SPS-216: Building a Book Business of Galactic Proportions – with Mal Cooper
Mal (M.D.) Cooper likely breaks some sort of record for productivity. In 2018 she wrote 44 books. This year, she plans to ‘scale back’ to 35. How does a writer become and remain so prolific? And what drives that kind of output? What systems have to be in place to enable that to happen. Mal shares all of this, and more, with James in today’s interview.
- The benefits of treating writing like a business
- Creating a writing business with a spouse
- On writing a book a week
- Building a story world in advance of any writing
- Why external conflict matters more to Mal than internal
- Wrangling all the steps of releasing so many books each year
- On readers who become co-authors in Mal’s universe
- Learning about marketing ad spend from IT companies
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
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Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
Mal Cooper: I actually did spend two years figuring out all my science, figuring out how everything was going to work in the universe, figuring out my setting and whatnot, before I started writing anything. And by doing that, that’s allowed me to have this canvas that I can just keep painting on forever, basically.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first-time author James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson. Hello.
James Blatch: How was that for an energetic opening?
Mark Dawson: It was a bit hyper. Have you been drinking lots of coffee today?
James Blatch: My wife broke her leg last week, we were skiing, and I’ve had to do the job of two men, well, one woman, one man.
Mark Dawson: So, three men, in other words.
James Blatch: Yes, exactly. Very PC of you. So everything, she can’t drive, she can barely walk. And, I’ve been running this business and doing the washing, and getting the kids to school and back again.
And then, I have done more short car journeys in my car, in the last four days, I think, than I’ve done the previous year. I mean, journeys that last eight minutes, you go somewhere, back again, and then get back again. Because the children never do things together. So that’s me, and I’m actually now slightly drunk on tiredness. That’s where I am.
Mark Dawson: I liked your Facebook post when you announced that Gill had broken her ankle, and it was full of, on the next day, you having a lovely time on the slopes.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: It’s like, “Gill’s broken her ankle. On the other hand, I’m having a great time.”
James Blatch: The show must go on, Mark.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: It’d be foolish of us to just stop because of one little thing, like her leg break. Anyway, it was her tibia as it turned out.
Mark Dawson: Oh. I thought it was an ankle.
James Blatch: Yes. Yeah, well it’s down towards the ankle, the base of the tibia, but it’s a tibial break and it’s causing some issues at the moment. But I’ll go back and deal with those. I don’t want you to think about me. I don’t want you to worry.
Mark Dawson: No, I don’t, don’t worry. Doesn’t cross my mind.
James Blatch: I noticed that.
I’m going to say hello to some people who will be concerned and give me sympathy, they are our new Patreon supporters. They have been along to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow, and become supporters of this podcast, and as part of their patron support they get access to the SPF university, which is a wonderful university and a place to get live training. We just had a brilliant one on Instagram actually, with Stuart just a couple of weeks ago.
And our new Patreons, I’ve got some doozies here, Mark, you’ll be pleased. I’ve got Steven McGillicuddy from FL, USA. We’ve got Jacon, or Yacon Peter from Connecticut, USA. They sound like they’re Harry Potter characters, don’t they? Amy Henson, Vivian Reese and Lauren Dimer. Welcome to our family here on The Self-Publishing Show.
Mark Dawson: Welcome, and usual apologies for the state of your welcome.
James Blatch: I don’t think they were too bad today.
Now, we have a super interview today with Mal Cooper coming up. We’re going to be talking about productivity, about how to turn your book writing hobby into an industry. And this is something I think closer to the level that you’re at, Mark, than perhaps some people listening who are on their one, two, three books a year.
But there are some people out there who have turned it into a bit of a factory. We’re going to talk to them about stuff that we can all learn from that process, of how you organize, how you approach it, how you plan. And Mal is excellent on that, so we’ve got that coming up.
But before then, we are going to just mention that our course Self-Publishing 101, which is the foundation course for new indie authors to teach them everything they need to know.
At least authors who are new to marketing, not necessarily new authors, but people who want to take the step away from it being a hobby, to being a commercial success. Something they can earn money from, hopefully quit their jobs and be full-time writers.
This is the course that gives you all the nitty gritty, the ins and outs, how to do it. How not to waste your time doing stuff that’s not going to be pertinent, but how to focus on the things that are going to give you return.
And, the one thing I think you learn from this, that I know because all the interviews we do about this course that people often repeat to me, is this is the course where you get it, that it’s a business. And you understand it’s a business, and that changes your culture and your approach. So you can get 101 course, it’s open for about two and a half weeks.
Now, if you go to selfpublishingformula.com/101, one zero one. And yeah, it’s a big expanded course now of course, because you have the YouTube for Authors course from Garrett Robinson, which is fantastic, a really brilliant course.
That’s the sort of course you would pay very good money for elsewhere, without question. It’s bundled in now to 101. You get lots of other stuff that comes along with it as well, and there’s been a small price increase this time just to take account of that, that you do get a lot more, but very well worth it.
Selfpublishingformula.com/101. I’m trying to think what else we’ve added, we’ve added loads to 101, haven’t we? So, Ingram Spark stuff, I think that’s there now. Is that there now? It will be by the time the course goes live, we’re recording this.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: We’re always expanding on the tech library. I think we’re just going through some of the website creation stuff to make sure they’re up to date, there’s a new Wix course in there. So, whichever platform you choose, you’ll get hand held through the process of creating your websites. And I’m knee deep in all this stuff now because I’m learning it all, because we’ve got books to market, you and me.
Mark Dawson: Yes, that’s right. Lots going on.
And also, this goes out a week as we record this today. So very soon, actually as this goes out, I’ll be having some authors coming to stay with me over the weekend in Salisbury, and then on the Sunday we’ll be traveling down to London for a meal with sponsors and speakers. And then it’s the inaugural SPS live on the Monday.
James Blatch: It is. Our inaugural conference, we have nearly a thousand people. We filled every seat we can in that hall, and people are picking up some of the tickets for people who can’t make it. I suppose we should, having mentioned it, give that one caveat that where we are recording at the moment, there is obviously the spread of the coronavirus. But it’s not impacted us, which we’re delighted about.
The London Book Fair is going ahead, we are going ahead. Obviously, if you’re in an infected area, and there aren’t that many, I looked at the list today. And I’ve been asked about it, cause I’ve been to the doctor’s today.
I don’t know if I mentioned that, been to the doctor’s today and they ask you, “Where have you been? Have you been abroad in the last couple weeks?”
“Yes. I went to Switzerland and France.” “Have you been in this?” And they hand you a list, and you look at the list and it’s actually still, at this stage, fairly contained. Six months’ time might look different, but we’re making hay while the sun shines.
Mark Dawson: In six months’ time, we’ll all be dead.
James Blatch: What we don’t know about the coronavirus, is whether when you die from it, whether the bodies reanimate afterwards. We haven’t got to that point yet.
Mark Dawson: I think almost certainly that’s going to be the case.
James Blatch: I think they’re going to reanimate, which is the full-on zombie apocalypse when that happens. There’ll be a point where I stop making jokes about coronavirus, but we’re not there yet.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: Okay, good. Look, have you got anything else? I feel like I’ve been wittering on and stifling your voice.
Mark Dawson: Well, people do tune in to listen to me rather than you, I suppose. You have most of the air time with the interview, so I suppose I should say something. Yeah, it’s been busy.
Germany is just going crazy, which for the first time, two days ago, in order of revenue generated per territory, it’s always US first, but it’s usually UK. But I think two days ago it was US, Germany, UK.
James Blatch: Wow.
Mark Dawson: Which was great. Given that Germany has only six Milton books and three Beatrix books, so, well I suppose about a third of my catalog compared to the other markets. So they’re just selling like crazy at the moment. It’s really, really good.
My brother and I have found another three translators, so at the moment, as we speak, we’ve got five translators working on the rest of the Milton series. And these aren’t people we found down the on the street.
These are people who worked on James Patterson’s books, Donna Tartt, Stieg Larsson. So they’ve done AAA titles in Germany before, so they know what they’re doing. And so, we’re just lining them up. We’ve got the rest of the Milton series, hopefully we’ll have those all out by, if not Christmas, then just after Christmas.
James Blatch: That’s brilliant.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, so going well.
James Blatch: Milton’s storming across Germany. Are any of your Milton or Beatrix books set in Germany? There must be some German stuff, no?
Mark Dawson: No they aren’t, but I probably should have one set in Berlin or something. I should get The Vault translated, because that is set in Berlin.
James Blatch: There you go.
Mark Dawson: So, this is just the Milton books. I’ve got Atticus coming out soon, that could do quite well in Germany. The Vault, some other standalones, Isabella. I could be having books translated for the next couple of years, and probably will.
James Blatch: One thing that we should perhaps mention is that Clive Cussler passed away a few days ago, at the time we’re recording this. And he’s somebody who I’ve been reading over the last couple of years, because I think very much in the thriller genre fiction mold. And he writes, I think, quite similar books to yours actually. I think they’re very page turning, very easy to read, which sounds like it’s an insult, but it’s not an insult at all.
They’re books you can just read, devour, follow the story, go up and down, have an adventure and then read the next one. He was perfectly set up for this modern indie publishing era, actually.
Mark Dawson: Yep, absolutely.
James Blatch: I’m sure he did pretty well in his career; he was one of the biggest published authors on the planet.
Mark Dawson: I thinks he was worth 120 million when he died. So yeah, he did quite well.
James Blatch: He did well. And I believe his son does some writing with him now. I think that’s right.
Mark Dawson: He has a lot of ghost writers. Russell Blake wrote a couple, two or three books with him. So yes, he took the kind of Patterson Casler, who else is there? Oh, Wilbur Smith or those kinds of guys. They basically stopped writing, mostly, and brought people onto the team.
James Blatch: They direct now, but I read a couple of Clive’s last year and thoroughly enjoyed them. Yes, in fact, I think reading those books, if you want to write genre fiction, and we talk a lot about this all the time, commercial genre fiction, he’s a superb author to read. To understand what that means, and what that looks and feels like, he gets that right.
Mark Dawson: Yep.
James Blatch: Okay. Right, shall we get onto our main interview them?
Mark Dawson: Let’s do that.
James Blatch: We have Mal Cooper, now we had a shared webinar, I think I mentioned this at the beginning of the interview, a webinar with Mal a little while ago, about read through.
Mal is a bit of an expert in a few areas, and in particular, what she and her wife have done is to build this production house in what looks like their basement. In fact, it is their basement and it’s an incredible operation, meticulously planned.
This interview isn’t necessarily for me, who’s trying to struggle to get one book out. And if you’ve got one or two books you write a year, you may not think it relates to you and me, but actually, I think a lot of what Mal talks about in terms of approach, the business-like approach, planning, does pertain to us, is relevant and is helpful. So let’s hear from Mal, and then Mark and I will be back to have a chat off the back.
Mal Cooper, welcome to The Self-Publishing Show.
Mal Cooper: Thank you.
James Blatch: We’ve had you on a webinar which was fantastic. It was a kind of nerdy webinar.
Mal Cooper: It was, yeah.
James Blatch: About getting into XL, and getting into calculating read through, which is a crucial part of understanding where you are. And, we’re going to talk a bit about you, but about your writing, particularly, I think the production process that you have, and the prolificness that you’re writing. Is that a word? I can’t get my words out.
Mal Cooper: It can be.
James Blatch: Yeah, which we’re going to try and learn from. But we’ll start a little bit with you.
You do have a bit of an engineering background, do you not?
Mal Cooper: I do. I was a software developer for almost 20 years to be honest. And towards the end of that, I actually ended up working on some really big Fortune 500 projects. Did crazy stuff, like I built out part of the backend system for Obama’s whitehouse.gov.
James Blatch: Wow.
Mal Cooper: It was actually funny, the company I worked for we ran Mitt Romney’s campaign website, we built Obama’s white house website, and we ran Al Jazeera’s US websites.
James Blatch: Wow. Very pluralistic of you.
Mal Cooper: Yeah, we would host it all. I did a lot of that, and got involved with a lot of marketing work, so I built actually marketing platforms and worked with a lot of marketing platforms, and also really spent a lot of years in software. So I have a really good idea of how the internet works, and that’s been pretty useful in this business to be honest.
James Blatch: Hasn’t it just? And you’ve done really well, you have a terrific set of books and series out. And I want to talk to you a bit about the process that you use now, to write, to get through the production line of getting books out there. Not to denigrate production lines. Sounds like a denigration, but it’s not at all.
Mal Cooper: Yeah, I agree.
James Blatch: At what point did you go from software engineer, making sure that all these politicians and countries could work, to writing books?
Mal Cooper: I’d actually released my first book in 2012. So, my first book was 2012, second was 2015, and third was 2016. And all during that time was actually when I was doing a lot of software development work. So I didn’t get a lot of time to actually put into writing, and I didn’t spend any time marketing at all.
It was in 2016 when Jill, my wife, started doing a bunch of the marketing, and I started leveraging what I’d learned in the past. And, we went from making like, $500 or $600 a month in June, to $25,000 a month in November. And then I quit my job on January 1st.
James Blatch: So, when Mark preaches about treating your writing as a business, that’s probably what happened with you.
It went from being something you were doing as a hobby, to once Jill was involved, it being a business.
Mal Cooper: Yep. And we started investing in it like it was a business, both time and money. And that was what got a lot of people, I say to them I’d only had like, three months of measurable, good success, and I quit my job at that point because I realized that there was no way I could continue to scale my writing business the way I wanted to, and also be working a job.
Having a day job, I believe, would have actually ended my career, because I wouldn’t be able to put out as much and have as much focus on it. So I had to basically make a business decision and say, “I’m going to invest time and money fully into writing.”
I had a one year plan that I had to go through to pull it off, and luckily I managed to do that.
James Blatch: That’s still quite a brave move. Did it feel nervy at the time?
Mal Cooper: Oh it was terrible. Yeah, 2017 was a terrifying year for me. I was constantly worried that it was all just going to evaporate and dry up. And that’s why I spent so much of my time focusing on controlling as much as I could about the process, and creating the books and marketing and what not, because I didn’t want to feel like I was just being blown around in the winds by whatever might happen.
I wanted to make sure it worked. I have a pretty marketable skill set outside of writing, though. So, I wasn’t as worried as maybe some people would be, because if I wanted to get a job I would’ve actually had a job again in a day or two.
James Blatch: You felt there was a safety net. But some people will never take that type of risk. I’ve got friends, ’cause I’ve done similar to you a couple of times in my life, sort of dropped everything and started again with a different career. Some friends have been honest with me and said they just couldn’t countenance the idea of quitting a job that’s paying them a salary, to take a chance on something else. It’s still a big thing to do, I think.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. And I mean, hopefully no one would ever do it without a safety net. You’ve got to make sure you have a safety net, you’ve got to make sure you can plan for your family and your future and whatnot, and something to fall back on.
If someone didn’t have the safety net, it’d be a terrible idea and I would certainly not recommend that. But, I think if you do, you can be honest with yourself and say, “How long can my safety net carry me? And can I put together a plan to be successful in that amount of time?”
James Blatch: Now, Jill is integral, I think, to the process today.
Mal Cooper: She is, and she always has been. She was always my first beta reader back in the day. She runs a lot of the day to day business for us. She does all the bookkeeping and the accounting, and makes sure all the taxes are filed and all that sort of stuff.
A lot of the productivity that I’m able to pull off is because I have Jill, who, it’s crazy, she almost writes as much as I do. And she does all of this stuff. So she’s really the real success story, I think.
But, yeah, she really does this great job of making this bubble for me, where I don’t really get distracted. I can just sit down and work a lot. So when I talk, sometimes I tell people how many books I write and like, you don’t have to feel like you’re not successful just because you can’t do this, because this is a unique situation that I’m in that you might not be in.
James Blatch: So Jill gets to do all the exciting things, like the tax returns. It sounds like an ideal relationship.
Mal Cooper: I feel terrible sometimes about it. But she said she likes it. She’s one of those people who really likes to create a great environment for people around them, and care and nurture. So for her, it’s something she actually really enjoys.
We’ve talked about it a lot, ’cause I want to make sure I’m not taking advantage of her. But no, she’s pretty happy with the way things are. She likes doing all that.
James Blatch: That’s great. That’s a very powerful asset in life, I think, to have a supportive partner like that, or a team.
Mal Cooper: Yeah, absolutely.
James Blatch: Well, let’s talk about productivity and then we’ll wind back a little bit to the early days.
Tell me now where you are in terms of your output.
Mal Cooper: This year my plan is to put out about 35 books. Last year was lower, was only about 24. And then 2018 was 44 books. My lesson I tell most people is like, “Here’s how I wrote 44 books in 2018, and here’s why you probably shouldn’t do that.”
James Blatch: Yeah. But sorry, just to dwell for a second.
44 books is knocking on a book a week. In fact, if you go for a little bit of holiday here and there, that’s a book a week.
Mal Cooper: I had eight weeks where I didn’t release a book. I took it easy for a little bit in the year. And some of that’s with coauthors, but when I do a coauthored book, I spend actually as much time on a coauthored book as on one of my own, because all the books I write are in one universe. So they all have to be very consistent with one another, everything has to be cohesive, and you can’t have a coauthor introduce some sort of technology or storyline that breaks someone else’s.
It does actually take a lot of work to manage all of that. But, we pulled it off actually. And I knew when I was going into it, when I went to 2018, I knew that the key to success as a writer, having longevity is having a big backlist. Everybody that I talked to that had started in the game back in the early aughts, or even the in the early teens, and was still around and still doing well, had a big backlist and they were leveraging that back list.
And at that point, my mindset was, “I’m feeling energized. I have stories just coming out my ears. I’m young.” I’m used to working really long hours, because software development, you work 60, 80 hours a week. So I just basically worked for the entire year.
My goal being to build this big back list and to get this ball rolling, so that if I wanted to take a break in the future, I could, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
James Blatch: So, you did 44 books.
Then doing 24 in 2019 must’ve felt like a holiday for you. Just two a month.
Mal Cooper: It was, it was kind of wild. In July and August, I only released a novella each of those months. And it was wild that that’s all I was doing. And I enjoyed summer.
I also went to a lot of cons last year, I was away from home for almost three months. So, that affects all the writing that you’re able to do, or not do as well.
But, but it was nice to be able to do that, to be able to take that year and relax, and just sort of reset and figure out where I wanted to go next, and not have to worry about running out of money or having to run off to a day job or something.
James Blatch: I want to talk a bit about the writing process in a bit, but let’s just wind back. As I said to the beginning, in terms of the universe you created, so how planned was this?
At the beginning you just start writing, right?
Mal Cooper: No, actually I planned it out quite a bit.
James Blatch: You did?
Mal Cooper: One of my biggest pet peeves has always been sloppy universe building. When you’re reading books in a universe, and you can tell after a while that the author just never really thought, follow out things through in advance.
When you start to be able to tell they’re really just making it up as they go along, it really can ruin the story, especially in a longer series where you figure they must have some sort of plan or big vision that they want to have. And if they don’t, you start to feel really disillusioned by the whole thing.
I didn’t want to have that happen. I didn’t want the readers to read it and say “well, if you’re going to tell us about this thing now, it should have been foreshadowed before, because the characters would have encountered that particular scenario.”
So I actually did spend two years, before I even started writing back in ’07 and ’08, figuring out all my science, figuring out how everything was going to work in the universe, figuring out my setting and whatnot, before I started writing anything. And by doing that, that’s allowed me to have this canvas that I can just keep painting on forever, basically.
James Blatch: So you tried to avoid the sort of thing we saw in the Rise of Skywalker film, where they just trashed all over the physics that they set up in the first film, which I find really irritating.
Mal Cooper: Jill and I actually talked about that for quite awhile this morning, because one of my biggest pet peeves in storytelling is inconsistent travel time. Where characters and people can magically get to wherever they need to be, in whatever amount of time the plot demands.
I have a lot of trouble with that, because I actually think, for example, if you’re writing a story about planet Earth, you can’t have someone get from New York to Moscow in 30 minutes.
You have to have the travel time in there. And actually, the setting becomes a character. The characters have to work against the setting and that sort of thing. And for a writer who really wants to stretch themselves, it actually makes you better because you’re like, “Okay, now I’ve got to come up with a reason for why this happens, and make it compelling for the characters and the reader and whatnot.” And it’ll make you a better writer.
In this latest Star Wars trilogy, everything could just happen at whatever speed the plot demanded as far as travel was concerned. It just started to feel like it was just sloppy and weak on the writer’s standpoint. To be honest, J.J Abrams is better than that, so I was disappointed that he was that careless with the travel time.
James Blatch: I think it’s not just an irritation about the respect of the universe you started to build. As you say, you lose those opportunities.
I always think of the first Star Wars film, where Han Solo is laughing at the training that’s going on with Luke and Obi-Wan. That’s actually a really good scene. It’s a quiet scene. Not much is happening. He’s sitting there. You get a lot of character about Han, and you also understand Luke’s sudden conversion, his journey, his glimpse into a bigger world. Now, all of that happens in a scene that had to happen because they were traveling.
Mal Cooper: Exactly.
James Blatch: Once you lose that, as you say, you never have that anymore. That’s what I really felt those last few films lacked, those moments that people were doing nothing else.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. You lose out on all those quiet moments where you get to learn more about the characters and stuff like that. It’s actually really important.
James Blatch: Anyway. We could probably talk all day about that.
Mal Cooper: We could.
James Blatch: One other thing I’ll say, the TV version of Game of Thrones where suddenly … all the journey stuff, which was brilliant and the reason you watched it in the first few seasons, suddenly they went from North to South in the blink of an eye and that irritated people. Anyway, we’ll park that for the moment. We’ve made that point.
Tell us about the universe you created.
Mal Cooper: One of the things I decided is that … and this was a bit of a progressive decision. My OCD about the setting lent itself well to some later decisions I made, which was nice.
First what I decided to do is I wanted to write science fiction, but I wanted to write science fiction that was optimistic, but also realistic. I wanted to try and blend those two things, because for example, Star Trek is very optimistic sci-fi, but there’s a lot of scenarios where Star Trek is just like, if you can travel that fast and you have this big of a fleet, why do you even have these other problems? There’s problems they have that should’ve been solved just by the setting being what it was.
I wanted to make sure I didn’t have those types of issues, so that’s why I made it a good setting. I moved it forward past all the messy parts in human advance. I started the story in the year 4000, because I wanted to have AIs. I wanted to have humans with AIs even implanted in their brains, and have lots of physical augmentations but have people look clean and good, and not like these monster cyborg things running around that are all just gross and disgusting.
I wanted to create this clean future where humanity and AIs had learned to blend together and work together, and also have it where most of our major issues have been resolved, where we’re not constantly clawing at each other all the time, and then take that and see how people would move forward, and also keep a lot of my conflict external.
I’m a really big believer in if you’re writing for entertainment, you want to have more external conflict than internal conflict. You want to build a core team of people, and not have those people constantly at each other’s throats. You want to keep the conflict external.
I think a great example of that is the A-Team TV show. Those four guys always had each other’s backs. Even though they would bicker and fight sometimes, push come to shove, they always had each other’s backs, and they could joke and laugh and have a really good time together. I wanted to also tell that kind of story.
I created a future where humanity is very advanced, but they still don’t have faster-than-light travel. If you want to get to the next star system, it’s still going to take you maybe 30, 40 years to get there. Because one of these I actually loved growing up was I loved reading stories about the journey, like Lord of the Rings, the Shannara books, where most of the time they’re just traveling across the map in the Shannara books, trying to try to find the ring or the sword or something like that.
I love the journey and all, because you get to have all sorts of little fun episodes in the journey. You get lots of opportunities for character growth in a journey story, and I guess maybe part of this is it’s what I grew up reading. I wanted to create a setting where any journey would have to be long, and it would always have to have its own perils and be fraught with its own problems and stuff like that.
I wrote all of that out, and then actually it was kind of funny. Then later on in the series they discover FTL, and I completely subvert all of that. Now you have these people who just spent centuries to get from one place to another, and they can get back in a week if they want to and stuff like that.
I wanted to write about that and about how those advances in technology would actually plummet humanity back into a dark age, and then deal with a bunch of stuff around that.
That comes from creating an opportunity for me to write a actual massive space war, and a massive space war on the scale of World War II but across millions of star systems, which effectually becomes a story that I could write for the rest of my life, and not even cover a fraction of what actually would happen in a scope that big.
I had set it all up and I knew that these things were possible, but as I started doing more work, selling books and marketing and understanding how to make a living doing this, I realized that the biggest thing authors talk about being a problem is when they genre-hop, trying to get their readers to come with them. You magpie around. You lose a lot of your readers.
I thought, “What if I could create a setting that is so real that it could host any genre?” If I wanted to write about sword and sorcery stuff, I could actually have a lost colony where some people still have really advanced tech and it looks like magic.
If I wanted to write a lot of really military science fiction, I could have a more advanced region where it’s all just admirals and space battles and stuff like that. I was able to create this setting where I can now tie everything together, and readers can get Easter eggs. Even if they’re in some little backwater place, they can say, “Hey, wait a second. That’s tied to this thing that happened in this other series over there that was completely unrelated.”
That’s probably what helps me write so fast, is I don’t constantly have to rebuild my setting and re-establish how everything works and whatnot. I can jump into a book and say, “Okay, this book has all these major main setting elements and it has this tweak on it,” and I can just go.
James Blatch: You have the universe you’ve created … and some great points that I want to pick up in a minute … but just for a moment, you have series within the universe.
Are all your books to be also standalones, or do you have to read in series?
Mal Cooper: Each series has to be read in order. I don’t write any standalone books, although I do my best to write it so that you can pick up any series and just use that as your starting point to jump into the universe. You don’t have to start with a particular book or a particular series. You can go in anywhere.
James Blatch: Okay. Because we had a discussion about that, and sometimes the difficulties, particularly the fact that with read-through, if you discover you’ve got a problem in the middle of your series, it can be beneficial for the writer whose books are linked but also standalone, because they can start running ads to book four rather than book one, for instance.
I guess you’re in a position where really, you need them to start at book one on a particular series.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. I also have 23 series as well.
James Blatch: Oh, it’s the other way around, then.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. If I have one series that’s having problems, I just won’t market it as much and I can wrap that series up. In fact, we had one series where the read-through was dropping off enough that we decided, okay, we’re going to wrap this series a little bit early, earlier, and we’ll just take the same characters and start them in a new series. I can now market that as my book one.
James Blatch: That’s great. Well, I loved the description of the universe. I love the fact that you bring reality into it.
Again I’m going to use Star Wars, but for me as a 10-year-old boy, seeing spaceships that needed thumping to get them working and looked a bit tatty was a complete revelation. Of course, that inspired Ridley Scott with Alien, one of the greatest space films. Up until that point, everything was shiny and new and worked brilliantly because it was in the future. Well, why?
And then I’m going to mention Aliens because about the internal conflicts. I think it’s a really interesting point.
I think I’m probably a bit like you in that I don’t really get drawn or enjoy those films where there’s so much screaming and shouting against each other. I guess some people do like that, but for me, when people work as a team it feels better. There’s very few exceptions that almost prove me wrong.
Alien, I think, is one of them, where the first Alien, they’re basically oil rig workers and there’s a lot of shouting at each other, and it worked brilliantly. Then the later version in Prometheus, it was awful when they just shouted at each other, and you’re thinking, “These people would never have been selected for this flight.” I just sat there groaning through it. It was just wrong.
Exactly. It really worked with the first Alien movie, because it was just a crew of people that were just hired just to do their job with the spaceship and not make a particularly close-knit, functional team, to the same degree that Prometheus, these are specialists that you’re hiring specifically because you want to achieve a goal, and they acted like idiots. I’m like, “This is not believable at all.”
James Blatch: At the same time as writers, we’re often told internal conflict is what it’s all about. You have to have all this internal conflict.
I’m obviously nowhere near in terms of your experience of writing, but I do find that a little bit conflicting, ironically.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. It depends, I suppose, a bit on what you’re trying to write. Some genres don’t lend themselves well to a lot of external conflict, so you have to have some amount of internal conflict. If you’re writing an action, adventure type story, you definitely want to focus much more on the external conflict.
Also I feel there’s a realism standpoint. After you’ve worked with people for a certain amount of time, if you haven’t killed each other after a couple of years, chances are you’ve worked out most of the problems that would cause you to have a lot of this internal conflict as a team.
Everybody has some stuff in their family that’s a mess, but most of the time you have a couple of family members that you actually get along pretty well with. By the time you’re in your 30s or 40s, most people you spend time with on a daily basis are people you get along with. If you don’t get along with them, you wouldn’t spend time with them.
The same thing is true for a story as well, is that a lot of times, you’re going to have people that either have worked together for a long time or have been together for a long time, and the only reason why they’re still together is because they function well.
Unless, of course, you want to mess it up and put someone in a new job, or they hate someone or someone hates them or something like that. That’s different than just people who should be having each other’s back just bickering over silly things.
James Blatch: You have how many series, did you say? You have 23?
Mal Cooper: Twenty-three, yeah.
James Blatch: Twenty-three series, all set in same universe?
Mal Cooper: Yep.
James Blatch: Do you have a strict plan going forward as to when you’re writing what book or new series, et cetera?
Mal Cooper: It’s not super strict. It used to be. Back in 2018, we were so driven by Amazon’s 90-day … and most of last year, too … the 90-day preview cycle that I was writing eight series simultaneously. I was just doing one book in one series, one book in the next, one book in the next, because I was just always working against that 90-day deadline.
Now that we have the one-year deadline, and we also get that forgiveness where you can move each book once for 30 days and not lose your preview privileges, I can be a little more flexible. If I’m feeling like I want to write Story A today, I can actually go work on that instead of Story B, which is nice.
By and large, right now I have my publishing schedule worked out all the way into June with what dates every book comes out, what dates they have to get uploaded, what days they go to the editor, what dates they go to my proofreaders.
All that stuff is all built out, and then marked off which ones have covers, which ones I’ve made the request but I’m waiting on the cover to be delivered. All that stuff’s all mapped out in this giant spreadsheet that gives me all the dates for everything, for when everything needs to happen.
It’s the production line you’re talking about. To be honest, if you want to have high levels of productivity, you have to have a process like that.
I do it all the way down to the day of the week things happen on. I only release books on Thursdays, and I do that because that drives all of my other activities. There’s always an email on Thursdays when there’s a release, and I always run sales on Sundays if it’s a new release that I want to run a sale for. I don’t always do that, but if there is, that gives me time to actually make sure the sale price is set between Thursday and Sunday. I don’t have any problems or anything like that.
Also I know like, okay, now between Sunday and Thursday is when I’m marketing the book that came out last Thursday, because that’s when that sale period is going on. Whenever a book comes out on Thursday, the upload … I always do preorders for everything … the preorder upload is on Sunday. I’m like, “Okay, it’s got to be back from these people, and these particular tasks all need to be done so that the book can be uploaded on Sunday.”
Then in addition, because everything’s a preorder, I have to make sure that whenever a book comes out, the preorder for the sequel is up Thursday before the Sunday, so that I make sure I have an ASIN to put for that for the link.
When I upload my book on Sunday, the preorder’s already up and I have an ASIN number to put in, so that people can download the preorder for the next book when they’re done with the one they’re just reading.
That process makes it really easy to know what you’re doing, because everything’s just tied to the day of the week when stuff is going on. I don’t have to remember things like, oh, I’ve got to send out an email on a Tuesday. I never send emails on Tuesday, so I just don’t have to worry about it. Tuesday’s a day that I can always write and don’t have any other tasks to do.
James Blatch: Quite procedural, and by the sounds of it, it has to be like that.
Mal Cooper: Yeah.
James Blatch: You have ARC teams?
Mal Cooper: I looked at something from Michael Anderly called a JIT team, just-in-time readers, and the just-in-time readers get books usually somewhere between one and four days before they need to be finished reading it. Sometimes I only give them one day and they’re not usually too happy about that, but usually they get three to four days to finish reading the book and to give me all their typos that they find and any feedback.
James Blatch: The whole book?
Mal Cooper: Yeah, the whole book. I find if I give them more time than that, it doesn’t happen. More people complete it if I give them less time.
James Blatch: Everyone loves a deadline.
Mal Cooper: Yes. To be honest, also that was partially founded in 2018 when there’s a new book coming next week, so if you can’t read the book this week, you’re already going to fall behind. They did have to keep things up.
There’s a pretty good group of 10 to 20 of my readers who will actually consistently get a book done. Some of them read it in one day. I’ll send them the ARC in the morning, and by evening I have all their feedback and all the typos or any other issues they found. Because some of these whale readers that are out there, they’ll read two or three books a day regularly. It’s just what they do all the time. It’s pretty wild.
James Blatch: It’s incredible.
Your JIT team, is that per series? Would you have one across all your series?
Mal Cooper: I have one – everyone across everything. The same group of people get all the books.
James Blatch: You talk about your email on a Thursday.
How big is a mailing list for you?
Mal Cooper: I have a relatively small mailing list, because I prune it a lot. I don’t do anything to grow my mailing list, other than people actually going to my website and signing up for it. I don’t even have links in the backs of my books. I probably need to fix that.
I took them out for a while because I was doing an experiment, and I found that I didn’t see a big change in the number of new signups I got. I’m thinking I’m going to try a new structure for trying to get the signup in the backs of my books. It’s only about 6,000 people that are active subscribers right now.
James Blatch: That’s interesting, because I imagine that you’ve got a fairly significant reader following, if not everybody’s on your mailing list.
Mal Cooper: Yeah, I have. Based on the numbers I’ve run, I’ve got 25,000 people who’ve read every single one of my books.
James Blatch: Wow. That’s amazing. Devoted.
Mal Cooper: It’s a pretty sizable group, but I also have a lot of other ways I reach out to people. I’ve got four Facebook pages that I maintain, and some of them are not branded to Aeon 14 or me. They’re just genre-based pages. I build up followers on those pages, and I market my books to them there.
A lot of that marketing is just posting about them when they come out. I’ve got multiple Facebook pages where I can just throw out a post and not boost it or anything, and get like 1,500 eyeballs on it and it doesn’t cost me anything, whereas 1,500 people on my mailing list, it all starts to add up.
Then I’ve got Patreon, I’ve got a Discord server, which is like a chat server where I engage with a lot of my fans. When I want to reach out to my fans, I have about five different venues that I can use to do that. It’s not all just a mailing list.
James Blatch: I don’t know how you keep up on top of it all, though. I struggle. I often have this where you think you’ve got to reply to somebody, and I can’t find what bloomin’ channel they messaged me on in the first place. There’s so many different places now.
Mal Cooper: I make calendar events for it all. When I put off replying to someone, I need to get back to them, I make a calendar event for a couple of days, and I mark who it is and what I need to get back to them on. Otherwise, I’ll totally forget.
James Blatch: Whether it’s WhatsApp or Messenger or email even?
Mal Cooper: Yep, exactly.
James Blatch: Good. Okay. Well, let’s talk about the writing process now.
Mal Cooper: Sure.
James Blatch: How many hours a day do you write? What’s your word count?
Mal Cooper: I’m usually writing by 10:00 a.m. It depends. When I’m starting off a book, I find I work a lot better if I go to bed and I just start writing first thing.
Once the book is flowing for me, usually once I get around the one-quarter to one-third mark, then I usually switch around and I don’t start writing till 10:00 a.m. I do admin work in the morning. I’ll sometimes start writing at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., and I’ll be at my keyboard until 10:00 at night, with a break for hanging out with my daughter at suppertime and stuff like that. Otherwise, I’m just at my computer the entire time.
I’m not always writing. Another way I’m really lucky in having Jill is that we do sprints together. I always have this sprinting partner available. We sit there and we do sprints, but we take breaks. I take a 15- to 20-minute break every single hour, where I might pop on Facebook and chat with some people, or maybe go over to a news article or something like that.
Because I find if I just try to write straight through for five or six hours, it’ll just crush me. Sometimes I can. Sometimes just the flow is going and the words just keep going, and I don’t need to stop and take a break. When I find that I’m struggling to figure out what to say next, that’s what I need to take a break. Get a cup of coffee, walk around a little bit, something like that, to get myself back at it.
I strive to hit at least 5,000 words every day. I don’t always hit that, but I also don’t beat myself up when I don’t. I treat it like every day is a new day. I don’t need to make up for yesterday’s word count today. I just have to try for that 5,000 again, because I find if you start building up this word count debt, it’s a morale killer.
I was with 20Books on stage in one of the presentations. I think it was Kristine Kathryn Rusch that was beside me, and she said basically it’s all mind games. When it comes to getting your word count down, it’s all about the mind games, and you have to make sure they’re positive mind games, not negative mind games.
Your mind games reinforce you. A lot of it is just not beating yourself up, and knowing when it’s time to take a break is a really big thing I find.
My best day ever, I still remember this day, because it was the day I decided I never wanted to work that hard again. I did 10,000 words in revisions, and then I wrote 14,000 words after that. By the end of that, I’m like, “I hope I never have to do this again.”
James Blatch: That was in a day.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. That was 8:00 a.m. till midnight that I worked that day.
James Blatch: That’s not good. It’s amazing, but not sustainable.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. That’s why I say I did 44 books in a year, and you probably shouldn’t. Neither should have I. I shouldn’t have done that either.
James Blatch: Jill’s writing, so you collaborate a bit. I looked at a few of your series in preparation for the interview, and see other people’s names on quite a few books.
Do you and Jill collaborate in your universe?
Mal Cooper: Yep. She writes under Chris J. Pike in my universe. She’s done 10 books now in my universe.
James Blatch: Are they books that you work on together, you plot together?
Mal Cooper: The process I work with with my coauthors in general is that we figure out a setting, and I work out the setting down. I’ll even do maps of the solar system or any planets where it takes place, and we’ll describe what the government’s like and maybe a couple of main governmental characters, and name some government agencies or the military and stuff like that, so we know what this general backdrop is that the story is going to be written in. They have references to look up for that sort of thing.
Then we work out who are the main characters, what story do we want to tell. Is it a scrappy teen who is coming of age? Is it a grizzled military veteran? We talk about what character we want to have, because a lot of it is about the marketing too.
We’re thinking like, okay, we want to fill this niche, or we want to make a character that we can then market to this particular type of reader, to suck them into the vortex, you know? We’ll think about that, what kind of character we want to tell, what kind of story they’re in.
I always find that starting with a setting and a character works the best, because now you have this fleshed-out human being that you’ve made up in your brain, and you put them in this setting and you say, “What will they do?” Because you know the character and you know the setting, the answers become a lot easier.
You just know what they’re going to do, because here’s the box that they’re in. They can’t operate outside this box. We’ve defined the setting already. Then of course, you also have the threat. What is the threat? What’s the thing they’re struggling against?
Then we also say at the end we want them to win or lose, or have this new problem that they have to deal with, then I just let the coauthor just go from there. It’s their job to get from there to the end.
Of course, we talk a lot in the meantime and work things out and whatnot, but I give them a lot of free rein to do that. Then I do a passthrough afterwards, where I make sure that the setting and the science aligns with the rest of the broader universe, but I really do my best not to change my coauthor’s voice. I really want them to have their own unique voice in the story.
Also the thing I like about it is because it’s this big universe, where I eventually want to get to 500 books in the universe, I can’t think of all the settings and scenarios and unique people myself for that. Having these coauthors helps a lot with that as well.
What I do with my coauthors for the process is actually pretty much what I do for myself too. I know I’ve got this character that I want to tell a story about. I know their setting and I know where I want to go and I just write from the beginning to the end, and that’s about it.
James Blatch: You do obviously all the publishing, and how much do your coauthors take part in the marketing?
Mal Cooper: Most of my coauthors don’t have very large platforms, so I do almost all of the marketing. I have two coauthors that are also … in addition to Jill, so I guess three total … who have some amount of success in science fiction, so they do a bunch of their own marketing as well.
Really from a readership marketing standpoint, I’m doing more of that work and they’re doing more of the bringing ideas side of the story. Most of that stuff still does fall on me.
The one thing that I have found is that at this point where my stories are, it’s really hard to bring in existing authors, because you can’t say to another author like, “Hey, can you go read 90 books before you write a book of mine?” That’s a time investment they just can’t make.
I’ve actually found two coauthors so far in my fan base that have been really useful, because they’ve read all the books and they’ve been aspiring to write. For them, it’s a lot easier to get them going in it. They’re also really invested, because they’re fans and they really love the universe and whatnot. I don’t have to worry about them not feeling it.
The third part of it too is that because if it’s a full-time author, there’s a lot on me to make sure it’s paying them enough. I want to make sure this release is good for this coauthor, because it’s their paycheck. I don’t want to screw them over. With someone who’s just coming in as a fan, it’s a lot easier. They still have a full-time job, so it’s a lot less stress on them and me for the story to be a success. It becomes more of a fun scenario.
James Blatch: That’s rather lovely as well, isn’t it? Your readers, who are already big fans, become part a more important part of your world.
Mal Cooper: Yeah, I think so, too. I think, in many respects, it’s the best thing to happen. Once you have enough readers, there are going to be one’s out there who actually have the writing chops, too.
James Blatch: Sure.
Mal Cooper: It’s not like you have to find mediocre readers to pull it off. Yeah, it’s great because they come in with their own ideas. They’re like, “Well, I’ve read these books. What would happen if X, Y, Z happened? I’ve always wanted to know what these characters did, or what happened when they left this place.”
So, they come in with a lot of these great ideas, and you’re like, “I would never have thought of that. I just wrote that and moved on.” They’re thinking about this detailed scenario, and all these ideas. It’s really cool, to have that happen.
James Blatch: Let’s talk about marketing a bit.
What marketing are you chiefly focused on at the moment, now?
Mal Cooper: The majority of my marketing, from a spend standpoint, is Facebook. The way I operate is to spend only about 10 to 15 percent max, on Facebook ads. Of my gross royalties, 10 to 15 percent max on Facebook ads. Then, 5% of my gross royalties is spent on AMS ads.
In the 20 some odd years I was in software development, I was always closely tied to the marketing departments. I was either building the platforms to support the marketing department, or I was building the product that the marketing department was then selling. I was always actually closely tied with the budgeting of marketing, and I actually learned a lot from some of the companies I worked for.
The norm is that if you’re spending more than 20% of your … people use the word net and gross differently, but I guess, inbound cash. If you look at your inbound cashflow over the course of a year, if you’re spending more than 20% of your money coming in on marketing, you’re basically doing something wrong.
By wrong, I mean you’re being inefficient somewhere. Most businesses are capable of growing 50 to 100 percent a year, only reinvesting 20% of their money into marketing. That’s a lesson I learned.
Now, there’s all sorts of exceptions, for why that might not be the case. If you’re launching a new product, or you’re trying to build out a new thing of some sort, but in general that’s what I stick to. That’s where my spend goes.
I do find that, still, one of the best vehicles is getting good newsletter slots, with other authors. So, I think that’s probably, when it comes to effectiveness, that’s easily a third of the effectiveness I get out of marketing, is by doing that.
Then, I think the other major thing that I do is all about these different outreach ways I talked about. I’m a chatty Cathy. I’m this weird, extrovert author. There’s not that many of us, to be honest, but I’m one of them.
I love to be online, talking with my fans, and chatting about things. I’ve got a reputation for being this author whose always perfectly willing to sit down and have a conversation with fans. I’m super accessible, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Patreon with them, I’m on Discord chat server talking with them, and stuff like that.
They really feel like they have a lot of access to me. Then, they bring their friends in, to take part in these conversations that we get to have, so that turns into a pretty big marketing mechanism, as well.
James Blatch: Yeah. Best marketing, that word of mouth, isn’t it?
Mal Cooper: Yeah.
James Blatch: Always has been.
Mal Cooper: Yeah.
James Blatch: The Facebook ads you’re running, they’re direct sales ads? Or, mailing list?
Mal Cooper: Direct sales ads. I’m changing my tune on this, ever so slightly, but if you do the math, running Facebook ads to get email addresses is the worst possible way to do it, if you do dollars to donuts.
Say, for example, you’ve got an amazing ad, and this ad is getting a one in three conversion. So, every time someone clicks on this ad, one in three times they actually complete your form, and you get a good email address out of it. Say that ad is only running, costing you 10 cents per click.
Well, now you’re paying 30 cents per email address. If you, instead, go on BookFunnel with a bunch of other authors, and do a big promo on BookFunnel, even where you all have to spend money, like $50 to $100, you can often times get returns good enough to be down to three cents per email address.
Now granted, you’re sharing those email addresses with a certain number of author authors, so you have to take that into account. But it’s, on average, that using Facebook to get email addresses is 10 times more expensive than most other venues for getting email addresses, which is why I don’t do it.
You do have other opportunities, like I have a special relationship with that person, now, where they clicked on your ad, and got your book, so you have to weigh that. But, I do find that, in general, it’s not an efficient way to get email addresses.
James Blatch: Although, it’s probably worth saying that at the beginning of careers, it can be more beneficial, particularly if you’re not necessarily expecting to make a return at that stage.
You need a platform to start building, and then that’s it.
Mal Cooper: Yeah, there are certainly specific scenarios where it makes sense. I’ve actually done it a couple of times, under specific scenarios where I actually wanted to created a specific marketing funnel, where I made the first touch with this particular reader. Then, drew them through this series of marketing events, so in those scenarios, yes, it did work. It was a good way to do it.
But, I feel like if I’m just trying to throw out an ad, just to get people to sign up and grab something, there’s more efficient ways of doing it than using Facebook. Facebook’s not a cheap … I think that the marketing activity is a good marketing activity to do, I just think that Facebook is a very expensive way to do that particular marketing activity.
James Blatch: On that front, do you give away book one in your series, generally?
Mal Cooper: No. All my book ones are 99 cents, though.
James Blatch: Okay.
Mal Cooper: I don’t believe in free books, actually. I think that books should not be free, because of the psychological scenario that it creates, where people start to think that books are free. They shouldn’t be, they take money to make, and they represent a lot of effort.
James Blatch: Yeah. Good, so they should.
Mal Cooper: Yeah.
James Blatch: I think you probably can buy off your website, or is it Amazon linked on your website?
When you do run your direct Facebook ads, do you run to Amazon, do you run to your website?
Mal Cooper: I link, all my ads run right to Amazon. The reason why I do that is I’ve been in software for so long, that I know all websites go down.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mal Cooper: It’s much more likely that my website’s going to go down than Amazon. There was a period where I was running some to my website, for a variety of reasons. But, this one time I was on vacation for three days, and my website was down for those three days. I spent $600 on ads, for those three days. I’m just thinking, I dropped $600, and all I did was frustrate people.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mal Cooper: I go just to Amazon.
Mal Cooper: The one scenario that I wouldn’t do that in, and I still don’t, is that if I’m running an ad that isn’t quite, maybe, apparent that I’m selling a book, it’s a little bit more like a story ad, I’m trying to convince people to click. I want to make sure that when they get to Amazon, they know they’re looking at a book.
So I like to bring them, then, through my website so they see, oh, this is a thing for a book. That way, when they do go to Amazon, they have a better understanding of what they’re getting into. Amazon cares about the conversion on your product page.
If you send a lot of people to your Amazon product page, and they just immediately leave, Amazon’s like, “Well, this is a product that no one wants to buy.” You’re training their systems to know that.
So, you want to make sure that when people get to your product page at Amazon, that they already know what they’re getting into. That’s the one scenario where I would route them through my website, first.
James Blatch: That’s a great tip for any advert. You’ve always got to put yourself in the mind of somebody looking at it, and make sure you don’t confound their expectations, because that’s a surefire way of having a very low relevancy on an advert.
Mal Cooper: I always say to people, “I can get a great cost per click by telling people if they click this link, they get a free pony. But that’s not going to sell very many books.”
James Blatch: Right. Exactly. You’re not going to make an ad look good on those numbers.
How many books do you have out, at the moment, with your name on them?
Mal Cooper: I have a few books that are currently unpublished, because I’m restructuring them to rerelease them in a different form. But, I think I’ve written 94 novels, now.
James Blatch: Wow.
Mal Cooper: Well, I’m sorry, 94 books. A couple of those are novellas. I think, right now, there’s 88 that are currently out. My goal is to hit that 100 number by about mid year, this year.
James Blatch: Well, that would be a little glass of champagne, for then.
Mal Cooper: Oh, it totally will. I was actually thinking about like, I need to order something good. I need some good bubbly, for crossing over 100.
James Blatch: Yeah, that’s terrific. Mal, it’s brilliant to hear of your process, it is a procedure, it’s a huge work effort, but it’s also just in the value in the universe you’ve created. The artistic endeavor, I think it’s very admirable.
Mal Cooper: Yes. Even though we, as authors, we often times measure ourselves on our money. Obviously, for me, making good money is just the way to make sure I can keep doing this job. That’s really what I focus on, more of … That’s what that means to me.
For me, the real thing I really want to do, is I want to create this lasting, memorable universe that I’ve made. Also, the fact that I think is really cool is I’ve created a universe that employs other people, effectively. I have a cover designer and an editor, that get a large amount of their work from me.
I’ve got two authors, now, that have launched themselves into full-time careers, by starting out working in my universe, and that sort of thing, too, which means a lot to me, too, that’s a really big part of the pay off that I get for doing all of this.
Then, I’m hoping that down the road, all this will be my retirement plan. Having all these books in this universe out, that keep making money, and stuff like that. It is a lot about creating this thing that I want to be proud of, forever, and put the work in to make it something that I’ll be proud of. And maybe, my daughter will be able to take it up, or at least have more financial security from it, as a result.
James Blatch: Definitely. Well, you definitely should be proud of it.
Very finally, I want to talk a little bit about you, Mal, because the very keenly observant among them, will notice that you were Michael Cooper at one point.
Mal Cooper: I was.
James Blatch: Now, you’re Mal. The reason I mention this, I think you put a really helpful post on one of your blogs, probably on Facebook. You’ll be able to tell me in a minute, where you did the little bit of deconstructing the whole trans language, that I found useful. Because it’s suddenly everywhere, isn’t it?
In the last couple of years, we’re talking a lot about trans. And for people writing in this area, I think an understanding of what terms are used, what terms are controversial, some of the debate that goes on within it, it’s a reasonable hand. I think it was on your Facebook page?
Mal Cooper: Yeah. I posted about the different terms, and what they mean, and why they exist.
Actually, in some respects, I’m really lucky that I started off with a pen name, writing under M.D. Cooper, because I didn’t have to change that when I changed my name. Obvious, people might have gotten my earlier Facebook ads, the book was written by Michael Cooper, and now it’s written by Mal Cooper, so that’s a bit of a change.
That was a big thing, that actually affected by productivity last year, too. It takes up a lot of mental space to come out as transgender.
When I came out, it was May 31st, 2019, I was actually expecting to have my career end, as a result of that. I write a lot of military science fiction, and my military science fiction is primarily ready by Republicans, who live in the Southern half of the United States, and are military veterans, in many cases. I found that it didn’t actually affect my readership.
In fact, my Facebook group at the time had about 600 people on it, and there was one negative comment when I posted it to my Facebook group, coming out as transgender to all of them.
James Blatch: Wow.
Mal Cooper: This is sort of a stereotypical thing, but you’d have a guy with a Bud Light in one hand, and an American flag behind him in his profile picture, and he’s like, “You go, girl!”
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mal Cooper: It was really cool to see that.
James Blatch: That’s really cool. That’s really cool, because it is tempting to feel that there would be negativity around it, generally. I do find this, in most cases, most people are supportive about other people, in most cases. We do tend, I suppose, the media in particular, tends to coalesce around the angry voices in there.
Mal Cooper: Yeah. Also, I guess, because that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. They don’t talk about the good stuff, it’s not a problem that needs to be addressed. But, it is a really good time to be alive.
I had so many people that reached out, and said that me coming out, and being authentically who I am gave them hope, and made them feel like maybe they could do the things in their lives, that they wanted to be able to do. Be it, just tell their parents something they needed to tell their parents, or come out themselves. I get people emailing me, almost once a day, tell me about how they came out in some fashion.
James Blatch: Wow.
Mal Cooper: Either being gay, or lesbian, or trans, or anything like that. Or, even just people saying, “I’m not a Christian, I’m an Atheist,” to their parents, or something like that. Which not all your listeners may agree with, but just the ability to be able to come out and be honest with the people around them.
Whether you agree with someone or not, having people around you be honest with you, I think is a really good thing.
So, that caused me to realize that I could actually be this … I went from thinking my career was going to be over, to realizing I could actually be a voice to help other people understand things. And being trans, you get a unique perspective that very few people in the world ever get, where you very much see what it’s like to live as one gender, and then live as another gender, and how people treat you, and even how your body changes on hormones, and stuff like that. It’s been a really eyeopening experience for me, to go through this.
I was never really one to like the word privileged, I think a lot of people use the word privilege as a bludgeon. I just prefer more to think of it as perspective. Growing up as a white male in Canada, and the United States, I was basically at the tippity-top of the social structure.
I’m not an idiot, I’m intelligent enough that I can function well in society, so I’ve always done very well, and had very few road blocks. It’s been really quite eyeopening, in so many ways, to understand who the world is different for other people. That’s helped my writing, it’s helped me relate to other people better, and stuff like that, too.
It’s been a fantastic experience for me, growing this way.
James Blatch: I can’t believe it was only last year?
Mal Cooper: I know, right? It’s kind of hard to believe, it’s only been six months, or seven months now.
James Blatch: It feels like Mal’s been around forever, which is good.
Mal Cooper: In some ways, I’ve always been more of an extroverted person, but I really came out of my shell a lot then, too. I felt like I didn’t have to hide anymore, so I’ve been much more active, visually, on social media and around, ever since.
James Blatch: It’s good. With your personality, you seem to be comfortable in that role, because you are going to end up, probably, as a role model, I think, to some people as well. They’re going to come to you naturally, having seen you go through that process, and learn from you.
Are you happy with that role?
Mal Cooper: I am actually, yeah. I think of myself as an ambassador. Not an activist, but an ambassador. It’s where I can share with people my perspective on things, and whether or not it’s useful for them or not, they can decide. Yeah, a lot of people have come around and glommed onto me, because they just want to …
I don’t know what it is, people say I have this really positive energy. I don’t know exactly what it is.
James Blatch: You do.
Mal Cooper: For me, it’s weird. I don’t see it, I just see myself being myself. But, however this positive energy works, I want to share it as much as I possibly can. That’s one of my big goals these days, actually.
James Blatch: Finally, just on this subject, because it is suddenly a quite fraught area, as well. We certainly see, in social media, and this is why your post, I thought, was really interesting. It explained what TERF meant, and who uses it, and why they use it, and so on.
It can be, also, a bit of a mine field. Not just for people writing, but for us living lives, of what to say, what pronouns, whether pronouns are an issue, whether they shouldn’t be an issue. Some people don’t like the whole idea of … I think you made the point that, actually, it’s important for some people, and just having a bit of respect for that, is a really useful thing.
You’ve got your work cut out, probably. I think people are only going to be more exposed to this, and more concerned, maybe, that they’re going to make mistakes somewhere. You’re going to become this go-to person, Mal.
Mal Cooper: I might be. The most generous estimates say there’s only about 2% of the population is transgender, but if you think that you live in a town of 20,000 people, that means that there’s 400 transgender people in that town, which is quite a few, actually. You might run into transgendered folks, every day.
Most transgendered people are still in the closet, but that’s going to change. That’s one of the things we are seeing has changed, a lot of high profile celebrities have come out as trans in the last decade. That’s opened the floodgates, for all of these people that previously were trans.
Society is going to go through a bit of an adjustment period, because we’re going to have all these people that are like, “I thought you were one thing, but now you’re something else.” I think the future generation’s going to have a different experience with that, because they’re just going to grow up this way. It won’t feel like it was this big shift that happened.
It’ll be a bit of a growing pains period, we’ll all get past it, and I think everybody’s going to be fine in the long run.
James Blatch: We’ll get to the point where The Culture, Iain M. Banks’ sci-fi series … Have you read The Culture series?
Mal Cooper: A bit of it, yeah.
James Blatch: They’re set into the future, another part of the Universe. But, their people, they live quite a long time, but they change sex fairly regularly. In fact, there’s a conversation in one of the books where a girl says to her male friend that she finds it really weird that he’s never been a girl. He has to make an excuse, as to why he’s never done that. The unusual thing in her lifetime was not to change gender.
Mal Cooper: You can really see that if you live long enough, and there’s no dangerous repercussions, why wouldn’t you try it out, and see what it’s like?
James Blatch: Well Mal, thank you so much for talking to us, an absolute delight. It’s been brilliant having this conversation, but also we stand around at conferences, talking to you.
I remember being blown away by listening to the productivity side of your life, how organized it was. Also, what you’ve been through the last year or so, you’ve done it with great gusto, and you’re a great voice in our community. So, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mal Cooper: Thank you so much, it’s been great to be here, talking with you.
James Blatch: There you go, Mal Cooper. Hopefully, we’re going to see her in London. In fact, she has mentioned she’s chosen her catsuits. Obviously, I was expecting it to be a Union Jack catsuit, but she died at the prospect when I mentioned it. She said obviously she should have done that, but I don’t think she has got a Union Jack catsuit. But, how awesome would that be?
Mark Dawson: You could lend her yours.
James Blatch: Actually, towards the end of the interview, you will have noticed we talked a little bit about the whole trans world, because Mal’s a bit of a spokesperson, I guess, in that sense, that she’s quite prominent with her views. I think Mal writes really well in this area, and it can be quite tricky. I think for those of us, certainly someone like me, born in the ’60s, adjusting-
Mark Dawson: Oh, God.
James Blatch: … language …
Mark Dawson: There you go.
James Blatch: Adjusting language-
Mark Dawson: Sorry, everyone.
James Blatch: … is more difficult. I’m going to be fine about this. I thought it was worth asking Mal about that, because she did a really good post on the pronouns, why they’re important to some people. I thought it was very measured, very neutral on the subject, and useful for … I mean, you are, at some point, Mark, going to introduce characters into your books, your writing, and some of the stuff that Mal writes and blogs is really worth reading, to get your head around some of the issues.
If you want to make it an issue in a book, Mal is a good resource for that. Also, of course, we should recognize that it can be a very emotionally tough journey for people, and Mal’s done it with aplomb, come out the other side, and is now a very main part of the community, and a very welcome one.
Mark Dawson: Well then, Alan, you managed it.
James Blatch: I never shirk from talking about anything that needs talking about. We love Mal.
Mark Dawson: No you don’t, that’s the problem.
James Blatch: We’re looking followed to seeing her, at the conference. Right, I think that’s just about it.
I really feel like I’ve been talking a lot, again.
Mark Dawson: You have.
James Blatch: Do you want to say anything?
Mark Dawson: No, no. I’ve just been enjoying it. Yes, I’m quite happy. Let’s leave it there, we had extra blatch, an extra helping of blatch today. Let’s be honest, we all need a bit of extra blatch in our lives.
James Blatch: Everyone is blatching.
Mark Dawson: Everyone is happy. I should expect nothing less than gushing comments on the YouTube channel, today. I saw you delete some earlier, well done.
James Blatch: Yeah. I think it was Tom, actually, but I would have done. We get lots of supportive comments, and then a few negative ones, but there you go. We have to live with that, like the old one star reviews. We wear them with badges of honor.
Thank you very much, indeed, for listening. We will be back next week. Who do we have next week? I think we have Emma Prince, from memory, which is going to be about how you manage when your writing is your income, how you manage career breaks when life gets in the way.
In Emma’s case, it was pregnancy, suddenly have a child, and bringing up a child. It could be the illness of a parent, or something. When you work for yourself, you do have to consider this, and how you plan for that, and how you make sure that your income doesn’t take too much of a dip. It’s a really good, practical interview with Emma, coming up next week.
We’re going to try and record some stuff, of course, in London next week, as well, and try to bring that to you in the near future. Right. I think, Mark, all that leaves me to say is that it’s a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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