An Interview With Bestselling Author BV Larson

Today I have a treat for everyone: an interview with bestselling – and that’s no exaggeration – author B. V. Larson. It’s especially great for me as we’ve known each other since our teens growing up in the same little dusty California town. While I took off for a career in the military, only trying my hand at writing after I finished more than twenty years later, he kept plugging away, perfecting his craft. When the ebook revolution hit, he had a ready backlist to take quick advantage of the new technology.

B. V. Larson is the bestselling author of over thirty novels, many of which have reached the Amazon’s Top 100 bestseller lists and in aggregate have sold over a million copies. Writing in several genres, most of his work is fantastic in nature, and spans Military Science Fiction to Epic Fantasy to Paranormal Romance. As a California native, B. V. Larson’s stories often take place on sunny beaches and in cities such as Las Vegas. He lives in Central California with three kids living at home, and currently teaches college. He writes college textbooks as well as fiction.

For some more bio info, here’s a video of B. V. Larson being interviewed a couple of years ago.

So B, what is a typical writing day for you?

I write 7 days a week for about 2 to 3 hours a day when I’m writing… which is almost always these days. I usually work in the afternoons after morning classes and before night classes (I teach college as well as write).

Do you have a favorite character in one your series, aside from the lead?

Probably my favorite character who is a sidekick would be Marvin from the Star Force Series. He appears first in book 3 of the series and he plays a significant role in every book after. He’s a robot that built himself with the main character’s help from scratch. He started off as an incomplete download (his mind, anyway) and he’s been trying to reconstitute himself ever since. He’s morphed over the years into a sneaky robot fascinated by life. He likes to tinker with biotic species, seeing what he can make of them. Essentially, he’s a robot nerd who has his own schemes and his own bizarre goals. He’s become my mad scientist who Star Force needs, but who constantly plagues them at the same time.

Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?

As far as what to write next goes, I keep a recorder with me at all times and record thoughts and story ideas. Later, I type them into files and organize them. I have files with literally thousands of these thoughts, which I weave together into a story when I have enough related material. So, from one standpoint a book takes me a few months to write, but from another it might take a decade or more. SWARM, my most successful book, was something I was thinking about and piecing together for more than a decade. When I finally wrote it, it seemed to write itself.

So how is SWARM different from other sci-fi books?

There are a thousand books about alien invasions. Swarm is a new twist on that theme. The aliens are capturing and cruelly testing humans, killing the weak. They are looking for someone special…for a distinct purpose.

SwarmMy original goal was to write about the rise of a normal man to the heights of power and responsibility. I chose to write about an alien invasion as a logical way it could happen. In this way, it is quite different from most alien invasion stories which are really about the invasion itself. SWARM is about the man caught up in it and being dragged into situations he never expected to experience.

You write in various genres. What is your favorite?

I wrote and sent out my first short stories at age 17, and writing is my life-long dream job. So for me, I write a lot because I’m spoiling myself. I’m also a person who is easily bored. As a kid, I was called “hyperactive” which has been updated to newer terms. This has a lot to do with my broad range of fiction. I tend to read random things, and if I like genre and get an idea, I want to write something in that genre. Sometimes, I have to stop a project, write a short story, novella or even a book, then go back to the project I’m supposed to be working on. At times, I write two books at once, because I keep thinking of ideas for both. All that said, I probably feel the most at home writing slightly horrific fantasy or slightly horrific SF. But I read and write practically everything, and I write every day.

What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your books?

What I want people to think goes something like this: “Wow, that was a fun, fast read! I think I’ll go have another.”I don’t like to put “messages” into my work. One might sneak in now and then, I suppose, because we all have opinions and biases. I’ve always been annoyed, however, when an author breaks my suspension of disbelief by inserting things for such a purpose, when I sense the writer is forcing a story to go a certain way just to make some private point of his/hers. Often, this ruins fiction for me. I recall playing role-playing games as a kid, and there was one game-master who controlled everything you could do in his world, rather than letting it flow and letting the players participate freely. It was incredibly irritating. I never want to foist myself in such a fashion upon my readers. If you want to put a message in, it must be done in such a way that it is intrinsic to the story; it must fit there without intruding.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I figured out I wanted to become a writer at around age nineteen. It’s taken many years to learn enough to become successful, however. I’d caution young people not think their first story will take the world by storm. It might happen—but probably won’t. Like the first time a kid picks up a violin, our first writing efforts are usually painful to the ear, but with enough work, it can happen.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Don’t expect immediate success. If you picked up something new, like skiing or singing opera, or playing a violin, you would probably crash and burn for years before you did anything impressive. There’s nothing different about writing. You have to put in your years of skill-building, unless you are a natural talent…and that is very rare.

How do you think your audience found you and what triggered your boom in sales?

AnnihilationI really think having a lot of inexpensive, fun, readable stories was my secret. Looking at the successful indie authors, I usually see two types of people, those with one hit book, or those with a slew of books that are doing well and help each other. I took this second, safer route. You have to have an interesting cover and title, have a subject that intrigues and do a nice free sample/book blurb. To keep selling, you have to have a good book, or the reviews will sink you even if everything else is right. One last point: make sure you never mislead your readers. They will tear you up!

Many aspiring writers – I won’t say authors because they often haven’t sold anything – believe that unless someone is published by a big publisher they haven’t “made it.” Do you think that will change any time soon?

I hope it takes a looooong time before they figure it out! I do think it will take a while. In 1990, cable TV was considered not “real” TV. When I got a cell phone in 1995, everybody at work made a big deal about how I was showing off. A long time ago when paperbacks came out, people sneered at them and those who wrote such trash. In Shakespeare’s time, people who went to plays were considered riff-raff—people of substance went to the opera. And so it goes. The real change will come when the money comes to the indies. When we make more than they do, we will be important by definition.

In all the years you’ve been publishing your work, what is the biggest mistake you made that you could share so others can avoid making it?

Hmmmm. Well, 47North offered to buy out my interest in the Haven series when it was at its peak and selling 500 or more books a day. I thought they were crazy at the time, but I should have sold out, because of course the series faded dramatically over the next six months. Now, I’m lucky to see 50 sales a day on that series. Sometimes, you have to know when to sell!

You’ve had great success self-publishing. What led to you going your own way?

Failure at selling fiction the traditional way drove me to Amazon. I spent over a decade sending in fiction and getting rejection letters. I did sell about 10 short stories and I have a college textbook series, but I never got a novel sale until after I became a big indie. Now, I do both. My next traditionally published book is “The Bone Triangle” and is due out in April 2013. It’s the second in the “Unspeakable Things” series that started with “Technomancer”.

Where can people find your books?

Generally, my books are on Amazon and B&N. Here are links to both lists:

http://www.amazon.com/B.-V.-Larson/e/B003MESPVM/

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/b.-v.-larson

Or go to my web site, http://www.bvlarson.com

Thanks, B, it has been great having you with us today.

Used Ebooks?

There have been a number of articles published recently about the possibility of reselling “used” ebooks. Here are a couple:

http://www.teleread.com/amazon/is-amazon-about-to-break-the-law/

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/56004-sale-of-used-e-books-getting-closer.html

Some people, mostly consumers, seem to think it’s a great idea; others, mostly authors and publshers, think it’s terrible. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in modern digital life, if something becomes possible, it will be done. The only question is going to be how.

A minority of people already resell their used ebooks. It’s called piracy. Some make money off it, some don’t, and some just facilitate this crime. I say crime because it’s both unlawful and immoral, but I’m not going to get all huffy about it. Like shoplifting, it’s a fact of life.

The fact that at least it is recognized as illegal and immoral and is somewhat suppressed means that many law-abiding readers would rather pay a small fee for the convenience and peace of mind to download a legal ebook, than go through the trouble of searching out a piracy site, and by the way, risk acquiring some malware with their “freebie.” In this sense those sites that actually propagate that malware are the author’s friends by creating risks for doing so. As we learned with the iTunes model, if the legal download price is reduced to a reasonable level – for songs, it turned out to be 99c – most people move away from pirate sites. Add to that the fact that your lawfully-purchased library is fully recoverable through the vendor (Amazon, B&N or whatever) should your reading device get lost, stolen or destroyed, and most people will buy legally.

The twist here is that if Amazon and eventually everyone starts reselling ebooks, how do we tell the original from a perfect digital copy? Just like with piracy, if there is not some DRM-like system in place, one person could “resell” their book many times.

The whole foundation of the concept of reselling a used ebook is “First Use Doctrine.” I am not by any means a lawyer but as I understand it, this means that if you buy something, you own it and can do whatever you like with it. But the law seems to treat digital properties differently. They say that a digital property is not subject to first use doctrine. And currently, ebook owners do not actually own the books themselves, they merely own a license to use the ebook. Since it is the license they own, my common sense says they should be able to resell the license. Because the rights-owner, that is, author and/or publisher, gets part of the sale price for a new license, they should get part of the sale of the resold license.

Of course, who manages licenses? The licensing vendor – for example Amazon. For Amazon to make this work without cutting its own throat, they would need to get a piece of every resale for transferring the license to the new owner. If they tried to do this without giving the author and publishers a cut, especially the big publishers that still have clout and legal departments, they would never make it work, in my humble opinion.

There are many ways this could play out, and I’m not going to try to make predictions. I’d just say to my fellow authors and readers – expect it to happen sometime. Until then, all a little guy like me can do is keep writing the best books I can, and hope the big boys don’t kill off their golden geese.

The “Death” of the Hardcopy Print Bookstore

Some say there will soon be no more bookstores, ebooks will take over everything. They base this on seeing Borders go belly up and Barnes and Noble getting shakier by the day.

I don’t think so. I think the busineess is, more or less, just returning to where it used to be long ago.

Let me explain.

When I was growing up and buying books in the 70s, suburban bookstores were either independent mom-and-pop affairs that carried new and/or used, or they were mall chains like Waldenbooks or Barnes and Noble before they had standalone stores. I can’t speak to large urban bookstores, though I did visit a couple of big ones in real cities like San Fran or Los Angeles. But for suburbia, bookstores were seldom larger than any other small shop, perhaps 1000-2000 square feet.

Then in the, what, late 1980s and 1990s to the early 2000s Borders and Barnes & Noble reinvented the book market – good for them! just in time to create a print bubble. I think this happened because of the wealth effect of that time period, and people were buying a lot of luxury books such as coffee-table books etc. to outfit their McMansions, or hanging out at those stores to meet other readers – this was the center of the baby boomer wave in late youth and early middle age. There was a lot of socializing going on there, before smartphones and the expansion of the internet.

Also, those boookstores sold CDs, movies and other things so they became something of one-stop media entertainment shops. Even before ebooks there were jokes about how people spent more money on coffee and biscotti there than books. They also fed a lot of fanboy demand from the children of wealthy baby boomers raised on video games and Star Wars culture for series genre fiction of all sorts – graphic novels, D&D rulebooks and novels, Star Wars and Star Trek fanchise (yes, that’s FANchise) novels, and ever-longer series of epic-style, if overwritten and tedious, fantasy series.

They gave the people what they wanted.

Then several things happened at once. By “at once” I mean in the space of about 3 years.

First, the economic crash made new books into luxury items. A frugal reader could go to used bookstores and get twice the value with a bit more diligence for their usual fiction fare. Luxury books themselves – $100 art coffee table books for example – became dinosaurs for most people who were worried when their house lost half its value.

Second, the rise of Kindle and ebooks and all the platforms for them allowed heavy readers to save a lot of money in the long run, and never need to leave their homes to shop for their books. It’s also a heck of a lot easier to find a specific book, or fill in your missing series books, via ebook.

Third, the tradpubs were slow to recognize the price competition they faced. When paperbacks soared from $5 to $10 in less than ten years, during years of low inflation, the real cost of a new paperback did not compare well to a $3.99 ebook.

Fourth, the rise of Amazon and its Amazon Partner system mean that now, readers don’t need to go scour bookstores for that specific print book – just go online and almost anything is available somewhere through Amazon, delivered right to your door, at used book prices. So now the new book market is competing with, in essence, a worldwide used bookstore.

Fifth, books in general now have more competition for entertainment dollars and time – games, streaming video, endless free internet content – so all books are under some competitive pressure.

All of these things mean that only the hottest and most desirable books are bought at a high price point. The rest either have to be heavily discounted or they will not sell. Witness all the discounting going on now. List price for a trade paperback? $11-$15. “Normal” discounted price? 40% off,so now we are back to or below the old paperback prices, for frankly a better product with larger, easier to read print that looks better on your shelf. The market has spoken.

Which brings me back to my point – big-box bookstores in every suburb are temporal anomalies, abnormal products of a bubble and luck, not a sustainable business model. Even before consumer electronics, new books were a steady semi-luxury, and used books or cheap paperbacks sustained the masses. Everything old is new again. Hardback print books are a luxury, and ebooks have taken the place of the really cheap paperbacks. There are some other differences but bottom line, the bubble is over with and there is simply no place left in modern American suburbia – right now – for the big box bookstore. They were flukes.

So now the print bookstores are, voila, just like when I was growing up.