Interview with Danielle Ackley-McPhail of eSpec Books

Today, I’d like to welcome Danielle Ackley-McPhail, publisher of eSpec Books to my blog. Danielle’s work has appeared in my anthologies Space Pirates and Space Horrors plus she’s been featured in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. G&GRed-Gold Leaf-150 Her story “Last Man Standing” from Space Horrors will be appearing in the forthcoming anthology Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales coming from WordFire Press. My work has also appeared in some of Danielle’s projects including Bad-Ass Faeries 3: In All Their Glory and the steampunk faerie tale collection, Gaslight and Grimm. I was really impressed by the super job Danielle and eSpec Books did with the Kickstarter for Gaslight and Grimm. They’re running a new Kickstarter and Danielle has taken time from her busy schedule to talk to me about her company and what they have going on.

DLS: What is the mission of eSpec Books? What do you think sets eSpec Books apart from other publishers?

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DA-M: We created eSpec Books to form a more stable platform for speculate fiction in the niche market. So many of the independent publishers we have worked with have faded away over the years either due to burn-out or because they grew too fast and couldn’t sustain that growth. eSpec is starting from a foundation of solid industry experience. We also have the benefit of seeing in advance many of the pitfalls out there and have a plan in place to avoid them, growing slowly, but steadily, using a balance of strictly electronic publications and higher profile titles in both print and ebook. Since we as individuals have been a presence in the fan and publishing community we have the benefit of an established network of connections, a pre-existing audience, and a knowledge of what our audience is interested in. We also have a solid reputation from our previous work for other publishers as both designers and editors.

DLS: What are some of your favorite science fiction/fantasy classics? What makes those books stand out for you?

DA-M: My fandom started out when I was 13, firmly on the fantasy side of things with Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels. From there I discovered Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series and PC Hodgell’s God Stalk. I pretty much read all over the place though. On the sci fi side, Andre Norton’s Forerunner and Joan D. Vinge’s Cat’s Paw. One of the reason all of these stood out for me is that I am a fanatic for myth and legend and strong world building. I also love character-driven fiction and mystical, magical things.

DLS: What do you look for in a book you’re considering for eSpec Books? In other words, what makes the ideal eSpec Books title?

DA-M: Because we are just starting out…our two-year anniversary is in three weeks…almost all of our projects have been in-house, with anthology projects conceived and developed by our own editors. That having been said, we know when to say yes to an interesting project when it’s brought to us. Our title The Weird Wild West is an anthology that was brought to us with Misty Massey as the packager. The concept and the names involved were worth making the exception. That brings us to the other thing that we are looking for at this stage in our growth as a publisher. Names. As a new publisher still proving ourselves to the industry names are important. Not only do they have a built-in audience that they bring to the table, but they also increase visibility of the press as a whole, helping to establish our credibility. This doesn’t mean we are only interested in names, but in our early days and with our plan for a smart, slow build, we are not yet in a position to entertain outside projects. Our anthologies, however, do all have a mix of beginning and established authors.

DLS: You publish a number of anthologies. How do you develop your anthology ideas? Do you take proposals from freelance editors, or do you develop ideas in house? Why do you take the approach you do?

DA-M: I am an idea person. I cut my teeth in this industry by creating anthologies for other publishers. Best known of these is the award-winning Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series. I have a real strength for developing themes and playing with concepts to come up with collections that capture the interest of our audience. I love taking an idea from concept to completion so for the most part our projects will continue to originate in-house. This is not to say we won’t strategically partner with seasoned editors that bring us a solid idea, provided it is one we can see an audience for. Because anthologies have a limited profit-margin this will likely remain our process even once we begin to grow as a company.

DLS: As a business owner, I like brand loyalty as much as the next guy, but as a reader, I recognize that variety is the spice of life! What are some ways small presses can work together to help each other as well as serve readers’ interests?

DA-M: One of the joys of small or independent presses is that most of them have been started by fans and industry professionals with a specific interest and focus. They are the epitome of niche, in fact, the most successful ones remain niche, focusing on what they know and doing it well. The way that we help one another is cross-promotion, by directing our fans to offerings by fellow presses that meet other interests. Sharing knowledge with fellow publishers also builds a community and helps improve the credibility of the industry as a whole.

DLS: You’ve run some exciting Kickstarter campaigns to fund your books for publication. Can you tell us about your current campaign? What is the project and what are some of the cool things supporters might get if they choose to back the project?

DA-M: Part of the eSpec Books business model is to use crowdfunding to fund our high-profile projects, the books we intend to produce in both print and electronic format. We do this for several reasons. From a business standpoint this ensures that we have the resources to produce the books in advance. This means we remain in the black from the beginning and do not need to earn back production costs before turning a profit. By using this model we can create a stable platform on which to grow as a publisher.

Our current project is an important part of that growth. It is our first campaign for novels by two bestselling authors, Jack Campbell (The Lost Fleet, The Lost Stars, The Pillars of Reality) and Brenda Cooper (Building Harlequin’s Moon (co-authored with Larry Niven), The Wings of Creation). We were fortunate enough to sign these books for two reasons. First, because they are very different than the authors’ previous titles and so their usual publishers passed on them. Second, because both authors are familiar with us and our skill in producing books.

These are two very different coming-of-age stories.

Jack Campbell’s The Sister Paradox is an urban fantasy turned epic adventure, where a teen boy crosses dimensions to fight dragons and basilisks and other manner of magical creatures beside the sword-wielding younger sister he never had.

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Brenda Cooper’s POST is a post-apocalyptic journey novel, where a girl name Sage leaves the safety of the botanical garden she grew up in to discover the world outside and, with hope, help rebuild it.

We have all the basic pledge rewards you find with any publishing campaign: ebook only, print only, both together, but we also have pledge levels where you can get additional autographed books, where you can be a character in one of the books, and even pledge levels that will get the backer an ultimate fan experience at next year’s Balticon, where we cover air fare, hotel, and convention membership, plus the backer gets one-on-one time with their favorite author. From a production standpoint we have some premium pledge levels where the backer can have their work evaluated or even created by an experienced editor, designer, and crowdfunder.

In addition to the pledge rewards we have both a Pre-Funding Bonus (electronic bonus stories every backer will receive when we hit $3000 regardless of if we fund) and a We-Funded Prize Pack (a prize one backer pledging $20 or higher will win at the end of the successful campaign, details available on the campaign page).

We are 73% funded with 20 days left in the campaign. Those interested can check it out at http://tiny.cc/Novels2016

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Why 1001 Nights Isn’t Your Best Multicultural Steampunk Reference

This week, I welcome two special guests to the web journal. They are Day Al-Mohamed and Danielle Ackley-McPhail, authors of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn published by Dark Quest Books. Here’s a look at the cover and the back cover text:

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    Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined. A tale of wonders, of deeds both great and grievous, of courage that defies description, and above all, Child of Adam, I shall tell you a tale of love.

    The night is for the telling of tales to which the morning may bear Truth. In the oldest of days and ages and times, there was, and there was not, a great evil that reached across the desert and beyond…

    In the Nejd there is nothing at all … except secrets. A band of thieves wish such secrets to remain hidden.

    In England, far from his desert home, Ali bin-Massoud serves as apprentice to the famed Charles Babbage. One night a mysterious box is delivered by a clockwork falcon and Ali’s world is never the same again. Heartache, danger, and thieves mark his journey as Ali is summoned home at the death of his father.

    It will take faith, knowledge, and yes, love to realize his destiny, and more than a little skill with steam-driven technology. Can he unravel the mystery of the puzzle box and the clockwork djinn before it is too late? An ancient legacy and Ali’s very life depend on it.

    Hear you the tale of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.

Without further ado, let me turn this over to Day who discusses Multicultural Steampunk and why 1001 Nights is not your best reference.


First, before I say anything, I want to give a shout out to Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk. No, I don’t know Diana (other than via the ‘Net) but we share similar hopes for the future of our beloved Steampunk. It is a great place to explore the idea of what multicultural steampunk actually means and understand: 1. Why there is a need/desire for greater diversity in the genre, and 2. Why, because of the nature of the time period with its expansionist and colonialist (as well as racist and misogynist) underpinnings should be approached with respect, a healthy caution, and some good research.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is loosely based on “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” for some of the story plot points, and for some of the fairytale aesthetic in how it is written. However, we worked very hard to try and step away from the original tale. Why? Because, in truth, there is no “original” tale and what many of us have grown up with is a translation of a translation. And perhaps most damning of all, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” was a tale that was rewritten through a Victorian lens.

An article in Steampunk Magazine captures this really well with regard to characters. As an example of how easy it is to fall into using the Victorian stereotype rather than exploring cultures directly they highlight the “What Is Your Steampunk Style?” online quiz featured on steamfashion.

    “The results of this quiz emphasize how white, European Victorian types are playful, interesting, and exciting: the Aristocrat, the Scientist, the Officer, the Explorer. On the flip side, representations that do not conform to the Western-European aesthetic are not featured, and the reason why they are omitted is obvious. This is because while Eurocentric Victorian types in steampunk fiction are depicted as positive and enjoyable, non-European Victorian types live on as today’s damaging stereotypes: The Dragon Lady & China Doll/Geisha Girl, The Savage, The Deceptive Mystic, The Manservant, The Ursurer, The Indian Princess.”

To give an example that is more pertinent to “Baba Ali” let me reference one of my “Book Secrets” posts where I talk about the differences in translation.

    Gloss translation of Arabic: ‘When it was in the middle of the night he remembered something he had forgotten in his palace, so he returned and entered his palace finding his wife laying in her bed embracing one of the black slaves, and seeing this, the world became black in his face.’

    Richard Burton (arguably one of the most popular translations): ‘But when the night was half spent he bethought him that he had forgotten in his palace somewhat which he should have brought with him, so he returned privily and entered his apartments, where he found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet-bed, embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this the world waxed black before his sight…’

In the former, the skin color is a description; in Burton’s translation, it burgeons into something completely different. The result was that in our search for realism in how races and genders related, what people wore, elements of their daily life, and even elements of how their stories were told, we had to find other sources – travelogues, arab folktale collections, old maps, and even a personal letter or two from expats living overseas at the time.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing multicultural steampunk, quite the opposite. We need more, lots more! 🙂 I just don’t want writers to be lazy. It is important to be as detailed in research for specific cultures as it is for the historical time period. It is not dismissing or ignoring a culture, it is not stereotyping, and it is not eroticizing. It is doing your homework and looking for what is real and authentic.

This can be slightly more difficult as many of the materials from that time period are written from the perspective of European nations but in the last few years there has been a significant rise in scholarship that gives us greater views into the world as it was versus how the West saw it. And in truth, isn’t that a much more interesting story?


Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed is author of the novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale, written with Danielle Ackley-McPhail. Day hosts the multi-author blog “Unleaded: Fuel for Writers”, and in addition to speculative fiction, she also writes comics and film scripts.

Her recent publications are available in “Daily Science Fiction,” Crossed Genres anthology Oomph – A Little Super Goes a Long Way, Sword & Laser, and GrayHaven Comics’ anti-bullying issue “You Are Not Alone.” The anthology, Trust & Treachery, for which she served as co-editor, was released May 1st and two more comics are due to be released this year, as well as several short stories. Her two film shorts were recently shown on local Virginia cable television, and two more are in pre-production. She is an active member of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia Writing Group, a member of Women in Film and Video, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

When not working on fiction, Day is Senior Policy Advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor focusing on Youth. She has also worked as a lobbyist and political analyst on issues relating to Health care, Education, Employment, Disability, and International Development. She is a proud member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, loves action movies, and drinks far too much tea. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife, N.R. Brown, in a house with too many swords, comic books, and political treatises.

She can be found online at DayAlMohamed.com and @DayAlMohamed


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Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for longer than she cares to admit. Currently, she is a project editor and promotions manager for Dark Quest Books.

Her published works include five urban fantasy novels, Yesterday’s Dreams, Tomorrow’s Memories, Today’s Promise, The Halfling’s Court: and The Redcaps’ Queen: A Bad-Ass Faerie Tale, and a young adult Steampunk novel, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, written with Day Al-Mohamed. She is also the author of the solo science fiction collection, A Legacy of Stars, the non-fiction writers’ guide, The Literary Handyman, and is the senior editor of the Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series, Dragon’s Lure, and In an Iron Cage. Her work is included in numerous other anthologies and collections.

She is a member of the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, the New Jersey Authors Network, and Broad Universe, a writer’s organization focusing on promoting the works of women authors in the speculative genres.

Danielle lives in New Jersey with husband and fellow writer, Mike McPhail, mother-in-law Teresa, and three extremely spoiled cats. She can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail, badassfaeries, darkquestbooks, lit_handyman), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). To learn more about her work, visit www.sidhenadaire.com, www.literaryhandyman.com, or www.badassfaeries.com.