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An Interview with Sean Wright

by Nick Gifford

Wicked or What? by Sean WrightFounder of Crowswing Books, which publishes both his own books and those of others (including Paul Finch, Lisa DuMond, Allen Ashley and Geoff Maloney), Sean Wright stands out as an example for anyone who wants to make an impression in the publishing world. Self-publishing is a perfectly valid route for an author to take, and many fine writers have already been down this path, but it takes something special to make a success of it. Sean Wright's recognition by Book and Magazine Collector magazine as one of the world's fifteen most collectible children's authors is one of many indications that he has that something special -- both as a publisher, and as the author of many well-received books for children, young adults and adults.

I interviewed him in October 2005, just as two more of his titles became available: the novel for adults and young adults, Wicked Or What? (October 2005), and the anthology, New Wave of Speculative Fiction: The What If Factor (September 2005).

Nick Gifford: Crowswing Books started out as an outlet for your own fiction, and it has been incredibly successful for such a venture, with your work topping bestseller lists, picking up both critical acclaim and prominent shop displays, and has led to you being listed as one of the fifteen most collectible children's authors. Obviously, the books themselves play an important part in that success, but there must be more to it than merely (!) publishing good books: what are the ingredients of Crowswing's success?

Sean Wright: You know, it's a question I've been asked a lot since the Hatchard's Authors of the Year reception. I think the commercial success (relatively speaking from a small press perspective) has astounded many folk in the publishing world. I can tell you, it's certainly astounded me. Children's authors Michelle Paver and Jonathan Stroud have asked me similar questions. These are writers with major publishers and substantial advances yet they are fascinated by the commercial success of Crowswing. "How have you achieved such recognition in such a short time?" The simple answer is this: I'm not aware of any secret ingredient to success at all, except perhaps 90% hard graft and 10% lucky breaks, which resulted in the hard work in the first place. That's the simple answer.

Jesse Jameson and the Golden Glow by Sean WrightHere's the complex answer, much more interesting. It's a string of events that reads like a fiction in itself. The first book I released -- Jesse Jameson and the Golden Glow -- was about an eleven year old heroine called Jesse -- a girl with a boy's name who discovered she could shape-shift into any creature imaginable. A fun fantasy book aimed at the 8+ market. The limited edition hardback run -- 500 copies -- sold out before publication, and almost 3000 paperback copies have been sold in two and half years. Word of mouth sales -- one and all. Not a penny spent on advertising. And so it went on with the following books in the series, only the print runs were much bigger -- 2500 copies which again sold out for Books 2 and 3. When The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor was published in October 2004 -- my first teenage-adult sci-fi/fantasy/horror novel -- I got very lucky. Waterstone's said that they wanted to feature it in their Xmas Promo on a nationwide scale. What this meant was prime exposure in their 3 for 2 bays and signed edition bays. 2200 paperbacks were sold by word of mouth during the ten week promo from a print run of 3000. I'm rather chuffed at that sales record from a small press perspective, and what followed was national exposure in The Guardian and The Observer. Foyle's have, like Hatchard's in Piccadilly, played a vital role in the success of the books, giving them prime exposure at point of sale. This is key. Point of sale visibility. Plus word of mouth.

NG: You've taken an unusual route to finding your audience -- would you recommend self-publishing for other authors?

SW: No. It's a nightmare. Honestly, there is so much to learn. The sceptic in me looks back and thinks: you were mad to do it that way, but the final decision came about via an informed choice. I did my market research, thoroughly. It took over a year to get an accurate picture of distribution, printing, costings, marketing, and a hundred and one other things that you need to know when launching a book. I thought this is do-able. I can write what I want, and make money. It sounds rather innocent in a market driven by major publishers and High Street bookstore chains. So far, I've been lucky. Very lucky. Perhaps it's the independent spirit -- the battling against all the odds -- which folk have picked up on. Although I'm sure it's more complex than that, but I'm not hiring an independent research poll to find out precisely what factors have attracted so many book buyers Crowswing's way. We have built up a loyal and expanding customer base, worked closely with independent booksellers and major chains, as well as offering the Crowswing Online bookshop. We also have built up our presence at Worldcon and Fantasycon this year, and will be present at the British Science Fiction Association's Eastercon in Glasgow in April 2006. So I guess there are many ways to buy a Crowswing book.

NG: What lessons have you learnt -- in doing it all yourself -- that might be important for authors who take the more conventional route?

SW: Firstly, I'm hardly qualified to lecture others on how to sell their own work. I'm not a guru -- in fact I shy away from the very notion of being an expert, and my novels talk about NOT blindly following leaders like Lia-Va (the anti-heroine princess of Jaarfindor), unless you want to lose control of who you are, and what you believe. So this is not a lecture, but an observation of my own experience. It's the only thing that's valid, to me. To others it might be completely worthless. See -- there's the disclaimer. Now, from my humble perspective what you need to succeed commercially is a very tough persona. I refuse to take no for an answer. It sounds very simplistic on paper, I know, but my advice is NEVER give up. If you get rejected, get the next story out, get writing, send out more enquiries, don't stand back, but bounce right back up again and push yourself forward. You've got to believe in yourself, even if it seems that no else does. You know, it might seem like an overnight success with Crowswing, but I've been writing seriously for over 30 years. That's one hell of a long apprenticeship!

NG: You've been incredibly successful in getting attention for your books, but do you ever wish you could just leave, say, all the marketing and publicity to someone else? Or do you revel in rolling your sleeves up and doing it all your way?

SW: If only there was someone out there who could promote a writer's work half as well he or she can. That's the truth of it. Marketing and publicity can be bought, but it doesn't guarantee sales. Word of mouth recommendations, now that's what sells books. Radio and TV interviews do not sell many books unless you get on a major show like Richard and Judy, or Oprah. Articles, interviews and reviews in print sell books. Winning or being short-listed for awards may have a knock on effect, depending on the prestige of the award. It's simple really, in theory, but in practice very hard to get yourself noticed. There's a lot of competition out there.

I think that may be true in one sense: your name is out there and through brand or word association folk might enquire more deeply into what you write and hand over their hard-earned cash to take a look. Hopefully they'll be intrigued enough to read the book to its finish and buy the next one. On the other hand, if you are a sensitive person who yearns for adoration by readers, writers, and booksellers, then dream on! Any writer worth his blood, sweat and tears MUST have something to say that either really gets the reader fired up because they deliver a killer story that grips, or they really get on the reader's nerves with their idiosyncratic imagination and visions. Being deliberately controversial is an art form in itself. M. John Harrison is a master of it, and so too is China Mieville, Hal Duncan (all the signs of a great self-publicist -- drunken, foul-mouthed, opinionated -- just joking Al), and Stephen King. And the controversy I'm talking about comes in the form of the quality of stories and the intellectual ideas they write about. Their work has enough zip and verve to interest people and clearly entertains enough to get them noticed.

Getting back to your original question. I've been lucky, so to speak, because I come from a PR background and I guess I understand a little of the mechanics. And yes, I do revel in doing it all my way in regards to PR, but only with my own work. I'd like to think that working closely with other Crowswing authors such as Andrew Hook (Beyond Each Blue Horizon), Allen Ashley (Urban Fantastic), Gary Fry (The Impelled and Other Head Trips) and at this moment in time David A. Sutton (Clinically Dead and Other Tales of the Supernatural) that I'm open to ideas and suggestions, both from the artistic point of view as well as the sales side. Perhaps you should ask them what they think?

NG: I think all writers benefit from editorial input: someone to ask the difficult questions, someone who can help you shape your work both on the grand structural scale and on the line by line, word by word, scale. In my experience I don't always agree with the editor and certainly don't always do what they ask, but I've always benefited from having those questions asked. How do you compensate for this when you self-publish? Do you find others to take on this role, or do you have some other solution?

SW: Firstly, I agree that editors have an important role in shaping a book, whether it's pointing out repetition or spotting a change in POV that doesn't quite feel right in the context of the whole. But I also hear writers who moan about their editors, that they are either too young, or too bossy, or too timid. Whatever. It seems that a lot of writers just don't get along with the editor who dares to unpick their precious prose. Perhaps it because the editor is paired up with the writer without much choice in the matter. I can understand that totally. It's a trust thing. In my head I say, Can I trust that person to read this newborn? Do I value their opinion?

Dark Tales of Time and Space by Sean WrightMoving on: there's a whole host (literally) of folk who read my books before they are published, from my wife, Trish -- my biggest critic -- to a couple of respected authors themselves, as well as Marie O'Regan who not only does a wonderful job typesetting, but spots a lot of word level ambiguities. Andrew Hook at Elastic Press kindly read Dark Tales of Time and Space before it was let free on readers, and he did a great job. He asked those difficult questions, and suggested changes or re-thinks. Of course, it helps that I respect Andrew as a writer and editor (his double British Fantasy Award win was no accident), and it's the respect angle that might make me shift on a point or two. Having said that, I'm a bit long in the tooth now and set in my ways (clichés intended). Andrew Hook thought that one section in particular of Dark Tales of Time and Space should have been trimmed considerably, but I had my reasoning at hand. I said something like, "I know what I meant when I wrote that passage in Dark Tales of Time and Space where Ellen waffles on and on, like the surreal train ride to Journey's End, boring Joey Steffano and hopefully the reader to a near death experience themselves." It was an extended metaphor, perhaps the longest in the world! Perhaps not. My motto in this case was hyperbole, over-show, not tell. Some folk liked it, others didn't. It got a reaction, just as my teenage books tend to do. Usually strong ones from readers, reviewers and critics alike. That's healthy. As the writer, my vision is all important; my imagination the crux of my expression.

NG: Are you ever tempted to take your work to a mainstream publisher?

SW: Yes -- they hate it. Bloomsbury, Collins, Hodder -- they all run a mile! No, just joking. There has been significant interest, but no takers willing to cough up an advance sizeable enough for me to retire to the sunny climes of Bognor Regis. What I say is this: what can a major do for my career that I'm not already doing with Crowswing? I know the answer is plenty if the right deal comes along, but the bottom line is business and cash. Writers are dropped if they don't make the publisher money. Harsh, but true. And your sales record is carried with you, all there in black and white on Nielsen Bookdata's sales figures. From the major publisher's point of view, if you invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in an author and his book, then you want a return, and you'll pull out all the stops to get it. I am a firm believer in effort equals reward, but building a reputation as a writer takes years. It's a long term commitment, and the writing is what counts for the author and the reader. For the publisher, the driving force is cash, profit forecasts, and potential markets that can turn the book into a financial success, although some may deny this, saying that it's art for art's sake. Not true. The industry has always been cash-driven, and always will be.

So my books have done the rounds, so to speak. Here comes the name checking. Back in August 2003, I was in the delightful position of having two well-known literary agents vying to take me on as a client. Paul Moreton at Bell-Lomax and David Smith at The Annette Green Agency. I opted for David Smith, after a torturous few weeks thinking about which way to go. Eddie Bell is a publishing legend, and not an easy man to turn down. For past 18 months, another publishing legend, former head at Picador, Peter Straus has represented my work with a view of securing huge wads of cash with a major publisher.

There have been positive in-roads made in regard to majors and influential individuals picking up the books because of word of mouth -- such as Jo Fletcher from Orion, who dug deep into her pocket (or perhaps Orion's expense account!) and bought both Dark Tales of Time and Space and The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow back in August. Helen Gbala also bought Dark Tales of Time and Space with a view of considering it for the Worldcon's Golden Duck awards next year. Last year, GP Taylor took Books 1 and 2 in the Jesse Jameson series to Bloomsbury and Faber on my behalf. David Smith at the Annette Green Agency pitched the Jesse Jameson books to all the majors you can think of. Peter Straus at RCW in London has pitched my books to majors since June 2004. I've been close with a major deal -- Transworld held a special all day meeting, regarding Jesse Jameson -- but passed in the end. The idea of a 26 novel series just didn't appeal to them! As a well-known literary agent said to me recently on hearing about Jaarfindor making the British Fantasy Awards Best Novella short-list for 2005: "Many congratulations on your spectacular, continuing confounding of the publishing world's prejudices." Perhaps an ample summary of the situation so far ... I repeat -- so far.

NG: Most of your work appears in series: specifically Jesse Jameson in the "Alpha to Omega" series, but even standalones like The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor (which itself hints at a sequel) and Dark Tales of Time and Space include references to your other work. What do you think it is that leads you to weave things together on a bigger canvas in this way?

SW: Jaarfindor is a world in my head. It transverses time and space, it's inter-dimensional. Existing both in time and out of time, depending up your locale and the character type, and existing in both the familiar world (although history and details may have been re-written) and alien landscapes that I hope border the weird territory of M. John Harrison's most imaginative pieces or Mervyn Peake's Gormengast. Like Hal Duncan's Vellum or Michael Moorcock's Multiverse it's limitless in its possibilities from an imaginative and alternate history point of view. But it's also self-contained, self-contained by my mindscape. In Wicked Or What? -- my new book published at the end of October 2005 -- I explore more of Jaarfindor and more of the myths and legends built up around Elriad and Finnigull. All of these realms or dimensions exist in both linear time and outside of it in a Multiverse that re-write alternate histories for us as humans, as well as slipstreaming notions of time as memory. There is after all only now, isn't there? The future has yet to happen, and the past is written. I am very taken with the points in time where history and myth merge -- blurring borders of recorded events. As a writer I like to play around with time, memory, mind, what is real or imagined, so-called mental illness, perceptions into other worlds of possibility, altered states of consciousness, paranoid delusions. A lot of mind-related issues that have become something of a taboo, but which many choose to discard, or dismiss, or under-value. Society has become very insular in one sense since the surge of inter-action with the internet. Many human relationships have broken down because the internet holds an alternative -- like fellow Crowswing author Eric Shapiro says: "The phenomenon of Real Dolls is less an extension of pornography than an extension of the disassociated cyber-culture that anxiously shrinks away from actual communication with other three-dimensional human beings."

NG: Your more recent books in particular are aimed at a very tricky part of the market: they're aimed at mid-teens and older. But by that age, most teenagers who read a lot will be reading material held in the adult sections of the bookshops and libraries, and wouldn't be seen dead in the children's sections. I suppose recent trends in adults reading children's books has helped your older audience find your books, but it's still a very difficult niche to carve out. What has your approach been?

SW: I'm not sure there is an approach really. I think word of mouth has played a large part in sales and readership. Market research claims that teenagers don't buy teenage books, but a lot of them do. And there are a lot of teenagers out there who read the books aimed at them -- and Lancashire County Library services directly engaged 12 to 14 year olds in the annual Children's Book of the Year Award where 400 children are judge and jury. Children's books from the 9+ market all the way to the teenage niche are incredibility popular, but I'm not sure why. Perhaps caring, foresighted young parents are buying books now so that their kids can read them when they're old enough, or maybe it's a nostalgia thing -- like collecting old and rare issues of the Marvel Comics. Surely it isn't all down to one writer who's made multi-millions from her Harry Potter books? The word I get from children's authors in-the-know is this: major publishers are seeking out "more realistic" books, and seem to be veering away from fantasy, such as sword and sorcery and magicians and dragons. Writers like Melvyn Burgess and Matt Whyman have had major bestsellers dealing with real-life, gritty issues, without using fantastic elements. Good luck to them.

NG: Your books contain plenty of sex and drugs and fairly extreme violence. Judging by my own school visits, the more blood'n'guts the better, but have you hit any resistance from the gatekeepers of children's fiction: the teachers, the librarians, the parents? After all, only a couple of weeks ago the Reverend GP Taylor was kicked out of a school for using the words bum, bogey and fart, and making a reference to Little Britain's "only gay in the village" sketch!

The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor by Sean WrightSW: Resistance is futile, isn't it? I haven't personally encountered this aspect, but then my Jesse Jameson books are rather tame in comparison to my work for the older teenager -- such as Jaarfindor.

GP Taylor is a master of PR and a friend of mine, so I don't want to comment on his goings-on that have been reported in the press, other than to speak from my own personal relationship with him. If it wasn't for GP Taylor's early support and interest in Jesse Jameson, Jaarfindor would never have found its way into the Waterstone's Xmas promo last year. Graham was kind enough to phone me up during an immensely busy period in his life and talk me through the whole process of working with Waterstone's way back in November 2003. It was the year he'd become their Author of the Year, and he has a vast knowledge of the inner working of the publishing world. He has taken a lot of flak because he self-published his first book -- Shadowmancer -- but so what? He's since struck a $500,000 advance with Penguin-Putnam in the States, and Fortitude Films (makers of Titanic) paid him several million dollars for the film rights. He's a great showman, and a very nice guy. You know, there's a lot of jealousy revolving around Graham's success, because of the self-publishing route, and the vast sums of money involved. I've heard folk bitching about him at my own signing events in London. I've not a bad word to say about him. He's always had time for me and I appreciate that.

NG: Tell us about The New Wave of Speculative Fiction: The What If Factor and Wicked Or What? -- your two books for autumn 2005.

New Wave of Speculative Fiction by Sean WrightSW: New Wave of Speculative Fiction: The What If Factor is a collection of new short stories. The cover artwork is by the superb Richard Marchand. It's a small run paperback limited edition (300 copies). ISBN 1-905100-02-7. The anthology contains quality writing, speculation about what might be, a mix of horror, fantasy and sci-fi, as well as some new twists on classic themes. The stories I chose as editor for this book reflect the current demand for exciting writers prepared to break barriers and see this and other worlds with a fresh eye. Foremost, it is a modern contemporary anthology, a mix of established, emerging and previously unpublished writers. Like so many stories today, it combines and thus blurs the boundaries of slipstream, noirish, horror, sci-fi, thriller and fantasy. In many ways this is good. It gives writers of imagination a chance to explore beyond the borders of formulaic writing. But the distinction between horror and sci-fi, for example, is no longer straight forward when writing outside the formula. The book has an international flavour with writers from USA, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the UK. It includes stories from Allen Ashley, Andrew Hook, Michael Mirolla, Gary Moeser, Lisa DuMond, Che Ballard, Jeff Gardiner, Deborah Wright aka Sam Mills, P. Grey, Sian Orthello, Michelle Ponto, Paul Finch and Sean Wright.

Wicked or What? is published 29th October, and launched on that day at Hatchard's, Piccadilly, London. It's a limited edition of 700 standard hardbacks and 50 slipcased editions. It's my third teenage-adult crossover sci-fi/fantasy book. Wicked Or What? raises some serious issues about obesity, bullying, and the consequences of following an obsession to the bitter end. The book explores the territory of mind games and psychological dead ends, drawing on three legendary figures in fantasy, horror and sci-fi fiction: Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake, and Philip K Dick.

The story follows teenager Jamey O'Rooke, who has major problems besides the college bullies hounding him everywhere he goes. He thinks he's dead. Or perhaps he has been drugged and simply believes he's dead? For Jamey, it's hard to know where reality stops and the head games begin. His best friend, Layla, is not certain about Jamey anymore either. She believes he has taken their friendship over the edge, to a place of non-repair. Or is she behind the mind control, the obsession, and the dark forces that have taken over his life? In Jamey's world everything is wrong, different somehow, but he can't get out. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how far he runs. Jamey O'Rooke is trapped inside a forever-suffocating world and time has run out.

The character POV is split in three -- Jamey, Layla, and an enigmatic being called The Third who is woken from a Rip-Van Winkle type sleep from The Land of Unfulfilled Dreams -- a landscape familiar to Jesse Jameson readers. The book merges and blurs Jaarfindorian settings with places familiar in the Jesse Jameson books, and flits from the future to the past to the present day like Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway -- a stream of consciousness romp. There is an overwhelming sense of being locked and unable to escape from the main character's minds. Who's really in control? Whose narrative is it ultimately? It's not an easy read -- and was never meant to be -- in the sense that the mind games push and pull the reader first one way, then another, and in the sense that outcome is never certain, is wholly unpredictable, I hope, to even the most clued-up reader. It really is a last page cliff-hanger to discover the truth of the tale. Structurally, I've experimented a great deal with Wicked Or What?, never one to remain rooted in formulaic writing. So I guess I've tried to surprise the reader in the macabre elements and symbolic metaphor-rich text that dominate the book. Is it sci-fi, or fantasy, or horror? Take a look to find out.

NG: You've cited Peter Crowther and his wonderful PS Publishing as an inspiration, and Crowswing has expanded from being an outlet for your own work to publishing the work of others: where next for Crowswing? And for you as a writer, as the two are inevitably intertwined?

SW: Firstly, I admire Peter Crowther no end. I've said so in my acknowledgement pages and will go on record here again in applauding what Peter has done at PS Publishing. He's almost single-handedly revived the small press scene in Britain with quality of product (the physical book itself) and with the vast array of quality writers he publishes. But he's not alone here in the UK in regard to quality between the pages. Andrew Hook at Elastic Press has built up a strong catalogue in a short time, and Chris Teague at Pendragon and David Howe at Telos are doing a fine job. As Graham Joyce said at Fancon 2005: "The British Small Press scene has never been in better shape in terms of quality and vibrancy."

So, where next for Crowswing? My aim is to publish quality limited edition fiction from quality writers. I want to work with writers who can add another imaginative and visionary dimension to Crowswing. Whether these writers are already established or new to the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genres, it is quality that counts. Crowswing's expansion is evolving into novellas, novels, and single-author collections. Our list so far is strong, and it's my aim to build on the list. Personally, for my own writing, I'd love to write a book that strikes a chord with millions of readers, but then wouldn't we all?

Nick Gifford is the author of several novels for teenagers, including the bestselling Piggies (Puffin, 2003) and the forthcoming Erased (Puffin, January 2006). His website can be visited at

© Nick Gifford 2005.

Jesse Jameson and the Golden Glow by Sean WrightThe Twisted Root of Jaarfindor by Sean WrightDark Tales of Time and Space by Sean Wright
New Wave of Speculative Fiction by Sean Wright
Wicked or What? by Sean Wright
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