Sunday, 29 March 2020

Mark Gillespie interview: The Joy of Dystopia!

Mark Gillespie is the author of numerous dystopian novels. In these dark days, that might sound depressing. In fact, this is an incredibly popular genre. Here Mark tells me how he started out by writing about The Beatles but only found real success when he switched to writing about life after the apocalypse.

You’ve written a great many dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. To anyone whose never read them, it might sound as if they would be incredibly depressing. In fact, these are very popular genres. Can you explain the attraction?

Ah yes, the old doom and gloom fiction. And yet they are popular (although with COVID-19 on the loose we’ll see how long that lasts!). I think there are several reasons for the popularity of these genres. They’re fascinating forms of speculative fiction that allow us – within the safety of a fictional framework – to pull the rug out from under humanity’s feet and see what happens. It’s a misanthropy thing perhaps. It’s like shaking the snow globe and seeing a very different picture of reality emerge once the snow settles. As long as it’s entertaining first and foremost and not preachy we can, through these dark speculative scenarios, deliver both warnings about the direction we might be going in and at the same time, deliver some kind of hope that rebels against it. This hope we filter through the hero.

On your website you say that when you started writing, you “self-published a little without knowing what I was doing”. You’ve obviously learnt how to do it since then. What did you used to do wrong? And what have you done to make improvements?

Back then I just threw things out there and did nothing afterwards. I was only half-invested in the outcome as I had other things going on in life. These early releases were experiments, okayish short stories with crappy covers sourced from sites like Fiverr. I didn’t know anything about the real business of being an indie, such as high quality blurbs, pro cover requirements, keyword categories or any of the other intricacies that help books gain visibility. And back then if you’d suggested paid advertising I would have pulled a face and said ‘what?’

How many books have you written now?

I think I’ve written about 17 since December 2015. I can do about five in a good year (short novels) and I use box sets too because having multiple entry points for new readers to discover your work is a good thing. It’s a great thing actually because people love box sets don’t they?

Do you set yourself a target to write so many words every day, or so many books in a specific time?

I don’t have word targets anymore. They don’t seem to work for me so it’s usually a set number of hours per writing session. I go in and give it my all.

Do you have a target word count for each book?

I don’t have a target word count but for some reason I tend to end up in the 50-60k short novel range almost every single time. That might be because I prefer to read shorter novels myself.

Do people who read eBooks have different expectations of the size of a book than people who read paperbacks?

Regarding expectations of size, I think there’s less awareness overall with an ebook because you’re reading on a Kindle, a phone or whatever device and it’s less obvious how much there’s left to go in the book. With ebooks there’s more variety available too – you’re more likely to encounter novellas, novelettes and short stories in ebook form because there’s a certain expectation when submitting to trade publishers that your book has to be 80k or something like that. With indies, who thrive in the ebook arena, you can do whatever you want.

What software do you use when writing, designing or publishing your books?

I still use Word for writing although my writer friends are constantly encouraging me to use Scrivener. One day I’ll get around to it. I format my print and ebooks using Vellum. Vellum is fantastic and it actually makes formatting a pleasure. That’s something I thought I’d never say because historically speaking, formatting an ebook was a giant pain in the arse. But Vellum’s so easy to use, easy to add links to etc. I used to outsource formatting and that was a problem when it came to updating backmatter and adding new links.

Indie authors are bombarded with advice from ‘experts’ on covers, titles, blurbs and so on.  In terms of helping a book to attract potential readers, what would be your advice?

Bruce Lee said: ‘Absorb what is useful, discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.’ We can adopt and apply that to writing advice. The fundamentals are everything – a great book, a great cover, great blurbs and after that you’re on a rollercoaster ride of testing and experimenting. You’ll fail and hopefully you’ll succeed too. The mailing list is a great tool that’s going nowhere. Build that. Paid ads can help but they’re no guarantee and they can be a hell of a lot of hard work and often it’ll feel like you’re throwing money away. Blogging? That almost feels old school now but I’m sure it works for some. However, many authors with successful blogs will tell you that lots of hits still won’t move the needle in terms of sales.

Unfortunately there’s no shortcut to finding long-term readers. It’s a lot of hard work and you need to be willing to play the long game. Be there five years down the line when everyone else in your genre is flagging or they’ve given up. Your mindset is crucial. Shut out the negative voices whether that’s your inner voice or the doubting voice of others. Forget that. Write, finish and while you’re promoting that one, you’re writing the next book. Rinse and repeat. Be aware of the opportunities to market and find out what works for you. To condense all of the above, keep going!

You provide free books when people sign up to your newsletter. That sounds like you are giving away work that you could be selling! Presumably, there is more to your generosity than meets the eye. How important to your success are your email list and book giveaways?

My email list is my biggest asset. I’m working on growing it all the time and not just adding names but adding the right names. People who engage. So I check the list and make sure people who aren’t engaging long term are out. Bear in mind, after you reach a certain number of subscribers on the likes of Mailchimp you’ll have to start paying. I’m happy to give free books in order to land a potential reader for life. I get the hesitation though. It’s easier to swallow if you’ve got a decent volume of work behind you.

In order to get people to sign up to your newsletter, they have to know it exists. Where do most people find out about it?

There are clickable links in my books at the front and back. I also regularly take part in Bookfunnel and Prolific Works giveaways, which bring in a large number of new subscribers. These two outlets provide great opportunities to get your work into the hand of new readers, both free books for newsletter signups and also in terms of getting sales too. You have to pay monthly fees but it’s worth it to build that newsletter.

Your blog has a great article on Facebook advertising. You wrote that a few years ago, however. Is Facebook advertising still important to you?

My brother wrote that article. He’s a digital marketing expert who’s given me excellent advice in the past and helped me with the website, especially the technical aspects of WordPress. I use Amazon ads more nowadays to be honest. I would like to commit more to Facebook ads and get that going but again often it’s just a matter of not enough time in the day. There are also Bookbub paid ads, which I’ve been dabbling with. Not with a great deal of success. As of now, Amazon ads are working best for me.

Why do you think Amazon ads work better?

I’ve had more success with Amazon ads but I’m sure it’s because I’ve spent more time working on them. Other factors might apply too in terms of which platform is more successful, such as genre. Ads are bloody hard work no matter what the platform. They can be frustrating but there’s no doubt they can work. Just don’t expect it to be easy and don’t expect to become a millionaire. Again, it’s the long game.

What else do you do to promote your books?

I write more books. I’m fairly active on my Facebook page and I cross promote with other authors when I can, as in newsletter swaps. Every little helps. Be available and stay active.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in writing or marketing your books to date?

I’m not sure, to be honest. There are obviously mistakes here and there but it’s all just a learning process. I feel like I’ve learned on the job. At the beginning I was writing alternate histories that very few people wanted to read. I had to – if I wanted to make this gig my living – become more aware of what I enjoyed writing and what others wanted to read. I cannot write purely to market but I will consider aligning my interests with things that other people are interested in picking up and reading. That led me to the genres I’m working in now.

And what has been your biggest success?

Being able to do something I love all day every day. That was always the dream.

If you were starting your writing career all over again today, what would you do differently?

Knowing what I know I’d be a little less self-indulgent. I was writing incredibly niche stuff – alternate histories about the Beatles in late 2015/early 2016. I had fun with it but it wasn’t the right thing in terms of starting my career. I’d be a little clearer about what I wanted to write and more conscious about what people wanted to read.

Finally, what can you tell us about your “small menagerie of four-legged rescue creatures”?

The menagerie consists of one dog and four rescue cats! There was a gecko in there too at one point but she’s gone now. I’m an animal person and so is my wife (she’s an ECC vet). They’re glorious distractions and I love them but when I’m writing/editing they can drive me crazy! But I recommend all writers acquire a menagerie of their own. And please remember to adopt!

Mark Gillespie is a former musician from Glasgow, Scotland who lives in Australia with his wife ├Źde and their family of rescue creatures. He writes post-apocalyptic, horror and dystopian fiction. Also known as ‘current affairs’.


Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Marshall Thornton Interview: Gay-themed Mysteries

If you enjoy detective stories with a good dose of '80s nostalgia, Marshall Thornton's Boystown series of thirteen books may appeal to you. The series has an extra twist since the main character, Nick Nowak, is gay. In this interview, I asked Marshall Thornton about writing Boystown and other novels, and whether writing gay-themed novels provides any special problems for an author. 

Was Boystown your first fiction book? What inspired you to begin writing the Boystown series? 

Yes and no. When Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries was first published I’d already written drafts of The Perils of Praline and My Favorite Uncle. What happened was… I ran across a call for Christmas-themed gay erotica which, at the time, was a very unusual idea for me so I had to give it a try. I wrote The Christmas Visit for Torquere Press and enjoyed doing that. Then I wrote the first Nick Nowak story and sent it in to them. At the time, they had a glut of short stories and suggested I put three of them together in a book and that’s how the series was born.

Since a traditional publishing company used to publish your books why did you decided, later on,  to publish them yourself?

I have worked with four different small publishers. Two have since gone out of business. The decision to go indie was mainly financial. I lost a survival job and was able to get my rights back. I needed to turn my royalties into a more sustainable income and I have managed to do that.

Have you any regrets about being an indie publisher? Surely it must be easier and less time-consuming to let the publisher take control of all the book-design, marketing and so on? What do you think are the pros and cons of indie versus trad publishing?

Occasionally, you still run across prejudices against indie authors but here’s the deal: All writers are self-published. Even when you publish with a top-tier publisher you never work for them. They simply provide services to you and then take a portion of your royalties—often most of your royalties—in exchange. It’s a big mistake, in my opinion, to forget that they actually work for you and not vice versa. It’s also a mistake, a dangerous one, to believe that publishers are “gatekeepers.” They’re not. Publishers are for-profit-corporations. They make decisions based on what they think will make money, the quality of the book rarely factors into this.

As to whether it’s easier to let a publisher take control… I’ve seen writers fall prey to that fallacy. Once again, publishers are there for the money so if you’re making money for them they lavish attention on you. If you’re not making money for them they forget your name. So, if your book doesn’t make money right out of the gate (and very often they don’t) then you’re screwed because they’re not going to revert the rights to you and they’re not going to spend any money marketing you and they’re not taking your next book. It’s a tough business. For many writers it’s one book and out.
If I wasn’t an indie I probably wouldn’t have a career.

How do you go about writing? Do you have a fixed routine?

I try to work every day. Even on days when I don’t work it’s always there in the background. Sometimes not writing is writing.

I know you do a lot of research to help you recreate the period in which your books are set. Can you explain how you go about research? Is there anything you are particularly proud of getting right (or wrong)?

Well, I lived in Chicago in the eighties and Silverlake in the nineties, so for my series I work a lot from memory. I research, or confirm my memories, on the fly. I’ll stop and double check. (My super hero name is The Mad Googler.) I also skim through a lot of old newspapers.

The Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries both deal a lot with AIDS and HIV. Much of the AIDS literature from the nineties was focused on New York and the Ivy League educated gay men who had access to publishers. In many ways, they were at the epicenter of the crisis and their stories are important for that reason. I’m proud that I’ve been able to add a different view. My books are more focused on people who are not at the epicenter and whose lives have largely not been written about. They’re more the everyman of the AIDS experience, I suppose. I felt their stories needed to be told.

Your books have a fair amount of sex in them. Does that cause any special problems when distributing them on Amazon?

Many of my books have sex in them, though I’ve been moving away from that. I do have trouble advertising the Boystown Mysteries on Amazon. That’s mainly due to the covers. I have chosen artful nudes for the books to indicate that there is sex, that has prevented me from some advertising opportunities.

Really? Why?

Most platforms restrict the amount of nudity you can have on a cover. Even when it’s relatively minor and tasteful.

Once upon a time, gay-themed books would have been regarded as very much a minority interest. Didn't you ever worry that you would be limiting your potential readership by having gay characters?

I’m not sure I agree with the “once upon a time” portion of this question. I would say gay-themed books still have a great deal of trouble with mainstream publishers. Or rather, gay-themed books from gay authors. The big publishers seem quite content to publish straight writers writing about gay characters. For example, The Long Call by Ann Cleves, Instinct by James Patterson, Love, Simon by Becky Albertalli, Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston and the list goes on and on. You simply don’t see major publishers picking up gay writers like this and it’s truly a shame. This isn’t just speculation on my part. I recently tried to get an agent and was turned down, repeatedly—even with three Lambdas. I think that says quite a lot about the publishing industry’s relationship with gay men.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. I actually love my life right now. I support myself as a writer so I’m thrilled that we now live in a world that will give an indie author a chance. Sure, it would be nice to make the kind of money straight writers are making from gay-themed books. But that’s the way of the world.

In fact, are your readers all gay men or do your books have broader appeal?

As to my readers, I’ve always been on the fringes of m/m romance. Of the four publishers I’ve worked with three have focused on that genre. In case you’re not familiar, m/m romance is a genre largely written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women. Though I’m not a romance writer, I do get a lot of my readers from this group. And, I’ve also been discovered by a lot of gay men, often around my own age.

Code Name: Liberty is a romantic suspense novel featuring a sexy CIA agent!
On your site, you have some interesting articles recommending writers of gay fiction. Some authors on that list didn't surprise me (such as Joseph Hansen who wrote the first Dave Brandstetter mysteries way back in the early '70s). The author that really did surprise me was Joe Orton. On the face of it, Orton's writing is far different from yours. Can you explain why you think Orton is so significant? What can a playwright teach a novelist?

Ah, Joe Orton. I have the better part of a theater degree (in addition to my English degree) and was a theater person in Chicago and L.A. for seven or eight years. I’ve always loved Orton, his plays are deliciously sexy and subversive and dark. I love that kind of farcical writing and do it occasionally, most notably in The Perils of Praline and Praline Goes to Washington. When I was in film school at UCLA I would alternate comedies with suspense scripts. I’ve begun putting these elements together with the Pinx Mysteries and my new series which I’ll mention later.

I think for many writers, the biggest challenge is finding that first small 'core' of fans. How did you go about finding your first readers?

This is where small publishers do help—provided they have a fan base of their own. They expose you to their fans and you gradually add to that base. Typically, you add readers with every exposure. I am still surprised though when people write a review an mention that I’m a new writer they’ve just discovered. I’ve been doing this for eleven years and feel like I’ve exposed myself—er, I mean—let people know I’m out there a lot.

Do you advertise (Amazon, Facebook, elsewhere)? If so, have you any tips on how to make advertising succeed without wasting money?

Let’s see. I do Amazon advertising on and off. It’s hard to tell what the return-on-investment is. They tell you how many books were purchased after click-throughs but it’s never really enough to justify the expense. That said, it’s hard to quantify how many books eventually get purchased or how many Kindle Unlimited reads happen based on repeat exposure. As for Facebook, I advertised there years ago when it was easy to boost, now I know nothing about it.

What else do you do to promote or market your books?

This summer I’ve booked six or seven pride events and I’ll be going all over Michigan and hand-selling. I’ve never done that kind of thing to this extent so we’ll see how it goes. Again, it’s not a direct return-on-investment but the exposure is good.

What's the secret of getting reviews on Amazon?

Time. I’ve always struggled to get reviews. My books with a lot of reviews have been available for a long time.

If you were just beginning your writing career today, what would you do differently?

Oh God. Everything. Nothing. Hmmmm. Well, it’s a different market than it was ten years ago. I think working with small publishers was valuable so I’d probably do that again… I think the one thing I’d do differently would be to let go of my survival job sooner. Once I began devoting all my attention to writing things really picked up. So, that’s the big thing I’d do differently.
After thirteen novels, you've finally stopped writing the Boystown series. Can you tell me a bit about what you are writing at the moment. And what we can expect from you in future?

My next book is The Less Than Spectacular Times of Henry Milch due out April 28th. It begins a new series set in rural northern Michigan, which is where I now live. I plan to continue the Pinx Video books and will probably add a third series next year.

Marshall Thornton writes two popular mystery series, the  Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries. He has won the Lambda Award for Gay Mystery three times. His romantic comedy, Femme was also a 2016 Lambda finalist for Best Gay Romance. Other books include My Favorite UncleThe Ghost Slept Over and Masc, the sequel to Femme. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America.

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