No, the other Hocking: interview with a self-publishing sf novelist

Paul Raven @ 28-03-2011

Déjà Vu by Ian HockingAll this talk about ebooks and the new tension (or is it an axis?) between traditional publishing and self-publishing (or, as I’m seeing suggested elsewhere, “legacy publishing” and “indie publishing”)… it’s hard to know what’s going on from a seat in the bleachers, with pundits and firebrands drawing conclusions from the roughly aggregated actions of hundreds of writers. So let’s step into the trenches for a moment and talk with someone who’s actually doing it; when there’s no universal narrative to be found, individual accounts become all the more important.

Long-term readers may remember Doctor Ian Hocking as a member of the now defunct Friday Flash Fiction crew, regularly linked to from these pages. Doctor Hocking, tell the nice people of the internet about yourself and what you’re up to.

IH: Hello, people of the internet. My name is Ian. It’s a long story – why I’m going down the self-publishing route, that is. A few years back – in 2005 – I published my first book, Déjà Vu, with the UKA Press. There were a few obstacles in my path (some laid by my publisher, many by me, some by the way that publishing works) but it was, by any objective measure, a success. I had great reviews in the Guardian, blurbs from Ken MacLeod and Ian Watson, and the odd bit of fan mail. (For completeness, I should say that I was treated to an absolute stinker of a review in Interzone – this guy seemed perplexed to the point of rage, like someone who ordered ice cream and got fruit salad.)

Anyway, while I started to finish the sequels, I garnered some interest from a traditional publisher, picked up an agent, and then, when the publisher pulled out, my agent began hustling. That hustling has been happening for five years or so. Last summer, I decided to retire from writing to concentrate on my career as a psychologist. There are more details in this blog post.

My plan is to finish editing the novels on my own and put them out as ebooks. I have two more in the Saskia Brandt series (the first of which is Déjà Vu; second Flashback; third The Amber Rooms) and comedy novel set in Cornwall called Proper Job.

After a disappointing result with regular publishing, and a recent decision to quit writing, what’s changed your mind all of a sudden? Would a certain newsworthy person who shares your surname have anything to do with it?

IH: I’ve quit writing and I’ll stay quit until something in my soul re-aligns itself, and I don’t see that happening for a very long time. The decision wasn’t made quickly. In short, nobody in the publishing industry (with the exception of my agent, John Jarrold) valued my work, so I stopped writing because nobody was ever going to read it. Déjà Vu is now out on the Kindle (and iBooks, with a bit of luck) and its sequels will follow. The sequels are not new books. They’re books I’ve written while waiting for Déjà Vu to take off from its particular runway – or, to quote Stephen King, to either shit or get off the pot. So I’m not writing. I’m editing.

The newsworthy person who shares my surname does indeed have something to do with it. When I first published Déjà Vu, it was so difficult to get hold of that it was barely published at all. This wasn’t a disaster; I still got a good review The Guardian, blurbs from writers I admire like Ken MacLeod, and these things matter.

About Amanda Hocking. Her success represents a watershed moment. To recap: Hocking has made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling her books as digital downloads, predominantly through Amazon (for the Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (for the Nook). Now, her success is not something that should make a sane person spit out their tobacco, shout ‘Gold!’ and run for their spade – but it does suggest that there is a market.

Various statistics have been bandied about showing that while growth in physical book sales is slowing, growth in ebooks is accelerating. As a person who owns a Kindle, it’s easy to see why. The buying is immediate, cheap, and frictionless; the device weighs less than my watch (so I have a heavy watch).

At the same time, I was emailing with fellow authors Michael Fuchs and Stephen J Sweeney about their experiences of ebooks. I decided to put Déjà Vu out for the Kindle. My intention was, and is, to ‘park’ the book. Get it out there and off the pot so I that can concentrate on the sequels.

In the first week Déjà Vu sold about ten copies. It’s now the second week (March 24, 2011) and it’s sold 120. As I write, it’s at number eight in Amazon’s science fiction best-seller chart. If it stops selling tomorrow, the experience has already been more than worth it.

Déjà Vu was dead; now it isn’t.

There seems to be a mad rush to re-brand self-publishing: my Twitter stream is full of talk of “legacy” vs. “indie publishing” (which, if nothing else, seems to have negated the existence of a thriving small press scene, but hey…). Are you self-publishing, or would you call it something else? Given Déjà Vu was published “traditionally”, you’ve got a good get-out if you need (or want) it, but the sequels – how would you respond to accusations of them being little more than a low-budget vanity project?

IH: Yes, the legacy vs. indie dichotomy is a strange one, etymologically at least. I’d call my original publisher (the UKA Press) an indie. It isn’t much fun being an indie in the traditional publishing game, as anyone who has to deal with a bookshop chain will tell you.

Labels – and, if you will, schmables.

I would call this self-publishing. I knocked up the cover myself, typeset the book, and made all the decisions about its appearance. It’s fair to say that I didn’t edit the book myself. (I’m not sure if self-editing is possible – insert warnings about blindness here.) One of the gifts of being traditionally published is that an editor was assigned to my book – the redoubtable Aliya Whiteley – and treated it like a hot-shot editor parachuting in to sort out a 10-hour rough cut of footage into 90-minute movie that would get bums on seats. And, boy, did my novel need it. There are few that don’t, I’ll wager, and they are easy to spot.

Are the sequels a low-budget vanity project? Ultimately, I suppose so. I’m the publisher (or Amazon is; depends how you look at it); I’ve made the decision to publish the books; and I’ll make all decisions about the layout. I do have one trick up my sleeve: Flashback and The Amber Rooms will be professionally edited. The proceeds from Déjà Vu should soon cover that cost, which is a nice bit of bootstrapping.

Vanity is an interesting concept. If it means that the books don’t deserve publication and the narcissism of the author warps his or her judgement, then let’s call it that: a book that doesn’t deserved to be published. Not a good thing, we’d probably agree. But if means that other people don’t the book is worth publishing despite the confidence of author…then we’re including a lot of books. Let’s call something a vanity project in retrospect and be optimistic in prospect.

This series of books is not a vanity project. They will either sell few copies or many copies. I’m defining ‘many’ as a very small number, because I only want that number to be non-zero. Zero is the number of readers the books currently have.

A refreshing lack of illusions! Zooming out from your own personal intentions, where do you stand on the afore-mentioned semantic schism between “legacy” and “indie” publishing?

IH: Well, the words don’t really make sense, but the ideas of a ‘pre’ and ‘post’ publishing distinction might have some worth. It’s certainly the case that something like The Guardian Review – which was part of my reading ritual every weekend – seems to be drifting away into something less relevant. There is, I think, a real distinction between the publishing model that involves giving an author a loan (i.e. the advance), front-loading all the publicity, kow-towing to the somewhat cheeky constraints of booksellers like Waterstone’s, and crossing fingers that an author can break out in something like J. K. Rowling warp speed, allowing all concern to laugh on the way to the bank, and a model that is more gradual, sensible and gives an author time to apprentice himself or herself. The former sounds like a caricature but it’s not too far from the truth. Traditional publishers need to make a lot of money. They are slow to adapt. They cling to older models because these offer certainty, and certainty is what keeps a business going. But it isn’t something that allows for growth.

Those ‘post’ publishing outfits – what you might term indie – are closer to the ideal of what a publisher should be for most people. How many cookbooks and celebrity memoirs come out of indies? ‘Philip Schofield Presents His Top Ten Tea-Time Treats’ – screw that. They are smaller, hungrier and more ready to adapt to new technologies.

One of the strangest things to observe over the past few years is that publishers haven’t really got behind ebooks. They are doing so now, and this is in large part due to Amazon, who have created a huge market for them by exploiting their position. It’s almost as if the traditional publishing industry is trying to emulate the death of record labels. It isn’t the 1970s any more. We don’t need the middle men to take the major slice of a retail unit. The distribution is free and it’s the Internet. Traditional publishers can still play a role – in editing and packaging – but they needn’t arse around with print runs (i.e. educated guesses of demand) and returns (the measure of much you got the demand wrong).

Would you care to re-don your science-fictional cap for a moment and speculate about the next five years of publishing? (Not to hold you to as a prediction, but just to get your opinion on self-publishing as viable strategy in the long term.) Is the new landscape starting to emerge yet, or are we only at the beginning of the Great Flux?

IH: That’s a good question. I’m sure there are many people in the industry better placed than me who are paid a great deal of money to think ahead like this…but I think the Kindle has changed the game. Remember that it isn’t *this* Kindle – the one on my desk, which I’m tapping. It’s the Kindle brand and the Kindle attitude. The device is only going to get sharper text, a better contrast ratio, and probably cheaper. We’re seeing something approaching that hateful phrase ‘iPod moment’. Technology presents the consumer with a possibility, and the consumer demands more ebooks.

This isn’t a younger/older generation split either, I think. When people like my grandmother see an ebook reader and understand they can get obscure books instantly, can increase their text size, and the rest of it,they tend to get excited. An ebook reader is a better technological to long-form text than dead trees (not in all ways, but most).

Five years’ time: Much the same as now, but with no growth in physical book sales, greater growth in ebooks, lower priced ebooks, more writers, and fewer mega-star writers.

There you have it, folks. I think it’s fair to say Ian’s a fairly unique case at present, but given the way things are moving, that may not be the case for very long. You can buy a copy of Déjà Vu for your Kindle for just £0.70 in British money… and whatever your position in the “how much should a fuggin’ ebook cost, anyway?!” debate, I think you’d find it hard to disagree that’s a price with very little risk attached to it from the reader’s point of view. 🙂

Are you a self-publishing genre author — whether completely independent, currently without a traditional publisher or just re-upping your backlist off your own back? Would you like the chance to take the mic here at Futurismic and talk about why and how you’re doing it? If so, please drop me a line and let me know.


Welcome to the walled garden. Would you like to hire a periscope?

Paul Raven @ 16-02-2011

While we’re on the subject of ebooks, publishing, digital content delivery and all that jazz… how’re you “the iPad is the future of publishing!” types feeling right now?

Yup: that lush easy-to-use interface makes purchasing easy, and easy purchases happen more often! Which means those 30% rake-offs should make House Cupertino’s share prices rocket still further!

And should your customer – heaven forbid! – want to take true ownership of their hardware, don’t be surprised if that cuts them off from the content they bought through sanctioned channels.

All that money you spent on setting up your new outlet in the glitzy new mall… it seemed like a great way of short-cutting around the economic problems out on the old high street, didn’t it?

You went to bed with the landlord, and he went and raised the rent anyway.

Sleep tight.


Publishing and piracy: more Mamatas

Paul Raven @ 26-01-2011

How timely! An SF Signal Mind Meld post on “the future of publishing”… featuring a rather dystopic but all-too-plausible worst-case-scenario from Cheryl Morgan, and another serving of brutal truth from Nick Mamatas:

Piracy will always be with us, and in the end it’ll just be figured into the cost of doing business; ebook prices will come down to a more reasonable level and piracy will be a problem along the lines of shoplifting. Writers will be more likely to license World English rights rather than territorial rights for their books to make them more widely available to readers who pirate out of fannish desperation.

I also anticipate at least one of the major publishers crumbling back into its component imprints, which will actually be a good thing–indeed, it’ll be the thing that will allow ebooks to come down to the $3-5 price range. There’s a lot of whining about how print costs are only 10% of the cover price of a book, so ebooks prices can only sink so low, but the plain fact is that publisher overhead, specifically in the forms of Manhattan real estate and payouts to distributors with giant warehouses, are both utterly superfluous and easily eliminated. The major houses are pigs and some of them are going to die.

[…]

It won’t be bad, unless you’re one of the few people making money right now with mindless hackwork. If you are the 2010s will be your decade to suffer as the rest of us have suffered these past thirty years.

Ouch. Compare and contrast to Gordon Van Gelder’s “I dunno” shrug, which – while honest – smacks more than a little of an ostrich impersonation; F&SF, I’d remind you, still doesn’t accept electronic submissions.


Piracy and privilege

Paul Raven @ 24-01-2011

One of the topics-of-the-moment for the genre blogosphere over the last few weeks (at least among the people who weren’t panicking over the potential demise of Fringe) has been… yup, ebook piracy. It’s been a bit depressing to watch, really, because it’s consisted predominantly of publishers and authors either wringing their hands over piracy or trying to blast it out of the water with Words Of Righteous Ire. Understandable reactions, certainly, but – as I’ve said many times before – counterproductive in the extreme. When one has such a high profile text-book example of how not to react to a technology-driven seismic shake-up of one’s business model as the that provided by the music industry in recent years, well, you’d think that folk would pay attention to it. To be fair, some have.

No one likes an inconvenient truth, but that doesn’t make it any less true. My own tirades on the matter of piracy in publishing – which regular readers will be aware boils down to “face the facts and stop tilting at windmills” – are easily ignored by industry professionals: I don’t have a horse in the race (not yet, anyway), and I’m speaking from a position of relative privilege. It is the latter, I suspect, that makes Cory Doctorow’s stance so unpalatable to so many: he does have horses in the race (which are consistently placing well at the finish line, too), but he’s still saying that fighting piracy is a waste of time! It all seems abundantly unfair, especially to writers and small publishers trying to get their titles out and make a living at the same time.

The trouble is that the counter-piracy debate also stands in a position of comparative privilege, as this essay from Charles Tan at the World SF Blog neatly points out:

The problem with discussions of eBook piracy, or simply giving away your work for free, is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you’re popular like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, then it’s mostly a loss to you, since you’re not really after fame but income (to say nothing of the futility of stamping out each and every pirate). To obscure writers, like say a genre writer in the Philippines, it’s probably more of a gain, since we’re not popular enough in the first place to acquire a sufficient following to earn a significant amount from our writing. My friend Lavie Tidhar laments that his books aren’t being pirated and to a certain extent, piracy is a popularity metric; if no one is pirating you, then there’s little demand for your writing.

[…]

I can understand authors hating piraters (the people who distribute their books online). If someone interfered with my income, I’d be angry too. There’s a gray area though when it comes to people who simply download eBooks. If they buy your book after illegally downloading it, will you hate them as well? If they donate to your site, or review your book, etc.? There’s no universal–or correct–answer here. Some authors will rage–and perhaps rightfully so–that their book got downloaded, irregardless of whether the downloader eventually bought the book. Others will take context into consideration. I just want to warn that just because your book got illegally downloaded 1,000 times does not mean you would have gotten paid 1,000 times for that work (although yes, it is theft). Some readers, when forced with the alternative, will buy your book. Others won’t. There is no definite statistic (i.e. 10% of readers, 50% of readers, etc.). The only thing you can be certain is that that number is anywhere between one and 1,000.

With the exception of the assertion that ebook piracy is theft (which is open to debate, even if only on semantic and ideological grounds, due to the status of ebooks as what economists call infinite goods), and one numerical error (the number of lost sales is anywhere between zero and one thousand), Charles is pretty much on the money there: he’s taking an honest appraisal of the playing field rather than calling it out for not conforming to a best case scenario. But if you prefer the blunt and caustic approach, then who better to ask but Nick Mamatas?

I found it amusing because of how passive-aggressive some of its writer-participants were. Apparently, e-piracy is to blame for their failure to make the bestseller lists and thus become wealthy enough to write more books. And now, *snif snif* they might have to stop. (How wealthy were these poor things when they wrote their first publishable books? They should try doing whatever they were doing then, again!) There was one particular delusion I can no longer find a link to sadly, but it was something along the lines of a guess on a writer’s part that thousands of people were downloading her work and that if only “ten percent” actually bought the book her advance would have earned out and her publisher would like her.

[…]

When it comes to piracy or even legitimate free-to-paid customers, conversion rates are more generally a fraction of one percent. A banner ad might be seen by tens of millions of people, and clicked by tens of thousands. A few thousand may interact with whatever is on the other side of that ad—say downloading a free app on one’s smartphone or tablet. Then perhaps a few hundred will actually use that app to buy something—say a comic book or ebook after reading the free samples bundled with the app. Our Ten Percent Pal, starting with thousands, shared her upset with the whole Internet over what was probably a total of fewer than half-a-dozen lost sales. She would have been better off spending her time patrolling local bookstores to stop shoplifters or those people who can read a whole book while nursing a cup of coffee at the big box chains. Then she might have stopped TEN people from reading her stuff without arranging with a publisher to send her maybe $2.50 eighteen months from now.

This is a point that I and many others have made repeatedly, but it still isn’t sinking in: a pirated ebook does not represent a lost sale. It probably doesn’t even represent an appreciable fraction of a lost sale, especially to authors who aren’t currently shifting units on the Brown/Rowling/King scale. And as Charles points out, it may actually be spreading your work further than it would have gotten otherwise.

As I always feel obliged to do, I should reiterate here that there is nothing triumphalist about my advocacy of pragmatism in the face of piracy (despite what some of the charming people who’ve emailed me about it may choose to believe). Many of my friends and clients are published authors; I hold some slim hope that I might become one myself some day. The last thing I want to see is a world where authors don’t get paid for their work.

And that’s precisely why I take a stand for pragmatism, for dealing with things as they actually are rather than how we’d like them to be. As Doctorow frequently reminds us, the internet is a machine that facilitates the duplication of digital content, and that particular genie will not go back in the bottle, no matter how hard we wish or how fervently we point out that it isn’t fair.

And as tempting as it may be, the worst thing you can do is get all ranty and angry at the actual pirates themselves, who often proudly boast of their fightin’-the-man ethics. The usual justification for pillorying the pirates is that they need to be shamed out of their Robin Hood complex… but if you get all Sheriff of Nottingham on someone with that mindset, you’re just entrenching them deeper into their own ideology while framing yourself as the [corrupt/broken/overpriced] system that they believe they’re fighting against. Let me say it clearly and simply:

The pirates are a lost cause.

They are the people who were least likely to ever pay for the product they’re copying, and the most likely to be further polarised by rhetoric that blusters about their immoral or illegal behaviour. In a way, you are encouraging them by trying to shame them in public. I repeat: trying to stem the flow of uploads is a lost cause.

Stemming the flow of downloads, however, is not so futile. The people most worth reaching out to are those who either would pay if they could afford to (and as Charles points out, a large percentage of them genuinely can’t afford to buy at current prices), or who can’t get the titles they want any other way. Don’t pillory them, woo them: ask them to be patient; keep them aware of your efforts to embrace new formats in a way that serves both them and the authors; show that you want them to be customers.

Keep the door open… because if you close it on them now, they’ll just go elsewhere. Sure, that’s loads more work, and times are hard, and and and and. But that’s just the way it is. In a ideal world, none of this would be an issue. But this isn’t an ideal world. They only exist in books.

And to return to the example of the music industry, it’s the publishers who need to lead in this matter. The demand for fiction isn’t going to dry up; nor is the mass of people producng the stuff. Unless you want to go the way of EMI, you need to make your position as middlemen between author and reader into one that benefits both sides of the equation, or the authors and readers will eventually find ways to connect directly and cut you out of the loop, just as bands and their fans are doing. I strongly believe that the editorial and curational process of publishing adds value to the finished product, and have no wish to see publishing houses wither away. But like nature, economics – particularly the economics of infinite goods – is cruel, and uncaring of human ethics. Getting angry isn’t working; find something that does.

Evolve or die. That’s not a threat, it’s a plea.


Comfortable in the world: ereaders vs. tablets

Paul Raven @ 17-01-2011

Tom Armitage at Berg compares the seductive gloss of the multipurpose iPad with the more homely functionality of the Kindle; an interesting (and user-centric) argument against technological convergence?

The iPad bursts into life, its backlight on, the blinking “slide to unlock” label hinting at the direction of the motion it wants you to make. That rich, vibrant screen craves attention.

The Kindle blinks – as if it’s remembering where it was – and then displays a screen that’s usually composed of text. The content of the screen changes, but the quality of it doesn’t. There’s no sudden change in brightness or contrast, no backlight. If you hadn’t witnessed the change, you might not think there was anything to pay attention to there.

[…]

Attention-seeking is something we often do when we’re uncomfortable, though – when we need to remind the world we’re still there. And the strongest feeling I get from my recently-acquired Kindle is that it’s comfortable in the world.

That matte, paper-like e-ink screen feels familiar, calm – as opposed to the glowing screens of so many devices that have no natural equivalents. The iPad seems natural enough when it’s off – it has a pleasant glass and metal aesthetic. But hit that home button and that glow reveals its alien insides.

Perhaps the Kindle’s comfort is down to its single-use nature. After all, it knows it already has your attention – when you come to it, you pick it up with the act of reading already in mind.

Provocative stuff… but in the interests of journalistic balance (yeah, right), here’s Jonah Lehrer anguishing over the observation that ereaders may be too easy to read:

I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten. Let me explain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, has helped illuminate the neural anatomy of reading. It turns out that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, which are activated in different contexts. One pathway is known as the ventral route, and it’s direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading. The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s semantic meaning.

[…]

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The second reading pathway – it’s known as the dorsal stream – is turned on whenever we’re forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting.  (In his experiments, Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even fluent adults are still forced to occasionally make sense of texts. We’re suddenly conscious of the words on the page; the automatic act has lost its automaticity.

This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

Someone email Nick Carr; I think we’ve found his next padawan. 😉


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