Interview: Brian Reindel on writing short fiction and publishing his first book
In conversation with the Future Thief
Following my interviews withand , this week I’m talking with . A fellow Substacker, Brian is the brains behind , where you’ll find his short fiction and accounts of his creative endeavours.
Brian’s been on a similar trajectory to me, releasing his first indie book around the same time that I published No Adults Allowed. Here’s his book launch announcement:
There is a key difference in what we write, which is that Brian specialises in short fiction. The Stars Will Fall is an anthology of his best work and makes for a deliciously diverse set of stories. Having not read an anthology for a while, I’d forgotten the thrill of going from one tale to the next and never knowing what you’re going to find.
Also, look at this beautiful cover:
I’m intrigued by the publishing of short fiction on Substack. I’ve always serialised longer form novels, and while Tales from the Triverse is more of an anthology series of detective stories it’s still all taking place in a connected universe. Brian’s stories are standalone, each introducing new characters and settings. I’m beginning to suspect that this is a more reader-friendly model for Substack.
OK, enough intro waffle. Let’s get into it.
Simon: You've just published The Stars Will Fall, your first indie published book. How much of the project did you DIY versus getting people in to help?
Brian: Around 95 percent was DIY. I designed the cover, typeset the manuscript, created the ebook and managed the Amazon submission process myself. It helps that I have a journalism degree, art background and work in a technical field. I understand I’m not the typical use case.
Self-publishing on Amazon’s KDP involves understanding more than just Amazon’s process. I have documented my experience and findings via a guest post on The Storyletter, titled Self-Publishing on Amazon KDP, and hope that will eliminate some of the mystery for aspiring authors. Self-publishing a book as you know with No Adults Allowed, can be exhausting no matter what platform you choose.
The other 5 percent was editorial assistance. Many of my recently published short stories on Substack that ended up in the book were previously submitted to speculative outlets. Tom Pendergast of Out Over My Skis has an editorial background, and was kind enough to help me tighten those up, bringing them to another level. That gave the book some polish that I could not have accomplished on my own.
Simon: The cover is especially eye catching. What was the process behind the creation of such a striking design?
Brian: Thank you! I get lots of compliments on the cover, and it’s helped me to realize I made the right choice in the art direction. I’m not a fan of mainstream fantasy and science fiction book design. It’s formulaic, and it’s bent toward a safe, acceptable standard of mass appeal. I understand why that’s being done from a marketing perspective, but it’s not for me. I’m a child of the 80s, and what I love are the hand painted book cover designs and movie posters throughout the 70s and 80s. I don’t have that level of talent, but it’s what’s inspiring me.
For any future books that I self-publish, I’m going to lean more into that aesthetic, maybe even try creating the cover in traditional watercolor. It has to have a sense of nostalgia, even if the readers weren’t alive in that era — not quite retro futurism, but a similar emotion. I have a Pinterest board filled with examples, which is where I start my design journey. From there I sketch out a few ideas and then begin creating the cover within a paid program called Clip Studio Paint.
There’s a newer, secondary reason that I lean in that direction. I’m trying to make it difficult for AI to replicate. The more unique it is, the more I’ll stand out from an increasing number of artificially generated copycats. I’ll admit it’s a losing battle, but for as long as possible I’m going to make it hard for those AI models to… model.
Simon: That hit a nerve. I’ve recently stepped away from using AI generated art, which also means I’ll soon be reworking the Triverse covers. Your instinct to distance yourself from the homogeneity of AI generation is on point, I think.
You specialise in short stories. The Stars Will Fall is an anthology collection, and you publish new short stories on your Substack. What is it that draws you to the short story in particular?
Brian: All of the stories I remember are short stories. I guess that says more about me and my memory than anything. I like short stories because it’s how we commonly process our life experiences. When my wife or kids tell me about their day, or something that happened at school, it’s a short story. It’s meant to engage a listener with something powerful in a short time. Everyone does it in their own way and it’s a commonly understood means of passing along information across cultural boundaries, written or verbally. Novels are more expansive, all the stories of a life congealed into a single narrative. I want to tell those as well, but it requires approaching the craft from a different perspective. I think I’m ready to do that, but only time will tell.
Simon: I'm increasingly thinking that Substack is most suited to short fiction. Which is an issue for me, as I primarily write long form stories. How have you found the experience of growing the readership for your short fiction?
Brian: I get mixed feedback on serialization and long form fiction. Personally, I think email newsletters are better suited for short fiction, but don’t write off long form fiction just yet. In my research and discussions with other authors, readers are able to engage digitally with longer stories that range from 5,000 to 10,000 words. People are buying ebook novels and there is a significant market for that, so it’s not a fundamental issue. I’m starting to suspect it’s the serialization part of the equation that causes a problem, not necessarily that it’s longer.
If I’m a reader, why should I have to wait to experience an entire novel over the course of several months? Why not send out a chapter summary, post the entirety of the work and let me read it at my own pace? I suspect it’s because it’s not done yet, which leads to another set of questions about investing in these characters and this story if it’s still “rough” and could change. If I were to serialize, then I would only do so after it was considered a polished piece. At that point it would also make sense to provide more than one medium. For example, it’s serialized on Substack, but it’s also available as an ebook, via Kindle Unlimited and possibly audio. Maybe on Amazon those formats include something that’s not available in the version on Substack or vice versa.
My suggestion is to experiment. Not every audience will feel the same. Don’t discount serialization entirely, but find a process that works to reach a wider audience.
Simon: What drew you to using Substack as a platform tool, rather than publishing on any of the other fiction platforms (Wattpad, Royal Road etc)?
Brian: I respect what Substack is trying to do for writers, no matter their personal, religious or political beliefs. I hesitate to use the words “free speech” because they’re still a private platform, but the diversity of thought on their platform, even within fiction, is refreshing. A perfect example is the Fictionistas Substack. They start every Zoom call the same way, with a reminder that we all come from different backgrounds, to be respectful and we’re gathering to help each other find success writing fiction on the platform. That’s our common bond. It demonstrates there is a different sense of community that can’t easily be found elsewhere.
I had planned on utilizing the paid subscriptions, which is an attractive feature on the platform, but ultimately decided against it. I guess I would say that enticed me as well, but it’s not why I stick around.
Simon: That common bond is important. I also appreciate Fictionistas’ emphasis on diversity of thought - ‘free speech’ is so often used cynically as a sneaky proxy for “I only want to see MY tribe”, whereas it should always be about more diversity, not less.
Brian: What's interesting to me is that after all of these years, fiction, and satire or comedy, are still a primary source of controversies among the tribes. The idea that I could write a story that would be filled with “dangerous ideas” and possibly be banned, is pretty wild. I guess it depends on the prevailing political winds of the day. Maybe that's a good thing…I'm not sure I want to find out any time soon.
Simon: Rewinding a bit, why publish your short fiction on Substack at all? You could hold it all back and make the anthology collection the first release.
Brian: It was the perfect way to build an audience, for which I’m very thankful. It took me nearly nine months to build a catalog of short stories worth putting into a collection, and during that time I started to engage with other readers, writers and the fiction community at large. While I don’t have an exact metric, it’s likely that sixty to seventy percent of the orders for The Stars Will Fall came from the Substack ecosystem. I don’t do social media anymore and I never will again… ever. That’s right, I’m one of those crazy cats that had enough, and while I could tell you how much I hate social media and all the reasons why, I prefer to focus on the positive nature of a newsletter. There’s no algorithm, it's an opt-in experience, your level of engagement doesn’t determine your level of exposure and if you want whatever I’m laying down, it’s your choice to consume it.
Simon: I don’t think you’re alone there. Increasingly I think we’re all waking up to the superfluous and ephemeral nature of social platforms. They have their uses, but it’s like building a house on quicksand. A personal newsletter feels like a more secure investment of time.
Brian: Yes, although it might take longer to build an audience because it's less about the dopamine hit, but once a reader has decided to join it's typically a deeper, longer lasting relationship. We just need to hold up to our end of the bargain as writers. My open rate averages around 50%, which I consider fantastic. On social media that would have been less than one percent of impressions from existing followers, which is ridiculous. The newsletter might not translate for every market, but fiction and the craft of writing is the one market where the newsletter is a better alternative. Even if a reader's attention is divided, they still want well-written content.
Simon: The stories in your collection are eclectic and continually surprising. They fall generally into speculative fiction, but cut across science fiction and fantasy in a myriad of ways. That diversity of storytelling makes the anthology a real delight. Do you prefer to hop around genres and form, rather than specialising?
Brian: I love the broad range of speculative fiction. It’s really exciting and I can’t imagine specializing in a particular realm, like urban fantasy or space operas. I’m sure that will be my downfall once I start publishing novels, but it keeps me creatively engaged. For example, when I was a child, I read a lot of traditional folktales. Aesop’s Fables and The Brothers Grimm were on tap as a steady source of entertainment. If you read my story The Huntsman and the Fox, it’s a direct descendent of that influence. Then you have examples where I go into harder science fiction, like The Stars Will Fall, which is the title story of the collection. I suspect there is some crossover in those audiences, but the stories are so different. If you take the top fiction posts in my archive you’re going to get an eclectic mix that spans the entire speculative axis. I enjoy that and I hope to build an audience that enjoys that as well.
Simon: Now that the anthology is out, how have you found the process of publishing the book yourself? Have you done any promotional activities to get the book under readers' noses?
Brian: The first time is always the hardest, although there are some aspects of self-publishing that I have not undertaken that will be challenging the second time around. For example, I opted to use the ISBNs supplied by Amazon, which means my book isn’t available for order from libraries or bookstores. That’s a different ecosystem that I want to enter next and I’m challenging myself to learn the finer points of the business. It requires marketing myself directly to readers and also to those responsible for purchasing. Unfortunately, that can mean spending more money, especially for a review that is trusted by librarians, but still doesn’t guarantee sales.
As far as marketing or promotion, it’s all been by word of mouth and very grassroots. Other than Substack, some family members posted to Facebook, which netted a few sales and then I posted to LinkedIn, which also netted a few sales. I was leery of posting to LinkedIn because that’s my professional network and I really only use it if I’m looking for a new programming job (something I haven’t done in almost 8 years). I was encouraged by the response and excited that a few former colleagues supported me.
The library for the city I live in does an annual local author’s fair, and they really want authors from my hometown to participate. I’m all in for that, and I’m hopeful to be featured in some of their social media and marketing. It’s one of many things that I love about where I live is the thriving system of libraries. That’s in the month of May, so we’ll see how it goes.
Simon: What do you have planned for 2023?
Brian: More short stories on Substack and a novel. That’s what I have planned, but whether or not that happens is not always up to me. My life tends to wind and weave in unpredictable ways and I can only control so much. I’ll simply commit to writing and go from there. The novel is science fiction. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll give a three word hint: Hollow Earth Theory. You can let your Google searches and imagination run wild.
Simon: If someone reading this is new to your work, do you have a particular story you'd recommend as a starting point?
Brian: Hmm, that’s hard because my favorites don’t always align with reader favorites. One that we all seem to agree is a quick, fun read is What Would You Do? If you enjoy that short story, then you’ll enjoy a lot of my stories.
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Thanks, Brian! Great interview. And for my part, I really enjoyed this short story from the collection:
Do pick up Brian’s anthology if you get a chance and check out his Substack:
Thanks for reading!
While we’re here, add this to your reading list: Chuck Wendig’s take on AI, in particular taking issue with its worship of ‘the idea’ over ‘the process’. A good read.
See you on Friday for a new Triverse storyline.
Thank you, Simon, for the interview and opportunity to discuss indie publishing with a fellow indie publisher! It's been great to connect, especially since our journey is so similar. I look forward to your future success and novels and hopefully both of our trajectories are upward bound 😁
Interesting discussion about the publishing process. Always good to hear how different people navigate it. Congrats to Brian!