I met Alice Boatwright at a Sisters in Crime meeting and was impressed by how many copies of her mystery novel she’s sold (over 30,000) doing all of the promotion herself. Once I read Under An English Heaven, I understood why it’s so popular. It’s both a perfect cozy mystery, in that it offers up a glimpse inside the life of a small English village, but it’s also a finely written character study of a young American wife who has married the very British vicar and her struggles to find her place in this new place. I’m eagerly waiting for the sequel. My other reason for featuring Alice is her unusual and unique path to publication.
Tell me the story of the book. Where did the idea come from?
My husband and I are both avid readers of English writers, and we used to spend our holidays in England visiting literary sites from the Brontës’ moors to the grave of Agatha Christie. During long drives, we would make up plots for mysteries, and I jotted down the first notes for Under an English Heaven in the Cotswold cottage that we rented during these visits.
I kept the notes, but it wasn’t until we moved to England in 2004 that I thought of doing anything with the idea. At the time, my agent was shopping around my first book, three linked novellas about the long-term impact of the Vietnam War, a book no one was keen to publish so I thought maybe I should try something with broader appeal – a mystery. The fact that I was now an ex-pat living in a Cotswold village set the stage for this new project.
I decided to focus on two of the most derided characters in English literature – the American and the country vicar – and marry them – because I thought the challenge would be fun. I wanted to see if I could sell readers on my thoughtful, smart, and sexy vicar and an American who was not loud and overweight, but smart, literate, and funny. I worked very hard on the mystery plot and enjoyed doing that, but I also wanted my cast of characters to be interesting people, engaged with each other and with issues that matter to me from the meaning of home and what makes a family to the utility of faith.
Can you describe the writing process? What helped you during the writing?
Because I was working and traveling a lot, Under an English Heaven was written in between other projects. The first draft took less than two months, but there were gaps in between drafts, some of them long. I don’t use outlines. I think of my work more like painting. I do a rough sketch that covers the canvas and then I gradually paint the picture bringing in more and more detail as I go. I usually write seven drafts, and I frequently read from the beginning, often out loud, to hear how it’s all fitting together. I don’t share my work until I am happy with it. Until then, I discuss problems and get encouragement from a few writer friends whom I trust. When UEH was nearly finished, I spent a wonderful series of Sunday afternoons with a friend who read her book aloud to me, and I read mine to her. I also worked with an English editor friend to check all things English, and several advisers weighed in on details related to the church. As a long-time professional editor, I did my own editing.
Tell me about how you found your publisher.
Because I had such a hard time finding a publisher for my Vietnam book, I was nervous about finding a publisher for the mystery. The agent who represented Collateral Damage had left the business, so I was faced with starting from scratch. My first queries went nowhere, so on New Year’s Day 2014, I decided to put the book away. I’d had fun and I learned how to write a full-length novel – that was enough. As a sign of my intentions, I removed the file from my desktop. But then I thought perhaps I should just check to see if any mystery publishers accepted un-agented manuscripts. . . and, lo and behold, Google produced a list. Among them was Cozy Cat Press, which specialized in cozy mysteries. The guidelines said to send the full manuscript by email, and so I did. Four days later, I received a reply: they had accepted my book.
What happened when you started working with your publisher?
I worked directly with Patricia Rockwell, founder of Cozy Cat Press, on the editing and proofing of my book, and I was allowed to have input on the cover design and copy. All this happened quite quickly, and Under an English Heaven was published exactly five months after I declared I would put it away for good. An unusual aspect of the CCP business model is that authors receive the royalties from the ebook sales and CCP receives the royalties from the print-on-demand paperback sales. Patricia focuses on marketing the press, while authors, because they control their ebooks, have the freedom to make marketing decisions including placement, pricing, and promotion.
What has been the most surprising/exciting/challenging thing about the publishing process?
The most surprising and exciting thing about the publication of Under an English Heaven is that somehow readers began to find it within a couple of months, even though there was no publicity about it. The sales snowballed, customers reviewed it enthusiastically, and it sold well. For a writer whose career had consisted of publishing stories in literary journals and a small press literary fiction book, this was unbelievable. People I didn’t know loved my book! And said they wanted to read more!
Learning how to do book marketing has been an interesting challenge, but not entirely unfamiliar because I worked in marketing and public relations for many years. Meeting the challenge of getting the next book out has been a steeper learning curve, but I’m getting there. It is amazing to know that while I am at my desk writing, there are readers waiting to see what I say. That is a gift and responsibility for which I am very grateful. In April 2016, this whole journey was capped by winning the Mystery and Mayhem Grand Prize for best mystery from the Chanticleer International Book Awards.
How do you let potential readers know about your novel?
Initially readers began to find Under an English Heaven “without marketing”– probably because of the appealing cover and the search words/categories in the Amazon listing. I didn’t know anything about such things when I started, and I didn’t have money to spend on marketing, but over time I have used a wide range of tools to promote the book. On the “platform” side of building awareness of the book and myself as an author, I use a Facebook author page, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts – and more recently, an author website and newsletter. I held a book launch in my hometown, give readings wherever I can, and participate in conferences (as time and budget permit). I’ve done blog posts, when invited, and I had a business card for the book printed. I try to remember to hand these out whenever/wherever I can.
My ebook is only available on Amazon, which gives me a higher royalty and access to the Kindle Countdown sales and other programs. I have been extremely lucky to have my book selected by Amazon for a Kindle Daily Deal and a Kindle Monthly Deal – these are very powerful promotions. [WF: This sort of invitation only comes when Amazon notices a book has potential.]
On the do-it-myself “promotion” side, I started with free activities, such as Goodreads giveaways and sending information and photos to my college alumni and professional organization magazines. But I’ve come to understand the basic business principle that you have to spend some money to earn some. Some promotions are “untrackable” – you can’t track income to the expense – such as Amazon giveaways, Facebook boosted posts, etc. Others are trackable – such as 99-cent sales using a variety of ebook promotion companies, including BookBub, and Amazon ads. I also paid for a Kirkus Review, so I would have the blurb from this respected publication for my Amazon page, website, future book cover, etc. BookBub and Kirkus are the two major expenses I have incurred, both well worth it, in my opinion.
I recently did a summary of all the work I have done since becoming a full-time fiction writer, and I realized that I am running a sole proprietor business with all that entails. And here I thought I would be spending all my time daydreaming over my computer keyboard. . . . not quite the case.
I’m working on the sequel to Under an English Heaven. What Child Is This? is set at Christmas time and will be published on 15 December of this year. Two subsequent books will continue the story of American Ellie Kent’s first year in England. After that, we shall see. I have other projects in mind, including a mystery set in Paris (where I also lived) and a memoir-with-stories. That should keep me busy for quite a while.
Alice K. Boatwright is the author of Under an English Heaven (Cozy Cat Press, 2014), winner of the 2016 Mystery and Mayhem Grand Prize for best mystery; Collateral Damage (Standing Stone Books, 2012) and dozens of stories published in journals such as Mississippi Review, America West, and Stone Canoe. She lives in the Northwest with her husband and two cats.
You can order the Kindle version of Under an English Heaven at Amazon. Or buy the print version at Elliott Bay Book Company and the University Bookstore in Seattle, Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, and the Edmonds Bookshop in Edmonds. Alice’s first book, Collateral Damage, is available here.