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WesternSFA
A Chat with Michael A. Stackpole
April 26, 2013
by Catherine Book
Mike has long been a familiar face in local fandom and since I hadn’t interviewed him in several years, it was definitely time to check in and see what he was up to.  And he graciously agreed to meet me at a local coffee shop this month.  If you ever have a chance to meet Mike – and there are always lots of opportunities – don’t miss it.  He’s very fan-friendly and very personable.  I had a lot of fun talking to him.

The last time we talked, social media was not the huge presence that it is today.  How important is it to him, I asked?  Very important, he answered.  In fact, he thinks it’s key to any author’s success.  For years the publishers have put the burden of getting recognition onto the authors, since they have never been very good at it.  The publisher’s focus has always been to get books into bookstores (which are vanishing) and get book reviews into magazines (which are vanishing) and they have no skills in this brave new world of Facebook and Twitter.  For authors, having a Facebook page, a website, a Twitter following and a presence on GoodReads are absolutely critical.  And, he asserts, you need them all.  They are all different portals and folks who find your Facebook page may never go to your website, and folks that follow your Twitter may never visit unless they see something interesting.  And, for those authors who are selling digitally, all those portals are more avenues for the interested reader to find their books.  Twitter has been amazing for Mike.  He’s found that if he sends out a tweet and someone re-tweets it, it can gain him dozens of new followers.  And since websites can give free samples of an e-book, Mike thinks any reader who buys a book without reading the sample first is … well, too trusting.  This ability to ‘sample’ books is a HUGE perk of the internet.  Most samples are about 10% of a novel which is a pretty big piece of the book and let’s face it, if the reader isn’t hooked in three or four chapters, then the book probably isn’t worth the money.

So, is his publishing house still marketing for him?  Not so much, he says.  Unless you’re an A-list SF writer, you don’t get any marketing bucks anyway.  And if you are, you might get a full-page ad in Locus which might reach a whole 13,000 people.  That has never been  effective and they haven’t gotten any better.  Then I wondered: is it still important for a new writer to get published with a major publishing house?  Mike didn’t think so.  In fact, Mike’s seen new writers self-publish, build a fan base, and in so doing, get the interest of mainstream publishers.  He explained to me that for most publishers, only 5% of their books actually make money.  He thinks they need to change their focus and become more like talent scouts – poaching the best.  And then ditch the 95% that don’t make money.

Mike said that back in the early 80’s the rule of thumb was that a new author was given five books to succeed.  The first three were establishing him, then he’d move into the mid-list, and by the time ten books were published – then the author was considered set-for-life.  But now  -  if an author can’t succeed by the second novel, they need a new name.  There are so many authors who have worked through so many pseudonyms, they’re back to using the first one again.  He thinks this is best time to be an author.  There are so many ways for an author to gain a following and become successful – on their own!

So, since the internet is so pervasive in our lives, what did he think the effect will be on younger generations?  Well, the internet is all about reading, isn’t it, he asked?  And then, when you couple that with popular themes like Harry Potter, Twilight and others, we’re going to get young people who are comfortable with reading and who think reading is an ‘okay’ leisure activity, which bodes real well for writers.  Every ten years the US government does a survey of readership and in 2008, for the first time in twenty years, it showed the demographic of 13 to 19-year-olds were reading more than the previous ten years and that is, he feels clearly, due to the ‘Harry Potter effect.’  And with the easy access of tablets, anyone can carry around a library with them.  It’s easier than ever to read.

And what is Mike working on right now?  He just finished a World of Warcraft novel titled “Vol’jin Shadows of the Horde” coming out in July.  And he just signed a contract to do a Pathfinder novel (based on the roleplaying game) that’s due to the publisher this summer with a probable 2014 release.  And he’s waiting for all the dust to settle over the Nightshade issue to hear when he might get to the third book in his Crown Colony series.  He also just finished a short story for a Gene Wolfe tribute coming out in June or July.  He thinks the title is “Shadows of a New Sun” and it continues a character he wrote of in the “Unusual Suspects” anthology. And, since Mike is a pretty prolific author, he’s got lots of stand-alone stuff available on his own website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. that one could check out.  He wrote a mystery about a character named Merlin Bloodstone several years ago.  His agent shopped it around but publishers just didn’t believe it could be a blockbuster.  So last year he dusted it off and made it an original digital title.  And he has an interesting alternate history series about Homeland Security – where he postulates the Patriot Act came into existence ten years earlier than it did.

Does he work on more than one project at a time?  Well, he can definitely knock out more than one book a year, and he could turn out a short story while working on a novel but he didn’t think he’d ever written another novel at the same time.

I asked Mike if he had a favorite character or story.  No, he answered – like picking a favorite child.  For him, it’s more a matter of what he’s working on at the moment.  He has a lot of stuff that he’s enormously proud of, like his Star Wars books, particularly the first four X-Wing stories and then there was a set of four fantasy novels, “The Dread Crown War” series, that he feels are real good work.  Does he get as much satisfaction from the books he writes today as he wrote twenty years ago?  Oh, yes, he answered.  He always tries to push himself to do something a little different.  Otherwise, he pointed out, doing the same-old-thing would just get boring.  He can take his characters and put them into situations they’d never been in before and that’s fun.  Therefore, he can mess with his characters….which, in turn, messes with the readers.  Which is his job, he asserts.

Mike used to design games and I wondered if he’d like to return to that.  He chuckled when he said he loved doing games but nobody wants to pay him to design games; they want to pay him to write stories in universes around which they’ve designed their games.  He’s got a notebook of ideas, though…

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