifi / fantasy. My bookshelf ranges from Isaac Azimov to Roger Zelazny (and everything in between), and not at all limited to this genre. I try to emulate the whimsical feel of a Terry Pratchett, Robert Aspirin, Piers Anthony or Terry Brooks. They are amazing.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

Although business writing was integral to my business careers, creative writing is new to me. Three years ago, I wrote a short story about a funny incident concerning sky lanterns and the perverse wind that sent them in the direction of the Coast Guard Station. Fortunately, no arrests ensued. People got a kick out of reading it and encouraged me to join a writers group, which I did. Several of us formed a new group for books. As our books neared completion, we realized - if we were going to be serious - we needed to focus on the business of writing. Five of us formed a group we called Argon Press. All five of us published our first books in 2014.

What are the challenges of writing fiction, particularly for middle-grade/young adults (as this was categorized in the competition)?

Actually, I wrote my book for adults. Short simple sentences and careful vocabulary made the book easy to read. I hadn’t considered it for young adults until I found my focus groups divided on whether the book was for adults or young adults, often having spirited exchanges about it.

The teen angst faced by my young hero as he struggles with bullies, new responsibilities, budding relationships, self-doubts, and other life changes hit a chord with youth as well. Interestingly, I have not found an age group that does not enjoy it. One of my neighbors read it twice and bought five copies to give as Christmas gifts; he just turned 90.

Do you write in any other categories or genres?

No. At this point, I’m so full of ideas for more adventures of The Universe Builders, I don’t feel drawn to any other areas. After all, my main characters are gods with the power to create unique universes, planets, and species. I can do this forever.

What elements do you think make a successful novel for middle-grade/young adults?

Several reviewers said there are "layers and layers to the story." I know that’s true. I’m sure many MG/YA readers will not understand every layer, but others do. I think this adds something special. Several readers told me they reread it, finding deeper meaning each time.

The book also has over a dozen plot lines which seems to guarantee readers will find something they like. For some, it is the loveable little creatures who follow Bernie in the woods. Others enjoy the growing relationship between Bernie and Suzie. Some laugh at Bernie’s best friend experimenting with cosmic talismans to help him get a girlfriend. The main thread, of course, is about Bernie’s struggle to overcome impossible odds, protect his world, and save his job.

What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author?

One of the first books I read had a breakdown of how much money the average traditionally published author makes from his/her book. The numbers could never justify the time or effort. This realization caused me to do some soul-searching about why I wanted to write. I finally realized I wanted to do it because I enjoy it. That mind-set has been a huge benefit to me.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

Since this is my first book, the single most important thing to me is feedback. I want to know if I met people’s expectations and if they enjoyed it. With good feedback, it’s easy for me to improve my writing so more people will enjoy it.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Things changed two years ago when I broke my leg and a complicated recovery kept me homebound. Before that, we did a lot of traveling. Now my day is filled with writing or marketing tasks. When not writing, I do volunteer work (S.C.O.R.E.), help friends with technology problems, and, of course, work with my writers group, which includes a growing number of writing-related activities (book-signings, etc.).

Describe your typical writing routine.

I’ve never been a morning person – I go to bed late and get up around 8:30, later on weekends. I have a nice home office with two computers. Computer #1 is dedicated to social media activities. Computer #2 is dedicated to writing and email. My first hour is spent catching up on overnight social media, followed by another hour reading and drinking coffee. After breakfast, a session on computer #2 follows. My day consists of trying to spend as much time on computer #2 as I can while occasionally jumping back to computer #1 to reciprocate with other authors sharing and tweeting my work. The day is broken up by two cats who poke and pester me until I play with them. This routine is maintained until around 6:00 pm, when I wind down for the day. Then around midnight, I catch up on the social media again before heading to bed.

What are the keys that have made your novel a success?

People seem to relate strongly with the main character, Bernie. It surprised me when readers (both men and women) started writing, telling me, “I am Bernie.” I even got this from people in other countries, which suggests Bernie’s experience is cross-cultural. He is an underdog in every sense, except he is a god. He isn’t the smartest, he lacks self-confidence, and he even has a pesky ever-present chaotic cloud that embarrasses him and compromises his work. He is different from other gods, because he believes life has value. Challenged by a bully determined to torpedo his career, Bernie is forced to make decisions about what is important in life.

People enjoy the whimsical way the story is told, the humor, the world building logic behind the god world, including their creation science. I think, most of all, they enjoy the ending, where everyone gets what they deserve.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing for your intended audience?

Several reviewers said they wished they could share the story with young adults enduring the difficulties of adolescence. They felt the tale could give youngsters a fresh perspective – they are not alone in the trials they face or the anxieties they feel. This motivated me to donate copies of my book to area schools and libraries.

It would be easy to underestimate the middle grade and young adult readers. Because my story was written for adults in an easy-to-understand way, younger people seem able to find as much as they want in the story. They don’t feel talked down to.

Why do you write?

I write because it’s fun. I love the challenge of producing something that people enjoy. I like to play with ideas in ways that tease or surprise or delight people. I like to make them laugh.

What do you do for a day job?

If you ask my wife, she will tell you my day job consists of getting the mail and making sure the garbage gets put out on Monday morning. I’m sure I do more than that, but I can’t seem to remember at the moment.

Have you published any other books? Won any other competitions?

No, this is my first book. I entered three other book contests, but only Writer’s Digest has announced results so far. One other contest, the Stargazer Awards, declared me as a finalist in the category of Metaphysical and Visionary work, but they do not announce results until late 2015.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

I have a very strong imagination. I haven’t done anything to develop it. To the contrary, I’ve learned to limit it, lest everything become so complex that the story could never be finished.

In fantasy and science fiction, the world we create has to be logical and rational. And yet it must contain and challenge the protagonist. This is a unique problem when your hero is a god. So in this case, although the gods have awesome creative powers, in their home town they are quite "ordinary." This lets me challenge them and show their humanity in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

Perhaps another strength comes from my counseling background. It helped me understand the feelings of people in desperate life situations and their hunger for acceptance and approval. Bernie, fresh out of school, still naïve and immature, trying to do his best yet full of doubt and uncertainties, is the perfect canvas for me.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

Before starting to write, I read books on writing. As I began writing, I encountered problems, which led me to other books and more research. My biggest challenges were point of view (POV), descriptions, and backstory. I wrote half the book with a POV that shifted from one character to another and back again as often as I changed paragraphs. When I learned the problem, it required a lot of re-writing. Descriptions were also difficult – how do you describe a god? Initially, I didn’t want to commit to what they looked like, but it was impossible to avoid. Even issues of time and measurements were difficult. How do you describe something that happened a month ago? Do the gods even have a moon? How often does it revolve around their planet? How long is their day? You get the idea. The final challenge was being overwhelmed with all the wonderful writing techniques. Every time I found a new article with new ideas, I would try that technique, often forgetting it by the time I reached the next chapter or the next technique. Fortunately, some of them stuck.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

A week ago, I would have said my book signings. All my friends came to my first book signing in August, which was a wonderful affirmation. The last book signing was at Barnes & Noble in December 2014, which was a fantastic way to end a year that had begun with an incomplete manuscript.

Today, I would have to say winning the Grand Prize from Writer’s Digest has edged out even my amazing book signing experiences.

What are your goals as a writer?

I want to write more stories about the gods and their world of universe building. That’s what I enjoy the most. At least six strong plot ideas have been clamoring for attention since before I finished the first book. Others have since joined them. I have some skills in marketing, but I’m better at the writing. My goal is to free up time I’m spending on marketing so I have more time to write.

Any final thoughts or advice?

There is an awesome resource available to the self-published author as we write and market our work. I am talking about other authors. The sharing and collaboration I’ve experienced is fantastic. And I have done my best to reciprocate. When I post their books on my Facebook page, it does not detract from my own. When they reciprocate by sharing my book with their friends, I benefit from exposure to a new group of potential readers. The same is true with Twitter and Pinterest and others. As we collaborate, friendships evolve, and new opportunities emerge. I encourage you to make friends with the authors out there. We have a lot to gain by working together.

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