Saturday, August 3, 2013

Virtual Coffee Interview with Mark Barwell

Amazon Profile
Mark Barwell is an Austrailian author whose two novels The Naked Viking and The Turning were self-published 7 years apart; before and after the ebook revolution. Mark and I are Twitter friends. That's a thing these days.

Hi Mark. The protagonists in The Naked Viking and The Turning are both misfits in some way who become involved in bizarre social change. What attracts you to these characters and how do you invent such far-out story lines?

I quite like "misfit" as a descriptor. In my younger days it was a label I would aspire to achieve, which in itself probably goes a long way to answering the question!

Keeping my characters interesting has always been the most effective way to keep me interested in a story as I write it. I'm sure I'm not alone amongst our fellow authors in saying that I've had many a story peter out on me simply because I've grown bored with it. So I guess for me, breaking out the old "misfit" template -- and its various sub-categories, such as the guy who doesn't quite fit in despite his very best efforts, through to the guy who stands apart for nothing other than the thrill of standing apart -- is a good way of maintaining interest, both in the reader and in myself as author.

As to the aspect of some bizarre social change, or global calamity seeming to recur in my work? Well, I do like to amuse myself by imagining extreme scenarios, and wondering how I might manage my life in the light of such an event, and further extending that to wondering how a sufficiently colourful group of characters in varying life-situations would handle a similar catastrophe. I sometimes struggle to remember exactly how these concepts germinate in my mind; with The Turning I believe I'd been reflecting upon the sorry state of my love life at the time, and it occurred to me that I'd likely have a lot more luck with the ladies if the rest of the male populace could somehow be exterminated -- which sounded a lot less hyper-genocidal in my mind at the time. And as for The Naked Viking, I was probably having a bath (as you do), and I probably thought "man, being naked is awesome!" (As you do.) Next thought: "People should get naked more often. A lot more often. In public, of course. Now how can we make that socially acceptable, and develop it into some kind of global pro-nudist revolution?" Which, again, is a fairly typical string of logic for me. Ultimately, I find that interesting times for interesting people makes for the best writing fodder, and a relatively unique scenario is an excellent way to keep one's mind entertained. 

It sounds like you have a sense of being a reader of your own writing, which must be a great asset. The Naked Viking was released in 2005, and The Turning in 2012. How did the world of self-publication change in the intervening period?

Back in 2005, options for self-publication in Australia were fairly limited and quite expensive. After some searching I decided to leave a heaping pile of my hard-earned with Poseidon Books, a self-publishing imprint under Zeus Publications. They seemed to offer the best value for the outlay: I'd get twenty copies of my book in paperback form, and they'd make my book available via a print-on-demand system along with an ISBN, listing in the Australian Library's Catalogue, etc etc. This was their lower-spec package; for an even larger amount climbing well into four figures they would have sent me more boxes of books and provided a rudimentary level of promotion, but for my lower-spec package all efforts at promotion were left with my humble self. I did my level best, but ultimately I believe I only managed to shift sixty copies or so, mostly among friends and family. This was back in the day prior to the advent of the ubiquitous social-media-cum-promotional-platforms like Twitter and Facebook, in fact I think it was a good twelve months before MySpace came along! Wow. Really makes one feel old: "I remember back in the days before Facebook... you young whipper-snapping authors don't know from tough... had to use smoke signals and semaphore to advertise our work..."

Anyways. Two years later I had "The Turning" completed. Much as I had done with "The Naked Viking", I spent a couple more years pursuing publishers and agents to no avail, sometimes coming frustratingly close but never quite grasping the bronze ring, so to speak. So I sat on it for another few years, polishing and refining, working with beta-readers and the like; my prior experience with high-outlay self-publication had me wary, as I had fallen well short of earning back my outlay, so I was determined to wait for the advent of a better way.

Come October 2012, I read an article about how a number of struggling Aussie authors had self-published with some success via Amazon's "Kindle Direct" platform. I was nothing short of flabbergasted: here was the zero-outlay, high-distribution to wide-market platform I'd been waiting for, and the thing had been in existence for two years already! So I slapped "The Turning" up into e-book format and put it out into the world, simultaneously slapping myself upside the head for not coming across this option sooner.

Buy on Amazon
And to address the question: seven years may as well be light years when it comes to the difference in self-publication options, then and now. Amazon's KDP may be the largest such platform available, but it's certainly not the only such way to get one's work out there: Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple's iBookstore are but a few of the ways one can self publish. And one needn't be limited to e-book format either; you can (and I have) get your words into print via services such as Createspace, catering to those who prefer the feel of paper to the glare of a Kindle screen. And again: for zero outlay! If my 2005-self could only have known... I can hear him even now, across the fourth-dimensional gulf, gnashing his teeth most grievously. 

I have been copying your tweet template of tweeting a quote from my book with the link to the website. What tips would you give to writers trying to market their book?

Ah, the old "imitation = flattery" scenario. I have seen a lot of people doing the same, and I'm sure I saw someone else do it before I did it myself, so I won't lay claim to inventing the concept. Thank you kindly though.

I started promoting my work about a week after "The Turning" went live on Amazon, after doing some research and reading some blogs about how other authors had refined their own marketing techniques. Having started nearly a year ago I'm afraid I can't remember the particular blogs I visited; there are a lot of excellent resources out there however, most of them easily found by googling "promote self published book" or searching Twitter for the same. That was a good place to start, and I quickly went from flatlined sales to at least a handful sold each day -- not quite the roaring independent success we all dream of achieving, but modestly successful nonetheless, and a great deal more than no sales at all. And I'm sure each and every sale could at least be partially attributed to my efforts on Twitter. It only takes a few Twitter-won sales to raise your title in Amazon's rankings, and from there it will appear more often in Amazonian shopper's search queries, which goes on to spawn further sales, higher rankings, and further sales still. Success begets success in this game, very much so, and a bit of self-promotional effort can take one a long way indeed.

If I could give only one tip to fellow self-pubbed marketeers it would be: promote, and cross-promote! When using Twitter, you've got to remember that your tweet is but one whisper in the roaring gale that is the Twittersphere. To combat the "shouting into the wind" effect, I use two tricks to help my self-promotional tweets be seen; the first, as you mentioned, is to make it interesting. Simply tweeting "Buy my book, it costs $X, here's the link" won't get you very far; pick a snappy quote from your book, or provide a tempting synopsis, anything that might actually pique a potential reader's interest within the confines of a hundred characters. Then quote your title, add the link to the page where the good people can buy your book, and at the very least you'll be generating traffic.

That covers promotion, but that's only half the job. Cross-promotion is what I call the act of re-tweeting the promo tweets of other authors, as well as crafting your own tweets to "shout-out" the authors of works you've read, enjoyed and possibly even reviewed. Not only do these acts of generosity infuse you with a wonderful sense of smug karmic fulfillment, you'll often find that many of your fellow authors are only too happy to return the favour, and will keep on returning the favour well into the future. I use Twitter's "Lists" feature to keep track of reliable re-tweeters such as these (our Fiona has been on such a list since the day we met on Twitter) and I re-tweet them often, because they and I know quite well that a retweet is a wonderful trophy to earn. Not only does it mean that your original promo tweet has been repeated for the world to hear, it has also been re-broadcast to an entirely new audience, namely the hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of tweeps following your re-tweeter. This is especially beneficial when you're just starting out and you've only a few hundred (or a few dozen!) followers of your own; the more times your tweet is retweeted, the audience for your message grows exponentially. And even if they don't buy your book, you'll likely find yourself earning new followers all the quicker, leading to new re-tweeters, leading to further re-broadcasting of your message and the increased likelihood of further sales... and the cycle continues, most merrily.

Interesting that you include Quentin Tarantino as an influence (on Goodreads). Do you think his dialog-heavy style can translate from screen to book? Do you use dialog to move plot along?

I've long enjoyed Tarantino's work, most especially for the banter between his characters -- Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are his best examples, I reckon. I believe dialogue to be a hugely effective story-telling tool, I favour it heavily in my writing and I really don't believe that dialogue can be over-done. I mean: why should you bother to tell your readers that a character is a cad, a sinner and a charlatan when as much can quickly become apparent in a half-page of caddish, sinful and charlatanic diatribe? One can do so much to add colour, light and shadow to one's character through his/her interplay with other characters, and in life the bulk of that interplay seems to arise through dialogue. I have a lot of fun in crafting a spot of verbal sparring between my characters, in fact I find it to be perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of writing.

As well as aiding character development, the fine art of dialogue certainly can be effective in developing one's plot. I'm sure we can all think of many life-altering events in our own histories that can be described by someone saying "and then he told me"; for me, my single greatest life-changing moment can be summed up by "...and then she told me she was pregnant". Talk about grabbing one's rudder! For the best, of course, for the best...

And as a happy little side-effect, a lot of my most positive reader critiques centre on two aspects: they love the style of my characters' banter, and I'm often told that they could see my tales working as a movie! Coincidence? Perhaps not. So ultimately, I do believe a Tarantino-esque abundance of dialogue translates quite well from cinema to the page... and who knows, it may even one day help a novel find its way to the big screen, too. Now that would be nice.

It really comes across that you write what you would like to read. Would you consider writing a screenplay?

I would definitely consider writing a screenplay if someone asked me to! Though for now I like to think I've put "The Turning" to bed, as it were -- it's out there, it's getting read and people are enjoying it, so I'm trying to save my writing mojo for new projects.

What can we expect from your next book?

I do have a WIP in the wings. Would you believe it features a world in chaos?

Tentatively titled "Space for Rent", it opens when a young lad named Jeremy and his friends watch a massive spaceship crash-land into the mountain next door to their school in suburban Australia (my favoured literary setting). A massive cloud of tiny robotic probes erupt from the alien craft, swarming around the world and attacking every human they can find; upon waking, it would appear that everyone now has a small alien device affixed to their heads. Half the population remain ambulant, while the other half appear frozen into some kind of stasis, completely inert but otherwise unhurt.

As the shocked and shattered remnants of our population come to terms with this new reality, Jeremy soon realises he is now sharing his head with the mind and consciousness of a copyright lawyer from Canada by the name of Vanessa. It turns out that Vanessa is among the frozen half of the populace, and it quickly becomes clear that everyone who remains unfrozen has had the mind and voice of a frozen person downloaded into their skulls via their mysterious alien headgear.

Can young Jeremy cope with having to share his every thought, movement and
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action with a grown woman of the world? Will he and his father ever track down their frozen friends and family, each of whom may be anywhere in the world, having to share someone else's skull? What are the aliens up to -- why did they send their ship and the probes to halve our population and double our inner-monologues? Coming soon to a theatre an Amazon page near you...

Wow, well that sounds like its in late stages of development, good luck with it and with your future writing. I'll be looking out for that screenplay... Thanks for the chat, Mark.


  1. Informative interview.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Cyera. Glad you think so.

  2. Great interview, Mark. I love the way you came up with the idea for your books. Sometimes the simplest of thoughts can set a mind to churning. And your take on cross-promotion is spot-on. BTW, I retweeted this post. *Grin* See how well it works!

  3. Great interview! New follower :)

    Cierra @ Books Ahoy

    1. Thanks so much, Cierra! Following Books Ahoy too :)