In this 5 On interview, author and publisher Ian Thomas Healy shares what he learned from his experiences with literary agents, what to look for when submitting to small press publishers, his feelings about Amazon KDP Select, and more.
Ian Thomas Healy (@IanTHealy) is a prolific writer who dabbles in different speculative genres. His popular superhero fiction series, the Just Cause Universe, is ever-expanding, as is his western fantasy epic The Pariah of Verigo. He is also the creator of the Writing Better Action Through Cinematic Techniques workshop, which helps writers to improve their action scenes.
When not writing, which is rare, he enjoys watching hockey, reading comic books, and living in the great state of Colorado, which he shares with his wife, children, house pets, and approximately five million other people. Follow him on Facebook.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: You have a day job, and you created and run Local Hero Press, which is currently accepting submissions from writers interested in contributing story lines to the existing Just Cause Universe, which you also created. I know how time consuming it can be to read submissions, so I’m naturally astonished that you’re also, somehow, always writing. You’ve written and published upward of 30 novels, and if you’re not writing, you’re editing, or you’re planning your next project, or you’re releasing a new book or a short story or a collection of stories. How do you balance all of that with fatherhood?
IAN THOMAS HEALY: You say it like it’s got a simple answer. I guess in a lot of ways, it is simple. My kids are and have always been supportive of my work. When they were younger, I got most of my parenting out of the way before bed and writing/publishing work done afterward. As they’ve gotten older, they’ve become much more self-reliant and I don’t have to stay up until midnight just to write (but I still do, because old habits die hard!).
By the necessity of this lifestyle, I have become an efficient planner. I’m efficient because I’ve developed time-saving techniques for preparing ebooks and print books. I don’t agonize over editorial decision. I’m always churning my next project in my mind while working on the current one. As I’m writing one project, I’m preparing another for release, and likely plotting the next one.
I’m a planner, because having an outline in place makes it easier for me to write a string first draft, hopefully devoid of the kind of truck-sized plot holes that require major rewrites. I’ve been told by my beta readers that I send them some of the cleanest first drafts they’ve ever seen, which makes it more efficient for them to do the important task of Finding the Flaws.
In your online shares about writing and publishing, you seem perpetually optimistic and impressively driven. You move ever forward. In your private writer/creative mind, do you ever have moments of doubt or frustration (and if so, over what—can even be about writing, period, like whether the story will come together the way you want it to, or whether you ever get impatient about achieving X goal, or whether you ever have a hard time managing your creative focus, etc.)?
Of course I have moments of doubt and frustration. I’m a writer; in my low moments I don’t consider myself any more than a talentless hack.
Logically, I know I’m not, though, and I’ve managed to keep my company running in the black for six years now, which I suppose must mean I’m doing something right. My superhero stuff is keeping Local Hero Press in cover art and physical inventory, so it must be good enough to build and keep a fan base. It’s hard to stay down on myself for long, because I get to write stories I want to write and people give me money so they can read them. If that’s not a dream come true, I don’t know what is.
My biggest fear is that my readers will lose interest. “Oh, it’s just another superhero story. *yawn*.” But on the other hand, my non-superhero stuff, which I have very much enjoyed writing as well, simply doesn’t attract readers.
Am I taking advantage of the market interest in superheroes right now? You bet I am. Sell books while I can and tighten my belt when I can’t. I’m always apprehensive with a pending new release, though. What if this one doesn’t sell? What do I do then? Honestly, I have to keep going. Nobody can write an unending string of hits. Hopefully I got most of my stinkers out of the way early.
Related: My book Arena is releasing on April 1, 2018. It’s the latest in the Just Cause Universe of superhero fiction. This one is about an alien invasion, which I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Stop by Local Hero Press for the skinny on where to preorder. #alwayshustling
For a time, you wrote a series of blog posts on writing better action scenes (and ultimately released the book Action!: Writing Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques). What problems were you seeing in the action scenes you were reading that prompted you to want to offer instruction?
People have always complimented me on my action scenes, and a lot of them asked me how I did it. I never really thought about it until I considered writing the book. The answer was that I write action cinematically, like I’m writing the book version of the movie of my book, if that makes sense. A lot of writers still think of themselves as writers when they approach an action scene, but to be really effective, you have to think of yourself as a director, camera operator, and stunt coordinator instead. The writer just transcribes what those people are doing.
The main problem I see with action scenes in works-in-progress is that they are being written by people who clearly don’t want to write them. So many writers falter when they get to the point in their stories where an action scene is warranted, because it may be an unfamiliar aspect of storytelling to them. The only way to break that fear is to learn how to write an action scene, just like writing dialogue or clear narrative. There are tips and tricks, lingo and vocabulary to learn, and an understanding of pacing.
If I had to point to a single issue most writers have with action scenes it is improper pacing. Action scenes by their very necessity are fast-paced, and writers have a glorious tendency to want to describe things. After all, we’re told early on that it is important to show more than to tell. It’s important to do that in action scenes, too, but writers must learn to do so economically.
My best advice to write your first action scene is to stage it like a director would. Use storyboards or models to plan it. Outline your blow by blow events. Then when you write it, don’t stop until you finish the scene. Just like a director can go back and do reshoots, you can always fix problems in rewrites.
You write mostly non-mainstream fiction—superhero, steampunk, vampire, western fantasy—but you’ve also written mainstream fiction (your The Three Flavors of Tacos YA trilogy: The Guitarist, Making the Cut, and Scene Stealers). How does it feel to you when you’re writing mainstream vs. non-mainstream?
The Guitarist got me my last agent, but she couldn’t sell it. I wrote Making the Cut to try to give her something else to sell, but she couldn’t sell that one, either. I wrote The Scene Stealers, but I decided to fire her before I finished it.
Writing mainstream can be fun if I’ve got a good idea for a story, but here’s the thing: the way I approach superheroes, there’s not a mainstream story I could write that I couldn’t make better by approaching it through a superhero lens. Want a murder mystery? Read Champion (JCU book 6). Want a New Adult coming-of-age? Read Just Cause (JCU book 1). Want a political thriller? Castles (JCU book 7).
You said in a “Daily Author” interview that you enjoy upending some superhero tropes and inventing new ones. What new tropes have you invented, and what tropes, if any, do you wish would die?
I’d like to think I’ve invented a trope, but I’m sure I haven’t. New tropes are extremely difficult to develop, and in today’s 6-second attention span, a trope becomes a meme and it’s gone a week later, consigned to the scrap heap of pop culture.
There are two tropes I hate for superheroes. The first is making a superhero a collection of powers and not a person first. I see that in lots of younger/less-experienced writers. They say, “This guy shoots fire from his eyes and he can fly and he’s a secret lab experiment gone wrong,” and I come back with, “Where does he go when he’s not a superhero? What’s his favorite kind of pie? What’s the last book he read? What scares him?”
I always remind people that a superhero story should hold its own weight without superpowers. They’re just special effects. The characters are what is important.
The other trope I hate is the origin story, and I say that having written a few. Hollywood has been the most egregious offender, because those making the movies tend to think of viewers as idiots who have to be spoon-fed an origin story or they won’t get it. Here’s a hint: people aren’t that dumb. Give them a chance. A good story will draw them in even if it’s in an established setting with established characters. I have intentionally written all the JCU books so anyone could pick up any book in the series and start it without feeling like they have to have read others first.
5 on Publishing
In an answer to a 2012 QueryTracker “Success Story Interview” question about what advice you have for writers seeking agents, you say, in part, “Learn what makes a good agent different than a bad agent, and realize it’s okay to say no if the agent making the offer is not right for you (a mistake I made with a former agent).” You’ve been represented three times. What did you learn in your relationships with agents about what makes a good agent and what makes a bad agent? And will you talk about the mistake you made with a former agent?
A good agent is a partner, a co-conspirator, and an advisor. They don’t make any money unless you make money, so it’s in their best interest to represent your best work if it is marketable. They may dearly love something you write, but if they can’t sell it to a publisher, all you have are dwindling hopes.
A bad agent wants you to change your story, drastically perhaps, to make it more attractive to prospective buyers. They’re putting the money ahead of the story, and I think that rings hollow. I once had a prospective agent tell me he liked one particular book I had queried, but he wanted me to rewrite it without superpowers. Yes, I could have done that and made an admirable thriller, but that wouldn’t have been me being true to myself. A good agent wouldn’t have asked me to do that.
It was hard to say no to that agent, especially since I’d been trying so hard to land one because that was what you were supposed to do. To me, the compromise would have been trying to write something I didn’t really want to write to make someone like me. At this point in my career, that is less important to me. Sure, it’s nice to be liked and respected, but it’s not my reason for doing this. I do it because I want to. Because I dream of telling these stories. Because I can’t not write them. It did make things harder for me, but I never stopped moving forward, and it’s gotten me this far. Hopefully, it’ll get me much, much further.
The mistake I made with my former agent was trying to write to what she wanted to represent instead of writing what I wanted to write. It put me into a lengthy creative funk, and when we parted ways, it was a relief.
In a more recent interview, you talk about the release of Caped: An Anthology of Superhero Tales. It was the first collection you’d edited and released that was composed entirely of work by other authors, and it came about, you said, because you “wanted to do small publishing the right way after being involved in it on the author side with a company doing it the wrong way.” What was that company doing wrong, and what should writers look for in a small press?
That other company, which I think is out of business now, breached their contract with me. It was for the best, because it inspired me to start Local Hero Press. When I did so, I promised I would never be “that guy,” the publisher who screwed up and didn’t make royalty payments or fulfill contractual obligations.
Writers should look for a small press with a steady stream of releases instead of a huge number in a short time period. The latter likely means the company is overextended and will collapse at some point. Likewise, a publisher should be run by someone with relevant, verifiable industry experience. Anyone can look at my books and see I’ve been releasing them since 2011 and see that they’re done with quality and care. I’m a writer, and I know what I want from a publisher, so as a publisher, I try to fulfill that need for other writers.
I asked you years ago whether I could interview you for 5 On, and between then and now—when I finally got to it—you never once reminded me about it. It was I who finally nudged you with something like an apology that it had taken so long, followed by, “Still interested?” Which made me think of the two types of self-promoters: those who’ll ask others for help marketing their work or improving their visibility—writers asking other writers for endorsements, or for help getting connected with a reviewer or interviewer—and those who, like you, at least seem to be completely self-reliant. Have you ever asked anyone for help, and what are your feelings about asking for help when it comes to marketing and publicity? What do you do to market your work?
I am a terrible marketer. Really, I’m awful. I could have reminded you years ago and as you pointed out, I didn’t. I have in the past asked people to write prefaces to my books, but that practice ended several books ago.
In this industry, a lot of success depends upon who you know and how they can help you get ahead. I’m bad at networking, too. Social media is a nightmare for someone like me who is so busy. Blogging requires a huge commitment and a regular, involved fan base. Meet-and-greets, hanging at the bar at cons, or professional groups are anathema to an introvert like me.
How do I market my books? I write them and put them on sale. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account and I try to use those. I occasionally buy inexpensive advertising to try to make connections. Sometimes it works.
Many indie writers go back and forth about whether to enroll their ebooks in Amazon’s KDP Select, which requires that they sell their ebooks only on Amazon in exchange for a percentage of a global fund. You sell your ebooks on multiple platforms—Smashwords, iBooks, Kindle, etc.–and you also have audiobooks. A. Did you try KDP Select at one time (and if so, what did you like and not like about it), and where do you see most of your work selling? B. How easy or how difficult is it for an indie writer to have an audio book made, and how has having audio versions affected your sales?
I dislike KDP Select. It’s a zero-sum game, which means that your earnings come at the expense of someone else’s, or someone else’s come at your expense. The popular authors would be just as popular without the benefit of KDP Select and would still earn the lion’s share of royalties, but it wouldn’t happen by taking away potential royalties from other authors.
KDP Select is a tremendous money-maker for Amazon, and it’s important to remember that Amazon is not in the business of doing anything except making money by moving product. It does not have your best interests at heart. I may not have a lot of sales outside of the Amazon orbit (which includes Audible), but I do have some, and those customers would not have access to my work if I only listed it on KDP Select. I don’t like that you are stuck in it for three months at a time. I don’t like that you have to be exclusive. Net royalties for KDP Select books are generally lower than they would be for non-Select books. I have seen this firsthand, having experimented with KDP Select to see if it would be a benefit to me.
I resisted getting into audiobooks for a long time because, well, I thought it would be difficult and time consuming to get into. When I finally took the plunge, I did so using the ACX platform, which is an Amazon-based application. It turns out that it is very easy to list your works on there and then accept auditions for narrators until you find one you like. As I began having audiobooks produced, I found myself enjoying listening to the chapters for review purposes during my commutes, and have since become an audiobook subscriber myself.
The audiobook “pool” is much smaller than the ebook pool, so right now it is easier for people to find my work in random searches than it is to find my ebooks. My audiobook sales are exceptional, and this month (March 2018), they are keeping pace with my ebook sales, which is a complete surprise to me. It tells me audiobooks are an important aspect of a complete line, and any author looking to maximize his or her exposure should definitely consider them.
You’ve said you often sell enough of your books at conventions—such as Myths and Legends Con, WhimsyCon, MileHiCon—to generate a profit. What have you learned about how best to attract people to your table and—after that—how to sell books? Is there a way to do a convention wrong?
A good display helps. A smile. Talk to people. Ask what they like to read. Listen to them. If you can’t have a conversation, you can’t sell a book. It’s a give and take. Potential buyers will tell you what they want, even if they can’t put it clearly into words. Listen to them and then you might have a book that can make a connection with them. I actually do a lot of repeat business at cons from people who tried one of my books and liked it enough to buy more a year later.
Know your con ahead of time. Some cons are more oriented toward movies and television, or art, or cosplay, and you might not be able to hustle enough sales to those people to cover your expenses. Some are expensive, and even with a good fan base you might end the weekend in the red even if you had decent sales. A huge con doesn’t necessarily mean huge sales. You could be a very tiny fish in a big ocean. Try to find readers’ cons, because those are the people who do love books and love to read them. Those are your people.
As far as things to avoid at cons, don’t let people who are clearly not going to buy something stand at your table and take up your time wanting to talk about aspects of your work (or their work!) at length. Every con has several of these people who will stand there talking at you and possibly preventing a new customer from coming up to take a look. You have to learn to recognize the difference between someone who wants a brief chat and someone who wants to suck away your day. Ask them if they’re going to buy something and if not, ask them to please clear the area. You’re a shopkeeper, and even though “the customer is always right,” they don’t get to be considered a customer unless they spend money with you. Otherwise, they’re just loitering.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask someone to buy. I’ve had more people come back to my table an hour or a day later after talking with them because they couldn’t stop thinking about one of the books after I’d talked about it with them. That’s how you sell stuff. Plant seeds; they’ll grow.
Thank you, Ian.