Nathan Lowell is the creator of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper and the Tanyth Fairport Adventures.
Carl Slaughter had the opportunity to interview Nathan about podcast publishing, the Parsec Awards, space opera, and audiobooks…
Carl Slaughter: For those who haven’t discovered this source of fiction, how do podcast publishing and sales work?
Nathan Lowell: It’s like any audiobook except I break the recordings into episodes of approximately equal lengths with an intro and outro. My books are offered through Podiobooks.com and the iTunes Music Store as free audio downloads. I don’t sell them. We use a donation model.
CS: How does a story qualify for a Parsec Award?
NL: Any work in audio – novel, short, full cast, news, fan, etc – dealing with speculative fiction in the given year (May 1-April 30) goes through a nomination process. The nominations get whittled down by the steering committee and the short listed works are asked to prepare samples for judging. The samples go to a panel of judges who pick the winners in each category for that year. The committee announces the award winners at Dragon*Con.
See the Parsec Awards website for the current rules and categories.
NL: I specialize in small cast/single reader long fiction so I only compete against other podcasts of novels in that form. In any given year that number has varied. I don’t know exactly how many but the competition in the final judging has to be tough. I usually found the books in the short lists to be very, very good. I don’t envy the judges who had to pick one as the winner.
Podiobooks is closing in on 1000 titles across all the authors and genres. Without actually counting it’s probably at least 500 authors. In addition to those, more authors use podcasting as outreach, particularly self publishing related content. Podcasts like StarShipSofa – a magazine of science fiction news, reviews, and shorter works – won a Hugo a few years ago. Writing Excuses – with Brian Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor – is one of the “must listen” author podcasts.
My opinion is that more authors could use podcasts to differentiate themselves in a crowded text-based marketplace. I credit Podiobooks and the free audio podcasts for helping me develop the audience I needed when I started selling my books in text forms. If I were just starting out today, I’d do the same thing – but better.
CS: Your Solar Clipper series is space opera, but avoids the usual space opera tropes – prophesized savior, charismatic captain, exiled prince, and other larger than life heroes; political intrigue, bug eyed monsters, epic battles. So who are the characters in your stories and what do they experience and do that bonds the readers to them?
NL: My works are a direct response to the typical space opera. I grew tired of always reading about how the people with power, with agency, get involved in huge sweeping arcs of stories. I wanted stories that dealt with real people, people I could relate to. People who weren’t able to just wave a hand and say “Make it so” and it would be. I always wanted to know what that Red Shirt did before he got tagged for the away team and who did his job after he died.
I asked the question “What if we sent freighters instead of frigates?” and the rest fell into place.
My characters are all “just people” – people you might know – and the things that happen are things that anybody might do if they lived on a freighter that spent most of its time in the Deep Dark.
The stories are about how Ishmael Horatio Wang gets tossed out of his day-to-day existence on a company planet and must make a living among the stars. Mostly he’s searching for the same things that anybody needs – security, affection, affiliation. Just like every other human. He does it by doing the same kinds of things we all do. He works, he studies. He tries and he sometimes fails — although he fails more often than he admits to himself.
One of my readers summed up the books and why (some) readers enjoy them this way:
“Most authors write engaging stories about wars and conflict and aliens. They’re fascinating and often terrifying. Nathan writes about worlds I want to live in.”
CS: Do they deal with bureaucrats? Pirates? Alien life?
NL: Mostly with each other and with their corporate masters. Bureaucracy and red tape have sometimes played a McGuffin role – they move the story but that’s not what the story is about. There are no pirates that we know of. Alien life has not been discovered. These are simple stories dealing with common problems that readers might have themselves – natural disasters, accidents, random violence, misogyny, prejudice, and how to stay warm in an uncaring world.
CS: Is romance a large part of the story arc?
NL: Not at the moment. One of Ishmael’s problems is his stance on fraternization. He’s often lonely but his core believe in not becoming involved with his crews serves as an on-going driver and point of conflict as he struggles to deal with his loneliness.
That might change later, but none of the books in Trader’s Tales or the newer Seeker’s Tales and Smuggler’s Tales would qualify as SFR.
NL: Handwavium and several large sheets of plotonium.
None of the characters are involved in needing to explain how they’re able to make wormholes or bend gravity to their bidding – any more than a story where a character needs to drive someplace explains how a car works. The universe is and the people use it.
CS: You’ve got several projects in the same universe. Traders Tale, Seekers Tale, Shaman’s Tale, Smugglers Tale. Which series are about which characters and which time periods and what is the setup for each journey? Is there crossover?
NL: Trader’s Tales follow Ishmael Wang from the beginning of his career up through the various ranks – Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, Double Share, Captain’s Share, and Owner’s Share. They span about twenty years of his life starting in 2352 and running to 2374. The series is about how he grows from a naive young man of 18 to an adult.
The follow on series – Seekers Tales – will deal with what he does after that. I’ve only written the first one so far and plan about a three book arc as he goes in search of … well, that’s kind of a spoiler. He’s looking for something and the stories in that series will be about how he goes about the search and what he does when he finds it.
Shaman’s Tales are a spin off series related to one of the details of the universe – a rare and curious artifact called a “whelkie.” It’s an animal fetish carved from driftwood and inlaid with a bit of purple shell as a heart (Think Zuni fetish but in wood instead of stone). They’re carved on only one planet – St. Cloud. When a young woman – Sarah Krugg – joins the crew of the Lois McKendrick in Half Share, we learn a bit about the life of a shaman and the requirements (you have to be male). The fans were so interested I wrote South Coast to try to work on her backstory. I started too soon and told her father’s story. I have to write the bridge story between South Coast and Half Share now. I’m got about 30k words and need to finish that. It will be called Cape Grace. Chronologically the series starts in 2304 and the second book will end about the time Sarah flees the planet to join the crew of the Lois McKendrick about 50 years later.
Smuggler’s Tales will deal with the underbelly of the Golden Age. Not all the universe is the highly regulated environment readers become familiar with in the Trader’s Tales. There are cracks where people fall through and the safety net doesn’t appear to exist. There’s a history that Ishmael has never been exposed to and we’ll be exploring that aspect of the Golden Age by sailing with Natalya Regyri and her wingman, Zoya Usoko. This series starts in 2363 – about five years after the beginning of Double Share and will run through the end of Seeker’s tales (whenever that will be). I’m working on the first book – Milk Run – now. I wrote an origin short story for an anthology featuring female main characters – Starbound – that came out in early February.
In addition to the obvious Sarah Krugg cross over between Shaman and Traders, there will be come crossover between Smugglers and Seekers. I don’t know how much or what it might be yet. I haven’t written them yet.
CS: Such an ensemble cast. Indeed, multiple ensembles. How do you keep track of all those characters and give them all the plot integration, scene count, character development, and character interaction they warrant?
NL: Mostly I don’t worry about it.
The Ishmael Wang stories are all first person POV. I had to write up rosters and watch schedules so I knew who was supposed to be on watch at every station in the ship for any given point in time. I worried most about keeping the details consistent across the timeline. When Ishmael relieves a watch in the Environmental section – when was he on duty, who did he relieve, and who relieved him when it was over. When he met crew in the galley, who couldn’t be there because they were on watch or asleep. I had some idea about what Ishmael’s arc would be in any story when I started it, and was often pleased that I got something else instead.
CS: Reviewers have remarked that your descriptions of the vessels are vividly realistic. Did you rely on your experience in the Coast Guard or did you imagine what a spaceship would look like? Or a combination?
NL: Coast Guard extrapolated across the situation where the solar clippers spent most of their time underway with only brief and vivid stops for a few days every couple of months. That serves as the basic plot driver as people have to live, work, eat, sleep in each others’ pockets for months at a time. The periodic releasing of the pressure in port let me introduce outside influences.
One of the criticisms is the focus on food and coffee. Those people who’ve been out there – who know the daily grind of watch, eat, sleep, watch, eat, sleep – for weeks on end know that the only thing to look forward to are the meals. Coffee takes on an almost ritualistic meaning. I learned that from being on hurricane patrol for a year in the North Atlantic.
CS: Which sequels have been recently released or are on the horizon?
NL: In Ashes Born – the first of the Seeker’s Tales – came out last October.
I have the first Smuggler’s Tale – Milk Run – on my word processor now.
The second Shaman’s Tale – Cape Grace – is on the back burner. I had to set it aside because In Ashes Born wouldn’t let me rest. 🙂
CS: Which are available as audiobooks, ebooks, and paperbacks?
NL: Podcast, ebook, paperback:
- Quarter Share
- Half Share
- Full Share
- Double Share
- Captain’s Share
- Owner’s Share
- South Coast (paper is way down on my list of priorities. It’s “customer service” and not revenue.)
- In Ashes Born
The Ishmael Wang stories (Traders and Seekers Tales) have been licensed to Podium to produce the audiobook versions. The podcasts of those will be coming down when the audiobooks get released.
I’m a bit behind on producing podcasts and paperbacks.
CS: You’ve also got another series. Tanyth Fairport. Is that in the same universe as the Solar Clipper?
NL: No, the Tanyth Fairport Adventures are an epic fantasy trilogy about a 50-something itinerant herbalist who thinks she’s going insane.
CS: What about Tales of the Deep Dark? Will that become a series?
NL: “A Light In The Dark” was an experiment in writing novellas. The idea that “Novel Nibbles” would be “smaller stories for smaller screens.” Working with Debora Geary, the idea that people might read ebooks on their phones (the smaller screens) was just becoming a thing. Now I only read on my phone and the whole “let’s see if we can get people to do it” idea seems less “wouldn’t it be cool if we could get people to do it” and more “what else would people do.”
I won’t rule out a series, but I can write three novels in the time it takes to write one novella. I’m probably not going to go with that form again unless there are some other drivers.
CS: Any other projects in the works?
NL: In the back of my brain is “what happens next” for Tanyth Fairport and “what happens when I get to the end of the Seekers and Smugglers tales?”
Podium is working through the Ishmael Wang books and should release their first audiobook on Audible this spring.
I continue to pursue foreign language translation and distribution deals – Japan and Korea so far.
I’m now a member of SFWA and look forward to becoming more active in the SF community from the producer side. Working to counter the narratives that indies are only waiting for a “real contract” and that indies can’t make a living at it gives me something to do when I can’t look at the word processor.
I need to get back into my (somewhat) daily podcast – Talking On My Morning Walk. That’s been sporadic over the winter but I need to walk for my health and the podcast helps me stay accountable.
CS: Will every series continue indefinitely?
NL: No. Trader’s Tales ended at six when I ran out of Shares. Seekers and Smugglers should be three each. That’s five novels from now and I have no idea what I’ll do with the universe after that.
CS: Solar Clipper fans have formed groups on Facebook and Good Reads. Any Solar Fanfic yet?
NL: I have a forum on my website for fanfic and a quadrant set aside for fans to tell stories in. I haven’t seen any in the wild, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was out there. (Don’t tell me, if you know of some.)
CS: When you signed with Podium, you announced that the Share podcasts were coming down and that you would not do the narration for the audiobooks. Why?
NL: Podium wouldn’t consider my narration. I couldn’t even audition to do the books. They have a stable of professional voices that they rely on. It wasn’t an option.
The podcasts have to come down because they want an exclusive distribution deal.
The question of “why did I accept the contract?” is a little more nuanced.
More and more of my audio fans are asking for audiobook versions – files without the intro/outro/etc that go into the podcasts. More and more want them from Audible. This deal was a way for me to do that.
I see the deal as a way for me to offload the time intensive effort of producing the audio versions of my books, freeing time to write new stories. I had to decide if I wanted to be known as a writer or a reader. I chose writer.
I still have the rights to do Smugglers Tales and to finish the podcast versions of Tanyth Fairport.
CS: Any advice to aspiring speculative writers and aspiring speculative podcasters?
NL: Pay attention to your social media footprint. (Wheaton’s Rule applies and don’t be the “buy my book” guy)
Ignore the trade-pub narratives about how little success indies enjoy.
Podiobooks rules. It’s still the best way I know to find an audience for longer works in any genre.
Stop aspiring. Start doing.
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. 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. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.