Traditionally Published: James Wallace Birch on Experience, Advice, and the Road from Indie
We recently had the awesome experience of chatting with our friend, author James Wallace Birch on his upcoming novel. After experiencing success via the independent publishing route with his debut book, his second novel was picked up by a publishing company and is due out to the public on April 10th. Here, James shares his story, process, and experience with traditional publication.
1. Thanks so much for joining us! Give us a little bit of background about yourself and your writing history.
First off, thank you so much for this amazing opportunity to be interviewed by Loud Coffee Press. You all are some of the funnest, friendliest, most engaging people in the literary journal world today. I truly love all you are doing to support indie writing. It is an honor for me to be interviewed.
**Editor's note: WE are honored that you think we're cool!**
The first story I ‘wrote’ was just in my head. I used to stare out the window during long bus rides home during school. So I would make up these intense plots and spend the entire bus ride home imaging out a story, making it up as I was going along. From there, I couldn’t stop. Being painfully shy, being able to invent people and follow their lives was alluring. I tried to write a novel in high school about a World War II veteran who had been shot and was on a beach dying. The entire story was supposed to be his memories of his childhood coupled with hallucinations and things; inspired by Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. In college, I wrote half of a novel about college kids who get in over their heads with gun smugglers. Neither went anywhere. But I learned a ton from each experience.
Several years later, I started on what would become my first novel. I put it down for a few years, feeling like a failure. Where was the story going? Why was the protagonist so caustic? Here was another project that I didn’t have the stamina to finish. Or so I thought. Suddenly several years later, I found myself with time on my hands and I picked up my first draft and read through it. It was better than I thought and there was something about it. I couldn’t let it die. Yes, the protagonist was caustic and narrow-minded, but there was a real lesson to teach from him. I saw that our world was just like the main character - divisive, self-assured - and that our world was becoming more divided and competitive than ever before. I wanted to explore what that said and what the lessons were. So I wrote the second half and then reworked the whole thing. That became my first novel, Discontents: The Disappearance of a Young Radical which was self-published in 2011.
On April 10, 2020, my second novel, If You Find Emory Walden, comes out. It is available now for pre-order on most online book retailers’ websites.
The characters in both novels overlap a bit, but the second novel is not a sequel to the first. You don’t need to read the first novel to understand and enjoy the second novel. That was important to me in writing the second novel. I wanted it to be able to stand alone, but to be enriched by the first novel if readers happened to read them both. I always loved how Bret Easton Ellis and J.D. Salinger created entire worlds that spanned different stories. So that, the more you read of the writer, the more you knew of the world.
"What a better place to find stories than a graveyard of dreams?"
I grew up in the shadow of Washington, DC. That city plays an important role in both of my novels, because it is such a unique mix of power, ambition, and socio-economic disparity. It is its own little insulated world and, funny enough, it thinks it runs the rest of the country. DC shapes people more than they shape it; though many try to shape it. People don’t go to DC because they want a peaceful, quiet life. They go there to make money or gain power. But most of the books you read about DC are about spies, presidents, the CIA, and the like. That’s not 99% of the people who live in DC. I wanted to write about the part of DC and the surrounding areas that few people are writing about: The people that DC paves right over; the people the DC we all know from TV and books doesn’t even know exist. I also wanted to write about the people that bring their aspirations to DC. My characters are haunted by DC in some way because it’s hard to live here and not be haunted by this place. There are lots of stories about people who go to LA and LA eats them up. But there are few stories about people eaten up by DC. Yet the two places are one in the same - a destination for dreams, both realized and unrealized. What a better place to find stories than a graveyard of dreams?
Also, I’m one of those people who can’t listen to new music. Like most of my friends, I’m stuck in the era I grew up in: 90s and 200s music - ska, pop punk, emo, and all that stuff. That stubbornness has always impacted my writing.
2. What made you decide to seek traditional publication for your second book, and how did this experience differ from your experience with self-publication?
My first novel, Discontents: The Disappearance of a Young Radical, was self-published as an ebook in 2011 under the title Discontents, without the subtitle (A little indie author trivia!). At that time, Amazon did not have print on demand (POD). So I published it as an ebook on a few sites such as Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Google Books and Amazon. The self-publishing culture was much different then and centered mostly on Goodreads.com and Smashwords. There were blogs, too, of course. Some years later, Amazon enabled print on demand paperback. So I went back and published the novel, moving entirely over to Amazon. I noticed that about 95% of my sales were coming through Amazon. And there are some perks to going exclusively to Amazon such as being able to do Kindle Unlimited, which lets people who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited read your book for free. You then get a royalty for how many pages they read. Also, you can do promotions that allow you to drop the Kindle price. So, in early 2018 I published the paperback version of Discontents, adding the subtitle to help better articulate what the story was about.
The entire tenor of the first novel is based on the presupposition that the book is self-published. It is built into the plot. So, it was the right thing to do. The premise is that I (James Wallace Birch) received the manuscript of my missing friend, Emory Walden, who asked me to publish his memoir for him.
For my second novel, If You Find Emory Walden, I knew I was writing a very different story. While the first book has developed a cult-like following, I wanted to write something that felt less like a band cutting a demo tape and more like their first studio album. So, I decided to pursue traditional publishing with the second novel. I’ll explain that process in question 3 below. As to how traditional publishing differs from self-publishing, here are some ways that stick out to me:
● Time - I submitted my second novel to publishers in early 2019 if my memory serves me. It is being published on April 10, 2020. So one must have patience because finding a publisher and the publishing process takes time, as it should.
● Quality - The production quality and the editing are worlds apart. I did my best with Discontents in terms of art, editing, etc. but let’s be honest - it could use some work. I am thrilled with the production quality and editing of my brand new novel, If You Find Emory Walden, which is being published by Beacon Publishing Group. I had thought that Discontents looked sharp in paperback form. But when I got my hands on the paperback of If You Find Emory Walden the other day, I realized that the two aren’t in the same league.
"I've got that punk aesthetic at heart. I've always been a DIY kind of person..."
● Control - I’ve got that punk aesthetic at heart. I’ve always been a DIY kind of person, even when it has been to my own detriment. I’ve always felt like control is empowering; but I see now that in some ways liking to be in total control can be very limiting. With Discontents, I have full control over everything. If I wanted to make a change to the book right now, I could do it, upload it, and the book would be changed on Amazon within a few hours. However, when working with a publisher, you must give up some control to get the benefit of their experience, expertise, and buy into their vision.
● Distribution - A publisher is going to have a much better distribution network, meaning my second novel has a greater chance of people finding it at bookstores, libraries, and online sellers.
3. How did you go about finding a publisher for your book?
I contacted a friend who published a literary journal. The friend sent me a few links to check out for independent publishers. This one seemed the most comprehensive so I stuck with it.
I did some Googling and read up on how to submit to a publisher. Using that knowledge, I put together my synopsis. I used the book How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis to help me, then I tapped into the Facebook group for the book and got some feedback. I used that feedback to tweak the synopsis a bit then re-submitted it. The group seemed pleased. I also asked a few friends for feedback. With my new synopsis and a brief author bio I wrote, I got to work.
I created a spreadsheet and started and worked my way through the alphabet of the publishers on the lists I had. I told myself I would submit the book to 20 publishers.
"For each submission, I tailored the pitch to the publisher. I spent time looking over what they published, who they had published..."
I tracked where I submitted and when I heard back, if I heard back at all. For each submission, I tailored the pitch to the publisher. I spent time looking over what they published, who they had published, and so forth. I used that information to talk about why I thought my work was good for that publisher. I didn’t submit my novel unless I really felt that it would be a good fit for my book. I got a few rejections, then some interest (that is, I was asked to send additional chapters of my book and chatted with some folks), but then I got an offer all before I ever made it to 20 submissions. I felt the publisher I had the offer from was a great fit for me and for the book and moved forward.
"The editor... helped prevent some of the characters, both big and small as coming across as forced or contrived."
4. Did the publisher supply an editor for your book? What was it like working with an editor? How much of your story were you able to maintain, and was there any “give” in terms of what the publisher wanted to see in the story?
Yes. I was able to maintain the vast majority of the story. A few plot holes were pointed out for me to close. The biggest challenge, for me, was navigating some of the slang and things that I wanted characters to speak in. I realized I had overdone some of it, and was happy to have the editor tone it back some. I think it helped prevent some of the characters, both big and small, as coming across as forced or contrived.
5. Take us through the process of cover art. How did this happen for your current book? How much of a say did you have in this process?
I was asked for some ideas for cover art and shared a few, including some examples I found online that I felt portrayed the vibe I was going for. I wanted something dark, solitary, and mysterious. One of them was an empty gas station. I won’t give away why, but it has something to do with the plot. One day, I was scrolling through Instagram and one of my favorite artists, Peter Cizmadia posted one of his pieces of an empty, snowy gas station. I immediately knew that was it. That had to be the cover. So I messaged Pete and he was extremely gracious and supportive of the project. I can’t thank him enough because everyone who has seen it has remarked how fantastic of art work it is. I am extremely thankful to be able to associate my work with his in this project. From there, the publisher worked on the text for the cover, the spine, and the back. I loved what the publisher did with the yellow. We made the tiniest tweaks, and zam! I could not be happier with it. The cover sets a tone for the book that I think matches perfectly.
6. Did the publisher give you any tips on marketing your book? What amount of marketing are you expected to do?
Yes. We talked a lot about online presence and social media. I think today, all authors are expected to develop an online presence and promote their work. Publishers and authors both play a role, coming together for a stronger promotional outcome.
7. What tips can you give someone new to traditional publishing? What resources did you use, or might you recommend to someone interested in pursuing the traditional publishing route?
The things that were most helpful to me are:
1. The book How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis and the accompanying Facebook page.
3. Beta Readers - I had a select few people who have really helped me in improving my work. I am forever thankful to them. One person in particular I want to thank is the writer Warren Davis.
4. Goodreads and social media - Having my first book on Goodreads and already having gained traction through my first book on Goodreads and Instagram, I believe, helped me stand out as an author when submitting my book to publishers.
We’d like to ask you some lightning round questions:
a. Drink you write with, morning and evening:
In the morning, French pressed coffee. Usually, a medium roast. All thriller (beans), no filler (sugar, milk). Okay, that’s a bit of a lie. I add chicory to my coffee for its health benefits. Try it!
At night. An IPA, hopefully from the Pacific Northwest because they grow the best hops and brew the best beer.
b. Name two bands that never go out of style:
Just about every pop punk band or ska band I listened to in the late 90s and early 2000s. They are a huge inspiration in If You Find Emory Walden,as bands from this era play a central role in the story. But, just two? Okay. I’ll bite:
1. Saves The Day
2. Jimmy Eat World
c. Do you have a hidden talent? Would you tell us what it is?
I think patience is my hidden talent. I can wait like no one’s business. It took me seven years or so to write a second novel. Then, when the inspiration came to me, I sat down and wrote it. If I was a life coach, my tip to other writers would be: Be patient because all good things come in time. Let the story come to you.
d. Best book you’ve read in the last six months:
My protagonists tend to be introverted, outcasts. We share that in common. So I try to tell the story of people who suffer from that sense of estrangement to the buzzing madness around them.
This book has taught me so much about myself by showing how normal and common introverts are, despite society’s preference for outcasts. Introverts have a subtle power that we should value more in society. So, now I need to rethink everything. And isn’t that wonderful thing to do?
e. Favorite quarantine pastime:
Great question! Walks. I love walks. They are my therapy. The opportunity to get outside and go for a walk is what keeps me grounded. I just make sure I walk in places where few people are; like fields, empty streets, forests.
f. Where can we find you on social media?
Thanks so much for the interview, James! (We've been walking on empty streets, too.) Best of luck on your new book!