This awesome guy is known by many in the indie scene. Phil Tucker has been in the indie publishing game some years now, popular with many fans and other indie authors, and has a good number of books, and successes, under his wizard belt. I present to you our interview.
AB: Phil, please, have a seat! And welcome to the jungle—no, that’s an outdated reference. Phil, Phil Tucker, everyone! Welcome, and I am pleased to have you here today.
For those unfamiliar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself? Who is Phil Tucker, man of laborious discipline and dark fantasies?
PT: Hey, Allan, thanks for having me, thanks everyone, thank you. *crosses legs, uncrosses them, clears throat* A little about myself? Haha, who doesn’t know all about me already? Just a joke, just a joke.
Let’s see. Phil Tucker: a man who ever since he was a youth was obsessed with writing fantasy and hopes to write it long into his senescence. That’s, ah, a reference to the Sphinx’s riddle, right? Right. Well, um. I’m a Brazilian Brit who lives in Asheville and spends far too much time obsessing about world building, how to create feverish, burning chemistry between characters (the answer, it turns out, is lithium + water), wondering if it’s actually worth the time to create a conlang, and so on.
AB: That was…a specific introduction, you have me intrigued. Starting off, your most recent novel, Death March, just came out. It’s a part of the LitRPG genre, stories focusing on online worlds in the real world, or worlds with RPG(role-playing game) mechanics that are observable. What is the story about?
PT: So, Death March: a paradise online, more real than reality, the colors more vivid, the landscape more epic, and so forth. Think the world of Witcher 3 but portrayed with the intensity of What Dreams May Come. Our hero, Chris, gets suckered into playing in Death March mode so as to try and save his brother who’s on death row. See, if you can survive six months in-game in Death March mode, where a death in-game results in your real death, you get to ask of Albertus Magnus, the world-spanning AI that’s been tasked with fixing our planet, for any one favor, and Chris aims to ask for a pardon for his brother. But as soon as he gets into Euphoria Online, everything starts to go horribly, horribly wrong…
AB: Welcome to digital hell, here’s a broken sword, a wooden plank, and a horde of gankers coming your way…it’s like being back in Ultima Online. As for the story itself, the novel focuses on Chris, an experienced gamer living in a world controlled by a “benevolent” AI. Given the setup of LitRPGs, why did you go with a seasoned pro, instead, of say a novice? Did you plan Chris’ experience from the start, or did you revise it throughout the writing process?
PT: Chris’s experience was key to the novel, and so part of the setup from the get-go. The reason being that the odds are so steeply stacked against him from the first moment he enters the game that I needed to justify his being able to keep his head above water and not flail and die immediately. Even with his being a former eSports champion it was tough to make some of his victories credible; I really wanted to imbue a sense of desperation and lethality to the setting, so anything I could give Chris that felt fair and legitimate to even the odds was a must. Great question!
AB: It’s like Ironman Mode, but with deadly consequences, it does wonders for perspectives and cautions. Let’s go back to the past. You’ve been writing and publishing for several years now, churned out a decent number of novels, and have been very frank about your early years. Self-publishing is like a starved wolf: it gives you a certain drive, but as you said it yourself, you can come close to just giving it up. What made you want to go with self-publishing, and how did you persevere in the face of your obstacles?
PT: Man, I don’t know. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else – publish fantasy, that is. It’s pretty much a monomania. I worked at Penguin USA back in 2009 – jeez, almost a decade ago now – so as to go undercover and learn all about the trad world. I met some really wonderful editors, but also saw how the industry operated and thought: there’s got to be a better way. Self-publishing was just taking off, so I took the dive, and had some early, fluke-like successes which whet my appetite and showed me what was possible. Except I insisted in working in hermetic isolation for years, and as a result flailed in the dark, launching books into the void to little effect. It was only when I joined KBoards and saw how the pros were doing it that I realized what the right approach was, and things took off.
I’ve also come to realize that I relish having total control over the publication process. I love working with my cover artist. I love picking my own deadlines, setting my own publication schedule, having no non-compete clauses, writing what I want to write, tackling the marketing and so forth. It’s not for everyone, but I enjoy wearing that hat, so it’s been great.
AB: So you’ve been in the game a long while, seen the inside of the publishing industry, and decided to do it your own way. I love the fact so many authors come from so many different trajectories, yet they end up in the same place. Love it! Drawing upon your tribulations, you’ve garnered much success, selling over 100,000 copies of your Black Gate series. How did Black Gate click for you as an author and businessman, but really, what made it so different, and successful, from your earlier endeavors?
PT: So I stumbled upon KBoards upon the insistence of my wife – she’d been saying for years that I needed to find a community, meet other self-pub authors, etc. This was in 2014, when KU2 was huge. That’s where authors got paid per copy downloaded in the Kindle Unlimited program, not per page read as it is today. We were expecting our first child, were financially in dire straits, so when I saw on KBoards that people were having success with Paranormal Romance, I decided to give it a go. I used my years of roleplaying White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse to write my own werewolf romances and jumped right in.
And let me tell you, it was a steep learning curve. Those top PNR folks know what they’re doing, are masters of tension, romance, and delivering precisely what their readers are looking for. Anybody who scoffs at PNR or romance novels is a fool: the successful ones are as masterfully written as anything else out there, and I learned a ton about relationships and character development while trying to compete.
So fast forward six months, and I’d made some cash, learned a heck of a lot about how to successfully self-publish, but was burning out on werewolf smooches. And my readers could tell. So I rolled up my sleeves and decided it was time to write something that mattered to me, something I was passionate about. An epic fantasy like those I’d grown up on, that had kept me up reading under the covers with a flashlight. And this time I knew how to publish it: I knew what to do. I wrote like a madman for like three or four months, then edited, found Andreas Zafiratos my cover artist (a relationship that’s been instrumental to my success) and launched the book on Amazon.
And it took off.
I immediately got to work on The Black Shriving,and entered Path of Flames into Mark Lawrence’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off. But everything I’d learned from KBoards and writing PNR allowed me to launch Path of Flames right, to get it before the right readers, and then the Amazon algorithms did all the rest. It was surreal. It was amazing. And it allowed me to quit my marketing job that December and never look back.
AB: It’s the grind. The one thread I’ve noticed, and that is repeatedly hammered by other indie veterans I’ve interviewed, is most of them had a couple years of content put out there. And honestly, given my own dabbling into novels, halfway into my fourth full novel, you really do get better at whatever weakness you have: whether it’s editing, voice, tension, character development, the more you write, the more you actively consider each word and sentence, you develop a stronger, tighter style.
And with your previous experience, it’s no wonder you were so successful. You’d done the leg work, and all you needed was, perhaps, a boost, which came in the form of the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off.
Speaking of, how did the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO), Mark Lawrence’s self-publishing competition started a few years ago, help you? Given how many of the finalists have gone onto traditional contracts, and further exposure from it, do you believe it impacted your career?
PT: It definitely impacted my career. It’s a fantastic competition, with a vibrant, passionate community that works tirelessly to celebrate each other and promote hidden gems. I met a dozen other authors whom I’ve since become good friends with, even forming an online community with a score of them and getting together earlier this year at an informal ‘convention’. I’ve never had a writing community before, never connected with such brilliant, like-minded folk, and I can genuinely say is that it’s changed my life to have made such great friends (except for Ben Galley. That man’s a ruffian and his skill with the bow is greatly exaggerated.)
From a business point of view, I don’t think the competition affected my sales much besides garnering some great reviews from bloggers like Pornokitsch and bringing my series to the attention of some trad publishers who made offers which ultimately fell through. For me the SPFBO was less about sales and more about community, something I’m grateful for till this day.
AB: That’s another thing: you get what you want out of it. Some authors got contracts, financial traction, but I’m always fascinated by how each author gets a different satisfaction from their participation in the competition. Let’s talk about Sigil Independent, the growing monstrosity indie author supergroup. How did you get involved in it, what’s your place in it, and where do you expect it to go in the coming years? Will there be a Behind the Music documentary when the inevitable breakup, over contracts, sales, and egos, happens in 2029? Give us your thoughts.
PT: Matt Presley, author of the excellent novel The Woven Ring, reached out to me one morning and asked if I’d be interested in joining. When I saw the roster of current members I leaped at the chance and have felt incredibly fortunate to be part of it ever since. To be honest, I’m not a Facebook guy, and since the group operates primarily via its FB page I tend to miss out on a lot of great conversations and brainstorming, but I’ve still managed to take part in some of the more hilarious and wry projects, such as creating Magic: The Gathering cards for our series, or magazine covers for one of our books, and so forth. Everybody in Sigil is really at the top of their game, and they are some of the very best fantasy authors in the genre, and the Sigil emblem truly is a sign of quality. I’m damn lucky to have been invited to take part.
AB: I’ve really enjoyed interviewing the other Sigil Independent authors; it’s just a smart idea in today’s consolidating market and publishing industry. And I do believe you and I are kindred comrades when it comes to the debate on covers. I’ve hammered it again and again over at r/fantasy how critical it is that your cover captures the tone, the feel, and general genre of your books. What I like about the Black Gate novels is that they all showcase profiles of key characters from the series, and all of which are painted in a consistent style.
PT: Covers are key. They are the single most important element when it comes to selling your books. People absolutely judge books by their covers, and won’t even click on your thumbnail if your cover doesn’t signal clearly what genre your book belongs to and what experience they can expect from your story.
A mistake I see new authors making is that they want their covers to be artistic, unique, different from what’s out there. And inevitably that leads to poor sales, because the point of a cover isn’t to stand by itself as a gorgeous work of art, but act instead as a glowing neon sign pointing readers toward your book saying, “This is the kind of book you love, this is what you should buy next if you enjoy epic fantasy, this book is awesome and great and full of the best stuff.” And it does that by fitting in with the other best-selling titles. By conveying clearly and in tiny thumbnail fashion what your book is about.
My cover artist, Andreas Zafiratos, has played an immensely important role in what success I’ve achieved. He’s ridiculously talented, creates his art while gazing out of a window that looks over the Aegean ocean (seriously, he lives on an island in the Cyclades), and he’s incredibly savvy about what kind of cover will hook my readers. I’m damn lucky to be working with him, and hope to have him create my covers for many years to come.
AB: Love it! Wrapping up, is there any genre, in particular, you really would like to write? A fantasy romance? Blues Brothers inspired bardic road trip novel?
PT: I’m currently obsessed with two concepts that I’m pretty sure nobody will want to read: an epic fantasy accounting novel (think of an accountant in the bowels of Gondor who changes the world through innovative tax practices) and a near-future dystopian girl power story (think The Handmaid’s Tale meets the Matrix meets Riot Grrrl.)
AB: With Death March currently available, what is your next novel? A sequel, a new trilogy?
PT: I’m currently polishing a sword and sorcery revenge tale that features a thief who was wronged by his guild just as he was poised to pass his entrance trial, and his epic undertaking to bring down his former. One of the big trad houses has asked to see my next book first before I publish it, so I’ll be sending it their way to see if working together makes sense. I’m excited! I’d love to go hybrid, but again, only if it makes sense to both parties.
AB: Where can readers find out more about you?
PT: Amazon! There is no Phil, only Zuul. I mean, only my books matter. Check out my author page at https://www.amazon.com/Phil-Tucker/e/B0054QPPOQ
Or you can find me on Twitter at @pwtucker.
AB: Before we go, I have to ask: if you had to face a last stand against a horde of undying demons, what would be your weapon, and how would you fight to your last breath?
PT: Last weapon. Hmm. To be honest, I’d go with a Gurka-Murka crystal. Imagine legions of demons being forced to dance themselves to death, Bollywood style, as confetti, alabaster statuettes, glowing marbles, birds of paradise and endless streamers of colored paper rained down from the sky? I’d just stand there and dance along.
AB: Phil, thank you once again for taking time out of your day to answer my questions. I wish you further success with your writing and novels. Thank you!
PT:Thanks for having me!