Self Promotion, Lyda’s Question, and Confirmation Bias

In a post on the Wyrdsmiths blog, my colleague Lyda Morehouse posed the following question about self-promotion:

But it does seem to work for some people on some level, and I always end up wondering by what magic is that done?

I think it’s pretty straightforward actually, and it all comes down to that word seem. Here’s how I think it works (all numbers made up).

If fifty percent of all authors do self-promotion, and a random six percent of all authors cross over into best-sellerdom than three percent of authors who do lots of self-promotion are going to cross over into best-sellerdom purely by chance. Then, at least some of those authors are going to figure that it was self-promotion which made the difference whether it had anything to do with it or not. See also: confirmation bias.

Likewise, if you’re watching from the outside, you might think the only thing that differentiates them from the herd is  self-promotion, and then leap to the same conclusion. For that matter, I will even concede that some particularly clever bit of self-promotion that hasn’t already been done a bunch of times might catch the mood and go viral, but I think that’s as much a form of luck as having the book do the same thing.

Great books with tons of self-promotion die. Barely adequate books that get very little push become best sellers. Most of the difference there is luck in hitting the right literary kink for the moment.

We want the industry to make sense, so we tell ourselves stories–we’re authors, telling stories is what we do. That book did so well because the author came up with the really awesome book trailer. That one did poorly because the cover sucked. This one over here is a best-seller simply because it’s that good.

But the truth is, nobody knows what’s going to make a book take off. If there was a real answer, there’s be a publisher somewhere that didn’t sell anything but best sellers.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 22 2011, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Awards Eligibility 2014

For anyone who is interested.

Short Story:

Rope Burns, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination (October 2014 issue)


Drawn Blades, ACE books. (October 28, 2014)

Audio Books:

Broken Blade, Paul Boehmer (Narrator)  Tantor Audio (March 4, 2014)

WebMage, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

Cybermancy, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

CodeSpell, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

MythOS, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

Spellcrash, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

In Translation:

Krieg der Klingen: Roman (German Edition) Frauke Meier (Translator), Bastei Entertainment (June 13, 2014)

Reblogging SpellCrash Launch Stuff

Post 1: SpellCrash Launch Event Tomorrow/New Series

Heyo folks,

Sorry for the infrequent posting on my part. Been both busy and constrained in what I could talk about writing wise while I was in talks with Ace about the next series. Hopefully now that the latter is settled I’ll be around more again. More on that below.

First though, I’d like to note that I’ve got a book launch event for SpellCrash Tuesday May 25th at the Har Mar Barnes and Noble in the Twin Cities. It starts at 7:00 pm and runs for an hour. Mostly Q&A and book signing, but there might be a bit of a reading as well if time permits.

And on to the books thing. My agent just announced it, so that makes it officially public news. The Chronicles of Aral Kingslayer sold to Anne Sowards at Ace. It’s a high fantasy/detective noir hybrid and the initial deal is for three standalone books built around the same lead character, with a possibility of more later if these do well.

Post 2: SpellCrash launches today, eep!

Despite this being my fifth book launch, I find myself as elated and baffled and nervous and delighted and just plain punchy about the idea that something I wrote is hitting shelves all over the country today as ever. I don’t think that I shall ever get used to the idea.

It’s an enormous privilege that I get to do something I love so much as my job, and that I get to see my work on the same shelves with the writers who were such a huge part of making me who I am today. I grew up on books, reading every chance I got in my childhood. From the time I learned to read until fifteen or so I read pretty much every day. Sometimes only a little bit, but more often a couple of chapters, and in summers when I was off from school, a book or two a day. With adolescence and then the demands of adulthood that tapered off a bit, but it’s been a rare month when I haven’t knocked off at least a couple of books.

Science fiction, fantasy, and superhero comics formed the core of my younger reading, though I branched into historical and mystery, myth and legend, even the odd bit of mainstream fiction. My ideals and goals, and even the way I think were shaped by endless hours of Tolkien and Norton, McCaffrey, Dickson, Niven, Piper, Kjelgaard and Heinlein among many others. To say nothing of Stan Lee, and all the writers at Marvel and DC. As I’ve gotten older the list has only got longer and stronger: Powers and Pratchett, Bujold, McCullough (Colleen), Lackey, Weber, Cook, Hughart, Martin… I could go on and on and not reach the end, because it will continue as long as I do.

Writers weren’t my heroes when I was younger, but they created them, and I loved and honored them for giving me their worlds to play in and peopling them with my heroes and villains–gods, demons, monsters… I wanted a fire lizard of my very own, a magic ring, a blaster… Again, the list is endless. But most of all what I wanted was a doorway into other worlds, and despite the fact that I didn’t realize it right away, my writers gave me exactly that. They did it again and again and again with each new book. And it is my dearest hope and fondest ambition to provide a few of those same doors for my readers.

So, if it strikes your fancy, open SpellCrash and step through into some other place for a little while. That’s what doors are for.

spellcrash comp.indd

Updated to add some book and author links that should have been in there in the first place:

The first chapters of all five books are up on the online fiction page of my website for anyone who wants to see them, along with some short stories.

My website, where I blog. Also Twitter and Facebook

Reviews of the new book: Huntress (currently the top review on the page), and Skunk Cat. And, for flavor, probably the most thorough review of book I in this series, WebMage.

Oh, and a few buy link for the series. Dreamhaven and Uncle Hugos both usually have signed copies of most my stuff. Also: Indiebound, B&N, Amazon

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 24 and 25 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

No, the publishers are probably not going away tomorrow

I personally adore reading on a screen—when my publisher shifted to an all electronic work flow for editorial I was delighted—and it’s certainly very likely that e-books will become a large part of books sold sooner rather than later. At the same time, I don’t think that books are going away any time soon and I’m not at all certain that the shift to CD and MP3 is a good comparison to a shift to e-readers.

For one thing, the formats killed off by digital music had much shorter histories and testing periods. The LP lasted what, a bit over 40 years as the primary delivery system for recorded music? (2014 edit: and is now undergoing a renaissance among audiophiles) Recorded music itself goes back to the 1850s and has had significant format improvements every 20-40 years. The book in codex form goes back to Republican Rome with only minor changes—that’s 2,000+ years of optimization.

For another there’s the delivery model. Publishers, in one form or another, go back further than the codex (Sosius and Co would be a Republican Roman example). Record companies? Not so much. It’s perfectly possible that digital is going to completely and utterly change all that in a year or five or ten, but everyone said the internet made recessions obsolete too, and look what happened there.

The codex (and many of the big publishers) have survived the advent of talkies, radio, television, the serious audiobook, and (so far) the e-book. The weight of history is currently on the side of publishers and physical books surviving for at least a while longer and e-books only becoming a part of the mix.

Is it possible that physical books will go away completely? Meh, we’ll see. Become boutique items only? Probably, but it may well take a lot longer than the digital visionaries expect it to.

Are publishers going away? Almost certainly not. Despite what many people have been saying lately, they serve a lot of valuable purposes in the production of books. Will the current publishers be the publishers of tomorrow? Some of them probably will, some won’t. Just as some of the publishers of yesterday are the publishers of today.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Feb 8 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

No, Really, Publishers Do A LOT For The Author

I wrote the note below in response to someone saying (for the 5,000th wrong time in this Amazon thing 2014 edit: Macmillan Amazonfail Feb 2010) that publishers are no longer necessary because of internet distribution of ebooks. It takes a lot of money to produce a book in terms of editing, copyediting, PR, and even gatekeeping (yes there’s value to gatekeeping, it helps readers find books they have much better odds of enjoying). Now, the particular comment I was responding to was a slightly more sophisticated version of the “you don’t need publishers” argument in that it at least acknowledges that those things need to happen and suggested outsourcing. But that’s still not a terribly workable model because it ignores the economics of the situation. So let me address that:

Under the current model one of two things happens: 1) I write the book, my publisher buys (the rights), fronts all the other costs, and I get paid so that I can eat while I’m writing the next book, then—assuming I earn out—more money comes in on a regular basis starting between 6 months and several years after publication, allowing me to continue to eat. 2) My publisher buys the book on proposal and I get paid in advance to write it, then they front all the other costs and the rest follows.

If I want to become my own publisher I have to front all those costs myself and have to wait till the book earns out (maybe) to recoup those costs (again maybe) up to several years after I’ve fronted them. But, since I don’t have a spare 3-20k* sitting around that I can bet on a possible return potentially several years down the line, what actually happens is I stop writing and find a new job and there are no more Kelly McCullough books. So, yes, ____ was pretty much all wrong.

And that’s without accounting for things that my publisher does that don’t go directly into the making and selling of the book, like my publisher’s legal department—which I hope never to become any more familiar with than I am now. In a perfect world none of my books will ever get involved in a legal dispute of any kind, but if someone decides to sue me for any reason whatsoever in regards to my writing, the fact that I have a major publisher on my side significantly reduces the chance that a frivolous (or otherwise) lawsuit bankrupts me.

*Updated to add: I should probably also note that 3-20k is what a publisher pays for copyediting etc. and that the price they get based on their volume and reliability is much better than the price I would be likely to get for those same services (assuming I want a similarly professional job).

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Feb 3 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Reblog: Proposals and Series Vs. Standalone

Part 1: The Blueprint

One of the bigger changes in my mental model of writing over the last five years is that I no longer loathe and fear synopses and proposals. In fact, I have actually come to enjoy writing them. In part this is a function of practice. I’ve done a lot of these at this point, something on the order of 30, and as with all writing tasks, it gets easier with repetition. But even more, I think it is because I’ve spent the last five years working in the WebMage world with all its interesting bugs and limitations.Now, don’t get me wrong, I love WebMage and it’s been enormous fun to write. At the same time, it’s not a story that was originally intended to become a series. In fact, it wasn’t even originally intended to become a novel. The process went like this:

It started out as a short story. Then it grew a second (never published) short story. Then those two merged into the first half of the book. Then I wrote a third short that eventually became the opening of book II which grew from there. Then I had to come up with one more rough plot, CodeSpell, and a sketchy idea, MythOS. Then I wrote a series closer that had to incorporate all the earlier stuff and tie it up into a neat package.

This was a lot of fun but it also involved a lot of work in terms of making it all fit together and look like a cohesive whole. Picture a one room cabin that slowly accretes additions until it becomes a small mansion. It can be done in a way that produces something with architectural integrity and style, but it’s a hell of a lot more work to do it that way than it would have been to start out by designing a mansion from the blueprints up.

The same is true of series book proposals. In the past five years I’ve written series proposals for four separate series, two with a complete book attached, two with chapters. In all four cases, I knew from the first moment that I was writing a multi-book saga and was able to put all the story equivalents of pouring the slab, electrical runs, plumbing, and facade into the blueprint ahead of time instead of ripping out and replacing the original inadequate hookups or simply making do.

The end result of that advance planning should be a much more cohesive and seamless whole. In the case of one of the series (a trilogy actually), where I went ahead and wrote book II on spec as well, I was able to see how much simpler it was to get book II written and running with all the foundations waiting for it. It wasn’t a perfect fit and there were things in book II that made me go back and make minor adjustments to book I, but overall it was a much simpler and stronger process. The proposal is the blueprint, and if you get that right it means a lot less work and kludging down the road.

Part 2: Structure without planning—WebMageSo, as mentioned abve, WebMage accreted into a series rather than being planned as one. But what does that mean? How is planning for a series different?

Let’s start with the short-story version of WebMage’s plot and the things I didn’t think about beforehand. The short story WebMage was all about Ravirn’s successful escape after a hacking run. Because it was essentially a chase story, it really didn’t matter why Ravirn had hacked Atropos beyond for the hell of it (strongly implied in the short). Fine motivation for a short story, but ultimately unsatisfying for a novel. Because it was a short the long term effects of the cost of that escape didn’t matter when I was writing the short. So, at the end we have Ravirn with the enmity of one of the Fates, a knee that’s thoroughly hashed, short a fingertip, and in no real shape to do anything but lie in bed and recover. Fine in a short, more problematic in chapter three of a novel with a whole book left for him to limp through.

Then there’s world. In the short all I had to do for the magic system was put together the rough framework and then decorate it with the bits that I needed to make the plot work. A novel needs a lot more than that, and if I’d been planning for more story, there are things I would have made simpler or stronger. Names are another issue. At short story length I just grabbed cool stuff and didn’t worry too much about making a coherent culture of it. Likewise culturally, the colors my characters wore and the pseudo-Elizabethan court structure, both done because they were cool and at short length coherence wasn’t really an issue.

Finally, character: Ravirn and the Fates were basically perfectly workable characters for the longer run of a novel, so no real problems at the first order build-out level. Cerice and Melchior however both needed a lot more room to grow. A good part of the familiar underground subplot was by way of making the expanded Melchior make sense. As for Cerice, I don’t think I really got her to work fully the way I wanted until book V.

So, a good deal of the structure of WebMage the novel went into mitigating and justifying the cost of the events of the short and into making that set of scenes make sense in a larger context. A fair amount of work also went into ret-conning the magic system to make it work for the novel. Culture had to be justified and characters twisted and expanded. I’m quite happy with the result but it was an enormous amount of work to get it there and I suspect that if I’d been planning ahead I could have achieved better results with less wordage, which in turn would have given me room to make things richer elsewhere.

There were similar problems moving from the stand-alone WebMage novel into an open ended series a piece at a time as I did, most notably with Cerice (who worked very well as a love interest in the original happily ever after ending of WebMage but not so much over multiple books), Tisiphone (who I straightjacketed in book I much more than I would have had I known how big a part she was going to play going forward), the magic system (see the handing off of the mweb system from Fate to Necessity), and plot (having your main character go up against Fate in book I doesn’t leave you a lot of room to step back down into a more human scale of story or, on the other end, much space for a bigger badder baddie). Again, I’m happy with the results, and in particular with some of the choices forced on me by the original structure of Tisiphone, but I think it could have been done better with only a little more forethought.

I don’t regret a single choice I made with WebMage but man, looking forward, a lot of them are choices I’m glad I won’t have to make with the next set of books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in two parts Nov 17 and Dec 3 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

A Part, Yet Apart

So, I’ve been thinking about the science fiction convention experience and wondering if I’m alone in my relationship with cons or whether it’s something more general to writers attempting to make their way up the pro ladder. Because, as a professional genre writer I find that I feel both a part of the convention community and apart from it.

It has not always been this way for me. I am a 3rd generation fan, my mother and grandmother were part of the effort to save the original Star Trek series and somewhere around here I have a typewritten note from the series producers thanking them for their efforts, along with a black and white publicity photo. OTOH, they were not convention going fans. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I first went to a convention, the old MiniCon, when it was huge.

I had a blast. And for about a decade I went to MiniCon every year. Then, for various reasons I stopped going. It was about the same time that I got really serious about my writing and decided to make a career of it, but the two events were largely unrelated. Then for maybe 6-8 years I didn’t attend a con. I finally started going to conventions again in my early 30s with WisCon, which I first went to for the combined allure of a writer heavy convention and a feminist/academic convention. Since my wife is an academic who does research on women in science from within the physics department she now chairs, it made for a great twofer.

Because WisCon is much more professional and academically oriented than MiniCon was, it took me a number of years to notice how my relationship with conventions had changed. It wasn’t until I started going to MarsCon and CONvergence in the Twin Cities that it really hit home.

I used to go to cons as a fan/actor and make costume/clothes changes every couple of hours. I never went to panels. I always went to parties. I wanted to make a certain kind of splash and I often did. I certainly gave the concom people reason to roll their eyes at me on occasion, like when I was playing in the pool in 30 pounds of chainmail or sliding down the steel slope between the escalators. I felt completely immersed in the experience and as though I was surrounded by my people.

When I returned to the convention scene I did so in professional clothes (I even wore a suit coat from time to time, though I draw the line at ties). I attended and was on tons of panels, mostly about writing. I rarely went to parties. I went out of my way to not stress out the concom folks. I was shooting for a very different kind of splash.

Now, some of that is simply that I did an enormous amount of growing up between the two phases of my convention-going, but a lot of it had to do with my changed relationship to the genre. I no longer saw the creators of the various f&sf media as people apart from me, people whose job it was to entertain me. I had come to think of them as my peers and, in ever growing numbers, my friends. Andre Norton was no longer ANDRE NORTON! She was someone I shared an agent with. Instead of seeing NEIL GAIMAN, I see someone I’ve had tea with. The concom was no longer a mysterious entity whose radar it was best to keep off of. Rather, the people running the convention are long time friends and  acquaintances.

At the same time I’ve grown closer to the people making things run at conventions and the creators of the field, I’ve grown more distant from the general population of fans. That’s partially because you interact differently with someone who is a fan of yours than you do with someone with whom your primary point of commonality is a shared fandom of someone else, and partially because knowing more creators and more about the process makes me much more reluctant to indulge in some of the more nasty sorts of criticism I once might have made. It’s not so much that I don’t have strong opinions about whether I like something or not as that I’m much more reluctant to think of my taste as being the same thing as good taste or to claim that there is one true standard of quality. Again, a lot of that is simply growing up, but not all of it.

So, while I find that I go to many more conventions than I used to and that I still love the experience I have in some ways stepped out of my old role as a part of the clan and into a new one that holds me at least a little bit apart from the clan. It’s role that I am proud to have assumed, but it is not always a comfortable one.

(Originally published on the SFNovelists blog Aug 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

You’re kidding, right?

At Tor, there is a discussion of an anthology titled “The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing Science Fiction” that includes not a single female author or author of color. The discussion include links to an outstanding post by Angry Black Woman on the same subject. As a straight white male science fiction and fantasy author (SWMSF&FA for short) I can’t begin to tell you how much it pisses me off to see anthologies populated entirely by white male science fiction and fantasy authors. More than that, I am utterly appalled by the reflexive (some might say kneejerk) defense of such things. Take for example the one by Paul Di Filippo which the Angry Black Woman takes apart so beautifully in her post. It makes me want to turn in my SWMSF&FA union card. Oh, and footnote 29 in the Angry Black Woman’s post is made of awesome.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Aug 7 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Money, Meet Mouth

My dear friends Michael and Lynne Thomas are kickstarting a new magazine called Uncanny. I think it’s going to be a pretty spiffy addition to the science fiction and fantasy world, which is why I’ve kicked in at the sustaining level. They currently have three Hugo awards on the mantel as well as number of additional and/or pending nominations. They’ve discovered some wonderful new writers in their years in the industry, as well as publishing a lot of old warhorses like me.

You could do much worse with your entertainment/art dollars than to throw some their way. At $25 you get a one year subscription that includes a hell of an initial table of contents including folks like Amal El-Mohtar, Sofia Samatar, Charlie Jane Anders, Liz Argall, Rachel Swirsky, Maria Dahvana Headley, Mary Robinette Kowal, Neil Gaiman, Scott Lynch, Catherynne M. Valente, Paul Cornell, Ken Liu, Kat Howard, Hao Jingfang, and E. Lily Yu in addition to whatever new writers they discover as they go along. I’m not currently in the queue and don’t have any plans to submit anything—in part because I’m not doing short fiction or poetry these days—so my interest is purely in seeing friends succeed with a cool new project that will broaden and deepen the field.

Consider kicking in. That kickstarter link again.

Time To Publication

John Scalzi is talking about why debut novelists are so often so much older than debut musicians or actors. I commented over there with my own timeline and it seemed worth noting it here too. Please feel free to post your own both here and there.

My novel publishing timeline:

1967 – 1991: Time spent learning to write well enough to write a novel (ages 0—26).

1991: Wrote first complete novel (age 26)

1992–1993: Wrote two more novels, one of which is possibly publishable with rewrite (28)

1993-1998: Wrote a bunch of short stories while trying to sell all three initial novels (31)

1999: Started selling shorts and returned to novels, writing the book that would ultimately sell first (32)

2000: Got agent who started marketing novel (33)

2000-2005: Wrote three more novels, all still looking for publishers (38)

2005: Contract signed for that debut novel (38)

2006: Debut novel published (39)

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog June 24 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)