Publishing Perspectives: Simon Levack

Of all the publishing perspectives and self-publishing experiences we have brought to you over the past two years, most of them have dealt with the transition from self-publishing success to the mainstream world of large publishing houses. Success can be measured in several ways in self-publishing, dependent on whether we look at success from the perspective of author or publisher. For an author, it may be connecting and expanding their readers and attaining a modest degree of sales and profit. For a publisher, it may be the opportunity to take on an author with some proven success and the potential to become an A-listed author with a long future.
Recently, we looked at David Fulmer and the innovative Five Stones Press. Fulmer spent many years with a mainstream publisher before finding himself out of favour and searching for a way to publish his latest novel, The Fall. In a retracting publishing climate, authors are finding it increasing difficult to gain publication—even within the mainstream industry—so much so, we are seeing a growing trend of authors looking to alternative paths outside of the recognised traditional publishing machine.
Our story begins in Kent, England, 1965. A local boy attends grammar school, takes a law degree and becomes a solicitor. There is nothing out of the ordinary here. This local boy was an avid reader and he spent much of his youth writing or thinking about writing.

“I devoured my parents’ collection of thrillers and airport novels (my father was a lifelong commuter and business traveller), and so popular fiction was in my blood from an early age.


I took up writing seriously in my early twenties, while getting over a severe illness. No doubt being reminded how fragile health and therefore life are helped to concentrate my mind. I took (and dropped out of) a correspondence course and started sending stories and articles out to magazines. Practically all of them, of course, were rejected, but I had some success in competitions. I have been writing fairly steadily, with a few breaks, ever since.”

In later life, our local Kent boy read Inga Clendinnen’s ‘Aztecs: An Interpretation’, and this began an interest and fascination with the Aztecs and Mesoamerican civilization. So intense was his interest in this subject, cajoled by his wife, he would go on to write four books of historical mystery novels, three of them published by St. Martin’s Press and Simon & Schuster.
Simon Levack sent an entry into the Crime Writers’ Association’s competition for unpublished authors in 2000. The competition was called The Debut Dagger, and it required an author to submit the opening chapter of a crime novel. Levack’s submission was a little different. The backdrop was the ancient Aztec civilization—an unusual setting for a crime novel. Levack won the competition with his entry, A Flowery Death, later to become his first novel, Demon of the Air. He completed the final draft of the novel two year later and his agent managed to attract the attention of St. Martin’s Press who acquired it in 2002 along with the rights to the sequel. Demon of the Air was published in 2003.
Levack did what all sane authors do with a comfortable and successful 9 to 5 job when they get a book publishing contract from a major publisher—he quit so he could concentrate full-time on his second novel. 

“I gave myself a year to finish my second book and hopefully write the third; in fact it was 2005 before I finally decided it was time to go and look for a proper job again. Since then I have applied myself to a variety of occupations, including writing.”

The second book was Shadow of the Lords, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2005, but already, despite glowing literary reviews, the signs were ominous for Levack. In an interview with Jeri Westerson, Levack reflected on his own views of how his books were being received and what the outlook was for him as a mainstream author.

“I wish I knew what happened! Judging by the reviews they garnered on both sides of the Atlantic both Demon and Shadow should have done very well, but in fact sales of both have been patchy at best. But in reality nobody knows what makes one book succeed commercially and another fail. I suspect that if there is any one explanation it is perhaps that the setting of my stories is too strange for many readers, and that what I thought of as one of their strengths – the absence of any modern Western perspective – was actually seen by many potential readers as a turn-off. “

Levack’s third in his series of historical mystery novels was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2006, and though his network of readership was dedicated, and even growing wider at that time, the transfer to sales was not materialising. Levack had managed to secure a full-time literary seat at a local University, but ultimately, he found himself with the fourth book in his novel series, professionally edited and without a publisher.

“Whatever the reason, after City of Spies Simon & Schuster (my UK publishers) decided enough was enough and nobody else wanted to pick up the series part way through. I decided to publish Tribute myself as a print-on-demand title because the book had been written and thoroughly edited and I didn’t want to disappoint those readers who were waiting for the next instalment.”

Levack chose what he perceived as the natural choice for an established author with a readership. His fourth novel, Tribute of Death was published through Lulu in 2008. We have already seen this year John Edgar Wideman pursue a similar path to publication in an effort to continue to make their books available. For these authors, this is perhaps the nub of why an established author chooses to use a publishing service, rather than continue to wait for another mainstream opportunity.
Will Levack or Wideman return to the mainstream channel of publishing? Yes. And I believe it will be at the first opportunity they get. While the sun shines on self-publishing methods at the moment, and it provides an option for the disenfranchised traditionally published author at the moment, much will be revealed about the alternative methods to publishing when Stephen King, James Patterson, JK Rowling et all decide themselves to give the cold shoulder to the establishment and decide that their brand is stronger than the logistical power of the publisher. That in itself is an extraordinary challenge, but the glitteringly successful are perhaps the best placed to take advantage of what self-publishing has to offer. Of course, they may not have the necessary will or inclination, but they have the brand and the means to do so.
Simon Levack (b.1965) is a British author of historical mystery novels. To date he has published four books: Demon of the Air, Shadow of the Lords, City of Spies and Tribute of Death. All are set in Precolumbian Mexico on the eve of the Spanish colonization of the Americas and feature as the protagonist Yaotl, a fictitious slave to Tlilpotonqui, the Cihuacóatl or chief minister in the Aztec state of Tenochtitlan under Hueyi Tlatoani, or Emperor, Moctezuma II. Demon of the Air won the Debut Dagger Award, given by the UK Crime Writers’ Association, in 2000. He has also published short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine featuring the same character and setting. His work has been noted for its historical detail, complex plotting, humour and often graphic violence. He has acknowledged Australian historian and anthropologist Inga Clendinnen and the work of Bernardino de Sahagún, compiler of the Florentine Codex, as influences; he has also (in an interview with the Criminal History ezine) indicated that science fiction has been an influence on his work.

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