She’s become a living legend in the indie publishing revolution; an example of what can happen when you focus on your craft and forge ahead, with or without a major publisher behind you. Some call her sweet, some kind her fierce, some call her unstoppable but the world and her fans have come to know her as H.M. Ward. The H, standing for Holly and it was Holly who back in 2011 began her trek to independently publish unsure what would happen. 55 books later, her indie published books have landed atop Amazon’s bestsellers list countless times, garnering over 5 million books sold and counting. How about them apples?
I had the opportunity ask Ward about her success, her advice to other indie authors, why she’s turned down multi-million dollar offers from major publishers and she details for the first time publicly, her mysterious medical challenges that could have held her back, but instead caused her to push ahead even further.
For those who are not familiar yet with your novels, what is your most popular title and what is it about?
The most popular title is THE ARRANGEMENT. It’s about a young woman who lost both parents suddenly and is trapped between decisions that will secure her financial future and maintaining her morality and sense of who she is. It’s about love, loss, grief, death, and guilt. The two main characters have the same struggles despite the dramatic differences in financial situations. Money can’t buy peace or erase grief.
You have been very generous to other indie authors, spelling out exactly how you promote your books. Out of all the things that you've tried, what are the top 5 things that you would suggest someone do to promote their novels?
The top 5 things are: cover, title, book description, price, and sample. If one of those five things is off, then your book won’t perform as well as it could, no matter where or how you advertise it. (FYI, in my head, ads are passive and marketing is active. These five variables are things that can be changed until they’re functioning at their best).
You've been very direct about the (at lack of better word) lame offers you've received from traditional publishers. What would they have to offer you exactly to consider working with them?
Even if they offered me the same amount of money I could make on my own, they still lack expertise when it comes to selling intangible goods. Every sales person knows there are differences in selling tangible vs intangible goods. Some people excel at one and not the other. Publishers are copying what’s already being done. They aren’t that creative when it comes to selling intangibles, and that’s the direction the market is moving as eBooks become more dominant.
I’d told them to wow me with their best marketing plan. That was the crux of the decision, and money was set aside. If H.M. Ward and X Publishing worked together – what could we do? How could we reach more readers, or even turn more people into readers? The best plans I received were completely anemic. One of the plans even had a facet from an old marketing plan of mine, something that an advertiser I’d used before had suggested to the traditional presses. The trad pub claimed it as their new, out-of-the-box idea. Meanwhile, I’d presented it to company X a year prior. Talk about disappointing. The best minds in the industry are supposed to be in those publishing houses and they couldn’t come up with anything that hasn’t already been done before.
Innovation was what I needed to see if I was going to partner with a traditional publisher.
The last time I checked, you had more novels that I could count on both fingers. You've cranked them out so fast. How do you write so fast? How long does it take for you to go from conception to launch, normally?
The total number of books published since 2011 is 55. Last year, I averaged about 2.5 books per month and sold just over 4 million books. To date, I’ve passed 5 million. I don’t know what to tell you besides that I write fast, especially if a story connects with me and I have the whole thing mapped out in my head at the start. Writing is cathartic.
In speaking with other authors, I’ve also found time and again that the slower release schedule of many writers is due to their traditional contracts more than anything else. I know that I write fast. But, every day, I become more convinced that I’m not the exception in how fast I write – it’s in how fast I’m able to bring a book to the market.
Timeline? There’s a delay between conception and launch because there are usually several books in different stages already in the pipeline when I come up with a new idea. The idea gets written down and filed away so I don’t forget. I typically get to it 6 months later. Some I haven’t gotten to at all.
Some have said, “It's impossible for her to write so fast. Is she using some computer program? Is she working with co-authors? Who does she think she is, James Patterson?" What do you say to your critics?
First of all, James Patterson is way cooler than me. Have you seen his sweaters? I can’t pull that off. He’s like a kick ass book ninja. In a sweater. As for accusations of computer programs, have they read my books? What computer thinks assy and fuckery are words? The grammar is distinctly Holly style, and there are multitudes of made up words and slang all over the place. I have to make an urban dictionary for my international readers so they know what I’m talking about. So, no—all 55 books, whether they flopped or soared, were written by me alone.
How else can you tell? Each one has the same underlying thread strung through it—redemption. Is there such a thing? How far can you go until a person is so far gone they’ve lost their soul, the essence that makes them human? How far can forgiveness reach? Is there such a thing? Does humanity really forgive, wholly and completely? What does that do to a person? To a relationship?
Ha, and you thought my books were just about sex.
What is your writing process? Do you outline first or do you just pants-it and then how do you revise
your work until it goes to your editor?
I map out the story in my head, then I write it. After that, I go over it once, and then hand it to the first editor. They make notes where I need to clarify, and after I do that, it goes to another editor. Then proofreaders, then publication.
There's so much to distract us nowadays with social media, TV and then of course, there's life. Do you battle procrastination? How do you keep so disciplined?
It’s not discipline for me. Writing is cathartic. If I don’t create something, I’ll die. It’s like breathing. I can’t stop. I owned a photography studio for a long time and was a commissioned painter before that. I play the cello and sing. There are some people who have to make things. It’s a part of who they are and I’m one of them.
I write for me and always have. It’s thrilling to see so many people relate to my work, especially since it’s not butterflies and unicorns. It’s about life, and writing is how I’ve dealt with mine.
You've shared with the indie community that even though you've battled illness, you are determined to reach your goals. That's incredibly inspiring. How has your illness affected your life and your determination to tell stories? And for those who are going through their own challenges, what would you tell them?
Writing made me feel productive even when I couldn’t even sit up. I’ve been plagued by health issues for years. Thankfully, it seems like all the doctors and professionals are starting to get a solid handle on things recently. For a long time, I couldn’t even imagine that one day it would be possible to feel good again.
I was in so much pain. For months on end, I couldn’t take a normal, deep breath because it hurt so much. Fluid started to collect in my lungs – you could actually see on a CT scan how much it hurt me to breathe.
During my last pregnancy, I had chronic infections and repeatedly found myself in the hospital. Then, I had pre-eclampsia three days after I had my baby and nearly died.
It’s been a hellish ride, and I’d trade every cent I have to get the last ten years of my life back. Writers see my name on the bestseller lists, and once in while jealousy will pop up. But, I know that they have no clue how hard it’s been. The medical bills piled up and there was no money. I couldn’t even watch TV without crying at a Pampers commercial - that lady got to hold her baby and for so long I couldn’t even do that.
I wrote because it was the only thing I could do. I could barely move. I closed my photography studio because it became too hard to move around the room, much less carry gear. Writing is cathartic. I wrote so many books, so quickly, because there was nothing else I could do, nothing else to ease the grief, or the despair that was creeping into my soul. It’s a horrible story, and one that I don’t like to tell.
For those living through hell, the only promise we have is today. Remember that, no matter what’s
going on. In the end, the only thing that matters are the people around you and if you led a good life. Kindness and mercy trump everything.
If you could talk to the Holly from a few years ago, before your success, what advice would you give her?
That things are going to get hard. Hold on tight to what matters most (my family) and keep that at the front of your mind. Hope can overcome anything.