S.P. Somtow is one of the top rated writers on Vella. Here are his thoughts on this emerging author platform
Somtow Sucharitkul aka S.P. Somtow or just … Somtow
I first met Somtow a few years ago when he asked me to help promo his book Nirvana Express.
I not only fell in love with the book but I fell in love with Somtow.
What an amazing multi-talented man with a personality bigger than an ever expanding universe.
If you want to get even a hint of why I think Somtow is a genius, get and read Nirvana Express (more about it later).
Who is S.P. Somtow?
Please DO read his whole BIO on his Amazon Author Page. Somtow has won so many kudos, awards and nominations it practically requires a book to keep track it of it all.
Here is my much shorter version of his BIO …
Somtow was born in Bangkok, grew up in Europe and educated at Eton and Cambridge. His first love was music and he quickly built a reputation as a revolutionary composer.
Stuff happened and Somtow emigrated to the US and reinvented himself as a novelist.
He ended up authoring a best selling Science Fiction Fantasy Series and winning dozens of awards.
Not one to stick to the same old, same old … he then proceeded to author a horror book. Vampire Junction became an iconic example of the horror genre and to this day … DECADES later is still on the must read lists of many high schools and universities.
But Somtow’s love of music, innovation and inspiration was still there.
A few years later … he is in San Francisco in a meeting about the possible debut of one of his operas. After the opening night shindig, Somtow is being driven home to LA.
In a state of contemplation ALL OF A SUDDEN he is hit by the NEED, the inspiration, the necessity of becoming a Buddhist Monk.
Two days later he is in Thailand doing exactly that. The book Nirvana Express is the amazing account of his time in training. The book is fascinating, interesting, educational and funny. It is a great insight into a creative mind that never stops! You will laugh, snort, roll your eyes and find out loads of interesting “sheesh” tidbits you never knew you wanted to know!
Soon after becoming a Buddhist Monk Somtow returned to Thailand and according to London’s Opera magazine, “in just five years, Somtow has made Bangkok into the operatic hub of Southeast Asia.”
Did he stop writing? NO
He has penned over 70 books, garnered over 40 awards, and like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps on going.
So will it surprise you to find out that Somtow did another 90 degree turn and soon after Amazon announced the development of Vella – their episodic story telling platform – Somtow was there?
YEP. No surprise and no surprise that Somtow ended up as one of Amazon’s TOP Vella writers.
I keep having authors ask me IF they should pay attention to Vella … so I asked Somtow if he would be willing to chat about his Vella experience. He said YES … and here is what he had to say …
Thanks for chatting with us Somtow.
Let’s dive right into Amazon’s Vella Platform.
Vella opened its doors in July 2021 and you were amongst the first authors to join. You’ve written dozens of best selling books … what interested you specifically about Vella and why did you decide to participate?
I came to Vella in an unusual way. A friend of mine, who used to head a media network in Bangkok, asked me if I had any ideas for a series that could be sold to a major streaming network.
I did some research on places like Netflix and found lots of Thai material … and most of it was in a particular genre that’s called “Y” here … stories of romances between young men, whose audience is mostly young women. It’s not a genre I knew much about, except that one of the kids in my youth orchestra was currently starring in one of them.
So I told my friend, if I can set a story in that milieu, but make the plot something I’m more known for — that is, horror, sci-fi, dark secrets, that kind of thing — I might be able to come up with something.
I came up with the idea for “Club X” — teenagers uncovering outrageous hidden secrets about their school — except the cast is a kind of mad version of the cast of one of these Thai “Y” series.
It occurred to me that most of these Thai series first appear as serials on Thai websites and developed a fanbase — then were made into live-action.
I thought, I should do a serial to help me straighten out the plot of this thing, and get someone to translate it into Thai.
At that moment, Amazon announced “Vella”. It was an ideal way for me to try a completely new kind of story — in a completely new kind of medium. At the age of 68, I suddenly found myself reinventing the wheel — for the dozenth time.
Here’s where to find Club X
Club X on Vella (available to US customers only)
Club X in book format (direct, unaltered Vella episodes)
Was your initial foray into Vella with your first three and then first 10 episodes what you expected?
I didn’t really expect anything at all. The regular audience for this kind of story is in another language and has no access to Vella. It was going to be niche within niche. The first couple of months were just what I expected … largely an audience of one, but it did allow me to plot the series.
Like most writer’s platforms, Amazon Vella is NOT going to build an audience FOR you … building an audience is up to you. How did you get Club X off the ground?
Suddenly, around November, things changed. I had been telling my “traditional” readers about this serial, but there hadn’t been any crossover. But all at once, a few people must have found out this was the same writer they used to read in the last century (how weird it is to say this!). In addition, I talked to an influencer or two, asked them to tweet and chat on social media. Suddenly, the number of readers skyrocketed, and, thanks to bonuses, the serial brought in “real money”.
Before we go any further, what is the synopsis of Club X? Did you know where you were going with the story ahead of time or did you develop the story as you went?
There is an important genre in coming-of-age stories. I think of this as being “very American.” In this paradigm, there are usually four boys. There’s a cute one, a tough one, a fat one, and a weird one. Usually there’s a girl who they are all into but who’s almost like “one of the guys”. Their school, or their town, or whatever, has a “dark secret.” There’s usually a bully with a heart of gold, too. The kids unravel the secret that the adults don’t dare to come to terms with, and in the process, they come of age.
Club X is that plot, but with an outrageous take — the kids are various shades of queer and/or “spectrum.” Because we’ve seen this movie in a thousand forms, we kind of know the plot, so what this serial is about is how the plot gets bent, stretched, and twisted around.
Is there ANY audience interaction on Vella?
When I first read the specs, I thought there would be two-way audience interaction, but right now it’s just author notes. But it’s fun to give a few tidbits here and there, backstory or extra thoughts.
You managed to become a Top Readers Favorite … with a story your readers loved. Can you give new writers one or two tips on your writing strategy?
You just must have a cliffhanger every 2000 words.
I wrote a serial for the Bangkok Post, 30 years ago — Jasmine Nights — in 52 weekly installments. It was liberating because I delivered it on Fridays and it was printed on Sundays and because the deadline was so tight, they couldn’t ask for changes because they would miss the printer. One could really be wild.
So, my advice, if any, would be — get to the cliffhanger, then STOP.
Every episode has a natural end point. With a serial, you have to let go. You can’t agonize too much. But have a really, really clear idea where you are going. You may have to kid yourself — when you get there you might find that you’re actually in a different place from where you thought you were going — but it doesn’t matter. A story has to feel like it has a direction, especially a serial.
Which genres do you think work BEST on Vella. I think I saw a non-fiction topic at one point and MY thought was that it wouldn’t work. I have been known to be wrong!
I’m not sure. Most of the genres I see there are not my natural habitat — even Club X, which I’m writing, isn’t.
There’s lots of stories where I think of a huge deck of cards — each card says something like “vampire” “werewolf” “nun” “princess” “demon” “insurance broker” and what not, and it looks like the author drew three cards and said: “ok, this novel is about a nun who is in love with a vampire, and they’re being pursued by an insurance broker.” You know, I should design that deck of cards. A sort of “Vella Plotting Tarot.”
OK … well here it comes. Money Somtow Honey! What about it? You’ve published quite a few books specifically on Kindle. Is there ANY comparison? Is Vella worth the effort?
Yes and no.
Publishing traditionally was reliable. You submitted in your proposal — they gave you an advance — you delivered the book — they published it. Most of the money discussion would be about the advance, because, unless you’re Stephen King, they probably don’t earn out. So it’s about how much you can get away with demanding, versus how little they can get away with giving you.
Self-publishing is also reliable in a sense — you know you will get xx dollars if you sell xx copies.
Vella is not reliable in that sense. Because the royalties, for me at least, have been ludicrously low. But once the series caught on, the monthly bonus was generous —say if over a year the bonuses were consistent, the payout would compare favorably with conventional publishers’ advances.
Problem is, I haven’t figured out which tea-leaves to read to know how to tweak my work to get a maximum bonus. I’m still figuring it out. It’s not how many people read it, but how many people LIKE, “fave” and also the frequency of the episodes.
Last month, I had about 50% more royalties — and the bonus dropped by 30%. If I could figure out how it worked….
Once your Vella Series was done, one thing you DID do was repackage everything in a Kindle book format. I especially, was happy about that because I live in Canada and am not eligible to join Vella. I suspect your loyal audiences in Asia and Europe are also of the same mind.
And yet … there’s a bit of regret. I should have waited and run it through my process again … and perhaps have included passages to match up more closely with the live-action series, now that it is actually in production. Maybe I’ll rewrite the book once the series is all shot.
NOW you have started a second series. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well. I’m using Vella to resuscitate ideas I had years ago, and this one is a historical Roman novel about Sporus, a slave who, according to historians, was castrated by the Emperor Nero and then made into his third Empress.
There are a few scandalous tidbits about this historical character and he lived through one of the wildest times in the Roman empire — most historical fictions don’t even begin to speak to how weird and alien things really were then. I think it might take a science fiction writer to really describe that world.
So yeah, his story lends itself to the picaresque sensibility of episode-writing because he went through so many different turns in his life, and lived through the reigns of four emperors (and would-be emperors) in a single year.
This story is probably very, very niche. And perhaps Vella will lend itself to the very, very niche in time.
Somtow never disappoints, so if you love serials DO check out his newest offering DELICATUS: from Slave to Empress in Imperial Rome.
Somtow, Thanks very much for your time and information about Vella. AND for your “marketing secrets” … which are hidden between the lines!
Here is a fascinating TED TALK … Riding The Lightning. It is about creativity, living in the flow and what to do when the unexpected happens.
You can keep in touch with Somtow on his website somtow.com where you can sign up for his newsletter and get information about what’s currently happening in Somtow’s life.
Join Somtow on:
FACEBOOK PERSONAL: https://www.facebook.com/somtow
FACEBOOK FAN PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/SPSomtow