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Monday, August 22, 2011

Author Michael Hicks: Tweeting His Way To Literary Success


by Cyrus Webb

As the September issue of Conversations Magazine discusses the challenges that bookstores and music stores are having when it comes to surviving in today's economy, authors like Michael Hicks are taking full advantage of the opportunities made available thanks to sites like Amazon. His book Season of the Harvest has done remarkably well thanks to the author's use of social networking sites like Twitter, however, it being a well-written book has not hurt him as well.

In this interview Hicks talk about his beginnings as an author and why this is a path that in spite of the hard work and dedication needed to pursue it is definitely worth it in the end.

Thanks for taking out this time to talk with us Michael. Before we get into your book SEASON OF THE HARVEST, let's talk about your fascination with words. When did you realize that you could tell a good story?

That realization really came with the first reader review I received on Amazon when I
originally published what is now the IN HER NAME omnibus, my first novel. Until then, I
simply enjoyed the process of writing, and at the time I was writing that novel (which is
now also published separately as the first three volumes of the IN HER NAME series) I was
going through a rough time in my life, and writing was very therapeutic.

But the first reader review really did it. I had already accomplished a life goal by
publishing a book, but to have someone - even just one person - say they really enjoyed
reading it was an incredible high! 

It has normally been my experience that great writers were at one time big readers. Is that true in your case?

Absolutely! I've been a voracious reader since grade school. In fact, I occasionally got
in trouble while reading in class, because I'd become so immersed in whatever I was
reading that the teacher had to yell at me to get my attention. But reading has been a
major part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I mainly read
what's now considered classic science fiction: Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were my
favorites. But I added a lot of other authors to that list in the years since then, and
also expanded my interest to thrillers (Relic by Preston and Child remains one of my
favorites) and a little bit of fantasy and paranormal here and there.

Ironically, my reading is actually one thing that's suffered as a consequence of my focus
on writing: with most of my time taken up with a full-time job (which I hope to trade in
soon for full-time writing), family, and squeezing in some time to write, I have very
little time to get any reading done!


Michael, writing can be a very personal thing for people. Was it easy for you to share your work with the world and were you pleased with the response?

When I published IN HER NAME, which first hit the streets in 2008 for the Amazon Kindle,
I sort of covered my eyes and hit the "publish" button, inwardly cringing
because you don't know what to expect when you shoot your first book off into the void.
It was indeed a very personal bit of work for me, but - particularly after my wife read
it and encouraged me to publish it - I decided that it didn't make any sense for it to
remain in the box under my desk where it had already sat for fourteen years. I told
myself that if people liked it, great; if they didn't, that was okay, too, because I'd
published it and sent it on its way into the world. And I can't be anything but
tremendously pleased with the response from readers, both in terms of their reviews and
also what folks have told me directly.



For those that are just hearing about your book SEASON OF THE HARVEST, tell them about it.

SEASON OF THE HARVEST is a parable about our growing reliance on genetically engineered food, which falls into the general category of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The hero of the story is FBI Special Agent Jack Dawson, who is investigating the gruesome
murder of his best friend and fellow agent who had been pursuing a group of
eco-terrorists. The group's leader, Naomi Perrault, is a beautiful geneticist who Jack
believes conspired to kill his friend, and is claiming that a major international
conglomerate developing genetically engineered crops is plotting a sinister
transformation of our world that will lead humanity to extinction. As Jack is drawn into
a quietly raging war that suddenly explodes onto the front pages of the news, he
discovers that her claims may not be so outrageous after all. Together, the two of them
must battle a horror Jack could never have imagined, with the fate of all life on Earth
hanging in the balance.

I know some folks have looked at the premise with raised eyebrows, wondering how
interesting or exciting a story could be about genetically modified organisms! But if you
look at the reviews that have been posted so far, you'll see that the story tends to keep
readers turning the pages, and quickly. I've gotten a lot of complaints about people
losing sleep because they had to stay up late to finish the book!

But SEASON OF THE HARVEST also has a message: think about what you're eating, because unless you only eat organic food, chances are a good portion of what you eat has genes in it from some rather nasty strains of bacteria and other organisms that have nothing to do with the host plant. Genetically modified corn, soy, wheat, rice, and many other food
crops are in most of what we eat today. But as consumers, we don't have the right to know
about whether we're eating GMO-based food: the companies that make these genetically
engineered strains have gone to great lengths to ensure that we're kept in the dark. Many
folks mistakenly think that genetically engineering these plants is the same as what
people have been doing through history by cross-fertilizing different strains of plants
to create new varieties. But I doubt you'll ever get a plant that way that has genes from
a bacterium that produces toxins that repels insects, as one example. I don't know about
you, but I really don't want to eat that stuff!

I'm not a conspiracy theory buff, but in researching this book I really had to wonder.
And while I had originally planned to make it more of a traditional thriller, where money
and power through control of the food supply was the driving motive for the villains, the
real-world story about GMOs is so outrageous that my muse came up with another
alternative: what if the forces guiding the changes in our food supply aren't even human?
And what if the end-game is really to wipe out humanity?

You are one of those authors that takes advantage of the internet to market your
book as well as yourself. Take us into that journey for you and what you feel as though it has done for your career as an author.

The internet has really made a career as an author possible for me. Marketing, however,
has been my weakest area, by far. Part of that is because of time limitations. Between a
full-time job, family, and the various other things life throws at you, I usually wind up
with maybe two hours a day that I can devote to my author persona. Until SEASON OF THE
HARVEST, I spent almost all of that time writing, rather than promoting. I still made a
fair number of sales, but if you don't tell anyone about your book, they won't know to
buy it. Word of mouth is golden, but the author's mouth has to be speaking the words,
too!

With SEASON OF THE HARVEST, I felt I had a convergence of real-world issues across two
genres (science fiction and thrillers) that packed some real punch and had serious
potential to climb the charts. Ignoring the marketing for it would be sheer stupidity.
But where to start?

The internet has always been a strength for me - I've been on the web for a long time -
but I had to figure out how to leverage it. I had a big following on Facebook, but many
of them were folks who friended me mainly to build up their own friend count (and vice
versa for me, early on), and while Facebook really works for me as an individual, I
didn't feel like I'd gotten very good traction with it for my books. The vast majority of
my "friends" there weren't reading my updates any more than I was reading
theirs, and my author page has been sort of a hit or miss affair. I've also had a blog
for quite a while, but it's been a major challenge for me to keep it updated.

Then there was Twitter. I'd been on Twitter for a fair while, but to be honest I'd never
really made any headway with it. There's so much junk out there, endless tweets wanting
you to buy something or promising free iPads, that it was a real turn-off. Then I sat
down and looked at what some other folks were doing, folks who seemed to be achieving
some success with it. Then I devised my own strategies to reach out to potential readers
to promote my work and myself in a way that would hopefully be effective and also
wouldn't come across as an endless stream of spam.

I'm not going to go into all the nuts and bolts of what I did (I'm saving that for a "how-to" ebook later), but suffice it to say that I believe that over ninety percent of my sales now are driven through Twitter. SEASON OF THE HARVEST was submitted to the Amazon Kindle store on 7 February, so like all other titles, it started off at the bottom of the heap. Using Twitter to reach out to potential readers (and leveraging my existing presence of Facebook, which certainly didn't hurt!), the book was ranked at about 1,500 by March 11th. [By] April 1st it had steadily moved up to 180 overall in the Kindle store, placing #2 in the overall Science Fiction and #14 in Action & Adventure, and sold nearly 3,000 copies in March alone. And that doesn't include any sales for the other ebook streams (e.g., iBooks, Nook, Sony, and Kobo).

And as the saying "a rising tide floats all boats" implies, sales of my other books have also leaped forward, both because of indirect sales (readers who like SEASON OF THE HARVEST and decide to try my other books) and direct marketing of those books through Twitter. For example, IN HER NAME (omnibus edition) was hovering at a rank of about 50,000 until I started really working on Twitter and HARVEST was released. Now it's at bouncing between 2,000 and 3,000 and is in the top 100 in two sci-fi categories and one sci-fi category on Amazon.

The bottom line for me is that this gives me hope that I'll be able to reach enough readers to take my books into the top ten in the Kindle store, which will open the door for me to write full-time. Looking at the success of self-published authors like John Locke, J.A. Konrath, and Amanda Hocking, I have not just hope, but determination to make that happen.

Another aspect of your life is your blog where you share not only about yourself but
other authors. In such a competitive business, why is it important to you to share those that you are reading and enjoying?

As I mentioned my blog is a weak spot that, like my Facebook author page, I'm
going to be focusing on to fully interlock my on-line branding. As for giving shout outs
and reviews for other authors, again, this is a case where a rising tide floats all
boats. A great deal of the traction I've gotten on Twitter, for example, is because other
authors and Twitter friends have retreated my posts, and I do my best to return the
favor. In fact, I put together a daily twitterzine called #BookNooz specifically to help
promote other authors and writers with whom I'm linked up with on Twitter, and something
I harp on is that retweeting things from other authors isn't competition, it's coalition,
because we help ourselves by helping others. Maybe one of my readers has already read all
of my books, and he or she might be interested in a book from an author friend. Why
shouldn't I help put those two together?

On my blog I've reviewed a couple of books by fellow self-published authors, and plan to
do more as time is available (both to read and to blog!), and those reviews appear in a
newsletter that I send out to subscribers (as a side note, folks who subscribe to the
newsletter can get a free ebook copy of the entire novel IN HER NAME: EMPIRE, the first
of the IN HER NAME series). It doesn't cost me anything to do that, and I don't think
it's leading people away from my books, it's simply making them aware of other good reads
out there.

What advice would you have not just for writers but anyone pursuing their dreams right now?

Wow, this question goes right to the heart of where my family and I are in our lives
right now! You see, not long ago we really didn't have any dreams: we were just sort of
floating along, tubing down the river of life. We had the good fortune to be comfortable
in our means, but we weren't really going anywhere. There was nothing we wanted to
achieve, no goals that we wanted to reach for.

That all changed for us about a year ago, when we opened up that box that so many of us
stuff our dreams into at some point in our lives, having given them up as childish things
that we could never do. We pulled those dreams out and looked through them again like
they were in an old photo album. We picked out the ones that we wanted, and added in some
new ones, and made the commitment that we were going to shoot for them. We knew that some of them won't be easy, and maybe we won't achieve them all. But if you don't try, you
never will!

Most importantly, we learned that to make dreams real, you have to consciously set them
as goals, come up with a plan of how to get there, and then get to work. That takes your
dreams from being a pie in the sky "I wish" to something concrete and real. You
also have to stick with it and not give up after you run into the first snag, or when
you've been at it for a week and you haven't achieved your dream of being at #1 in the
Kindle Store (or whatever). Big dreams can take a bit of time. But you sketch out where
you want to go, and how you plan to get there. And you do it in pencil (literally: you
have to write it down to help make it real) rather than pen, because no plan ever
survives contact with reality. You have to learn and adapt, and keep on forging ahead one
step at a time toward your goals, toward your dreams. And you'll get there!

Thank you for your time, Michael. Let our readers know how they can get in contact with you and stay connected with you online.

You're most welcome, and I appreciate the opportunity! The three main ways to contact me
are through Twitter (KreelanWarrior), Facebook (http://facebook.com/authormichaelhicks) an
d my author web site at http://authormichaelhicks.com.

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