Thursday, 17 July 2014

FACE OFF: Keith Nixon and Douglas Jackson sort out publishing

Keith Nixon

Take two writers. Put them in one room (kinda, a cyber room in this instance) and let them share experiences - the results are always interesting. No two authors approach the work, the industry or the route to success in the same way. In the case of Keith Nixon, an indie writer who took the route to traditional publishing, everything seems to have worked out fine. The same can also be said of Doug Jackson, a gifted and successful author in more than one genre, who started his career with a dream deal from Transworld. Pulp Pusher decided to introduce the two of them, to hear how their experiences differed, and to get the run-down on new books from both men ... in traditional and digital formats.

Keith: You’ve a series of Roman historical fiction novels with a character called Gaius Valerius Verrens. Who is he?

Douglas Jackson

Doug: The Gaius Valerius Verrens series opens with Hero of Rome, when a 22-year-old Valerius is fighting his father's demands to return to Rome to resume his career in the law. Valerius wants to stay in Britannia with the XXth legion and join the campaign against the Druids on Mona, but filial duty means he can't refuse. Events, however, delay his departure and he's drawn into the fight to stop the rebel queen Boudicca, commanding a forlorn hope of two hundred odds and sods sent to reinforce Camulodunum (modern Colchester). The centrepiece of the book is the defence of Camulodunum against Boudicca's hordes, by the local militia, a Dad's Army of retired legionaries, and the last stand in the Temple of Claudius, which I think of as Rome's Alamo. The wonderful thing for me is how Valerius develops as a character over the following books; scarred by his past, a good man forced to fight and to kill to protect what he loves.

Keith: And Sword of Rome, the recently published fourth outing for Verrens?

Doug: It covers the opening months of the Year of the Four Emperors, the bloody civil war that cost tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of lives and brought the Empire to the brink of ruin. As it opens, Valerius is on a mission for Servius Sulpicius Galba, accompanied by Marcus Salvius Otho, who will in a few short months be Galba's murderer. With his links to Aulus Vitellius and Vespasian, our hero finds himself uniquely placed to affect events and the protagonists take advantage. After a perilous journey across Europe hunted by the most implacable enemy he has ever faced, Valerius finds himself at the heart of the first Battle of Bedriacum, the bloody confrontation in the Po Valley that will decide the fate of the Empire.

The paperback of Sword of Rome is out in July, and the follow-up, Enemy of Rome, is published on August 28. Once more Bedriacum is the focus of the war, and Valerius joins the army of Vespasian in the campaign to oust his old friend Vitellius from the throne. When Vespasian's commander needs someone to negotiate the surrender of Rome there's only one man for the job. Once more he must put his head into the lion's mouth, but there are dark powers at work and when he discovers that Vitellius is no longer the master of his destiny, only one man stands between the city and its destruction.

Doug: I know you also write books on the Roman period. What's the subject and how did you get your inspiration?

Keith: Even though my first published work was crime (The Fix) I actually started with historical fiction. I felt I needed an event to write around to get me started. I went to Maiden Castle, the largest iron age fort in Europe, and read about how the Romans had sacked it. Quite an achievement given the size. So I started to dig into Roman history and realized that the invasion of AD43 started a few miles away from where I lived. I became intrigued by Caradoc, a British general who resisted the Romans for nearly a decade and now a largely forgotten military leader in history. After two years of many rewrites The Eagle’s Shadow was the result.

You've had a successful career over the last few years, Doug, how did you come to be published?

Doug: By quite an interesting route, actually. I'd completed The Emperor's Elephant and knew it was pretty good, but not quite good enough. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to go about starting a rewrite. A few weeks later I stumbled on an English Arts Council website called where you uploaded the first 10,000 words of your book and other people critiqued it, using a points system. To get critiques, you also had to critique other people's books. At first it was a chore, but very quickly I realised that by looking for flaws in other people's writing, it also gave me an insight into my own, and gradually I began to look at the book in a different way. I uploaded a second, improved version and won a book of the month award, which entitled me to a critique by a publishing professional. My beginning ended up with Sarah O'Keefe at Orion books, who specialised in historical novels. I knew she'd like it, and she did. She asked to see the rest of the book and I thought I had it made. I got a phone call a couple of week's later along the lines of 'We were going to offer you a deal , but ...' The but was that they wanted to focus on the first third of the book, which was based around intrigue in the palace of the Emperor Caligula. I could have said no, because there was no guarantee of a deal at the end of it, but I realised that if I could achieve this I'd have taken another step forward as a writer. I worked on it for three months and found an agent on the strength of her interest. He liked the result so much that he insisted on putting it out to seven mainstream publishers. Two or three were interested and one came back offering a pre-empt deal, which is an offer design dot scare off the opposition. I was on my way.

Keith: I see you've recently ventured into the crime genre with War Games, why the shift from historicals?

Doug: It was really a question of having a perfectly good book and wanting to see it published. When I finished my first novel (it became Caligula, but I didn't then have publisher) I had no idea what to do next, but I'd enjoyed it so much it seemed a pity not to write another. I could write a historical novel, but why not try something different? What came next was a crime novel written in the first person because the main character started talking to me in my sleep in a kind of Fifties Noir Sam Spade voiceover kind of way. The hero is a Falklands War veteran who returns home semi-traumatised, but with a gift that he thought he'd lost long ago. Glen Savage is a psychic, the last resort the cops call on after all the other last resorts have struck out. In War Games he's investigating the possible abduction of a young Asian girl when he finds himself crossing swords - almost literally - with a serial killer who thinks he's still fighting a war that ended seven hundred years ago. The action takes place in the Borders, my old stamping ground, and when I was writing it I wanted to make the place a character, in the way James Lee Burke does with New Orleans.

Keith: And War Games is self-published, how's that experience been for you?

Doug: I knew my agent was unlikely to convince my publisher to take War Games, and a second Glen Savage novel I had, because I was already writing parallel series for them (Valerius and the Jamie Saintclair series - as James Douglas - which blends contemporary action with historical mysteries). It's possible I could have found another publisher, but that would have been a scheduling nightmare. Eventually, after discussing it with my agent, he agreed to support it as a self-publishing project. If I'm being honest, I'm a little disappointed with the impact it's made so far. I priced it low and expected to get quite a few takers, especially among Douglas Jackson fans, but after a not bad first week it faded away. I guess I still have a lot to learn. I was very fortunate in getting some great advice on the technical side of Kindle from Simon Turney, who also writes Roman-era fiction, and is a real self-publishing phenomenon, but I haven't managed to turn the book into a paperback yet. I have a feeling that would add to the credibility. I also think that it helps a lot to have several books out with the same character, to get a bit of cross-pollination.

We're quite similar in that we write in different genres, Keith. Do you find it difficult to jump from one mindset to the other; from the past to the present and vice versa?

Keith: I guess so far I haven’t had to jump around between genres. The sequel to Eagle’s Shadow I started and put on hold about five years ago. I’ve another crime novel in process now, once that’s done I’ll jump back to historical. I suspect getting into the mindset of writing about two thousand year old events, versus modern-day crime, will be interesting! I do feel I’ve got to finish one, create a separation and then start in the other genre…

Can you expand on your experiences in self- and traditional publishing, Doug? There's an ongoing debate about which is best.

Doug: I don't think there's a best or a worst, they both have their good points and their downsides. The one thing that unites them is that you have to be very fortunate as well as very good to make any kind of breakthrough. A welcome upside of traditional publishing is that you get an advance, so you have some money to bankroll your efforts, which is particularly important when you write full time as I do. On the other hand what sounds like a big advance isn't quite as good as it sounds. For instance, an advance for a three book deal will be delivered in ten smaller increments over four years, so even the much trumpeted six figure advance will give you an average income of £25k, minus tax and your agent's cut, which isn't really much to shout about. And that advance has to be repaid by book sales. My last royalty statement averaged about 40p a book, paid three months in arrears every six months, so unless your sales are pretty enormous you'll take a long time to earn out a decent advance. Self-publishing at least has the potential to provide a monthly income if your book sells, and the Amazon royalty rate of 70 per cent for books priced £1.99 and over is a fair rate of return. It means your books can be keenly priced, which should generate more sales, and you still get a fair return. Of course, the downside of that is that everyone then thinks they should get all their books for next to nothing.

Keith: Yes, that’s a good point. There’s definitely a view with many readers that e-books must be low priced or even free.

Doug: It goes without saying that you have to sell books to make money in both self and traditional publishing. As a budding author you dream of seeing your name up in lights, posters at the station and your books in enormous piles in Waterstones and WH Smith. The reality is that even with a large mainstream publisher that will only happen if you become a best-seller. Of course, the most likely way to become a best-seller is to have your name up in lights, posters in the station ... you get the picture. If a traditional publisher decides to put their full resources behind you, you have a chance, but you only get one bite at the cherry and mostly they keep the big money for the big names. In my limited experience self-publishing can be equally frustrating. You've written a good book, you've put it out there on Kindle, you've asked your mates on Twitter and Facebook to tell the world, and then what? It either sells or it doesn't, and if it doesn't I'm not sure there's any guarantee you can change that.

I think the best thing about traditional publishing is that you're part of a team, and for an author who spends most of his life writing alone that can be a real encouragement and comfort. You have an editor who's put his career on the line because he believes in you and whose job it is to get the best out of you. You work with a copy editor, who is normally more expert in your genre than you are - mine have saved me from embarrassment any number of times. You have an enormously professional production team who make your books look stellar, even if they're sometimes not. You have legal oversight, which is important when you're about to defame a world leader as I was not that long ago. And you have professional proofreaders to spot those irritating little mistakes that hid themselves the last twenty times you read the manuscript. After that process you can just about guarantee your book is the best it can possibly be. In self-publishing you have to provide all these services yourself and it's much scarier to put out a book that only you and a few close friends have read.

Keith: Will you be self-publishing again?

Doug: Yes, almost certainly. I have a second Glen Savage novel on the stocks and the (few) people who've read the first one have really enjoyed it. The reality is that most authors will have to write two books a year to make a living. In future I see an author having a career with a traditional publisher, but perhaps dove-tailing it with self-publishing a second series of novels at his own pace and his own price. That will take goodwill on both sides, but I think the industry will eventually work it out.

Doug: What about you Keith? Self-publish or traditional?

Keith: I started as self-publish, then was picked up by Caffeine Nights and lost touch with the DIY process until putting out Eagle’s Shadow six weeks ago. It’s been a learning process all over again and I’ve loved it. Going forward I’ll carry on with both routes. I like the ability to move at pace in self-publish. Like you, Doug, I think there’s room for both. I know some authors who are indie or self-publish forever. I guess time will tell…

:: All the books above by Keith Nixon and Douglas Jackson are available on Amazon.