Recently, I was approached by Alicia E. Blackburn (a pen name) with a project that she was developing. This became Outlook Books, a new publishing imprint, launching its first anthology ‘Dark Secrets’, later in 2020. Probably the best way to explain how everything came together, and what it might mean for you as a writer, is for me to interview her, so here goes:
Me: Greetings, Alicia! Tell our readers a little about yourself — where are you from? Where did you grow up? And other things like that.
Alicia: Hello! I’m from Sheffield and grew up in South Yorkshire. I attended a Catholic school and basically had quite a strict Catholic education right through, and then went onto university to study literature, which is where I first had ideas about writing and publishing as a career.
Me: Remind me how we first met.
Alicia: You were recommended to me as someone who knew something about stories. I came to you for advice about a thesis about literature I was putting together, about a decade ago. Then, when you moved up here to Yorkshire and started Clarendon House Publications, we got together to discuss some plans I had. It’s taken a while, but here we are: Outlook Books is actually real and is about to publish its first book!
Me: Tell us a bit about Outlook Books — what’s your vision for it?
Alicia: A 2020 vision, right? (grins) Well, I’ve wanted to do something in the field of publishing for years, as you know. Now, with the technology that is available and the print-on-demand platforms and so on that are within the reach of anyone with a laptop, there’s a boom in small presses. It’s all part of what you call ‘The Golden Age of Independent Publishing’ and I suppose it’s what happens in any field when the means to produce something become more widely available. So, I figured I’d better get on with it, before the market gets totally swamped!
Me: What’s the imprint all about? What makes it different?
Alicia: Good question. I see a lot of small presses out there doing fantasy, science fiction and horror — a lot of horror. I also see quite a few people who self-publish romance and erotica. You can easily find tons of romance/erotica on Amazon, penned by people who would have benefited from an editor and publisher looking over their work first. So I thought ‘Let’s do something which bridges the gap between romance and erotica and between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Outlook Books is an experiment at the moment — I want to see if there is viable gap in the market.
Me: So you want to make tons of money by exploiting a niche market?
Alicia: Doesn’t everyone? But obviously, there’s more to it than just money. If I was just interested in niche markets for the sake of cash, I’d probably get into affiliate marketing Amazon products or something like that — in other words, selling stuff in which I had no personal interest, just to get cash. Thousands of people do that. But I wanted to make money doing something I absolutely love, which is working with words and stories and the effects that they can create. If the romance/erotica line doesn’t work, I’ll probably try another line in fiction or non-fiction. Writing and publishing seems to be in my blood. So much the better if I can generate some income out of it!
Me: And where does Clarendon House Publications come into the picture?
Alicia: I’ve followed your progress right from the start, sort of looking over your shoulder as you began CHP and the Inner Circle Writers’ Group. I remember when the ICWG had less than 100 members and was basically just a bunch of friends interested in writing. What’s been interesting is seeing everything develop — your ideas coming together, books coming out, and then, when the group really began to expand, the explosion in 2018 of anthology after anthology and other stuff. All coordinated from your laptop. And the ICWG still has the flavour of a bunch of friends interested in writing, which is quite special. That seemed to me to be something that I would like to emulate. So we worked out this mentorship, in which you’re basically helping me to copy what you have done, while adding my own personality and flair.
Me: What have you learned so far, if anything?
Alicia: I’ve learned that I need to have a good work ethic and treat this as a job, as though I was employed by someone else. The amount of work you generate is phenomenal! I don’t think I’ll be able to match that, but I can perhaps do the same kind of thing on a smaller scale. I’ve also learned that it’s largely a case of persistence — running into an obstacle, finding away through or around that obstacle and keeping going until you have a streamlined production system. I have the advantage that you have already mapped out the basic format of a small press — I don’t have to re-invent the wheel. I’ll just do what you did — but probably slower!
Me: So you’re waiting to see what happens with your first release before you go further? What is your first release?
Alicia: Yes, our first planned book is called ‘Dark Secrets’ and it’s a romance/erotica anthology. You’ve helped me to put together some basic submission guidelines, but what I’m finding so far is that people will just have to send stories in and see if they are what I’m looking for. I’ve already had several enquiries from people who want me to publish full romance or erotic novels, or who aren’t sure what kind of story I want for the anthology.
Me: Really? Already people have written in?
Alicia: Yes, which is a sign that there might be a large market there. Enquiries about fully-fledged novels. But this whole romance/erotica field is tricky: at what point does a piece of fiction go from being ‘romantic’ to ‘erotic’? And, further to the point, when does a story start to become pornographic? That’s what I mean when I say, ‘Send it in and see’, because these things can be very subjective. As a rough guideline, I’d say that ‘romance’ is to do with love and almost excludes sex altogether; ‘erotica’ is when hints of sex creep in but are suggested and are mainly symbolic; and pornography is when the sex becomes explicit, obvious and exaggerated, to the exclusion of everything else including possibly love. But you can have a piece of work which includes all three, which is why it’s so hard to give people specific guidelines.
Me: Which is partly why I stay out of the area.
Alicia: Yes, but I noticed that, and thought ‘Ah, he’s staying out of that area, which means that there may be writers out there not finding a publisher.’ If I can get submissions in and feedback out fast enough, I think there’s a market for the kind of book that ‘Dark Secrets’ will be.
Me: So you want mainly erotica, then?
Alicia: Romance which leans heavily toward the erotic, yes. Let’s see what people consider to be ‘erotic’ and what they think is ‘pornographic’. Either way, I suspect there’s a lot of material out there waiting to find a public.
Me: And when is the deadline for ‘Dark Secrets’?
Alicia: March 31st. I can’t work as fast as you, so I’m giving myself time to look at everything and take one step at a time. I’m hoping that you will continue to mentor me through the whole process until the book is out there.
Me: That’s the idea.
Alicia: I’m grateful so far, as it feels very much as though everything has been ‘short-cutted’ (if that’s an expression) through Clarendon House: I have a page on your website, access to your group and can utilise the processes that you have established, rather than having to do the whole thing from scratch.
Me: I’m interested in your future — it’s going to be fascinating helping this thing to develop.
Alicia: Thanks! Let me know if the readers want to know anything else about me or Outlook — I’m a pretty open book (if you'll pardon the expression).
Me: Well, actually one thing occurs to me — why did you call it ‘Outlook Books’?
Alicia: Because of the romance/erotica thing again. What you feel is romantic and erotic is largely a matter of your outlook. Seemed like a good name. I strongly feel that my own outlook on the whole area has been influenced by my childhood and education — being brought up as a Roman Catholic, you tend to get given certain rigid viewpoints about romance and everything that goes with it.
Me: Would you say you have rejected those viewpoints?
Alicia: No, not entirely. They caused me a lot of grief — or rather, I caused myself a lot of grief by trying to adhere to them for some time, but I suppose I grew up and started to put things in perspective a bit in my twenties. I think there is a place for a good erotic story in people’s lives without it necessarily being ‘wrong’, but I also recognise that people can take anything too far and create existential crises for themselves. You can get carried away with the erotic, and then carried away in the opposite direction with ‘Catholic guilt’; sanity, and pleasure, are somewhere in the middle.
Me: That makes sense.
Alicia: There’s a lot that I say makes sense — I don't always manage to live what I say though!
Me: Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers?
Alicia: These are exciting times for writers, readers and publishers. Just as music and broadcasting has moved away from centrally controlled sources and become ‘free range’, the same is happening with publishing. People can select what they want to listen to, watch and read, at the twitch of a finger. The first result is that the market is awash with all kinds of material, much of it low-grade; the challenge is to find specific niche publics within that giant free-range world. As you say in your blog and books, these big movements are times of great opportunity for anyone with a laptop and an internet connection. But you need more than the basics — you have to find your own voice and then sing it in such a way that your own public hears it. With your help, I hope to get Outlook Books out there and known to those who are looking for what it will offer!
Me: Onwards and upwards! Thanks for being interviewed.
Alicia: I am honoured! Thank you!
You can contact Alicia at firstname.lastname@example.org