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What I learned from giving away my first novel

Posted 28 April 2014 | By | Categories: Books, Publishing, The Loving Dead, The Loving Dead Online Serial | No Comments

In 2010 I serialized my first novel The Loving Dead on my website, before giving e-books away on Amazon was a common strategy. The industry belief at the time had been that anyone who read a book for free would have no reason to buy it, and so you’d kill your market.

But my publisher and I were impressed by people like Cory Doctorow giving away their books, so we decided it was a risk worth taking. The novel did well and Barnes & Noble has since called it one of the top zombie novels of the past decade.

What I learned is how the publishing industry has become personal. I also talk about an incident involving free bacon.

Information wants to be free. It also wants to be personal.

As a debut novelist I was bonecrushingly anxious about my book getting attention. I feared it being made fun of or worse, being ignored. I’ve since accepted that I’ll be writing regardless of what happens with the publishing industry, but I want to have a career.

And for me, reading has always been personal. I read author bios. I read the acknowledgements. I want to know who these people are and how they got there.

These days, publishers expect authors to be personally and socially available. Readers expect it too, and there’s a massive industry based around looking good and making friends online. So I try to hold up my end, and I love making friends, but I’ve learned that curating an online personality has to be fun. Stressing over trying to get attention ultimately doesn’t serve my goals.

Because it’s not just about attention: I want my books to make friends. I know how I feel after reading things I like, and I know how I feel after I’ve read things because they were slick enough to get my attention. I want readers who are enthusiastic about horny zombies, readers who want smart and honest writing, readers who feel a connection to my work. I want readers like the young man who told me that The Loving Dead was the first novel he’d ever read. It was the first book he’d found that he could relate to.

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend

I think people choose what books to read the same way we choose friends. The book has to be interesting, and it has to cross your path in a way that gets your attention. It helps if the book comes recommended by someone you trust. There are so many novels out there, and I can’t remember when I last picked up a book based on a book review. I get them all through personal contacts, or chance encounters.

This may go against conventional wisdom, but I don’t think books or even authors are competing against one another. We’re competing for a potential reader’s attention with everything in his or her life. If these potential readers are anything like me, they want the book to be handed to them by a friend. They want reading to be a shared cultural experience, like Harry Potter or Fifty Shades. Most importantly, they want to read stories that speak to their interests.

So my hope is to put my books in front of as many people as possible, so that the books can make friends. Word of mouth is never about promoting a product: it’s about the personal relationship between the person giving the recommendation and the person receiving it. Making the book free is just a way to get more people involved.

Human nature and free bacon

I cowork at an office in Chicago where we recently had a bacon incident. A food truck had made some sort of mistake and had offered to come do a “bacon apology” by giving free bacon to the office members.

Free bacon? 

But when the gent showed up, the offer became “free with purchase” and I lost interest. It was upsetting not just because I’d been excited about the bacon, but because I saw the potential of what could have happened and how badly the bacon promiser had screwed it up.

I don’t think my office mates and I would have taken advantage of the free bacon. The offer was unique and something we’d been looking forward to. We would have responded by buying our lunches from the food truck. We would have told our friends about it, and the company would have cleaned up in sales and good word of mouth. That’s why I want to give more novels away. It’s not just about a single transaction.

For the past decade, publishing has been evolving from the big box model toward the cult fan base. There will always be big trends because humans are social creatures, but I see the 1,000 True Fans method for making money from creative work becoming mainstream. And why not? We get our breaking news through our social networks now, just as we did thousands of years ago. Information has always been personal, that’s why we trust it.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve never had one. People come for the body of work, not the song.” — Joe Bonamassa

Archive for 'Publishing'

First three titles for sale

Posted 13 June 2013 | By | Categories: Publishing | No Comments

I am proud to announce that the first three titles of Shueisha English Edition are for sale as e-books. This is Call Boy‘s first appearance in the English Language, The Stationmaster and Summer, Fireworks, My Corpse were originally published in English by VIZ Media. I’m an editor with Shueisha English Edition, and I hope you’ll check them out.

Call Boy, by Ira Ishida (US $5.65, including 5% discount)

In contemporary Tokyo, youths are lost. The future doesn’ t seem bright, and life is boring. Ryo is an almost dropout college student, who spends most of his time alone or at a small bar tending it nightly. But his life will change drastically when a beautiful middle-aged lady appears at its door. She invites him to the shadow world of male prostitution for women of all ages. When he’ s assigned to the demanding task of satisfying every kind of client, he finds the meaning of life for the very first time. His quest begins: to explore and understand the mysterious and strange world of female desires. All he has to do is to give, giving his heart, mind, and body. And his clients have problems, too. Their desires cannot be fulfilled by ordinary means. So he becomes a Call Boy.

The Stationmaster, by Jiro Asada (US $4.70, including 5% discount)

The Stationmaster examines the lives of the downtrodden, finding redemption in the strangest places. Extremely popular in Japan, this short story collection is about marginalized people: the stationmaster of an obsolete train station; petty criminals; a clothing salesman; a dying sex worker. According to Margaret Atwood’ s introduction, Jiro Asada’ s combination of “daily time in all its humble and often harsh detail with the hidden, haunted psyche- how people see themselves from the outside, contrasted with their knowledge of their own wounded inner selves- is a potent achievement.” Often a ghost or other supernatural element comes in to help right previous wrongs, allowing these characters to find some semblance of peace.

Summer, Fireworks, My Corpse, by Otsuichi (US$ 2.95)

Nine year old Satsuki dies after being pushed out of a tree by one of her friends. This is the story she tells of how it happened, and the lengths her friends go to in order to try and cover it up, not wanting to upset anyone. But she is soon missed, and her lost sandal provides a clue. The writing is both lyrical and stark, and the effect veers from horrifying to absurd as the people closest to her simultaneously search for her body, and try to hide it. Days pass and her body starts to decompose, while her ghost calmly narrates, and her panicked friends struggle to keep their secret.That is the very first short story by a young author, Otsuichi, who wrote it when he was just sixteen, and won an award to be published by Shueisha.The collection also includes “Yuko”, the story of a young woman who takes a job looking after an elderly couple. Kiyone enjoys her work, but is unnerved because she never meets Yuko, the wife. Yuko’s husband pretends that she is still around, while requesting half of their previous portions of food. He never allows Kiyone to clean the bedroom he shares with Yuko. And when she finally trespasses into their room, it is filled with dolls.

Archive for 'Publishing'

A beautiful zombie book

Posted 09 June 2013 | By | Categories: Publishing | 1 Comment

IDW, the publisher of Zombies vs. Robots: Women on War, commissioned art for each of the stories. I hadn’t known, so it was a surprise, and I was well chuffed with the art for mine. I think it perfectly captures the moment, and the relationship between the young woman and the robot. My thanks to the illustrator, Ericka Lugo, and everyone else who helped make this book.

Archive for 'Publishing'

The Cost of Encouraging, or, Thar Be Dragons

Posted 20 August 2012 | By | Categories: Publishing | No Comments

I gave a three hour writing workshop recently for the City of Rockingham, called “Need a Little Inspiration?” I had about 40 participants, both published and unpublished, people who wanted to publish and people who just wanted to write for fun or to record their family histories. I tried hard to balance between encouraging them and giving them a bit of reality about the publishing industry and how much work goes into a writing career, so that they could make realistic goals about their writing and, hopefully, have a better chance of achieving their goals. Most of the feedback was good to enthusiastic, and I feel quite pleased with how it went.

I got an email from one of the participants today saying she’s been thinking a lot about the workshop, and she notices things more: when she meets people she has the urge to sketch them and tell their stories. Ordinary events for her are now story fodder, which was my hope and the goal of the writing exercises I’d made up for the workshop participants. She is thinking like a writer now, and enjoying it.

She said that she could accept what I’d said, that most of the people attending the workshop probably would not have careers as writers (most, I said, probably wouldn’t want to if they knew what it was really like), but she rather thought I could have been a bit more encouraging about that. Perhaps I didn’t really need to tell these people that most of them probably wouldn’t succeed beyond getting a few things published locally or in small venues. In my defense, I agonized about how to balance between being encouraging and being realistic. I told these writers that I agonized about what to tell them, and I told them I hoped that they would beat the odds.

I believe that there is a vast gray space between the urge to write and the reality of publication. There are dragons in that space, and one of those dragons is the dream of being a published writer. The dream alone might make a writer happy, but it’s made of mist. I wanted to help those who want to publish professionally to have a sense of how to do it, and to help those who just write to be happy to actually be happy about their writing. What I fear is that people will spend their whole lives haunted by dragons: feeling guilty about not writing, feeling unsure about how to get published, feeling discouraged from rejection letters, being taken advantage of by self publication deals that lead writers to believe they can make a career from self publishing as an unknown author (sure a few will, but that is the exception). People can suffocate from a lack of information.

Perhaps the real issue I am trying to reconcile myself with is the responsibility inherent in being an authority figure: even just saying that makes me feel like my head is too big. Writing requires hope and faith in yourself, but it also requires hard work and knowledge. I will be encouraging and flattering when I see talent and potential, but if I am not tempering that encouragement with the reality I’ve picked up from my ten years in the industry, I am not sure how much I am helping people. Some of the people who came to my workshop might be happier walking away from the word processor and picking up the tuba. But from the email I got, I know that at least one person is thinking more like a writer, and that I find encouraging.

Archive for 'Publishing'

A Modest Proposal

Posted 18 August 2012 | By | Categories: Publishing | No Comments

This morning I was privy to a conversation where people were sharing electronic copies of books and music. Files were being transfered between computers, and the conversation went along the lines of, “My mum would like that book, and I’ll send that one to Keyron, and…”

As a writer and a reader, I feel really conflicted about piracy. My feelings stem from a desire to pay people for their work and a desire to be paid for my work, but I also very much want my work to be noticed and paid attention to, even if I am not getting paid in this instance. Perhaps, in the above example, Mum or Keyron would go on to buy a copy of the book, or something else by that writer, or they would recommend the writer’s work to a friend who would then buy it, and so the content creators benefit from that good energy and the possibility of money down the line. But I wish there was a system by which I could pay a bit of money to the content creator, because I don’t feel right about owning e-books unless I have paid for them or they were given to me by their creators.

So I wanted to propose a system in the hopes that someone might already be doing this, or be willing to do it. Something like Flattr, but set up for writers. I will limit it to books although perhaps a similar system could be put in place for music and other content.

There’s already been lots of talk about voluntary micropayments — see Are Voluntary Micropayments A Solution for Digital Content? for a recap of the story so far. As I have seen it in practice, individual authors can put themselves out there to take Paypal donations, but there is no real solution to the fact that people are sharing electronic files and feeling guilty about that, or not sharing electronic files because they would feel too guilty. The cat’s out of the bag as far as file sharing goes, and any attempts to coax or force it back in, or to put another bag around it (DRM, etc.), are not really working, as well as completely failing to take into account the power of word of mouth to build audiences.

What if there was an organization where readers could make micropayments that would be held for authors? Is there one and I just haven’t found it? It would take a critical mass of payees and money and authors, and watertight legal protection, but it could work. Perhaps it wouldn’t make a huge amount of money for anyone, especially at the beginning, but any payments that weren’t claimed could be donated to charity.

One immediate problem is that this solution rewards the content creator and not the many invisible people (the editor, publisher, copyeditor, cover artist, publicist) along the way that made the book a success in the first place. But those people got paid for their work when they did it, and I say this as a working freelance editor.

Another problem is that the market is upside down: why would anyone want to pay for something if they didn’t have to? I believe that people don’t prefer to steal, and that we feel at least a little bit bad about it, no matter how many other people are sharing files. I think that a system that allowed people to pay authors for pirated books would supplement traditional publishing, not threaten it.

The pay after use culture is in place in other realms, in software development, for example. It’s not new. There was a trend in science fiction fanzines in the middle of the 20th century, of PAR or Pay After Reading, meaning you would mail someone a quarter if you thought their ‘zine was good.

Could this work? Anyone wanna have a go?