The Big Question: Self-Publish or Perish?

How many of us know a Mr. Fix-It who really doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing but keeps pressing on anyway? While I may admire the tenacity, I wouldn’t want to live with the results. Which we once did, in fact – our first house was purchased from someone with a boundless lack of appreciation for his own limits. We spent the next eight years finding one unpleasant surprise after another, and it often involved electrical current.

Until very recently, self-publishing was a career-killer. Going down that road would forever tarnish your work as “vanity press”, never to be taken seriously. Granted, a few exceptions were picked up by traditional publishers and went on to become best sellers (think “The Shack”), but the odds were stacked against you.

Why was that? Well, I suppose a lot of it had to do with the fact that a large percentage of self-pubbers were true do-it-yourselfers. No editor, no proofreader, no cover artist…all of which meant the books were probably crap. Even a really good writer needs an editor, because it’s awfully hard to appreciate the forest when you’re lost among the trees. And unless you’re an accomplished graphic artist, handing off your book cover to a pro seems like common-sense to me.

I suppose that DIY element will always be with us, but the respectability of self-publishing has changed dramatically just in the past few months. Amazon was already killing the brick-and-mortar stores (RIP Borders), and e-readers are certainly the final nail in the coffin. The Borders liquidation is already having ripple effects: Barnes & Noble just ordered their stores to dramatically reduce –again– the amount of shelf space devoted to actual books. They are well on the way to becoming a literature-themed toy store.

For those of us who want to see our work in print, this is bad news. Maybe. But you’d better believe publishers and agents are in full-bore freakout mode if they haven’t been already. The creative destruction of the internet has finally hit the publishing world squarely in the doo-doos. I won’t bore you with my own take on that, check out Passive Voice or Kris Rusch for the inside view.

In an earlier post I described the soul-killing query process. What I didn’t mention is that I took a month off to clear my head at my wife’s suggestion pleading. That month stretched into nearly a year. The thought of sending more queries turned my stomach, and I couldn’t even bring myself to work on the manuscript any more. Suffering a general lack of motivation, I consciously removed myself from the writing world until recently.

And then I learned about what was going on in the industry.

Not only do you have less chance of getting a publishing deal the traditional way, but advances are on the decline. The advice I’m getting is that, now more than ever, that advance may be all you ever see. The way they’re reportedly playing games with sales numbers, forget about royalties (particularly for e-books).

Everything was turned upside down. Experienced writers were now advising us newbies to forget agents, forget publishers, and do it ourselves. Sort of.

As mentioned above, you still need editors and cover artists. These can be hired, about which more will be posted later. But that means you must be willing to take the risk of putting up your own money for those services. But once the finished work is up on Amazon, something like 70% of the revenue is now yours. Sounds a lot better to me than 25% of net, which is what a lot of pub houses are paying for e-books. And if you understand net vs. gross, you understand what a screw job that really is. Net apparently means whatever the publisher wants it to mean.

If advances for new writers are really getting down into the very low thousands, forget it. I can make that much with two or three magazine articles that each take 8 or 10 hours of work. Why would I accept the same amount for a 96,000-word novel that took months to finish?

But the tipping point is publicity, much of which has always been placed on the author’s shoulders except for the very biggest sellers. If it’s on me to drum up sales anyway, I might as well just go all-in. If it turns into a big enough hit, maybe a publishing house will be interested in buying the rights for hard-copy some day.

Print-on-demand may be another option in addition to e-books, but that’s something I don’t know enough about yet.

What all of this means is that writers have to become a lot more business-savvy. We have to be willing to assume more up-front risk (i.e. spend money) for the chance of greater returns (i.e make money). Freelance editors, artists, and publicists are going to reap a windfall as well. If you’re interested in finding out more, here’s a great resource.

Quite a few self-published works are showing up in Amazon’s top 20 sci-fi. Hopefully mine will be joining them in a few weeks. Guess I’d better pick up a Kindle, huh?

Editor’s Critiques and Other Unpleasantries

There’s a reason that universally unpleasant experiences are often likened to a rectal exam. Sports physicals, enemas, IRS audits, TSA screenings…you get the picture. Writers have our own extra-special version of this invasive probing: that first editorial critique.

Ah, but we should welcome the input of wise professionals if we want to become polished writers ourselves. Well, yeah, but…guys my age are supposed to have prostate exams every year too. Doesn’t mean I look forward to it.

I’ve been a contributing writer for an aviation mag for several years now, and must admit that the final copy of most everything I’ve submitted has been much better than the original draft. My editor at AeroSafety World is great to work with and makes me look like a real author. And I fully credit that experience with getting my foot in the door at Smithsonian’s Air & Space. First story I submitted to them went through with hardly any changes, which was a fist-bumping moment.

But as my last post mentioned, after nearly a year of sending queries for Perigee it became clear that the manuscript wasn’t ready for publication. By a stroke of incredible luck, I was able to have my manuscript reviewed at no cost by a real editorial pro. Believe me, that critique is treated like the gold that it’s worth. It could have easily cost me a grand. One agent’s feedback in particular closely matched what the professional reader had to say.

It’s important here to note that you absolutely must not take every point of criticism to heart. Much can be chalked up to personal taste, and you must be willing to leave it at that. But if different readers voice similar complaints – especially if they fill in the blanks of some unknown gnawing at you – that’s when it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

That’s also when the “probing” starts. It’s hard to have something so intensely personal as a completed work of fiction picked apart by a dispassionate professional. It hurts.

Fortunately, the magazine gig taught me to not take any of it personally. That’s the first mark of a professional. If you can stand another American Idol reference: watch the clowns who go all Jerry Springer-hysterical when the judges  point out that they couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. Think they’re ever going anywhere besides karaoke night at Hooters? Not that Idol is much different, but I digress…

Some common points that the pros dinged me on rang true: too many characters, too much jargon, uneven pacing, and not enough conflict. The last two are especially deadly if you’re presuming to write a techno-thriller.

The jargon thing is a tough call –  it is a techno-thriller after all. But I’m learning how to work in just enough inside-baseball stuff to give it an air of realism. I want readers to feel like they’re stranded in orbit on the Asia Clipper, working nonstop in flight control to mount a rescue, or scrambling to outsmart the industrial saboteur who’s trying to sink your company.

Whittling down the cast of characters to a manageable group was easier than I thought. A couple who I’d thought would be central in the beginning just never really developed. Couldn’t find their own voices, whereas another who was intended to be a foil ended up as a major player in her own right.

Oddly enough, the women were the easiest characters to voice. Don’t ask me how, they just took on lives of their own. Penny and Audrey were a lot of fun to write; Audrey especially. She emerged as someone with a lot of ability who constantly questions herself (am I really up to this?), which should  help the reader appreciate the demanding Mission Control environment a bit more. I think she also helps illustrate the sclerotic bureaucracy that NASA has become.

A lot of my characters are based on combinations of personalities that I’ve run across in the airline business, as these are the people who’ll be making space-tourist companies like Virgin Galactic work. But Penny is the only one inspired wholly by one individual who shall remain nameless, someone I have tremendous respect for. And she gets to really kick @$$ in the next book.

Charlie Grant, the unflappable flight control director, started as one of my favorites but he never really broke out. Probably just as well, since it would’ve been a too-obvious riff on Ed Harris in Apollo 13. A lot of what was intended for him ends up in hard-nosed CEO Art Hammond, another secondary character who moved up the pecking order.

So the concept of re-drawing characters wasn’t too difficult, but building them back into the story is a logistics challenge. The manuscript’s full of circles and arrows in red ink, and that’s not even addressing the pacing yet.

Pacing is a much harder skill to master. Comp 101: every story has a beginning, middle, and end. I got that. And the beginning, middle, and end rock IMHO. Unfortunately, connecting the dots in between is more of a challenge. Something you’d think would’ve been obvious was that I didn’t take full advantage of the range of personality conflicts that could emerge in a diverse group of people trapped in orbit. That, and the subplot of industrial espionage needs to have a larger presence.

Bottom line (which should be obvious): each chapter must move the story along in some discernible way. And there must be some measure of conflict, otherwise it’s just a bunch of drones standing around reading their lines like, I don’t know, the Star Wars prequels.

Oops! He didn’t just say that? Sure did, beeches. Revenge of the Sith was cool, though.

NEXT: Self-Publish or Perish?

Agents! Oh No!

“You hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

-Agent Smith

So, I’m watching The Matrix with our boys a while back and realized the near-omniscient “agents” of the virtual world are maybe not all that different from agents in the literary world. They have super strength, deadly aim, can assume the forms of other people, and generally make life hell on anyone who knows too much.

What? They DON’T have all those things?

How about the near-omniscience part? The ability to manipulate their world? Okay, maybe now we’re getting closer to reality.

Anyone who’s managed to write anything beyond the first couple of chapters has probably begun to wonder how they’ll eventually get said work published. Which means at some point, they’ll have discovered the concept of “agents”. The keepers of the keys to the kingdom. The aspiring writer may have even looked into the mysterious process of “querying” said kingdom-key-keeper-ers.

But it’s not until you send your first meticulously crafted query letters to a few selected agents, and experienced the sting of swift rejection, do you get a peek into the misery of a new writer’s life.

If you’re one of those lucky few who struck paydirt on your first query, signed with an agency, and secured a publishing deal…read no further. Congratulations. You suck. And I mean that in the most respectful, affectionate way. But you still suck.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those strong souls who can compartmentalize your emotions and keep the writer-business relationship in coolly detached perspective…you may also read no further. You suck, too.

For the rest of us who invest countless hours of intellectual effort, plumbing our emotional depths, to brazenly serve up the fruits of our labor to the intelligentsia only to have our hopes beaten back with a form rejection (or several dozen of them)…keep reading.

Literary agents fill the role of slush-pile readers that the big publishers used to employ and so are spring-loaded to say “no thanks”. From what I gather, their lives are a lot like “American Idol” judges: wading through a lot of dreck to find the real talent. But they’re your ticket into the world of traditional publishing. If you sign with an agency, they’ll rep your work and hopefully land a deal. It’s in their interest to land you a good deal, because that’s how they make money (generally 15% of your take).

Now, the e-publishing revolution is changing that equation quite a bit. That’ll have to wait for another post. In the meantime, never, ever, pay an agent out of your own pocket. If they charge “reading fees”, they’re not legit.

Myself, I waited until the first draft of Perigee was nearly finished until I started looking into publishing. By reputation, I knew it’d be a tough nut to crack but had no idea how tough.

Timing didn’t help either, coming around the time of the financial meltdown. Publishing houses, already selective enough, were apparently getting a whole lot more selective. Their gate-keepers, the agents, knew this and likewise became more selective. And the spike in joblessness apparently also meant that a lot more budding writers were cranking out manuscripts while collecting their unemployment checks.

It would be easy to blame my lack of success on all of those factors, and it undoubtedly made for a steeper hill to climb. But I finally came to realize that my first query letter was terrible; stank like a flatulent skunk tanked up on PBR and microwave burritos. But it probably made for a few laughs at the unsuspecting agencies it was sent to; if that’s true, you’re welcome. Glad I could brighten your day.

While figuring out what to do about Query 2.0, I started reaching out to some published authors. One is actually a friend from high school who’s been quite successful in the Christian fiction market. The other had published a couple of aviation techno-thrillers, a niche close to my own. Another is a big name in the techno-thriller genre and was kind enough to critique my first three chapters.

I can’t tell you how motivating it was to connect with successful authors who were willing to give their time and advice to an unknown quantity. One of them went so far as to call me at home (not the high school friend, BTW) and share his experiences, which was a huge encouragement.

As with everything else, do your research. You’ll find writers in your own genre who are willing to help out newbies; just drop ’em an e-mail. If you have the resources to go a writer’s conference like Thrillerfest, by all means do it. And let me know what it’s like!

I learned that a successful query has to be punchy, like the inside dust-jacket copy that makes you realize I must buy this book RIGHT NOW. Find a way to describe your novel in five sentences or less (preferably less). After writing nearly 100,000 words, it’s amazing how hard it can be to whittle that down to one paragraph.

Isolate the high points: what makes it cool? Here’s the current pitch:

A revolutionary globe-spanning airliner is stranded in orbit, with no way home before the air runs out.

At hypersonic speed, Polaris AeroSpace has become the premium choice for rapid travel across the world. When a veteran crew is marooned by a series of baffling malfunctions, the upstart spaceline must race against time to mount a rescue.  Amidst a spreading web of industrial espionage, one man realizes their deliverance may require a terrible sacrifice.

There are a lot of great resources on the web. If you want to see other people’s rookie mistakes, check out Janet Reid, the Query Shark. Submit your own, if you dare.

And I highly recommend Noah Lukeman’s book, “The First Five Pages”. He also offers a great e-book on query letters, FOR FREE. Did I mention IT’S FREE?

After finally being satisfied with Q2.0, I discovered another great web resource, Query Tracker. This site enables you to research agents in your genre (but always cross-check their agency websites) and track the status of your queries. It beat the snot out of the Excel spreadsheet I’d set up.

I felt really confident about Q2.0, and that confidence was not misplaced. The rejections still came (as they always will), but so did something else: requests for more! Real, live literary agents were asking to see my manuscript. Woo-hoo!

Unfortunately, that’s how I ultimately figured out that Perigee wasn’t quite ready for prime time. But hey, at least my wife loved it…

NEXT: Editorial Critiques

The Writer’s Life (With a Day Job)

PERIGEE [per-i-jee]: noun, Astronomy: The point in the orbit of a heavenly body or an artificial satellite at which it is nearest to the earth.

Like so many writers, I started a novel because it was something I wanted to read. Something that no one else was writing.

Perigee began almost seven years ago as a budding desire to write began to overcome me. Lots of disjointed ideas had been competing for space inside my head, but nothing would sit still long enough to take root.

Around this time, SpaceShip One became the first privately-owned vehicle to fly a man into space. To a geek like me, this was cool beyond words. It also came at a time when I had rediscovered my childhood interest in spaceflight and was steeping myself in both its history and technicalities.

Not long after that, Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic, the world’s first “spaceline”. I was around-the-bend excited at the prospect.

Why? It’s not like I can afford a ticket.

True enough. But recall that I work in aviation and have a fair amount of expertise in some of the skill sets he’ll eventually (hopefully) need in larger numbers. When Branson described his long-term business goals, I was even more psyched. That is, he’d eventually like to start suborbital city-to-city service: imagine Sydney to LA in two hours at Mach 6, above the atmosphere.

Sounds nutty, until you remember that enough people were willing to pony up $200,000 per ticket for a 15-minute hop into space. Enough for Branson to contract for a whole fleet of SpaceShip Two’s. I’d wager his customers would be willing to pay at least that much for a longer ride that actually, you know, took them somewhere. I’d further be willing to bet that if it could be made routine enough, my own employer would be interested. Maybe not this decade, but certainly in my lifetime.

So, as an operations guy, I got to thinking…what would that kind of service look like? It’d have to run pretty much like an airline. Much better service, mind you – we’re not talking Southwest peanuts here – but still. And for the same reasons, I naturally started to wonder what kinds of things could go wrong up there (we do that a lot in this business).

Quite a bit, as it turns out. And that’s when a couple of ideas finally took root. Pretty soon, they coalesced into a storyline and began to flow.

Namely, what happens if something that wasn’t designed to go into orbit…goes into orbit? That would make for a bad day for a lot of people. Could you rescue them? Could the bird survive re-entry at those speeds (because being “in space” and “in orbit” can mean vastly different things). It would also provide lots of opportunities for dramatic interaction between the people stranded up there.

Now, I’m a fan of authors like Tom Clancy because he gets the tech right and builds interesting stories around it. Michael Crichton’s just-on-the-edge-of-possible stories were especially intriguing for the same reasons, and that’s the limited range of sci-fi that I prefer. While I enjoy watching Star Trek, I’d rather not read about how the Enterprise was saved from disaster at the last minute because, once again, Geordi reversed the polarity of the warp core. That’s too easy. Hell, you’d think by now he’d have installed an “emergency polarity-reversal” switch.

Anybody can make up scientific-sounding flapdoodle with no grounding in reality. I wanted my work to be believable. Doable. No “Easy Buttons”. So there would be much to learn. In the meantime, I started the book anyway because it didn’t make sense to wait for every question to be answered. I had a clear idea of how it would begin and how the action would be set up; learning how to solve Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation would have to wait.

By now, you’re asking  “where does that day job come in?” As luck would have it, I ended up in an engineering-related job which was exactly where I wanted to be. The company sent me away to school for a few weeks at a time, and paid for me to take Calculus in between. It was awesome, the high point of my non-writing career so far. But it also left me with little time and even less motivation to write.

If you’re really happy with your day job, it can be harder to devote several hours a week to the keyboard. Especially if you have a family with small children. Writing is fun, but it’s also work that takes time. I can bang out a nonfiction magazine article in 45-minute chunks over a week or two. A novel doesn’t work like that: for it to be any good at all, you have to immerse yourself into an alternate reality of your own creation. But fortunately, I’d at least been keeping a notebook and wrote down every random thought about Perigee. And there were lots of ’em. They started waking me up at night, in fact. That’s when you know it’s time to do something, when either God or your own head just won’t leave you alone. You decide which is which.

About that time, a blessing in disguise came along: our computer died, taking 80-some pages of my manuscript with it. I was thinking the book needed a re-boot anyway, and ended up with what I think is a really kick-@$$ first chapter. And that gave me the momentum to dive back in and finish the dadgum thing.

What an experience, to finally jump head-first into a world I’d created. Every writer has to find his own groove, and when you do, magic happens. Characters began speaking in their own voices, plot threads worked themselves out…a tremendous amount of work, but remarkably easy, if that makes sense. Once it got going, I was just along for the ride. After about a year of dedicated effort, my first novel was finally complete.

Good for you, Hemingway. Now what?

NEXT: Agents!!! (and not “The Matrix” kind, either)

The End of the Beginning

First, a hearty Welcome and Thank You for test-driving my blog. I hope it brings you many hours of enjoyment and thought-provocation. But for now, you’ll have to wade through the obligatory first post self-indulgence…

I’m a space geek, which considering the circumstances was probably unavoidable. My grandfather followed the Gemini and Apollo programs pretty closely, and my uncle lived (still does) not far from Cape Canaveral. I remember all of the moon landing missions, and was lucky enough to see a couple launches of the final Saturn boosters. I collected all of the space-program toys that my grandpa could get from the Gulf Oil stations or that could be pried out of  Tang  jars.

So yeah, I’ve been marinating in this stuff since I was a little kid. And now that the last Space Shuttle is in orbit, it’s high time for me to get off my butt and start blogging.

What the heck does that have to do with anything?

Considering everything I just described, when time came to head off for college, what would’ve been the obvious choice of majors?

Well, English, of course. I like writing.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. Mike Collins, Apollo 11 command module pilot, was once quoted as saying “what the space program needs is more English majors”. So there.

But since nobody else in aerospace apparently feels that way, I embarked on a career in boring old plain-jane aviation. Eventually got qualified as an aircraft performance engineer, something of which I am immensely proud. And I kept on writing.

Again, what does this have to do with anything?

I write about aerospace and other things. And that’s where the Space Shuttle comes in…

NASA has turned into a first-class, grade-A boondoggle. A money pit. A place where great ideas go to die in the bottomless well of bureaucracy. The shuttle essentially became a vehicle with no clear destination, meant to service a space station that didn’t exist. So, we set out to build a space station so the shuttles would have somewhere to go. Can you say “circular logic?” I knew you could.

And then there was Columbia. Out of that tragedy, NASA was presented with a golden opportunity to follow a different path. For the first time, it looked like they would take a competitive approach, like the Pentagon does when they want to buy a new fighter. Let the contractors prototype their own designs, hold a fly-off, and Uncle Sugar will decide which one they want to drop money on. Private industry would have a bigger role in transport to low orbit, and NASA would focus on the higher-risk work of developing technologies that would finally get us beyond Earth orbit again.

Until they decided not to anymore. Until they decided on a do-over of Apollo that ended up being unrealistic, unsustainable, and unaffordable. They set up a slow-motion train wreck that has reached its inevitable outcome: our country no longer has its own access to space.

Hopefully that won’t  be for long.

Human spaceflight is uniquely complex and risky. But it does not have to be mind-bogglingly expensive. Right now, there are private individuals who have invested their own fortunes in new vehicles and hardware that have already driven down the price of access to orbit. And they will continue to drive it down and innovate along the way. In the Sixties, getting people up there was sufficiently new enough, with uncertain benefits, that a government program was the only quick way to do it. But after fifty years, launching to and recovering from orbit is now well-enough understood that it’s time to let private enterprise take over. Let SpaceX or Boeing or Blue Origin get our people and stuff up there, and NASA can get back to doing the research necessary to actually go somewhere again.

We’ve not lost our space program. What we’re doing is unleashing a space industry.

And that brings me back to writing.

I’ve finished a novel, Perigee, which explores the new world of private spaceflight and its tension with the old guard at NASA. The first chapter sets up the end of the Shuttle program, but in a markedly different way than what you might have seen on TV the other day. I’ve posted it here on the blog and offer it up for your enjoyment. Perigee‘s first draft is done, but I’m rewriting some elements. This obviously includes chapter one since, well, there ain’t no shuttles no more. Other chapters will be posted if there’s enough interest, and the full novel will be available at Amazon once I’m satisfied with the final product.

Bottom line: I’m sad to see this era pass only because those things were cool. But let’s face it: all they did was literally fly around in circles. It’s time to go somewhere again. And in the meantime, if I can’t participate in it, I can at least write about it.

This blog will be about a lot of other stuff, too. Very few topics will be off-limits, but this is where my head is today.

In the meantime, Glenn Reynolds summed it up quite nicely in the Atlantic some time ago.

UPDATE: blogger and “recovering aerospace engineer” Rand Simberg is always worth reading on this topic. Here’s his take in Popular Mechanics.