(This is the third Stumbling into Publishing post.)
The project idea was simple: write and publish a series of novella-length ebooks.
The reason was even simpler: to learn about ebooks and publishing.
I had a few requirements at the start.
I was only going to put together four to six stories. Not just for my sake, but also for the reader. I wanted to make sure that the reader had an end in sight.
I needed to pick a genre.
Ebook only. I have nothing against print, I’m just not curious about the ins and outs of print publishing like I am about digital.
My sister would be doing the covers. We had been looking for projects to work on together for a long long time. This publishing project then led to Studio Tendra and the Oz Reading Club, and will lead to more.
I wanted to do the whole shebang: ISBNs, formats, design, website, etc. Because that sounded like fun. (Which it was, for the most part.)
I didn’t do this to get published. I don’t have any particular desire to be published or have my writing widely distributed, but I do find the idea of an ongoing readership interesting, especially if it can pay for the work in some way.
The covers turned out great. My sister is a fantastic illustrator. The ebook files were easy but a tad overworked (e.g. there was no point in them being epub3 at the time, way ahead on the curve on that one). The website was easy (websites is what I was doing for a living at the time.) There was more paperwork, bureaucracy, and admin than I expected but nothing overwhelming.
The problems I encountered were both obvious and subtle.
One obvious problem is that I’m crap at marketing. That’s fine. I knew that going in.
The subtle side of that problem is that while I’m pretty sure most of my regular blog readers know about my fiction, they just aren’t interested in it. If I had a penny for every time somebody told me they really liked my blog but didn’t have time to read my fiction, it’d be a bigger pile of money than what I earned from selling ebooks.
Which meant that I was starting from scratch when it came to marketing these stories, I just didn’t know it at the time.
Another obvious problem was with my choice of genre and style. I picked fantasy but didn’t really bring in any of the tropes or traditions people expect from fantasy. Which made it even harder to market. Then again, marketing the stories wasn’t the real problem.
I had four choices for genre. The first was literary fiction. Which, frankly, I’m pretty sure I can’t pull off. Mostly because literary fiction is just a genre fiction with really boring rules and tropes dominated by a big pile of snotty authors. The second was crime fiction. But every other Icelander on the planet is writing crime fiction, so that ruled that out, even though I’m a fan of the genre.
Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery was the genre I chose, mostly because it was safe. It’s a big genre with a big following and plenty of room for variety. Or, so I thought. A big potential audience ought to be easy to market and sell to, right?
I think, in the end, that was a mistake. The mistake wasn’t in choosing fantasy but in choosing it as a safe option. That cut down my emotional investment in the stories right at the start. This in turn compromised my motivation and led me to vacillate during the publishing process as I tried to rediscover the emotional core of the stories and reconnect to them, which then caused the delays. If other people aren’t connecting with the stories, it’s probably because I was finding it difficult to connect with them while writing.
The genre I really wanted to do was oddball unclassifiable weird stuff that would probably qualify as SFF—as in, not scifi, not fantasy, but in the wishy-washy, hand-wavey area that both of those belong to.
At the face of it, that sounds like an even less practical choice than literary fiction. Prose scifi is a tiny niche these days (TV and cinema scifi being less tiny) and, if anything, looks like an even less inviting clique than the fantasy crowd. It’s a community full of old and middle-aged male authors saying awful and horrible things and self-important fans who castigate new writers for not fitting in with their favourite flavour of scifi (hard, space opera, near future, post-human, mundane, whatever). Most of them sound like exactly the sort of people you try to avoid when you go to the comics store.
—“Oh, no. It’s a Scott Lobdell fan. Don’t make eye contact!"
(Some writers simply have very creepy fans.)
Wanting to do weird-ass stupid stories that are so hard to categorise that you’d have to just stick with SFF over either scifi or fantasy seemed like a crazy stupid idea. So, I didn’t.
There’s a lot of nice and incredibly clever people in scifi, doing incredible work. Athena Andreatis, Ann Leckie, Debora J. Ross, and Tobias Buckell being a few examples of the many good, smart, and eminently sane members of the SF community (all with good blogs as well), but as a whole the culture surrounding the genre looks worse than inhospitable. It looks outright hostile.
It was a mistake to think I would have to engage in the culture and community around the genre in any way. Fuck community. I’m crap at it, so I’m not going to do it. And, as it happens, these genres—both of them—are crap at it as well, so it all works out.
Anything oddball might well be harder to market and sell. It might not be. Anything that is different should, in theory, be easier to sell because it is easily differentiated. Different makes it identifiable. Different does limit the upside: the maximum number of sales you can make. (Too different: too small an upside.) But, remember, you start with zero sales. Alienating a bunch of non-customers doesn’t matter if it brings you your first real customer.
But, honestly, I don’t care anymore. Fuck sales. My interest is what counts. If I want to be clever, I’ll be clever and play with the thing until it won’t fit anywhere in any genre. If I want to be stupid I’ll be stupid and make something that gives me joy and visceral thrills even if other people groan at the idiocy of it. If I want to be anonymous and alone, I’ll bloody well be anonymous and alone and write in the dark.
Which brings me to…
My biggest mistake was not choosing to write the stories that fascinate me the most either emotionally or intellectually. That’s the one that came back to bite me again and again. That choice meant that the stories never quite clicked, never quite worked, never had that spark you drive for. That choice meant that the whole process was a lot less fun.
You have to care about the end result—personally, intellectually, and emotionally.
Otherwise what’s the point?