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[Guest Interview] Steven Campbell (HARD LUCK HANK) on Writing Humorous Sci-Fi, Publishing, and More

Steven Campbell is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (sfwa.org). He lives in Los Angeles.

Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots before moving to SF Signal. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Click here http://www.diabolicalplots.com/category/interviews/
to read Carl’s interviews on Diabolical Plots. Click here https://www.sfsignal.com/archives/category/interviews/ to read Carl’s interviews on SF Signal. Click here https://www.facebook.com/ESL-Around-the-World-530658247094335/ to see Facebook photos of Carl with his students of all ages from around the world. Click here  to watch a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.

Hard Luck Hank is a one-liner spewing giant mutant who is virtually impervious to pain and bullets.  He dresses like a pimp and dates an assassin.  Depending on the sequel, Hank is mercenary, muscle, bouncer, negotiator, chief of police, governor.  He’s also been a door man and a sewer worker.  In the next novel, he’ll be an athlete.  Hank is the creation of successfully self published, sci fi comedy, full time author Steven Campbell. After years of having his stories rejected by publishers, he started selling them himself and was soon making a living as an author.  He was in the first batch of self published authors to be admitted to the SFWA under the new membership rules.  In this interview, he discusses his talent for humor, his signature character, his marketing strategy, his cover art strategy, and his SFWA membership.


Carl Slaughter: You make your living by writing, so obviously your work is selling. But you self publish, so how do you successfully market your stories? Ho do readers discover your work?

SC:  I don’t market my work, per se. I have tried various things in the past like Google ads, Facebook ads, Goodreads ads, but the click-through is very poor. I lost money in every case. In the end, it’s just word of mouth. Bookstores typically don’t want to work with self-publishers as they view you as direct competitors, since I sell through Amazon. At least the ones I contacted. I haven’t set-up at a convention. I have a website and Facebook page, but I don’t think they really generate new sales so much as keep my current fans informed of what is coming. Which does help. On my first book, I emailed reviewers and asked if they would be interested in giving an honest review of my work. I doubt even 10% were interested, but I got my first reviews doing that and I ultimately think it helped. In some ways the work has to speak for itself loud enough that others speak for you.

CS: How long before the sales started rolling in?

SC: When I put my first book out there my goal was to sell 50. Because I felt that was more than the people I could convince and arm-twist. After about a week it had done that and I was like, okay, I at least did that. And then I think by the end of the next week or two it was selling around 50 a day. I had done nothing.

CS: If you can use the internet to sell books, so can the corporate publishers. Doesn’t that bring you back to square one?

SC: At the dawn of the internet, David Bowie (the late British musician) had a bet with someone on who would be the “owner” of the new internet: content creators or ISPs. He came from the music business where labels were kingmakers and he wagered that ISPs would be kings. Like TV networks or studios or music labels. As we now know, content is king. No one even dreams of saying an ISP is some powerhouse, but back in the day there were only a handful of ways to connect. Content is king and self-publishing is largely an internet business. Probably 95% of my sales are ebooks. So if you have good content, you don’t need anything else. It helps, but you don’t need it.

CS: You were one of the first authors to qualify for SFWA membership under the new rules for self publishing. How many novels were you required to sell?

SC: SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America basically has every sci-fi and fantasy writer in this country, from George R. R. Martin to Larry Niven and the past greats, so I was quite happy to be allowed in. The bylaws require a certain amount of earnings per book in a year. You can also get in via being published in “qualified markets” which are publications or publishers that adhere to basic guidelines that SFWA endorses. I got in on the earnings of one novel and then had to pay a membership fee. As I recall, I was one of the first fifty-ish who came in under the self-publishing guidelines, but a whole lot more are coming. So that alone should be encouraging to other self-publishers or those considering it.

CS: Publishers rejected your work for years because you write sci-fi comedy. Yet the fans immediately responded favorable. Why was/is sci-fi comedy such a stumbling block for the publishing establishment. What do fans see in sci-fi comedy that publishers didn’t/don’t?

SC: There just isn’t a track record of sci fi comedy actually working. Out of who knows how many hundreds of thousands(?) of science fiction books published, there have been there are only a handful that you could truly call comedic. When I stated that was my genre, I would be asked if it was like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I would say, not really, and that would be it. I even get that response when I’m just casually talking to random people. The first thing they ask is if it’s like Hitchhiker’s Guide. It would be like if you said your work was dramatic and every single person asked you, “so it’s just like Hamlet, then?” I was told by one agent that science fiction readers “are too serious for comedy.” I got so much negative reaction from my genre that I stopped mentioning it when I was pitching. I would just say it was science fiction. I became quite disillusioned after so much negative feedback (without them actually reading the work). Finally, I said I can’t be the only one who likes science fiction and likes to laugh. It just seemed impossible. In the end, I don’t believe any readers had an issue with the genre as long as they knew what it was going in. I think the titles and blurbs and covers convey the tone of the series.

CS: How and when did you discover that you have a natural talent for writing comedy fiction?

SC: In elementary school and middle school I would write funny stories for our homework assignments. Kids would ask what was the minimum word count we were allowed to submit and I would ask what was the maximum word count. During class, kids would pass around my work and laugh at it while reading. I could never understand why other children didn’t write like I did because it got me a lot of attention and popularity. It didn’t occur to me that it was a talent or ability. It wasn’t until some of my friends attempted to do the same and they weren’t very good at all that I realized not everyone has the facility to put together stupid stories that are entertaining. I mean, it’s not curing cancer or sinking 50 three-pointers in a row, but there IS still some innate talent required. However, I think the biggest hurdle is whether or not you enjoy doing it. Most people don’t.

CS: Do you do comedy in any other context? Forums, parties, clubs?

SC: I suppose. I don’t carry around rubber ducks and whoopie cushions, but I can work at being funny. I was going to do some stand-up for a while and was hanging out at clubs to get the cadence and form, but I just don’t have that personality. There is a very immediate reaction to comedy. And those who can do it on their toes, those people who are “always on” is a whole other talent. To me, that’s tiring, as in mentally and physically tiring. I think I inject humor into most things I do because it’s just part of who I am. I’m not particularly aware of it until people start laughing. I think I just have a way of speaking and thinking that is funny to other people even though it’s kind of normal to me.

CS: Is Hard Luck Hank modeled after anyone real or fictional?

SC: Hank has a lot of one-liners and long tirades on life and living that’s pretty much all me. Clearly I’m not a mutant thug, but he has a lot of my personality quirks.

CS: Is Hank biographical at all?

SC: Yup. I’ve had some people who know me read my books and say they hear my voice when Hank talks.

CS: What exactly is Hank’s occupation?

SC: It changes in each book. That’s part of me keeping it interesting for readers and keeping it interesting for me. At the most basic, he’s a heavy. A gang negotiator. He’s also been the chief of police, the governor, a bouncer/doorman, a sewer worker, and in the next book he’ll be a professional athlete.

CS: What are his ground rules for people who want to make use of his services?

SC: Hank is cautious, diplomatic (when needed), blunt (when needed), and lazy. He doesn’t like trouble if he can stay away from it, but the title of the series is Hard Luck Hank, so he pretty much can’t avoid it. He doesn’t like the idea of assassins, despite dating one at one point.

CS: What is his philosophy?

SC: Where to begin? The books are peppered with his philosophical musings. Most are hopefully a bit funny. Here is a series of lines from the latest novel, which isn’t published yet. Not exactly spoilers.

“But I was not a philosopher king.  There are those who are destined for Great Thoughts and dwelling on The Meaning of this or that.  I was not one of those people.  I got stuff done and tried to have a good time doing it.  Let the Big Thinkers think. I mean, someone’s got to do it.  But when they get muscled out of their universities, or someone kidnaps their disciples, they’re going to come asking me for help.  So in a way, I was just as important. No, I didn’t invent cloning, or mutations, or spaceships, but I beat up the people who did.  That had to count for something.”

CS: Does he have morals? Are there certain things he refuses to do? Are there certain people he refuses to harm?

SC: He does, but he’s a realist. He lives in an incredibly harsh environment and the whole white hat, white cape approach isn’t viable. One of my favorite scenes in the first book was when he had to threaten a little old lady. It was for the safety of the city, in a roundabout way, but he felt like a heel doing it. Here is another quote:

“I didn’t like messing with normals for the most part. They did their jobs and we did ours. Sometimes our paths crossed and they lost, that’s the nature of the business. I mean, if we try and lay down a bribe and the guy won’t accept, what are we supposed to do? Say, “oh, well,” and move on? Of course not.”

CS: Which actor would be ideal to play Hank if he hit the big screen?

SC: I never really defined much about Hank in the way of physicality. I never talk about his eyes or even skin color. Though I think most people have the impression he looks just like the cover art. Hank is deadpan humor. Also, the joke’s on him a lot. That isn’t very appealing to American actors for the most part, where they want these larger-than-life roles and they’re the King Awesome of everything. I was just watching a review of the differences between British and American humor and the Americans tend to be wisecrackers who one-up everyone. Those guys are “usually” on top of things, ahead of everyone, the hero who gets the girl. Sometimes they’re down and out, but usually it works for them. You look at the British side and it’s totally opposite, where they’re the sad sacks, miserable failures. You laugh at them while you still cheer for them. In that respect, I feel Hank is a bit more of a British humor hero. Although he can be a bully, he usually is as a last resort or in the pursuit of a higher purpose. Hank doesn’t want to be in those situations and funny stuff happens to him which he doesn’t think are funny at all.  In any case, I hadn’t thought of too many people who could do it, but Dwayne Johnson has comedic chops and a build that might work.

CS: Who does that awesome cover art and where did you find them?

SC: I’ve had a lot of great artists.  Ian Llanas, Le Manh Cuong, Tariq Raheem, Konstantinos Skenteridis, Malcolm McClinton, Markus Lovadina. I used Deviant Art, Art Station, and Comic Art Commissions.

CS: Did they rely strictly on reading the book or was there a lot of interaction with you?

SC: None of them read the books because I work on the covers while I’m writing. That’s part of self-publishing. I can’t be sitting around for five months waiting for a cover when the writing is done. It’s a LOT of emails back and forth. I usually do a mock-up of how I want them positioned, have some samples I get from image searches to get like textures and gadgets and such, and just write out the rest. They come back with some roughs, and we’ll go and revise from there.

CS: How can a self published author afford to hire an artist?

SC: Magic beans! Actually, I think covers are one of the most important aspects of self-publishing. That should be written above under how to reach people. Readers are presented with tens of thousands of titles on Amazon, if your image and title catches their eye, you may just get a sale. Sure, the Beatles could do the White Album and Spinaltap could do the Black Album, but if you aren’t one of them, you’re going to need to entice purchasers. On those sites I mentioned, you can find all budget ranges. I used overseas artists on a number of my works because the exchange rate was so favorable. You can also get people who are up-and-coming and want to establish a portfolio so will work for less. All that said, I was a senior computer programmer for over 15 years, so I wasn’t living off bread crumbs and soy sauce packets. I splurged most on my first cover and did a bit more cost-cutting after that.

CS: Does a cover artist get a commission or flat fee?

SC: Flat fee. There’s pretty much no way to work a commission unless you have an accounting dept.

CS: How much does it generally cost to hire a cover artist?

SC: I’ve bought animated gifs, which as I recall were in the double-digits, i.e., like $40. And I’ve spent thousands. I think my most was around $5,000. But the average is closer to $1,000. I always buy/own the copyright, which can be a stumbling block for some people. But I’m a bit paranoid about rights. I put out a paperback, and audiobook, and ebook. I also make posters and t-shirts and do some advertising and I don’t want to keep track of what rights are what. I say they can use the works in their portfolios but they can’t sell it again. That way I can use the images in whatever form I need to without worrying about getting sued because the rights expired or weren’t covered.

CS: Any plans to write in another subgenre or outside the Hard Luck Hank universe?

SC: Not right now. I’m enjoying Hank and his universe. I change it up enough to keep it fresh, I hope, and myself entertained. I’ve looked at doing a modern choose your own adventure-type book, but keep stumbling on various aspects.

CS: Any advice to aspiring speculative fiction writers?

SC: Writing isn’t usually something you make a ton of money doing. It hasn’t been historically, and it isn’t now. But as an author, you are closer to the reader than you’ve ever been in the history of writing, except maybe the cave paintings era. In the past, it was a lot harder to get through the traffic and have your work picked to be published. I feel, unless you’re just completely insane, there are a huge number of people out there who share your perspective and interests. If you can write something compelling, you can find an audience. You might not be doing belly flops into your swimming pool filled with diamonds and cocaine, but you can share your writing with people who appreciate it.

Hard Luck Hank fans list their favorite one liners.

“EAT SUCK, SUCKFACE!”  <–his catch-phrase

“The enthusiasm evaporated from the room like a fart sucked into space.”

“Laugh all you want at a little .22, you get shot by one you’re not laughing.”

“Once they got word that I was driving around with thousands of Royal Wing Militia armed with beat sticks, and smacking people to death…well, it wasn’t so exciting to be out after curfew anymore.”

“I am crass. I do people’s crass work for them. I’m a crasshole.”

“Sometimes pretty women are like thugs from different gangs: they dislike each other on principle.”

“I’ve never really thought about a legacy. But for the last century it sounds like I was basically a bully with low blood sugar.”

“I’m exactly the same person wasted as sober. I just sweat a lot more and spit when I talk.”

“We were as inconspicuous as a black eye on a bride at her wedding.”

“Still, I couldn’t say sorry. That would make me look like some incompetent idiot—which I was—but I didn’t want them to know that. So I just held my ground and looked mean.”

“As a person, I was not cut out for dancing. Or higher mathematics. Or appreciating minimalist artwork—really, where’s the rest of it? Or running.”

“I kept forgetting that other people had personal lives. It was damn inconsiderate of them, really.”

4 Comments on [Guest Interview] Steven Campbell (HARD LUCK HANK) on Writing Humorous Sci-Fi, Publishing, and More

  1. Love the series. I can’t remember how I got turned on to it, but I’m glad I did.

    Good advice about springing for a good cover. There’s so many self-published books that look almost identical: a spaceship in space with a boring font centered over it.

    Being a solid and creative writer hells too . . .

  2. I am really surprised the fact this series started as a kickstarterwas not brought up…

    fantastic series though, wish it could be written even quicker then it is.

  3. I am always watching for the next Hard Luck Hank book. I buy the eBook and Audio book as soon as they are available. I just finished book 5 and am looking forward to the Audio version. Liam Owen does a fantastic job as narrator. Keep the stories coming Mr. Campbell!

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