July 18, 2011

Interview with Stephen Knight - Author of The Gathering Dead series

Born in south Texas but raised in various cities across the United States, Stephen Knight has been writing commercial fiction for years. He is the son of a famous radio personality and a former local television producer. Trying his luck at self-publishing, he put The Gathering Dead on Amazon earlier this year. It is a novel about a Special Forces Team warding off the zombie apocalypse in New York City, and it has been a tremendous success, currently at #1,933 in Kindle. The follow-up novella, Left with the Dead, was just released, and it is a continuation piece that focuses on First Sergeant Gartrell's struggle to escape NYC. It is also highly ranked at #2,442 in Kindle. In other words, Knight is kicking ass in the brave new world of self-publishing, so it is a real treat for me to be able to interview him, because I hope some of his success rubs off on me (and you too)!

Thank you, Stephen Knight, for joining us:

1) There are many zombie novels floating around out there. Some are great and some are really lousy. What has been your secret to make your books stand out so well in a crowded market?

I wish I knew? To be honest, I’ve not read a great deal of zombie fiction—only the rather excellent World War Z and the more pedestrian but still notable The Rising. So I really didn’t have a lot of background research in the sub-genre. But, I’ve always been able to craft some fairly credible action sequences, and I leveraged that quite a bit with The Gathering Dead. I also concentrated on Army Special Forces tactics, techniques, and procedures, things most folks aren’t normally exposed to. I was never man enough to be a Green Beret, but I know guys who are, and I was able to harvest their experiences to ensure I was presenting at least a passing nod to reality. I think that might be the big selling point there—I take a group of extremely highly-trained individuals, and put them in a set of circumstances that are so overwhelming that even their backs are pressed against the wall despite their skills and experience. The rest of the zombie fiction out there seems to deal with John Q. Public who finds a gun and hits the road trying to flee the dead. McDaniels and his crew kind of break away from the usual circumstances.

But this is all guesswork on my part. I can say it’s true that the zombie sub-genre is red-hot; I have another offering called City of the Damned which is about black ops against vampires in Los Angeles, and that one doesn’t sell half as much as The Gathering Dead. So there’s definitely an appetite for zombie fiction, especially if it’s of the apocalyptic variety.

2) I read at 1001 Secrets of Successful Writers that you try for 2,500 - 3,000 words a day by maintaining a self-disciplined approach. That's pretty difficult, what with the kids, the day job, the collections agency guy banging down our door. Do you have any writing tips for aspiring authors looking to achieve that kind of productivity? Do you develop extensive outlines or do you just start from scratch? Do you wait until you finish the work before going back to edit, or do you look over your work-in-progress daily to patch things up?

Word count is essential. If you don’t write, if you don’t fall into the practice of writing, if you don’t develop a robust work ethic when it comes to writing, then failure is just waiting to be your best friend. You can’t sell a book unless you finish it, and taking a year or two or ten to finish a novel is just too long. In my world, writing is a business, not a pleasure, so I decided to just get on with it and get it done. I was able to finish the first draft of The Gathering Dead in two months, and Left With The Dead in three weeks. That’s about 126,000 words in three months, and I didn’t find it to be a killer pace, even with the usual stuff going on that happens in life. I did sacrifice a lot of television and nights out with the guys, though.

My gig for writing a story is to find some good music to pace myself with. Movie soundtracks are the best, and I find the works of Jerry Goldsmith give me the most creative fuel. (Even though I’m not using to for inspiration at the moment, I can’t get strands of his score for Chinatown out of my head at the moment.) I just pop in the ear buds and start pounding out the text. I used to outline extensively, but I don’t do that anymore; it’s odd in that as disciplined as I try to be, I’ve essentially tossed out the whole project planning phase. Instead, I decide what the turning points of the story will be and write toward those, exploring things along the way. I never used to write like that, but now it’s what works for me. And I try to keep moving forward, though at times I will have to go back and reread some of the text to catch the vibe again. But editing the product while it’s in progress? Not for me, though editing is a definite weakness on my side. I can churn out the prose, but I’m not so great at ferreting out all the busted text. So I have to hire that out, and that can cost thousands of dollars. I’m in the financial echelon where I can do that, but most writers aren’t, so developing a critical eye and becoming more than just a passing acquaintance with proper grammar and mechanics are essential.

And as you know, even my efforts—as costly as they have been—have not been 100% effective. So now I have to slam on the brakes and really, really look over a book before I publish it, even after it’s come back from an editor. I find this maddening, boring, and tedious, but it’s got to be done. At the end of the day, I’m the only one on the blame line if people can’t get through my product because it’s not as close to perfect as it can be.

3) Why did you choose New York City as the setting for The Gathering Dead and Left with the Dead? A lot of zombie novels go all over the place, but these two stories are entirely set in Manhattan. Did something about the Big Apple inspire you?

I live in suburban Connecticut now and work in Manhattan, so it wasn’t a great stretch for me. I’d already written about vampires staking a claim to Los Angeles, so I wasn’t inclined to drop zombies there, and everyone knows New York. So as a backdrop it was an easy reach. If I needed to verify something, I could just take the subway to a location, snap some pictures, and voila! My research is done. The next book in the series is much more epic in scale and takes place in several different locations in the U.S., with some cutaways in Europe and Asia. But tactically, one reason for choosing the Big Apple is that it’s a very contained, vertical environment; there’s not a lot of real estate to use, and the residents are literally living right on top of each other. So for a zombie epidemic, where the virus that animates the dead is transmitted by a bite or gouge, a restricted environment makes it easier for that epidemic to spiral out of control. Los Angeles is hundreds of square miles in size; Manhattan isn’t even 25 square miles. In my mind, that makes for one hell of a breeding ground for this kind of plague.

4) Let's talk shop. When I picked up the Gathering Dead on Amazon's Kindle, it was $0.99, but I see that you now are charging the magical $2.99 price to get the 70% royalty from Amazon. Which price point has been more profitable for you?  I think the self-publishing community is way ahead of the curve on ebook sales, as some of the big publishing houses are charging over $10 for a bunch of 1s and 0s and wondering why piracy is so rampant. Do you have any thoughts you would like to share on the eternal pricing strategy debate?

99¢ is a fantastic intro price. At that price point, The Gathering Dead made it to #343 overall, and #5 on the Amazon Horror List. I sold thousands of copies a month; it seems that most folks are lucky to sell 50 copies of product in a month, so I busted that barrier right out of the starting gate (though I do know of folks who have one novel up that sells more than 10,000 units per month—ah, to be that fortunate). But even before I switched from 99¢ to $2.99, my rankings were starting to erode; suddenly, books that had been languishing in the middle of the lists skyrocketed, and products like mine began withdrawing from the top spots. I think the highest position I had on the Horror List after the price change was #11; now, somewhere in the 20s or 30s is more normal, with dips into the 50s. But I’m only moving a thousand or so fewer units per month, so financially, it’s been fantastically rewarding. If I can get really, really lucky and launch a few more books that perform the same way, then hey, this writing thing might actually work out!

As far as pricing strategies go, I think it ultimately depends upon the product and what the audience will bear. Stephen King can command a $9.99+ price and sell thousands of units per month; Stephen Knight can’t, and I’ve never had any doubt that would be the case. So $2.99 is the best place for me to be right now, but as I say that, my next release will be $3.99. It’s a very large international thriller that I cowrote with another author, and I think it has the chance to appeal to a wider audience. As of this moment, I don’t plan on releasing it at 99¢, it’ll go straight to $3.99. 130,000 words is a lot, and that’s where the book (White Tiger) stands right now. So that price seems adequate, and it’s still more than five dollars less than what a so-called “traditionally published” ebook would cost.

Of course, if it tanks, I’m not frightened to play with pricing. That’s the good thing about this, I don’t have a remarkable amount of overhead to pay off, so I can undercut the competition on price.

A quick aside about piracy: I found The Gathering Dead on dozens of download sites, even when it was at the 99¢ price point. Obviously that’s money out of my pocket, and it’s frustrating to discover a book is being pirated. I used to patrol the internet looking for them and getting those sites to pull the links to the product, but every time I got one shut down, two more would pop up. And some of those who prefer to obtain their goods in an illegal fashion got back at me through some severely negative reviews, which sucked. There are always folks out there looking for a free lunch, and if you go up against them, they’ll boot you in the crotch, figuratively speaking. So while piracy is absolutely wrong, fighting it is probably not in the best interest of a single author. Ignore it as much as you can and move on to the next project.

5) Your next novel in the Gathering Dead series promises to focus on events both in the United States and world-wide as the zombie horde continues its rampage. Can you give us a taste?

Well, McDaniels returns, as do Gartrell and Regina Safire. Earl and Zoe head off in a separate direction once the Escanaba makes port in Boston, but I don’t forget about them. McDaniels and Gartrell don’t bury the hatchet, but they manage to work together again on their next assignment as the country goes to Hell. The U.S. military takes off the gloves on the dead, but by the time it gets its act together, there are millions of stenches in the nation, so it becomes a very difficult war to fight. And the occurrence of zeds retaining some “intelligence” continues, and those corpses that have the ability to hunt in something more than just a shambling mass become much more important to the story. And I decided to parachute some characters from City of the Damned into the fray, which was suggested to me by the current doyen of self-publishing, some little-known hack named Konrath. The working title for the book is The Rising Horde, and it looks like it’s going to spec out at about 130,000 words. I think I’ll be able to release it in the October/November 2011 timeframe.

Hopefully, it will be a worthy sequel, and will enjoy the same success as the first book and the novella. If not? Well, I’ve got more stories to tell, so I’ll just dry my tears and move on.

We thank Stephen for his time and sharing with us this valuable insight. Don't forget to visit his website to learn more about him:


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