Author spotlight: Shauna E. Black

Every month I’ll be interviewing an author who writes historically-influenced fiction, and introducing you to some fantastic new writing talent. Their genres vary, but all of them are writing stories set in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

This month’s featured author is Shauna E. Black. Shauna writes historical fantasy (Western), epic fantasy and dystopian.  Her most recent book is Rebel Bound, and she’s working on a new edition of her first novel, Fury of the Storm Wizard, which will be re-released under the new title Thunderstruck. You can find her through her website or Facebook page, and she also occasionally hangs out on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Shauna is also offering a special free short story to blog readers, which you can read more about below, and download here.

How long have you been writing and what got you started?

I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. I’ve always loved books and reading, so I guess it was natural to start creating my own stories. I used to inhale Nancy Drew, and some of my earliest manuscripts were imitations of those books. I called my teen sleuth Julie Jones, and she had two best friends that were twins. I still have one of my original manuscripts, written in pencil on half-sheets of paper. I even drew the illustrations!

Probably the best thing that happened to me when I was young was my seventh-grade English teacher. She announced in class that she’d give extra credit for anyone who turned in original short stories. I went hog-wild and started handing her story after story. Never mind that I already had an A in her class. Ha ha! But she was very patient with me and diligently read each one. She gently corrected my errors and wrote encouraging things in the margins. One thing she said that’s stuck with me all these years was: “You are a writer!” I was over the moon when she told me that! The first book in my Soul in Ashes series is dedicated to her.

What are the best and worst things about being an author?

I like to end on upbeat notes, so let’s start with the worst things:

Marketing. (Ugh!) That’s it in a nutshell, for me. Actually, I do enjoy creating marketing materials, like newsletters and graphics for ads and so forth. I just struggle with the delivery part. Like a lot of authors, I’m a hopelessly-incurable introvert, but I like connecting one-on-one with folks once I get over that shyness hurdle. Then there’s the whole issue of drowning in an ocean of books and making my books visible to more than a handful of people. That’s been incredibly hard.

The best thing about writing is getting to make up stories in my head that make my heart sing. I love to exercise my creativity and dream up magic systems, twists on the world we know, and interesting characters that struggle and overcome big problems. It’s icing on the cake when I get positive feedback from readers who actually seem to enjoy my little imagination as much as I do.

I also like the entire process of publishing, which was a surprise for me when I first became an indie author. (Well, I love everything but formatting. Formatting should go in the paragraph with marketing. Ugh.)

I worked for years as a graphics designer in television and on the web, so I really love designing covers too, though I consider myself still a newbie in this arena, trying to learn what makes a good book cover.

What’s your favourite historical time period to write about and why?

I think it would be the Victorian era, encompassing Westerns. That’s where my first published book ended up, and I had a lot of fun researching the era. I set the novel in the town where my ancestors mined the Colorado Rockies, and I learned a lot about the mining industry. But my favorite aspect of it was learning about what a school day was like, and the games kids played—especially marbles.

The other reason I like Victorian is because I have a steampunk that’s been kicking around in my head for awhile, full of airships and piracy. One of these days, I’ll get around to finishing that one. 😉

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve researched in relation to your writing?

Hair jewelry. It’s just so deliciously enchanting and creepy at the same time. Ha ha! That’s another reason to love Victorian! A few years ago, I was visiting my brother in Indiana and went into a little antique jewelry shop. The owner was really knowledgeable and had some hair jewelry pieces on display. She told me a little about them, and I became fascinated. I started developing an idea for either a fantasy or a ghost story that hinged on hair jewelry. (That’s another one I need to finish. So many ideas, so little time!)

If you could travel anywhere in time and space, when and where would it be?

That’s a tough question—not because I can’t think of anything, but because I can think of too many things! I love to travel, anyway, and to be able to add time to that would just be incredible!

Well, if it’s anywhere, then that includes fictional settings in books, right? I’ve always wanted to visit The Citadel of Wizards in Barbara Hambly’s book Dog Wizard. It sits on a hill overrun with plants and has all sorts of secret passages and lovely little nooks and crannies.

But if I must be grounded in reality, then I’d love to visit the British Isles during the dark ages— visit being the keyword, since I wouldn’t actually want to live during that time without indoor plumbing. 😉

Where do you find creative inspiration?

A lot of my inspiration comes from the area where I live. I’m in the US Southwest, and there are Ancient Puebloan ruins everywhere. In the spring is the best time to visit them, since it isn’t too hot then. Most of the ruins are a little hard to reach, with moderate to difficult hiking. I’ve been visiting these ruins since I was a kid, and I’ve always found it fascinating to imagine what life was like for the people that lived back then. I guess that’s the most interesting facet of history for me: making up stories about the real people that came before—what they were like, the challenges they faced, what they did every day, etc. My Soul in Ashes setting borrowed a lot from the southwest (Aztec and Ancient Puebloan) mixed in with the Celts. Kind of an odd combination, I know, but I had a lot of fun juxtaposing those cultures against each other.

What’s your favourite historical resource?

I don’t know that I have any one main source for my research. I do a lot on the Internet, just word searches in Google. I remember the days before Internet was a thing (I’m dating myself here). Research was a lot harder. I would go to the library and drag home whatever books they had on the subject, but it was severely limited compared to what I can find out now. The whole world really is at our fingertips, and the hardest part nowadays is picking and choosing from the incredible amount of information out there. But, writing in the fantasy subgenre helps because I can bend the truth to suit the story, so the source doesn’t have to necessarily be accurate. Ha ha!

The best place in the world to write is…

At home by myself. To really write well, I’ve found I need a certain level of concentration that I simply don’t get when other people are in the house.  So, I like to do my writing while my four kids are at school and my husband is at work. After they get home, it’s all over as far as writing goes.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom by myself, reading or writing or drawing. I overheard my parents talking once about it. My mom was concerned because she didn’t think it was normal for a kid to be so solitary. My dad said, that’s just how writers are!

When you’re not writing, what do you get up to?

My husband is a CPA, so during the US tax season I’m his secretary. That means I don’t get much writing done in the spring, but I think it’s important to support him just as he supports me in my endeavors.

Other than that, I keep busy being a mom to four beautiful girls between the ages of seventeen and nine. There’s always something they need, whether it’s rides to piano lessons or play practices, help with homework, or dinner. (Oh yeah. Guess I have too cook every so often, too.)

What are you currently working on?

I’m in between projects at the moment. I just finished a YA dystopian, which was a complete about-face for me, as far as genre is concerned. But I really enjoyed writing it, and I have fans clamoring for a second instalment, so I’m planning to get going on that as soon as tax season eases up enough to give me some wiggle room.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog! I’ve really enjoyed chatting about writing! I would like to offer your readers a fun little story for free, as a thank you. It’s called A Mess of Magic and is a spin-off from my Thunderstruck novel. They can download it here.

Author spotlight: M.K. Wiseman

Every month I’ll be interviewing an author who writes historically-influenced fiction, and introducing you to some fantastic new writing talent. Their genres vary, but all of them are writing stories set in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

This month’s featured author is fantasy and steampunk writer M.K. Wiseman. She’s about to release Kithseeker, the second book in her Bookminder trilogy. You can find her through her website, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, where she goes by the handle @FaublesFables.

How long have you been writing and what got you started?

My writing journey started in earnest in the [northern] summer of 2004. I was recovering from a rather serious surgery and had a lot of time of my hands plus some very vivid post-hospital dreams. One, in particular, stuck with me for reasons unknown. I spent the rest of my summer break figuring out the story behind it. That became the crux of my first novel, The Bookminder. However, the manuscript sat in a drawer, only partially finished, until a number of years later when I knocked together a short story for fun, simply because I had heard about a publisher accepting submissions for an anthology. Three short stories in, three anthologies later, I’d unearthed my old half-cooked novel and started to write full-time.

What are the best and worst things about being an author?

The misery of it all. (Mostly kidding there. Mostly.) Truthfully, writing is a rather solitary pursuit. Or, really, it’s a very private pursuit. I run, leap, shout, scream, do magic spells, and go travelling for hours a day—and all inside my head. It’s exhausting. And then I emerge from this imaginary space and try to cook dinner or iron a few shirts. It’s a little like wilfully choosing to be a bit mad.

*Note, I did answer the question . . . The best and the worst, for me, are all rolled up into this same, ever-curious experience of truly believing your imaginary friends are real, and then making them so, and then going out amongst people at the grocery store and pretending you’re absolutely normal on the inside and that you did not just murder a man in the Old West a half an hour ago.

What’s your favourite historical time period to write about and why?

Late 1800s. For the simple reason that there is ever so much more information available on that time period than, say, the 1600s. (Information of the flavor I use, that is. For example, I adore historical map overlays. Also, I love the idea that a building I am writing about is still standing and might be visited by the intrepid.) Additionally, English is much closer to our modern use when you hit the end of the 19th century. e.g. If I want a character to simply say “Hello” I can, actually, do so.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve researched in relation to your writing?

I once had to determine whether there was a train route in Nebraska, in 1890, that crossed over a trestle at the exact point of a ley line.

If you could travel anywhere in time and space, when and where would it be?

This is a terrible thing to ask a Whovian! 😉 😉

Though the thought terrifies me, I think I should like to go somewhere into the far future and see how far we all travelled out into the stars, if world peace was ever found . . . and, essentially, whether we humans “make it” or not in the end.

Where do you find creative inspiration?

I think the heart of everything I write stems from “things I love.” I don’t sit on a bench and people-watch, or collect interesting dialogue overheard at a coffee shop. I don’t put enemies into my books and give them gruesome deaths, as the old threat goes.

Each story is a love letter of sorts, me “geeking out” and sharing a place, a concept, an interest that I hold dear . . . and then taking it out of the personal so that I can deny up, down, left, right that my characters have any of me in them. 😉

What’s your favourite historical resource?

I absolutely adore the National Library of Scotland’s map overlays. I love, love, love this resource and am dropping a link here so that folks can go explore it. Historical maps + Bing overlay for easy modern reference? Amazing. Thank you, National Library of Scotland. Thank you.

The best place in the world to write is…

I think my favorite spot for writing is the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Good light, good movement and sound—a perfect hum of distant distraction and productivity. A lake to look at when my eyes need a break. Access to good foods and drinks.  . . . And there’s always a chance I might run across an old sailing buddy who needs an extra hand on a keelboat for the afternoon. Being on a campus, the place is simply steeped in ambition, the air heavy with endless, lovely potential.

When you’re not writing, what do you get up to?

Reading, of course. But I also play with a Croatian folk orchestra (I play brač) and so have to keep those skills sharp. I juggle a bit; unicycle for fun; am trying to learn a couple languages via phone apps (I figure that with such a marvelous technology, I ought use it to better myself); I am a big fan of anime; I have a love/hate relationship with running; and, this year, am learning to play my dad’s accordion. You know, hobbies. 😉

What are you currently working on?

Looking to finish the Bookminder trilogy. Which is a huge project, really, and ought to be filling my time. But I also have several back-burner projects, one of which I am actively shopping, one which I pick at/edit from time to time, and a third—my current favorite—which will require endless research and, potentially, a trip to finish.

Author Spotlight: Nix Whittaker

Every month I’ll be interviewing an author who writes historically-influenced fiction, and introducing you to some fantastic new writing talent. Their genres vary, but all of them are writing stories set in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

This month’s featured author is Nix Whittaker. Nix writes steampunk/alternative history, sci-fi romance, and is working on her first mystery. Her most recent novel is The Jade Dragon, the third instalment of her Wyvern Chronicles trilogy, and she has also just released a Christmas novella, Ruby Beyond Compare. You can get in touch with her via her website or Facebook page.

How long have you been writing, and what got you started?

I started writing when I was a little girl as I ran out of books to read. I’m dyslexic and my teacher recommended that I read more books, but at that stage I was reading about 100 books a year, and I quickly read out my library. So I started writing my own. It took a really long time to actually finish any of my stories. Once I decided I’d publish, I finished a book in a month. That was three years ago, though some days feels like a lifetime.

What are the best and worst things about being an author?

The best – well, that is being able to live in different worlds in your head. I love being able to create new friends for myself. The worst is the imposter syndrome. Always thinking that no matter how many books you have that you are never good enough to be classed as an author.

What’s your favourite historical time period to write about and why?

At the moment I’m enjoying the 1830s as there was so little technology back then that you have to double-check everything. Little things like photos in newspapers. I like the challenge.

Where do you find creative inspiration?

The question should be where don’t I find inspiration. I can get inspiration from a throwaway comment from friends. A character from a movie or a documentary. Inspiration is everywhere.

The best place in the world to write is…

Last year I had writer’s block, so to get over it I headed to the mountains. Took the ski lift right up to the top of the mountain and watched ski bunnies go down the slopes while I sat in the nice cosy restaurant and wrote. The glistening white snow and the view down the slopes was great inspiration. I would recommend cold to write as it’s much easier to see the screen. I find summer terrible for glare off your screen if you try to write outside.

When you’re not writing, what do you get up to?

I’m a cliché when it comes to being an author. I’m an English teacher with cats. So when I’m not writing I’m teaching English, fostering kittens for the SPCA and reading. I read a lot. Though this year I didn’t reach my reading goal on Goodreads. Very disappointing. This year I’m being more conservative and I’ll only read 150 books.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m working on my first mystery. All my other books are epic in scope as they deal with civil war and empires. This time I’m going small to a single murder and the only thing really at risk is my character’s career and possibly life. I’m enjoying the red herrings though. You don’t have many of those when you are dealing with a moustache-twirling villain. Ironically I got the idea for this story from a book cover I was making for my other side job. It was too good to put in as just a pre-made, so I decided to keep it except I didn’t have a story to go with it. That was when my Lady Golden Hand was born.

Author Spotlight: Guy Worthey

Every month I’ll be interviewing an author who writes historically-influenced fiction, and introducing you to some fantastic new writing talent. Their genres vary, but all of them are writing stories set in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

This month’s featured author is Guy Worthey. Guy writes young adult adventure, specifically 1920s noir with steampunk elements. His most recent book is Ace Carroway and the Great War. You can get in touch with him via his website or Facebook page, or on Twitter (@guyworthey).

How long have you been writing and what got you started?

I’ve only been seriously writing fiction-for-publication for a couple of years. However, my first publication was in second grade, when the teacher collected poems from the class. She retyped them, mimeographed them (yep, before photocopiers!), and made books held together with brass brads. Each kid made their own covers by gluing the letters P-O-E-T-R-Y onto construction paper. I was enthralled by the experience. The poem was, in its entirety, “Once, when flowers popped, they exploded.”

What are the best and worst things about being an author?

Best: writing.

Worst: editing.

I bet all the authors say that.

On the interface with the outside world, however, I’m really torn by the childish need to seek approval and the introvert’s instinct to just hide. So, on that axis, the best thing is the good review and the worst thing is the bad review.

Finally, on the axis of coffee:

Best: coffee.

Worst: coffee runs out.

What’s your favourite historical time period to write about and why?

I can’t pick just one! I love the noir period, of course. I really want to write a steampunk story some time. I grew up on a steady diet of medieval fantasy, so I’m always drawn to a swords-and-sorcery yarn. Personally, I avoid contemporary, post-apocalyptic, and anything where people have elongated canines.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve researched in relation to your writing?

Underwear, maybe. Specifically, the problem of having a 1920s woman who does athletic things.

The thermodynamics of jet engines, maybe. Or, how the Hindenburg’s crew actually handled that huge thing.

Then there is the tool called a breast drill. I euphemistically called it a chest drill to avoid teens snickering about it. It’s a heavy-duty drill that you lean into to apply pressure, and that’s how it gets its name. It’s got a long handle for extra leverage that the operator spins with their right hand while guiding their aim with their left hand.

If you could travel anywhere in time and space, when and where would it be?

Definitely the future. As much as I love various past times and places, I really really really want to jump a couple hundred years forward and see how the moon base is coming along and check on the Mars colony and see if we have found life around some other star.

Where do you find creative inspiration?

I get inspiration from almost everything. Music, chance remarks overheard, reading, dreaming, or simply listening to other people talk about what is important to them.

What’s your favourite historical resource?

A good, dusty, overstuffed secondhand bookstore! Digging around in such a place is where I have found some of my best references. You find crazy, quirky stuff lurking in the corners of such shops. My most fervent hope is that internet doesn’t kill off these shops.

The best place in the world to write is…

By a window overlooking the storm-lashed Scottish seaside cliffs.

I imagine. Never done that, actually. I do have a window, though, and I try to sit by it. I actually enjoy typing on a keyboard to write, though I prefer to read in the traditional manner of ink on paper pages.

When you’re not writing, what do you get up to?

I have a day job, but also plenty of hobbies. Foremost among them is probably jazz bass. I never get tired of playing in a hot combo. In general, I allow myself to get distracted. The occasional wild goose chase is good for a body.

What are you currently working on?

I’m finishing #2 in my Ace Carroway series, called Ace Carroway Around the World. This means I’m editing. Sigh. As I edit, I try to not get seduced by the dark side, such as writing a spinoff or going back to my half-drafted fantasy trilogy. Anyway, Ace #2 should be ready for release by March or April.


Anatomy of a Novel Part 10: Going indie

I’m very excited to reveal that The Iron Line is now in its final stages. I’ve been agonising a lot this year about how I wanted to publish it – whether I was going to pitch it to agents and publishers, or take a different route. Last week I wrote an article for online news and culture magazine Inside Story about that journey and the decision I’ve finally made to go indie. The full article is republished here with permission.

Mike Licht/Flickr

Publishing’s Parallel Universe

April 2015 was a good month for me. In the space of a week I signed not only a marriage contract, but also something I’d been pursuing for much longer: a book deal.

I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, but it was only in 2014 — after two decades of practice — that I finally finished my first novel, Greythorne, a Gothic mystery set in Victorian England. The writing process itself had been relatively short, just twelve months from the idea to a manuscript I was comfortable submitting to publishers. In November 2014 I took it to an Australian Society of Authors Literary Speed Dating event in Sydney, where I pitched to various agents and editors, and five months later one of those contacts bore fruit.

My contract was with a digital-first imprint of one of the Big Five (the five biggest book publishers in the United States: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster). Digital-first meant it would be available only in ebook and print-on-demand formats, so there’d be no big print runs or distribution to bookshops unless it happened to do very well. At the time I didn’t care; it was a foot in the door.

What followed was a stripping away of any illusions I might have had about the traditional publishing industry. I thought publishers were in the business of marketing books — because they presumably want them to sell. Once upon a time they were, but those days are long gone. These days, a new release has to fend for itself, and if it doesn’t strike paydirt within the first month, then it’s done its dash. But getting lucky is far more likely to happen in some genres than in others — romance and crime, for instance, have hugely dedicated readerships. It certainly doesn’t happen in Gothic mystery.

Of course, I was lucky to have been offered a contract at all. The market for my kind of book is relatively small, and Greythorne is short as novels go, at only 55,000 words, or a bit over 200 standard paperback pages (most publishers prefer them to be around the 80,000-word mark). The development of digital-first imprints — which several major publishers have started in an attempt to tap into the ebook market — means that publishers will sometimes take chances on books like mine, whereas they wouldn’t necessarily consider them for a traditional print run. But these imprints are also often tiny, run by a dedicated but small team of people within a very big company, without the resources to properly market their wares. Essentially, they’re often set up to fail, and this failure then reinforces everything the publishers think they know about the ebook market, namely that it’s impossible to make a go of. (It’s not — trade publishers just don’t do it very well — but more on that later.)

In mid 2016, the imprint I’d been contracted by closed down unexpectedly, or at least it was unexpected for those of us on the outside. A number of authors, me included, were left stranded. On the one hand, our contracts were with the parent company, so they were still valid as long as our books continued to be made available for sale. They were, but what little marketing support there’d been had disappeared. On the other hand, the publisher offered to give us back our rights, but then we’d have to decide what to do with them. I queried an agent about the possibility of pitching the book to another publisher and was basically told not to bother — it’s extremely difficult to resell an already published novel unless it’s a bestseller. I decided to leave Greythorne where it was for the time being, because at least people could still buy it. Then I started looking at options.

In the meantime, I’d begun working on another novel, The Iron Line. This was another Gothic mystery, this time set in Australia in the 1880s. The imprint’s collapse had taken away any temptation to take the path of least resistance by pitching it to them, but it also meant I was essentially back to square one in terms of finding a publisher and/or an agent. It was a demoralising thought.

Around the same time, an author friend introduced me to a Facebook group for “indie” authors. Indie, or independent, authors are what used to be known as self-publishers — people who produce and publish books themselves, in this case using ebook and print-on-demand technology. Indie publishing is very different from vanity publishing, where unscrupulous companies charge inexperienced authors to publish through them, often to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, for little or no meaningful return. Indie authors subcontract services like editing and design themselves, and retain full control of all their intellectual property.

The indie scene underwent a renaissance in the late 2000s, spurred on by Amazon’s release of Kindle Direct Publishing, which allows authors to publish directly to Amazon’s Kindle ebook platform rather than having to go through a third party. In the ten years or so since then, indie publishing has developed into a thriving industry, with an array of services blossoming out of nowhere to support it. Self-publishers are no longer stereotypical narcissists with thousands of badly printed books in their basement; these days they’re businesspeople, and often quite successful ones at that.

Discovering just how many options are available to the modern author — far beyond the “contract or bust” model of yesteryear — was a revelation. But at the same time I baulked at the thought of going indie; deep down, it still felt like the easy way out, or second best to endorsement by a traditional publisher. So I left Greythorne languishing there in limbo, but nevertheless decided to find out exactly what this indie publishing thing was all about.

Entering the indie publishing world is a little bit like entering a parallel universe. Up in the firmament are a whole host of superstars you’ve probably never heard of — Hugh Howey, Joanna Penn, David Gaughran, K.M. Weiland, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, James Scott Bell — many of whom are making five-, six- or occasionally seven-figure incomes from their writing. Further down are the mid-list — people who aren’t quite indie superstars but who are making perfectly respectable money through savvy marketing. Of course, there are still traces of the old self-publishing problem evident in those books that lack decent design and/or editing, but that’s what happens in a democratic marketplace. You could sit the best-quality indie books next to traditionally published books and most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

One characteristic of the most successful indie authors that I noticed early on is that they’re not just authors — they’re businesspeople. Many of them run mini-empires, built around not just their fiction work but also non-fiction, speaking gigs, workshops and other services. To succeed, indie books need to harness a whole marketing ecosystem — an email list, free giveaways, a spot in the coveted BookBub newsletter (which sends free or discounted deals to its subscribers every day and can add thousands to a book’s sales), and so on — and the most successful authors have learned how to make this work for them.

Strangely enough, though, techniques that would be a closely guarded secret in other industries are willingly shared in the indie world. Whether it’s through free sources such as Facebook groups and podcasts, or through non-fiction books, webinars and other media, indie authors are almost always ready to help each other out. In the indie Facebook group I’m part of, members regularly (and constructively) critique each other’s covers and blurbs, offer feedback on drafts, and answer questions about platforms and marketing strategies, even sharing the results of particular promotions they’ve launched and offering lessons learned. You might think that an industry in which members are competing to get their own work noticed would be incredibly vicious, but in fact indies across the board are really nice.

Even those who’ve had enormous success seem to see value in giving back to the community. Hugh Howey became famous as the first indie author to sign a print-only deal (retaining ebook rights because he’d done so well with them on his own) after his dystopian science-fiction trilogy, Silo, was picked up by Simon & Schuster for a six-figure sum. But he’s also known in the indie community as the brains behind the Author Earnings website, which is one of the few sources of sales statistics that don’t come from the major publishers (which don’t usually include ebooks or indie books). It aims to crunch the data across the entire marketplace and give a more accurate snapshot of exactly which types of books are selling and who’s producing them.

The traditional publishers hate this kind of thing because sales figures have always been a tightly held secret, but Author Earnings is in keeping with the openness of the indie community, which is all about sharing information to help authors make informed decisions. Likewise, one of the longest-running podcasts on indie publishing, The Creative Penn, run by British author Joanna Penn, regularly hosts guests from all over the world who share information on all aspects of indie publishing, from writing techniques to exploiting audio rights to getting the most out of Amazon ads. The amount of information available, often for free, is simply extraordinary.

All the same, indie publishing is a huge learning curve, and it’s not for everyone. Some writers just want to write, and that’s fine. As an indie author you have to do it all, and that means being comfortable with marketing. Once upon a time, highly introverted authors were able to hide behind their publisher’s marketing department, but not any more. Even in trade publishing, authors have to do the lion’s share of the work when it comes to getting their book out there, and in indie publishing this is magnified. If that’s not your thing, or if you’re not technologically savvy, you’re going to struggle as an indie author.

The other thing to bear in mind is that some types of books sell better than others. Romance readers, for example, are voracious and loyal, so romance is the perfect genre for indies because the market is huge. Likewise, crime tends to do well, especially “cosy crime” (think Agatha Christie) and thrillers. Speculative fiction — science fiction, fantasy, horror and all their various sub-genres — also has a pretty strong market, especially because the ebook retailers’ categories go into quite some detail, so readers can browse very specific varieties of the genre according to their taste. Steampunk, for example — a speculative fiction subset that has fantasy or sci-fi elements set in an alternative Victorian-era world — is a growing market, but not big enough for many traditional publishers to touch it.

On the other hand, middle-grade fiction (chapter books for children aged eight to twelve) is generally accepted as difficult to publish independently. Kids’ books in general are hard to sell this way because you have to market to the parents as well as the child, and these works tend not to be so popular in ebook form anyway. Likewise, if you write literary fiction then indie publishing is a bad idea, because it won’t sell — but then, literary fiction tends not to sell very well in any format, which is why traditional publishers use the earnings from genre fiction bestsellers to cross-subsidise it. Literary fiction authors also depend disproportionately on literary reviews and prizes, neither of which are particularly accepting of indie-published books. But for genre fiction authors like me, there are far more opportunities than ever before.

In early 2017, I decided to dip my toe in the indie publishing waters with a non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-cost Strategies for Community Groups, which I’d written as an asset for my consultancy business (because, like most writers, I also have a day job). In this case, there was never any question of finding a traditional publisher; I deliberately decided to go indie because I wanted to retain full control over the intellectual property rights. I knew I’d be using material from the book in other aspects of my business, such as training courses, and I didn’t want to have to go running to a publisher for permission every time I wanted to do that. So indie it was.

As an entree to the industry I probably couldn’t have picked a more difficult book. It was full-colour with lots of lists and diagrams, so was a lot more complicated and expensive to format and print than a traditional black-and-white novel. Marketing non-fiction is also quite different from marketing fiction, and there are fewer resources available. But I got there in the end, and it made me realise just how much freedom and control you have over the entire process, from what you write, to design, release dates, sales and giveaways

By this point I’d finished the first draft of The Iron Line and was getting started on rewriting. It had taken longer than Greythorne (it turns out that starting a new business and finishing a novel aren’t always compatible) but it was rapidly reaching the point where I needed to decide what to do with it. I’d been toying with the idea of indie publishing from early on in the process, but had come up against the stigma that still exists around self-publishing. A successful author friend epitomised this when she said, on hearing that I was thinking of going indie, “Oh no, don’t do that — your writing is far too good and it’d be a waste of your talent.”

So I continued to weigh up my options — agent, major publisher, small press — and in July this year I again went to a Literary Speed Dating event. I had some muted interest, but also “we can’t sell Gothic” and some concerns about the length of The Iron Line, which, although slightly longer than Greythorne, is still on the short side. Even the fact that I already had one book published (and so was slightly less of a risk than a debut author) seemed to make little difference.

In the meantime, I watched Greythorne’s sales ranking slide without being able to do anything about it. If you can’t control the price then you can’t run sales, give books away for free, or implement any of the marketing mechanisms that will actually help it to sell. I knew that the dismal sales figures weren’t because it was a bad book — it had got good reviews, and I’d actually made some pretty decent money, albeit by buying print-on-demand copies and on-selling them myself, which is ultimately an unsustainable way of doing things. Finally, I decided that I wasn’t getting anything from the publisher that I couldn’t get myself, so I got my rights back and have recently re-released Greythorne under my own imprint. Suddenly a whole world of possibility has opened up, and I’m cursing having waited so long to do it.

I started thinking about The Iron Line systematically. What could a traditional publisher give me that I couldn’t get for myself? These days, publishers tend to outsource design and editing to freelancers, so these can be obtained at the same quality you’d get if you went through the trade press. Indies obviously have to finance these themselves, but then the potential returns are also far higher.

The one thing traditional publishers can provide is print distribution into bookshops. But the reality is that most books only stay on the shelves for a month or two, unless they happen to take off. Certainly books in niche genres, like mine, won’t hang around for long. And in any case, bookshops (much as I love them as a reader) only give access to the Australian market, which in global terms is minuscule, whereas indies have access to the entire English-speaking world — and beyond just the usual Western suspects. Some of the places I’ve gained the most traction have, oddly enough, been India, Malaysia and South Africa, and one of my longer-term projects for Greythorne is a Hindi translation.

Another important consideration, and the main reason why the indie mid-list is thriving while it’s all but disappeared from the traditional industry, is royalty distribution. On Amazon, which is still far and away the biggest ebook retailer, any books priced between US$2.99 and US$9.99 yield a 70 per cent royalty (for books outside those parameters it’s 35 per cent). This means that for every US$4.99 copy of Greythorne sold, I make US$3.50. I can’t divulge the royalty rate from my original contract, but I can tell you it was a lot less than that. If you choose to publish exclusively with Amazon, you can also enrol in their subscription program, Kindle Unlimited, which gives readers access to an unlimited number of books in exchange for a monthly subscription, with authors paid by the number of pages read as well as for normal sales.

Other retailers, such as Kobo, give authors a 70 per cent royalty regardless of price. Plenty of research has shown the sweet spot for ebooks — the point where the author will move the most copies but still get a decent return — to be around the three-to-five-dollar mark, which is why indie authors who are savvy with their pricing and marketing are often able to make a decent living. In contrast, most trade publishers still use ebook pricing primarily to drive sales to paperbacks (which is where they make their money), ignoring the many reasons why readers might choose to read ebooks instead. This is why you often see ebooks from traditional publishers priced at anywhere between $10 and $25, which means, of course, that they don’t sell anywhere near as well as their more reasonably priced cousins.

Even though most indie authors still make the majority of their income from ebooks, developments in print-on-demand technology have made indie paperbacks a huge industry. Gone are the days when a minimum print run was 1000 books, which you then had to store until you could sell them. These days, you just upload a file and it gets printed as people order copies. Amazon has its own print production company, CreateSpace, while one of the world’s largest producers of traditionally published books, Ingram Content Group, also runs a print-on-demand arm, IngramSpark, designed for indie publishers. IngramSpark also markets indie books directly to retailers and libraries in the same way that Ingram sells its traditionally published books, meaning that it’s easier than ever for indies to get their work out there.

The other exciting area where indies are leading the way is audio. In the last five years, the audiobook market has taken off, driven in large part by the ubiquity of the smartphone and the resultant podcast revolution, which changed people’s listening habits. Most traditional publishers, realising just how valuable audio rights are, will now force authors to sign them over (whereas previously you could choose to retain these and nobody cared), even if they have no intention of exploiting them, which deprives authors of a valuable asset. In addition, unlike with print books, it’s not possible for authors to pitch directly to audiobook publishers such as Bolinda. They deal directly with print publishers, so even if you retain your audio rights, there’s no way you can get an independent deal with them.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon is leading the way in indie audiobook production, like it did with ebooks, through its own platform, Audiobook Creation Exchange. ACX pairs authors with narrators, through either a fee-for-service or royalty-sharing arrangement, and then publishes the audiobook to Amazon’s massive Audible platform, as well as to iTunes. Books published on Audible are also made available for sale on Amazon alongside the ebook and paperback versions, and it’s becoming increasingly common for customers to buy both the ebook and the audiobook, especially as they sync on a smartphone or tablet to allow seamless transitions between the two formats. (You can read up to a certain point in the ebook, and the audiobook will pick up where you left off, and vice versa.)

But ACX isn’t available everywhere — Australia, as you might expect, is one of the places yet to receive it — and other companies such as Findaway Voices are rapidly filling the gaps. The growth of in-home voice-activated services such as Google Home and Amazon Echo is also likely to bolster the audiobook market, and indies are in a prime position to take advantage of it.

Looking at it this way, in cold, unemotional business terms, it was clear to me what the best option was. But if this sounds like an easy decision, it wasn’t. Indie publishing is hard work. It also, strangely, felt a bit like admitting defeat. I hadn’t realised how deeply I’d internalised the idea that the only people who self-publish are those who can’t get a traditional contract.

Thankfully, this perception is gradually changing, especially as more and more well-known authors start choosing the hybrid model — some books published traditionally, some indie. In December 2016, bestselling Australian author John Birmingham (He Died with a Felafel in His Hand) announced that, although he still had some trade contracts, he was going to be indie publishing a lot of his work from now on, after a falling-out with his publisher. Such high-profile defections help give legitimacy to indie publishing, as does the fact that many publishing awards are now increasingly open to indies. In fact, the annual ACT Publishing Awards are open only to books published either independently or by small presses, in recognition of the fact that high-quality work exists outside the publishing mainstream.

For me, ultimately, it came down to freedom. I certainly don’t expect to make my fortune overnight — indie publishing is a long game — but I have control over my own destiny, and that’s hugely important to me. Indie publishing gives me freedom not just in the business sense of deciding release dates, pricing and when to run sales, but also creatively. The accepted wisdom in traditional publishing is that once you publish your first novel you need to keep writing more of the same in order not to confuse readers, but in indie publishing, you can write whatever you want. It’s true that deviating hugely from your normal genre may not be the best business decision, at least under the same name, but if I want to jump from Gothic mystery to steampunk, for instance, that’s not such a huge leap. Realising I have the freedom to experiment creatively and to take risks (some of which may not pay off, but some of which I’m hoping will) is incredibly liberating. And even if I lose the respect of many in the traditional publishing industry, I can connect directly with my readers, which is one of the things I love most about being an author.

For many writers, a traditional publishing contract will still be the pinnacle of success, and others just want to write without the pressure of running their career like a business. And I haven’t ruled it out entirely; if the right trade contract came along, I’d happily be a hybrid author. Considering that just a decade ago everyone seemed to be decrying the death of the book industry, it’s incredibly exciting to realise that it’s not just surviving but thriving. It may not look exactly like it used to, but as both an author and a reader I feel there’s great cause for optimism.

You’ve Got Mail and the evolution of books

A few weeks ago I watched the 1990s Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks classic rom-com You’ve Got Mail. The basic premise, for those who’ve never seen it, is love in the age of the internet. This is how IMDb succinctly describes it: “Two business rivals who despise each other in real life unwittingly fall in love over the internet.” The most notable thing about the film, especially watching it almost 20 years after it was made, is its depictions of technology and the social response to it – dial-up modems, brick-like laptops, electric typewriters, and an obvious lack of mobile phones in general, let alone smartphones (a scene where Tom Hanks’ character stands up Meg Ryan’s for a date, for example, wouldn’t really have been feasible in the age of widespread mobile phone use). It was also a time when online dating was still considered a bit shameful or desperate, a tactic reserved for those who weren’t capable of getting a date in real life.

I’ve seen this film a number of times and noticed all this before, but what really struck me this time was the way the movie depicts the book industry. When IMDb says the two characters are “business rivals”, what it fails to mention is that the business they’re in is books. Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Fox, is the multimillionaire owner of mega-chain Fox Books (clearly modelled on Borders), while Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, owns a small independent children’s book store, The Shop Around the Corner. Spoilers – a Fox Books outlet opens up across the street and eventually puts The Shop Around the Corner out of business, which is depicted as basically inevitable from the start.

I found it really interesting to reflect on this 20 years on, in light of all the massive disruptions to the publishing and bookselling industries that have occurred in the interim. In 1998, when the film was made, chains like Borders and Angus & Robertson were in their heyday. It was only logical that the small indies didn’t have a hope of survival against the huge multinational conglomerates and their ability to buy in huge amounts and offer steep discounts (as well as add-on businesses like in-store cafes). This was how the American capitalist model had worked for decades and, as far as anyone could see, this was how it was likely to continue.

Then two major things happened: Amazon and the iPhone.

It’s not overstating it to say that these two products revolutionised the way we consume media in general – not just books, of course, but they both played a major role in reshaping the book industry. When the Kindle came along it made reading digital books feasible and comfortable for the first time, and spawned a host of other e-readers and online stores in competition. The iPhone (and the iPad) gave us instant access to enormous amounts of media in our pockets. Why carry around a single hardback book when you could now have hundreds on a device far thinner and lighter than a paperback?

Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail was caught at a particularly unfortunate time in history. If she’d managed to hold on for just a few more years, Fox Books would have been the one going under (Borders finally folded in 2010 after several years of struggle) and she would have been able to be part of the indie renaissance. The development of ebooks, as well as the advent cheap hard copies from the likes of Amazon and The Book Depository, meant that the superstores were suddenly uncompetitive due to their higher running costs – but indie stores that specialise and offer premium products, as well as support for authors and other services to readers such as niche events, have managed not only to survive but thrive. A speciality children’s store like The Shop Around the Corner would probably do very well in today’s climate, with the resurgence of interest in artisan products and unique experiences.

We get so used to the small day-to-day changes in technology that it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in just such a short time. When the ebook disruption first occurred, people were decrying the death of the book industry; now you regularly see reports on the resurgence of print and how the ebook was a fad – all of which, to my mind, are greatly exaggerated. As far as I’m concerned, now is an incredibly exciting time to be a reader, with all the various formats available (not just print and ebook, but audiobooks and graphic novels too, both of which are growing very fast). It’s just as exciting a time to be a writer, with the growth in accessibility and professionalisation of indie publishing and small presses meaning that we now have more options than ever beyond the traditional publishing deal. Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly could never have imagined it.

School reunion stories

About a month ago I attended my 15-year school reunion. I hadn’t planned to go – it just so happened I was back in my hometown for work the weekend it was on, and one of my best friends was going, so I figured there’d be safety in numbers. I was actually surprised by how nervous I was, because high school for me was a complicated mix of emotions (as it probably is for everyone), which shaped my character in both good and not-so-good ways, and I wasn’t all that keen to revisit it. It was also the first reunion I’d been to – I’d been out of town for the others – so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I pictured all the worst sorts of high-school reunion tropes, where everyone is just as cliquey and bitchy as you remember, and it becomes a pissing contest over who’s the most ‘successful’. The fact that I was going to be one of the few there without kids was also a bit of a worry – I envisioned being bored to death by a host of yummy mummies (it was a girls school). My friend and I reassured each other that we only needed to stay an hour, then we could bunk off and go shopping.

To say I was pleasantly surprised, however, was an understatement. When we arrived at the pub where it was being held there was only a small group there – all girls I remembered as being ‘cool’ and having it totally together (while my friend and I were paid-up members of Club Nerd) -and my heart sank a little. Then I started talking to them, and all my misconceptions got blown away.

There are many debates about the merits (or otherwise) of single-sex education, but two things stood out very strongly to me – our year group has produced a lot of kick-ass women who are doing amazing things, and most of us credit this to the fact that we were never given the impression at school that we couldn’t do something just because we were girls. If your passion was maths or physics or agriculture you could go right ahead (the creative fields were a bit more problematic, because although it had a fabulous art program, it was still a hothouse private school that wasn’t terribly tolerant of the more eccentric aspects of creative personalities, especially when it came to dress). We left there believing we could do anything – and although for some of us, me included, this put us on a bit of a crash-course with the reality of workplace sexism down the track, it also gave us the tools to fight it.

The other thing that struck me about the gathering was how interesting and diverse the stories were. There were health issues, religion found and lost, creativity discovered, identities established in myriad different ways. A number had gone on to become teachers themselves after initially pursuing other careers, and many more had had a variety of career and life changes. Motherhood was part of this for many of them, but it wasn’t the sole part, and we had far more in common than I’d thought. I also realised how little I’d known about these women when we were at school. Some had been facing various upheavals at home; others had struggled with learning difficulties or other things that made life harder. And the greatest revelation was that those same ‘cool’ girls whom I’d envied in high school had felt just as dislocated as me all along. Turns out we were all faking it, but none of us dared admit it.

The school years are a relatively short time of your life – I’ve now been out of school longer than I was there – but they seem to have a disproportionately large impact, coming as they do at such a seminal stage. Before the reunion I hadn’t seen the point in revisiting a time when, for large chunks of it, I’d been quite unhappy. But afterwards I realised how important it can be to revisit your perceptions, the stories you tell yourself about a particular time or people, and to sometimes have those turned on their head. In the end, I didn’t just stay for an hour and then go shopping – I spent six hours talking to these funny, smart, amazing women and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll be at the 20-year reunion with bells on.

The Author to Her Book

I’ve just sent the second draft of The Iron Line off to beta readers (which I’ll write about in more detail at some point), and I’m now left with that rather strange feeling which, I imagine, is a bit like seeing your child off on their first day of school. One of those beta readers, who also happens to be my former high-school English teacher, reminded me of Anne Bradstreet’s wonderful poem ‘The Author to Her Book’, which sums it up far better than I can. So I’ll just leave this here.

The Author to Her Book
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

Noted Festival 2017

My stall at the Independent Publishing Fair (it was very cold!)

Last week was the third annual Noted Festival, held in Canberra, where I live. I’d heard about it the previous two years, but for various reasons had never got round to actually participating in anything.

Noted isn’t like other writers festivals – for one thing, it has “an explicit commitment to emerging and experimental writing from diverse backgrounds.” From what I could tell, in practice this looks like a couple of different things. First, and most obviously, the festival celebrates writers regardless of race, gender, sexuality or disability. One of the most powerful moments for me was at the festival launch, where the Welcome to Country was delivered by Ngunnawal elder Aunty Nin Janette Phillips, who spoke of the importance of telling Indigenous stories and the role that all Australian writers, regardless of their heritage, can play in bringing to light the stories of the First Australians.

The second, less obvious aspect of celebrating diversity was the range of events on offer, across all types of writing and art more broadly. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal unless you understand what a closed shop the Australian literary scene is, and how often genre fiction (i.e. anything that’s not literary fiction) is scorned by the mainstream book world, including most major writers festivals. I know multi-award-winning genre authors (including winners of the Aurealis Awards, Australia’s premier speculative fiction award) who can’t get panel slots at the major writers festivals. Noted was the exact opposite of this – egalitarian and just damned good fun, without an ounce of snobbery. There was a spirit of playfulness that pervaded the festival, and everyone there just seemed to be having a really good time.

My favourite event was ‘Ghosts in the Seams,’ held on Friday evening in one of the city’s large op-shops (second-hand clothing stores). We were invited to develop a character of our choosing – either a new one or one we’d been working on for a while – and then to find clothes that we thought encapsulated that character and dress up. The clothes served as inspiration and we then had a 20-minute writing session where we wrote about the character or a scene from their story. It sounds crazy, but the dressing up was actually hugely inspiring. Actually putting a character’s clothes on made them seem so much more real than when you just meet them in your head. I dressed up as Jane Adams from my new novel, The Iron Line, and in the process fell in love with a pair of black steampunk-style combat boots that suited both her and me perfectly (and being an op-shop, I could buy them for just $4 and take them home!). I wrote in my last post about the importance of creative play, and this was another experience of that. I came away from it feeling re-energised and inspired.

I also got the chance to participate as a stallholder in the Independent Publishing Fair, which showcased individual authors, small presses, zines and other independent creatives, as well as poetry and performance art. Regardless of the sales side of things, I just really enjoyed talking to the people who came by, many of whom were writers or enthusiastic readers. It’s made me consider the possibility of doing other markets, because I just really enjoy getting out there and meeting people who love books as much as I do.

So, all in all it was a great festival, and I’m already looking forward to Noted 2018.