My Life as a Novelist… So Far

This is a guest post by Ann Shortell.

My novel’s title is now on a t-shirt being sold by The Wild Bunch film festival in Arizona. 

This is not an occurrence I could have imagined two years ago, when I self-published my Canadian historical mystery, CELTIC KNOT A Clara Swift Tale

I placed the minimum order allowed by Friesen Press: 250 hardcover books, 50 softcover. I launched with one piece of publicity: an Ottawa Citizen article about the 150th anniversary of the assassination of T. D’Arcy McGee. Beyond that, plus an article in my hometown newspaper on how Kingston crept into my novel, and a few provincial signings, I had no marketing plan.

I’ve now sold more than 1,100 books; half of those are online, a tenth are ebooks. About a quarter were purchased by friends, or at those signings. The rest, including library purchases and ebooks, are tied to two marketing choices: writing contests and solicited reviews.

I had two strokes of great fortune. 

First, a year before publication, my book was shortlisted by CWC’s unpublished manuscript competition. Presto, the perfect mystery Finalist sticker for my historical fiction cover.

The CWC success prompted me to make contests a marketing strategy. To date, the book has placed in 23, and won two. No, I cannot use that many stickers. No, I do not need the ego stroke. Contests have positioned my work in new markets, often in unexpected ways. 

The key, for me, has been who else is in the race. A finalist placement in the Texas-based Sarton Women’s Fiction contest introduced me to Ontario writer Catherine Graham. She had won a contest run by a reviewer who featured fiction from Atlantic Canada. As a result, The Miramichi Reader introduced my heroine to the Maritimes with a favorable review and, later, a ranking on their next award shortlist.

An IPPY Bronze Medal led to an opportunity to attend BookExpo in New York. I regret not going, as I made amazing connections the following month in Washington, though the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I sold books at the American Library Association conference, and at the NGIBA ceremony I met the editor of shewritespress. 

Awards educated me about the world of indie publishing. I joined the Independent Book Publishers Association to enter their award. I didn’t place, but find the organization a valuable resource. A recent IBPA group library eblast led to interest in my book from almost 200 librarians—with names and emails for follow-up. 

I also did not place in Publishers Weekly’s indie BookLife contest. But finding this website led me to apply for a review in PW Magazine itself. The odds of being reviewed there are four in 1,000 in any given month, by their own count. This was my second big break. When PW ran a positive review, CELTIC KNOT hardcover sales and WorldCat library listings both rose appreciably 

A Finalist placement in the ForeWord Reviews awards led to Frankfurt’s Book Fair. Displayed on ForeWord’s Awards shelf, it caught the eye of a Chinese publisher. There’s been no sale yet, but I count it as a contest-generated opportunity.

My biggest thrill? Winning the 2019 Whistler Independent Book Awards (WIBA) for Fiction. That meant an invite to the Whistler Writers Festival, indie and Indigo sales in B.C., a shout-out from CBC Books, a hometown Christmas Indigo appearance, television interviews and a speaking engagement with the supportive Canadian Authors Association. 

The happiest surprise: how competitors become a mutual support group, cheering and promoting one another’s work on social media and at appearances. 

Contests have connected me to my local community and provided cross-Canada exposure. They’ve prompted a director to pitch an animated adaptation to CBC. They’ve boosted my work beyond our borders, to fine writers and enthusiastic readers in the U.S., England, Ireland, China, and Australia. 

And now, I’ll proudly wear a Wild Bunch film fest t-shirt.


Ann Shortell was born in Kingston, Ontario, and raised on legends of her Celtic ancestors. She is the author of the award-winning CELTIC KNOT which was written in homage to the Irish storytelling tradition embodied by the late D’Arcy McGee. 

You can keep with Ann on Facebook and Twitter.

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