Endless self promotion to sell a few hundred more copies
January 15, 2015 5:50 AM   Subscribe

A lot of people think that once you publish a book, that’s it – you go on publishing books. The publishing world opens its arms to you and welcomes every book like a precious squealing babe. The reality is that publishing your first book is when the real work starts. All that time you spent leveling up your craft, on dealing with rejection, on editing and revision: that was just a warm up for the crushing reality of life day-in, day-out as a published author.
Kameron Hurley on the realities of being a critically acclaimed science fiction writer.
posted by MartinWisse (24 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Confirmed in my instinctive guess,
That literature breeeds distress.
posted by Segundus at 6:17 AM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yup, Kameron is a trooper and I wish her every success.

Now for the hilarious corollary: if you think her story is bad—and it is; at least Scalzi and I had the advantage of playing the game on the lowest difficulty setting, and also avoided the whirling maelstrom of failure surrounding the Night Shade Books collapse—it's much, much worse for anyone aspiring to write in the curious genre known as "literary mainstream fiction".

One first novel failure in lit fic, and your career is dead. Dead forever. Dead and buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. And thanks to the proliferation of MFA courses around the world, the planet is generating an ever-growing surplus of talented bright-eyed twenty-something literary novelists hoping to be the next Monica Ali or David Foster Wallace. SF/F is merely an exhausting death-march: but we get to hang out with fans, and workshop and network with other authors who actually encourage us rather than treating us as existential threats and trying to cut our brake cables. At least we've got the legacy of genre ghetto solidarity to fall back on; in the mainstream you're on your own.
posted by cstross at 6:21 AM on January 15, 2015 [53 favorites]

It'll be pretty funny if the media conglomerates are wiped out/dissolved by internet market forces only to be reinvented by authors/filmmakers now eager to give up 80%+ of income to avoid the unpleasantness of the marketing world.

Kind of already occurred, a few wealthy filmmakers (Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks) decided to start a "workers" studio to promote artistic freedom. United Artists quickly morphed into a traditional organization not dissimilar to the other studios.
posted by sammyo at 6:23 AM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

sammyo, there is a reason I put up with my publishers: it's called 'division of labour'.

Firstly, when I get a royalty of between 7.5% and 15% on book sales, that doesn't mean my publisher trousers the rest. About 50-70% goes to the distribution chain -- this means Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Ingram/small indy bookstores -- then about 10% goes on production/editing/manufacturing processes, 5% on marketing, and the publisher and I split the profits.

Secondly, I estimate that even for a streamlined major publisher that has a highly efficient operation, it takes about 2-3 full-time person-months of labour to turn a manuscript into a commercial shipping product. For me, a non-professional, make it 3-4 months. This is actually comparable to the time it takes me to write a novel (when it's flowing fast).

So the self-pub thing is viable, and you can double your profits ... if you also double your labour inputs. The flip side of this is if I outsource the boring bits to a professional (the publisher) I can write twice as much, so make twice the profit by writing more books and not bothering with the boring stuff. (Accounting. Inventory control. Sales tax. Handling returns. These are all things that bring joy to the heart of a creative artist.)

This is why authors put up with publishers (when the publishers aren't turning into a Sucking Vortex of Fail that drags everyone down with them, as happened with Night Shade Books).
posted by cstross at 6:36 AM on January 15, 2015 [11 favorites]

One first novel failure in lit fic, and your career is dead. Dead forever.

Nobody read The Twenty-Seventh City or Strong Motion but Franzen did OK.
posted by escabeche at 6:42 AM on January 15, 2015

They may not have been commercial blockbusters but they were both critically well-regarded when they came out. A better counter-example would be an author whose first work was widely panned who later came out with a critical success.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:12 AM on January 15, 2015

I'd love to go the conventional publishing route, but I have to prove my ability to make sales somehow, and the only economically practical alternative seems to be self-publishing. Guess I'll just have to shamelessly self-promote (what with all the spare time I've got between building systems for work and trying to be a decent father to two small kids), my favorite thing in the world. I plan to make the experience bearable by telling myself I'm only doing it ironically as an indictment of the poor state of the cultural economics.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:49 AM on January 15, 2015

I guess I thought cstross meant commercial failure.

To say a little more: I think expectations in "mainstream lit fic" are so low that a commercial failure isn't actually all that depressing -- unless you're planning to be a novelist for a living. My novel sold 1500 copies. In a commercial setting, that's statistically indistinguishable from zero. If I wanted to make a living as a novelist, I'd be screwed. On the other hand, the realistic market size for that kind of thing is so small that you actually don't feel that bad about selling 1500 copies, because lots of books I admire and care about sold that few, and it's not such a tiny fraction of the set of people who might be interested in buying the kind of book I might be interested in writing.

But like I said, I have another job. And if I'd wanted to write another novel, who knows if I'd have been able to sell it?

Also, I think the dysfunction of the literary fiction crowd is highly exaggerated. MFA people like each other and support each other, in my experience.
posted by escabeche at 7:54 AM on January 15, 2015

Here is the best stat about the SF/F Market from the publishers mouth - 47% of sales in 2012 were Martin, Pratchett and Tolkien.

Despite that, its still a great time to be an SFF author - more books are being published than ever before and readers have more channels to find them than ever. Despite dire warnings, a piracy market for ebooks while it exists (and is probably more of a problem for sf/f authors than others I would guess) is very small compared to movies/tv/music. But you either have to shout a lot or be exceptional if you want to stand out, and you only have agency on one of those really.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 8:27 AM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

God's War by Kameron is really good, and from her blog post, I know it's a trilogy so it generated another sale or two.
posted by garlic at 10:00 AM on January 15, 2015

Sh*t tech writers never have to deal with. There are millions of paper and e-books with my name on them. I was paid by the publishers to write them. Of course, the plots are puerile (if this then that, if this other thing than those other...) and there's no characterization at all, except for the hapless and ignoramt end-user. Oh, and a talking paperclip.
I shudder at the forests downed to create ephemeral encyclopedias that no one read. No one RTFD; they call customer service or a witch doctor.
posted by Dreidl at 10:21 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Every time you turned your head, suddenly, the woman with the book who sold 300 copies in the UK was everywhere.

Some people call this “hype.” It’s the illusion that someone whose work is not selling well is actually selling well.

But the wild thing about hype is that it can also transform somebody who isn’t selling well into somebody that sells more.

which says that there isn't a lot of information in the fantasy/scfi book market... despite the internet and a market which caters to nerds. i think this illustrates just how fucked up the google/apple/amazon/facebook dominated internet is.

i wish metafilter would realize how broken 'FanFare' is. I read a fair number of books from Martin Wisse's book blog simply because he is a known quantity and has a lot of reviews. multiply this by an internet community and you, the consumer, suddenly have a lot more information about the scifi book market....
posted by ennui.bz at 10:27 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd love to go the conventional publishing route, but I have to prove my ability to make sales somehow, and the only economically practical alternative seems to be self-publishing.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:49 AM on January 15

Publish short stories in magazines. Memail me if you'd like specific advice - I run a (very small) publishing company and am a writer.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:17 AM on January 15, 2015

Making a living writing (books at least) is hard.
My hat is off to those who can. I never got beyond hobby stage.
posted by twidget at 12:05 PM on January 15, 2015

I'm reading this from the perspective of someone who has taken the academic route and is only now crawling out of the post-doctoral/adjunct precarious-labour death-spiral. What strikes me about the original FPP and the discussion on here is that—although the tasks and fiscal arrangements are quite different between academia, journalism, and fiction—the writerly life these days is mostly exhaustion and uncertainty.

Unless you're independently wealthy, I guess.
posted by LMGM at 12:33 PM on January 15, 2015

I read this as someone who is about to have his fiction (SF) debut this year - weirdly, I find Kameron Hurley's experience both reassuring and terrifying. Obviously the blog tours did have a small effect, but the award nominations - which had the big impact - feel like they were a lot down to chance. I guess they weren't - it's not luck that the novel was excellent - but I bet there were a couple of other excellent titles that, on a different day, a different judging panel might have picked. A bit dizzying to think how many knife-edges an author's career can teeter on. Maybe it averages out over time? I suppose the only things you have control over are how much effort you put into your writing, and choosing to soldier on.

Seems like a solid lesson! Great post.
posted by RokkitNite at 12:54 PM on January 15, 2015

Martin Wisse has a book blog?

That's just great. My to-read pile (which includes everything by Kameron Hurley) is only in the high three digits.
posted by jeather at 1:31 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's really interesting to see her talk about numbers. And refreshing. I knew so little of this when I first started putting stuff out as an indie SF/F writer, and I couldn't figure out why.

That left me worried about talking about numbers to anyone. Numbers of sales, money earned, all that. Because nobody else talks about it, so...is it tacky? Is it taboo? Is it naive?

I always got the impression that I'd done seriously well as an indie/self-pub writer, but it was hard to put that into any perspective beyond goals I set for myself based on my own wants. It still is, too -- because I haven't had marketing help, and as an indie writer I can undercut a lot of mainstream novels in price alone...but, again, without much in the way of marketing.

And now I'm signed with a publisher, for some of those books I self-published...and the one thing I'm explicitly not supposed to talk about per the contract is the money. I'm confident that I did well there, but it's only now that I actually know there are rules about what you can and can't talk about.

Thank you for sharing this. It's really worth reading in its own right, but doubly so for my own personal perspective.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:51 PM on January 15, 2015

Maybe I should give The Mirror Empire another try - I bought it on the strength of Hurley's amazing God's War trilogy, but it didn't really pull me in the same way. Still glad I bought it, though - she's someone I want more from. One of those authors you just randomly type into Amazon in the hope that she's written more stuff that you just haven't heard of yet.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:00 PM on January 15, 2015

Kinda makes you wonder what things would look like if the industry had worked this way when Alfred Bester or Norman Spinrad or John Varley had been starting out.

Oh wait -- Spinrad can't get published any more despite having a large reliable fanbase. If someone with his canon can't get on the shelves what chance does a newcomer have?

If the Beatles were still here and they wrote Paperback Writer today the tune would have to sound like a funeral dirge. I can't believe I was ever stupid enough to dream of making my living as a writer. Well, I guess it wasn't stupid in the 60's and 70's, but now it's pretty much unobtainium.
posted by localroger at 6:44 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I started reading SF, I could basically read everything. Now I have to confess I have never even heard of someone who is reportedly a very good writer. It's amazing how the field has exploded over the past few decades.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:07 PM on January 15, 2015

Oh wait -- Spinrad can't get published any more despite having a large reliable fanbase. If someone with his canon can't get on the shelves what chance does a newcomer have?

Spinrad can't get on the shelves anymore because his work has been shite and not selling for decades now, rather than through some failing of the industry.

He's allegedly also worked hard to make enemies in the field, which doesn't help.

It's amazing how the field has exploded over the past few decades.

According to Librarything I have 1502 books I've labeled science fiction; that's roughly the same as are released each year...
posted by MartinWisse at 1:27 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Martin Wisse has a book blog?

Only since 2001...
posted by MartinWisse at 1:29 AM on January 16, 2015

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