Den, what’s up with all this self publishing crap you’re doing? A question that absolutely no one has asked me, and no one cares about. But I’m going to explain myself anyway.
So here’s the deal. It was 2017, my father had just died, my first novel ‘The Mermaid’s Tale.’ had been released by Five Rivers Publishing, they were going to do an audiobook, and I had a contract to do a second novel, ‘The Luck.’ My pseudo-career as a writer was finally taking off.
I’ve been trying to be a writer since my grandfather died, over twenty years ago. Hell, I’ve been trying to be a writer since I was a teenager, since before I was a teenager, but it was after grandfather died that I decided to get serious about it.
I started writing and sending out lots of short stories. I joined a writers group and worked alongside some people who went on to be pretty big names. Slowly, I was selling stories here and there, even getting reviews in an age when those were almost impossible to come by, getting honourable mentions in Years Best anthologies, doing chapbooks, studying marketing and just focussing on getting my stuff out there – I subscribed to Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle, Scavenger’s Newsletter, Rising Star, the zine markets you name it. I wrote a novel, started looking for an agent, wrote another novel, sent it out, went to conventions, won a writing grant, even got tagged for a nonfiction book.
I gave it a pretty good shot, and it looked like I was getting somewhere, might even break through. Or that’s what I heard, later on.
But you know how things go; life comes around and kicks you in the nuts. Boss went crazy, relocation, burnout, flirting with bankruptcy, shit happens. There was a lot of shit, it’s tedious and not worth getting into. To make it as a writer, it’s a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are luck and connections, either of those will guarantee you. Below that is talent and hard work. Beneath that, you need a certain income and stability. Anyway, the bottom of my period was wobbly, so I kind of fell out of the game.
But I never stopped writing. Not necessarily novels or commercial work, but writing nevertheless, for me, for others, for Bill Hillman or Chris Nigro, on alt history, for web sites, for anywhere, or just random stuff. For me, writing is somewhere between a pathology and a therapy.
Anyway, rolling back around – suddenly, I have a pseudo-career. Which is cool.
But there’s also things going on. My father has died, and that’s left me confronting mortality. I’ve been going to a lot of conventions and comic-cons, meeting other writers, including self publishers, and trying to support them by buying their books. I’m noticing that the landscape has changed with eBooks exploding all over.
I start thinking, why not?
Around this time, I’m doing reviews of Doctor Who fan films on some Australian website. People are loving them and saying “this should be a book.” I see absolutely no commercial potential in such a book. But as a self-published effort? Why not? It’s interesting, I’m discovering all sorts of wonderful new stuff, people like it, so why not?
It was an intriguing challenge. The reviews were out there, the book was half or three fourths written. I was interested in the topic and I was going to keep reading, reviewing and writing. Why not turn it into a book? It was all there, or going to be there. It was just a matter of packaging and formatting it, and putting it out into the world. I liked that better than just making transient posts on someone else’s web site or forum. There was a certain quality of ownership.
And it could be a real learning experience, not just writing, but acquainting with the subtleties of production, marketing, I could build skills with a small scale little project or two that would help with my real writing career, a pseudo-career that would surely build to the next level. A nice little side project while I did real writing, began to focus on commercial projects. And I could sell a few hundred copies to boot on a project I found entertaining and wanted to share with people. Or so I naively thought. Why not!
And that, my friends was the slippery slope.
The Who project turned into two books – eventually three, just because there was a lot of material.
Then there was the LEXX book, collecting dust and recently rediscovered. There was obviously no market for a dead 15 year old cult series, which had disappeared into the ether and orphaned from its creators. But it had been a huge project for me, and I was proud of the work. So even if there was no market, it would be nice to get it out into the world.
I found myself going back into my old hard drives, CD drives, floppy disks, trying to assemble and systematize and collate, to organize a lifetime of writing into a body of work. It was time. Writing, I’ve said, was my pathology and therapy and I’d been doing it all my life.
In the wake of my father’s death, I felt a need to start assembling it, organizing it, to consolidate it, so that it wasn’t just a random detritus of existence, but a body of work. Something I could look at, and feel that I’d actually done something on this planet, something that at least showed I’d done more than waste oxygen.
There were a lot of short stories and things. Roughly a hundred or so short stories, all of the map – fantasy, horror, science fiction, mainstream, detective, erotica, fanfiction, plus essays and speculations, amusing reviews and digressions. A lot of them had already been published, or been in chapbooks, or had found their way to websites.
It was actually a nice body of work. With no commercial applications. A lot of the stories were previously published in magazines long gone from the world, it wasn’t like I could just recirculate them. Nifty essays and explorations, there wasn’t a market. But it was a nifty body of work.
Now by this time, I’d been doing the Who books, which had no commercial potential, but were I thought an inherently worthwhile project, and therefor fit for self-publishing. Then I’d started on the LEXX thing, which had no commercial value, but there was a lot of personal baggage and it was important to me to get it out there.
So I’m looking at this body of work, and you know what? It’s just shit gathering dust in a hard drive. I mean, it’s nice, its good writing and it’s satisfying to assemble it, to see it assembled. It’s nice to just be able to call it up in a file on a hard drive or a CD, and know that I did stuff.
But then what?
I die, and then?
Here’s what happens when you die. All that stuff you loved, that made your life meaningful, those trinkets and mementos. They just go in the garbage. The clothes get tossed in the trash or given to goodwill. The furniture is donated or sold off cheaply. Most personal stuff has no real value; your executor’s job is just to get rid of it. What can be sold gets sold, usually for pennies on the dollar, what can’t be sold gets donated, and the rest of it, most of it, goes into a dumpster. The footprint of your life ends up in a landfill.
All these stories, this body of work gathering dust in a hard drive? There’s no spouse, there’s no friends, there’s no children, no one is going to care or even know. The computer might be salvaged for a few chips or rare earth, that’s all. The hard drive, a CD, that’s all just electronic waste, at best wipe, but mostly disposed.
Wow. My entire life’s work, vanishing away as electrons scatter at the pass of a magnet. Or just ending up in a trash pile. The only proof I was here in some dusty mylar bagged copies of some hopefully archived magazine, a few flickering mentions in a database.
Makes you think, doesn’t it, that crushing weight of futility, that knowledge that you’ll pass and your whole existence will have meant nothing, that a lifetime, horrible and wonderful, all came to less than dust.
Listen, if you have kids, if you have anyone, go hug them right now. They’re what matters. Maybe they’re the only thing that matters. Don’t mind me, I’ll wait.
So to recap: Pile of stuff. Body of work. It’s good stuff, proud of it. Gathering dust. No commercial potential, for either being previously published, or just intrinsically particular. What to do?
So, self publish. Get it out into the world. At least give it a chance, because there’s no future at all gathering dust in a hard drive, just an eventual trip to the electronic waste recycling center.
Dawn of Cthulhu, some nifty essays and other writing. Then a horror collection, Giant Monsters Sing Sad Songs. Bear Cavalry – a completely whacked piece of writing, loved it to pieces, but it will never find a home. More collections. Fall of Atlantis, What Hungers Also Devours, No Doors in Dark Places. More LEXX. Stuff that a publisher would never look at. Stuff that’s not going to sell big or even small, but maybe it will find a reader who has the same quirky sensibilities I do. The Axis of Andes stuff? That surprised me, it did well, but stylistically and subject matter wise, it’s as far off the beaten path as you can get.
You’re probably thinking, why not market all these short stories? Why don’t I? Well, here’s the thing. Unless a big name writer, no one is going to publish a collection of your short stories. I’m not any kind of name.
Magazines and anthologies? Yeah, I’ve been down that road. A lot of my stories are previously published, reprint markets few and far between and typically curated. When I do a new short story, I’ll send it out to the top markets or some particular niche. But mostly, I’m not chasing that merry go round.
But honestly, this is self-publishing kind of a side project.
I was, and I really am focusing on my pseudo-career. More pseudo than career these days, unfortunately. My publisher closed, my novel went out of print, my contracted novel got aborted a month or so before it was going to publish. I’m a man without current credentials.
But hey, still in it to win it – going to conventions, doing panels and readings, sending out queries and pitches to agents, doing the workshops, doing small press projects, applying for grants and I write, and I write, and I write.
I think I’ve got seven or eight novels holding back in the pipeline that I think have commercial potential, that might actually sell, that might work for a traditional publisher, and make money and allow a real reputation, a real career. And I’ll write another novel before this year is out. And I’ll go to the World Fantasy convention, and participate in When Words Collide, or anything else that might give me a leg up.
Just keep chasing the fucking brass ring.
It’s all a fucking joke isn’t it.
It’s like that Kafka story.
Having a clear picture doesn’t mean I’m not playing the game.
So anyway, side project: Clearing out the hard drive and self-publishing. Not a huge priority. That comes after chasing the rainbow, and actually making a living, looking after the people I love in my life, and hopefully, having a good life. It comes after all that, but it’s there.
So occasionally, when I’m in the mood, and there’s some free time, when the occasion warrants, I’ll self publish a book. I think I’m around fourteen or eighteen or something, not really keeping track. That sounds like a lot, but really, it’s over four or five years, and it’s just stuff laying around in the hard drive that I’m fixing up, so…. I think it’s pretty moderate.
There’s no particular urgency. It took me four years to publish the whole LEXX series. I’m only just now getting around to the third book in the Who series. I have a couple of collections of short stories that have been sitting ready to go since last year, just waiting on covers. It’s a big hard drive. At this rate, I’m probably good through 2025 before it starts to thin out. I’m cool with that. There’s no urgency. It’s not like anyone’s waiting for it. But it’s nice to have it in the world, and to release one now and then to wander and gambole out in the world.
And I have learned a fair bit, mostly about production.
I was hoping to learn and master book marketing. Yeah, that hasn’t worked out so well. I’ve picked up a bit – mostly I’ve learned what doesn’t work. But I’ve taken courses and workshops, tried different things, experimented, without much results. Honestly, I’m choosing to self-publish work which, by intention and choice, doesn’t have a lot of commercial legs. That’s kind of contrary to self-marketing education and experience. Not ruling it out though. If I figure out how to make something work, I’ll ride that pony.
Frankly, if I do actually figure out marketing, or break through into traditional publishing with a very commercial project, I’ll have a library of stuff sitting and waiting for potential fans to explore. So there might be benefits.
Final back up plan? I’m going for Traditional publishing. I want the respect and recognition, even if both are shitty and inconsequential. I want the money, even if its crap. I want to be in bookstores, real stores, and real shelves not the “Oh cute it’s our obligatory shelf for well-meaning local authors” throwaway shelf.
So I’ll keep working towards that.
But at some point, I may come to a point where I recognize it’s never going to happen. Possible. My relationship with God seems to consist of him handing me ‘fuck you’ notes. So I can’t rule out this particular ‘Fuck you’ note isn’t somewhere in the future.
If I come to that point, then I’ll take my seven or eight or eleven novels, that I think are actually commercial, and I’ll put together a marketing plan somehow, and put real money into the projects and start self-publishing them one after another in a relentless, systematic and aggressive way. And maybe that will work. The one thing I know, that I’m absolutely sure of, is that I’m a good writer, and I want my work out in the world, and not sitting and waiting to end up in E-waste.
And if that doesn’t work? Well, at least they’ll all be out in the world. When I go, I’ll have left that behind, for whatever its worth. And if I meet Kafka in an afterlife, I can say that I know I did everything I could. That’s what it comes down to. There’s no guarantees in life, you just keep going until it’s finished