Tell us a little about yourself. Who or what inspired you to start writing? I started to write rudimentary fantasies after I read the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (as a child). I really liked those children’s books, and it kind of all began with the map at the front. I drew my own and imagined silly things that would happen at each location. My first map was very small—just an island with one city on it. And my first story was twenty or so pages, and really quite dumb. My friend at the time liked it though. He’s the only person that read it.
What is the inspiration behind Oculus and the first novel of the series, Slipstream? My own agnostic/atheist beliefs. I was sitting around one night reading about Erwin Schrödinger on an old college buddy’s website. My college buddy is Blas, and to this day, he’s the smartest man I’ve ever met in real life. He got a PhD in physics in his early 20’s about the time that most people get their bachelor’s from university, and he works in Los Alamos, New Mexico. When I say Blas is smart I want you to think Sheldon Cooper smart, only without any of that awkwardness. Blas is cool and flies all over the world drinking beer and hob-knobbing with other scientists at CERN. The math he posts on his website is beyond my comprehension, but it’s fascinating to know someone who can understand the stuff that others on his level--Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking--can just do in their head. Anyway, Slipstream is about the fundamental fact (observed in quantum physics) that sub-atomic particles of matter disappear and reappear all the time. If you watch Breaking Bad, you’ve probably heard Walt call himself Heisenberg. Well this name derives from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which basically states that on a subatomic level, you cannot know the physical properties of a particle (such as its position and momentum) at the same time. Take light for example: it changes from a wave to a particle depending on if someone is looking at it. Now think about that for a moment: light “knows” when it is being observed and when you’re back is turned on it, it’s behaving entirely different than when you are looking at it. Our universe is really weird. When you think of all matter being built of subatomic particles that behave like this, then you can understand why Einstein once turned to his partner and asked: Can you prove to me that the moon is actually up there when no one is looking for it? And his partner said that he couldn’t. Well this is what Slipstream is about. I came up with the idea that God isn’t what everyone thinks he is (blasphemy to some, but this is fiction). Instead, he might be an engineer who observes our universe from another universe, and because he does so, it makes our universe real as long as he’s looking at it. And I basically created three universes. There’s the one Earth is in, there’s the one Avalon is in (which is a mirror world) and then there is a third one that will be in the final book called “Eden” (book five). I also went a step further. I had God set up these huge towers on the “important” worlds of Earth and Avalon. One is white, and one is black. Inside each, he placed a box that contains a computer program that runs all of the laws of physics expressed mathematically. As long as they continue to run smoothly, the universe runs smoothly. So literally, what I’m saying is that in “Oculus” the reason why everything operates the way it does is because it’s all been defined by a super engineer billions of years ago. I also tie all of the main character’s powers to this box. They are defined just like the speed of light is defined and are unique to him. He’s an archangel and has the power to jump universes (to go to the other two), because “angels” needed these powers to act as messengers and observers. Jordan just happens to be the last archangel, and I never discuss what happened to all the others.
What surprised you the most about the business side of publishing? Publishing is a business. If your goal is to get a Big Five publishing contract and are getting rejected by agents, the reason you’re getting rejected is because the agent in looking at your query makes a decision that they can’t sell your book. Now let’s examine this statement. The difference between the Big Five and the small publisher is print distribution. The reason why the Big Five is in the chain bookstores and your small pub is not is because THEY OFFER A RETURN POLICY. Let that sink in. What I’m saying is a publisher HAS to have deep enough pockets to make certain that if your book doesn’t fly off the shelf, they will buy it back from the store and eat the cost of the book. Only a billion dollar company could afford to make this kind of commitment on a mass level, and they are willing to do so with one caveat: it had better not happen that often. Let’s use a prostitution analogy. There’s a pimp who has a bunch of whores who work the street corner. If you’re the whore that doesn’t get picked up and are making money for the pimp, you will get kicked to the curb. This is why so many famous people are published. The publishing companies know that name recognition is a great thing for their whores to have. Now, publishing companies in the Big Five have enough deep pockets that they can create name recognition for you. But you’d better damned be worth it, and again, this kind of depends on the uberness of your agent. Yes, there are agents out there who are level 1 and those who are level 20 and represent clients like Stephanie Meyer and Allie Condie. Not all agents are alike and a lot of this may boil down to how “personable” they are in New York City, or are they charismatic, or do they wear the right shoes? It may even be as simple as: are they rich? Let’s face it, birds of a feather flock together. Rich people hang with rich people. Skinny people hang with skinny people. Gay people hang with gay people, and so on and so forth. So I guess the thing that surprised me the most about the business-side of publishing is how cut and dried it is. And if you choose to go to a small press, realize they have no budget. They won’t be able to get you into a bookstore because they can’t eat returns. They won’t have a budget for marketing other than twitter and their own website. And you will join the ranks of millions of people who are all trying to over shout each other. But because they have little to no money invested in you, they are a lot more slack in the production of your book and allow you freedom that a Big Five publisher simply won’t do. Additionally, if you sign with a small press, make damned sure that you examine if they have incorporated, or if they are a sole proprietorship. I can go down to the State Office, get a tax I.D. number for $25, and start my own publishing company and call it whatever the hell I want. If you sign with me, and I declare bankruptcy and it’s a sole proprietorship, the bank owns the rights to your book. That means until all the money owed to creditors is settled, you get nothing. Never sign with someone that has a sole proprietorship in place UNLESS you have complete confidence in their ability to manage their finances.
If you were talking to a roomful of aspiring young writers, what advice would you give them. Be clear on what you desire from publishing. If you dream of being in bookstores like Barnes and Noble, you should pursue Big Five publishing and jump through all of the hoops. If print-on-demand and ebooks are fine, there’s no reason to not self-publish UNLESS you: 1) desire some help with formatting the ebook for the different e-readers, 2) don’t want to put out money for editing, and 3) don’t want to put out money for cover art. Small presses don’t typically have awesome editors, because they can’t afford to pay them well. I think Double Dragon Publishing probably has on average, 4-10 sales per year from each author that they have in their stable. Think about what I’m saying: if the publisher is paying a percentage and the editor edits a book and it only sells 10 copies, that editor is getting a paycheck so small, it might not buy lunch at Taco Bell. The only way you could ever make any money is if you edit hundreds of books or have one that becomes a best seller. So the old adage applies: you get what you pay for. And if a small press pays crap for editors, then they get crap as a result, right? I went with DDP solely based on their corporate structure and the fact that they do great original cover art with no reliance on stock photo. I may use one of their editors in the future, but for now I’ve always outsourced as it’s way quicker (there’s a waiting list of like a year to get one of theirs). Also, find out if the small publisher knows any kind of marketing. Do they provide advanced reader copies? Do they go by release dates or just throw your manuscript out the window like a pizza hot from the oven? Those are important questions because timing allows you to build hype. If your small press has no sense of timing (or could give a crap) then it may not be a good fit. No matter what, I think a newbie writer will always want to have some print copies available because you can’t market without them. Many reviewers and the website goodreads practically live off of print books. So until that changes, you will need at least, print-on-demand capability for your stories. Also, you need a website. I would just go with a free blog on blogger or on wordpress. Learn how to use it, visit mine and click through the pages and see how I’ve made some invisible and only available to people who are legitimately combing for them. The reason I say a “free blog” is because you aren’t famous, just like I’m not famous. Getting a website designer to build something out of Flash when no one knows your name is pretentious as hell, I don’t think they attract readers, and if you don’t know how to update it constantly, it will be out-of-date. You should have the flexibility of just going in, doing anything you want, and then clicking publish. And always have the most current prices and links to your books visible so that customers who go looking for your books, can find them. The key in my opinion is to make money and not spend money, so take “free” whenever you can. Finally, know the difference between bloggers and readers. Bloggers (like me) will support you but not always buy your book. Support means clapping for you, offering you exposure on their blogs, and retweeting your tweets. Readers are the people you are after…those are the ones that read your book and probably know next to nothing about the business and probably don’t read blogs or tweet all that much. So how do you attract readers? You WRITE and you post your writing in places where readers “read.” There are sites out there like Wattpad that offer free stories and have millions of readers and apps available for the iphone. I post stories on a porn site that gets lots of readers--it results in 1000 hits on my book page a week. At the time of this posting, I have over 400,000 page views on my blog (I generate 1700 page views a day), and this is one of the reasons why. Wherever you choose to drop a story for free, always link back to your book page. It’s leaving breadcrumbs in a wilderness so that others can find you.
Great advice and lots of interesting insights. Thank you so much, Michael.