From Pizza Hut To Easy Street: The David Dalglish Story

Fantasy author David Dalglish is a big name in the self-publishing world, but now he’s on the cusp of something even bigger.

His path wasn’t easy. When David uploaded his first book, way back in February 2010, he was working in Pizza Hut.

The popularity of his books, and the speed with which he was able to publish them, meant that it didn’t take long before he was able to quit that job and write full-time.

David’s stellar sales (over 350,000 books to date) led to big offers from major publishers. But he wasn’t able to accept any of them – until recently.

David is here today to tell us more. Trust me when I say this is quite the story:

David Gaughran: hey, thanks for agreeing to come along and speak with us today. I’ve been hoping to chat since you signed that big deal with Orbit a couple of weeks ago. Why don’t you kick things off by telling us a little more about that?

David Dalglish: For a long while I was stuck, unable to sign any deals or approach any new agents due to a stupid decision on my own point (more on that later). But recently I was able to buy out, sign a new agent (Michael Carr, who is totally awesome), and then we began cooking up a plan of attack. Our best case scenario involved Orbit, who we sent out a feeler email to see if they were interested in the rights of the Shadowdance Trilogy.

To put it simply: they were. It seemed I barely blinked, and suddenly we’d agreed to terms. They’ve acquired the Shadowdance Trilogy along with the sequel trilogy (Watcher’s Blade) I’d begun. They’re all being melded together into one big six-book series, the first three of which I believe Orbit plans on releasing in a three-book barrage over the course of this upcoming Christmas holiday season.

You’ve signed over World Rights for the series, but there are a number of foreign deals in motion. How does that work?

Heh, how it works so far is either I get an email inquiring about rights, which I forward to my agent, or at some point Michael (agent guy) sends me an email letting me know this or that deal is in the works. My involvement is pretty much non-existent, which is how it should be. I’m not even going to pretend I’m knowledgeable in such matters. Best I know at this point is that interest seems high, I’ve forwarded a lot of emails to Michael, and that I cannot wait until I have a nice row of foreign translations on my bookshelf.

But those deals aren’t the only ones you have made recently. You have something else to announce today.

The other exciting news I finally get to reveal is that I’ve sold a trio of books to the Amazon imprint, 47North. They take place in the same world as the rest of my books, though centuries before, detailing the creation of man and the war between the brother gods who made them. The other unique bit is that these books (the first being Dawn of Swords, with the entire trilogy currently titled The Breaking World) were co-authored between myself and a great friend of mine, Robert Duperre.

Quick bit on Rob: I met him fairly early in my career, when he wrote me with an embarrassingly glowing review of one of my Half-Orc books. We began to chat, I read his zombie books, and we basically hit it off (despite him being a New England Patriots fan…not everyone can be perfect, I guess). At one point, when I was completely stuck on one of my Shadowdance novels, I called him up and starting throwing him ideas. After that, he became my reliable alpha reader, going over various plotlines and characters before even my editor got a look. He’s kept me from doing a ton of stupid mistakes, of which I’m grateful.

Anyway, I’ve had readers wanting me to write this Gods’ War set of events for a while now, but I never really felt there was enough there. Not sure why. You’d think a giant war would do it. Finally I mentioned it to Rob, and a day later he presented me with a full outline for the first book, coupled with several new families, a new race of people known as the Wardens, and a ton more. While I saw in my head a big, faceless war, Rob saw a far more human struggle, and it was absolutely perfect.

So besides getting to work with another author effectively writing professional fanfic (love you Rob!), this series was a chance to try something a bit different. Everything I suck at, particularly world-building and giant doorstopper novels, is something Rob does without even trying. He’s added so much to my writing, and while the style is a little different, its resulted in a phenomenal story, with near all credit of that going to Rob.

So 47North gets one series, and Orbit gets another. But you’re not done with self-publishing, right? You have other David Daglish titles that you haven’t sold as part of either deal.

I don’t think I’m done with self-publishing, but I’m making a guess here on some fairly incomplete information. Right now, based on the rate Orbit will be publishing my books (once they’re done with their initial back-to-back-to-back release of the first three), as well as the split-duty with Rob on the Breaking World books,  I think I will have a month or two to spare between projects. Should that be the case, I have no intention of twiddling my thumbs. As for my various projects that haven’t been sold, well…for all I know, Orbit may snap them up a year from now. Or Amazon. Or maybe I’ll keep them self-published. Right now, so much stuff is up in the air, I’m not even going to pretend I know.

The term “hybrid author” is quite fashionable these days, but many people seem to talk about it as if it’s some kind of hedge – i.e. covering all the bases in case the indie path gets tougher, or that traditional publishers get smarter about digital. But with you I get the sense that each of these moves is quite strategic. Can you explain a little about the motivation for each of the deals you’ve signed – both Orbit and 47North?

I’ve done the self-publishing thing. I’ve experienced its ups and downs, and feel that as a whole, I’ve topped out at how “big” I can be through it. The Orbit deal is me trying to see if I can, through their advertising, their editors, their effort, push my name a tiny bit higher into the stratosphere. Basically, I’ve seen what I can do. Now is my chance to go all in with a traditional publisher who I feel puts out an incredible quality product.

As for 47North, it’s a bit trickier. They’re very much the new kid on the block, their paper presence is certainly smaller (though they’re trying to grow it, I know). With Orbit already investing six books in me, trying to push for nine was just too much. Given all the work Rob put into it, I also didn’t want to shelve it for two years to see how Orbit’s Shadowdance books performed before pitching it again. Well, Amazon had shown interest in me before (they were curious about the Shadowdance Trilogy as well, but this was during my five-year-deadzone… again, more on that in a second).

Anyway, Michael (my agent) read Dawn of Swords and loved it, just loved it. For a little while, we actually thought Orbit would prefer those given the more traditional nature and giant size (apparently the lure of assassins is just too strong, though). But with Amazon, we have a publisher willing to work with us, as well as with Orbit in ensuring no conflicting launches, etc.

It also gives Rob a great foot in the door, which he absolutely deserves.

So now I’ve got a traditional publisher about to flood the old world, I’ve got Amazon about to advertise and launch three books of mine into their digital world, and I’ve got my old self-published stuff for those who burn through those and want more. Overall, I feel quite happy where I am right now.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch the effects of combining the national print power of someone like Orbit with the unparalleled digital marketing prowess of Amazon. But that’s the future. I want to turn the clock back a couple of years.

You were part of that first wave of self-publishers which came to prominence when the market exploded in November 2010 – and it was a few months later when I started hearing the name “David Dalglish.”

Since then, the authors who came to prominence around the same time (Hocking, Locke, Konrath, Sullivan etc.) have all signed deals of one kind or another – either with Amazon’s imprints or with traditional publishers. What took you so long? You must have had interest. Was it simply a case of waiting for the right deal? Or is this the bad decision you referred to at the start?

So here’s where I reveal how incredibly stupid I was. Back when Dance of Cloaks was just starting to take off, I was contacted by a publisher located in Europe. They were interested in doing a translation for Dance of Cloaks, which of course I was ecstatic about. They also wanted to know if I was interested in agency representation, because they also operated an agency.

Now I was a bit hesitant about this one, but I tried to shop around to a few agents, see if any would represent me in this foreign rights offer, as well as maybe shop around a few more. Turned me down, all of them. And so I said what the heck, let’s go forward.

But here’s the problem. The terms of the agency deal were crap. And I don’t mean just poor, I mean total, outrageous. My lawyer said we have a 50/50 chance of a judge ruling the contract unenforceable level of crap. Their royalty percentage was, and I’m not kidding here, 50%. Even worse, there was no out-clause. I was locked in for five years.

Woah. That’s… I have no words.

Yeah. I like to think I’m an intelligent guy. I navigated the early Kindle marketplace as if I knew what I was doing. But when it came to this deal, my ego got the best of me. I wanted a foreign translation. I wanted an agent. I justified the royalty rate by figuring all of these deals would be foreign deals (the agency was located in Europe, after all). Half of something was better than a hundred percent of nothing, right? No agent looked at me, even with a foreign rights deal on the table, so what were the odds of a US offer actually coming in that would make me reconsider self-publishing?

This is the part of the movie where you get that sinking feeling.

Or want to slap the main character. The thing is, I knew it was stupid to sign it. My dad argued repeatedly to not do it. I refused to show the contract to several writer friends, because I knew they’d tear it to pieces. I didn’t hire someone to go over it and make sure it wasn’t evil. I wanted even that tiny sliver of respectability, and because of that I freaking screwed myself over hardcore.

And then a few months later, when Shadowdance took off like a lightning bolt, my ‘agency’ contacted me asking for sales information and a few other things. I sent it, and they told me they had a good deal in the works. Shrugged, awesome, couldn’t wait to hear about it. And then one day they sent me an email, basically saying: We have a six-figure deal on the table, publisher’s about to call you.

My response: uhhhhh…what?

Okay. Let’s recap. Around two years ago, the Shadowdance series starts selling like crazy, and you receive a six-figure offer from a major publisher. But you also know that if you accept, you will have to fork over 50% to this agency.

Which meant there was no way I could accept it. And said agency would have known that if they’d kept me in the slightest loop as to what they were doing. When I took that call, I remember one of the questions I was asked was why I had chosen to pursue a traditional publishing route when I was doing so well self-publishing. I bit my tongue, but so badly I wanted to tell them I didn’t even know I was trying to pursue a traditional publishing route until that morning.

Anyway, I thought I could still barter down the percentage of our agency deal, given how this massive offer was on the table, and it was just obvious I couldn’t accept it with any sort of financial sense as is. They offered to go down to 20%… but only if I also extended my agency contract for another five years.

Not a great option either.

I couldn’t believe it. They admitted to me their contract wasn’t generous, offered me 20%, and then simultaneously tried to screw me over again. These were supposed to be the people watching out for my interests when it came to publishers, yet all my talks with them boiled down to “Please, please, please take this deal they offered us” without a single revision change or counteroffer. Ten years? Dear lord. I lawyered up at that point.

Long story short, turned down the deal, and decided that despite the horrific nature of the contract, plus the poor translation of it into English, it just wasn’t worth trying to pursue to court and spending all that money. So I let it die. After about two years, I decided to see if said agency would accept a buyout of my contract. After a bit of negotiations, I cut them a check, celebrated like mad, and then started searching for an agent.

Phew. That’s quite a tale. I’m glad it all ended well for you, and that you were able to get out of that awful contract.

Me too. Less than three weeks after I was free of them, I had two publisher deals.

I got what I deserved for signing something so stupid, but I’d like to think they also got screwed over by their own eagerness to pull a fast one on me.

I’d like to put the business stuff to one side for a moment, and talk about the books themselves. As you know, I’m a huge fan of the Shadowdance series. The opening book – A Dance of Cloaks – was the first fantasy I’d read in maybe ten years. I used to be a huge fan of the genre, and had grown up reading guys like Tolkien, Eddings, and Feist, before the gap between Jordan’s Wheel of Time books became too much.

Reading your work, I was struck by how much the genre had moved on. You don’t have very black-and-white characters battling some intangible Great Evil, and you certainly don’t open with a lonely farm boy who is unaware he possesses great magical powers. Your stuff is a lot grittier and bloodier and the characters are quite nuanced. Who influenced your style?

The most obvious influence is R.A. Salvatore. I devoured his stuff growing up, rereading a ton of his earlier series (particularly the Dark Elf Trilogy). All the sword and sorcery aspects, the blistering pacing and the detailed sword fights, I can all attribute to him. As for the good/evil characters… I don’t know. I do have very good characters, I have very evil characters. I also have a ton of gray characters. But I don’t think of them in those terms. Every one of them is human (or, uh, close enough to count) which means they can screw up. They can make mistakes. A good man can perform an evil deed, and an evil man can perform a good deed.

Honestly, much of my influence on characters, in making them believable and relatable, comes from Stephen King. A bit of my style probably comes from him as well, so between him and Salvatore, that’s probably helped a lot in keeping my writing accessible. Probably won’t win me any literary awards, though…

Before I finally got around to actually reading one of your books, I was a huge fan of your covers. Is it the same artist who does all of them?

Peter Ortiz has done each and every one of my novels, and he’s just awesome. Forget any talent I might have. I’m pretty sure his covers are what helped distinguished myself during the early chaos of the digital world.

I’m convinced those covers played a part in your initial success. Telling great stories helps, of course, but a killer cover will get lots more people checking out your work in the first place. I presume covers like that don’t come cheap. When you were starting out, was making that kind of investment a difficult decision?

See, this is the miracle part.. .they did come cheap at first. The cover to Weight of Blood cost me a whopping $100. When Peter told me that number, I nearly fainted. He was my top choice, someone I assumed I had no chance I could get. But even on my pathetic little Pizza Hut salary, I could risk $100. At the time, self-publishers as a whole were not anywhere near as professional, at least when it came to overall presentation of their work. I saw so many horrendous covers, and more than anything, that is what I was determined to avoid. I might not belong on some of those best seller lists, but by god, I was going to look like I belonged.

Now, let’s just say after doing so many covers for me, and being overall awesome to work with, I pay him drastically higher than that for my more recent covers. But he’s still worth it.

Aside from the importance of covers, have you any advice you want to share before you go?

Go into this with your eyes open. Find people who know what they’re talking about and listen to them. Find people who will read, edit, and review your work with actual teeth, not just kindly words. Whether traditional or self-publishing, expect to work your butt off, fail plenty, and often times look like an idiot. If you can endure that, then you might find some awesome moments along the way. Oh, and have fun.

David Daglish Keepers series - Soul Keeper, Raven Caller, Void Breaker

Where to find more on David Dalglish

A huge thank you to David Dalglish for taking the time to answer my questions. If you have some of your own, I’m sure he’ll be along in the comments. David’s website is here and you can catch up with him on Facebook here.

You can also check out his books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo… and every other bookstore on the planet.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.