An Interview with Sean Wright
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.
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
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
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
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?
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!
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
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: 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 www.nickgifford.co.uk.
© Nick Gifford 2005.
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