Wednesday 28 September 2022

Indie Spotlight: Cozy Mystery Author H.Y. Hanna on How She Chose Self-Publishing and Found Success

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing.

Today, British cozy mystery author Hsin-Yi Hanna (pen name H.Y. Hanna) shares with us her thoughts on growing up with Asian parents who wanted her to choose a "practical career" while she dreamt of becoming a writer, and how she surmounted the pressure of family expectations, chose the route of self-publishing, found herself and found financial success to become a full-time USA Today Bestselling author. 

A prolific writer (with her cat Muesli as her assistant), Hanna’s works include the super popular The Oxford Tea Room Mysteries, The English Cottage Garden Mysteries, Bewitched by Chocolate Mysteries, Barefoot Sleuth Mysteries, and Paws by the Beach series. Her stories are a fun, delightful breath of fresh air, and her profitable sales enabled her to expand her reach to German and French readers with translated editions of her books, as well as the audiobooks market.

Now, over to Hsin-Yi . . .  

There always comes a moment when I’m at a dinner party and someone turns to me and asks what I do for a living. And when I answer: “I’m an author”, their eyes glaze over and I know they have visions of an idyllic life swanning around doing book signings and hobnobbing with celebrities or sitting in quaint little cafés, scribbling my latest masterpiece whilst thoughtfully sipping a steaming mug of coffee…  

Well, I hate to break it to you but the reality is a lot less glamorous! Being an author pretty much means that I spend all day, alone, in my pyjamas, having an unhealthy relationship with my computer, and the most exciting event in my work day is when the neighbours go out to hang their washing. 

But I’m certainly not complaining! I love my odd lifestyle and feel very lucky to be able to live my dream. Yes, I did dream of being an author from a very young age—probably from when I first started reading and discovered the magical world of books—but I didn’t dare acknowledge that dream, even to myself, for a very long time. As any good Asian child knows, there are only four acceptable jobs: doctor, lawyer, accountant, or dentist! Seriously, though, I was lucky that my mother wasn’t a stereotypical “tiger mom”. Nevertheless, there was always the expectation to be top of my class, to get into one of the elite universities, and then on to a career in a “respectable” job, with a stable salary and a prestigious title to boot. Saying that you wanted to be an author (or dancer, painter, or anything else in the creative arts) was like saying you wanted to be a “rockstar”—something to be laughed at and ridiculed. Certainly something you were too embarrassed to admit to!

Not that it stopped me from writing, though: letters, diary entries, short stories, shopping lists… (yes, I was that annoying girl in class who was delighted every time the English teacher handed out an essay assignment)—it’s true that if you’re a “writer”, it isn’t so much a choice as a compulsion! Still, I never took it seriously and I did exactly what was expected of me: I took science subjects at school, got into a good university, and then tried a succession of “normal” jobs, desperately trying to fit in to a socially accepted career path. I did make some half-hearted attempts at trying to get published (and even managed to get signed on by a literary agent with my very first novel)—but I still didn’t take it seriously. If anything, I was quick to be disheartened and instantly took every rejection as confirmation that I was just being a silly dreamer!

Then, as I was approaching my 30th birthday, I had one of those existential crisis moments when you start thinking: “What am I doing with my life??” I was incredibly lucky to have met my amazingly supportive husband, who has always believed in me far more than I believed in myself, and he actively encouraged me to try building a career in writing. So, I pitched some articles to a few editors on a whim and to my surprise, was soon getting regular work as a freelance writer, writing and getting paid for articles in magazines, newspapers and online websites. It was the first time I began to believe that you could earn a living from writing!

I still nurtured my secret wish to be a book author but it still seemed to be an impossible dream—at least, according to my personal expectations. You see, for me, it was never just about being able to publish a book or have people read my stories—it was about an author career being a respectable alternative. I didn’t want to be the “starving artist in a garrett” nor did I want to be dependent on a partner financially supporting me. Perhaps it was my pragmatic Asian upbringing rearing its ugly head, but I felt that the only way I could justify being an author was if I could really do it full-time and match any living I might have earned working in a “proper” job. And sadly, I’d done enough research by now to know that very few traditionally published authors make much money from their books. Of course, there are the famous exceptions but for the majority of authors, it is hard to earn a decent living purely from book royalties.

So I was resigned to things remaining a wistful dream, until Fate stepped in—in the shape of the Kindle and the “self-publishing revolution”. I spent a lot of time talking to indie authors, researching the growing industry, collecting data, and I quickly realised that here at last was a way to combine the dream of being a book author with the real possibility of earning a regular, respectable living. 

The indie model is very different to traditional publishing: firstly because—by cutting out the middle men of publisher & agents—authors receive much higher royalties on their books (e.g. 70% instead of 15 - 25% on ebooks, which usually make up the majority of indie book sales and are more easily profitable as there are no printing costs involved). Therefore, indie authors can actually sell fewer books in total volume but still earn more money overall. Secondly, royalties are paid on a monthly basis from retailers, so you receive a regular income from the start, rather than the rollercoaster of a lump sum at book deal followed by months, possibly years, of no income in between and with no certainty of more book deals to follow. Thirdly, books are released in your own time, rather than to the publisher’s schedule. So, there is more scope for building up a back catalogue quickly, especially if you’re a fast writer. 

And finally—and perhaps most importantly—instead of relying on one book becoming a “bestseller”, indie authors can enjoy modest success on several books which together may add up to as much, if not more, than royalties from a single bestselling book. It’s like the difference between relying on winning the lottery vs working a regular job, with income that increases and accrues over time. The latter is far more achievable and replicable. 

Of course, “achievable” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. Indie publishing involves a lot of hard work and long hours, stress and sacrifices, and it certainly doesn’t suit every personality. You can’t just be an artist in an ivory tower—you have to treat it more like running a business. You have to take steep learning curves in your stride, be disciplined and self-motivated, and have or learn project management skills, since you’ll be working with your own team of freelance editors, proof-readers, cover artists and more to prepare your manuscripts for publication. (No, the “self” in self-publishing definitely does not mean you do everything yourself! Aside from writing the initial story and creating the world and characters, you will need input and help from professionals if you want to produce a quality book). 

But for those who don’t want to be dependent on random gatekeepers deciding their life, who enjoy the creative freedom and control over all aspects of their career, who like having access to sales reports and real-time information on their book sales, and regular royalty payments that can be boosted by their own marketing efforts, this can be a wonderful option. 

Oh, don’t get me wrong—going indie is no guarantee of success either and not everyone who self-publishes will earn a decent living. I certainly floundered around for the first few years as I took time to understand the market. For example, indie publishing is more suited to genre fiction and mass-market, commercial fiction than things like literary fiction and children’s books. But even within the genres, you have to understand the tropes and reader expectations to write books that will sell well. 

It also took me time to find myself as a writer. For example, I dabbled for a while in romance as I’d been told that “romance sells best”—but it’s hard to write romance well when you’re really a crime reader and all you want to do is add dead bodies to the story! In fact, it wasn’t until I took the plunge and began writing mysteries that my author career really took off. I’d decided to write a series featuring an amateur sleuth and set it within the fascinating and unique world of Oxford University and the beautiful, historic city of Oxford. It was inspired by my own experiences living and studying there, and also by my nostalgia for “all things British”, now that I was living in Australia. I did some market research and discovered that this type of story fitted best into the sub-genre of “cozy mysteries” and also discovered the other popular tropes within the genre, i.e.. things readers enjoy and like to encounter in these stories, such as a quaint village setting, an interesting hobby or craft, a cast of quirky characters, and, very often, a cat with a big personality! 

Thus, armed with this information, I tweaked my original idea slightly: instead of making my heroine, Gemma, a student at the university, I made her a graduate who gives up her high-flying career and returns home to Oxford, to open a traditional English tearoom in a village just outside the famous university city. With a bossy, matchmaking mother, a quartet of meddling Old Biddies and a mischievous kitchen cat, Gemma already has her hands full and that’s before an American tourist is found dead in her tearoom, murdered with one of her scones! Meanwhile, the handsome detective in charge of the case turns out to be her old college flame: the only man she’d ever loved and the one she’d given up because her mother thought he was too “working class”… cue some fireworks when they meet again! All of this was woven into a classic whodunnit, with shifty suspects and red herrings galore, and lots of humour in the writing, as well as rich, vivid descriptions that really evoke a sense of place and atmosphere. 

The first book took off as soon as it was published and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, six years later, my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries has 12 books in the series, and has been translated into French and German, as well as been produced as audiobooks. I have also launched three more mystery series, each with multiple titles and also in audio and translation. Keeping all the balls up in the air—and still finding the time and energy to write new books—definitely isn’t easy! But I’m so glad that I took the indie path and so grateful that I’m able to write books for a living… not to mention one of the best perks of being an author: going to work in your pyjamas! 😉

H.Y. Hanna writes fun cozy mysteries filled with quirky characters, lots of laughs, clever twists—and cats with big personalities! She is known for bringing wonderful settings to life, whether it's the historic city of Oxford, the beautiful English Cotswolds or the sunny beaches of coastal Florida. Born in Taiwan, Hsin-Yi is a graduate of Oxford University, and has been a globe-trotter all her life—living in a variety of cultures, from Dubai to Auckland, London to New Jersey—but is now happily settled in Perth, Western Australia, with her husband and a rescue kitty named Muesli. She loves gardening, has a morbid fear of cockroaches and adds chili to everything she eats.

You can find out more about Hsin-Yi or follow her at: