A New Hope

So the great e-book experiment thunders on and my sales have risen to an average of 3 a day. The sunlit uplands of selling 1000 books a year sweep into view. This makes me very hopeful and not just about the prospect of my rent getting paid. It makes me hopeful for publishing and genres I love and for lots of new and experimental writing in general.

I know — you’ve heard that self-published e-books are the death knell of good writing. Without the gatekeepers of mainstream publishing aren’t all lovers of literature doomed? How can I be hopeful as the mongol tide of sub-literate, self-pubbed scum rapes and pillages its way across the pristine landscapes of mainstream publishing and sets fire to the ivory towers of excellence?

Glad you asked. As part of that mongol tide I would like to thank you for the opportunity of giving you my answer.

Let’s talk about Death’s Angels. This book was bounced by editors at every major UK SF publisher and not a few in the States. Mostly it was knocked back for the usual reasons (“I don’t love it” etc). One or two editors did like it but sales and marketing did not. And I can understand why. Death’s Angels is a hard book for me to describe in a nutshell and I am the author. It’s a gunpowder military fantasy about a world ruled by racist elves. It’s a tribute to the great and not-so-great pulp fiction I loved in my youth: Sven Hassel, H P Lovecraft and Karl Edward Wagner in particular. It is a Cthulhoid horror story. It’s not an easy book to pigeonhole for a 30 second sales pitch to an overloaded bookseller.

I am not even sure that there is a large audience for this stuff. I wrote it because I really, really wanted to. And people always tell you to write what you love. People also always tell you they want to see original fantasy and I thought; this is pretty original, surely, it will find an audience.

It didn’t. Not in English anyway.

My German publishers decided they wanted it. So did my Spanish publishers. So did my Czech publishers. I signed contracts for a series. At this stage my agent had not yet exhausted the English language publishing options and I thought surely somebody will come on-board when they see  that its a series and all these other people are buying it. I was wrong.

My writing career took a very weird turn for the next few years. I was a very published writer– just not in English.

Let’s wind forward a few years, when I started hearing about this thing called the Kindle and all these people e-publishing and having great success. I looked at the numbers: 35% royalties! Wow! (This was before the agency program and 70% royalties.) When I first talked about Death’s Angels a lot of my fans had said, “I want to read that”. I thought: here’s an opportunity.

With my usual lightning speed and decisiveness I leapt into action and in only a few years was ready to publish. My wife approached Jan Patrik Krasny, the artist who did the beautiful covers of the Czech version of the series, and he, very generously, agreed to let me have the English language e-book rights for a nominal fee. And so we now have the English language release of the book.

My apologies for the digression, my basic point is this; it wasn’t that Death’s Angels couldn’t find a publisher in English because it was “unworthy” of being professionally published — it was professionally published elsewhere and by people who had to pay good money to have it translated. It just did not happen to be what English-language editors were looking for at the time it was submitted to them. Since the book very possibly has a limited audience, those editors made an absolutely correct decision from a purely commercial standpoint.

Given the economics of mainstream publishing, a book like Death’s Angels might not make back the money needed just to get it printed and editors have to really, really love a book before they will take a risk like that. The way the Kindle currently works, it was completely feasible for me to publish the book myself. A book that was too risky a proposition for a mainstream publishing house is now in print. I have made some money from it. My fans finally get to read it. It’s win/win.

There is lots of writing out there that is too experimental to be published commercially, that does not have a guaranteed audience. There is lots of writing that simply does not fit the current preferences of editors and/or marketing departments. That does not mean its bad writing or that it will not sell. Because of e-publishing, some of that writing now has a chance to find an audience. Some of it will explode into the popular consciousness, become genre-changing. E-publishing is a weird, alchemical lab where lots of hybrids will be created. Most of them will be still-born. Some of them will be the bestsellers of tomorrow.

And there are audiences out there that may be small but are very dedicated. I believe a writer could make a living writing Sword and Sorcery in the classic style of Robert E Howard if they wanted to now. The internet lets you reach an audience like that and the Kindle lets you publish to it and the margins are such that you do not need to sell in gigantic numbers to make a modest living at it. Hell, you might even make a more than modest living at it, if you have a breakout success or the audience turns out to be bigger than anyone suspects. E-publishing will allow a few brave souls to prospect for those hidden audiences.

And you know what? This will be good for commercial publishing. It will give the big mainstream publishers a chance to see what is selling and cherry pick from the best of it. Its totally free market research for them of the very best sort, the sort that tells them what people are actually willing to pay for. The smarter publishers have already started taking advantage of this with Amanda Hocking and John Locke. There will be more. Locke has already proven that you can sell Westerns, a genre most everybody believed to be moribund. Maybe someone will come along and do the same for hardcore Sword and Sorcery. I hope so because I love that genre.

In the end this is why I am hopeful. Something new has arrived, something that changes the game. It’s going to very painful for some of the incumbents to adapt but they will. And the opportunities are immense on all levels. The glass is half-full.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Hey Bill,

    First off, I loved this line:

    “How can I be hopeful as the mongol tide of sub-literate, self-pubbed scum rapes and pillages its way across the pristine landscapes of mainstream publishing and sets fire to the ivory towers of excellence?”

    Indeed.

    And just by the way, I think you described the book in a very enticing way in this one sentence:

    “It’s a gunpowder military fantasy about a world ruled by racist elves.”

    I don’t read fantasy that much any more (it was my favorite genre until my 20s), but that line is enough to make me want to check the book out.

    I think you touched on a number of important trends here.

    #1 Sales/Marketing nixing books that editors want to acquire.

    This has been going on for a while, but as publishers further restrict bandwidth, they increasingly only seem willing to take a punt on something that is guaranteed to sell.

    #2 Writers with very strong track records being unable to place books.

    Meaning that even writers with a recognized audience can get a lukewarm response to something a little different.

    #3 Niche books are perfect for self-publishing.

    But even if the publisher is right (and they may well not be), and the audience for this book will be smaller, there is no reason why you shouldn’t self-publish it and find that audience. After all, you can publish the book for minimal cost, and make that back with 500 sales or less.

    Everything after that is profit, and it will never go out of print.

    You’re right, the opportunities are immense – for all players, if they embrace the future. I know plenty of self-publishers who have been snapped up by agents, hoping to attract a publisher. Most of them have been signed by one of two agencies. I don’t know what the rest of them are doing.

    Best of luck with it,

    Dave

    • Thanks Dave,

      I just wanted to make the point that a lot of the discussion about e-pub seems to be framed in the same terms as a description of orcs invading the Shire. (And because as a writer of pulpy fantasy I could not resist it, of course.) It’s not. It’s an economic struggle masquerading as a debate about art.

      I pretty much agree with all the points you made. Unlike a conventional publisher I don’t have any warehousing to pay for and a complex distribution chain to manage. I quite genuinely believe that for many genres e-pub is the wave of the future and most likely will at very least join and most likely replace the small press and slush piles as the proving grounds for new writers.

      • I pretty much agree, except on one point. I think some small publishers are poised to make big gains in this brave new world – especially those with author friendly contracts, who have embraced the digital future, and understand social media. Ridan and Angry Robot are two that spring to mind.

        But yes, as to your general point, I believe the Kindle Store is the new slush pile.

        • Point taken. Angry Robot are definitely a publisher to watch. I strongly suspect we will be seeing a lot more outfits built on their model in the not too distant future. Don’t know anything about Ridan but I will keep my eyes open.

          • They’ve come out of nowhere. Used to be a one woman operation – Robin Sullivan publishing her husband’s books, the fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan. She has since expanded dramatically, and aside from selling over 100k of his books, she has sold even more of her sci-fi authors Nathan Lowell and Marshall Thomas.

            She has a pretty radical set-up. No advance. 70% net royalties to the AUTHOR (she keeps only 30% of what Amazon pass on). Plus, an author can walk away at any time, and the contract is torn up. She mostly uses free marketing methods to promo the books, so her overheads are very low.

            You might have heard of Michael Sullivan, he wrote the 6 book Riyra Chronicles, which has just been snapped up by Orion in a 6 figure deal.

          • Sounds like a very smart setup. Recently I’ve often wondered how someone would go about setting up a pure-play e-book publisher in a world where self-pubbing is so easy. I’ve also often wondered what exactly would constitute the terms of a good and fair e-pub contract when so many of the ones being drawn up now are astonishingly unfair to authors. Guess I have an answer to both my questions. Thanks, mate.

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