Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interview with Kate Milford about The Kairos Mechanism

Today we're interviewing Inkie Kate Milford, whose second book, The Broken Lands, is being published by Clarion in September. Kate wrote an accompanying novella, The Kairos Mechanism, to be released along with the book, and set up a Kickstarter page to raise money to self-publish 300 paperback copies. Today, I’m here to find out more about this fascinating project.

Tie-in stories, novellas, etc., seem to be a big thing in promotion these days – mostly in ebook only editions. Can you tell us about the process of deciding to write a novella for The Broken Lands, and why you decided to do a print run instead of just keeping it online?

I think there are two things that make this sort of thing exciting for readers. Firstly, I think we all wonder what’s happening to the characters we love when we’re not looking. Secondly, I think we all get excited about the idea of having “insider information”—clues and special insights that not everyone gets.

As far as how I came to the decision to try my hand at this kind of thing: I get to know the worlds and the people and the history of the things I write, I start coming up with—for lack of a better term—extra stuff. Some of those ideas turn into novels (The Broken Lands started out as one like that, for instance), but not all of them do. I always had this idea that it would be really fun to give readers the opportunity to do a little bit of extra digging and find extra layers and history to uncover. Plus, The Broken Lands is related in a sort of sideways fashion to The Boneshaker. The Kairos Mechanism gives a few extra clues as to how they’re really connected, and what’s yet to come for Natalie, when we return to Arcane (the setting of The Boneshaker).

As for doing a print run—well, I guess there are two things. The first is that I don’t own an e-reader. I just don’t enjoy reading books that way, plus I love books as objects. So it was never an option not to do a print edition; that was the thing I wanted to do most. The second thing is that I work a couple days a week at McNally Jackson, and I’ve gotten kind of addicted to the book machine. It’s really kind of amazing. So I’ve been looking for an excuse to use it for my own nefarious purposes for a while.

Actually, there is a third reason: promotion of The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands. During the September Broken Lands launch, I’ll be offering discounted paperback copies of The Kairos Mechanism with pre-ordered copies of The Broken Lands; with copies of both The Broken Lands and The Boneshaker, they’ll be free.

Artist Andrea Offermann, who did the covers and interiors for Clarion, is also doing a cover for The Kairos Mechanism. That must have been quite a coup! How did you manage to arrange for it?

I’m a huge, huge fan of Andrea’s, and I think she’s maybe the only person outside of my own household who gets the way my mind works as well as I do. I have no idea if she’s aware of this, but every time I see one of her illustrations I’m more and more convinced that she has some kind of trans-Atlantic brain jack that she uses to look into my head when I’m not paying attention. So when I decided to do this, Andrea was my first email. I told her what I was up to, what I needed, and what my budget was, and I asked if she was able to help out. I can’t tell you how she managed to clear space on her schedule to do the cover for so little, but I can tell you that I am beginning to learn that it is never a bad idea to ask people when you need help. They may not always be able to say yes to what you ask them for, but it’s always worth asking. A couple of days ago, after turning in the final illustrations for The Broken Lands, Andrea emailed me with some ideas for the cover, and they are amazing. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but she had an idea that I could never have anticipated that just blew my mind. So I’m really, insanely glad that I asked.

I had heard of McNally Jackson’s self-publishing Espresso Book Machine before this, but never realized that they distributed books to other stores as well. As a McNally Jackson employee, you obviously know more about this than most people. How does it work? Who tends to use it? For McNally Jackson, what are the perceived costs and benefits of offering these services?

You upload a PDF to the EBM. It’s basically that simple—if you know what you’re doing. I, emphatically, do not. So McNally Jackson has packages that offer varying levels of support and design assistance. The package I picked is the second-highest-end one. I also bought page design and an ISBN through McJ. The page design was important because there are different options for fonts and interior layout.

Have you ever opened a book and noticed right away that it didn’t look like what you’re used to reading? What I’m about to say is going to hurt someone’s feelings, but I see this all the time with authors who bring books to the store that they’re looking to have us carry on consignment. Sometimes it’s intentional; people see all these cool fonts and think one or another would just be perfectly suited to the story. But a lot of the time, it’s distracting—right away, your eyes are trying to figure out why this doesn’t look like most books do, and you’re immediately paying less attention to the story. The net effect is that the books immediately seem less professional than they could. I wanted to avoid that, which is why the page design was so important to me.

To clarify, though, McNally Jackson doesn’t handle distribution; at least, not in the way that, say, Baker and Taylor or Ingram do. However, the Espresso Book Machine will be able to share files with the other EBMS within its network. That’s how McNally will be able to provide The Kairos Mechanism to other bookstores and libraries. But McNally does offer its self-pub authors the opportunity to use their website and the store to fulfill online orders. At this point, the majority of their online orders come from self-pub titles.

According to Erin Curler, the EBM specialist I work with, there are a few pretty consistent types of self-publishing customers that McJ caters to. There are people who are looking for just a few copies of a title, to use as a gift; there are those who are looking to provide a small run of physical copies to accompany a digital print-run; and there are small publishers who use the EBM for printing and McNally for fulfillment. So they’ve created packages to cater to each of these specific needs.

As a side-note, I’d budgeted the project to use the most expensive self-pub package (the McNally Jackson package); however, Erin took a look at my proposal and suggested I downgrade to the second highest-end package (the Prince Street package). They really do try to make sure they’re addressing the writer’s specific needs.

How much did it cost to self-publish and distribute a paperback edition of your novella? Were there any costs or hurdles that surprised you?

That’s such a good question, in part because I’m not sure what the answer is yet. The short answer is, McNally charges $7.00/book, plus .03/page. So this is one of the reasons I budgeted doing a small print run. For an adult paperback of about 150 pages, 11.00 is at the low end of the usual price range. But the paperback of The Boneshaker is 385 pages and costs $6.99. I wanted to be able to offer The Kairos Mechanism much more cheaply. Frankly, my original idea was that I wanted to be able to offer it solely as a promotional item, with purchase of The Broken Lands during the first week or two of its release.

At this point, that’s still my sole objective—for this first effort, my goals for the project have less to do with making money and more to do with figuring out how to make the project sustainable and viable. Most of all I need to learn how to write a really wonderful short novel that fulfills all the necessary criteria of the project (no spoilers; acts as a link; gives geeky background while telling a complete and compelling story; provides a means for publicizing the hardcover release it accompanies) and how to convince people to be excited about it.

Now, since I’ve started the Kickstarter campaign, I’ve had to be very careful. With Kickstarter, you offer rewards to your backers as a thank you for their support of your campaign, and I’ve read a number of accounts from people who’ve done projects who wound up shorting the project tremendously by promising rewards they couldn’t really afford. I’ve tried to be really thoughtful about what I’m offering as rewards. I budgeted a certain amount for spending and shipping; I also assume that, if I’m asking others to contribute, I need to be willing to contribute out of my own pocket. On the other hand, our household finances are too tight for me to throw outrageous amounts of money at it—hence the Kickstarter—so I’m having to really watch what I’m up to. What I’m trying very hard to do is to provide fun, unique, and personalized rewards. The one thing I have plenty of right now, in between deadlines, is time, so I can afford to take the time to be more personal. So while I think I could’ve been unpleasantly surprised at how expensive rewarding backers could’ve been, instead I’m delightfully surprised at how far a personal thank you goes.

I do know that I’ve chosen to have a more limited distribution of the physical book in order to support the independent bookstores I’m working with. But I think that’s worth it. It’s a bit of a luxury, but I feel good about it.

Has your publisher been involved in this project?

The short answer is, no. The longer answer is that they’re very supportive of it, but my editor didn’t feel she could involve herself directly with a project that wasn’t under contract. Also, part of what I wanted to do with this novella was hint at what’s to come for Natalie and her hometown of Arcane by linking certain things that happen in The Broken Lands with people in The Boneshaker. However, the trilogy that tells the story of what’s next for Natalie is still in the proposal phase. I’m perfectly comfortable beginning to set that story up, but my publisher, for completely understandable reasons, prefers to be a bit more cautious. 

You’re also planning a special digital edition illustrated by 10 teen readers, which is incredibly cool! How did you choose your illustrators, and how closely do you work with them?

I found them in a variety of ways. The first is a reader who emailed me a year or so ago after she read The Boneshaker, and who I’ve been Twitter pals with ever since. I got the idea not long after I did an art contest in the week leading up to the cover reveal for The Broken Lands, and I’ve been recruiting ever since. Right now I have 10 out of 13 artists signed up. One came from Reddit, several are the kids of Twitter friends, one is a kid who’s mom is on the mailing list for McNally Jackson’s kids’ mailing list, one is the sister of one of my beta readers—almost every single one came to me differently from the rest.

As for how closely I work with them—that’s still to be determined. Because the artists are all being paid for their work, and because those payments are coming out of the Kickstarter funds, I did not ask them to start work until the project is funded. As it stands right now, though, the Kairos Mechanism just exceeded our goal (102%) with 16 days left! So I’ll forward the manuscript to the artists, and my plan then is to ask each one to send me his/her top three choices for chapters he/she’d like to be assigned. I’ll have some scenes I definitely want to be illustrated, but the style of illustrations is entirely up to the artists themselves.

My hope is that the extent of my involvement will be sending them each a copy of The Boneshaker (since most of the more in-depth descriptions are in that book) and offering myself as a resource for questions and clarifications. One of the things I really want to do with this project is encourage readers to read closely, to do their own research and draw their on conclusions and build their own images. But It may turn out that I may need to be more involved—we’ll see.

Thanks! We really appreciate your sharing all this information about this fascinating project. It looks like it's going to be a huge success!


  1. This is such a cool project, I can't wait to watch it unfold! Great interview Kate! 

  2. Leslie, I'm so glad to hear you say that--the story is a stand-alone adventure, but I really wanted to include some insights and bits of information that are like special features, as well. It's been really a kind of a difficult line to walk, because I really want to geek out over certain things that I think readers will enjoy a more in-depth look at, but I don't want the pace to suffer; I want the story to stand alone and not have gaps, but I can't include anything that's so critical to the "big" story or the development of the characters that they really need to be included in the traditionally-published and distributed books. 

  3. I'm an avid watcher of the "special features" on DVDs so of course I love any extra tidbit that comes with a book. It is a blast to peek behind the curtain of a story you're into. Congrats, Kate.

  4. This process sounds so fascinating. I've heard of artists using Kickstarter but mostly musicians. And I am so excited that BONESHAKER is part one of a trilogy - I love that book :-) now I get to revisit Arcane!

  5. Thank you so much, Leah, for letting me talk about this project. I just realized that I was completely remiss in not mentioning when we were talking about the cover that my friend, author and designer Lisa Amowitz (, is going to be taking Andrea's cover illustration and handling the front, back and spine cover designing, which is no small feat since a custom cover on the EBM has specific layout challenges, and since, due to Andrea's schedule, we won't have an image from her until mid-July. Lisa also made me a "placeholder" cover (which you can see on the Inkpot sidebar) for me to use on Goodreads. 

  6.  I hadn't heard of these books, but this was an incredibly interesting article. Oddly, I only actually heard about the EBM this morning from an article posted on Twitter. I'm definitely interested in seeing how that plays out. I love seeing how involved the author is with the promotion process.

  7. Sounds like a good book.

  8. The characters are appealing and well done, and the plot is compelling, but Milford's genius is in description. The places come alive with sounds, textures and smells. The magic becomes real in her hands, and I was reluctant to leave her world when the book ended.

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