This week I caught up with author Jonathan Gunson, creator of the best selling book The Merlin Mystery. He has also written a fantastic book about how to virally market a book to an audience and to the publishing industry. I want to thank him for taking the time to answer my questions.
1. How did you originally become an author?
The ‘light bulb’ moment for me came while reading bedtime stories to my boys when they were little. It was wonderful, full of jokes, flights of fancy and adventures, and I wanted to capture that magic forever.
So I decided that I should write and illustrate my own children’s books, created especially for them. They’d be ‘timeless', so the magic might last a while longer, plus they might make a little money for their future too.
As an advertising art director I could write and illustrate. But what on earth to write?
While I was casting around for an idea, the family’s Siamese cat provided the story for my first book. He was desperately parched, and went hunting for a cool drink, upending just about everything in sight during his quest. Here’s an illustration from that first book, ‘Mr Smudge’s Thirsty Day’, dedicated to my son James:
The book was runner up in a publishing award. Greatly encouraged, I went on from there, but soon realised that the books would not achieve the financial windfall I had imagined.
The solution to this emerged one day when I joined my children to watch an episode of ‘Sesame Street’. At the mid-point of the program I saw an advertisement for ‘Sesame Street picture books’, and I realized what a powerful sales driver a TV series could be for books. So I plunged in. I designed and pitched a children’s TV show idea to the National TV channel, using the skills I had learned while making TV commercials over a 10 year period in advertising:
‘Space Knights, Defenders of the Galactic Realm’.
It took me over a year to write the synopsis and design all the characters, and I did all this to be fully prepared before the TV channel caught a glimpse of it.
To my shock, the TV channel bought it on sight. How often does that happen? From that moment on, the world turned upside down and the production of a 22 half hours TV series began to roll.
Furthermore, I designed everything from scratch - a mix of ‘space’ and ‘medieval’ in the same way that ‘The Jetsons’ had blended 1960s suburban America with the futuristic space icons of the day. This included sets, characters, and spacecraft. Here’s the evil antagonist – Mordread Darkvoid, the Space Knights arch-nemeisis.
Since then I’ve produced several children’s books, culminating in the bestseller designed for all age groups ‘The Merlin Mystery’- a love story and also a puzzle based on the Arthurian Legends. It sold over 350,000 copies.
The book even had a spectacular prize – ‘Merlin’s Wand’. The story of exactly how it was done can be found here. (link) http://BestsellerLabs.com/secret
2. What are three mistakes unpublished authors make that if avoided could help them be noticed by a publisher?
Mistake number one
A huge mistake that can cause a publisher to throw their manuscript in the trash, is for a writer to jump on the bandwagon of the latest popular trend, instead of writing about what they are genuinely interested in.
Currently it’s Vampires and Zombies, and books about those topics are becoming almost an epidemic. Publishers are swamped with Vampire manuscripts. My own editor, Jane Johnson at Harper Collins, who is also editor for Tolkien and George RR Martin, rolled her eyes recently at the flood of ‘Twilight’ clones and dystopian books. She referred to them as a dull glut.
But more importantly, there’s grave danger in chasing a trend, because if the subject has never been of interest to the writer then it’s extremely hard to be convincing. Passion for a genre – or lack of it – always shows through. When a writer works with a genre they’re genuinely interested in, the characters will be more colorful, stories will be more addictive, and the world created for readers more vibrant. It cannot be faked. Readers have a ‘sixth sense’ for these things.
The clear lesson here is to paddle your own canoe and be original.
Mistake Number Two
The second mistake in my view that makes some fiction writing unappealing to a publisher is to write just one ‘masterpiece’, a stand-alone work, closed off, with no follow up intended.
The bottom line is that both publishers and readers are looking for a book series. This also brings a substantial advantage for the author in terms of character creation and development, because once the characters get going they can continue to be crafted and refined.
Better still, it has a dramatic influence on sales because when writers finish reading one book, they wait in feverish anticipation for the next tale. i.e. the subsequent books essentially sell themselves.
The truth is that Publishers also know this, which is why they tend to choose authors who pitch book series over those who pitch one-off novels.
Now, I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t ever write single, one-off books. But if starting with just one book, I’d recommend every writer try to envisage how it might form part of a series – it could make a massive difference to their chances of success.
Mistake Number Three Lastly, I feel that the greatest mistake of all is a lack of commitment. Being a’real’ writer is not something that happens on a Sunday afternoon.
‘Word-smithing’ needs a driving force to keep going, and so the magic happens when it becomes a writer’s VOCATION. When it becomes who they are. Writers need to take the decision to have a full time affair with their muse.
But above all, create something of which they can be justifiably proud. This means writing to express, rather than to impress, which means writing from the heart. And the writing must come from you, not be a slavish imitation of another. There’s no doubt that copying is a great way to learn ‘how’. But eventually a writer’s uniqueness must appear.
3. What do you think about the self-publishing boom, and what do you think the future holds for the industry?
This is the greatest time ever for authors, no question, especially for authors who aren’t published yet.
We’re right at the start of a fiction book boom. This is a reading renaissance that’s been precipitated by the Amazon Kindle™ eBook, and the Apple iPad™. In fact I believe it’s the greatest technology shift since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and it’s also causing more books to be read than ever before.
Even better, there’s no longer any need for an author to float in limbo waiting to be ‘picked’. They’re now in control. There’s no more pitching needed, the shackles have been thrown off!. Authors can ‘go direct’, publish immediately at no cost, make good profits, and all without needing to go cap-in-hand to publishers who usually take two years to publish and rake in most of the profit. To me it’s akin to freedom from serfdom.
Another massive change is that books aren’t ‘sent back’ or pulped by book stores if they’re slow to sell, because on Amazon they last forever. This gives the author time to build readership for their book series by steadily using social media – all at virtually no cost.
In fact, ALL of the control is on the side of the author. There are so many promotional tools available. It used to be we had to stress out and try to appear on TV, hustle for radio or newspapers and magazines – just to be in the main media, or wait for a publisher to somehow give us a platform.
But now authors can do it themselves, with ease, using an author’s blog and Twitter to attract people to it. A blog is the new home base for their books, their brand and a place for their audience to gather.
4. On my blog, I often write about writers having a "soapbox idea" or that writing should have some kind of overarching message to humanity. What would be your "soapbox idea" personally as a writer and how would you best illustrate that idea to a reader?
The message that invariably finds its way into my work is: ‘Be true to yourself’.
In the end it’s vital for a writer to find their own ‘author voice’. It’s perfectly OK to copy while we learn – everyone does that. But after a while the unique ‘author voice’ needs to appear, and it’s precisely what attracts a growing readership.
In my book, ‘The Merlin Mystery’ this same ethos is central, illustrated by the lesson King Arthur is taught by Merlin. He demanded that Arthur become his ‘true’ self, the upholder of law and order, because being this would attract far more gold than his current warlike plundering of the surrounding countries. So Arthur ceased warfare, and created The Knights Of The Round Table as defenders of universal justice.
Within months, more gold than Arthur had ever seen poured in from all over the Kingdom in support. To mirror this idea, ‘The Merlin Mystery’ puzzle solution was a ‘spell’ that changed a personality from silver to gold, from lost to found, to becoming the true self.
People loved it, and this ethos is also why the publisher accepted the book and even gave me a $160,000 cash advance.
Any writer who dares to be the original, eccentric, quirky, unique individual they truly are, will stand out as a tower of strength — a welcome lighthouse amongst the sputtering lamplights of imitators.
5. What current project are you writing and could you tell us a little bit about it?
Storytelling has a magnetic attraction for me. In fact I had firmly put aside writing to teach authors everything I knew about how to get published and grow readership - to do what I have already done successfully.
But… I simply cannot resist the temptation. So I’ve gone back down the rabbit hole once again, and I’m developing a colourful new, serial work of fiction for children. For the time being I’m keeping the details hidden, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma...
All will be revealed about 18 months from now.