One of the best and worst things about self-publishing is that you know exactly how many books you’ve sold at any given moment. One of my vendors even emails every time a purchase is made. I check my Amazon KDP dashboard at least three times a day, because I’m addicted to the rush of seeing those numbers increase. I’ve been really fortunate this month, and I suspect that a big reason my sales have increased is because the local book club meetup group, A Novel Bunch, is reading Grey Magic as its October selection. It’s flattering and exciting, but also a little scary. They’re going to be talking about my book. Discussing it, even.
A lot of mainstream literary fiction comes packaged with a readers’ guide nowadays. There may be a brief interview with the author, historical or explanatory notes on the text, and a list of questions to facilitate book club discussions. Since I don’t have a publisher to put it together for me, I guess I’ll have to do my own. Here are 3 questions (and their answers!) that I wish people would ask me about my book.
1. Why did you choose to self-publish Grey Magic? Would you recommend indie publishing to other aspiring writers?
There’s a great quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” The closer I got to finishing my first book, the more I wanted validation that I was a real writer, not just an amateur hobbyist. Self-publishing offers instant gratification–you can write, upload, and sell your work without waiting for an agent or a contract (or the typical 18 months it takes to a book to arrive on the shelf). I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could, in fact, finish the damn thing and put it out there fore others to read. Self-publishing was the most expedient way to do that.
The other reason that I chose self-publishing is that traditional publishers don’t give writers a particularly good deal. Advances are shrinking, the burden of publicity falls increasingly on the author’s shoulders, and the percentages are dreadful. Only surefire hits from established sellers are likely to get a big marketing push; midlist writers receive little PR support and in the unlikely event they make back their advance, they may get less than 10% of the selling price for their books. (Here are two pages that give a realistic breakdown of the numbers for traditional publishing.) A self-published author, on the other hand, receives no advance but 75-80% of the selling price. And considering that most traditionally published writers have to do their own PR anyway, I decided to put the book out there myself.
However, after publishing, I ran into two major problems. First, it has been very difficult to get the book reviewed because of the prejudice against self-publishing. Many book review bloggers–who are, I mention only in passing, amateurs themselves–have a strict no-indie policy. It’s very difficult to get noticed in a huge pool of self-published books, especially when you can’t get reviews. The other issue was a feeling of dissatisfaction. Even though I feel that my book is just as good as anything on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, I still really want to see it in a bookstore. For my next book, The Ghosts of Evergreen, I’m going to try the traditional route. In the meantime, I’ll continue to self-publish the next two books in the Isenland Trilogy.
2. Wizards? Really?
Totally. Fantasy is my way of holding up a funhouse mirror to the world. It lets us understand things about ourselves in a safe way. There’s a lot of darkness and wonder in the world, and, for me, the best way to illuminate it is through metaphor. Also, fantasy books tend to be cracking good adventures. To quote Neil Gaiman pretending to quote G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” (Epigraph to Coraline, 2004)
Even though Grimoire lives in a world of magic, the issues that she faces are really quite ordinary. She has an overprotective guardian whom she both loves and resents. Grimoire and her best friend, Lark, both like the same boy. She’s not sure who she is or how she fits into the world, and Grey Magic is, ultimately, a story about finding your identity. Also, there is a magic ninja sword fight and a talking cat. How many realist coming-of-age novels can claim that?
Fantasy stories have always resonated with me more than any other genre. A quick scan of the shelf over my desk shows Gaiman, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Garth Nix, Jonathan Stroud, Tanith Lee, and Tamora Pierce–a list that will be unsurprising to anyone who’s read Grey Magic.
3. Is Isenland based on a real place?
I’m so glad you asked me this! Isenland is an alternate history England. I started with a single idea–that the druids had had real magic–and ran from there. The Romans weren’t able to get a toehold in England during the Bronze Age, so instead of Roman conquest, the rebellion of Boudica, the warrior queen of the Iceni people, was successful. Boudica was a real person; there’s a statue of her near the Thames. In our history, she was beaten, but in my history, her tribe flourished. The word “England” is derived from “land of the Angles,” after one of the Germanic tribes who settled there. (The other, of course, being the Saxons; hence “anglo-saxon.”) Isenland is “Land of the Iceni.” Likewise, the name of the capitol city, Bodwick, is “Boudica’s Wick” or “Boudica’s Town.” I…really enjoy etymology.
The other thought that arose naturally is that instead of England being the small yet mighty island hub of a global empire, they would turn inwards while Japan (or Nippon) would expand outwards. The Nipponese invaded and absorbed Isenland as part of their commonwealth, and although they mostly let the country govern itself, the influence of their culture, fashion, and philosophy can be seen all over. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of venerable old Westminster Abbey being rebuilt as a pagoda-style temple on the Thames.
One of the running jokes (or, depending on your sense of humor, “jokes”) is that there is no Shakespeare in Isenland. There’s long been historical debate about whether Shakespeare really wrote all those plays. Some of the names bandied about for the “real” Shakespeare are Kit Marlowe (who, in Isenland, did not die in a bar fight and went on to fame and fortune) and Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford. I had fun tweaking the titles of the plays–Much Ado About Nothing became A Little Nonsense–and rewriting some of his most famous lines to suit my purposes.
Grey Magic takes place in what I imagine our modern-day world would look like if we’d never had the industrial revolution. Things are changing in Isenland, however. The merchant class is beginning to overtake the aristocracy in terms of money and power, and while the lords and ladies continue to be patrons of the magical arts, merchants are more interested in inventions that will save them money on labor and transport of goods. I don’t want to give too much away, but the next book, called Lark Song, explores the tension between magic and technology.
The Isenlandish people, of course, continue to drink large quantities of tea. Because while you can take the British out of Britain, you can’t take away their tea.