News And Events

Defying Gravity

Krista Boehnert | November 1, 2011

View the original article here: Business Class Fall/Winter 2011 Edition

It’s not easy out there for aspiring writers. The publishing business is a tightly guarded empire that doesn’t easily allow newcomers into the fold. But author Bennett Coles (MBA ’07), one part military man, one part artist and one part entrepreneur, has managed to breach the industry’s walls with his new novel, Virtues of War—overseeing the entire development of the book, from writing to packaging, marketing and distribution.

For the past 20 years Coles has been writing novels, novellas and short stories about far-flung galaxies. Virtues of War, released earlier this year, couples his military background with his penchant for sci-fi, “taking naval warfare and putting it into space,” as he describes it. Set aboard the fast-attack craft Rapier, the story follows rookie soldiers as they grapple with the physical and psychological demands of battle and war zones, where it’s often difficult to tell who’s in the right—and tough decisions have to be made.

At the core of all Coles’ stories are richly developed characters, composites based on people Coles met and served with during his 15 years with the Canadian Navy. He says that creating complex, realistic characters—“people you think you could actually know”—is what’s most important to him. “I want to make sure my tactics are as good as Tom Clancy’s and my science as good as Arthur C. Clarke’s, but those are actually just side things; the characters are what it’s all about,” he says.

Creating the novel was no easy feat. Writing over the course of three years, after his retirement from the military in 2005, Coles devoted himself to creating his opus while balancing his MBA studies, subsequent career in marketing and active family life with his wife and two young sons. He engaged many on his journey, from a half-dozen test readers to an editor, and spent many hours rewriting until it was ready. “No author can objectively judge their writing. No matter how you publish your work, you need a professional editor to give you honest feedback,” Coles says. “It feels like getting kicked in the stomach when you get that criticism, but when you step back, you can see that they are right and you take it and make improvements to your work. There were amazing passages, ones I loved in Virtues, that I edited out because their absence made the piece, as a whole, stronger.”

Armed with his completed manuscript, Coles began approaching literary agents to represent him. The speed with which the rejections came left him cold. “They responded so quickly, it was clear they hadn’t even read my proposal,” he says. Just when his resolve was waning, he got a celebrity endorsement, from established science fiction and mystery author Mary Rosenblum, who had been the instructor for a writing course he took several years before and who strongly believed in his work.

“Ben’s strengths as a storyteller are his rich characterization, his very solid sense of the ‘good story’ and a vivid and descriptive storytelling style that brings the world to three dimensional life for the readers,” says Rosenblum. “The richness, the reality of his world and his people make this book stand out from the ranks of space adventure and military SF.” Impressed, she asked her own agent to give the fledgling writer a shot. The response? The risk was too high. Coles was an unknown, without an established fan base to guarantee sales. There was little appetite to take a chance—especially at a time when publishing, like all sectors, was struggling in an economic downtown. It was another blow. If an award-winning writer can’t get you an audience with her own agent, what do you do next?

At this point most people would pack up, accept defeat and go home. But Coles is military trained. With an MBA. His kit bag is packed with skills hard-won in the boardroom and on tours of duty in the Middle East, including a stint in south Lebanon as a UN Peacekeeper. This is a guy who doesn’t back down.

So he began to investigate independent publishing. Initially, he thought he had but one option: sign with a print-ondemand publishing company. The advantage of this approach would have been not spending a lot of money on printing— copies are only printed when customers request them. But there were also drawbacks. Sure, he didn’t risk having a lot of unsold product lying around, but he would have to give up control of the production and marketing, and split royalties. After all of his hard work, a 10 per cent royalty on the sale of each book seemed like a poor reward. A radical idea occurred to him: what if he kept full control of his product, took it to market himself and let the public decide whether they liked it or not?

That’s when Promontory Press was born. Coles became his own publisher. By producing Virtues of War under his own imprint he receives full royalties, and he’s able to control the look of the final product and market it in a way that resonates with the audience he’s trying to attract. The long-term rewards of maintaining artistic and financial control over his work were too good for Coles to pass up.

“You still need a good product though,” Coles says, by way of addressing the stigma that comes with self-published works. “If your book is awful, it’s awful. No marketing in the world can change that. If you want to be successful, you need to be professional at every level of your production, from creation to design to taking it to market. You need to produce something that is able to compete in quality, value and entertainment with established publishers’ books.”

So far, he’s been able to do just that. Coles’ book graces the shelves of several Victoria and Vancouver bookstores, and he’s looking to be on national shelves by Christmas. He also sells e-book versions of his novel through various distributors, giving him access to the international market.

Coles isn’t proprietary about his model of publishing. Once a month, he holds workshops in the Lower Mainland to share his experience with fellow authors. “If you have empowered authors you get a better publishing industry, and with a better publishing industry, the public gets better reads,” he says.

But it’s not all business for Coles, who donates a portion of the proceeds of each book purchase to War Child Canada, a nonprofit organization that aids children in war-torn areas. “I saw a lot of things on duty,” Coles says, “and the hardest is when you see kids in a horrible environment. I have kids myself. It really hits home.” It’s a partnership Coles is particularly proud of, and that he plans to carry forward with future works. “It’s a chance to still help improve conditions in places I toured,” he says.

Coles is also busy penning a sequel to Virtues that he hopes to release in fall of 2012. And he recently got another celebrity endorsement, in the form of a tweet, from none other than Gene Simmons of the band Kiss: “Shannon and I met Canadian military heroes for dinner. Urge you to check out Virtues of War by Bennett Coles.” When you get the thumbs-up from Kiss, you know cult status is just a warp jump away.

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I have read considerable military SF by master authors like David Weber, Michael Z. Williamson, David Drake and others, and Virtues of War is at least their equal.

Fred Patten
AmoXcalli