Driven, ambitious and not scared of getting her hands dirty. Author Paula Gruben has a wealth of hands-on self-publishing experience that could benefit even seasoned authors. So grab your coffee mugs, take a break from reading NEWS24 and lets pick her brain - See how many times you catch yourself learning something new.
You are a first-time author. Tell us about the journey leading up to that first book.
The idea of writing a coming-of-age story, based on my personal journey as an adoptee, began percolating in the back of my mind the day I reunited with my birth mother, at the age of 21, in 1995. But it was only after I became a mom myself 15 years later, and experienced first-hand the sheer gravity of this role, that it became a priority to ‘birth my book baby.’ The actual research, writing, editing, proofreading, typesetting, eBook conversion, cover design, and website design – all of which I did myself – probably took around two years. In May 2016 I self-published Umbilicus: An autobiographical novel. It’s marketed as Young Adult (YA) realistic fiction.
What were your writing processes and habits that got you through to the end?
Rise and grind, baby. Rise and grind. There’s not much more to it than that. I also had a very clear end goal when I set off on this publishing journey – to see Umbilicus included as recommended reading in high schools around the country. I believe there is not a single teenager who cannot relate to or learn something from my story. Not only is it set locally, with many South Africanisms to make it more accessible, but also because the subject matter covers many things pertinent to their lives, including: crisis pregnancy, abortion, adoption, teen suicide, self-esteem, and identity issues. Although I am making headway with the Department of Basic Education, it’s a long process, and I still have lots of work to do. Perhaps with the clout and connections of a traditional publisher behind me I’d have achieved this goal by now. There’s no way of knowing. So I’ve just got to keep on keeping on, until my objective is achieved.
With regards my current writing routine, when my six-year-old son is at school, I try and spend at least two to three hours every morning working on my books – either marketing and publicising Umbilicus, or researching and writing its sequel, Incomer. During school holidays, however, this routine goes out the window. Then I take whatever free time I can get – an hour here, half an hour there. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Franz Kafka once wrote, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” And yeah, let’s just say that if I don’t get a chance to exercise my writing muscle, things tend to get ugly.
What were some of the doubts you faced before publishing, and how did you overcome them?
I have never, in my 42 years on the planet, ever experienced so-called writer’s block. I have, however, from time to time suffered from the crippling effects of Imposter Syndrome – the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. During the creation of Umbilicus, I questioned my ‘right’ to write. I wrestled with doubts over my ability to write. But like Maya Angelou once wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” After grappling with all the worst case scenarios and how my fragile ego would cope, I decided to put on my big girl knickers and just go for it. The risk of rejection and ridicule became overshadowed by the increasingly stronger labour pains of a fully gestated book baby ready to be born. Before I knew it, she was out in the world, the positive reviews were rolling in, and the inner critic was silenced once and for all.
As far as the occasional, inevitable shitty review goes, I liken them to the Braxton Hicks. However strong the pain may feel at the time, it doesn't increase in intensity, and eventually it eases off completely. You should never take a bad review personally. Like John Lydgate once wrote, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Were you part of any author communities that you can recommend?
I am a firm believer in the power of networking, online and in real life. As an indie author, you have to put yourself out there in order to find your tribe. Join and participate in online communities like THE Book Club (TBC) and The Secret Book Club (TSBC). Make the effort to attend in-store book launches and litfests in your city. Skoobs, Theatre of Books in Joburg hosts monthly indie author networking events, with guest speakers. Don’t be shy to ask authors and publishers and bookstore owners questions. You’ll be surprised how generous people are with sharing their intellectual capital if you hustle hard, and stay humble.
, later changed to South African Indie Revolution). I figured if I couldn’t secure a traditional publishing contract for Umbilicus, I needed to keep my options open. Just as well I did, as many of the connections I made at the SAIR book fest that day proved invaluable in the year that followed, once I decided to forego the idea of traditional publishing and forge ahead with self-publishing instead.
You have put a massive amount of effort into building a business for yourself based around the book. Can you briefly summarise the main steps needed for those who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Self-publishing is a lot like embarking on a treasure hunt. The treasure at the end of the hunt is seeing your work in the hands of as many readers as possible. But with the speed at which technology and software evolves, you will often find your map to be a bit faded and outdated. Just as you decipher one cryptic clue and complete a challenge to move onto to the next leg of the hunt, so the next cryptic clue and challenge presents itself, and so on.
The one blog post to which I refer all budding South African indie authors when they approach me for tips and advice is this one. It’s a simple, but detailed step-by-step guide on how to self-publish, charting all the steps I took, right from the very beginning of my own self-publishing journey, to the present day. A regularly updated little roadmap, with loads of useful links, including the holy grail on how to get your paperback onto the shelves of Exclusive Books. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the most popular posts on my blog, with almost 2,000 hits in just over a year. Just goes to show how hungry local indie authors are for tried and trusted tips and authoritative advice.
As far as building a business for myself based around the book goes, I think it boils down to mindset. From the outset I saw myself as not ‘just’ another indie author, but rather an authorpreneur. I figured out a way of using my ‘book as business card’, to position myself as an expert in my field, and the steady stream of invitations to do inspiring and educational author talks has proved very fruitful. Not only has it created another income source for me in the form of speaker fees, but it’s also a valuable platform to engage with and sell my book directly to readers at each event. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my talks, but I tailor the content and the message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience.
Where can we next see you in action, or find out more about you?
On Thursday 20th April 2017, I will be presenting my ‘Age of the Authorpreneur’ talk at Authors’ Day, during the inaugural Johannesburg Design Week, at the annual Rand Show. You’ll find all the details about the conference and the other three author speakers here. You are encouraged to ask us as many questions as you like, and there will be copies of our books on sale, which we will happily sign for you. This is a great learning and networking opportunity for up-and-coming authors of all ages, of both fiction and non-fiction. Click here to register. Seats are limited.
About the author - Paula Gruben
Paula Gruben is a writer living in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She was put up for adoption as a newborn in 1974, under the highly secretive closed adoption system, which was common practice for young, unwed mothers at the time.
Paula had a happy, carefree childhood, but knowing virtually nothing about her biological roots resulted in a crippling identity crisis during her teenage years, manifesting in all forms of anti-social and self-destructive behaviour, and ultimately a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her adoptive parents.
When she turned 21 in 1995, Paula was granted access to her file at the Durban Child and Family Welfare Society, which had facilitated the adoption. She met her birth mother shortly thereafter, and her birth father two years later. The seed for writing a book about her remarkable adoption journey was planted, but then life took over.
It was only when faced with the shock of an unplanned pregnancy, just before turning 36 in 2010, that Paula could fully empathise with what both her birth mother *and* adoptive mother must’ve gone through at the time she entered their lives. The seed started germinating at a frantic pace and, armed with the wisdom of age, Paula knew it was finally time to tell the story.
Buy the book