Interview with Author P. N. Elrod

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing author P.N. Elrod, best known for The Vampire Files series featuring undead private eye Jack Fleming. She’s edited award-winning anthologies, warns new writers away from scams, and is open and honest about her incurable addiction to chocolate. More about her toothy titles may be found at www.vampwriter.com.

What is it about vampires that so attracts the public?

P. N. ELROD: They’re easy on the eye, have money (if they’re doing things right), and get to kick butt—at least that’s true for the ones in my books!

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to become the “vampire specialist” with your series?

ELROD: I didn’t decide. I like writing about the characters. You write about what interests you and that passion comes through in the words. If you’re lucky your words will touch others.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on the many variances we’re seeing in vampire stories?

ELROD: I don’t have any. To each his own, let’s all have fun.

VENTRELLA: Do they bother you?

ELROD: Not even a little. I have other things on my event horizon.

VENTRELLA: Do you think this trend will die down eventually?

ELROD: I was told in the 1960s that vamps were dead. Apparently someone got that wrong and others will continue to get it wrong. I don’t pay attention to trends. If I did, then there would be no Vampire Files or any of my other books. I write the kind of stories I want to read and hope others agree with my take on things.

VENTRELLA: The concept of a vampire private eye solving his own murder must have helped sell your first novel in that series.

ELROD: The concept resulted in 20+ rejections from publishers who didn’t know what to do with a cross-genre book back then. It wasn’t a mystery or a horror and no one knew how to sell it—especially agents looking for a quick placement. It finally sold off the slushpile to Ace Science Fiction. It only took two years of shopping around—and about 20+ rewrites to get it up to a professional level. I’m glad it too so long—it resulted in a much better book!

VENTRELLA: You’ve written a sequel of sorts to Dracula. How did that come about, and what constraints did you discover?

ELROD: It is a sequel to Dracula. I’ve always thought that Quincey Morris got a bum rap at the end, and wondered how it was that he knew more about vampires than all the others except for Van Helsing. I also wondered—after V.H. again and again harped about using a wooden stake—that they bumped off Dracula with a big metal knife. Well, my hero, Fred Saberhagen deftly and cleverly dealt with the latter problem in his classic The Dracula Tapes. When I was ready to do my own take on things, Quincey Morris, Vampire was the logical result!

No constraints. I wrote the kind of story I wanted to read. I love the Victorian period, the research was a joy and still is. I’m doing another Quincey book, but it will have to be scheduled after I turn in my new steampunk series.

VENTRELLA: In my next novel, a vampire runs for President (but of course, no one believes that vampires really exist). Do you think there’s a market out there for a political vampire novel?

ELROD: I wouldn’t know. Get some feedback, polish, shop it around, and find out.

VENTRELLA: When editing, what do you look for in a story?

ELROD: As little work for me to do as possible. I expect a clean, polished manuscript from writers who bothered to proofread and use the spell check.

After that, I want a beginning, middle, and satisfying ending with characters I can relate to whether they’re good guys or bad apples, and good solid writing.

I expect an enthusiastic, cheerful, professional attitude. My goal is the same as the writer’s: producing the best story possible so readers fall in love with their words. If you’re a paranoid diva whose deathless prose that must be preserved like the Dead Sea Scrolls, move on. Neither of us will enjoy the experience.

VENTRELLA: Do you generally invite others to join your short story collections or do you have open submissions? Which do you prefer?

ELROD: These days I’ve room for only nine stories in a collection. I call on a core handful of writers on my A-list choosing about four of the nine, depending on who is available. A-list writers are busy! The publisher—who is footing the bill—naturally wants to promote the writers who have books with them, and pick the other names. It’s only fair, and they are being more than generous about it.

In past projects I could handpick all the writers, inviting ones I knew would deliver good stories. I’ve asked only 2-3 otherwise unpublished writers for work, and they did not disappoint.

Those projects were not open submission, but I got stories from other writers with more cohones than sense. I let in one based on his letter and story. The letter, I later found out (this was before Google), was a gross exaggeration of his supposed “sales”. His story required extensive and repeated line edits. After that, I put him on my “do not invite” list. I don’t deal with liars.

Here’s a clue, new writers: tell the truth. You’re only as good as your reputation for honesty. If you’ve not sold anything, it’s perfectly okay. But don’t tell an editor that you’ve sold 20 stories to various publications when you really mean you just submitted stories and are waiting to hear back. These days it’s too easy to check up on you.

After speaking with other editors who have done open submission collections, I know I’d not want to work on such a project. I don’t have the time or patience.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

ELROD: They’re not cracking down on e-piracy. It’s not about freedom of information, it’s about theft of property. It’s one thing to resell a used book, but used bookstores don’t sell Xerox copies.

Contrary to popular myth, most writers don’t get paid much, and piracy cuts into the pittance they do manage to get from their hard work. Pirates are not promoting anything. If writers could make more money by giving away free e-copies of their works, they’d be doing it. Some of the more successful ones have chosen to do so, but the pirates have taken that choice away from the rest of us.

Publishers are losing millions in revenue through e-theft. If the music industry can crack down on it, so can the publishing industry. I want them to get off their duffs and shut down on these so-called “share” sites. Slap fines on the pirates and those who download from them. If anyone wants a free copy to read, go to the library. Each time a book is checked out, the librarians note that and order more from those writers. It’s good for everyone.

I believe most people want to do the right thing, so please, support your local library and the writers you love.

VENTRELLA: You’ve self published a novel, even though surely you could have sold it to a traditional established publishing house. Why did you decide to do this?

ELROD: Let’s call it commercial publishing. “Traditional” is a term used to excess by a notorious reverse vanity printer to make their customers think they’re in safe hands. In true “traditional” publishing it was the writers who paid the costs. Writers call that “the bad old days!”

I could not have sold THE DEVIL YOU KNOW to a commercial publisher, since it was always meant to be a signed, numbered, limited-edition written specifically for my fans. My publisher for that series prefers stand-alone titles—at least from me.

Commercial publishing is glacially slow. It takes time to put books through editing, copy-editing, design cover art, arrange distribution, etc. I wanted to get the book out quickly.

So I did my research of various printers, pricing, delivery times, shipping costs, got the best deal from a local company whose people I know. I did the cover myself, got a professional edit, and a lot of proofreading. The printer very kindly tweaked my interior design to cut down on the page count and thus the cost. I had some good breaks and learned a lot.

For future non-commercial venue works I’ll go through a POD service, again, doing my research so I get the lowest cost per copy, but with a professional company that can deliver the goods to the readers. While it won’t be a signed edition on acid-free paper, it will be available through my website links at a low price and won’t ever go out of print.

I see many new writers opting to self-publish—usually long before they’re ready.

Some neos think having a book finished is good enough, and that the story is so great that people will forgive any “little” errors. It’s a nasty reality check when they get bad sales and worse reviews as a result. I don’t recommend self-publishing for the new kids. I was able to get away with it, based on my experience, an obsessive attention to detail, and a sizable fan base built up over the last 20 years.

VENTRELLA: Has it been a success?

ELROD: It’s sold out the 500 copies I had printed. In self-publishing terms it was a runaway bestseller. In commercial terms it tanked.

It took a year to sell that many copies. Had it been a commercial release it would have sold that many in one day.

I was only able to do because I have a solid platform of readers. Even so, only a tiny fraction of them chose to buy. I had hoped to sell out in the first month. So despite my experience and fan base, I overestimated my sales figures. It was instructive!

If a new writer with no platform decides to self-publish, they can expect to sell 5-10 copies to family and friends, perhaps 50 if they bust their bottoms with promotion. But they can also expect the standard “If your book is so good, why couldn’t you sell it?” Unfair, but that’s how it is.

I know some writers are promoting their backlists with much success as e-books and POD copies, racking up thousands of sales. But THEY had a plenty of commercial sales that built up a good audience. At this point, writers who have pro sales, who have books in the stores, and who self-promote like mad have the edge.

A new writer with no professional sales is delusional if he/she thinks similar success will happen to them. It’s all the difference between holding a garage sale, and having a store at the mall. It’s just better business sense to try for professional publication from the get-go.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

ELROD: Get feedback, rewrite as often as it takes, and expect rejection. No one escapes.

Send your work to venues that actually publish it. Don’t send a fantasy to a mystery house or a western to a cookbook house.

Just because you worked really, really hard on a book, don’t expect anyone to give you extra credit for the effort. Publishing is a business. Your words have to be worth buying and selling. If they aren’t you get a rejection. That’s when you ask for more feedback, rewrite, and try, try again.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

ELROD: Sending unpolished work out before they’ve gotten feedback from other writers, not just friends and family. They love you and want you to feel good.

Other writers will tell you the truth.

An amateur wants to be told how good their book is. A pro wants to know what’s wrong with it so they can fix the problems. Get the problems fixed first, then start shopping. Write the next book while you shop the first.

Don’t give up. Ever read a terrible book that still somehow got professionally published? That writer didn’t give up.

Obey Yog’s Law: “Money flows toward the writer.” Never pay to publish. It’s hard to believe, but many writers still think you have to pay to play. It’s scary how many will ask me “How much did it cost to get your book published?” I’m talking about my commercial titles, not the ones I self-pub. I’m very clear that there is a huge difference between the two! (Usually the money they make. Commercial wins out every time.)

Don’t look for a publisher online, get Writer’s Market. You cut out 99% of time/money-wasting vanity and scam operations. If you google “book publisher” most of the names on the first page are scams wanting to turn you into an ATM for them.

Go into a bookstore, find books similar to what you write, then follow submission guidelines to the letter. Scams and vanity houses cannot get books into stores.

Ask other writers to recommend reputable agents in your genre. It worked for me.

Did I say to obey Yog’s Law? It’s worth repeating. Writers get paid, they don’t pay!

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

I don’t give dinner parties. My cooking is lethal. Ask the few survivors.

If we ate out, I’d hang with my friends in the here and now. I’ve learned it’s often a good idea to keep some distance between oneself and one’s heroes. You might catch them on a bad day and be disappointed.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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