Seth Harwood is the author of five crime novels, two story collections, and a novella. He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has gone on to achieve acclaim for his short stories and crime fiction. Audio versions of his novels and stories have been downloaded over one million times.
I spoke to Seth about his experience as an independent writer—particularly his successful crime fiction and his foray into podcasting and serialized fiction on Patreon—and how aspiring fiction authors should plant their feet if they want to succeed in the ever-changing book industry.
Ray Sylvester: What drew you to writing crime fiction in the first place?
Seth Harwood: For a long time I wrote exclusively short stories. That was the form that moved me. So I worked only on stories, read only stories. Then, after graduate school, I kept getting the advice that editors, agents, publishers only wanted novels. So I dutifully started work on a literary novel or two. But I wasn’t as excited; I didn’t have the love for and influence of literary novels as I did the stories of writers like Raymond Carver, Junot Diaz, Richard Ford, Ernest Hemingway.
So I turned to crime. I came to realize that I had always loved crime fiction in its many forms: from books and comic books (The Long Goodbye, G.I. Joe); to movies like Pulp Fiction, mysteries, thrillers, noir, James Bond; to TV shows like Miami Vice, The A-Team, later The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. Even playing a video game like Grand Theft Auto when I was laid up after a gnarly basketball injury. I used to play with toy guns, chase imaginary bad guys around in unbelievable scenarios. I created intricate storylines with my toys, waged long hand-to-hand combat scenes with G.I. Joes like Seal and Snake Eyes.
When I embraced these influences in my work, I had more fun writing, brought more energy to the page. Soon agents wanted to see more of my work.
RS: What has been your most successful work so far, and why?
SH: My bestselling novel has been In Broad Daylight, a crime novel set in Alaska. It came out in 2013 at a great time for Thomas & Mercer and Amazon Publishing in general. Their promotions and marketing team had access to a great set of advertising tools on the website and devices such as Kindle, as well as pricing offers that could really attract buyers.
But fast-forward two years to my next release from them, Everyone Pays, and they had spread those same tools out over six times more books, or more, and the effect was diluted proportionally. Since that time, they’ve made a huge number of books free through Prime Reading, and now I think actual sales are way down across the board.
But Young Junius, As Much Protein as an Egg, and my short stories feel like big successes to me in other, non-sales-reflected ways: a stretch in voice and character, a subject near and dear to me, a risk I took.
As a writer, success never means one thing. It’s interesting to see what comes with different kinds of success.
RS: Is Amazon a viable platform for indie authors to make a name today, if not a living?
SH: It is. It’s going to be your main sales outlet, whether you’re self-publishing, working with a publisher, whatever. But it’s not enough. To make a name, do anything really, you have to look at Amazon as a means of distribution only. That’s just one piece of your puzzle. You have to get your fingers into a lot of different pies.
RS: How has the overall landscape changed since you started writing and publishing?
SH: Wow. How much time do we have?
Seriously, everyone knows the publishing industry is changing. People have been saying that since I started listening. Look at how the review pages have largely disappeared from newspapers. Or how many newspapers have shrunk or disappeared. Borders is gone, a fact that shrinks the brick and mortar sales game, where New York publishing lives and breathes. Look at the ways people “consume” books now: reading on paper, on a device, listening to audio from iTunes or Audible. Nothing stays the same.
The biggest shift in landscape I’m looking at now is a shift toward the expansion in the industry moving to audiobooks and away from ebooks. Everyone has a device in his or her hands they can use to listen to books now, and time they can spend doing it. Time to read? To sit by oneself with a book or a device and just read? Who’s got that now?
RS: When did you start serializing your fiction in audio form? How has Patreon been working out for you?
SH: I started releasing Jack Wakes Up as a serialized audiobook (via podcast) in 2006. There were just a handful of us doing it then, and a whole host of listeners looking for free content at Podiobooks.com. Hardly anyone had heard of podcasts. I certainly hadn’t. But I really jumped in. I podcasted six of my books (while writing them) and four “seasons” of other writers’ work on a site I called “CrimeWAV.” All of this was between 2006 and 2012. Originally, my endgame was to draw fans in with the free audio and have them buy my books when they released.
This worked in the short term (drove me up bestseller lists) but didn’t provide income long-term. Now everyone knows about podcasts. With my newest title, The Maltese Jordans, I’m releasing my episodes on Patreon. I love this site because it provides a subscription model for fan support. In 2010 I did a successful Kickstarter, but that was a lot of work for a one-time funding. Patreon takes a lot of work, and leads to sustainable income. I can count on that to fund new equipment, audio remastering to get my audiobooks onto Audible and iTunes, anything.
Most of all, I’m in direct contact with my readers and listeners again, which I love about podcasting. Hearing regularly from fans makes all the difference. You have an audience, a group out there waiting to read and/or hear your work. That’s huge!
RS: What’s the best piece of advice you have for aspiring fiction writers?
SH: Be open to all manners of publishing. Try everything you can find time for. Don’t be afraid to try something new. You never know when one opportunity will lead to another, what might open new doors. Keep writing and putting your work out there, see what happens. Be sure to enjoy the process. Have fun on the page.