At Behind the Zines this month, I'm talking to Jennifer R. Donohue and going behind the zines completely to talk about self-publishing. Donohue's short fiction has been published in magazines like Apex and Fantasy Magazine. She has also self-published several novellas and her self-published debut novel, Exit Ghost, is out March 7. I'm thrilled to be able to talk to her about her experience with self-publishing and the joys and challenges of getting your work out into the world without a publisher as intermediary.
More about Jennifer R. Donohue:
Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New York with her husband and her Doberman. She is a Codexian and an Associate member of the SFWA, and short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Syntax & Salt, Escape Pod, and elsewhere. Her cyberpunk novella series Run With the Hunted is available on most digital platforms. She tweets @AuthorizedMusin.
More about Exit Ghost:
After her father is murdered and an attempt is made on her life, New Jersey heiress and witch Juliet Duncan is supposed to be concentrating on getting better and moving forward. Instead, Jules summons her father's ghost using her blood and tears and his old rotary phone to answer the question: who did it? He reveals it was Hector, her dad’s best friend and her mom’s new fiancé.
Certain her life is still in danger, Jules flees the family estate to the Asbury Park apartment she shares with her best friend and fellow witch, Ashes. When another friend joins them, all three women get caught up with a secret boyfriend who’s also big into magic, but in all the wrong ways, all while Jules wrestles with whether her father’s ghost was telling the truth. But what Jules does know is that power has its cost, and she is more than willing to pay the price in order to get her revenge.
Q. First up: what’s your background, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction writing?
JD: I was born in New Jersey and went to college for psychology in a small town in central New York, where I ended up staying after graduation. My husband and I went to college together, and staying in town afterwards just made sense to us. What I do for my day job (my non writing career?) is I work at my local public library; I was on the circulation desk and then in charge of interlibrary loan for my first years there, and now I do what the library world calls “tech services,” I do the book ordering, and then receive and process them. There’s also the joke in libraryland (probably other fields as well) that our job descriptions all contain “other duties as required.” In addition to ordering materials, I’ve helped with our local history materials, I’ve researched the building’s construction projects, helped coordinate room remodels and asbestos abatement projects, and I’ve run a writing workshop there since 2014. The writing workshop feels a little bit like cheating; what a dream it is, to be able to write at work!
Since getting dogs (we’ve had them one at a time, but it’s been two now,) my ambient interest in animal behavior and dog training expanded, and I’ve said that I have to use my psychology degree for something, and so dogs it is. I was even a dog blogger for a little while, before the whole ‘fiction career’ thing got traction.
Q. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre when you were a child or young adult (or adult)? What was your gateway into the world of speculative fiction?
JD: I was born in the 80s, and a lot of the media then (that I remember) was very fantasy/scifi/genre mashup, and I think that’s really influenced me my whole life. I read far more “literary” fiction than genre for a really long time, which might be what landed me in that “too speculative to be literary and too literary to be speculative” niche at times. The very first scifi book that I ever remember reading is The Magic Meadow by Alexander Key, though one of my aunts also lent me The Earthsea trilogy and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings once I was old enough for those. I did used to try to write more literary fiction, especially in college when I was taking writing classes, but also in high school I hand wrote (but never finished) 1000 pages of an epic fantasy novel with many dragons and characters but no real plot.
Q. I always love reading your work and you have had many short stories published in various speculative fiction zines over the years, including "Into the Dark" in Fantasy Magazine and "A Country of Eternal Light" in Apex Magazine. Your novella The Drowned Heir was published last year, and you have a novel called Exit Ghost coming out in March. Both the novel and the novella are fabulous reads, and both are self-published. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to go the self-publishing route for these stories?
JD: Thank you so much!
I actually did try to go a more traditional route with both The Drowned Heir and also Exit Ghost. With The Drowned Heir, I submitted it to both magazines and small presses that accepted those lengths (20k words.) After a few years of that, though, and after putting out several books in my Run With the Hunted series, I thought “well fine, I’ll just do it myself,” and put it out in ebook and hardcover.
Similarly, with Exit Ghost, I queried agents with it……….starting in 2020. Querying agents is difficult in the best of times, but the pandemic really made things that much harder on all levels. I did get several full requests, and continued querying for perhaps longer than I otherwise would have while waiting on a very exciting, high profile agent to decide, and when that rejection finally came, I thought “well fine, I’ll just do it myself.”
Q. Can you describe the work involved in getting your work ready for publication when you self-publish. How do you go about the process of editing, getting a cover, and then publishing and distributing your work?
JD: Most of my covers come from screwing around with things on Canva until I arrive at something that I don’t hate. I’m actually personally a minimalist when it comes to book covers; as a reader, I’ve been frustrated with movie tie in covers, or covers that have people on them that don’t end up representing the characters as they are on the page, and I would just as soon have a black book with the title and author name on it, and maybe some cool embossed designs, like those leatherbound-with-a-ribbon-bookmark editions of things that get put out.
I benefit greatly from having very good friends (some of whom are also writers) who are willing to read my stuff for me, ranging from short stories on up to novels. My ultimate proofreader has been my friend since high school, and I’m super grateful for his keen eye.
I use Draft2Digital for my formatting, and for distributing my non-Amazon ebooks. I’ve done paperback on Amazon, and the hardcovers through IngramSpark (who then will distribute to Amazon and everywhere.) I find it very frustrating that Amazon will only do preorders for digital items, and that is one reason I have not tried out their (new) hardcover options. In general, I like the Amazon book building tools better than Ingram’s, but that ability to run preorders is just too compelling.
Q. What are some of the things you’ve learned about the self-publishing process? Any insights, tips and tricks, or bloopers you’d like to share? What are some of the biggest joys and some of the hardest challenges?
JD: The very first time I formatted a book for self publishing (Run With the Hunted, back in 2018), I came to the belated realization that everything that is in the book has to be in the file when I upload it, which is VERY obvious but I wasn’t thinking about, say, an author bio, when I was in the homestretch of getting that ready. Since then, Draft2Digital has really expanded their tools, and you can add things like the dedication, copyright page, author bio, etc. in their interface (they don’t pay me for being happy with them, I’ve just found them crucial to my process!)
It’s truly a joy to see people engage with my work, be it discussion with a podcast or even just somebody responding to a meme that I put on twitter. These are characters and events that only existed in my head for however long, so seeing how they exist in the world is delightful. It’s also really exciting if somebody picks up on a reference that I’m making, or even mentions liking something that I am particularly pleased with or proud of.
Q. For writers who might be interested in doing this for themselves, what advice would you give?
JD: It’s important to be pragmatic, and behave professionally. Did I think I would be rich and famous by now, perhaps even discovered by a big publisher who wanted to do a run of my books, and then movie producers who want to bring my work to the screen? Maybe! We hear those self-publishing success stories, like with Hugh Howey, and E. L. James, and many others. I guess it could still happen at any moment, given my ever-growing back catalog, but it hasn’t yet. Does that mean I’m going to stop? Absolutely not. I write first and foremost for myself, and then also because I want to be read.
And I am read! People, not just my family or friends, but strangers have bought my books, and even rated or reviewed them, and that’s a really gratifying experience. People who I don’t have social currency with are still interested in my work, and I hope that they continue to be.
When I say behave professionally, that includes treating your fellow writer and other peers with respect, and also never going after reviewers, which is something that happens with alarming frequency, and is wildly inappropriate. Not everybody is going to love your book and give the ratings that you hope for, and that is just part of the territory. You can complain to your friends if you need to, or your group chat, venting can be really important, but that’s for private.
Q. What are your thoughts on the business of speculative fiction publishing and the challenges and joys of taking control of that process yourself? And also any thoughts you have on the challenge of getting self-published work reviewed and noticed for awards season?
JD: It’s really very freeing to be beholden only to myself. I push preorders because that is a thing that is “done,” but having a shortfall in expected preorders isn’t going to get anything canceled, if that make sense. I’ll continue to put out Run With the Hunted as long as I’m having fun with it. I’m publishing Exit Ghost as my debut because it is my most personal novel. When I publish my trilogy of werewolf books, I won’t have to worry about an editor rejecting my books 2 and 3 and sending me back to a blank page.
Admittedly, it is difficult being my own marketing department. I don’t have a background in it, and my self-promotion has largely been on Twitter, which is the social media site that’s meshed best with my own habits and how my brain works. And it is very hard getting self-published work reviewed and noticed for awards season; indeed, and I might be wrong, but self-published novellas (and probably novels, but I didn’t have a novel out when I looked this up) didn’t used to be eligible for the Nebula Award, but are now eligible for the Nebula and Hugo. But even my non-self-published short stories haven’t gotten awards nomination levels of attention, so it’s difficult to know what will hit the cultural consciousness just right and then sustain that attention right up until awards nominations. So many writers are producing work at such amazing levels, it’s really a privilege to have these stellar peers.
Q. Talk a bit about your new book, Exit Ghost. It’s a witchy story that might have some connections to a certain work by Shakespeare, with dead father, witches, and a Yorick (even though your Yorick is a dog). How did this story come to you and what kind of journey has it been to get it to publication?
JD: I’ve loved Shakespeare from my first contact, which I think was Romeo and Juliet during my freshman year of high school. That teacher taught two half-year Shakespeare electives, so my sophomore year of high school, I just spend the whole year immersed in Shakespeare, which he taught by actually just having us watch the plays, as is kind of the whole point of plays. There were a lot of BBC productions (The Taming of the Shrewwas the notable one I remember of those) and then a lot of Hollywood Shakespeare around that time, so we watched Romeo + Juliet, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet, and Laurence Fishburn’s Othello. I don’t remember which Macbeth we saw, maybe that was BBC as well, though when we did Macbethin junior year English, we watched the 1971 film that was produced by Playboy, and we as a class were very mature about that. Since then, I’ve happily watched a number of Macbeths (Patrick Stewart’s is particularly good) and King Lears (no surprise that Anthony Hopkins’ is very good) and other Hamlets.
There is an unfortunate category of my writing that is “my dad died and I’m sad about it,” and this novel falls under that heading.
My original idea for this novel was actually two separate ideas for two separate novels, one a thriller-y sort of thing that was a modern girl Hamlet but not speculative, and one that had nothing to do with Hamlet and was two friends who were witches in 1970’s Asbury Park, NJ. Both of those drafts petered out, as things sometimes will, and then I got the notion to combine them, so I essentially shuffled them like a deck of cards, picking the elements that I liked from both, and then wrote to The End. Then came my own rewrites and edits and adjustments, and then my trusted first readers got it, and then the dreaded query letter and synopsis, and Exit Ghost started hitting agent inboxes in January of 2020.
In the course of querying, I did get several full requests, some of which took longer for that rejection than others, and I waited an entire year to the day for a particularly high-profile agent’s full rejection. Had that agent not requested the full, I might not have queried for more than two years, but in November of 2022, when all was said and done, I’d written four more novels while waiting (they always say “write something else,” right?) in addition to three Run With the Hunted novellas, and I decided that I didn’t want to wait for rounds of small press slush pile submissions. I was seeing witch novels getting published, I was tired of waiting, and that was that.
Q. As a fellow dog lover, I approve very much of Yorick in this story. I know you are a Doberman lover in real life too, so I’m guessing it was important for you to include not just any dog, but this particular dog. What’s so great about Dobermans? 😊
JD: It’s funny, first draft Yorick was actually a mastiff, due to their occasional historic estate guardian roles, and then I thought it would be very funny if he was a Great Dane, giving the certain work by Shakespeare that Exit Ghost is inspired by/in dialogue with, but really, he always needed to be a Doberman. The Doberman Party Line is that they are the first/only breed that was created with personal protection in mind, and while I have never protection trained a dog, I can absolutely testify to the breed’s need to be with their people at all times. Our first Doberman, Elka, was eerily intelligent, and our current Doberman, Ulrike, is one of the sweetest dogs that I have ever known, and both of them performed the important role of “rest for my left elbow” as I’ve sat on the couch with a laptop in addition to their other duties of alerting us to neighborhood goings-on an getting me out of the house for constitutionals. Dobermans want to be with their people, and also would love to share whatever it is that you’re eating. I’m absolutely heart and soul sold on them as the breed for me.
Q. I loved your novella, The Drowned Heir, and found its description of magic and the society it takes place in to be fascinating and uniquely imagined. It’s a place where people are literally magicked into being possessed by the deceased. Tell us a bit about the inspiration for that story the world you created.
JD: I literally dreamed the first line of The Drowned Heir: “They drown me when my uncle dies.” I woke up and immediately wrote that down, so I wouldn’t lose it, and then texted it to one of my aforementioned writer friends who was like “well that’s a lot.” I went about my morning, but the sentence stuck with me, and the general textural feeling of that scene, the place in the rocks where the water comes up, the salt, the strangeness of it all. I very rarely plan when I write, and it was no different when I wrote The Drowned Heir; I started at the start, and wrote to the end. The first draft was about half the length but contained essentially the entire plot arc, and then I went back and expanded it because it just didn’t seem like enough.
Q. Is there anything in particular you want to promote here, some exciting projects coming up for you in the near future?
JD: With all of my Exit Ghost promotion, I don’t yet have any sense of what comes next. There will be another Run With the Hunted in October (book 6! Title as yet undecided!) so that gives people who are new to the series plenty of time to catch up with the first five novellas. I’ll release a Run With the Hunted short story collection eventually, but need a few more to make it a reasonable length. It’s such a fun project, and I love playing with those characters and their points of view.
I do have a short story forthcoming in Interzone, and another that’s a secret right now, because the anthology hasn’t yet done the Table of Contents reveal but that I’m very excited for.
Thanks so much to Jennifer R. Donohue for talking to me!
About Behind the Zines:
In this interview series, I talk to people working behind the scenes at various speculative fiction publications. My goal is to highlight the work that goes into keeping these publications alive, and to share insights from the people doing that work. Each interview is available exclusively on my Patreon for one week, and is then posted here at Maria's Reading.
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