Cobalt Blue

Wine dark waves lapped at the coast of the Sea of Marmara outside the house of Beyza the potter. The weathered beams of the house held great open windows and milk-vetch and goat’s thorn grew in tangles beneath them.

Beyza sat at her potter’s wheel behind the open windows, dark hair braided beneath a blue scarf and sleeves rolled past her elbows. Her foot moved back and forth to spin the kick wheel so that the clay spun beneath her hands. Placing the lip of the dish between the fingers of both hands she pulled slowly, steadily upward, thinning and raising the wall of the vessel.

When the height was just right Beyza began to expand the mouth. Bracing a wooden rib against the exterior she smoothed the sides, clearing away the excess water. Her foot’s continuous motion ceased and the pot spun into stillness, the surface shining dully in the light from the windows.

Beyza stopped to ponder the shape. The foot of the bowl was small, the width of her hand in diameter, narrowing as it rose. From there, the bowl expanded rapidly, with a broad basin and tall, slightly tapered walls. It was a shape she had been working with for weeks now, struggling to create better and better imitations of the work merchants in the city were importing from the Far East.

She bent down to examine the exterior curve, brushing a strand of dark hair back from her face and leaving a streak of clay across her forehead.

She was startled from her work by the sound of approaching footsteps. Looking up she saw her friend, Negris, approaching from the direction of the road. She was tall and moved like a tulip in the sea-wind, her dark red robe like the petals of a flower.

“Beyza,” said Nergis, “come away from your potter’s wheel and go to the market with me.”

“I should be working, not shopping,” Beyza said, although she stood from her wheel and cleaned her hands.

“You work too much,” Nergis said, laughing, tossing her hair over her shoulder, dark and rippling like a skein of patterned silk.

Beyza straightened her scarf and tidied away her tools, leaving the bowl sitting on her wheel, fragile in its wet state. A brush of a hand or an accidental nudge would render it useless. The carefully shaped clay would be pounded back into a lump and she would have to start all over.

She was careful not to disturb the bowl.

When her workspace was clean enough, Beyza went to the chest by the window. It had been a gift from her husband, Hayri, when they married. She remembered watching him construct it; it was made of dark wood with a mosaic in small ceramic tiles on the lid. She paused for a moment to run her fingers over them – the wood had been worn smooth over the past seven years from the touch of her hands, and the blue swirl of the sea over the tiles was so familiar to her she could see it even when she closed her eyes.

More familiar than her husband’s face, these days, for he had been buried in the hills behind the house two summers past.

From the chest she pulled a worn silk scarf. She laid it gently over the bowl so it would not dry too much while she was gone.

“Now we can go,” she said to Nergis.

The two woman began the walk into the city. They walked past fields of wheat and barley that shone gold and green in the midday sun, flowers bobbing alongside the heavily rutted dirt road. Nergis chattered away about her eldest son, but Beyza was only half listening. She watched a farmer moving between the rows of his field, examining the leaves of his plants. She pictured the golden spikes of wheat splashed across the rim of a platter against a background of smooth white porcelain.

What would it feel like to work with such fine clay? she wondered. The clay she dug from the local hills turned a toasty golden color when she fired it, like the seed pods of goat’s thorn.

The city of Iznik had expanded rapidly in the past hundred years under the influence of a steady influx of trade from the east, and it had overtaken many of the farms that had once surrounded the city. Creamy stone buildings with brightly painted faces lined the crowded, winding streets. The walk was not a long one – Beyza’s eleven year old son made it every morning to attend a school in the city.

The two women went to the Sahil Market, where most of the foreign vendors sold their wares. It was abuzz with languages Beyza did not recognize, shouting and calling back and forth to one another. Beyza followed Nergis through the market as she chattered at vendors, poring over beaten gold jewelry and bolts of cloth woven so fine it was see-through. Date rolls with cinnamon and roasted figs filled the air with a sharp, sweet scent so enticing that Nergis stopped and purchased one. Sticky bun wrapped in a cloth, they continued on, passing stalls of glass beads and strings of pearls, amber and amethysts glittering over folds of linen.

While there were many imports – tea and spices, silk and other exotic fabrics – Beyza had eyes only for the pottery. Bone white porcelain bowls with lips of cobalt blue, darker than the Marmara Sea. Fine lines of indigo swirled across platters, flowers blossomed and tigers crept around the foot rims of serving dishes. Cups so fine they were almost transparent perched on saucers that sparkled like gemstones imported from the south.

“What is it that makes their work so much more beautiful than ours?” she murmured, but she knew the answer. Iznik potters might have the skills to rival those in the Far East, but they didn’t have the raw materials.

“You seem to have an eye for craftsmanship,” one vendor said. He was a broad shouldered man with a thick, grey peppered beard and skin that had been weathered to leather by years in the sun and wind. “You’ve only picked up the finest pieces I have.”

“What about those?” she asked, gesturing to a set of dishes she had passed over earlier. They were decorated with gold, but the bottoms were sloppily trimmed and the rim uneven.

He shook his head. “Expensive, but not so well made as some of these plainer dishes,” he said, pointing out the blue patterned bowl in front of her. “You know true quality.”

She flushed. “I’m a potter, it’s my work to know such things.”

“Ah, I see. Your work must be fine indeed.”

She fingered the blue patterned bowl. The clay at the base felt like silk it was so smooth. “Not as fine as this, I assure you. Though it might be, if I had the proper materials.” Her work was well known in the city, and sold for high prices in shops in the wealthier parts of the city, but she coveted the imported wares, longed to create pieces with the same delicate vibrancy.

The vendor considered her for a long moment. “Come,” he said at last, waving her around the side of the stall. “I have something you will appreciate.”

Beyza glanced around for Nergis, but her friend had moved on to the next stall and was examining a thick woven rug.

She followed the man to the back of his stall. There were several large wooden crates in various states of unpacking, straw strewn about and heaped in the bottoms of crates. The vendor bent over and rummaged in one of the crates. From within he drew a cup, wide with no handle, to be cupped between the hands.

“It’s a tea bowl, from Jiangxe. The newest I’ve got.”

Dragons chased each other around the cup, minute scales like sapphires, the wings so delicately drawn they seemed to flutter as she stared.

“It’s an experimental technique,” the man said, his voice low. “Rumors say those Eastern barbarians grind up the bones of children and mix it in with the clay before forming it.”

His words broke her trance and she tore her eyes from the dragon to meet the vendor’s eyes. His brown gaze was unruffled.

Would it have to be the bones of a child? she wondered. If it could create such beautiful work – surely the world would take notice if she could create something to rival this elegant cup.

She pushed the thought from her mind and withdrew her fingers, which had been extended in longing to touch the smooth surface.

“How crude,” she said, although the product was anything but.

“Still,” the vendor said, “look at the grins on those dragons.”

Beyza peered close again. The dragons were indeed grinning, their sharp teeth bared. In the dim light of the stall, filtered through the red awning overhead, the fangs seemed to glint with blood.

She left the vendor and found Nergis, who hadn’t gone far. Her friend held out her hand, which now glittered with a bracelet of citrines set in gold.

“It’s beautiful,” Beyza said, although she suspected the gemstones were paste. The two women left the market shortly after, and walked several streets to her son, Deniz’s school. He was sitting in the courtyard outside, poring over a leaflet, his dark hair shining as it hung over his face.

He looked up as they approached, and his face lit up, bright smile splitting his face. “Valide!” he cried, jumping up. He threw his arms around Beyza’s waist, hugging her tightly.

He looked up at her, his dark, grey eyes like slate, a gift from his father. The smile was his too, kind and gentle and brilliant.

She looked at Nergis. “Time for us to go home, I think. I have work to do.”

The morning after she and Nergis went to the market, Beyza went into the hills. Her little house stood, nestled between two hills and just a few minutes’ walk from the river. She walked up river, away from the sea, shoes squishing in the muddy banks where the grass had washed away in the spring rains. She carried her battered leather pack on her back, and Deniz dodged eagerly in her footsteps, carrying a spade. He liked to help her when she went to gather clay.

There were three elements to the clay she mixed. The thick, sticky clay she dug from the hills – too soft to do anything with on its own – the feldspar she bought in the city market, and the crushed up fragments of her broken pots.

The sun was hot on her back, warming her dark hair as they rounded the last bend in the river to the area she had been digging for the last few weeks. Here the river was wide and shallow, weeds growing in twists along the edges. Most of the potters from Iznik got their clay from the seabed along the coast where the river and rains deposited it. Beyza, however, preferred to dig out the clay at its source.

She tossed down her pack and set to work, cutting into the dense soil with her spade. She worked up a sweat while Deniz skipped rocks across the river. She stood at last and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead.

Together the two of them packed the clay into her leather satchel. Her back was strong from years of hauling clay and throwing large pots on the wheel, but even so she had to stop and rest twice before they reached home.

That night, after Deniz was asleep, Beyza went to her potter’s wheel. The bowl she had thrown the day before sat there, now trimmed and bone dry, dusty to touch. She lifted it gently between her hands and held it up in the moonlight streaming through the open windows. It was well crafted, but lacked the ethereal beauty she craved. Even the unfired clay seemed coarse and unrefined to her, before it had darkened in kiln fire.

It wouldn’t have to be the bones of a child.

The thought came to her, unbidden, something she had pushed to the back of her mind. She thought of her husband, buried two summers back over the rise behind the house.

She left Deniz asleep in bed and took up her spade. Outside the moon was nearly full, the skies clear and shot with stars like silver thread. She made her way through the tangles of milk-vetch, goat’s thorn snarling the bottom of her robe with its tiny burrs.

The place where she had buried her husband was marked with a carved stele, bleached from the bright sun. The ground that had once been a patch of bare, recently churned earth, was now overgrown. She sunk her spade into the dirt, slicing through thick green leaves.

She dug for what felt like hours, until the moon was overhead and her body ached. She thought of the look on Nergis’s face if she found out what Beyza was doing, and kept on. Nergis didn’t know what her work meant to her, didn’t understand the burning desire to create something so beautiful that God himself would take notice.

Thrusting the spade deep into the ground once more something grey broke the surface.

She knelt and rummaged in the dirt with her hands, feeling along the length of the bone, still stretched with fragments of the burial wrappings. The skin and muscle were gone, nothing remaining of his original flesh but a few brittle tendons and ligaments.

She paused, suddenly feeling the dirt that had caught under her fingernails and left a dusty film over her skin. It felt invasive, plucking his bones from the ground where she had once said prayers over his body.

But his body was of no use to him now, and she’d already come this far. She looked toward the house, half expecting Deniz to be standing there to catch her rooting in his father’s grave. He wasn’t. He was still sound asleep in the house.

She left the grave dismantled and carried the bones back to the yard outside her house. Kindling a fire in her kiln she placed the bones where she would normally place her bone dry pots and jars. The kiln was nearly six feet long and six feet wide, with a firebox in the front for her to tend and steps in the back for the pottery.

By the time the sun rose she had a blazing fire. The wind fluttered against the mouth of the kiln and the sound of the roaring flame inside the kiln seemed to mirror the beating of her heart.

Deniz came to join her much later, when the sun was already nearing its peak.

“Why did you let me sleep so late?” he asked. She shrugged, and he helped her tend to the fire for several hours. Sparks scattered every time they opened the firebox to feed in more wood the skin on her face and hands soon felt brittle and crisp. The heat that emanated from the small brick structure felt hotter than the sun.

She did not let it go as long as she would if she were actually firing her pots – just until the bones splintered. After that she let the fire die, although she knew it would be the next morning before it would be cool enough to retrieve them.

“Why are you stopping so early?” Deniz asked. He had helped her with her kiln many times and it usually took two days to run.

“The pots inside have shattered,” she said. He peered inside, looking for the cracked and broken pieces of ceramic.

After she left off tending the fire, she went inside the house and slept.

She might have slept all night, but she woke to her son shaking her. “Something’s been digging in father’s grave!” he cried, trying to drag her from her bed.

“It was probably a bad spirit,” she said, but she followed him outside to look at the mess she had made the night before. The sun was setting, cradled by the Marmara Sea and flaming red as it died. In the light the damage looked far worse – Hayri’s grave stele was off kilter, the dirt dark and rich around the base, obviously overturned.

“Who would do this?” her son asked. She hugged him close and said nothing.

The next day, when Deniz left for school, she went to the kiln and retrieved the fragments of bone. She ground them into as fine a powder as she could manage. It was dull grey, different from the crushed ceramic she usually mixed with her clay. She tossed it with the feldspar and went to the clay that she and Deniz had hauled back from up river. With hands strong from years of kneading dense clay, she mixed the new material into the clay body, trying to make sure it was evenly distributed. When this was done she split off a piece and molded it into a sphere.

She went to her wheel and sat, staring at it for several minutes. This could be the beginning of something beautiful. Beautiful and terrible.

Throwing down the piece of new clay, she kicked at the base of the wheel to start the top spinning. Her foot fell into a familiar rhythm, and the light streaming through the windows soaked into the dark fabric of her robe, into her bones. Warmth and light, like a kiln. Wetting her hands she placed them firmly on the clay and it spun beneath her hands, like every other time.

Just like every other time, except with the possibility of more beautiful results.

The work seemed to shape itself beneath her hands, as though guided by something within.

______________________________________________________________________________
Katy is a garden enthusiast from Michigan, graduated from Central Michigan University with a Bachelor’s in painting and ceramics. Her poetry has previously been published through Temenos, Rising Phoenix Review and The Write Launch

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New Poetry Chapbook from J. Todd Hawkins

AVAILABLE NOW

What Happens When We Leave, a chapbook of poems by J. Todd Hawkins, has been released by Blackbead Books with the support of the Fort Worth Poetry Society and the Poetry Society of Texas. The book is the winner of the 2018 William D. Barney Memorial Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Glancy. This collection features a variety of forms such as ghazal, haibun, cento, sonnet, and free verse. It draws from pop culture and high culture, current headlines and ancient stories. Select pieces have previously appeared in Rattle: Poets Respond, Copperfield Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Concho River Review, and other publications. Signed copies are available from the author for $7.50, including postage (PayPal, Venmo, checks accepted). E-mail jtoddhawkins@gmail.com for details. The book is also available on Amazon.

Praise for What Happens When We Leave

Hawkins shows us how leaving and its intrinsic
epiphanies are essential parts of travel, both physical
and metaphysical. An insightful tour guide, Hawkins
writes poems full of details that “insist we remember,”
even as he gracefully escorts us to our next destination.
— Anne McCrady, author of Letting Myself In

Few experiences in contemporary poetry match the thrill
of encountering J. Todd Hawkins’s precise and haunting
verse. What Happens When We Leave is a dark tour of
poetic forms that takes us from Tokyo to Texas, from
extinction to eternal love, from classic painters to
country crooners. This is an inspiring collection from a
poet of powerful craft, deep sentiment and startling
range.
— Elle Aviv Newton, coeditor and cofounder of
Poets Reading the News

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Octavia Randolph

Octavia Randolph is the author of the Circle of Ceridwen Saga set in 9th century England and Scandinavia. The series, which currently includes seven books, follows the central character, Ceridwen, the orphaned daughter of a Saxon nobleman, through encounters with invading Danes and Saxon chieftains during this age of upheaval.

The first book, The Circle of Ceridwen, begins with the seven kingdoms of Angel-land before they were united into one England by Ælfred the Great. Books two and three, Ceridwen of Kilton and The Claiming, take place in England for the most part, while the fourth and fifth volumes, Hall of Tyr and Tindr, are set on the Baltic island of Gotland. Silver Hammer, Golden Cross, the sixth book in the series, moves between the two locations. Randolph’s latest book, Sidroc the Dane, is set mostly in Denmark and tells the story of the childhood of one of the main characters.  Randolph has also written two novellas, Ride, a retelling of the Lady Godiva, and The Tale of Melkorka, from an Icelandic saga, and a biographical novel about the art and social critic John Ruskin called Light, Descending.

Maggie Fry: What was your inspiration to write a book set in ninth century England and Scandinavia? How did you start?

Octavia Randolph: The entire sags for me is a cultural autobiography. I am interested in what made England, and notice I make the distinction between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and England. We’re talking of England geographically and conceptually. What made these people rise to be the greatest world power? There’s Ælfred, just twenty-three years of age, who watches kingdom after kingdom topple until his is the only kingdom standing. This young man who thought himself destined for the church and not for warfare because he had four older brothers, suddenly found himself thrust into this situation and he must uphold what’s left of Englishness and did it extraordinarily well.  It took a tremendous amount of silver. Ælfred and his brothers literally paid the Danes off with 24,000 actual pounds of silver to cease and desist, leave us alone. And it was never enough. The Danes were always forming and reforming; you could not make a deal with one chieftain that would be honored by the next. Because Ælfred was the tactician and the inspiring person that he was, he was able to craft a lasting peace with Guthrum to allow trade in both areas. It was a partitioned society, but there could be trade and the beginnings of what formed the final big, bloom of English culture until the catastrophe of 1066. So yes, it’s a fascinating story.

M.F.: Your books are meticulous in their historical accuracy and detailed descriptions. You have obviously done a lot of research.

O.R.: As a little girl, I loved looking at anything Anglo-Saxon. All the artifacts fascinated me. The Sutton Hoo treasure, those buckles with the garnets and the carnelians, the horse trappings. There was something about the physical artifacts of the era that made it so visceral to me. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skillfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes and learned to spin with a drop spindle.  In 1999 on a huge research tour of all of Scandinavia, I found Gotland, my spiritual home, and that was why in The Claiming Sidroc and Ceridwen end up on Gotland. I’m so happy that, almost Twenty years later, I am finally able to move there myself and make it my permanent home.

I feel a responsibility to adhere to historical veracity because history is so little taught today. We rely on our novels, television shows, and films to an almost frightening extent to inform us about the past. And because I believe that fact is more fascinating and thrilling than fiction, I am happy to use a rigid historical framework. There are plenty of interstices to allow me to weave my characters within what has come down to us as received history.

M.F.: Did you get to England?

O.R.: Yes. Seeing things in books and early exposure to early English poetry was wonderful. The cadence of the language spoke to me. I love this and I want to get in there and there was so much scope for imagining. We are so lucky to have the written material that we do have. I deal with two extremely powerful cultures, the Norse and the Saxons, who had terrific oral poetry traditions. But we have so much more on the English side because the Norse only had runes, painstakingly carved into wood and stone with knives and chisels, whereas the Anglo-Saxons had scribes who could write in both Latin and Old English on parchment with readily made-up ink, and so, we have so much material.

M.F.: And what we do have written down about the Norse was recorded hundreds of years later.

O.R.: Yes, that’s right, Snorri Sturulson, and he died in 1241. We don’t even know the name of the Svear, the Swedish king, in the ninth century who made an agreement with Gotland. We know the day on which Ælfred died — October 27, 899 — because there were scribes to record things, but there are enormous gaps in Scandinavian history because there was no easy way to record anything. These two conflicting cultures were literally blood cousins, but the earlier Christianization of the English gave them the gift of literacy.

M.F.: You use some actual historical figures, for instance Ælfred, but many of your characters are created by you. Are they based on historical people?

O.R.: I would say that they are archetypes. First of all, every name I use is an attested name. I don’t ever create a name, whether it’s Norse or Angle or Saxon. I never use a name that I can’t point to and say, “Yes, there really was an individual named this way.” For instance, Ceridwen, who we know was a half Welsh and half Angle girl, raised by the Benedictines, was taught to read and write. That is a believable scenario because we know that some women, like Ælfred’s mother, were literate, and she was responsible for teaching her four sons to read. I look at certain archetypes I find in history and say, “Yes, it’s alright that my characters behave this way because I can find other examples in history that behave similarly.” There was a great jarl named Sidroc. That was fun because the moment I saw that name, many years ago, I loved it and thought, “What a tremendous name!” It had so much strength, such potency.

M.F.: Your books are self-published. Why did you make that decision and what have your experiences been?

O.R.: I never set out to self-publish because when I started writing Circle of Ceridwen Saga book one, it was 1991 and there was no such thing as self-publishing. There were traditional publishers and there were vanity presses. But I did go the traditional route, and when I completed that first manuscript, I was able to place it with an agent, who had no success whatsoever in placing it with a publishing house. That went on through a couple of years and a couple of agents. Finally, in 1998, when I first had an author website–I am very proud and happy that it is the twentieth anniversary of Octavia.net now because there are very few authors who had websites twenty years ago. One of the reasons I wanted a website is first because I wanted to share all of my research, and so I wrote scores of mini essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life, and medieval life in general. I used the website as a dissemination source for people who were interested in the era. Before the advent of Wikipedia I got a tremendous number of hits. There was not a lot of information out there.

The other thing I did in 1998 was to take a page out of Charles Dickens’s book and publish serially. So jointly with my then agent, we thought if you can show New York publishers that you’ve got a platform and followers now, that may sway their opinion.

M.B.: That’s what authors are often told.

O.R.: It actually does not matter at all to traditional publishers. There have been many instances of people with enormous platforms, yet traditional publishers will not look at them or only look at them in a specific way. For instance, [they will only consider] print only deals because they don’t want the bloom off of the rose. They want to mold something themselves. Anyway, nothing kept happening. Fortunately, I kept writing the saga and pretty much had given up the idea of ever being published. But I needed to continue the story for my own sake, so I completed the trilogy. By then the world of publishing was changing, and in 2008 Amazon introduced the Kindle. It revolutionized things because it made it easier for people to self-publish.

I did not put the trilogy on Amazon until 2012. When I did, I was fortunate enough to have a body of work — three initial novels — and that was an important leg up because people could move from one book to the next and reach an almost immediate audience. It proved to me that I did have an audience and potentially quite a large one.

Armed with the fact that the books were selling well, I felt confident to continue the saga. There are now seven books, all under my own imprint. When I look at the entire dramatic arc of the characters in history that I am covering, I foresee potentially ten books or more. I am happy that I persevered, I believed in my talent, I believed in my power to communicate a good story, but also I was able to do this because finally technology caught up to the point where I could, in fact, reach the audience and bypass the gatekeepers.

M.F.: When did you found Pyewacket Press?

O.R.: In 2012, when I first published on Kindle, I wanted an imprint name. After Kindle, I very quickly got on Nook, iBooks, which is now called Apple Books, Kobo, which is a Canadian retailer which sells e-books primarily in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe. Then print books followed and audio books. I have done all of that under the aegis of Pyewacket Press. I have used the name of my beloved little Bengal cat since 2012.

M.F.: One of the issues with self-publishing is that anybody can put anything out there. How do you distinguish yourself from others?

O.R.: The figure was just released that a million books were self-published in the last twelve months. A million! That’s astounding. Discoverability was always difficult, but it is more challenging than ever to differentiate yourself and to be discovered in such a crowded market. Yet there are people knowing tremendous success all the time, even in the most crowded markets, because if you are writing thrillers or romance, you are already writing to a huge existing market of voracious readers who are great consumers of books. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be in a crowded market. You just really have to keep high standards because you are writing for readers who have a lot to compare you against. But I think any dedicated and talented writer can make their way today. It just takes tremendous perseverance.

M.F.: Do you think self-publishing is more fan-driven than traditional publishing?

O.R.: Absolutely! In traditional publishing you have to have an and an acquiring and a marketing and acquisitions staff who all love your work. They have to become your fans, but that’s a fairly small team. Whereas if you can release your books in multiple markets around the world, in whatever language you’re supporting, you can get a much broader base, and those are the people who actually buy your book. So, yes, it’s highly fan-driven but every writer needs to have fans. And those are people who endorse and are passionate about your work.

M.F.: What obstacles have you encountered during the self-publishing process?

O.R.: Technically it can be pretty daunting. The actual publishing itself is simple; Amazon has a downloadable free guide that walks you through the steps of formatting your Kindle book. It’s more technical to set up a print book on Create Space or Ingram, but it can be done. I think the supporting technical roles of managing the business side of advertising and promotion are very time-consuming and can be difficult. Be prepared to hire the best talent possible, whether it’s for your cover or your audio book. There’s always a way around technical or time limitations, but you need to be strategic with your resources and invest in yourself, to understand that the most important part of starting a career is to put out a quality book and then to promote it properly. I don’t care if you are eating beans; it’s worth it. Seeing those initial royalties roll in and realizing you are communicating with people, connecting with people who love your work, then it’s worth every sacrifice you’ve made.

M.F.: I would assume the good part of self-publishing is the ability to control the entire process.

O.R.: I have many friends who have been traditionally published and have been driven half mad by editors, book designers and others. Even though you are going it alone and you have full veto rights on things, that responsibility is an awesome one, and hopefully you are relying on the judgment of people you trust to guide you. Yes, you do have that control. You have the control over where your books are going to be, how they will be presented, how they will be marketed, and it could mean quite a bit of trial and error because you’re foregoing the expertise traditional publishers bring, but you are able  to make one-on-one connections with independent bookstores and to make those marketing decisions as to how you are going to present your book to the public, and that’s enormous. It’s an enormous responsibility, but it is also an enormous freedom.

M.F.: Is there anything you’d like to add?

O.R.: I’m often asked to advise people who are starting out. I would say, obviously, write the best book that you can. That’s really the most important thing. Don’t rush to publication. Make sure it’s a book that you love and are proud of every word.

The second bit of advice that I give is that it is enormously helpful to have a body of work. If you have two or three books, it’s huge when you are publishing under your own imprint. If you offer book one at a low price because you want people to be introduced to it, or you’re offering it for free with a sign-up on your website, then you want to be able to give people something so when they love that book, they will be able to go on and buy books two and three at full price. If you have more than one book to begin with, that’s just marvelous. You don’t want to come out with a great book and have people say, “Oh, I love this author,” and then there’s nowhere to go. Obviously, I write series and it’s the same group of characters moving through time and space. That in itself is addictive for the reader and you want the story to continue, but even if you’re an author who’s writing maybe about an unconnected group of characters, but you form an audience in book one, they are going to want to see your next book. If you can have two or three books before you begin, that’s a wonderful advantage for you.

The third thing that I love to tell people, and I can’t say it often enough, is that, sadly, we have brought up a generation of readers who think books should be free. Free or cheap. It’s so important, and I say this over and over again, if you do not value your own talent, do not expect anyone else to do so. I’m always encouraging people to price their books appropriately within their genre. My books are expensive because people who read historical fiction will pay a bit more for the quality of the material, and I just feel that people who are going out with perma-free books are adding to the problem and not the solution. It’s alright to offer book one for free in exchange for something like building your email list, but I do feel very strongly that one must value one’s own talent and as quickly as possible build people up to paying full price. Look at an author in your genre whom you very much admire and whose work is similar to your own and price yourself accordingly. Hopefully, it is very close if not at what their Kindle book is selling for. Again, I feel we have to stop this. It should be a rare thing to have a free book. It should be a treat. We wouldn’t have the number of books out there clogging people’s Kindles if there was just more discernment from authors themselves. Much of it is desperation and driven by lack of self-worth. If you’ve written a good book, it is worthy and you are worthy of being well-paid for it.

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Maggie Fry has spent the last thirty years on a small hobby farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, where she raised sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks, in addition to rescuing cats and dogs. When she wasn’t playing in the dirt, she wrote freelance articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as teaching courses in writing and public speaking at the university level. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College and currently teaches in the Communications Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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