Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Kate Milford on Trad-Pubbing, Self-Pubbing--and Kickstarting BLUECROWNE

Kate Milford
Kate Milford is Kickstarting the second book in her Arcana Project series, just as she did the first. But she also has four traditionally-published books either out or coming soon. She talks to EI about why a writer with a publishing contract is also splashing in the self-publishing pool--and shares her thoughts on the trials of marketing and the secrets of her prolific-ness.

1. You've been traditionally published in the past, and you've got more trad-published books coming out this year and next. What drew you to self-publishing as well?

Honestly, it started because I was bored. I was in between contracts back in 2012, waiting for The Broken Lands to come out and waiting to hear about my next sale. I don’t sit still well, and I don’t take time off from writing well. So I got this idea that I could write extra stories set in the world of my books, stories that would offer extra content, extra information, extra insight into the world and into the larger story I have planned for down the line. It was basically a way for me to tell more tales related to the bigger books and to help flesh out the world. It was a way to keep busy, initially.

The project definitely didn’t arise out of any dissatisfaction with my publishers, or out of the belief that I’d be happier doing everything on my own, or the idea that I’d make a bunch more money this way. I love my publishers. I have two editors that I adore personally and have learned buckets from professionally. My editors make me a better writer, and the books they’ve made out of my novels are beautiful objects as well as better pieces of storytelling than they would’ve been otherwise. And they’re very supportive of the Arcana Project.

2. This is your second Kickstarter, right? Why did you choose Kickstarter?

I chose it because I knew what I wanted from the project and I knew my limitations (which are many). For one thing, when I imagined what I wanted the novellas to be, I pictured not only great stories, but also beautiful objects. I wanted the physical books to be just as beautiful as my trad-pubbed books, and I wanted bookstores to be willing to carry them. I brought in Andrea Offermann, the artist who did the covers and the interiors of The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands (who’s become basically a partner in the ongoing project). I decided to print the paperbacks on the Espresso Book Machine at McNally Jackson Books, where I work a couple days a week, not only because it prints absolutely beautiful paperbacks, but because I feel very, very, very strongly about supporting independent bookstores. And lastly, because I had this idea about doing an illustrated edition with art from young artists, and I wanted to pay them for their work. The Illustrated Kairos Mechanism is one of the things I’m most proud of having done. (Here’s a link to a slideshow of the art; the entire PDF is free/pay-what-you-like here. ) Fifteen kids between 11 and 20 contributed artwork in all different styles. I can’t wait to do it again with Bluecrowne.

All of these things, taken together, put the first installment of the project, The Kairos Mechanism, outside the realm of things that I could afford to do out-of-pocket. But then I remembered a book we’d carried at the bookstore and had sold the heck out in 2010 of that had been kind of a big deal--it was this beautiful quality hardcover anthology, the contributors to it had all been paid up front (which is not always the case, of course), and it had been crowdfunded with Kickstarter. It sounds funny now to say I thought of using Kickstarter in a sort of eureka moment, but I had completely forgotten about it.

So that’s why I originally decided to do it this way—because I couldn’t afford to do it exactly the way I wanted otherwise. But one of the things I learned the first time that made me eager to do it again for Bluecrowne was that Kickstarter allows you to involve your readers in the process in a really direct and wonderful way. People who funded The Kairos Mechanism were emailing regularly to find out when Bluecrowne would be happening. I feel like I know the names of the readers I’m writing for. It’s kind of amazing.

3. Do your self-pubbed and trad-pubbed books complement each other at all? Or are they entirely separate tracks?

They’re definitely complementary. That was another reason I started this project: I figured these shorter books would have the added benefit (in addition to keeping me busy) of helping to show readers how the different trad-pubbed books are connected, because each of them so far is set in what I’ve started to call in my own mind the Walking World. The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands are very directly connected because they’re both part of the larger story of an uncanny itinerant called Jack who was turned away from both Heaven and Hell and now roams the world with a coal of hellfire looking to start his own place. Greenglass House and The Left-Handed Fate are less directly connected, but they’re still set in the same world. So these novellas, in addition to being stand-alone stories, help to connect the dots between the different books. (Bluecrowne, for instance, while having some very direct connections to The Boneshaker, is set in Nagspeake, which is also the setting for Greenglass House and The Left-Handed Fate.) At the same time, though, they’re also beginning to run on their own unique track. The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne share a villain, for instance.

4. Well, don't stop there. Tell us about Bluecrowne. 

It’s set in 1810 in the Sovereign City of Nagspeake. Lucy Bluecrowne has grown up aboard a British letter-of-marque, a private ship of war called the Left-Handed Fate. However, her father, the owner and master of the ship, has decided it’s time to put his family (twelve year-old Lucy, her step-mother Xiaoming, and her seven year-old half-brother Liao) ashore in Nagspeake, which has remained neutral in the wars in the Atlantic. Lucy can’t bear the idea of life ashore—she’s a sailor, through and through—and is struggling to adapt. Meanwhile, two peddlers called Trigemine and Blister arrive in town under orders to find two items for the great merchant they work for: a knife in the shape of an albatross, and a conflagrationeer, which is a pyrotechnical artificier capable of near-magical feats. Trigemine has identified this as the ideal time and place to acquire both the Albatross and the conflagrationeer. They find the Albatross immediately, but discover that they aren’t the only ones attempting to acquire it, and the maker is seriously considering selling to the other buyer, a man named Simon Coffrett. They identify Liao as the conflagrationeer they’re looking for, but standing in their way are Liao’s very formidable mother, and Lucy, who despite being stuck on land is a fighter through and through. Hijinks ensue.

We’re finishing the cover titling this week, but this is the main illustration:

Cover illustration from BLUECROWNE
by Kate Milford. Illustration by
Andrea Offerman.

(Editor's note: Check out Kate's Bluecrowne Kickstarter--it's pretty awesome.)

5. I've noticed you're awfully good at making your books sound delicious. I'm sure they ARE delicious, but not all authors are as good at the alluring pitch as you seem to be, and that would be a drawback for someone trying to self-publish. Any marketing tips?

I’m really glad they sound delicious! I guarantee you the question here I’ll obsess over the longest is the one where I actually have to talk about the book. The truth is I don’t feel like I’m a particularly good marketer—I don’t enjoy the marketing element at all, and I always feel like I’m fumbling when I try and tell people what my books are about. I’m feel like I’m terrible at synopses and worse at short pitches. Since I’m not a natural marketer and I’m awkward at self-promotion, all I have going for me is the stories themselves.

So I guess I think the best marketing advice I can give—which doesn’t guarantee big sales, but does get you the loyalty of your readers—is to focus on the story first and always. None of the rest of it matters if it isn’t the very best tale you believe you can tell. Then the next thing is to treat the pitch, when you have to write it, the way you’d treat a query. Actually, maybe the ability to make a book sound delicious is a side benefit of all those months spent writing queries however many years back. I do think that running the gauntlet that is the agency search has value beyond simply finding an agent. There’s value in being told “no” and having to keep working and working and working until someone says “yes.”

But I really struggle with the marketing piece, I do. I’d rather spend time writing than selling, and I consider the self-pub books as more of a fun project than a source of income. I could be way better at selling books, but the truth is I really want to focus on revision and polishing and writing more. That’s what I’m good at. That’s how I want to spend my time.

6. You seem terrifyingly prolific! I guess that's not really a question (she said in a small voice) but  . . . how do you do it?

Terrifying? Me? Nah. I just can’t sit still and I’m truly not happy unless I’m writing. Plus there are
Back vignette from BLUECROWNE by Kate Milford.
Illustration by Andrea Offermann.
always four or five stories kicking around in my head at any given time. A big part of what keeps me going is that I know this world so well, and I love all the characters in it. I know their pasts, I know where their lives intersect. I know who the ubervillains are and what their long-term plans are. And I’m a history nerd, so I’m constantly finding times and places I want to write about. Then I just have to figure out who might have been there at that time and why, and what kind of trouble they might have gotten up to, and how it could fit into the master puzzle.

As for actually finishing stuff, I focus on adding words and powering through until I reach the end. Then I revise like crazy. I keep track of my words per day—seeing projects advance is wildly motivational for me—and I make sure I’m focusing my primary attention on the projects I need to complete first, since I’m always working on more than one thing at a time. My brother built a program to help me do both those things and it’s my favorite writing tool, right up there with good pens and fun notebooks. It’s called Spadefish, and it allows you to manage your works in process. You set your word count goals and your deadlines, then add writing sessions, and Spadefish calculates how many words you need to write per day to meet your deadlines and it updates your progress as you go. You earn badges when you reach milestones and you can share your progress. I love it. It’s in beta, but it’s live and it’s free.

I also have a really amazing group of beta-readers and critique partners for once I do get to the end of a project. My critique group is absolutely outstanding, plus I have five young beta-readers. I don’t usually show anything to them until I have a draft, though. I’m usually figuring stuff out right up until I get to the last chapter, so it doesn’t make sense to focus too much on polishing the beginning until I really know where I’m going. I will admit that often leads to a lot of revision and retrofitting, though.

Kate Milford is the author of The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands (both from Clarion Books), the forthcoming  Greenglass House (Clarion, 2014) and The Left-Handed Fate (Holt, 2015), as well as two companion novellas, The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne. She is also an occasional travel correspondent for the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture and a bookseller at McNally Jackson Books. Kate hails from Brooklyn, New York by way of Annapolis, Maryland and sometimes remembers to update her website at


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  2. What I forgot to include when I wrote up my responses: Thank you so much for the interview, Katherine! Also, there are other Inkies who pursue both self- and traditional-publishing courses. It would be great to hear their thoughts on how that works for them and why they chose the routes they did.

    (Edited to spell Katherine correctly, because I haven't had enough coffee yet--KM)

  3. You are most welcome. BTW I adore the slight suggestion of devil horns in the paint behind your head in that photo.

  4. Kate your work sound so amazing! I'm so happy it's going so well, I adored 'The Boneshaker' and will jump right on to the rest!! I work for an indie too - hope our paths cross one day :)


  5. IT'S A HALO!! Nah, who am I kidding. Devil horns are far more appropriate. :)

    Thanks, Keely! I hope our paths cross, too. Where's your bookstore?

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