In a world where aspiring authors far outnumber the capacity or requirements of traditional publishers, more and more writers are turning to non-traditional publishing methods or beginning their own self-publishing venture. David Bench has authored and self-published three novels and two children’s books. As self-publishing rises in popularity, many authors - both broadly recognised and more niche names - are actively choosing to retain their creative autonomy via self-publication.
In this Insider Interview, we delve into the world of alternative publishing and self-management, from book covers to selecting retailers. David also shares his personal insights into the challenges, struggles, triumphs and ambitions associated with starting from the ground-up as an entirely self-managed author.
Also don’t miss David’s new short story The Green Light, published via Writing Voices.
Q. You write and self-publish novel length fiction. What does success look and feel like for you?
I won’t lie and say I don’t want to have my work noticed, or hope that a publisher will call me and offer me money. Really though, if I have shared a story and people enjoy it, I’m thrilled. I wrote a lot of short stories in school, but never had the patience to stick with a story for longer than a few pages. I was always more interested in my art and music.
After illustrating my wife’s book, I found I really enjoyed it. I tried making something for my granddaughter and she enjoyed it immensely. After I completed a few children’s books, I wanted to revisit a story a friend and I had thought up in junior high (a lifetime ago!) I realised I had bitten off a lot for my first real novel, so I shelved the project and started writing Hawking’s Highway. I was immediately inspired and energised and I had the book finished in a matter of months. Same with my next book.
I love being able to create characters and breathe life into them. Making them believable and relatable, and instilling them with character traits and flaws is hugely satisfying. Hearing positive feedback about my work, having someone say they can’t wait for my next book, that is success in my opinion. I did finally finish my epic I started in 2020. I think the writing I did in the meantime helped make it better than it would’ve been otherwise.
Q. Are you ever tempted to look for a traditional publisher?
I’ve thought about it, but honestly, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I don’t have an agent or anyone who can navigate the complex process of pursuing that avenue. I’ve submitted some of my short fiction for publication in various online magazines etc. and have yet to get any of it accepted. I suppose I could consider traditional publishers if I had a book that I felt would be a slam dunk. I’m also planning to look into creating audiobooks to reach a broader audience for my works.
Q. How did you decide on a self-publishing organisation to work with, and what were some take aways from that process?
I did a lot of research before deciding to upload my books to Lulu.com. I found there are a lot of what are termed “vanity publishers” out there—companies that promise to publish your books but expect you to pay exorbitant fees and all printing costs up front with no guarantees on return. Amazon has a pretty decent platform for self-publishing (I’ve known other authors who have gone that route and had good experiences with what they offer). In the end, I would suggest to anyone looking to self-publish, do your homework, and make sure the company provides what they promise and that you retain your own copyrights!
I decided on the Lulu platform myself because the cost is minimal, and my books are available in Lulu’s bookstore immediately. I can set my own price based on either revenue goals or percent above a minimum price (required to cover the printing fees).
In addition, for a one-time global distribution fee (less than $5 US) and within a few weeks, paperback and ebook versions of all my books are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Roku, and many other platforms worldwide. To verify their claims, I did some searching after publishing Hawking’s Highway and found it on book retailer websites in Denmark, Germany, England, and Japan, so they really do deliver on the global distribution promise.
Q. You handle every stage of the production process yourself; if you decided to outsource one, which would it be and why?
I would probably consider outsourcing the final editing, and possibly cover art if I felt it would make the book better and/or more marketable. I use Grammarly extensively when writing, and I’ve found it to be very helpful, although you have to carefully assess the correction suggestions it offers. Sometimes they make total sense, but sometimes I ignore the suggestions if I feel it detracts from the artistry of the writing. This is especially true with dialogue. I actually had a digital artist lined up to produce the cover for Death in the Shadow of Oberon for free, if I allowed him to add it to his portfolio. I thought this was a good direction to pursue because I was looking for a retro-looking cover similar to the Asimov and Bradburry books from the 70s and 80s. In the end, he had other commitments, and wasn’t able to devote the time needed to meet my deadline. I created the cover myself using art software I had on my iPad.
Q. You’ve been delving into AI generated imagery for your book cover designs; tell us more!
AI imagery has made some amazing leaps forward in just the last couple of years. I began using some of these images for my music files I uploaded to SoundCloud. For Hawking’s Highway and Death in the Shadow of Oberon I used traditional photo editing software and combined a number of images to create the look I wanted, then applied a photo filter App (such as Prisma) to give it the look of an illustration, rather than a photo. For An Elegy for Fools, I wanted a specific image that I could not create with my limited resources and abilities, so I turned to AI image generation.
The software (though amazing) is still limited in many ways, and you have to generate a specific enough prompt to achieve a usable image. I’ve also found that the AI has difficulty with anything containing letters, hands, and sometimes even faces. In the end, the final design uses seven or eight unique AI generated images, stitched and blended together along with my own digital artwork for the complete look I wanted. I knew I’d gotten it right when I had someone comment that it looked “so retro”, exactly what I was striving for.
Q. Can you share a bit more about your ambitions as an author?
My ambitions are simple; I want to create memorable stories and characters that will transport the reader to new places. Books, and especially science fiction books, were an escape for me as a kid, and I loved imagining the distant worlds and alien races they conjured up. One such book that affected me deeply was Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton. The writing was so smooth, yet the concepts were so alien. I would love to be able to write at that level. I’d like to leave a legacy behind for future generations, even if it only reaches my grandchildren. I don’t fool myself into believing that I’m going to be the next Stephen King or Dean Koontz, although I would love to be able to share my work with a wider audience. At the end of the day, I would like to connect with my readers and produce work to be remembered.
Q. What are the greatest challenges you face as both an author and a self-publisher?
As an author, I sometimes struggle with writer’s block. I doubt there is an author who doesn’t. I can be super motivated to start a new project, but I have a tendency to lose steam partway through. That happened with An Elegy for Fools. The story started to fizzle out on me, and I found my ambition for the project waning severely. I wasn’t happy with the direction I was going, and I had essentially painted myself into a corner.
Thank goodness I had some short fiction pieces and other projects to work on. I shelved An Elegy for Fools for a while and let it percolate while I worked on things I was more invested in at the time. When I finally felt ready to return to the story, I had a clear path through to the finish line, and am really happy with how it turned out.
As a self-publisher, I would have to say my greatest challenge is getting my work noticed and generating sales. I’m not on social media, though I did just set up an Instagram account to try to push my books. I get a lot of “likes” but so far that exposure hasn’t generated any sales.
Now that I have three solid books out, I’m considering running a targeted ad in Asimov Magazine, or some other Sci-Fi specific outlets. I’m willing to take a gamble at this point to try to move the needle in the right direction.
Q. What do you love the most about being an author?
As much as books are an escape for me as a reader, I would say it goes double as an author. When I find a project that I’m excited or passionate about, I can’t wait to write the next chapter. I’m what they call a “Pantser” (as opposed to a “Plotter”) so I write in a free-form way, just following a stream of consciousness. It requires a bit of extensive reworking sometimes, but other times I have been pleasantly surprised when a certain plot device suddenly makes sense later in the story and it feels like I have done something clever. When I finish a book, or story, it’s almost a rush of emotion. As with my art and my music, the act of creating is very satisfying.
Q. Can you share any details about your next book?
I’ve done a complete genre switch essentially. I’ve always had a deep-rooted sci-fi drive to my other books, but with The Skull in the Saguaro I’ve come completely down to earth…literally. I’ve been binging a lot of True Crime stuff lately and I wanted to write a murder mystery with some totally plausible high-tech twists. All the science is real, and the characters are people you could meet on any street—including the serial killer. An FBI profiler must follow a small trail of breadcrumbs to connect a series of seemingly unconnected murders. It’s going to be a fun ride!
Q. Finally, do you have any words of advice for our readers?
Be true to yourself. This may sound corny, but if you write what you know, what you care about, what motivates you, your writing will be better for it.
Do your research. If you are writing a specific style or genre, study other writers and see how they approach it. A quote by Stephen King I have always loved is, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”
When it comes to self publishing, find an outlet that meets your personal goals and expectations, and do your homework to make sure they deliver. There is no discounting the investment of time and money it takes to deliver a final product, so make sure you get what you are looking for.
The Writing Voices team would like to extend their thanks to David Bench for his time, consideration and generosity.
Cover image and book cover credits: With thanks to David Bench