Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Meet Ethan Coffee, author of Fables of the Flag

Today I have Ethan Coffee, author of Fables of the Flag, for a chat about publishing middle grade indie novels. I’ve talked before about how challenging it can be for indie authors to reach their middle grade audience, but lately I’ve also been hearing whispers of some MG indie authors finding success. This is a topic that keeps shifting with the times, so I thought we would revisit. First, a little about Ethan’s new novel:

Jack Preston, an ordinary kid on his 8th grade trip to Washington DC, finds himself mysteriously transported back in time to 1720 Massachusetts. Finding a world without cars, phones and other conveniences of modern life takes some getting used to, but he's even more surprised to meet a young Founding Father, Ben Franklin.

Being a righteous fellow, Ben befriends the confused and tattered Jack and offers him a place to stay. When Jack overhears a seedy plan that will most certainly ruin Ben's brother's printing business, Jack vows to help find the culprit before it's too late.

From the streets of Colonial Boston, to the cargo hold of a huge galleon, Jack realizes he's on the most bizarre, but important, adventure of his life. As Jack is thrown into a whirlwind of conspiracy, he realizes that much more than a printing company is at stake. An adventure is one thing, but being stuck hundreds of years in the past is quite another.

Me: A young Ben Franklin! Sounds like fun already. And I love the idea of exploring historical figures as young people, especially when adventure is involved (History? Psh! Forget that dry, boring stuff!). What inspired you to write historical MG fiction, and what other figures from the past do you think you’ll write about in the future?

Ethan: My main inspiration for the Fables series was the idea of showing these larger than life historical figures, like the Founding Fathers, as real, vulnerable people. So often, its easy to think of them as being born as adults with some clear vision of their place in life, rather than actual people who had real life problems. They may have gone on to do great things, but many came from humble beginnings.

As far as future characters go, Fables of the Flag: The Surveyor's Tale, features George Washington. Our first President was quite an adventurer growing up, so the story is vastly different from the first Fables, but still has the kind of intrigue that made it so much fun. There's actually a few different Founders in the third book, which I'm working on right now, but I don't want to give away the surprise quite yet.

Me: I think it’s great that you show these historical figures as young people, so that their young readers can picture themselves as growing up to be a leader, like them! Bravo to you, sir. It will be very interesting to see what you do with George W., who is so often portrayed as outsized heroic (or demonized by those that wish to swing the other way). The greatest challenge for me, with even thinking about writing historical fiction, is getting the period details right, so that it has an authentic feel (and you don’t get called out by the history buffs). Did you major in History or are you an armchair historian? Or do you just do tons-o-research?

Ethan: I wasnt a history major, but I did take a few American Literature classes in college where I was exposed to works like The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin for the first time. That helped give me a good basis for not only what was going on in (soon to be) America at that time from a historical perspective, but some of the finer details of everyday life as well. I've read quite bit of history and historical fiction since then, but I still find myself needing to look up specific details like the weight of a galleon or what trees would be in a certain area of the country.

Me: I keep thinking historical fiction would be so difficult to research, but then the weight of a galleon is probably something you can look up on the internet, just like any other research! Still, I think I’ll keep my stories in the future … J Now that you have a self-published MG novel out there, what are the lessons learned that you would offer to other authors considering taking their MG novels the indie route? It seems exceedingly difficult to reach MG readers directly – rather authors are encouraged to market to the gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians). Have you done this? Or do you think kids find your MG novel through Amazon or other search engines?

Ethan: Its definitely difficult to reach MG readers directly. For that reason alone, its very important to determine a target audience and how to reach them before writing. I don't want to make the process sound manufactured, the writing is still very much inspired, but authors should know what they are trying to accomplish before they jump in. With Fables, I wanted to write a compelling, fun set of stories that would also have historical relevance and moral undertones. That way, there's a hook for gatekeepers in terms of the educational value, while still making it an exciting read for those who stumble upon it.

Me: I love the idea of understanding your audience, and I think that can be a difficult concept for writers new-in-the-journey to wrap their heads around. But especially for MG, understanding that many of the books are gatekeeper recommended (teachers, parents, librarians) is an important part of understanding the market. That being said, have you tried submitting your novel to some of the review journals? I know School Library Journal (in theory) does not take self-published books, but Kirkus has an indie review section (that you can purchase). I stumbled on this interesting take on submitting self-published books to pre-publication review journals. Do you think this is a worthwhile use of time/effort/money for MG indie authors?

Ethan: I haven't submitted to any review journals as of right now. My main focus at this point is getting more of the series out there and trying to build a grassroots following before attempting larger-scale promotion.

As for that article, I think it brings up a lot of good points about the current self-pub landscape in general, not just in regards to journals. Its important that indie authors focus heavily on the quality of their work, the cover, and overall professionalism. Standards don't change just because a book is indie rather than traditionally published, so authors need to make sure they match up well to anyone before putting their work out there.

Me: I couldn’t agree more! Thanks so much for joining us today and lending your insights into MG indie publishing! Last question: what question did I forget to ask? (i.e. ask the question you wish I had, then please answer it) J

Ethan: I always like talking about my influences. As a lifelong reader, I devoured MG series like Goosebumps and the Hardy Boys growing up. After that, I moved on to Michael Crichton and Stephen King. For Fables, I wanted to put my own spin on an MG series that would have that same episodic format that I loved, and also incorporate the historical accuracy and supernatural elements of the adult fiction I've read. It's been a challenge, but one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Thanks for having me, it was a lot of fun! Great questions!

Ethan Coffee left California for a few years to study at Purdue University, but is now back in the Golden State. His series, Fables of the Flag, chronicles Jack Preston’s journey through time as he meets famous figures in American history. The second installment, Fables of the Flag: The Surveyor’s Tale, was released July 1st. Check out his website, the Fables Facebook Page and follow him on Twitter.


  1. Congrats on your success, Ethan! Love to see a MG getting some indie love. Thanks for getting the word out about the success stories, Sue.

  2. I also love seeing MG indies! Your book looks and sounds awesome, Ethan. Best of luck with sales!!

  3. I totally need a pen name that includes coffee. Or mocha latte.

    1. Bryan Mocha-Latte does have a great ring to it...

  4. awesome interview! An awesome premise for a book, no matter what age group it's targeted for.

    1. Thanks Prerna! Glad to hear you like the concept. It was a blast to write!

  5. Thanks Becca and Ansha! And thanks to you, Susan, for a great interview!

    1. My pleasure, Ethan! I wish you many happy sales ... I wish you were on Nook, so I could put this on my boy's readers. But they'll just have to borrow my Kindle to read it. :)

  6. Historical MG? Sounds pretty awesome.

    1. Thanks Matthew! I hope you enjoy the books!


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers