Angels, Angles, And Self-Publishing with Harrison Paul

Teenage girl versus Angels. Sounds like a throaway anime or YA novel.  What if I told you the novel was set in Medieval Scandinavia?  And the problem was the Angels were suddenly turning on mankind?  It’s biblical smackdown where a young girl is the weapon against mankind’s former guardians.

Welcome to the world of Kaybree Versus the Angels.

The author is Harrison Paul, a man who’s had a rather active life from music to religion, and is channeling his talents into creating a dark fantasy adventure in the YA vein with his own twists.

1) You have had ambitions to be an author for some time – what made you choose self-publishing?

Five years ago, I dreamed of becoming a professional author, so I started writing my first novel.  2 million words and 18 novels later, I had attended six writing conventions, sent hundreds of query letters, waited twice for an agent to read a full manuscript…and still sold zero books.  But I kept going the traditional route, because conventional wisdom held that self-publishing was suicide for your writing career.

What drove me to self-publish was some advice that my mentor Brandon Sanderson gave me last year at World Fantasy Con in Toronto.  He said that if he was an unpublished author right now, he would continue submitting his longer books to traditional publishers while self-publishing a series of shorter books as ebooks.  The rise of the Kindle and swelling ebook sales now made self-publishing a viable option to start a career.  Because I had already started a series of short YA books (200+ pages apiece), and because I was focusing my attention on pitching my epic-length science fiction series to publishers (each book is 800+ pages), I felt this would be the perfect opportunity to try out e-publishing with the YA series and see how it went.

2) Now that you’re self-publishing, do you wish you’d tried it earlier?

No.  I’m glad that I waited this long, and I actually hope that I waited long enough.  I experimented with many different styles of speculative fiction before writing the Angel Killer series, and I learned a great deal about writing with each story I told.  For example, I learned that I tended to write very broadly, like a typical Hollywood film, trying to mash many aspects of world building and character development into a short, punchy package.  The problem with those stories were that they lacked depth; they tried to do too much and the characters ended up feeling shallow.  I am grateful to those who pointed out the flaws of my writing, and I kept putting off self-publishing because I wanted to only publish something that would be powerful, interesting, and worth the reader’s time.

Another reason I waited so long to self-publish was that I continued hoping for an agent to accept my manuscript.  As a full-time high school teacher and curriculum developer, I have little enough time to write, let alone to market and promote my work.  I’ve always known that there was a certain degree of marketing that went along with publishing, but I hoped to have a publisher’s help as well.  I also wanted a professional editor with some stake in the book’s success to look at it critically and help me refine it to the best it could be.

3) What did you learn self-publishing that wasn’t what you expected?

I never expected the process to be so simple.  It’s easier for me because I use Scrivener (a program that organizes and formats computer documents), but once I had it produce an epub file and had Kindle Previewer create a matching mobi file, all I had to do was upload the book, upload the cover art, and choose the genre and pricing.  Updates have also been very quick–at least, on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site.  Getting the book approved bySmashwords and distributed to the various retailers through them has taken longer.

4) What was as you expected in the realm of self-publishing?

Hiring an artist and designing quality cover art was about as expensive and time-consuming as I’d anticipated, though everyone I worked with was friendly, professional, and had quick turnaround times (artistmodel, and font designer).  Marketing has also been as difficult as everyone said it would be.  I’m exploring several approaches but also hoping that when readers finish the book, they will spread the word to their friends (and that my students will spread the word among their peers, since the book is targeted at that age group).

5) So let’s get to your book.  Supernatural and YA books are common fusions, how are you differentiating yourself?

I’ve always loved epic fantasy–not necessarily long journeys where characters climb mountains and scavenge the forest for berries, but stories that take the reader into a new world, with myths and legends that come alive and new societies that confront familiar problems.  I also love Scandinavia: the culture, the landscapes, the mythical tales.  Before writing this series, I had done some research into the Icelandic sagas and was fascinated by how their legends reflected their cultural values.

At the time, I was trying out the YA style, but I wanted to write an epic fantasy.  I hadn’t seen very many YA novels that were also set in a secondary fantasy world, so I decided to give it a try.  I took elements of Scandinavian culture and fused them with the familiar YA tone, and created the world of Nordgard, where magical beings called Angels protected and guided mankind.  The main character is a girl who faces the usual teenage issues of self-discovery and growing up while also grappling with large-scale moral dilemmas.

The idea of battling angels naturally came from the anime series Evangelion.  Many YA series also deal with angels, but I wanted to delve deeper into the religious implications of angels attacking humanity.  If the characters were pious followers of the angels’ religion, they would face a crisis of faith: either God had turned against them, or they had unknowingly incurred His wrath.  I also wanted to explore all six of what Jonathan Haidt calls “moral foundations,” or values we use to decide what is right and wrong.  Rather than the simple “care=good, harm=bad” morality, I wanted to show various complicated perspectives on how moral decisions can be reached.

6) How many books will be in the series.

Seven.  Books 2 and 3 are in the final editing phase, so I plan to release those in July and August of this year.  I’ve started book 4 and have rough outlines for the rest of the series, so hopefully all will be finished within a year or so.

7) So after these books, what’s next?

Like I mentioned above, I am marketing my science fiction series Spentas and Daevas to agents and editors, so I am hoping that my experiences in self-publishing will improve my appeal to publishers.  That story deals with Persian mythology, characters who discover they are legendary figures in a different religion, and a fusion of religious eschatology with the technological Singularity.  That particular series is not as suited to self-publishing, as I would only be able to release about one book every year; also, each book would be longer and represent a greater commitment on the part of readers who have never heard of me.  I do plan to keep writing that series, though.

I also have plans for another YA series, and that one I do plan to self-publish.  This one will be more contemporary, and science fiction instead of fantasy.  I’ve been playing a lot of horror-themed board games lately (Last Night on Earth, Elder Sign, etc.), so I’m leaning in that direction.

8) Marketing is the hard part for all people doing self-publishing, how are you taking it on?

To prepare myself to e-publish, I did as much research as possible.  One great source was the book Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran, which gave advice on virtually every element of self-publishing.

As for my marketing approach, I researched other authors who self-publish to find an appropriate price ($2.99) and strategy (release a series of books in close succession).  I paid for a semi-professional editor and a professional cover artist (Gaughran stresses this point many times), and I sent drafts of the book to every member of a writing group I’ve ever had.  I edited the manuscript seven or eight times, making sure to correct spelling and grammar, but also to add concrete details, to tweak dialogue, and to smooth out plot points.  I’m still in the process of using social media and other outlets to spread the word, but I figure that spending extra time on the product and presentation is the first step.

I have a Facebook author page and have made profiles on Amazon and Smashwords, and I’m sending the novel to book bloggers and successful authors I have become friends with.  I also have a website with a blog that I try to update at least once a week.  Otherwise, I’m relying a lot on word of mouth.  I am part of a large religious community and I teach high school, so I have two places to start.  The nice part about e-publishing is that you don’t have to worry about shelf space, retailers returning your books if they don’t sell, or distribution hassle.  My plan is to try it out and learn from my mistakes along the way.  After all, I am planning to release at least two more books in this series by the end of the summer, so hopefully those will increase the sales momentum.

9) Where do you see self-publishing going?

Self-publishing the Angel Killer series is an experimental investment, and one I plan to learn from even if it is unsuccessful at igniting my writing career.  I hope to learn which marketing strategies are effective, how the general public enjoys my style of writing, and whether people like Gaughran are right about self-publishing being a viable career option for someone in my genre.  If I need to change some egregious error in my writing, or if fans and reviewers keep noticing the same problems, it will be a valuable lesson to integrate into my future works.

On the other hand, the series might be successful.  If the books sell well enough, perhaps that will make me more attractive to one of those agents who said I just wasn’t quite their type.  This could be the springboard to launch my longer science fiction series.  On the polar extreme of optimism, there’s also the possibility that this series and others will sell so well that I can earn a living as a self-published author.  If stories like Amanda Hocking’s are any indication, though, that won’t happen until I become much more involved in the blogosphere and release 10+ novels that find their target audience.

Becoming a full-time author one way or another is my ultimate goal.

10) What are groups and organizations you think authors should join?

Definitely join a writing group.  You can find many of them online, or through people you meet at conventions and writing workshops, but a site I found useful was David Farland’s Writers Groups, a forum for joining and interacting with a writing group that is working in a similar genre.

Also go to conventions to meet other authors and interact with the pros.  World Fantasy Con is best, but World Con is good too, and some local cons can be helpful.  Writing camps and writers’ workshops (like the Superstars Writing Seminar, which you can attend or purchase online, or Farland’s Writer’s Death Camp) also give you the chance to have your work critiqued by pros, as well as a forum for meeting other aspiring authors.

Thanks Harrison!

– Steve