Mystery Author Kelly Oliver: Fiction is the Best Revenge!

Cobra by Kelly Oliver

Kelly Oliver, the best-selling author of three series, graciously agreed to an interview. I wanted to know how she got started and would she share tips for self-published authors. Generous and warm as ever, here is what she said.  – Keenan

What first inspired you to begin writing mysteries?

My “day job” is philosophy professor at Vanderbilt, so my career has been in “publish or perish” mode for decades. I’ve published a lot of scholarly stuff and nonfiction.

Like many people—and most academics—I always wanted to write a novel. I’ve never studied creative writing, and, in some ways, writing philosophy is the opposite of writing fiction. With philosophy, you tell the reader the punchline in the first paragraph. With fiction, you have to build to the punchline at the end.

About seven years ago, I decided it was “now or never.” I had a sabbatical from Vanderbilt, and I decided to spend it writing a novel. Of course, I didn’t know how or where to start. As luck would have it, the very next weekend Killer Nashville Mystery Writers Convention was meeting here in Nashville. I signed up, took lots of notes, went to an amazing session with Catriona McPherson and Hank Ryan, and that next Monday, I started writing my first novel.

I joke that if I’d gone to a sci-fi convention, I’d be writing sci-fi. Or, if I’d gone to a romance convention, I’d be writing romance. Thanks to Killer Nashville, I’m writing mystery!

My very first mystery is inspired by my experience in graduate school. It’s an example of the motto “fiction is the best revenge.”

Villainy in Vienna, a Fionna Figg Mystery, by Kelly Oliver

Tell us a bit about your mystery series.

So far, I’ve written three very different series. They all have strong female characters, a feminist bent, and a big dose of humor.

The Jessica James Mysteries (self-published) are contemporary adult suspense, featuring a cowgirl philosopher sleuth who moves between grad school in Chicago and where she grew up in Montana. The novels tackle “ripped from the headlines” women’s issues and the perils of living on Snicker’s bars and bourbon. So far, there are seven books in this series.

The Pet Detective Mysteries (originally Beaver’s Pond Press, soon to be Level Best Books) are middle grade mysteries and feature a spunky twelve-year-old sleuth, Kassy O’Roarke, whose mother is a vet and runs a petting zoo. Along with her pesky little brother, Percy, she solves riddles and tracks down missing pets before they end up in Animal Control. So far, there are three novels and a super fun activities book in this series.

The Fiona Figg Mysteries (Level Best Books) are historical cozies set in WW1. Former file clerk, Fiona Figg, fancies herself a master of disguise. Armed with only her photographic memory and an impressive collection of mustaches, she chases German spies across the globe—hoping to find a decent cup of tea along the way. So far, there are three books in this series.

Can you give us the pros and cons of self-publishing versus small press versus trying to break into the Big Five?

I have not had success trying to break into the Big Five. Of course, I would be ecstatic if I could. Here’s hoping!

My hunch is that the key to success with the Big Five, small presses, or self-publishing is the same: advertising and marketing. If a press puts advertising dollars behind your books, you will sell books. If they don’t, you won’t (unless you have a huge list of friends and family). The same goes for self-publishing.

I know authors who have published with Big Five presses, but when their books don’t sell well enough, their contracts are not renewed. Sadly, in some cases, that is the end of those characters and that series. Unless you’re already well-known, or the press decides to bet on your books with advertising dollars, you will have to do your own advertising and marketing no matter how you publish.

One advantage of self-publishing is you have total control over every aspect of the publishing process. That is also the biggest disadvantage. You’re not only an author, but also a businesswoman, publisher, designer, computer programmer, website designer, and marketing expert. It really is a fulltime job. It’s challenging for sure. But it can be a lot of fun. I’ve learned SO MUCH since I published my first book.

Self-publishing challenged me to push my boundaries and learn all kinds of new things. I love learning stuff.

There still is stigma attached to self-publishing. But given the success some authors have had self-publishing I think that is changing.

Do you have any tips for writers who want to break into self-publishing?

Formatting a book and making it available for sale online is super easy.

Writing, revising, designing, marketing, and advertising—those are hard.  

My main advice: Find a good editor. Do not self-publish without hiring a good editor, or several editors. I don’t just mean proof-reading. I mean developmental, line, and copy editing… and then finally proof-reading.

It’s worth the investment.


Mystery Author Kelly Oliver

Kelly Oliver is the award-winning, bestselling author of three mysteries series: The Jessica James Mysteries, the middle grade Pet Detective Mysteries, and historical cozies The Fiona Figg Mysteries.

When she’s not writing mysteries, Kelly is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. To learn more about Kelly and her books, please visit her website at


  1. So glad you’re having such success. You’ve worked hard for it. Thanks for sharing your advice, and hope to see you again at a conference. Was it Bouchercon?

  2. Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for sharing with us and our readers.

    The one advantage I see for publishing with the Big Five is that your books have a good chance of getting on the shelves at bookstores. Otherwise, I’ve been happy with my small press publisher.

    Good luck.

  3. What an inspiring story! Did I count NINE books in seven years? Wowza. Thank you for visiting and sharing your story!

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