Writing is just the first step for prolific self-publisher

Lisa Janice Cohen is always up for an adventure. Thrillers; horror; historical fiction; fantasy; you name it, she’ll read it — or write it, or code it.

The 50-year-old self-published author (inset), writing under the name L.J. Cohen, released her third novel, “Derelict,” in May. It follows Rosalen “Ro” Maldonado, a teen who only wants to restore an abandoned transport ship on the asteroid she lives on to prove she is worthy of going to college, but instead finds herself on a dangerous mission with three stowaways.

The Newton resident says she has found sales success with her books as hands-on as Ro is with the derelict freighter.


“The thing about self-publishing is once you finish writing and editing and all that, you have to put on a hat, ‘Now I am a self-publisher,’ ” Cohen said. “You have to either provide all the services a publisher would provide, or outsource the ones you can’t do.”

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Thanks to an advanced knowledge of computers that started in a middle school computer club, Cohen doesn’t have to get outside help as much as many other self-published authors.

She has been blogging about her life for nine years and recently celebrated her 1,000th post. She knows HTML and provides the coding for her own e-books, and also chooses her own print typography. It only takes her a few days to format an e-book, and a day or two to format the print version of her books, she said.

Her blogging lent itself to book promotion. Her first writing love is poetry, and she sends a newsletter with original poems and other writing to about 150 subscribers six times a year. She timed the release of “Derelict” with a newsletter, and encouraged readers interested in it to buy the book in its first seven days of release.

According to Cohen, Amazon’s algorithms notice when multiple of copies of a book are sold in a short period of time. For “Derelict,” selling 10 or 20 copies a day for five days in a row was enough to be noticed by Amazon, which put it in the top 10 for sales in the subgenres of space opera and space exploration.


After “Derelict” was listed as a “hot new release” in Amazon’s science fiction newsletter, it sold nearly 600 copies in one day. After that, the book regularly sold 100 copies a day.

“I positioned the book to be ready when lightning struck, and lightning struck,” Cohen said.

She did seek help with the cover art for “Derelict” and copy editing. She also uses “beta readers,” fellow writers she has met through peer critique groups and formal writing workshops, to improve her manuscripts.

To give “Derelict” the best chance for success, Cohen also reached out to writer friends to pen cover blurbs, which she said gives unknown authors legitimacy. Cohen has been writing for 10 years and has made connections everywhere, from writing workshops to the Internet. Still, she was prepared that the authors she asked would say no.

“You have to really believe in a book to have your name on it,” Cohen said.


In the end, all of the authors she approached said yes, including Lynn Viehl, a New York Times best-selling fantasy and science fiction writer.

Her success has been a long time in the making. “Derelict’’ is Cohen’s third published novel, although she is working on her 10th. Most of her books are created in a mental game of “Clue’’ — she thinks of a character in a certain setting with a problem, and starts asking questions about the situation. Her two previously published books, “The Between” and “Future Tense,” are young adult fantasy books, but they don’t rely on YA tropes such as a love triangle, which Cohen sees as “wish fulfillment” for writers. She considers “Derelict” a science fiction book that happens to have a teen protagonist.

“Everything I’ve written, I’ve taken what I learned to the next book,” Cohen said. “My hope is I get better every time around.”

She used Amazon’s CreateSpace service to publish all three books. She also worked with an agent for five years. They were never able to make a sale to a publishing house. Like many other self-published authors, she found that big publishers were not willing to take a chance on an unknown author with a small book, even if they enjoyed the story. That led Cohen and her agent to have an “amicable divorce” in May, she said.

“If there’s one thing I have learned in the past 10 years of trying to be a professional writer, you’re going to get rejected,” Cohen said. “It’s not you; it’s the words on the page. If you make it about you, it’s too painful.”

Before pursuing writing, Cohen was a physical therapist for 25 years. She adopted the nickname “LJ” after working with another Lisa whose last name started with the letter “c,” but finds it helpful to write under a name that is ambiguous on gender.

“There is a bias,” Cohen said. “Sci-fi especially is a man’s game . . . I want to be read for my merit, not read with any assumptions.”

She is finishing a sequel to “The Between” as she enjoys her newfound success. She is also planning more books set in Ro’s world.

“People’s excitement is absolutely thrilling,” Cohen said. “It’s been quite a ride. It’s very exciting for me and it’s the culmination of 10 years of work and a real lifetime dream for me.”

“Derelict” can be bought online at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, an independent publishing platform. Links for those sites can be found on Cohen’s website, www.ljcohen.net.

Maggie Quick can be reached at margaret.quick@globe.com.