Tuesday

Kindle Author Interview: Michael R. Hicks

Michael R. Hicks, author of Season of the Harvest, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.

DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about Season of the Harvest?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: Season Of The Harvest is a techno-thriller with a science fiction twist that's sort of a parable about the potential dangers of the genetically modified foods that we eat. The story tells the tale of FBI special agent Jack Dawson's hunt for the killers of his best friend and fellow agent, who is brutally murdered at a genetics lab working on a new generation of genetically engineered food crops. Jack thinks that a group of shady eco-terrorists is responsible for the murder, but as he dives deeper into the investigation, he finds himself falling down a rabbit hole into a terrifying reality that suddenly explodes onto the front pages of the news. Together with the woman he at first took to be his enemy, he has to stop an unspeakable enemy from unleashing a plan that will result in the extinction of the entire human race.

DAVID WISEHART: What research did you do for the book?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: As this was my first novel that wasn't set in the distant future where you can sort of make up whatever you want to frame the reality of the story, I had to do tons of research on everything from organizations like the FBI, military units, places (including some incredibly out of the way locales), weapons, genebanks and seed repositories (which don't sound interesting at all, but turned out to be fascinating), and, above all, genetically engineered plants.

And that—learning about "GE foods," and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in general—is what sparked the book in the first place. You see, my wife and I had to make some radical changes in our lifestyle due to some health issues, and one of the biggest changes was in our nutrition. As a result, we had to learn a lot more about what we eat, and as a consequence we came to learn a great deal about GMOs. And what we learned was frightening on a number of levels.

Setting the "GMOs are good or bad" argument aside for a moment, one of our main concerns became that we as consumers aren't told if the food we're eating contains GMOs: our labeling laws not only don't require food producers to tell us if something contains GMOs; they're specifically prohibited from doing so. As a consumer, I think I should have a right to know what I'm eating and, more importantly, what I'm feeding my children.

The other thing that struck me as totally bizarre is the amazing clout the GMO food producers have in the government. I don't normally subscribe to conspiracy theories, but one really has to wonder about what's really going on. That and the frightening legal clout of the GMO companies (which is at last being challenged by a growing consortium of farmers) was all spinning around in my head, and one day it finally came together in a snap to form the basis for the plot for Harvest.

DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: I'd be lying worse than Pinocchio if I told you that I sit down and carefully craft my characters. I don't. Aside from some name research, my muse has control of that, along with most everything else in the story. They just seem to take on their own personalities, then go off and get into trouble. Sort of like kids as they become teenagers.

DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: For Season Of The Harvest, readers who have enjoyed books by authors like Michael Crichton, Douglas Preston, and Lincoln Child, as a few examples, will enjoy this one. It's got a lot of action, enough science and technology to be interesting (and frightening) without being over the top, some exotic locations that were fascinating for me to research, and just a touch of romance.

DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: I started writing what eventually became In Her Name (Omnibus edition) in 1991, and after completely rewriting the second half of the novel (no mean feat, considering the book finally came to 325,000 words) finished it in 1994. I played the "let's get published lottery," going through the usual process of submission and rejection, and finally gave up and shoved the manuscript under my desk.

Then in 2007 I discovered the Amazon Kindle. Not just the device, but the publishing platform that went with it. Deciding I had nothing to lose, I went through the arduous process of scanning the twelve hundred pages of the original manuscript into digital format, then spent about three months doing edits and revisions.

I published it in April 2008 and after getting quite a bit of warm feedback from readers, began work on the first prequel, In Her Name: First Contact, then the second prequel, In Her Name: Legend Of The Sword. I took a break after that to write Season Of The Harvest, and published that for Kindle this February. That book took off in the Amazon charts, and the In Her Name series took off after it, with Harvest and In Her Name (Omnibus) both placing in the top ten of some of the major bestseller categories, including science fiction and horror.

I'm now working on In Her Name: Dead Soul, the third prequel, and have plans for a sequel to Season Of The Harvest.

Just as an aside, the skyrocketing royalties that have been coming in since Harvest's release in February will (I hope and pray!) soon be enough for me to quit my day job and write full time, for which I give my eternal thanks to the readers who have believed in and supported me and my work

DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: Some authors sit down and carefully structure their plot so they know just what's going to happen when. Then there are others, like myself, who are often called "pantsers," because we write by the seat of our pants!

Once I have an idea for a story, I often get mental "snapshots" of milestones in the plot, and as I write, the story undulates along in that general direction. I have to attribute any success I have in storytelling to my muse, whose main observable traits are that she (yes, it's a she) has an undying craving for dark chocolate and wine.

But I usually have no idea of what's going to happen in between those snapshots, and sometimes I wind up in a totally different place than I had originally thought. It's like watching a movie for the first time, having only seen a few still images of the film. I think I need to eat more popcorn as I write to reinforce the theatrical experience!

DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: That would be a long list if I put all of them down! I would have to say that Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle would be right at the top, with others like David Drake, David Weber, Scott G. Gier, and Robert McCammon right behind them, leavened with a bit of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Lincoln and Child. But there are so many more, and so many that I would like to read, but that I don't have the time for right now...

DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: That would have to be A Mote In God's Eye, by Niven and Pournelle. That remains my most-read book EVER, having read it so many times that I totally destroyed the original paperback version I had from the original printing (in 1974, I believe), and have nearly destroyed a second paperback—it's currently held together with rubber bands. I just wish it was available for the Kindle...

DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: Up until I published Season Of The Harvest, I did almost none at all. This was largely because I felt that I didn't have enough time to both write and promote, so I focused on writing. But when Harvest was ready, I knew that it had a lot of potential, and I'd really be shooting myself in the foot if I didn't find some rooftops and start shouting.

The promotion part of my business as an author is still very much a work in progress, but I can say without any reservation that—thus far—my greatest success has been on Twitter. It took me a while to figure out how to use it effectively to reach out to readers, but I attribute about 90% of the sales that took Season Of The Harvest and In Her Name to the Amazon bestseller lists to Twitter.

Of course, I've also been reaching out to bloggers and book reviewers, the media, am looking into podcasting, and have also been working Facebook. I think those avenues are gradually bringing in some returns, but I consider them powerful tools that I haven't yet acquired the necessary skills to use effectively. But those skills will come with time.

I also have to highlight the efforts of my wife, Jan, who in addition to being my alpha reader has become my full-time publicist and made enormous contributions to the success of the books. This is very much a family business now, and the books simply wouldn't have enjoyed the success that they have without her dedicated support.

Last but not least, I wanted to mention that I've been sharing my successes, attempts, and failures on my blog, and have a series going on just how I use Twitter and other promotional venues.

DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: The Kindle represents the single fastest growing market segment for authors to get into, and any authors who don't make the Kindle a central element of their publishing and promotional strategy aren't just shooting themselves in the foot, but are blowing themselves up with a trainload of dynamite. Over 95% of my royalties come from Kindle sales. I get some from sales for Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc., with a dribble from print sales, but the eight-hundred pound gorilla is the Kindle Store.

It's free to publish on the Kindle (and also for the other ebook formats; there are different avenues to take, but I chose Smashwords, which feeds all the major ebook distribution channels) and relatively easy. Amazon also allows non-U.S. authors to publish, and of course as an author you can now reach a global audience through Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, along with Smashwords.

It's just a no-brainer. Do it.

DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?

MICHAEL R. HICKS: I go into a fair bit of detail on this topic in my blog, but FIRST make sure that you have a good editing team behind you. You can churn out the greatest story in the world, but your book's potential will be severely limited if it's riddled with typos, grammatical errors, or continuity mistakes (as a few examples). In addition to my wife, who makes sure my muse doesn't go too far afield in the plot, I had the great good fortune of linking up with a couple of ladies who have proven to be formidable in the editorial role. They are mercilessly persnickety, and my writing has improved considerably because of it.

The second thing I would tell an upcoming author (I say that like I'm not one myself! LOL!) is to do whatever it takes to have a decent book cover. If your cover looks like it was made by an art-challenged grade schooler using Microsoft Paint, you're lighting the fuse to that dynamite-packed train again. If your cover wouldn't look at home on a shelf in a bookstore, find someone or pay someone to create something professional-looking for you.

Third, if you want your book to succeed, you have to promote it. Believe me, I'm painfully aware of the tradeoff in time available vs. writing vs. promotion. But don't for a minute believe that if you just toss your book in with the nearly one million other titles in the Kindle store that it's going to emerge a week later as a bestseller while you sit back and eat bonbons. If you want it, you have to make it happen, and it'll take a lot of work. Right now, I'm working a full-time job, helping Jan promote my current books, and trying to put in at least a thousand words a day on new material, plus blog posts, etc., and also trying to squeak in some family time. It's tough, and sometimes I'm totally exhausted. But my royalties last month topped $7,000, and this month will be more. Possibly a lot more. And every additional dollar that my books bring in gets me closer to my dream of being able to ditch my job and write full-time.

There's a lot more, but those are the main points I'd tell folks. Well, I guess I am through my blog! :-)

DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in 1963, Michael Hicks grew up in the age of the Apollo program and spent his youth glued to the television watching the original Star Trek series and other science fiction movies, which continue to be a source of entertainment and inspiration. Having spent the majority of his life as a voracious reader, he has been heavily influenced by writers ranging from Robert Heinlein to Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, and David Weber to S.M. Stirling. Living in Maryland with his beautiful wife, two wonderful stepsons and two mischievous Siberian cats, he continues to work full-time while dreaming and writing.

Visit his website, find him on facebook, and follow him on twitter.

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