Today I’m speaking with Ana Grilo and Thea James, who are better known as The Book Smugglers. They’re bloggers, writers, authors, and editors – and at the helm of Book Smugglers Publishing. We talk about how they got their start, and the role the Lost forums played in bringing them together (along with a few blogs you may have heard of).
Among the topics we cover:
- What they look for in science fiction and speculative fiction
- Making the transition from blogging and reviewing to acquiring, editing, and publishing
- How they went from book smuggling to becoming book surgeons
- Their favorite tropes in speculative fiction and fiction
Plus we discuss their Kickstarter, learn about the behind the scenes experience of a successful campaign, and how they were able to pivot the emphasis of the Kickstarter based on real time feedback and analysis – if it sounds exhausting, it really was.
There is a little bit of popping in the audio – sorry about that! I have to blame transatlantic recording and fussy internet demons. I’ll do better to appease them.
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This Episode's Music
Our music is provided each week by Sassy Outwater, whom you can find on Twitter @SassyOutwater.
This is from Caravan Palace, and the track is called “L’envol.”
Hedging His Bets by Laura Carter
When a high-flying American corporate investor living in London must return to New York on business, it means seeing the woman who broke his heart.
Thankfully his gorgeous British flatmate volunteered to come with him to keep his ex at bay.
New Yorker Jake Harrington loves a lot of things about living in London. His lucrative hedge fund job. The way British women melt at the sound of an American accent. His just-sex arrangement with his gorgeous roommate, Jess. And, oh yes, being thousands of miles away from the girl who betrayed him.
Jess’s deal with Jake suits her fine. No commitments, no risk of being hurt again, just friendship and mind-blowing pleasure. And friends do each other favors, like agreeing to go on a trip to New York where Jake will have to face his past.
What friends shouldn’t do? Suddenly find themselves feeling something much more complicated than simple lust. When “no strings” is no longer enough, will Jake be willing to take the ultimate gamble?
Hedging His Bets by Laura Carter, the latest installment in the Brits in Manhattan contemporary series is on sale now wherever books are sold and at Kensington Books.com.
❤ Click to view the transcript ❤
Sarah Wendell: Hello, and welcome to episode number 299 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. With me today are Ana Grilo and Thea James, who are probably best known as The Book Smugglers. They are bloggers, writers, authors, and editors, and they are at the helm of Book Smugglers Publishing. We talk about how they got started and the role the Lost forums played in bringing them together, along with some blogs you may have heard of. We also talk about what they look for in science fiction and speculative fiction and how they made the transition from blogging and reviewing to acquiring, editing, and publishing. We also talk about the specifics of going from book smuggling to becoming book surgeons. We cover their favorite tropes in speculative fiction and science fiction, and we talk about their very successful Kickstarter campaign. We go behind the scenes and experience a successful campaign and how they were able to pivot the emphasis of the Kickstarter based on their real-time feedback and analysis. If that sounds kind of exhausting, it really was, and the discussion of how it worked behind the scenes for them is fantastic. There is a little bit of popping in the audio, and I apologize for that. I did my best to clean it up. I can only blame transatlantic recording and potentially fussy internet demons, and clearly I need to do a better job of appeasing the internet demons.
This podcast episode is brought to you by Hedging His Bets by Laura Carter. When a high-flying American corporate investor living in London must return to New York on business, it means seeing the woman who broke his heart. Thankfully, his gorgeous British flatmate volunteered to come with him to keep his ex at bay. Little did they know, this short vacation to New York is about to change everything. Hedging His Bets by Laura Carter, the latest installment in the Brits in Manhattan contemporary series, is on sale now wherever books are sold and at kensingtonbooks.com. And thanks to Kensington for sponsoring this episode!
The transcript is being brought to you by everyone who has supported our Patreon campaign! The podcast Patreon helps me commission transcripts when I don’t have a transcript sponsor and helps me commission transcripts for episodes that don’t have them that are deep in our archives from, like, 2011, 2012. You know, way back, way, way, way, way, way back in the archives. The podcast Patreon community also helps me with developing questions for different interviews, and they get a sneak peek about who I’m going to be talking to next. It’s really cool to see how excited everyone gets. If you would like to join the podcast Patreon community, please have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches.
I have some compliments to give out to patrons, so:
To Molly: Every day, you speak to someone who is your greatest fan, and every time you do, you inspire that person just by being yourself. That is your superpower.
And to Cheryl: You are the human personification of dresses and skirts with the perfect size pockets, warm fuzzy socks, and the most stylish and comfortable pants.
Now, if you would like a compliment of your very own, please have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches. Every pledge means a deeply appreciated large amount to me.
And I also want to thank some of the Patreon folks personally, so to Heather, Charles, Debbie, Deirdre, Beth, and Carmen, thank you for being part of the Patreon community. I really appreciate it.
Are there ways to support the podcast outside of the Patreon? Yes! I still haven’t set this to music, but you can sing along if you know the words: leave a review wherever you listen or however you listen. Tell a friend, subscribe, or just hang out with me each week, because that’s really, really cool. I am really glad that I’m in your eardrums right now!
I hope, I hope that you are having an excellent day, and speaking of, I have two messages. First, to Robin, who is in the gym: keep going. You have so totally got this. Apparently we keep Robin company on the treadmill, so everyone who is listening is also keeping you company. That’s not creepy at all. No, not in the least! And to Ashton, who listens to the podcast while studying: I imagine you are just at the end of your semester, and I hope you do really, really well on your final exams. Thank you both for writing to me and letting me know what you do when you’re listening to the podcast. It’s super cool to know that! And keep going, Robin; you’re almost done.
I will have information at the end of the podcast about the music that you are listening to right now, and as always, I will tell you about what’s coming up on the website next week, and I will have a terrible joke, and it’s extra terrible, and I’m trying to convince my husband to be the straight man for this week’s joke. He’s not too crazy about this idea, but I’m working on it! I’m working on it. I have pre-production time, and then once I get to the outro, which is also, by the way, totally a word, see if I can get him to help me out.
I will also have links to all of the books that we talk about – there are several – and I will have links to The Book Smugglers blog and their publishing arm, and definitely do not miss taking a look at their cover gallery. They commission original art for each of their new books, and the art is just exquisite. Do not miss taking a peek at that.
But now it’s time to do this interview, so let’s get this thing going! On with the podcast!
Thea James: I’m Thea James. I’m one half of The Book Smugglers. We are a book review and independent digital publisher. I’m based in New York and also work for a major publisher for my day job.
Ana Grilo: And I’m Ana Grilo, the other half. I am from Brazil, but I live in the UK, and – yes, that’s it, pretty much. But if you want to know a little more about us and how we met, given the fact that we are on different sides of the Atlantic, we met online over at Lost forum, if you remember that TV show that was super popular more than ten years ago now – whoops – and we both loved the show very much, and we geeked out over at Lost forum about the show and about spoilers and especially about the relationship between Kate and Sawyer, and that’s how we met! And we both found out that we loved books a lot –
Ana: – and that we both smuggled books home by having Amazon send boxes and boxes of books to our office, and then we would smuggle them home.
Thea: [Laughs] So we’d –
Sarah: Of course!
Thea: – surreptitiously take those books and sneak them onto bookshelves and be like, oh no, that book’s always been there. What are you talking about?
Ana: Exactly. And we, we did that without knowing that the other was doing that at the same time, and this is why we called ourselves The Book Smugglers.
Sarah: Okay, that’s adorable. Do – I don’t know if you’re still with the same people that you were with then, but have they ever caught on to this?
Ana: I am still with the same person, and yes, he has.
Sarah: Aw, that’s too bad!
Thea: I am not, and no, I don’t think he ever did catch on to it, so.
Sarah: [Laughs] I’m rubbing my hands together.
Sarah: Because, you know, it, it is a brilliant strategy because there are many people who don’t notice anything is different and would be like, what are you talk-, oh, I guess it’s, I guess that has always been there. Yeah, it’s like the, when you open the fridge to look for something, and it’s right in front of you and you don’t see it? It’s a brilliant strategy to take advantage of that.
Ana: I am, I am kind of like that, but my partner isn’t, and at one point I really went overboard, especially when we started blogging, because then we started getting books delivered and sent by publishers, and was so many of them, right.
Ana: So to the point where he was like, okay –
Ana: – so we need to fix this problem, and he actually built a library for me in our second bedroom.
Ana: Yeah, it was really nice.
Sarah: So for anyone who isn’t familiar with your site, how did Book Smugglers come to be, the blog, and what is it about?
Thea: Well, basically, as Ana mentioned earlier, we met on Lost forum. We’d been talking for a really long time. We actually, like, read the last Harry Potter book together on the forum. Like, we’d check in –
Thea: – and be like, oh my God, did you get to that part? You know, so that was kind of our first foray into, like, how much we really love the same type of books, and I know at that time Ana had already been going over, she’d been reading a ton of existing blogs: Smart Bitches –
Thea: – Dear Author both included.
Ana: And Smart Bitches, Trashy Books was a major source of inspiration for me, and it was like, I used to read your blog so much, ‘cause at that time I was so into romance, and I, and I –
Sarah: Oh my God, I had no idea!
Ana: – I loved reading Smart Bitches and Dear Author.
Thea: Oh yeah.
Ana: I would go there every day and was like, I really want to do this thing!
Sarah: [Gasps] That’s so cool! I had no idea!
Ana: Yeah, and it’s true! It’s so true!
Thea: [Laughs] It totally is. Our origin story is basically because of you guys. And Ana, one day she just sent me a DM and was like, you know, there are these things called blogs; do you want to start one? And I was like, okay! [Laughs]
Sarah: Sure, why not?
Thea: Yeah. Yeah! And that’s, that’s really how it started. [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah, that’s pretty much my origin story too. Sure, why not? That sounds good! Nobody’ll read it; it’ll be great! [Laughs]
Ana: And, and, and then we both said, oh, we’re just going to review one book a week –
Ana: – and from week one, we both reviewed books every day, and we were never, like, we were always doing so much. And to start with, I would, I was reading a lot of romance, and Thea reviewing a lot of urban fantasy at that stage –
Thea: Oh yeah.
Ana: – and that was back in 2008 when we started, and then we both kind of, like, I read so much romance that first year. I think I read about three hundred romance novels that first year, when the year before, when I was not blogging, I also read about three hundred romance novels, and I kind of, like –
Ana: – got a little bit tired, and I, I tend to do that; I tend to go through genres. So then I got into YA, and then I got into science fiction, and, and, and usually that’s what we read. Right, Thea? It’s speculative fiction of all shapes and forms.
Ana: And I’m still into romance, but, like not, yeah, last time I used to.
Thea: Yeah, and I think, Ana, you say, you said it best. Like, I think you go on very specific tears, like, where you’ll go really deep into a genre. I’m more of a, I think, I’ll, I’ll spread it around.
Thea: I think when we first started, I did a lot of urban fantasy, and that kind of fit in really nicely with the romance that was being reviewed as well, and that was like 2008, so it was like a heyday, right? We had all the Kim Harrisons, like, everything coming out. But, yeah, since then, I don’t know, my focus has really been on just a lot of, I guess, overall SFF, so anything under that broader umbrella without, I think, going down that specific rabbit hole for each subgenre.
Sarah: And at the time when you started, you’re right, there was a lot of overlap between romance, science fiction, and fantasy. Like, they were very much intermeshed. You did have all the best things to read.
Ana: Exactly, and I was reading to paranormal romance, which was huge at the time –
Thea: Oh yeah. [Laughs]
Ana: – and I was reading Nalini Singh and Meljean Brook – I love them – and Linnea Sinclair was huge. I loved her books.
Sarah: Mm-hmm. So when you started Book Smugglers, you were focusing on reviews, and you moved more and more into science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, is that right?
Ana: That’s right.
Thea: And Young Adult.
Sarah: And Young Adult.
Sarah: So what were some of your favorite things to do on your site when you started, and are they still your favorite things now?
Ana: Yes! I still love reviewing. I don’t have as much time as before, unfortunately, but, yeah, it’s, it’s now –
Sarah: Yeah – [laughs] – you don’t say.
Ana: – it’s now our bread and butter, right, Thea? It’s, it’s something that we both love doing. We both love finding good books, or if we find a book that we don’t like, I actually really like writing negative reviews too – or critical reviews; let’s put it that way. It’s better.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, me too. [Laughs]
Thea: [Laughs] Agree. I mean, I think, yeah, we, we’ve always focused on reviews, and that’s, that is our bread and butter, and agree, there just isn’t as much time. I found recently that I’ve been able to read a lot more, just because it’s a fun, like, escaping, coping mechanism for, like, the stress of everyday life? But finding the time to, like, actually sit down and put together cogent thoughts into a review, that, like, it’s, it’s been a lot harder over time.
Sarah: So you guys opened Book Smuggler Publishing in 2014.
Sarah: What moved you into publishing? I remember getting the press release and opening it and reading it and being like, holy shit, that’s brilliant! Whoa! What a cool idea! Like, it never would have occurred to me that this would be a thing, but it make, now that I see it, I’m like, this makes perfect sense! How did you guys move into publishing?
Ana: It felt really natural to us. I know from reading other blogs that a lot of book review blogs tend to be doing that but also wanting to be writers, and that is something that we never felt –
Ana: – like doing. And at the same time, it’s, it’s very common within science fiction/fantasy for blogs or online magazines, rather, to have reviews alongside short stories, and that’s the case with tor.com, which started at the same time as Book Smugglers. It’s the case of Strange Horizons and then other magazine that came later, like Uncanny Magazine. So they are online, they publish short stories, and they publish reviews as well. Well, we thought, why can’t we do the same? And if we love stories so much, why can’t we find them –
Thea: Yeah, I –
Ana: – and publish them?
Thea: There are also, there are kind of two other, like, two big factors. There’s, well, like, one, we review a ton of books, right. We read a lot, a lot, a lot, and this was, like, back in 2014, 2013 when we made this decision, and it was just hard to find some of the stories that we really wanted to read. Like, and, and I think, you know, we were very easily able to consume, like, any of the big name authors in SFF, and there’s a huge wealth of, like, wonderful writing out there in short fiction, but we wanted to find something that was different, unknown voices, right, diverse voices – and that’s not to say that that doesn’t exist now. A lot of other publishers are in this space and are doing a fantastic job, and it’s fantastic to be able to have that wealth of SFF, but at the time it was kind of a dearth in the marketplace, and we thought that we could, you know, find and nurture that. And then the second point was we’d just finished editing a big book, a compilation of SFF essays, and had been nominated for a Hugo award, and we just thought, this is the moment. You know, we, we loved the editorial process. We felt like we were ready to take the next step and become content curators in a slightly different way.
Sarah: That is, that is so interesting! You’re, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it that way, that there is a sort of a, often a divide between bloggers who want to be writers and then bloggers who want to do more curation and editorial. That’s, that is really interesting and really true. What did, what do you guys like about editing? Like, what are some of your favorite things about editing? And you started small, right? You started with short stories and novelettes and then compilations of those pieces, am I right about that?
Ana: Yeah, that’s right, and, and then we expanded into novels and novellas.
Ana: First of all, I love finding the stories. So I love being an acquisitions editor, first of all. I love to be reading slush files and then finding that one story that I fall in love with and then sending the email to the author and saying, I want this; we want this. And, so that’s one of the things that I love the most. And, and then I think the, there are similarities between reviewing and editing, right? So when you are reviewing something, we are kind, you are pulling it apart and thinking about what makes a story work, and it’s the same process with editing. You read a thing, you read a story, read a novel, and you pull it apart in order to make it work, and I love doing that too.
Sarah: So you’re really getting into the bones and the structure of the story and, like, pulling out all the pieces to see how does this, how does this story –
Sarah: – as it is constructed work for me, and then also work for other readers?
Ana: Exactly, and then, of course, trying to make it even stronger by suggesting how to do that to the authors, right, Thea?
Thea: Yeah, I think my favorite part is actually that latter bit of it, right? Like, I think finding the story is great; I think every time we find one short story or a novel, novelette, there’s, like, this kernel. Sometime, I mean sometimes they’re beautifully written and require no work whatsoever, and you’re like, okay, this is great. Like, you know, you’ve got it all made, but sometimes, you know, it takes a little while to get there and to get that, that polish on the story. Or, you know, there’s, there’s this great idea that’s at the heart of it, but some of the outlying pieces just don’t work, or it’s not quite there yet, and my favorite part is going in to, like, getting your hands in the guts of the story, right, and figuring out how does this part work, right. Why isn’t this resonating, and how can we make that happen? To me that’s, that’s really, really cool and really fun to be able to partner with authors and nurture that story.
Ana: The other thing that I really love about it, about what we do, is that we also commission original cover art or original illustrations for each story, each book that we publish, and I absolutely love that.
Ana: I love going and finding new artists and, you know, sending them a story and waiting to see what they come up with, and so far we’ve had such beautiful cover art. I –
Sarah: You really have.
Ana: It’s, it’s, one of my favorite things, yeah.
Sarah: Your cover gallery is just breathtaking.
Thea: Yeah, absolutely.
Ana: It is. I, I have to agree with you.
Ana: I didn’t want to say anything. But, yes, absolutely is. And –
Ana: – like, we work with people that are really – we work across, across a range, right, so we have, we have people, there are really well established artists that work for the industry? We also work with an artist that we have worked – she, she made our first cover for Hunting Monsters, and her name is Kristina Tsenova, and she’s Bulgarian, and she’s a student still, so she was nineteen when she started working with us –
Ana: – and, and her work is just extraordinary.
Sarah: Oh, that’s incredible.
Sarah: So it sounds like with your editing process, you’re, you’re like Book Smugglers and also Book Surgeons.
Sarah: Like, you both talk about, like, cracking open the book and getting into the guts and looking at the pieces. What do you think are some of the essential elements of a good science fiction or fantasy story that really works for you?
Ana: Oh my God!
Thea: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s, that’s a tough one. Yeah, I mean, I don’t, I don’t know that there’s any one answer to that, because any story is so different. I, I can tell you the things that I personally like to look for.
Sarah: Yes, that would be so cool. Bring it!
Thea: Yeah, yeah! For me, I, I like to feel a sense of connection with, like, whoever the main character is, right. I think that is really important, and I, I also really value a sense of the world. So I think those two things, if, if we can get that barebones structure right, the, the world, the landscape that makes sense, and we can do that and convey that feeling in a limited amount of space, that is huge, and it’s not an easy thing to do.
Thea: And also, similarly, forming that kind of emotional bond, be it a, a great bond or, you know, this character is deplorable and I hate you, that kind of bond in that limited amount of space, that is something that I value and look for every time.
Ana: I think for me it’s the same, but I also really like – well, you ask very specific about science fiction, so I, I don’t mind as much about the worldbuilding if I fall in love with the characters. So I don’t care much about what they are doing and what context as much as I care about caring for them. It’s similar to what Thea is saying, but if I have to fix sim- –
Ana: – if I have to fix something, I would rather fix a character than to fix the worldbuilding. It’s not that I don’t care about the worldbuilding. If the worldbuilding doesn’t work, obviously it’s not going to work, and that has to be looked at –
Ana: – but it’s not as important to me.
Thea: Yeah, I think – and this is so similar to, like, how we both approach book reviews and stories in general, I think.
Thea: I’m, I’m such a stick-, like, if the world doesn’t work, if there’s no framework in place, I will be so distracted, it will not work for me. I will, you know, throw all the books against the wall. But, and I, I’m willing to give more of a pass to less, less character –
Thea: – development or, you know, that core work if the framework is really, really good and awesome, and I think, Ana, you’re like, you’re the opposite, right?
Ana: I’m the other way round, right –
Ana: – which makes us an excellent pair –
Thea: [Laughs] Indeed.
Ana: – because we, we both go through our manuscripts, right, so we have a first pass and a second pass, and the first pass is one of us, and then we swap.
Ana: So we both go through everything that we publish, so we have that attention to everything –
Ana: – that we each can bring.
Thea: Yeah, and we don’t always agree, either, so it’s, it’s –
Ana: Oh no, that’s true. [Laughs]
Thea: – interesting, yeah. No, and I, I like it, though. I think it makes – it, it’s interesting because we offer different perspectives. We try to find that middle ground where we, we’re trying to understand why doesn’t this work for you and it works for me? And then we’ll make an informed decision based on that and give the feedback to the author, and then the author, you know, ultimately makes the last edits and choices, but it’s, it’s a really cool process.
Thea: I like the co-editing thing.
Sarah: Especially since you’re operating with opposite interests and strengths. If one of you is focused on the world and the other is focused on the character, by the end, both will be much more improved and much better, because you’ve both – you’re, you’re like opposite, you’re surgeons from competing departments. You get to work on the same patient.
Ana: I, I love how you’re running with this. I’ll, I’ll probably use it at some point. We are Book Smugglers, but also Book Surgeons. I love it.
Sarah: One of the questions I, I wanted to ask you, and, and since you’ve mentioned reviewing, what are some of the differences and similarities in editing and reviewing that you’ve noticed? You’ve talked about a few of them in how you focus on what you think of a book once it’s done and how you think of a book while it’s in progress. Do you think that your reviewing skills have built your editing skills and vice versa?
Ana: I think so. I think definitely our experience as book reviewers –
Ana: – have helped a lot. Yeah. And also because as book reviewers we were always much more reviewers that look at a book in depth, right. We were never reviewers that would look, oh, I love this book, or I hate this book, without giving much thought to it. No, we would always write in-depth, thousand-word reviews.
Sarah: Oh yes. [Laughs]
Ana: So they’re often long, very detailed, and yes, that definitely has helped us in, in our editing skills.
Ana: At, at least for me, and, and it’s a similar way of looking at a book –
Thea: Yeah, absolutely.
Ana: – after it’s done or while it’s being put together, I would say.
Thea: Yeah, I, I mean there are all of those old, like, adages, right, where it’s, you know, you become a better writer –
Thea: – if you’re reading a lot, right. The more media you consume, the more you can see patterns in things or understand, like, structurally how a story works or how characters work. I mean, I think I was reading, it was, like, a Steven Spielberg article about how he watches, like, X amount of movies before he goes, like, to, to direct, like, a new film. And not saying that we’re Spielberg or anything, but, you know, I, I think that there’s something –
Thea: – to be said about that. We read, we’ve read and reviewed so many books over the ten years that we’ve been around, and I doubt, you know, without a doubt, that has made us, I, I think, more keenly eyed in the editorial sense, and, and vice versa. It helps inform our writing as reviewers as well.
Ana: And I think it’s, it was a good decision that we made –
Ana: – when we decided to become publishers to keep reviewing.
Thea: Yep. Absolutely.
Ana: So we have not stopped that. Yeah, and we’re aware of what’s being published continuously, of what is being done in our field so that, you know, it feeds off each other, I think, reviewing and the editing process.
Sarah: So your publishing process –
Sarah: – with Book Smugglers Publishing is a little unique. They’re free on the site and then for sale digitally and in print. Is that correct?
Ana: More or less.
Thea: But not for everything. [Laughs] So the short stories are all free online, and then they are for sale as standalone e-books. We don’t have print on demand versions for those, just because the page counts release, you know, it’s lighter, so it’s harder to make those numbers work.
Sarah: Right, of course.
Thea: But for our novellas and novels, we have, we don’t put the full novella or novel for free online, but we will sample it, and we do have those available as physical copies or as e-books.
Sarah: What led to the decision of, of putting your short stories that you publish for free on the site and then selling them elsewhere? Did you have any concerns about that, because I could see somebody in a, in a larger corporation setting going, that’s a terrible idea! Why would you do that? Whereas for me it makes total sense: of course that’s how you’re going to do it! How did you come to that decision?
Ana: It’s part of the model, right. Like we said, the other magazines in science fiction/fantasy do the same, not necessarily story by story like we do. They usually have, a magazine issue would have several short stories, several reviews, and then they put some of them online.
Ana: But it, it makes sense for us, because we wanted to publish them for free; that was absolutely one of the things that we wanted to do, because we wanted to expand the blog, but then we decided to experiment with trying to sell them as e-books too.
Thea: Yeah, and I think a big thing for us too when we were starting out, we, we were known in the science fiction/fantasy world as bloggers, right. And –
Sarah: Oh yeah. You were Hugo-nominated bloggers! I mean, let’s be real here! [Laughs] That’s so cool!
Thea: I mean, heck yes – [laughs] – but we, we weren’t really known for our prowess or editorial skills, right, so publishing short stories for free on the blog gave us, you know, that, that extra audience, right, and one of the things that we think is so attractive to the authors that we end up signing is that we have this platform. Right, we want to be able to get more eyeballs on those stories and give a platform to those authors who probably don’t have one themselves, so by publishing for free on our site, we’re able to get those eyeballs, and I think it’s, it’s been very invaluable for any of the authors we’ve worked with.
Sarah: And you’re, you’re focused as a publishing company, you’re as focused on building an audience for these writers as you are on publishing the writing itself.
Sarah: So I also want to ask you about your very successful Kickstarter – congratulations –
Thea: Thank you! [Laughs]
Sarah: – to expand the Book Smugglers Publishing, and you’re doing some digital renovation, which is – you know, when you try to explain that to somebody who doesn’t understand blogs and the internet, like, it’s a massive undertaking, and it, it’s very hard to, to explain to people what’s involved in, like, digital renovation of your site. I’ve been there; it’s very hard. How did you approach doing a Kickstarter? What was your experience like doing that?
Ana: [Laughs] It was the most stressful month of my life.
Thea: Well, I, I will say –
Sarah: I believe it, and you, didn’t, I don’t remember exactly the timing, but didn’t something really terrible happen while you were in the middle of, like, your last few days?
Thea: We funded. Well, okay, there – what Ana said, right. Like, that was the most stressful, like, thirty days of, of our lives.
Sarah: [Laughs] I believe it.
Thea: I think I lost a year, maybe two years, of my life because of that thirty days. [Laughs] But, yeah, like, one thing that we didn’t realize is, like, once you’ve funded on Kickstarter, if you’re not at the end of your campaign, right – so we had a week to go, and we had hit our fund, like, our funding amount.
Thea: People started – it, it was awesome. We were, like, partying, dancing in the streets, quite literally, and then some people started removing their donations, which is, you know, completely find and totally prerogative, but it, it was just like this, what is happening? Why is this happening? Did you know that this could happen? moment, so that was terrifying. Yeah.
Ana: And, and apparently something that is very common that –
Ana: – people want to help you by propping up the Kickstarter, right, so, so to, to build momentum in the first few days, and then when you fund, they cancel it.
Ana: And then you see the –
Ana: – you see the numbers drop, and at one point we were perilously close to the line where we were no, no longer funded, and that was a stressful couple days.
Sarah: Oh man!
Ana: Yeah, and then it picked up, picked back up, it went back up again slowly –
Ana: – and then we, we, we had stretch goals, and we met all of them. But, yes, Sarah, you touched a point here, as in the middle of our Kickstarter campaign, there were a couple of those bomb attacks in London, and –
Sarah: Yes, that’s what it was.
Ana: – yes, and then that was terrifying, of course. How do you continue doing marketing on social media and asking for money –
Ana: – when something so horrible has happened? And we, we did take a couple of days off, because it just felt so wrong.
Sarah: I remember seeing you, you tweeting about it, ‘cause I had backed your, your Kickstarter, and so I got all of the internal communications, and I also saw the out-, and the external communications. I was seriously watching your Kickstarter like, this is fucking amazing. It was like I was watching a sporting match? Like, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go! Yes, yes, yes!
Sarah: Like watching pole vaulters on the Olympics like, yes, you cleared it! It’s amazing! But I remember seeing you tweet something along the lines of, we’re aware of how horrible this is, but this is already in progress, and we have no choice but to keep going, and we thank you for your understanding and support, and I was like, wow, you could not have handled that any better. That must have been deeply, incredibly more stressful than you were stressed already.
Ana: Yeah, absolute, yeah. Every, everything. Everything was stressful, Sarah, that month –
Sarah: I believe it!
Ana: – and –
Sarah: But what are some things that you’ve learned about crowdfunding and about the community that supported you? You had incredibly cool supporters, myself included, of course.
Ana: Yes, thank you very much!
Sarah: As I fan myself, you know, in self-admiration. Like, you had some seriously cool people in science fiction –
Thea: Thank you.
Sarah: – boosting you continuously, and yet I’m sure, as you said, you were probably like, when is this going to be over? When is this going to be over? ‘Cause it’s exhausting and very uncomfortable, especially in the middle of a tragedy, to be like, look at me! Look at all the cool stuff I’m doing! How ‘bout some money? That’s a really difficult, that’s a difficult place to spend a whole month. So what are some things that, what are some things that you learned about, about crowdfunding and your community?
Ana: Well, first of all, I was completely overwhelmed by the generosity of people and, who just came over and gave us money, and some of, some of them, some of the backers, which I didn’t know was a thing, just, you know, backed us for no reward. And I was like, wow.
Ana: This, this, this is amazing. So basically, the people just want to see the results, and they don’t care about getting anything in return, and that just blew my mind away. I was so thankful to all of those – to everybody, of course, and, and then everybody who was just tweeting about it and propping us up –
Ana: – and realized how, you know, without, without sounding too full of ourselves, it just felt like people needed this, and this is why everybody was so excited about it, because one of the things that we talk about, and one of the things that we wanted to continue doing is to propping voices that are underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy and in Young Adult and across all fields, basically, which is, you know, people of color and women and LGBT folks –
Thea and Sarah: Mm-hmm.
Ana: – and we just realized how people just wanted that to happen.
Thea: Yeah. The support was amazing. Mm-hmm.
Ana: And, and we learned so much, too. I know I did.
Thea: I mean, and, yeah, I was going to say, in terms of, like, crowdfunding, we actually, I think we pivoted maybe four times during, like four major pivots during the actual campaign itself, and we’d done research. I mean, I was crunching, like, numbers, literally sending Ana, like, statistic updates. I’m like, we are on track to blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, and we will fund at this amount. Okay, we need to pivot now. So we had several, like, war-room type meetings. We were like, okay, well, none of this is working. You know, we, we anticipated getting a lot of support for lower level rewards, but that wasn’t actually moving the needle, so we needed to think about how can we make more of an impact? How can we actually make this math work? And that was, it was a lot of work. It was, like, constant recrunching of the numbers just to make sure that we would get to our goal and finding, you know, I, I think our, our biggest success was finding, or working with authors that we’d worked with in the past, either that we published or that had, you know, we’d reviewed or worked with before, and getting some of their support and amplification. It was, it was really cool.
Sarah: What were some of the pivots that you made? That’s, that’s very interesting, to examine how your campaign is doing in real time and then addressing what to emphasize on it and making changes. What were some of your pivots?
Thea: So we initially started with, like, a lot of swag type ideas?
Thea: Right, so, like, you know, we, I mean, we did make these awesome tote bags. We had, like, limited art prints, stickers, pins, the whole thing, and those things were interesting, but they, I, I think they weren’t compelling enough to get people to donate enough money, like, in the higher levels where we needed them to, to, if we’re just talking the numbers game. So we decided to focus on, you know, a higher price point, right? What other bigger level rewards can we add in there? And we experimented with experiential rewards, right, so there’s some where people can come have a conversation with both Ana and myself, and we’ll give them recommendations –
Thea: – like personalized over, you know, Skype recommendations, which also did well, but, you know, it, it really came down to, like, getting first editions, like, signed, autographed books –
Thea: – from a lot of authors that we respect and love.
Sarah: Oh, interesting!
Thea: And that really helped us push things forward. I think that was when we found our sweet spot.
Sarah: So people weren’t so much after swag; they were after either an experience or a unique item that was valuable to them.
Thea: Exactly. Yep.
Sarah: Wow! That’s so interesting!
Thea: Yeah. [Laughs] And getting to that point, yeah, I mean, we, we experimented with so many things. Like, we’re like, okay, what if we made, like, a poster! What if we did all these other things, and none of it was, it, it just wasn’t landing, and then we found, you know, the, the experience thing and the author thing, and that was like, yes, this is what people want.
Sarah: Oh, that’s so interesting, because, I mean, when you look back on it, it kind of makes sense that what people want is to support you by supporting what you want to do, because at the end of your Kickstarter, what you were, what you were funding was a, a year of publishing and –
Sarah: – increasing payment of your reviewers and other, you know, digital renovation of the site for various reasons. You were focusing on what was going to be in the hands or the eyeballs of the people who supported you and your larger audience.
Thea: Yep. Absolutely.
Sarah: Oh, that is so interesting. And also must have been hella stressful.
Ana: Oh, tell me about it. I had, I have, of course I have the Kickstarter app installed on my phone –
Ana: – and I would just check it every five minutes, every five seconds even.
Ana: It was the first thing I would do when I woke up, the last thing I would do before going to bed. Sometimes I would wake up during the night just to check the numbers, right. ‘Cause I’m in the UK, so I am eight hours ahead of California, and I know that we have a lot of supporters in California, so I was like, what is the, what, what is the West Coast doing right now?
Thea: No, it’s true, and I, I remember, like, I’ve plotted out, like, we had a linear – not linear, but, like, a regression of, like, how our money was, like, working, and at this rate of speed, like, with this many, you know, people, I was just like, we’re not going to make it! We need to do more!
Thea: It was so stressful. I would just keep going back to the model and being like, this model isn’t right! Something is wrong.
Sarah: [Laughs] Oh no! And yet, not only did you hit your goal, but you hit all of your stretch goals; is that correct?
Ana: We did! And it was literally –
Thea: Yes, we did.
Ana: – our last stretch goal –
Sarah: Way to go!
Ana: – we met in the five last seconds of the Kickstarter. I was looking at it; there were –
Sarah: Oh my gosh!
Ana: – ten seconds left. I said, oh, we’re not going to meet the stretch goal, and then I refreshed the page, and then there it was. I screamed! It was at work, and I screamed. It was like, WHAAAT just happened! I was just like –
Ana: We did really well. We didn’t need the last stretch goal really, and it would be great to have met it, but we met our major goals, and, and then we did it, and I couldn’t believe it.
Thea: [Laughs] It was incredible.
Sarah: So what has been different for you guys post Kickstarter? What are some of the things you’re doing differently?
Thea: Well, we solicited for regular columnists, so that’s something that’s different and new and something we’re really proud of. Actually, right before this podcast –
Thea: – I was editing an article that’s going to go up on our site about assimilation in the Borg, which is really cool. But I, I think we’re able to give a regular, like, monthly voice to some really awesome writers in science fiction/fantasy fandom, and that is really cool, and we’re able to pay them really well, which is also just incred- – as, as a blogger, like, you know –
Thea: – we understand what it’s like to, like, have your writing go out there and not be paid very well for it. I love that we’re able to –
Ana: Also, the –
Thea: – actually give our writers, you know, a really good amount of money for what they’re giving us.
Sarah: Yes, that was the, that was the part I was really impressed by, that every part of your stretch goal included paying people more. I thought that was really brilliant, ‘cause that is the hardest thing when you have writers, and you’re like, all, yeah, I don’t want to not pay you, but I also am not always in a position –
Sarah: – to pay everyone what I would like to pay them.
Thea: Exactly, ‘cause –
Sarah: Not made of money being really frustrating at some times.
Thea: Yep! [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah, my favorite game is, okay, I have this great idea; where’s my venture capitalist? I have great ideas; where’s the person who walks around with money and goes, here, you can have some. I haven’t met that person yet – super annoying.
Thea: [Laughs] Indeed. If you do meet them –
Ana: So –
Thea: – send them our way? [Laughs]
Sarah: I, believe me, if I meet this person, I will sit on them and, and holler and summon all of us. Wow, you guys, I found him! He’s here! I’ve tied him in the basement! That’s the person I will actually hunt down, the wandering venture capitalist. So what are the upcoming stories that are coming from Book Smugglers Publishing next?
Ana: Right, so we funded through Kickstarter for our seasonal short stories for this year under the theme of awakenings, and we acquired six amazing short stories and novelettes, and the first one publishes in about month, in, in May, and it’s called “When the Letter Comes” by Sara Fox.
Ana: Yeah, and it’s, it’s really cool. Can I talk a little bit about it, ‘cause I love it? [Laughs]
Sarah: Please do! Are you kidding? It’s the internet! We haven’t run out of room!
Ana: So it’s about a trans girl who has been waiting all her life for a letter to go to magic school, but the letter, when it comes, it comes to her sister. So it’s a story that looks at magic and looks at change, and it looks at growing up, but it also looks at what it feels like to be the one that is left behind, whereas your sister is the one that goes to live through the magical dream, and it’s, Sarah, it’s brilliant; it’s beautiful. I love that story so much.
Ana: I love all of our stories equally!
Ana: But it’s a, this is the first one that we are publishing next month.
Thea: Yeah, and then the follow-up to that, the second story that we have coming out, is called “Nussia” or, you know, well, we’ll get there. But anyway, it’s a, it’s a short story by an author who we published previously. She wrote Reenu-You, which is part of our Novella Initiative. And this is, like, actually a much longer short story, and it follows a young woman who is thirteen years old; she lives in the Bronx with her family; she’s Black. She is one of the many, like, kids around the country, around the world, who writes a letter to enter a competition to have an alien race, an alien teenager home stay with her in her family’s home, and she wins, and it is an examination of what it means to be alien and different in a, in, set in the 1970s, so it’s, it’s a very powerful story about, again, assimilation, about being different, and I really, really like it, and –
Thea: – it needs a lot of work, and we’re working on it right now, but I cannot wait to share it with everyone. Michele’s writing is really powerful.
Sarah: The discovery feeling is the best feeling, isn’t it?
Thea: Yes, it is. [Laughs]
Sarah: Like, I love that feeling when I find a book, and I’m like, oh my God, I cannot wait to tell the entire freaking internet about this. It is amazing! It’s like you get to, you get to share something that makes you happy, knowing that this is going to make someone’s day.
Thea: Oh yeah.
Ana: Yes. Yes, it’s same feeling really, right? ‘Cause –
Ana: – I love finding that book that I want everybody to read, and I love finding that story that I want everybody to enjoy.
Sarah: Yes, and whether you’re, whether you’re producing it or you’re reviewing it or you’re just saying, oh my gosh, did y’all read this? it’s, it is really the most lovely feeling to connect somebody with a book that you know is going to lift them in major ways.
Ana: Exactly –
Ana: – and I think this is probably the best thing about The Book Smugglers, The Book Smugglers blog, the Book Smugglers Publishing site, is that sense of community and sharing, and I think that’s what, what we, we got from the Kickstarter too, is that sense that we share this with a lot of people and that we have a lot in common with so many people out there.
Sarah: And at this point, you’re not only helping to create an audience for pieces of a fiction, but you’re also connecting the audience to the fiction, so you get to create and have a, or have a part in creation and have a part in connection at the same time. That is so great!
Thea: It’s awesome. [Laughs]
Sarah: Okay, so the question I always ask, and this is the worst question: can you tell us what books are you reading that you want to recommend to people?
Ana: Oh my God. Okay, so I literally finished this morning a book called Miscreated by Dia Reeves, and Dia Reeves is a Black author who a few years ago published two novels called Bleeding Violet and Slice of Cherry, and they are very, very, very dark YA novels, right. They are fantasy. They are set in the, in a city called Portero that has doors to other worlds, and basically everybody just lives day by day, because they know that they could just fall through a door or there could be a monster coming through them, and everybody’s a warrior in this town, from the kids to the adults, and then she disappeared! She disappeared for a number of years, and we never heard back from Dia Reeves, and –
Sarah: Ohhh, what?
Ana: – and then it was on the, a couple weeks ago I found out that she had self-published two new novels set in the same world, and I bought them immediately, and I read the latest one, called Miscreated, and it was wonderful to go back to that world, and I really do recommend her novels to everybody. They are very dark, they are very gruesome, but they are so different from everybody else and from, yeah, from everything else. It’s just, yeah, they, they blow my mind away.
Thea: [Laughs] I totally have to read those books now. I mean, Slice of Cherry I loved, and, yeah, I need to get back to it.
Yeah, so my, my reaction to stress, I’ve, I’ve two. I will escape into books, and I will just read my, my heart, to my heart’s content and just pretend that nothing else is happening, so perfect escapism technique number one. And then my second one is, I, I go on really long runs and try to, like, focus that way. So I’ve been doing a lot of both of those things lately, but the good part is, I, I found several wonderful books, and I’ve been so immersed in them lately.
The latest one is The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. It’s a debut fantasy novel about, you know, an orphan from a small village who happens to score the highest on a test, gets to go to an academy, and is immediately ostracized because of who she is, her gender, her appearance, the fact that she’s a bumpkin, and it’s a very trope-heavy story, but it is so, so good, and I love the attention to detail. I love the world that’s being built. It’s an analog – but not an analog – it is inspired by Chinese and Japanese history, so this is a Chinese analog, and it’s, it’s set during the third Poppy War, and it’s just, it’s really interesting, and so far I’m really loving it. Tropes be damned; I love a good orphan-who-rises-to-the-top-of-the-academy trope. [Laughs]
And I also recently read Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce, which is also, interestingly, another, you know, orphan in the academy who rises to the top with unbounded powers? Or not an orphan, but, you know, someone who’s sent away from his family.
And then for other books, I also just recently finished reading Head On, which is the newest Scalzi novel, set in the same world as Locked, Lock In, and it’s, it’s a sports book and a police procedural, so I was kind of like feeling that. That was – [laughs] – kind of hitting everything that I wanted to, but in this world there’s, there’s a disease called Haden’s, and it, it makes ten percent of the population, I think, unable to move, and in order to combat this, like, android bodies called Threeps have been created, and there’s, like, this neural web that allows, you know, the human who is, whose human body can’t really move or do anything to interact with the rest of the world as a Threep and, and as this sort of android, and it really opens a lot of interesting conversations about gender, about, about bias, and in this particular novel, a Threep character who plays in a sporting league called Hilketa, the goal of which is to tear off the opponent team’s head, like Threep’s head, and then carry it over the goal line, so ultimate brutality, but, you know, the person’s still fine because there’s no one in the Threep. One person, one Threep athlete dies on a field, and they have to figure out why, and it’s, it’s just, it’s really fun and really fast and I, I love sports. [Laughs] I love science fiction and robots, and unpacking, like, issues of gender bias included in that? Heck yes, yeah, sign me up. So highly recommend that one too.
Ana: I, I read the first one, Lock In, and I really liked that one.
Sarah: Any other books you want to mention?
Thea: I recently read, like, these sort of Game-of-Thrones-style books, so Daughters of the Storm I really liked, and it’s about these sisters, and their father is near death, and basically, like, the entire kingdom is, you know, up for grabs, and they are lucky enough to live in a kingdom where it can be matriarchal, like, so the, the oldest daughter, Bluebell, she’s been training to, to take over for her father her entire life. She is a warlord; she’s very, you know, impulsive and brutal and kind of cruel, but family, to her, is super important, and it’s basically this race to sort of save their father’s life, and if that can’t happen, figure out who poisoned, you know, him to begin with, and for Bluebell to sort of ascend to power. But it’s a really interesting dynamic with all of the different sisters and how they interact, so I really like that one a lot.
And then the other book that I started but haven’t really gotten into too far yet, the new Tessa Gratton book. It’s based on King Lear, and now the title is totally evading me.
Ana: The Queens of Innis Lear?
Thea: Queens of Innis Lear, yeah. The Queens of Innis Lear: so it’s a retelling of King Lear, who, you know, tells his daughters, who loves me the most, and I will give you, you know, my kingdom, but it’s, it unpacks mental illness and, like, this, this notion of, of, of curses and magic, and three very different sisters who are vying for power and are reacting to a situation and trying to take advantage of the situation in the only way that they know how, so very Game-of-Thrones-y and, and heavy, but in a really cool way. And also a feminist retelling of King Lear, come on. [Laughs]
Sarah: And that brings us to the end of this episode. I want to thank both Thea and Ana for hanging out with me and telling me all the things. If you are curious – and I imagine that you are – you can find The Book Smugglers at thebooksmugglers.com. You can find them on Twitter @booksmugglers, and you can find them on Facebook at facebook.com/booksmugglers.
This episode was brought to you by Hedging His Bets by Laura Carter. When a high-flying American corporate investor living in London must return to New York on business, it means seeing the woman who broke his heart. Thankfully, his gorgeous British flatmate volunteered to come with him to keep his ex at bay. Little did they know, this short vacation to New York is about to change everything. Hedging His Bets by Laura Carter, the latest installment in the Brits in Manhattan contemporary series, is on sale now wherever books are sold and at kensingtonbooks.com.
The podcast transcript this week – and each transcript is handcrafted by garlicknitter – thank you, garlicknitter! – is being brought to you by everyone who is part of the podcast Patreon. Thank you, folks! [Thanks from me too! – gk] If you would like to have a look at our Patreon, it is patreon.com/SmartBitches. Every pledge means a deeply appreciated, mammoth amount to me, and I am so excited every time I see that there’s a new pledge, so thank you to everyone has joined since the last episode!
I also want to thank some of the Patreon folks personally, so to Hai, Agnes, Katie, Allison, Patricia, and Katherine, thank you so much for being part of the Patreon. I really, really appreciate it.
Are there other ways to support the show? Absolutely! Sing along if you know the words! Leave a review wherever you listen or however you listen, tell a friend, subscribe, yell out the window about the podcast – my understanding is that neighbors really appreciate that – and if you’re hanging out with me right now on the treadmill or walking the dogs or cleaning the house or dyeing wool or studying or being awake all night on a night shift, HI! Thanks for hanging out with us. I hope I didn’t just freak you out by being so loud.
The music you’re listening to is provided by Sassy Outwater. You can find her on Twitter @SassyOutwater. This is from Caravan Palace, and I’m going to try to pronounce this right. This track is called “L’envol.” Now if you’re going to just look at it and say it like in American English, it would be len-vol, but that is not right. It is l’envol, and I’m going to try really hard not to screw that up. You can find this track on their two-album set, Caravan Palace and Panic, and you can find that two-album set on iTunes and on Amazon, and I will have links to both, plus Caravan Palace’s website at caravanpalace.com. If you’re listening for music or you’re listening, if you’re looking for – let me try that again. If you are looking for music to listen to, that is pretty good for background and sometimes has some singing, but it’s often in French. This is a great two-album set to do work to. I personally can’t listen to music with lyrics or anything with talking when I am working, but this is a great background for me.
Now, you might have heard that there is a website to go with the podcast. It’s totally true! Coming up on the website, tomorrow, on the 19th, we have Hide Your Wallet, Part Deux: Electric Boogaloo. Hide Your Wallet is where we talk about books we’re excited about. Hide Your Wallet, Part Deux: Electric Boogaloo is where we talk about books that we’ve heard about that we want to make sure you know about too. We also have a Squee from the Keeper Shelf, which is one of my favorite features, where readers tell us about a book that will absolutely permanently live on their keeper shelves, hence the term Squee from the Keeper Shelf. This week, it is a reader named Katie who loves a particular book because it shows her a very realistic Happily Ever After every time she rereads it. I love this review; I’m so excited to share it. We also have reviews of other books, including a joint review written by me and Amanda, and I have an update on cool stuff that you can do with your library card, and I don’t mean crafts involving glue guns, although I do have several expired library cards, and maybe I could use them to build a thing. Hmm, now I have ideas.
Now, in the podcast entry at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast, I will have links to all the books we discussed, plus links to the Book Smugglers Publishing, Book Smugglers website. Be sure to check out the cover gallery ‘cause it’s amazing!
And of course I’m going to finish with a joke. I’m going to do the joke solo, but it’ll still be really funny, mostly because I already told Adam this joke, and if I try to tell it to him again, he’s just going to give me this exasperated look, so are you ready? This is a terrible joke, and I’m just so excited. Okay.
What is the difference between a poorly dressed man on a tricycle and a well dressed man on a bicycle?
Give up? What is the difference between a poorly dressed man on a tricycle and a well dressed man on a bicycle?
[Laughs] I told Adam that one in the car earlier today, and I just got this look followed by, ughhh. Yeah, that’s a good one; I’m really pleased about that one. This is from nuttshaw_ – nice, nice username – on Reddit. There are so many bad jokes on Reddit, you wouldn’t believe it. This one really just made my day. A[t]tire! [Laughs]
On behalf of The Book Smugglers and me and Orville and everyone here, we wish you the very best of reading. Have an excellent weekend, and we will see you back here next week for episode 300, holy cow. Have a great weekend.
This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.