Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dude. Where's My Tail?

In the last month I've delivered one novel and started another. I have done what, in former times, would have constituted the entirety of my job: writing a piece of fiction and selling it to a publisher. What happened to it afterward was sort of up to them.

Without going into the sad details, let's just say that this business model no longer cuts the mustard. I've been writing professionally for twenty-odd years, and it's become clear that I can't depend on publishers to make me rich and famous. They keep dropping the football. Sometimes they can't even find the football to drop it.

Often publishers will do some very nice things for my books--- foil paper covers, etc.--- but these all go under the heading of gimmicks. They all have one thing in common: they don't cost real money.

As someone whose books used to get full-page ads in Publisher's Weekly and Locus, I can but look on these efforts with a degree of skepticism. Not that I'm not grateful for any publisher's efforts in any regard whatever; but I can pretty much demonstrate, with over twenty years' worth of data, that my books sell in direct proportion to the amount of money spent on promotion. I'm told that these data are meaningless, because they don't apply across the board to other writers; but they damned well apply to me, so it seems that people should pay attention to them. But they don't.

Writers of mid-list fiction--- which is pretty much everything but the best-sellers--- are more or less obliged in these sub-lunary times to shoulder the burdens of publicity and promotion ourselves. We are expected to have web pages, we are expected to have blogs. It's not that I don't enjoy communicating with my readers, or that I don't have fun on this blog, but I have to wonder how much profit actually accrues from this use of my time.

Full-time advertising professionals assure us that an advertising campaign along the lines of, "This is a new Walter Jon Williams work, wholly original and unlike any previous Walter Jon Williams work" is doomed to failure. According to these highly-qualified professionals, people only respond to things that look like other things that they already like. That's why, whenever I write a book like Days of Atonement, which was the world's first (and, so far as I know, only) Gothic Western science fiction police procedural, a book which I fondly assumed might appeal to readers outside the normal SF audience, the publisher made sure to put Death Rays on the cover, to assure genre readers that this was a thing that looked like other things that they already liked, and to make sure that all potential new readers were discouraged from so much as glancing at the book.

It is a truism of advertising that you keep the consumers you've got--- even if they're getting older and reading less and, you know, dying--- rather than take the risk of alienating them in pursuit of new consumers.

So the rule would seem to be: whatever's actually in there, it's gotta look like the other stuff. But I don't get to pick cover art and design anyway--- at best I get to veto it when I don't like it--- so any further thoughts in that direction are fruitless.

Nevertheless the next book, Implied Spaces, is appearing from Night Shade, which is a small(ish) if very successful press, and which despite its success presumably can't afford to spend five or ten times the advance to make a brilliant success in the market. Which means we've got to sneak the success and glory in on a low budget.

And it has to be something I can do from New Mexico, which is the most isolated place in the U.S.

I have observed with interest the development of Long Tail theory, in which it is demonstrates that the development of electronic distribution networks can theoretically provide very large audience for hitherto obscure books. I'm not sure that this would work for me: I suspect that my books already sell more copies than just about all of those Long Tail books.

Still, growing a Long Tail certainly wouldn't hurt sales. But how is that to be done?

What I clearly need is a huge online audience, like those of Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow. The problem is that Neil was beloved by a vast audience well before he ever had a blog, and Cory had a huge online audience before he ever wrote an SF novel.

So it seems to me that I've got to get famous first.

What has to happen, it seems to me, is that I need a certifiably famous person to say that I should be more famous and popular than I am. Elmore Leonard was a fairly obscure writer until George Will wrote an entire column about how good Elmore Leonard was. Then Leonard became famous, and book and movie deals descended like unto manna from heaven. And to mix fairy tales if not metaphors, Oprah regularly turns ugly ducklings into gold-laying geese. Does anyone have her phone number?

Does anybody out there know a truly famous person who could be persuaded to tell everyone that I should be famous, too?

And if not, does anyone have any useful ideas?

I'm going up the mountain in a couple days for Taos Toolbox. I'll be gone for two weeks, and during that time I'll have only intermittent access to the internet, assuming I have any access at all.

So feel free to discuss the issue of my worldwide fame and success, and why it's important. I won't interrupt.

Thank you.

39 Comments:

Blogger Max Kaehn said...

I don’t know how useful it would be, but I’m still eagerly awaiting the followup to Metropolitan and City on Fire. If the first two books are still out of print, make them available online and via print-on-demand. Point out that the stories were New Weird before anyone coined the term, and see if you can get China Miéville to blurb them.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Luís Filipe Silva said...

Yes, I'm still waiting as well, and as I've had the chance to tell you in person (Nantes, 2004), _Days of Atonement_ is probably your best novel and one of the best I've ever read, back in my early twenties (I don't remember the cover, though). Hang on and keep writing. All the best.

1:45 AM  
Blogger Elio said...

Well, there's always sending copies of the book to famous people, in hopes that they'll plug it. Cory Doctrow, of course .. maybe political bloggers who've shown previous interest in SF/F, like Instapundit, Kevin Drum, Stephen Bainbridge...

4:23 AM  
Blogger David said...

It's a grim and awful situation. I've sometimes wondered if the only solution is to become infamous -- by committing an awful crime, say. Problem is, that might lead to book sales but would entail loss of the liberty to enjoy the proceeds. Oh, and the conscience problem.

(So this is where you hang out now!)

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Johan Larson said...

Pick more fights online.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

First chapters free online. Older books that have stopped selling given away as free ebooks. Eric Flint says it works :) Ditto David Weber and Cory Doctorow.

7:26 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Hi, David! Hi, Luis! Welcome!

The Infamous Act solution has occurred to me. It is a sad comment on our world that the best way to get free publicity for my masterpiece is to walk into a McDonald's and gun down 18 people. Or kill a celebrity, or a politician.

Nawww . . . not a politician. Nobody would care.

And on the third hand, if I were to do away with Paris Hilton, would anyone bother to prosecute? I'd be a hero to anyone not on the staff of the Inquirer!

I'd also thought about becoming more controversial. (I was trying not to think of it as "picking fights." Maybe I can call it "taking stands.")

I could run a political blog, or I could jump on any SFWA or literary controversy. Or start a literary movement so that I could slag my peers.

I see two problems with that. First, I'd spend an enormous amount of time arguing with assholes. I'd end up spending hours doing =research= so that I could =refute= assholes. (Not that it would make any difference to them.) And I'd be obliged to form opinions about things that I really haven't made up my mind about, and then have to defend those opinions.

That's one problem.

The other problem is that I might find myself enjoying it. Which would mean that I'd =become= an asshole.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Johan Larson said...

First, I'd spend an enormous amount of time arguing with assholes. I'd end up spending hours doing research so that I could refute assholes.

No, no, no. You make claims, and then you dismiss objections. If you find yourself needing watertight arguments you are doing it wrong. Rhetoric, not proof.

And I'd be obliged to form opinions about things that I really haven't made up my mind about, and then have to defend those opinions.

Surely you have some opinions about things others care about, and those opinions are at least hand-wavily justified? If not, maybe you're just not a very interesting person, and are justifiably obscure.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walter ---

I think you should look to Dave Barry for your inspiration.

1) Write a weekly newspaper column
2) Once a year, collect and publish columns
3) Profit!

9:26 AM  
Anonymous jw johnson said...

I'm liking the Oprah thing. You cant go wrong with Oprah. Send her your story The Rift. She will love it.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Blue Tyson said...

One possibility, here's a list from LibraryThing, as of now :-

Books by Walter Jon Williams

Hardwired 168 copies, 1 reviews
Aristoi 158 copies, 1 reviews
Destiny's way 150 copies
The praxis 118 copies, 4 reviews
Metropolitan 112 copies, 2 reviews
Voice of the whirlwind 101 copies, 1 reviews
The sundering 96 copies, 4 reviews
The rift 92 copies, 1 reviews
Conventions of war 88 copies, 2 reviews
Angel Station 79 copies, 1 reviews
City on fire 70 copies, 3 reviews
Days of Atonement 68 copies, 1 reviews
Facets 55 copies

So one possibility is perhaps write like what you used to write.

Personally, I hated Days Of Atonement, and thought the big fat space opera was blah (but I may give it another chance someday after not getting far into the first one).

You'd have a better shot perhaps at getting noticed with Stross, Doctorow, Egan, Watts, Schroeder Reynolds, or whoever with something in the Posthuman vein of Aristoi, or as mentioned with an urban fantasy than a Gothic Western. Don't think those will be hot sellers in general.

4:16 AM  
Blogger Phy said...

I'm not a huge fan of chasing successful markets. Nobody was writing about muggles and mages until JK Rowling did it, and earned a billion dollars.

I like what Karen said:
"First chapters free online. Older books that have stopped selling given away as free ebooks."

We're giving away our perfectly good space opera magazine online at http://raygunrevival.com

9:29 AM  
Blogger Synova said...

I doubt it will help since no one reads my blog, but I'll blog roll you.

I don't know if I've spoken to you, but I heard you read at Bubonicon. Now that I think of it, I bet it was Days of Atonement. I liked it but like many readings the lag between "I liked that" and "available to purchase" is an issue. So now I'm glad to be reminded of it. (An additional issue for me is how everything seems to be in hardcover these days making the gap between hearing about a new book and buying the paperback so long that I've even given up keeping track of where Bujold is in her publishing cycle.)

An author that I think has a nice web page is Wen Spencer. She has very nice graphics of each of her published books, a sample chapter, and links to Amazon.

I've no idea how effective it is for publicity or sales but it is nicely done.

I was hanging out with the romance authors in Albuquerque for a while and some of the stuff they talked about for promotion seemed time consuming and expensive without any hope of any sort of reasonable return. Book signings in particular. Buying tons of swag seemed economically counter-productive as well.

One young overachiever (writing as Lydia Joyce) set up a web site with monthly drawings for prizes, newsletter and preview snippets. I don't know how that worked, longterm, and haven't talked to her (she moved) in quite some time, but the idea was to get people who visited once to check back again regularly for the next contest or drawing.

10:56 AM  
Blogger halojones-fan said...

Baen seems to have their act together re: electronic distribution.

12:28 PM  
Blogger halojones-fan said...

PS: Also waiting for the third book in the Metropolitan series!

PPS: Why isn't Night Shade reprinting those two? My copy of Metropolitan is falling to bits and I only have City On Fire in hardcover, which means that I have to lug this massive tome from place to place.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous jw johnson said...

No to giving it away for free. At least put some ads on it and make a few cents. Like tv did in the old days. IMO it's the future of e/publishing.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Tarl Neustaedter said...

I'll add my $0.02.

As Karen says, sample chapters, and contribute some no-longer-earning books to an e-library (I'd recommend Baen's, simply because of the traffic it gets. Flint seems willing to accept books for it from other publishers).

But something you can do proactively - snippet! During the interval between finishing a book and it getting published, release bits and pieces of it at a time on your blog (stopping before the half-way point, of course!). Build up interest in your latest by getting people reading it a bit at a time and coming back. Post small enough chunks often enough that readers will make a habit of coming back. And then stop when it gets near publication date :-)

While I enjoy reading about the Baron and frat-boy chicken, that's not why I come here to your (and several other authors') blogs. I come here because I want to know what you're writing and when it will be out - something you talk about very rarely.

Even better than snippeting would be talking about what's going on while you're writing. Give us enough information that when we read your actual book, we can relate chunks of the book to comments you made while you were writing it. Some authors even get free research done by their readers by just asking naive questions :-)

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Lawrence M. Schoen said...

I'm even further down the publishing food chain than you, but then too I'm also a huge fan of your work. I've always felt privileged to speak with you at readings and the ocassional SFWA event.

I'm a far cry from famous, but among a subset of Trek and Klingon fans I have a small amount of name recognition. I know it's not much, but I routinely push your titles to the Klingon-speaking community and I'll happily continue to do so.

If you can think of any other way I can be of help, you have only to ask.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Affiliate links to your books at the bookseller of your choice would be good move too ;-)

8:20 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

You've got to create some buzz. Get people on forums and blogs talking about you and linking to your site. Not talking about your *work*, mind you - talking about *you*. We all know who Cory Doctorow is, but let's be honest here. We don't know who he is because of his books. We read his books because we initially became interested in him as a persona, and we became interested in his persona as a direct result of the cause he was pushing. The stand he was taking, so to speak.

So go out on a limb. Try something different. What do you have to lose? Rail against the whole publishing industry as little more than leeches and middle men. Talk about developing a direct and intimate relationship with your readers. Give some of your older works away for free as digital downloads in an open-source format (the open source crowd would love you just for that). Then set up some kind of micropay system to sell some of your new stuff - presumably something you haven't sold to a publisher yet. Bypass the existing system entirely, you know? When I shell out 6 or 7 bucks for one of your books, how much of that do you actually get? So sell the books online in a digital format, for the same amount of money as the cut you normally get from the publisher.

You say you don't want to get bogged down in debates with assholes, but why debate anybody? The beauty of the web is that you can post *anything*, and since it's your site, you're under no real obligation to defend any of it.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

My friend tells me that I should blog about topics related to what is being Googled most ( makes the blog go up in the Google ratings). So, post something about Paris Hilton's Underwear and see if you get mega hits.

(Sorry but I'm having visions of beer can underwear. I have to go now)

3:32 PM  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

You've already generated a controversy with this reader, since I live in Hawai'i, which we residents have been told is by far the most geographically isolated place in the world.

I doubt that helps much, but I thought you'd like to know.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous mazianni said...

You could always get Gaiman, Scalzi, Doctorow, Wheaton et al. to pimp for you. ;-)

It may also be worth noting that there are syndicated livejournal feeds for many blogs that aren't on livejournal. Neil Gaiman's syndicated LJ feed has 16000 readers. Of course, the Internet being what it is, 8000 of those are the same user and some unknown number are actually a bizarre plot on the part of Charles Stross...

At any rate, it's exposure. ;-)
http://syndicated.livejournal.com/wjwilliams/

6:39 PM  
Blogger St. Louis Inquirer said...

dubjay said...

And on the third hand, if I were to do away with Paris Hilton, would anyone bother to prosecute? I'd be a hero to anyone not on the staff of the Inquirer!


Hey, we polled our entire staff and it's unanimous, you'd be a mega hero. What's that? Oh, right. The Inquirer with actual readers. Well, you'd still be our hero!

9:16 AM  
Anonymous R.W. Ridley said...

Well, you are light years ahead of me in the publishing world, but I have some suggestions that may help. I have a virtually zero-dollar marketing budget for my books (POD – Ahhhh, run away! Run away!), but I’ve done okay so far. I’ve banded together with some other self-published authors and PODers, and these are the marketing efforts that seemed to have worked (please forgive me if this seems elementary to you, but I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents):

Podio episodes of your book – Usually 40 minutes or so in length. Free to download. Give them a taste or one author I know (Scott Sigler) offers the entire book in Podio form. He’s achieved some “fame” as a result and he’s sold a lot of books.

Viral Video – Youtube is a great tool. A well-timed creative video can do wonders for your books sales. My cheap little video has done pretty well for me. If you wish, you can try your act of infamy safely behind the confines of your video camera lens.

Amazon & Shelfari – Use them like MySpace… Wait hear me out. You can feed your blog to your AmazonConnect account. With the “Friend” feature, you create a large support group on both websites. You have this great Blog and great publishing track record so you already have a built in following. I think you just need to throw a little gasoline on the fire.

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Cliff Burns said...

You're a terrific writer and if your efforts draw in more readers, that's great for everyone concerned. The blogosphere can be a helpful promotional tool--writers like Peter Watts have excelled in this forum--and it is my sincere wish that your sales will spike and your profile gets a healthy boost. My best wishes to you.

Cliff Burns

4:19 PM  
Blogger Ezra said...

You can create several fake, online personas and shill for your books on various forums. You can also use viral marketing stunts, such as uploading a funny video of a masturbating cat to YouTube, with the last few seconds of video consisting only of the Amazon link to your book.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous FredFree Loader said...

AS a reader and not an author, I don't know much about the publishing end of things. I know why I buy books, so maybe that would help.

I first read Voice of the Whirlwind, because my uncle had a torn copy, on a shelf at his house, when I was baby sittings my cousins. That lead me to the rest of your novels. (Not helpful, unless you can seed novels at my uncle's house)

I particularly enjoyed the mysteries. I in particular enjoyed the Crown of Jewels stories. The wittiness, the speed, and the clever plot twists just kept me reading. (I guess that's may not be so helpful either).

Bottom line, I buy books because of the cover art and the blur on the back. (Royo!.)

I think the best way to get out there is to just be there. So maybe the authors that publish twice a year, shorter (100-130 page novels) that a quick and easy like the (destroyer series) or just through books out at various targets (drake, weber) are the best ways to get out there.

But I am just a reader, that reads what I like, and sadly the last book you have published is from 2005. It was part of a trilogy that took nearly 4 years to get out. In that time, I moved on, of course (I also re-read hardwired, and voice of the whirlwind)

The last author I read was the entire Honor Harrington series, by David Weber.

Enough rambling thoughts.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Tarl Neustaedter said...

Thinking about it some more, not specifically on how to develop a tail, but on your overall author career prospects. You comment:

"This is a new Walter Jon Williams work, wholly original and unlike any previous Walter Jon Williams work" is doomed to failure.

By and large, from my perspective, it should be doomed. There is a lot of crap on the shelves, and I no longer have the time to wade through it all. Instead, I occasionally take a dip in something new, but my primary reading is stuff from authors whose style I know I like.

If you write something completely unlike any previous work, it really should fall into my "slush" pile, rather than my "good stuff" pile - and I probably wouldn't get to it. Consuming about 150-200 books/year, probably fewer than 20 are from the random slush pile.

To give a couple of specific examples from other authors: Charles Stross has three different voices he writes in (roughly: cyberpunk, horror and cross-universe). I really like his Family Trade series, and it was enough to make me read everything else he's written. I find his horror stuff to be to be uninteresting and won't bother any more. His cyberpunk stuff is marginal, I'll probably buy it in paperback but not hardcover.

Another example is Bujold; her Barrayar stuff was beyond great. But her recent fantasy stuff is uninteresting to me, I haven't bothered buying her last couple of books in that style. She decided to move on, hopefully she found a new audience to make up for the audience she lost.

Sure, you have to develop as an author or you stagnate. And you don't want to repeat, or you'll bore your audience. But making an effort to be completely unlike anything you've done before will drive away your repeat customers. I don't want to read something completely different - if I did, I'd buy something random off the shelves rather than from an author I know.

You've developed a lot of voices in your writing; more than most authors, and I think possibly to your detriment. I like some of your stuff, but not all. I found your Dread Empire series to be great and Days of Atonement to be good. But your Voice of the Whirlwind and Aristoi left me mostly cold - I wouldn't bother rereading them or buying a sequel.

To a degree, I think I regard the "completely different" in much the same light as I regard "Tour de Force" we'd discussed a couple of months ago. It might be an author demonstrating his skill in ways which don't benefit his readers.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Synova said...

Does it need to be said that creating fake online personas to shill for yourself is a *very* bad plan? (I sort of assumed it was meant as a joke suggestion but...)

I agree with Tarl. I think that most people want some assurance that what they pick up to read will be what they wanted, particularly if a book was purchased. I've managed to be less choosy about library books but it took a conscious effort to stop worrying so much about picking out the right book because my habit is to only take out the book that seems to be exactly what I want, which isn't logical but there you go.

I think this is one way that a significant chunk of sample chapters available for free on-line works for an author. Readers can check first to see if they think they will like a book that is new and different.

I read a book I really liked recently co-authored by Jennifer Cruise (I think I have her last name spelled wrong... drat.) I went to put a nice review on Amazon and found out that her fans simply *hated* it.

Because it wasn't what they expected.

1:43 AM  
Blogger ColonGlock said...

Have you done any book signing? I would think that a signing in NYC or LA would produce some new readers. Perhaps you can do a talk at Google in NY or Mt View? They are always looking for interesting authors to come and discuss thier books. I belive the email is Authors@google.com or just contact the main office and ask. Good Luck, I am a new reader of yours and have enjoyed the Dread series very much. Mustacios!!!!

12:27 PM  
Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Well, I've gone and plugged you on my (sadly) not that well visited blog, for all the good that it does.

11:59 AM  
Blogger serg271 said...

One way to create really big online audience is to cooperate with some artist and start online web comic.
Ironically while there are several great SF online comics like Girl Genius, I can't off hand remember online fantasy comics of the same quality.

Another way - put some books online for free.

1:37 AM  
Anonymous Matt F. said...

My first two thoughts:

1)Faking your own death is always a good publicity stunt...

2)George R.R. Martin already pimps you a bit it seems....

It sounds like a frustrating situation but you are appreciated as a writer. It may sound silly but reading Hardwired when I was a young teenager subtley shifted my worldview and consequently all that has followed. Appreciation doesn't pay the rent but hopefully it counts for something.

Thanks,
Matt

1:40 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Thank you all for your suggestions. Since I'm sleep-deprived and have a thousand things to catch up with, this is not the time to work out a new marketing approach, but I will consider every suggestion except the ones that were funny, and that I laughed at, and I'll probably think about those, too.

Good to know the Inquirer's on my side, anyway.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Hello, Walter. I came upon this blog entry whilst googling re The Voice of the Whirlwind, which kept me up till 2am last night, thank you very much. I enjoyed it quite a lot, obviously. Anyway, I share your predicament, in a way, as I am an artist trying to become better known. (I do digital work for portrait photographers.) I use a monthly e-newsletter, I write articles, I post on forums, I have (of course) a website showcasing my work, I mail out postcards, DVD's with show reels on them...and sometimes I just go ahead and call up the big gun photographers and introduce myself.

My wife is a friend of the writer M.J. Rose. MJ does a lot work with midlist authors, helping them get promoted. Please take a look at her blog: http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/buzz_balls_hype/


I hope you find MJ's blog helpful!

Best regards,

Bob Nolin
www.bobnolin.com

8:43 AM  
Blogger Tesatorul said...

Hello, sir.

My name is Florin Pitea and a few years ago you kindly granted me an interview for a Romanian sci-fi magazine, Lumi Virtuale.

I'm writing to congratulate you on the new editions of "Hardwired" and "Voice of the Whirlwind". I hope a fresh edition of "Days of Atonement" and maybe a collection of the interconnected novellas set in the "Hardwired" universe will follow soon.

Best of luck in future, and I hope millions of readers will enjoy those two elegant books as much as I did.

12:36 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Hi, Florin! Good to hear from you.

I think a Hardwired-universe anthology would be a good idea, but I suspect we'll have to see how well the reissued novels do before the collection has a chance.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Williams,

To add my two pence worth, all I can say is keep writing and publishing. In fact if you can , try and get a couple of books out a year. In my eyes you have established yourself as a "brand". Generally a WJ Williams book is worth shelling 8 pounds sterling on. You could start with sequels to City On Fire or Aristoi...

10:02 AM  

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