Business and Creativity Go Hand in Hand: Q&A with Kern Carter

Photo of Kern Carter, with a quotation: Studying the industry gave me an understanding of what it would take to make my manuscript a commercial success. And I know some authors might be cringing at the word “commercial,” but I didn’t sacrifice an ounce of creativity when writing Boys and Girls Screaming. In fact, it’s probably my most creative novel and the story where I had to use my imagination the most.

Author Kern Carter (@KernCarter) discusses his journey from being self-published to having two books slated for publication from Scholastic and Penguin/Random House, what he learned about marketing—and the market—as a self-published author, his views on the relationship between the art and the business of writing, and more.

Kern Carter was born in Trinidad and raised in Toronto, Canada. He is a full-time writer and founder of CRY Creative Group, whose mission is to build and inspire a community of emerging writers connected by the power of vulnerability and creativity. Kern is the author of Boys and Girls Screaming and the forthcoming novels Is There a Boy Like Me and And Then There Was Us. He has previously self-published two titles.

KRISTEN TSETSI: “I’ve always known that I wanted to be an author,” you write in the Medium post I’m Writing for My Life. Do you remember when being an author first struck you as a goal so real and powerful that you made a list of publishers you someday wanted to publish with?

KERN CARTER: Yes, I do. I was at my mother’s house in my early 20s. I had just started writing my first novel, Thoughts of a Fractured Soul, and was dreaming about what it would be like when I was a “real” author.

Back then, I had this little yellow book where I would write down all of my future goals. But since (in my mind) being an author was my biggest goal, I wrote it down on a calendar the size of a bristol board and posted it at the foot of my bed. And I couldn’t just be any author, so I wrote the top five publishers that I wanted to write for, and Penguin/Random House was at the top of my list.

I’m proud to have gotten here because writing has been my companion since my earliest memories. The thought of being a novelist was always at the back of my mind, but it took Toni Morrison for me to launch it to the front. I reread Beloved and was absolutely blown away by how beautiful and painful and shocking the writing was. I was literally jealous of how good Morrison wrote and how her novel made me feel. I thought to myself: I want to make other people feel like this. That was the real trigger to starting my professional journey as a novelist.

What subject matter interested you when you first started writing creatively? Do you remember what your first book—which you said you wrote when you were eight—was about? And do you still have it?

Haha yes, the first book I ever wrote was called The Battle. It was a Lion King type of story with talking animals dealing with drama in the forest. My mom says she has it hidden away somewhere LOL.

My early writings always favoured fiction, but I also wrote a lot of poetry. When I started blogging, I had no direction. Anything that came to my mind, from sports to the welfare system in Canada, made its way into my writing.

“Publishers are set up to make money,” you said in an interview with Dr. Onye Nnorom on her “Race, Health, and Happiness” podcast. “In their mind, their biggest audience is white women. So if a book diverts away from that audience, they feel like, ‘Mm, I don’t know, that’s a risk for me to take.’ They say that to even put a Black person on the cover of a book would diminish how much the book would sell. That’s where we’re at in publishing.”

It was your awareness of this inevitable difficulty that helped guide your decision to self-publish your first two novels, but you also thought of those two books, you said, as a way to get more practice writing novels, as well as to establish a platform. Practice is one thing; publishing that practice with your name on it for public consumption is something else entirely and would scare almost anyone. What made you confident that your books were ready for whatever fate they would meet in the sometimes harsh world of readers, a world where you hoped to create this platform?

Any fear that I felt in presenting my first two books to the world was overcome by my dream of being an author. And to be completely honest, as much as I was fully aware that those books were practice, confidence was never an issue.

Growing up, my older brother was one of the top high school football players in all of North America. He got a full scholarship to Stanford University, then achieved his dream of playing in the NFL. I mention this because I came from a home where I saw dreams come true. Being witness to something like that didn’t just make me believe, it made me expect greatness from myself. So even back then, my goal was (and still is) to touch the world with my words. And when I say world, I mean that literally. I want my stories to be read from people all over the world, and I felt that way with my very first novel.

You’ve said you sold two thousand copies of your first, self-published, novel. How did you reach so many readers, and what advice would you give other self-publishers having difficulty marketing their work?

I reached most of those readers through the school board in Toronto. To be fully transparent, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I tried a lot of different marketing strategies and most of them didn’t work. For example, I had this idea that taking out ads in small-town newspapers would get me attention. I figured it would be less expensive and have a bigger payoff if a small group of readers knew me. I tried that for a while and monitored my book sales; nothing. I also tried doorhandle ads (I don’t know if that’s the formal name for them). Basically, I went door to door in different areas and left a postcard-sized advertisement of my first novel. That didn’t work, either.

But once I started reaching out to high school teachers and telling them about how I could use the themes of my novel to teach their students, it opened up an entire audience for me. I started with the teachers I knew, then got recommendations for more teachers. I also cold-emailed principals, as well. I found their contact info on LinkedIn and sent dozens of emails. Somewhere in my files is a list of all the high schools in Toronto.

To be honest, I don’t think 2,000 books is a lot, though. For me, it was a good first step, but my goal was to wake up and write books and not do anything else, so I was really hard on myself and didn’t really see selling that many books as success. My advice to self-published authors is to find or build community. If you focus on that, then selling books becomes a whole lot easier because you don’t need to convince anyone to buy it.

If you’re in the right community, they’ll see the value and want to support you. It’s funny, because for all of the querying I’ve done, I got my first agent through networking. I went to a book reading, and the host recognized me because I had been to a few of her events. She sparked up a conversation, and I told her that I’m an author who has sold a couple thousand books independently. For whatever reason, she opened her heart and her “black book” and introduced me to who would become my first agent. So yeah, networking does work!

Another thing: please, please, please study the publishing industry. It’s not an accident that Boys and Girls Screaming became my first traditionally published novel. Before that happened, I dedicated my evenings to studying publishing. Which books were selling the most every week? Who was getting book deals? What kind of books were they writing? What trends did I discover?

Studying the industry made me aware of all of these things and gave me an understanding of what it would take to make my manuscript a commercial success. And I know some authors might be cringing at the word “commercial,” but I didn’t sacrifice an ounce of creativity when writing Boys and Girls Screaming. In fact, it’s probably my most creative novel and the story where I had to use my imagination the most.

You’d written that book quickly so you could get it to a conference and pitch it to agents, you said in an interview, so it makes sense that implementing those changes wouldn’t be too painful. However, imagine another novel you’ve had the time to carefully (and many times) revise to turn it into exactly what you wanted it to be. Can you imagine being so connected to the writing that certain requested changes would be unacceptable, or is your personal philosophy that the business and the creative simply go hand-in-hand, no matter what?

Through studying the publishing industry, I know for a fact that business and creativity go hand in hand. I just want to be clear here: for some writers, their goals aren’t as ambitious as mine. They don’t necessarily want to be bestsellers or even full-time authors. But my goal is to sell books, and since that’s my goal, it means that I have no choice but to consider the business side of things.

But that doesn’t limit my creativity in any way. The challenge is to create a body of work that can be both fulfilling to me as a writer and commercially viable to a publisher. As long as the changes make the story better and are aligned with the soul of the characters, I’m fine with it.

What mistake(s) did you make as a self-published author that others might learn from?

I made a lot of mistakes, but one stands out the most: I didn’t promote my first novel long enough and consistently enough.

After the first six months, I thought that I did enough work to gain an audience, but the truth is that six months is not enough time. The promotion of your novel, especially as an unknown, indie author, must be constant. You can do it in different forms, such as passively through blogging or a newsletter, but you must always be in promotion mode. That includes both before your novel is released and after. No lead time is too far out. I started promoting my second novel two years before I published it.

From the time you had the vision board with your list of publishers on it until the day you were told the Penguin/Random House imprint Tundra wanted your novel And Then There Was Us, you must have imagined what it would be like to get that call, or that email. How did you imagine the process unfolding (including how you imagined you would feel when and if it finally happened), and how has reality compared?

Yes, I imagined that feeling almost every day (no exaggeration). I knew I would get emotional, and I always imagined it being a phone call. And the reality of me getting the news happened almost exactly how I thought it would. The only difference being I was in public at a cafe, and so I kind of hid my face when the tears came.

To be honest, I also cried when I got my first publishing deal (with Cormorant) and my second deal (with Scholastic). I love my self-published books, but there is something incredibly powerful about imagining something for so long and then it actually happening.

The funny thing is that getting a deal and then signing a deal are two different things.

I have an agent, so when I first get the email or call saying XYZ publisher wants to purchase your manuscript, the actual details of what that means takes some negotiating. The royalties are fairly standard with all three of my publishers (between 8%-15% depending on several factors), but we had to figure out how much my advance would be, who owned the film rights and what percentage, and negotiate something called mechanical rights, which is too complex to get into details.

By the time I receive my signing bonus, which is payment for signing the contract [the first installment of the advance], it’s usually months after actually committing to the deal. And in the case of Scholastic and Tundra/PRH, my novel won’t be released until 2024, which is two years after signing the deal. That is also when I will receive the final payment of my advance, which is split into portions and handed out in accordance to milestones.

After you self-published Thoughts of a Fractured Soul, that you had a book in the world looked like success to other people, you said, but it wasn’t quite the success you wanted: “I was one block closer but the sky was still so far away.” Now that you have deals with Scholastic and Penguin, would you say you’ve touched the sky, or does the idea of what the sky is push farther out as goals are achieved?

I think signing with Penguin/Random House gets me closer to what I envision as success, just like signing my second book deal with Scholastic did. My goal is to be a full-time author and sell millions of books.

I know how that sounds, and I know a lot of authors have that goal. But for me, there is no alternative. I wake up every morning and think about what I need to do to be one of the top authors in the world. And just like a doctor or lawyer has a defined path to obtaining success in their careers, I apply that same rigor and discipline to writing. I write every single morning, I educate myself by studying the craft, and I gauge my progress.

Again, where I am now is not an accident. I planned to be here and plan to be a bestselling author. It’s not just a dream, it’s a mission.

You’re obviously already on track, but considering writing is a more subjective and finicky business than is being a doctor or lawyer, do you ever have moments of doubt?

Yes, for sure. I’ve had many moments where I doubted whether I would ever be published or build up enough of an audience. Doubts are normal. When I lost my first agent, that really shook me. I thought I was so close, then when we split, I honestly didn’t think I had any energy left to continue the chase. But for me (and maybe this is just me), quitting just wasn’t an option. I wasn’t just dreaming of being an author, I was preparing for it. So in my mind, it was never a matter of if, it was always just when.

Prayer and meditation really helped during these down times. I spent a lot of time in silence, my hands folded, sitting with my own thoughts.

Your focus in your novels is largely YA, and young adulthood is a time of high passions, high drama, and uncomfortable changes of all kinds that generate deep, powerful feelings. You also created the publication CRY Magazine on Medium, taglined “Creativity + Emotion,” whose goal is “to build a community of emerging creatives who are connected by the power of vulnerability and creativity. We emphasize the emotional aspects of the creative process.” What draws you to exploring and exposing all of this emotion?

I became a parent at 18 years old (my daughter is 20 now), so that time in my life was the most tumultuous. I have so many experiences from those teenage and young adult years that the emotions just come pouring out in the form of stories. It’s almost like I’m writing to my younger self. All of the struggles and doubts and fears I had are infused into my novels. And since there’s no way to actually go back in time and change any of my decisions, I hope young people read my stories and see themselves clearly.

I mean, look at the titles of my books. Boys and Girls Screaming, Thoughts of a Fractured Soul, Beauty Scars, Is There a Boy Like Me, And Then There Was Us. These titles alone are a journey through my adolescence. It’s my reflections told through fictional tales.

And while my novels are a fictional expression of those emotions and experiences, CRY is a real-life reflection of the journey of being a parent and becoming a writer. It started out as a personal blog. I’d write about all the frustrations I was going through to achieve my goals. Then I thought that if I’m going through these things and feeling these emotions, maybe other people are, too. So I opened it up for other people to share their stories, and that’s how CRY Magazine was born.

In a novel writing class you took, you said in the “Race, Health, and Happiness” interview, some of your classmates didn’t understand how your novel’s character could be on government assistance and also have a car. They thought you should change it, or explain it in the story. You disagreed, you said, because the audience you were writing for would know how assistance worked and would know your character could both be on assistance and have a car.

I’ve seen a lot of authors asking on Twitter, “If I wrote X in my novel, would you understand what it means?” This suggests they think it’s important that readers immediately recognize all references and that they don’t trust their readers to either figure them out through context, look them up, or learn more about them in some other way, all of which I’d always taken for granted were part of the reader’s job.

When do you think it makes sense to explain to readers, and what is it not the writer’s job to explain?

Great question, and to be honest, there’s no clear answer. Part of your job as a writer is to use your instincts. You have to make decisions within your book that aren’t part of some template, and the only way to make those decisions is to use your gut. What I would say is to always focus on the characters. If it makes sense for the characters, then you’re probably in the right place.

One bit of feedback you said you received from a publisher was that you didn’t include enough trauma—understood to mean Black trauma—in the story. A recent NPR interview with Black romance novelists revealed that they’d received the same curious feedback: where’s the trauma? Why do you think predominantly white publishers, or at least publishers catering to a white audience, expect/want/need Black characters in fiction to experience what they would estimate to be an adequate amount of Black trauma for the story to be successful?

I think Black trauma sells. Look at rap music, look at the most popular Black-led movies. It’s something audiences have grown accustomed to seeing and Black creators have grown far too comfortable creating.

Your truth is your truth and I don’t want to tell anyone what stories to tell, but I would say that there are many sides to our experiences as a Black community. I met an Indigenous, Canadian author named Maria Campbell. She wrote this incredible memoir called Halfbreed that’s full of traumatic events. However, when meeting her, she said her hope was that future authors would write about the joyous moments of the Indigenous community’s experience.

I agree with that sentiment and would add that there are many ways to create tension in a novel without stereotypical trauma. For example, in my upcoming novel for Scholastic, Is There a Boy Like Me, the protagonist is dealing with the pressure from his family and his peers to live up to an expectation he never embraces. There are elements of that tension that can be amplified because of his race, such as the common stereotypes placed on Black men, but trying to fit in or live up to a standard set by your parents or peers is broad enough that you can take it in so many different directions, and the direction I chose for this story, specifically, was toxic masculinity.

My point is that you should tell whatever story you want, but think about your story as adding to the canon of literature. How are you elevating the art form or adding stories with so much value that they have no choice but to be read?

In the same conversation about your experiences with publishing, you say that even though your characters are Black, your stories aren’t about race, but, “even so, even with that kind of perspective, it’s still complicated because they’re looking at it as, ‘Who is going to enjoy this? Who is going to read this book?’ Ignoring the fact that there are millions of Black readers that would love this book, and ignoring the fact that there are millions of Asian readers over here that would love this book.”

One of the oft-mentioned benefits of fiction is its ability to transport readers into worlds they’d never enter on their own, to meet people or bear witness to experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. At the same time, there’s a push for relatability in characters. “I want to read about people like me.” What are your feelings about what fiction is for, or where it has value?

You nailed it! Fiction is for entering into worlds that surprise or intrigue or frighten you. It allows you to get lost in those worlds and learn some deep truths about yourself or other communities you may not have found without reading.

I choose not to make race the central themes of my stories because those aren’t the stories that get me excited. There’s so much more I want to explore and will continue to explore that I find far more interesting. And that’s another benefit of fiction that is helpful to the writer. I get to express myself in creative ways that I could never do through conversation. For me, writing is a sacred practice. I’ve learned so much about myself by writing these stories, so I actually think there’s equal benefit for readers and authors.

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