Mariah: Your website says you've been writing since you could hold a pen. Tell me about the first story you can remember writing.
Ben: Well, the first story I ever wrote is currently hiding deep in my hard-drive, and there’s probably where it will stay. I was about 11 when I wrote it. It was an odd book, I’ll tell you that, and I spent years on the thing. It was called the Kanandapur Gang, and was heavily influenced by Brian Jacques, who wrote a series of books about Redwall, a sandstone abbey populated by anthropomorphised forest creatures - hedgehogs, moles, mice, badgers, hares, all fighting off the evil forces of weasels, rats, ferrets, and stoats, to name a few. My book was much the same, only with Rhesus monkeys and jungle creatures, and set in the depths of a southern Indian jungle. There was fighting. There were feasts. There was lore. There was magic, and mystery, and personal struggles. It was a very innocent book, that’s for sure. Good vs evil unto the very end. Boy-hood romanticism with a handful of blood and guts for good measure, and enough fantasy to keep my imagination happy. I’ll never resurrect it, but I am immensely proud of it. It was over 100,000 words in length, after all! But it’s served its purpose now, and that was to lay the foundation for where I am today.
Mariah: You do everything yourself. You write, edit and even sketch your own maps. You manage tours, do your own marketing, build websites and attend book signings. How do you manage to do all that and run two websites, and have a life, and not go stark raving mad?
Ben: With a careful and balanced frame of mind! I do have a tendency to pile my to-do list high, but I’ve learnt (at my peril) to focus on the tasks that are most important first. Prioritising is key to not dropping the ball, in my opinion. That, and always having a structured to do list and a trusty calendar by your side. It does take a certain attitude and drive however. I’ve always had a bit of tenacity in me, which is lucky, and also a bitter-sweet propensity to obsess, which can be a friend one day and a foe the other. All of these things drive me on, keeping me working hard, but they keep me focused too. There have been difficult times when your heads spins and you feel just that little bit overwhelmed. All it takes is a moment to regroup. The fact is that self-publishing is a job, and a job means work. And if you want to make an impact, it means hard work. But as a wise man once said - nothing is worth having if it hasn’t been earned with hard work. That’s what drives me.
Mariah: You could have easily kept all your knowledge of the industry to yourself, yet in 2012 you launched Shelf Help, a website geared to help authors who want to self publish. Why was it important for you to reach out and help others?
Ben: There were two reasons for launching Shelf Help. The first was to solve a couple of problems. It can be hard to find clear, concise, and honest advice on self-publishing sometimes. It can also be hard to know which companies are trustworthy, and which ones are not. Or in other words, which ones will be good for you, and which ones will hold you back. Unfortunately for us, if we fall foul of one of these companies, or publish without doing a lot of research, it can cost time, money, and even our rights. Too many authors suffer from this, and I wanted to put that right.
Secondly, I wanted to share my method of self-publishing, something I’ve now come to call the Shelf Help Method. It stands for three things: affordability, professionalism, and a technology-driven approach. I found a way of attaining the high standards that are vital to us indies, while at the same time keeping costs very low. It cost me around £400 to publish my debut novel The Written, and I did it by exploiting digital platforms, using today’s technology sell books. It’s a method that is definitely working for me, so I wanted to share it with upcoming authors, to hopefully give them a good chance at reaching their goals.
Mariah: How old were you when you started writing The Written?
Ben: I started in 2008, so 21. I seemed like I had been sucked into a cycle of dead-end jobs, so for me it was a way to escape the mundanity and do something truly productive.
What is your favorite book in the Emaneska Series?
Ben: Now that’s a hard question! I’m extremely proud of the whole series, especially the two Dead Stars books. But there’s something about Pale Kings - it always pinches the top spot. I think it marked an important milestone for me. It seemed like a step up for both the plot and my own understanding of Emaneska. Whether by design or accident (you can never quite tell with writing), the ideas in Pale Kings were bigger, the world vaster, and its story bolder. That’s why I’m so proud of it - it shaped both the Series and me as a writer.
Mariah: What was the most challenging thing about writing a four volume fantasy series?
Ben: Consistency. The Series was released over a span of three years, so naturally as I moved on from each book, a few extra ideas would pop their little heads up along the way, often distracting me, or in a way tempting me, from the overall plot that I’d already decided on. The trick was selecting the best ideas, while trying to maintain the plot-lines and hints I’d put in The Written. That was hard enough, but when you factor in reader feedback and ideas expressed in reviews and emails, it can be hard to stay focussed on what the best path is.
Mariah: What advice do you have for other young writers?
Ben: I always have three main tips for young and upcoming writers.
Number 1 - be professional, in every thing you do. Every email you send, every book cover you source, every bit of editing you do, needs to be polished to a professional standard. It’s the only way you’ll stand out amongst the crowd and have a shot at making a living.
Number 2 - aim high, but be warned. By all means, aim to be a bestseller. I know I do. But at the same time, don’t assume you can make millions overnight. As I said earlier, writing, publishing and marketing are all hard work, and take a lot of effort. But let me assure you it’s very worthwhile, and there’s never been a better market for entrepreneurial authors.
Number 3 - write a bloody good book. This may be the last tip, but it’s also the most important. The success of any book, as it always has, rests on how good its story is - how much it can move a reader, and how many readers can it move. Your debut needs to be the very best you can make it. If that takes time and practice, then that’s what it takes. Bear this in mind when you’re planning your masterpiece!
And if you need any more tips, you can find them at Shelf Help!
Mariah: What projects are you working on now?
Ben: Right now, I’ve got quite a lot on the go. I’ve recently launched a brand new eBook store, just for indie authors. it’s called Libiro.
I’ve also got two new books on the way, one about self-publishing, and the other a strange standalone fantasy that I have high hopes for.
And lastly I’ve also got a graphic novel on the way! I’m very excited by the thought of it finally climbing onto the shelves. It’s being drawn right now, and we’re hoping to be able to launch it in December of this year. That’s all!