Monday, October 01, 2012

The Gutter Margin (or How E Publishing Saved Me)

 So it's the first day of October, and to kick off my NaNoWriMo Prep series (see here), I have a special guest.  I don't have guests here that often, but Kealan Patrick Burke is one of my many author friends who have found success, creative fulfillment and financial stability through e publishing, and I thought you might find his story as inspirational as I have. It really speaks to why THIS IS THE TIME to be an author, like maybe no other time in history, plus his spooky work is perfect Halloween reading, and so I thought this would be a good way to jump start the month.

Please welcome Kealan Patrick Burke!

 The Gutter Margin (or - How E Publishing Saved Me)    

I’ve been writing since I was eight years old, submitting stories to magazines since my teens. On my eighteenth birthday, a story of mine appeared in an Irish writing magazine entitled, appropriately enough Writings. They hadn’t notified me (I discovered the story while flipping through one of the issues at a newsstand), and there was no payment, but at the time I didn’t care. It was the best birthday present I’d ever gotten. I promptly bought all the copies they had and sent them to friends and family members, who were suitably impressed. I was a writer, by gum, and I challenged anyone to debate the fact when I had the pub credit to prove it!

            Of course I later discovered that in order to qualify for publication in Writings magazine, all you had to do was send them something. Anyone could get published there, and rather than getting any compensation, you were out the cost of a stamp.

            Lesson learned.

            In 2001, a few weeks ahead of the 9/11 tragedy, I accepted the invitation to come to the states. The way I saw it, I had nothing to lose. I had exhausted all employment possibilities in Ireland and hadn’t written a word outside of bar-napkin soliloquys in about two years. It was to be a three-month stay with an American woman I had met while she was traveling Ireland. As a writer friend of mine once put it, I was “arguably the world’s first Irish mail-order husband”. Okay, so it wasn’t that cheap or that simple. We were good friends, but the marriage, at least in the beginning, was definitely one of convenience. That changed as time went on, and we got closer. It helped, selflessly on her part, selfishly on mine, when she proposed that I take two years to do nothing but concentrate on writing. If it was meant to be, she said, then two years would be enough to prove it. If not, I’d rejoin the workforce and become a worthwhile member of society (my words, not hers.) 

            It was a big risk. After all, though I’d been writing most of my life to that point, who was to say that I had any talent to back up my passion for the art—certainly not the sole credit in the come one, come all Writings magazine. 

            Well, call it luck, call it persistence, call it talent, or some combination of these, but the ability to just sit and write paid off. I got my share of rejections in the beginning, but used them to learn, and mere months since I embarked on this trial run, my stories began to get picked up by modest semi-pro magazines. I quickly learned to aim higher. Then, a year to the day that I accepted my wife’s gracious offer, I cracked my first professional market. From there, there was no turning back.

            Cut to two years later and my name was starting to become known in the small press. Strangers and peers recognized me at conventions. Professional editors started inviting me to contribute to their magazines and anthologies. Life was good. What wasn’t so good was the money. Short stories in professional paying magazines can net you about a nickel a word, ten to twenty cents a word at the high end (higher if you’re a big name, which I wasn’t.) It was good money, but not enough to allow me to feel as if I were repaying my wife’s investment in me.

            I started writing novellas. One of them, The Turtle Boy, struck a chord with readers and fellow writers for its nostalgic view of American childhood summers, and went on to win the Bram Stoker Award that year, beating out Stephen King’s novella-length version of Lisey’s Story in the same category. I think King probably deserved the award more, but you wouldn’t catch me admitting that back then. I was over the moon. Three years into my odyssey and I had won a prestigious award! I followed it with a sequel for Cemetery Dance Publications (a personal benchmark), a handful of novels (one of them for Subterranean Press, another benchmark!), edited some lauded anthologies featuring the biggest names in the genre (King among them), and had published hundreds of short stories. Things couldn’t be better.

            Naturally, because I’m a writer, not the most stable of vocations, and sometimes life outside the page feels compelled to intervene, it couldn’t last.

            Fast forward again to 2010. Things have taken a dramatic and depressing turn.

            I’m divorced (amicably, I may add; we’re still the best of friends, but conceded that the marriage thing, ill-advised in the beginning, had turned stale and given rise to surface tension we both knew was merely masking the true root of a deeper discord.) I live in a modest (read: claustrophobic) apartment, work ungodly hours as a fraud investigator (a job I liked, and was good at, but hated because it wasn’t writing), and haven’t written a word in years. My books, once trophies of pride, are packed in boxes in the closet because I have nowhere to put them. The Bram Stoker Award (a wicked cool little bronze haunted house) sits beside the TV wearing a patina of dust like a sad reminder of the good old days. The dream is over, and so is my “career” as a writer. I resign myself to this, but occasionally snap back to myself at work and realize I’m still trying to eke out stories, none of which I am ever likely to finish and which may in fact get me fired if I’m caught doing them on the clock.

            Frustrated, I get to thinking about ways to sell the rights to the stuff that’s already written. I quickly dismiss the idea of peddling my trunk stories (i.e. stories that I deemed unsellable and relegated to the file for such things), because I don’t want my name out there on sub-par work. Despite how far I’ve fallen, I still retain a measure of pride. I consider reworking them and know I no longer have the requisite concentration to see them through. So I turn my attention to the novels, the novellas, the collections, the dozens of titles stowed away in those boxes in the closet. New York publishers are unanimous in their appreciation for my skill, but equally (and eerily) unanimous in their lack of faith that it would sell, or that they could effectively market it. The small press publishers are in the market for new work only, and even then they’re being increasingly selective because the economy is in the toilet and finances are tight. Readers are just not as inclined to splurge on high-priced limited editions as they used to be.

            I start googling news articles on the state of publishing, just to pour salt in the wound. I have one wary eye on the clock because I have to be at work in five hours. And in my online travels, I keep seeing the words “digital”, “self-publishing”, and “Kindle”. I am peripherally aware of what all of this means, of course. At the height of my time in the small press, digital was a seldom heard of outlet for publishing, whereas self-publishing was viewed as toilet paper on the shoe of legitimate publishing, mostly because what it produced (with notable exceptions, of course) was sub-par amateurish pap, and usually via presses that gouged their writers. Quick-fix validation was the order of the day, it seemed. Writers unable or unwilling to go the traditional route either because of lack of knowledge, patience, or some subconscious awareness that their work wasn’t ready, turned to vanity presses. Writers, whether established or not, who took the digital route, found little success. Few people wanted to read on their computer screens, and the means to do so comfortably and conveniently, hadn’t yet come on the market to any significant degree.

            Then came the Kindle, and everything changed.

            That night, as I sat in my apartment wearing a heavy coat because the heating had broken for the tenth time in as many weeks, I found myself growing intrigued. The Internet was rife with success stories about folks who’d chosen the digital route. I noted names like Konrath, Eisler, Hocking, Locke, and read more about them. I was only familiar with Joe Konrath because our short fiction had appeared in many of the same magazines, and we moved in similar online circles. And so, like many others, I ended up at his blog, and slept not at all that night as I read what he had to say.

            The next morning, groggy and ill-prepared for the day ahead, I went to work.

            On my day off, I downloaded or read up on everything I could get my hands on about the digital publishing process. I already had something of a knack for graphic design, so that was no problem. The formatting proved to be the hardest part. So over the next few weeks, I studied and studied like I was prepping for a final exam, and I taught myself how to do it.

            In September of 2010, I put The Turtle Boy and some short stories up for sale. I followed it with The Hides, and eventually the other books in the Timmy Quinn series. By the end of the year, I’d managed to sell a grand total of 101 books, and made $134.00. And I was pleased. My expectations going into it had been grounded and realistic, because if my almost a decade in the small press had taught me anything, it was that lightning in a bottle is usually something that happens to other people. Try to duplicate it and you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And this was alien territory for me. So when I started, I expected nothing to happen, that my books would remain just as forgotten in their digital box as their physical counterparts had. When the books started to sell a copy here and there, I was delighted. The sales were just enough to cover the gas bill every month, and I thought that was pretty damn cool.

            In January of 2011, the post-Christmas rush resulted in over a hundred sales for the month, and I was ecstatic. It didn’t even matter that February’s total was a quarter of that. Finances were dismal after Christmas and a couple of hundred dollars was a welcome bonus.

            Fast forward again to August of 2011. The Turtle Boy, about 88 pages in print, and the first of a five book series, had changed things for me back in 2004 when it won the Stoker. I had no idea that making it a free download was going to change things again. I had already made it free at Smashwords, and so a week into that month, Amazon price-matched it. Downloads were through the roof, and as a result, sales of the other books in the series increased. August ended with 823 paid sales in the US, and resulted in a permanent increase in popularity for the entire series.

            By December my earnings through Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and especially Amazon US & UK, had started to eclipse the paycheck from my day job. By March of the following year, I was making more than I had at any job I’d ever had, and decided to quit my job and go back to full-time writing. A risky move, you’ll agree, and in the back of my mind I found it difficult to shake the fear that this was all temporary, that the next month might be the one where it all came to a screeching halt and left me dangling in the wind. But I knew that my decision to quit a stable job would only work if I considered writing my full-time job in every sense of the word, and treated it as such. Digital publishing meant that for the first time I was not just a writer but a publisher too. This was my business, and like any business, the success of it would be directly proportional to the effort I was willing to invest.

            Up to this point, I had relied primarily on sales of my backlist, and it had paid off. Not only that, but the success of those titles yielded hundreds of emails demanding more than I had available, and questions about when I was going to finish the Timmy Quinn series. The demand staggered me, inspired me, revitalized me, and slowly but surely I began to write again. The passion I had allowed myself to forget, allowed my life to bury, came back with the force of a freight train.

    Two years ago I was in a dismal place and took a half-hearted risk on a digital venture and then promptly put it out of my mind. I was not happy. I was not a writer. Common wisdom states that real writers never give up. I disagree. I think that when life squats over you when you’re already down and takes a magnificent dump on your shoulders and you find yourself with no passion left, you forget how to write. You can only kick a dog so many times before he forgets his loyalty and just decides to quit coming back. Writing is like that. But the stories never stopped coming. I just forgot how to write them down. A real writer remembers when the opportunity presents itself, never forgets what it felt like to have ink for blood, and when he or she picks up the pen, that ink flows from the veins like its business as usual. That’s what digital did for me. That’s what my readers, both those who shelled out for the small print run hardcovers back in the day and those who read on their Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, do for me now. Digital was initially a curiosity, a last-ditch effort to save something of myself, a struggle to retain any connection at all to the writing world before my ship sank for good. It ended up giving me the magic, my life, and my passion back.


            In the past year I have paid off my debts, moved to a more spacious (but still modest) apartment, and I’m living comfortably with a woman I love (who is also a writer—she’d have to be, I think, wouldn’t she?), and I’m writing as much, if not more than I did back in the good old days.

            Because these days are better.

            This is what I tell those who—just as I would have done once upon a time—turn their nose up at digital self-publishing. To those of us who do it for the right reasons, it is not an attempt to cash in, or become famous millionaires; it’s a matter of survival. To write you need talent, yes, but you also need time, but to have time you need to be able to support yourself or have someone willing to do it. Some people can work two jobs and still find time to write. I have the utmost respect for these people because I’ve never been able to do it.

            Digital publishing allows us to survive, grants us a way out of the gutters, legitimizes our efforts, allows us to control our own futures and to connect with the people who really matter: our readers. It allows us to tell our stories, stories that would drive us mad if denied their outlet. And why would anyone begrudge us that?

            It is a good time to be a writer, a good time to be a dreamer. A good time to remember how cold the edges of the gutters felt when our backs were pressed against them, and to retain that memory forever more, because in the end, it’s what made us who and what we are.

            - Kealan Patrick Burke

      Download The Turtle Boy for free 
      Find more of Kealan's books here.     
And he's going to kill me, but I KNOW some of you out there will appreciate this photo as much as I do....

Happy October!

- Alex


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

By the way, I LOVE ths Stage Whispers cover. Who did it?

Donna said...

It is indeed a wonderful time to be a writer! An inspirational post, Alex. And yeah, the photo is nice, too.

Di Eats the Elephant said...

Talk about gut-wrenching. Just reach in and spread the chest bars and expose the life of a writer. It does make the burden a little lighter to know the light never really goes out. Thanks for sharing, and I will be downloading even though I have no kindle yet and hate reading on the computer. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's a pretty nice photo of you, too, Donna! Makes me want to do summer all over again.

I thought people might get inspired. Kealan tells it like it is.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Exactly, Di. I think we HAVE to hear the bottoming out/rising from the ashes stories to remind ourselves that it's going to happen to all of us, guaranteed.

King Robert II said...

I usually don't bother to leave a comment unless I have more than two- or three-words to say. This is an exceptional article, so I make an exception: Inspiring! That is all.

Unknown said...

Great article--thanks for posting!

Kealan Patrick Burke said...

Thanks for the kind words everyone, and thanks again Alex for having me!

I do all my own covers, by the way, something else I taught myself!

Lisa Grace said...

I came here from your post in the Writers' Cafe. Of course, I hear your review of your writing journey (in my mind) with an Irish accent.
Self-publishing is a continual beginning, which in itself, brings hope. Thanks for sharing.

Jonathan C. Gillespie said...

This is just an incredible article. It's honest, and raw, and it's a reminder that we all hit these doldrums, and that we all can climb right back out.

Well done, sir.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

I love reading stories like this.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. Thank you, Kealan, for sharing your story. I've downloaded Turtle Boy and am looking forward to reading it.

Alex, thanks for that last photo. Steamy!

ec sheedy said...

Great tale of personal and creative success well told.

I'm going to download his work, free and paid. :-)

Go Kealan!

Leigh K Hunt said...

My god that was an inspirational story!
There are many many things that I love about that article. Especially the way it was written.
I alomost feel inspired to write a post about this post... (Will have to see if I have any meetings that I can get out of at the Evil Day Job!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much everyone for taking the time to read the article. I'm delighted it resonated with you!

Mark Edward Hall said...

Inspiring story, Kealan. My journey has a similar path (although I haven't yet won a Stoker) I read Turtle Boy a while back and will post a review at some point. Nice work.
Digital publishing has changed many writer's lives and will do so for a host of others in the future.

Mary Aalgaard said...

This is an excellent success story. Thanks for sharing it!

E said...

Inspired. Thank you.

Gord Rollo said...

Great guest post, Alexandra, and thanks for sharing Kealan. I'm one of those writers who refused to take a look at digial publishing for far too long. I'll still admit I love a nice hardcover or paperback book in my hands but lately I've taken my head out of my butt and I've seen the benefits of ebooks. I've still got a learning curve to go through with all this but I'm finally on board with digital publishing and I'm in the process of getting my backlist e-published as we speak. By Christmas I hope to have at least 10 books out there. Stories like Kealan's are a huge inspiration for me. Keep up the good work, my friend.


Anonymous said...

You're very welcome E!

Gord: Believe me, I know how you feel, and I still read mostly physical books. It's hard to get on board something that's so different from what we're used to, but in the end it's just another way to get the words in front of our readers.

If the world has gone digital, our sentimentality runs the risk of leaving us unread.

Best to luck to you in your new venture, sir!

Kevin Callugh said...

This is a great article. It's nice to see someone who came to ebooks late (2010-2011) still be able to make decent money. I've talked to a few early self published authors who started selling their work in 09, and they all bemoan how difficult it is to get attention these days. While I don't believe we'll ever see another Hocking out of the self published ranks, I do think stories like this, where an author can make a living off their books, will be more common.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely, Kevin. And I'm quite happy just to be able to make a living with my writing.