the wattpad experiment

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about Wattpad. Since then I’ve published the stories that Amazon still hasn’t price-matched, but I’ve been a little bit reluctant to post new work, or work that’s for sale elsewhere. But I’m now far enough along with a work in progress that I think it’s worth doing.

For those who care about the “business” angle, the work in progress is a novelette or novella (it’s not done, so I’m not sure) set in the world of THE DANDELION KNIGHT, titled “Dispatch from a Colored Room.” I don’t intend ever to sell it; its role is to be a free introduction to the series. The Wattpad version will be somewhat unpolished, but I will assuredly post it to my various ebook retailers and try to make it free as soon as it’s actually done. So those of you who don’t have Wattpad accounts can wait for that, although I wish you wouldn’t. To encourage you to follow along, here are the cover and an excerpt:

colored_room_3WP

They do not teach you, in the offices of Dawnroad Bank, how much it strains your credibility with clients when you’re standing on their doorstep shivering hard enough that you’re actually a little out of breath from it. Dawnroad Bank does not often pay personal visits to clients in the boondocks of the sinistral sixth. But Dawnroad Bank never leaves money on the table.

Think about where that’s gotten them now, when the skies are split like the bellies of week-drowned rats and you can’t take a bite of bread without gritting your teeth on black bone-ash.

Some of you are going to want me to get to the point. You know that’s not how it works. Who’s here tonight? I see Aurea Laclois, the only woman in this room brave enough to admit she’s whored to live so she could walk this stage; I see Ambrose Chrysaor, who still can’t talk after a Champion nearly strangled him backstage for the crime of playing his part too well. Everyone here has suffered something like, and not for any “point,” because any geometer will tell you that a point is defined as nothing. A thousand points adds up to empty space. And you’re here, listening to me, because you know it.

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ed robertson on starting up as an indie publisher

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

All worth reading. The “nuclear option” in Part 3 is an intriguing idea—definitely the opposite of my approach. I guess I’m worried about the preoccupation that the SPP started to develop in maybe late 2012 or early 2013—the idea that free used to be useful, but now (due to algorithm changes and miscellaneous jiggerypokery) isn’t worth the risk inherent in training your readers to expect all your work to be free at some point. But the SPP has always been in favor of permanently free books used as low-friction introductions to series, and that is essentially what Ed’s talking about.

I think the insight comes down to: If you’re a new author with just one title, or (if you’re me) a few unrelated titles, you’re not going to make any money anyway. So you might as well do what you can to get readers, and free is one of the more powerful things you can do.

At the moment, I’m not sure I have the cycles to devote to making a book permanently free in any case—honestly, I’m not sure I have the cycles to reformat THE DANDELION KNIGHT for Smashwords, much less execute any price-matching trickery correctly. And I’m not even working on the sequel to TDK right now, so permanent free isn’t going to buy me any follow-on sales for a while (although it could drive sales of BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS or a subsequent collection). Still, it’s at least good practice to think about all this.

I think I’m on the final 10,000 or so words of THE EIGHTH KING. Two weeks’ work, in theory. We’ll see.

new book, free book

BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS is free on amazon.com from 8/6-8/8!

bloodwaxmirrors DKcover_1563x2500

Not entirely coincidentally, THE DANDELION KNIGHT is now available on amazon.com for $4.99! The plan is to get it to other distributors as well, but that’s going to take a bit of time. What I’d really like you to do, naturally, is to view this as an opportunity to get $8 of books for $5, rather than $3 for $0—but if free’s all you’re up for right now, I’ll take it.

It is perhaps worth saying that BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS is unlikely to be free again in the foreseeable future. For those not conversant with how Amazon works, there are only two ways to make it free: (1) Put it up free somewhere else and wait for Amazon to price-match it, or (2) Enroll it in KDP Select, which allows me to make it free for 5 days out of each 90-day enrollment period in exchange for exclusivity on Amazon. BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS is now in KDP Select, but I don’t want to keep the book exclusive to Amazon, so I don’t plan to re-enroll it. After I’ve built up my library a bit, it’s possible that I’ll go route (1), price-matching to free—but I think I need more books and stories out before that starts making sense.

This reminds me, I really need to see whether I can publish “Statler pulchrifex” and “Wormwords” on Amazon; those would be neat to have as permanently free promotional stories, since both are available for free online anyway. I’m reasonably certain I’m allowed to do this, but I’ve lost track of the contracts, so I should probably contact the editors at NATURE and COSMOS to be sure. Also, I need to set up proper affiliate links and update the DANDELION KNIGHT page on this here blog.

Also, I have a kid and a job. Well, one step at a time.

blood, wax, mirrors

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.

a hard winter’s night

I wrote this a month or so ago for inclusion in THE DANDELION KNIGHT or a related piece of work. It worked better than I expected, even as a self-contained little scene, and it reveals a couple of new wrinkles in an already pretty wrinkly setting. So I like it.

There is so much to say, but in some sense the first thing that happened is this:

They came in the night to the back door of a modest brick tenement, two floors of residences above two of business, and discreetly rang the little bell that hung nailed into the moulding. The door opened immediately; a man had been waiting in the stairwell. His face was black-bearded and thin, his skin dark and fine but losing its firmness, as though in greeting the men who had knocked he had stepped over the jamb separating youth from middle age. In his arms was the baby.

The men who had knocked were three, of unremarkable appearance, dressed for business in drab suits and cravats. The one on the left, who was big and young with a thick shock of dark hair, had a handgun at his side and a great padded basket strapped across his shoulders. The one on the right, who was spare and pale and older, though his hair was no less thick, carried a hard-shelled briefcase. The one in front was short and compact, and his scalp was covered only by the close-cropped stubble of a receding hairline. He had a kind face, and the man with the baby recoiled inwardly at that. It was the middle of the night in the month of Greslose, and the man with the baby felt his nose hairs freeze a moment with each breath he took; he did not fail to notice that the three men who had knocked wore no overcoats.

“Thank you for waiting,” said the kind-faced man. “I’m afraid there are legalities. We can go inside if it’s more comfortable for you, but some people prefer not to have us in their homes. We understand, of course.”

“I’ll ask you to exercise your understanding, then,” said the man with the baby.

“Very well,” said the kind-faced man. “M. Imendoint, the identification kit, please.”

The spare older man smoothly cradled the suitcase in his left arm and opened it with his right, revealing a multi-compartment interior padded with blue quilted canvas. In the central compartment was a flat, round-cornered box of off-white bioplass, considerably scuffed and scratched and pen-marked, with a serial number embossed on the lid. Embedded in the front were two vertical strips, each with a little lens, a clean white pad, and a little well with a needle sticking straight out from the center. On the top edge of the box were three more needles. The kind-faced man removed the box from the suitcase; the man with the baby reached for it, but the kind-faced man shook his head. “I hold it,” he said. “You verify your own identity, then the baby’s. You know what to do?” The man with the baby nodded and stared into one of the lenses, which responded with a brief flash of red; then he licked his finger, pressed it to the clean white pad, and pricked it with the needle. The pad slowly turned blue.

“It’s you,” the kind-faced man said, and the man with the baby glared at him. Then he looked at the baby, who was still asleep even in the nose-hair-freezing cold. “I’m afraid there’s no getting around the finger-prick,” said the kind-faced man. “It’s cruel, but not so cruel as it would be for us to take the wrong child.” To some stirring of the man with the baby’s expression, he added, “Have no fear, we’ll comfort her. And M. Drontois can take care of the child’s identity if you prefer.”

The man with the baby shot him a look of scorn and took the child’s head in his hands gently but surely, positioned her in front of the other lens, then moved a hand up to pry her eye open. The baby began to cry a fraction of a second after the lens had recorded her retina; the man who held her took a hand and moved it up to her open mouth, provoking a fresh howl, and pressed it to the pad and then the needle, provoking another. The streets were sheathed with just enough snow to damp what would otherwise have been a fine reverberation from the stone and asphalt. The man fixed the baby’s swaddle, then put her on his shoulder and began to rock and shush her; she cried as though the world were ending.

“And that’s her,” said the kind-faced man, indicating the second pad, which had turned a fainter but no less distinct blue. “Give her to M. Drontois, please; the paperwork requires the clearest handwriting possible.” The spare older man drew a clipboard from a pocket in the quilted suitcase and offered it to the kind-faced man; the big young man, Drontois, held out the basket.

The man with the baby ignored Drontois and looked at the clipboard as though it were an artifact of a long-defunct civilization. The kind-faced man allowed him a moment before speaking. “Pardon my bluntness, sir, but this moment was coming, before or after you completed the paperwork. I have done this once or twice, as I’m sure you know, and I assure you that holding on to her longer would make the culmination of this encounter no easier. Whereas, if we had to come back to your house tomorrow to verify some portion of these forms, because the handwriting was—”

“I’m not trying to make anything easier,” said the man with the baby. She had not quieted yet, but her sobs had become more strident than desperate, protests rather than lamentations. The man with the baby wondered whether the kind-faced man or his associates had spent enough time with children to understand the difference between their different cries. Probably, he was forced to admit, they had; and that, of course, was worse than if they had not. He brought the squalling child’s head up to his own, hoping he might be able to look into her eyes in a divinely granted moment of peace; but they were screwed shut, the skinny strong back kipping with undirected fury. A tiny taloned hand caught him across the cheekbone with a scratch whose power somehow, after raising two other children and, for just a few days, this one, surprised him. She was too young for tears. He kissed her forehead, which only enraged her further, and drew in the scent of her skin and of the down of her scalp with a deep but quiet breath. Then he put her in the big man’s basket.

The big man covered her with another blanket, thicker than the one the bearded man (for he no longer had a baby) had swaddled her with. The kind-faced man extended the clipboard.

She had quieted by the time the bearded man was done. He looked at her still form, the arms barely thicker than his thumbs and so short they would barely touch the top of her head, the thin chest working like a bellows. He took a step toward the big man, Drontois, and crouched down to put his head at the baby’s level; in his visual periphery he saw Drontois stiffen and nearly recoil at the unexpected motion, but the three men allowed him this last indulgence. He kissed his the tip of his forefinger, pressed it to the infant’s forehead, then lay it in her palm; her hand closed around it. He waggled the finger to move the arm. Still she did not wake. He reclaimed his finger and stood.

“Some families find it comforting to hear of the good work their children will do for Altronne,” said the kind-faced man.

A thing came to the bearded man’s eyes that either answered or silenced the kind-faced man. “As you wish,” he said, just as though the bearded man had spoken. He began to turn to go, but something made him meet the bearded man’s eyes one more time. “This has happened to all of us,” he said. “M. Drontois’ first and only child—but he is young. My second; we had another after. M. Imendoint lost a child and a grandchild.”

The bearded man received this news mutely.

“We have observed you carefully here,” said the kind-faced man. “We will enter your name into the list. The list contains only men and women who love their lost children despite knowing what they are. The directors review the list and ask selected citizens to do the work we do.” He paused here, to let the bearded man react if he would. “If you are selected, and you accept, you may see her.”

The eye’s colored iris is as opaque as a signal flag, which is what it is, an adaptation to life in a complex society where gaze is as much communication as it is interrogation. The pupil is merely a hole; the lens behind it exists to focus light as it penetrates the eye, and the retina exists to absorb that light and speak of its nature to the brain. In short, there is no meaningful physiological sense in which light can be said to emanate from the eye. But there are more meaningful senses than the physiological, and anyone staring at his face would have sworn up and down that the flare in the bearded man’s eyes was bright enough to leave the three men flash-blind.

“Why tell me?” he asked.

“So you can contemplate your answer,” the kind-faced man said. “They are not human, Jon. You will see, if you say yes.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You say that now.”

“Does it matter?” asked the bearded man.

“I would hardly have mentioned it if it did not.”

“Do you wish you had said no?”

“I cannot answer that.”

The bearded man nodded. The tears were streaming freely now, stiffening in tracks in the black beard. “You can go now.” Before I rip her free of that basket and run Imen knows where, he thought but did not say.

The three men turned their backs without another word, and the bearded man shut the door to the back stairs, ringing the little bell with the impact. He gave a second’s sober thought to crumpling on the very bottom stair and letting the sobs shatter him; but he rejected that. He would undress and meet his wife in bed. If he wept then, he would weep. The children were asleep—and if they did hear him, perhaps it was all to the good. Better for them to learn to cry before their loved ones, was it not, where dignity could be recovered, rather than in cold abjection, on the mercy of some thoroughfare’s transient disuse? Better, was it not, to memorialize their sister with grief, rather than lose all memory of her in a child’s trust that what adults decided must be for the best?

But his wife was asleep, as it eventuated, and neither she nor his children were awakened by his tears—nor by the soft chant, through them, of the name he had never told anyone, the name no one but him would ever know to call that nameless, absent girl.

No one but him, that is, and me.