Tuesday, May 26, 2015

From Writing a Quarterly Literary Journal to Writing Novels: Author Interview with Michael Hurley

You had a long successful career as an attorney and then sold your practice to move to the coast and start a sailing charter business. How did you go from a high-power to wind-driven career? What was that like?
I loved the intellectual judo of trial practice, but while it tested my wits and afforded me a good living, it never really fed my soul. The long days, nights, weekends and missed vacations spent working seemed less and less worth the years of my life that I was trading for the money.  

Have you always loved sailing?
I had sailed as a boy with my brother on Chesapeake Bay and loved the freedom of it. When I took my first job as a lawyer at twenty-six, I also bought my first sailboat—a 16-foot day sailor. After my second child was born eight years later, I felt a sense of urgency that if needed to do something more personally fulfilling with my life or at least more enjoyable. I saw myself trudging off each day to a closeted office in a building where I would argue with other people closed up in their offices about who was entitled to a pile of money closed up in some other office---all so that one day, as a tired old man, I would get to retire and play a few rounds of golf somewhere before I died. It just seemed like a ridiculously bad trade-off to me—and it was—but I was also having was a rather ridiculous “early midlife” crisis. Clearly, if anyone needs to be trudging off to an office every day, it’s a man with two children under the age of two! 

 You've given us the reason to stay on the job, but you didn't. Why not?
Needless to say, my decision at age thirty-four of 34 to sell a successful law practice, move from Texas to North Carolina, and start a sailboat charter business surprised a lot of people and was not the smartest financial decision I ever made, but I’m glad I did it. I learned a great deal about myself and the world, and I knew I could always go back to the practice of law.  I very soon did just that, but I continued to look for other outlets for my wanderlust and creative energy. Twenty-three years later at age fifty-six, with my kids out of college and out on their own, I retired from the practice of law for good in order to devote more time to writing and sailing.  

You began writing and publishing a quarterly literary journal of wilderness canoeing after you moved to the East coast. What drove you to do a journal?
The journal was one of the creative outlets I developed while I continued to practice law.  It also gave me an excuse to go canoe-camping all over North America with my kids just as they were getting old enough to enjoy that.  The journal started as just a kitchen-table newsletter I put out for a few friends and family, with stories and maps and essays and photographs about the trips the kids and I were taking. Pretty quickly, though, it became this huge thing, with thousands of paying subscribers all over the country. Before long, my kids and I were spending two months out of each year on canoe trips for the journal. That made me an unlikely expert on wilderness canoeing, but it also taught me a lot about marketing and promotion in the publishing world, and it gave me confidence as a writer.
 
The press said some lovely things, comparing my writing to that of Hemingway and Annie Dillard and Thoreau and Robert Ruark.  It’s very humbling to me to be mentioned in that company. All the material I wrote for the journal has just been combined into a single hardcover volume spanning 784-pages. The book came out this March, and I’m delighted to have that as a legacy for my children that someday their own children can read.

 Your first novel was picked up by a traditional publisher, but you went indie on your next book. When did you decide to indie-publish?
I had just sold my sailing memoir, Once Upon A Gypsy Moon, to Center Street (an imprint of Hachette Book Group) when my agent asked me to hurry up and finish a first novel I’d been writing off and on for twenty years.  That novel was The Prodigal, but as it turned out it wasn’t appropriate for Center Street’s market. Center Street and FaithWords are two sides of the same coin, run by the same excellent editorial staff. Center Street publishes mostly nonfiction, but its novels are Christian fiction or thrillers that stay within boundaries of content acceptable to the Christian Booksellers Association—meaning as much murder and mayhem as you please, but no sex and profanity.

My agent suggested that I remove all the sex and profanity from The Prodigal in order to make it appealing to Center Street, but I considered these elements to be “baked in the cake.” A murderous villain who says “Oh, heck!” and characters who never take off their clothes or have premarital sex seemed contrived to me. I hadn’t really even been aware of Christian fiction as a genre until then, but when this issue came up I took a hard look at it. I noticed that the trade press didn’t seem to take these authors or their books very seriously. That’s not entirely true—there are some highly acclaimed Christian novels—but it seemed to be generally true. So, I left The Prodigal as I’d written it, my agent never presented it to Center Street, I published it through my own imprint Ragbagger Press a month later, and the agent and I later parted company as friends. 

All things considered, I’m glad I published The Prodigal as an indie novel. The Prodigal hasn’t sold a zillion copies, but it won a major literary award and was optioned for film by an Emmy-nominated producer. It also received glowing reviews in the trade press. Had I tried, I likely could have sold it for a small advance—probably not more than $5,000—to an small traditional publisher, but I would have spent two years trying to find one. I also would have had to sign over my rights and my control with no guarantee that the book would do well. Whenever I see traditionally published novels that are lower in the rankings or aren’t as popular on Goodreads as my books, I am reminded that traditional publishers don’t have a magic wand to make every book sell. The whole process has been a wonderful education in the publishing industry.

The sailing business didn’t have the same success as your law career; however, you did write Once Upon A Gypsy Moon from those experiences. Tell me about the writing and publishing process for the book.
Once Upon A Gypsy Moon is a divorce memoir about a man’s dark night of the soul. The 2,200 mile sailing voyage I made alone on my own boat after my divorce was my vehicle for telling that story.  It began as a series of essays that I wrote over a year and a half to help sort out my own healing process get my bearings.  They were bound and saddle stitched and sent to maybe seventy-five friends and members of my family, primarily to say to them and myself, “Hey, I’m still here, and I’m OK.” 

On a lark, I decided to collect these letters into a book and pitch the book to agents—something I’d never done before.  I received polite rejections from ninety-three of them until DCJA read the manuscript and loved it.  They signed me to a two-year contract. Don Jacobson, my agent at DCJA, received a $40,000 offer for the book from Hachette and a $20,000 offer from Thomas Nelson, but when he turned those down and suggested he might put the book out for auction to the rest of the Big 5 (then the Big 6), Hachette increased their offer to $75,000, and we took it.  I was equally thrilled and astonished.

The manuscript was already very clean by the time it got to Hachette, so the book went through only one round of copyediting by the publisher before it was published as a proof.  To their credit, they never tried to change the style or substance of the story.  Joey Paul, the editor at Center Street, loved the book so much he made it the cover of Center Street’s spring catalog in 2013.  

Looking at your various book reviews, it seems you know how to work social media? How did you get so perceptive?
When Center Street bought my memoir I worked with their in-house publicity department, and they also hired an outside publicist.  I learned a great deal about the roll-out process from them. However, what I also learned is that no one is going to promote an author’s book as well or as tenaciously as the author himself.  My two indie-published novels have been much more widely reviewed than my traditionally published memoir, and both have made it onto bookstore shelves.  

I write character-centered literary fiction, which sells in a completely different and much smaller market than plot-driven genre fiction.  Most self-published genre fiction sells in eBook format. Most of my titles sell in hardcover, through bookstores. My hardcovers outsell my paperbacks ten to one, and my paperbacks outsell my eBooks ten to one. So, while I have a lot of blog reviews for which I am very grateful, the fact remains that book blogs are concerned mostly with the genre fiction market—romance, Sci-Fi, young adult, paranormal, thriller, and adult contemporary (soft porn) being the biggest. 
 
What has boosted sales of my books more than anything else are good reviews in widely circulated trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and Chanticleer, because those are read by independent booksellers and librarians who order books and recommend them to their readers.  It’s a slow process that hasn’t made me a lot of money, but it has given my books some modest recognition and respect in the traditional publishing world.
 
How do you write? Did you do an outline first? Did you do individual character development before doing the full plot?
I write without an outline. I begin with maybe one or two distinct characters who have been living in my head for a while and a general sense of the arc of their story. I give them a voice and a personality, and as these characters begin to think and speak and act in their world, they create situations that lead to encounters and conflicts with new characters whom I in turn bring to life. The web grows and, as they say, “the plot thickens.”  It’s like filling in the edges of a painting, but the characters themselves are moving the brush.  This takes time, which is why the chief complaint by readers of genre fiction about literary fiction is that the story moves too slowly. 

My idea for a story when I begin writing never turns out to be exactly the story I write. The characters do and say things I didn’t consider at the start. I try to be open to serendipity in the lives of my characters, but to allow that to happen I must first make them multi-dimensional and layered, like real people.   

What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner?
I wasted a lot of time setting up my books on Createspace and trying to market them to bookstores before learning that bookstores generally don’t stock Createspace titles. That’s because Createspace won’t accept returns and won’t offer bookstores the same discount offered by industry wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Createspace offers something called “Expanded Distribution,” but all that means is that a bookstore can look up a Createspace title online and order it if a customer comes in and asks for it specifically. A bookstore isn’t going to buy copies of a Createspace title just to put it on the shelf where store browsers who might not already know about the book can see it and decide to buy it. That’s because unlike every other title in the store, they can’t send a Createspace title back if it doesn’t sell.

Ingram launched a program in 2013 called IngramSpark that allows self-publishers to offer high-quality print-on-demand paperbacks and hardcover titles to bookstores, returnable and at the standard industry discount. What that means for self-publishers who have titles with Ingram Spark is that bookstores can order their titles from the same catalog and on the same terms as they can order a bestseller from the Big 5.  All I need to do today is tell a bookstore that my title is available through Ingram, returnable and at the standard discount, and the bookstore knows exactly what to do. As a result, I sell most of my books now through brick-and-mortar bookstores.  Ingram sends my listing to online sites like Amazon, so when someone orders my book online, it still comes from Ingram.

I know a lot of indie authors go the eBook route because of the potential cost of dealing with book returns from stores. How do you deal with that?
Returns are an issue with the POD model, there's no doubt. Because the print costs are higher with POD books, you earn less per book sold. If a bookstore returns your book, the entire sum refunded to the bookstore is charged to your account by Ingram. Returns of 25% are common with traditionally published books, but returns at that rate would completely wipe out the profits from a POD paperback from which the author might earn only a buck or two per book.
 
In fact the author can wind up owing Ingram for the cost of returns at that rate. In my opinion Ingram needs to start bearing some of the risk of returns or reducing its print charges. This would increase authors' earnings and reduce the cost to bookstores while also reducing the cost of returns born by authors---making it less risky to accommodate large orders.
 
However, for emerging authors Ingram's service is still a good deal, because indie bookstores are typically ordering five or fewer copies at at time, and at that rate the bookstores tend to hold onto those copies longer and discount what doesn't sell right away. Barnes & Noble is a different story. They buy in bulk but also return quickly and aggressively, and with POD the author who is selling a lot of books to B&N can quickly go into arrears. I don't pitch B&M's small press dept anymore for that very reason.
 
As for the return system at Ingram, the author typically specifies that returns should be destroyed after they are returned to Ingram. You can specify that returns be shipped to the author, but for an additional charge. I know Ingram has some changes planned for later this year that may address these concerns.  
 

What is the best advice you've been given about writing or that you've learned that you would like to pass along?
Justice Louis Brandeis said it best: “There is no great writing, only great re-writing.”  I typically go through eight to twelve drafts of a novel before I’m ready to show it to editors.

I know you have a new book in the works about that will tie into your upcoming passage to Ireland. How did this story come about? 
A woman from Dublin sitting at my table at a publishing conference in Washington state, last year, commented when I ordered a Guinness that they taste much better in Ireland. The idea for a book about an old self-loathing bastard, living on his boat and going nowhere, who meets and falls for a young Irish girl in a bar, developed from there. I will be sailing exactly the same size of model boat as the one appearing in the story, a thirty foot ketch, and accumulating details about the passage for the book along the way.  But, unlike the protagonist in the book, I won’t be taking any crew—stowaways or otherwise!

Any last tips you'd like to leave for my readers?
Chanticleer Reviews has been an excellent resource for me, and winning their book contest got me a movie deal for The Prodigal.  I don’t know of a higher recommendation I can give than that.  Their site is at www.chantireviews.com.

That's all for today's interview. If you'd like to learn more about Michael and his books, you can do so by visiting his website at  www.mchurley.com