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Serendipity strikes again

Sometimes, when you’re working on a piece of fiction, and you’re wondering perhaps if this marvellous plan you have in your head and you’re trying to get down is a) achievable and b) not going to result in ridicule from all those who will read it… Sometimes, when you’re in that space, an artistic decision turns out to be just so right, you can’t help but feel it really is going to work after all. This has happened for all of the Apollo Quartet… and today I had my moment of serendipity for the fourth book, All That Outer Space Allows.

The protagonist of the story – it will be a short novel rather than a novella, around 50,000 to 60,000 words – is a science fiction writer, and she is married to a test pilot who is selected by NASA for the Apollo programme. For one scene, I needed the names of some women sf writers who had had stories published in 1965. One of the names I picked was Josephine Saxton – her debut, ‘The Wall’, appeared in the November 1965 issue of Science Fantasy. I wanted my protagonist to say something about the story after reading it, but I didn’t have a copy. Fortunately, it was collected in The Power of Time and I found a copy of the book on eBay. So I bought it…


The collection arrived the following day, I read ‘The Wall’… and discovered its central metaphor fitted in perfectly with the general shape of All That Outer Space Allows.

I love it when that happens.

On the other hand… I remember sitting in the Bijoux Bar in the Raddison Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow, the day after the launch of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and describing to Maureen Kincaid Speller the plot of All That Outer Space Allows. Yes, even back in April 2012, I knew what it was about and what the title would be. But now I’m about a quarter of the way into writing it, and it’s shaping up somewhat differently to that original plan. For a start, it’s proving to more about science fiction, and the history of science fiction, than I had intended. It’s also going to be more of a work of imagination than the preceding three books, chiefly because I can find no direct documentation I can use to help me evoke the time and place. For example, I can tell you the average temperature on 1 April 1966 in Lancaster, California, was 66.8°F, but I’ve found only a handful of photos online of the city taken during that year. And, of course, astronauts wives are not as well documented as the astronauts themselves. I’m having to do my research by reading between the lines…

But if it was easy, I wouldn’t do it. Would I?


Apollo Quartet review copies

It’s been two years since Adrift on the Sea of Rains was published, and reviews of it continue to appear online. Which is very gratifying. But for some reason books two and three of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, published sixteen and six months ago respectively, haven’t been reviewed to the same extent. So this is just a note to say ebook review copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above are still available. If you fancy one, either leave a comment or tweet me at @ian_sales. I can do epub, mobi or pdf. At a pinch, I can even do paperback.

Meanwhile, of course, work continues on All That Outer Space Allows. I’m at that stage where I’m reading research materials to get a feel for the period and place and cast, and getting some early words down on paper. The story opens in 1965 at Edwards Air Force Base and ends in Florida on the evening of 16 April 1972. It will be about astronauts and it will be about science fiction.


Here’s the opening paragraph. As you can see, it’s going to be a bit different to the preceding three novellas…

Ginny is at the table on the patio, in slacks and her favourite plaid shirt, hammering away on her Hermes Baby typewriter, a glass of iced tea to one side, a stack of typescript to the other. Something, a sixth sense, she’s developed it during her ten years as an Air Force wife, a presentiment, of what she can’t say, causes her to glance over at the gate to the yard. And there’s Bob, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lincoln Hollenbeck, cap in hand, his movie-star profile noble with concern. Ginny immediately looks over to her right, across to the Air Force Base and the dry lake. Her hand goes to her mouth. Oh my God my God my God. There’s a line of dark smoke chalked up the endless sky. My God my God my God. She pushes back her chair and lurches to her feet.

The above may change as I get further into the story and things start to come together. But for the time-being at least it gives a good idea of what I have planned.


Self-publishing from the inside

Once again, there has been some discussion online about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, prompted by a deeply-flawed report by Hugh Howey posted here. Others have already taken apart Howey’s argument, so I won’t bother – although I will point out that equating the quality of a work of fiction with its level of commercial success is a fallacy and not at all useful.

However, on reading Howey’s piece it occurred to me that my own experiences self-publishing my Apollo Quartet over the past two years might prove a more useful example. Especially since I can provide actual numbers – ie, real data. I am an award-winning self-published science fiction author, but my level of commercial success has been very modest. I’m happy with this – I didn’t self-publish in the hope of earning £millions, and I put much greater personal stock in critical acclaim than I do units sold.

The first book of the Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, was published on 9 April 2012, and launched at that year’s Eastercon, Olympus 2012 at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow. I priced the signed hardback at £5.99 and the paperback at £3.99, price points I felt were about right for its length, although during the convention it was sold for £5 and £3 respectively. The second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, was published on 17 January 2013. Since the cover prices for the first book had barely covered the costs of printing the book – and actually resulted in a loss on each sale through Amazon, thanks to its non-negotiable 60% discount – I increased the hardback and paperback cover prices to £6.99 and £4.99. At that year’s Eastercon on the weekend of 29 March 213 to 1 April 2013, EightSquaredCon at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford, I sold copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself at £6 and £4. The third book of the Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, was published on 30 November 2013, and had the same pricing as the preceding book.

AQ1 09 Apr 2012 £5.99 £3.99 £2.99
AQ2 17 Jan 2013 £6.99 £4.99 £2.99
AQ3 30 Nov 2013 £6.99 £4.99 £2.99

On 30 August 2013, I dropped the price of the paperback of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to £3.99 and the ebook edition to £1.99. Initially, the new lower price was only intended to last for the month of September 2013, but I’ve kept them in place ever since. The new paperback price only applies on copies bought through the Whippleshield Books online store. Amazon currently offers the paperbacks for each book at £3.99, £4.84 and £4.97.

When I decided to self-publish Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was certain that I wanted to do it “properly” – ie, as a small press would do, with a signed limited hardback edition, a paperback edition, and ebook editions in the most popular formats. I did not pay myself as the writer, nor as the cover artist; and I asked a friend to act as editor, with the promise of payment once my small press was in the black. So the only costs associated with Adrift on the Sea of Rains were the actual costs of getting the hardbacks and paperbacks printed up. I used MPG Biddles, a printing firm used by a number of small presses in the UK, and ordered 100 copies of both the hardback and paperback – but only 75 copies of the hardback would be available for sale, the remaining un-numbered copies were for beta readers, family, friends and my agent, etc. I used Biddles again for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Unfortunately, the company went into administration in July 2013, so I was forced to look elsewhere for my hardbacks and paperbacks of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. I chose Lightning Source for the hardbacks, and Amazon’s CreateSpace for the paperbacks. Both are print-on-demand, which meant there was no financial advantage to ordering the full print-run up-front. So for the hardbacks, I have so far had 65 copies printed, and while the paperback has been available for sale through Amazon since 31 November 2013, I’ve only ordered 20 copies to date to hold in stock for Whippleshield Books’ online store. As a result, my unit costs for the books were:

AQ1 £3.04 £2.32
AQ2 £2.86 £2.02
AQ3 £5.09 £2.31

In actual fact, I make £1.55 on each paperback copy of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above sold through Amazon, whereas Amazon buys paperbacks of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself from me at 60% discount for £1.60 and £2.00 respectively (and I have to pay postage myself, typically £1.10 for an order of one copy). This gives me a unit profit on each book through each channel of:

by hand online Amazon by hand online Amazon
AQ1 £1.96 £1.85 n/a £0.68 £0.57 -£1.82
AQ2 £3.14 £3.03 n/a £1.98 £1.87 -£1.12
AQ3 £0.91 £0.80 n/a £1.69 £1.58 £1.55

So, while it’s possible to make a profit assuming the only costs are printing costs, there’s not enough in it to make it worth the time and effort. However, each book is also available in an ebook edition, priced at £2.99. And that’s where the money lies. The hardbacks and paperback editions of the Apollo Quartet have been, to put it bluntly, subsidised by the Kindle editions of the books. As of 14 February 2014, Whippleshield Books is £939.14 in the black, and I’m pretty sure it’d still be in the red if I’d only published the Apollo Quartet in hardback and paperback.


The two dips at the end of 2012 were a result of the invoices from the printers for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Ebook sales were robust throughout 2013 and the dip at the end of the year is the printing costs for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. (The only fixed costs for Whippleshield Books are the annual fee of £143.86 for the ecommerce website and the purchase of ISBNs at £118.68 for ten (each title uses three, one for each edition).)

AQ1sales AQ2sales AQ3sales TotalSales

Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the BSFA Award in April 2013, the two jumps in sales shown on the graph above were a result of mentions in the Guardian newspaper. Neither The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself nor Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above have received such mentions. In fact, to date Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been reviewed in 44 venues, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself in 21 venues, and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above in only 7. Each book also has, respectively, 18, 8 and 3 reviews on Amazon UK; and 7, 4 and 3 reviews on Amazon US.

And speaking of Amazon, I can see no relationship between the Kindle rankings and actual sales:

AQ1Kindle AQ2Kindle AQ3Kindle

And I’ve yet to be convinced the rankings are in any way useful to the author or publisher.

So, what have I learned publishing the first three books of the Apollo Quartet?

The most obvious lesson is that ebooks are crucial. They subsidise the hardbacks and paperbacks. And of all the ebook platforms, the Kindle is by far the most successful. I never bothered releasing the Apollo Quartet on Smashwords or the iTunes store, but I’m told by other small presses that it’s actually not worth the bother of doing so – over 90% of ebook sales will be from Amazon. I have made the Apollo Quartet available on Kobo, and both epub and mobi editions have been there for purchase from the Whippleshield Books online store from publication dates of each novella. But I’ve sold only single figures of each book from either of those venues.

Secondly, it’s all about eyeballs. If 1,000 people are aware of your book and 1% actually purchase it… that’s 10 copies sold. However, if 100,000 people see it and 1% buy it, that’s 1,000 sales. As a self-published author, it’s up to me to ensure that as many eyeballs see the books of the Apollo Quartet as possible. It’s not just self-promotion. If you’ve built up social capital, you can spend it to spread the word. It is, fortunately, a renewable resource, but it’s also hard work to spend. I put much more effort into getting word out about Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the sales figures reflect that. (There’s also the possibility that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was a) sufficiently unlike anything else being published in science fiction to stand out, and b) I wasn’t chiefly known as a writer at the time so a little bit of novelty value attached.)

Having said that, timing also plays a part. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was published in January, leading many to mistakenly believe it was published in the previous year and so ineligible to be nominated for that year’s award. I published Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above at the end of November, giving only two months – and over Christmas too – for word to spread before nominations for the BSFA Award closed. The best time to launch a book is between April and August, which gives sufficient time for sales to grow and word-of-mouth to spread. It’s even better if you can launch the book at a convention, as you’ll have a captive audience of your core readership for an entire weekend.

Although everyone says “don’t judge a book by its cover”, I’m pretty sure people do. Several friends and acquaintances have complimented me on the cover art for Adrift on the Sea of Rains but I’ve no way of knowing how much of a factor it was in generating sales. I’ll be releasing a new edition of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself with new cover art soon, so hopefully that should give some indication of the role played by cover art. I also deliberately chose titles – long titles, which have subsequently proven a bit of an arse to type out all the time – which sounded literary and so signalled the Apollo Quartet was literary science fiction. This may be why the one group of people I thought might buy the novellas have so far failed to do so: space enthusiasts. I sent copies to a couple of space-related websites, but none have so far run reviews. But then I’m not known in that group and have zero social capital there. I still think the Apollo Quartet would greatly appeal to space enthusiasts, but I’ve yet to find a way to get that message to them. Having audiences in two readership blocs can only help sales.

Finally, I could have just published the Apollo Quartet as ebooks and left it at that. That’s all some self-published authors do, and they make a very nice living at it thank you very much. But I felt I needed a small press of my own, and hardback and paperback editions, in order for my novellas to be taken seriously. And that’s precisely what happened. I don’t think Adrift on the Sea of Rains would have been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and then gone on to win it, if it had only been published on Kindle. But, as I mentioned earlier, I value critical acclaim above units sold, so that dictated how I approached self-publishing.

It’s still my ambition to be published by a major publishing house. I plan to start soon on a novel, and I will not be self-publishing it. When I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains I was pretty sure no magazine or small press would publish it – which is why I did it myself. Its success came as a very pleasant surprise; but it has also demonstrated that I can write award-winning science fiction and, just as importantly, helped me find the space in which I want to write, the sort of science fiction I enjoy writing. I’m not a space opera writer, though I enjoy reading it; I don’t want to write cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk, though I admire some sf which is classified as that. I now know the type of science fiction I want to explore in my writing, and that’s what the Apollo Quartet has shown me.

And I also won an award and made around £1000 while doing it.


Apollo Quartet 3 published

Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is now available from Amazon. It’s been available as an ebook for several days – on Kindle (UK | US), Kobo, and as both epub and mobi from the Whippleshield Books website.

Since MPG Biddles went into administration back in June, I’ve had to find a different printer for Whippleshield’s books, and I decided to try Amazon’s CreateSpace for the paperback edition of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. Which means a book of the Apollo Quartet is now available in paperback in the US for the first time. You can buy it here (UK | US).

The limited hardback edition will be delayed a week or two as I’m using a different printer, but it’s available for pre-order here.

I’ve also decided to move forward the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, and will try to get it out for the first half of 2014. Perhaps even in time for the Eastercon in Glasgow. I’ve always had a clear vision of the story – unlike books 2 and 3 when I started them – so it shouldn’t be that difficult. But we shall see what the new year brings…

In the meantime, there’s always Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above to read, in either ebook or paperback…

ETA: Those of you have already pre-ordered the limited hardback edition, or are thinking of doing so, I’m happy to provide an ebook version – in pdf, epub or mobi – free of charge immediately to ease the wait…


Apollo Quartet 3 is here… nearly

There’s only a fortnight to go until Apollo Quartet 3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is officially published, so I’m now making e-ARCs available for review. I have them in PDF, EPUB or MOBI format. Leave a comment if you’d like one.

I will, of course, be publishing the book in paperback and in a signed hardback edition limited to 75 copies, just as I did for Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. If you’re a collector-y type person, I’m afraid the hardback edition of Adrift on the Sea of Rains is sold out but there are still copies available of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Get one while you can. You never know, one day it might be worth something…


The art of selling books

Books do well when lots of people buy copies, but if they don’t know it exists, how can they buy it? When you self-publish, that’s the part of the process you wish other people would do. Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels a little… off to be doing that for my own work. Of course, you can get other people to trumpet your work – assuming it’s good enough, that is – by sending out review copies, and they’ll spread the word for you. All the same, as a self-publisher, or a compact and bijoux small press (if you like), Whippleshield Books doesn’t have the budget or resources of a traditional imprint.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been print now for eighteen months, in signed numbered hardback, paperback and ebook. The hardback sold out within a year. The paperback went to a second printing, and copies are still available. The ebook… well, ebooks are pretty much eternally available. This morning, as another order for a couple of copies of Adrift on the Sea Rains arrived from Amazon, I wondered which sales channels had been most effective at selling the book. So, one spreadsheet later, I ended up with the following…


I was surprised to discover I’d sold more copies through the Whippleshield Books online store than I had Amazon – though, to be fair, the hardback has never been made available through Amazon. I was completely unsurprised to learn I’d sold the most copies at conventions. When you spend the weekend in a hotel with a captive audience, even the most inept sales person (yes, I know; but it’s my actual name, not a nom de métier) can flog copies. It’s probably worth noting that at Odyssey 2012, the Eastercon at which Adrift on the Sea of Rains was launched, the paperback cost less than a pint of beer at the hotel bar…

To date, I’ve not had enough of a catalogue to justify Whippleshield Books taking a table at conventions, so other dealers have often kindly offered to let me put copies on their own. But by the end of next year, Whippleshield Books should have at least five books out, so I’ll probably have to start taking a table in the dealers’ room. Mind you, transporting stock to conventions will be an… interesting exercise, since I don’t have a car. And, rather than just a writer who self-published, which allows me to wear my writer hat pretty much all the time at conventions, I’ll also be a writer and a publisher… Two hats. I’m not sure how’s that going to work out yet.

I’ve not mentioned ebook sales so far because, well, first I don’t have to do anything, it just sits there on Amazon and people download it onto their Kindles. And second, Kindle sales outnumber all others by at least a factor of five. Many best-selling self-published writers have published only on Kindle. I suspect that five years from now, small presses will be publishing ebooks and only tiny print runs of a collectible hardback or paperback edition. Many already are. Personally, I like hard copy books. I like reading them. And I like that I can design them – which I can’t do for an ebook. I chose the typefaces I used in Adrift on the Sea of Rains carefully. The ebook version defaults to the reader’s preferred font, probably Times New Roman.

Of course, ebook-only books present another problem – will conventions start setting up virtual dealers’ rooms? a part of their online presence where attendees – or perhaps anyone – can purchase copies of ebooks sold by dealers who have paid for the privilege (and may not even be present at the con)? And if they’re doing that, then why not stream the panel items as well? Attendees need never leave the bar, just sit there with their tablet, a pint and some friends. They might not even need to physically attend – it could be a distributed convention. Those on panels would have to physically be present, of course. Anyway, that’s another topic for another day…


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