The Apollo Quartet is hard sf, but it’s also alternate history. And the books of the quartet themselves have their own alternate history too. They say a plan never survives contact with the enemy and, in pretty much the same way, a synopsis never survives unscathed once you actually get into writing a novel, novella or story.
I can’t remember at what point in the writing of Adrift on the Sea of Rains I decided it would be the first of the quartet… but once I’d made the decision I obviously needed to come up with three more stories. I had one sitting in my “ideas book” (actually, it’s just a Google doc) that I thought would be suitable. It was only when I started writing the second book of the quartet that I realised it didn’t quite fit. So I kept one narrative thread, left the other as implied, added a new narrative about the mission to Mars, set the story decades earlier… and changed the title to The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself.
The original Apollo Quartet 3 and 4 bear no resemblance to the ones that have been/will be published. The original synopsis for Apollo Quartet 3 just simply didn’t fit in with how the quartet was shaping up. And I’d decided I really wanted to write about the Mercury 13 and the bathyscaphe Trieste. So I did.
With the Mercury 13 as the subject of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, another theme was rising to the forefront of the four novellas… and so I needed a new story for the final book. I’d already “borrowed” the title of my favourite film, but the link to Sirk’s masterpiece was too thin. That wasn’t going to work. But with a little sleight of hand, I had myself a new plot which provided a suitable end to the quartet, and then the title – with a little tweaking – would suit it perfectly. Instead of an Avro engineer, my protagonist would be an astronaut’s wife. And rather than just a fan of science fiction, she’d be a writer…
So here, for your delight and delectation, are the original synopses for Apollo Quartets 2 to 4, which I recently discovered in a Google doc created back in September 2011.
2. Wave Fronts The Earth has a single interstellar colony – administered by NASA, ESA and JASA – on SuperEarth2 at Gleise 581, twenty light years from Earth, and which has been in existence for twenty years. By now radio waves from the colony should have reached Earth, but there has been nothing. So Shepard has been sent to find out what’s happened. He travels to Gleise 581 by bubble-ship, and when he arrives at SuperEarth2, he discovers that the colony has completely vanished. Using one of the bubble-ship’s re-entry capsules, he lands on the surface and treks across the land to the settlement’s location. But it is as if it had never existed. And now he stuck there as there is no way for him to get into orbit. A second narrative depicts the dismantling of a colony and its preparations to leave its world before the light front reaches Earth. The colonists move onto another planetary system… where they meet an alien race, engaged in the same method of colonisation as themselves.
3. The Shores of Earth Earth is now home only to the empress of the Healing Empire, her family and staff, who all live in a vast palace. The rest of humanity lives off-Earth, scattered throughout the Solar System. The protagonist travels to Earth and lands in capsule which can reconfigure itself into lifting-body/glider. He is immediately arrested by the empress’s personal guard, and subsequently interrogated by a captain of the guard. The protagonist has come to report the arrival of a vessel from an interstellar colony populated centuries before by a generation ship, but its arrival is too soon – there’s not been enough time to get to the exoplanet, and then build the necessary infrastructure to send the ship back. Perhaps the visiting ship is alien? Except no evidence of aliens has ever been found…
4. All That The Stars Allow It is the late 1950s, and a British electronics engineer is offered a job in Houston with NASA, which entails moving from his current job in Canada where he works for Avro. (A lot of Mission Control was designed and built by British engineers, many of which had previously worked for Avro in Canada.) He packs up and drives south, anticipating the future of manned spaceflight given what he knows of NASA’s plans. The engineer is an avid reader of science fiction, and the second narrative is the text of a story of the period of an engineer in a future in which humanity has colonised the Solar System.
Perhaps one day these stories may appear, no doubt in somewhat changed form. But when all’s said and done, I think the Apollo Quartet as it now exists is a much better piece of work than it would have been had I used the above plots.
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…
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…
There were two chief reasons why I self-published the first book of the Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains: timing and control. I wanted to launch it on the back of Rocket Science at the Eastercon this year, and only by doing it myself would I make that deadline. I also took some chances with the book that most self-respecting editors would have baulked at: not using speech marks for dialogue, writing the flashback sequences in long discursive passages in italics, and using a list of abbreviations and an extensive glossary. I could have just formatted the book for Kindle, and loaded it up onto Amazon. Which is what a lot of self-published authors do. But – if only for my own self-respect – I decided that if I was going to self-publish I was going to do it properly: paperbacks, hardbacks, ISBNs, a proper small press…
And that’s what I did.
To be honest, the hardest part was writing the book. Typesetting it and getting it printed were not difficult. Likewise buying ISBNs. Or setting up the online shop. The launch at Eastercon went well, and I sold a good number of copies – and not just to people who knew me, or who had read other fiction I’d written (sadly, the latter number is lower than the former). And yes, I did have to do a bit of a “hard sell” at times.
But once the Eastercon was over, and I was back home, the really hard part began. They say the average self-published book sells less than a hundred copies, and those are mostly to family and friends. I’d gone past that number by selling my book at Eastercon and alt.fiction. But if I wanted sales to continue to grow, I needed to make them online. My next priority might well be writing book two of the Apollo Quartet – the working title is currently The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – but I also needed to work on promoting Adrift on the Sea of Rains.
And having now spent two months trying to do that, I’ve learnt a few home truths:
1. breaking out of your community is hard
There are about a dozen reviews of Adrift on the Sea of Rains online. Quite a few were done by friends of mine. I value their opinions, so the fact they thought the book good makes me happy. Some of the reviews were done by people unknown to me. But if I want to sell more copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I need more of the latter than the former. I need people who have never heard of me to buy copies of the book. Reaching them is hard – they have no reason to listen to me. I’m an unknown quantity. I don’t even have the benefit of a known imprint on the spine of my book -ie, a logo which indicates a history of publishing science fiction a buyer knows they like.
2. there is no secret place online which will lead to sales
I have started threads promoting Adrift on the Sea of Rains on a handful of forums. I’ve watched the number of views of those threads climb up into the hundreds, but only a few people have actually posted comments. Even less have actually followed the links and purchased a copy. Again, it comes down to being an unknown. I’ve been a member of some forums for several years; people there know me. On others, I’m pretty much a drive-by spammer. People in the former situation are more forgiving of my promotional posts; but in neither case has it proven especially effective at generating sales.
3. quality is immaterial
I made sure Adrift on the Sea of Rains was a quality product – a well-made paperback and hardback, with striking cover art, and properly-edited text. None of that is obvious online. The same is true for the quality of the writing. Amazon provides a preview for the Kindle edition, but is that really enough to get an idea of how good the book is? You read the previews for some self-published authors, and the prose is semi-literate. Yet they seem to sell hundreds of copies a day. I suspect it’s the number of books such writers have available which is the chief factor in driving sales.
4. promoting your book will often lead to you defending your choice to self-publish
The fact that I chose to self-publish Adrift on the Sea of Rains will damn it in many people’s eyes. It’s true the vast majority of self-published titles are complete rubbish – even the successful ones. People will choose to believe I self-published because my story wasn’t good enough for a commercial publisher. (For some reason, small presses never seem to factor into this argument.) I could have pretended Whippleshield Books was not my press, and created some separate online identity to promote it. But that’s a lot of trouble to go to for a lie that would be quickly seen through. I’m operating an open submissions policy for Whippleshield Books, so it’s not a true self-publishing venture, it’s not solely for my books. But that’s a distinction many critics of self-published books consider irrelevant.
5. the internet allows you see how badly you’re failing in real-time
If you publish for Kindle, the Kindle Direct Publishing website displays how many copies you’ve sold on a monthly basis. Other sites, like goodreads.com or librarything.com, tell you how many people on those sites own copies of your book, or have seen fit to review it or comment on it. Very few casual readers will bother to write a short review of a book they’ve read. And when the number of readers is still in double-figures… Unsurprisingly, it can be very disheartening.
I came up with the idea for the Apollo Quartet partly because I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and partly because I had a couple of ideas for stories which I felt could be thematically linked (a third has changed greatly to fit into the quartet, and another was entirely replaced). I’m hoping that the appearance of each book will increase sales of the preceding volumes. And if, as some of the reviews have stated, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is good enough to appear on an award shortlist or two (providing people remember to nominate it, of course), then that too can only help.
None of this, however, alters the fact that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is a self-published book, a fact which will be seen to define it far more than its story or the quality of its prose. And while I can bemoan that, I can understand why it happens. Because, bar very rare exceptions, self-published books are typically pretty damn poor. Evangelists for so-called “indie” publishing may get all offended when this is pointed out – no, they’re not the future; yes, ignoring self-published books is entirely reasonable – but I’m not interested in promoting the means I used to get Adrift on the Sea of Rains out into the market, I’m interested in promoting my book. I may have self-published it, but that doesn’t mean I automatically support every self-published author on the planet. Nor am I convinced it is the best way to publish a book, or the only way which is economically sustainable in the mid-term. I support those books and authors I like and admire, irrespective of how their books were published.
And I would hope others apply the same to me and Adrift on the Sea of Rains.
This weekend, I’ve been working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, which will now be titled The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. It’s a line from the final verse of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Hymn of Apollo’ (1824):
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows itself divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine is mine,
All light of art or nature;—to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.
Not only does the poem title link to the quartet title, but the quote I’ve used also sort of explains the plot.
Apollo Quartet Book 2 is partly about a colony on an exoplanet… and in my researches, I discovered that Apollo is the god of colonisation. Which is a pleasing link.
But, even better – the story requires a form of faster-than-light travel, and for reasons I no longer remember, I decided that the story’s FTL spacecraft were actually repurposed asteroids. This was because they needed an “anchoring mass” of – and I plucked this figure completely out of thin air – five gigatonnes. So I went googling for real asteroids with masses in the region of 5 x 1012 kg. And the first one I found was… 1862 Apollo.
I love it when shit like that happens.
I’m running a competition on the Whippleshield Books blog to give away a pair of limited edition hardbacks of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. All you have to do is answer three easy questions – and no, the answers are not in the book; you’ll have to search the Internet. So head over there and have a go. Please.