This has been a week focusing on self-publishing talk, and so it seems only fitting that today’s interview is with an author whose work is out there in the DIY self-published space. Do I always agree with Will? No. Do I always find him respectful? Indeed. He’s a smart guy with lots to say on the subject, so I’ll let him get right to it. Oh! His website is here — willentrekin.com — and follow him on Twitter @willentrekin.
This is a blog about writing and storytelling so before we do anything else, I’d like you to tell me – and, of course, the fine miscreants and deviants that read this site – a story. As short or long as you care to make it, as true or false as you see it.
Neat prompt. How about two really short ones?
Once upon a time seeks happily ever after.
Reality creates time in motion.
How would you describe your writing or storytelling style?
Two “ex” words: exciting and explosions. I always want to tell stories that have both surprise and inevitability, and I like to do so in compelling, page-turning ways, but I like to explore all the elements that might make readers turn a page (or press a button, I suppose, with e-readers). My shorter work and my first novel have been more experimental and character-driven, but even in that way, I like to try to blow shit up. I often say that I aimed to blow up love, storytelling, and the novel itself in Meets Girl; with The Prodigal Hour, I wanted to blow up the universe, reality, and time.
What’s awesome about being a writer or storyteller?
Being able to blow up the universe, reality, and time? Seriously, though, the best part about storytelling, for me, is the stories. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s the mother of storytelling for me; I tell the stories I need to read because nobody else has written them yet.
Conversely, what sucks about it?
The current publishing model and the business that grew around it for no other reason than a desire to maintain a status quo, and an inability to innovate. Thankfully, though, it’s in the process of changing. I think it’s going to be a hard transition because it’s been so slow to come and has been slow in adoption, but I think the more quickly people embrace the possibility for change, the better.
Deliver unto us a single-serving dollop of writing or storytelling advice (without which you would perish atop a glacier):
“Do or do not. There is no try.” What can I say? Yoda taught me screenwriting.
Your foot is pretty seriously forward in the self-publishing camp. What made you go that way? Did you ever try the “traditional” route, and would you ever try it again?
It’s grown out of a deeper understanding of market, and how to reach it. My first experience in publishing was at USC, which designated its master’s degree as professional writing; pretty much every class I took required us to not only workshop but also submit our work (and the ones that didn’t focused on either business or the literary marketplace. It’s a rare writing program that focuses as much on craft as on business). While at USC, I workshopped several short stories (I’ve always been more a novelist than anything else), but when it came down to submitting . . . well, I thought there were better ways I could invest my time than by submitting to short story markets, which seemed to be either little literary magazines that paid in complimentary copies and “publication credits.” But I still had a decent amount of short stories and essays I liked a lot, and I had experience in editing and lay-out, and Lulu had just started up not long before, and I thought, well, what the shit?
Since March 2007, that self-titled collection has done more than I imagined. That June, it became the first ebook on the iPhone. Last I knew, nearly 10,000 people had downloaded it (and I only don’t know now because Lulu quit recording anything free, which is annoying, and which is why I’ve largely moved away from doing business through them), and that was, I think, two years ago? Something like that.
For a long time, I thought that the twentieth-century model for distribution was useful. (Corporate/legacy publishing–whatever you want to call it–is not traditional. Poe, Twain, Thoreau, and myriad others published their own work long before publishers grouped together to sell specifically to bookstores and refuse unagented manuscripts.) You have to know what your product is and how the market finds that product, and the twentieth-century model seemed to make sense. And yes, while I was at USC, I did go out on submission with The Prodigal Hour. I generally had a pretty good response rate, and several requests for partials and fulls. Ultimately, most of the agents noted that I’m a good writer and it’s a great idea but time travel is a difficult sell. Later, I sent Meets Girl to a couple of the agents who had seen partials of The Prodigal Hour and noted they wouldn’t mind seeing more work down the line, but response there was similar (this time, meta is a difficult sell).
And then I bought a Kindle. Until the third generation, they were awkward, ugly gadgets with terrible buttons and strange designs, and then, this third time around, it was like Bezos finally fired his pre-school engineers and brought in the big boys. For me, the Kindle is truly the only viable e-ink reader on the market; the iPad and nook color both have LCD screens, which disqualifies them from long-form reading, at least for me. Don’t get me wrong: I can totally see using an iPad for just about anything besides reading a novel (and, indeed, intend to both purchase one and design apps–not ebooks–for it). And for a longtime reader, someone who loved books even more than music or movies, I fell for the Kindle the way people fell for the iPod. It’s beautiful, and perfect to hold, and books look great (I don’t mind not having color. None of the novels I read use color interior fonts).
Now, people are going to bookstores less, which are closing–we’re down to two major chains (Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble) in the US, and the second is focusing on its own digital reader. Which means the whole “You need an agent/publisher! How else do you expect to get on bookshelves?” argument is going rather moot.
By the time I bought the Kindle, I’d already completed “Meets Girl.” And I’d already completed most of my MBA. And I already understood more about business and marketing and strategy plans, and enough to realize that the twentieth century model never actually made sense and carried too much over from Depression-era incentives. Returns? Dumb. Remainders? Dumb.
So I thought, either I could look back at the past and try what everyone else had done and which was floundering and flailing and, ultimately, failing, or I could look at what I had, and what was available, and try to use it as best I could to move forward with it. In an era of recessions, tough economics, environmental troubles, and an explosion of information, publishing my novels directly just seemed to make better sense. My novels are inexpensive ($3) for Kindle (which you can read on almost every reader, save, I think, Sony & Kobo), and the paperbacks look fantastic and print only when people actually want them, so there’s neither overstock nor forests felled. I don’t tend to have blockbuster opening weekends, but I do pretty well over the long term, and I’ve got my eye on the ring, not the bottom-of-the-ninth homer of opening night’s game.
The “traditional” route? Like Poe and Twain? Well, that’s what I’m doing. But you probably mean try to get an agent or talk to bigger publishers than I already am, and there I’d say it would depend on the contract/arrangements. At this point in time, I’m not really interested in contacting agents; I loathe the no-response=pass policy so many have adopted, and I’ve been seeing more of them begin to offer publishing services to authors, which I see as a huge conflict of interest. I could probably benefit from deeper marketing pockets and distribution to Target/Costco/Books-A-Million (I’m already in paperback on Barnes & Noble and Amazon), but I don’t have the exposure of Snooki or the PAC of Sarah Palin, so I’m not sure. I’d also be unsure of giving up digital rights to my work, and I’d expect just about any such arrangement/contract would make that request. I dislike the idea of an advance-against-royalties (I always said that, offered one, I’d give my agent his/her cut and then request the publisher reinvest that cash in marketing, then take more royalties).
Do you have advice for authors who seek to self-publish?
Er. Besides stop calling it that? Beyond the advice without which I would perish atop a glacier? It’s simple: write a book you legitimately think is great, and can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other books you’ve loved, and share it with everyone you possibly can. But first, FIRST, write that book you believe in. I know it’s hard to manage objectivity. I know everyone loves the thought of being a writer. But seriously, shoot your ego in the head and sit down with your book and read it like you had to find it and buy it, read it like it’s from your favorite author, and ask yourself if you’d be disappointed.
I’m also a firm believer in writing programs. I wouldn’t argue an MFA is necessary, but I know I’m a better writer because I studied at USC.
Finally: get some help. Definitely hire an editor and proofreader and maybe even someone to go over the code. I do all the writing, coding, and formatting, but I wouldn’t publish a thing without my editrix. I like to get my hands dirty in html and cover design, and I’m getting better at it. But the cover for my collection was basic at best. I had reasons for it, and no interest in changing it, but my understanding of design has evolved; I love my covers for Meets Girl and The Prodigal Hour.
What are your thoughts on calling self-publishing “indie” publishing? It’s a contentious term and comes with a bit of baggage.
Now Chuck, you just handed me a can of worms. But that’s okay. I grew up in scouts, and I’ve gone fishing plenty of times. I know what to do with these.
Thoughts? That’s what it is. Independent publishing. There’s no such thing as so-called “self-publishing.” I wrote about it here:
See also my post on Team Indie:
First: contentious. I’ve encountered some of the contention you mention. Mainly from people with ties to the twentieth-century model and some legitimate reason (like their careers) they wouldn’t want to see it decline. So far as baggage, I honestly think that the so-called “self-publishing” stigma was baggage propagated by those who had such biases, often in the guise of either “vetting” or “gatekeeping.” The usual argument is that if authors publish their own novels without some third party involved, how will the general public and culture at large know what to read? I’d say Snooki renders that argument invalid, but I know a lot of people who subsequently make the claim that she’s different because she’s a celebrity and . . . the whole debate follows a roughly consistent track.
The thing is: imagine a great wall. Of publishing. Huge and monumental, and with gates along the way, each of which leads to a staircase to the top of the wall, and imagine that a wonderful culture exists on the other side of that wall. Writers want access to that culture, and in recent times, the only way to connect to that culture, and all its readers, was to get through those gates to ascend those stairs. Problem was, agents and editors had the keys to those gates.
Now imagine a huge and monumental force that is eroding that wall as surely as the wind over the Sahara. It’s not fast, but it is surely consistent, and over time that wall is starting to disappear, even if those staircases and gates are remaining intact. Which they are.
After that erosion, writers no longer need to ascend those stairs to get over the wall. They can do so, of course, and sometimes those stairs give them a little more attention from readers, and give them some place of advantage, but they don’t have to do so. Agents and editors won’t give up their keys, and of course they’re desperate to convince writers that the only way to reach readers is to get through those gates and ascend those stairs, but by and large, that wall is getting smaller and lower and easier to traverse. Are those gates and staircases becoming more important, or are agents and editors just becoming more desperate in their attempts to retain hold of those keys and convince writers of their value?
I’m not sure, to be honest, but I’ll tell you what I know: I’m a reader. I’ve shopped in bookstores but largely gave up on them when all the displays went over to Twilight and Snooki and board games and puzzles and it seemed like booksellers wanted less and less to sell stories and more and more to sell . . . well, I don’t know what they sell, to be candid, nor to whom.
I just know what I’ve got. I’ve got some stories I’m damned proud of. And when I look at those stories, I know they don’t belong on a table next to those books. Nothing wrong with being on a table, mind. Just, I know that people who want what’s on that table probably aren’t going to be interested in what I’m doing, and I’m fine with that. I’m content, right now, to continue to publish my novels and stories and essays directly to my readers, but that’s what I’m publishing: novels and stories and essays. Not my “self.” I don’t even know what my “self” is.
I’m pleased to connect with people, to share my stories directly with them. It makes my day when people email me to tell me they liked my work, or when someone tweets the page for The Prodigal Hour and includes an “@” me. Which is also why it’s meant so much to me that you’ve given me interview time and attention on your site. I’m an irregular reader, but I always like what you post. And I think your readers would like my work. So thank you.
Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
Cunt. Favorite curse? May you find only closed convenience stores when you need to purchase condoms at 3 am.
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
Gin. Straight-up, a dirty martini is perfect, especially with, say, Tanqueray or Hendrick’s (I’m a purist; if it doesn’t have gin, it’s not a martini. It’s just a drink in a martini glass, and likely utterly undrinkable). Cocktail: New Amsterdam gin with either Diet Pepsi Max or Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi. Recipe . . . er. Generous?
Recommend a book, comic book, film, game: something with great story. Go!
Book: Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is so good I bought the book’s sequel but haven’t read it yet because the third one isn’t out yet. I like the idea of letting Kadrey stay one book ahead of me, because no matter what happens, there’s another Kadrey book to read.
I sadly haven’t read comic books since Scott Lobdell and Fabien Nicieza and their mid-90s X-Men runs. Although that mid-90s X-Men run, with its time travel and Age of Apocalypse alternate reality, probably influenced The Prodigal Hour in a ton of ways.
I’m going to recommend Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang because I think it’s one of the most tragically underrated flicks of the past decade.
So far as games, well, that’s where some of the story experiences are coming from right now. Two games, Uncharted and InFamous, and their sequels come immediately to mind, and I loved Red Dead Redemption (though I admit I enabled some of the cheats. I had a horse. My horse was amazing). My editrix would kill me if I didn’t mention Bioware and its Mass Effect series.
Where are my pants?
Dude, I don’t know what the midget told you, but I had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Got anything to pimp? Now’s the time!
All right, you’re going to have to sell us harder on Prodigal Hour. Pre-/post-9/11? What does that mean? Give the deeper, harder sell. And yes, I realize that sounds pornographic.
It’s a time-travel novel that opens on Halloween 2001, as well as in 1606. But it certainly doesn’t stay on October 31, 2001 (nor in 1606), even if the events that occur before that date technically occur after it.
See? Time travel. Crazy. Also, epic. In the real sense of the world. Not in the sense of fails and wins but in the sense of spanning all of time and space, a single-generational saga about grief and love and loss and acceptance. Part of it takes place on September 10th, 2001. Some of it takes place–well, I don’t want to ruin that surprise. But what it all comes down to is one young man deeply affected by September 11th, who just wants to make the world a better place, and how what begins with his best intentions becomes instead a desperate race against time to prevent forces he doesn’t understand from not just ending the universe but rather rendering completely and eternally nonexistent in the first place.
Also, did I mention it’s inexpensive? One of the benefits of being independent is that my only middle-man is Amazon. Which means I can price stories and essays at a buck and novels at three bucks, right here:
Seriously, three dollars for 90,000-word novels written under the guidance of gurus like Irvin Kershner and Janet Fitch? How could you possibly go wrong?
Because The Prodigal Hour is not the only thing up, after all. There’s also the aforementioned Meets Girl, which is a contemporary update of Faust with a meta-fictional twist, full of love and romance and writing and Manhattan like Adaptation met The Dreamers and collaborated on a new Annie Hall. Plus short stories about fatherhood and the Blues.
What’s next for you?
Heh. Yeah, your reputation rests on the last thing you publish while your career rests on the next thing, right? My next things are myriad. I’ve got some plans for a couple of novellas and several more short stories, as well as some poetry, this year.