We recently sat down with Nathan Farrugia, Australian author of the Fifth Column series. His first novel, The Chimera Vector, is a number one bestseller on the Amazon and iBooks stores, and also claimed the title of Apple iBooks Thriller of the Year. We chatted with him about the trials and tribulations of publishing digitally, as well as his writing process. Hint: there are near-death experiences and clandestine operations involved.
In the coming weeks, we will also be running a live Twitter Q&A with Nathan. This will be a great opportunity to speak to a published author about the world of digital publishing and writing - or just to pick his brain further about how he gets into character. We’ll confirm the time-slot via social media over the next few days, so stay tuned.
Tell us a bit about your series The Fifth Column.
The series follows Sophia, a black operative who is genetically modified and trained by a clandestine government agency known as The Fifth Column. She is abducted by renegade scientists and soon finds herself the spearhead of a resistance movement. So far, the series is three novels and one short story, with more books coming soon. The Fifth Column series are techno-thrillers, which is a hybrid sub-genre of thriller and science fiction that features military technology, genetics, espionage and martial arts. The series follows the journey of Sophia and her fellow genetically enhanced friends.
Why did you decide to forgo the “traditional” print route and publish digitally?
I started off trying the traditional route. Since I was writing popular fiction, my literary agent wanted the full weight of a large publisher behind us, and there were six publishers here in Australia who fit that criterion.
My first submission was read by an outsourced reader, a trusted third party who gave feedback to the editor at the publishing house. The editor requested a major change to the manuscript and a re-submission. My agent and I agreed this was going to improve the manuscript regardless, so I went ahead and made that change. When we re-submitted six months later, the editor was no longer working there and the new editor didn’t like it. So the following year we submitted to a second publisher. It was around this time that the publishing landscape changed dramatically. My second submission was rejected. But this time the rejection made me happy, because now I could self-publish.
I stalked an editor on Twitter to see if he was available to edit my manuscript. He took on the job, but about halfway through there was an awkward delay. When I finally got a response, instead of an invoice it was an offer for publication. I was shocked and excited. The digital imprint was Pan Macmillan’s Momentum, and they emerged at just the right time to offer exactly what I was looking for, so it was a case of superb timing.
Word on the street is you’re a bit of an adrenaline junkie. What’s the most terrifying, near-death experience you’ve had?
That’s tough to pick, which probably isn’t a good thing. I have a fear of heights, so the most terrifying would be dangling from a rooftop in St Petersburg, Russia. We were about ten stories up, I was half hanging
over a fire escape that may not have caught
me and I was holding onto an electrical cord. The electrical cord was not fastened to anything secure, it was tied to another electrical cord. The only reason I found myself in this position was because I thought we were sneaking to the roof by going through a window, not doing an Assassin’s Creed over the side. Anyway, I’m pretty sure my travel insurance didn’t cover that.
That sounds super intense. Why do you think it’s important to experience these scenarios first hand?
I find it helps you notice things, often minor things, that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to you. You can write about an experience that you haven’t had, that’s the whole point of being a fictional writer — you can use your imagination. But when I actually go through that experience, I learn more about what the character might be thinking, how their motivations might change, and especially how they might do something different altogether. Sometimes it can have a minor effect on things and other times it can change everything.
Can you share some of the positives from publishing digitally?
You don’t have to wait for the larger, traditional models to catch up. You can release your title worldwide, in all the popular channels that readers buy their e-books, at a price that you decide. If I want to discount my books over Christmas or give a coupon code to someone, I can do that in an instant. If I hand in a manuscript to my digital publisher, the process is more efficient so they can pick it up to read three or four months later, regardless of where they live.
I don’t have to worry about big chain department stores going under next month and sending my novel to the pulping machine before the release date (yes, that happens!). Unfortunately, the traditional model can be unforgiving for the fragile path of the emerging writer. And that’s why alternative models like Tablo, digital imprints and other digital platforms offer a more promising and rewarding path.
What about the biggest challenges?
Honestly, there aren’t any!
A few years ago, there were a couple of challenges, and interestingly they weren’t real challenges, they were just perceptions and attitudes that people held, which have faded off over time.
The first one is piracy. I think it’s the biggest challenge for most authors to get their head around, even today. Authors (not publishers) were the biggest pushers for Digital Rights Management in the past, through their fear of piracy. I think my debut novel was the first to be published in Australia without DRM because I didn’t want it getting in the way of convenience and accessibility. I believed it caused more piracy than it prevented. Not long after, entire imprints went DRM free.
A few years ago, another big perception problem was e-books being treated as though they were not real books. The "smell of a real book" is, after all, the mould on the paper. When I watch a movie on my TV or my laptop, I don’t call it an "e-movie" (unless you want to never be taken seriously ever again). I enjoy print formats too, and I think they will still have a place as signed copies, special editions and collector’s items.
Which of your near-death experiences do you think has had the biggest impact on your writing?
The most impactful was SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistance, Evasion) training, especially the urban elements I undertook in the US, which pretty much formed the core of my characters, their lives and their perspectives. Even just one element, like lock picking, changes everything because suddenly you can go (almost) anywhere if you need to. So your world transforms and your characters transform.
Have you got other extreme adventures lined up for 2015?
After learning some additional survival skills, I’m going to be dropped into an inhospitable region of the Australian desert with no food or water for a week. This is probably a terrible idea.
And finally, what advice would you give to our authors who are looking to publish digitally in the future?
Emerging writers have a better chance to be published than ever before. While the situation might seem dire with a traditional publisher (you have four weeks to see if your debut novel sells in dwindling bookstores before you are discarded to the “can't publish again” pile), it’s never been a better time to look at the digital path. Almost every publisher has a digital imprint and they accept submissions in some way, shape or form. You can follow those guidelines and submit to them.
In the meantime, take advantage of platforms such as Tablo, which can help you get there. Digital imprints are not put off by your work if you have published it online, despite popular belief. Often this can be an advantage as it can attract a modest audience and give you some marketing experience along the way — both things that a digital imprint will appreciate.
If you’re going to submit to an imprint, I absolutely recommend that you first hire a professional editor to assess your work and offer you structural suggestions. Then re-hire the editor to actually edit your work. Only then should you submit. These are not required steps to self-publish, but they will help you stand out from the pile of slush.
In the future, digital publishing will become the natural inroad for new authors. As traditional publishers slowly absorb successful strategies and rising authors from their digital brethren, the line between the two will blur.