The Obituarist: An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy

Patrick O’Duffy is a Melbourne author who has just digitally published a quirky crime novella chronicling a handful of Very Bad Days in the life of self-styled “obituarist”, Kendall Barber – a social media undertaker who settles accounts for the dead. If you need your loved one’s Facebook account closed down or one last tweet to be made, Kendall will take care of it, while also making sure that identity thieves can’t access forgotten personal data. It’s his way of making amends for his past, a path that has seen him return to the seedy city of Port Virtue after years in exile.

Patrick is no stranger to e-publishing, having released several books and short stories into the wild over the last year or so, and his thoughtful musings on the subject over on his blog are always worth reading. I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a chat with him about his ongoing adventures in the digital world as well as his brand new novella.

The Obituarist is your third full-length ebook, plus you’ve made several pieces of short fiction available as free PDF downloads on your website. What have you learned along the way when it comes to self-publishing ebooks? Any rookie mistakes you now know to avoid?

The Obituarist by Patrick O'DuffyIt’s honestly difficult to make many mistakes in creating ebooks using sites like Amazon or Smashwords – you give them a Word file, press a button and you’ve got an ebook 5 minutes later. I often find formatting problems in those ebooks after they’re published, true, but again it’s easy to tweak the file and resubmit. The learning period is very short.

I think the real ‘rookie mistake’ that I’ve made, and that many ebook writers make, is thinking that ‘if you build it, they will come’. You want to believe that the work will stand for itself, that good writing will find its own audience. You don’t realise just how much work needs to go into promoting and publicising an ebook until you create one – or how little response you might get from readers despite that work. There’s so much on the market clamouring for attention that what might seem like a reasonable amount of self-promotion – a couple of blog posts, some tweets, emails to your friends and family – has only a minimal effect.

You have to keep doing more; you have to keep devoting time to marketing yourself, but not so much time that you stop writing or start annoying people with repeated pleas to come on, read my book, pay three dollars, just this once, please. It’s a tricky balancing act, and I salute those writers who can make it work, or indeed enjoy it. I didn’t do a very good job of it with my first two ebooks, and I don’t know that I’m doing the best job of it with this one either, but I’m giving it more of a try.

I’m very interested in the process involved in publishing your own ebooks, from the point at which the final draft of your manuscript is finished. How much do you do yourself? What other people do you bring in for their expertise, and at what stage?

It really depends on the size and scope of the project, and how much another person can bring to things. I’ll always look for feedback and criticism from other writers that I know before I consider a piece finished, and for something like a single short story that’s probably enough. I’m a professional editor and publisher in my day job, so I can usually do the necessary development of a short project without bringing in help.

For The Obituarist, though, I hired an external editor to go through it and look for errors, problems and weaknesses. It was really important to have that second set of skilled eyes looking through things, and she picked up a lot of things that were just dumb mistakes on my part, as well as writing that needed to be improved. I also sent the draft out to a number of friends and writers, asking for detailed criticism, and they focused more on the plot and narrative than the grammar. All of that was invaluable; the book would have been much weaker without that help.

Some authors design their own ebook covers; sometimes those are good, but mostly they are not. I do them myself for the one-off short stories I give away, and they’re terrible, but I don’t need those covers to actually be that good. I prefer to hire a graphic designer for any book that I’m going to sell. I’ve worked with a couple of designers now, and I’ve loved seeing what they’ve done with my concepts. I used a different designer for The Obituarist than I had for my earlier books because it’s in a different genre and I wanted to take the look in a different direction, focusing on typography rather than images. If I do a sequel I’ll go back to that designer; if my next book is in a different genre/direction I’ll look for yet another person to work with, possibly an illustrator.

That’s really all you need for an ebook – editing, informed criticism and cover design, and depending on your skills and the project you may not need all of those. Layout and typesetting isn’t an issue, as the ebook reader handles all of that. The only other area where another person might help is promotion, but I’m not at the point in my career where I can afford to pay a publicist. (I do have someone giving me publicity advice, but luckily for me it’s a volunteer position!)

Over on your website, you’ve been very open about sales figures/earnings and at the beginning of this year you started a 99c pricing experiment for your previous two ebooks, Hotel Flamingo and Godheads. Have you noticed any difference in sales figures because of this? Based on your experience as both a creator and reader of ebooks, do you have any thoughts about the sorts of price points that might be sustainable in the long term?

Hotel Flamingo by Patrick O'DuffyI’ve noticed pretty much no change at all for sales of Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, other than getting less money for them. As experiments go, it’s been a dud – or, more accurately, it’s an experiment with a negative result. But that’s still a result, and I’m trying to learn from it – and what I think I’ve learned is that, barring sudden exposure to an all-new audience, those two books have probably reached all the readers they’re going to. I hope I’m wrong – these are fun books and I’m proud of them – but unless I devote a lot more time and effort to promoting them, they seem destined to stay as they are. I guess it’s all part of the learning process. I won’t pull them back to $2.99 – I’ve made the change and I’ll stick with it. Perhaps in the future I may make them free. We’ll see.

As for sustainable price points, that’s a really hard question. Certainly the race to the bottom that sees full-length books being released for 99 cents is a problem. It’s a problem for writers who can’t sell enough of those books to make a profit, and it’s a problem for readers because the writers can’t afford to spend money on editing, developing and improving those books to the extent they deserve. Sure, as a reader cheap books sound great, but when low prices mean that we get unpolished work, we have to start reassessing our priorities and considering paying a little more in return for quality and craft (assuming those things matter to us).

I mentioned that I work in publishing in my day job, which means I get to see what costs go into creating traditionally-published books. I used that knowledge to write a series of posts over at my blog (Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3) about the costs involved in producing some hardcopy books and which costs might carry across to creating ebooks. None of that’s authoritative or the Final Word on the topic, but I tried to share some information on how publishers sets costs and where the money goes – and talk about how ebook publishers, including independent ones, need to take costs and sales projections into account when setting a price, rather than just pulling a number out of thin air.

I think that in a perfect world, full-length novels would cost between five and ten dollars in ebook form, with novellas and other short-form work between three and six dollars. Those are higher prices than successful ebooks generally sell for right now, but they’re still very affordable and they give authors a better chance of making their writing sustainable. But I think that we’re still a few years away from prices like that becoming acceptable to the market, if they ever do.

The publishing industry is infamously in flux right now. There are many evangelists advocating the digital self-publishing route, as well as others who stand equally firm behind the traditional model, and of course there are a great number of people with enthusiastic feet in both camps. Are the ebooks you have published so far part of a long-term strategy or are you simply experimenting to see where it all goes? Any plans for print, either for The Obituarist or future works?

There’s this weird Shark-versus-Jets rivalry that’s developed between the hardcopy and ebook writing worlds. As you say, there are evangelists on both sides – and like most evangelists, they’re primarily preaching to those who already agree with them. Independent ebook publishers speak dismissively of ‘gatekeepers’; hardcopy enthusiasts deride independent ebook writers as unpublishable and unpolished. And none of that is useful.

I think that writers should work in the form and market that suits the project. Just as some ideas are novels and some are movies, some ideas are better suited to hardcopy and some are better suited to ebooks. My ebook publishing efforts have focused on shorter-form genre work like novellas, which are difficult to effectively and economically publish in hardcopy – but they’re perfect as inexpensive ebooks, especially as genre readers are largely ebook enthusiasts. I’m also working slowly (much too slowly) on a full-length novel, Arcadia, and when that’s finally ready I’ll be trying to sign it to a major literary publisher, one that can market it effectively to a larger pool of readers across Australia who tend to prefer hardcopy books. And then the next project after that might be an ebook, or a hardcopy, or an iPad app, or some form of interpretive dance.

We don’t need evangelists. We don’t need one-size-fits-all attitudes and demonization of writers who choose a different path. We need writers to make informed decisions about what’s right for them and what’s right for their work, and to have the freedom to make different decisions for each new project.

I really loved the concept of the “social media undertaker” — it sounds like one of those weird, niche 21st Century careers that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn actually exists. Although, in The Obituarist, it seems like you were only able to scratch the surface of what a job like this might entail, which leaves me wondering if you have any follow up novels in the works … maybe a Kendall Barber series?

Facebook DeathThis is one of those times where fact follows fiction, because in between coming up with the ‘social media undertaker’ concept and actually writing the book, a lot more attention started being paid to what happens to the online portions of people’s lives after they die. A number of companies have started offering post-mortem services such as wills that cover disposal of online assets, including Facebook pages and social media profiles, or sending out a set of emails to designated recipients a set time after you pass away. I haven’t seen anyone filling Kendall’s job description as yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time. (I hope their clients are less trouble than his.)

As for sequels or a series – yes, definitely! I came up with this as a stand-alone book but I was already working out ideas for a sequel when I was halfway finished, and it’s about half-finished in my head. There’s so much story potential in the worlds of online identity and surreal crime that I could probably write 4-5 more novellas without repeating myself. If this book takes off, if The Obituarist sells, if readers ask for more, I’ll do my best to deliver.

And finally, here’s your chance to royally plug your new book. Put aside any thoughts of modesty and tell us why people should themselves grab themselves a copy of The Obituarist!

Oh man, I wish I was better at this sort of thing. Umm…

Why should you buy The Obituarist? Because it’s a fun, fast-moving crime story that’s also a look at how ideas of death and identity are changing due to technology. It’s a homage to the hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler without aping the style or conventions of that genre. It has guns, chases, fights, ugly bikers, sexy ladies, illegal laboratories, dishevelled cops and a hero that just wants to do the right thing. It has funny bits and sad bits and danger and romance and swearing and moderately accurate information on the problems of online identity theft.

It has a lot of swearing, if you like that kind of thing. But not too much, I hope.

It’s a good read that will entertain you while costing you less than three dollars. And I hope you like it.

Patrick  O'DuffyBy day Patrick O’Duffy works as a commissioning editor for a major educational publishing company that he prefers not to name. By night he fights crime… er, that is, he writes fiction.

He particularly likes mixing up genres, playing with ideas and writing prose for the sake of prose.

As well as a number of short stories and RPG writing credits, Patrick’s major works include the mosaic novella Hotel Flamingo (a horror/dark fantasy story made up of character sketches and vignettes) and the horror/slipstream anthology Godheads, both available as ebooks.

His new book, The Obituarist, is a crime novella about a ‘social media undertaker’ who settles online accounts for the dead while getting drawn into a confusing case of missing persons and identity theft.

He’s pretty tall and never feels comfortable writing about himself in the third person.

You can follow him on Twitter (@patrickoduffy) or check out his blog and book info pages at http://patrickoduffy.com/

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1 Comment

  1. […] And I talked to Kirstyn McDermott about, yes, The Obituarist and my thoughts on self-epublishing and the false divide between hardcopy authors and e-authors. It gets a bit serious in places. […]


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