Eight Ladies Writing

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

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” 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.

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.)

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”.

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.)

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.)