I am delighted to be able to bring you another interview in our featured series on local authors. Mitchell Hogan is arguably one of Australia's rising stars, and in his short career so far has stormed the speculative fiction world with his Sorcery Ascendent trilogy. Mitchell graciously took time out of his busy schedule to chat to Smash Dragons about various topics, including who he would use in his zombie apocalypse team!
Mitchell Hogan, welcome to Smash Dragons, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven and have been reading fantasy and sci-fi ever since. I’d always had ideas for characters and scenes, and a magic system, but one day I woke up and realised if I didn’t write the book I’d always wanted to write, I probably never would. I didn’t want to regret not following that dream, so I resigned from my job and started writing. I definitely bit off more than I could chew and it took a long time to work out what I was doing wrong. Luckily I wasn’t too proud to ask for help, and in the end I managed to massage my terrible first draft into something that wasn’t too shabby!
I wasn’t aware of what was happening in the industry or with the ebook shadow industry until March 2013, and that’s when I decided to self publish my novel and see what happened. I put together as professional a product as I could and to my surprise sales took off almost straight away. This allowed me to keep writing and I put out the sequel 10 months later. In between releases, my first book won the 2013 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Why did you become a writer? What are the best and worst things about being a writer?
I didn’t intentionally become a writer. And by that I mean writing as a full time job. I had some ideas and thought I could write a good fantasy novel, but the idea of making a living from writing seemed like it was out of reach for most professional writers let alone a novice. I thought once I released my first book I’d have to go back to my old job and try and finish the series on weekends and holidays. I’ve been fortunate and I’m now able to write full time. For that I have to thank readers for taking a chance on an unknown author.
The best thing is you’re doing what you love, and receiving fan emails or comments from readers who enjoyed your books. When you receive fan email it’s a great feeling, and I still respond to every one of them.
The worst is probably the solitude. A combination of factors means I hardly get out of the house these days. I feel like a hermit! But I won’t be getting on the epic fantasy author beard bandwagon...
Every writer has a different creative process and method. Can you shed some light on yours? Are you an architect or a gardener?
Most definitely a gardener, which I’ve also heard termed a pantser or discovery writer. My first book started out as a series of unrelated scenes and characters. I wrote their first chapters, then sat back and decided which one I wanted to be the main character, and came up with some ideas on how to weave the stories together. Luckily a lot of ideas come to me while I’m writing, and the characters take on a life of their own, so I’m often surprised with what happens!
But after the first book in a series you obviously know more about the direction the plot and characters have to take, so there’s less gardening.
You stormed onto the scene with your Sorcery Ascendant books in 2013. What challenges did you initially face in getting those books off the ground? I have read that you originally took the more traditional path to publishing but later switched to self-publishing. Why was that?
My biggest challenge was I had no idea what I was doing! I had no idea what the industry was like, nor what the latest developments were. Late 2012-early 2013 I was naive about the industry. I still thought it was ‘get a publisher’ or perish. I even went to a supposed ‘self publishing’ seminar at my local library and came out thinking what a bad idea self publishing was – because the seminar was given by vanity presses who wanted you to pay for small print runs so you could try to sell to bookstores on your own. Ebooks weren’t even mentioned. These days if I had the misfortune to be at a similar ‘seminar’ I’d hammer them so badly they wouldn’t know what hit them.
Around February-March 2013 a few things led me to realize how big the ebook revolution was, and how many authors were selling ebooks, some of them even making a living. At this stage I was still submitting to agents and trying to perfect my query letter, because I thought that was the only option... Then I came across a copy of David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital, and had it open on my pc for a week while I took notes and re-read it a few times. It was an eye opener. I made a decision to self publish, checked out a few editors, decide on Derek Prior (who’d edited for fantasy authors like David Dalglish), chose a professional cover designer, put together my first ebook in a few months, and released it at the end of July 2013. I was fortunate, and my sales took off. Some mystical combination of the title, cover, blurb and sample led to readers taking a chance on it.
The biggest challenge isn’t the work involved with self publishing. As a matter of fact it’s not that much work and many things you’d have to do anyway if you were picked up by a publisher. But navigating all the conflicting advice out there was quite difficult. There are plenty of writers who absolutely believe their way is the best way. That you shouldn’t even try other options because you’re doomed to fail, and those authors the other ways worked for are flukes and you shouldn’t take their advice. For example, would you believe it if I said people told me my book was too long and I should split it into three parts? Or that because this was my first book I should price it at free or $0.99 otherwise I’d never sell anything? Now, I’m not knocking these tactics because they work for a lot of authors. Loss leaders have been a cornerstone of commerce for thousands of years. But I wrote a book I thought was comparable to traditionally published epic fantasy novels. That’s what I wanted to write, and I think I struck close to the mark. So in the end I left the book at 550 pages and priced it a little under traditionally published epic fantasy novels, at what I thought was a fair, professional price. And it worked.
You are arguably one of the success stories of self-publishing, with A Crucible of Souls selling thousands of copies after its release. What, in your opinion, is the key to self-publishing? What are the advantages and disadvantages when compared to more traditional publishing?
I’ll start out by stating a truth some authors don’t like hearing. Comparing advantages and disadvantages of self publishing vs traditional publishing is really only of benefit if you can choose to do either. Anyone who frames it as a choice is misleading you. You can choose to self publish, but you can’t choose to traditionally publish. Instead you choose to submit yourself to the industry, and by that I mean agents and then possibly a publisher. If you can choose, then that’s privilege.
With that out of the way, the key to self publishing is putting out as professional a product as you can, and then marketing the hell out of it while you write your next book. Keep writing, keep releasing, keep being professional. Write, edit, release, market, repeat.
Advantages and disadvantages... somewhat controversial but I’ll bite ;)
Traditional advantages: Money up front (yay!), but usually not a lot of money, and likely the only money you’ll ever see for that contract (80% of contracts don’t earn out the advance); editing/covers/formatting you don’t have to pay for yourself; print distribution; “legitimacy” of being anointed – and yes a lot of readers still look for this; marketing and promotion; easier to sell foreign rights and audio.
Traditional disadvantages: Slow; ebooks priced too high; loss of control by author; royalties (if any) paid twice a year; low royalty rates; difficult to break into.
Self pub advantages: Speed (it took me 3 months to edit, format, and get my first book out there from the time I made the decision); control (you retain control over everything. Want to change your price? Done. New cover? Done. Tinker with your book description? Done.); retention of rights; paid monthly; higher royalty rates (though technically not royalties, you pay a retailers fee and keep the rest...); anyone can do it.
Self pub disadvantages: Have to pay up-front costs yourself (editing, covers, proofreaders, marketing, formatting); difficult to market, not a lot of opportunities and they’re all based around price pulse promotions (dropping your price to free or $0.99c); lack of visibility/exposure, which is really a competition problem.
Where did the idea for A Crucible of Souls come from?
It started out as a mish-mash of ideas and characters. I enjoy stories about people discovering they have magic powers and their journeys to uncover their true abilities and that’s the story I wanted to write. Yes, the orphan boy discovers he has magical powers is a well worn trope (a classic), but there’s a reason for that. The book evolved quite a way from my initial draft, and it’s much better for it.
What is your best quality as a writer?
Knowing my limitations and when to ask for help. I’ve also learned a lot about the industry over the last few years, and because of that I think I’m making well reasoned decisions.
What is your worst writing habit?
Not being able to get started. I really struggle to start once I sit down to write. It’s pretty bad. I’ve resorted to little tricks to try and make it easier, such as recording my word count for the day then writing a bit more so the next day I don’t sit down and have a big zero staring at me...
You are an avid fan of science fiction as well as fantasy. Which genre has had more of an impact on shaping who you are today?
Fantasy, definitely. The different genres satisfy different needs for me, with some crossover. But good fantasy is like living in your dreams – at least to me it is! My favourite fantasy is a series where the characters are always progressing and improving themselves, whether it’s their own character, martial abilities, or through magic. And that carries over to what I like about RPGs and MMOs, the constant improving and gaining of new abilities. As a consequence I’m always looking to improve myself and develop the skills that I have. And I think I owe that to reading fantasy.
You recently signed a three-book deal with Harper Voyager to release your Sorcery Ascendant trilogy. Can you take me into this process, and can we expect to see much change to the story when they are released later this year?
After HV approached me we had an informal chat, and they put together an offer. From initial offer to signing took 4 months. We were breaking new ground in a lot of ways, for both of us. I wanted to do right by the readers who’d put me in this position, and HV did their best to accommodate my wishes. A lot of self published authors will think I’m crazy for signing, and a lot of traditionally published authors will wonder why I self published in the first place.
The story will not change, but the books will be re-edited. Since Audible have the audio rights I have to make sure book 3 flows on from the original version. What HV and I will do is chip away and sculpt the books into the best version we can, which may mean cutting some minor POV scenes, tightening the language and dialogue etc.
Does this deal mean the release of the third book will be pushed further back?
Yes. I know this will cause some concern for readers but HV and I worked together to bring the date forward as much as we could. We were already working on the series before the contract had been signed to ensure publishing dates didn’t have to be pushed out.
I’ll also endeavour to put out extra content in the world of the Sorcery Ascendant Sequence so fans have something to enjoy while they’re waiting. There are a lot of cut scenes which, while they don’t work as short stories, would interest some readers.
And of course I hope to have other novels finished by the time the third book is released.
There seems to be a growing trend amongst authors to utilise both traditional publishing and self-publishing (Brian McClellan springs to mind). Will this be the path you take now that you broken through with your deal with Harper Voyager?
Authors are cottoning onto the fact that going hybrid is the best option these days. I’d like to continue to self publish but it really depends on what happens with this series. If it doesn’t sell well I mightn’t have any choice! But if it does sell well then I’ll be in a better negotiating position for another series.
If I self publish I’ll still look to sell audio and foreign rights, so I’ll still be signing publishing contracts just not for the English print/ebook rights.
How did it feel to win an Aurealis Award so soon after releasing A Crucible of Souls?
It was a big shock. Huge. I never expected a self published novel would be shortlisted, let alone win Best Fantasy Novel. I was in a bit of a daze the rest of the night, and it still bemuses me when I think about it.
What it shows is that self publishing is maturing, and authors are learning (most of them..!) They’re putting out some great work and selling really well. Indie books have cornered a significant portion of the ebook market (30%+), and we’ll see more of them popping up in awards shortlists and as winners.
Craziest thing a fan has ever said to you?
So far all of the fan emails, FB posts and Tweets have been great! One fan did say they would have preferred only one POV throughout the books, and I should check out books that did this for some tips…
No pics of tattoo’s based on my series yet...
What do you think of the current state of Australian speculative fiction? Is there anyone in particular who has gone unnoticed that we should look out for in 2015?
Australian speculative fiction is doing really well, plenty of diversity and new books coming through, though I think it’s at a crossroads. Self publishing is strengthening, and we’ll soon catch up to the rest of the world in that regard. Which means there will be unknown authors popping up with great books and sales and people will be wondering where they came from! Which is a good thing.
There are a couple of dark horses who I believe will come into their own in the next year or two. One is DK Mok, who is already an Aurealis Award shortlisted author. She has an epic fantasy novel (Hunt for Valamon) coming out in May 2015 through a small press.
And the other is Matt Karlov, who self published his first epic fantasy novel (The Unbound Man) in September last year. I’m in awe of DK whose enthusiasm and knowledge makes me want to be a better writer, and with Matt whose professionalism was a step above mine in the way he went about self publishing.
You can pick three other authors to have in your zombie apocalypse team. Who would they be, and why? (For example I would take Alan Baxter because of his fighting prowess)
That would depend on the type of zombies. The Walking Dead zombies move slower than the Z Nation zombies, and the I am Legend zombies are extremely strong and fast, but the Chinese jiangshi zombies are a different kettle of entrails. If it’s Walking Dead zombies I reckon you could get away with just about any other author who can swing a baseball bat or similar implement. So for these zombies I’m fairly open. Whoever survives the initial event and is around after a few weeks should be able to hack it!
I’ll go to the other extreme and consider the I am Legend zombies, which one-on-one would tear you apart unless you were some sort of combat expert—so the deal with them would be to avoid at night and scavenge in daylight hours. In that case you’d need a mix: survival experts, all-rounders, people you can rely on. In that case, I’d go with Joe Nobody (a self published survivalist/prepper); someone to keep our spirits up, and able to tear zombies apart with his bare hands, Jay Kristoff; and someone tough, and smart, with a lot of common sense to stop us doing something stupid, DK Mok.
The jiangshi zombies are somewhere in the middle. There are a surprising amount of ways to counter them, but most are obscure like “blood of a black dog” or “anything made from the wood of a peach tree”. Really the best way is to write a spell on yellow paper using chickens blood as ink, and stick it on its forehead. You’d need authors who can write in Mandarin and aren’t squeamish at the sight of blood. If you know any, let me know.
What are you working on right now?
I have two projects going at the moment. I’m working on the third book of the Sorcery Ascendant Sequence, the first draft is 2/3 complete, plus I’ve just finished a science fiction novel. I have to concentrate on fantasy now with my HV deal as I actually have a deadline!
Today I put the finishing touches on my SF novel, after incorporating a ton of beta reader feedback. I’m on the fence about whether to self publish or to pitch it to publishers. I’d really like to keep a few self published works, but self publishing isn’t going away. It’s something I’ll have to decide in the next week or two.
Can we expect to see you at any conventions or events in 2015? (I would dearly LOVE to get my Sorcery Ascendant copies signed! Hehe)
Ha! I think only friends and family have signed copies at the moment! I might turn up at some events - Supanova has been mentioned in my hearing... I would also love to go to the Aurealis Awards again this year.
Finally, best advice for aspiring writers?
There’s so much advice out there it can be hard to figure out what’s good advice and what’s bad. I hope this is good advice: be professional. There’s writing, and the business of writing. You need to be good at both to succeed. Write for yourself, but look at publishing as a business. This is your intellectual property, it has inherent value. More authors need to realise this. Publishers don’t assume all the risk of publishing, the author has shouldered significant risk just by producing a manuscript: time, material outlay, and opportunity cost.
And finish that first draft! Don’t agonise over it, get it done and then revise. You can’t fix something that isn’t written. There are many ways to become skilled at something. Working with, and learning from, an editor (or critique group/beta readers) is far more efficient than going over the same manuscript yourself a dozen times until you hate it.
Mitchell Hogan, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons!
Thank you for the opportunity.
Mitchell's books (see the awesome covers above!) can be found online at all good ebook retailers, and I would implore you all to go out and purchase them. Mitchell can also be contacted online at twitter, and his website. Trust me, he is a nice guy!
Tune in again in a couple of days, when Keith Stevenson chats to Smash Dragons about publishing, writing, and why he started coeur de lion.