Kit Sun Cheah on Combining Genres, Worldbuilding, and the Publishing Industry
Hugo and Dragon Award nominated author Kit Sun Cheah discusses Babylon Blues, marketing, and more.
Kit Sun Cheah is Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award-nominated science fiction and fantasy author. He is a winner of the 2022 Laterpress Genre Fiction Contest, for his novel Babylon Blues. He’s published more than a dozen books, plus a plethora of short fiction. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask him some questions about his creative process, the publishing industry, and how author’s can be more successful with the business aspects of a writing career.
Babylon Blues features a mix of genres. You describe it as “Cyberpunk Military Horror.” What motivated you to smash those three genres together?
My fiction draws from multiple genres. I take the best of what I read and distill them into a work that is uniquely my own. I do not see genres as hard walls, but simply deep wells of tradition to be drawn from as appropriate.
Cyberpunk, horror and military may seem separate genres, but if you look deeper, you’ll find that they flow together logically.
Cyberpunk draws deeply from noir. You can see this in the themes that define the genre. Flawed and/or amoral characters, societal decay, alienation, base desires like greed and lust, crime and violence that flow from these desires. Cyberpunk builds upon this foundation and explores technology-related themes: human enhancement, the commodification and mutability of the human body, whether and how technology alters and re-defines what it means to be human, the growth of government and corporate power. And it does this through a grim, cynical lens.
Noir is a fundamentally moral genre. Characters who succumb to temptation and evil spiral down into self-destruction and destitution. Characters who resist the urge keep their honour and their souls clean. Through presenting tragedy and triumph, noir imparts moral lessons to the audience.
Horror is also a moral genre. Set aside for now the unsettling atmosphere, the terrifying threats, and the lack of agency and power that defines the genre. As J D Cowan notes, a good horror story is a cautionary tale. It shows the destructive consequences of breaking a rule or taboo. On the flip side, it also celebrates those who uphold pro-social rules and work to address these consequences. The shock and surprise inherent to the moral genre is anchored in a common understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. When something unexpected happens, shock and surprise follows. The cause of that unexpected occurrence is the violation of a moral norm, and so the consequences, while shocking, are accepted by the readers.
My interpretation of cyberpunk horror is grounded in this foundation of morality. It reveals the darkest corners of the human heart. It shows how technology is used to twist the human form, and through it, the human soul. It shows the harms that depraved individuals can do when super-empowered by the technology of tomorrow. It demonstrates the consequences of violating moral codes and strictures, in the form of insanity, transformation into abominable forms, puppeteering by malign beings, and the breakdown of civilization. It shows the choice of costs: the cost of bowing to a world descending into decadence and madness, and the cost of standing against it. And yet, while evil is powerful, it can still be defeated.
In such a setting, how would you fight back against the growing tide of evil?
For the Babylon universe, the answer is militarization.
The New Gods rule the world. Their killers wreak havoc with cutting-edge technology and occult powers. They have powerful backers in the corporations, the media, and the government. They are too powerful for regular cops to handle.
The Special Tasks Section in the Babylon universe is, on paper, a law enforcement unit. That’s just a legality. It is much closer to BOPE, the tactical unit of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro. While the operators are technically law enforcement officers, their missions usually have more in common with urban warfare, counterterrorism and kill-or-capture raids than traditional police work. The soldiers of the new Gods are so dangerous that less extreme methods will fail.
But the violence the STS brings to the streets of Babylon brings with it deadly consequences, and that further ties into the underlying genre of horror.
I intuited all this while beginning work on the concept. When I saw it, I knew there and then that I had to bring all this to the forefront.
What does your process of worldbuilding look like? With the complexity and layers to the Babylon universe, I imagine a lot of work had to be done before you started the writing.
I start with first principles. The rules that govern the universe, the factions, the characters, the setting, and how they interact with each other. To this, I add the counterfactual elements that define the work, be it magic, cybertech, or whatever else, building upon these rules.
The key is to keep these first principles simple. You do not want to trip up over them. Complexity here is the enemy. These first principles must be simple, understandable and concise—and, at the same time, they must be the building blocks for organic growth.
Here are some first principles for the Babylon universe:
- The world is in the grip of the New Gods, seven factions more powerful than governments and corporations, locked in a constant war for supremacy.
- Each faction represents a religious heresy and/or destructive ideology, and their powers are tied into their respective themes.
- Their war for supremacy is centered on Babylon, the greatest, wealthiest and most corrupt metropolis in the history of mankind.
- In a bid to keep the war under control, the human government stands up the Special Tasks section.
- The protagonist is the one man that the New Gods cannot corrupt.
Second-order principles naturally emerge from the interactions of these first principles. For example:
- The New Gods present themselves as gods to satisfy the human desire for worship. They cast miracles and magic to overawe humans, display their power, and recruit and maintain believers.
- Believers who prove themselves are granted the status of Elect. Their god infuses them with their faction-unique powers. But this incurs a grave cost. The process of investment may shatter weaker minds and souls, irreversibly transforming the unfortunate being into a Husk, a hollowed-out creature that exists only to feed and kill. Even if the elevation is successful, they are now directly connected to the god—meaning that at any time, the god may reach into the minds and drive them like puppets. And they will view it as carrying out the will of their god.
- Top-ranked Elect are promoted to the position of Speaker. The Speakers of the New Gods are the public face of these factions, serving as a combination of priest, diplomat and sovereign. They represent the will of their respective gods.
- The New Gods maintain a tight grip on the media to ensure favourable press coverage. They undermine and manipulate the government and law enforcement to prevent interference with their activities, and to gain allies and resources for their respective factions.
- Husks are painted as monsters. They are disavowed by every faction. Therefore, every wetwork operative killed in combat is automatically branded a Husk to minimize blowback against their faction.
- To battle the New Gods, the STS must be a military unit independent of the New Gods. They cannot recruit any believer from the New Gods, nor use any tech or magic linked to them.
The interactions of second-order principles give rise to third-order principles. The deeper laws and logic running through the universe, the mechanics behind the magic and tech, and so on.
- The protagonist does battle against archdemons and cosmic horrors. To maintain his sanity, he must himself be a man of unshakeable faith. This faith grants him special protection from the worst magics of the New Gods.
- The magic of the New Gods stems from violating the laws of reality. The protagonist’s faith enforces these laws. His ability allows him to neutralize magic. It cannot do anything against threats that conform to these laws.
- Technology is amoral. It is simply a tool. It follows physical laws, and so cannot be neutralized by countermeasures that enforce the laws of reality. The morality of a piece of technology flows from the intention of the creator and its effect on the user
The organic interaction of first-, second- and third-order principles create an emergent universe that is at once complex to perceive, yet simple to understand. Once you perceive the underlying mechanisms, you can make sense of the world. It also makes additional worldbuilding easy, since I can simply refer to the first principles instead of struggling to figure out how new tech or magic fits into the big picture.
I track everything with a master document. I add to it when necessary. Once I have enough material to start a story, I get to work. As the world grows, so does the master document.
It’s probably a lot more work than other authors invest into their writing. But this is the method that works best for me.
It’s interesting that you’re able to create such complex worlds while also being so prolific. How do you manage to do both at the same time? A lot of authors think of writing as a trade-off between quality and quantity but that really doesn’t seem to be the case for you.
I do not see a tradeoff between quality and quantity.
Writing quickly and prolifically, with an eye towards constant improvement, improves the quality of your work.
Writing well, with an eye towards writing faster and better, improves your output.
The more you do the former, the more you practice your craft. The more you do the latter, the more efficient and impactful your writing becomes. This creates a virtuous feedback loop, improving both the quality and quantity of your writing.
The trick is to be mindful about it. You must seek to write as much as you can without sacrificing quality. You must seek to improve the quality of your writing in a way that frees up time and energy to invest into more words. That means expanding your vocabulary, writing punchy sentences, structuring your story, and all the other fundamentals of the craft.
Before I write, I sort out the worldbuilding, plotting, and characters. That way, I can focus my energies exclusively on writing. It always doesn’t work out that way, so whenever I need to get back to worldbuilding and plotting, I spend only enough time and energy on it before returning to writing.
By combining preparation, concentration, mindfulness and deliberately creating a positive feedback loop, I have found a way to combine both quality and quantity in my work.
You went through quite the saga with Amazon trying to get Babylon Red published there. How has that changed your attitude towards working with them, and determining where and how you want to publish your fiction?
I entered the writing world at a time when Amazon was hailed as the savior of writers. Writers no longer had to submit their work to fickle agents and closed-minded editors; they could simply publish their works on Amazon and start selling to the world.
That isn’t the case anymore. The ever-changing Amazon algorithms, and the need to game the system just to gain visibility, is making it extremely difficult for newcomers to break into the system.
There was a time when Amazon allowed the underdog to enjoy a level playing field with the big names. Now, unless the author has a huge audience and has the resources to invest in a gorgeous cover and a massive marketing campaign—in other words, unless the author is already a big name or at least has the means to become one in short order—it’s difficult to make it.
I am not a big name. I need to find the platforms that suit my circumstances and support my writing aspirations.
Not only that, Amazon is becoming increasingly fickle. Authors have been perma-banned for the strangest of reasons. I read a story of how an author who commissioned a manhwa adaptation of his novel was banned from Amazon after he published the manhwa. I have myself been asked to report myself for copyright infringement against myself. I have to treat the possibility of being ejected from Amazon as an inevitability.
The only option left for me is to explore alternative methods of publishing, as a hedge against an increasingly unstable Amazon.
You wrote a post on decoupling from Amazon, and highlighted several alternative models for author compensation. How do you see the publishing landscape changing over the next 5-10 years? What models seem most viable to you in the long-term for the stability of an author’s income?
An author needs to grow, retain, and sell to his audience. The audience is critical. Without an audience willing to pay for his stories, the author does not have a viable career.
The audience is segmented. At the outermost level, there are casual readers who just happened to stumble across the author’s book. Next you have the regular readers who enjoy the reader’s work and will consider buying the next new release. The inner core are the superfans who will buy into whatever experience the author provides, and will go the extra mile to support the author.
Any future publishing model that seeks to remain viable must take this into account. The publishing landscape will likely evolve to focus on the dynamic between the audience and the creator. Brian Niemeier calls it neo-patronage. The creator creates positive experiences for the audience and the audience rewards the creator for it, creating a positive feedback loop.
The creator isn’t limited to Amazon. He can use crowdfunding platforms to generate buzz and pre-orders, he can publish his stories on blockchain platforms like Hive to gain cryptocurrency rewards, he can even attempt to sell an NFT of his stories to his superfans.
One possible neopatronage model allows the audience to compensate the creator to a degree that reflects their commitment. Upvoting on Hive is quick and effortless, and doesn’t require commitment. Buying an ebook on Amazon is cheap and easy, but it does require commitment. Those who pre-order a book on a crowdfunding campaign want to be invested in the experience of being a co-creator or a sponsor. Others are willing to pay a premium in exchange for early access, behind the scenes information, and the experience of being part of the inner circle..
We are starting to see this in Patreon, in Ko-Fi, and in IndieGogo and Kickstarter. Brandon Sanderson’s mega-successful campaign demonstrates the viability of crowdfunded novels and series. I’m excited to see how things turn out.
Notice that Big Publishing isn’t mentioned here. The reason is simple: they have to evolve or die, and so far, Big Publishing isn’t showing any signs of evolving.
You’ve run crowdfunding campaigns before, and spoken to the importance of selling an experience, not just a product. How does one do that? What should any author be thinking about when deciding if they want to run a crowdfunding campaign? Any tips you can share from your crowdfunding experience on what makes for a successful campaign?
Readers do not buy stories. Readers buy experiences.
Readers want the positive emotions that come from reading a story. They want more of these experiences from the author of that story—or from stories in a similar genre.
A crowdfunding campaign should speak to those experiences. It should elicit the emotions that the author wants the reader to experience while reading the book. It should draw upon a deep wellspring, evoking the same positive experiences readers will feel when reading similar works in the same genre and/or from the same reader.
A crowdfunding campaign for a novel should target those who want to participate in the creation process. They are willing to pay above market rates to help you get the book out. In exchange, you should reward them with perks above and beyond regular readers. An easy way to do this is to release the book to them well ahead of the regular publication date. You can also consider other perks like the rights to name characters and locations, co-create tech like spaceships or mecha, or even the opportunity to advertise their businesses and services. Recognized subject matter experts may also bundle a masterclass or mentoring sessions as part of the perks.
I’ve found that you should not offer discounts on crowdfunded books, unless you have such a huge audience that you are confident of hitting your target. Lower prices tend to attract less-committed customers, and they will be less likely to select the higher-price tiers. Focus on offering value instead of discounts, and you attract the audience with the budgets to support your goals.
From these fundamental ideas, frame your marketing campaign accordingly. Interviews, blog posts, podcasts, and so on should focus on the experiences, the story, and the value you offer. Create a core message centred on the value you are offering and reinforce it through your marketing.
Most importantly, be authentic. Offer only what you can offer, present only your authentic self, and keep your promises. A crowdfunding campaign should be seen not as a climax, not just a means to an end, but an event that allows you to engage with readers new and regular in a visible way. It should be the stepping stone for the reader to enjoy future positive experiences. Over time, all this will compound to create outsized effects.
To quote from another interview you’ve done:
“Mediocre writers with superior marketing and branding skills outsell magnificent writers without any marketing power. If you’re serious about being a professional writer, you need to focus on the business side of the equation at least as much as the craft.”
That’s some necessary, tough-love advice I imagine a lot of newer writers don’t really want to hear. How have you honed your marketing skills? What would you encourage other authors to do to improve their marketing game?
Marketing is a skill. It can be learned. Some people are naturally better at it than others, but to some degree, everyone can learn it. If you want to make money from writing, you have to treat it as a business. You have to think of marketing as a learnable skill, no different from the craft of writing.
As for myself, I read books and interviews by authors on marketing, and adopted what advice I could. From newsletter tweaks to website adjustments, interior formatting to nudging the audience, there are a lot of low-cost low-effort ways to improve audience growth and retention. Newsletter swaps and joint promotions are also cheap and effective means of marketing your books. I also try to be more active on social media, increasing my visibility to potential readers. For those with deeper pockets, you could sign up for marketing courses offered by industry veterans, and experiment with advertising.
My marketing abilities still need a lot of work, but it’s a lot better than it was when I started out.
With that said, at its heart, marketing is not about selling products to others. When all you’re doing is sellings things at people, you’re going to turn them off.
Instead, strive to build connections and communities. Engage your readers with blog posts and newsletters. Give them insight into your current and future work. Check in with them, get their opinions on your work, and try to understand them as much as possible. Readers buy into experience, so create a positive experience for them by offering them lots of value without asking for anything in return. Save your major selling pushes for book launches, crowdfunding campaigns and time-limited discounts.
Establish your brand and build up a store of goodwill first. Meet your audience’s needs and connect to them as people. Then the rewards will come.
Related to that, you’ve talked about the publishing landscape being geared towards single-genre fiction. Have you had to adapt different tactics to sell books that are such a blend of different genres and influences?
I’ve experimented with different approaches, and I am still experimenting with them. With that out of the way, it seems I might have the beginnings of a viable strategy.
Businesses need income to survive. This means increasing profits and decreasing costs. Crowdfunding is an excellent way of eliminating production costs. This eliminates uncertainty for books that might not necessarily fall into popular genres with easily-defined tropes. This also helps self-published writers with smaller budgets to defray the costs of publishing. A writer would be more confident of commissioning a $500 cover when he knows he can launch a crowdfunding campaign to cover it, and that $500 cover will likely help him sell more books than a $20 cover slapped together by some low-quality freelancer over the weekend.
The Babylon universe is another experiment in progress, testing the results of creating multiple streams of income for a series. Going solely by Amazon royalty reports alone, it is the least popular of my works. But once I throw in cryptocurrency earnings from Hive and Steemit, and additional monies from crowdfunding, and earnings on Laterpress, it is my top-earning series. And that’s not even counting the Genre Fellowship Contest winnings.
The traditional approach of publishing books in rapid succession on Amazon probably only works for books that fall within a neat, easily-defined genre. For books like mine, blending different genres and influences together, I think an approach that generates multiple streams of income would be a better strategy. It spreads out the financial risk and reduces uncertainty, while reaching out a much wider audience than traditional marketing and self-publishing methods.
Babylon Blues and Babylon Red are now available. I believe there are two more volumes forthcoming, Babylon Black, and Babylon White. How are those going for you? Do you have any other projects in the works you want to promote?
Babylon Black is complete. It just needs one more editing pass and a cover, and it will be ready for publication.
Babylon White is almost complete. There’s just one more story to go, and progress has been smooth so far.
Come Q3 2022, we’ll see the next installment of the Babylon series—and its apocalyptic conclusion in 2023.
In the meantime, I have another new series in the works. Titled Saga of the Swordbreaker, it is a coming-of-age tale of a young man who seeks to deliver justice in a corrupt world with magic and cold steel. It is a cyberpunk cultivation series, focusing on personal development, spirituality, and of course, sound tactics and martial arts. You can find Book 1, Dawn of the Broken Sword, here.
Any last thoughts you’d like to share with us?
Laterpress offers immense potential as a webserial platform. To my knowledge, there isn’t an English-language webserial platform out there that allows authors to publish their stories in a reader-friendly way and to quickly, easily and cheaply monetize their works.
Thanks for having me here, and I look forward to seeing how Laterpress develops in the future.
Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge with us!