When John Ling published The Blasphemer and collection of short stories, Seven Bullets, in Amazon last year, he had low expectations.
After all, since he started writing fiction in 2001, a countless number of his manuscripts had been rejected by mainstream publishers.
“Ten years is a long time to be banging your head against a steel wall, with no result to show for it. Bitterness, depression, loss of self-worth — I’ve felt it all,” he said on his blog.
But Amazon gave Ling a platform for his work to be read by a wide audience, bypassing the need for agents, editors and publishers.
His recently released story, Fallen Angel, the prequel to The Blasphemer, has been a hit as well, occupying a spot in the top-1000 e-books on Amazon.
"This is a remarkable achievement, especially since there are currently 1.8 million e-books being sold on Amazon," he said.
His success has even helped him earn enough to pay for his house.
Although his e-books are reaping dividends now, Ling prefers to treat his writing as a hobby.
"That way, I don't have to feel as if I'm juggling two occupations at once," said the 30-year-old writer.
Like many writers, Ling has a "day job". He works as a producer with TVNZ Access Services in Auckland, which creates captions and audio descriptions for deaf and blind viewers.
Ling began writing when he was 9 or 10 and grew up loving the works of Charles Dickens.
"His stories were not just sweeping dramas, but they also offered vital social commentary. David Copperfield is, by and far, the best example of this," he said.
Ling said he wanted to offer "crowd-pleasing entertainment with serious dramatic intent" just like his literary hero.
What's the most satisfying thing about writing e-books?
The ability to change things on the fly.
When I first published The Blasphemer, a number of readers emailed me to express their unhappiness about the ending. I took their words to heart, and I have since rewritten the conclusion twice.
This is, quite literally, democracy in action. I would like to think of it as a direct relationship between the writer and the reader; with no pesky editors or booksellers in the middle to stifle this fascinating social dynamic.
What's the difference between publishing in Malaysia to publishing via e-books?
The market for English fiction in Malaysia is quite small and conservative. This is compounded by the fact that bookstores practise a policy known as 'windowing'. They will stock and display your books on a consignment basis for up to 90 days. However, more often than not, the time frame is as low as 30 days.
What this means is that if your book doesn't hit a home run and secure an audience immediately, the bookstore will quickly discard your book and move on to the next title.
Under such conditions, if you manage to sell 1000 copies, you are considered a bestseller. However, most titles will only sell an average of 10 copies a year. It's a sobering fact.
By comparison, e-books are designed to exist forever, and you have all the time in the world to secure an international readership. You are not hamstrung by shelf space or bureaucratic constraints. The potential is limitless.
How would you describe your writing ethics?
Research is hugely important to me. The very last thing I want is for a real soldier to pick up one of my books and say, ‘Hey, you got this wrong. It’s not called a clip. It’s called a magazine.’ If you are familiar with firearms, you will understand exactly what I’m referring to here. And, in all fairness, if you’re going to write an authentic story, then you have to get the details right. And that calls for research. Lots of it.
How are your e-books doing?
I've sold over 10,000 e-books to date. On average, I have earned 60% in royalties. By contrast, most authors in the print market only earn 6%.
E-books have helped pay for my house downpayment, and it's continuing to pay for my mortgage. There's no greater satisfaction than that!
What were the challenges you faced to get your ebook ready for publication?
The biggest challenge was registering my own company, Kia Kaha Press, in order to give myself the legitimacy I needed to publish and distribute my books.
What were the marketing strategies that you've used?
Personally, what has worked best for me is offering one book free. This way, if the reader likes it, they are more likely to purchase my other works.
This works best, though, if you already have a backlist of other titles. And it works even better if all the books are all in the same series.
What was the turning point in your writing career?
When I received an email from a retired New Zealand police officer, telling me how much he had enjoyed The Blasphemer.
He appreciated how I had gone out of my way to make the procedural and political details as accurate as possible. He thanked me for telling it as it is; without romanticising what is often a very stressful and pressurised job.
That was a turning point for me -- I knew right then that my approach to gritty realism was the right one.
What is your advice for wannabe writers?
If you want to achieve any kind of success as a writer, it is important to read widely and examine the works of other authors who have written in your chosen genre. For example, why does a particular book captivate you? Why do the characters make such a big impression? How does the story make you feel once you have turned the last page?
It’s amazing how much you can learn just by observing and dissecting the craft of other authors. It’s the key to finding out what works and what doesn’t.