All images by Nazri Noor.
I have to admit. When I first read Says’ piece on Nazri Noor I was a little skeptical.
Is this guy for real? Does self-publishing really work especially for Southeast Asians? Turns out, it not only works, but there are meticulous ways to go about it.
But first, a little introduction about the 37-year-old Sabahan born. Nazri Noor is the author of the Darkling Mage series. All five of his self-published books have topped numerous categories on Amazon’s Kindle stores in three countries: Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
If this doesn’t floor you, this will: The urban fantasy author wrote all five books within a year. What’s the Filipino-Malaysian descent’s secret? Read on.
Hey Nazri! The Darkling Mage is a nine part series which concern angels and demons. Good and bad and the gray. What inspired you to write this series?
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of morality, and in my books a lot of that stuff tends to get turned around. The good guys aren’t always what they seem, and sometimes, there are friends to be found even among those who may be considered evil.
Weird as it sounds, I know I write about a fictional fantasy universe, but that helps ground the stories in a bit of reality. No one is truly good or evil. There are always gray areas, even among gods and angels and demons. It’s a common trend in the books as well, that often, humans can be the worst of all.
Why urban fantasy?
Urban fantasy is the intersection of all the things I love, honestly: magic, supernatural creatures, thriller and mystery storylines, horror, a little bit of humor, and more. I’ve been consuming urban fantasy media for as long as I can remember, even before knowing what the genre was actually called, whether it was movies from my youth like Big Trouble in Little China or The Craft, TV shows like True Blood, or video games like the Persona series.
It was meant to be, I suppose, and it’s a happy coincidence that the market is very active and the readers are extremely voracious. I’m happy to report that I’ve been very warmly welcomed by both readers and writers of the genre, too. I’m in touch with a lot of my fellow indie urban fantasy authors. They’re all just great people who are more than happy to lend a helping hand, whether it’s to exchange tips and talk shop about the genre, or to give each other a little extra marketing push.
So what sets your series apart than the rest?
When I first started out, I wrote in my bio on my website that my books basically involve “sass and class, while kicking ass.” I thought I’d cringe reading that again, but it turns out to be true. I tend to use plenty of humor in my writing, and a lot of my characters like to crack jokes, whether they’re in the company of friends or confronting insane sorcerers bent on ending the world.
I like to think that the books have a distinct sense of style as well, in terms of the magic and the version of our world and its mythologies that they carve out for readers to explore. That’s what the Darkling Mage books are, essentially: funny and fast-paced, with plenty of action, magic, and drama.
You’re currently working on your sixth book. What keeps you going?
I can’t remember who said this, exactly, but it always made me laugh in a grim kind of way: poverty is a great motivator. I’ve been writing professionally for years, mainly as a journalist and as a public relations copywriter, but the industry is famous for being one that doesn’t exactly pay very well. I wanted to explore my options, and indie publishing happened to look extremely tempting.
And that brings me to my other motivation: wanting my voice to be heard, my words to be seen. I’m not one of those writers who’s happy just writing, even if no one sees it. I want my books to be read by as many people as possible. I have faith in my abilities as a writer, and if writing fiction is something that can earn me a living, so much the better.
I’ve had this conversation with friends so often recently: I really wish that the romanticization of the “starving artist” would just die. It’s unhealthy, promoting the idea that all art is suffering, that it is impossible and in fact frowned upon for someone in the arts to sustain themselves through the sale of their work.
I wish prosperity on all creative people who want to work in the arts full-time, whether they’re actors, writers, musicians, sculptors, what have you. Isn’t that what so many of us want at the end of the day, to create the things we love, and still be able to put food on the table?
You published four books in 2018 alone. Apart from sheer determination, what were some of the techniques you utilized to expedite and optimize your writing process?
I do this full-time, actually. This is basically my day job – or night job, considering I generally work at night and sleep during the day. Very much like a vampire, which I suppose works wonderfully with the genre I primarily write. Indie publishers tend to produce so much because we don’t have the marketing reach or budget that the big publishing houses do. Larger catalogues means we have more to advertise, and more ways to be discovered by prospective new readers. Each new book essentially builds a new road leading home to the hub: the author’s backlist.
That’s how I find the time to write. I’m my own boss, sure, but I’m also the only employee, so if I don’t produce, there are no books to sell, and if I’m not selling books, I starve to death. As for discipline, that’s tougher. Working from home means that all the distractions of home are right there: a long soak in the bathtub, Netflix, video games, books written by literally anyone else but me? Everything is a trap. It’s a matter of sticking with something long enough until I finish.
I actually run on a schedule that allows me to write and publish six books in a year, although I need to step up production in 2019 as I’m also working on a parallel series that I’m hoping to introduce towards December. I mainly rely on two things to help me work quickly and efficiently: an outline I can roughly follow for every book, and sprinting. Sprinting means breaking up writing into chunks, and committing to 15- or 20-minute “sprints” of doing nothing but writing. I’ll play an instrumental song on a loop for that amount of time, then push out as many words as I can manage, according to the outline I’ve set for a particular novel.
Nothing is set in stone, though. I do allow myself to deviate if better ideas come along, but for the most part, outlines let me know where the story starts, where it goes, and where it ends. So when I’m writing, which typically happens over the course of two weeks for every books, I’ll do about six to eight of those sprints in a day, aiming to write 5,000 words total. Each of my books are about 60,000 words in length, so two weeks of writing sounds about right. Those two weeks are generally the toughest to get through of every given month.
It honestly surprised me that I can work at this pace, but it really differs for everyone. And it gets easier with every book, sort of like a muscle. It’s also the advantage of writing a series, because it’s like coming home to spend time with family, with old friends. I’d encourage writers to give sprints a shot. You never know what you’re capable of until you try. I know authors who can put out one book a month, some even more – and they’re good books, too, with great stories and covers, properly polished by professional editors and everything. It’s all about time and energy management, and developing your own system.
As for how I planned the series, it was similar to following an outline for each book, only on a larger scale. I know how everything ends, and I know that I need to channel all of the stories towards that one grand finale, but in the course of writing I’ve been struck by bigger, better ideas that I was always happy to fold into the narrative. I know roughly what needs to happen in books seven, eight, and nine, for example, but if more interesting twists come along, hey, I’ll use those, too. They can only help make a book even more richly layered, and therefore more satisfying to read.
When do you intend to finish writing the entire series? And will they be available in paperback?
All nine books in the Darkling Mage series will have been published by the end of the year, though I do have plans for spin-offs, so it won’t be the last that readers will be seeing of characters they’ve learned to love. The entire series has been available in paperback from the beginning, though the popularity of reading in print really varies from genre to genre. Young adult and epic fantasy readers buy lots of paperbacks, for example, but urban fantasy moves very few physical copies. Most of my readers are far more interested in ebooks and audiobooks.
Your hard work has clearly paid off because you’ve topped multiple Amazon bestsellers lists. What were some marketing methods you used to promote your books?
I think the best resource I can point to is the book Write to Market by author Chris Fox, who has been earning a six-figure income from publishing his fiction independently for years now. His philosophy is built around authors writing in a genre that they love writing, one that is currently marketable. In my case, that’s urban fantasy, which is a great mix of things that I love to write and that readers love to read. It’s also strongly recommended for indies to write in series. It’s easier to market them, and to recoup the cost of doing so, because if you get a reader hooked on the first book, chances are good that they’ll want to read everything else you’ve got.
Poverty is a great motivator” – Nazri Noor
I’m a huge nerd when it comes to indie publishing and could go on forever about this, but I’ll stick to the basics. As mentioned above, it typically pays off to write a series in a market that’s filled with busy, hungry readers. After that, the book needs a fantastic cover, and an attractive blurb to go with it, one that piques just enough of a reader’s interest and hooks them into peeking at the first page and outright buying it. Once that’s complete – once the product is perfectly packaged, because as an indie author, you’re running a business, and every book is a product – you throw as much advertising as you can reasonably afford at it, targeting readers through channels like Facebook and Amazon’s advertising platforms, or the various advertising newsletters that promote books to their thousands of reader subscribers, such as Robin Reads and Book Barbarian.
And if the book fails? Move on. Try something else. It’s incredibly difficult to find any kind of success in publishing, and even a great book can fail to hit the mark for any number of reasons. If the book succeeds? Wonderful. Just repeat the process and keep pumping out the best book you can muster until the earth crumbles to dust and the sun explodes – whichever comes first.
If you write these books full time, how do you sustain yourself financially?
This is my main source of income, actually! Everything is set up so that my earnings from various channels get deposited into my checking account. It’s quite convenient in that sense, and it also means that I can basically work from any place in the world that has an internet connection. That might make it sound like I only need to write and edit my books, but indie publishing involves so much more. I’d say that getting the book done is only about 20% of the work.
I still need to network with other authors, coordinate with my cover designer and beta readers, format my paperbacks, tweak and handle online advertising on generally a daily basis, engage with my readers through social media and our private Facebook group, write newsletters for my readers that go out every couple of weeks, and listen to the audio versions of my books as my narrator completes them, prior to actually uploading them to sales channels.
I’m also throwing merchandise into the mix – T-shirts, tote bags, mugs, that sort of thing – but that’s taking a little longer than expected as I’m still looking at samples from various print-on-demand suppliers. As I mentioned before, this is essentially a full-time job. At times it feels like two jobs, honestly. But I’m having a ton of fun. Indie publishing lets me use all of my skills, but also allows me to develop new ones. I’m not just an author, but a business owner, and those are two roles that I never, ever thought I’d be able to fill at the same time.
No way! How much do you earn?
I am not comfortable sharing specific figures, but I make a livable income comparable to someone working a desk job in the US. In the range of authors who make a living exclusively through writing, I’d say that I sit squarely in the middle. Most of the money goes back into the business, though, whether it’s paying for covers, advertising, or audiobook production.
Why did you choose Amazon to sell your books and would you move away from it any time soon?
I don’t see myself moving away from Amazon in the immediate future. The 70% share of royalties going to authors is standard across most of the other online sellers such Kobo, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble. But being exclusive with Amazon gives my books additional exposure through their Kindle Unlimited subscription service, which allows readers to “borrow” as many books as they can read in a month, and pays authors by the number of pages they read.
Several genres thrive in Kindle Unlimited, urban fantasy being one of them. The profit is worth centralizing all my books on a single platform, and in any case, publishing online pays back in royalties that are much more attractive than anything a traditional publisher can offer, short of a very large advance, which aren’t typically offered to newer authors.
Last and final question. How do you deal with a writer’s block?
Writer’s block is a myth. It’s almost always a problem of plot, of not knowing where the story needs to go next. In my case I even recognize it as a problem of motivation: laziness, in short.
When I do get stuck, I do one of two things. Either I’ll allow myself some time to work through the problem mentally by doing more manual things like marketing, or drawing, or even baking, or I’ll sit down and keep writing until the knots and tangles of whatever story problem was there gets unraveled through brute force. Both ways have worked pretty well.
Curious about Nazri Noor’s Darkling Mage series? Click here to get a free copy of Penumbra, the prequel to his series. By the way, Suraya Zainudin of Ringgit Oh Ringgit has some handy tips on self-publishing too.