Sign up to the newsletter

Interview With James Oswald

Next up in our series of interviews with self-published authors is Penguin's 'next big thing' James Oswald - author of Natural Causes, the first in the Detective McLean crime novels.

So, how does it feel to be hailed as Penguin’s ‘next big thing’?

In a word, strange. I’ve been writing for so long, always hoping to be published but never quite making it. To go from nowhere to the sales and exposure I’m getting now, almost overnight it sometimes seems, is both brilliant and terrifying. I fully intend to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.

What or whom inspires you to write?

I’m not sure I’m inspired to write so much as compelled. I get twitchy fingers if I’ve not written something by the end of each day, even if it’s just an outline for a short story or a treatment for a scene. I’ve been influenced by too many writers to list, but inspiration comes from a pathological need to try and impose order on the chaos of everyday life. Writing helps quiet the madness, I suppose.

For those who are unfamiliar, can you tell us about your books?

My Inspector McLean series are crime novels, set in Edinburgh and featuring as their lead Detective Inspector Anthony McLean. He is a young detective, only just promoted to inspector in the first book, Natural Causes. The crimes he ends up investigating almost all have a possible supernatural explanation to them - the invocation of evil spirits acting through people, rather than actual monsters - and he is the only detective even remotely open to the possibility of these things existing.

Cross-genre work is traditionally more likely to be rejected. Was this a problem you found with your work? To what extent is self-publishing giving readers and writers greater freedom when it comes to what they read/write?

I first wrote Natural Causes in 2006, and submitted it for the 2007 CWA Debut Dagger. It was short-listed, which got me a lot of attention from publishers. Almost universally they rejected it because of its cross-genre nature. When the second book in the series, The Book of Souls, was shortlisted the following year, again I had the same problem. A lot of my writer friends suggested I remove the supernatural elements and make the book just a straight Police Procedural. I tried, but it felt flat to me, and the one publisher who was showing most interest at the time subsequently turned the book down.

Self-publishing allows you the freedom to write what you want and then try it out in the market to see if there’s a readership for it. In my case this worked out well, but for a lot - perhaps the vast majority - it doesn’t and their books sink without trace.

Without trying to sound too self-important, I think publishers will pick up cross-genre work if they feel it is well enough written, but it has to stand head and shoulders above the more easily defined work for them to take that extra risk. I can see it from the publisher’s point of view - they invest a lot of time and money in getting a book to market, so they need to be reasonably certain there’s a market for it. The problem with that mode of thinking is that it’s all to easy to end up narrowing the genre down and down. Readers get bored of being dished up the same old fare, so stop reading and books become less and less successful - until something new and different comes along and they fall on it with glad cries. (I say ‘they’ of readers here, but should perhaps say ‘us’. I am a reader too, and I get frustrated sometimes.) A great deal of the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is probably down to the fact that it was something new to a lot of readers who were getting bored of the endless round of identikit chick-lit novels being pumped out at the time.

Natural Causes has been a huge ebook success.  Is there a particular moment in Natural Causes’ journey where you realised it had ‘broken through’?

I started off selling Natural Causes at £1.99, and shifted two or three copies a week for the first couple of months. Then I dropped the price to free and started seeing downloads of 1500 to 2000 a day. It went from nowhere to number one in the Kindle free charts almost overnight, and stayed there for weeks. That was when I thought I was onto something.

If you could pinpoint one thing in particular that grabbed readers in Natural Causes, what would you say it is?

I honestly have no idea.

In a recent interview, you said you decided to remove the original opening chapter from the upcoming print edition. Can you talk us through the reasoning behind that decision? Does self-publishing bring with it a certain level of compromise between readers and writers?

The decision to remove the opening chapter came about after a discussion with my editor at Penguin. The bulk of my bad reviews for Natural Causes (very few in total, it has to be said) focused on that opening chapter. Most readers thought it was sick, stomach-churning and not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book - if they actually read the rest of the book and didn’t just give up after chapter one.

I wrote that opening chapter when I decided to put the novel in for the CWA Debut Dagger award in 2006/7. For the competition, you send in 3000 words and a synopsis. I felt the original opening was fine, but not exactly gripping and needed something to grab the judges by the throat, so to speak. Since the story revolves around the discovery of a murder that has taken place sixty years earlier, I thought I’d describe that murder, much in the way it might be portrayed in a one minute segment before the opening credits on a TV show. The result, once it had been honed down, was just over five hundred words, describing the ritual gang rape and murder of a young woman, from her point of view.

It was undeniably effective - I was shortlisted for the award - but it was also somewhat incongruous. There are gruesome murders in the rest of the book, but they serve a purpose, allowing the characters to develop as they react to them and interact with each other.

None of the main characters in the book are present at the time of the initial murder, so it doesn’t do anything to develop their characters. It is, in the end, only there to shock.

I left that chapter in when I self-published, and I think one of the beauties (and problems) of self-publishing is that pretty much anything goes. There is a readership, albeit small, for everything you can imagine and a lot more besides. A self-published author does not need to compromise at all as long as he stays within the terms and conditions of the e-book service he is using and within the law.

This can be creatively liberating, but can also lead to some very questionable books being written.

Working with a publisher, and especially with a household name publisher like Penguin, brings certain responsibilities that self-published (and to a lesser extent small press published) authors can perhaps duck. Had I felt that the opening chapter was essential and integral to the book, that without it my creative vision for the story was fatally compromised, then I would not have agreed to removing it. I could, however, see that it had both offended a small but important potential readership, and that it was in the book for all the wrong reasons. In the end it wasn’t a difficult decision to take it out.

Why did you choose to self-publish? Did you try the traditional route first?

I’ve been writing for most of my life, and seeking publication in one form or another for over twenty years (a quick check of the bookshelves shows that the earliest Writers' & Artists' Yearbook I own is dated 1991.) I have had a few short stories and one comic script professionally published, and have come very close to securing a traditional book deal a number of times. I have also self-published: first with a very short run of a print edition of a travel book I wrote in 1990 done as a commemoration following the death of a friend; then about ten years ago when I made some of my novels available as PDF eBooks on my website. Neither were great commercial successes - the first because it was never intended to be; the second because the technology was not ready and the market did not exist (and, perhaps, the books were a bit rubbish).

Choosing to self-publish the third time around came about after a chance conversation with the author and agent Allan Guthrie. Al had self-published some of his novellas and short stories on the Kindle, with great success, and suggested it might be something for me to try. The technology had moved on so much since my earlier attempts, and people I knew were raving about e-readers. The two McLean books I had written at that time had both been around the houses without managing to enthuse any major publisher, so self-publishing in the new format was a last throw of the dice for them, really.

Would you have taken the opportunity to go down the traditional route if that had been a possibility?

If a publisher had picked up Natural Causes or The Book of Souls off the back of the CWA Debut Dagger shortlisting, then I would have gone with them happily. Self-publishing has many benefits, but it is also very time-consuming, and requires a wide set of skills that most writers don’t necessarily have or want to acquire. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, not a publisher.

What do you think the greatest advantage of self-publishing is?

Self-publishing, at least in eBook form, is very easy and very rapid, both in setting up a book to sell, and in getting feedback and sales figures. It’s also very easy to make changes - correct errors that your readers have pointed out to you, for instance. The ease of it is perhaps both its greatest advantage and its greatest weakness.

On the other hand, is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on? Such as the editor-author relationship.

Very much that. Although I’ve spoken to authors who have very little input from their editors, the team at Michael Joseph are brilliant. When I self-published the e-books last year, I looked into the cost of hiring professional editors to hone and proof-read my books before publication and it was just not feasible. You could easily spend thousands of pounds with no guarantee of making that back.

Being with a traditional publisher also means access to a much larger market than I could ever reach through eBooks alone. Print books still account for the vast majority of titles sold each year. If I’d gone down the traditional self (or vanity) publishing route of printing up a thousand or so copies and trying to sell them myself, I might have shifted a few through local independent book shops, but the numbers would have been tiny. Penguin get my books into chain bookstores and supermarkets, massively increasing my readership. They also put me forward for things like the Richard and Judy Book Club - again something I would not have been able to do myself as a self-published author.

How important do you feel interacting with your fans has been?

I found myself using the term ‘fans’ and had to stop and think a bit. I prefer ‘readers’ and whilst it’s enormously time-consuming, I really enjoy interacting with them. It’s wonderful enough that someone has decided to read my book, but mind-blowing if they’ve enjoyed it enough to make the effort to contact me afterwards.  It would be rude not to respond, really.

From a cynical marketing perspective, these ‘fans’ are great brand ambassadors, hand-selling my books to their friends and acquaintances. Word of mouth is the ultimate advertising and readers are far more likely to spread the word if the author has responded to their questions.

It’s also great to talk to people who have the same love of stories as I do. Much better than making stilted conversation about the weather or politics. I’m a reader too, after all.

Do you feel there is more of a sense of community with self-publishing than there is with traditional publishing? 

I think the community is of writers as a whole rather than defined by who their publishers are. I’ve met many writers, from big name authors to unpublished but hopeful and everything in between, mostly at writing festivals, but increasingly online - and on the whole, they are very supportive.

There are, of course, egos, as there are in any business. Some writers seem to think that other writers are the competition, as if there were only a finite number of books that could be sold and any increase over there is a decrease over here. Generally speaking, they are in the minority, and they exist in both self-publishing and traditional.

How important is marketing yourself in the early stages of your self-publishing career? Any tips?

Marketing yourself is crucial, and the key part there is yourself. It’s not about telling the world you have a book out, but telling the story of who you are and how you came to do what you do. If people find you interesting, then they’ll go and have a look at your book. So that would be my top tip: sell yourself, not your work.

Did you design your own cover? How important do you think cover design is to a potential reader?

My original eBook covers were designed by the multi-talented J T Lindroos, who does a lot of eBook covers for Blasted Heath and several successful self-published authors. For Natural Causes, I gave him a couple of ideas that felt right to me. He mocked them up and we settled on the splayed hand with a nail through the palm image that so many people obviously found intriguing. The image for The Book of Souls was entirely his own work, and is a piece of Photoshop genius in my opinion.

Michael Joseph have designed a new set of covers that I am equally happy with. They work well both at the thumbnail scale and printed on the paperback books. Cover design is very important, and something that I wouldn’t recommend most authors try for themselves. If you’re going to spend any money on your self-published book, then spending it on professional cover design is probably wisest. Just don’t expect to earn that money back.

Finally, do you have any advice for writers looking to self-publish?

Write the best book you possibly can. Spend only what you can afford to lose - first on a cover, second on basic editorial services, third on getting someone else to format for you if you really can’t do that yourself. Use social networking to sell yourself, not your book - interact with your readers, however few they may be at first. Be as professional as you can about the whole process. Do your research - I self-published my books a year ago and already much of the technical aspects of doing that have changed.

And finally, or perhaps it should be firstly, ask yourself why you’re self-publishing. Is it because you want to get rich? Is it because you believe agents and publishers have only rejected your manuscript out of spite and an inability to recognise your genius? Or is it because you love writing and words and want to share your stories with anyone who might read them? Only one of those reasons is the right one - and it’s not the first two.

If you would like to find out more about James Oswald and buy his books, visit his website and follow him on Twitter @SirBenfro.