James D. Best, author of the Steve Dancy series and other books, was kind enough to answer some questions from me for an author interview. I think readers and writers alike will find his answers interesting. If you’re an indie-author looking for advice, I think the advice he offers is outstanding and right on point. What he has to say about large print and audio books is particularly useful for indie-authors who might not have considered that as their foot in a library’s door.
If you enjoy good historical fiction and Westerns, I would strongly encourage you to check out Best’s books. I’m a big fan, and you should be too.
Q. You’ve written American historical fiction (Tempest at Dawn) and Westerns (the Steve Dancy series). I suppose Westerns are more than just American historical fiction set west of the Mississippi river. In your mind, what differentiates a Western from other American historical fiction?
Best: L’Amour once said, “If you write about a bygone period east of the Mississippi River, it’s a historical novel. If it’s west of the Mississippi it’s a Western.” He added, “I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks, I know it’s literature and I know it will be read 100 years from now.” In the recent past, Westerns were a staple of fiction, Hollywood, television, and daydreams. Good Westerns are about people and their struggle to survive a rough and tumble frontier. This is a timeless theme for science fiction, fantasy, or Westerns.
Q. When you’re writing a Steve Dancy book, are there rules to the genre you try to adhere to?
Best: There are norms that enthusiasts expect to find in a Western. I try to adhere to most of them so genre fans are not disappointed. My continuing characters are traditional heroes, there’s gunplay, and the moral code is consistent with popularly perceived ethics of the Wild West. I also break many Western stereotypes to appeal to a broader audience. My protagonist is rich, there are few cowboys in my stories, and I strive to make my villains unconventional. In the real Old West, mining brought more people to the frontier than ranching, so my stories take place in mining camps. In The Shopkeeper, my villains include an accountant, a showboat, and a particularly nasty woman.
Q. One of the things I like about Steve Dancy is that he’s not clearly a white-hat wearing good guy. He blurs some lines on ethics. Not to spoil the plot, because I really want my readers to give your books a try, but Dancy doesn’t seem to have any qualms about setting his enemies up to be murdered. What is Dancy’s personal code of conduct?
Best: I classify heroes into three types: the wholesome hero (Roy Rogers), the flawed hero (Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven), and the antihero (Ben Wade in the movie versions of 3:10 to Yuma). I’ve always preferred the flawed hero. Also, if you study the real Old West, a stand-up duel was rare. Lawmen and outlaws who survived didn’t wait for the other guy to draw first. Dancy does what is right in a larger sense and begins nonviolently. When forced to resolve issues with a gun, his ethics are sometimes sacrificed for survival.
Q. When you started writing did you know Steve Dancy’s character, or did he develop for you through the telling of the story?
Best: I knew his character from the start, but that said, every character must grow or the story will become stale. By the fourth book, he is a much more mature character than at the beginning of the series. I had nothing to do with it. He learned and grew as he ventured around the frontier and I scribbled down what he did and how he did it.
Q. I read in another interview where you used more than 100 history books in writing your historical novel Tempest at Dawn, based on the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Obviously for that novel historical accuracy was critical to you. But how about with the Dancy novels, how much research do you do into the time period, the people and their customs? How important is historical accuracy when you write your Westerns?
Best: Historical accuracy about the times is important to me, and I insert historical references into my Westerns. I like the research, but it is also one of the ways I make the Steve Dancy Tales different than run-of-the-mill oaters. I try to be truthful, but I’m not always accurate. For example, Virgil Earp is a minor character In Murder at Thumb Butte, which takes place in Prescott, Arizona. A reader wrote to me saying he was under the impression Virgil Earp left Prescott to join his brothers in Tombstone about three months prior to my story taking place. I wrote back that he was correct, but one of the minor powers of a novelist is the ability to bend time.
Q. I saw on your blog recently that Thomas Edison is going to make an appearance in the next Dancy novel. I assume, too, that all or at least most of the characters in Tempest at Dawn were actual people. When you write about historical figures in a novel, do you endeavor to accurately portray those people in their speech and behavior, or do they become characters in your book who speak and behave according to your imagination?
Best: I attempt to reflect historical figures true to their personalities. That’s the reason for the hundred research books for Tempest at Dawn. Probably only five or six were about the convention. I read, or seriously scanned, at least three biographies of each major character. To be honest, I’m not as meticulous with historical figures in my Westerns, but I still seek out multiple descriptions of their personalities. Once I have their character firmly in mind, they do seem to take their own path, just like my fictional characters.
Q. I read on your blog in November that total sales of all of your books have topped 50,000. For an indie-author I think that’s pretty phenomenal success. What is your advice to the self-published and small-press authors for increasing sales? How do you find and connect with readers? Was there a time when 50,000 in sales seemed impossible, or have you always been confident you’d get there?
Best: Traditional publishers need to be experts at big-bang publicity because bookstores want fresh books that move quickly off their shelves. Indie-publishing is not constrained by a tight timeline, so authors can take longer to build a following. The secret to large sales for indie-authors is multiple books in multiple formats. Beyond garnering more shelf-space, multiple books and formats convey legitimacy.
Also indie-publishing does not preclude traditional publishing for the same book. For example, I’ve been asked how I got into so many libraries. It’s difficult to get a librarian on a tight budget to buy a trade paperback, but they’ll gladly order large print books to satisfy senior citizens. This is a neglected format that still has substantial demand. Unfortunately, you need a traditional publisher to break into the large print category. Look up large print publishers on the internet and then query them to see if you can mail them a copy of your book. If you get a positive response, you are more than halfway there. You can use the same approach for audio books. Again, you need a traditional publisher in order to distribute through audible.com.
When I started, I thought I would easily sell a hundred thousand books. After my first year, I wondered if I would ever sell ten thousand. It’s hard to build momentum, but once you get things going in the right direction, sales gradually improve month over month. I’ve been indie-publishing for five years and only in the last year or so have I made enough money not to consider writing a hobby. If you want to sell lots of books, I have three pieces of advice: persevere, persevere, persevere.
Q. Last question: When someone finishes reading one of your books, what do you want the walk-away to be for them? Do you hope they’ve learned something or felt something or just had a good time?
Best: I think of myself as a storyteller. I want to entertain, but I also hope to enlarge the reader’s view of the world. As Philip Pullman said, “Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”
Again, I really appreciate James taking the time to answer some questions. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about self-publishing my book is the chance to meet (face-to-face or virtually) a lot of interesting indie-authors. Personally, I think there’s a real revolution going on that is re-defining the book industry. These indie-authors are true pioneers and entrepreneurs (not surprisingly, a fair number of them that I’ve communicated with turn out to be small business owners).