Interview with Mel Keegan, “Master of Gay Thrillers”

After sneakily perusing a couple of gay erotica books as a curious teenager, despite the definite arousal effects of such racy faire, I had been a serious reader and lover of books since a young age and the former did not keep my attention. As exciting as they could be in momentary flashes, in the end they left me unsatisfied.

Sex was as interesting to me as the next person, but reality was what I desired most. Normalcy. Or if not those two thing, at least thrilling adventure and romance with gay characters and themes, but not what amounted to or was outright porn.  As open-minded as I am, and had not a whit of problem with public nudity or sexual interpretations of all kinds, I don’t need or desire porn.

Then, as now, I desire what reflects my life: respectful, believable gay fiction which does not stereotype or reduce the protagonists to little more than 1) pseudo gay couples or partners superimposed over heterosexual templates, 2) works which inaccurately depict gay couples, partners, relationships or sex, or (love this quote) 3) “the white, middle-class disease: a tendency to assume that what is true of me is true of everyone.”

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Mel’s work, but it was an epiphany for me.

“YES! THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN SEARCHING FOR! I said to myself. Any and all of Mel’s books, without hesitation, I am willing to read or have read.

Though I’ve written fiction since I was eleven, when I finally decided to have published some of my work, though the advertisement and marketing which is necessary I came across Mel again through the GLBT Bookshelf wiki site. After establishing a dialogue through general emails with queries about the site, greatly daring, I asked for an interview and was accepted. The following is the result.

Mel Keegan has decades of experience,  keen insight and wisdom about the business and life in general, and I consider myself privileged to have experienced this opportunity to interact on this level.

The original post can be found on Queer Magazine Online, where Anders kindly let me post to his great website.

Interview with Mel Keegan

By Red Haircrow

 

Mel Keegan's Profile Pic

Mel Keegan's Profile Pic

1. Out of the many books you’ve written, which one is your personal favourite? Why?

That’s a tough question, and the answer will change from day to day, depending on the mood I’m in. But it’s true to say I have an especially soft spot for several books. Fortunes of War is very close to my heart, and from week to week I’ll either cite this one or Dangerous Moonlight as the best of my historicals.  I’ll usually choose The Swordsman as my best fantasy, though the one that’s perhaps the least well known of all my books is a candidate for this rank. The Lords of Harbendane somehow slipped through the cracks, coming along at a time when there were such rafts of new works, it was literally impossible to get it a review. And then of course, when I’m in a science fiction mood, I’ll almost certainly choose Death’s Head as a personal favourite.

Why would I choose any one of these as my personal choice of the moment? Because it will strike a chord at some level. They’re very different books. Fortunes of War is the closest to being a classical romance. Death’s Head is the closest to being legitimate SF, in which the gay themes and characters are absolutely integral to the futuristic setting. The Swordsman is classic fantasy in every detail, with the exception of the gay romance (and I have an especially soft spot for it because it’s been my best seller in recent years). Lords of Harbendane is virtually mainstream – yes, it’s a very, very gay romance, but this aspect of the book is secondary to an enormous, and very powerful plot. The “gayness” in Harbendane is not an issue, because in their world there is no prejudice, no bias one way or the other – which is something Harbendane has in common with Death’s Head, though there is no other similarity between the two worlds.

So, which book I would choose from day to day, week to week, depends on what mood I’m in. But, yes, I keep coming back to a small group of titles, and my personal favourite will always be one from that group. Add The Rabelais Alliance to this short list, and you have them all.

 

2. What was your first published work? When was it written and/or published? Was it in the gay fiction genre?

My first published works were not in the gay genre, and were not on the Mel Keegan by-line; they go back to about 1980 – they’d be of no interest to anyone reading about Mel Keegan. To go into those credits, I’ll also have to disclose two or three of my pen names, and I’d rather not do this. Professional discretion!

My first professional gay fiction credit, now – that’s a whole ‘nother question! It was ICE, WIND AND FIRE, which was written some time in the late 1980s, contracted by GMP in 1989 and published in 1990.

3. What made you choose the gay fiction genre as your main creative focus? Or is gay fiction your main focus for writing endeavours?

Well, gay fiction is Mel Keegan’s main focus! I do write in other genres, under other pen names – have written a good deal of non-fiction and other fiction, but it would be fair to say that Mel Keegan is the best-known of my by-lines, and the biggest fun, by far. I’m written far more on that by-line than on any other … sold more copies, had better reviews and so forth. So in that respect gay fiction is my main creative focus, when measured across the decades — ye gods, that makes me sound old. Born end of 1958, okay? I have a very few years on Johnny Depp, okay?! However, when you’re working on something major in another genre, or in non-fiction, and you’ve relegated MK to the side burner for the interim, your focus is obviously elsewhere. But yes, always wind up coming back to Mel.

What made me choose gay fiction as my main creative focus? Actually it chose me. I wrote a hell of a lot, all over the spectrum of fiction and non-, and Mel Keegan was the way it turned out. Underlying this process, though, is the era in which I matured as a writer. In the 1970s and 1980s, we had even more to fight for in terms of gay rights and human rights than we do today. Things are changing – perhaps painfully slowly in America, but relatively quickly elsewhere. Go back 20 – 30 years, and you can see that the foundations for what’s happening today were put in by soapbox-posers and tub-thumpers like me. I was always a campaigner, and growing up with, uh, a rather vested interest in the rights and privileges denied to gay people, propelled me into gay rights activism.

So I would always have been a gay rights activist, and I would have been delighted to write in the background as Mel Keegan, but – I would also have loved to score a major contract to write legitimate SF for the mass market. If you have a look at my Hellgate series, you can see this clearly. These are absolutely legitimate SF novels, in which the gay characters are – once again – integral to the speculative future setting. Being gay is not an issue in their world. The series features several gay couples, but these are not “gay novels” as such.

What’s a gay novel, anyway? To me, it’s a novel that is specifically about gay people doing gay things. Gayness should be the central focus of the book – after which, the coming out, or the epiphany, or the gut-wrenching relationship, whatever it takes, is set against a backdrop (a place; a time; an SF or Fantasy world) which is secondary to the central theme of gayness.

Now, against this rule, measure the Hellgate novels! They’re not gay novels, though they have several gay couples and some gay sex which is about as graphic as a hot (tish) hetero novel gets. In other words, these books are “caught in the cracks.” They’re not gay books, so the gay fic and m/m readers don’t gravitate to them … but the romances in them are gay romances, which means that a fair percentage of mainstream readers would be upset by them, and a fair number of booksellers would probably rate them “adult” enough to shelve them with the porn, up on the top shelf at the back of the store!

I should say, right here, that Hellgate is written for me. Specifically. DreamCraft gives me carte blanche to write what I want. I know that Hellgate is not “commercial.” I also know that it’s the kind of book which I (and boatloads of other people) love to read … and which no one (or at least no one beyond DreamCraft) publishes. Why is this stuff not published? Well, look at it this way. Out of the reading public, what percentage likes “hard” SF stories? One in ten? That’s a guess, but we’ll use it. So it stands to reason that, out of the gay reading public, the same percentage will like hard SF with gay characters, yes? Now, gay books never did sell very many, even back in the much-lauded paperback days. Ten thousand was a runaway bestseller for a gay paperback. You can therefore divide that by ten, if you’re trying to market a book which is “in a niche inside a niche.” Hellgate is a marketer’s nightmare. And I love it. And no, it doesn’t yield absolutely spectacular sales figures … but yes, there’s a core of readers who love this genre as much as I do. Hard SF like Greg Bear, and gay characters, and gay romances.

4. How do you think the writing industry has changed over the years? Marketing/Advertising? The writers themselves?

The ebook revolution has changed everything, forever. No question about it. The advantages of ebooks are amazing, and – so long as you don’t need to earn a ton of money, more than ever before you can write and market what you want. Anything you want. (Including Hellgate, I guess!)

Editors always had an idea in mind of what they wanted/needed to publish, and they always went out looking for the material which suited their readership best. Literary agents were clued into their needs, and helped to screen out both the dross and the material which was well done but simply inappropriate for a given publisher. Fifty years ago, and more, the boss at a major publishing house still prided himself on discovering a new voice; they saw themselves as patrons of the arts, nurturing and fostering writers with a view to fetching the new generation’s classics into being.

The change came slowly during financially tough, and worsening times. Publishers consolidated to stay alive … small ones were gobbled up by big ones or else closed their doors. Writers – even good ones – found it harder and harder to get their work read, never mind published. The agencies made it even tougher, because by the 1980s it was well understood that many (most?) publishers were using the agency system to screen applicants. This is perfectly understandable, when you think of a publisher’s business overhead. The business doesn’t have five junior editors who spend every day opening envelopes, reading the contents, seeing if people can get their grammar right, or even format a manuscript properly. Agencies did (and still do) a very valuable job … and as they became the only gateway via which to open a dialog with a publisher, the agencies themselves became inundated. They stopped “reading” for most of the year. Or all of it.

The major, legitimate publishing industry was a fortress by the 1990s. It was designed and built to protect itself, on one side, from the regiments of wannabe writers, most of whom (sorry, guys, but this is true) can’t even get their sentences to parse properly, and on the other side, to protect its revenues in the interests of its stockholders…

It’s a recipe for self-destruction. The legitimate publishing industry as we know it is a dinosaur waiting to fade into extinction, but the process of that extinction goes back to the 1950s or 60s, when the amalgamations began. Protecting incomes means publishing only the work of well-known writers who are proven to sell copies, feeding your target marketplaces only the books you know they will buy. You take no risks, and as a writer or a genre stops selling up to expectancies, you cull your lists.

This is fine and dandy, so long as people continue to read voraciously. But what happens if they stop? And in fact this is what’s been happening for about the last 15 – 20 years. Studies all over the world have been showing the trend for eons now. Fewer people are reading, and of those who do read, they read less. DVDs, computer games, the Internet – all of these compete for a limited amount of human attention, time and (!) money. As one part of the marketplace thrives, something else has to wane to make up for it.

About ten years ago, though, “something happened that the major legitimate publishing industry did not intend,” to borrow a line from the Lord of the Rings. And that “something” is in the process of screwing the coffin lid down on said industry.

Broadband internet + free software like Adobe Acrobat + POD + social networking = DIY publishing for all.

Eight years ago it was all about Print on Demand. Things like Lulu were the big news. Suddenly you could publish your book by uploading a PDF, sell it off your blog, and people would actually buy indie paperbacks because they were often so radically different from the pasteurised, homogenized stuff you could get in the bookstores. For a little while the indie publishers actually thrived. New vistas opened up, but —

Even this was a transitional phase, because the high cost of publishing to paper, and shipping the product, propelled the price of the product into orbit. Buy an indie book from Amazon, for instance, and have it shipped to Australia, and you’re looking at $40, even with the 1:1 exchange rate we have now. Back in the days when the Aussie buck was worth .75c against the Greenback, and … well, you do the math. The situation was not sustainable in the long term, and the successor to POD was already in the wings.

Ebooks have been there since about 1995, in PDF form. In fact, you could get them in HTML form earlier than that. Two things were always in there as obstacles, though. First, download times were miserable in the 1990s – Broadband internet didn’t arrive in most areas until well past 2000. The second thing was the inescapable fact that you can’t read millions and millions of words off a computer screen. Sure, the flat screen LCD and LED monitors have become easier to read in the last few years, but the word “laptop” is a misnomer. If you sit a notebook on your lap for any length of time, you will cook it. So you’re still back at the desk, sitting in an upright chair, when you wanted to be out on the lawn chair, or in the hammock –

Boom! The ebook readers came onto the market at exactly the right moment. BeBook, iRex, Palm, Sony, Pocket PC, Kindle, iPad … the evolution was slow and damned expensive, and it’s not finished yet. But by this time next year iPad will have numerous competitors, offering full-color displays on a screen close to ten inches, corner to corner. Better yet, these tablets should be about the same price as we were paying for a 6” b/w reader like the BeBook, a year or two ago. I got myself a BeBook, and have used it a lot. I’m looking forward to one of the iPad clones, in twelve months. Not the iPad itself, you understand, because at $800 they’re ridiculously overpriced. But there are many competitors … and my eye is on them.

Ebooks cut the price of shipping off the price of a book, which saves about $16 on the cost of a read purchased from a publisher in the US and shipped to Aus … or from a publisher in Aus, and shipped to America. Also, ebooks cut the printer out of the loop, which meant that a huge book – say, for example, Nocturne or Dangerous Moonlight, which are well over 200,000 words each – can be retailed for $9.99, rather than the $20+ which is the lowest retail price you can quote, if anyone outside the printshop and Amazon are going to make any money from the sale.

So ebooks alone were not going to change the future of publishing, because it’s way too uncomfortable reading on a computer screen. But ebooks plus ebook readers? Yep. Add full colour display at an affordable price (Christmas 2011, guys), and that knocking sound you can hear is the nails in the coffin lid being hammered down.

So it’s no surprise whatever that the last five years have seen an enormous explosion in ebook publishing, and that the legit publishers are getting left behind as the indies blaze trail. They’re still trying to agree about a base-line retail price, while the big epubs are ballooning so fast, the day is swiftly approaching when the biggest of the epubs will rival, or outfight, the sluggards who are still arguing over the nickels and dimes.

Indies always set the pace and break trail, but it’s also true that in the world of epublishing (or e-anything, come to that), evolution happens so fast, if you blink you can miss the transition from dinosaur to ostrich.  What’s happening lately is that the epubs are starting to “calcify,” or rust into the sockets they wore out for themselves a few years ago. Like the paperback publishers of old, these publishers have come to know what the majority of their readers’ wants/needs, and this is what they want to publish. It’s all they want to publish, because they have business overheads to cover if they’re going to keep their doors open,

In the gay publishing world, m/m is increasingly where the bucks are … but the m/m needs to be of a specific kind. The real money is in what we’re calling Erotic Romance today. Books need to be pretty sizzling to sell a lot of copies. The “Heat Rating: 5” label is what many readers are looking for. So the challenge to a writer is, can you write a top-notch story and “crowbar in” enough sex to get it past the acquisitions editor at an epub?

Not all writers want to write explicit sex, especially if they’re compelled to write it. Or, they don’t want to write it all the time – much less be compelled to write it all the time. But more and more, this is what you must write, if you’re going to do well, via a Very Major Epublisher … and don’t blame the publisher! This is what the market demands. Epubs only serve up what the market wants, because they need to earn some minimum amount per quarter, to keep the overheads covered and the doors open for business.

So the wheel has turned full circle, and in a matter of ten years the ebook industry has reached a point very similar to the one where the paperback industry was poised by 1995 or so. It caters to a small, voracious market which knows precisely what it wants … and the market is getting smaller every day.

Why? What makes it shrink? Well, the m/m fiction market actually hit saturation point a while back (how long ago depends on who you talk to). An aficionado might easily have purchased 500 books over the last 10 years, and acquired another 1000 free. Free? Yep. As publishers became harder and harder to approach, contracts became harder to get, and less lucrative, desperate (or disgusted) writers started to give their works away. And I’m not talking about non-parsing drivel here. I’m talking about well-written, well-edited, well-plotted stories which would have shone among the cascades of the pulp paperbacks of the 1960s. Free. No strings attached. PDFs, which any computer or ebook device can read.

So here’s your reader with 1500+ books on the flash card in the BeBook (or whatever). They’ve read so much, they get choosy. They’re picky about what they’ll spend $4.99 on, and they’re spoiled for choice, with scores of new titles coming out every week, and a whole library already on the SD card.

Then … the recession hits in 2008, and in 2010 it doesn’t show any signs of lifting. If fact, things are getting worse. People are re-reading their old favourites. They’re looking for freebies – they’re downloading torrents, and getting the entire Mel Keegan collection, every book, in one ZIP file, for nothing! (Yes, that happened; it’s probably still happening somewhere). They’re also breaking the rules and sharing their ebooks with friends, and complaining bitterly if there’s any DRM attached to the books.

All these things shrink the market; and then you add an ever-growing number of indie publishers to this brew, and it’s a volatile mix. Sales are way down for everyone. And many of those sales are attracting lower and lower royalties due to the rise of the third-party vendors, such as iBooks, Sony, B&N, Kindle, what have you. True, a publisher can reach a much wider market than ever before. But whereas this publisher could get $9.99 from the sale of a PDF via its own webpages, it will get as little as $3.50 from the sale of the same title, via Kindle UK. So a writer who was accustomed to earning a $5 share from each ebook sale is suddenly getting $1.75  … hmmm.

But the internet has one last ace hidden up its sleeve. Many writers arriving on the scene today are choosing to skirt the whole swap and just do it themselves. The ubiquitous PDF, the Blogger blog, the networking of Twitter and Facebook and what have you. Sales are there – and you don’t have to be hemmed in by the requirements of epubs who are, themselves, hemmed in by the demand of the mass market which is their cash source. The ultimate indie is the “cowboy” who’s out there doing the whole thing from scratch, doing it themselves.

Are they succeeding? Some are, some aren’t. The more abstruse your work, the fewer copies you’re likely to sell. The less you like marketing, ditto. The less well prepared your work is, the greater the likelihood that savvy readers will catch on to the fact you’re not up to the challenge. But if you’re as good as you think you are, and you don’t mind working hard at marketing, and you write stuff that’s not so far out in left field it’s practically out of the ballpark, you stand a pretty good chance of selling well enough to be very lucrative.

Caveat: you need to know what constitutes an ebook bestseller, and not go into this expecting to make thousands of dollars off any one title. You need to know how much Amazon will keep back on every sale, and if you’re outside America, be prepared to go to insane (sometimes expensive) lengths to stop the American IRS taking 30% of your earnings as tax, and never refunding the money. You need to know – a lot, on top of, and extra to, the nuts and bolts art of writing itself.

5. Do you work in another profession other than writing or are you exclusive in the field? Have you had other professions or careers?

Yes. I’ve always worked as well as writing. Or, to put it another way, writing never earned enough for me to do it full time. Very few writers write full time.

6. When was your last book release? Do you have any “works in progress”?

The latest was Umbriel, which I co-wrote with Jayne DeMarco. And right now I’m working on the last two Hellgate novels. Progress is slow, because I do have to work as well, and GLBT Bookshelf is a time gobbler. When I went into the wiki, I had no idea how much time it would consume. Suffice to say, Hellgate and three other books would have been written by now, if I were not wrangling the wiki too!

7. I noticed you have co-authored some books? How did the collaboration come about?

To date I’ve only co-authored one – Umbriel – but two more are due out in the semi-near future, also co-written with Jayne D.

It came about due to the fact Jayne had a hell of a lot of spare time, and I had none. She’s also a very solid writer, absolutely professional, with a knack for cutting a narrative line that absolutely does not waver, which means she can take an idea and run with it, straight as an arrow, to The End. We’ve been chatting for a long time, and when two writers chat it often happens that they start hashing out ideas. Plots … happen. But I had no time to develop them, and she did, so it stood to reason that she’d write a partial draft, throw it at me, and I’d add my ten cents’ worth and throw it back, and suddenly Umbriel was finished. There’s at least one more in the works for the very near future (about genetically engineered humans in the outer solar system), and after that, at least one more which is lurking out there in the mists of the future somewhere.

8. Do you prefer to co-author or write solo? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Depends! If I have the time, I much prefer to be stagemaster, ringmaster, puppetmaster, scriptwriter, dialog coach, fight choreographer, gaffer, key grip … and caterer. It’s not that I’m a control freak, but when I write, I have a widescreen in my head on which a major motion picture is playing. I novelise what I see. That’s how my fiction is written. But if I don’t have the time (and this is increasingly the case) it’s great to be able to share the load with another workhorse. Jayne D. and I worked very well together on Umbriel. I see no reason why More Than Human should be any less pleasant an experience. After that … we’ll see – and a lot depends on her, because she has her own tales to tell. Painting Stephen by Jayne De Marco was a joy. It deserved to sell twice as many copies, and I have no idea why it didn’t, because it has absolutely everything the current gay or m/m novel ought to have. I don’t want to put a crimp in JD’s writing by offloading my ideas onto her. GLBT Bookshelf is close to two years old now, and when it’s finally running itself (soon, I hope!) I’ll get my writing time back.

9. Do you have any other projects relating to writing or the marketing/advertising business ongoing? What are they? Were they your own ideas?

Basically, GLBT Bookshelf and its attendant Bookstore are the project. The Bookshelf is almost cruising – not quite, but almost. I still spend too much time taking care of members who can’t make heads or tails of how to make pages or add themselves to the lists. This is why we floated the Bookstore as a permanent fundraiser, in the hopes of earning he $1,200 pricetag of a Page Wizard, which will do this work for the less computer-savvy members.

Is the Bookstore working? Yes, and no. In its first month we’ve earned about $40 from sales (including Kindle affiliate sales), so at this rate it will take years to raise the money. The plan right now is to bump the inventory at the Bookstore to about twice its current level, and then try, with all due desperation, to get members inspired to help us by shopping there. If you want a good read, and you know you can send a couple of bucks in the direction of the Bookshelf, why wouldn’t you at least look at the Bookstore first? Members (about 1,300 of them so far) are not yet doing this, but with any luck a couple of begging newsletters will get them to at least take a “squizz” at the Bookstore before they head off elsewhere! The GLBT Bookshelf wiki itself is going well, with great traffic and some very enthusiastic members to offset the greater majority who – predictably! – never got involved. This is quite usual in any community, it seems. 10% make the running; 90% enjoy.

10.  What are some of the problems you’ve encountered?

With the Bookshelf? Well, unpleasant people would be by far the worst “problem.” I have a lot of patience, but there are people out there who will go on pushing and pushing, until one has said all one can, and said it five times. In the end, when I’m exhausted and stressed, I’ll make a mistake, such as missing one out of 40 one-line emails received today from this person, in which some key piece of information was transmitted. In my ignorance, I’ll ask the wrong question, or make the wrong remark about being mystified by some aspect of an issue about which this member is obsessing. Bam! The situation explodes and, after hours or even weeks of effort and patience, I’ll be perceived as the complete villain. In a year, I’ve had three of these people. One of them said, and I quote, “Never contact me again, for any reason whatsoever,” and this was after she had assaulted me with beak and claws! Another one accused me and Sara Lansing, our moderator, of conspiring to deceive. So people are definitely the only real “problem” with the wiki.

With the Bookstore? Getting members to support it. If we have 1,300 members (which we do), it stands to reason that we have about 1,000 who would shop at Amazon maybe ten times in any one year. That makes 10,000 shopping sprees to Amazon. Or more than 25 sprees per day. If they would just start their shopping from any affiliate link at the Bookstore, and then go on to get whatever they wanted, and forget utterly where they began, we ought to be able to make a couple of hundred bucks a month from affiliate sales, and we’d have that Page Wizard in six months. Members are not doing this. It wouldn’t cost them anything – nothing at all – and I’m so surprised that they can’t find the inspiration to do something so simple, and so … free.

Problems writing? Not really. That’s one thing I never had trouble with!

Problems with publishers and agents? Loads of them – particularly with agents. Too numerous to go into here. I could write a book about it, literally, but I doubt anyone would want to read it! Established writers would nod their heads sagely; publishers and agents would get annoyed; and neophyte writers would get disillusioned, and perhaps say I was deliberately trying to dissuade them from following their dreams. Not so! But I was always one of those practical pigs who went into everything with eyes wide open. That way, when I walk into a wall and break my nose, I have no one but myself to blame! And it happened a few times before I “came home” to DreamCraft, which is actually a local multimedia studio, right here in the same city where I live.

Part 2 Coming Soon!

Links:

The Official website of Mel Keegan: “Master of Gay Thrillers”

Blog: The World According to Mel

The GLBT Bookshelf Wiki

The GLBT Bookstore

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