Today's guest on CHIMERAS is an amazing person, besides an acclaimed indie author, and to prove it to you, I'll start quoting his intro on his website: "Author, Homesteader, Reasonable Man." Michael Bunker is the bestselling author of WICK and Pennsylvania, besides a number of other books, both fiction and non-fiction. Michael and his wife and four children have been living "off the grid" since 2005 and so, when I contacted him for an interview, I was interested in learning more not just about Michael's books, but also about his life and choices. What I learned about this man is truly compelling, so please join me in welcoming Michael Bunker to CHIMERAS.
EEG: I read the interview you did with Jason (fantastic interview, BTW!), and I understand that you weren't raised "off the grid", but that you and your family made a deliberate choice in 2005. What prompted this decision? Was it something that had been brewing at the back of your head for many years, or did something happen in your life that suddenly made you see things in a different way?
MB: We'd been moving slowly in that direction since 1994, when my wife and I (we had one daughter at the time) chose to leave the Dallas/Ft. Worth area to move back to Lubbock, Texas, to "get out of the rat race." Well, before long Lubbock was a rat race and we wanted to move even further "out." So we got 5 acres of land out in the country and started a small farm. That was 1997. From '97 to 2005 we learned a lot about farming and gardening and we learned that we wanted to go completely off-grid and that we wanted to, if possible, live around like-minded people. So in 2005 we made the plunge and moved here to Central Texas. Several friends made the leap with us, and we bought land in a bunch. Others moved down later. All the way, we were studying off-grid living, sustainability, and the "Plain" life. It has just been a long and interesting journey!
EEG: I really like your philosophy on technology. Your office is solar-powered. You produce what you need. If we all did that, our planet would last longer and there wouldn't be so much waste and pollution. Correct me if I misstating, but with technology, you take what is needed and doesn't compromise the environment, and refuse the rest. Let me ask you, though: do you ever find yourself on the fence about something? Something you can't honestly tell whether it's "good" or "bad"? Take modern medicine, for example: the technology it uses is not always black and white. I'm asking because as a scientific researcher, I often face questions that are not black and white.
MB: There is always going to be that moral conundrum about technology. We just try to be deliberate in how we live. We never accept something without really thinking about it and discussing it. Is it good for us? Is it good for our community life? Will the negatives outweigh positives. Unhappily, most people think in "parts" and not "wholes." Decisions are made in microcosm and not looking at the ramifications to life, happiness, the planet, the community, and what kind of lives our children will have. So we try to be deliberate about what we accept or reject. And we have a philosophy that helps us decide. The over-riding philosophy is DEPENDENCE. We will accept some technologies so long as we don't become dependent on them for life, living, or happiness. We won't accept a solution that has great positives but that causes us to depend inordinately on something we cannot make or produce. Such that if that technology disappeared or was disrupted we would harm our likelihood of survival, or the lives of our children, or the sustainability of our land. So those philosophies help us make decisions. I have technology (Internet, power, wifi, etc.) at my office, but I do not allow myself or my family to get dependent on it for our survival. We want to be able to turn it off and walk away. Toward this end, we've worked very hard to make sure that these technologies don't become life-support systems for us.
EEG: That actually makes a lot of sense. And it teaches a great lesson about life. You know, as a European immigrated to the US, I love this country very much as it has become my home and has welcomed me in a way that no other European country ever welcomes immigrants. At the same time, I'm shocked at how wasteful most people here in the US are: food, water, electricity--all resources that, if used sparsely instead of wastefully, could be shared across the planet and last a lot longer. Same goes with technology.
Let's talk about writing: your books are an intelligent mix of science fiction and history, of literature and adventure and, in a way, of past and future. Take Pennsylvania for example, which features an Amish young man, Jedidiah Troyer, who embarks in a colonization adventure searching for new farmland in the planet "New Pennsylvania". Basically, you invented the "Amish science fiction" genre. What inspired the story?
MB: I think it came from a lot of my own experiences. I walk from my completely off-grid life that might as well be 200 years ago down a trail to my office where I have a laptop, the Internet, an iPad, and a cell phone. That jarring contrast every day keeps me thinking about technology and how it affects our lives. So I thought about the original Anabaptists... the people in Europe who became the Amish and the Mennonites. And the decisions they had to make to leave Europe and get on frightening and technologically advanced ships to come to America. There was no difference, in my mind, to what a modern Amish would have to face to travel to another planet for more land. And I believe the Amish would do it. So it is a completely natural examination of a truism. When I was at Worldcon in San Antonio last year, people asked me, "Don't you think Amish Sci-fi is just too cute? Too outlandish?" And I said, "No. I think it is the most natural and perfect example of what Sci-fi is and what it has been historically."
EEG: Given the beautiful intertwining of past and present of your books, and mixing of genres, who are your readers?
MB: I have to have the most eclectic and diverse mix of readers in all of sci-fi. I have "Plain" people (actual Amish do read my books), Sci-fi geeks, ultra-conservative back-to-the-landers, ultra-liberal save-the-planet folks, anti-government people, pacifists, history buffs, survivalists, you name it. It's a crazy thing sometimes reading my mail and getting to know all of the different kinds of people who read my books.
EEG: Crazy but also very satisfying, I bet. Especially given that most traditional publishers these days veto "cross-genre" books, at least from starting authors (I know from personal experience). So, not only you're proving them wrong, but you're also showing that a cross of genres reaches a much wider audience.
I loved your post about "Kindle Stuffing", the idea that with so mean "cheap" books out there, people tend to "stuff" their Kindles, but the fraction of books they actually read is very low. Given that you believe the era of the 99 cent bestsellers is over, what advice do you have for indie authors who are just starting to sell their books?
MB: To be clear, there are now and probably will always be .99 books and .99 bestsellers. My position is that the era of using .99 or free books to Kindle Stuff and use that for the basis of building a career... that is over. .99 still works IF you can build value and demonstrate quality - either in your book you are launching, or in your brand as a whole. I just had a magnificent .99 sale on Pennsylvania and I demonstrated a really long and effective tail after the sale precisely because I was patient and built in the notion of quality and value before I went to .99. I have data that shows that this is the only way .99 really works any more. Without taking the time to build-in value and demonstrate quality, here are the facts about .99 (or free): Fewer people are reading their Kindle Stuffing books. Of those that are opened, fewer readers are getting past the 10% mark in the book before quitting. Of those that read the books from cover to cover, the probability that the reader will remember the name of the author has plummeted. So this trend has to be combated. And the only way to combat this trend is to focus on quality and value up front. Building brand. Building platform, and demonstrating quality and value. My advice for new Indie authors is to up your game. Stop thinking that dumping books in Kindles is the way to success because that day has passed. You want READS and not downloads. Focus on quality, harvest reviews, build your email list. Soft launch at full price and don't do a Grand Opening kind of hard launch until you have 50 reviews. 100 would be better. Keep your price high and work on saturating your superfans for at least 60 days before you go for a big promotion and a price drop. There's more to it, but this is what I'd do if I were just starting out. Also, don't try to make your first novel a bestseller. Build your backlist first.
EEG: Well, that makes me feel better. :-) Chimeras has certainly not hit the bestseller list (though I haven't given up hopes), but it really helped me set the foundations of a faithful readership.
What are you working on right now?
MB: I am completely overwhelmed! I'm working on Oklahoma, the sequel to Pennsylvania. I'm writing three Pennsylvania short stories for collections and box sets. I'm working on a brand new Amish Sci-Fi thriller entitled Brother, Frankenstein that is exciting and tragic and dark. If people thought just Amish/Sci-fi was groundbreaking, BF is a Amish/Robot/Frankenstein story. Think WITNESS meets Transformers meets The Hulk meets Jason Bourne only in a Gothic/Noir world. Yep!
EEG: That's actually pretty fantastic. :-) Do you want to tell us about your Indie Book Launch Secrets Workshop coming up on August 19th?
MB: As you might expect, I've been kind of hammered by authors who want information/data/tips on my marketing and promotion philosophy. But because it is so contrary to the common wisdom, and because it takes some time to show how the philosophy all fits together, I've had difficulty even wanting to share the information. Well, Tim Grahl - my friend who is one of the foremost experts on platform building, social media, and book marketing - talked to me after my recent Pennsylvania promotion. I was going through page after page after page of insights, data, philosophy, and anecdotal evidence and after 4 or 5 long email pages Tim stopped me. He said, "I want to talk to you face to face about this." Just dumping the information was very confusing. So we had a Skype call and Tim easily understood it all and he said, "We need to put together a webinar. You explain it all better in person." Well, we didn't want to have a free-for-all where just anyone could attend because the technology we're using would get bogged down bandwidth-wise, and Tim felt it was better that the information not get diluted by too much use. We wanted the strategies to remain effective, so broadly broadcasting them would have a deleterious effect on the success of the suggestions. So we decided to limit the participation to only 100 authors. It will sell out.
EEG: Thanks so much, Michael! I'm not as brave (and resourceful) as you in order to make a lifestyle choice like you and your family did, but I do believe that we could all do our part by wasting less and stop the binging craze. People like you and your family set an example. Thank you.
MB: Thank you Elena! I appreciate you very much and thanks for having me!
More about Michael Bunker on website, Facebook page, and Twitter.