Born on a farm in New Jersey, International bestselling fantasy author, Brian Rathbone, proclaims himself to be a bit odd. From training Standardbred racehorses to working at a nuclear plant to helping build the Internet, he has done more than many would hope to achieve in several lifetimes. Yet this was not enough. Known most for his nine-book, epic fantasy series, Godsland, he has now lived vicariously through the lives of many characters with his acclaimed storytelling.
Brian, thank you for agreeing to this interview. You have been self-publishing fantasy fiction since 2008, primarily in the world of the Godsland series. For those unaware, please tell us a bit about this epic, fantasy world. What makes it different than all the rest?
Thank you for having me; it’s a pleasure to share my writing journey. As a young person I often wondered about gods and goddesses, especially from Greek and Roman mythology. I wondered how there could be magic and supernatural events occurring with some sense of regularity in the ancient world and was yet less prevalent today. I imagined ages of power delineated by much longer ages of the mundane—long enough for much of the ancient knowledge and ways to be lost.
What could cause such ages of power to occur, I asked myself, and I imagined a storm of comets drawn out from the Oort cloud by a large passing body and sent streaming through space to form an elliptical orbit that only passed Godsland once every three thousand years. Lasting over 150 years, the comet storm saturates the atmosphere with its radiated light, and those born before the light of the first comet graced the skies are most sensitive to it. These ‘first-lighters’ tread heavily on the annuls of time, and this epic chronicles their story. Among the things that sets this series apart are scientific realities woven into the text. Though dramatized, and perhaps in places arguable from a scientific standpoint, a great many of the supernatural occurrences in the Godsland series are based on real world phenomena. Can you find them?
You have spoken in past interviews about your own influences when growing up, including A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dragonlance Chronicles, and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Whether looking at races or monsters, character concepts, battle scenes, or themes, we sometimes discover fantasy writers give a respectful nod—even unintentionally—to early inspirations. Might readers find parallels to your personal favorites when reading the Godsland series?
Having read hundreds of fantasy novels over the decades, that influence inevitably seeps into my work for both good and ill. I learned from those I read, and my work benefits from instincts developed on what will work and what might go too far. At the same time, I have received some criticism of my first two books for having references that harkened a little too keenly to another popular work. I hadn’t read those books in over 15 years, but I had read them, and the influence was undeniable. I’ve learned to be mindful of what influences my writing, and I do my best to avoid creating works that might be construed as derivative, but I also keep in mind that being too original can stretch the limits of what genre readers expect. With that said, there are definitely nods, and in some cases counterpoints to, JRR Tolkein, Melanie Rawn, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, L.E. Modessitt, Terry Goodkind, and George RR Martin to mention a few.
In 2016, you completed an awesome Kickstarter campaign called New Voices in Fantasy Fiction with Morgen Rich and Jack McCarthy, which expanded your Godsland world. Can you tell us a bit about the campaign and what it was like working through a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter?
Working with other writers in the Godsland series has been a wonderful experience and one that often gives me goosebumps—to have our own characters take on new lives in the minds of other writers is surreal. I got to enjoy my own series as a reader instead of a writer, and that is a difficult thing to describe. Crowdfunding in itself can be rewarding in the extra interaction with readers and fans, as well as the ability to incorporate other types of art into the campaign. I am fortunate to have a talented glass artist friend who produces items that are featured as magical artifacts in the Godsland series. These items were among the most popular in the Kickstarter campaign.
From a practical standpoint, crowdfunding is difficult and time-consuming. I went out of my way to keep my rewards simple with regards to fulfillment, and as a team we secured much of our support in advance. Knowing campaigns that earn 50% or more of their goal in the first few days are much more likely to succeed, we did everything we could to set ourselves up for success. I had hoped the algorithms would shine favorably upon us and earn sales well beyond our goal, but I was happy that we earned $4,900 with a $4,000 goal. Roughly half of that went to fees and to fund the rewards, but it did successfully pay for all the books in the series to be available as paperback and hardcover editions. The original reasoning for this was a desire to have returnable distribution through Ingram Books with a competitive 55% discount. It would be risky, but it would allow me to achieve my goal of being on bookstore shelves. Alas, hidden fees of 10% reduced the discount to 45% to the bookseller, which was not compelling enough for booksellers or for me. The hardcovers remain available through online retailers using print-on-demand.
What I’m most proud of, though, is introducing more readers to Morgen Rich and Jack McCarthy. I haven’t achieved my goals with regards to their work yet, but I also know that patience and hard work can pay off later even when initial efforts fall short.
Where can readers find these additional stories?
We recently released a box set containing all three Godsland prequels. Dragon Airways, Onin, and Ascension. Here are links to popular retailers: Amazon (US/UK), Google Play, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.
Very cool. Now before I hit you with a couple of hard questions, tell us about Godsland on audiobook. The full boxset boasts 77+ hours of epic goodness. What was the process like putting together a series of such magnitude? What has the response been like from listeners?
Producing the audiobooks was a fairly painful process. I started by podcasting the first trilogy through Podiobooks. It took me months to record the audio, and I ended up recording the first book twice. The podcast novels have received millions of listens and helped build my initial reader base, for which I am very grateful.
These recordings did not meet the quality required for commercial success, though, so I started over. Teaming up with Chris Snelgrove, a popular podcast novelist in his own right, I funded the recording of six books. Later in the series we did some royalty sharing. These recordings are much better received and have become popular on Audible and iTunes, especially since we compiled a 9-book audiobook bundle. It was a lot of extra work, but readers love the value and convenience of the box set. I’m happy to reach so many new readers, and I’m also happy to share some of the revenue with my fellow creators.
I can only guess at what you have seen during the past eight years of publishing. Nowadays, the self-publishing industry seems to be increasing with momentum, having hundreds of thousands of books published every year by independent authors. Tell us a bit about what you’ve experienced. What are the pros and cons of this growing industry?
When I failed to attract an agent or publisher in 2007, I made the difficult decision to self-publish, but I knew nothing. After taking some bad advice, I ran a traditional print run of my debut trilogy. I had no distribution, no way to handle the practicalities or the risk of allowing returns, and I had no readership. It was a hard lesson, but I managed to survive it. I later discovered Mobipocket, which Amazon bought to create the Kindle. Mobipocket was the hot ebook market when all the cool kids were reading on their Palm Pilots and WindowsCE devices. I know. I’m old.
At the height of the financial crisis, I was paying my mortgage with Mobipocket royalties, and I learned lessons about chart visibility and earned versus organic sales. These lessons transferred well to the Kindle market, even back when it was DTP instead of KDP, and free eBooks weren’t a thing yet. Amazon was the first to make my series starter free of their own volition back in 2011, and my sales skyrocketed as a result. I would later use the loss leader model to drive thousands of readers to my books across dozens of platforms.
Then the floodgates opened. Self-publishing lowered the barriers to entry, which is great except when it isn’t. The market has grown far more competitive and saturated, which makes it more difficult to eek out a living as a self-published writer, or any kind of writer, for that matter. Being successful in this environment requires more drive, skill, and adaptability than when I started, and yet the opportunity is far easier to approach. The key to my success has been finding things that work, and employing those techniques until they no longer work, all the while searching for new ways to reach more readers.
My next question is two-fold. Without a doubt, we have seen massive growth in fantasy fiction in the last decade. In your opinion, what elements do you think fantasy writers need to keep in their storytelling and what do they need to leave behind?
Finding the balance between homage and loyalty to genre norms and creative originality is something every writer will need to find on their own, and I wouldn’t presume to tell other writers what to do in their own art, but here are things I personally avoid and keep.
Primarily male heroes with helpless female characters have been far too prevalent in fantasy for my tastes. I enjoy writing strong female characters and even weak male characters. This was easy for me due to the powerful women in my life providing excellent examples.
The role of prophecy is perhaps an all-too-common trope, but I have used it in my work in a way that eventually turns it on its head. Those who read only my earliest books sometimes bemoan the role of prophecy in them, which leads me to believe that I have not been fully successful in pulling this off. These are the types of lessons I apply to my later books.
Even in darker fantasy fiction, I have found those I most enjoyed contained an underlying sense of hope, and that is something I try to keep in all of my work. Sometimes we must visit the darkness to accentuate the light, but without the light, the darkness can become all-consuming.
Thank you so much for the insight. What can we expect from you in the near future?
While I was able to go full-time writing fiction in 2014, I was offered the opportunity to impact a nationwide issue I am passionate about in 2016: rural broadband expansion. I couldn’t resist the opportunity, and this project pulled me away from writing fiction for longer than I would have liked, but I am working my way back to writing.
During my hiatus, I wrote software for managing my publishing business called RoyaltyPro. I’m hoping to bring it to market by June of 2018. Combined with my royalty income, this should allow me to take a year and write the conclusion to the Godsland series, which is what I really want. Writing the conclusion to a million plus word series is a daunting task, and I know I would do a poor job if I tried to write it piecemeal. For that reason, I am determined to give myself the time and space to do the job right, at which point I hope to reclaim my role as full-time writer of fiction. Wish me luck!
It has been a pleasure, Brian! Please tell us where fans can find you online or in the upcoming year at events.
Thanks again for the opportunity to share my writing journey. My website, brianrathbone.com, is a great place to get more information about me and my books. I love interacting with readers, writers, artists and creators on Twitter, where I tell a few too many dragons jokes of questionable quality. My handle is @brianrathbone. My next planned convention appearance will be at MisCon in Missoula, Montana over Memorial Day Weekend. I suspect more appearances will be added to my website in the near future. Thanks for reading, and may the dragons chasing you have severe dietary restrictions!