D.L. Mackenzie, author of The Magnetron Chronicles series, talks about his approach to writing and his plans for the future.
Why do you write?
To quiet the voices in my head. Seriously, my mind is always whirling with ideas, and I can’t let them go without at least jotting them down, whether it’s something for the shopping list or some interesting tidbit I think I could use in one of my stories. Also, when I’m wrestling with something complex I find putting it down in writing helps me make sense of things I can’t quite grasp when they’re swirling around in my head. When I’m actually hip-deep in my writing, I become so completely absorbed that I don’t even sense the pasage of time. And of course, since I began a serialized story, I can’t stop now or I’ll never know what finally happens!
Is it something you’ve always done, or always wanted to do? Or is it something that you started fairly recently?
It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, but only actually did in fits and starts for about twelve years. Earlier this year, I made a commitment that I would go for broke and get my stories out there to the public through self-publishing.
Tell me a little about your books.
In a word, they’re “steampunk,” a sort of postmodern re-imagining of science fiction in the style of Jules Verne, but with the benefit of hindsight. The Magnetron Chronicles purport to be the memoirs of Nineteenth Century inventor and adventurer Phineas Magnetron. His narrative is a faithfully executed facsimile of the florid voice of the old masters, such as Verne or H. G. Wells, gently spoofed with humor. To my mind, what makes them funny is that the narrator, Phineas Magnetron, tells the story in dead earnest, completely unaware that what he’s saying is funny.
Magnetron received a head wound during the Civil War which has given him the ability to dream of the future, but he is unable to make much practical use of this gift and often refers to it as his “curse.” He is a member of the Hogalum Society, a secret organization of crime-fighting adventurers along the lines of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Each member has his own set of skills which complement the others’, but which often lead to disagreements. They crisscross the globe (in an airship, naturally) and run into dozens of quirky characters along the way. They confront mentally ill criminals, paranormal phenomena, and otherworldly creatures with all the haughty bluster and Steam Age weird science they can muster.
There are three volumes now: The Last Adventure of Dr. Yngve Hogalum, Spring-heeled Jack and the President’s Ring, and the latest, Escape from Xanadu.
Are there any authors who inspire you?
Well, I’ve always loved Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Mark Twain, not necessarily in that order. I also enjoy some of the classic science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison. My favorite writer of all time is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
How do you write? Do you make yourself write a certain number of words per day?
I have an erratic work schedule, so I have to fit the writing in when I can. I get flashes of inspiration at the worst possible moments, though, so I use the Evernote app on my smartphone to jot notes as they come to me. I have rough outlines of all of my stories through Volume 12 that I gradually flesh out with these tidbits. When I have time to sit down and do some serious writing, I just go to my outline and start writing out the narrative and dialogue right there in the outline. I’m incredibly slow at times. I have spent forty-five minutes laboring over a single paragraph, although sometimes it just flows out of me like I’m channeling Verne himself. For that reason, I never hold myself to a specific number of words. I just write until I’m satisfied, or until I’ve run out of time, whichever comes first.
Did you try to get a conventional publisher or agent interested before you opted for self-publishing?
I never considered a traditional publisher because I wanted so badly to get published I wasn’t willing to let any gatekeeper stand in my way. In my mind, having self-published and sold some copies would be strong evidence to a future prospective publisher that I was talented enough to warrant reading past my cover letter. Steampunk is relatively narrow niche in the publishing field, and I don’t think most publishers are comfortable marketing it. In my dreams, I’ll eventually get a contract with Tor.
What goals have you set for yourself? Do you want to sell a certain number of books in 2012? Is there some way you measure success, on your own terms?
Honestly, my only true goal is to keep writing. I’ve stopped so many times in the past, and I know that’s the one surefire way to fail, so I intend to keep writing at least until the series is complete. I just published my first book in March of 2012, and I already have hundreds of copies in distribution including full-price and discounted sales, plus free promo and review copies. My initial sales goal was to sell enough copies to cover my web hosting costs. Now that I’m in the black, I just hope to keep selling more copies every month than the month before and gradually build a fan base.
How have you marketed your books?
I have a blog and I’ve got a Facebook page, but I’ve had the most interactive and supportive feedback at Wattpad, where I’ve published about a chapter a week for free for some time. I’ve also recently joined Goodreads, although I’m still getting the hang of it. In addition ot Amazon, I’ve published all three of my books through Smashwords, and I’m just now ready to publish directly to KoboBooks through their Writing Life program. So far, I haven’t paid one red cent for advertising of any kind.
Have you signed up for KDP Select?
When I first published my debut novelette I signed up for KDP Select, although I can’t say I was pleased with the results. I didn’t have any borrows by Amazon Prime members, which stands to reason; Amazon Prime members can choose only one free borrow per month, and they’re not going to use that free borrow for a $.99 indie book when they can borrow the $29.99 Fifty Shades Trilogy instead. All of the free promotional copies that were downloaded evidently went to ebook hoarders who unthinkingly snap up as many free books as they can whether they ever read them or not. After my 90 day trial ended I did not re-up, and I’ve noticed no let-up in sales. I wouldn’t say that I’m worried about the exclusivity clause because it’s only ninety days, but I don’t think I’ll be signing up again any time soon.
Away from Amazon, have you had much luck with other outlets? Do you use Smashwords, Barnes & Noble etc?
I love Smashwords, even though I’ve sold only a few copies there. I use them for my free promos, because I can set up a coupon code and better target my audience. Plus, they publish in every conceivable format. Smashwords gave me free ISBN numbers, which is a pretty nice benefit in the U.S., because ISBNs can be rather expensive here otherwise. Also, all of my books have passed muster for Smashwords Premium Status, which means they are marketing them through B&N and other retailers for me. I’m hoping to have good results with Kobo Books, since they are accepting indie writers with open arms now.
Do you worry about Amazon gaining a monopoly in the ebook market?
Not at all. Amazon is a retailing powerhouse, of that there can be no question. However, intense competition is the natural order of things on the internet, and there will always be room for feisty competitors to bloody Amazon’s nose.
What’s next? Are you working on anything at the moment? Do you have anything new coming out in 2012?
I am tinkering with volume four of The Magnetron Chronicles, High Crimes and Miscreants, and hope to have it ready for press in late September and in wide distribution by October, Steampunk Month! Volume 4 picks up where Volume 3 Escape from Xanadu ends, with the Hogalum Society travelling to Wales to meet Caernarvon, the Mad Oracle, in the hopes of learning more about the strange jeweled disk of Zhen Atu. When they arrive, they’re unpleasantly surprised to find they’ve been framed for the crime of the century, and are wanted men in the United Kingdom.