By Josette Keelor
Woodstock author Chastity Harris gave in to the voices 3 1/2 years ago when they became too loud to ignore.
"My husband got me a laptop for my birthday," she said. "It was nice, it kind of gave me a little more quiet in my head."
And with her first murder mystery, "Devils Among Us," a novelist was born.
"It's a combination of two stories," she said. Her main character is Devin Dushane, a police detective who revisits her aunt's murder when she has to take three months off from work following an inquiry into the way she handled the case that got her partner killed. The other character is Devin's Aunt Laney, who was found dead in the woods at age 17 after a party in 1964. Readers learn about her from flashbacks and from the memories of characters Devin interviews.
Harris e-published the book in February, and so far it's going well.
In its first three months with Amazon.com, the book has had over 4,000 downloads, half of which occurred over a 36-hour free download period the first week of May. Reviews have been good, too. During the free download, her book was ranked No. 150 out of 59,000 free books, which includes all books free at the time and books with free chapters.
The story of Harris, a 35-year-old mother of three, is one told and retold around the country. Thousands of homespun authors try to break into publishing by turning to the Internet -- but selling their product is not as easy as clicking a button.
K. Nicole Williams of Winchester self-published her short story, "Love, Lust and Letters," after reading what other authors said about the pitfalls of traditional publishing.
"It seemed they had to do as much marketing," said Williams, 33. "A lot of them were doing their own press, their own marketing." But they weren't making as much on returns, she said. Amazon.com gives self-published authors up to 70 percent, depending on how the book is priced, she said.
"I'm following a lot of independent authors kind of doing it backwards," she said. "They're proving themselves as kind of blockbusters on their own."
Williams published through Smashwords.com -- "kind of like a one-stop shop" -- because it distributes to Barnes and Noble, Apple and Sony.
"Love, Lust and Letters" is about two characters who exchange "salacious letters," Williams said. "Unbeknownst to her, it's her husband's coworker."
In December, Williams tested the waters of self-publishing with a story she offered free -- "Tales of the Handmaidens" -- that reaped 1,500 downloads.
"So I'm thinking, I'm hoping that my paid one does well," she said.
But, like traditional publishing, self-publishing is hit or miss, and Becky Mushko of Penhook in Franklin County warns against rushing to publish.
A self-published book can lure publishers if it sells well on its own, she said.
"It's doable, but you have to have a really good book that will appeal to a wide amount of people," said Mushko, 67. "The bottom line is, it's business."
The trouble is, if publishers associate your name online with low book downloads, it's over, she said. They won't risk their good name on someone whose book might not sell.
That's what she said happened to her novel "Patches on the Same Quilt," which she self-published on an offset press in Radford in 2001. Because the books didn't have a distributor and are not returnable, bookstores wouldn't take them. It took her two years to sell the 1,000 she had printed. After ordering another 1,000, she sold about 700 more, mainly at speaking engagements and festivals.
She e-published "Patches" this year, and so far it's received 111 downloads. Even with great reviews on the ebook, she said sales never took off.
But sales aren't necessarily reflective of quality.
"Patches" -- a series of related stories told by members of six generations of a Franklin County, Va., family -- was the runner-up in the 2001 Smith Mountain Arts Council Fiction Contest.
After Mushko won the Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest three times, she bundled the three stories into a collection -- which got 26 downloads.
Her latest collection of short stories is called "Over Coffee" and is available on Amazon.com. This year she also e-published her middle grade paranormal novel "Stuck," about of a fifth grade girl who helps a ghost stuck on earth reunite with her daughter. First published in 2011 by Cedar Creek Publishing, "Stuck" saw 58 downloads for Kindle during its first free weekend and will have another free Kindle download on June 10.
Mushko has found social networking to be a double-edged sword, because she fears annoying Facebook friends and Twitter followers with daily reminders about her book.
"Post when it's new, and I post when it's free," Mushko said.
But Harris called social media "huge" for promoting her book, enabling her to build an audience before publishing her book.
They both agreed talking with other writers is also important, for improving and marketing stories.
Mushko, Williams and Harris all belong to Shenandoah Valley Writers, which hosts free writing events on Facebook and at ShenandoahValleyWriters.wordpress.com.
Williams also belongs to Winchester Aftermath. Both are closed groups on Facebook but accept requests for membership.
Based on her experience, Williams said she would encourage others to consider self-publishing as an alternative to traditional publishing.
"I would, especially if they're publishing in a genre that's either really popular ... or if they're publishing something that other publishers don't really know what to do with," she said -- "like a werewolf in space."
It's an ever-changing business, and she said self-published authors are gaining ground.
"I looked today and Barnes and Noble Nook, 20 percent of their sales come from self-published authors," she said. "Publishers are recognizing that it's a viable way of publishing."
"I think they're willing to collaborate more with self-published authors in the future," Williams said.
For Mushko, "It's a learning process. My goal was to e-publish." Despite difficulties so far, she plans to keep e-publishing since it costs next to nothing.
According to Harris, e-publishing has become so popular because of how difficult traditional publishing is. Publishers want proven authors, she said, but that leaves little room for new authors.
"I looked for agents for about a year." She even kept a spreadsheet of people she had queried before trying a different route.
"E-publishing and self-publishing are kind of the new thing," she said.
Financially it makes more sense, and, she reasoned, "There are authors who have made their entire careers by e-publishing."
But, "It's still every author's dream to have a book deal."
Chastity Harris' mystery novel "Devils Among Us," K. Nicole Willliams' short story "Love, Lust and Letters," and Becky Mushko's books "Stuck" and "Patches on the Same Quilt" and book of short stories "Over Coffee" are all available for Amazon Kindle. Williams' story "Tales of the Handmaidens" is available at barnesandnoble.com or at smashwords.com. For more information, visit Harris at www.chastityharris.com, Mushko at www.beckymushko.com and Williams on Facebook.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org