Sapphire Book Reviews has posted their review of The White Tree. Spoiler alert: it is a very nice review. Giving it 4.5 stars, she calls The White Tree “an instant page turner” that “has everything you could ask for in an adventure story.”

I’m sure I’ll wind up with a nasty review one of these days, and I’m sure it’ll sting, but it’s been pretty nice to keep reading these positive ones in the meantime.

The reviewer does some nice analysis of the religion in the book, too. It’s pretty interesting as an author to see what readers and reviewers hone in on–religious strife drives most of the action of the book, but when I was writing it, religion as an entity wasn’t one of my main concerns. I mean, I wasn’t particularly trying to say anything about it beyond how history, legend, and meaning can be distorted, misinterpreted, and mistranslated by those in power, resulting in profound changes to the original beliefs. That and how these beliefs can divide us.

But it sounds like if the book had been more spiritually-oriented, or obviously trying to make points about specific real-world religions, positive or negative, the reviewer would have been turned off. Which I completely understand–it would take a pretty special book to get me to want to read Christian or inspirational fiction. That’s just not my thing. But it just didn’t occur to me that what I was writing was that concerned with religion, that close to being a potential social landmine. I was just writing medieval-era epic fantasy. In the medieval ages, religion drove an awful lot of politics, economics, and various social forces. Plus I’d been fascinated by how much of the embedded meaning of ancient parables and stories is lost as, over the course of centuries, a culture moves further and further from the one that created that story in the first place.

Which makes it sound like the religious angle was the driving motivation to write The White Tree. Really, I wanted to tell a story of a kid who discovers a life-long passion while trying to keep himself together in the midst of a harsh and violent world. The rest was just additional color.

The White Tree‘s available, FYI, in electronic formats at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

There are a lot of artificial intelligences running around in The Roar of the Spheres. They act a lot like humans. There are reasons for this: for one thing, it’s fun. But realistically speaking, I think AI will end up being a lot like us.

The thing about intelligence is it always arises from a huge collection of stupid actors. I’m not talking about movies here. Schools of fish and flocks of birds don’t move in those beautifully choreographed movements because somebody at the front is bellowing at them through a bullhorn. Neighborhoods and districts in cities, for the most part, don’t arrange themselves because somebody’s planning it. Maybe the most famous misinterpretation of intelligence is that of bee hives and ant colonies: the queen is not ordering her thousands of offspring around. She makes zero decisions about the colony’s behavior. The decisions to forage, relocate, or war are all determined by the collective conclusion reached through thousands of beings laying down their individual pheromone trails.

Brains are similar. Brains are composed of neurons, each of which is capable of no action more sophisticated than saying ON or OFF, TRUE or FALSE, SALT or PEPPER. It’s the interaction of billions of these stupid actors arranged in various networks that lead to sapience. It’s kind of amazing.

Neurons are bits. They have the exact same properties as computers. If you want to create an AI, I don’t think you look to high-level, individually powerful processors. I think you combine billions of very stupid, very simple processors that, when networked with each other, are capable of unintuitive outcomes.

That’s how you build a brain. If you model a machine after our brains, you might create intelligence. If you model an intelligence after ours–with the same unpredictable, bottom-up networks–you’re going to have beings capable of emotion and irrationality.

In other words, if we design AI in our own image, based on billions of stupid actors acting in concert, I don’t think they’ll be the logic-machines we often imagine, incapable of feelings, inhumanely rational. They might end up an awful lot like us.

An interview with who? An interview with me. Go read it here.

First, the news: My novel The White Tree is currently featured at Spalding’s Racket.

Next, a digression: Over the last six weeks, I’ve added a new dimension to my writing career: indie publishing. Self-publishing, if you want to be more direct. Some talented but behind-the-times authors are still calling it “vanity publishing,” which.. well, I liked Hyperion an awful lot, Mr. Simmons. You write great AI. Let’s leave it at that.

Back on course: When you’re going it by yourself, you don’t have anyone advertising your work for you. Unless you’re one of those “guys with money” who can “hire publicists” and “eat dinner inside the restaurants instead of behind them.” But most of us, if we want people to know about our books, we have to tell them ourselves.

There are numerous ways to approach this, which I should probably explore in another post re: their relative shame index. For instance, I find interviews to be pretty painless: I’m not talking about why readers should buy a specific book, so the chance of sounding like a deluded used-car salesman is dramatically decreased. But in cases like this, where you’re basically saying “Hey, here’s my book, here’s why you might like to buy it”? I’m simultaneously excited by the opportunity and ashamed that I took it. I don’t think you have to feel that way. But I do.

Self-promotion has a definite learning curve. Here’s what I’ve learned so far: focus on the types of promotion you’re comfortable doing, be it interviews, tweets, forum involvement, guest blogs, describing your book on blogs that provide space for such things, etc. And even if you think your book is especially funny, poignant, action-packed, whatever, maybe you, as the author, are not the one to be promoting it as such. It’s one thing to reply to an interview question with “I try to write funny because funny things are funny.” It’s another to blurb your book somewhere with “A hilarious, can’t-put-downable read, My Immortal Masterpiece That Will Outlast Mankind Itself will touch your heart in ways that are illegal in 72 countries.”

I think I could have approached some of my blurb appearances a little better. But I’m sure my first agent queries were far from perfect, too, and I know my earlier stories would make me implode with shame. If there’s one thing about the process of becoming a writer, it’s that it teaches you to shrug it off, move forward, and vow to do better next time. To less failure ahoy!

Well, uh, that title pretty much covers it, actually. Check it out here.

Drumroll: The Zombies of Hobbiton: Martian Love Story, an 85-page novella, is now available on Amazon.

At nearly 25,000 words, The Zombies of Hobbiton falls squarely into novella territory. This is another way of saying it’s completely unsalable.

Big book publishers wouldn’t touch a story of that length. Even the shortest genres, category romance and such, is expected to crack 60,000 words or so. A sci-fi or horror novel had better run at least 75K. I suppose it’s possible a traditional publisher would sell a few novellas bundled together, or one inserted among an anthology, but frankly, to sell a story of that length, a story that may well take up 20-25% of the anthology’s total page count, you either have to be extremely good or already well-established.

The same rule of thumb applies over at the genre magazines. Duotrope.com. Duotrope lists 200 paying horror markets and 227 paying sci-fi markets (there is some overlap here). Of these, two pro-paying magazines (that is, markets that pay at least $0.05/word) accept novellas up to 25K words: Fantasy & Science Fiction, at 25K, and Analog, at an impressive 40K. If you place a 25K story at one of these markets, you’ll do pretty well for yourself: F&SF would shell out $1500 for your story (a little more if you’re established), and Analog would pay $1250 ($1500 if you’re a big name). F&SF buys first North American and foreign serial rights with an option on anthology rights. I’m not sure what Analog asks for, but it’s probably similar, meaning you’d still have a bunch of rights left to sell on down the road.

However, F&SF receives somewhere in the ballpark of 2500+ submissions a year while Analog probably sees around 1000+. These are conservative extrapolations; I expect they receive closer to twice that many.

So if you exhaust both those options, you can turn to lower-paying genre markets. Crossed Genres is a pretty nice little zine, and while they hypothetically accept novellas, they’re currently closed to such submissions. Orb Speculative Fiction takes novellas up to 25K words. If you’re a resident of Australia or New Zealand. If accepted, you’ll be paid $50. (Note: I’m very aware of the difficulties in paying authors high rates for their work, and am not criticizing Orb for their pay rates. Just exploring the novella market.) The Red Penny Papers is an interesting-looking zine that wants gothic, pulpy speculative fiction. They’ll serialize works of up to 25K words, paying $0.005/word (i.e. 10K = $50), capping at $100. (Same disclaimer re: rates applies. I like small markets. Simply making a point.) GigaNotoSaurus, a market specifically for longer stories, takes novellas up to 25K and pays $100, and is newish but pretty well-respected.

In total, I see three other SF/F/H magazine markets that will run novellas, paying $25-40 apiece. Anthologies of various pay rates come and go and will sometimes take long stories.

From there, small presses are a fairly viable medium for novellas. A lot of them sell ebooks, but I’m aware of several that will sell actual print novellas. Small press novella markets still aren’t plentiful–I see 10-12 on Duotrope, and strongly suspect there are significantly more out there–but they exist. Most offer a token advance and royalties. Small presses aren’t normally capable of making you rich, but I have met a couple authors who make a living through them.

So maybe my characterization of novellas as a bastard-length medium that’s utterly unsalable is a little hyperbolic. In truth, you’ve got three options:

1) Try to sell them to a magazine. Between all genres, Duotrope shows seven pro-paying markets for works of 25K words or more, with another ~15 paying at lower rates

2) Sell through a small press. This has the usual small press pros and cons: a stamp of legitimacy, formatting and distribution, and possibly a bigger platform than you can provide yourself vs. splitting revenues. (My experience with small presses is limited, but I’ve enjoyed it)

3) Self-publish through Amazon, B&N, etc.

Given that there is no real traditional route available, 2) is the default option if you want a press backing you. Writing this piece has put them on my radar to explore if/when I write my next novella.

When it comes to 1) and 3), they aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. While some magazines may want permanent e-rights that could conflict with your ability to resell your novella through Amazon etc., many don’t, and some of the ones that do are usually willing to take a story offline after 6-12 months. If I thought I had a chance in hell of placing The Zombies of Hobbiton at Analog or F&SF (I think it’s too slapsticky for them, though I could be wrong), I might have tried them first.

But when I look at media to sell novellas through, I see limited options with serious tradeoffs. Some self-publishing advocates would argue this is no more than a microcosm of all current traditional publishing routes–but if nothing else, it’s even worse for novellas, because you simply have almost nothing to lose. From where I sit, the best path is to publish them yourself and see where it leads.

I’ve released a new book on Kindle: The Roar of the Spheres, currently available for $0.99. It’s a sci-fi novel, a backyard space opera heavy with action and humor.

Heh! Pretty crummy cover, right? Did it myself, that’s why. I’ve contacted a pro I know to work me up a better one, but I wanted to get The Roar of the Spheres up now for a couple reasons: first, it’s currently in the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and if it makes the next round of cuts, I want it out there for anyone who wants to check out. Second, there may be a few brave souls out there ready to overlook the second-rate cover, fork over a buck, and give it a read. Ideally, one or two of them will toss up a review by the time I have my new cover ready to go. Voila–all ready to market.

I don’t know if this is a better or worse strategy than waiting until everything is absolutely perfect to get it out there. The last thing an indie author* needs is to look unprofessional. At the same time, most newcomers take months to build up their presence. The Roar of the Spheres isn’t going to get much attention good or bad today; that cover will be replaced before more than a handful of people have seen it.

But in the meantime, it’s working its way through Amazon’s system. It’s out there if someone wants to read it. I stand by the body of the book itself. Pretty soon, I’ll be able to give it the snappy suit to match.

*For the record, I don’t self-define as a purely indie author–I’m still writing short stories and selling them to magazines, and unless I get Amanda Hockingsishly rich, I will continue to pursue traditional publishers with my next novel. But in the meantime, anyone who declines to self-publish work they believe in just because of the rapidly eroding stigma against self-published books–I think they’re slamming a door on an unknown and sometimes career-launching new world.

A few weeks ago, I entered The Roar of the Spheres in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Today, I learned I’d moved on to the second round, along with 1000 other books in the general fiction category.

I don’t know how this contest looks to industry professionals. One logical perspective is it’s 10,000 people fighting for two seats at the dinner table. There’s not a lot of dignity in that. Of course, the competition to find an agent and a publisher isn’t much different, but at least it’s not so transparent.

I don’t care anymore. If there’s an opportunity out there, I’m going to take a shot at it. I don’t care if it risks looking unprofessional to some people. The ABNA, self-publishing to Kindle, whatever–if it gives me a chance to make money from my fiction, I’m going to do it. I’m trying to build a career. That’s all I care about.

As a tangent, I checked out a couple threads about the ABNA over at Kindleboards. Several authors expressed doubts about it, outright questioning the value of Penguin’s $15,000 advance against the worth of their ebook rights. Here’s some quick math: if you sell 10 copies of your $0.99 book a day, 3650 in a year, you’ve made just over $1250 in royalties from Amazon.

How many indie authors are selling 3650 copies of a single novel every year? How many years do you expect this success to carry on through for this single title? It had better be at least 12. Factoring in some risk-assessment, I think you’d only turn down a $15,000 advance if you have strong reason to believe you can maintain that level of self-published sales for 25 years.

In some circles, self-epublishing is taking on a serious gold-rush mindset. But for every Amanda Hocking, there are 100,000 authors lucky to sell a single copy per week.

No doubt e-rights are becoming a huge deal, huger by the day. But $15,000 and a book published by a giant corporate house is a pretty great deal compared to what tens of thousands of self-published authors are going to end up earning through their ebooks. At the very least, it’s a high and concrete platform from which to promote your other works. You want to turn that down over fears the stone you’ve polished might turn out to be a diamond? To me, that sounds like a good way to stall out right where you are, to end up the same place ten years down the road as you are today.

Oh yeah. It’s time. Got a decent little twist for it, too. And I’m thinking long: like, novella-long. 15-30,000 words long. Stuff you’re a fool to write because there’s nowhere to sell it.

But that’s not really the case anymore, is it? Wish me luck.

I recently dug up a fantasy novel I wrote four years back with the idea of putting it up on Kindle. Even if it sells little, I could use any extra money it brings in each month; besides that, I may be doing some work on an ebook for someone else soon, and figured I could brush up on my formatting.

In the process of doctoring up its HTML tags, I read the first chapter and ran into an interesting phenomenon: it wasn’t as good as I remembered.

When I was sending it around to agents, I was confident. It was funny and action-packed and carried an in-depth mythology. Every chapter had seen at least a second draft, most a third, and some a fifth or sixth. By the time I had it all fixed up later that year, it was my first work I felt really proud of.

And on revisiting it a few days ago, parts of that first chapter were fine. But a bunch of the sentences, to put it charitably towards myself, are not how I’d write them now. And frankly, it took too long to tell what it had to tell: I could cut 10% without trying, 20% if I got out the axe and grew my evil mustache. Possibly, agents were right to turn this down.

To me, this phenomenon’s interesting not because it’s new, but because it’s old. Something like this happens to me every time I dig up something I wrote a few years previously–when I finish reading, I sit back, look around to make sure no one saw me, and think “Damn, I’m glad I don’t write like that anymore.”

The more experience I get and the more bad words I get out of me, the further between I expect these revelations to be; pretty recently, I reread “Steve Kendrick’s Disease,” a story I wrote nearly three years ago, and my only real complaint was how I used to handle dialogue tags (should have integrated them into the characters’ actions more!). But I doubt this phenomenon will ever disappear completely. I hope it doesn’t: that would mean that, somewhere along the way, I stopped learning.

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