Walking the Walk

DefenderIt’s hard to decide what aspect of author Chris Allen and his book Defender of the Faith is more noteworthy. It’s a military thriller with a cracking pace in the James Phelan or Matthew Reilly vein, except that as a former soldier himself, Allen lived the life of his fictional hero Alex Morgan.

Born and bred in Perth, he joined the army as soon as he was old enough and served as a paratrooper and counterterrorist consultant, so unlike many thriller writers, Allen walks the walk. Along with the roll call of senior creative figures in the Australian entertainment industry who’ve written glowing endorsements in the front of the book are several names from Allen’s military career, including a foreword by Andrew Dudgeon, retired brigadier of the Australian Army’s Aviation command. Almost all his contemporaries highlight the accuracy of Defender of the Faith’s contents as well as the rollicking action.

The first unusual aspect of the book was that the final product was put together using that most 21st century of methods, crowdsourcing. After spending years writing the manuscript, Allen and his marketer wife Sarah happened upon a website called Plan Big.

“Plan Big was pivotal,” Allen says over the phone from his office in Sydney, where he now lives. “It was probably about 18 months ago and we started engaging with Plan Big and the online community and it was really about building interest in the story.

“In the early days Sarah was really putting it all together and I wasn’t really sure about what it all meant. But when I started getting involved and seeing the responses and I was astonished at the level of support from people that we’d never met. We’d send out bits of the writing, crowd source people’s interest on the look and feel of the cover. People came back with honest, constructive feedback.”

The other aspect, as you might have guessed, is that Defender of the Faith has made the venture that’s arisen out of the process — Bright Sea Publishing — a poster child for book publishing in the web age.

The West has reported more than once on Amanda Hocking, the Minnesota teenager who became a multimillionaire self publishing her own paranormal romance novels on Amazon. More recently we introduced you to Seth Godin, the speaker and writer behind The Domino Project, which aims to get new ideas in front of readers without the commercial pressures of a large publishing house.

For Allen, Bright Sea Publishing was a similar way to keep creative control. “We started looking at it seriously in the last three years,” he says, “and I got some interest from major publishers early on, but their feedback was always something like ‘well, if you changed this and then do that and then we’ll look at signing you’. I wanted to retain ownership of the style of writing, the story we have and most importantly, how we presented it.”

Before long, Allen says he felt vindicated in his convictions to keep hold of the reigns. “There’s a very different feeling amongst the actual people who wanted to read it rather than the industry determining what it should sound and look like,” he adds. “We sourced directly from people that were interested in it, and instead of telling people what they wanted, we asked them.”

But perhaps most interesting thing about Chris Allen’s story is his current day job. After an upbringing in Perth and such an action packed early career, he’s now the Sheriff of NSW. While the job doesn’t entail gunslinging and lynching varmints (no matter how tempting the jokes were, The West held back), it’s still a combative field. Maybe Allen just has what it takes in the cutthroat world of fiction.

“You need to be pretty driven,” he agrees. “Whenever you do any research it’s all doom and gloom about how you shouldn’t expect to make any money. But you’ve got to clear about what you want to do. Our objective here was to build readership, so that involved elements like giving the book out for free to people on Planbig who helped us.

“So you have to be prepared to take a risk, follow it through and respond to how your product is received into the market place. So yeah, I guess the military has probably prepared me for that a bit.”