Jack Badelaire is an up-and-coming action/adventure novelist who’s jumped into the world of self-publishing. He’s published three full-length novels including Killer Instincts and his WWII Commando series (you can read my review of book one: Operation Arrowhead here on the blog). His latest book, COMMANDO: Operation Bedlam, just debuted last month, and he has several short stories self-published on Amazon as well of varying genres.
The Commando series follows the exploits of the British Commando 3 as they try to help the French partisans militia battle the Nazi occupation. Here’s the summary for Operation Bedlam:
July, 1941. The resistance cell led by Andre Bouchard has been crushed by the malevolent Johann Faust and his unit of partisan-hunters. Concerned over strained relations with de Gaulle’s Free French government, Churchill orders a rescue mission to save those few partisans still alive.
The Commandos learn Bouchard has been captured by Faust and imprisoned in the SS officer’s headquarters. Aided by the mysterious and deadly British secret agent John Robert Smythe, the Commandos hatch an audacious plan to drive straight into the heart of occupied Calais and rescue Bouchard.
But when an accident forces the team to leave men behind, will Sergeant McTeague follow orders and abandon them to their fate? Or will he cut his way into the heart of Calais once more, determined to rescue his brothers-in-arms no matter the cost? With machine guns and rifles, pistols and hand grenades, knives and even their bare hands, the men of 3 Commando will do whatever it takes to see the mission through.
Jack was kind enough to let me ask him some questions about his writing, where he sees the future of publishing heading and why people shouldn’t buy into the negative connotations of self-publishing. Be sure to check out his blog — Post Modern Pulp Fiction.
You get one softball question to start off: What led you into writing?
I’ve always been a storyteller. I think it comes from being an introvert and living a lot inside your own head. Pretty soon the stories you tell yourself need an outlet, whatever form that might take. When I was a young kid, it was drawing, but as I read more and developed a better command of the written word, I focused more on writing little stories. Back in school, I’m sure the teachers just rolled their eyes at the stories of mayhem and violence I’d write. If I was a grade-schooler today, I’d probably get expelled and wind up on CNN for my “violent written fantasies”. Now, people pay to read them…
On you blog you say you’re heavily influenced by what you call “Post Modern Pulp Fiction.” What exactly is “Post Modern Pulp Fiction” and what authors would you list under there?
There’s an early blog post where I defined PMP fiction as the era of pulp adventure fiction written during the late ’60s through the late ’80s that had many aspects in common with earlier, pre-WW2 pulp fiction, but written through the much darker social lens of the post-Vietnam worldview. It’s probably not an incredibly accurate term (I still struggle over what exactly post-modernism is…) but it sounded good at the time. As for authors that fit that mold, the genre is more defined by the series that were written at that time, often by stables of authors working for a publishing house. You’ve got series like The Executioner, The Death Merchant, Able Team, Phoenix Force, The Destroyer, The Penetrator, The Black Berets, The Guardians, The Survivalist, The Black Eagles, The Rat Bastards, and so on.
Would that make you a Neo-Post Modern Pulp Fiction Writer? Or maybe a Post-Post Modern Pulp Fiction Writer?
I suppose it depends on whether a genre or sub-genre is inextricably tied to the time period in which it is founded. I think I consider myself an action-adventure writer with a strong pulp and post-modern pulp influence. My first book, Killer Instincts, is an homage to the vigilante revenge story, a branch of action-adventure fiction that was hugely popular in both time periods. My Commando novels are an homage to the military and paramilitary “kill team” type series, such as Able Team, Phoenix Force, The Black Berets, or The Rat Bastards.
From reading your Commando series it’s obvious that you know a thing or two about WWII. How much of that is from research you do ahead of time and how much is just knowledge you’ve picked up over years from being interested in the time period?
When I was younger, I wasn’t actually that interested in WWII. Not that it bored me, but more that there was SO much information out there, it was like drinking from the firehose. I was more interested in modern military history, weapons, tactics, and so forth. So when I started on the first COMMANDO book, I kept things focused on a small, well-documented unit (Britain’s No. 3 Commando) and wrote a completely fictional story with no real bearing on any historical event, so that I had the freedom to learn and grow without the pressure to get everything exactly perfect. Now, over a year later, I’ve spent a lot more time reading and researching the war, but it is still such an enormous event that I’m certain I’ll never know everything I need. Hopefully, I’ll just know enough to write the next book.
I love the covers for your two Commando books. It’s nice to see covers that really reflect the characters in the book. Tell us about that process.
When I made contact with my cover artist, Ander Plana, he was incredibly receptive. I sent him detailed descriptions of the characters, sent him a PDF copy of the first novel, even found pictures of actors I thought came close (Lieutenant Price is based off of a young Cary Elwes). Ander was able to come up with some great character sketches, and we went from there. I also sent him the covers from a bunch of ’80s men’s adventure novels, to show him the kinds of “kill team” covers that delivered what I was looking for in my own books.
Though your Commando series seems to be growing in popularity, WWII action novels aren’t the one types of stories you write. Give us a taste of some of your other stories.
As mentioned earlier, Killer Instincts is a vigilante revenge novel. One reviewer called it “Death Wish for the Twenty-Teens”, and I think that hit the nail perfectly on the head. It’s the story of a soft, upper-middle class college kid whose life is essentially destroyed, and he makes the decision to throw his old life away and transform himself into someone dark and dangerous — perhaps even soulless — in order to exact revenge.
Beyond that book, I’ve dipped my toe into the waters of other genres with a couple of short stories. “Rivalry” is about a young boy obsessed with ghost stories and how cool they are… until he discovers that ghosts are real, and not so cool. Then I’ve got a pastiche fantasy short story, “Nanok and the Tower of Sorrows”. Nanok is a quirky homage to the cheesy “barbarian swordsman” movies and fiction written from the ’60s through the ’80s that begged, borrowed, and stole from Robert E. Howard’s Conan. I’m sure I’ll diversify more as time goes on, but right now, the WWII fiction is my breadwinner.
What’s the hardest part, for you, about writing about WWII?
The hardest part is getting the facts and details right. I’m the sort of person who views writing as character and story first, minutiae second. But when it comes to historical fiction, ESPECIALLY World War II, people can be detail fanatics (calling them “detail Nazis” might be in poor taste…). One review for Operation Arrowhead criticized the book because I didn’t sufficiently detail how the barrel of the Bren light machine gun needed to be changed frequently because it became hot very quickly on full auto, and the reviewer questioned whether I had ever even fired one before. I had to really hold back from commenting on that review.
It is impossible to get every detail right, more so because sometimes even the material you use for research might have it wrong, or purport theories and conclusions some readers might disagree with. In some genres you might be able to get away with winging it, but there are a ton of military fiction readers out there who take great satisfaction from not only knowing an exhaustive amount of detail, but spotting and pointing out errors in what they read, and lamenting how they can’t find an author who “does his homework right.” In the end, I suppose I just have to make the best effort I can and cross my fingers.
I know you’re a pretty voracious reader and you dab in a few different genres when reading. What are some of your more favorite books you’ve read recently?
I actually find myself reading a lot less fiction and a lot more research-related material these days. Rick Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy, about the evolution and maturation of the American military in WWII, is an excellent series, and his third book is due any day now. Another great WWII book is Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two by John Durnford Slater, the man who formed 3 Commando and led it for much for the war.
In terms of fiction, I read a lot of trash, but I’m a big fan of the old pulp writers like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft. More recently, I’ve read most of Barry Eisler’s action thrillers, and I’m a big fan of movie critic turned novelist Stephen Hunter. I do read a lot of science fiction, and I can recommend Peter F. Hamilton, John Scalzi, and Dan Abnett, particularly Abnett’s Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies. They’re media tie-in novels for Games Workshop’s Warhammer: 40,000 sci-fi wargame universe, but Abnett’s prose is so good, he elevates those two series, as well as his amazing Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, far above media tie-in status, and creates some darkly powerful fiction.
You’re a big proponent of the self-publishing. What about doing it yourself attracted you instead of going through the traditional publishing route?
I was a film major in college, and it was drummed into me constantly that succeeding in that business was purely a matter of luck — even the most talented, creative people could be passed by for no good reason other than poor fortune. I really felt the same way about my writing; I didn’t think it was worth it to go through the years-long (sometimes lifetime-long) meatgrinder of finding an agent, submitting manuscripts, getting rejected, wash, rinse, repeat. I knew that publishing was less about the story itself and more about whether it was “marketable” enough for the publisher to take a chance on you, the same way studios often care more about the packaging and marketing of a film than whether the story is any good or not. I can understand their viewpoint, at least to some extent; when you’re investing millions of dollars in a product, you want it to appeal to the widest possible audience.
Since I knew what I wrote was, for the most part, about thirty years out of date for today’s publishing world, I really didn’t think my odds were very good, and as a result I let my writing languish for years before I began to hear of the self-publishing movement, and how now, it was possible for someone to sidestep the greenlighting process and go straight to the buyers. People often complain that this lets “just anyone” write and publish a book, but I don’t see a problem there. Indie artistry has been alive and well in filmmaking for decades, as has the indie music scene, never mind all the other forms of artistic expression. No one condemns a photographer, or painter for trying to sell their works independently — why do we hold writers to a completely different standard?
It seems like self publishing is in a transition phase. When it first became an alternative to searching for agent/publisher there was a ton of backlash. “Now any no-talent schmo with a laptop could label himself a writer and publish a book” was pretty much the rallying cry of publishers and even some writers. It seems like that is changing, thanks in part to ebooks becoming more popular. How do you see the self-publishing industry now from where it was a few years ago and where it’s heading?
I think right now, it is becoming more evident to a lot of people that “professional writers” were few and far between. The number of people who actually made a living — a solid, comfortable living — from writing books was a tiny fraction of the number of people who were published. You had a lot of the heavy hitters: Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Kathy Reichs, people who’d get six or seven figure advances and sell millions of copies of their books. Then there was a small second tier of authors, often those who wrote LOTS of books, two or three a year, often in media tie-in outlets, who also made a living (albeit one less opulent) off their writing. But most people who were traditionally published received a small advance and earned such pitiful royalties that they might never have even paid off their advance and started earning income.
Today, it is becoming more evident that with the greater control, faster time-to-delivery, and the much higher royalties authors can earn self publishing, far more writers can earn a respectable household income. I’ve seen countless stories of people who’re now making enough to quit their jobs and write full-time or quite high-pressure jobs they hated — but held onto purely for the paycheck — and take a less stressful job because their royalties were making up the difference. Not everyone is going to make this much — it is still something of a crap shoot — but the point is that it is possible.
I think within the next five to ten years, the publishing dynamic is going to shift more to a la carte services for authors, either as a one-time fee or as a (much smaller) percentage of the royalties. The power will be in the hands of the authors, because the publishers are going to eventually realize that everything they offer, can be had on a per-contract basis from a huge body of talented freelancers who’ll be more than happy to develop strong ties to successful authors. There will still be a need for publishing houses, but to mangle the words of JFK, they won’t be insisting on what writers must do for them, they’ll be asking what they can do for writers.
One of the downsides to self-publishing is getting your hardcopy books into bookstores is nearly impossible because a lot of it is print-on-demand with no returns, and corporate bookstores like B&N won’t take them on if they can’t return unsold titles. Smaller mom-n-pop bookstores you might have a better chance at convincing to carry a few copies of your titles. Does that bother you at all and do you think that may change in the future?
I think sadly, almost all brick-and-mortar bookstores that focus on new books will go the way of Blockbuster and other movie rental outlets. There are a number of reasons for this, some that can be mitigated on a case-by-case basis, and some that can’t. I think print-on-demand bookshops are one alternative, where you stop by, order a title you want, and your book is printed and bound while you wait. Hardcover editions may still exist, but I see them becoming an even greater luxury item, like a boxed folio edition of a favorite work. But at the end of the day, economics and space will win out. Why spend over $20 on a hardcover novel you’ll read in a weekend, when for $60 you can buy an e-reader that’s thinner than a paperback and can hold every book in your house, and with that same $20, you’ll be able to buy 5-10 books? Paper books aren’t going to go away anytime soon — they might never go away — but as e-readers become better and better, paper will become the niche market.
As for the nostalgic idea of being able to walk into a bookstore and having the pleasure of seeing someone admiring my books, picking up a hardcover volume of my latest bestseller, and walking up to the cashier with my pride and joy in hand…it sounds great, but it was nothing more than a fantasy for 99.99% of aspiring writers even before the ebook revolution. These days, that fantasy is replaced by tweets, emails, and Facebook comments/messages from fans who love my books and are eager to read more. Oh, and those monthly royalty deposits don’t hurt, either.
As an up and comer self-published author, what tips do you have for other writers who are tired of trying to go the traditional route and are thinking about self-publishing?
First, be realistic about your expectations. A lot of “early adopters” heard some of the mega success stories and figured self-publishing was analogous to printing money, and they were sorely disappointed. You need to be happy with small victories. When I started out, I’d look at my (tiny) royalties every month and the next time I’d have lunch, I’d tell myself it was bought with my royalties for that month. Later on, as more money came in, I’d treat myself to small purchases with the same thought. Last month, I bought a brand new laptop while telling myself it was with the royalties earned up to that point by my first Commando novel.
Second, brush up on the basics. Reacquaint yourself with basic sentence structure, common grammatical and spelling errors, real back-to-school stuff. It’s amazing how much of that we can forget. Even those of us with white collar jobs and advanced college degrees can look like complete morons once we try to write prose. Some readers are more forgiving than others, but if you don’t make the effort to be as error-free as possible, be aware that some readers and reviewers will ding you for spelling and grammar errors, and that can sink your book. I make an effort to read self-pubbed works, but I also read the bad reviews, and “badly edited / poorly written” from more than one or two reviewers means I’ll probably pass on making that purchase.
Third, start small. Write a couple of short stories and put them up on Amazon. Read up on ebook formatting and get it right. Read up on cover design and get it right, or hire someone to design your cover for you. Amazon is now testing a new cover design feature for their self-publishing portal that makes simple covers. They might look “amateurish”, but if you make some well-reasoned choices, they’ll at least look okay, especially for a short story. Once you get your feet wet with a short or two, and get familiar with the mechanics of going from a blank page to a product that’s earning you some royalties, then try your hand at a novella or full-sized novel.
Fourth, be patient. There is no sure-fire solution to getting lots of money by self-publishing, there is only the possibility. You have to understand that the best thing you can do to raise awareness to your works and draw in readers is simply to write another book. The first real money I made self-publishing was from my first Commando novel, and that was the fifth title I put up on Amazon. It took fifteen months to get there, and only now, two years after I put up my first product, am I seeing steady triple-digit monthly sales figures. Maybe you do it in two weeks, maybe you do it in three years, or five – the point is, it can be done.
And finally, don’t be a dick. Don’t bombard Twitter and Facebook with a never-ending spew of ads and announcements about your books. Don’t mention your latest books in every blog comment or discussion board thread you post in. Don’t get into flame wars with people who write you poor reviews, and if a fan does write to you, make an effort to write back, and be polite, friendly, and professional. Find other authors whose works are similar to your own and make contact with them. Chances are they are as excited to talk to you as you are to talk to them. Don’t smell desperate or get pushy, but maybe you can work together to cross-pollinate each other’s fan bases. That’s the power of 21st century social media networking, not Twitter or FB spamming.
So what storie(s) are you currently working on and when will they be unleashed to the Internets?
I’m currently doing the prep work for my third Commando novel, Operation Cannibal, which I hope to release at the end of the summer. I want to have this book out before moving on to anything else. After that, I want to write a couple more spin-off stories set in the same WWII “world” as my Commando books. I also want to write a sequel to Killer Instincts, as well as a prequel featuring some of the characters from that book, set in the ’70s. I’ve got a sci-fi novella idea tucked away, as well as a sword-and-sorcery story that needs polishing before I can release it. Honestly, I’ve got enough ideas and outlines to keep me writing for at least another two years, and more pop into my head all the time.
Anything else you’d like to throw out there for our readers to know?
Read, read, and read some more. Show the world that the written word is alive and well, no matter the medium. If you’re interested in self-publishing, do your due diligence, and get educated as to what you need to do to be successful, not only as a writer, but also as your own independent businessperson. The more knowledge and understanding you have, the better off you’ll be when you take the plunge and click “publish”.
If you’re a reader, dig around on some indie publishing blogs, find an author that interests you, and take a chance on them. Many provide their first books at a reduced rate or even for free, and many are happy to send a promotional copy to a prospective reader if it might mean acquiring a lifelong fan. And if you like the book, do the writer a favor and leave a review on Amazon or wherever else you found it. If there were flaws, don’t hide them — you’ll do more harm than good — but remember that there’s a human being at the other end, who will (despite all their efforts at maintaining a thick skin) take harsh words and vitriol personally.