Hard Luck Hank isn’t messing around!
In another galaxy with Hermosa Beach resident Steven Campbell
by Bondo Wyszpolski
So what happens when you’re the highest paid computer programmer in your company and you get laid off because, well, you’re the highest paid programmer on the payroll and these days new hires are getting cheaper by the dozen? If you’re Steven Campbell you wrap up the novel you’ve been working on, and a few years later you’ve completed seven sequels and then some. Thousands sold, and all profitable. But Campbell’s approach to writing fiction has had its own unique trajectory and so let’s follow it… all the way into a distant galaxy.By and large, his “Hard Luck Hank” series takes place on a space station called Belvaille. “It’s 10 miles by 10 miles alone in space,” he says, “and I’ve set eight books there so far.”
Hard Luck Hank himself is something of a superhero, loosely defined. He’s a big, heavy fellow, a mutant, and bulletproof. The latter is a good quality to have because Belvaille isn’t exactly a resort town by the sea, but rather an outpost with an exceedingly large criminal element. Not a place to raise your kids.
“The whole story is picaresque,” Campbell explains, “so it kind of jumps around.” At the same time, the books are a blend of action, science fiction, comedy, and noir detective fiction. “The big point is, it’s science fiction comedy, and that was a really hard sell with every agent and publisher I spoke with because there was only one successful series with that type of genre before.”
He’s referring to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and so Campbell would be asked if his book was like Douglas Adams’ books. “And I would say, No, I’m not British, and they would say, Well, no thanks.”One reader on Amazon referred to the “Hard Luck Hank” series as space opera, but Campbell says that label doesn’t apply to his work.
“‘Star Wars’ is the prototypical space opera. Ninety-five percent of my eight books take place in one city. Instead of getting in spaceships and flying around and having these big adventures — like in ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ — it’s really about one community, and I’ve based that off of my experiences here in the South Bay. Hermosa Beach is super tiny, so is Manhattan Beach, and so is Redondo. They occupy almost exactly the same geographic location. They have almost the same demographics. But they are totally different in personality.
“And so I got the sense that you can make local stories in science fiction that are entertaining. It doesn’t have to be ‘We’re sailing across the universe to meet some completely different species.’ That’s fine, I just didn’t want to do that. It’s been done, and I made the stories a bit smaller and more local and, again, based off of my experiences in the South Bay.”Loved by few, hated by many
When Campbell completed his first novel in the series and showed it to people, the reactions weren’t exactly flattering. Most authors would find that discouraging, to say the least. Campbell’s advice is to take criticism with a grain of salt.
“I’ve been in maybe five writers’ groups and they’ve all been miserable experiences. I did workshop the book at UCLA and that was actually very helpful. And I got advice there that I repeat to many writers: Be very careful who you give your writing to, and be careful whose advice you take.” Why? Because the vast majority of the people who read your work, Campbell says, will not like it.
“So your job isn’t to just throw your writing out there. Ninety-five percent of the people are going to hate it, and you have to be careful not to listen to that. By the same token, if you can get five percent of the people to like your writing and give you money, you will be the most successful writer that ever existed.”
Well, Campbell workshopped his book and showed it to people and, yes, “Just about everyone I gave it to did not like it.” Fortunately, some of the pros at UCLA did like it, and told him there was a market for it. But wait a second, didn’t we just go through this fiasco with its comparison, or rather non-comparison, to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”?
Yes, but, as Campbell goes on to say, “The internet has shown us that you can have a sub-community of anything. No matter how niche or weird you are, there’s probably a thousand people who share the exact same disposition and interest. So, just about any business can be profitable if you understand the size of your market and keep your costs accordingly.” He then said to himself, “I can’t be that weird where I’m the only person who likes science fiction comedy. Science fiction and humor together just doesn’t seem that strange to me.”
However, it still might sound strange or too much of a gamble for a traditional New York publishing firm. So that’s where self-publishing comes in. We’ll get to that, but first let’s take a little detour to Sin City.Literary Las Vegas?
By his own estimate, Campbell is producing about 1.2 books a year. That seems to be a pretty good clip, but Campbell says he has to up the pace a little. “If you’re not an A-list writer but more like a B-minus or a C-plus writer like me, you have to put out more product more often.” So what does he do to prepare for each new work? “What I would do very often is find a hotel room, go there for a week and just brainstorm.”
He discovered the value of doing this by accident, or rather when traveling to various cities for his previous jobs he’d end up stuck in some hotel in some unknown city. And he realized that it was possible to do a lot of writing: “You’re not watching TV, you’re not going on the internet, you’re not talking to anyone.
“And what I would do for years is go to Vegas; I was the only person who’d go to Vegas for a week, more than a week, because you’re getting a five-star hotel for cheap; everything’s taken care of in a hotel. You don’t have to do anything, so you can concentrate on writing. Plus it’s a 24-hour city so you can write for two-three hours, get burnt out, go down, turn your brain off and play some slot machines, go back up, take a nap. Time is irrelevant, you don’t have to be on a schedule.
“I found Vegas to be a really fantastic city for writing. And it’s got a lot of museums, a lot of shows, a lot of creative things going on; and it can be mindless. So I would go with books, and I would read a couple of novels while I was there.” In short, Campbell sums up, “I found it an excellent experience.”
Specifically, while in Vegas, Campbell might mull over a list of potential titles and then focus on his ideas for cover art. After all, the “Hard Luck Hank” books do sport some rather snazzy cover images. And, yes, he’d ponder the novel’s beginning and its ending, plus “fill in some chapters and some of the main characters.”
When he’s completed a first draft he’ll go over it, make some revisions, and then hand it over to a professional copy editor. The last thing any writer wants is to have even a few typos in a work that has been labor intensive. A few too many errors and you can lose your reader. Remember, most people are already looking for the slightest reason to hate your book!
Listen to my story
Fans of Hard Luck Hank, and there are many, may have noticed that their hero is on a long cigarette break — although he’ll be back in the building pretty soon. Campbell wanted to try his hand at something a little different.
“So I did an urban fantasy called ‘Spell Talker,’” he says. “I’m not a big enough name that people [will] buy anything that Steve Campbell writes. They like a specific type of my writing, and it wasn’t that as much. It did okay, it just didn’t do as well as the ‘Hank’ series. As a writer you’ve got to write what you’re good at, and what you enjoy, and that was much more difficult for me.”
Campbell admits that, while he likes and could even write serious dramas, he says he knows that he wouldn’t be very good at it. “It beats me up to try. The kind of light-hearted comedy-adventure is very easy for me, and just kind of flows through. So my current book is another Hard Luck Hand book.”
To date, Campbell figures he’s sold between 100,000 and 150,000 books and audiobooks. That’s impressive when one considers that well over nine-tenths of the books published last year sold under 5,000 copies. But you know what else is impressive? The fact that Campbell made more money off his audiobooks than his print editions. “I think partly because my work is kind of light, comedic fare, and that works well in audio format. It’s the same book, just through a narrator.” And the point he’s making? Most writers might not even think that their work could be successfully marketed in another medium. “But you can’t look away from those things; you have to take advantage of what comes along.”It’s not the same old scene
Fifty years ago, there were vanity presses and very, very little that they published was taken seriously. Bookstores didn’t stock them, and bookshelves in cyberspace didn’t exist. “Now,” Campbell says, “more writers make their living off self-publishing than traditional publishing.
“A lot of people want to be writers, and it’s extremely difficult. That’s why I push self-publishing because you don’t have to make a blockbuster book that every single person would have an interest in. You can write what you’re specifically good at and what interests you. And,” he emphasizes, “because you’re getting a greater percentage of the royalties you can make a profitable living doing that.”
Imagine someone telling you this in 1970. You can’t.
By and large, writers would still rather be taken up by Random House or Penguin because of the prestige, not to mention the distribution and the greater chance of garnering reviews. And readers are more likely to put their trust in, let’s say, a Knopf or Pantheon title. On the other hand, as Campbell quickly mentions, the major publishing houses “have rent, they’ve got leases, they’ve got janitors; they’ve got to pay people.” The argument is, if you had so much overhead wouldn’t you be less likely to gamble on some small guy with a quirky book? If you’re a celebrity or an A-list writer the door’s probably open. All others may be knocking for a long time.
Campbell might be described as a breakthrough niche author, which is, when one thinks about it, a rather nifty achievement. He found a side door, so to speak, and went through it. But remember, he persevered despite little initial encouragement.
“I was trying to write for about 20 years, and I kept doing it for 20 years. So, 20 years of rejections, of not really selling anything or certainly not enough to make any money. The whole point is that if you really like doing it, then don’t worry about the money side. Do it yourself, and do it because you really like doing it.”
To learn more about Steven Campbell and Hard Luck Hank, go to hardluckhank.com or track him down on Facebook. ER
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