Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Joanne Lewis - Alchemy and Self-Publishing

Fort Lauderdale writer Joanne Lewis got off to an early start in self-publishing. She wrote her first book at the age of eight, a book about the weather titled, appropriately, The Book of Weather. She hand-printed and illustrated each page on construction paper and fashioned a cover from two pieces of cardboard covered with leftover wallpaper. Then she got her big break – her school librarian placed the book on the library shelf. “Nothing made me prouder,” Lewis says. “I visited the library every day. I don’t recall anyone checking out my book, or if it was listed in the card catalogue or given a Dewey decimal number, but I didn’t care. There it was on the shelves. My book. I was a writer.”
Lewis went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Film/Television from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After spending a discouraging year in Hollywood looking for work in the film industry, she decided to go into something more practical. “My father’s words bounced around my head: You have to have a career so you know what you’re unemployed from,” she says. So she went to law school. Lewis graduated in 1989 and moved to Florida, where she took a job as a prosecutor with the Broward County State Attorney’s office. But her dreams of writing wouldn’t die.
Lewis wrote her first novel, a mystery titled The Forbidden Room, while working felony trials and sex crimes. The book was picked up by a small press. Although she didn’t sell many books, Lewis was invited to speak on panels and did book signings. After hiring an agent, she was approached by an editor at Simon & Schuster to write a series featuring a young female prosecutor. Two months later, the agent presented her proposal to the editor who said that she was no longer interested. Then the agent unexpectedly passed away.  
Lewis was now 29 years old and “feeling like the height of my writing career would be traced back to my elementary school library.” So she stopped writing – for a while. “Somehow I knew I would start writing again when I was in my forties,” she recalls. “Don’t ask me how I knew this - I just did.” What she didn’t foresee was the life-changing event that would kickstart her writing career.
Four days shy of her 41st birthday, Lewis was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After a radical hysterectomy and six months of chemotherapy, she emerged cancer-free and ready to write. She turned out murder mysteries, historical novels, and Wicked Good, a commercial novel that she co-wrote with her sister, Amy Lewis Faircloth. Wicked Good, the tale of a single mother struggling to raise a teenage son with Asperger’s Syndrome, chronicles the frustrations and joys that characterize the relationship between a parent and a special needs child. It also illustrates the unique, abiding love each has for the other. The book took the sisters three years to complete. They posted it one chapter at a time on a blog where it was discovered by a small publisher. Published as an e-book, Wicked Good reached the rank of Top 100 Special Needs books on Amazon.  A bound copy of the book was set to be published, but the deal fell through.
Lewis was understandably discouraged. But a call to her sister helped her regain her perspective. “One day, as I was trying to decipher the secret to writing a successful query letter, I called Amy and told her I was no longer having fun,” Lewis says. “I was tired of writing letters and hoping someone would consider me worthy. My sister said, ‘If you’re not having fun, don’t do it.’ So I stopped. I decided to self-publish."
Lewis is pleased with that decision. She believes that self-publishing offers new writers many advantages that traditional publishing cannot, including creative control and a say in pricing decisions. She also sees self-publishing becoming more generally accepted than it was in the past. “Do you know who looks down upon those of us who choose to self-publish?” she asks. “People in the publishing industry. Do you know who doesn’t care if we self-publish? The readers. All they ask for, all they deserve, is a good book. What I don’t understand is why self-publishing, which is the same as being self-employed, is given a bad rap. I started my own law practice and was congratulated for being an entrepreneur.  Why is writing the only industry where being self-employed is frowned upon?”
Lewis has some words of advice for aspiring self-publishers. “For the most part, the successful writers have books that are well-written and well-edited, and they work really hard to get noticed. But there’s something else. Alchemy, I call it. Turning metal into gold. Magic. Providence. Good fortune. Covering cardboard with yellow and green wallpaper and placing it on the school library shelf.”  
Lewis has self-published her second novel, a mystery titled Make Your Own Luck. The story centers around a young attorney’s efforts to prove the innocence of a 13-year old accused of murdering her father. Along the way, she learns what really happened the night of the murder and discovers some hard truths about her family and herself.
Lewis’s next book, The Lantern, (scheduled for release this fall) is a historical fiction novel about a modern-day woman's quest to find a girl from 15th century Italy who dared to enter the competition to build the lantern on top of Brunelleschi's dome. Her search interesects with some of the most famous figures of the Renaissance, including members of the Medici family, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and a young Michelangelo.
In retrospect, Lewis is glad she followed her dad’s advice and went to law school.  She currently works as a family mediator and a guardian ad litem who represents children. “I feel like I am helping people,” she says, “and I make a decent living, which allows me to pursue my passion for writing.” She also tries to remember her sister’s advice: If you’re not having fun, don’t do it. “I don’t sell a lot of books,” Lewis admits, “but I know that will change when I am in my fifties. Don’t ask me how I know this, I just do. Hopefully, this time my life-changing event won’t be so drastic.”
For more about Joanne Lewis, visit her website at

Next: Joanna Slan - Crafty Cozies