Your First Published Novel: Part 6

So I had an offer on Death by Cliché. That might seem like a slam dunk. Here’s the thing, though: I wasn’t sure that it was the smartest business move.

If Curiosity Quills had been one of the Big Five, It would have been an easier decision (but still not a slam dunk). You see, I have access to a rather large audience. I am a part of a podcast network that tops out at more listeners than our local ABC news affiliate. On top of that, I’m friends with multiple authors with blogs that gathered more than 50,000 visitors a day. If everyone I knew got the word out, It would probably exceed any marketing push Curiosity Quills is likely to rally. Heck, Orbit Books just asked one of these people if he’d like more review copies after seeing the bump in sales on a book he blogged. This doesn’t mean that these people will all buy, but to get as many interested eyes on the book, Curiosity Quills would need one hell of a marketing push.

For those who didn’t follow why that made self-publishing appealing, let me explain. It comes down to the royalty split. Say for the ease of discussion that I get 25% of the cover price of a book. All things being equal, that reduces the money I make off the readers I bring to the table by 75%. The publisher would need to bring three times as many new readers to my book to earn their split. If I get 50%, they have to bring an equal number. If I make 75%, they have to bring a third. You see how that works.

On the other hand, I don’t know these people are going to blog about the book. Most of them only mention books they really believe in and their are spectacular books they never actually blog. They are too tactful to commit to anything. I’m too tactful to push matters. So while my potential marketing reach is huge for a new writer, there’s no guarantee that my practical marketing reach will come anywhere near that.

There’s another, less tangible benefit to going to Curiosity Quills. There is a credibility that comes from a third party thinking that your book is worth buying. There are many very successful self-published authors, but when you say you’re self published, there’s always that moment where the person you’re talking to thinks, “Oh. Well, a five-year-old can technically self publish.” Again, nothing against that option, obviously I was seriously looking at it myself, but if you’re traditionally published the book shows someone else believes in it merely by the fact it exists.

And then there are a dozen other little perks. Having someone else deal with your cover. Having an editor and a proofreader go over the book without having to hire them seperately. Marketers. Publisher’s Marker subscriptions. Facebook groups filled with other authors from the same publisher. These add up. I couldn’t decide.

So I did what any good writer would do. I stalled.

I had just submitted a manuscript partial to an agent, so that was a good excuse. I told James I’d get back to him when I heard back, but I didn’t want to make any big decisions with a book she might want to represent.  A few months later, she responded and passed on that partial, but asked for another (I always mention what I’m working on in my queries so the agent knows I have more than the one book in me). She rejected that one as well, but I never received the rejection. It was about nine months before I confirmed that with a follow-up query.

I don’t recommend leaving a publisher hanging like this. I think part of me was hoping that he’d have to withdraw the offer and I wouldn’t have to choose. I had the book entirely page-made when he’d asked to buy it. With one evening of work, I could have pulled the trigger on self publishing. I will point out I run an indie RPG press. I have the tools to self publish. I agonized over the right thing to do.

I kept him hanging for over a year.

I put out tentative feelers to my blogging friends, but at least one of them seemed to come back as a very polite refusal to blog about the book . This later turned out to be a miscommunication, but it cast doubt that anyone would be willing to blog a review. I would almost certainly have the podcast network for an ad, but I just couldn’t count on the others.

But while all of that brought me closer to the decision, none of it really made up my mind.

My mind was made up by the Comic Cons in 2014. During that time, I felt an increasing resentment among the writers I respected toward the self-published crowd. A lot of them were borish on panels. There were instances of cash transactions happening during the panels themselves (not before or after). It was a few bad apples causing this shift, but the shift was there. Self publishing proliferated through the cons. I’ve spent years building up networks with these people. I didn’t want to categorize myself with an annoying element.

And there was that implied credibility. For every Michaelbrent Collings out there, there are dozens of self published writers with almost no sales. When I’m buying a book, unless it’s from someone like Michaelbrent, my first question is to try to verify if other people found the book worthy. This might be done through reviews and recommendations, but the easiest first question is, “Did someone else find this book worth publishing?”

So I finally decided that having another person invested in my career was worth it, even if the royalty split meant less money. It showed the consumer that I wasn’t the only one to think the work had value and it meant someone else out there cared about whether I succeeded or failed.

In spring on 2015, I told James I’d accept his offer. Luckily, it was still valid.

Your First Published Novel: Part 5

In the years leading up to 2014, I didn’t give Death by Cliché a whole lot of thought. I had other projects and I was trying to secure an agent. Still, the book never entirely left my mind. Over the years I more or less pagemade the entire thing in InDesign. Sometime in there as well, Nate Shumate put out an offer to do book covers for the ebooks of people who followed him online. I secured a cover from him and my friend Dan Willis offered to help me get the thing up in the ibooks store (which requires a Mac). Still, the iron was no longer hot, so I wasn’t particularly motivated to get the thing for sale as an ebook.

It was still my biggest credit, but I’m not huge in listing my credits at cons when I’m not promoting something. If they are relevant, sure: in an RPG panel, I’ll usually list all my RPG credits. If we’re in a panel on contests, I’m certainly going to mention my Writer’s of the Future win. If we’re discussing Robert J Sawyer I’m going to point out that he’s my arch nemesis. If we’re talking about Middle Grade novels I’ll point out I have the heart of a ten-year-old child (in a box on the mantel).

So I’d mention Death by Cliché if we were talking about self publishing or podcasts or audiobooks. I probably mentioned it in comedy panels and if someone asked me about.

I actually have no idea how James Wymore found out about it. James does these comedy game panels, such as Choose Your Apocalypse where the contests are each trying to convince the audience that their end of the world is the most desirable. I assume the order of events went something like this:

1) James and I were on some panel or another together. I was damn funny.

2) James hung out with me or others in a green room. I was funnier.

3) James went to dinner with me and a bunch of authors. I was less funny, but so tired that it was still impressive.

4) James invited me to be on one his game panels. I lost with spectacular hilarity.

I didn’t know that James was an acquisitions editor for Curiosity Quills. I wasn’t trying to schmooze him. He probably asked somewhere along the line how he could listen to Death by Cliché. If he did, I didn’t take much note of it. It’s the kind of things authors ask each other all the time at these things, and I don’t think many of us actually follow through most of the time. Hell, by that point the itunes feed had long since gone defunct, so he would have had to listen to it on a computer or sideload the whole thing manually. Not the kind of effort I expect someone to put out for a book I wrote six years before.

I suspect that James really decided to listen to it during a sleep-toxin-induced pitch I totally don’t remember, where I suggested that his Actuator universe needed a story that was “Sailor Moon meets Godzilla.” (This conversation must have happened because he made me put my money where my mouth was and write it some months later.) At any rate, James listened to the book over the summer in 2013.

(From James: “Actually, I heard you talk about it in a panel I attended but was not part of. I did have to download it manually. Then I didn’t listen to it for a few months after that.”)

So we were at Salt Lake City Comic Con, 2013, in the green room most likely (because where else would I be) when James told me he wanted to buy Death by Cliché.

For the life of me, at that point I didn’t know what to do.

(You’ll have to wait for next week to find out why. Unless you’re binge reading these after, in which case you can just click now, you lucky thing, you.)

Your First Published Novel: Part 4

With Death by Cliché released, our story starts accelerating rapidly. Not because things start taking off, but because of the opposite. Over the next years, not a lot happened.

In that first year, I was high on the hog, as it were. My downloads never completely took off, but they topped off at a respectable 5,000 downloads. I had something to talk about when I did the convention circuit. It gave me a little cred.

See, back around 2003 I was one of the winners in Writers of the Future. I was asked to be guest of honor at the local academic symposium, Life the Universe and Everything. Not for writer’s of the future (although they didn’t tell me that), but for my work in RPGs. I’m a pretty charming guy. I’m fairly reliable and you can put me on any panel. If I don’t know the subject, I’ll keep the audience laughing while the smart people dole out knowledge. I spoke of some of this back in Part 2.

Once I was well-liked at one convention, others in the area started asking me to speak or do panels. I ran workshops. I pressed flesh. But there was an unspoken clock over my head.

About the time I stated, I would hear about people who won Writer’s of the Future and never accomplished anything else. They would hang around the cons until they were quietly written out of the schedules. So I had gone, at that point, 5 years without a major achievement in fiction. RPGs, sure, but nothing in fiction. Part of that was that I had high standards. Part of it was that I was still learning my craft.

So the moderate success of Death by Cliché came as a welcome relief. A little cred, at last. Self-published, yes, but few podcast audiobooks hit those kind of numbers. I wasn’t Scott Siegler, but I’d done a second thing and found it relatively well received.

The next few years I had minor moments that brought me joy. Occasionally, I’d find a new review of the book. At one point I found it referenced a few times on The status of the book gave me joy from time to time, but my ability to record a new audiobook had withered away, so there wasn’t much more to do in the area. Also, mentioning it at conventions became less and less relevant as the years went by.

In there sits a long period of time where I didn’t write much, either. I worked on my RPG stuff, but I no longer had a writing group and without a writing group (or some other external deadline) I don’t write.

I eventually started another writer’s group with some local pros, but by then Death by Cliché was old news.

By 2014, I had moved on.

Your First Published Novel: Part 3

On the release of the second episode of the podcast audiobook of Death by Cliché, Howard Tayler’s fans brought my server to its knees. For hours, you couldn’t get the page to come up, much less actually download the episode. I had over ten thousand downloads in those first few hours and my little server wasn’t enough to handle it.

At the time I was working for the web hosting company that hosted the site. They sold processing power, but not actual bandwidth. Fortunately when you work at a company like that, you know other employees with servers of their own. By the time episode three came out, I had two mirrors set up to take the stress off the server. It worked well. For the rest of the run of the podcast, every time I released an episode, my server would have about half the downloads and the mirrors would divide the other half between them.

Things went well for the next few podcasts, although I realized right away that I’d made a terrible mistake. Somewhere around episode 2, people started demanding a way to buy the finished book. I had none. Of all the financial mistakes I’ve made in my life, this was probably the worst. If I had been thinking, I would have had e-book and lulu print on demand versions of the book already sitting in my store. Want to find out how the audiobook ends? No sweat, just click here to buy. But I had nothing. Stupid.

I don’t know if what happened next was a mistake exactly, because I don’t see a way to have avoided it, but the next hitch came around Christmas when Carolyn went on vacation. I believe other family issues cropped up at the same time. Obviously, there was no reason for her to vacation-proof the podcast, she wasn’t making any money off it, after all. So when she left, there was nothing we could do but wait for the next episode to come.

A podcast has momentum. Once you take the anomaly of Howard’s stress test for episode 2 into account, my downloads had been steadily building throughout the release. If things had continued, I probably would have hit that critical 10,000 download mark where people start noticing just how popular your audiobook really is. But I didn’t. It was a month before we released that next episode.

In that month, I lost it all.

My downloads dropped to almost nothing. People had walked away from the book. I was at the halfway point and everything I’d done that far had just evaporated with the month off.

I spent the rest of the podcast rebuilding those numbers. In the end, I was close to the numbers I’d had before the break, maybe even a little above them, but I’ll never know for sure how big the book could have gotten if I hadn’t missed a week.

And possibly more critically, although I’d been building an ebook version, it became obvious I wasn’t going to finish it in time to capitalize on people wanting to know how the book would end. So when the podcast ended, it was over. There was very little left to do but note the numbers I did get and move them into my query letters.

It was over. For a second time.

Your First Published Novel: Part 2

My friend W Dan Willis has the theory that any given road to publication works once, because they plug up the hole after you get through. It’s certainly true that most writer’s I know have some unique aspect to their story. I, for instance, have never been rejected by a publishing house, only by Agents and Magazines. That isn’t to say that I haven’t submitted to a house. It also doesn’t mean I have a half dozen novels out. It means that historically, if I submit I’m either accepted or they never reply at all. Everyone has a twist to their story.

Mine came shortly after I gave up on Death by Cliché. A member of my writer’s group, Carolyn Nicita, decided that she wanted to build herself a portfolio of audio work. So she offered to record and edit for free if I read. Traditionally, I haven’t been big on self publishing. Even when I have gone the self publishing route, it involved starting my own game company and soliciting licenses from at least one company where I already had a fan base. I would not normally even consider this, but in the end I decided why not Death by Cliché. People seemed to enjoy it and it was unsaleable. If anything it gets funnier when read aloud. If there was ever a book for the experiment, this was it.

So late in 2008, we began recording Death by Cliché. I believe that was the same year that I moved, but I seemed to recall all the recording sessions happening in the old house, to we must have done all the sessions relatively closely together in a big push. Just about the time I actually moved, we were pushing out the first episode.

Howard Tayler has a panel he does called it “Charisma is Not a Dump Stat.” One point of the panel is to make sure writers know that while writing is a solitary task, marketing is not. I’ve always believed this myself. In fact, when I go to conventions, I only attend panels when I’m flying the colors for some topic or another. I do the panels where I’m speaking, and otherwise I spend my time in the green room, networking. I have been accused of holding court, but I like to believe that has more to do with the fact that my back injury makes getting up and sitting down fairly painful, so I spend a great deal of time ensconced in a chair. The more throne-like the better.

At any rate, I didn’t know Howard before I started conventions. I didn’t know any of my writing friends before that. Brandon Sanderson once told me that the first year we met, before he’d published, he hung out with Dan Willis and I in the halls because we were the “real writers.” In retrospect, that’s pretty funny.

At this point I’d been doing the local convention circuit pretty heavily since LTUE made me a guest of honor through a wacky set of hijinks and misunderstanding. I’ve been told that the way I handled that convention has a lot to do with my popularity with the LTUE staff. For instance, at the banquet after I was sitting at the table with the con committee when I won a child’s toy tiara in a giveaway. I don’t know what kind of guests they had in the past, but they were all terrified that giving me a little girl’s toy would insult me, and I was still Guest of Honor for about another two hours. I claimed the prize, put it on my head, and in my deepest and most manly voice declared, “I’m a pretty pretty princess.”

The point is, a great deal of my success can be attributed to the fact that I take great pains to make certain that people WANT to be around me.

So it isn’t terribly surprising that when we released the first episode, Howard Tayler wanted to talk about it on his blog. I believe at the time he had about 50k unique hits a day. The first episode saw a large amount of downloads. The next week, for the second episode, he asked his crowd, “Let’s break Bob’s server.”

And break it they did.

Your First Published Novel: Part 1

In 2006 I began writing Death by Cliché. The book started with a few conceits. I’d written a couple comedic short stories and felt they turned out fairly well, so I wanted to try my hand at a novel-length comedy. I had years of experience writing as a game designer at that point and I wanted to embrace every bad cliché, both in gaming and in bad fantasy fiction. So it had to be a secondary world fantasy where the main character was from our world. I had to write my own chapter quotes and call great attention to the fact. The main character had to look like a complete Marty Stu. Most of all, I wanted a high joke density so that I didn’t have to worry how many people got any one joke. I could write as obscurely as I wanted, knowing that if one out of three jokes landed with any given reader, it would still be a funny book. I call this “The Dennis Miller Quotient.” Because I’m old.

The book worked out well. There were some scenes that were hilarious when read allowed that were merely amusing on the page. Conversely, there are jokes on the page that don’t translate at all to a live reading. For instance, I wrote a chapter where I make a meta joke about the spelling of its and it’s. Still, I was happy with the result. Damico, the main character, was funny and engaging. A little bit more of a “bro” than I am, but while I used a lot of my own experiences in the book (I was called by the Todd McGovern of ICE marketing once to go hijack a demo…Todd was completely correct in reading the warning signs), Damico isn’t actually me. I chose the name because it sounded like I had just slightly changed my own name. Damico was actually the name of my Father’s best friend in College. I called him Uncle Jack.

Through 2006 and 2008 I drafted the novel. I often feel good about a novel somewhere around the third draft. At least I did with this one. In 2008 I started shopping the manuscript around to agents. The reactions were generally positive. Many sent me form rejections, of course, but the ones who didn’t basically came down to a single criticism. The criticism matched the notes of pretty much every critique I received while drafting the book:

“Well I liked it, but no one else will.”

There is an very specific skill that any author must have, but many writers can’t develop. You must be absolutely, head over heels in love with whatever you’re working on, but ready to walk away from it at a moments notice. The main need for this skill is when you write a book, unless you’ve sold a sequel, you can’t just write the sequel. Also, I’ve found that if you do a draft of a book too soon after the last draft, you aren’t objective enough to see the flaws. You see what you had in your head, not what you put on the page. (The amount of time you need to leave a draft fallow probably has a lot to do with you as a writer. Also, I expect it shrinks with experience). I don’t know how many writing groups I’ve been in where a thirty year old writer was beating a dead horse he’d given birth to in high school.

So when you finish a draft, you have to be ready to put it completely aside and work on something else. When I’m writing a book, I spend the last two months plotting my next book. When you’re drafting, though, you have to be so passionate that you’re ready to work and rework the book until you have the best thing you can possibly write. When you’re shopping it you have to be completely passionate about what you’re selling, but the second the query is out, you have to suddenly be passionate about the project you’re actually working on. (Because you aren’t querying books you’re still writing, correct?)

But worst of all, you need to know when to walk away from a book. This book resonated with the readers (at least those who gave me notes). But in the eyes of the business people, it was unsaleable. It didn’t matter whether they were correct or not. Writing is a business and the businessman in me saw the writing on the wall, as it were.

So in 2008 and walked away from Death by Cliché.

My Conduit 2015 Schedule


This weekend I’ll be on several panels for Conduit 2015. This appears to be my schedule:
3:00 (Zion) There and Back again – the Hobbit Trilogy

10:00 (Snow) The Dungeon Escape
12:00 (Arches) What do we know about Star Wars 7
1:00 (Snow) Discworld – Farewell Sir Terry
2:00 (Snow) The Marvel Movie Universe
3:00 (Zion) Choose Your Own Apocalypse

12:00 (Zion) Working as a Collaborator

It looks to be a lot of fun. Hope to see you there.

Your First Published Novel: Prologue

When I published my first RPG book, the experience was full of highs and lows. I’m sure a lot of great stories came from that time, but I wouldn’t know because I can’t remember any of them. Lets face it, that oft painful four-year process was a long time ago. I mostly remember the ironic and sad stories, such as the fact that I calculated my hourly after the company in question collapsed and realized that I had made .36 cents per hour.

When I started Final Redoubt Press, I posted a series of blogs about the experience. The posts were popular and I enjoyed them, so it’s occurred to me to do it again.

Last week I finalized my contract with Curiosity Quills to publish my (formerly) podcast audiobook Death by Cliché. So starting with this post, I’ll describe my experience. Many of you are probably interested in the foibles of your first novel. Others might just be interested in what it takes to convert a modest podcast audiobook success into a traditional novel (spoiler, it started as a novel, so it isn’t hard). Either way, these posts are for you.

Here are the rules. I will not lie to you. I will not hold back information that is mine to reveal. I will probably be cagey about actual numbers and checks, because there are others who DON’T want to reveal that sort of thing, and if I reveal my numbers it becomes easier (maybe trivial) to figure out the numbers of others. That’s not my secret to tell. Other than that, I’ll give it to you straight. If something is painful, I’ll tell you. If it delights me, I’ll tell you. When I’m inevitably stupid, I’ll tell you.

So next week we’ll start with backstory. I’ll talk about writing and shopping the book, why I made the choice to go the audiobook route, and how we generated interest in the book years later. I’ll then move on to the contracts and negotiations and everything that came before this point. I’m not sure how many weeks that will take. From there, it will be nothing but tears and agony, I’m sure.

I’m sure it will be a ride. Thanks for reading. I look forward to seeing you again next week.