Several years ago I read William Kowalski‘s novel Eddie’s Bastard. For me this was a book that made an impression and stayed with me. Mr. Kowalski contacted me recently because he’d picked up my self-publishing guidebook and wanted to chat Indie publishing. When I discovered that he’d gone the Indie route a couple of years back, I knew I had to interview him. And when I heard what he’d been working on for Indie authors I knew I had to let you guys know.
Martin: Mr. Kowalski, thanks for doing this. I’ll get my fanboy moment out of the way right off the bat – thank you for Eddie’s Bastard. It’s one of my favorite books.
William: My thanks to you for being such a fan. It’s had a great run — hundreds of thousands of copies sold in fifteen languages, and 17 years after publication, people still write to me from all over the world to tell me how much they loved it. I could not have envisioned this. My mackerel-fishing friend Calvin Trillin likes to say that trade books have a shelf life somewhere between milk and yogurt. He is absolutely right. I feel fortunate to have beaten the odds with this one.
Martin: We’d like to talk about the new site that you’ve set up to help authors but I wanted to touch a bit on how you got here first. You’ve experienced successes that many of us dream of. Your first novel was an international bestseller, Barnes and Noble mentioned you as one of the great new writers of 1999, you wrote a bestselling follow-up novel, in fact I read that your work was compared to Kerouac. You’ve been doing very well, and then a couple of years ago you decided to self-publish. What led to that decision?
William: You make me sound almost as if I know what I’m doing. I feel just as bewildered as everyone else by all the changes that have taken place in the publishing world over the last couple of decades. My first book was published at what I now understand was the tail end of the Golden Age of publishing. This was back in the days when major houses threw lots of money at unknown writers such as myself, in the hopes of developing them into big names. That hardly happens anymore. The entire business model has changed, for a few reasons, and it’s practically impossible for anyone to make a living as a full-time author of fiction, unless one is already very well known. Despite my successes, I’m far from a household name. You might refer to me as a mid-list author at best. So, long story short, I decided to self-publish The Hundred Hearts, my novel about a young veteran of Afghanistan, because none of the major American houses were willing to publish it. I have no idea why. They just didn’t see the value in it. It’s not a happy book, but it’s not a happy subject.
I suppose we could eventually have gotten a deal with a smaller house that I would have been happy to accept, but the other problem is that these things take forever, and I’m impatient. It took a whole year just to gather a bunch of rejection letters from the majors. Life is too short for that. I’m really quite fed up with the entire business. I’m 46 this year, and not to sound macabre, but I’ve become obsessed with the fact that I’m going to die at some point without having accomplished about a tenth of what I set out to do. That’s really pissing me off, but there’s nothing I can do about it. So I’m trying to make the most of what time I do have. Waiting eight or nine months for an editor to get around to rejecting my book is just not on.
The Hundred Hearts was published traditionally in Canada, where it won the 2014 Thomas H. Raddall Award, and it came out in Germany this spring with Eichborn. But I decided to self-publish it everywhere else outside of Canada. I knew I had the technological chops to pull self-publishing off, because I build websites and I understand how the internet works, although of course Amazon makes this incredibly easy. I understand the basics of self-promotion, too, though I feel I’m still very bad at it. And I didn’t really care about making lots of money from this book. I spent eight years of my life on it, and I was damned if I’d let it languish on my hard drive for another two or three years just because some MBA in Marketing didn’t believe he could sell a hundred thousand copies of it. I don’t care about selling a hundred thousand copies. I just want people to read it. That’s all I care about. If it sells, great. If not, at least it’s out there.
Martin: I love the fact that as an Indie author there is very little barrier between me and my readers. What have you found is the main difference when you compare the experience of trad versus Indie?
William: There are almost too many to name. I find indy publishing frightening. That lack of a barrier is both a curse and a blessing. I think this is because I’m an introvert by nature, and it takes a lot of energy for me to put myself in front of people. In this day and age, when you self-publish, you have a website, you have an Amazon author page, you Google yourself or have an alert set for your name, it’s all right there, in your face, the good and the bad: critical reviews, reader comments, all of it. Of course, that would be true anyway, just because of the immediacy of the online world. I think that when I was traditionally published I felt more padded or protected. Now I’m right out there, doing everything on my own. This is mostly a good thing, but it’s good for you in the way a cold shower is good for you. “It builds character.” The three most dreaded words in the English language.
Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I felt more supported while traditionally published. I’m flying solo now. I’m Lindbergh over the Atlantic with no radio. That’s a good metaphor for how I feel. Pilots in those days sometimes had trouble telling if they were flying level or not, at least when the weather was bad, because they had no instruments yet to tell them. Everything was done by eye. I think it was Lindbergh, or maybe it was Eddie Rickenbacker, who hit on the idea of taping a bottle of water to his dashboard and drawing a line across it, so he could tell whether he was rolling or not. I’m just at the bottle-on-the-dashboard stage of self-publishing. It’s better than having no instruments at all, but I’m a long ways away from having a gyroscope or a built-in GPS.
Martin: What can authors do to overcome the stigma that’s associated with self-published literature?
William: They should hire editors. I’m not talking about proofreaders, either. Every single one of them should be working with a substantive editor. Every writer, no matter how big or small, needs an editor. If you think you don’t need an editor, then you’ve got an ego problem, and it’s going to get in the way of your story.
There seems to be a real misperception out there about what editing is. ‘I know what my story needs better than anyone,’ people often say, but contrary to popular opinion, editors aren’t there to make you conform to some corporate idea of what your book should be — they’re there to whittle your ego down to size and improve the quality of your work. Ideally, anyway. I used to do a lot of private editing and mentoring, and one dismaying thing I found was that the majority of would-be writers I encountered really did not seem to value editing. They regarded it as a final detail that needed to be attended to just before sending the book off to CreateSpace. That’s not editing, that’s proofreading. Editing is much more than just considering a few suggestions from your wife’s best friend who is an English teacher, or having your nephew correct your spelling and punctuation. I’m talking about deep, substantive editing, where someone with a lot of education and training is asking you hard questions about your story. This is an art unto itself. There are some excellent editors out there, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed these days, and they are available for hire. Hire one. They won’t be cheap, but they’ll be worth it.
This is the biggest downside of the indy world, in my opinion, and this is why that stigma you mention exists: too many self-published books are only half-finished or half-polished. They are just not as good as they could be. The gatekeepers have been done away with, and in many respects that is a good thing, because alternative voices are emerging through the gaps. But the gatekeepers played another role, too, and that was to rein us in and help us shape our words into something truly artistic. If we don’t have anyone doing that, then we’re not producing our best work. I’ll say it again: every writer needs an editor.
Martin: I’ve had a look at https://mywriting.network. You help authors set up websites so that they can connect with readers. And, there is no charge. What’s going on here?
William: This is a multisite network that I’ve created on my server, powered by the unbelievably awesome magic of WordPress. WordPress was once mostly for blogging, but in a relatively short time it’s evolved into versatile and powerful open-source software, and one of the things you can do with it is create your own websites for free. Amazing. They just give it away to anyone. And yet somehow this company is valued at well over a billion dollars, and that’s real value, not just imaginary dot-com bubble bullshit. The open-source economy is really turning traditional capitalist values on their head, and that’s absolutely fantastic. Pardon my neo-leftie tangent there.
My Writing Network is basically just what you’ve described. Anyone who wants a website can have one, for free. All you need to sign up is a valid email address. You don’t have to give a credit card number, and you don’t even have to use your real name. You can use this site for anything you want — blogging, selling your books and articles, connecting with readers or other writers, serializing novels or putting out short stories, whatever. There are a variety of optional upgrades you can purchase, if you want, but the core service, which is a real, fully-functioning website, is completely free and always will be. I started teaching myself how to build websites about ten years ago or so, and this is where it’s led me.
My inspiration in creating My Writing Network was the people who have come before me in pushing what is called the “democratization of the web.” We believe that the internet should be freely available to everyone, including the software that is needed to navigate it. Also, it’s obvious that many writers need help in dealing with the weird world of online self-promotion. Not only do I provide a support group, but I actually give you the tools to get online. Free. No catch.
There is also a very ancient universal law at play here: the more you give, the more you get back. My Writing Network is my gift to the global writing community. It’s met with a very positive response so far, and it’s growing fast.
Martin: I believe that great content will find readers, and if we continue to work at becoming better writers the readers will appear. But, many of us are still out pounding the virtual pavement trying to find those sometimes elusive readers. What specifically do you do to connect with new readers?
William: It’s a real challenge, isn’t it? The self-publishing revolution is both a blessing and a curse. It’s very difficult to rise above the herd, even for someone with a long publication record. I would suggest that writers focus on establishing themselves in a niche, rather than trying to appeal to a broad range of readers. There’s a paradox here — the more you narrow your focus, the more people you’ll reach. That didn’t make sense to me for the longest time, but I see it clearly now, and I’ve seen the results for myself. So, instead of trying to convince everyone you meet that your novel about a left-handed Vietnam veteran who likes vanilla iced cream is really good, focus on communicating with left-handed organizations, with Vietnam veteran’s groups, with vanilla iced cream fan clubs. These are the people who will respond to your work. To expand, focus on the small details.
If you’re writing in a genre, learn the rules of that genre. Rules were made to be broken, but you have to master them before you can break them. I always say that when you break the rules out of ignorance, that’s amateurism. When you break them on purpose, that’s style. I probably stole that line from someone, but I’ve been saying it long enough that I’ve made it my own.
The other very important thing I do is talk to readers as individuals. When a person writes to me, I write back. I try to respond to something specific that they mentioned in their letter or email. (That’s how long Eddie’s Bastard has been out — all my original fan mail came in the form of actual letters, delivered by the post office.) I try to form some kind of personal connection. I think this goes a long way toward building a readership one person at a time, because those people never forget that I took the time to communicate with them. And they tell other people about me. It spreads. Word of mouth is still the most important book-selling tool there is.
People think self-promotion is a new thing, but it isn’t. The most successful writers have always been the ones who can sell themselves well. The internet part of it is new, but the basic principles are the same.
Martin: Thank you for all that you’re doing. The self-publishing community will be a better place because of your efforts. What other projects are you working on?
William: When I have time, which isn’t often, I’m trying to write another novel. This is a book set partly in the present and partly a hundred years in the past, and it’s about the Polish immigrant experience in Buffalo, New York. I’m basing part of it on the life of my great-grandmother. She lived until I was 20, but even so there was a lot about her I didn’t know, so I’m writing this book as an investigation of what her life must have been like coming to America at the age of 16, with no English and little education, just a desire to rise above her circumstances and provide a better life for her children. It’s been quite a journey so far. I intend to self-publish this book as well, and I’ve got an entire marketing and advertising plan mapped out in my head. But I need to finish it first. I’m deliberately trying not to rush. I find that the more I slow down, the better the work turns out. To a point, anyway. This is at odds with my desire to hurry up and do ten million things before I die. Just another paradox, I guess.
One more project I’d like to tell your readers about is another book I wrote, called WRITING FOR FIRST-TIME NOVELISTS. I also give this away for free. It’s short, maybe fifty or sixty pages. They can download it from my website. It contains pretty much everything I have to say at the moment about the art of writing novels. Here’s the link: http://williamkowalski.com/free-book/
Thanks for the opportunity to connect with your readers.