Friday, May 15, 2009
Interview with the Author
Michael R. Hicks
This Interview with the Author should also be considered an installment of The Kindle Report.
Michael R. Hicks released his first book, In Her Name, in April of last year, and his second, Publish Your Work on the Amazon Kindle: A Practical Guide seven months later. It is, of course, this second book that has inspired the timing of this interview, fitting appropriately into The Kindle Report series of articles here at PODBRAM. This self-proclaimed computer geek has a degree in Russian, and he spent one summer during his college years studying the language at Leningrad State University in the USSR. Do I have your attention now? After graduating from college and the ROTC program, he began working for the Department of Defense in Maryland, where he still resides today with his wife, two stepsons, and two large Siberian cats. Did I mention that he has been particularly successful at marketing his two POD books?
PODBRAM: Let’s begin by your giving us a little background on your life and writing. Aside from spending a summer in the USSR, you have been quite a traveler, haven’t you?
Michael: Well, I actually hadn't done much traveling until college, although I guess I can claim a suitably unique childhood! I was born in 1963 in Maryland, the only child of an elementary school math teacher (who, ironically enough, had a masters in zoology) and a pathologist and former Navy officer. We lived together with my dad's parents for most of my growing-up years, with the family raising a variety of varmints including Weimaraner dogs and Arabian horses (think Noah's ark without the ark and you'll get the picture). While I was born in Maryland, we moved out west to Arizona about six months later, and that's where I lived until I graduated from Arizona State University in '85 with a bachelor’s in Russian. I was also an Army ROTC grad, completing all four years in my first two years at school, getting my commission in '83 as a military intelligence officer in the Army Reserve. I had an opportunity to spend the next summer studying Russian at Leningrad State University in the USSR, and couldn't pass it up: that was my first time traveling outside the United States, and it was quite a trip!
When I graduated from Arizona State in '85, I got hired by the Department of Defense as an analyst looking at the Big Bad Bear, and have since then worked a variety of jobs in DoD from database project development to management (which is where, alas, I am now). Aside from my junket to the USSR back in the mid-1980s (with a side trip to Finland), I've been to Europe a number of times, visiting various spots in England, Germany (West), and France. I also had the privilege of going on a trip with my parents (who are literally globe-trotting travelers) to central Africa, visiting Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda (before the genocide there). My family comprises my wife, Jan - we've been married seven years now - and her two boys (my stepsons) Ben and Samuel. Add on a couple of feisty Siberian cats, and that makes up the home team complement!
PODBRAM: Let me guess: The Hunt for Red October, No Way Out, and Gorky Park are three of your favorite movies, right?
Michael: Oddly enough...no! I really enjoyed Hunt for Red October, and No Way Out was good, but I never even saw Gorky Park and I don't own any of these movies. I enjoy thrillers, including all the Clancy-based movies, through more recent fare such as the Bourne movies and Vantage Point. But, much as I hate to admit it, my favorite movies - those I've bought and will pop into the Blu-Ray player any time the mood strikes - tend toward what might be called fairly cheesy sci-fi sorts of things like Stargate, Independence Day, and Armageddon, just to name a few. Sure, I also enjoy more meaty fare like Master and Commander and Gladiator, along with The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on. But in terms of the movies I've watched and typically enjoy the most: cheesy sci-fi!
PODBRAM: Some people might expect from your lifestyle and career choices that you might have written in the same genre as Tom Clancy, rather than the SciFi/Fantasy one. What are your thoughts on this concept?
Michael: Based on what I've heard from readers, there are probably a few Clancy-inspired elements sprinkled throughout In Her Name (the original trilogy novel), and probably more in In Her Name: First Contact, the new novel I'm working on now. My two favorite novels by Clancy are actually Red Storm Rising - wish they would have made that into a movie, although the ending was disappointing - and Without Remorse. Despite the military aspect that seems to pop to the fore from my background, as a kid there was a lot of science fiction mixed in. My favorite TV times were Friday nights (at the obscenely late time of 10 p.m.) when one of the local stations would play a sci-fi or horror movie, and then World Beyond, a show that ran at 10 a.m. on Saturdays with all kinds of sci-fi movies. And then there was Star Trek, Space 1999, you name it, I watched it (at least back then). I loved model rockets and followed the space program pretty close back then.So in combination, my writing is probably a lot closer in theme to military science fiction than anything else, but mixes in other elements, too.
PODBRAM: What sort of educational experience do you have, and is it relevant to your writing or the subject matter you have chosen?
Michael: Aside from attending Arizona State University and my training in the Army as a military intelligence officer, I haven't spent much time on formal education. Much of what I've learned over the years has been self-taught, which probably explains why I can't be trusted with power tools! As far as my literary background, I took the minimal requirements for English; most of the literature I've studied has been Russian.So, I don't have a lot in the way of educational credentials that I can wave around to proclaim myself a literary genius. I'm just me.
PODBRAM: What about your work career? How has your choice of profession influenced your writing?
Michael: Well, that's a bit more problematic, since I can't really talk much about my work except to say that I have done - and still do - a lot of writing, although none of it's fiction (despite what my bosses might sometimes say!). A lot of technical writing, project proposals, and personnel evaluations is how I spend most of my day at work. Boo.
PODBRAM: Do you have any hobbies other than writing, publishing, and computers?
Michael: I enjoy reading a great deal (although I always wish I had more time) on my Kindle; watching movies at home and in the theater; kayaking and fishing (the fish just laugh at me, but I enjoy it anyway); and fitness in general (my wife and I are both independent Beachbody coaches). I'm also a certified geek and green guy: we've done just about everything we can to green up our lifestyle, and my wife and I plan on building an earthship after we retire so we can go completely off the grid. After seeing the electric bills go up in the last few years, I can't wait!
PODBRAM: How long have you been writing? Has In Her Name been planned for a long time? Did you expect that your second book would be a Kindle how-to?
Michael: I began In Her Name around 1991, and completed the rough draft in 1994. I shopped it around to several publishers, but didn't get any nibbles. There were some tumultuous things going on in my life at that time, and I shelved the project. It sat under my desk gathering dust until early 2008, when I discovered Amazon's Digital Text Platform publishing process for the Kindle. I figured, "Hey, why not?" and set about getting the book ready for publication, publishing the first iteration in April 2008, following that up with a print version through Lightning Source, Inc. Then, after spending a lot of time on the DTP forums, both learning and helping others, I wrote and published Publish Your Book On The Amazon Kindle: A Practical Guide to help folks get their books onto the Kindle platform. Did I expect my second published book would be a Kindle how-to guide? Not on your life! But I knew that a lot of other folks were having the same troubles as I had gone through, and if I could help them through the process, so much the better. Unlike me, very few authors have a lot of experience with techno-junk like programming, HTML, and computers in general: they want to write, not deal with a bunch of technical agony getting their books published.
PODBRAM: Your genre of choice is obviously science fiction. Who or what were your earliest inspirations in this direction?
Michael: That's a tough one: there were so many! But I think the biggies are clearly Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle. If I had to pick two of the most critical works, it would be Starship Troopers by Heinlein and The Mote In God's Eye, by Niven and Pournelle. Starship Troopers was a landmark not so much for the sci-fi aspects, but the sociological commentary Heinlein embedded in it. (Note: this wasn't just glossed over in the movie with the same name, but totally twisted around, in my opinion.) And The Mote In God's Eye is my most-read book, by far. It's some of the best and most imaginative hard sci-fi ever (just my opinion).
PODBRAM: Were you more influenced by books or movies in the science fiction genre?
Michael: I'd have to say books, by a long shot. The sad fact is that there are tons of good sci-fi books out there, but there are pathetically few really good sci-fi movies by comparison. There are some, yes, but the ratio is pretty darn low. While I enjoy the visuals of the movies (the ones that don't stink), good books really work your mind a lot more without letting you know that it's doing any more "work." That's actually one of the things that's a key part of the hero of In Her Name when he was a boy (but no spoilers!).
PODBRAM: What do you think your sci-fi work offers to readers that others do not?
Michael: Based on what readers have said, I think the main thing my work offers, least with the In Her Name series, that's unique is what I guess I'll call a "multi-genre" appeal. Yes, it's got science fiction elements, but it also mixes in things you'd normally see in high fantasy (without using "magic"), some elements that would be at home in a political thriller, and just to round things out, a thread of romance. So it's gotten a lot of positive feedback from sci-fi and fantasy readers, but quite a few folks who don't normally read those sorts of books have really enjoyed it, as well. That's not necessarily going to be the case with all my books (I have some ideas for historical romances, among other things), but it is for the In Her Name series.
PODBRAM: I see that the michaelrhicks.com name has already been claimed by a noted piano composer. Is that why you chose kreelanwarrior.com as your website? Have you experienced any miscommunication issues with your online fans due to the same name?
Michael: Well, funny you should mention that. The short answer is no, I haven't had any connection problems with readers because of that, at least that I've heard about. But here's an interesting anecdote on "my" name: a few years ago I got an email from a guy named Michael Hicks. He sent it to a bunch of other folks, all named Michael Hicks, asking if we wanted to form a "Michael Hicks club”. I think he really needed a hobby! And no, I didn't sign up for the club...
PODBRAM: Your website is named Kreelan Warrior. Could you explain the origins of this title and URL to our readers?
Michael: KreelanWarrior.com is taken from In Her Name. The antagonists in the story are from the Kreelan Empire, an ancient warrior race that's been fighting, and slowly wiping out, the human Confederation. So Kreelan warrior seemed a logical name for the site. Not necessarily the best marketing strategy in the world, perhaps, but there it is!
PODBRAM: My wife and I are the parents of eleven kitties and I have a section on my site called Cat of the Day. I see on your website that you have a page called Funny Cat Videos. Everyone should go look at your videos because they are a hoot! Would you like to tell us about your cats?
Michael: My wife grew up with cats, I grew up with dogs (remember the menagerie?), so I didn't have a natural inclination toward cats. We would have loved to have pets, cats or dogs, but my wife's older son Samuel was very allergic to both. So we reconciled ourselves to never owning pets (since neither of us like reptiles!). But it turns out that Siberian cats are quasi-hypoallergenic, having far less of the protein in their saliva that causes the allergies. After visiting some folks nearby who owned some Siberians, it was clear that it might just work: Samuel had no reaction whatsoever. So, we went to a local breeder and picked out a pair of kittens, Sasha and Nina, brought them home, and the rest is history. They're great fun and very affectionate pets (well, technically we're the pets, since cats are the dominant life form on the planet!), and Samuel hasn't had a bit of trouble with his allergies because of them.
PODBRAM: Did you submit one or more manuscripts to traditional publishers in the beginning, before deciding to join the ranks of self-publishers?
Michael: I submitted In Her Name to several publishers back around 1994, but unsurprisingly, got nothing but rejection letters. Now, to be perfectly honest, I didn't try as hard as I could have, largely because there were a lot of distractions that came up at that point in my life. But there was a lot of frustration in getting the book published, regardless. So I shelved my publishing aspirations for about a dozen years until the Kindle came out and opened up some interesting self-publishing opportunities.
PODBRAM: Have you expended much effort seeking out an agent, and have you had much success in that regard?
Michael: To be honest, no. Part of that is because I'm a hardheaded do-it-yourselfer (although I wouldn't turn down a decent publishing contract!), but part of it is also a question of margins and value added. The publisher is already going to take the lion's share of any profits, and if you add an agent on top of that, there goes more of your birthday cake. As for value added, while I know that some agents add tremendous value, I also know that there are tons of authors who have retained agents and their books still haven't gotten published, even after a few years. Getting published is a lottery, with about the same odds, and finding the "right" agent is part of the lottery process.
PODBRAM: Did you expect to get as involved with electronic books as you have, or did you set out to become a POD author?
Michael: I had no idea what "POD" meant when I first started getting In Her Name ready for publication for the Kindle and, shortly thereafter, Mobipocket. My goal was simply to get In Her Name published, because that was one of the things that I wanted to say that I'd done in my lifetime, that I published a book. It didn't matter to me then if it sold a single copy: it was still technically "published”. The fact that people started buying it, and that they really liked it (it's currently got a five-star rating on Amazon and has gotten very positive independent reviews) came as a pleasant surprise. While I can certainly use the income from sales, I still regard every penny I get from the novel as a gift, because it almost didn't happen at all.
PODBRAM: Have you attended any writers’ classes or workshops? Have you taught any?
Michael: Nope. I probably should attend some, because I know there are some things that I really need to do better, but I don't really have the time right now. Also, while such things can certainly be extremely valuable to improve your writing skills, I think some folks fall into the trap of letting what they learn there dictate their writing. What I mean is, the techniques and skills are the tools you use to tell the story. But the story really has to be within you. On top of that, you have to do what I didn't for so many years after I wrote In Her Name: you've got to write. As the owner of a bike shop I frequented when I was in college used to say, if you wanted to become better and faster at cycling, "Ride lots!" That applies to anything you want to get better at: you've got to do it, and do it a lot.
The other thing I'd say is that if you are going to use these sorts of skill improvement opportunities, follow through and have someone critically evaluate your work. Every time somebody points out something that you're doing wrong is a chance for you to improve. People get too wrapped up in their egos and get offended if someone suggests improvements or points out weaknesses. I say bring it on: I can't improve otherwise!And no, I've never taught such a thing. The results could be too terrible to contemplate!
PODBRAM: Have you attended any book festivals or live events other than standard book signings to promote your books?
Michael: I actually haven't done any of those, at least not yet. I've totally focused my promotional efforts on web-based opportunities, looking for review sites like PODBRAM to help get the word around, as well as forums and social networking sites like Facebook and Goodreads. I'm an introvert (despite what my friends may say), and doing in-person things is hard for me. And with a full-time job to pay the bills and the other things we do as a family, time is always at a premium.
PODBRAM: I have noticed that you are not listed at Authors Den. Do you think that author networking sites such as this are not effective marketing tools, or do you just not have time for them?
Michael: It's partly a factor of time, to be sure. I probably spend most of my on-line time on Facebook, although I dabble on other sites like Goodreads, as well (and since you mentioned it, I'll have to take a closer look at Authors Den). I think networking with other authors is a great thing in and of itself, but I don't really consider that as book promotion; it's more like professional development and networking. While authors are also readers, I value my relationships with them for the professional and inspirational support we can provide each other, not as a significant potential market for my books. For real promotion, spending quality time at reader venues like KindleBoards.com has been very beneficial. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that you have to become a member of the community first, and not flog people with the fact that you're an author trying to peddle books.
PODBRAM: Have you tried promoting your books through the social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter? If so, how well did that plan work for you?
Michael: As I mentioned, I spend a fair amount of time with Facebook, under the suitably dashing user ID of Michael R. Hicks, and dabble a bit with Twitter as KreelanWarrior. I haven't set up anything on MySpace simply because I don't have time. My wife and I have talked about these things a bit with regard to one of our other business endeavors, and we decided that it made the most sense for her to concentrate on Twitter, where she has been picking up a following fairly quickly, while I'd concentrate on Facebook, where I've got a decent-sized set of friends and contacts. Now, I'll say that I'm not an expert at promotion by any stretch; I can certainly attribute some sales to networking on those sites, but it's impossible to tell how much.
PODBRAM: Some readers might be a little confused by your Omnibus Edition of your first novel, In Her Name. It looks like you are splitting what was one book into three or offering three volumes as one Kindle edition. Could you clarify this for us?
Michael: Most authors publish individual novels that are part of a series, and then later they may bundle a few of them together into a single "omnibus" volume. Unfortunately, I did exactly the opposite: I published the omnibus first, which contains the trilogy that is now being released separately as In Her Name: Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle. So, the good news is that if you buy the omnibus edition, you'll get all three novels for a much lower price (although be prepared: if you get the print version, it's a two pound tome!). The other good news is that if you don't want to pay the price of the omnibus just to see if you really like the story, or want a book that's just easier to hold while you read, then you can grab Empire, which is the first book of the original trilogy and is a lot cheaper, and scope it out. Then get the other books if you enjoy it. Does that make sense?
PODBRAM: Have you created any or all of your own cover designs? From what I have already seen elsewhere, you have devoted a lot of talent and energy into the development of multiple cover designs for your books. Would you tell us about these?
Michael: A good cover is essential. It doesn't matter if you have the best story in the world: if your cover looks terrible, people are going to pass it by. I know just enough about Photoshop to be dangerous (although fortunately my wife knows a lot more), and it took me a while to get the sort of look I wanted with the original cover for In Her Name (omnibus). Since I'm on a nonexistent publishing budget and couldn't afford a pro to do the design work, I had to use stock royalty free images and play with them in Photoshop. But that's okay, because there's a surprising amount of really good images and artwork out there that you can have for a song. Oddly enough, a lot of folks who have read the IHN omnibus didn't want me to change the "blue chick" on the cover to be more in line with the new covers I designed , with the help of some friends on KindleBoards, for Empire, Confederation, Final Battle, and First Contact. I also did the cover art for Publish Your Book on the Amazon Kindle: A Practical Guide.
PODBRAM: Have you ever considered starting your own small publishing house, as so many other POD and self-published authors have done?
Michael: I'd love to, but as with many things, it's time, always time. It's been hard for me just to balance writing new material with trying to promote what I've already got out on the street. I've spent virtually no time promoting the publishing how-to book except for the time I spend on the Amazon DTP forums helping folks. I'd love to publish works by other authors, but that's just not in the cards, at least until I retire in another ten years. Unless I get a major break from my writing, I'm holding out for a movie contract with Peter Jackson as director!).
PODBRAM: You published your first book using your own imprint, but you released Publish Your Book on the Amazon Kindle: A Practical Guide with CreateSpace. What would you like to tell us about your publishing experiences?
Michael: Beyond the hoopla last year over the whole business with Amazon trying to mandate that POD publishers go through their companies like BookSurge and CreateSpace, I have to say that CreateSpace has been pretty easy to work with. I've also worked with Lightning Source, Inc. (LSI), which prints the In Her Name omnibus. My recommendation for authors going the do-it-yourself route is to start with CreateSpace, because the cost of entry there is very low (a total of about $50 with everything wrapped together), and if you have to do any modifications you only get dinged the cost of a proof copy. LSI has wider distribution options, but higher cost: about $200 to get started, plus comparatively hefty fees of at least $40 each to modify the cover or text of your book. The print quality is roughly the same, and the CreateSpace route also automatically gets your book into the Search Inside The Book program, which is a nifty marketing feature on Amazon. Like many other things, there are pros and cons of the different paths you can take, and you just have to do some research and figure out how to match those up with your own strengths and weaknesses.
PODBRAM: How satisfying has your experience with CreateSpace been? I realize that your how-to book applies to readers who are already customers of Amazon, but do you have any regrets about forfeiting Ingram distribution with this book?
Michael: As I tell people, it's not really an either/or situation. You can publish your book using CreateSpace, and then if you decide you want Ingram distribution, you can publish it through a company like LSI. The only catch is that you can't use an ISBN assigned by CreateSpace, as ISBNs are unique to the publisher. You'd have to buy your own from Bowker, which is $125 for a single ISBN. Personally, I think that's a real racket, but that's the way it is.
But this brings up a good point: a lot of indie authors get hung up on the Ingram distribution issue, because Ingram is the primary distributor for brick and mortar bookstores. My view is this: if you don't have a full-fledged marketing campaign that can convince bookstore chains or independent owners to carry your book, which is very rare in the indie author world, from what I've seen, the only time it will appear in a regular bookstore is if somebody special orders it. And they can do that easily enough with books published through CreateSpace: the bookstore just searches the Books In Print database, and will find your title and ordering information there. Bookstores simply aren't normally going to pick up titles printed by CreateSpace or Lulu or any of the author-services POD publishers. Why? Because they're all self-published books, and aren't put out by the "big" publishers. So the bookstores ignore them when looking for books to fill their shelves.
PODBRAM: You have posted how-to articles on your site explaining how authors can set up accounts with Lightning Source. What have you discovered that you feel would be helpful to authors attempting to enter this new field of endeavor?
Michael: As I mentioned, I strongly recommend going with either CreateSpace or Lulu first, unless you have a really compelling reason to go with LSI. This is partly based on cost of entry, but also because any changes you make to your book gets expensive with LSI (a minimum of $40 a pop). Also, CreateSpace has a very nice administration panel that's easy to use and gives you near-instant feedback on sales. LSI's admin area isn't quite so clean for the small publisher or independent author.Also, while I don't claim that my experience is typical, I've made far more sales from the Kindle store and Mobipocket than I have from print. So the moral of the story here is to make sure you get your book published in those venues, too!
PODBRAM: I realize that you may be so proficient at the technical formatting issues that you haven’t seriously considered publishing with the traditional POD imprints such as iUniverse, but how would you compare the more self-service plans at Lulu and CreateSpace?
Michael: I did a lot of research into the traditional PODs when I was getting In Her Name ready for print publication. The bottom line for me is that the math for traditional PODs just doesn't work. You, the author, are going to pay somebody a pile of money to take your manuscript, which is most likely in a Microsoft Word file, do a little formatting magic, and then send it to a printer (most of them actually use LSI!). And guess what? You, that would be the author, are going to have to sell a TON of books just to recoup your costs. On top of that, the price point for books published by traditional PODs are outrageous compared to what you can get with either CreateSpace or LSI. I was looking at a plan with one POD publisher, checking out one of their cheaper plans, and figured that I'd have to sell over three hundred copies of my book at a price of $24.95 for my royalties to cover the initial up-front cost charged by the POD, and some people pay thousands of dollars to do this! Bah.
In a way, Lulu is almost as bad, but in a different way: they don't charge the money up front, but they tack it onto the back end. I priced In Her Name (omnibus) at Lulu, and the minimum retail price for me to make any profit at all would have been nearly thirty dollars. My mom wouldn't even buy a copy of my book for that much money, let alone somebody I don't even know who's never heard of me. Come on!
With Lightning Source, I could bring that as low as $15.95 by playing with the retailer margins (the cut the retailer gets as a percentage of the retail price), which for a book almost seven hundred pages long isn't bad. CreateSpace's pricing options aren't as flexible, and I think the lowest I could reasonably get there was $21.95, but even that's not totally out of the ballpark, especially after Amazon discounts it. And, in fact, I decided to price it at $21.95, anyway. After all, you're really getting three novels for the price of one. The individual novels like Empire are listed at $10.95 (minus whatever discount Amazon slaps on), so they're a lot cheaper individually, but it would be cheaper to buy the omnibus. It's just all in how you want to go.
PODBRAM: What is the most significant thing you have learned as a combination POD and Kindle author? Do you think that Kindle is the wave of the future? Do you think the future of the self-published POD industry is bright or bleak?
Michael: It's not fair to judge by my example, probably, but I've had far more Kindle sales than anything else. Mobipocket sales rank a fairly distant second, and print sales a very distant third. I suspect that's more a factor of where my marketing focus has been than anything else, but I believe that e-book sales, Kindle and otherwise, are going to grow exponentially in the coming years. I think there is always going to be a print market - it's one of those "use the right tool for the job" things - but tons of people are taking the plunge with the Kindle and other e-book readers. In our case, my wife and I each own a Kindle and we haven't bought a single "dead tree book" since we got our little beige wonders, except for a handful of "how-to" books that were only available in print. So I'll continue to make available every book I write in print form, but as things stand most of my sales are clearly coming from the Kindle store.
PODBRAM: What has been your single most successful marketing tool or tactic?
Michael: Getting involved in forums where eager readers abound and not making a pest of myself there has been my best investment. That's been a very valuable experience, and a very rewarding one, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of meeting some really cool people and gaining a small following. Authors should understand that they don't have to "market" their books in forums or other sites like Goodreads, as one example. Those places are filled with people who love to read, and just mentioning that you're an author in the "tell us about yourself" area and adding a signature block about your book is going to get you noticed. Just talk to people and get involved, and you'll get noticed.
PODBRAM: What has been your least successful marketing method? What do you think most POD authors try that is rarely successful?
Michael: My least favorite method is any type of paid advertising. This isn't specific to book promotion, but is something I learned in a previous business endeavor my wife and I embarked upon a few years ago that, alas, failed. It was a great learning experience, and one of the things I learned is that paid advertising, unless you have serious money and can get major exposure, is rarely worth the investment. It goes right along with all the seminars and whatnot on network marketing and other "how to make money" money-makers. They make money, all right, for the people who put them on (just my opinion!).
PODBRAM: How important is it that an unknown author’s e-books be priced low (under $6) or very low (less than $2 or free)?
Michael: This is a perennial question on the various publisher forums. I think the right answer is the one that any business has to find for a given product. What price point will bring the most total revenue, assuming revenue is your goal? Some authors don't care about the money angle. The sages seem to say that if you price a book too high, nobody will buy it; price it too low, and nobody will buy it. Price it somewhere in the middle, and somebody will probably buy it at least once. In Her Name (omnibus) is an interesting example. I've played around with pricing quite a bit, ranging from about $5.99 up to $8.99, and it generally sells better when it's priced higher! At the other end of the spectrum, you've got authors like Boyd Morrison whose novel The Ark, which is a great read, by the way, if you enjoy techno-thrillers, is priced at $1.99 in the Kindle store (discounted to $1.59) and has been selling like hotcakes (way more than my books!). Oddly enough, he also offers his novels for free on his web site! So he's got a very different approach that seems to be working extremely well for him, although he's been in the game at least a year longer than I have. Should I give away my books for free? I honestly don't know. There's part of me that says, "Hey, if it would help long-term sales, why not?" Then there's another part of me that says, "Yeah, but I did spend a heck of a lot of work on this, isn't it worth at least something?"So, that one's a tough call for me that I still waffle back and forth on.
PODBRAM: What is the most common technical mistake that authors make when trying to format their books for the Kindle?
Michael: This isn't a mistake, but a lack of knowledge: not knowing basic HTML. It's a pain, but just getting a basic HTML primer and going through it would help people enormously. Past that, I don't know what the most common formatting mistake might be, because people have trouble with lots of different things, but almost all the issues boil down to something that even a basic knowledge of HTML could help solve.
PODBRAM: Havee you uploaded your books at Smashwords or Mobipocket? What helpful hints can you tell us about using these alternate formats?
Michael: Mobipocket is fairly easy using their Creator software, and this is actually one of the things I lead folks through with my Kindle publishing how-to book. I've heard of Smashwords, but haven't put any of my books there yet (not for any particularly good reason, I just haven't gotten around to it).
PODBRAM: Are there similar sites other than these two that you would like to discuss with us?
Michael: Between the Kindle store and Mobipocket, which also distributes to not only the Kindle store (Mobipocket is owned by Amazon), but a bunch of other on-line retailers, you've got the biggest e-book sellers wrapped up. There are lots of others out there, but these are the biggies.
PODBRAM: What is your opinion of the Sony e-Reader system?
Michael: I've heard nothing but positive comments about the device, but to me it has a big disadvantage: it's not plugged into Amazon. I know some people think Amazon is an Evil Empire, but I look at its market share and massive leveraging as an opportunity, both as a reader and as an author/publisher.
PODBRAM: What has been your best sales outlet for your books? Do you think the e-book formats and sites other than Kindle are worth the effort?
Michael: Again, Kindle sales have been my "bread and butter", followed by Mobipocket. The trick is that you can put your book out there in a million places, but you've got to put a promotion campaign in place to let lots of folks know it's out there and is worth their time to check out. I've spent a lot of time with Kindle users, so that's where my sales happen to be strongest. But for other authors who have a different promotional angle, things are likely to be very different.
PODBRAM: Do you think the Kindle 2’s audio capability is good or bad for the future of the publishing industry and authors in general? Do think the company will continue to develop this capability or do you think the recent dustup will stifle its development?
Michael: I think the hoopla over the text to speech feature was a bunch of hogwash. Publishers are selling a textual copy of the book in electronic form. People are buying said textual copy. Whether buyers read it with their eyeballs or have a computer chip synthesize the text into speech, what difference does it make? I personally think it's a great feature, although I haven't experienced it myself (we still have Kindle 1's). But I personally think this should be refined in future Kindle firmware and hardware releases.
PODBRAM: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What genres do you like to read?
Michael: That could be a long list! But a few of my favorites, aside from the ones I've mentioned already, would have to include the Genellan series by Scott G. Gier (wonderful stuff!), Fred Saberhagen's Berserker stories, the Bolo stories started by Keith Laumer, the Posleen War books by John Ringo, and just about anything by David Drake, David Weber, or Steve White. I also enjoy some of the horror/thriller offerings, particularly by Stephen King (hard to choose a favorite!), Robert McCammon (Stinger), and Dean Koontz (Phantoms), not to mention the classics of H.P. Lovecraft. Techno-thrillers are also on the menu, particularly by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (I still think their first, Relic, was their best), and I also have to say that The Ark by self-published author Boyd Morrison (whom I mentioned earlier) is also pretty darn good.
PODBRAM: What have you been reading lately?
Michael: The Ark is what I'm reading right now, with great satisfaction. I just finished reading Duma Key by Stephen King, and a few other odds and ends.
PODBRAM: I read that you enjoyed Robert McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour. I thought that was one of the best werewolf books I have read. Have you enjoyed any other noted horror writers, such as Anne Rice, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or George R. R. Martin?
Michael: Oh, yeah! As I mentioned earlier, I've read quite a bit of King and Koontz, and The Wolf's Hour is a fantastic book! I just wish it was available for the Kindle. I'd buy it and read it again in a heartbeat. I read some of Anne Rice's earlier work, like The Vampire Lestat, but she sort of lost me after Queen of the Damned. And I have to confess that I actually haven't read anything by George R.R. Martin, at least not yet. But it's interesting that one of the reviewers who looked at In Her Name thought that readers who enjoyed Martin's work would enjoy mine, so I took that as a compliment!
PODBRAM: Do you have any further books in the pipeline?
Michael: Yes, indeed! My current project is a prequel set in the In Her Name universe called In Her Name: First Contact, that tells the story of, as the title implies, how humanity meets up with the Kreelan Empire. I'm about a third of the way through the rough draft, and hope to have the draft completed by mid-summer this year for release in the early fall. After that, I have a few more book ideas lined up in that series, plus a couple of other totally unrelated fiction stories I'd like to explore. So many books to write, so little time!
PODBRAM: What’s next for Michael R. Hicks?
Michael: That's always a tough question to answer, since it always seems to be a combination of what we want to do mixed in with what life throws our way (good or bad). But my plan for the next year or so is to get the other two books of the original trilogy, Confederation and Final Battle, out on the street and, as I mentioned above, get First Contact finished and out the door, then get them all circulated around for reviews. On a purely personal level, my wife and I have a goal of running a half marathon in November, and continuing to improve our fitness and health. I'm doing P90X right now, if you've seen the infomercials, and it's tough! My long-term goal is to hopefully make enough income from writing and/or my other business pursuits to be able to retire early from the government, but we'll see how that goes. But most importantly, I just plan on enjoying life as much as possible.
PODBRAM: Do you have any final remarks to address to your readers or our audience?
Michael: To my readers, I'd like to say a big "Thank you!" for taking a chance on an unknown author, especially in these economic times when so many people are having a rough go of things financially. The comments and feedback I've received have been really heartwarming and encouraging, and were what really got me back into writing after letting it go for so many years; I'd forgotten just how much fun it can be.
To the audience here at PODBRAM, supporting independent authors is one of the best things you can do for yourselves as readers. As I'm sure some of you have discovered already, there is some amazing talent out there in the self-published world, and your patronage can help shift the business paradigm of publishing to get more of that talent into the hands of more readers who can enjoy it. Like everything else, money talks, and every time you buy a book published by an independent author or publisher, you're voting with your wallet. And make sure to tell your friends and family about the good books you've read, and blog about them, too. Indie authors depend heavily on word of mouth for promotion, so if you enjoyed an "indie book", pass it on!Other than that, thanks very much, PODBRAM, for giving me the opportunity to be your guest and taking the time to put this interview together!
See Also: Michael's Website
The PODBRAM Review of In Her Name