How did you get published? Interview with historical fiction author Richard Blackburn

Today I’m talking with author Richard Blackburn. Richard’s historical fiction trilogy for young adults is published by Zeus Publications.

Richard, can you tell me how you came to be published?

When I was sure I wanted to publish my story, I was totally unaware of how the publishing industry operates. I didn’t understand the role of an agent so I didn’t try to get one. I did have a bit of help from articles I’d read on the subject. So I looked through bookshops to find names of publishers for my genre. I looked them up on the internet and guess what. Most of them wouldn’t accept work from an author direct. They would only deal with an agent. A couple of major publishers which would look at my manuscript required exclusivity – I couldn’t send it to any other publishers until they had made a decision. So I wasted a year sending my manuscript to two publishers who took six months each to reject it. I became impatient – I didn’t want to be published posthumously!

Cover for Richard Blackburn's 'The Regiment'

Cover for Richard Blackburn's 'The Regiment'


Then I was at a meeting of the Fellowship of Australian Writers Queensland and heard a published author discuss the advantages of going to a smaller publisher, even if it meant making a monetary contribution to the cost of getting published. He’d been published three times by Zeus Publications and so I approached them. I was immediately accepted by their literary assessor and was eventually in print! In Australia my books are called The Gatekeeper, Rudigor’s Revenge and The Regiment; die Kompanie. Zeus pays royalties and contracts to have sufficient books for market demand for a three year period.

Once my first book had sold around 3,000 copies, I looked overseas. Again I was lucky. In the ‘Opportunities’ section of QWC’s magazine, Writing Queensland, was an ad for Lachesis Publications. I contacted them and was accepted. They are a ‘traditional’ publisher and pay royalties. I don’t pay anything – they get their profit by selling my book and that is a good outcome as far as I’m concerned. It is also important for things like getting the books into British libraries, many of which will not buy a book if the author has made any payment for getting it published. In Canada/ USA the first book is called The Guardian of the Gate and it is available there in paperback and e-book format.

Tell me about the process of completing your first published book.

I’d always been a story teller. My father had told stories on cold and windy nights when the family huddled around a fire in pre-TV days. I told stories to my children who grew up in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea where there was, again, no TV. My wife told me I should write down the stories and as you know, a man always does everything his wife tell him to. So about thirty years later, when I started to retell my yarns to my granddaughter, I decided to write them down. I was happy with them and thought up a few new ones but then I had an idea which I was very interested in. I thought this might be THE story for me. But I had been in the public service for so long I was sure all my creativity had been crushed, so I took a couple of courses with the Open Learning Institute of TAFE. I passed with flying colours so continued to write.

After completing a few chapters, I told my wife I wanted to pursue this project to publication. I had been warned me not to give my writing to family members because they would probably be biased. I’m lucky, though. My wife has never had any problem with criticizing me, so she has been a very useful beta reader. She doesn’t usually read this genre so she can be even more objective. I’ve also had great help from my daughters and their school friends, so that gave me a lot more feedback.

At this time I had a full time job and a family to look after. Time to write was sometimes a problem. The worst thing was that we only had one desktop computer with internet connection – and my wife is an internetoholic. I had to nip in from time to time to do any research, and I needed a lot of that. One piece of luck is that I found out two of my friends from work were members of historical reenactment groups. They were happy to read my manuscript and confirm that I’d made no historical blunders.

One trick I’ve found to be of great value is reading my work out loud. I wait until I have the back veranda to myself and start. The dog always looks confused. ‘Who’s he talking to now?’ But he soon walks away. If the words don’t flow well, reading them out loud will really accentuate that. If I have any problem reading my own work, my readers will have real trouble.

I also read my work over loads of times. If I find I’m having trouble writing, it is usually because there is a problem with what I’ve already written. Before I start, I write a brief biography of my main characters. Probably half a page each. Most of what I write will never be in the book – the school environment, bullying as a child, deprivation as a serf etc. But I really know my characters. So if I start writing something uncharacteristic, I’ll know in my subconscious. I’ll also know if my story is going away from its logical course, even though that was my planned course. This is a great gift I have. It saves me finding out later when correcting the problem would be a lot of work.

What did your publisher expect from you in terms of rewrites?

Zeus’ editor required very few alterations to my work. I’d edited it myself so many times, it was as good as my skills could take it.

Lachesis, Canada, was different. There was translating it into the Canadian idiom (not as bad as if it was the USA). And Lachesis is a stickler for correct English as far as modern publishing is concerned. I wasn’t allowed to use dialogue tag adverbs or said bookisms. I had to be very careful because I’d been guilty of head hopping. So there was a lot of editing but no re-writing.

Did you do a book proposal?

Here, again, I was lucky. I was advised to buy the book A Decent Proposal and it helped. I stuck religiously to the requirements listed on the website of the publisher I was targeting. For Lachesis this was very specific. It means every proposal I sent had to be written individually but luckily there have only been a very few of those. But A Decent Proposal explained what (and why) the publisher wanted and how to supply it. It took a bit longer to write the proposal but I’m sure it was worth it.

Tomorrow, Richard talks about how he promotes his books – about his popular book signings and talks to groups.