In an unnamed central European country after the Great War, a humble fishmonger gets caught up in a world of espionage and intrigue when he answers the wrong phone call.
This thriller meets absurd comedy of errors is currently on Apple Book’s Best Books of May list. They call it “the most fun spy thriller we’ve read in ages.” And Publishers Weekly calls it “a stellar debut.”
I had the pleasure of discussing this novel with the author himself and have included our chat below. Not only did we talk about the book, but we also discussed the process of writing and publishing with an independent publisher.
Jessica: What inspired you to write Citizen Orlov?
Jonathan: I caught COVID-19 and had some weird fever dreams. In one dream, I was back in my government days and they sent me on an assignment to a strange, foreign country. Somehow I managed to get there without knowing where I was. Anything is possible in dreams, of course. As soon as I arrived, someone started shooting at me. I remember a sense of indignation about this. I was only following orders. Who was trying to kill me and why? In the morning, I wrote down the dream and it became the kernel of CITIZEN ORLOV.
Jessica: What is your process as a writer? When do you find time to write? How long did it take you to write the novel? What was your editing process like?
Jonathan: I’m not an x-words-every-single-day sort of writer. I do a lot of pondering and planning before I get into drafting. On my masters course they called this pre-writing. I like that concept. Once I get into the first draft, then I write every day, but I need to know where I’m going first. CITIZEN ORLOV began life as a novella, but my writing group encouraged me to expand it into a novel. So, the writing process was a little on and off, over about a year.
I was nervous about the editing process because I thought: what if my editor doesn’t ‘get it’? What if they don’t understand what I’m trying to do? Luckily, my editor, Elana Gibson, absolutely got it. It was clear to me in our first meeting that she understood what I was going for and could help me get there. On that first call we spent ages talking about Wes Anderson and Coen Brothers movies and I immediately relaxed. After that, the process was a pleasure. Elana had some great ideas for drawing out and clarifying the themes and tone of the story.
Jessica: Describe the experience of publishing a book through an independent publisher. What made you decide to go indie? How do you think the process might have been different than publishing with one of the big 5 publishers?
Jonathan: I started out pitching agents for a few months but I was getting no feedback aside from some rote rejections. I still don’t know if any of those agents read a single word of my work versus my query letter. So, I switched to pitching small presses and got an offer almost immediately from CamCat Books, an independent publisher based in Nashville, TN.
I was drawn to CamCat because their submission process was way more onerous than most; it was like an exam. I really liked that because I thought: at last, there’s a chance someone is actually going to read my stuff. They loved it and made me an offer. It was an easy decision, because they were so enthusiastic about the novel.
This is my debut novel, so I don’t really know how to compare my experience with the Big 5 process. Of course if you go via an agent there’s an extra step where the book is out on submission. I imagine the editing process is similar, but the marketing process is probably different, given that the Big 5 have bigger budgets.
Jessica: What were some of your favorite moments?
Jonathan: Honestly, the process has mostly been a pleasure. I’m learning new things about publishing every day. Although CamCat is a small team, they have a ton of experience in publishing and so it’s been like a crash course for me in how the industry works.
Jessica: What have been some of your challenges in this process?
Jonathan: One of the most nerve-wracking moments was when they sent me five cover concepts and asked me to make detailed comments about them. I’m not really a visual person, but luckily I’m married to a professional artist and former graphic designer, so I asked my wife to take a look and that was a big help. The concepts were all so different and it felt like a big decision.
Jessica: What was the marketing process like for your book?
Jonathan: Well, the marketing process is still ongoing. I’ve been working with CamCat’s marketing team and also an external publicist. I think the most important part of that process has been the team sending the book out for reviews, which mostly hasn’t involved me as the author. My inputs have been doing interviews with magazines and in some cases writing articles about the books that have influenced my work, and so on.
My publicist is going to continue working with me for about a month after publication, and we’re expecting reviews to keep coming in over that period.
I’m also looking forward to attending ThrillerFest in NYC for the first time. I’m in the International Thriller Writers debut authors program, which means I’ll get the chance to pitch my book to the whole conference, just a week after it’s published.
Jessica: What did you learn in this process of publishing your first book?
Jonathan: The biggest single lesson I’ve learned so far is that publishing a book is a team sport. Writing often feels solitary, but publishing is definitely not. I can’t count the number of people who’ve had a hand in bringing CITIZEN ORLOV to the market, but the process has involved lawyers, finance folks, editors, designers, marketeers, a production coordinator, a publicist, a printing company and a distribution company, as well as reviewers, and the bookstore that’s agreed to host the launch event.
Jessica: What advice would you give other people looking to publish a book?
Jonathan: For those looking to get traditionally published, my advice is: make your work stand out. Find ways to make your work different. And, of course, make sure the quality is good enough to publish. From what I’ve seen so far, it seems that everyone in the publishing industry is awash with manuscripts. No surprise there. So, there’s not much point in pitching work that’s not ready for prime time or—dare I say it—work that’s boring. Publishing folks are run off their feet. Send them something that will stop them in their tracks and make them take notice.
Jessica: Thanks for your time, Jonathan Payne! I highly appreciate your deep dive into the process of publishing with an independent publisher.
For the rest of you, be sure to check out CITIZEN ORLOV. It’s a fun novel and a page turner to be sure.
It is available for pre-order on Amazon right now, and will be published May 23rd.
Citizen Orlov Links:
Order Citizen Orlov on Barnes and Noble
Absurdist Spy Thriller Giveaway
Mango Publishing Interview – Starting an Independent Book Publisher
Interview with Tannhauser Press – How to Start an Independent Book Publisher?
Interview with Space Squid – How to Start a Fiction Magazine