As a young boy growing up in Malta I was first entranced by action-adventure when I read Tolkien’s Rings trilogy. The scene of the fellowship racing through the Mines of Moria blew my mind, so that I decided that one day I would try my hand at writing my own action-adventure epic.
Yet in time I felt that penning another ‘Dark Lord vs the world’ fantasy epic would be somewhat contrived and unoriginal. Growing up I also enjoyed historical fiction, so that I decided that the dynamic world of the 16th Century with all its distinct national differences was as diverse, engaging and evocative as any fantasy world I could have come up with.
After emigrating to Sydney in 2007 I was hugely influenced by the work of authors like Arturo Perez-Reverte and Wu Ming, who wrote narratives of high adventure in 16th Century Continental Europe. As a Maltese boy raised chiefly on Anglocentric narratives, I was greatly intrigued by these novels and wanted to write something similar. I had a spark of inspiration after I read an incredible book about the Spanish Armada castaways in Ireland in December 2008. I immediately set about writing a standalone novel called ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’, which recounted the life-or-death struggle of a Spanish castaway in early-modern Connacht.
I decided to read every book I could find on the period, to make my story as immersive as Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I augmented my research by gaining insights from the many friends I made on a large number Facebook special interest groups. I became so intrigued by the 16th C history of Ireland that my novel took over nine years to write and finally amounted to 460+k words. Fortunately it had been written in five parts, so that I decided to publish each part as a separate novel.
Over the years I submitted my work many agencies who were always polite and helpful. Yet they refrained from taking me on because the action-adventure genre had become the domain of Indie authors who have achieved tremendous success on Amazon. Yet I was reluctant to proceed directly to self-publishing, because I craved the experience of working with a traditional publishing house. In 2016 I was fortunate to discover ‘The Wake’ by Paul Kingsnorth, a book which had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and published by award-winning UK publisher Unbound. This press is owned by Penguin-Random House and partly uses a crowdfunding model to publish its titles.
I was just delighted when my submission was accepted six months later by Unbound, given the high quality of their list, but to get the publication process started I first had to raise 4000 pounds’ worth of pre-sales in three months. I announced the crowdfund by dropping a line to my email contacts and by setting up an author website which includes a blog called ‘The Wall’. I also set up social media accounts to bolster my author profile, and announced the crowdfund date using Thunderclap on social media.
Most importantly of all, I created a YouTube novel trailer to get the pulses racing. On a shoestring budget of about 700 Euros, I purchased a number of clips from Shutterstock and hired a young video editor to cobble them together. A former colleague of mine kindly produced the main score, after I had hummed it into my iPhone.
After a week of frenetic preparation everything was in place to launch the crowdfund. I braced myself for a long hard slog, yet my jaw dropped when the novel was crowdfunded in less than six days, with over 200 readers pre-purchasing a copy! This meant that I topped the Unbound platform for three days running in all categories, an outcome that left my head spinning. My dream of undergoing the traditional publication process was about to come true, with a structural edit of my manuscript provided by critically acclaimed author and scriptwriter CM Taylor, and an innovative and explosive cover completed by Mark Ecob, who had previously designed the Captain Alatriste covers!
And the best was still to come, when Unbound organised a pre-launch serialisation of Sheriff on international digital book club ‘The Pigeonhole’, in January 2018, which had been used to launch Ken Follett’s ‘A Column Of Fire’. 200 free slots were instantly taken up worldwide, so that another 50 were made available and also snatched up. The subsequent reaction of readers around the world was just incredible, with many reviews and flattering comparisons posted to Goodreads and Amazon.
More heady developments were to follow, when legendary NY agent Al Zuckerman contacted me to tell me that I had talent and energy. The following week I almost fell off my chair when I learned that my novel trailer had been listed in the international press alongside trailers for blockbusters like Black Panther and Wonder Woman, after it was nominated in the category of ‘best trailer for a novel’ at the 19th Golden Trailer Awards in Los Angeles. Before I knew it I was packing my bags and bound for Hollywood, soon rubbing shoulders at the grand Ace Hotel lobby with HBO and Netflix execs, editors and Hollywood celebs. I was also stunned to learn that I was the only independent nominee at the ceremony, with the others being big movie and TV studios or large publishing houses!
Barely six months have passed since publication and Unbound are already quite keen to receive the sequel to Sheriff: ‘A Rebel North’. Meanwhile Sheriff is selling well both in ebook and paperback, and last week I was delighted to learn that it reached third spot on the national bestseller list in Malta, close behind works by bestselling authors Dan Brown and Gail Honeyman! It is all a dream come true, and there are so many avenues to promotion and publication today if you have talent and drive. My only advice to budding authors out there boils down to a recent passing remark by one of my close friends:
‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’.
(c) James Vella-Bardon
About The Sheriff’s Catch
Abel de Santiago has deserted the army and all but avenged his murdered wife, when he is captured and sold as a galley slave. As the Spanish Armada sails for England, there can be few souls on board more reluctant than him.
After a crushing defeat to the enemy fleet, the Spanish ships are battered by extraordinary storms and Santiago finds himself washed ashore in Ireland, a country terrorised by English troops that the natives call Sassenachs.
But Santiago’s faint hopes of survival appear dashed when he is captured by a brutal Sheriff, who has orders from Dublin to torture and kill all Spanish castaways.
An unlikely escape has Santiago flee with a jewelled ring worth a king’s ransom. His flight leads to a desperate chase across a strange and stunning land, where danger lurks at every turn.
So begins The Sheriff’s Catch; Part One of The Sassana Stone Pentalogy
Order your copy online here.