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Interview: Leigh K Cunningham on channelling Oscar Wilde and the importance of writing in earnest

 Interview: Leigh K Cunningham on channelling Oscar Wilde and the importance of writing in earnest

Leigh K Cunningham's latest release, Being Antisocial, in which the main character looks to Oscar Wilde as her personal life coach, is a notable departure from her usual genreLeigh is best known as an author of children's books and literary fiction.

Being a genre-bender as an independent author

Switching genres is one way of remaining fresh as an author, and Cunningham notes that this is one of the reasons she decided to write Being Antisocial, which as a humorous chick lit novel is completely different from the serious, literary tone of her debut Rain.

 Interview: Leigh K Cunningham on channelling Oscar Wilde and the importance of writing in earnest'Writing Rain over the years was very draining as it is a personal story and I had to regularly confront moments in my life I do not like to relive, like the death of my brothers and the aftermath,' she says.

In contrast, Being Anti-Social was easy to write, and fun at that. Its genesis, she says, was a moment likely familiar to many bookish folk: 'being pressured by friends to go out on the town when all I wanted to do was stay home.'

Leigh notes that an independent author she has more freedom when it comes to choosing the genre and style of her next project.

'We're free to write whatever we want whenever we want,' she says of being an independent author.

'I tend to write whatever germinates. Rain, a dark, tragic family saga, took six years from start to publication, partly because my process is to set the manuscript aside for a few months in between rewrites.'

During that time, she starts work on something else, and very often something entirely different.

This is how the The Glass Table, her children's series, began.

'It wasn't planned. It developed from two seconds of a dream my husband had while we were on holidays, and before I knew it, I had written the outline of the story and a few main characters. This was all done before I made a conscious decision to write a children's story. It kept evolving hence the sequel, Shards.'

Platform and marketing as an independent author

But although being able to write across so many genres is no doubt freeing, it also poses challenges: it becomes difficult to establish a platform. Without a single recognisable brand, marketing and promotion become more difficult, particularly so when these responsibilities fall upon the author as well.

'I do think independent authors are more creative. We have to be!' says Leigh.

Independent author, she says, come to the table with an understand of who is doing what, and by that, she means that it's the author who is charged with wearing all of the various publishing hats.

 Interview: Leigh K Cunningham on channelling Oscar Wilde and the importance of writing in earnest Interview: Leigh K Cunningham on channelling Oscar Wilde and the importance of writing in earnest

'There are no failed expectations except if we fail ourselves. The rewards therefore all come from how much time and effort the author is prepared to commit.'

It's not a simple case of 'publish it and they will come' by any means, and Leigh points out that authors can't just sit back and wait for the sales to roll in. Neither can they put a piece up online in the expectation that the publishers will come knocking.

'As a result, they're just sitting back and waiting,' she says. 'They're not committed to the success of their book and working to achieve it. These two groups of authors drag down the statistics for independent author sales as a whole.'

Fortunately there many promotional services available for independent authors these days, and many of them are free and readily accessible.

'Promotional opportunities and distribution channels used to be closed to independent authors, but that has completely changed. So much so, it's difficult to keep up with it all,' she says.

To keep on top of things, Leigh keeps a spreadsheet of such services, adding new services that she thinks will add value to her marketing strategy. She then prioritises actions for these various services and strategies over a monthly, weekly, and daily basis.

'It'll take at least a year to get to it all!' she says.

However, it always pays to be cautious. Not all services provide good value for money, and not all will necessarily provide any benefit in terms of sales or platform development. This is where organisations like the Association of Independent Authors, of which Leigh is a director, come in handy.

To market to market

Of course, all the marketing channels in the world can't be of any use unless an author has a product that people are willing to buy. Leigh very consciously writes with a market in mind, and when beginning work on a new project starts by carefully defining what she's writing by genre.

'In defining your work by genre at the outset, you're better able to stay true to reader expectations,' she says.

And of course while one of the major draws of today's open market place is that anyone can publish their work without commercial imperatives, authors who step outside the norms of a particular genre will need to be aware of what this will mean when it comes to finding an audience for their work.

'Those authors need to accept that marketing a book that doesn't fit neatly somewhere will have its challenges. But hopefully the author can appeal to their niche market and be content with perhaps limited sales.'

But even a project that seems to meet all of the key 'must haves' for a market success may not necessarily be a runaway hit.

'I don't think anyoneeven people who have been in publishing for decadesknows what the secret formula is that makes a book a stand-out success,' she says.

'The best you can do is deliver a compelling story that has all the elements readers expect of the genre, and throw in something else unknownit may be a writing style, a character, a setting or a messageand hope for the best.'

She adds that it's never a good idea to attempt to ride on the coattails of an already successful project by another author, as this can readily backfire.

Leigh seems quite savvy when it comes to modern-day marketing and business approaches, so I can't help but ask whether she applies lean start-up and customer development methods to her writing: does she 'test' her work on an audience before putting it out there?

'I haven't tested my work previously before publishing, but this is founded in author insecurity and the difficulties of managing feedback,' she says. 'Invariably you will get two opposing responses so if you make changes to satisfy one, you can guarantee that sometime in the future this change will be criticised and you'll wish you'd left it as it was.'

For example, the first editor for The Glass Table told Leigh that a particular sub-plot didn't work, while the next editor loved it and thought it added depth.

'You will never please everyone. You're the author, so make a decision and go with it.'

Putting your best book forward

Being Antisocial Leigh K Cunningham 197x300 Interview: Leigh K Cunningham on channelling Oscar Wilde and the importance of writing in earnestAs much as we're told not to, we all judge books by their covers. But authors are not designers, and it can be difficult to create a cover that appeals to one's desired market, particularly with only a limited budget available. So what's involved in putting together a cover that will catch the eye of a target reader?

'I think the cover needs to reveal the essence of the story and the genre without the reader having to open it or read the back cover copy,' says Leigh.

'The cover of Rain, for example, is almost black with raindrops and is absent of any 'life': it features just the title and author name. This should be evidence enough that there is a dark story within.'

A different approach is needed for children's books: these are often colourful and need to be enticing for young readers.

However, the work doesn't stop at the cover image. The back cover copy or online marketing blurb is also key in providing the reader with the information they need to make a decision about whether or not to buy a book.

'The blurb can be a scary prospect for writers. They have to condense their work into a few paragraphs and find a few key messages to highlight that will compel a reader to buy.'

Leigh says that it can be helpful to read the covers of other similar storiesthose that your book will be competing with in the marketplaceparticularly those of highly successful and unsuccessful books.

'This can both guide you and steer you clear of certain content that doesn't work. Professionally-written blurbs follow a particular format, so take notice and follow the same format.'

Reviews, of course, are another key factor in helping make that final purchasing decision. But although reviews can be helpful in swaying a buyer, there's been a good deal of discussion about reviews and star ratings being gamed on Amazon and sites such as Goodreads.

Leigh is quick to point out that this sort of behaviour has long been a problem in publishing, and that it's only becoming a topic for discussion now that it's so visible and widespread.

''Gaming' for positive reviews existed long before self-published authors made their mark,' says Leigh. 'Some traditionally-published authors, their publishers and agents, work quite diligently at squaring up positive reviews from various sources, and for years this has gone on unchallenged.'

(Leigh has also heard of publishers creating Twitter and Facebook accounts for less sociable authors and posting on these authors' behalf, an approach that may also be considered 'gaming'.)

Leigh believes that this sort of behaviour sells readers short: 'Readers are observant and discerning and can usually tell when a review is not genuine.'

Readers also wield a lot of clout in this online world. Even if they don't enjoy a book despite its reviewseven if those reviews are legitimatethey can still request a refund.

'There's little detriment to the reader,' says Leigh. 'As a result, I believe Amazon's approach to this issue ' the regular mass deletion of reviews without discussion is heavy-handed and lacking procedural fairness.'

She explains that on Amazon, a 'reader' can register an account solely for the purpose of posting a 1 or 2-star review on a particular book. Where a site such as Goodreads might delete these multiple accounts, Amazon will only do this with when an account has been created only to post positive reviews.

But, of course, it may simply be the case that a reader simply did not like the book they've paid for.

'With regard to reviews generally, people will love; people will hate. It's just the balance of the two that varies from book to book,' says Leigh. 'Authors need to accept and be prepared for the 'hate' part. It is inevitable.'

On being a worldly author

 Interview: Leigh K Cunningham on channelling Oscar Wilde and the importance of writing in earnestOne of the benefits of today's publishing marketplace is that traditional geographical boundaries are being eroded, and an author can write and promote their work from just about anywhere.

Leigh, who moved from Australia to Singapore eight years ago, has not found her relocation in any way a problem.

'We're spoiled for choice and entertainment in Singapore,' she says. 'It has a thriving artistic culture; the government here is very supportive of the arts.'

She goes on to add that she doesn't think where you live matters at all unless you live somewhere with very slow internet access, as this might seriously hinder what you could achieve in any given day.

'Everything is done online these days, so location does not matter.'

And given that Leigh is just about to embark upon a radio tour of the USA direct from her home in Singapore, she's certainly on board with that suggestion.

'The only issue will be the time zone,' she says. 'We are 12 hours ahead of the east coast so this could mean some very early mornings! But that's perfectly okaythis is my job, so it's no different to an employee of a global company having to attend a teleconference for a global team in the middle of the night, which I've had to do before.'

And working as an author is often akin to running a small business: long hours and hard work are the norm.

'I've released a book a year for the past four years and that has been quite a hectic, unforgiving pace,' she says of managing four books at different stages of their life cycle.

'At some stage, hopefully next year, I plan to start work on my next book, most likely the third book in The Glass Table series. However a lot of readers have requested a sequel to Rain so I also want to give this some consideration. This would require some time living in Luanda, Angola, and I'm not quite sure how to make that happen at this time.'

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  1. A really interesting interview ladies!
    shelleyrae @ Bookd Out recently posted..Review: No Remorse by Ian Walkley

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