576,000 words. 17,800 readers following. These are the current stats for J.M. Coombs (LeadVonE,) a nontraditional writer who has leveraged the Internet to garner a loyal fanbase and stand out in the publishing community. In the future, he plans to write original fantasy; currently, he’s known for his popular and ongoing Harry Potter alternate-universe work, Dodging Prison & Stealing Witches, which in about 850,000 Harry Potter fanfiction works, is ranked 3rd.
DPSW is set in an alternate universe where Harry Potter’s twin brother presented himself as the Chosen One but failed to defeat the Dark Lord. Harry then travels to the past to fix his brother’s wrongs. DPSW will total 8 books. It has its own growing fandom and listing on TV Tropes.
We talked with James about his background as a writer and what he does as an online author.
What brought you to writing, to fanfiction, and to Harry Potter, specifically?
I used to view fiction as an impossible avenue, as though only superheroes did fiction writing. After my university program in business, I was inspired by Methods of Rationality by Less Wrong (Petunia marries a biochemist, leading Harry to navigate the mysteries of the wizarding world using the scientific method.) I wrote some fics that summer, and the third fic took off quickly. For my career, I’d been deciding between programming and writing, the lucrative vs. the less certain path. I have to say, I’ve been enjoying the latter so far.
I think you should write for a market, which should be there before you write. Harry Potter is the largest and most popular fandom that exists. Other fandoms might have just as large a reach but not quite the fandom, and perhaps that’s due to the lack of expansion on Rowling’s part.
How would you describe your audience?
I write to create complex storylines that require lots of intuitive leaps, so they’re thoughtful and intelligent readers. Sometimes they deeply analyze my work in massive essays, which is so satisfying. Demographically, many of my readers are US males between 20–40.
You incorporate technology and a lot of platforms. Do you think that’s what makes you a successful online author?
I’m willing to work outside of publishing platforms to grow the communities around my work. I frequently experiment. I started a author newsletter, which went well and has thousands of subscribers. I support a fan community on Discord. I make most of my income off Patreon and am experimenting with merchandising for graphics.
Can you elaborate on some failed experiments?
I found Twitter didn’t add enough value to the community. A fan started a Facebook page, but it didn’t move quickly enough. Twitch streams (in which viewers watch me edit live) are a mixed bag because while they’re useful for a small and dedicated part of the community, the streams entail a huge effort. I’d consider a successful experiment one that finds an avenue that’d become a good chunk of my income and could expand massively.
DPSW is serial fiction and published chapter by chapter. Does that affect your plotting?
Beyond constantly going over things in my head and not knowing when to stop–one of my community’s ongoing jokes is that everything in the DPSW-verse is just getting longer and longer–I’m always inventing and trying new tools.
Beginnings of original fiction have always been a weakness of mine. Lately, what’s worked for me is this “Russian doll” method. I first take a story and divide it in two. The first 10% should set it up, pull the reader in, and sell them. Then I break that 10% into 10% again. And it goes on until the first 10 words sell the next 90 words. That way there are plot hooks within each of the 10% marks to sustain interest.
As for serial fiction problems, sometimes I want to go back and edit a detail, but fans have archives.
What are some themes you’re trying to explore? I’m mid-Book One, so obviously there’s Harry preparing and improving himself to take revenge. I see hints of antihero. Do themes change?
I wanted to write antihero who has a questionable moral code. DPSW explores the abuse of power, specifically the use of morality as a tool to justify power. My themes have certainly evolved, but more in a refinement and strengthening sense.
What are common criticisms you receive?
Many people are uncomfortable with the concept of characters going back in time and befriending children to later become romantically involved with them. What’s good is that this provokes discussion about morality with readers.
There are also people who vehemently hate the work yet say they always wait for the next update. DPSW has never been high-brow literature; it’s power fantasy. I want to write things that are fun for me and the reader. People look down on fantasy, but I think it’s worthwhile, just a different cause for a writer.
I try to write meaningful power fantasy, but it should be enjoyable first. There’s always the stigma that fantasy writers can’t sell our work or be taken seriously, but Lord of the Rings considerably legitimized fantasy so it’s not as bad.
Slight tangent, but what do you think of the romance genre, then? Can it be similarly legitimized?
That’s true, Romance does have a reputation for being non-serious. It’s also power fantasy, in a sense. Marketing targets males regarding power fantasy, and romance is marketed to women. The pleasure from slight danger, enjoyment, and cleverness is the same. I would consider Romance and Fantasy brother and sister genres. I think the market for romance might be double that of Sci-Fi/Fantasy combined.
Authors often scared of getting plagiarized from posting their work online. What do you say to that?
I think that’s a problem of success, in that it’s only a concern if you get popular enough. I don’t think you should even worry about that, early-stage. The Internet and laws are evolving. The only places where copyright really seems to matter are Amazon and YouTube, but you can copyright strike people. I also view it as another part of the job.
What direction do you think writing and publishing is going?
Indie authors are making use of free platforms as part of writing process. The use of merchandising has grown. Audiobooks grew, and now there are professional audiobook studios where teams scoop indie books and package them into audiobook products. Some don’t even need the old eBook or print accompaniment. Those studios are taking on a talent scouting role, as agents and traditional publishers haven’t been moving in very quickly. I don’t think they appreciate yet how this shift could change power dynamics.
We’re often told that people don’t read anymore, that everyone now watches videos. Thoughts?
I think people who didn’t use to read now watch videos. YouTube is competing primarily with TV/movies. Of course, in the writing community, the essayist (who, for example, writes on the nonfiction analysis of themes and how to go about writing) has been taken over by video. The essayist finds more success in working with animators. There are plenty of people who consume blogs in written form but not as many.
Lastly, the spaces for online fiction and traditional publishing at least don’t appear to come into contact too often. Were/are you interested in going traditional?
Right now, I’m happy with indie. There’s a lot of power here, and I don’t fear the business side of things anyway. I have a low tolerance for risk and would hate to be locked into an experiment for 3–5 years with traditional publishing when I might otherwise know it’s a failure after six months.