Here commences the experiment:
I’ve made a small collection of my short fiction available on Amazon. It’s called BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS and retails at $2.99. The stories are also available as singles for $0.99 each. It is far from inconceivable that some or all will be made free for some duration at some point, but I haven’t hammered out a schedule for that yet (all are enrolled in KDP Select). THE DANDELION KNIGHT will follow (possibly after a final edit), as will more short fiction, probably at a longer latency.
That’s the methods section. What follows is the introduction.
Earlier this year, it became pretty clear that THE DANDELION KNIGHT was not destined to be picked up by an agent. I think this is down to a lot of things, and I think none of them is “it sucks.” In that situation, self-publishing is self-evidently the next step. This is a point it took me a while to come around to, but I’ve come to believe it quite strongly: No matter your view on the relative merits of traditional versus self-publishing, if you wrote a book, and you think it could sell, but you can’t get a publisher’s support, there is no reason not to put it on Kindle. It’s revenue-neutral in the worst case; the best case is improbable, but in it, there’s literally no limit to the upside. The only reason to hold back is if the results of your query rounds make you question the quality of the book. I’m not Gene Wolfe yet, but I have more faith in my work than that. So KDP it was.
But I’m talking about THE DANDELION KNIGHT, which I’ve just said I haven’t released yet. Where did BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS come from?
Well: Although I hadn’t given up on TDK’s prospects for traditional representation until recently, I always knew I might get hosed. In fact, I’ve always been aware that I might never get a traditional deal; most don’t. So I’ve been keeping up, in a highly unsystematic way, with what people are talking about in self-publishing, and one of the commonest of denominators is that the best way to market your book is to write another book. J. A. Konrath has said this more than once; Phil Tucker pointed it out with the example of Cameron Jace’s Grimm Diaries Prequels; the treed Goths over at the Self-Publishing Podcast serve no god but word count.
I don’t have another book. I took the normal path for aspiring writers: I wrote short stories on the regular for three years or so before I started TDK. I sold a couple, but most are still sitting on my hard drive.
Which is, obviously, another way of saying “I do have another book.” Perhaps more importantly, I have other titles. A pretty fair number, actually.
Once I got that in my head, the rest was pretty straightforward: Pick a few short stories, edit them once more into respectability, compile them and release them, singly and collected. I made a cover template that links the collection and the stories, while clearly differentiating the one from the other, and a few days ago I pushed the fateful button. Now I have six “books” on Amazon, and that’s before publishing TDK. A few weeks’ editing and a couple of hours on the GIMP, and I’ll have another six. None is related to TDK, which is suboptimal from a marketing perspective, but again: as with the decision to self-publish in the first place, the question is whether to try to optimize everything ab initio or to do what you can with what you have.
This all said, done, and planned, I’m still aiming for a traditional deal. There’s a reason I decided to devote my post-TDK efforts to my wuxia novel, THE EIGHTH KING, rather than the sequel to TDK: I can’t sell a sequel to a book I couldn’t sell, and I think a lighthearted high-concept fantasy is a lot more likely to grab an agent’s attention than a post-apocalyptic Orwellian science fantasy. But if demand starts pouring in for the sequel, I can pivot. Likewise, if the shorts start selling really well, I can write more.
Not unrelated, I’m still going to aim to publish short fiction in traditional markets; I have a novelette in the tor.com slush pile right now. Having the self-published content actually makes me more motivated to sell short fiction, because it’s like getting paid to advertise: I get a one-time fee for the story, but every reader now represents a potential sale (or, eventually, sales) over and above the story itself. The other difference is in the cycle. Now, instead of ratcheting gradually down in the quality of the venues I submit to (and waiting weeks for every rejection letter), I’ll just submit to a few high-profile venues and self-publish in the event of no joy.
I’m not kidding myself about making a living from this any time soon. If I were, I’d be more serious about marketing. But I am enjoying the control, and the sense of possibility. I have something that people can buy; for the moment, that’ll do.