Mid-Month Updates and Bloggy News

I tried to come up with a more generic and boring title for this and utterly failed. So be it.

Anyway, the blog has been kind of quiet the last week or two. Partly this is because I’ve been putting a lot of writing time into Oaths of My Fathers. It’s currently about 40,000 words long, but I’m behind schedule on it. I want to get it wrapped up in the next couple of weeks as I start getting beta-reader feedback for Debts of My Fathers. For the curious, it’s a continuity thing. Before I do the final edits to a book, I like to draft its sequel. That way, if there’s anything I need to set up beforehand, there’s still a chance to put it in.

Debts of My Fathers is vaguely on track for a May release, but a lot of that depends on the beta reader feedback. My insecure writer’s ego is terrified that the book actually sucks, that the beta readers will confirm it, and that it will require extensive rewrites. But I feel this way pretty much whenever my beta readers are reading one of my books, so it’s probably not a legitimate reason to worry. Still, it’s hard to nail down exact schedules until I get that feedback.

Hell Bent and the draft to Stone Killer are pretty much on hold. I’m focused on getting Debts/Oaths done, but once Debts goes to the copy editor, I’ll pick up on that series again until it’s time to format and publish Debts.

But it’s also been quiet because it’s been a rough couple of weeks with my kids. I don’t talk much about them, but they’re special needs kids, and it’s just been harder than usual lately. There’s some sign of improvement two or three months down the road, but unfortunately, it is predicted to be one of those times where it will likely get worse before it gets better. So, in the meantime I’m trying to look upon it as a plot twist aimed at upping the stakes before our protagonist ultimately emerges victorious.

I’m also taking a little time to move this blog to a new domain. That’s right. As part of my goals for the year, Making It Up As I Go is making way for something with a bit more of a plan. Specifically, I am attempting to migrate the whole thing, archives, comments, and all over to DanThompsonWrites.com. At the moment, that domain simply forwards back over to here, but when I’m all done the reverse will be true. I’m still working out a few kinks, but I’m hoping it will go live in the coming week. In the meantime, I’ve been hesitant to get a bunch of entries queued up – hence the quiet.

Once that’s done, I have a laundry list of little blog improvements to do that have been building up. I didn’t want to do them pre-move, so once that’s done, several of them should show up promptly with a few more dribbling in afterwards. As such, there might be a few bumps along the way, but in the long-run, it should be better.

Also, I do plan on being in Dallas for ConDFW next weekend (Feb 21-23), but I’m not signed up for any programming. I haven’t tried to get on any panels, but the general word is that it’s hard for indies to make that jump. Maybe later in the year when I have another 2-3 titles out. (Crossing my fingers…) Still, if you’re going to be there, look for the long-haired, red-bearded, kilt-wearing Scotsman. We’re only slightly less-common than a Slave Leia at DragonCon.

So, that’s it for now. See you all on the other side of the domain move.

FenCon 2013

I was at FenCon over the weekend. No, I’m not posting as in-depth a recap as I did for WorldCon, but here are a few highlights.

On the interstellar wars that populate so much space opera, there are two extremes to think about. At one end of the spectrum is when you only want to exterminate the enemy. In that case, planets can be fixed, vulnerable targets. Just send in enough high-speed asteroids, and even with a good planetary defense, a reasonable number of them are going to get through and wipe out the biosphere. But at the other end, you ultimately want to capture planets intact. Even if you intend to exterminate the population, you want that biosphere mostly intact for your own people. In that case, no matter how many ships in your armada, there is no substitute for boots on the ground. So, with all deference to the space navies, you’re often looking at either asteroids or infantry as your ultimate solution.

On all the dystopias we’ve seen lately, perhaps it’s not quite so gloomy as you might think. In many of the dystopia’s of old, like 1984, the oppressors were able to crush the human spirit. Even with love and intelligence and the need to be free, Winston could not withstand the might of the state. “If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” In short, society was so badly broken that there was no escape from it. However, many of the more modern dystopia tales are actually stories of dystopias being overthrown or otherwise resisted. The Hunger Games is a good example of this. In that sense, perhaps we should not be too depressed, since in some ways at least, these are uplifting tales.

And a little Babylon 5 tidbit… I had completely missed this when it came out in May, but Joe Straczynski revealed why Michael O’Hare (the actor playing Sinclair) really left Babylon 5 after only one season. From Slice of Sci-Fi:

According to JMS, O’Hare suffered from delusions and paranoia due to mental illness.

That was the real reason he left the show after only one season. Straczynski explained how O’Hare struggled, how he was barely able to come back for a two-parter to close his character’s story, but above all, that O’Hare wanted people to know the truth after his death.

And the most important truth of O’Hare’s struggle with mental illness is that he loved the fans, that they were what sustained him during the difficult times in his life.

The article also links to some video of that conference.

It was a lot less intense than WorldCon, but I still had an excellent time. Cory Doctorow said a lot of interesting things around copyright and DRM, and it was fun seeing all the usuals from Texas fandom. I’m already signed up for next year, but this pretty much closes my con season. There will be an Austin ComicCon most likely later in the year, but I’ve never managed to go to one yet, and I see no reason this year will be suddenly different.

Sick as a Dog… Twice

Well, I’ve been sick as the proverbial dog lately.  In fact, not only did I go down hard with some kind of cold two weeks ago, but just as I was recovering last week, the stomach flu ripped through my family.  I wasn’t really back to normal until today.  But that’s that.

But I’ll be headed off to FenCon at the end of the week.  Hopefully I’ll dodge any con-crud and be able to continue forward.

WorldCon, Part 2

And here’s the rest of my WorldCon, picking up Sunday morning…

Religion and Fandom: This panel looked at the attitudes of fandom towards those fans who are noticeably religious, and it pretty much hit the mark. While SFF fandom has a good reputation for being tolerant of the other, whether that be race, nationality, sexuality, etc., many fans are openly hostile to religious folks. We talked about a few specific examples, including one where the chairman for a WorldCon bid specifically told one fan/priest that he did not want any of “your Christians” voting for his WorldCon bid because he did not want them at his convention. Another panelist, who was a fan long before becoming a pastor, had been asked upon selecting seminary, “You’re so smart – why would you want to be a pastor?” They also gave a few examples of when fandom had been particularly tolerant, including one Jewish panelist who was once assigned a volunteer to help her get around the convention on the Sabbath while still remaining observant of her religious restrictions of not performing work on the Sabbath.

They then talked some about the forces behind this, going all the way back to the catholic church vs. Galileo, but they also spoke about how on a personal level, many fans have been burned by specific actions of religious people outside of fandom. This makes it easy for them to lump religious fans in with the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-science Christian right here in America. Certainly, that particular culture has a lot to answer for, and it’s hard to make the distinctions when their political actions (and IMO, their betrayal of Christ’s teachings) get more and more extreme each year.

In the end, nothing was really resolved, but I suspect this issue is going to get worse over the next decade.

Living with a Creator: I was hoping to hear about strategies for easing the home life with writers and families, but I did not really find much of that here. There was some discussion of spousal health insurance, but mostly it was some reminiscing about how they met their creative spouses. So, it was sweet and all that, but it didn’t have what I had come looking for.

E-Books Nuts and Bolts: This turned out to be a good indie panel, focused on how to make e-books. However, given the wide range of experience in the audience, we could not settle down into the specifics of any particular tasks. However, lots of good information popped out as we flitted from one topic to another.

There was another strong recommendation for Sigil, including the fact that it does have elements of code validation. There was also a solid slam against Smashwords’ Meatgrinder from several panelists, one saying, “Friends don’t let friends use Smashwords.” The Mobile Reads forum was recommended as a good place to ask technical questions.  They also pointed us at the official standards documents for e-pubs and a tool called e-pub validator . But overall, they pushed the KISS mantra (Keep It Simple, Stupid) to avoid incompatibilities across the dozens of different reading platforms.

They also tossed out a lot of other sales platforms beyond the standard Kindle, Nook, and Kobo sites. Ebooks.com apparently is a good place to buy ebooks in Australia. Overdrive.com is a good place to get your e-books into libraries, though one librarian made it clear that not all libraries were moving towards Overdrive. Weightlessbooks.com seemed to be a place to buy Kindle books *not* from Amazon. They also recommended BookViewCafe.com for having something of an SFF focus.

SFWA Membership for Indies: This wasn’t a proper panel, but at one of the panels, the new president of SFWA said a little about SFWA membership. Currently, SFWA membership requires either three short story sales to qualifying markets, one book sale to a qualifying market, or a produced script with acceptable credits/quality. (For the full thing see here ) Under those rules the most successful indies in the world cannot be members of SFWA. However, given that the publishing world is changing, this is under reconsideration. In fact, Gould made that part of his campaign platform. He said in the panel that it was now in committee discussion, looking to define some ways to compare Indie sales to the original professional sales requirements as well as some way of verifying those sales.

I tracked him down a little later and asked him for details, particularly how we might see the committee process in action. He said that at the moment, one of the hold-ups is their bylaws. Apparently, the existing bylaws pretty much make it impossible for Indies to come in. However, they are in the process of reincorporating in California as a 5013c non-profit organization, and the new bylaws should offer them greater flexibility to address the issue. Right now they’re waiting for the IRS to rule on their non-profit application. After that, it will be addressed more publically, but for now it’s just in a closed committee. I asked him where I should be watching for updates on this, and he pointed me towards the main SFWA blog.

How to Extend Your Book Beyond the Page into Social Media: This was something of a disappointment. Three of the four panelists did not show up, and one extra was drafted at the last minute. It turned into more of an interview between the moderator and the draftee. The draftee was mostly a twitter fan, and all the advice was structured around twitter. When I raised the possibility of Google+ I got the standard, “What? Is there anyone even *on* Google?” To which I replied that there were more on G+ than on Twitter. I was pretty much shouted down by the rest of the audience, but I was then saved by the moderator, who said, “Actually, I may need to check Google+ out. Evo Terra swears by it.” I got a big grin out of that, because Evo is in my circles there. But other than that, the panel was not very informative.

Creating Memorable Podcasts: This turned to more of a technical session than a content session, but it was still packed full of good information. There was some discussion of PC vs. Mac – with a moderately strong Mac bias – but they made it clear that it was possible on both. There was a strong recommendation for the Zoom portable digital recorder. For solo or face-to-face interviews, they all agreed that the quality could not be beat. A good condenser microphone could add to that, but they felt strongly that the Zoom recorder was much better than your computer. This matches advice I’ve heard elsewhere, so I’m going to accept this as gospel for now. For such equipment, they suggested checking out pawn shops for cheaper deals. As one panelist said, “Many podcasters built their rigs from the failed dreams of garage bands.”

For non-face-to-face stuff, the general solution seems to be Skype. There was also some discussion about making multiple recordings when interviewing over Skype, i.e. each person record their own voice and mix them together later. There was also a tip on using a program called Levelator to even out different volumes between two speakers in an interview. One person noted that running over a Wifi network made his Skype much choppier, and that he had much better luck when all participants were on physical-cable network connections. They recommended Hijack Pro and Wiretap Pro for recording Skype on the Mac.

For posting, there was a strong recommendation to explore dedicated podcast hosts because most blog hosting accounts can’t handle the bandwidth for a popular podcast . I’m currently on Dreamhost with an unlimited download service, which I think I snagged on a limited-time deal, so I might be ok. They also recommended Podbean.com as a good podcast host. They also recommended using the WordPress blog with the Blueberry Power plug-in for managing the podcast release, since it ties in nicely to iTunes and other podcast-broadcast services.

They did say a few things on content. Notably, for narrative, don’t focus so much on the voices of characters as on cadence, rhythm, and accents. These come off better than an attempt to disguise your voice. You can do varying amounts of show prep, but a certain level of spontaneity sounds better than the sound of you reading off a teleprompter. Length varies quite a bit. Twenty minutes seems to be a sweet spot, but 45 minutes is also good. One longer podcaster said she tried to stay under 90 minutes, but that she set a hard limit at two hours. The best advice, though came from someone who does a lot of interviews, and he said his three rules are: “No politics, no religion, and no BBQ, because these are the three most divisive issues in America.”

Writers, Their Fans and Flame Wars, Oh My!: This was a good panel. I had been hoping to see Chuck Wendig on it, but he was unable to make it. However, I thought Hugh Howey made an excellent replacement, and the rest of the panelists were quite good. The general sense of the panel is that flame wars suck, and that there are lots of things you can do to make them worse and precious few things you can to do make them better. Some of this is because griefers and trolls like to generate drama, so you’re often battling against people dead-set against civilized conversations. Other times, however, you run into trolls who are true believers in their cause, and you can make some headway with them – not pulling them out of their belief but in correcting their drama-generating practices.

A few quotes: “Most people are posting in good faith, even if it doesn’t sound like it. Try to remember that.” “The greatest shortcoming of HTML is that it has no <sarcasm> tag.” “A lot of folks pile on because their friends are piling on, not because they really feel strongly about it.”

Several of the panelists pointed to John Scalzi as someone who has dealt beautifully with some flame wars. Notably, he has turned his greatest detractor into a fundraising drive, where he is donating $5 to appropriate causes every time this detractor mentions him by name. Enough people have pledged to match the donation that by years’ end, this detractor will have effectively raised tens of thousands of dollars for causes he detests.

And finally, they recommended two books: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Elgin, and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson (and others). I’m going to toss in one of my own favorites, The Usual Error by some friends of mine Pace & Kyeli Smith.

The Hugos: I confess I did not actually attend. Dinner ran late with my wife, and by the time we got back to the hotel, it seemed to be standing room only, and we weren’t exactly dressed for the event. We had hoped to catch it on closed-circuit TV in the hotel, like we did years ago, but now we have to rely on UStream. Apparently they had their own problems with it (but not as bad as last year), but the internet connection in our room was not up to the task of watching it. So instead, we caught the play-by-play reporting made by several others in attendance.

I didn’t have much riding on any of the awards, since I had not read or seen many of the nominees. However, I was glad to see SF Signal get their second Hugo for best Fanzine. I also thought it was very classy of them to recuse themselves from future nominations so that other deserving fanzines could have a shot at it. I was frankly ecstatic to see Mur Lafferty win the Campbell for Best New Writer. Her “I Should Be Writing” podcast helped get me moving on my own writing career all the way back in 2007.

I was not at all surprised to see Game of Thrones win for Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form. The Whovians had managed to nominate three different episodes, and that effectively split their vote. Babylon 5 suffered a similar problem early on, and they solved it by asking Straczynski to choose which episode to nominate. I have to say I was a little surprised to see Avengers beat out The Hobbit. I think Avengers was a better film, but I had expected the more literary Hugo voters to go for the Tolkien favorite.

I’m glad Scalzi won Best Novel for Red Shirts. I had not actually read any of the other nominees, so I can’t say that it was the better novel. In my opinion, it’s certainly not the best work Scalzi has ever done, but I think the fans may have done a little bit of “lifetime achievement award” for him here. He has set down the mantle of the SFWA presidency, and I think he’s done a lot for the field in that capacity, so I don’t mind seeing a little extra weight being thrown his way for literary recognition. Then again, it was something of a fun take on the Star Trek tropes, just like Galaxy Quest was thirteen years earlier, and it may have just won enough fans’ hearts in the same way.

Marketing: I did not really do much in the way of marketing at the convention. While I focused enough on the writing end to make my tax write-off believable (I hope), I was there more as a fan than as a writer selling books. However, I did find a giveaway table that was quite happy taking the last of my ARCs for Ships of My Fathers. They went like crazy. Two things may have helped: First, I only put out six or seven at a time, and people seemed drawn to the shorter stacks on the scarcity principle. Second, I was next to the other trade paperbacks, and my cover was IMHO much better than the other covers there. I also tried some little cards with the cover on one side and a description on the other side. The back also included a QR code linking them to the Amazon buy page. About sixty of those were picked up. I don’t know how many readers I’m going to gain from these efforts, but I figure WorldCon attendees are the alpha dogs of SF/F readers, and if they like something, they’re more likely than most to tell their friends.

So, that’s it for my 2013 WorldCon. It’s going to be in London next year, but I’m unlikely to go. More likely, I may finally make the trek to DragonCon and see if I can take it all in. Just remember folks, fandom is vast, and there are plenty of smaller regional cons to check out. You don’t need pointed ears to attend, but don’t be surprised when you see them.

WorldCon, Part 1

WorldCon_IronThroneWell, I was hoping to wrap this all up into one mammoth blog post, but it looks like it’s going to be two mammoth blog posts. So anyway, here’s the first part of my WorldCon experience. I haven’t been to a WorldCon in thirteen years, and I’d forgotten how big it is. Then again, I also know it’s small by comparison to other cons (think DragonCon or ComicCon) as well as earlier cons. The numbers I’ve been hearing bandied about are in the 4000-5000 range, which is about average for WorldCon, though the official numbers won’t be in for weeks at least.

I’ve run into a lot of familiar faces from the Texas convention scene, but I’ve also seen a number of folks from much further afield, including a few I haven’t seen since that last WorldCon I went to in 2000. That’s always great, though I find my focus has changed. As I mentioned before, I’m not trying so much to glean wisdom from the published authors, editors, or agents, as much as I’m trying to learn more about production and marketing.

And interestingly, while the panel listings did not explicitly mention indie publishing, that didn’t stop several of the panels from talking about the subject directly. So, here are a number of panels I went to.

Self-Promotion: Everything You Know About it is Probably Wrong: I arrived late to the con and walked into this one already in progress. It was mostly industry professionals, and I had not arrived with a notebook for taking notes. However, I did hear one interesting semi-contradiction. When asked about giving books away to grab new readers, they said it was great when your publisher did it at a convention, but anyone doing it on their own was simply declaring that their book was worthless. Then, ten minutes later, they were praising Baen Publishing’s wisdom in giving away the e-book versions of the first books in a series in order to pull readers into the series. I know I’m coming at this from a different perspective than they are, but I was a little annoyed by their praise of a practice when done within the industry in juxtaposition with their dismissal of the same practice when done by indies.

The Business Side of Writing: I didn’t get much from this other than the same old things of “don’t quit your day job” and “treat it like a business”. On the whole, these are things I’ve seen said better elsewhere. I will note, however, that one of the two authors on the panel was an indie. About the only thing that made enough of an impression for me to jot down was the notion that treating it like a business meant writing a business plan. I _might_ investigate that. On the whole, I would say it’s a good idea, but the last time I ran a business (a software company in the 90s) the whole business plan attempt devolved into long meetings with my partners while we dallied around with some high-concept vision statement and mission statement. I’ll have to take another look at the more useful bits of this idea.

C.J. Cherryh’s Worldbuilding: Alas, this did not have C.J. Cherryh there to tell us her inner secrets. We did have an old friend of hers who had a number of great anecdotes along with a couple of other writers who were big fans of her work. The overarching message seemed to be that there is no such thing as too much research. While that may work for Cherryh, your mileage may vary. I’m a huge fan of her work, but I’m afraid I didn’t get much out of this panel.

How to Convert a Book into E-Book Format: This was an attempt to walk us through the basics. It did talk about Calibre, but the presenter’s preferred tool was something called Sigil. The project is hosted here (http://code.google.com/p/sigil/ ) complete with some Windows-install links. I had heard of Sigil before from others, but I had not actually looked at it yet. Now I’m giving it some serious consideration. If nothing else, it looks like it makes a great WYSIWYG HTML editor for doing the hand-coding of the ebook.

The Role of an Agent: This one was filled with experienced industry professionals, and they briefly described how agents will send manuscripts to appropriate editors and then work to negotiate the contract. Then it seemed mostly to go into some nostalgia about how things used to be before publishing was consumed by big corporate culture. It is now run by accountants, not editors. In fact, one said that the current publishing environment is such a scary and dangerous place, writers are lucky to have agents here to deal with it, “so the writer doesn’t have to worry about it.” Frankly, I thought they did such a good job describing the problems in New York, it reaffirmed my decision to avoid it altogether.

In the Q&A period, someone did bring up indie publishing and whether a successful track record would help negotiate with New York. This seemed to be a sore point with some of them as they were adamant that there was no way to track self-published sales. I think what they really meant is that there was no reporting mechanism telling them independently like they can get with BookScan data, because as just about any self-publisher will tell you, we can track them better than New York. We get monthly statements.

Literary Estates: This was one of those panels that really needs to be expanded into a weekend-long seminar. There was just far too much information to cover, but the basic message was make a will and make sure you express what you want to have happen to your books in it. That is, who inherits the rights? The attorney recommended against trying to get too specific on how the property is to be treated because numerous cases have shown that those restrictions are almost impossible to enforce. It’s far better to appoint a trustee (or your beneficiary) who understands your goals and philosophy and then simply trust them to use their judgment.

If the Pen is Mightier than the Sword, What Have You Stabbed Lately?: This was supposed to go into dealing with politics, but I was getting pretty tired by this point, so about the only thing I came away with was that Maurice Broaddus sounds like an interesting writer.

Writing Erotica: Whenever this panel happens, it’s always a late hour, so I confess I was pretty much wiped out by the time it started. I have no notes from it, and only one vague memory: “You want to know the difference between porn and erotica? Porn pays better.”

WorldCon_K9Gender in SF: This went into a lot of gender views and politics in SFF, mostly on things that had been done badly. Specifically, when dealing with non-binary gender in the future, most authors seem to ignore the history of it, such as what’s already been going on for decades or centuries today. Also, when stepping away from the basic cisgendered heterosexual norm, too many authors put way too much emphasis on the sex rather than the rest of the characters’ lives. There was, however, one recommendation for a graphic novel titled, “Y The Last Man”.

For fantasy, the question was raised whether we need to be historically accurate for gender roles? That is, if we say that medieval times were male-dominated, must all of our fantasy fiction also be male-dominated, or is this just an excuse to perpetuate misogyny? This also raised the aspect of “hidden history”, i.e. the real history that was not largely written about by male historians, so if we focus on a male-dominated medieval setting, are we really being historically accurate after all? And then, of course, what’s with all these wizards and dragons – don’t they make any historical arguments moot? In short, there were no solid conclusions, but the panel was clearly unhappy with the current state of affairs.

Publishing Intermediaries in the Digital Age: The panel description for this one read, “Agents, Editors Publishers. All obsolete in the digital age, right? We find out how useful these experts are and what services they can provide to authors and other creators.” Also, looking at the lineup of industry professionals, I went in expecting this one to be mostly the defense of traditional publishing and a screed against indies. It didn’t quite pan out that way.

About twenty minutes in, mostly filled with nostalgia for the way New York publishing used to be run back in the 70s and 80s, the subject of self/indie publishing came up. The moderator (a game publishers, not a fiction publisher) asked how many in the audience were considering self-publishing. A few hands went up, including my own. He then asked how many of us had actually already done it. Three hands remained up. “So, how is that working out for you?” The first guy that answered said, “I sold 35,000 books last year at a $5 price point.” I think it’s fair to say that both panel and audience were stunned. I spoke with this particular author afterwards, and he has about seven or eight books out.

The moderator then moved on to me. I answered, “I’m just starting out, and I’m selling about 300 books a month now also at a $5 price point.”

“So, not quite quitting the day job money?” he replied.

I agreed, but what I did not say that it’s turning into good enough money that in five or six months it will outstrip the $5000 – $7500 advance any New York publisher would be likely to offer me, and that advance would be spread out over eighteen months. I think that moment, more than any other, made me happy I’d made the choice to start off as an indie author. I might aim for hybrid status later on when I have a stronger backlist, but for now I’m quite happy where I am.

The third indie in the room was managing the literary estate of a well-known SF midlist author, and she was in the process of indie publishing all of that author’s backlist. About the only other thing I got out of the panel was a tip for where to find independent editors: The Editorial Freelancers Association, http://www.the-efa.org/

First Contact: I had been hoping this would be more of a discussion about how to write first contact scenarios, but mostly I found it to be a bunch of recommendations for the panelists favorite contact stories: The Left Hand of Darkness, the Rama trilogy, The Road Not Taken, and The Sparrow. There was some discussion about motivations, i.e. why did they come? what do they want from us? what will we want from them? So, it was nice, but not spectacular.

WorldCon_LegoHugoThe Shift from Print Publishing to E-Publishing: The panel description made this look like a discussion of the reading experience of print vs. e-book, but it turned into an indie love-fest. Notably, none of the panelists felt that print was going away, especially for non-fiction, but they all felt strongly that the fiction market was being turned upside down by e-publishing. One quote: “If you adapt, you’ll thrive. If you don’t adapt, you’ll go out of business.”

They also pointed to the explosion in short fiction. It had been dying just a few years ago as genre magazines were hemorrhaging subscribers, but now it’s thriving with short e-books directly from the authors. They all made a point that it was important to interact with your readers and give those readers what they want, i.e. don’t put up artificial barriers between the readers and your work.

And finally, Hugh Howey drove home the point I’ve heard many, many times: “The best marketing you can do is to write the next book.” He’s famous for his Silo series (starting with _Wool_), but he had already put out eight books before he wrote that one. He had been slowly building an audience, and that was the first one that his fans started pushing hard to their friends.

That pretty much goes with what I’ve heard elsewhere, both in and out of New York publishing. Things take off between your sixth and tenth books. I can’t remember where I first heard this, but here it is: “Most overnight success stories were a decade in the making.”

The Changing Economics of Book Production and Distribution: I’m not sure what I was hoping for from this panel, but I can say that I didn’t get it. This mostly turned into the same kind of publisher complaint session I’ve been seeing for the last year or two and hearing from other professionals at the con. Returns are killing us. E-books are eating into our print sales. E-books are costing us money. There’s no money to be made. Amazon is the Great Satan. And so on. Some of this struck me as just plain wrong since when I look at publisher’s financial reports, they have lately been pointing to their increased profits from e-books. So, it may just be that these particular panelists were further behind the curve than others. It’s hard to say for sure, since I know I went in with my own pro-Indie bias.

However, I did get to ask one question that I really wanted to ask. Namely, did they foresee any game-changing technological advancement in print-on-demand publishing coming down the pipeline that would close the cost gap between POD and offset printing? They all said no. Most of the POD improvements they have been seeing are in quality and speed of printing, not in cost. On the other hand, though, none of them could point to any technological/mechanical reason why such a cost revolution was impossible. Of course, that does not mean such a revolution is coming, but did not rule it out in my mind. Personally, I think that if such a price revolution did occur, it would be as big of a disrupting force as e-publishing has been.

And that takes me through the end of Saturday. I was too wiped out to attend the masquerade. As much as I enjoy seeing cosplay, the whole pageantry thing of the masquerade event is lost on me.

Part two will include a number of other panels, some thoughts on the Hugo awards, and a bit on some marketing I did at the event.

ApolloCon 2013

I spent this past weekend down in Houston for ApolloCon. I had a fairly laid-back experience this year. I even stole away some time to exercise in the gym and do red-line edits to Debts of My Fathers. I don’t have access to the actual attendance numbers, but the con seemed a little smaller this year than in the last couple of years. Or maybe I did not go to the really popular events. It’s hard to tell.

Anyway, here were some of the panels I attended:

Genre Journalism: This was mostly a discussion of some great SF/F blogs and news sources. John DeNardo was there, and he’s the managing editor of the group blog sfsignal.com. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, whose Hugo-winning blog started off about ten years ago just to share SF links with some friends.

Is There More to Space Opera than Space Fleets and Exploding Planets?: The obvious answer is yes, but we did spend a while talking about what makes space opera… well, space opera. Some argued that it required an epic scope… or rather, an EPIC SCOPE!! Others felt you could tell smaller stories within the larger backdrop.  From the audience, I pushed my own agenda for more civilian space opera, even though much of what I write does touch on the military.

When Spec Fic Stole My Brain: This turned into a fun trip down memory lane as panelists discussed what piece of speculative fiction first sparked their interest. Their ages ranged from the 40’s to the 70’s, so there was an interesting range from seeing the movies on the weekend for a dime to staying up late with the babysitter to watch Star Trek. It was neat that one of them had been hooked by Ringworld, just as I had.

Aaargh! We Loves Us Our Pirates – But Why?: I had been hoping this would take a turn towards space piracy, but we stayed pretty thoroughly mired in the ocean-bound variety. Still, it was an interesting mix of history, legends, and pure myth.

Communicating at the Speed of Light… Social Media for SF/F: This was mostly a discussion of the merits and pitfalls of various social media services and independent blogs. It was clear that the tide has turned against Facebook as a useful marketing platform, unless you’re selling pictures of cute cats. Google+ got some love, but the message from these particular panelists was mostly personal blogs and Twitter.

Frack You! No… Frell You!: This was a fun panel on various made-up swear words, alien oaths, and fantasy curses. By Grapthar’s Hammer, I haven’t laughed so hard at a panel in a long time.

And that was it. Like I said, it was fairly laid back for me. I probably spent about three hours on Sunday just sitting out in the lobby, chatting with people who stopped by, and editing Debts when they left. I even ran into a couple of friends who might go so far as to call themselves my fans. (Happy Dance!)

There’s a Brain-App for That

I was at FenCon over the weekend, and in a panel on embedded (or implanted) computers, the question was raised: what application would you want that doesn’t exist now? That is, if you had some kind of computer implanted in your brain, what would you want it to do for you that you can’t do right now without it?

Here are a few possible answers, some my own and some from other people in the room:

Who Are You? I’d want something to do facial recognition on the person in front of me and remind me who they are, how I know them, and what subjects to avoid when talking to them. It’s not just a matter of remembering the name, because even if I can remember that his name is Bob, it would be nice to know that we met at Jim’s bachelor party – you know, the one with the orangutan stripper – and that it would be best to duck and hide in shame. Or if I can’t hide, I should at least know better than to bring up sailing ships lest I be cornered into a two-hour dissertation on the superiority of the jib sail over the genoa sail.

Dream-vo: This is the DVR for your dreams. No longer do you need to scramble for pen and paper to jot down details of that crazy dream. You don’t even need to wake up. Just replay it the next morning and fast forward to the part with the flying dolphins.

IMDB Brain Search: The Internet Movie Database is a very useful site, but even if you have it on your smart phone, it doesn’t really help when you’re talking about that movie, with the guy… you know, the one with the blonde hair, and they had that sparkly thing with the handle? Yeah, that’s the one. It would also be nice in that you could immediately know where you’ve seen that actor before. Of course, playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” will never be the same again.

Where Are My Damned Keys? A brain implant won’t keep you from leaving your keys behind the toaster, but with enough input monitoring 24/7, it should at least be able to tell you where they are. And your favorite pen, your glasses, your left sneaker, the good scissors, and the remote control. Of course, if the kids took them, this suddenly becomes a network application.

Too Boring; Didn’t Listen: I think we’ve all run into that wall of text that was simply too long to read. Hence the phrase tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). Whenever I’ve run into that, I’ve wanted a little tool to read it, present me with a summary, and give some kind of guesstimate of whether or not it was worth the number of electrons that died for it. (Yes, I know electrons don’t die – they only wish they could.) But if I had a computer implant, I’d want one of those for audio. Remember that guy who went on for two hours about jibs vs. genoas? Too boring; didn’t listen. How about the app that filters it all and says, “Jibs handle better when tacking.”

So, how about you? What’s your favorite iBrain app?

Un-Marketing My Book

One thing that’s been drilled into my head since I got into writing – long before indie publishing – was that writers are increasingly responsible for their own marketing. The major publishers will do virtually nothing for you unless your name is King, Rowling, or Clancy, and as an indie, it’s all up to me anyway. But while I understand that indie publishing means treating my writing like a business, all this marketing stuff never rang true for me. Why? Because it never seemed to matter to me as a reader.

I think about the last hundred books or so that I bought/read and my reasons for choosing them. The vast majority of these were because I already liked the author’s work, and in many cases the book was the next one in an ongoing series. A few others reached my in-pile because a friend recommended them to me. Some got there because I met the author and became interested in what they had to say. A few got there because one of those authors recommended it. And finally, I grabbed a few simply because the cover caught my eye, and the blurb on the back sounded interesting. Not one book got there because of a Twitter thread, a Facebook page, or a teaser video on YouTube.

I’m not unique in this. I recently read the results of a survey in which they asked people why they purchased their most recent book purchase. Alas, my google skills are not up to the task of finding it again, but I remember the gist of it. The top two answers were 1) because it was the next book in the series, and 2) because they liked the author’s other work. Those two answers accounted for about 70% of the responses for their most recent purchase. The next answer was that the book had been recommended by a friend, and it scored close to 20%. The last 10-15% were a mix of “saw it in the bookstore”, “read a review”, and so on.

One of the lessons to take from that is that the best marketing you can is to get another book out to your existing readers. After all, if 70% of what your readers will buy is going to be from authors they already know, then give them something new of yours to buy.

Of course, that only works once you have readers in the first place. How do you get those readers? That’s what that last 30% of the survey was about. The biggest among them was recommendations by friends, a.k.a. word of mouth. There’s not a lot I can do about that except try to be worthy of a recommendation. The first book is out the door and is as good as it’s ever going to be, so I can’t actively do much more about that. However, I can put out another one. If they didn’t like the first book enough to gush fanatically, maybe the next one will strike the right spot.

As for some of other reasons, “saw it in a bookstore” is a little out of my reach. This is one area where traditional publishers really can flex their marketing muscle. They pay bookstores to place certain titles in prominent locations or arrange them face-out instead of spine-out on the shelves. While you should be able to order my book at a bookstore, it won’t be sitting around in the impulse-buy section.

However, the online stores of Amazon and Barnes & Noble have some programmatic recommendations, i.e. “people who bought this also liked these…” If one of your books pops up there with an eye-catching cover, you can reap same benefit as those bookstore placements. A click-and-scan is about as good as a pick-up-and-gander. But how can I maximize that? How can I have more chances at that kind of thing? Perhaps the most effective way is to have more books out and available, since that puts more covers into the eyeball hunt.

Sensing a pattern?

Yeah, both my gut and my research tells me that the best use of my marketing time and energy is in getting more books out there rather than in trying to promote this first title. Once I have three, five, or even ten titles out, it might make more sense to invest the energy into all those flashy marketing schemes. It would require about the same effort then as it would now, but later on I’ll have a shot at selling them five or ten books instead of just one. Then I can hope to hook them for the long term, while now about all I can hope for is to become that guy who wrote that book… hmmm, I wonder whatever happened to him?

Now, I am going to do some activities that qualify as marketing, but not so much for their supposed marketing power. Instead, I’m going to do them because they’re FUN!

I like to blog, particularly about geeky things like SF/F and even some gaming. That’s going to keep going. In fact, it’s going to be hard to shut me up about it. Ostensibly, it does have a marketing purpose in that it lets readers connect with the author as well as provide a hub for news and sales links. But it also gives me a place to blather on about ray guns and FTL drives. I may do a few “guest blog” spots for other blogs, but that’s about all I’m going to do beyond my original focus.

I like going to SF/F conventions. I have made a lot of friends in those communities, and it’s a great opportunity to geek out with fellow fans face to face. I mean, where else are you going to have a random conversation about who would win the epic Enterprise vs. Galactica showdown? (FWIW, I say it’s the Enterprise for the simple reason that Galactica has no FTL sensors.) But there are valid marketing reasons as well. If I ever end up on a panel, people who’ve never heard of me will get a chance to hear me blather on about Cylon spirituality or the cost of using magic. Plus, there’s also all those people arguing over whether a hockey stick made for a good wizard staff in the TV version of the Dresden files.

I should say, though, that these con folks are not merely my fellow fanatics and… ahem, cult members. They are also what you might call mavens. If you’ve read The Tipping Point, you’ll recognize maven as one of the roles various people play in the viral spread of ideas. In the word of mouth network, mavens are the domain experts. If they like something, their recommendation carries a lot of weight. Getting an idea (or a book) in front of them is worthwhile.

But even without that, I’d still be going. I’ve been attending SF/F cons for twenty years, and with or without my books, I plan on going for twenty more.

And then there’s some stuff that just looks fun.  One final bit of fun marketing I might try is something I saw another author talking about this morning.  The idea is to take snippets of dialog from the book – the lines that really stick – and turn them into little postcard images. She then posts them to a Tumblr blog.

It reminds me a bit of an old Heinlein collection called “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, a beautifully illuminated collection of snappy quotes from the various Lazarus Long books. (Note, the original is long-since out of print, and a newer book of the same title is not at all the same thing, but I did see a copy of the original on Ebay just now for less than $40.) Since I often use fictional quotes as chapter heads, I could see this as a fun exercise. Maybe toss in a few bits from SomeECards as well. If I do this, I’ll be sure to link to it from here.

But other than those three things (blogging, cons, and quotes), I’m just going to keep up with the writing. I have two more books going through the edit process. One is in the same universe as Beneath the Sky, but it’s not a sequel. Instead, it’s book one of what feels like a five-book series. It’s tentatively titled Ships of My Fathers. The other is an urban fantasy about a reporter living in a cross-realm version of our own Pittsburgh, dealing with demons, wizards, and the occasional fae. It’s tentatively titled Hell Bent and is the first in an open-ended series. My goal is to get at least one of those out to readers this year, probably starting with Ships of my Fathers. I also hope to write the sequels to both of those to get out the door next year.

So, I’ll see you around, and I hope you enjoy my un-marketing.

Con Season

With the start of the new year, it’s time to think about con season and pick which SF/F conventions I’ll be going to this year. I try to make it to as many as I reasonably can, but childcare issues have been crimping my style a little in recent years. (For those of you who don’t know, I have special needs children, so taking them all to the con isn’t practical, even with children’s programming.)

Literary over Media

I should start off by saying that I tend to go to what are called “literary cons” rather than “media cons”, and truthfully, that’s a little ironic. When I first heard about cons, what I heard about were not only media cons, they were Star Trek cons. Let’s all don our Spock ears, wait in line for autographs, and then go shop for even better Spock ears. At least, that’s what my vision was, because I never went to find out what they were really like.

It’s not that I didn’t like Star Trek. It’s just that the idea of focusing so much on the one show and its actors didn’t sound like much fun to me. I don’t know what my logic was at age twelve, but these days it boils down to this: I want to talk to the story writers, not the actors, because the writers can tell me more about the story, while the actors can only tell me about the acting and the production details. Since I’m not an actor, those things don’t interest me all that much.

At least, they didn’t interest me enough to actually go find a con in those pre-Internet days. And since then, I’ve never been to a proper media con. I’ll confess, Comic-Con is tempting just for the spectacle, but the few media guests and events at the cons I do go to have left me flat. Again, it’s not that I don’t like the media shows and movies. In fact, I like some of them a LOT. (I am a self-described Babylon-5 “cult member”.) And I do love to talk about the shows with like-minded fans, but I find that I don’t get that much out of hearing the actors talk about it. I want to hear the writers talk about it.

So I go to the literary cons instead, though I always thought the term “literary” was a bit pretentious for what goes on there. Certainly, we talk mostly about books, which I suppose could be called literature, but there are still a fair share of Spock ears and their modern equivalents. We still talk about movies and TV shows, praising our favorites and generally mocking the SyFy channel. We sing geeky songs, buy costumes, and debate the relative merits of Kirk vs. Picard. (My vote: Bill Adama for the win!)

Which Ones?

So where am I going this year? I’m planning on four cons: ConDFW in Dallas in February, ApolloCon in Houston in June, ArmadilloCon in Austin in July, and wrapping up with FenCon in Dallas in September.  There are a couple missing from that list that I wish I could go to but can’t this year. Those are AggieCon and WorldCon.

AggieCon was the first con I ever went to, probably twenty years back, and I became fairly attached to it. Alas, as a student-run con, the quality can vary significantly over time as institutional knowledge comes and goes with the four-year college cycle. Also, in the last couple of years it has been scheduled opposite one of my Burning Flipside activities, either a work weekend or ranger training.

WorldCon is something I’d like to go to every year, and I actually managed for a few years before the kids. Now it’s a little too hard, and I haven’t been since it was in Chicago in 2000. It’s coming back to Texas next year, so I definitely plan on going, and eventually the kids will mature to the point where I can start making this annual trip again.

It’s not that WorldCon offers anything significantly different than my local cons. In fact, they tend to pattern themselves on WorldCon, attempting to be a miniature version of it. But on the flipside, WorldCon aims for grandiose, not miniature. Still, as the biggest of all the literary cons, WorldCon itself is actually small by comparison to many of the big media or gaming cons. Its attendance ranges from 5,000 to 9,000 each year, while the larger media cons regularly top 10,000, some going as high as 30,000.

If Wishes Were Conventions…

Now, having stated my preference for literary cons, I confess that I do want to go see some media cons. I don’t know if I would ever add them to my annual circuit, but I’d like to see them at least once. As I stated earlier, Comic-Con sounds like a lot of fun, and I’m kicking myself for not having gone to at least one of the smaller versions that has been touring around the country, passing through Austin each of the last two years. DragonCon is another big one that I’ve been curious about, if for nothing else than to check out the notorious “DragonCon sex”. (Hmmm, better check with my wife on that one.)

Two others I’m interested in aren’t really SF/F cons, but rather gaming cons. The first is BlizzCon. I’ve been a serious World of Warcraft addict, er, player for five or six years now, and while the convention wouldn’t really offer an experience like what I’m used to at SF/F cons, it does sound like a lot of fun. However, actually getting in would be difficult or pricey. They have been capping attendance around 25-30,000, and the tickets typically sell out in two incredibly fast 60-second windows. No, that’s not a typo. Half a million overeager gnomes are a purchasing force to be reckoned with.  I’m just amazed their servers can handle the load.

The final one that tempts me is GenCon. Strangely though, I know almost nothing about GenCon except that it’s a gaming con. Still, whenever anyone talks about it, it’s clear that they are the uber-gamer for having attended, while I am the lowly turd scrounging through old board games looking for loose six-siders. Maybe it’s not really that special, but never having gone makes me feel a little inadequate. (Though at this point, I am compelled to point out that I am a level 85 Retribution Paladin and yet I DO have a girlfriend.)

So that’s it for me and cons this year. How about you? Are you going to any cons I should be tempted by?