Having worked in publishing, debut author Steven Lochran knows quite a few people in the publishing industry who have a half-written manuscript sitting in their bottom drawer.
“It’d be very unusual to work in publishing and not have a love of books and writing. And with that love often comes an ambition to write a book yourself.”
This was certainly the case for Steven, who considered himself a writer long before moving into publishing.
Though he continues to work in the industry, his novel Vanguard Prime: Goldrush is not published through the publisher where he works, but through Penguin.
“It’s easy to assume that with their connections people who work in publishing have a better chance than most to get a book deal. But they’re as vulnerable as any of us to uncertainty and insecurity.”
He adds that in spite of the emphasis on writing as a business, the act of writing itself remains an intensely personal one.
“If you’re doing it right, you can’t help but reveal yourself through your writing, which can make it hard to send it out into the world.”
What are publishers looking for?
Of course, even if an author does manage to work up the courage to send their book out into the world, often it comes right back to them—with a rejection slip attached.
Debut authors are particularly vulnerable.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to break out a new author. The windows are shrinking on how long a writer has to establish themselves with the public.”
Although publishers aren’t necessarily looking for shortcuts, they are looking for someone who can manage the many elements of a writing career.
“Someone who can meet deadlines, hand in clean manuscripts, who is easy to deal with, and who can handle themselves in interviews and events. An established fan base is, of course, another very big tick.”
A publisher will be far more interested in looking at your work if you have some sort of track record that highlights the above, he adds. This might include running a popular, articular blog or having self-published an ebook to some success.
“The JD Salinger model of author-as-enigmatic-loner is obsolete in this era.”
Authors need need to prove their reliability and their professionalism. It’s often people who have had some experience in the publishing field already who have a sense of the importance of this.
“If I had the chance to be JD Salinger, however, I’d totally take it. I’m misanthropic that way.”
How much self-promotion is an author expected to do?
It’s hard to imagine JD Salinger participating in blog tours or chatting away on Twitter, but these sorts of promotional activities are expected of authors today.
Steven agrees that promotion is as much a responsibility of the author as it is the publisher.
“Any author who leaves the handling of publicity entirely in their publisher’s hands is doing themselves a disservice, because there’s no greater advocate for your book than you.”
Of course, although social media has made it easier for authors to directly approach bloggers, reviewers and other outlets about their work, it does have its downsides.
“It can feel a little awkward approaching people yourself, especially if you’re looking for a review from them and it turns out not to be a good one.”
In situations like this it’s important for authors to remain professional, and to separate their feelings from the work itself.
“Regard every setback as a learning experience, and resolve to do it better next time.”
He adds that because publishers are also undertaking promotional activities it’s essential for authors to make sure that they’re working in conjunction with their publishers—rather than simply complicating things for them.
“It can be a hard line to straddle. You’d have to ask my publicist how I’ve been doing with that. You might want to buy her a drink first, though. She’ll need it.”
Why are action books marketed as “boy” books or “gateway books”?
This brings us to the question of branding and marketing, which obviously influence how a book can be promoted and to whom.
With its manga-style cover design and lashings of gold you could argue fairly readily that Vanguard Prime: Goldrush is being marketed to male readers. This seems to be the case for many action-oriented books or books featuring superheroes and superpowers.
“There’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation when it comes to the marketing of books, especially in relation to age and gender,” says Steven. “Do boys naturally gravitate towards action-orientated books, or is that simply because that’s what’s marketed towards them?”
He adds that we’re told that boys are often reluctant readers, and that they don’t read in the volume that girls do.
In order to overcome this reluctance—whether real or perceived—it’s felt that these readers need to be provided with books that are plot-heavy and that have a sense of momentum to them. The idea is that once a reader starts reading the book they won’t want to put it down.
There’s more to it than that, however. Action books give readers a sense of agency.
“Adults forget just how powerless you feel as a kid. If a young reader is engaged in a story where the protagonist is able to overcome the obstacles put in front of them, it gives them a greater sense of confidence. At least, that’s how I felt as a kid, and that’s what I’d hope that young readers would take away from my books.”
He adds: “Not to mention; explosions are cool.”
Gateway books: what are they?
Explosions are cool, but they’re not all that books such as Steven’s have going for them. These books are often described as “gateway books”, meaning that it’s hoped that they’ll encourage reluctant readers to continue to develop their interest in reading.
The term, however, can be used pejoratively, with the suggestion that these books aren’t “real” books, that they’re a case of function over form.
“I personally don’t think there’s any issue with that term,” says Steven. “It’s natural for readers to move on to more complex books as they get older.”
He adds that it’s with this in mind that he consciously tries to weave literary allusions into his writing.
“It’s like I’m an advance scout reporting back. ‘You guys aren’t there yet, but there are all these cool things just over the hill that you should check out when you get there’.”
Do you check your gender bias at the door?
Another element that Steven works hard to weave into his work is gender equality.
“My drive to include strong female characters comes from thinking of myself as a feminist, which even in this day and age still seems to be regarded by some as a dirty word.”
Whatever Steven is writing, he strives to ensure that it passes the Bechdel test, a term that refers to cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s guide to identifying gender bias in fiction.
“It’s a pretty simple formula. (1) The story has to have at least two women in it, (2) they need to talk to each other, and (3) their conversation should be about something besides a man.”
Although not everything he writes passes the Bechdel test, he’s forever aiming to.
“I think it’s really important to include strong female characters in genre fiction. Not only to provide girls with more role models, but to also show boys that girls aren’t exotic aliens that need to be either avoided or excluded. Girls are cool too, in other words.”
He adds that a writer can get a lot out of subverting expectations. When creating a character, he tries to envisage the traditional image of a character of that type, and then tries to find ways of changing it up.
“At the start of my book I deliberately avoid providing a physical description of one of the characters so that when you find out she’s a woman it comes as a bit of a surprise. My hope would be that the reader would then question that feeling of surprise. Why shouldn’t the person in charge be a woman?”
As a lover of comic books and superhero movies, Steven finds it a little disheartening to see how often female characters are shoe-horned into being either eye candy or the damsel-in-distress, or both.
“I love it when female characters are included in the action, because it’s something we so rarely see.”
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about what makes a strong female character, and I’m intrigued to hear Steven’s own definition.
“I think a strong female character is one that can affect the plot, who’s involved in the story in more than just a romantic capacity. That doesn’t mean she can’t express vulnerability or uncertainty, but there needs to be a high degree of self-reliance.”
He gives Katniss Everdeen and Buffy Summers as two characters who perfectly fit that mould. Wonder Woman is another.
“I also remember my fiancé being very dismissive of Wonder Woman until I handpicked some episodes of the Justice League cartoon to show her just how strong and awesome a character Wonder Woman can be when written right.”
Wonder Woman has since become one of Steven’s fiancé’s favourite characters, which thrills him to no end.
“Geeky admission, I know. Let’s move on, shall we?”
What do authors want to achieve from their work?
Given that Steven managed to get such a thrill out of turning his fiancé into a Wonder Woman fan, I can’t help but wonder how he hopes that people will respond to his own work.
“My hope is that they’ll have read a story that’s engaged them throughout, that’s thrilled them and surprised them, that’s made them laugh and possibly cry, and that’s maybe even made them think of something they never would have considered before.”
He says that he recently received an email from teenage girl who said that after reading his book she was now inspired to write her own.
“I don’t think you can pay an author a greater compliment than that. If we hadn’t had the exact same feeling, none of us would be doing what we do.”
“Also, I hope I get sent chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.”
Steven’s debut Vanguard Prime: Goldrush is published by Penguin
About the book:
Elite superhero team Vanguard Prime has a new recruit . . .
Sam Lee was just a normal teenager . . . until the disastrous emergence of his superpowers. Now he has the chance to join his childhood heroes and become the youngest-ever member of Vanguard Prime. But when the time comes, will Sam have what is takes to save the world?
About Steven Lochran:
Steven Lochran wanted to be either a superhero or a writer when he grew up and has now found a way to combine the two. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and has worked as a film critic, a projectionist, a DJ and as a sales rep in the publishing industry. He lives in Melbourne with his fiancé Simone.