An active soldier for the United States Special Operations Command, a writer and lecturer on advanced intelligence theory and asymmetric warfare for the U.S. military, as well as a stuntman, a window washer, a computational linguist, and a touring rock star, in addition to being the fantasy writer of the successful Outworlders series and the founder of the Oxblood Books publishing company; what hasn’t Joseph Malik done? When I read up about Mr. Malik and learned of his accomplishments, I simply had to meet the man. “How the hell does this guy do it?” I often asked myself, and it is my hope that this interview will allow me to understand how.
Can you tell us a quick few things about your Outworlders saga plot-wise without spoilers?
Absolutely. The plot is pretty simple, a twist on a fairly standard trope. A modern-day stuntman who works on fantasy films takes a gig as a hero for hire in a fantasy world. When he gets there, he learns that the enemy he’s been sent to fight is also from Earth. It’s violent, profane, and very funny; some reviews have compared it to Deadpool dropped into Game of Thrones.
When you first started writing Dragon’s Trail, what was it you wanted to accomplish? What was it you tried to get across to your audience through the fantasy genre?
Dragon’s Trail is a rewrite of a novel a traditional publisher had held for nearly two years, at one point asking me for synopses for the other books in the series, before passing. (There’s a reason they call it “submission.” Assume the position.)
I gave up writing for a few years after that. I was critically injured on a deployment and very nearly killed, and I found the manuscript on a hard drive while I was in the hospital. I rewrote it while I was learning to walk again. (I had a lot of time on my hands.) I mainly wanted to keep myself sane, I guess.
I’d had a few years away from the book, and when I rewrote it, I found space to thread in a subtext about the increasing obsolescence of the warrior caste in modern society. The trick was, I wanted to drop it in really gingerly, still keeping it fun to read but with these heavy thematic elements and this really sobering subtext if anyone dug into it.
In detail, how would you describe your writing process?
I’d describe my process as backbreaking. About 20 years ago, I lost a manuscript in a hard drive crash and had to retype it from a printed copy.
As I went along, I found things that I could do better, plus plot holes, pacing issues, clunky dialogue…when I was done, it was much stronger. It had only taken a few months—far less time than it took to concept and write the first draft—so I did it again, curious to see if it would be better, still. It was.
This became my process: a half-length rough draft—my first draft may have sections in present tense, it may have sections that are just one or two lines all in caps, or a scene left unfinished with a note as to what happens. Some scenes will just be a picture I’ve copied and pasted in.
When it’s done, I pull it up on one monitor and start a blank document on the other, and start typing from the words CHAPTER ONE. When that’s one’s done, I put the first draft in a folder, move the second draft over to one monitor, and start another blank document. It takes me 3-4 full write-throughs from that initial draft to really get it where it needs to be; 12-18 months from initial concept to sending it out for editing.
How long do you see The Outworlders saga becoming? When that’s done, which genres would you like to write next?
I’m currently writing the finale to the first series, Book III. I’ll likely do a prequel at some point.
I’ve finished the first book in a new series set in the same world. It’s much more in the vein of military science fiction with some fantasy elements. Imagine a Stargate novel written by Tom Clancy, but addressing intersectionality issues in modern-day American Special Operations forces. Even though it’s science fiction, I had to submit it to the Pentagon for a full security review recently. Apparently, it’s the first science-fiction book they’ve seen in that office that anyone can remember. Blew their minds, I guess.
I now have a literary agent, and she’ll be shopping the new series to traditional publishers, so really, it’s all kind of come full-circle in a way.
Why was it you wanted to write a “realistic fantasy” story?
Nobody else was doing it.
When I first got it in my head to become a writer, I was reading a lot of fantasy, and seeing a lot of mistakes that even I, as a kid, could see were real clunkers. Horses galloping all day, swords used like lightsabers, and so on.
At the time, I was also reading a lot of technothrillers—Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton. I thought it would be amazing to write a fantasy novel with worldbuilding accurate enough and solid enough that you could hang a whole plot on one detail. The more I read, the more I saw that the vast majority of fantasy authors BS their research and hand-wave their details, or base them off other fiction, which has created a raft of expected inaccuracies in the tropes.
It took over a decade of research, much of it hands-on, actually learning to do this stuff myself, to get enough authentic detail to pull it off. I’d guess this is why it hadn’t been done.
In your past interview with PublishDrive, you mentioned that publishers never signed book deals with you because they felt there was no audience for realistic fantasy. Do you feel there is one now with the success of your books or do you feel there had always been one?
That was definitely one of the reasons. The audience has always been there; they’ve just been criminally overlooked. I think a reason is that, as I said earlier, the amount of work an author has to put in to hit that market is insane. I literally risked life and limb to learn some of the things I’ve put into my worldbuilding.
That said, I’m sure publishers and agents passed on my early novels because they just weren’t very good.
This is one of the major points that indie authors—and especially people in the self-publishing community who are hawking get-rich schemes and “hack the algorithm!” plots—gloss over: it takes a long time to develop as a writer to the point where you’re turning out books that people will not only buy, but recommend to their friends, which is how you get viral exposure and year-on-year sales. We’re talking years of practice and study to reach that point. In my case, it took decades.
Looking back at my notes now, as best as I can figure, I wrote and submitted a total of eight books over 17 years, including a couple of versions of the book that finally became Dragon’s Trail. I collected hundreds of rejections, I’m sure.
I said in an earlier interview, which I believe you cited, that I’d received 47 rejections. I should have made it clear that those were just for earlier versions of the book that became Dragon’s Trail. I wrote another novel in high school, and also took a few years off after the whole thing with that trade publisher. Dragon’s Trail was my tenth finished book in 30 years. It takes time.
On the other hand, I have never discounted the possibility that I fell in love with a craft for which I have no innate gift. It is entirely possible that the success I’ve had can only be attributed to relentless study and bull-headed determination. But if so, there’s a lesson in there, too.
Your success as a self-published author suggests, to me at least, that publishers have a disconnect with which genres might be popular with some audiences. What is your opinion?
I believe this is true. Touching back on the previous question about audiences for realistic fantasy, any publishing exec or acquiring editor who’d ever attended a fantasy convention and saw an argument break out in a panel about technical details should have known that this was a rabid and under-served market.
The year before I released Dragon’s Trail, I was on a panel at a large fantasy con, and these Game of Thrones fans got into it over how Westeros couldn’t have an Age of Exploration-type trading economy and huge cities because there was no rule of law. It was nearly a brawl, too; they really cared about the functionality of the world at this really esoteric level. I realized right then that I was likely sitting on a gold mine.
Do you believe your books could have been just as successful had they been traditionally published? Why or why not?
Interesting. Great question. These books would have been immensely successful had they been traditionally published—given that the publisher A.) understood the market existed; B.) understood how to reach them; C.) understood my unique appeal to them; D.) had the promotional budget; and E.) gave a crap. That’s a lot of if’s, though. A Big 5 publisher who’d picked up Dragon’s Trail and booked me in a dozen major fantasy conventions worldwide doing swordsmanship and conlang (constructed [e.g. fantasy] language) demonstrations could have sold several times as many books. The books also would have been seriously considered for awards. No matter how many books you sell or how well you write, self-published novels don’t receive consideration for major awards.
What advice would you give writers who get rejected by publishing companies that don’t see a large enough target audience for it?
Find the audience. If you wrote a book in a new subgenre, it’s most likely because you wanted to read it and couldn’t find it. There is no way you’re alone in wanting it.
It’s awesome that you started your own publishing company when no other company would publish your book. What does it take to start your own publishing company? Can you give the details on how you founded it and what it cost you? And why the name “Oxblood?”
Thanks. Starting a publishing company is a small thing. You just say, “I’m a publishing company.” You file the paperwork as a sole proprietorship or LLC or whatever you want, and bam, you’re done.
I founded Oxblood Books after venting to a writer friend who was signed to the same publisher who had shafted me for two years with that prior draft of Dragon’s Trail, and she pointed out that I probably had some chops if it got that far. I sent her a sample of the rewrite, which I’d been working on, and she was adamant that I self-publish it.
The initial capitalization for Oxblood was a few thousand dollars. Editing, cover design, and layout for Dragon’s Trail was about half of it. The rest was graphic design, website, promotional materials, launch costs, that sort of thing.
I chose the name because I was wearing a pair of oxblood-colored dress boots when I was filling out the paperwork. Creativity is not my strong suit. Again: I might be in the wrong line of work.
I understand that Dragon’s Trail “treaded water” in the first few months of being published. I also understand that your business partner worked her magic to help make your book an astounding success? How did she market your book to make it so successful?
Full disclosure: my business partner and the brains of this outfit is my wife, Katie. She’s a business development consultant for IT firms and tech startups. We kept this quiet initially, because she didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with ten thousand authors kicking down her door. It got pretty nuts at the height of things.
Right after the fantasy convention I talked about, April 2016, I came home, super-excited about all these crazed fans and wanting to get my book out in front of them.
The linchpin, she decided, was going to be giving them a book that was absolutely indistinguishable from anything by a traditional publisher, right down to the cover stock and the heft of the paper. We had a year to figure it out.
I’d been researching editors and looking at cover art, so I started there. I had a few thousand dollars saved up, so I hired the best I could find. I launched in September 2016. For the first few months I tried different promotional services to see what worked and what didn’t, biding my time and waiting for the convention to come around again in April.
One big thing I did here that I still don’t see other authors doing often enough was reinvesting every penny I cleared. It either went into new promo, or was set aside for the upcoming convention—either travel costs or to print hardcopies. My big splurge was a good signing pen. She was key in this; I was fine with blowing it all on Scotch.
At the con, I demonstrated the things I’d learned while researching my worldbuilding, which I knew would put me in front of my crowd, again. Swordsmanship, hand combat, creating a functional fantasy language, military tactics and strategy. At one point I did a martial arts demo where I performed a judo throw on an armored knight while I was wearing a sport jacket.
When those same finicky readers who argue about the tiniest inconsistency or unreal worldbuilding point realized there was a fantasy author who could walk the walk, I sold every book I’d brought.
Online sales from that weekend propelled Dragon’s Trail into the Top 20 in Kindle Military Fantasy, where it found its people.
Word of mouth from the convention led to tremendous reviews, which helped land competitive promotion opportunities, some of which placed it right beside traditionally published, bestselling novels. Because we’d put the time and money into the cover, editing, website, branding, the whole picture, it fit right in. You couldn’t tell at a glance that I wasn’t traditionally published. As a result, mainstream avenues that normally don’t touch indies picked it up. They read it and they dug it, so they didn’t care that it was self-published. It just kept going.
Without that initial capitalization—if I’d just written it and put it up on Kindle, no editing, a homemade cover—it would have had a great weekend at the con, sold a few hundred copies, and died quietly.
Instead, it sold ten thousand copies in 18 months. It’s been over four years since release and it’s still getting included on “Best Of” lists next to household names. The sequel ended up 25th on a Goodreads list for the 2019 Hugo Award, I joined SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) which had been on my bucket list my entire adult life, and WorldCon invited me to Dublin as a moderator.
I really knew we’d done it in late 2018, when I had to send rejection letters to agents.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily reproducible step-for-step in the publishing ecosystem today—I think some of the promo we used doesn’t exist anymore—but the principles definitely hold. I couldn’t have done it without my wife.
What genres of books does Oxblood Books typically publish?
Right now I’m our only author, but we’re looking. Our brand is science fiction and fantasy that threads the needle between suspension of disbelief and plausible deniability.
What advice would you give someone who wants to found their own publishing company?
Don’t scrimp on your initial capitalization. Take entrepreneurship classes. Consult with an IP attorney and an SEO guru. Join groups for entrepreneurs once all this *gestures broadly at everything* goes away. Make everything you do as top-tier as you can. Everybody is self-publishing right now, but only a few are doing it big, and this is how you’ll stand out. Every tool that a trade publisher has at their disposal is available to you.
Before you throw down the money, though, submit your work to agents and publishers. (Stick with me on this for a minute.) Collect rejection letters.
First off, it will toughen you up.
Secondly, it will give you time to save money, study the industry, and develop your business plan.
Thirdly, read the rejection letters.
Are they form rejections? You might want to think about writing another book and submitting it.
Are they personalized rejections? Awesome. Maybe rewrite; maybe start something new. Try again.
Are there recommendations about ways to make the book stronger? Now, you’re getting somewhere.
Recommendations with an invitation to resubmit? You’re now in the ballpark where you should be considering self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.
Did you get an offer of representation? Awesome. Decide.
I say this because I don’t want anybody reading this to cash out an IRA producing your first NaNoWriMo attempt only to show up at one of my signings sobbing and brandishing a spear gun. You have to learn to write, first. I’m in several large social media writing groups, and every discussion seems to be skipping this point. Learning to write is painful. It hurts, it takes years, and there are no shortcuts. When you’ve got it though, do it.
To learn more about Joseph Malik’s work, visit his website.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.