Spotlight 40: Nicholas Kotar
Mark Dawson: I’m Mark Dawson from the Self-Publishing Show and this is Self-Publishing Spotlight where we shine a light on the indie authors who are changing the world of publishing one book at a time.
Tom Ashford: Hello, and welcome to the Self-Publishing Spotlight. We meet indie authors at all stages of their careers and ask them a series of five questions, five questions about their process, their mistakes and their successes. Five answers that will help you level up your own author career.
My name is Tom Ashford and I’m part of the Self-Publishing Formula. Don’t forget that you can get your self-publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
This week’s guest is Nicholas Kotar. He’s written seven books in the epic fantasy and nonfiction genre and he lives in New York.
Nicholas Kotar: Thank you so much for having me.
Tom Ashford: Do you want to start by going into the epic fantasy and stuff like that? Because I know that you had a couple of sort of sub-genres and that sort of thing.
Nicholas Kotar: I’m inspired by the way J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, but I’m not really a big fan of a lot of the epic fantasy that comes out now. So I call it epic fantasy and it probably fits best in there, but there’s a lot of sort of mythology and folklore that’s going on there in the background.
I guess it would be sort of somewhat cross genre between sort of fairytale retellings, mythology and epic fantasy, but epic fantasy is the most solid thing that I could sort of place it in the bookstore kind of thing.
And the nonfiction books they’re not the nonfiction that you usually think about. My idea was to kind of give my readers an extra layer of insight into my process and to the world building of my books.
I have a book on the heroes from Russian history because I basically write mostly from Russian fairytales and another one on Russian folklore and folk culture, that sort of thing, and fairytales.
Tom Ashford: Very cool.
Question one is, why do you write? Was there a particular reason or story that made you want to get into writing in the first place?
Nicholas Kotar: To be honest, I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t writing. A lot of people put it this way, they say that, “I can’t not write.” But I used to say that, but I think it’s a bit too negative of a way of looking at it.
I prefer to phrase it something like, “The joy of writing is something that I can’t live without.” And yes, it’s a hard thing. Of course it’s difficult, but when you’re in that state where things are flowing, when the story’s coming out almost without your putting too much effort into it, it’s one of the most transcendent things that I can experience and I really love it.
Tom Ashford: Was there a particular story? What was your first book about?
Nicholas Kotar: My first book was when I was five and it was a picture book about my life. So that’s my first book.
But in terms of actually trying to string together some sort of narrative, my initial efforts were quite laughable. One was a knock off of Star Wars that was called Duels of Space. I think I must’ve been around 10 years old when I started writing it.
Eventually it morphed into something that had ninjas riding bears. So I think that was the point at which I started to read Lord of the Rings and other fantasy and it kind of all got confused and mixed up in there.
Tom Ashford: Have you always intended to go with indie publishing or did you pursue traditional avenues first?
Nicholas Kotar: Well that’s a bit of a story. I initially self-published in 2014 a book that eventually became my book one, but I did it in all the wrong ways. It wasn’t properly written. I hadn’t really learned the craft yet very well. I certainly hadn’t learned about the business of it and I kind of just threw it out there to see what would happen.
And obviously nothing happened. And so after that I started to get a little deeper into the craft of it and I thought, “Now is the chance for me to find an agent.” And I did, I got an agent in Trident Media, which is a big agency in New York City.
The agent then proceeded to ignore me for an entire year and during the process of that rather excruciating wait, I started to do some reading on the whole indie publishing thing and specifically Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who herself was traditionally published for most of her career.
She and her husband do a lot of education work for indie writers and publishers. And I realized that the financial realities of traditional publishing were so stark and so outside of what I expected and wanted for myself, that even though indie was kind of a crapshoot, there was more a chance that I would, with consistent work and practice, be able to have some sort of financial stability if not possibly even go full time.
So I ran away screaming from my agent, I told them to go away. And from then on I started to do things more properly, taking Mark Dawson’s courses and listening to Joanna Penn and doing those kinds of things and I’ve never looked back from there.
Tom Ashford: Question number two is, how do you write? Do you plot your stories out or just see where they take you?
Nicholas Kotar: I do a little bit of both. I can’t really write a story until I have a pretty strong framework for the characters. I don’t really see the entire story ahead of me as I write, so I’m not really a traditional outliner.
I know some writers outline 50 pages before they even start writing the book, I’m not like that. But neither can I really pants in the traditional way. So something in the middle.
What I have to do really, is to figure out the goals and motivations and conflicts of each character, each main and lesser characters, both protagonists and antagonists before I can really start the story.
And it’s from those conflicts that arise organically from who the character is and what their problem is that, that the rest of the story kind of starts to fall into place.
To be honest, sometimes in the messy middle, I’ll have to stop and do a short outline of the next few chapters just so I can make sure that my characters are actually doing something and not just walking in place. It’s a bit of a hybrid model, I guess you’d call it.
Tom Ashford: Is there a particular software that you use?
Nicholas Kotar: When I write I use Scrivener. I don’t use it as well as I should. I keep wanting to get one of those courses that teaches you how to use all of its features. Because I think if I think if I actually took some time and studied how it worked, it would actually help.
But even if you use it basically as a word processor with some bells and whistles that can just compile things very easily, that’s good enough for me. I’m a fan of Scrivener.
Tom Ashford: Is there a particular time and place that you prefer writing?
Nicholas Kotar: Well, this is a difficult question isn’t it? Because the time that I would prefer to write is early in the morning before everybody else gets up. But I have three children and they’re small so there is no regularity in anything in my life and I’m self employed so there’s no place I can go to really for silence and to help with deep work.
I have to pick and choose my times throughout the day. Ideally what happens is that I do some sort of low lying fruit in terms of work in the morning and after lunch I sit down for a few good hours of writing every day. But that’s something I’m working towards, it’s certainly not a reflection of current reality.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, fair. Okay, well that leads into question number three.
Are you a full time author? If you are, how did you get there? And if you aren’t, what steps are you taking to make it happen?
Nicholas Kotar: No, I’m definitely not a full time author. But that’s an interesting question in and of itself because I think most people would assume that what you mean by that is, do I make my living off of selling books?
I used to think of the writing business purely as that, but I’ve since started to think about my writing in a more general way because I don’t just write books. I also speak, I have several blogs and I also have a Patreon page, all of which together kind of work to present a certain storytelling vision to people who would like more than just simply to read books, people who have a certain approach to their reading to like certain kinds of stories. And who by and large don’t get to read the kinds of stories that they like because they’re kind of old fashioned in their tastes.
What I found is, what I’m working towards in terms of becoming a full time as a creative professional, is I’m no longer thinking about trying to get as many books sold per month as I possibly can in terms of maximizing my income.
What I’m really thinking about is using my books, my blog, my speaking, my social media as a unified platform for storytelling. And once I started to look at it that way, a lot of interesting opportunities started to present themselves and I have some very concrete goals and I think by the end of the year I will be able to call myself a full time freelance creative entrepreneur, which I think is what you’re asking.
That’s something that’s right within my sights. I’ve gotten pretty close. Two years ago I had a Kickstarter that funded 737% of what I wished for. So that gave me really good financial foundation from which to start building pieces that I think by December, 2020 are going to add up to something that I could call a full time income.
Tom Ashford: Question number four is, what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
Nicholas Kotar: There’s been plenty of mistakes. Of course, the first mistake was sort of slapdash preparing a book that wasn’t ready for publication in 2014 and not having it edited, not studying the craft properly before finishing it and not having it edited, not getting a professional cover designer and just sort of throwing it out there to see what would happen.
A lot of people think they write much better than they do, and that was certainly true of me, I had a very high opinion of my own writing. And it turned out that although I had some things right, most of the stuff I had was wrong.
It set me back in terms of where I could be by several years because then I started to waste time looking for traditional representation during which I could have actually been writing and I wasn’t. So that was the first thing I did wrong, which I sort of wish I had back, but on the other hand, everything that I went through was a learning experience and I don’t really regret it.
And then the other mistake, not so much a mistake is a continuing process. I’m still trying to figure out how best to build and sustain an engaged email list because a lot of the strategies, a lot of the traditional stuff that people tell you to do, which much, much in the fiction space is based on sort of handing out freebies and from a large collection of a freebie seekers, finding people that are close to you in terms of their vision for storytelling, shall we say.
But I found that approach to be difficult to maintain because you do get a lot of people that sign up and who want nothing more than freebies and there’s some significant problems with people’s attention and with the technology and how Google sorts your emails automatically into places where people don’t see them.
I find a lot of the standard advice on email list building to be slightly short of the mark. And I think a lot of people who are giving that advice have managed to get to a point where they’re very well known and they can deal with slightly lower readthrough rates and things like this. So their advice is useful, but perhaps not for people who are starting out or on the cusp of becoming full time.
I think that there’s a way of doing all of the things that we’re supposed to do, all of the marketing stuff that takes some of what the experts tell you, but then you have to really look for your own ways of making them viable.
Because really it all depends on your own personal situation and the kind of readers that you’re trying to attract and trying to figure that out. So those were the things that I had trouble with and I’m continuing to have trouble with on a certain level.
Now in terms of successes, well, I think the biggest success was this Kickstarter that I mentioned. I signed up for a pilot program, a course that was offered by what was then called, Oh gosh, not Bookfunnel, but the other one that’s since changed, it’s now called Prolific Works.
Tom Ashford: Instafreebie to Prolific Works.
Nicholas Kotar: That’s the one, yeah. So they had this course that they were doing and I managed to get in on the very first class before the course was made official and the course was how to do a Kickstarter campaign for authors as a kind of pre order mechanism.
So not as an opportunity or a way of soliciting donations from people, but as a way of gathering a very specific tribe that looks for books specifically on Kickstarter, which is a really interesting thing.
And it turns out that there’s a lot of people that buy their books only on Kickstarter. It’s an entirely different audience, one that a lot of people don’t even think about getting at, because it’s a lot of work to get a good Kickstarter going.
I raised over $25,000 on something that I was hoping to get 7,000 on. So that was a huge success. And it opened up all kinds of doors for me, not necessarily in terms of finances in the short term, but I used that money to start opening up doors in terms of education and networking.
I started to get to know people who knew what they were doing and I started to get to know them on a first name basis. And that sort of long ranged view, instead of taking all that money and throwing it in advertising for example, to try to get a big spike on Amazon. I took it and I invested it into my education and it starting to bear fruit right now, so that was the biggest success I think.
Tom Ashford: Fifth and final question is, what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
Nicholas Kotar: This could be a recency bias thing, but I do have people sending me works in progress all the time to ask me for my opinion and almost to a man or a woman, my advice is learn how to write. And that might sound to be a little bit, I don’t condescending or cruel, but I honestly think that…
First of all, I think that a lot of people can write good stories. I don’t think there’s such a thing as magical talent that you’re given that automatically gives you an instinct for storytelling. Some people are instinctive and intuitive storytellers, yes. But that’s not because of talent, it’s because they’ve been lifelong readers and because they have studied, whether they like it or not, the way that stories are structured and it’s natural to them.
But honestly I think a lot of people can become good storytellers if they study. The problem is most people want to cut out a massive chunk of time and study in the middle and kind of go from, I want to be a writer to bestselling, professional author in the space of months or years.
Most people don’t have the necessary technical knowledge to be able to write a good story. So my number one piece of advice is please go and learn the craft from people who have done it for a long time. The people who know exactly how to break down the mystery of writing into bite sized pieces. So then you can do the technical stuff and eventually by doing the technical stuff you can start infusing it with your own voice and that you can make it something unique.
And together with that is the piece of advice that nobody wants to hear and that’s, don’t expect things to happen quickly. I think it’s clear that the people who make it, the people who are successful for the longest are the ones who don’t expect an overnight success or rather that expect the overnight success to last 10 years, right? Which is something that a self-publishing talks about a lot. So yeah, that’s really my advice to people.
Don’t expect immediate success, but don’t be discouraged by it because there could be a lot of reasons for it. And just while you’re waiting and while you’re putting down the foundational structures that are going to serve you well in the future, learn how to write. And this is a constant process.
The people that I learned from are Nebula, award-winning writers who are still learning how to craft their stories better. It’s a lifelong process, so love it, love that process of learning and writing. So that’s my advice.
Tom Ashford: Awesome. All right, well those are your five questions. Thank you very much for coming on, it’s been great.
Nicholas Kotar: Yeah, thanks Tom.
Tom Ashford: That’s it for this week, self-publishing spotlight.
Don’t forget that you can get your free self-publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
And if you want to appear as a guest on this show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing at selfpublishingformula.com/spotlight-guest. I’m Tom Ashford and I’ll see you again next week.
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