Michael R. Hicks is one of the most successful independent writers out there today. He began with his epic In Her Name series, about a protracted war between humans and the Kreelan. Hicks consistently ranks high in sales on Kindle. He recently published a book explaining his system, and his motivations for going the indie route.
Let’s begin with what brought you to where you are. Describe the In Her Name series.
In Her Name is sort of a mix of space opera, military science fiction, fantasy, and romance all rolled into one. The stage is set against the backdrop of a century-long interstellar war between humanity and the alien Kreelan Empire, a race of warlike humanoids who seem hell-bent on humanity’s destruction. The war isn’t over resources, territory or the like, however: it’s to find a human who has a soul as the Kreelans define it, a human who can release their race from an ages-old curse that will eventually lead the Kreelans to extinction.
When the series (or at least the core of it, as I haven’t discarded the idea of doing “spinoff” novels) is complete, there will be three trilogies. The first one, which includes First Contact, Legend of the Sword, and Dead Soul, which was just released, focuses on the start of the war, and is tilted more in the direction of military science fiction with a bit of fantasy mixed in. The second trilogy has yet to be written, but will focus on some of the characters that appear in the third and final trilogy, which includes Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle (and which are all contained in the “omnibus edition” of the book). Each of the trilogies focuses on a separate set of characters and what they have to go through, spread across the hundred years of the war.
Another set of books will tell the story of the founding of the Kreelan Empire, but we’ll save that for another day!
You also have a present-day thriller, Season of Harvest. What is that about?
Season of the Harvest is a parable about the dangers of genetically engineered organisms. The premise is that all the food we’re eating that is based on “GMO” (genetically modified organisms) crops might not be quite what we think it is. What if there was a dark design behind it, and our food was being used to help exterminate us?
This is what FBI Special agent Jack Dawson has to sort out after his partner and best friend is brutally murdered. He at first believes it’s the work of a shady band of eco-terrorists, but soon finds that not all is as it seems, and what starts as a single murder explodes into a plot to exterminate humanity.
You started out trying to sell to traditional publishers. How long did you go that route before going independent?
I submitted the manuscript for In Her Name (what’s now the omnibus edition, because that’s how it was originally written) to a dozen or so publishers. To be honest, I don’t even remember how many now, as this was back in 1994. Could I have worked it harder? I’m sure, but I suspect the result would have been the same. I didn’t know then what I know how, and there’s no way any publisher would have picked up that book: too long, too unconventional in some ways.
So In Her Name sat under my desk in a box until 2007, when I found out about Kindle publishing. I spent that winter scanning in the thousand or so pages of the full manuscript, and published it in May 2008.
How long did you work the indie route before your books started to catch on?
By the end of 2008, I’d say I was making roughly $300-400 a month from my royalties, on average. That continued with various ups and downs until February of this year, when I published Season of the Harvest. Then, well, things exploded: my royalties soared from a few hundred a month to $30,000 for both June and July.
And that’s where things got really interesting, because starting in August, sales began tapering off. By September things were down to $10,000 or so. That’s still a whopper of a royalty check, but it’s not a trend I want to see continue!
My cure for that is to keep writing. I hadn’t put out anything since February, and sales wont’ stay up in the air forever. Dead Soul was just published at the start of this month and is doing well, but I plan to try and put out a book at least every three months so my family and I can keep paying the bills!
In your book about e-publishing, you’re pretty specific about how you approached marketing. Other authors seem to be intentionally vague about the subject. Do you see an advantage in sharing the wealth, so to speak?
This is something I learned while working 26 years at the National Security Agency: teamwork wins. Period. People who share knowledge, who build coalitions and partnerships, can leverage a tremendous amount of power for mutual benefit. Other authors, even science fiction or thriller authors, aren’t my competition, their my allies. Readers will buy what they want, when they want. Chances are that if those readers like one of my friends’ books, they’ll like mine, and vice versa. Even if they don’t, what harm does it do me if I point a reader at another author’s books? If they don’t like mine, I’m not losing anything. If they do like mine, I’m still not losing anything, but the reader may discover another favorite author based on my recommendation. So what’s the downside?
As I’ve said repeatedly on Twitter, it’s about coalition, not competition. Besides, working together is a lot more fun!