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CJ Lyons: E.R. Doctor Turned Best Selling Self-Published Author

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CJ Lyons was once an E.R. doctor and she saw it all, having worked in the inner-cities and on-board helicopters where severely injured patients were transported. She traded this all in for a lucrative career as an author.

Here is her story:

Q: As a child you were a heavy book reader. How did your love of books at an early age impact your writing style and ability as you got older?

A: I still am a heavy reader—although nowadays, I tend to binge read. It’s my favorite treat for when I’ve finished a project, taking a few days off and immersing myself in great books.

I’ve never limited myself to only one genre and since I’ve always read more than one book at a time, even as a kid you might find me reading Henry James on the school bus, Edgar Rice Burroughs during study hall, then Rex Stout on the way back home.

The author who most influenced me as a child when I first began writing was Ray Bradbury. The way he could blend genre, bend reader expectations, portray the normal and familiar in the midst of the macabre and extraordinary, his poetry and lyricism, and most of all his ability to create a world peopled with characters so compelling and engaging that you felt you’d known them all your life…all of these gave me something to strive for in my own writing.

He and others like him set the bar extremely high—and I am sure I’ll never reach it in my lifetime, but it’s tons of fun to keep trying with each new book.

Q: Many authors are afraid of publishing their work out of fear that it's not up to par with other successful authors. How did you overcome this fear of failure?

A: I haven’t! Doubt I forever will. But, all my life, I’ve been able to face fear and use it to motivate me to be better, faster, stronger, smarter…It’s how I was able to leave home at 17 and put myself through college and medical school (at one point in med school working three jobs and living with cockroaches that were fatter than my hand), how I could face the challenges of working on the front lines in an inner-city trauma center or flying out for patients in the helicopter when you’re stuck in the back, unable to rely on anything except your instincts and your team.

I’ve failed tons of times. It’s not failure anyone should fear—it’s not getting up and trying again after we fall.

Q: The life of an author can be financially unstable. How did you gain the courage to quit your career in medicine in pursuit of your passion?

A: That was a real leap of faith—but I knew there was no need to leap without a safety net. So, after receiving my second book contract and realizing that I couldn’t give both my patients and my writing 120%, I began to prepare.

First, I analyzed my living expenses. Then I saved about two years’ worth as an emergency fund (which, despite everything going wrong that could go wrong, I’ve never had to touch, it’s still sitting there in a special savings account). And finally, I “pre-paid” myself six months’ worth of what I calculated I should be making once my books were published.

By the way, I think that concept of pre-paying yourself is a vital key to financial security for anyone dependent on unpredictable payments such as authors and free-lancers. As soon as I have this month’s bills paid, I put aside enough for next month’s…then over time I build that to the next six months, the next year. It goes in a special account that I don’t touch for anything else. I don’t consider it an emergency fund, as it’s too easy to justify almost anything as a one-time emergency. Rather, I think of it as securing my future. That’s also how I tend to approach large expenses: since I know how much I need to cover my expenses, I tend to think of something as: hey, that’s a full month of living, is it worth it to spend that much money, a month of my life?

Tying time to money puts everything into perspective for me and has helped me to take risks financially when I think it’s worth it (for example, early on I invested in audio versions, keeping all the rights myself instead of doing a royalty-split with the voice talent, which turned out to be hugely successful) and to steer away from things that look good but aren’t worth it.

All those plans and calculations turned out to be totally wrong. But simply treating my writing as a “done deal” helped me to make the leap of faith and not turn back when everything went wrong.

Q: Before your first book was scheduled to be released, you faced a major setback. What happened and how did you gain the strength to move forward?

A: After I’d quit my medical practice and moved 1,000 miles away from home to pursue my dream of being a full-time writer, my first novel, my dream debut, was cancelled by the publisher.

For someone like me, a total control freak (ER doc, remember?), it was devastating because there was nothing I could do—the booksellers had based their pre-orders on ARCs that had no cover art and when the publisher finally showed them the cover art, they threatened to cancel their orders unless the publisher changed the cover (which, I must confess was hideous—my agent and I had been arguing with the publisher for months about it).

The publisher refused, defending their award-winning art department. The stores all cancelled their orders. And my dream debut was DOA.

I did what I always do when faced with chaos beyond my control: I wrote.

I also fought to get my rights back (I’ve now made ten times as much money self-publishing that title) and, just to show you that Karma has a sense of humor, the week after I got my rights back, the publisher at Berkley called me and asked me to create a similar series for them, which went on to become my award-winning, bestselling Angels of Mercy series.

The book I wrote while dealing with the fact that I might have no career, being unemployed for the first time since I was 15, and uncertain where my future was headed? BLIND FAITH, which debuted on the NYT bestseller list at #2, sold >250,000 copies in two months, and won the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Award and a RT Reviewers’ Choice Award.

Looking back on it, that first publisher did me a favor. Because of them, I learned to take control of my own career, I educated myself about as many aspects of business as possible, and I realized that it’s up to me to decide who I partner with in order to get my books into the hands of my readers. I now understand that each author is CEO of their own Global Media Empire!

Q: Every author dreams of becoming a best seller. How did you achieve this? Was there an elaborate marketing plan that allowed you to gain popularity or did your popularity grow organically?

A: I first hit bestseller lists with my traditionally published novels and really had nothing to do with that other than writing the best books possible. But, BLIND FAITH hitting the NYT list at #2 and staying there so long was total serendipity—and a dream come true.

I’d been growing my mailing list for years. In fact, the entire reason why I began self-publishing was at the request of my readers—they wanted more books, faster and my NYC publisher was releasing one book a year. Within a year of starting to self-publish, I was paying the bills with self-publishing alone, thanks to my readers and their voracious appetites for more books.

I wanted to thank them and I had a crazy little dream that they could help me out with. So, for the first time ever, I put BLIND FAITH (which I’d always had priced at $4.99 and was the book most responsible for paying the mortgage) on sale at 0.99. Then, I sent my mailing list a note with the subject: Help me make a dream come true.

I asked them to share the news about BLIND FAITH’s sale with friends and to help me hit the Amazon Top 20—something I’d never been able to do before then.

Two weeks later, BLIND FAITH was not only in the Amazon Top 20, it hit the USA Today list and the week after that debuted at #2 on the NYT list—and stayed there for over a month!

All because I had the courage to ask my readers to help—and also made it worth their while by giving them a great book at a fantastic price that made it easy for them to share with their friends. A true win/win/win for everyone!

Q: You've won numerous awards for your books. Did you enter your books for consideration or were you sought after?

A: My publishers usually enter my books into the major competitions. Many of my awards have also come from reviewers at Suspense Magazine, RT Book Reviews, etc.

Q: With 23 books published you've had a successful career both as a self-published author and a traditionally published author. What pros and cons have you found between these two publishing outlets?

A: For me, the two main issues are control and what best serves my readers. Sometimes it’s worth it to surrender control and partner with a NYC publisher if that will get my books into wider distribution and make them easier for my readers to find. More often, my readers are better served by me keeping control and publishing myself because I can get the same quality of work (my editors and proof-readers have all worked with NYC publishers) into their hands at a lower price point, faster.

Q: Many writers suffer from writer's block after the major success of a published book. What creative process do you go through to continue writing so many successful books?

A: Success happens so long after a book is published that it has little impact on me because I’m already several books beyond that. One thing I do struggle with is that every book I’ve written has been written differently—for some reason, my mind simply refuses to accept a template or method that I can use repeatedly.
I’ve plunged into books with nothing more than an opening line…I’ve written one book backwards, scene by scene…I’ve had complex character emotional arcs totally worked out in detail but no clue what the actual plot was…every book is a fresh challenge and a new struggle, but with my deadlines I simply don’t have time for any kind of block.

I guess that’s my greatest secret weapon: give me a deadline and I’ll beat it every time.

Q: If self-publishing wasn't available, how would this have affected your career?

A: I’d be back to waitressing, lol! Despite all my successes with traditional publishing, it’s very clear to me that there’s no way they would have broken me out into a top-tier financially.

Which is fine, it’s how that side of the business works. But how awesome is it that authors can now choose when and who to partner with based on what is best for their readers and a particular book?

And how wonderful for readers to have such a never-ending smorgasbord of literature to choose from—truly something for everyone!

Q: What advice would you give to authors who are looking to take their career to the next level rather they've only completed a manuscript or they've published their first book and are considering their next?

A: The best piece of advice is what Jeffery Deaver said to me after my first book was published. He told me, “Never forget, the reader is god.” I now try to make every business and creative decision based on that ideal: what will delight and excite my readers so they’ll tell their friends about my books?

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