Meet the Independents: Mike Shel
Research suggests self-published authors represented up to 34% of eBook sales in 2020. The number of independently-minded authors who chose to do-it-themselves is increasing. This is despite the limited financial revenue. According to ALCs, seasoned self-published authors, or those who have been writing for at least 20 years, typically earn less than £10,500 annually. Notably, the top 10% of authors account for 70% of the total revenue in the industry. So, if we’re not going to be the next Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, why do we do it?
I interviewed some self-published authors to find out.
Mike Shel is one of my favourite authors. You can read my reviews of his books here. It's my belief that his career as a psychtherapist has given him insights into the human condition which he imbues into his characters. They are often traumatised but always credible, they have depth and they engage the reader. His stories centre on the interplay between these people. They are truly character-led.
I must confess to pestering Mike into taking part in this series of interviews. My reason was simple: he is (in my opinion) an incredibly talented author who also suffers from Imposter Syndrome, big time. It's a concept I know well. Mike and I have shared our experiences and those discussions led me to realise the importance of these posts. As writers, most of us experience these doubts, to differing degrees. Our reactions are the difference. Mike's honesty in this interview is important too. I think it will resonate with lots of us. Being an #indieauthor isn't easy, it demands a host of skill sets few of us have in full. Mike shows us how he deals with this challenge.
I hope you appreciate Mike's take on being an #indieauthor and I hope it offers reassurance that despite those nagging doubts, you can still reap the rewards.
1. Tell us who you are and how we might have read something by you.
My name is Mike Shel and I started off writing a couple Dungeons & Dragons adventures for Dungeon Magazine back in the early 90s: Sleepless (in issue #28) and The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb (in issue #37). I then went off to graduate school to study clinical psychology, and subsequently began practicing as a psychotherapist. In 2010, I got curious about whatever became of the stuff I had written for Dungeon. To my surprise and delight, The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb had been voted by RPG industry pros as the best module ever published in Dungeon (see issue #116) and re-published in the current iteration of Dungeons & Dragons (3E) in issue #138. I contacted Paizo Publishing (responsible for the re-vamped version of Tomb) and floated the idea of starting to write for their Pathfinder RPG.
I freelanced for Paizo for about seven years before finally tackling writing a novel. In 2018 I self-published Aching God, which wound up in the finals of SPFBO that year. Its sequel, Sin Eater, was published in 2019, and the Iconoclasts Trilogy finish, Idols Fall in 2021.
2. Tell us about your journey as a self-published author. Where did you start? What lessons did you learn along the way? Have you reached your destination yet? Are you motoring along quite happily, trundling down a country lane or stuck in a lay-by?
As I mentioned above, I started by freelancing for Paizo, writing RPG material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It broke me of some bad habits, like writing in passive voice (endemic in professional and academic writing, which is what I had been doing for 2+ decades) and taught me how to manage large projects. I’m grateful for the guidance I got from Paizo editors and developers, including James Jacobs, Rob McCreary, Adam Daigle, and Mark Moreland.
Writing for Paizo also gave me something of an in-road with Tor publishing. One their editors was kind enough to take a look at an early draft of Aching God. His feedback was both encouraging and discouraging. First, he said it was better than 80% of the manuscripts that came across his desk, but that it was not a story that would appeal to any New York (Big Five) publishers.
That made my decision to self-publish simple. I knew I had neither the patience, nor personal fortitude required to query for an agent and then go about shopping the novel around to smaller scale publishers. I had made the acquaintance of Phil Tucker, self-publishing fantasy author extraordinaire (Chronicles of the Black Gate, Bastion, Euphoria Online, Godsblood), who showed me the ropes, along with a number of other indie writers in the Terrible Ten Slack, of which I am a very fortunate member. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Phil, Alec Hutson, Bryce O’Connor, Timandra Whitecastle, Demi Harper, and Benedict Patrick, among others, for their knowledge, suggestions, and encouragement.
Community. That is probably the single most important lesson I learned: the importance of connecting with other writers and benefiting from one another’s support and experience. What success I have achieved has come in no small part due to the help and friendship of others. The indie fantasy community is a wonderful thing.
I’m in something of a rut currently. A period of horrific writer’s block has plagued me after each of my three novels. Not sure what it will take to break the mental logjam, but I have faith it will come eventually. Finishing a trilogy was the realization of a lifelong dream. But I know I have more stories in me to tell. I have four or five potential projects in mind set in the world of Iconoclasts, including two standalone novels (Coryth the Revelator and God in the Globe), a short story collection (Hold Tight, My Beloved) and two series of undetermined length set in the future of Iconoclasts (West of the World) and on another continent (Thrall). They are in varying stages of planning and execution, all of them earlier and uncertain. It’s demoralizing, but again, I have to believe it will come eventually. The first drafts of all three of my published novels came in an explosive flurry of creativity, periods of 10-15 weeks of furious writing. Only time will tell what will arrive and when.
3. Have you experienced any part of the traditional route? Have you submitted to agents and publishers much? Emotionally, how have you reacted to these experiences?
As I noted above, I had a meeting with a Big Five editor early on about my first novel at GenCon 2017. He bought me lunch and took the time to give me his feedback, which I found absolutely invaluable. Most unpublished writers would sacrifice an organ for such an opportunity. I’m not great with rejection and suffer from a combination of those most common comorbid writer disorders, Imposter Syndrome/Delusions of Grandeur. I vacillate between loving what I’ve written and feeling like a fraud. In 2018 I was the first SPFBO entrant whom a review blog nominated as a finalist with a glowing review from The Qwillery. There was a lot of subsequent buzz and talk about Aching God being a very strong contender. This was followed by a drip, drip of decidedly meh reviews by the other judges. I was pretty gutted by the response, especially as many book bloggers had given the novel high marks prior to SPFBO. I watched in horror as my sales quickly went down the tubes.
Part of my writer’s block following Sin Eater (in the process of finishing touches when SPFBO 2018 was in gear) can be explained by my reaction to Aching God’s fate in SPFBO. It sucked. Idols Fall took 18 months before there was a first draft as a result. Thing is, during that same period, lots of folks said incredibly kind and flattering things about my books. One trad author got in touch with me and introduced me to his agent after reading Aching God. (who wanted nothing to do with me after he found I had already contracted for the audiobook rights to Podium). But I take criticism and negative reception too much to heart.
The truth is, I’m a wimp. The trad route is a brutal process, and one must have an ego of iron to survive it. I tip my hat to them. Self-publishing lets me bypass the gatekeepers, who have a narrower sense of what is marketable to the masses of readers. My books have done fairly well for an indie author, especially an indie author who does not advertise. But I’m nowhere near making enough to quit my day job. I’m making enough on my three novels to supplement my income. I have two lovely vacations planned this year, courtesy the earnings from Iconoclasts. I am a lucky guy. However, it’s very easy to lose sight of that.
4. What was the defining moment when you said to yourself, “I’m going to self-publish!” What prompted it?
Feels like I already answered this above…
5. Writing is a lonely business. Self-publishing even more so. Does this isolation affect you? How about things like ‘Imposter Syndrome’? What gets you out of these bleaker moments? How do you cope with it? (Do you cope?) Do you have a support network that helps you?
Imposter Syndrome is a pretty big thing for me. As I mentioned above, I’m a member of a Slack group of fantasy indies, some of whom are (deservedly) experiencing amazing success. It’s hard not to compare yourself, to get bogged down by a crappy review, a dismissive comment in an r/Fantasy or Goodreads post. But there’s incredible support available in the writing community on Twitter and in other venues. Indies are, if nothing else, open and willing to helping other writers navigate this ever-changing thing we do.
I’m strongly encouraged by thoughtful reviews and will revisit some when I’m feeling especially down. Readers (and writers) who take the time to post their thoughts about your work are treasures. Those who are bloggers or vloggers even more so.
When I’m feeling really low, I’ll remind myself of what I’ve already achieved: I’ve written and published a dark fantasy trilogy that, according to Kindle, has had 7M page reads since the first book was released in 2018. I’ve sold over 14K ebooks and paperbacks and all three titles are available on Audible, narrated by gifted industry pro Simon Vance. That’s so far beyond anything I had hoped for when I began this journey, how can I not feel encouraged to keep this thing up?
6. A self-published author has to be a jack-of-all-trades, don’t they? They likely employ an editor and cover designer but the other jobs are down to you. I’m talking stuff like marketing or IT. What lessons have been learned here? Which jobs do you hate? Enjoy?
I equally hate all jobs. Even the writing. Well, to be fair, I love that glorious time when the words are flowing, and consistently love having written and being in the editing stage, when I can polish whatever jagged hunk of rock I’ve banged out. I love making maps, though I’ve recently turned refining what I do over to a cartography pro. I haven’t done any advertising in over two years, in large part because I find the process is indecipherable and tedious and soul crushing. I suppose you could call my occasional requests that people buy my books on Twitter marketing. Otherwise, I rely almost exclusively on word-of-mouth. I am an artiste. I try not to sully my elevated self with the ugly operations of commerce (ack). I hire out tasks requiring true skills to gifted artisans (e.g., formatting & book design, cover art & design, editing services). I do my own website, such as it is. It is a tedious endeavour for me, and I don’t know how much good it does.
7. Time, effort and commitment. Following on from that last question, you don’t have anyone to do the work for you. (Or do you??) How do you find time when Life isn’t getting in the way? How much time per week is involved, on average? How does it fit in with the day job? What level of commitment does it take – and how do you sustain it?
Monday is my designated writing day as of December 2021, when I backed off 8 hours of my day job for the purpose, and I sometimes write part of the day on Saturdays. Truth is, I go through long fallow periods when I am simply not able to write. I depend on feeling inspired and can’t force it. I am not a disciplined writer. I envy and admire those who are able sit down every day, or at least on some schedule, and make themselves produce prose. If I knew how to do what they do, I’d do it. As it stands, I count on a torrent of creativity when I will produce 125K+ words in a period of 10-18 weeks, after months of a barely trickling stream.
8. A self-published author has to be enterprising, an entrepreneur. Does the commercial side of the role come naturally or are you rubbish at the business side of things? What are the struggles here?
As noted above, I am constitutionally ill-suited to do the business stuff, and I barely try. I am considering getting a table on Author’s Avenue at GenCon 2023 to see if I can manage such a gig. I helped out friend Virginia McClain there in 2022. She is much better at it than I would be, but I got some pointers from her. Part of the problem is that I’m an introvert and the idea of trying to sell to people makes me cringe a bit. Some indie authors are savants at those aspects of the trade, and they have my admiration.
9. Self-published authors are independents. They retain control of their work. Tell us about one specific part of what you’ve created that reflects this independence. I’m talking about things a traditional route might not have allowed or advised against. It might be a book itself, its cover, a character, a setting etc.
A trad author who enjoyed my first book kindly introduced me to his agent. This agent immediately cancelled our meeting when he discovered I had already contracted with Podium for the rights to the Iconoclasts Trilogy, but not before letting me know that had he been my agent, he would have urged me to eliminate the entire sequence of events of the journey aboard Duke Yaryx, in Aching God. I suppose that was his selling point on having an agent-editor but given the import of those events on the trilogy, I’m glad I didn’t have his help. I was also told by a Big Five editor that a New York publisher wouldn’t be interested in my novel because my MC was “too nice.” Note I’m not grumbling about that feedback—most writers would sacrifice an organ to have an editor for a big publisher read her work, and he had flattering things to say about my writing. I think the trad route is for writers with a thicker skin and more patience than I have.
10. How important is your IP? Your intellectual property. You retain it, as an indie author. Is that important? If so why? Can you tell us about any plans you have to develop it?
I have many stories yet to tell in the world I created for the Iconoclasts Trilogy. Having put so much time into its creation, it seems crazy to me not to develop it further. I’m hoping to write several more novels and short stories set in that world, in different regions, different time periods. I’m working on a weird western set 200 years after the events of Iconoclasts as we speak.
11. What is your greatest success? (In whatever context you choose to define).
I’ve wanted to be a writer and write fantasy novels since I was about 15 years old. I managed to complete a full trilogy in my 50s. I’m pretty damned psyched about that. It’s modestly successful. Not quit-your-day-job successful, but it’s paid for some pretty sweet vacations and other extras, for which I’m grateful. It’s also enabled me to connect with many other indie and trad writers and reviewers and book bloggers that has really enriched my life. What an amazing community of kind, interesting, wonderful folks.
12. Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment.
As I mentioned above, a series set in the same world as Iconoclasts, 200 years in the future, across the ocean in an analogue of the American colonies. I’m playing around with titles, which include West of the World, Death Song, and Hero Coming Home. Think weird western-fantasy mash-up. The overriding theme is one of penance and redemption. I’m really interested in how one cleans up one’s mess after royally f***ing up.
13. Will you always self-publish? If an agent or trad publisher came along and offered you a contract, would you take it? What goals do you have in mind for your future? Or do you take it a day at a time?
Who knows? Many of the stories I’ve heard from those who’ve moved from indie to trad are not encouraging. Frankly, I doubt anyone in the publishing industry would approach me, but if they did I’d have conversations with the incredibly wise and generous cabal of fellow writer’s I’m blessed to be part of. My general plan is to keep writing and publishing stories in this world, until they put me in the ground or people stop reading them.
So many writers I know describe themselves as introverts. Yet an #indieauthor requires a high profile if they are to succeed. Mike's sales figures show this does not have to be the case. Unless you want to make a career out of writing and give up the day job. To be realistic, that will be few of us. As Mike points out, being an author brings in an income which adds to the quality of life. What's wrong with that?
I also want to point out his emphasis on employing professionals, designers, editors et al. We can learn so much from them and they can make us look good. (I adore Mike's covers!) Finally, Mike shows us how determination and resilience are crucial qualities for the #indieauthor. Sure, it's tough. But the results can be worthwhile and like Mike says, when you're low, remember what you've achieved and celebrate it!
To find out more about Mike Shel
Amazon: click here
Goodreads: click here