Write Fantastic: SFF Authors on Self-Publishing

The books everyone sees on display in bookstores’ shelves more or less went through a traditional publishing process. It was a product pitched to a publishing house, edited by a professional editor, publicized, marketed, perhaps promoted tirelessly, both online and off. But a lot of authors know that the traditional publishing process is a lot of work, too. And for some, the end product might not feel like it was worth all the effort. There is, however, a different avenue to get books published: the self-publishing route.

Self-publishing is exactly that: you publish your own work instead of getting them through so many different channels. Many authors saw it as a golden opportunity, especially as authors like Amanda Hocking became successful through self-publishing. There is, however, a problem with that kind of platform, as Ben Galley points out in his article on The Guardian, “Is the self-publishing stigma fading?“:

The brutal truth is that when you can publish anything, people will do exactly that. The market was flooded with indie literature and, sadly, a large percentage of it was substandard. Bad editing, awful covers, and mediocre content were rife. Advice was scarce, the methods many and varied.

And this is true. But, as Galley points out in the same article, there are a lot of independently-published works that are also good and worth readers’ time and money. Self-published authors themselves acknowledge that it’s not easy to get your work noticed in places like Amazon, where a lot of other works are being sold. Self-published works are being consumed, however, regardless of whatever genre they’re in. More works means more books for readers to discover. Thinking about the sheer number of books that one can come across on the Internet is daunting, certainly, so it’s definitely helpful to look at lists (like this one by author Michael J. Sullivan, about his favorite self-published fantasy works).

For authors, meanwhile, who do want to explore self-publishing, some successful self-published authors have already shared their tips over the internet.

Author Hugh Howey, who wrote the post-apocalyptic novel Wool, says that he originally tried to go through the traditional publishing route. In an interview originally appearing on Wired.com, he shares:

…I kind of got peer-pressured into going that route and ended up with a small press and everything went well, but I guess what I saw was, the way that they were publishing it, all these tools were available to me, so I thought, “I can do this.”

Ultimately, he decided to self-publish:

Self-publishing, for me, was a way of getting published and the other way took years of querying, trying to land an agent, trying to get a publishing contract, a year from the publishing contract to actual publication, so it was never about making money or trying to get into bookstores; for me, it was all about writing stories and trying to distribute them.

It was helpful to Howey, certainly, and the exposure his book got only encouraged him to write more.

Another fantasy author, David Dalglish, had believed that self-publishing wasn’t good. He writes, in his guest post for Fictorians:

In college I’d taken plenty of Creative Writing classes, and my favorite teacher had a single day each semester devoted to discussing the pure business of publishing. I still remember what she said: self-publishing meant the end of your career as a writer. You’d never be taken seriously again, because self-publishing was the route of the desperate, and those unwilling to put in the time and effort to get published traditionally.

It did work for David Dalglish, who was, originally excited just to have five people he didn’t know pay for the book he published. As for advice or tips on self-publishing?

The terrible truth is, I’m not sure what worthwhile advice I have to give. Why?

Because if I tried self-publishing from scratch right now, I’d fall flat on my face. That’s how much the self-publishing world has changed. Let me explain. Self-publishers are like locusts (I’m serious, hear me out). For every one person that is respectful, and putting time into their craft, and willing to abide by the rules, there are five who won’t, and will simply swarm in, regardless of the damage it might cause. So one of the earliest ways I got sales was by chatting with people on the Fantasy forums on Amazon. But once people realized that could earn sales, those forums were bombarded with spam, sock puppets, people recommending their own books regardless of the topic. Once upon a time, a reader could make a post saying “I just finished this book by David Authorguy, and it was great!” and you’d nab ten to fifteen sales just like that. The same went for the 99 cent price point. It was an easy way to get noticed, and undercut competition. But now? Pricing 99 cents does nothing, absolutely nothing, to make you stand out.

Dalglish’s guest post was written back in 2012, and the self-publishing may have changed since then. Regardless, it’s still not an easy task getting your work noticed through different channels – self-published or otherwise. But Dalglish’s words on the subject of publishing and writing are worth taking into heart:

Keep writing.

And I don’t mean crank out crap. Imagine that you have a fan base out there, one you’re steadily growing. Every book you write, make sure it’s something that audience will love and devour. With each new book, you’ll gather in the new, and satisfy the old.

I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll cut it off here. In short, if you want to self-publish, go in wide-eyed, your pride swallowed, and your ears open. Treat your readers, who are also your paying customers, with respect and courtesy. Don’t make excuses, but instead have the best editing you can have, the best cover, the best formatting, and the best presentation. Most of all, the best story.

What counts, in the end, is that authors work hard to write great books, and then work as hard to get them exposed to the public. It’s definitely not going to be simple or easy, and it might take a few tries to get things going, but there’s certainly reward to get from writing good works and publishing them through the right channels.

Another Indie Author has a list of his favorite scifi and fantasy novels, and after having written over 20 novels is still just barely breaking even. Self-publishing can be brutal even if you know what you’re doing.

I don’t mind losing money, but at some point it’s hard to continue the enthusiasm. I tell myself it’s OK, because I’m breaking even right now; and when I finish my series, boxsets, full audiobooks and everything, then I’ll be in the profit. But it might take years to get there. I could definitely be doing it faster.

What else?

Here are other helpful links that you might want to check out:

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Link Round-Up: The Vast World of Fantasy

Recently, we’ve all been treated to another new piece of the Potterverse: details on the American wizarding school, Ilvermorny. In fact, those wizards and witches blessed enough – or those muggles who have their own Pottermore accounts – had already been sorted into Ilvermorny’s houses.

The constant addition of details into the Potterverse canon may come off as Rowling’s attempt to breathe new life into something that’s already passed its prime, but it also tells everyone – fans of the Harry Potter series, readers, and the general public – that there is still much to explore and to be found in the fantasy world of Harry Potter. The continuous expansion and fleshing out of the series’ universe – even years after the seventh book about Harry’s life came out – serves as a testament to the flexibility and vastness of the world, and of fantasy as a genre, in general.

This post will be a short – but sweet – one: a list of links directing you to websites, lists, articles, and writing advice about fantasy books. This one’s to tide you over until the next big post – which should come out soon.

So – without further ado: the vast world of fantasy!

  • Top 10 Women Writers of Fantasy (Part 1) – fantasy fiction appears to be a male-dominated field. However, there are a lot of excellent women writers of fantasy who should be read by any good fantasy fan. This link provides a partial list of those excellent writers – so if you’re looking for a good read, you may want to consult this list.
  • Top 10 Fantasy Worlds in Literature – We’re all familiar with Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Perhaps we’re even familiar with the Wheel of Time’s setting, or Ansalon. These are settings we might know by heart now, having read and reread books and journeyed over and over again with our favorite characters. However, fantasy settings aren’t strictly tied to high fantasy books. This list provides a good sampling of fantasy worlds in literature – from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, to Thomas More’s Utopia.
  • Top 15 Fantasy worlds in video games – Video games have always been great when it comes to immersing people, pulling them into virtual worlds. Certainly, games are no stranger to all things fantasy. This article lists down the top fantasy worlds in video games – so far – in which thousands of video game players have spent countless hours in.
  • Brent Weeks’ Writing Advice – Something for the writers out there. There’s a lot of writing advice on the Internet, but today, we’re looking specifically at Brent Weeks – author of the Night Angel trilogy – and his advice on writing fantasy.
  • Brandon Sanderson Writing Lectures – And finally – here’s a link to the masterpost of the first series of video lectures conducted by Mistborn trilogy and Stormlight Archive author Brandon Sanderson (whom you may also know as the guy who finished Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time series). Certainly helpful for budding young fantasy writers who really need solid advice from an expert.

There! Have a great time looking through the links. And if you find some more interesting fantasy-related links for everyone, just let us know in the comments! (And if you haven’t yet, don’t forget to get sorted and find out what your Ilvermorny house is!)

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Of Epic Proportions: The Problem of Lengthy Fantasy

One of the more attractive umbrellas in literature is speculative fiction, and it’s easy to see why. If literature can be escapist, speculative fiction touches on this the best by actually offering a variety of texts that detach the reader from reality for a couple hundred pages, and immerse him or her in a world that is entirely fictional, with improbably things happening within the world. I’m here to talk about a particular genre in the group, though: fantasy.

Fantasy is, of course, a well-established genre spanning a pretty large spectrum of texts. Fantasy has people like J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit), George R.R. Martin,(A Song of Ice and Fire) and Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time), alongside authors like R.A. Salvatore (The Legend of Drizzt) and Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (various Dragonlance books). And those are just names that I consider to be under the high/epic fantasy subgenre, because Neil Gaiman is also a fantasy writer, and I’d argue that Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake is also fantasy. What these authors have done with their texts, though, is obvious: create a living, breathing, engaging world, and populate it with characters. Then weave a plot that gets the reader and pulls him or her in. It takes a lot of work – you’re looking at several years’ worth of writing a single series, plus spin-off novels, and it takes effort to get details to mesh together with other details and offer consistency.

And for the most part, this works. If you find yourself looking forward to the next installment of your favorite fantasy series, then you know it works. Even stretched out to more than three books (the trilogy, I think, being a trend in fantasy writing now), if the story engages, it engages. But fantasy, if too epic, if too intricate, if too huge, spawns its own monster. The late Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, I think, is the biggest violator when it comes to creating too huge worlds. Fourteen books – with a single volume averaging around eight-hundred pages – in The Wheel of Time already sounds daunting, and it takes effort on the reader’s part to slog through the middle, because when you get to the middle of the series, something happens. Which is, precisely, nothing.

And I think that’s the problem of too epic fantasy. I am currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, the first book in the Stormlight Archive, and while I do find it enjoyable and interesting, it’s just too long. The mass-market paperback edition is easily longer than most – if not all of – The Wheel of Time’s paperbacks, and that’s saying something, because Jordan was overly fond of being wordy. Perhaps The Way of Kings’ length owes itself, in part, to the fact that Sanderson had to finish The Wheel of Time on Jordan’s behalf. The Way of Kings does well to build up its characters, their conflicts, and their backstories, but it becomes an exercise of slogging through the introspective chapters and detailed descriptions of what a character is doing (Shallan as she draws, for example, which takes up an entire page and a half – although I might be exaggerating), hoping for the action to pick up.

Perhaps the moral is this: if you can say it in a few words without compromising the quality of writing, do it. Characters are important, definitely. They’re what ties a story together. But if every single detail is given undivided attention, it becomes a drag, no matter how well-written the story is.

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Dead Worlds or Dying: The Realism of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Speculative fiction, in general, does not have the tendency to be realistic. Fantasy is suffused with the elements of the magical, and science fiction may feature improbable – but not impossible – technology to the reader whose real-life experience with tech is only really dominated by audio-visual media. There are no elves in real life, no unicorns, no hellspawn climbing out of the cracks in the earth. No one knows if aliens are real. Humanity hasn’t even reached the point where lunar or Martian communities are a reality, so the immediate idea is that speculative fiction and realism do not go together well.

Interestingly, though, speculative fiction, for all the fantastic, improbably, and supernatural things that happen within the genre, can afford to do one thing effectively. That is, to expose a spectrum of truths, and to talk about society and its flaws, without subjecting the reader to the entire heft of such serious topics. One of the pieces that I would consider early speculative fiction – or what I would refer to here as proto-spec fic – is Thomas More’s Utopia, which details the culture, geography, and general habits of the Utopians, who live in the titular Utopia. (Interestingly, and this is included as a note in Utopia, More may have derived the word “Utopia” from eutopia or outopia, meaning ‘good place’ and ‘no place,’ respectively.) It is a work that is several centuries old, though if one reads the text right now, it still sounds as improbable as it might have sounded back when More first worked on it. The Utopians keep a strict population count, keep to themselves, keep to a strict set of working hours and leisure hours, and are never idle. Utopia sounds solidly conceived, and everyone can afford to be happy – which was a fantasy then, and which is still a fantasy to us now.

Speculative fiction has grown since then, of course. Under the fantasy genre, sub-genres abound. Urban fantasy, young adult fantasy, and high fantasy all exist. Science fiction has spawned a range of subgenres like space operas, cyberpunk, and steampunk. Texts like Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are just some of the popular science fiction texts today.

All these examples and I haven’t even expounded on my point yet. One time, my professor asked the class why fantasy is an effective tool in tackling philosophical topics like existentialism. I’m broadening the scope to include science fiction in the picture. In general, speculative fiction manages to talk about problems that the world is tackling right now without letting the reader bear the entire weight of the implications, possibilities, and realities presented within speculative fiction as a genre. Take Brave New World, for example. Immediately obvious is its critique of mass production – among other things – mass production being something that the world was being preoccupied with at the turn of the 20th century, of course. Pat Cadigan’s Synners concerns itself with the marriage between human and technology, through the use of sockets of music videos, both essentially dehumanizing the human being and blurring the line between being man and being machine.

The point is, in broad strokes, speculative fiction can afford to be vocal or critical on issues that society chooses not to view. Clothing societal issues in the guise of other worlds – worlds that are not our own – makes our reality easier to digest, without having the message get lost on the reader. Hopefully, sometime later, I will talk about this in more specific terms, but the idea is, I hope, there. Even in the guise of the unrealistic, speculative fiction has the ability to show us what our realities are like, and to drive home these realities and the implications that they have.

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