Ian Sales

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On Wednesdays on social media, people use the hashtag #WriterWednesday to chat about all things author, book and writing, including authors promoting their own work. As we love to support self-published authors, we thought we’d join in and we will be featuring a UK self-published author every Wednesday on the website. This week, we met Ian Sales to find out more...

Please tell us about yourself; when did you first become interested in writing?
I am the author of the Apollo Quartet and the An Age of Discord space opera trilogy, and I’ve had short stories published in a variety of science fiction, fantasy and literary fiction magazines and anthologies. I also curate the SF Mistressworks website, which reviews science fiction books by women writers published before the turn of the millennium.

I probably became interested in writing in my early teens. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1980s, moved quickly onto Traveller – which was science fiction, my preferred genre – and soon after that I began writing my own adventures and scenarios. Then I’d write up the games I’d played as fiction… But it wasn’t until I joined British sf fandom at the end of the 1980s that I started writing stories that weren’t tied to RPG universes. I had a couple of short stories published in small press magazines, and even co-edited a small press magazine myself. But then I left the country to work in the Middle East for ten years, and while I was there I turned my attention to writing novels.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I had a lever arch file full of hand-written bits and pieces of stories, but it disappeared many years ago. I can remember an early story about the captain of a space cruiser who pulled a dangerous manoeuvre to win a battle, but I’ve long since lost any copies I had of the manuscript. I seem to remember it was rejected by several magazines. I think that might have been one of my first serious attempts at writing and submitting a science fiction short story.

What genre/genres do your books fall under?
The Apollo Quartet, three novellas and a novel about alternate takes on the Apollo Moon flights, is literary hard science fiction – one critic called it “arthouse hard sf”, which I quite like – but the An Age of Discord trilogy is pure space opera. The bulk of my published short fiction is science fiction, with a few alternate histories and one or two that are fantasy.

What is your latest book called, what is it about and what was the inspiration behind the book?
Back in March, I published a book of short stories titled Dreams of the Space Age. As the title suggests, it’s stories set in and around the space programmes of the US and USSR. All of the stories except one were previously published in magazines and anthologies.

Besides your current book, do you have any new projects coming up?
At the moment, I’m working on the much-delayed third book in my space opera trilogy. I wrote books one and two, A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders, years ago, but only sold them in late 2014 to a small press. Which meant, of course, that I then had to write the third book, A Want of Reason. The gap between books two and three, however, proved beneficial. I ditched the synopsis I’d written years before and went for an entirely new slant on the story – which I think is much better. Unfortunately, real life has intervened over the past six months; but even then the delay has given the story more opportunity to ferment, and I think it’s stronger for it.

Where can people find your books?
They’re all available from a very large online retailer, of course. But the Apollo Quartet, Dreams of the Space Age, and an anthology I published, Aphrodite Terra, are also available from my online shop at shop.whippleshieldbooks.com. The first two books of my space opera trilogy are also available in hardback from their publisher at www.ticketyboopress.co.uk.

What has been the greatest moment in your writing career?
Without a doubt, it was winning the British Science Fiction Award in 2013 for Adrift on the Sea of Rains. The novella’s structure had been a gamble, and I’d self-published because I wanted to keep that structure. It totally paid off. Later that same year, Adrift on the Sea of Rains was shortlisted for the Sidewise Award. This year, the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, was selected for the Tiptree Award’s honour list, and a Spanish translation of Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been shortlisted for Spain’s Ignota Award.

Besides writing, what hobbies or interests do you enjoy in your spare time?
I read a lot, of course. I also watch a lot of films. I write about the books I’ve read and the films I’ve seen on my blog at iansales.com. This year seems to have been the year of the movie, and I’ve watched way more than usual. I like world cinema most of all, and my favourite directors include Aleksandr Sokurov, Elia Suleiman, Michael Haneke, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Michelangelo Antonioni… but my favourite film of all time, perversely, is Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows.

Which novelists do you admire?
In science fiction, I think Gwyneth Jones, M John Harrison and DG Compton are the best genre writers the UK has produced. In the US, it would be Paul Park, Joanna Russ and Samuel R Delany. Outside science fiction, the writers I admire most are Malcolm Lowry, Paul Scott, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Green, DH Lawrence, and, more recently, Jed Mercurio, Helen Simpson, Jenny Erpenbeck and Marilyn Robinson.

What has been the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Read a lot. It was in a how to write science fiction book by Bob Shaw. Of course, I’ve always read a lot anyway. The problem with most writing advice is that what works for one person may not work for another. I made a conscious decision when writing the Apollo Quartet to do exactly what readers would not expect. It paid off. Writers should push the boundaries as much as they can, and if that means ignoring advice and breaking “rules”, then go ahead and do it.

Do you have any tips or advice for other indie authors?
It’s probably obvious by now that I have little interest in commercial fiction, science fiction or otherwise. On the other hand. I’m no Oulipo author. So when it comes to writing advice, the only advice I can offer is: write for yourself. Of course, there’s a basic level of skill you need to reach first – not just in the prose (spelling! grammar!), but in narrative skills (POV! dialogue!) and story construction (plotting! foreshadowing!). But for indie authors, that’s only half the story… You could write the best book in the world, but it means nothing if no one reads it. I’m terrible at self-promotion, I admit it, but it’s a necessary skill. Because it’s all about eyeballs. If one percent of the people who see your book buy it, then one percent of 100,000 is more sales than one percent of 1,000. If you have social capital, spend it. Get your book in front of as many people as possible. But don’t be pushy, that turns people off. And if you want to promote in social media, learn the rules first. Many forums will block people who spam-post about their books. And if all you do is tweet about your latest magnum opus, then people will block or mute you. But this is all common sense.

It is possible to become a commercially successful self-published author – I’m sure we can all think of examples. But they’re very much in the minority. Most self-published authors probably earn less than £100 a year. Self-published authors have neither the marketing budgets nor distribution channels of publishing houses, and so it takes a great deal of luck in even coming close to their level of sales. However, self-publishing does offer a degree of freedom that publishing houses can’t – because the latter cannot afford to gamble on books that will not earn them a profit. But, as authors, you need to set your expectations. If you’re writing commercial fiction – space opera, say, or military sf – then you won’t get the platform a major publishing house can offer, and if you sell lots of copies it’ll mostly be down to luck. But if you want to push the envelope in fiction, then self-publishing offers a ton of benefits.

But giving up the day job won’t be one of them.

You can find out more about Ian and his books below:

Whippleshield Books website
Whippleshield Books shop website
SF Mistressworks website