GR: First off can you tell me a little bit about you and what you do?
AC: I'm a novelist, poet and teacher from Australia and I first got into writing and publishing via lyrics in high school in the 90s. I remember tracing a path back from The Doors and Pink Floyd, to see who Jim and Roger enjoyed, who they talked about and it was a lot of Beat poets amongst their favourites. That got me started in poetry, which I still write and publish, but for fiction the start was probably The Hobbit in primary school. I have a strong memory of my grade four teacher reading my class that story, right down to the colour of the carpet!
GR: How funny, The Hobbit is my "I became a reader thanks to this book" strong memory too! But for me, it was my Dad reading to me and my two older siblings every night as we all sat curled up on the same bed.
And as a novelist, you're self-published, is that correct?
AC: Yep. I cancelled my fiction contract with a small publisher a few years ago and have charged ahead since. It's a huge amount of work but also pretty fun.
GR: What genre do you write?
AC: Mostly stuff under the Speculative Fiction umbrella - a lot of fantasy, some horror, a bit of steampunk and cyberpunk too (though the cyberpunk is under a pen-name for now).
GR: How many books have you published?
AC: Around 15 or so. They range from novellas to novels, so some are a lot quicker to write.
GR: Also, you mentioned poetry - is that self-published chapbooks as well, or in literary journals and the like?
AC: Most of my poetry is now through Ginninderra Press out of the ACT. I used to publish a lot through mags and journals in the lead up to release of a collection, as it used to be the best way to build an audience, but I suspect audiences have been shifting online even more rapidly in the last three years. I've really slowed down with my poetry since fiction kinda stole me away but for the lead-up to my seventh collection I'm looking to spend about 50/50 of my efforts on print journals and online publications.
AC: Yeah, it really does. If I think about to the markets that were around in 08/09/10 so many seem to have gone or have had their thunder perhaps stolen a little by social media. A platform like Medium seems to combine the best parts of a blog/online mag and twitter, say. So I used to simply google phrases like "poetry submissions open" and filter by date/Australia. That search returns so few results compared to five years ago now, it seems. I used to watch places like writingWA or the Vic Writers' Centre too. Now I mostly chat to poet friends or use social media to track calls for submissions.
I remember mostly learning from those centres or - often - rejections. Some of the bigger journals down here were kind enough to give me pointers around errors in my submission technique, which was ace. Some simply stuffed a 'please subscribe' note into the envelope.
GR: I suppose over time you'd return to many of the same journals as well, and build up a bit of a database of places.
AC: Definitely! I was doing that for a while and it's great to have their support. In time, editors often change and then landing a place in the same market isn't as easy - but that's good too. Keeps you hungry, I reckon.
GR: Do you use websites specific to finding markets to submit to (e.g. duotrope, the submission grinder) once you have a piece ready, or do you start with the submission call and write to suit it?
AC: I tend to end up writing a heap of poetry over a month or so and then start looking around for open markets because I think I'm really terrible at writing to a submission call
GR: With the novels and novellas, why did you decide to go the self-publishing route rather than staying with your traditional small publisher?
AC: I found that I could work harder on my career for myself, than they could. And that makes sense too - I wasn't the only author they had to look after, so it wouldn't be fair for me to expect them to be able to focus on me as much as I would be able to focus on me. Financially, it was a better decision for me too - perhaps the only decision when it came to earning the supplementary income needed to support my family. But I really do miss the team environment and the support I had with my publisher, Snapping Turtle were great.
GR: What aspects of working on your career were you unable to do for yourself while you had a publisher? Sorry if that sounds obtuse! I mean that regardless of how one is published, much of the marketing side of things falls to the individual author, so presumably it's more than that. Is the editing, cover design, release date etc moving faster now that you're going it alone? And obviously as you say, you'd get a much bigger portion of the profits now
AC: No, not obtuse at all
Absolutely, all my publishers over the years, whether it's poetry or fiction, have expected me to do marketing. But I did learn techniques from them, along with how to write some marketing copy, like blurbs. But perhaps above and beyond all of that was the developmental editing and long-term feedback I received from the publisher. That really developed me as a writer too - so in that case I was glad not to have to do it myself.
But not being able to react quickly to promotional opportunities, or execute rapid price changes and as you mentioned, quicker release dates were a factor. Running my own micro-business, as I think all professional self-publishers tend to do I guess, means having that control but also the speed and prioritising for release schedules, that naturally, it's impossible to get with a publisher who has other authors who rightfully also deserve the publisher's time.
GR: Interesting, thanks for expanding.
You talked about finances, and I'm not asking for exact figures or anything, but does your writing bring in a reliable income (however small or big), or is it more of an irregular bonus?
AC: The last couple of years it has, yeah. Due to the payment schedule of Amazon and my other distributor, IngramSpark, I can accurately predict what I'll receive at the end of each month. That will fluctuate based on the amount of marketing I do of course, but if I push one of my fantasy series pretty hard in March, say, I know pretty confidently what I'll be paid 2 months later when Amazon has done its accounting. That's only possible because Amazon has excellent 'real-time' data feeding in to me. I usually know within an hour of running a promo, whether it was effective because of the constant updates I get from them. IngramSpark is slower to report, I might hear back at the end of a month about a promo I ran at the beginning.
GR: Being self-published, and presumably print-on-demand and/or ebook, your books would be available to an international audience straight away. Do you still feel a part of an Australian marketplace first? Does your nationality have much impact on what you write or who your target audience is?
AC: Yep. And good question... I'm not sure, overall. Definitely with poetry I feel that way. In terms of the fiction, I write stories set in Australia and use Australian-English and my audiences in the US, UK and CA don't seem to mind. Sometimes I believe my Australian-centric stories have a novelty value for international readers actually. And since I also write 'secondary world fantasy', nationality might not come through as much in those stories? The bulk of my readership is probably in the US due to the size of the market... but I'm not sure what that makes me as a writer.
GR: What about in your reading? Do you pay much attention to the nationality of an author when looking for a new book to read?
AC: Sometimes, yeah. When I want to read a fav it tends to be whatever's already on the shelf, so lots of Oz, US and UK writers tend to already be there. Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere' is always out, no matter where I'm living. But when I feel like something different I try to find a list of a 'overlooked gems' from any given genre, and that tends to bring up writers that I haven't come across yet. Invariably, many of the writers on those lists will be from non-English language speaking countries because I think, especially in SFF (Science-Fiction/Fantasy) circles, works by Western writers are held up first.
GR: That's interesting, I wonder how much of that has been a traditional problem of distribution that the web and ebooks is giving us an opportunity to change.
AC: I think ebooks definitely make a positive difference to that problem, yeah. It can be very democratising, huh? I know without that option, I'd never be able to afford to read all the fiction I'd like to. The cost of importing a paperback from overseas, is harsh in Australia, especially with the GST in place. But ebooks are cheaper and almost instant.
GR: To change direction a bit, you've said you're also a teacher. How do you fit writing in around the rest of your life - are you teaching full-time?
AC: Teaching full-time, yep. It's a struggle sometimes because so much of teaching is being creative, it's hard to then go home and do that all over again with writing. What I've found helps is getting really far away from teaching, mentally, before I try and write. So that might be a nap, or some sort of labour - mowing the lawn. Watching a movie, playing guitar, just something to reset the mind. I've also been writing every day (pretty much) for the last 15 years so I have a pretty solid routine I think.
GR: I’m not familiar with the ways the Victorian system is different from NSW, but who chooses the books set for study? Is it up to individual teachers/departments?
AC: It can be yeah - the English department will choose some set texts for certain year levels in my school and most others, I'd say, and there's some flexibility within that too, but once the kids hit senior school there's a narrow list of texts set by the curriculum authority. Presumably to make it easier for examiners to mark thousands of exam papers.
Same for you?
GR: Yes, much the same. Year 12 have a list of set texts to be studied in relation to set topics/themes/ideas, and year 11 tends to study either past HSC texts or ones that closely relate to similar topics. But in the junior school the faculty agrees on what the topics are and either the individual teacher or the head of department will pick a set text within that.
What kinds of things influence your decision to teach or not teach a certain book?
AC: When I get a chance to choose, the chief factor is probably whether the book has a chance of fostering a love of reading itself. And sometimes that's a really slim margin. I know English Curriculum loves enshrining texts that have thematic or language-based value, but that doesn't always mean a book that will get a young teenager excited about the act of reading.
For instance (and I know he's an easy target in some ways) I'm not always thrilled to teach Shakespeare in *junior* school. Any of the great themes in his texts are present elsewhere too, in a story students might better be able to relate to - or just as importantly - be able to 'enter' without me having to guide them so often. Part of the joy of reading for me is the idea of discovery - which is often best left to the reader to experience alone, I feel. Having said that, some of my juniors have loved Shakespeare over the years and so will my future students.
I tend to get a better response from something like 'Tomorrow When the War Began'
GR: That makes sense (and I do think we've begun to teach Shakespeare simply because it is Shakespeare, and not because the plays themselves teach something the students can't access as well elsewhere.)
Do the students buy the texts, or are they kept at the school? Do you find finances and budgeting forces you to continue to teach certain books that you’ve already bought, or is there a bit more freedom in trying new things each year or two?
AC: Definitely! I think the biggest problem with Shakespeare is that I can never do it justice with a book and a classroom - students need to see if performed and that's just not in the reach of every school budget, huh? Which feeds in to your next question - that's very much a factor. If the library already has several class sets of a text, that's a plus for an English department. In senior school we have a bigger expectation for students to buy a copy of the text.
GR: What about censorship - are there any restrictions on what you’re allowed to teach or themes that are a no-no (e.g. coming-out stories, books featuring domestic abuse or suicide)?
AC: Nothing that I've come up against just yet - however, I was looking at 'Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe' and wondered how it would be received. In the past, I've found that if a student was uncomfortable with a text (and the school knew about it in advance) I put something different in place for them to learn - which is a shame when it means important issues are sometimes sidestepped. But nor do I want to cause harm by pushing for something I know folks aren't comfortable with. It's a hard balance to strike, isn't it? A school is such a complex, interconnected community.
GR: Absolutely, and in the end students are minors so it has to come down to what the parents will allow, too. Is there a difference between the kinds of books you might recommend to a student and the kinds of books you would teach an entire class?
AC: Very true, yeah. I think so - after we get to know them after a year or two it seems more natural to suggest something they might benefit from that isn't actually on the curriculum. Whereas, something that the school has already vetted is usually a much better choice for a whole class, yeah.
GR: Are there any great books you can think of that are unsuitable for studying (and if so, why)?
AC: That's a tough one definitely - for instance, considering how utterly horrifying something like Lord of the Flies really is, sits quite comfortably on many school text lists... so it'd have to be something that really ends up being divisive, despite its strengths. Hmmm... I can't think of anything off the top of my head, that's a tough one. Anything come to mind for you?
GR: No, but I'm of the "it's better to have the tough conversations in a classroom, guided and mediated by an adult than on their own" school of thought ;-) I'm sure there are many who would disagree and rather not expose their children to certain texts.
AC: Yep, same - sometimes those conversations need a referee, huh?
GR: I'll wrap up in a minute, but if I can just ask 2 more...
Being self-published yourself, you’d know that there can be some high quality books out there by self-published writers or from smaller presses. Yet it still seems that pretty much all classroom texts come from a major publisher. Why do you think that is? Have you ever come across an indie novel that you’ve wanted to teach (and if so, did you get to teach it)?
AC: Another tough question! But I can definitely think of one text - it might suit primary school better than high school, however, but it's called 'Cora and the Nurse Dragon' by HL Burke and I loved it. It hits all the marks for quality and content for me, but it might be just a little too 'young' for Year 7. Maybe there's a Department of Education policy re: only going with major publishers? It seems needlessly restrictive if it even exists (and it probably doesn't to be honest) but I think some of it has to be the fact that so many 'legacy' titles are still on text lists and they're held by big publishers. Libraries are probably also offered discounts through these publishers too, so it makes it more attractive, especially for schools who have tight budgets and need to watch spending maybe?
GR: I suspect when buying whole class sets they'd get them straight from the publisher or from a Department-approved distributor, but I don't know how much it might simply be visibility and what’s been recommended by the local children's bookshop. Always curious to hear different theories though!
You mentioned a pen-name before - do you use your legal name for most of your writing? Do you do anything else to keep your teaching and writing lives separate? Or do you encourage your students and colleagues to read your novels?
AC: I started in poetry a few years before I became a teacher, so I just decided to roll with my legal name. I hear horror stories of teachers being fired for writing romance novels, so I understand the appeal of a pen-name, but mine is just to differentiate my fantasy from my sci-fi because with an androgynous name like 'Ashley' I wondered if a clearly male name for my science-fiction writing would work better. I tend not to mention my writing too much to either students or colleagues, which helps keep them apart a little bit. A few students do want to read what I write, whether it's poetry or fiction, and if they're seniors I'll maybe send them to the library so they can borrow a copy.
GR: It's good that they're supportive about it and it hasn't caused any problems for you. Thanks so much for talking to me tonight!
You can find links to Ashley's books on his website and follow him on twitter here.