Meet the Independents: Steven McKinnon
Research suggests self-published authors represented up to 34% of eBook sales in 2020. The number of independently-minded authors who choose to do-it-themselves is increasing. This is despite the limited financial revenue. According to ALCs, seasoned self-published authors, (those who have been writing for at least 20 years), typically earn less than £10,500 annually. Notably, the top 10% of these 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?
As a writer, we are bound to ask ourselves the same question at some point: should I aim for the traditional publishing route of submissions and agents and publishing contracts - or should I self-publish? To inform that decision, I asked some well-established #indieauthors to tell me about their journey.
My second guest is a SPFBO (Self Publishing Fantasy Blog Off) finalist, Steven McKinnon. His Raincatcher's Ballad trilogy is a favourite of mine. Its characters are flawed and human, plunged into dangers which force them to confront those flaws in order to survive. His fight scenes are visceral and dark. Mental health is an issue which remains ever-present in Steven's stories and, through his characters, we explore so many aspects of it. It's the understanding and the arising manifestations which hook me, it makes his characters not only intensely real but also utterly engaging. In 2015 Steven published his first story, Boldly Going Nowhere. It's a biography of his struggles with mental health. It is inspirational tale of one man discovering the problem, coming to terms with it and finding the answers he needed. It is sensitively handled, deeply personal and, very funny. That's what makes it so engaging. It is a story I strongly recommend for anyone (men especially) who are struggling in this way.
But let's get going with the interview of our next #indieauthor.
1. Tell us who you are and how we might have read something by you.
My name is Steven McKinnon, I’m the author of The Raincatcher’s Ballad epic fantasy series and Boldly Going Nowhere, a creative non-fiction work detailing my struggles with confidence and mental illness, told through a humorous lens.
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?
I started with Boldly, mainly to jot down my experiences and externalise some of the internal turmoil I’ve been through. I wasn’t diagnosed at the time the events were chronicled, but there are definitely periods of depression. I often wonder how different certain things would have turned out if I’d recognised that at the time. Writing BGN was very cathartic, however. I figured I wasn’t the only man facing these issues, so maybe if I wrote them down, they’d help someone out. As men, we tend to bottle things up - I wanted to show that there was another way.
As for the destination, I’m not sure I have one – perhaps I should! I’m between projects right now – so the car is currently parked, to stretch your motoring analogy, but the engine is revving …
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?
No. I decided early on that I wanted to be in control of my work. No agent or publisher is going to care about your book as much as you. That said, it’s all relative and can depend on a number of factors. There’s no right or wrong answer, just what works for you.
4. What was the defining moment when you said to yourself, “I’m going to self-publish!” What prompted it?
I guess the reason was a practical one – I knew there wouldn’t be a big enough market for Boldly Going Nowhere to be considered for a trad release.
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?
Good question. Isolation and imposter syndrome are definite issues. In a rare instance of my writing career crossing over with my full-time job at the University of Glasgow, I recently undertook a Confidence and Assertiveness course, as I often deal with a lot of sensitive issues and encounter students in distress. A great deal of that session was geared towards imposter syndrome, and it’s certainly not a malady exclusive to creatives! When it crops up, I recognise it and acknowledge it – this removes some of the power behind it and helps me to overcome it. This YouTube video tackles imposter syndrome in depth, and this Ted Talk has some good points, too. I also recommend checking out this article by the American Psychological Association.
As for Isolation, I chat all things writerly with a few friends when the need to arises, or when I want to show off cover art before unleashing it upon the world. (I’m gonna give a shout out to Travis Riddle here), but I’m quite happy to get up at 5am and crank the words out in peace and quiet.
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?
Yep, it all falls to us! That’s why I prefer the term ‘indie’ over ‘self-published’, because – for me, anyway – there are so many other people with their fingers in the pudding. I outsource editing, utilise beta readers, an ARC team, cover designer, blurb writer… It’s very collaborative.
For anyone considering the indie route, my biggest piece of advice is to write to market. People who begin The Raincatcher’s Ballad tend to enjoy it, but I throw a lot of stuff into those books that don’t always jive with the tropes of the Epic Fantasy genre. It’s a tough series to market for that reason. I should have taken those risks after establishing my brand. But hey, you live and learn.
My favourite part of the non-writing process is giving a brief to a cover designer and receiving the finished product. It’s collaborative, so a cover feels at once like something which belongs to me, but also something I can rave about without feeling like I’m arrogant because I didn’t create it.
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?
You must strike a balance, for sure. For me, getting up at 5am and putting words down before work is the best way to go. At lunch, I can edit what I did that morning and move on to the next part the following day. I don’t have anyone working for me, so I only have myself to blame if the work doesn’t get done!
For some authors, writing at night might work better, or doing micro-sprints during the day. If the desire is there, you’ll find time to make it work.
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?
Heavy emphasis on rubbish, haha. Like I mentioned above, that’s on me for writing books that are tough to serve an existing market. I find readers are genre-loyal, then series-loyal, then lastly, author-loyal. There’s so much choice now that your cover, blurb and Look Inside (or other preview) all have to sell the genre (and sub-genre) and not leave any room for confusion.
I’ve taken courses on how to use Facebook Ads, Amazon Ads and BookBub Ads. There’s a learning curve for sure, but there’s plenty of resources out there to get any writer up to speed.
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.
Final say on title, word count and cover… For better or worse!
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?
Yes, very important – if anyone wants to licence it, then I’m not beholden to anyone but me.
In terms of future plans, my next project takes place in the same world as The Raincatcher’s Ballad, exploring places we’ve never seen before. I’m excited to see where it goes.
11. What is your greatest success? (In whatever context you choose to define).
Symphony of the Wind (Book 1 of The Raincatcher’s Ballad) reaching the finals of SPFBO ’18 was a MAJOR success – and an even bigger surprise! It was nominated in Booknest.eu’s Fantasy Book Awards for Best Self Self-Published Fantasy that year, too.
12. Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment.
My upcoming project (it does have a title, I’m just not revealing it yet) takes place in the same world as The Raincatcher’s Ballad but we’ll be heading to Phadros this time around, and following a whole host of new characters. It’ll explore themes such as friendship, loyalty and how hating is easy but compassion takes strength.
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?
It would take a lot to get me to sign with an agent. Both trad and indie routes are valid, so I’d never say I’m exclusive to one over the other, but at the very least, I wouldn’t sign a contract with a non-compete stipulation – not unless there was some serious monetary benefits to balance that out.
I do have longer-term goals, primarily surrounding the new series I’m working on. We’ll see what the future holds…
I had two reasons for wanting to interview Steven. Firstly, I rate him highly as an author. His books left a lasting impression with me. Many writers may try to create flawed, broken people as their protagonists but few get quite so deeply into their minds. This requires a depth of understanding of such people. In my blog post, Speaking Through Your Characters, I write about the challenge actors face in playing such people. The same is true for writers, you need to inhabit the role and Steven McKinnon does this expertly. My second reason is linked to this. It is his willingness to talk honestly and openly about mental health issues. If you didn't click on the links he provided about Imposter Syndrome, I urge you to go back to them. They offer easy-to-understand explanations to feelings the vast majority of us writers experience. The worst thing to do is to dismiss this concept as insignificant. Talking about such things, especially with other writers, who will have similar experiences, is essential.
All that said, I hope you have also picked up on Steven's point about collaboration, as an #indieauthor. As John Donne said, no man is an island. No woman either. Independence brings freedom and creativity but it can bring loneliness with it, if you're not careful. Make sure you are part of a community, where people will support and cheer you on. #Indieauthor communities are full of great people, it is one more benefit to this approach to publishing!