Michaeline: Lois McMaster Bujold Answers Three Questions about Self-Publishing

the author Lois McMaster Bujold signing at a glass table

Lois McMaster Bujold (Image courtesy of Lois McMaster Bujold)

Today, we welcome to the blog Lois McMaster Bujold, whose new e-novella, “Penric and the Shaman” came out yesterday, June 24, 2016. (Her GoodReads blog announcement is here: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/13524143-penric-and-the-shaman-e-launches-today.) She’s a science fiction and fantasy legend who has won multiple Nebula, Locus and Hugo awards and written some of the best books in the universe. Thank you for agreeing to answer three questions about self-publishing for our blog. I sure hope I chose the right three questions!

MD: You have a long history of publishing. You were writing and assembling a fanzine with friends back in the 60s, you wrote short stories that were published in established magazines like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, then your novels were published by the well-known SF publisher, Baen Books, and two of your fantasy series were published by HarperCollins’ Eos Books (now rebranded as HarperVoyager)—(HarperCollins is one of the Big Five publishing houses). So, in some respects, you are returning to your roots with self-publishing the novellas, “Penric’s Demon” (July 6, 2015) and now “Penric and the Shaman”. Why?

"Penric and the Shaman" cover -- small mill on a river in a mountainous region with a goatherd and three goats on a bridge.

“Penric and the Shaman” is coming out soon! (Cover courtesy of Lois McMaster Bujold)

LMB: I first had some e-publishing experiences starting in the early 00s with the e-books company Fictionwise (later to be bought out and terminated by B&N.) This was not self-pubbing; they just took my manuscript files, or in some cases made OCR files themselves of my older paper books, did everything else themselves, and sent me checks. (These were the selection of my books whose old contracts predated e-books, hence those rights were still mine.) Their sales were all through their own website. But for one very interesting statement, my Fictionwise backlist e-titles were for sale on or via Amazon, for which the maybe $500-to-$1000-a-quarter they’d been jointly clearing shot up seven-fold, which riveted my attention. But then that went away as mysteriously as it had arrived, for corporate reasons I never discovered.

Also for corporate reasons I am not privy to, Baen at this time was not yet selling their e-books on Amazon or more widely, only from their own website, which I thought was leaving money on the table; with the Fictionwise/Amazon sales spike in mind, I became more and more frustrated about this.

A small European town nestled into the bosom of some gentle mountains, with a lake in the foreground.

The Spirit Ring was originally published by Baen Books in 1992. How Lois broke out of the science fiction genre and got someone to publish her first fantasy novel is an interesting lesson in how to build the career you want, not the career you are supposed to have. We didn’t see more fantasy from Lois until 2001, when HarperCollins’s Eos Books published The Curse of Chalion (first in the Five Gods Universe).
(Image courtesy of Lois McMaster Bujold)

I entered self-publishing piecemeal and cautiously. In late 2010, my agent had been learning about the then-new Amazon and other e-publishing programs that wanted to work with established agents, and I had a backlist book, The Spirit Ring, the rights of which were free of all entanglements. Because I had no intention of writing frontlist sequels to it, it was pretty much unsalable to regular publishers. I also had a career in Britain which was dead in the water, permanently stalled. (Long story there.) We decided to use The Spirit Ring to experiment with this new e-market, since any income would be better than the nothing it was then earning. So I did a new edit (very kludgily, as I’d never had to pay attention to such things as my own under-formatting before—I have since learned-by-doing how to do it better), my agent’s resident art- and e-wizard did the e-vendor-formatting and cover, my agent did the vendor-page copy, and we put it up to see what would happen. All very home-baked.

Its first month in the Kindle store, it earned about $230, which was as much or more as it had been making in six months as a weak backlist paperback. It continued to earn a couple hundred a month for the next few months, and my agent expanded us into the iBooks store and Nook, and they paid some more. In the spring of 2011, Amazon expanded us into the UK e-market, and a bit more came in.

And about this point, I woke up big-time and began looking around for more of my backlist that had e-rights free.

Which was not much, but I did have some novellas that had free rights as singletons. So we got those up and stood back to see how it went. It went well, the prior indie e-sales failed to fall off, and it then occurred to me that while most of my e-rights to my backlist were tied up with my American publishers, this was not so with my late UK publishers. I’d never sold The Hallowed Hunt there so we tried that next on Amazon UK. The Sharing Knife tetralogy had also never sold in the UK, so that went up early, too, by which point we were all getting the hang of this. My agent also got some dead UK rights reverted to us. I spent a good part of early 2011, when I was stalled out on the novel-in-progress by reason of story-line problems and medical distractions, editing my old Vorkosigan-series titles for British and World e-placement, through the new country-specific Amazons and iBooks; one by one, we put up all the available titles.

So that when the really big (and hard and scary) decision came around at the beginning of 2012, when a large chunk of my Baen backlist came up for license renewal, I had accumulated a year and a half of my own data and experience with which to make it a rational one. I did not renew my e-rights with Baen, but instead kept them and put the old e-books up as indie titles. (Baen retains paper rights, as they can handle those better than we can. They may also sell my old titles in their own e-book store, and of course they have regular publisher-rights on my newer titles.) The results have been astonishing, not only because I am now getting e-checks every month that are enough to live on and then some, but because my own financial analysis proved dead accurate.

Protip for newbie writers: keep good financial and other records, especially including your contracts, from the beginning. They’re not just for taxes. (And, yes, if you make any money writing, you have to report it and pay taxes. Learn what will be entailed in advance (hint: Schedule C), and you won’t be caught short finding out everything the hard way, *cough*. Even my fantasy-writer friend who was an accountant uses an accountant, though you will need one who is familiar with self-employment issues and, ideally, other writers.)

cover of Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold, published in July of 2015. Painting of a castle on a lake.

The one where young Penric meets (absorbs? is absorbed by?) the demon Desdemona. (Image courtesy of Lois McMaster Bujold)

So anyway, last year after I’d finished Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, and thought, “Gee, I’d really like to try indie e-pubbing an original work, not just a backlist reprint, and see what happens,” I wasn’t flying wholly blind. And I had this idea for a character, and I didn’t want to plunge into another novel-length work, but I love novellas. They are long enough for character development, but lack the miserable middle that is such a grind at novel-length. Or at least the middle murk doesn’t last as long. Hence “Penric’s Demon”, which has done very well for me so far.

MD: And so far, how do you like self-publishing? What was the most pleasant surprise? And the worst?

LMB: I really like self-e-pubbing for the artistic freedom, including that of length, the absolute lack of deadlines, contracts, or the need to please other people—or worse, my horror that my work might let them down by not doing well enough to justify their investment in it and me. Also, no book tours, nor any more energy spent on PR than I care to invest. There is very little between me and the reader.

I have been very pleasantly surprised by how well the first novella did, though I hadn’t expected it to be a flop, either. But the best part was that now I am semi-retired, it didn’t greatly matter either way. (Though I admit, I am not immune to old habits of keeping score.)

No bad surprises yet, but then, I have a decade and a half of e-learning experiences already behind me.

MD: Would you recommend self-publishing to writers who are putting their work before the public for the first time? I’m particularly interested in how self-publishing could be good, bad or indifferent for short-form fiction writers. We’ve heard a lot of rumors that “short stories don’t sell, and novellas have it even worse”.

Printing Press with a handsome young man laboring over it, and a publisher showing a printed page to the queen, king and their children.

The mechanics of publishing has gotten a lot easier! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

LMB: This is an interesting and difficult question to answer. My own work is in a “sweet spot”; I already am well-enough known that I don’t have to build an audience from scratch (spent the last 30 years doing that, thanks,) but I’m not one of the stratospheric sellers for whom regular publishers can do better.

The bad rep of short stories and novellas is a holdover from paper book and magazine publishing, I suspect. Short story collections (one writer) and anthologies (many writers) didn’t sell as well as novels, and magazines didn’t have room for many novellas, so if one’s work was restricted to those channels, it found them very narrow. And the paper magazine markets generally kept dwindling. E-publishing has blown that wide open.

I think it remains the case that cross-selling is still very important. As a reader, the e-published short work that I have bought has almost all been from some writer I’d read and liked already. I am lately learning to tap anthologies of shorter work to give me sampler-platters of new writers to try—which is an old, old function of anthologies, but the greater accessibility of e-books, and their generally low consumer-cost, makes them easier to try. So the short version is, it’s good for any writer, new or old, to get lots of work out there—as long as each piece will bring the new reader who stumbles across it back for more. It’s probably a bad idea to empty one’s old dead-files out onto the internet without checking for this quality.

Getting readers to try a new writer for the first time is harder than getting kids to eat strange vegetables, and I think that’s as true in the e-market as it was in the paper market. Newer writers just breaking in recently probably have more informed advice than I do about clever things to do on the internet with blogs and so on. (There are also, I observe, new pitfalls.) SF editor and writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch, on her blog, has a lot of advice and reports ranging from when she was first exploring e-markets to the present. http://kriswrites.com/15371-2/ A caution I would offer is, don’t get so caught up in the PR stuff that you forget to write: see, cross-selling, above. The best thing you can do for your fiction-writing career is almost always to write more fiction.

(I find the J. R. R. Tolkien-test to be useful in sorting through the suggestions. Whatever internet or other PR hoopla is suggested for the anxious writer to jump through, keep in mind that J. R. R. Tolkien does none of it, and his books sell just fine.)

A rainbow row of second edition Hobbits from 1937. If you could smell them, they'd smell like well-loved old books.

J.R.R. Tolkien does not write his own blog. His fandom, though, is rather vigorous. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

MD: Thank you, Lois, for your answers! Dear Readers, I’m adding links to some of the things in the interview so as not to interrupt the flow of words, and also so you know exactly where I’m sending you.

The Big Six publishing houses became the Big Five on July 1, 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. More here on lj.libraryjournal.com. “Now There Are 5” by Jane Ciabattari.

“Penric’s Demon” amazon.com

The Spirit Ring Let me quote from Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing Press: Bujold also wanted to break into the fantasy genre, but met with early setbacks. Her first foray into fantasy was The Spirit Ring. She wrote the book “on spec”, shopped it around, and found low offers, sending her back to Baen Books, where Jim Baen bought it for a fair price in exchange for the promise of more Vorkosigan books. Bujold called this experience, combined with the mediocre sales and lack of critical acclaim of that book, very educational. 

The Hallowed Hunt Amazon

Jo Walton wrote a nice post for Tor.com about how the Sharing Knife series tussles with Tolkien. You’ll get a taste of what the series is about.

Schedule C is for US writers paying US taxes; the Internal Revenue Service has a video about it (or scroll down on that page to see the transcript).

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Smart Bitches, Trashy Books posted two reviews of the book. GJ&RQ caused a lot of controversy in fan circles. Carrie S. is here, and RevLinda is here.

Tolkien does not promote his own books anymore, having been dead since 1973. Thanks to a strong fandom, though, his internet presence is almost everywhere. I can’t help but think that the Gollum would adore Pinterest’s Explore function. (There may be an annoying log-in window; in which case, ignore this link, my preciousssssesssss. Google Image is your hassssssle-freeeee fffffriend.)




21 thoughts on “Michaeline: Lois McMaster Bujold Answers Three Questions about Self-Publishing

  1. If pressed to pick a favorite author, I would be impossibly stressed to choose between Bujold and King. (Which do I like better, steak or surfing? Comparisons aren’t meaningful, at some point.)

    All of which is background for me saying that I am so grateful for you having given me this peek into the mind of a truly great writer. You asked solid questions, and her answers taught me things I might never have learned.

    As an extra, wildly unexpected bonus, this post also let me know that she has a new Penric novella out!

    • (-: I am so glad to be of service. All I can say is, get it, read it, it is fabulous! I gobbled it up this morning, and plan to get off the internet and read it again this afternoon. One of the lovely, lovely things about a novella-length story is that you can enjoy it a couple of times in one day.

      Lois, for me, could write absolute 1000-page bricks of books and have me longing for just a little more story, so the “Moooaaarrr, please!” feeling isn’t a matter of length. The story itself is well-paced and feels very complete and satisfying. And if writing shorter means that we do indeed get more down the line, then it seems like a win-win all the way around.

      Also, the fact that she’s selling novellas (37,700 words is the count I think I saw) is intensely interesting to me as a writer who can’t write very long works.

      Hope you enjoy Penric and the Shaman! Feel free to comment back here, or head over to her mailing list (you can access it through Dendarii.com) if you want to discuss it further. The LMB list has a strict spoiler policy (you have to stick SP: in the subject line so people can filter as they need to, and you need to insert spoiler space). Here . . . I dunno. Maybe just start your comment with SPOILERS AHOY and we can all hope for the best?

  2. Good questions, Michaeline, and really interesting answers. Very helpful for newbie writers as well as Bujold fans. So glad you got this opportunity, Micki!

    I’d love to know more about why such an excellent writer found herself permanently stalled in the British market. It’s not just LMB, either. Jenny Crusie told us in class that she didn’t sell in the UK, and I was once told at a pitch appointment here that the same was true for Susan Elizabeth Phillips (no idea if that’s correct, but the person who mentioned it was in a position to know). As a UK citizen and lover of good fiction it makes no sense to me. I always assumed it would become easier for those authors to find their readers with the advent of e-books, but maybe we still have a bad reputation, because I notice quite often e-books by US authors from traditional publishers are not available in the UK. I guess that’s because the authors have retained the international rights – but then they don’t exploit them and we don’t get the books. Very glad to know that we provided a good test-bed for LMB’s adventures in self-publishing!

    • I’m not sure why Americans get stalled in the British market. Several people have had the reverse happen — I think it took awhile for Terry Pratchett to catch on, and Ben Aaronovitch, too.

      Dire covers may have something to do with it. One of Bujold’s World of the Five Gods books was plagued with a cover featuring the Fifth God. In fan circles, I believe the phrase was, “He looks like the Pillsbury Nazgul.” And poor Aaronovitch. He got horrible name changes and HORRIBLE covers. Actually, Lois recommended Aaronovitch on her mailing list, and he’s become a favorite (we even did a book discussion of a couple of his books). I would have never picked up his American books otherwise. “Midnight Riot.” Humph. Yes, there’s a person of color as the main character, and yes, there is a riot. “Rivers of London” captures the book much better, and I really have come to love the quirky little map on the covers. I think I picked up the UK version.

      Maybe it’s an editing nightmare? So many publishers seem to want to change little things like “football” to “soccer” but then leave out important plot point related items in their gloss, like ASBO. (Anti-social Behavior Order https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-social_behaviour_order) Sometimes there’s just no winning when it comes to our two countries, divided by a single language. (Unless the reader can fucking Google! Ahem, I’m sorry. I don’t have much sympathy for the poor reader who isn’t willing to stop reading and look up an unknown word. OK, I have some sympathy, but not much.)

      Anyway, there’s a lot of great narrative (books, stories, magazines, TV shows and even some movies) that just can’t crossover. I think adventurous readers really do have to join fandom, and get recs from like-minded individuals. Luckily, the internet makes this so much easier to do these days — and so much easier to crosscheck recs, AND even indulge in free samples.

      • Actually, the covers may well have had something to do with it. I went to a convention last year, and one of the interesting bits of information I came away with was that Americans like “louder” covers than Brits. So Brits think American covers are horrible and garish, and Americans think British covers are horrible and boring (“too literary” was the phrase used).

        On a personal level, I admit I’ve always found Lois’ Baen covers awful… and garish. It was interesting to realise that it might be a cultural thing!

        And, of course, the British vs American Aaronovitch covers provide some evidence to support this theory. Makes you wonder!

        • Lois is/was writing a new kind of SF, and I think her covers often reflected an older sort of SF. Although, her US covers for her fantasies are very gorgeous, painterly things. The light is so golden and beautiful! Have you seen her covers for her e-pubbed Vorkosigans? Ron Miller, her friend from way back (and a prominent SF cover artist) designed them, and she had a lot of imput. They are very bold, and sharp. I think the series of blog posts starts on GoodReads here: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/9080298-cover-reveal-falling-free You may need to flip through some other posts between covers. The Falling Free art is startling, especially to those who know the story. I think my favorite might be Diplomatic Immunity. Or Komarr, just for the emotional impact.

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  4. What a wonderful interview, and such an interesting reveal of how a well-known author came to indie pub her work. I have to say that the idea that people will judge a book by the cover makes my blood run cold, although I suppose what else can you do? If you hate it so much that you won’t pick it up, it just won’t find an audience no matter how brilliant it might be.

    • I think word of mouth is more powerful than a good/bad cover, though. Although, covers can be awfully powerful, in an awful way as well as a good one. And the truly terrifying thing is that what rings Reader A’s bells may make Reader B want to take up a hammer and smash things. Stories are like that to a certain extent, but art is a lot more visceral, I find. I can hate a story and pretty much forget everything except the lingering hate. With art, if I hate it, I remember it. Fairly vividly.

      • Absolutely. A cover is a book’s advertising – it functions to tell the prospective reader something about what is inside, with respect to both content and its place within the greater population of books. I agree that word-of-mouth is more powerful than the cover: if someone whose opinion you respect tells you that the book is particularly good or particularly bad, you’ll probably ignore the cover in favour of the advice. Absent advice, it’s very true that a picture tells 1000 words: semi-naked man plus dreamy-looking woman equals romance, and so on.

        With respect to Lois’s covers, I did like the Sharing Knife covers, but my favourites were the covers for Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls (I think the latter even with the picture of the Bastard!). The first Bujold cover I ever remember seeing was for Brothers in Arms, and it put me off completely. It probably took me another 10 or 15 years to read my first Bujold book after that.

        I did see the self pub covers for the Vorkosigan series, and followed the discussion on Goodreads. However, I didn’t contribute since I really didn’t like the covers! I realise that there is a view that covers for e-books should be very simple, but to me, these seemed to be one short step beyond the appearance of automatically computer-generated images. They certainly didn’t awaken in me any desire to actually read the books, or – to me – give any feeling about what the books are actually like. To me, they looked like covers ordered by someone who knew enough to avoid the worst pitfalls of do-it-yourself self-published covers, but didn’t have enough money to get anything really nice. They are obviously very symbolic of elements of the storylines, but that is only apparent to people who have already read the books. The thing about covers as advertising is that advertising is aimed at people who haven’t already bought the product.

        However, what do I know? They are Lois’s books, so the covers are up to her, and I’m sure the world isn’t waiting with bated breath in my opinion! Also, since I love her writing, and tend to buy whatever she publishes, it doesn’t make any difference whether I like her covers or not.

        • Art really is so personal. I really loved Komarr’s cover, having read it. Sometimes the simplest images are the most difficult to produce. I live in Japan, and I thought I’d try to reproduce “Hello Kitty” but I kept getting some sort of Conjuctivitis Kitty because the placement of those two simple eyes are just so very difficult. I don’t know if that cover would make me buy it — it does have the most important info on it though: Lois McMaster Bujold.

          I prefer the cute, retro sort of cartoony block art, and I have bought some less than stellar books on the basis of very cute covers. I still have the covers, and I guess that was worth the seven bucks or whatever I spent back then. (I kept the books, too, LOL. Although, if I had to declutter, I don’t know what I’d do for sure.)

          I think Elizabeth is going to be talking about cover art in her epub series coming in the next few weeks.

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    • This is really shocking. Kris really does make it easy to understand.

      I don’t think at this point, Lois, that the editor matters so much. You write very cleanly, and you’ve had, as you say, 30 years to learn your craft.

      On the other hand, I have read a rather delightful (but slightly draggy) series that was traditionally published for several books, and then the publisher dropped it. The author self-pubbed the next one, and I could really see where the editor’s hand had come in. That traditional publisher deserved, IMO, 50 percent of the cover price. It wasn’t a single-handed job, but a partnership. The self-pubbed novel was even more draggy, and seemed so very lost in its own plot.

      I think traditional publishers do do some good work. They support quirky authors who aren’t popular. Editors can make the difference between good and great work. And think of all the hours (days? weeks?) an author saves when someone else is doing the grunt work on the cover, the distribution and even some of the PR.

      But at what price? Not all of us are going to be offered $2 million dollar deals like the woman in Kris’s link to EW. If we want to be writers, it looks like a thrilling time to be writers. Epubbing could make that dream-switch to full time a lot more possible.

  6. New reader sent here by Jennifer Crusie at Argh, Ink, and just wanted to say this was illuminating and interesting…plus, it lengthened my TBR list–always a good thing! 🙂

    • (-: Oh, I predict many, many hours of enjoyment for you! She’s such a great writer, and her characters can be so . . . insanely practical. Yes, I think that’s the phrase I want. On many levels.

      Welcome to our blog!

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