Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fireside Chat with Michael R. Collings

Today's author interview is a different than some of the others I've posted on the blog.  I'd like to welcome, Michael R. Collings, Professor Emeritus of English from Pepperdine University.  So pull up a chair, get comfortable and let's have Professor Collings take the floor!



Briefly describe your journey in writing your first or latest book. Can you give us a brief overview of your latest book?
In many ways, neither I nor my writing career, fit any particular mold. My first ‘publication’, my doctoral dissertation (1977), was made available automatically through Dissertation Abstracts International, as was then the practice. The revised version, In Endless Morn of Light: Moral Agency inn Milton’s Universe, (shortened, with all of the academic jargon eliminated and the scholarly apparatus, such as footnotes, reduced) was published by Wildside Press nearly 35 years later.

My first collection of poetry, A Season of Calm Weather (1974), appeared from a small-press publisher who dealt primarily in LDS non-fiction. After a face-to-face meeting, the publisher agreed—a bit unwillingly—to venture with poetry. That books, and the next he published, Whole Wheat Harvest: Recipes for Using Wheat Without a Grinder (1980) eventually stuttered into oblivion through lack of advertising and publisher’s interest.

When I began actively writing scholarship as part of my responsibilities at Pepperdine, personal contact with editors and publishers proved invaluable. After giving a paper on Piers Anthony at an academic conference, I met the editor of a series of short studies of contemporary science fiction/fantasy authors, and was invited to write the volume on Anthony. When Piers Anthony (1983) came out, I was already writing Brian Aldiss (1986).

The very day I sent the typescript for the Aldiss study, Stephen King acknowledged the books he had published under the pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman.’ My publisher called that evening, and by the end of a two-hour-long conversation, I had agreed to seven books on King, beginning with Stephen King as Richard Bachman (1985). We went on to publish most of those books, plus a couple of others that came up as we worked, including a study of King’s short fiction co-authored my one of my students, David Engebretson (The Shorter Works of Stephen King).

For the next 20 years or so, I wrote studies of King, Orson Scott Card, and science fiction/fantasy in general, including the first full-length annotated bibliographies of each (and Peter Straub), getting publishing contracts either through editors or publishers connected with earlier books. The companies ranged from relatively high-end academic publishers, such as Greenwood Press, to small-press publishers of books that approached being works of art (Hypatia Press).

Along the way, I wrote a number of books of poetry, four novels, a long epic poem modeled on John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost…and even found an agent to handle the fiction. One of the novels made it to the last committee meeting for a major mainstream publisher, where it lost out to the other competitor. So close. Shortly thereafter, my agent radically cut her client list (I was one of the casualties) and a year later retired entirely.

My teaching and research in the seventeenth century—and my good experiences with Hypatia—reminded me that one of the time-honored means of publication was self-publication…and by that I mean hand-crafted hardcover books, complete with art-quality paper, carefully chosen fonts, and individually designed covers. Over a decade or so, I probably hand-made four or five hundred books of poetry and fiction (including publishing the epic, The Nephiad) which I sold at literary conferences, fan conventions, and readings.

In 2006 I had to retire from Pepperdine early because of severe hearing problems. I rather expected that my publishing days would be over, since concentrating enough to write was itself difficult (I am not only severely deaf but suffer from constant tinnitus—ringing, banging, pinging, cracking, hissing, etc.—in both ears). And, since I had published nearly 100 books by then, and hundreds of reviews, chapters, articles, and poems, I kind of looked forward to a rest.

Until August, 2006, when my former publisher, now affiliated with Wildside Press as editor of one of its imprints, called to ask if I would like to reprint all of my books initially published by Borgo in the 1990s. And anything else I might have squirreled away over the years. The books would be trade paper (and occasionally hardcover), with professionally designed covers, available as POD. There would even be royalties!

Since then Wildside has published nearly thirty of my books—some reprints, some first publications. The total includes six novels, six collections of poetry (including my epic!), two collections of short fiction, a book on writing poetry, a book of essays on SF/F/Horror from Beowulf to the present (with an essay on Billy: Messenger of Power, by my son Michaelbrent), and almost all of my earlier King studies. 

The most recent—to be published any day now—is a revision of the wheat cook book as Whole Wheat for Food Storage: Recipes for Unground Wheat.

Do you belong to a critique group? Have they helped improve your writing?
I don’t belong to a regular critique group although a group of us writers from Boise met for the first time last night. Instead, I have offered dozens, if not scores, of writing workshops at literary and fan conferences—usually poetry, but occasionally prose fiction as well, and once in a while general writing (a hold-over from teaching freshman composition for nearly 30 years). Because of my hearing, traditional writers’ groups are difficult for me—I can’t hear well enough to understand what others may be reading, whether poetry or prose—so I prefer to run small-group or one-on-one workshops. The nice part is, however much the others say they have gained from the experience, I think I learn even more, by talking about writing principles as well as by going over written pages line by line to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Did you query agents and traditional publishers?  How long before you got your offer of representation/your first contract?
As mentioned, I did have an agent for a while. I sent a copy of one of my books (since then published by Wildside) to a friend—who was also a New York Times best-selling author—and he referred it on to an agent friend of his. I learned a great deal about the business from the agent, and we got along well. But ultimately what I had to offer was not what she felt comfortable representing. So we parted ways.

What factors influenced your decision to go with a particular agent or publisher?
Almost everything I publish now comes out through Wildside eventually. They produce remarkably well-designed books—out of nearly thirty covers, for example, there is only one that I might take exception with, and even then I understand why the artist chose that representation. I know my editor personally and the publisher by reputation, and both treat me well.

I would, of course, enjoy having books available in traditional outlets as well as POD, but given the way publishing is changing recently, I am comfortable with Wildside.

What factors influenced your decision to self-publish to Amazon?
I’ve published several of my small collections of poetry as eBooks, first through Smashwords.com, then through Amazon.com’s Kindle program. I decided to do so because the books are very short—in print, they might run 20-30 pages; they address specific audiences, i.e., people interested in haiku, limerick, children’s verse, etc.; and they could be offered for a minimal price. Smashwords and Amazon also gave me the opportunity to create my own covers, which for me is almost as important as creating the texts. It is part of the art, the poetry of publication.

Did you hire an editor to review your manuscript before publishing?
I’ve written two books under an editor, both scholarly. And I’ve had a number of my poems copy-edited for publication. I did not enjoy the process. Having taught writing for so long—both exposition and creative writing—I generally mean what I write. In poetry, especially, I enjoying exploring with typography, the conventions of punctuation and line formation, etc.

Usually, the editors have simply corrected my explorations, both in prose and in poetry. Occasionally they have improved the text; more often, they pulled it away from my intended course.

Now, with Wildside, I know that the editor will interfere as little as possible. He trusts me, and I trust him.

Are you currently under a traditional publishing contract for future books or do you have manuscripts that you will publish directly for Kindle?
I will probably continue to do both. I just published a semi-scholarly compilation called Names and Naming in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: A Checklist of People, Places, and Things. I didn’t even suggest it to Wildside because it is too narrow in focus, too restricted in readership.

On the other hand, I am currently completing a years-long project, Milton’s Century: A Timeline of the Literary, Political, Religious, and Social Context of John Milton’s Life,
which is certainly among the most ambitious tasks I’ve undertaken. It is a monthly, at times daily timeline of events and publications that formed Milton’s world, from 1600 to 1700, with some entries moving beyond that into the 20th century.

The file exceeds 4,000K…without scans or illustrations. Something that huge, I would prefer not to publish electronically. I simply don’t know enough about computers to format it properly. Wildside, on the other hand, is fully equipped to publish it, possibly as two volumes.

I will probably continue to publish prose fiction and verse through Wildside as well. Their books eventually show up on Kindle, and as NookBooks and eBooks through other distributors, so I really have the best of two worlds. Right now, my two best-selling books are the Kindle editions of Wildside horror trade paperbacks, The Slab (about a haunted tract house in Southern California…that consumes people) and The House Beyond the Hill.

What lessons have you learned being an indie author vs. being traditionally published? What have you’ve learned during your self-publishing journey?
I suppose that much of what I’ve already said could fit here as well. I’ve experienced almost every sort of publishing format possible…or at least probable…from hand-crafting to fit my own dreams and imagination to turning my ‘baby’ over to someone else who will make all of the decisions about how it will be presented to the world. I’ve been fortunate in how I’ve been treated…have in fact been friends with several of my publishers; but I know how easily things could have turned out otherwise.

Along the way I’ve learned to be stubborn…but not too stubborn. Sometimes the work needs to be defended, from over-eager editors and careless (even listless) publishers, occasionally from readers who just didn’t get it but want to tell me how it should have been written; and other times the work does indeed need to be tweaked to make it better.

I’ve learned to adapt to change. A decade ago, I wouldn’t even read an electronic book, let alone publish one. Two decades ago, I would rather have made my own books by hand than allow them to be treated as the literary equivalent of cattle. Three decades ago, I would have given anything to have a book accepted by an academic press, no matter how unreadable many of their publications might have been.

Today, I am more open. I’m figuring out how Smashwords and Amazon/Kindle work. I’m willing to work with .pdf files, both as reviewer/reader and as author sharing works with others. I don’t have to see a physical book to feel a surge of pride in what I have written. It’s a new world…and at sixty-plus, I’m learning to enjoy it.

What kinds of social media [twitter, facebook, webpage, blog, writing forums] are you involved with trying to garner publicity for your book(s)?
I’ve not done much. I do have a facebook page and announce book news there. I’ve a webpage (starshineandshadows.com) but most of what is there are literary studies and essays. I’ve not yet broken ground for a blog. And I do attend a few conferences, where I participate on panels and in giving presentations and workshops, and there I will sell a few copies.

Besides Amazon, are there any other sites where your books are for sale?
They are on Amazon, Smashwords.com, Barnes & Noble, Diesel, and a few other sites. The best way to find copies is to Google my name and the title of the book. That generally brings up half a dozen outlets.

What is the best advice you can offer new authors?
Read! Copiously!
Write! Voluminously!
Listen to what other say about your work…then THINK ABOUT IT. Make up your own mind whether that advice is right for you.
The work is ultimately yours.

What’s next for you?
Right off, finishing Milton’s Century. As I said, it’s massive—printed it would come out around 1000 pages.

After that, well, I’ve got three novels to work on, several hundred poems to review, revise, and organize into books; much to read, and even more to think about.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about writing. Just filling out the interview form has opened up new thoughts and possibilities. Much appreciated.


Thanks Michael for stopping by and chatting.  I hope you'll come back again soon!