A J Dalton, best-selling novelist and creator of the metaphysical fantasy genre, answers our questions about fantasy fiction, finding an agent, and getting published. (Fun fact: Even Neil Gaiman writes under the metaphysical fantasy banner.)
Dr Dalton-West is also a perspicacious academic. He has, most notably, written books on the sub-genres of British fantasy literature and the lingering presence of the Satanic in science fiction and fantasy texts. His website is a veritable dragon’s hoard of expert advice on creative writing, finding an agent, and getting published.
Read on for the Doctor’s thoughts on all things fantasy, publishing, book signings, and his success as one of the leading voices in British fantasy.
Follow A J Dalton on Twitter: @ajdalton1.
What are the most important things to consider when seeking an agent?
First, it’s good to ascertain if they’re susceptible to bribery. Or flattery, a drink or two, or whatever. If none of that works, then you’ll have to rely on the strength of your submission to them. You’ll need a compelling 50-word pitch for your cover letter/email. You will need to convince them either you or your work has commercial potential.
When it comes to yourself, you need to supply evidence that you have an audience (followers on Facebook, Twitter, your own website, etc.), that you have the skills to sell your work to that audience (online, face-to-face, etc.), and that you write commercial standard material that people like (previous publications, sales figures, feedback, qualifications, etc.).
Then the work you offer them needs to be perfect in punctuation and grammar, it needs to have a great one-page synopsis (with a clear description of how the story ends), it needs a great opening line, a gripping opening paragraph and an amazing first page.
But before you do any of that, DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
Check their website to be sure 1. They accept work of the genre you write in 2. They accept unsolicited manuscripts 3. How they want a submission formatted and 4. Whether they are currently looking for new clients.
What are your experiences as a self-published author?
Ha. Well, don’t go and self-publish with some crazy idea that you will make loads of money. You will do well to cover your costs. The best reason to self-publish is to get sale stats on the board. If you can sell a thousand copies of anything, most mainstream publishers will be interested in you.
I self-published Necromancer’s Gambit back in 2008 because no publisher wanted it. ‘It’s too dark’ and ‘It doesn’t sit squarely in the fantasy genre’ were the comments I was getting. Ironically, the work’s originality and difference from the norm were seen as weaknesses. But I had self-belief, and put my money where my mouth was (paying a company to self-publish, and to have my book placed in Waterstones). I then gave up umpteen Saturdays doing book signings.
Within a year, Necromancer’s Gambit was the second biggest-selling fantasy book for Waterstones in the north-west of England. It was the first ‘new wave’ zombie book in the UK. Yes, that was me. I was doing dark fantasy before the term was coined by Twilight and its ilk. But I was rejected by every damn publisher in the UK. Based on the sales stats of my necromancer trilogy, Gollancz (the UK market leader in fantasy) then gave me a three-book deal for Chronicles of a Cosmic Warlord (first book of which is Empire of the Saviours).
So, you need to have massive self-belief, an appetite for financial risk and good support from friends and family to make it in the publishing industry these days. Amen.
Self-publishing vs. the traditional agent and publisher route…
As a first time/aspiring author, there is a snowball’s chance in hell that an agent or publisher will even look at your work. They get hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts a week. Every bugger in the UK is writing a book, and the agents and publishers just don’t have time to look at them all. They probably have the time and resources to look at 1% of all submissions.
If an agent or publisher need a new book, they simply approach a known author (who has an established fan-base and is therefore a better financial prospect) and ask for something. Trust me, agents and publishers don’t really want to hear from you if you are an unknown. So, your cover letter to them needs to give them something unique (you might be a minor celebrity, your book might be a ‘game-changer’, etc).
In summary, then, you are ten times more likely to be successful as a first-time/aspiring author through self-publishing. Once you’ve had ‘success’ there, you will then have far more chance of success with agents and publishers. But always be honest about what constitutes ‘success’ for you.
Self-publishing won’t make you rich. You probably won’t sell more than a few hundred books (that’s if you do well). You could get very disillusioned. You will put in a tonne of time and effort, time and effort you will never get back.
Why do it?
Well, you will learn a helluva lot. You will learn IT and marketing skills, you will learn about the publishing industry, and you might just enjoy yourself along the way (as long as you have the right expectations of it all).
Your favourite books and/or books that have influenced you…
The book I’m proudest of is The Book of Orm, my latest publication. I wrote it for, and published it with, an indie publisher – meaning I knew from the start that I’d never see any serious financial return from the title.
I wrote it for the ‘art’ of writing, because I am a fan of the fantasy genre, because I have (a few) fans who want to see me keep producing new work, because it helped out Kristell Ink (who needed a higher profile author like me in their stable), because writing keeps me sane, because the uni where I teach pressures me to keep publishing, and because the publisher gave me absolute free rein (so I could take proper creative risks in the story collection and allow a couple of friends to submit a story each and be published for the first time).
It’s a great book, and has the lowest price point (a mere 7.99 of your earth pounds) of all my titles.
In terms of authors that influence me and help me create a sense of the gothic in my own work, Christopher Marlowe is the main one. He’s much darker than Shakespeare, and funnier/more ironic. He also lived life joyfully and to the max, which comes across in the writing, I think. He really pushed boundaries creatively and philosophically. For very similar reasons, I also prefer Coleridge to plodding old Wordsworth.
Finally, in terms of fantasy, it has to be David Gemmell (RIP), who wrote a very British type of heroic fantasy, and Edgar Allan Poe (for the quality of his prose and his mastery of the super-real).
Which of your novels was most difficult to write?
Hmm. Each book presents its own difficulties and challenges. On a technical level, my first book (Necromancer’s Gambit) was toughest, because I simply didn’t know enough about extended writing. My latest publication (The Book of Orm) is technically the most proficient, but it required me to master the short story form for the first time. I managed it well with the title story, Orm, but The Warrior of Ages ended up being 39K words, which is actually a novella. Oops. Basically, you do get better with each book, even though sales stats don’t always reflect that. You learn with each book. You see yourself improve, and that’s emotionally rewarding. If you give up, then you’re stupid.
Tell us about your other work…
Well, I’ve completed a literary sci-fi novel called Lifer, which is currently being considered by Titan and Solaris. I’ve completed a novella called I am a small god, which is being considered by Tor and PS. And I’m working on The Book of Angels for Kristell Ink (as a follow up to the wonderful The Book of Orm). You can’t afford to put all your eggs in one basket these days. You have to be using a whole range of strategies and tactics at the same time to maximise your chances of success. That’s how you increase your chances of getting ‘lucky’.
At the end of the day, though, no matter what you may think, there’s very little luck involved. Learn enough, work hard enough, write well enough, sell yourself hard enough, grow a thick enough skin, become emotionally strong enough… and you will succeed. Nine out of ten people fail because they give up when things get tough. Why not make the decision for yourself to be the one person in ten who doesn’t give up? Up to you.
If anything I’ve shared here has been useful, please consider going out to buy The Book of Orm. I’d appreciate it. And if you don’t like the book, I’ll buy it back off you (maybe). I might even agree to read some of your own work. Seems only fair.
A J Dalton, www.ajdalton.eu
NB. Post originally published on suchandsuchmag.wordpress.com.
Written by A J Dalton and Michael Conroy