My guest this week is Scottish author Barry Hutchison, who has found great success as an indie author writing comedy science fiction and crime thrillers.
These two genres might seem to be unrelated, but to Barry it was about combining topics that interested him with a market that needed to be filled.
The result has been a successful transition from traditionally published author to indie, and he has not looked back.
Every week I interview a member of ALLi to talk about their writing and what inspires them, and why they are inspiring to other authors.
A few highlights from our interview:
On Writing for Traditional Publishers
Writing for publishers, you have to compromise on a lot of things. You know, you’ll say, “Right, I’ve got this idea for a book” and the publisher will go “Great! Can you put a unicorn in it? Because unicorns are really popular at the moment.” So then you have to try and find a way to squeeze a unicorn into it.
On How to Find Success as an Indie Publisher
But if you just focus on what the market wants, or you just write exclusively what you want to write, then it could be rewarding in all manner of creative ways, but I don’t think it will necessarily translate into a financial success. So if you can find that crossover point between what you love to write, and what there’s a market for, then you really set yourself up for success.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
Listen to My Interview with Comedy Science Fiction Author Barry Hutchinson
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. Every week I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them, and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this week is Scottish author Barry Hutchison, who has found great success as an indie author writing comedy science fiction and crime thrillers. These two genres might not seem to be related but to Barry, it was about combining topics that interested him with a market that needed to be filled. The result has been a successful transition from traditionally published author to indie and he has not looked back.
Barry Hutchison: Hi, I’m Barry Hutchison. I have been a full-time author now for going on 11 years, the first nine or 10 of which was spent exclusively writing children’s books for traditional publishers including Harper Collins, Penguin, Random House and various others. And then in 2016, late 2016, I discovered the wonders of indie publishing. And I haven’t looked back since. I also write comics. I’m currently working on the New Power Rangers comic at the moment, which is, which is quite interesting. And I’ve written some stuff for TV as well.
Howard Lovy: Barry, like many young readers, owes his love of books, and even his starting writing them to a kindly librarian who took him under her wing.
Barry Hutchison: Well, I was actually nine years old when I decided that I wanted to be an author. I used to read a lot of comics when I was younger, and my teacher in school didn’t approve of comics. And I remember really vividly her taking us to the library one day, it was a new library that just opened close to our school and she kind of basically attempt to kind of humiliate me, I think in front of the librarian and by telling the librarian that I only liked reading comics, and the librarian, God bless her, went to the back of the library and came back with this enormous stack of comic books.
And I would enter that library every day to read more comics. And as I was working my way through the pile, the librarian got to know me, and she got to know what I like to read. So she started giving me books to read as well, kind of along the same lines of those stories that I was reading in the comics. And I started getting hooked on books, and I was going to the library, and I would ask her for books on you know, whatever topic I was most excited about that week. So I would go in and say, you know, “I want a book about about robots.” And she would find me a book on robots. I’d say “I want a book on monsters,” and she’d find me a book on monsters.
And I went in one day and I was going through a phase where I was obsessed with ninjas. I don’t quite know where it came from. But I went into the library, and bearing in mind this is a small library in the Highlands of Scotland. I said “I want some books on ninjas.” And she said, “I don’t have any books on ninjas.” And I remember being devastated but she said, “Wait there a moment.” And she went back to this kind of mystical room at the back of the library. And then she came back out. And she handed me a notebook and said, “Go and write a book about ninjas.”
And I hand wrote this terrible story about ninjas. But when I finished it, she wrote my name on the spine and she put it on the shelf along with the other books. And you know, in movies when there’s that sort of that moment of, you know, awakening and there’s that heavenly chord and the light comes down. That’s what it felt like seeing my book on the shelf next to these other books. I was nine years old at the time, and that was the moment that I decided I was going to write for a living.
Howard Lovy: That librarian, he said, changed his life and put him on the path he’s on now. But that path took many twists and turns and false starts before he finally landed a publishing contract. Well, Barry tells it best.
Barry Hutchison: Well, I actually started when I was 17, I wrote a film script for a film called Curse of the Bog Women, which was a comedy horror set in the Highlands, in a fictional version of the Highlands of Scotland and I put that online, there was, it was just that point when the internet was going to start to find its feet a bit and there were some writers groups popping up and I put the script online for a critique and an American independent producer saw it and optioned it.
And you know, being 17 I thought, “Well, this is great. This is, you know, I’m going to be rich and famous, I’m going to, you know, the rest of my life is gonna be plain sailing.” It didn’t quite work out that way, the film never went into production but I sold another film script or had it optioned at least by a British production company and I thought “This time fame and fortune awaits.” And then that company went bankrupt and lost all of its money. And at that point, I decided to kind of stop writing film scripts before I, you know, made the entire film industry collapse.
So I started writing, started kind of doing articles for magazines, and then I started getting, it wasn’t enough to pay all my bills, so I had to get some proper jobs and it was maybe eight or nine years before I decided to kind of try again and I kind of lost momentum. And I was feeling quite miserable because I’ve always been been quite a creative person, and it’s been a few years not being creative at all.
And a friend of mine who is sadly no longer with us now suggested that I try writing a children’s book, and I had come up with this idea for a horror series about a boy whose imaginary friend when he’s four, comes back when he’s 12 and tries to kill him in a variety of horrible ways and I pitched it to an agent here in Scotland, and she picked up and she took it to Harper Collins. And that was the first publisher that had seen the manuscript and and they came back after three or four months or so, and said, “We’re really interested in this. Could you make it a series of six books?”
And I kind of, without any hesitation, said, “Of course, no problem.” And they said, “Great. Can you get us the next five outlines for two o’clock this afternoon? We have a meeting about it.” So I said, “Yep, no problem.” And then I had to sit there and figure out what the next five books in this series were going to be and just write a single paragraph about them. So I did that, sent it off. And then lo and behold, they offered the six book deal. So it was incredibly easy. After all those years of it just kind of seemed to luck into it really.
Howard Lovy: So from there, he embarked on a traditional publishing career, doing more children’s books for Harper Collins and other smaller publishers. He discovered that the smaller the publisher, the better his experience as an author. From there, he thought about going about as small as you can get: going indie. “Nobody cares about your book as much as you do,” Barry says. Besides his teenage vision of being Scrooge McDuck, jumping into piles of cash just did not turn into reality. He finally decided to go indie after spending time talking to school kids in Scotland about how to publish a book. He realized he really didn’t know how.
Barry Hutchison: I thought, “I will self publish a book and I’ll see what comes up. I’ll learn the process that way. And then I can deliver that in school.” So I self published my Space Team, the first book of my Space Team series, which I wrote quite quickly I wrote down about three weeks. I thought, you know, kids don’t have money. So how will they self publish? They’ll probably self publish on Kindle because it’s free and you can just upload your document and it’s nice and easy.
So I published on Kindle and almost immediately, I started seeing sales coming in and within maybe two or three weeks, without any real kind of marketing because I had no budget to spend on it. So I designed the cover myself, I’d edited it myself and I, without any budget to spend on marketing, I started to see quite a steady stream of sales coming in. And I was at 99 cents to start with. So I thought I’ll try putting the price up to $2.99 fully expecting it to die a death then and sales actually went up slightly. So within that kind of month that I realized that there was potential here for this to actually, you know, do okay, so I thought “I’ll try writing a second book and see what happens.”
And when I wrote a second book, sales of the first came up by three or four times, and sales of the second start picking up and I realized that there was a lot of potential here to write the kind of books that I was, I was really interested in myself because a lot of the time when you’re writing for publishers, you have to compromise on a lot of things. You know, you’ll say, “Right, I’ve got this idea for a book” and the publisher will go “Great! Can you put a unicorn in it? Because unicorns are really popular at the moment.” So then you have to try and find a way to squeeze a unicorn into it.
So here was an opportunity to write the sort of books that I wanted to write without any other interference and potentially make some money from it. So I started writing. There are now 12 books in the Space Team series and there’s a spinoff, three book spinoff series. There’s a collection of short stories. So I did those and it just kept, the income kept going and going up and up and the fan base kept building around it.
Howard Lovy: And that is when he went full force into indie, and not just books. The fans were demanding merchandise, audiobooks, t shirts, what was it about his books that resonated so well with readers? Barry said he found a void that needed to be filled. Science Fiction sometimes tends to take itself too seriously. Barry wanted to have fun and give readers some laughs.
Barry Hutchison: Because they’re comedy science fiction and they’re first and foremost comedy, the science part is really tenuous, you know, there is no there is no real science behind it. But because there wasn’t a lot, you know, obviously there was Douglas Adams with The Hitchhiker’s Guide Books. Over here, we had a TV series and there are a couple of novels based in it called Red Dwarf, which was comedy science fiction. But other than that a lot of science fiction is very kind of dry and takes itself very seriously.
So I don’t think there was a big market. I don’t think there was a market that was being served for comedy science fiction, that kind of light hearted sci fi and Guardians of the Galaxy had just done really well in the cinema. So that sort of tone was kind of what I had used in Space Team is that sort of slightly ridiculous or often completely ridiculous adventures in space with this crew who gradually become more complex as the books go on. So I think it was just that being something a bit different. And one thing I was really keen on, I think it comes to my comics background as well, was having a just a little speech bubble on the cover.
So and the cover for the first book, the main character is kind of falling from through space and it looks like he’s been left behind and there’s a little speech bubble that says, “Haha, guys, real mature!” or something like that. And everybody told me “Don’t put a speech bubble on the cover because it is not what novels have, you know, it’s what it’s what comics and graphic novels have” but I really loved that speech bubble and I left it on and the number of people who have since told me that they picked it up because they had never seen a book with a speech bubble on the cover before kind of told me that I had made the right decision.
Howard Lovy: Barry’s Space Team books are meant to be light hearted and funny, but that does not mean they cannot serve a serious purpose. Sometimes laughter is exactly what you need to make it through your day, or a rough period in life.
Barry Hutchison: Last year, there was a day when that kind of made me reevaluate everything. I got two emails through the same day and one was from a woman who told me that her family had come running through to her that day, wondering what was going on because she had been reading one of my Space Team books, and she had laughed and she laughed out loud. And he said it was the first time they had heard her laugh out loud since February of that year when her teenage daughter was killed.
And the email completely kind of caught me off guard and it kind of reduced me to tears at the time actually, it just blew me away thinking that this absolute nonsense that, which it is, you know, you put it out into the world and you don’t realize the difference that is making to people’s lives. Because that same day the other email that I got was from was from a gentleman in the US and he’d been listening to the audio books and he said, “I’m emailing to let you know that this morning I was going to kill myself. And then I was determined to hear the end of this audiobook.”
Because the narrator of the audiobook Phil Thron is a comedy genius, I could listen to his audio books and I laugh out loud at them, almost forgetting that I’ve had any involvement in the books. So this guy had listened to the audiobook and wanted to finish it, an email to say, it asked me to pass on to Phil as well, that by the end of that day, he decided that he was going to get help, and he had some kind of drug problems and he hadn’t seen his children in a while and he was going to get help. And he emailed me a few months later to say that he had got that help. And he was getting back seeing his children again.
And so the likes of those two emails, so you know, like I say, it’s, when I when I write it, I go, “What would be funny? What’s a funny thing that can happen here?” You know, when I write it to amuse myself, and then put it out, but you don’t realize that whatever you’re putting out into the world, whether it’s, you know, books, whether it’s music, whether it’s art, whoever, has an effect far beyond anything you can ever kind of have any understanding of, I think.
Earlier this year, I decided I was going to write a crime thriller set here in the Highlands of Scotland. It was an idea I’ve had for, kind of taken over my head for a while, my daughter and I, a few years ago, took our dog for a walk on this kind of remote track, which is about 10 miles from our house, and the dog ran into the trees and wouldn’t come back. And I was shouting for her and she wasn’t coming back. So I told my daughter to stay where she was and I would go in and find the dog in the trees.
So I went and I was gone for a minute and a half, I came back out and my daughter was gone. And I had that sort of, panic, this cold, clammy panic that someone had taken her, this feeling that we’re miles from anywhere, there was no, you know, I could see a mile in each direction along the track, and she had just vanished and it was the most horrendous, heart stopping moment of my life. And then my daughter popped up from behind the bush laughing her head off and she’d been hiding on me.
But that, by the time we were driving home, that feeling of “What if, you know, what if someone had taken her? What if I couldn’t find here?” was kind of going over and over and over in my head and by the time we got home I had the start of this crime thriller worked out.
Howard Lovy: His pen name for the crime thriller, JD Kirk. And while the name Kirk is a Scottish word for church, Barry, of course is paying homage to a certain famous starship captain. Again, though, what Barry was doing is filling a void. And while crime fiction is a crowded genre, there is not a great deal of Scottish crime fiction that takes place in the Highlands. And filling a void is a strategy that any author can learn.
Barry Hutchison: I think there are an endless number of those voids out there. I mean, the, like I say, crime fiction, the crime fiction books are nothing particularly different or unique, they’re just set somewhere different. So there are there are loads of these kind of hungry markets waiting to be tapped into. So doing that bit of research is important.
I also think, you know, there’s no point in finding that market if you’re not interested in writing for it. So it’s going with your heart a bit as well. You know, I loved writing Space Team because it’s comedy science fiction. And it’s right up my street in terms of what I like to read. But I really wanted to tell this crime story as well. And since working on that I’ve fallen in love with those characters too. So I love writing those books as well. So it’s finding that crossover point between where there’s a market and what you like to write.
And I think if you if you just focus on one of those, you’re kind of potentially doomed to failure. You might strike it lucky. But if you just focus on what the market wants, or you just write exclusively what you want to write, then it could be rewarding in all manner of creative ways, but I don’t think it will necessarily translate into a financial success. So if you can find that crossover point between what you love to write, and what there’s a market for, then you really set yourself up for success.