You’re an Irish writer currently living in London. I know that royalty checks follow you wherever you go, but the US is where the fun stuff happens. Do you think you’re at a disadvantage because of this?
I started self-publishing when I was in Sweden, thousands of miles from anywhere important in the (English language) publishing business. The internet means that such things don’t matter anymore. I know writers from all over the world who are self-publishing. Like most of them, the majority of my sales are in the US market – but the UK is about 20% my sales. There are a couple of minor frustrations – getting paid a little slower, some tax hurdles, and payment by cheque – but they really are minor. There are no barriers anymore to anyone, anywhere, publishing their book themselves and reaching readers all over the world. And, in fact, I think having an international mindset helps with little things like putting UK (and Euro) buy links on your site. I see a number of US writers overlooking that.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
My story is not too different. I wrote a book, tried to get an agent/deal for 18 months, came very close, was treated badly by one agent in particular, then decided to self-publish. I was confident enough in my writing – I already had a couple of shorts published in magazines, and many rejections (when they bothered replying!) praised the writing but feared the setting (an independence war in 1800s Argentina) wasn’t commercial enough. When I was tiring of querying (around March 2011), self-publishing was making serious waves: Barry Eisler had just walked away from half a million dollars to self-publish, and Amanda Hocking had just leveraged her indie success into a $2m advance. The time seemed right to test the waters.
What would you say is more effective when it comes to self-publishing? The time spent writing new stories or the time spent promoting?
The most powerful promotional tool any writer has is new work – nothing beats it. Writing should always come first. That said, there are twenty-four hours in the day and few will spend all their free time writing. It can be quite a draining activity, for me anyway. With a good four or five hour session, I’m usually done for the day, and there is time to devote to anything else you might like. I don’t do much direct promotion anyway. I blog a bit, but I enjoy that in and of itself. Every few months I might pull together a big promotion, but the time cost is low. I avoid things which require continual input, and go for one-off activities that might have a bigger payout (like a limited time sale, combined with an ad spot). Too many writers spend big on advertising, yet skimp on editors and covers. If you don’t have those basics in place, your return from any other promotional activity will be limited.
There’s this tendency to put a lot of emphasis on building an author platform, via blogging, social media, etc. All of these take time. How much time should a writer spend on developing a platform?
This is a topic that fills some with dread, but I have some good news. An author platform built on blogging or social media is not a necessary condition of success (nor is it a sufficient condition for success). I know plenty of authors who are selling at the very highest level who don’t do most of that stuff. Debora Geary doesn’t blog or tweet, but she has a rabid fan-base that propels every release into the Top 100. Michael Wallace barely has an internet presence, but that doesn’t stop him selling obscene amounts of books. His platform is old-school: lots and lots of people who love his work, and are eagerly awaiting the next. Twitter and Facebook and blogging can help, sure. My platform allows me to punch above my weight when I have a new release or a special sale. But it’s not a numbers game. It’s far more important to cultivate an engaged audience, than to have the biggest stats. Writers are far better off spending their time developing their craft, and the only way to do that is to write (and read, and write some more). That will be a life-long process. You never stop learning (or, at least, you shouldn’t). When your writing is at a publishable level, you can worry about the rest.
There are some people out there who say that self-publishing has nothing to offer to the literary world. Self-publishers are just writers who have been rejected by agents and/or publishing houses, so their stories are worthless. What is your opinion?
That’s nonsense. Writers of all stripes are now self-publishing. Stephen King has self-published. JK Rowling is self-publishing her backlist. Even Jodi Picoult, who recently made headlines for her advice to avoid self-publishing, has self-published something. I know writers who had NY Times Bestsellers with major publishing houses who are now self-publishing everything because they can make more money. That attitude is, quite simply, out of date (and usually emanating from people who have a vested interest in the status quo, such as literary agents or publishers).
As to whether self-publishing has anything to offer the literary world, I’ve heard lots of comments recently that literary work doesn’t do well in e-books, that self-publishers struggle in that genre, and, most amusingly of all, that self-publishing is just for genre writers – the proof being that no self-publisher has won a major literary prize. The first is demonstrably false. Iris Murdoch, at the time of writing, is currently #5 in the US Kindle Store. As for the second, I would urge writers in that genre (and I dabble there myself) to be patient. Romance readers were the first to go digital, followed by Thriller fans. I remember SF/F writers grousing that their readers hadn’t gone digital, and worrying that they wouldn’t. Well, they did, in droves. Now those worries have passed to writers of historical fiction, non-fiction, and literary fiction. Those readers will go digital too – and it’s already happening. The third charge is the only one with any truth to it: no self-publisher, as far as I am aware, has won a major literary prize. I think that’s a little harsh though, given that self-publishing, as a popular route for writers, is only about eighteen months old, self-published work is likely excluded from such prizes, and they didn’t give out the Pulitzer this year anyway! It will happen though; it’s simply a matter of time.
What is the biggest mistake you see self-publishers make?
Getting the basics wrong. Some self-publishers seem to think that they can avoid spending on editing or cover design. This is a huge mistake. A professional approach is a must. Everything must hook the reader: title, cover, blurb, price, sample. If your book looks out of place, readers will skip it. A professional cover is a cue to the reader that you have taken as much care with the inside of the book. It places the book in the correct genre for the reader. And if you decide to skip editing… well, enjoy the one-star reviews.
Some of the most successful self-publishers are also prolific writers. What should writers focus on? Quality or quantity?
There is no doubt that this brave new world is better suited to prolific writers. Those that labor over every word, and only release something every few years, will struggle to gain traction and maintain momentum when other writers are publishing two, three, or four books a year. Each book is another opportunity for readers to discover you. Each release scatters little breadcrumbs all over the internet that lead back to you and your books. I was a very, very slow writer, but I’m working on it. I’m now just slow! But I’ll have another novel out in the next couple of months, and I’ll try and squeeze in another release before Christmas. There is pressure to publish as much as you can, but you can never let your quality dip (in fact, you should be seeking to improve your story-telling abilities with each release). If you publish something sub-standard or half-cooked, readers will respond with poor reviews, and will avoid anything else you write. However, if you only give them your very best, they will purchase everything you publish. I faced this situation myself a couple of weeks ago. I sent a book off to my editor, and she replied quickly advising me to go one more draft. Pushing back publication a couple of months to get it perfect is going to cost me, but my name is my brand and readers deserve my best. After all, I’m asking for something much more valuable in return: their time.
Is there any advice you would like to give to anyone who’s considering to self-publish?
Right now, I can’t see a good reason to take a publishing deal outside of life-changing money and/or serious marketing support – and most deals won’t involve either of those things. The average advance in America is about $5,000, and at that level, your book will get little marketing support outside of a few free copies for reviewers, and a listing in the publisher’s catalogue. The smart approach, in my opinion, is to self-publish. Even if your goal is a traditional deal (and mine no longer is), if you approach publishers after you have sold well on your own, you will be meeting them as equals, rather than approaching as a supplicant from the slush-pile.
Once you have made the decision to self-publish, I recommend connecting with the community and learning from them. Avoid self-publishing “services” – they are vastly overpriced and often put out shoddy e-books. Don’t be scared of doing everything yourself, you can outsource where necessary. Do the stuff you can (I format all my own books), and hire help where needed (cover designer, editor etc.). Everything you need to know is freely available on the internet, and there are lots of forums, sites, and Facebook groups where you can get advice. Self-publishers are very approachable, and will be happy to recommend you designers or point you towards the information you need. A strange kind of mystique attached itself to the publishing process over the years, and, as such, the thought can be daunting for some. It’s not as hard as you think and is certainly a hell of a lot easier than writing a good book.
E-book sales are growing each year, not only in the US, but also in other markets. Is the paperback dying?
It’s not dying. Print books will always be around. There are billions of them on the planet after all. However, as a portion of new book sales, they are shrinking at an incredible pace. It’s somewhat analogous to what happened in music. Vinyl is still around (I have lots myself), and enjoyed by many. But as a percentage of sales of new music, they are tiny. Publishers (and writers) earn nothing from the sale of a second-hand book, so it’s probably fair to say that paperbacks as a reliable income stream are dying, yes. The figures don’t lie. E-books are already the dominant format in the US, it’s heading that way in the UK (which is about 14 months behind, but closing fast), and we are already seeing new markets with huge growth in France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands.
You recently released the French edition of your self-publishing guide, Let’s Get Digital. For English books, there’s a plethora of forums and reading communities that make promoting easy, but how do you go about promoting your title in such a young market?
It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about that. The markets outside of the US and the UK are so new that there is no real “reader ecostructure” around the Kindle in those countries. In America you have huge, vibrant sites like Kindle Boards, Pixel of Ink, or Ereader News Today who have members/subscribers in the hundreds of thousands. Similar sites don’t really exist yet (at least, on a large scale) in the European markets. But they will come. Until then, you are left with more basic means of gaining attention: a sale, a free run, seeking reviews etc.
In Let’s Get Digital you wrote that, “while a good story might please everyone, a great story tends to divide people.” But what do you do when someone doesn’t like your story? How do you cope with a bad review?
I can’t remember who first came out with that – it might have been Kris Rusche – and while she was originally referring to reading a story aloud in a workshop, the same lesson applies. Reviews are inherently subjective. A mediocre (but functional) story is unlikely to attract too much ire. A groundbreaking story is much more likely to divide. When a writer is pushing the boundaries, in terms of language or structure or even just story-telling conventions, the book is rarely to everyone’s taste. Pick any famous novel from the 20thCentury. Look it up on Amazon. Count the one star reviews. One of my favorites – Catch-22 – has 55 one star reviews. The Great Gatsby (a book I’m not crazy about) has twice as many.
You spent five years working on your debut novel, A Storm Hits Valparaiso. Does it usually take this long for you to finish a project?
Hey! I’m not that slow. That’s counting all the time I was querying (and the year in the middle when I walked away from writing). I wrote Let’s Get Digital in about four weeks. The first draft of Bananas For Christmas – the follow up – was written in 26 days as part of a challenge, but I had spent a month outlining and several months researching. I spent another couple of months on two further drafts, and it probably needs one or two more. That book could be out any time from September to December. We’ll see.
There’s this growing trend among writers to write autobiographical novels. But your novel is set in 19th century South America. Where did you find the inspiration for such a story?
I quit a good job in Dublin and decided to travel the world. First stop was South America. I had only intended to spend a couple of months there before moving on to New Zealand. However, after three weeks, I knew I wasn’t leaving until every penny was gone. I spent nine months there, including three months teaching English in Peru. During that time, I had heard tidbits of South America history. It was fascinating stuff, full of colorful characters. One particular story sent me scurrying to an internet café to find out more, and by the time I had “solved” that mystery a few weeks later, and flicked through all the notes I had been making, I realized I was writing a book. It kind of snuck up on me.
I know you take some liberties with the historical accuracy of your story. What’s the right mixture for a historical novel? How much should be fact and how much fiction?
I actually have the opposite problem. My editor chastises me for sticking to close to the historical record and thinks I should free myself up a little more. She’s right, and that’s one of the reasons the new book is delayed. It is possible to have too much respect for the history, and be too fearful to change something to improve the story. I think it was Hilary Mantel that said that the historical record is always imperfect, and novelists must go to work in those cracks. She’s right too. We are writing fiction, not an academic history, but we must respect the source material. It’s a tricky balancing act, and you can slip up in so many ways. Even your choice of words isn’t straight-forward. The word “science” sounds very new, but it’s old. On the other hand, “coma” is an ancient word but sounds out of place in a historical novel. So you don’t just have to watch out for anachronisms, but anything that feels anachronistic. You can go too far with it though. For example, I think Peter Carey is a superb writer, but I didn’t enjoy “Jack Maggs” as much as his other books. The whole book was written in realistic 19th century English. While I might have been able to stomach such stylistic flourishes had they been restricted to dialogue, the narrative was too much. Technically speaking, it’s an accomplishment, but, as a reader, I kept getting jerked out of the narrative and could never find my rhythm.
You travel a lot. Do you think this is a key ingredient in what makes a writer?
Not at all. My stories are set all over the world – South America, North America, Czech Republic, Sweden, Honduras. As such, I mention in my bio that I travel a lot. Any little thing to get readers interested helps, and I think that speaks to them more than knowing where I went to school or what my last job was (but if I was an ex-CIA agent writing thrillers – like Barry Eisler – you bet I would mention that). The only key ingredient is writing and reading lots and lots of books.
Are there any aspects of writing you struggle with?
I think I’m at the point now where I can get a solid first draft down fairly quickly, and feel like I’m in a good flow most of the time. The problems seem to arise in the time between I finish that first draft and when I send the final draft off to the editor. I’m hoping I get better with experience, because this part is quite painful and slow (and not half as enjoyable as the first flush of a new idea).
When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?
Very young. I have been scribbling something for as long as I can remember. I know I was writing stories when I was ten or eleven. I remember writing a Western RPG when I was twelve or thirteen. But I didn’t attempt a novel until 2005 and didn’t submit a short to a magazine until 2009. I’m not sure why exactly. I think I had been writing a lot of things which ran out of steam after a couple of pages. All good practice though.
What writers influenced your writing?
I read all sorts of stuff, but I particularly love Louis de Bernieres, Kurt Vonnegut, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Philip K. Dick, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joe Sacco, and Haruki Murakami.
How much time do you spend writing?
I’m a binge writer, rather than someone who spends X hours a day or has a certain word count goal. I usually get the draft down in a crazy, condensed period, then fiddle with it interminably.
Everyone seems to be looking for a step by step guide to writing the perfect novel. There are a lot of rules being passed around. What do you think is the most important rule when it comes to fiction writing?
Write the book you love to read (from this excellent blog post by Austin Kleon).
David Gaughran is a 34-year old Irish writer, living in London, who spends most of his time travelling the world, collecting stories. He is the author of the South American historical adventure A Storm Hits Valparaiso and the short stories If You Go Into The Woods and Transfection as well as the popular self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. He runs the publishing blog Let’s Get Digital and the South American history site South Americana, has a regular column at Indie Reader, and his work has been featured in the Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, the Irish Times, and the Irish Examiner.
[interview originally published on cristianmihai.net]