Me waking up in the morning and realising May 4th is with us.
At least, I awoke, and it was the fourth, and I realised I do an annual roundup thingy on this day each year because May 4th, 2008 was the day my writing career began (officially – unofficially it was the day I uttered my first word). So, as Australia reels from the highly-anticipated horror shock news that the current government is even worse than all the others at managing the economy (yesterday was Budget Day), I sit and ponder the past year and my progress in my chosen path.
The first thing to say is, it was much like previous years. Maybe a little more productive and a little more rewarding. I published four novels and a short story collection and my sales showed a small uptick (that really only started in January but has been pretty consistent since then, and, if you contributed to that, thank you). My big achievement for the year was finally putting out the last book in the Canta Libre trilogy (Emissaries, Supplicants, and now Warriors). Also, starting to write the third book in the Rik Sylver series (still unnamed).
They tell me (they being marketing gurus) that if you want to make a living at writing, you need to write series. I believe them and I partly attribute my improving sales to the fact that I now have three different series out there: the Timesplash series (3 books); the Canta Libre trilogy (3 books) and the Rik Sylver series (2 books so far). And I have written and will be publishing the first books in two new series this year: The Deep Fracture trilogy (first book to be Loner’s Deep – probably July or August), and the Mindrider series (first book to be Mindrider – due out on May 16, available for pre-order now).
However, keeping a series interesting and fresh and ending it well, are serious challenges. I don’t believe I could do what Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher (21 books and counting). My character Rik Sylver has been compared to Jack Reacher (although I don’t see it, myself) but, as much as I love Rik and the other characters around him, if I had to write 21 books about him, I’d go insane. Worse still, I’m pretty sure the whole process would start to feel like work – hard, grinding work. And none of you want me to suffer like that, do you? (Having said that, the denizens of Omega Point/Placid Point plus Rivers Valdinger, have all appeared in four books so far and will appear again in at least two more I have planned. Still, 6 isn’t 21 by a long way.)
So I’m very glad to write the occasional one-off, non-repeating, drop-it-and-move-on novel, like Heaven is a Place on Earth, Time and Tyde, and Cargo Cult. Not only are they fun and stimulating in their own right but they keep me fresh and give me a break from the series (which allows the ideas to percolate). I have plans for two other one-off novels that I’m desperate to get to soon, so I really need to get that third Rik Sylver book out of my head and onto paper, asap.
And the year ahead? Much more of the same, I hope.
I love that science fiction has ideas or themes that recur and recur. Ideas like “first contact” or “the grandfather paradox”, “alien invasion” or “the Fermi paradox”. Each writer brings something new to the idea, some new twist or wrinkle that gives your brain that little kick that sets it quivering. Of course some of these ideas (“tropes” they are often called – although I have no idea why) have been done to death (think “post-apocalyptic survival”, or “new starship crewman earns her stripes”) and it often seems as if nothing new in the world can be added to these jaded themes (until some exciting new writer gives one or other of them a thrilling shake-up). But the stories keep being retold down the years because these are themes that touch on our deepest fears and hopes. Are we alone in the Universe? If only we could go back and make the past right! Would I have what it takes to survive? What is out there beyond the farthest horizon?
The human condition is a peculiar one. While we are the masters of incredible power and knowledge as a species, as individuals we sit isolated and scared inside the domes of our skulls, peering out with trepidation at a world we can barely grasp. And some of the scariest things about that world outside are the other people we have to interact with – people we need to help us survive, people who have strange powers over us, people who can make us happy or miserable with the twitch of a facial muscle. I remember being a child and being unable to understand the other children around me – let alone the adults who controlled and succoured me. Were they good or bad? Would they be nice to me or hurt me? The answer, on any particular day, often seemed arbitrary.
Is it any wonder then that one of the great “tropes” in sci-fi (as in other literary genres) has been the secret appropriation of people’s identities. How scary is it when someone you know, someone you love, has been replaced by a complete stranger? They look the same, they may even sound and smell the same, but you know that someone else is inside them. From Jack Finney’s, The Body Snatchers, to Stephanie Myer’s, The Host, the idea of alien creatures that inhabit the bodies of our neighbours, friends and family has been a powerful source of disturbing fiction. As a style of invasion, it is insidious, creepy and quintessentially alien.
My own contribution to this idea is my upcoming novel, Mindrider. Written from the perspective of the invading parasite, it is a story that adds several new twists to the old trope. It was a challenging story to write in many ways – and I made it worse for myself by making the invading parasite the hero, and doing it all in first-person, present tense. I must admit to a certain genre-envy when it comes to urban fantasy. I loved the vampire stories by Anne Rice with a passion. There is something about the idea of gothic horrors, living here in our modern cities, that is both chilling and exciting, and I’ve always wanted to write a story that had that element. Well, Mindrider is it. Urban sci-fi, if you like. It has monsters, dragons, body-snatching aliens, fear, and even a little horror. Yet, it is real science fiction – nothing supernatural, no magic, just good old science and technology. As I said, challenging.
I’ve just put Mindrider up for pre-order on the major retail sites (Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, with many more to come – if you’re waiting for the Apple iBookstore, please be patient). One of the great things about having written an “urban sci-fi” novel is that I can use the kind of cover imagery normally reserved for urban fantasy novels – dragons, hooded men, dark shadows, obscure symbols… the works. And, with the collusion of my cover designer, I did just that. So, scroll down a way and take a look. What do you think? Too much? Not enough? Be sure to let me know.
I just wanted to get this off my chest.
If you want to separate clauses in a sentence, received wisdom, grammarians, and most style guides, recommend using an em-dash which abuts the last word of the first clause and the first word of the second, as in, “When Todd offered him another nip—this was around two o’clock—Tom refused.”* This is fine for printed texts where someone with layout skills has worked to ensure the text is spaced properly and lines flow properly (also, where the width of the page, font style and font size, are guaranteed for the compositor) but, in ebooks, this style of punctuation can cause layout problems since ebook text is laid out automatically using an algorithm that attempts to adjust on the fly for variations in screen size, font style, font size, and hyphenation rules. This is because the two words joined by the em-dash are treated as a single unit (e.g. “o’clock—Tom”) and very long “words” can ensue, making attractive layout difficult for the algorithm. Hyphenating one of the conjoined words creates a messy result and breaking the line at the em-dash can lead to confusion as a word followed by an em-dash is a typical device to indicate an interrupted sentence (usually in speech – see below).
The best way to fix this, in my view, is to leave a gap before and after the dash. Thus, our sentence becomes, “When Todd offered him another nip — this was around two o’clock — Tom refused.” This enables the algorithm to break lines in appropriate places and to improve the layout overall. Most writers, until they are taught not to, use this technique quite naturally in their prose, anyway.
My feeling is that the em-dash was originally chosen to break up clauses because it is long enough that embedding it in a sentence with no space around it, would still leave the words legible. I believe that an em-dash surrounded by space actually has too much prominence. So it is my preference is to use a shorter, en-dash, in my own writing. (A hyphen would be more convenient as it is right there on the keyboard but I find that, in most font styles, hyphens are too short to achieve the required salience.)
The suggested scheme breaks down in the case of interrupted sentences, e.g. “I know – “* Here, the page layout algorithm might choose to break the line before the dash or after it, both of which would obviously be wrong. So, I use the dash with no spaces around it, as in, “I know–” (or “I know—” with an em-dash), which gives the proper formatting behaviour.
*Unsurprisingly, some publishers have already noticed and solved this problem. The quotes I have been using are taken from Hodder & Stoughton’s Kindle edition of Stephen King’s, Finders Keepers. This publisher uses the scheme I recommend, only with em-dashes (publishers are such traditionalists). Thus, em-dashes with spaces are used to separate clauses and em-dashes without spaces are used for interrupted sentences.
The right wing coalition, currently in power in Australia, occasionally rants about “political correctness”. Sometimes they even try to change the hate speech laws because they say it is a freedom of speech issue and everyone “should have the right to be offensive” if they choose. Other right wing politicians around the world also seem to find political correctness an unbearable burden. Donald Trump, for example, seems to see it as a communist plot to bring down America.
Recently, my daughter brought up the matter on her Facebook page and sparked a fierce argument among her friends and colleagues. Now, I don’t usually give much thought to ideas like political correctness. It seems like a generally good thing and the people who violently oppose it (like radio “shock jocks” and Murdoch press journalists) are generally odious people, so it probably is a good thing. However, I spent some time mulling it over today and came up with the following.
When we deliberately offend someone, it is an act of aggression. We do it to hurt them. When we accidentally offend someone, we still hurt them, but it is done out of ignorance, or stupidity, or indifference. The point of “politically correct” language is mostly to avoid accidental offence, particularly by people in official roles or with relative power of some other kind. I think most of us would agree that we don’t want to be accidentally offensive. Why would we want that?
Political correctness does not in any way prevent ordinary people from being deliberately offensive. In fact, the more widely adopted politically correct language is, the more offensive certain language becomes. It becomes easier to offend when people live in a society in which accidental offence has been minimised. However, the adoption of politically correct language by organisations and other social groups, does prevent (to some extent) the use of deliberate offensiveness by officials and even members of those groups. Do we think that’s a good thing? Generally, I think we do. Curbing aggression by people with relative power is something that improves all our lives.
Many people chafe under the yoke of such constraints. Some, I suppose, wish to abuse their power by deliberately offending people. That they are frustrated in this, annoys them. Some simply do not like the fact that it is pointed out that they are accidentally offending people. They do not see themselves as racist or sexist and resent having it asserted about them. Some may even be angry because they know full well – when it is pointed out – that they are (accidentally) hurting people and it does not square with their image of themselves as a nice person. Some are essentially indifferent to the feelings of other people and are angered by any attempt to restrain their behaviour in any way for such a “trivial” reason.
On the whole, I think politically correct language serves a useful role in creating a more civil society. The constraints it places on people are negligible compared to the considerable harm that can be done by careless – not to mention deliberate – offensiveness.
the people who violently oppose political correctness are generally odious people
I need your help.
To cut a long, long story short, many years ago, I broke my nose saving a bird from a cat. Now, it seems, I need a CPAP machine to help me breathe at night.
The CPAP machine is the invention of the Devil and was initially used to torture horses, or somesuch. Now it’s used to torture me. It is basically a vacuum cleaner. You stick one end of a hose into the orifice that blows and the other end attaches to a mask that covers one’s face. You’d imagine it was hard to sleep with a vacuum cleaner blowing air in your face all night, and you’d be right.
Yet, that is not the worst of it. While the hose blows, the mask sucks – figuratively, I mean. The mask is an ingenious, high-tech marvel of soft and hard plastics, carefully shaped and molded, with intricate folds and tucks, that sits gently against your face and creates a seal so the “positive airflow” from the vacuum cleaner goes up your nose and in your mouth without leaking all over the place. The trouble is that the mask does not work. The mask is a complete and utter failure. It blows air in your eyes and down your cheeks and the only way to stop it doing so is to tighten its straps so hard that it pushes your teeth down your throat. And even that is no good because, as the pressure ramps up – and it does – there comes a point where it lifts itself off your face like a tiny hovercraft and starts flapping its “skirts” all over your head. (You know that thing you do when you put your wet lips on a baby’s belly and blow to make a ripe farting noise and the baby laughs its little head off? Well it does that, only in your face, without the laughter.)
The problem is that, while there are various sizes, designs and manufacturers of masks, none of them fits properly. And, trust me, I’ve tried them all. They are, of course, designed for some kind of generic face, with a generic nose, averagely wide and long, with median cheekbones, plus or minus. But, let’s face it, who on Earth has that face? Not me, for sure!
Which is where you guys come in.
Some of you, I’m sure, are engineering geniuses, knowledgeable about modern materials, gifted ar CAD, proficient with rapid prototyping techniques, and all that jazz. Some of you will also be looking for the next project to sink your teeth into, to raise seed capital for, and to turn into a multi-billion dollar medical appliances corporation. Well, here is that project. All you need to do is invent a system that measures a customer’s face, produces a 3D model, uses that to create or adjust a CPAP mask design so that it fits perfectly, and then prints it off on a 3D printer, so the customer can fill your pockets with gold and take it home with them.
But you’ll have to hurry. I need this, like, tonight!
I give you this idea gratis. All I ask is that I get a perfectly-fitting mask out of it. Of course, if you do turn it into a billion-dollar company, I wouldn’t complain if you slipped me a few percent of the stock.
Meanwhile, I am finding that large quantities of alcohol also work to help you sleep – even if you can’t breathe and your CPAP machine is blowing raspberries in your face all night.
Here, in my view, are the best of the best writers ever. They’re in no particular order and the list is obviously idiosyncratic, yet it is drawn from a lifetime of wide and eclectic reading. You may find the list interesting, if only because it makes you yell out, “No way!”
The most sensitive writing: Daphne du Maurier – her complete opus
The most moving writing: Ursula K. le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
The best story: Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy
The most beautiful writing: Aldous Huxley – anything at all
The deepest writing: Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls Trilogy
The best science fiction, John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
The most thought-provoking fiction: Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
The most more-ish series: The 87th Precinct stories by Ed McBain
The best fantasy: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Most gripping fiction: Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
The most intelligent writing: Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
The funniest book: John Cleese and Connie Booth, The Complete Fawlty Towers scripts
The best long poem: Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood
The best poetry collection: Sylvia Plath, Ariel
The best play: William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Best comic/graphic novel: Dan Dare from The Eagle
Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments – or to dispute mine, if you dare! Perhaps I’ll do a “worst ever” list one day. That will upset a few people!
I don’t write many short stories, although, at one time I used to write nothing else. These days, when I get a great idea for a short story, I find that, when I think about it, it could easily be expanded into a novel. It’s what happened with Mindrider – my “urban sci-fi” novel that I will be releasing in April this year. I actually wrote a short story and began subbing it to magazines before I suddenly realised that what I’d written was actually the first chapter of a really cool novel. So, I quickly withdrew it and started work on the book. It’s what happened with another novel I have partly written (working title, Metaman) which is based on an idea I had to explain the Fermi paradox. There was far too much I wanted to say, so the short became a long. (Metaman is on the back burner at the moment, I have so many other books I need to complete first!) And, most recently, I had a great short story idea about a man who sacrifices everything to give his daughter immortality – but, with a premise like that, come on, it just had to be a novel, right?
The only shorts I seem to be able to write these days are ones based in “worlds” I’ve already used for novels (I’ve done several short stories in my Timesplash universe and my Placid Point universe) although there is a werewolf story I plan to write when I get the time (don’t worry, it will be hard science fiction, my head would rather explode than let me write fantasy these days). I suppose I’m just a natural-born novelist. If I conceive of a great character, I want to explore their life. If I write about a theme, I want to delve into all its corners. Novels let you do this; shorts don’t.
Yet my fiction writing career (that period of my life in which I make up stuff and get paid for it) really began with short stories – and a piece of advice from SFF and crime writer, Marianne de Pierres. She said I should get a few short stories published because it would give me some credentials to brag about when I submitted novels to publishers, but also because it would give me what was, at the time, a much-needed boost in confidence. In a complete break with everything I hold holy, I actually took her advice. I began writing shorts and submitting them to magazines. (I didn’t have any shorts in my ‘bottom drawer’ at the time because almost all the stories I’d written before then had been lost in a traumatic relationship break-up and I’d never had the heart to write any more.)
Fortunately, I had immediate success and placed a few stories with magazines and anthologies. I even started winning short-story competitions, which was cool. I gathered some of these early stories, along with others, in my short story collection, The Future Below. You will find more in my Placid Point collection (which is free, by the way – I’ll even send you a copy if you sign up for my newsletter), and a couple of older stories are in my collection, Threefold.
The reason I’m waffling on about short stories is that I was recently asked to contribute a story to the Immerse or Die anthology, All These Shiny Worlds, and had to go through my available stories, looking for something suitable. I found I actually still like a lot of my old stories (and would love to turn some of them into novels! There’s one in The Future Below, called “Skyball” which is just begging for it) and I wish I had time to write some more. In fact, I wrote into this year’s business plan that I’d make the time to write a couple more – but we’ll see.
All These Shiny Worlds came out today and is available (for free or thereabouts) at your favourite online bookstore (e.g. Amazon.com, Kobo, etc.). It’s supposed to showcase the writing skills of some of today’s leading independent authors – so, that’s really flattering for a start! The “Immerse or Die” thing is about the editor’s personal philosophy on writing. He reads while he does his morning exercise. If, by the end of his treadmill session, the writing hasn’t got him thoroughly immersed, he ditches it for the next one on his to-be-read pile. Brutal. But it allows him to say, with a certain degree of honesty, in the blurb for All These Shiny Worlds, that the stories are “Guaranteed not to suck.”
It may seem sort of trivial but I’m changing to a new brand of mobile phone. To me it feels like a big deal. But then, I’ve always liked computers, and the one I carry around in my pocket is very special to me. It has to be good. Really good. And it has to be reliable. For those reasons, I’ve been a faithful fan of the Samsung Galaxy range since it started. But, this time, instead of the Galaxy Note 5 I had planned to get when my current contract ended, tomorrow, I’ll be picking up a Huawei Nexus 6P.
I know there’s a certain nerdy cache to owning a Nexus, but that’s not the reason I’m switching. (Well, maybe it’s a teensy, tiny part of the reason.) There are, in fact, three important reasons for the change.
The first is that the Galaxy range no longer represents the great value for money it once did. It seems to me that, over the past couple of models, Samsung has priced its Galaxy models out of the “good value” bracket, into the “just as bad as Apple!’ range. Everyone knows that iPhones are grossly overpriced but Samsung seems to have only recently twigged to the idea that gullible users will pay through the nose for “must have,” stylish, “market leader” products, even when the technology is not that special. Well, it seems to me that the Nexus 6P has a very similar spec to the Galaxy Note 5 for just 3/4 of the price. So it’s a no-brainer, really.
The second reason is the screen. When I look at what I use a phone for – reading books, reading news, making notes and taking pictures, mainly – I find I really need a big screen. If I could fit a tablet in my pocket, I’d probably go for a flash, Android tablet, or maybe even the Kindle Fire. However, the major benefit of doing my reading and note-taking on a phone, is that it is always with me. Always. Now, the Nexus 6P has a beautiful, high-resolution 5.7″ screen (just like the Galaxy Note 5), which makes it way better than most other phones that have screens up to 5.1″. (By the way, have you noticed that screens are measured in ancient units but the weight of a phone is given in proper, metric units? It’s weird. Maybe the screens are measured in America, where ancient units still linger, but the phones are weighed in a more modern country.)
The third reason may seem a little odd. It’s because the Nexus 6P has an FM radio receiver. In fact, almost all phones have an FM receiver in them only, in almost every case, this is made inoperative by the network or the manufacturer. You won’t get FM radio on a Galaxy phone in this country, nor on an iPhone. You can understand why. If you want to listen to the radio (as I do) it is far better, from the network’s point of view, if you use Internet radio and consume bandwidth that you have to pay for (44Mb per hour for Android phones), than that you simply listen to free-to-air broadcasts. And it probably wouldn’t be that big a deal for me, except that the only two channels I listen to (ABC Radio National and ABC Classic FM) are time-shifted during the Australian Summer because they are, effectively, the Sydney broadcast, digitised. I live in Queensland, which has no Daylight Saving and which often seems a million miles from Sydney and its concerns. And I like to listen to the radio when I’m outside working on my property, often hundreds of metres outside of wi-fi range.
Call me a fool for choosing a Chinese company over a South Korean one (but all you Apple fanbois out there need to acknowledge that your own phone was made in a Chinese factory). Tomorrow I will know whether I made a dreadful mistake that I’ll regret for the next two years. So, wish me luck.
Choosing a phone is such an important decision these days. My phone is an informational Swiss Army knife. It does so many different things. It’s the book I’m reading, my entire library, my online book shops, my news feeds, my jotter and scrap-book, my music collection, my still and video cameras, my map and guide, my web-browser, my dictionary, my star charts, my radio, my torch and my night-light, my clock, my alarm clock, my stopwatch, my calculator, my bank, and a hundred other vital tools. And yes, sometimes I use it to make phone calls and send messages but, honestly, even if it didn’t make calls, I’d still carry it with me everywhere.
Writing crime stories is a new departure for me. If I were asked, this is what I might say about my new female detective character, Detective Constable Alexandra Bertolissio of the Queensland Police Service.
“She’s a quiet person, thoughtful and sensitive, surrounded by jocks and big egos. She’s physically small too. Delicate. Yes, she’s pretty, beautiful even, but most people don’t see that unless they take a close look. I wanted to create a character who isn’t a two-fisted hero, who isn’t well-liked, who doesn’t get their way by sheer force of personality or physical presence. I didn’t want to create a detective who was flamboyant and eccentric. Sometimes the main feature distinguishing one fictional detective from another is what kind of unusual car they drive! Alexandra doesn’t even own a car. I wanted someone who was ordinary in almost every way except for her keen, even brilliant, mind.
“Alexandra’s career with the police is going nowhere. She’s not the kind who would succeed in any corporate environment. She doesn’t push herself forward, she doesn’t have the urge to gain advancement at any cost, she has almost nothing in common with her colleagues and will not pretend to be like them, she just wants to do her job and catch criminals. And she does that extremely well. So well, in fact, that she outshines everyone around her – for all the good that does her. Without the social skills to get along with the system, she is destined to remain a detective constable while far less deserving colleagues are promoted above her.”
“Why set the Bertolissio stories in Brisbane? Why not put them in London or New York? I’ve been asked this by publishers who tell me, for example, that Americans – the biggest single market for readers – don’t want to read stories set outside their own country.
“Well, partly its as simple as this: I like Brisbane and I know it well. It’s a big city – two million people – and it’s not a lot different from some US West Coast cities – San Francisco in particular. It’s sunny and laid back on the surface but it has its underbelly, like any other city. It’s got the bush out west and beaches to the east. It even has its own smaller version of Miami along the Gold Coast. I think it’s time people elsewhere got to know Brisbane and I think they’d like it too.”
On Mel, Alexandra’s sister:
“Mel is gorgeous and spoilt and a major source of complications for Alexandra. Tall, blonde, and a carefree daddy’s girl, Mel is attracted to the worst kind of men, most of them the kind Alexandra tends to meet professionally. Mel is much younger than Alexandra and, after their mother died, Alexandra raised her little sister while their father became increasingly distant and unresponsive. So Mel treats Alexandra like her mother, turning to her to solve all her problems, looking to her for emotional support, barely noticing that Alexandra’s life is hard and stressful enough without the burden of minding her too.
“Yet there is a strong bond between them and Alexandra, however much she grumbles, is fiercely protective of her sister. I wanted this relationship to be a major feature of the Bertolissio stories. Most detectives in novels are reclusive loners. Alexandra would be too but I won’t let her be. Her sister Mel ties her to the world and creates a social dimension for her that she would otherwise cut herself off from.”
2016 is almost upon us and, although New Year’s resolutions are dumb, making a business plan isn’t. So I made one. “But you’re a writer, Graham, not a businessman!” I hear you all cry. So true. So true. So what do I need a business plan for?
The answer is simple. To sell books.
Let me take a step back.
When I started writing I had a vague notion that, one day, I’d be published. By a publisher, that is. It sort of worked out that way. I published lots of non-fiction (with big-name publishers, like Macmillan, Hachette and Hutchinson) and, eventually, even started having fiction published.
But I never really made any sales until I self-published my novel, Timesplash. It was a weird fluke and the book’s success could not have happened at a worse time because all the other novels I had complete and ready to go, were out with publishers being considered. I had lots of interest and it seemed like I was going to break out.
But the Timesplash sales gradually petered out (they do that) and because the publishers were all still thinking about it (some for months, some for years) there was no follow-up. One by one, those publishers all said no (apart from one which seemed so taken with the success of Timesplash that they took it on and published it and then published two sequels) and I found myself back at square one with a pile of manuscripts and a fading memory of success.
I was pretty fed up with being dangled on a string by publishers, so I began self-publishing my books.
It was pretty disappointing. I made some sales but never did repeat the big success Timesplash had enjoyed. I also discovered that, in self-publishing, your books succeed in proportion to the amount of (savvy) marketing you do. This was such a terrible discovery that I gave up marketing altogether and went back to just writing my books and putting them out there. It was terrible because I hate marketing with a passion and could not bear the thought of having to do it forever.
I have a small but loyal readership and, for a while, it was good enough to know that this tiny band of wonderful people really appreciated what I was doing. But during 2015, I grew increasingly frustrated that more people were not reading my books. I’d see some magazine announce the “best sci-fi novels of the year” and I’d find myself shouting at the screen, “How do you know? I published novels this year and you didn’t even read one of them? In what sense are you able to say some other book is the best? Because a Big 5 publisher sent it to you to read? Because it was recommended to you by some other guy who was sent a copy by a publisher? In fact, how many sci-fi books out of the thousands that were published this year did you read? Twenty? Thirty?”
That kind of thing.
Silly, of course. If you aren’t actually playing the game, how can you possibly hope to win? But I’ve always eschewed games. Most in the real world are so corrupt, the very thought of joining in makes you feel dirty. Look at World Cup soccer, or cycling… Anything that involves money eventually becomes corrupt and dirty. Do you know you can buy Amazon book reviews? Makes you shudder with disgust, doesn’t it? It does me.
Still, I’d like more people to read what I write. So I’m going to have to do something.
If self-publishing has taught me anything, it is that publishing is a commodity market with very, very little product differentiation. That’s why advertising and marketing are so necessary. The makers of washing powders, fizzy drinks, breakfast cereals, and so on, need to bombard us constantly with advertising that depends on vague emotional association (this brand is for strong men, this brand is trustworthy, this brand is young and exciting, etc.) in order to create any differentiation at all because there is almost no difference between the actual products.
Now, I’m not saying there is no difference between good and bad books. I think there’s a huge difference. But, either most people can’t see it, or there is so much variation in individual taste, personal judgements that are diametrically opposed all average out to create no overall difference. In such a market, only brand awareness matters. People don’t read the top-selling crime writers because they are the best writers in the world but because they are the best known. Omo is no better than a hundred other washing powders but hardly any other powder gets a look in.
Thus, writing better books has, at best, a marginal effect on sales performance. Being a better marketer has a major effect.
The secret to being a successful self-published author is to write reasonably well and become a smart, driven, hard-working publisher.
Well, that just isn’t going to happen for me. I work hard at being a better writer, but I just don’t have the motivation to put that much effort into being a great publisher.
And here we are, back at my 2016 business plan. And the plan is to do a few, highly-targeted things that I know will help sales but which aren’t too time and effort consuming. It’s the best I can do and, without the plan, I’d probably let even that little slide. So wish me luck.
Oh, yes. And buy my books.