There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.
The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.
While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.
Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.
Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.
Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.
Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.
Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.
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?
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.
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:
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|
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).)
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:
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.
Hot off the tinterweb’s ones and zeros, a pair of interviews of me have appeared today. Actually, it’s the same interview – in English and in Spanish. The Spanish version is on Leticia Lara’s Fantástica Ficción here, and the English version is on Odo’s Sense of Wonder here. It was fun doing the interview, and they asked some tricky questions.
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…