Fantasy maps, publishing, editing, and writing: an interview with Dewi Hargreaves

I interviewed Dewi Hargreaves about his freelance work making maps for fantasy books, working at an independent press, and much more.

Dewi Hargreaves headshot

I’m here today with Dewi Hargreaves–writer, artist, editor, and all-around fantastic human being.

Picture us sitting in front of a crackling log fire, in a room with dark wood panelling and a wall covered in bookshelves. On the rug before the fire sleeps a unicorn.

We’re actually doing this by email, but I think it’s more fun if you picture the room with the unicorn.

I asked Dewi to keep his responses PG rated, and he almost entirely succeeded. I only had to bleep out one word. Otherwise Dewi’s responses are entirely his own, except for a few additional paragraph breaks.

Alecia: Would you like to start by introducing yourself?

Dewi: Sure! It’s getting harder to answer this question briefly these days. There are many hats out there and I like to wear them all.

I’m a freelance illustrator and I create maps to go in the front matter of books – I’ve done about 200 of them so far and I still love it.

I do a couple of things behind the scenes at Lost Boys Press, but most importantly I help out in editorial, which means reading and editing a lot of exciting stuff – some of which I’m sure you’ll see soon! I’m taking my first tentative steps in freelance editing and am currently working my way through a couple of courses at the CIEP, which has been fun.

And of course I also write things from time to time – most recently Eyes on the Blue Star, a post-apocalyptic wander through a shattered, far future United States. Because the world clearly needs more bleakness in its fiction right now. (Don’t worry, it has a happy ending.) I’ll have a short story in Rita A Rubin’s A Chronicle of Monsters, which comes out in late March next year, and I’m tinkering with a few other bookish projects behind the scenes!

Alecia: That sure is a lot of hats! I hope you have a lot of heads to wear them. I’ve only seen one head when you post selfies on Twitter, but we all know how easily images can be manipulated.

Dewi: I am actually a hydra in a trench coat. Don’t tell anyone.

Alecia: My lips are superglued together.

I love your maps. Do you have an example you’re able to share?

Dewi: I do indeed! Let me go and grab one from the old treasure chest. I’m very proud of this one, though it took a bit longer than usual.

A fantasy map
A gorgeous map by Dewi Hargreaves, used with permission.

Alecia: That map is gorgeous! I might have to figure out exactly how the geography of my world works so I can hire you to make me one like that.

I remember when you were just getting into offering fantasy authors your map-making services on Twitter, then I blinked (okay, fell offline for a few years) and it had blossomed into a huge thing. Do you want to tell me a bit about that journey? What background did you come in with, how much of it was intentional, what did you learn along the way, and can you share any cool secrets from behind the scenes?

Dewi: It’s strange. You know how you climb a ladder a rung at a time and don’t realise how high up you are? It’s sort of like that. I put out a commission call on Twitter, not really expecting much, and got a lot of interest – this would have been around June 2020, the middle of covid. Since then I’ve had a steady stream of work – a lot of it comes from referrals from previous clients now. I just made them one at a time, inching up my prices, and suddenly it was a whole job.

My background is entirely informal. I’d always drawn maps – I remember doodling them for fantasy worlds when I was like 11 years old – but I never expected to actually do anything with it. It was just for fun. When I was in my late teens I started seriously building a fantasy world. Before long I realised I’d need a map to keep it all straight.

I actually toyed with using the Civilization V map builder, haha. But I remembered a friend of mine had mentioned a little thing called Photoshop. I got it, watched and couple of youtube videos, and started using it. I’d been making my own maps in Photoshop for about five years when I put out the commission call, so I knew my way around it, but I would definitely still have called myself an amateur.

A cool secret: I actually did my earliest commissioned maps with a computer mouse – which makes the tendons in my hand scream just thinking about it now. I had to make do with what I could afford. I eventually bought a drawing pad – a £50 thing off Amazon – so the brush size would change with pressure, and so I could give my hand a rest. Learning how to use that was very strange – drawing on the table but guiding the mouse on the screen. I eventually saved up enough to buy an iPad and Apple Pencil, which is what I use today, and it’s sooooo much better.

Alecia: Now I’d like to ask you a bit about your work at Lost Boys Press. I had a squizz at their website–what a great mission! “…to bring the vibrancy and color of indie speculative fiction to as wide an audience as possible.” 

But what this really means is that you work for a publisher. So you’re on the Other Side of publishing, and you know the answer to the question every writer has: how do I get published? I’m kidding. I know you’re not giving that answer away for free on my blog when you can sell it and retire to write full time. 

But as a person who sees a lot of author submissions and works on editing at a publisher, what do you wish more writers knew about the other side of the process? Got any great wisdom or juicy secrets?

Dewi: I absolutely love Lost Boys and I’m very passionate about what we do there. Indie presses are sort of in a unique position. Most of the time the staff are voluntary and they’re working with much smaller budgets than the big presses. We also need to sell a lot fewer copies for a title to be considered ‘successful,’ so we can target nicher audiences. We can afford to take a chance on weird projects. And we can move a little faster than the bigger presses, so that is where our advantage lies.

A couple of things people should know – I suppose they’re not ‘secrets’, but they aren’t common knowledge: the industry is tough at the moment, despite the boom in sales over the pandemic. There are fewer small or middle-of-the-road presses. There are fewer distribution companies, the guys who get books into stores. There are fewer specialist booksellers in bookstores to cultivate stock and study trends. There are fewer reps linking it all together. Agents are overloaded. Short story magazines are closing all the time.

Lost Boys is still a minnow in these waters, doing our best to get to the next pool, but it’s not easy. Even the big presses can’t guarantee large sales figures. In his essay in What Editors Do, Jonathan Karp, ex editor in chief at Random House says that having three in every ten books published be commercially successful is a great track record for an acquisitions editor. So we can’t guarantee you a specific sales number.

What a publisher can guarantee you is a helping hand. We work tirelessly to advocate our authors’ books and to get them to places where they can be seen by as many people as possible. The rest is much more of a c**p shoot than anyone would like it to be.

Alecia: No! No one wanted more bad news about publishing.

To follow up on one of your points… You say at a small press you don’t need to sell as many copies to consider one of your books ‘successful’. How many copies sold would you consider a success?

Dewi: It’ll vary depending on the book, especially which genre or audience we expect it to fit, but we can pretty consistently shift a couple hundred copies of a publication now, with some exceptions, and we’re only moving upwards. Fingers crossed the next one will sell 100,000, haha. I’m proud we’ve achieved a decent baseline for an indie press, though.

Alecia: You also mentioned Lost Boys can move faster than a big press. I’d never heard that before, but it makes sense. Can you give me a rough idea of what that might mean in practice? Say, what the expected time from when you receive a submission until the book’s release day might be at a large publisher and a place like you guys?

Dewi: Every publisher has their own timelines for these things, but across the industry, a book taking two years from manuscript submission to publication day is very standard. Some books get ‘crunched’, ie, put on a tighter schedule. For us it typically takes a year, maybe longer if there are delays, but it’s also possible to get things out faster – we could certainly go quicker if we weren’t all doing this on a voluntary basis. We build plenty of time into our schedules so that unforeseen issues – and there are always some, even if small – don’t derail us. On the extreme end you have people like Travis Baldree who wrote, edited, and published Legends & Lattes in about four months.

Alecia: And have you worked as an editor on any books you’d like to trumpet about?

Dewi: There are a bunch of things I’ve worked on that I’d love to shout about to anybody who’s willing to listen, but The Dragon and the Butterfly (out 22 April 2024) is truly special. It’s an epic saga about the life of Maud of Flanders, William the Conqueror’s wife.

I feel so privileged that we’re going to be able to shout about this book. I’m still in awe of the amount of research Abby Simpson did, and of the sheer scope of it – it covers decades of Maud’s life and the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, detailing dozens of characters and multiple noble families and the scrapes they get into as they fight for the crown.

It is a uniquely interesting tale because we get to see a well-trodden road from a woman’s point of view. We see what happens in court when the men go off to war. It’s a true marvel.

Alecia: Thanks for telling us about The Dragon and the Butterfly. (What a great title!) You had me at “what happens in court when the men go off to war”. I’ll have to remember to grab a copy when it comes out.

Now I’d like to talk a bit about your writing.

I know you write a lot of short stories and compilations of connected short stories. I’m curious–is that where your heart lies, or do you plan to expand into novel-length fiction as well? How do you see the skills of writing the two as the same or different?

Dewi: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t quite know. I do, spoiler alert, have two drafts of full-length novels sitting on my desktop right now – which just need to be edited before I send them out into the world. I also have the workings of another short story collection, a book of two or three novellas, and a standalone novella. So I sort of have my fingers in all the pies right now, so to speak. And then I have a couple of novel ideas for far future me to worry about.

I think they’re very different mediums. Novels for me are a journey – like, I have to be committed to that world for a long time. The concept needs to have plenty of meat on the bones, if you get me – I remember being struck by a Brandon Sanderson lecture where he said that novels tend to need one big idea and a couple of smaller, connected ideas to really feel fleshed out. You’re driving at a theme from several angles – a main plot and a couple of subplots working in tandem. A novella, on the other hand, is good for digging deep into a single concept. And short stories are aliens. They’re weird. I think any attempt to categorise short stories beyond word count inevitably falls down – and even then we can’t really agree how long or short they are.

As my writing career goes on I am leaning more towards novels and novellas than short stories. But short story ideas still jump up and bite me out of nowhere sometimes and I have to spend a day or two getting them on paper. I don’t think I could ever fully leave them behind. They’re good palette cleansers between projects, too.

Alecia: Very cool! I can’t wait to find out more about your novels and novellas.

You’ve talked about your editing for Lost Boys and how you’re taking some courses related to editing, and you’ve also got your own writing to edit. Can you tell me what’s different about being an editor (with a publisher or freelance) working on someone else’s book compared with editing your own writing? Are they basically the same skill, or are there fundamental differences in what you bring to the table in each case? To what extent do you think every writer should be the editor of their own book?

Dewi: For me, they’re very different. You don’t have the emotional attachment to the work when you’re editing for someone else, which I think makes it easier to see it objectively. Never underestimate the power of a second pair of eyes. I like to think that I can turn in a clean draft without outside editorial help, but even then, it’s hugely beneficial to get an outside opinion. When you’ve read the same passage twenty times even the best editor isn’t going to be able to see it fresh anymore. So when I draft I try to do as little re-reading or tweaking as possible. Just write, let it sit, come back later. Then it’s as fresh as possible and I can see what’s wrong with it.

I won’t say everyone needs to get an editor to look at their manuscript, but almost everyone can benefit from it. Copyeditors know weird minutiae about the rules of grammar and punctuation that a lay writer won’t, and a good developmental editor is well-versed in the current trends and tropes in the genre so they’re able to add a commercial assessment, helping you pick out what changes might make a manuscript more marketable, should the writer want that service. But I would also say: edit as best you can before you send it to a professional. That way you get the most value for your money – if the editor isn’t distracted fixing basic problems, more of their time can be spent on the advanced stuff.

Alecia: What an enlightening answer! Thanks! And also a reason to not tinker too much as I draft.

This has been wonderful, but now I have to chase you out because the unicorn needs feeding and she’s grumpy when she’s hungry. So to finish, do you want to pitch any of your books or services and tell people where they can find you?

Dewi: Sure thing! It’s been a pleasure. You can find pretty much everything to do with me at my linktree, which has links to my books, map commission page, newsletter – all that fun stuff. I’d also like to point people at a new thing I’m starting up – a fantasy-themed blog over at Orctown Evening Post, which is basically just me dipping my toe back into blogging – if it goes well, there’ll be room for interviews, book reviews etc on there too! And I’d be happy to interview you there if you’d be up for it. People can find me on social media, mostly on Twitter but I’m basically everywhere, at the name ‘dewiwrites.’

Anyone interested in Lost Boys stuff should check out our website, and if you want to support our indie press, do consider buying a book from our bookstore! For those who are curious about The Dragon and the Butterfly specifically, there’s a landing page here with more juicy info.

Alecia: Fantastic! Thanks so much!

I hope your new blog goes well–and that blogging comes back, because otherwise what am I doing here–and of course I’d love for you to interview me there at some point. Take care!

Do you have any questions for Dewi? I’m sure he’d be happy to answer anything you want to know.

And of course you should subscribe to my blog, because blogging isn’t dead, darn it!

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

4 thoughts on “Fantasy maps, publishing, editing, and writing: an interview with Dewi Hargreaves”

  1. Oooooooohhhh —- who doesn’t swoon over a good fantasy map, and the one displayed in this post is truly sumptuous. How lovely to hear from its creator: many thanks!

  2. I’m at the point in my writing where I think I *need* a map… I have one in my head, but it’s a bit hazy in places. They are so useful for allowing you to place the story events in a ‘real, tangible’ world, both as writer and especially as a reader.

    My personal preference (thanks to reading so much fantasy from the 90s and earlier) is for hand-lettered labels, though. Something about the computer-generated fonts just doesn’t sit right on a fantasy map for me…

    Some other interesting insights into the publishing industry! A good interview, thanks.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview!

      I tend to start like you with a fuzzy view of my world, and at some point decide I really need a map. Though in my current WIP my characters really only travel between two places, so a map isn’t such a big deal for it.

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