I've been looking forward to bringing this final, two-part interview, to you for some time. It reveals, I think, some clear business-based thinking behind the decision to self-publish - thinking, which I believe any writer hoping to make a success of going the indie route should consider. I should add too, that the decision to self-publish comes from one who has had non-fiction published by a traditional publisher.
I first “met” Kevin Oxland online several years ago via the Wordpool children’s writers’ group and SCBWI-BI. Together with a few others we subsequently went on to form a critique group and I remember doing critiques for Kevin for a story entitled The Gifted. Now renamed “Lost Souls” and written as a series of three books, “Lost Souls - The Cube of Asgard” is published this month by Peachstone Publications, the company Kevin has created to publish and promote his work.
It’s been a while since Kevin and I have had a chat, so go and get a cup of tea and settle down with us while I ask him about his novel, Lost Souls, his new publication company and why he’s chosen to self-publish.
Kevin, welcome to Absolute Vanilla – it’s brilliant to see you surging ahead and finding your own way of getting your work out there. Congratulations are definitely in order!
For those not privileged to know anything about your book, please tell us a bit about “Lost Souls - The Cube of Asgard” and what inspired you to write it.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that twins can communicate with each other using their minds, that they are truly, very special. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by that, right? Combine that with a childhood fantasy that other realms could co-exist alongside our own, and you have the basis of Lost Souls.
In it we follow Spencer Quinn and his best friend Frankie after Spencer’s twin brother, Oliver, is mysteriously kidnapped. The story begins when his mother moves Spencer to a small town in the country to live with his grandmother, away from the furor of media attention. Here, Spencer is burdened with starting a new school, bullies, the loss of a sibling, a depressed mother and a stranger who seems to know everything about him. Spencer and Frankie go on an epic journey, both physical and emotional, to find Oliver. There are no clues, no witnesses and no body. Nothing! Except a phenomenon Spencer believes is an illness.
Lost Souls combines this fantastical adventure with real issues many kids and teenagers deal with today; a single parent environment, depression, the loss of a sibling and with themes of bullying, betrayal and love.
My editor said - "Oxland's LOST SOULS has the indomitable spirit of Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS with the heartfelt camaraderie of Angie Sage's SEPTIMUS HEAP series."
I agree with her entirely. Then of course, I would :-)
Before you chose to self-publish did you go through the usual rounds submissions and rejections – and what finally made you decide to self-publish?
Yes, I think we’ve all been there. What a ride that is! Lost Souls isn’t my first novel. There have been others, all now languishing in the shadowy corners of my hard drive. But LS was the first one I truly thought had some legs, so to speak. I was getting praise from all quarters, but publishers and agents didn’t appear to share the same belief. A couple of times I got close, but it never amounted to the ever elusive dotted line. So much time went by trying and waiting, I was on the verge of giving up. And you have to remember too, it’s a very subjective business and one publisher’s ‘no thanks’ could be another publisher’s gold dust.
One day my daughter picked up Lost Souls and read it. She read it in one sitting, five hours straight and cried at the end. She consumes books like nobody I know and she convinced me that I had something worth publishing, and that it was certainly much better than a lot of books she had read. Now you might be thinking she would say that because she’s my daughter, so I wanted to be sure that my work was actually publishable and that I wasn’t kidding myself.
This got me thinking. Apart from critique partners who are invaluable (thanks Nicky). The first thing I did was to post it on YouWriteOn.com. It’s a great system and I highly recommend it. I won’t go into details on how it works here, but go to the website and check it out. Basically, your work is reviewed and critiqued by other writers…anonymously (that’s important for the system to work). For each critique you get a score. After lots of critiques, and if your combined score is high enough, it enters the charts. Once Lost Souls entered the charts, it reached number fourteen. The feedback was amazing. I honed the manuscript with the feedback I got and not only did it confirm to me that my writing was good enough, I knew I had a strong story that people wanted to read, and that was crucial. There was no reason for these people to say the amazing things they did, I wasn’t reviewing their work, they didn’t know me and I still don’t know who they are. They were merely spending the credits they earned from critiquing and chose to spend them on Lost Souls over the thousands of others that are posted on there.
That spurred me on. Now it was time to see what the professionals thought. I sent it to the Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service. This was the first service I paid for because I figured it was important to know if the story was as good as it appeared to be and also, to get professional feedback before I spent any more time and money on it. The first line in the report read…
‘First of all, Kevin, well done! I read your typescript in one sitting – at a gulp – because I was genuinely absorbed by the story…’
What an opener. You probably couldn’t ask for much more than that. But I soon calmed down after the initial excitement. Following that were several pages of solid, professional feedback which pointed to weaknesses in the plot and the characters, amongst other things. It was exactly what I needed. But the great things was, these things were fixable and with a bit of effort were fixed. It was money well spent as far as I was concerned and again, spurred me on further.
I was now in the possession of a great story that I was convinced would get snapped up. I sent it to one more agent. A couple of months went by and then she replied with…
‘It clearly has a lot of merits, but it’s not for me.’
*Sigh*. What on earth did that mean? What is the sub text there? That really got me thinking. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to waste any more years (yes, I mean years) sending it to people who had hundreds more manuscripts teetering on the edge of desks. I actually believe now, a lot of getting published is luck. Right place right time sort of luck. They can’t publish everyone and you can’t run a business on luck.
From an author’s perspective, the traditional method of getting published is probably the worst business model ever. It doesn’t work for the people who supply the industry. Add up all the hours, weeks, years you’ve spent writing, sending out your work and waiting, and now pay yourself imaginary money for that time. You’re minted, right? Even if you do get published, it appears very few authors make enough money to earn a decent living or recoup the investment they’ve put into it. Bricks and mortar publishers have huge overheads, they need to sell tens of thousands of units and so have to be very choosy about what they publish. I recently read somewhere that publishers have now stopped reading the slush pile altogether, so new ways to get your work noticed are required. Being a celebrity appears to guarantee sales, so it’s probably easier to become one of those first and then get published :-)
What services did you “buy in” to polish your novel – did you use professional editors, copy editors, proof readers, designers etc? And why do you feel it was important to do so. What did you learn from doing so?
As I said before, the first money I spent was for professional advice on my ‘story’. For me, this is crucial. It’s the core of the business, the heartbeat of everything we do. If you have a great story, everything else can be fixed. But if your story is weak, it’s much harder to turn that around. I’ve attended seminars on story creation, ‘Robert McKee’ and ‘Dave Freeman’s Beyond Structure’ for example, so I was pretty sure I had the knowledge to write a well structured tale, but I wanted to be sure.
However, I wasn’t so confident with my editing skills so I hired an editor based in the States to copyedit my MS. Keep in mind that by now, this manuscript had been through so many hands and, I thought, had been edited to an inch of its life. How wrong I was! Cassandra sent it back riddled with edits. It took a long time to pick through it, but when it was complete, boy did it show. The manuscript just kept getting better and better and the story just kept pushing through.
So what did I learn? If you think your novel is finished, it probably isn’t. Get some professional advice, it really is worth the money and effort and really important for self publishers to do this.
Given that you’ve made use of professional services, do you believe that self-published literature should aim to be the same standard as traditionally published material?
Yes, without question. Why shouldn’t we aim for that? I actually think we have to if we’re to stand out and lose the stigma attached to self-publishing. We should always aim to deliver quality and then maintain that. This doesn’t mean spending tons of money, you can measure the quality and standard as you go along, which is one thing I’ve learnt when developing Lost Souls. This includes quality in the story, the writing and the physical book itself. For that, you’ll need help, for sure. But the other great thing about self-publishing is that we have room to innovate. We can experiment and try new things. The risks are far less for us to do that, but so much more exciting and I think going forward you’ll see some innovative work come to the fore. Big publishers have bricks and mortar to maintain, rent, salaries and bills to pay. They can rarely take huge risks, especially in today’s financial climate, which is just one of the reasons it’s so hard to get your work noticed.
What would you say to the people who tell you that unless you’ve been traditionally published you can’t expect the same level of kudos from your peers and that you’ll always be second rate, never a “real” author?
Utter nonsense. I’m not just saying that because I’m self published (I also have non-fiction published by a major publisher). There are many, many reasons why authors aren’t noticed and ‘traditionally published’. The idea that ‘if you’re not published by a well known publishing company then you must be second rate’ is ludicrous in my mind and it’s that sort of thinking that will stop authors grabbing the bull by the horns and going for it. If self publishers put the same amount of effort into their work, get it to industry standard and put into the market place and it sells, why is that so different to traditional published books? I’ve read so many stories about self-publishers who have subsequently been snapped up by traditional publishers after ‘proving their worth’, that it simply doesn’t make sense to say that. Why were they snapped up? Because they have something the publishers want and can sell. And it took self publishing to realize that and it also demonstrates that publishers aren’t entirely sure what they want. Self publishing should be commended. It takes an awful lot of effort to get a quality, finished product to market.
As the self-publishing and ebook industry evolves, how do you see self-published material competing effectively with traditionally published material?
For paperbacks, competing financially is not as bad as you might think. POD books do cost more to print than offset printing (bulk printing) for traditional published books. That’s just the way it is...for the moment. But this is changing fast. I’ve done a lot of research into this and self publishing services these days allow you to compete with traditional books on price and quality. I investigated two services to print my paperbacks. CreateSpace and Lightning Source.
It’s a lot more technical to grasp and setup, but I chose Lightning Source for several reasons, but primarily for their business model. Lightning is part of the Ingram Book Company. Ingram are the largest book wholesale distributor IN THE WORLD and the preferred wholesale provider for more than 71,000 retail, online (like Amazon) and library customers globally. So your ‘self published’ books automatically travel through Lightning’s and Ingram’s system at no extra cost to you ready to be ordered on demand. Wow, that’s pretty awesome and should be enough to convince you.
Online bookstores and retail bookstores who deal with Ingram (including Amazon worldwide) can simply see it on their system, order it and get it delivered on demand with no effort (that’s zero effort) required from you (marketing aside). Not only that, you, the publisher (yes, you’re one of them now), set your own retail and discount prices and because Lightning acts as your distributor, it’s very competitive with traditional publishers because there’s no traditional distributor or wholesale cost. The middle man is gone. Lightning get paid when somebody buys your book so you don’t need to spend any money (that’s zero - apart from a small setup cost) on stocking or preordering your book.
Basically you have complete control and when you grasp Lightning’s business model, it makes self publishing very attractive. Book for book, an Author can make far more money self publishing (10 - 30%, or more, of retail price) than going through a traditional publisher (4-7%). It then simply comes down to quality, awareness, marketing and volume. To get to grips with this model I recommend reading ‘Aaron Shepard - POD for Profit’. He focuses on working with Lightning and provides all the information you need. On a side note, I believe many of the big publishers are also using Lightning for offset printing to fulfill orders, which says a lot about how far POD has come.
The other side of this is competing with the physical quality of the books. There was a time when you could clearly tell a book was self published simply by looking at it and touching it, but technology has advanced so fast that it’s getting difficult to tell the difference. This is no longer a concern.
As for e-books - what can you say, welcome to the future. It’s going to dominate without question. There is no reason why a self publisher can’t compete head on. Provided you put your work through a professional pipeline and make it the best it can be. It should sit shoulder to shoulder with traditionally published books with little or no difference in physical quality. All you need is great content and to market it. Check out mine on the Kindle store and compare it to a traditional book, there is ZERO difference in appearance, and because it’s been through the mill, the content matches many traditional books out there. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. You can try the free 10% sample the Amazon Kindle store gives away with every book, but be warned, you’ll want to buy it! :-)
Do you foresee more and more traditionally published authors moving away from their publishers and going in alone? What do you feel they would gain from doing so?
I’m not so sure about that. I actually don’t see that happening at all. There is something to be said for having a group of professional people do all the ‘other stuff’ that’s required to get a book into the market place. Many authors probably prefer this as it lets them focus on what they truly love, and that is to write. I can see many authors potentially choosing both paths.
Because this is such an in-depth interview, it is understandably lengthy. So I'll leave you to digest Part One and next week, I'll bring you Kevin's responses to how and why he set up his own publishing company, his thoughts on app development, and the business of marketing and making money from self-published work.
Meanwhile, to find out more about Kevin Oxland and Lost Souls, please visit Kevin's website.
You can also follow @KevinOxland on Twitter.
You can "like" Kevin's author page on Facebook.
You can buy Lost Souls in all major retailers (you may have to ask them to order it to begin with) and you can buy it on Amazon.com and Amazon.uk.
And, of course, you can buy Lost Souls for Kindle.
See you next week for Part Two!