It's Been A Year
I released my first book, The Heretic, on June 7th, 2014. A while ago, in a guest post for Michael Bunker, I wrote a little about how I got started in self-publishing and what I saw as my future in it. Looking back now, having recently re-read that post, I don’t actually disagree with any of it. Looking back at what I expected in June 2014, however, I am perhaps a little conflicted as to what success really meant to me then, and what it means to me now. What people have been saying about me, comparing me to Heinlein, Niven and Banks, matters. It matters a lot. Whether others will agree, I don't know, but I will get better with every book and repay the faith people have had in me.
I wrote three novels this year – The Heretic, Defiance and A Shroud of Night and Tears. Three parts to my epic, hard science fiction space opera, Beyond the Wall. One of them won an award. I wrote a standalone short story when I found out my wife had cancer. It was the only way I could cope with the news. She beat the cancer and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. My boys still have a mother and I still have a partner. How quickly we realise, after events like that, what a fickle, precious thing life is.
Following that news, I wrote three more shorts, all of which have been included in anthologies (No Way Home, which I curated, and Tales of Tinfoil) or are about to be (The Time Travel Chronicles). I have been invited to contribute to two more anthologies and I am in the process of curating my second anthology, Crime and Punishment, with the same authors who contributed to No Way Home. I am researching and planning for a series I’ll be writing with Alex Roddie, writing as A.S. Sinclair, and I will be finishing up Beyond the Wall and starting a new series myself, nominally entitled A Maquisard's Song.
I had no idea I would be this busy.
Every author hopes their books will break out. Few imagine it will happen, fewer still expect it. Most are realists and many have been querying for years, perhaps longer, before they decide to self-publish. For some, it is a last resort; for an equal number, I would hazard a guess, it is the first choice. So it was with me. I didn't query at all before I published. I started out, following this post in Publishing Perspectives (something of a catalyst moment for me) by reading Hugh Howey’s blog. It still remains one of the seminal collections of posts on self-publishing. He has a list in a sidebar, that links to the posts I read – “Favourite Posts for Writers”. I must've read those posts half-a-dozen times. I may go back to them after I finish writing this. Nothing else captures what it means to self-publish better than they do.
What Hugh says there is precisely what my philosophy has been this last year. Every word of it. It's about providing an excellent experience for the people who give you not only their money, but something infinitely more important – their time. Next year, my aims are just the same. I will finish Beyond the Wall with Book Four in the series, Into A Silent Darkness. I will write more shorts for Samuel Peralta's Chronicles series, and release not only Crime and Punishment, but another anthology we have in mind too. I'll start work on A Maquisard's Song and release the first book at least. And there's that hard science fiction project with Alex Roddie too – think Andy Weir's The Martian crossed with Interstellar. Finally, I'll be doing something with dieselpunk and multiverses, set in the 1940s, with Mike Hicks, Elliot Brandis and a few others. Classic, sci-fi adventure.
There's been a lot of naysaying negativity in publishing in 2014/2015. Is the sky falling in on self-publishing? James Scott Bell, whose books taught me in part how to write fiction, thinks very little has changed about the way in which we walk, just the terrain we walk on. We must still write books, and that has always been hard no matter how they were published. Kameron Hurley recently wrote a blog post which was, inexplicably I might add, the subject of some vitriol that essentially said that she, Hurley, had achieved so highly because she had worked hard for it – she found time to write even on the busiest days. I've worked hard. Most days, I write 2,000-3,000 words or more. On many I reach 5,000+. I edit assiduously because I believe in my work and want others to enjoy it. I don't want to put slush out there. I am learning, improving and building. But it's hard work. Some are falling away from the game because of that – fair enough. It is hard and if you can't live with that fact, perhaps it's not for you.
When I first read about self-publishing, back in January 2014, the overwhelming advice from successful outliers (the authors who had made it to bestseller status) was to write good stories, have them properly edited and source great covers. Those three things are the key to success in the vast majority of cases. There are strategies that form the basis of a tactical approach to discoverability (and on this I disagree with Bell) that are essential to publishing in any market – platform, direct marketing and indirect marketing.
Platform is, to me, mailing list, blog, and author pages with distributors. It is also, to a limited extent, a social media presence. Platform is the place that readers come to engage with you, as well as just to find you. Nothing is more important when it comes to discoverability. Platform is a slow-build, as all foundations are. It takes effort and commitment. Nothing else gives you a better, firmer foundation. All authors need platform. And you need to be a human being about it too. Constant "Buy My Book" messages does not a platform make.
Direct marketing, again to me, is advertising and getting the word out directly. It’s almost impossible to market a book effectively without paid advertising. There will always be exceptions, of course, and I discovered one recently. A young author, debut science-fiction novel, very nice cover, well-written, properly edited, no marketing strategy. Yet it got picked up somehow and found itself at #600 in the Amazon US Kindle Store. Huge. Well done! Richly deserved, from what I could see of the book and the author is a lovely guy. He doesn’t know how he did it; he has no chance of replicating that and may well get frustrated if his next book does not do as well. He sure as hell won’t stay there with no strategy in place.
Indirect marketing is everything else – Facebook, twitter (and whatever else is the social media du jour) comments on posts of any kind, interviews and podcasts. It is the most difficult to define, and the most time-consuming. It is everything you do in order to be a human being on show, rather than a marketer. It is about making yourself visible whilst at the same time having fun and being yourself. Anything else is both unsustainable and as see-through as glass. It is how you present yourself to the world – as a professional author and a person. People buy books from authors they like. No matter how good they are, people rarely buy books from indie authors who are unpleasant. I comment where I am interested in the topic, I tweet to make people laugh or tell them something I have found interesting. I post to inform, share, support others and have fun. Community is critical. To that end, I'll be at my first convention this year, Fantasticon 2015 in Denmark, as a speaker, and as a panelist. That, I imagine, will be great fun! Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke award-winning Pat Cadigan will be there, as will a hero of mine since I was a boy, Ian Watson.
Community. We’re social animals, by and large. We like company. Authors are no different and I learned quickly that bouncing ideas off people is invaluable. Manuscripts need editors, but they also need alpha and beta readers – people who will give you honest opinions from their own, unique perspective. I use authors and readers alike. I have at least seven for each book I write. I have chosen them carefully over the course of this year because they are the most important part of my book’s building process. Editing is important, yes (so is actually writing the thing). But I don’t think anything is more important than alpha- and beta-readers. They catch the plot holes, the inconsistencies, the small things. They tell you if it is good. I set up a speculative fiction writers group last year. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it was. It was a group intended to beta-read for each other, to share ARC reviewers and, eventually, I curated my first anthology with that group. It grew, took on more indie SFF authors, and the second anthology comes out later this year, following that successful first. I recently joined Facebook, and again, this is all about community for me. Engaging with other authors (my personal profile) and allowing readers to see me (my author page).
The last twelve months have had highs and lows. All authors have them. Trenches besieged with mud and disease that drag you down to the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Sun-kissed summits with crystal-clear blue sky. They all pass. The only constants are writing and marketing. The business. Reviews, at first, were the main protagonists in that game of peaks and troughs. Five stars were eye-widening joy; three stars (even two stars, shhh), were heart-rending despair and fury. And the one-star trolls? What can you say to those? The temptation to vent online was short-lived for me – people are entitled to their opinions, even where they have made factual errors. Free speech is a fundamental freedom. I corrected misleading statements on occasion, never commenting on the review itself, and have been applauded for my courtesy. That's an accolade I enjoy. Reviews now matter less to me – they are crucial social proof, but I am less saddened by those who do not like my books. Not everyone will. I’m a professional producing something of value to those who want it.
I prefer now, to read the emails of fans who want to engage with me. I love that. Never stop. I’ll always answer. Leave reviews, please, we need them, but I won’t be upset if you didn’t like something I wrote. You are entitled to your opinion. But please don’t pick up on a single typo and tell me my book is poorly edited. I pay four-figure sums to ensure they are, in fact, very well edited. Even Scalzi’s books have typos.
I queried some agents too, five if I recall, to test the waters. It was around the time I realised some of the outliers had done the same. None replied. I've always found that rude, actually. I am an adventure travel magazine editor in my other life – I get queried all the time. I reply to all of them. In these days of email, there’s no excuse. Even a standard reply to say, ‘thanks, but no thanks’. But hey, we’re not all the same. Will I do it again? Who knows. What can traditional publishing offer me except a lower cut of my royalties?
What did this year teach me? That you need a thick skin in this business. That you need to produce quality work. You need to get that work out there and do everything you can to make it visible. When luck comes, and you make a lot of it yourself I assure you, you need to see it and juice it. Above all, you need to remember that success is fleeting. There’s always someone else writing behind you and your readers want more from you.