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Author Interview Series (18): Victoria Smith

Today's author interview is with the award-winning author of Big H and Little h Dog . I connected with Victoria on Instagram last year and we signed up to each other's launch teams. I fell in love with Big H and Little h Dog. I even read it with one of my students, and he loved it so much, he asked if he could keep it. There was no way I could give my copy away, so I bought another copy for him. We're now both huge fans of Victoria and always eagerly waiting for her new releases. Needless to say, her latest book The Hypotheses of Hippopotamus and Rhinoceros is absolutely brilliant! (You can find the link for the review at the end of this post.) I have been wanting to interview Victoria for some time and I'm so thrilled to finally share her story on my blog. Victoria is one the sweetest and most supportive authors and friends I have the pleasure of knowing since I started this author journey. She's even introduced me to other awesome and amazing authors, making this self-publishing thing so much more enjoyable and worthwhile. She's definitely someone I would love to meet in person one day!

 

Hi Victoria! I'm so happy to finally have you for my author interview series! Can you tell everyone a bit about yourself?


V: Hi, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to interview me, Irenee. I’m a freelance Vocational Education Consultant and Children’s Author based in Surrey, UK and I’m about to start a new part-time role, as a Cardiac Rehab Exercise Instructor too. I’m married to an amazing man and have two children (aged 15 and 10). After college, I worked as a bank cashier for a year, before my love of sport inspired me to undertake a Sport Science Degree. I was awarded ‘Student of the Year’ and got a 1st Class Honours (after doing very badly in my A levels might I add!). My first proper job was as an Exercise Therapist in learning disability and challenging behaviour. I have worked in education in one form or another for over 20 years - it has involved an awful lot of writing!


Wow! That's really amazing you have worked in so many different roles. And I was a bit like you too – I didn't do well in high school at all but got 1st Class Honours for my bachelors. I think we do much better in subjects we are passionate about. Now I always remind my students, as well as parents, getting poor grades in primary or high school doesn't mean they cannot succeed later on. The most important thing is that they enjoy the learning process and not give up.


What inspired and motivated you to write your first book and how long did it take from the initial idea to publishing?


V: It almost feels like my first book wrote itself. From start to finish, it took about 4 years. It’s a charity picture book called, Big H and Little h Dog, published in November 2020. The idea for the story came to me after watching my brother-in-law take my nephew around a full Ironman triathlon in support of their charity, Harrison’s Fund. My nephew was diagnosed with the rare disease, called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, at the age of 4, and the charity helps to fund research into the disease. I had two publishing offers from ‘hybrid’ publishers, but the cost was astronomical, so the story sat on my laptop for a couple of years, until my husband suggested that I self-publish. I set up a Kickstarter campaign and was fortunate to get the entire cost of publishing funded.


It's such an inspiring story, and it's so wonderful that your book supports the charity. I didn't know much about this disease until I read your book. I hope the book reaches more people and it can help continue to fund the research. Setting up a Kickstarter is a great idea too. If I ever decide to do it, I'll definitely ask you for help and tips!


What are some of the challenges you have encountered on your author and self-publishing journey? How did you overcome them?


V: My goodness, there is so much to learn, and I had no idea how much time it would swallow. An ever-present challenge is knowing how best to focus my time. I procrastinate way too much and spend way too long on social media! Another major one is the cost of producing a picture book. One way I was able to cut my costs was by learning how to format my own books. I taught myself how to use Affinity Publisher, which is like InDesign, but far cheaper. I have also been very lucky in finding two brilliant UK-based first-time illustrators for my books. So if you see anyone producing art that you love, it’s definitely worth asking the question.


It’s practically impossible to have a presence across all social media platforms, but it wouldn’t feel genuine to have someone else commenting and pretending to be me, so I’m not sure I would ever employ a virtual assistant. I tend to post to Instagram and share across to a linked Facebook account to save time. I don’t use scheduling tools – I just post when I have something to share. And of course, the biggy, is sales and marketing, which I definitely need to work on! Do you stick to Kindle Select or do you go wide with your ebook? Do you scale up on Amazon ads? Do Facebook ads work for picture books? What images/copy sell your books? How do you post in FB groups without looking spammy? Do you ‘write to market’ or write what you love? How best do you make contact with schools and book shops? I told you I procrastinate 😉.


Oh, I struggle with the exact same things. I also taught myself Affinity Publisher and InDesign to cut costs of hiring formatters. It's so much easier when you just want to fix a simple typo or update the cover. And I agree that social media totally sucks all our time away. We also have no idea if it even works for marketing our books. But, if it weren't for Instagram, I never would have 'met' you! So at least we can struggle (and procrastinate) together!


What are some of the proudest moments since publishing your first book?


V: I think my proudest moment was when my charity book, Big H and Little h Dog, won a bronze Readers' Favorite award very recently. It was such a lovely surprise because I had forgotten all about it! It was also selected as one of ten books that has a shot at a publishing deal in the US.


That must have been an amazing feeling! I'm so proud of you! All that hard work you put into the book was all worth it.


What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from self-publishing?


V: The most valuable lesson I have learnt is you can’t predict where you will find genuine support and kindness on social media. It can come from the least expected places. Kindness is indeed contagious!


Absolutely! And if I haven't already told you before, I am so happy and grateful that I got to know you and appreciate your kindness and support sooo sooo much!


What advice would you give to other aspiring writers or authors?


V: I have found it invaluable being part of a writers group to gain feedback on my work. Ideally you need to find a group with a few people writing for the same age group as you. It’s important to always ‘write and rest’. Let your amazing story sit while you move on to something else. Go back and read it with fresh eyes. Work on it some more. Get it as good as you can and then share it with others for input. Learn about traditional publishing, understand your competition, look at new publications, seek knowledge from industry experts like Amy Sparkes and The Golden Egg. Consider joining SCBWI. Understand how to develop a picture book story/story arc and build excitement with page-turns. If you go maverick, make it a choice not an accident! Sign up to Kindlepreneur and Self Publishing Formula for great free advice. I bought Kindlepreneur ‘Publisher Rocket’ and have found it really useful. I am learning all the time…


Oh, I just learned something new from you! I haven't signed up for Self Publishing Formula but will definitely check it out now. (You might have mentioned before but I must have totally missed it!)


How do you go about marketing? Do you have any tips for first time authors?


V: My approach has been to make strong connections with fellow authors on social media – the mutual support is incredible and it’s so rewarding for all of us, I hope. It is also important to reach your target audience and a good way to do this is to offer free books in exchange for reviews, blogs or ‘bookish’ play posts. I love to try and get a professional story time or two as well (cred here goes to @lightsoutwithlouise who has recorded all three of my books on her Instagram page! Lucky me).

What I have found, is that if someone has enjoyed my first book, they are often very willing to accept subsequent books and do another wonderful post. Every unique share has the potential to connect you with a new reader who will hopefully love your books! Another good tip is to publish on the quiet, ahead of time, to try and build up a few early reviews by offering a free ebook and sending out the paperback too. I like to get my advance-copies printed with a company called Mixam who offer a high-quality gsm cover and interior paper weight. Oh, and you will be contacted over and over again about paid reviews on Instagram – I personally haven’t gone down that route.


That is all excellent advice. I need to do more to reach accounts for bookish play and storytime. You really are lucky, but also, your books are so fun and entertaining, it's hard not to love your books!


Would you consider traditional publishing? Have you tried reaching out to or pitching to agents and publishers?


V: Absolutely, and I did try, but at that point, I had no clue what a ‘query’ even was! I was so naïve. I have joined SCBWI, and I would certainly try for an agent again. I do enjoy the freedom that independent publishing affords though. For example, if we want to have more than 32 pages in a picture book, we can! We aren’t tied to tradition. We don’t have to stick to 12 or 14 spreads.


I feel the same! I love the freedom and control of independent publishing. The best part of it is choosing who illustrates the book and how you want it to look on every page.


What are your plans for the next few years?


V: I honestly don’t know. It might depend on how well my books do! I would love to write another hippo and rhino story for Tracey to illustrate though. I also have a series of three stories I’ve been dipping in and out of for a few years, about a burrowing underground dweller, called ‘BUD’ (funnily enough!). I’m constantly having ideas for new stories and jotting them down, hoping to return to them some day. I think a lot of authors start to write for the love of writing and the need for a creative outlet. I can’t imagine not wanting to continue, but everything you write is not necessarily going to be right to publish, or, it might not be the right time to put it out there. I’m trying to be more critical of what I’m producing and whether it’s the ‘one’ to run with, or not.