Interview: Emma Michelle, author of Watching Cartoons with Boys

Emma Michelle, photograph by Bryn DC

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Watching Cartoons with Boys is quite a personal work. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to publish it or did that come after you’d written it?

I’m definitely very stingy with my time so I tell myself when I’m going to write something that it needs to have an end-product of some kind, whether that’s being published online or physically or whatever. Earlier in the year I was juggling study and work and then also creative writing so I’ve become really strict with how I use my time. I always like to have a plan in place for what I’m doing and what it’ll end up as before I get started. I find it hard to just write something; it has to become something. It’s good because you feel motivated to get some kind of output at the end of it but it’s also bad because I’m not doing as much creative exploration and just seeing where something goes.

Did you think about publishing your book through traditional publishers or did you always know you’d self-publish?

For this project the idea was always to self-publish, I think because I do have a bigger project which is a novel I’ve been working on for a long time, so for that I’ve always wanted to pursue the traditional way: have a manuscript, get an agent, find a publisher. This project was supposed to be a bit more low-key, something I could print myself and then when I’ve decided I’ve had enough of it I can pull it from sales.

But it’s also a really personal thing to have out there as well. It’s not a throw-away book!

I spoke to someone at the launch about this and the way I think of it is I’ve always had blogs, so when I was in high school I used a Live Journal and then when I was in uni I used tumblr and I think this book has been in a similar kind of vein, it’s kind of like confessional stuff to do with relationships and high-drama, melodrama kind of thing. So having had blogs for so many years where there technically would be quite personal things about me up on the Internet somewhere, in some corner of the Internet if someone were to look hard enough, this is a bit like that. I don’t know whether there’s less or more control. There could be less control because once it’s printed it’s out there in the world being passed around and even if I do stop printing them, but I suppose the Internet’s like that as well there’s always screenshots and there’s always some kind of cache of things you’ve written. It doesn’t bother me so much because I’ve had so many blogs that something as personal as this is ok. I did read over it many, many times to make sure that I was comfortable with the content, but I haven’t thought about it too much since then.

Did you do all your own proofreading and copyediting?

I did, and it was very painstaking. I think I have about five proof copies all up because I was such a perfectionist about it. And even like the margins and the spacing between the lines and everything, I was really, really over the top wanting to get everything perfect, which I think is good because self-publishing has a bit of a stigma around it that it’s not as polished and that there’s not as much work put into it.

It must be nice to have that level of control over it as well, so you know it will end up exactly how you want it.

Yes, absolutely. It was nice to be able to decide ‘this is what I want to do, I’m the publisher myself so there’s not too many constraints on what I do’. The company that I used to print the book is, and it’s pretty customisable and you literally upload a pdf or a Word document and they print it as is, which is really nice for people who maybe aren’t as receptive to editors or publishers telling them how things are done.

So how much did it cost to have the books printed?

First it’s important to know your cost price to print – printers will usually give a discount for the more copies you print, so think about how many you’re likely to sell and whether it’s worth having some extra on hand. Also it’s important to factor in your postage costs – if you go with an online printer like I did there are costs to have the books shipped to you (extra if you need them ASAP for a launch like I did!). Once you have that figure of how much a book costs you as the author per copy, it seems like the consensus online is to double it (at least) for a retail price. However, it’s also a good idea to pop into your local bookstore and get an idea of what similar books are selling for, to make sure it’s attractive to readers. And if you plan on stocking your book in bookstores on consignment, the industry standard discount to retailers seems to be 40%, so make sure that you as an author are still making a profit (however small!) once that discount is passed to the bookstores.

How do you make in-roads with bookshops? Do you just call them and say ‘hey, I’ve published a book; can I sell it in your bookstore’?

So this is a really big issue with self-publishing: you need to be really tactful in how you contact bookstores because of that stigma of self-published authors, especially if you don’t have much knowledge of the industry. Thankfully I’ve worked in bookstores for years so I have a bit of an idea of how bookshops work and how they get their stock in, but if you’re not familiar with it it’s really easy to come off as maybe a bit pushy or a bit rude. I sent a very politely-worded email to bookshops around that have a reputation for supporting local authors, rather than the big chains. I’ve had a lot more luck with the independents. So I sent an email to them with a bit about myself and a bit about the book and then all the specs like what it sells for in the store, what kind of discount they get and so on. I’ve had some success with a bookstore in Melbourne to stock the book and the person I spoke to said he gets on average an email from a self-published author every day and he rarely responds. I think that’s probably due to the fact that they’re a Melbourne bookstore and there are so many writers and novelists here. He said that the reason he responded to me was because it was really well written, although I don’t know really what he’s comparing it to, maybe some people only send a few lines. I think it’s really important for self-published authors to think about things like the discount you give to the book store, the recommended retail price, but also how you’re going to stock them on consignment because bookstores will rarely ever buy them from you wholesale, they’ll get them, stock them, and then pay you once they sell. So I had to put together a consignment agreement, which took a bit of time, but I think that was a nice surprise to the person I was dealing with at this bookstore because it showed that I was serious about it.

You did all your own marketing and promotion for this book, how did you approach that?

When I first started out writing I never thought I’d be the kind of person who would have a social media presence, I thought that was really cheesy using Facebook, and I use Instagram a lot as well. I never thought I’d end up here, but in a lot of ways I think it’s a necessary evil, like something that you have to do. I actually really enjoy it now because it helps me catalogue all of the successes that I have, so let’s say I’ve had a piece published in a journal or something, or a bookstore agrees to stock my book, I think that’s really exciting, so posting it up on Facebook or Instagram, even for myself, I can see that a year ago that happened when those memories pop up.  Yesterday something popped up, a short story that I’d written was long-listed for an award and I got a Facebook reminder because it had been a year, and that was nice to have, even if just for myself to see that and remember.

Do you have a writing community?

I always thought of writing as its own solitary thing like everyone in their own silence, writing. But for my first lot of writing this book I took two weeks off work and I spent a lot of time at cafes and pubs with my best friend who’s also a freelance writer, eating food but also on our laptops, then I have another friend who’s at uni and we’d meet up with her and she’d do her assignments. So it is quite solitary but you can make it quasi-social.

You said at the launch that you sought legal advice for writing about and quoting cartoons. How did you go about that?

From studying and uni and just from knowing how intense companies can be about copyright, and because I knew I was publishing it, I wanted to make sure I was doing it the right way. I chatted to a friend who vaguely works in the field of intellectual property and she referred me to the Arts Law Centre of Australia so I paid a small fee to join and you can get a manuscript-reading done. So I sent off an early version of this manuscript to them and they assigned a lawyer to it who gave me some advice on it. The main thing that I learnt is that ‘fair use’ is a really vague term; there’s no quantifiable percentage of quotes you can use. It’s a bit confusing, so for that reason I involved Arts Law. They advised where I should cut back a bit of the material I was quoting, made sure that all the copyright holders that I quoted were correct, that kind of thing. And because I’m just a massive nerd I made as many notes as I could at the back, from where there was a vague reference through to describing where an object in a particular episode was, and I’d have it cited at the back with the episode, the season, the writer and the director. So hopefully all bases are covered!

Tell me about your other novel

I started writing Rare Birds when I was about nineteen, first or second year uni, working in bookshops. I had the idea to do it because I wanted to read something and there wasn’t really anything there that appealed to me at the time. I finished the manuscript about a year or two later because I was writing it in between uni and just generally being lazy so it wasn’t something I really took seriously until a few years in. In the last twelve months I’ve been focussing on Watching Cartoons with Boys. But when I was last working on the other novel I had a manuscript that I was pretty happy with and I had an editor do a chapter-by-chapter read through and I re-wrote it a second time from the edits, sent it back, they did another final proof, and now I have my final proper re-write to go, which I hope to start in January, and then look at finding an agent to market it to a publisher. That’s my next project now that this book is done.

What’s the novel about?

It originally started as a really angsty kind of story. It’s a few months of someone’s life, not too many things go on, there’s relationship drama and so on. But it was more to do with things like living with a mental illness, the way that women get their ideas about femininity, and what it means to be presenting as feminine, where those ideas come from, in that really kind of angsty, late-teen environment. And it’s been interesting to sit with the manuscript for a few years because I’m a bit older now and this is not really a book I would read any more, it wouldn’t appeal to me because I’ve dealt with some things. But at the time I wrote it, it felt really important to me so I really feel like I’ve got to see it through. The first draft was very melodramatic and there was a lot of anger in it and I couldn’t tell where I wanted to direct the anger, I just directed it at a bunch of characters rather than somewhere else. So rewriting it I’ve really been able to think about that, being a late teen kind of thing. I admit I haven’t looked at it for a while, at least for twelve months while I’ve been finishing the other book, so it’ll be interesting to pick it up in the new year, do my final re-write and see what needs to be changed and what I’m happy with. I think most of all I’m really proud of it because it represents a big time commitment, I think it’s been eight years now. And I had some really good feedback from the editor encouraging me to keep going because at times I was feeling like it was too angsty and maybe I should just scrap it, but after that feedback I felt like it was worth it to see it through.

Reading recommendations!

Since I stopped working in bookstores I’m really out of the loop with what’s coming out and what’s really interesting, so I’m not as diligent with following up with things. Also, when I’m writing I tend to distance myself from other stuff, which sounds so pretentious! I know that there’s one camp that says read as much as you can when you’re writing, and then there’s the second camp which I fall into and I want to develop my own unique, quirky kind of voice and I don’t want anyone else messing it up and confusing me! Which may also be an excuse for being lazy and not reading. I am reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. It’s about two sisters who’ve started uni and one of them is really into writing fan fiction and kind of can’t grow up, and the other one’s cool and social. It’s been out for a few years now and when I was working in bookstores it was one I really wanted to read, so I’m giving that a chance now. I like it so far.

I also like J. D. Salinger; he’s my favourite writer. I tend to re-read a lot of his stuff rather than reading new things. I have this really clear memory of reading Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school and that was the first time I thought that I could be a writer. It’s a book about not too much, it’s four or five days in someone’s life and they’re running around New York doing things, but what it manages to pack into that is amazing. It talks about grief after a sibling has died, being an adolescent in a world that maybe doesn’t have a word for adolescence yet, so when you’re a certain age you’re a grown up.

You can buy Watching Cartoons with Boys here:

And on Emma’s website there will soon be a list of bookstores who stock the book, so keep an eye out!

Emma had her book printed by Lulu:

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