Q&A With Self-published Writer Vic Tanner Davy
Last year was big one for self-publishing. E.L. James (who famously got her start self-publishing) won Publishers Weekly’s author of the year (here’s the entertaining response to the news from The Washington Post’s Ron Charles). Penguin adopted Author Solutions, Inc.—a big marker in the burgeoning, self-propelled industry. And Bowker reported that 235,000 print and e-books were self-pubbed in the U.S. As indie booksellers noticed years ago, indie books can satisfy niches too small for the big five. The Huffington Post noted that 40 self-pubbed authors signed with traditional publishers for $250k or more.
This year will be even bigger for indie books. Industry blogs are expanding their coverage, including GalleyCat, which runs a weekly indie bestseller list. IndieReader continues to offer good resources and coverage, along with a bestseller list. And Wattpad and Goodreads serve as well-known communities for feedback and recommendations. And with an impressive growth rate (287 percent since 2006), the numbers of indie books will only increase, especially since sites like Amazon’s Kindle Direct, B&N’s PubIt, BookBaby, CreateSpace and Smashwords make it so easy. Sales of self-pubbed titles are harder to quantify; most individual indie authors don’t sell more than 100 or 150 copies (according a recent article in the New York Times). But that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone. Who knows who’ll be the next Darcie Chan, Brittany Geragotelis or Amanda Hocking?
This boom in self-publishing has launched a revolution in reading—and writing. The questions that arise when talking about self-publishing are about quality. Of course, for some titles, the “quality” is that of a first draft. But so what? Many writers have stopped talking about writing a book and now have actually written one. There’s tremendous value in sitting with a topic long enough to write an entire book about it, even if that value is to the writer alone. And with self-publishing, there can always be a second, fifth, or 23rd draft.
With so many blogs and review sites (full disclosure: I’m the senior Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews) fueling the movement, the bar is rising and the quality is noticeably improving. There will undoubtedly be new, thrilling work. There are already a number of excellent indie titles, including LGBT titles. And of course there were all those famous queers who self-pubbed ages ago: Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf. Today, books that might have never left an author’s hard drive are appealing to readers and the market. With the relatively recent loss of LGBT publishers (Alyson, Carroll & Graf), that’s happy news for queer readers.
The abundance, however, sometimes makes the best reads difficult to find. This sea of books is already the greatest obstacle for LGBT authors trying to stand out. To cast some light on recommended LGBT indie titles, Lambda Lit introduces a monthly Q & A with self-published authors and professionals. This month, Lambda Lit speaks with Vic Tanner Davy, about Davy’s “neonoir ” novel, Black Art. Davy, born in London, now lives in the Channel Islands. Davy has been writer and amateur historian for decades, with a special interest in British history between the wars, and the German occupation of the Channel Islands. The author also examines issues of gender.
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Please tell us a little about your book.
It’s an old-school, crime thriller in the noir style. Set in a peculiarly British island in the English Channel, Arty Shaw, a genealogist, is asked by a television company to research Helen Valentine’s family tree. The award-winning British actress wants to know the truth about her grandmother’s wartime exploits and Arty is her choice to do the digging.
Arty’s investigation reveals that Helen’s grandmother, Kay Marett, was half-Jewish and running resistance ops against the German forces occupying her Island. When Kay disappears in 1942, a concentration camp seems to be her likely destination, until Arty uncovers a trail stretching from the Island, across Europe, to Cold War Dresden. As Arty learns more about Kay’s extraordinary wartime adventures, obstacles to the truth begin to appear in the form of a star of the Island’s amateur theatre and two menacing East Europeans in suits. Arty must challenge his deepest beliefs to discover what happened to Kay.
What drew you to self-publishing?
I’ve always been a self-starter and an autodidact. I also have a background in the computer industry so the idea of learning how to self-publish, and the challenge of selling the final novel, appealed to me. I weighed up the pros and cons very carefully and came to the conclusion that self-publishing was the route I wanted to take.
By self-publishing, I retain control over all aspects of the novel; I am not forced to do publicity I don’t want to do; I have no advance and, therefore, no pressure to write to a deadline; I can move swiftly without waiting for others to make decisions; and, I can write what I want to write without being pigeon-holed in one particular genre. The disadvantages to self-publishing are that I have to bankroll myself; I have nobody to check me if I am heading in the wrong direction; I have to do my own publicity; and, I have to motivate myself every morning. For me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
I’m not ruling out traditional publishing, but it was not how I wanted to start out. Now, at least, if a traditional publisher approaches me, I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been at the sharp end.
Can you talk about the process of creating a self-pubbed book? Any caveats/suggestions for other indie authors?
My best advice is: Don’t put anything into the public domain that you aren’t completely happy with. It has to be the best that you can write, which may mean not rushing into print. It is very easy to publish electronically, but it’s not so easy to unpublish electronically. Once people read a poor story under your name, they won’t give you a second chance. There are just too many other authors to choose from.
For the same reason, make sure that your work is, at the very least, proofread. If you can afford to get it copy edited, I would do so. However good you think your novel is, it doesn’t hurt to have an unbiased opinion from an independent editor.
It took me about fifteen years, a hard disk full of ideas that seemed great at the time, a massive Victorian novel that probably will never see the light of day, and three completed scripts, to know that Black Art was the first piece of work I wanted to share with the wider public.
Your book stars Arty Shaw, a suave transgender archivist. You don’t see many trans heroes (or archivists) in books. Did you want to address that absence?
Yes, to both facets of Arty’s character!
There has been a massive boom in family tree research in the U.K. in recent years, largely as a result of the B.B.C.’s Who Do You Think You Are? Having researched my own family tree and discovered a suicide, the Metropolitan police officer who headed up the investigation into the first ever murder on a train, and a husband and wife who just disappeared, it struck me that the research and piecing together that a genealogist does is not wildly different from what a fictional detective does.
And, of course, I wanted to address the lack of transgender heroes in literature. Trans-lit (especially female-to-male trans-lit) mainly consists of biographies, coming-of-age stories, and self-help books about the process of changing gender. I really wanted to write something for the barren shelves of the trans-fiction section. In essence, I wanted to write something that I wanted to read that hadn’t been invented yet!
It was also important to me to write the story in such a way that the fact that Arty is trans is just another part of who he is, rather than his defining feature. He’s a regular guy. His sex-change is no more relevant to the plot than the fact that he drives an old Dodge. There have been numerous television programs, newspaper and magazine articles, and so-called documentaries about transsexuals in recent years that have used sensationalist tactics to attract audiences. I find the way that they use language to elicit a particular audience reaction to their subject offensive. The media is getting better, but the fact that someone has changed sex is still far too often headlined in shock-horror terms. Arty is an attempt to introduce a rounded, interesting character to the mainstream who happens to be trans.
Blending light BDSM, archival work, the Stasi, and the whereabouts of a Monet stolen from Holocaust victims might seem like a thematic stretch, yet your novel knits it all together. What was your research and writing process like?
My research process always begins with reading, reading, and more reading. Because I am interested in history, and enjoy biography and historical non-fiction anyway, I have a good grasp of the flashpoints in British history. That helps as I know where to start looking. Sometimes where I think a story might be turns out to be a dead end. At other times, I get side-tracked and discover an unexpected little gem that I can use. If I’m lucky, I hit upon the right piece of history at the first go. That happened with the first half of Black Art. The second half was trickier, and it took several attempts to get the right fit.
I absorb everything I can about the era I’ve chosen, make lots of notes, and let it settle for a while. Then, I create the story’s structure. I like to work with a really strong frame so I spend a lot of time building it, testing it, and pulling it apart before I start writing. The writing puts flesh on the bones and is usually the easier part. If the writing doesn’t flow or seems forced, I will stop and revisit the frame because that’s usually where the problem lies.
Arty is a wisecracking wag who delivers smooth lines: “It was clear that there was nothing protecting her honour but that layer of cool cream silk, and I was fairly sure I’d broken through tougher barriers in my time.” Were there any smartass noir heroes who you were channeling?
Arty’s vernacular is his own, but it does pay homage to the greats like Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, and Spillane, with a little Damon Runyon thrown in. He’s not American so he doesn’t use a lot of the vocabulary that the old “gumshoes” used. I would say that the rhythm and pattern of his speech is what I took from the hard-boiled style, rather than what he actually says.
Don’t forget, Black Art is narrated by Arty so the reader only sees what Arty sees. I hope that there is a little niggle at the back of every reader’s mind regarding how Arty sees things, and how he sees himself. I’m not giving anything away, but there may be an element of wishful thinking in Arty’s depiction of himself as a “lone gun for hire”!
Who’s next on your LGBT self-pubbed reading list?
I really wanted to give you a title from the T of the LGBT spectrum, but finding one that was self-pubbed was tough. Self-publishing is not without personal financial risk and I wonder whether this is a barrier for trans-writers. Perhaps they feel, as mainstream publishers appear to, that the audience for trans-fiction is not big enough to make a return on their investment? Or, perhaps when choosing between the surgery fund and the book publishing fund, the surgery fund wins!
In the end, I settled on Refuse by Elliott DeLine. From its blurb, it sounds blackly humorous, and that is always a draw for me. From the preview pages, the quality of writing, formatting, and proofing is good, which is an absolute essential for me when selecting self-pubbed books. I’m afraid that I won’t read books where an author has taken insufficient care to get the basics right. I don’t want to proofread as I read a novel, it detracts from my enjoyment of the story. The last selling point was that Refuse is a novel with an FtM hero, and you don’t find many of those–yet!