Welcome to my monthly blog. On the first Monday of every month I interview an Indie Author. My guest today is Jon Hartless who writes Steampunk. So why not make yourself a cuppa, get comfy and let’s get chatting to Jon.
Welcome to the blog, Jon. Can you tell me what made you decide to become an Indie Author?
Practicality. I’d had my Steampunk series accepted with a traditional publisher, Accent Press, which did the first two books, but the owner then sold the company to one of the bigger publishing houses who weren’t interested in continuing the series, so I decided to republish via Amazon rather than go through the whole process of trying to find another publisher to take the project on. (Which would probably have been impossible anyway).
Can you explain to us the main difference to you as an author, between being traditionally published and being independently published?
With independent publishing, you have to pay for the cover and you don’t get edited unless you actively seek it out, which also costs money. But you should at least try to get a proof-reader to check for typos, grammatical mistakes etc. And if you can afford it, (or if you can find a beta reader), get an editor to check for plot and character errors in case you’ve made a blunder there, as often the author is too close to the work to see potential issues.
In contrast, a traditional publisher takes these costs/responsibilities on themselves – but they may also make demands you don’t like. (See below).
So what would you say are the pros and cons of self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing?
Unless you’re already famous or successful, you’re not going to get much support from the publisher in terms of marketing; increasingly, trad publishers are thrusting that sort of thing onto the writers because it saves the publisher money. Also, you can’t get on a bookshelf at Waterstones, WH Smith etc, unless you’re a selling author, but you can’t become a selling author without being on a bookshelf.
Also, you may lose control of your book when publishing traditionally. My brother, who worked in a school which used to host visiting writers, told of how one writer said she felt her book was no longer hers as it had been changed by her publisher/editor beyond recognition. (And they have the final say on the cover, also).
And so that leaves Kindle, Lulu and the like for independent publishing, and at least you have more control over things like the editing, the cover etc – assuming you can afford them. And definitely no shelf space, unless you have an indie bookstore close by that takes pity on you. But then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find you sell most of your copies through personal appearances at book fairs/conventions etc – and that has been true for me with both the traditional publisher and when doing it alone, but even then, I don’t sell that many copies, so be warned.
How do you decide on the cover and title for your books?
The first in the Steampunk series was originally called Poppy Orpington and Thunderbus, which the editor at Accent Press didn’t like. I had a think and came up with Birth of the Petrol Queen, based on book two in which Poppy is labelled “the Petrol Queen” as a mark of disdain by the media. As such, I thought Birth of the Petrol Queen, Rise of the Petrol Queen and Fall of the Petrol Queen would make a good set of titles.
Unfortunately, the editor said “no” to the first one as the company wanted one or two word titles only, for marketing purposes. And so book one became Full Throttle, which is the title of Tim Birkin’s autobiography. (Birkin being the most famous of the Bentley Boys and a partial inspiration for the series). And then the company abandoned the title policy anyway, so I was able to title book two as originally planned…
As for the cover, in indie, you can only go with what you can afford. Someone on Facebook recommended cover artist Dave Slaney, who was thankfully familiar with the Amazon self-publishing process, and that was useful as he was able to help sort the size issues with uploading the full wraparound paperback cover as Kindle kept rejecting it as being the wrong size for the book, and Dave (bless him) helped me out enormously in getting that fixed.
What was the inspiration for your latest book?
The Death of Poppy Orpington concludes the 4-book series, (though there may be a missing adventure to come), and the inspiration was certain real-life events drawn from both World Wars. (You have to remember that the series is set on an alternative Steampunk timeline where events happen differently or not at all; on Poppy’s timeline, there was just one World War, but it lasted a lot longer, and was even deadlier, than the real conflicts).
As such, I read up on what some racing drivers did just before and during the war(s), such as The Grand Prix Saboteurs by Joe Saward, detailing the war work of Grand Prix winners William Grover-Williams and Robert Benoist, both of whom were eventually captured and executed by the Nazis.
Both men worked for the SOE, (Special Operations Executive), which specialised in dropping spies and saboteurs into occupied Europe to engage in guerrilla warfare rather than traditional army tactics. One of the most famous agents today is probably Noor Inayat Khan, who recently popped up in a Doctor Who adventure with Jodie Whittaker. That background allowed me to mix and match fictionalised events, missions, people etc into Poppy’ world, with Poppy herself becoming a reluctant member of the CTS, (Covert Tactical Section), her world’s version of the SOE.
How do you go about your research?
For the Poppy series, it was a fluke. I knew (vaguely) of the Bentley Boys, but one day I spotted Birkin’s autobiography in a charity shop. I got it and then looked online to see what else was out there and started finding out more things about the Bentley Boys, Bentley Motors, the early days of racing etc, and that gave me more names and titles to hunt down on eBay, Abebooks, Amazon etc.
And on top of that is the historical research; looking at the era of the early twentieth century in general, the 1920s specifically, and all the while asking; why is history being presented like this? Who is writing it? What is their agenda? Are they biased? And in doing that, you soon realise “history” is a flawed concept because it’s nearly all written by the wealthy establishment, so of course it’s biased toward the wealthy establishment from the start.
How much of your day does writing and writing-related activities take up?
That varies as I work full time, (online and in the real world), but sometimes I can squeeze some writing or editing between jobs. If I’m out and about, I take the laptop with me and tap away in the car, which can be more productive as there are no distractions – when at home, I have to avoid the temptations of both the fridge and social media.
It sounds like you’re really busy, Jon. Can you tell us a bit about your books?
The Poppy Orpington Chronicles, (Full Throttle, Rise of the Petrol Queen, and now Fall of the Petrol Queen) is inspired by the rise and fall of Bentley Motors in the 1920s. As we enter the centenary anniversary of the founding of the company and the formation of the Bentley Boys, the most famous racing drivers of the day, the series stands as both a tribute but also a critical examination of the decade – an era of gross inequality, poverty, rising fascism and insularity.
A time little different to the 2020s…
They sound fascinating. Let’s take a look at each book.
Overall, the series is a Steampunk motor racing adventure set in a world of division, intolerance and inequality which modern readers may find disturbingly familiar…
Full Throttle (Book 1)
As expensive steam-powered automobiles speed across the land, Poppy Orpington is trapped and going nowhere – until her father reveals he has perfected a petrol-fuelled car, ready for the racetrack.
The vast prize money promises them a better life, but will Poppy and her father be allowed to compete? Racing is the preserve of the wealthy elite and few will welcome the working-classes onto their hallowed ground.
Can Poppy overcome social prejudice and conformity, or will her only chance of a better life be crushed before it can even begin? Join editor James Birkin as he looks back on the life of a near-forgotten, much maligned champion of the racetrack.
Rise of the Petrol Queen (Book 2)
Poppy Orpington is going racing. With or without your approval.
Following a controversial disqualification at the Purley Cup, the biggest racing event of the year, Poppy Orpington is hot news – especially when she announces she will be racing again in her unique, petrol-fuelled car, Thunderbus. And more announcements follow for the launch of her own clothing line, as well as her own car-manufacturing business.
In response, the outraged media launches an all-out war on Poppy, slandering her character, belittling her achievements and pouring scorn on her abilities, for the establishment expects everyone to know their place – especially working-class women.
Can Poppy succeed on her own terms or will she be crushed into conformity? And can society’s conventions ever be flouted without consequence? Join editor James Birkin as he looks back at Poppy’s first full year in both racing and business.
Fall of the Petrol Queen (Book 3)
In 1904, Poppy Orpington founded Thunderbolt Motors in the hope of manufacturing fast, competitive cars which would be cheap enough for the average worker to buy and enjoy. History shows that by 1908, Poppy’s dream had been cruelly destroyed, but what exactly occurred in those four years?
James Birkin once again picks up his pen to tell the real story behind the enigmatic Poppy Orpington, played out against a background of rising intolerance and the increasing certainty of war with Kaiser Wilhelm VI’s Unified Germany.
The weight of history is pressing down and destiny can never be denied. And Poppy’s final destiny is moving ever closer…
Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novels, steampunk motor racing adventures examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, started with Full Throttle in August 2017 and continued with Rise of the Petrol Queen in 2019. The third of the series, Fall of the Petrol Queen, debuted in October 2020, while the finale, The Death of Poppy Orpington, debuts in November 2021.
Thanks for talking to us about your books and the self-publishing process, Jon. Wishing you many sales of your books.
Karen King – Writing about the light and dark of relationships.
Amazon Author Page: https://tinyurl.com/y2q5audb