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Interview with David V. Stewart
David talks YouTube success, Star Wars criticism, and distribution strategies
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing David V. Stewart, an independent writer of speculative fiction. With over 45k YouTube subscribers and 24 books to his name on Amazon, David has managed to carve out a respectable amount of success as an indie author. Thankfully, he was gracious enough to do this interview and share insights about his self-publishing journey.
In this interview, I ask why he started writing, when to use pen names, his publishing distribution strategy, and handling criticism, as well as information regarding his own fictional works. Hope you enjoy!
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On your website's About page, you explain that you worked as a musician and an educator, but that you eventually took up your passion for writing stories.
What was the motivating factor to switch gears and re-engage with storytelling? Has it been as fulfilling as you'd hoped it would be?
There were two things that made me want to switch gears: hearing loss and the music industry itself.
For those of you who don’t know, I have profound conductive hearing loss in my right ear due to childhood disease. Over time, I started to lose the hearing in my left ear due to medical issues (estuation tubes with reduced functionality, mainly) and sound exposure. As a classical guitarist playing an acoustic instrument, I started to lose confidence in my ability to hear and produce my tone properly, so I thought it was best to look for another long-term creative outlet. I had written a lot in college, so I just picked up where I had left off ten years earlier.
Since then, I’ve been able to acquire a bone-anchored hearing system, which is in essence a high-class hearing aid that attaches to an implant imbedded in my skull, allowing me to hear by bypassing my destroyed ossicular chain in my right ear. That allowed me to continue recording and producing original music, which you can hear in my eclectic music project “David V. Stewart’s Zul.”
The other thing that made me want to move away from music was the industry itself. By 2010 things were pretty bad, but that was the tail-end of an event that destroyed the industry a decade earlier, which was Napster and the rise of music pirating. By the time I had graduated college it was no longer possible to have a significant income stream by recording music. Opportunities were very limited as the recording industry had completely collapsed. One of the reasons I invested in becoming a classical guitarist was that it was one of the few ways I’d found to make money in the industry, as you didn’t need to sell records or get a big record deal and you only had to split the money one way. Even before 2000 most members of signed acts got paid roughly minimum wage for touring.
Well, after the big economic collapse at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, all my reliable gigs vanished. Restaurants and clubs closed. I eventually moved out of California to Las Vegas, where I eked out a humble living, but there were still opportunities there. However, I eventually grew very fatigued from the way the business works. I was still practicing pieces I had been playing for a decade because they were part of standard repertoire and you had to keep them up to not suck at them. That gets incredibly boring, even stifling—a routine that yields no growth.
Writing, however, was like composition (the specialty for my bachelor’s degree), in that things were done when they were done, but more so. It’s very energizing to always be working on something new, interesting and challenging. I probably do worse per hour than as a musician (including practice time), but I’m never bored.
You've been producing content on YouTube for more than 10 years, and have built an extensive catalog of over 1400 videos.
What have you learned about marketing and audience building on YouTube that someone new might want to consider? If you were to start from scratch would it still be YouTube, or another platform such as TikTok?
2023 is very different from 2013, that’s for sure. I initially started my channel to make free guitar instruction content, and I didn’t like the dearth of video instruction at the time in Classical guitar. I’ve since deleted a lot of those videos because I think they need to be better (I often recorded them in a practice room between private clients) and because as time went on I no longer wanted to attract an audience that was interested in Classical and especially Flamenco guitar. The mid 2010s had a lot of growth potential in YouTube that isn’t quite there any more, but it is one of the few platforms where growth is even possible (unlike, say, Facebook).
I don’t know if I was starting over I would do YouTube, or TikTok, or what. I haven’t really planned my career that way, but if someone were to start doing social media in 2023 I would recommend a few things. First, know what you are selling. Do you just want to get attention, or do you want to monetize? How are you going to connect to an audience that wants to buy a product from you? How will you attract people that are interested in that product?
Just as an example, I have a huge catalogue of content on story writing. I ought to have started by making a book and an online writing course, then a high-cost editing or consulting service, then started making content that sold those things, rather than just putting stuff out for free, if I wanted to actually make money.
I’d prefer to be an author selling fiction. I don’t mind putting out publishing and writing advice for free to help others.
In addition to being a writer, you're also a musician. As a matter of fact, your most popular video on YouTube is "What's the difference between a Classical and a Flamenco guitar?" at 595k views.
Has talking about your other hobbies broadened your readership in a way that wouldn't have existed if you only talked about writing? How do you suppose learning, playing, and teaching music has informed your writing process?
I don’t think being a musician has broadened my readership much, if at all. It has informed my writing process because both music composition and performance are about spending time alone, practicing, and require both self-motivation and self-discipline. Any activity that requires that approach to daily work will make you a more effective writer, especially things like bodybuilding, which is largely a solo endeavor. As a musician I also know the relationship between a process and the goal, the final outcome, of that process. Many of my peers when I was in college rarely, if ever, gigged, but I learned early on that every endeavor needs to be directed toward the final goal. In that case, it was a performance (or ideally a series of performances). In the book world, it’s the completed book.
Your published works vary between fantasy, horror, historical fiction, and science fiction. I've heard advice that one should stick to a single genre to get established and/or use a pen name in other genres.
What do you think about this advice? What has your experience been writing in multiple genres? Does the readership follow you across books, or simply within the genre you write in?
It depends what you want your brand to be and how you want readers to interact with you, as well as your total productivity. I would use pen names for genres if I was writing 20 books a year. As it is, there is little point in having a pen name for horror when my horror books are a year apart. The readers have already moved on if they have no personal investment in me. So I do everything under my real name, knowing some people aren’t going to be into everything I put out. Some are. I like lots of genres, and I tend to like writers even if they cross over into other things. Stephen King is a good example, as he is known for horror but works as much outside that genre.
The conventional advice for writers is to stick to one genre and ideally one series that runs for many books (20 or more, if you can), and to release frequently. I don’t think I could tolerate such an approach. Writing genre-fied soap operas sounds tedious and uninspired, and I could be doing many other things to make the same amount of money really successful authors make writing schlock.
I also simply don’t have the time to release 20 books a year. My main job is educating and taking care of my children. If I spend my time, it has to be on something I’m really passionate about creating.
On your Amazon author page, there are 24 published works to your name. The most reviewed book is Muramasa: Blood Drinker, a historical fantasy thriller set in Japan. It was your third book and one that you felt "finally got right".
Can you explain why you felt that way? Have you had an urge to follow up that book based on its positive reception?
I do frequently get questions about a sequel to the book, and while I could write one, I’m not going to unless the story I have in mind is really good. I love the ending of the book, with the characters riding off into the starlight (rather than the sunset), with the future open to them. There is no further conflict to tie up, so a sequel would just be another adventure, which is fine, but it has to be the right adventure. Fiction set in Feudal Japan is not a huge genre, believe it or not, so I don’t think I’m leaving a ton of money on the table waiting for the right feeling to come.
As far as why I thought I got it right, well, I had written several books before Muramasa, and learned some important lessons about how to manage a large plot with many characters as well as how to manage the tension of a story on the micro level. The story was easy to write—much easier than my first books—as a result. However, it was the ability to not write cringe garbage that made the book successful more than the big stuff. Sometimes you just have to get all the bad ideas out of your system before you can make something good.
I've noticed that you provide free editions of your work. Has that been something you've found success with? Do you have a publishing strategy that works best? For distribution, do you go through Amazon KDP, or another service like IngramSpark?
I think I still have a few free books up. One of these was a short fairy tale, for kids, really, I didn’t feel like I could get away charging for it back in 2016 when nobody knew who I was. The initial plan was to make it 99 cents once I had a few reviews. Maybe I will. The other was a science fiction book that didn’t really catch on. One of my least successful works, though it has been top in its category several times. I made it free because I wasn’t selling any copies anyway.
I do give away copies to readers on my mailing list from time to time, or to YouTube subscribers, just to say thank you. I don’t need to nickel and dime people with every little product and I find that someone really likes something they’ll pay me voluntarily for the entertainment. Anyway, free books haven’t really built my readership as much as making content has. If you had to pick one, good content related to your product or book is better than trying to get email addresses by giving things away. When there isn’t any kind of human connection there, no relationship (as silly as that might sound), they just unsubscribe.
For distribution, most of it is through KDP. Their print on demand is a very smooth process and gives me more royalties than going through IngramSpark or Lulu, though I would use one of those services if I had to do a large-scale printing run, like for crowdfunding. Most of my sales are through Amazon, so it’s most efficient to just set up print books with them.
I discovered you on YouTube because of Star Wars, specifically your analysis of The Last Jedi. In this case, you found general support for your criticism of a massive IP.
Has there been backlash from your statements? If so, how have you handled it? Or, separately, how have you handled criticism of your own books?
For Star Wars, there was huge backlash. I got death threats (not really serious ones) in 2015 and people attempting to contact my employer. Star Wars is like a religion to some people, so if you say anything bad they want to murder you. For most fans, though, Disney Wars was just a huge disappointment and YouTube was the way they found people who thought like them, since most normies, especially with The Force Awakens, were happy to watch the new stuff. It can be very isolating to not like what everyone else does (I say as I remember talking about music in the 1990s).
As far as criticism of my own books, you take it all with a grain of salt. Virtually all of my “bad” reviews were from people who didn’t read my books and got them for free (perhaps another reason not to bother with free books). It’s not possible to write a story that pleases everybody, and it’s also very difficult to ship without any mistakes. Occasionally I get docked for typos but even if I get manuscripts proofread during the publication phase typos get through. Harry Potter books still ship with a few typographical errors, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
I also say that I really don’t want people to read my books if they aren’t going to like them. What’s the point in that? I don’t want to sell a product just to make a dollar or two. Much better for them to spend their time reading something they are genuinely interested in, and better long-term to connect with real readers that like what I am doing.
If you could spend a day in the world of one of your books, which setting would it be and why? Separately, which character from your books would you like to have a conversation with, and what would you ask them?
It’s hard to say because when you write horror stories you don’t really want to be in the story. I’m inclined to say Muramasa because I think Sengoku period Japan is very interesting, but as far as fictional settings, it’s probably Needle Ash / Water of Awakening, since the cultures are so ancient and so developed. I don’t know about talking with a character since I don’t think of them as tulpas who can speak without my command.
What book are you most proud of and why?
Water of Awakening is probably my favorite, and its a bit divisive because I did such odd things with it. Muramasa proved to me I could actually write a long book and have it turn out the way I wanted. Water of Awakening proved to me I could break all the rules and still have something cool at the other side. I have a lot of good feelings toward where I was in life with both of those books, too, creating under intense time constraints and with massive personal change going on.
What is something you know now about writing that you wish your younger self knew?
That it’s something I could do. I gave it up for a long time because in the pre-Amazon days it seemed an impossible task to actually get anything published.
Has writing affected how you see the world? Please explain.
It definitely helped me understand the importance of storied and narratives beyond fiction. News stories are stories. Our memories are made, not recorded. We contextualize all events in a way that allows them to make sense in terms of causality and morality. When you know this, you understand how people talk about themselves much better and you are much better inoculated against the narrative lies of modern media.
Think of a person getting fired and how they describe it. The key details create a line of plot events with characters taking place at a certain time, and those are used to both explain the event as well as provide a moral rationale for what happened. “I got fired because Suzy hates me.” “I got fired because I refused to lie.” This is natural and I don’t judge people for it, because, honestly, we tell our own story to ourselves first. These aren’t lies or mere rationalizations, they are the way we filter the world so that we can make decisions in the future and understand our pasts.
How do you define success?
The freedom and ability to pursue my own interests.
Just to elaborate, you can define success a lot of ways, but if you aren’t getting to do what you want to, either as a reward for your work or as the work itself, than you aren’t going to feel successful, no matter what other things you do or how other people think of you. The degree to which you can pursue your interests (leisure, family, religion, or work - whatever they might be) is the degree to which you are successful.
Thank you for your time, David! We wish you much more success on your YouTube videos, music projects, and book releases. ~ WM
That’s the end of our interview with David V. Stewart. We hope you enjoyed it. Please share this with friends and family. Join us in the comments for any questions you may have.
If you’re interested in picking up any of the titles mentioned in this interview, or would like to know more about David V. Stewart, consider clicking the links below:
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