What hasn't Kevin Jackson done in the world of content creation? He's been an author (long form and e-book singles), newspaper reporter, playwright, radio producer, rock opera writer. We sure we're leaving something out. Oh....he's also written 2013's surprise best-selling Kindle Single, Mayflower: the Voyage from Hell. It topped the Thin Reads nonfiction best-sellers' list for a whopping seven weeks, almost turning the unknown English writer into a brand name. As you'll read in the following email interview, Jackson intends to produce at least two more Kindle Singles this year. Our advice to Jackson: alert your accountant. Your tax status is about to change.
Thin Reads: Your Kindle Singles are characterized by great writing and extremely thorough research. About how long does it take for you to produce a Kindle Single?
As I've only written two Kindle Singles so far, it's a bit premature to say what the average will be. As with most books, the real work is the research; the actual putting of words in order can be quite fast. (As a former newspaperman, I am used to turning out roughly 500 publishable words per hour. Do that for eight hours -- if you have the stamina -- and you can write about 4,000 words per day. As it happens, I wrote Mayflower while suffering from pleurisy, and had a fever; so I worked around the clock in shifts, writing for three hours, sleeping for four or five hours. It took ten days. But I had been researching for several months before...
Thin Reads: What led you to writing stories for the Kindle Single format?
I came to write Mayflower because my editor had heard that I was having difficulties finding a publisher for a series of books I was keen to write called Seven Ships -- essentially a series of books about English (and/or British) sea voyages which had some kind of world-historical significance, between the sixteenth century and the early twentieth century. (One of the ideas being that it would add up to a history of Britain's long-term maritime experience.)
But the big publishers I tried didn't see any commercial potential, and small independent publishers liked the idea but felt they couldn't do it justice. I explained the idea to my editor, and he suggested that I start with Mayflower, which might attract a decent-sized audience in the United States. How right he was. So, with luck, I will tackle all of those ships over the next few years, as well as writing Kindle Singles on other subjects. And one of the indy publishers to whom I spoke is now thinking about publishing the maritime books in small, handsomely illustrated paperback format. I'd like that very much.
Thin Reads: Your first Kindle Single -- Mayflower: The Voyage from Hell -- was one of 2013's great Kindle Singles success stories. Were you surprised by how well it sold? Besides great writing and research, what accounts for the enormous of the book?
"Surprised"? No, it was more in the neighborhood of "astonished"! I thought it might sell a few hundred, maybe a thousand at the outside. I can only guess a few of the reasons why it took off so unexpectedly.
(A) It's a gripping story, full of drama and human interest, but most accounts of it for adults have buried the basic yarn with excessive and not always very interesting additional detail. (My first draft was itself about 7,000-8,000 words longer, and full of facts about the Reformation. I didn't like cutting them at the time, but in retrospect this was the right thing to do.)
(B) It's a story that pretty much everyone half-knows, and my hunch is that a lot of people want to know it better, but don't have the time or energy to read a heavy history tome. My book can be read in a couple of hours, or less.
And (C), although my account corrects a lot of the mythology that has crept into the Mayflower story, especially since the nineteenth century, it doesn't do so in a mean-spirited way. On the contrary: I think that the real Pilgrims were even more remarkable than the mythical one.
Thin Reads: Darwin's Odyssey, which was published last October, was well-received but it seemed like it never really caught on with readers. Any thoughts on why it didn't perform as well commercially as Mayflower?
Well, it's pretty much a universal rule that people generally like to read about their own country's history and concerns. (If you've ever browsed a French or Italian newspaper in recent years, you'll know what I'm talking about.) Mayflower is a quintessentially American story, and most of the sales have been in the United States.
Thin Reads: In October, your long-form book Constellation of Genuis: 1922: Modernism Year One was published. Can you compare and contrast the experience of publishing a long-form book with writing a Kindle Single?
Constellation of Genius (COG) took about three years to write, but a lot of the material it drew on was already familiar to me, from the age of about 17 onwards. One of the exciting things about writing Kindle Singles is that it involves intense concentration for a very short period -- in military terms, like a lightning raid with almost immediate results. Writing a big book is more like waging a protracted war -- you live in a constant state of mild anxiety, alternating with moods of optimism (this is the best thing I've ever done!) and despair (I am so talentless I should shoot myself). As it happens, I'm reasonably pleased with the way COG turned out, and I don't know whether to be pleased or disappointed at the thought that it might one day become my best-known book
Thin Reads: Did you write and research Constellation of Genius while you were also working on your Kindle Singles?
No, I handed the completed text of COG to my UK publisher in about September 2010. Long story. May I suggest to any young reader planning a career as a writer that they should first find a wealthy and tolerant spouse?
Thin Reads: What's the next book project that you're working on -- and when can your loyal followers expect to have it in their hands?
My next Kindle Single, on which I have started research in the last couple of days -- will be about Columbus's first voyage. If I do a good job, it should be ready by the early summer. This will probably be followed, some time before Christmas, by a short travel book about a trip to the Holy Land that I plan to make in late March, in the company of the Rev. Richard Coles, an old friend of mine who is probably the bets-known vicar in the United Kingdom. (He used to be a pop star back in the 1990s). Working title: Coles to Jerusalem.