Jonathan Sturak self-published his first novel, Clouded Rainbow, in 2009. In the three years since its publication, it’s had more than 100,000 downloads on Amazon’s Kindle. Since then, Jonathan has self-published another novel, A Smudge of Gray, and a collection of short stories, From Vegas With Blood. Jonathan maintains a fiction blog at sturak.com.
I became interested in Sturak’s work after he submitted an extraordinary novella to Vegas Lit, which I’ve asked him to expand into a full-length novel. I was also interested in interviewing him for Write-aholic because of his resourcefulness and success at self-publishing.
How did you get into writing fiction?
I started with writing a screenplay. It was winter in 2007 back in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and I was snowed in. All I had was my laptop, the fireplace, and a desire to write something. I started typing and what showed up on the screen of my laptop was a short script called The Hunted.
It was about a hunter who had an accident in the woods, and this bizarre cabin he discovered nestled in the middle of all that nowhere. The screenplay took fourth place in a screenwriting contest, so I kept writing. In fact, I turned The Hunted into a short story and it’s included in my collection From Vegas With Blood.
I then moved to Las Vegas and wrote several features, but couldn’t get them produced. I got frustrated. This was back in 2008, in the early stages of the ebook industry. I ended up expanding my first feature-length screenplay, Clouded Rainbow, into a full-length novel, and I enjoyed doing that. Writing a screenplay makes you focus on the basic structure of a story, but writing fiction lets you develop the characters and setting and themes more fully.
Your characters are very edgy and you seem to enjoy putting them into extreme situations. What drives you as a fiction writer?
I think you hit the nail on the head—what drives me is my enjoyment of my characters. I like to start with a character I’ve seen either in this world or in my dreams—the mysterious Burberry-wearing, family-oriented hitman in A Smudge of Gray, or the venomous vixen leading you around Vegas and narrating each story in From Vegas With Blood. These characters are special to me. I enjoy spending time with them, leading them into bizarre situations. I enjoy laughing with them, crying with them, picking them up when they are down, or pushing them down so I can pick them up.
Are you trying to portray the real world in your fiction, or are you more interested in your characters’ psychological or spiritual states of mind?
The story universe I create is often set in the real world, but it might be a location that I do not reveal. Clouded Rainbow is about an ordinary middle-class couple out for their anniversary when an accident separates them. The city that Roger Belkin, the hero, explores is kind of like a Gotham City. It could be your city, or my city. I like this ambiguity because it adds another character to the story—this mystery universe. And I give this universe cities and streets and cars and people. So I guess I like to portray the real world in my fiction, and then use the characters’ state of mind to feed off their universe.
Are you more interested in creating high literature or reaching a wide audience? Why?
I must say that I love reaching readers. I get a few emails, tweets, and messages every couple of months from readers who have discovered my books. I feel so gratified to know that the little voice inside a person’s mind has read a story that the little voice in my mind has created. There’s not a feeling more artistically satisfying than knowing that the characters I have created have made someone laugh, cry, sneer, or cheer.
Even if someone doesn’t like a particular story and emails me, I feel grateful for their time in telling me why. I certainly strive to create a literary quality with the prose that I write, but reaching a wide audience is my goal as a writer.
Before you self-published your first novel, Clouded Rainbow, in 2009, how much time and effort did you spend trying to find a traditional publisher? And, do young writers today pay much attention to the traditional formula for becoming a novelist, which used to include finding an agent who might be able to get their work seen by the major publishers?
I “finished” Clouded Rainbow in 2008 and I must have sent over 200 query letters to agents both electronically and through the mail. I went through the ups and downs of this process like most writers. I was determined to find an agent and a traditional publisher.
But then I kept reading about this whole independent movement that ebooks were fostering. Back in 2008 and 2009, I kept thinking that this wasn’t for me; I could do it the old-fashioned way. But then I spoke to an agent in L.A. who actually took the time to read my work. He enjoyed Clouded Rainbow, but said that publishers weren’t taking any new works unless you had a platform (i.e. were famous) or were an established author with a bestselling backlist. I was shocked. Could I be prevented from finding my audience not because of some flaw in my work but just as a matter of timing?
I decided to experiment with the independent ebook market. I figured, what do I have to lose? I still own the rights to my work and I do have other manuscripts in either draft form or nearing completion. So I used my Photoshop skills to design a cover, and I contracted with an editor to help with polishing the manuscript. And then I self-published my first novel.
It has been an exciting, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding experience. Experimenting with price points (including FREE), I have over 400 unique reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads. This has helped me to grow my audience for my subsequent self-published books [From Vegas With Blood (2011), A Smudge of Gray (2012)], and helped me to gain many friends and colleagues I’ve helped to self-publish.
I recently did a seminar at the Clark County Library in Las Vegas with local author Roger DeBlanck where we discussed publishing and marketing your book. We had over 75 people attend the event and were recently asked to do another seminar in the summer of 2013.
I encourage new writers to test the water with traditional agents and publishers because you never know what they are looking for at the moment. But then don’t give up; embrace the alternatives, find what works best for you. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about connecting with readers.
Are traditional bookstores going to become totally obsolete in the near future?
Sadly, yes. I remember just a year ago going to Borders on a Sunday afternoon, perusing the aisles until I found a book that interested me, and then sipping a nice hot tea while reading and relaxing. This Borders is now The Container Store and the only books they sell are about containers. Ebooks are here to stay and I think this is a wonderful thing for readers and writers, but these devices are marketed and sold at electronic stores, not bookstores, where holding a cup of hot tea, or any liquid for that matter, is not allowed.
With the popularity of ebooks, ezines, and blogs, any writer with an internet connection can now get his work before the public. No brick & mortar bookstore can compete with Amazon, which carries more than a million Kindle titles alone. Where do you see the traditional publishing industry ten years from now?
A million Kindle titles. This is both exciting and daunting. You really have to stop and stare at what Amazon has become. Where does this leave the traditional publishing industry in the future? I think these publishers will become consultants. For bestselling authors they will provide the usual cover design, editing, marketing, and distributing. These publishers will still use their marketing strength to get their books onto people’s e-readers. These authors will almost certainly make less per book as consumers demand lower prices, and it’ll require a larger quantity of books sold to make any meaningful profit.
For new and lower-selling authors, these publishers will offer similar consulting services, but charge the writer all fees upfront. Just look at Penguin Group and their recent purchase of book consultant Author Solutions. These traditional publishers will now try to tap into the revenue they’ve lost by authors going the independent route. They’ll serve the many authors who are not savvy at the technical aspects of publishing, or simply not interested in formatting ebooks, converting files, and designing covers.