NTN: Chris Culver interviewed

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The Abbey by Chris Culver is one of those astounding ebooks that, very once in a while, sneeks up on the publishing world, taps it on the shoulder, and says, ‘I can do this myself.’  First released via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service in 2011, it rocketed up the Kindle charts and made the New York Times bestseller list. The book’s author has been signed by Sphere and it is out now as a paperback. Two further novels are on the way. With a vampire cult, Russian mobsters and a muslim detective with a drinking problem, The Abbey marked Culver out as a talent to watch out for. We just had to get him to tell us more for New Talent November.

Tell us how you came to write and publish The Abbey yourself.
I wrote The Abbey shortly after leaving graduate school. It was the fourth novel I finished and the first one I thought was actually publishable. At the same time, I recognised that I needed to start making a name for myself in academia instead of toiling away on unpublished novels. So The Abbey was my last hurrah.

With previous books, I wrote query letters to agents, and crossed my fingers in the hope that someone would love my books as much as I did. That didn’t happen. With The Abbey, I decided to take a different path. I hired my own editors, formatted and typeset the book myself, designed the cover. I published it in February 2011 in the US and sold two dozen books my first month. I was thrilled. My second month, I sold over a thousand. After that, the numbers snowballed and I started hitting major bestseller lists. To this day, I have no idea how that happened.

Did you know much about independent publishing and marketing yourself on the social media before you published?
I researched self-publishing a bit, but I knew next to nothing about social media. I still don’t. Other self-published writers give me incredulous stares when I say this, but I don’t do any marketing at all. I’m firmly of the belief that the best marketing tool is a good book. No matter how many tweets you do or how many Facebook friends you have, if you haven’t written a good book, you’re just wasting your time.

What are the main differences between being independently and commercially published?
The biggest difference is the level of control I have.  My publishers have done a terrific job, and they’ve given me a lot of say in the publishing process, but I don’t get the last word. I don’t get to choose the release schedule, don’t set the price, don’t choose my cover artist, don’t even choose my editor. I’ve worked with great people in both the US and the UK, but it feels strange not to have a bigger say in how the book is published.

The upside, however, is substantial. I have superb editorial support, distribution that I could only dream about as a self-published writer, marketing opportunities I wouldn’t have received otherwise.

Since The Abbey’s great success, what else have you been working on?
I’ve actually written two more Ash Rashid novels. The next is called The Outsider, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turned out. It’s a story of a hit-and-run investigation that goes awry. That will come out as a paperback in May. And I’ve only just finished the third book, which will likely come out in 2014.

Ash is one of the most fascinating cops I’ve come across recently, if a little rash and hot-headed at times. Is he going to calm down and quit drinking in the next book?
I’m glad you found him fascinating. And you’re right: he is hot headed and rash, especially in The Abbey. His job over the next couple of books will force him to become more introspective and realise that acting on impulses helps no one, especially himself.

Ash’s alcoholism, on the other hand, will be a part of every book I write with him. There will be times when he doesn’t drink, but he’ll never cease to be an alcoholic. It will be something he has to deal with for the rest of his life.

There are only a few other Muslim detectives in crime fiction, notably in the works of Barbara Nadel and Jakob Arjouni. Were you inspired by these? How did you research Muslim customs and beliefs?
I actually haven’t read Nadel or Arjouni. They sound interesting, though! I created an Islamic protagonist because I’m tired of reading books and seeing movies that portray all Muslims as terrorists or zealots. I know a lot of Muslims, and they’re all pretty normal.

I really enjoyed researching Islamic customs and beliefs for the book. Like a good academic, I first read a lot of books about Islamic history, the Quran and the Middle East. I also learned a lot by simply talking to Muslims about how they actually practice their faith. I’m continually amazed and thankful that so many people are willing to share their time and knowledge with a writer full of questions.

What advice do you have for would-be crime writers, who are perhaps struggling to come to terms with rejections?
Rejection sucks. There’s no polite way to say that. I empathise with those who struggle to deal with rejections. I know what it feels like to spend months or years on a book only to receive a two-line emailed rejection from a publisher or agent who couldn’t even spell my name correctly. But it’s part of the business. Every writer needs to learn how to cope with that. Publishing is a tough business, and it takes more than mere talent or literary acuity to succeed. It also takes luck, persistence, and intelligence. Keep at it and keep writing. A rejection is only permanent if you quit.

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