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Five of four: the Apollo Quartet

I mentioned a few weeks ago I was planning to write a pendant to the Apollo Quartet and publish it before the end of the year. It was prompted by a silly idea: making the Apollo Quartet eligible for the Best Series Hugo Award, due to be trialled in 2017 at Worldcon75. But to qualify as a series, the total wordcount must be over 250,000. Which pretty much rules out the Apollo Quartet. But… inspired by a recent read of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream, the fiction of Paul Park, a story idea I’d always planned to use about Soyuz 21, the films of James Benning, and a phrase I’ve used time and again to describe my fiction, “19 turns”, I went ahead and wrote something anyway.

It’s titled Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum and it will be published this week. For free.


It’s about 7,000 words long, and includes an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself (among many other fine works of science fiction and science fiction scholarship). I’ll be making a zip file available here, and on the Whippleshield Books blog, which contains .mobi, .epub and .pdf editions. There will also be a paperback edition, limited to 25 signed and numbered copies, available in the New Year. I’ll put up a pre-order page for that soon.

To celebrate the release of Coda: A Visit to the National and Air Museum, I’ve dropped the price on all Whippleshield Books, both Kindle and paperback. To wit:

aq1_2nd_edn_cover Adrift on the Sea of Rains Kindle
aq2_2nd_edn_cover The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself Kindle
aq3_2nd_edn_cover Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above Kindle
aq4_front_cover All That Outer Space Allows Kindle
dotsa-ebook-cover-01-small Dreams of the Space Age Kindle
aphrodite-terra-front-cover-01-copy Aphrodite Terra Kindle

[prices in the US and other countries are equivalent to UK prices]

Go on, grab a bargain.

Incidentally, there are still signed and numbered hardback copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, All That Outer Space Allows and Dreams of the Space Age for sale on the Whippleshield Books website. I’ve also put up some first editions of various books for sale on the site – see here – and will be putting up more as I slim down my book collection.


Is that the book you really meant to write?

So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.


I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.


This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)


I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

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Sales report

Loncon 3 is now in full swing. I am not there. After spending last weekend in a field in Derbyshire, drinking and watching a number of metal bands perform, I can’t say I’m especially bothered about missing the Worldcon (though I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to meet IRL a few visitors to the UK I know only from online). Bloodstock was good – I think I enjoyed the music more this year than last, even though initially I hadn’t been that keen on the line-up. Highlights were the sets by Obsidian Kingdom and Shining, and the crowd’s performance during Evil Scarecrow’s set. Other good stuff included Orphaned Land (twice), Rotting Christ, Winterfylleth, Old Corpse Road and Voices. The weather behaved – mostly. It hammered down on the Sunday, and everywhere got wet and muddy, but it cleared up by the evening. Security this year was much improved; the toilets were much worse. A good festival, nonetheless.

Meanwhile… these summer months so far have felt spectacularly unproductive, and there have been days when I’ve had trouble working up the enthusiasm to write, edit, or even get started on a book review… Which is not to say I’ve done nothing. It just feels like it. I’m assuming reviews count. I wrote a fair few of those during June and July. Four for SF Mistressworks, in fact: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (here); Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (here); Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (here); and Judgment Night, CL Moore (here). A fifth went up this week – The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (here) – and I have another two suitable books I’ve read but I’ve yet to start on the reviews – Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson; and Second Body, Sue Payer. I also reviewed Extreme Planets, edited by David Conyers, David Kernott & Jeff Harris, for Interzone (the anthology’s publishers really need to sort out its Amazon page); and I have another book sitting on this desk beside my laptop to review for them, which is, er, already late. (I’ll have it done by the end of the week, Jim. Honest.)

Whippleshield Books continues to quietly stumble along. Sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains have just passed 1100, those of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are over 500, and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above has to date managed a tardy 200-or-so units sold. I’m determined to get the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, out before the end of the year, although at present I can’t predict exactly when. (Which reminds me: I need to buy some more ISBNs.) Aphrodite Terra, however, should appear some time next month. (The contributors were paid on acceptance, so any delay is more annoying than anything else.)


Also, next month, I’ll have a story in Litro magazine. The issue has a “future fashion” theme, and my story, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, is about astronauts and space age fashion designers. Sort of. Postscripts #32/33: Far Voyager should also be out some time this year, with my story providing its title. And later this year – no date as yet – Tickety Boo Press are publishing an anthology Space: Houston, We Have A Problem, which contains my story ‘Red Desert’.

ETA: I forgot to mention I contributed a couple of Friday Fives to Pornokitsch – one on sf novels about first missions to the Moon titled, with a great deal of imagination, ‘5 Trips to the Moon’; the other about sf movies set at the bottom of the ocean, ‘5 Pieces of Soggy Sci-Fi Cinema‘.



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…


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…


Self-publishing – one year on…

Whippleshield Books is now just over one year old and has to date published two books, one of them an award-winner. Although I started up the press in March 2012, and published Adrift on the Sea of Rains on 9 April 2012, Whippleshield Press’s online presence didn’t happen until 25 May 2012. So that’s a handful of days over twelve months, plus or minus a month or two. It has been… an interesting year.

Any discussion of self-publishing is sure to be over-shadowed by the likes of Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking. They have been amazingly successful at it – and, to be honest, I can’t see why. I’ve read Wool, it’s not very good. Which pretty much demonstrates there is no magic formula to success at self-publishing. Something in Wool clicked with a large number of people, but whatever it was it’s far from obvious. What this means is that Howey is not an expert on self-publishing, and has very little that’s useful to add to the debate. And, in all fairness, he has admitted as much: this is what worked for me, he has said, but it doesn’t mean it will work for you. The media, however, are only interested in success stories, as if somewhere in every one of them is an obvious recipe for success. There has been some discussion recently of such “survivor bias”, and to anyone with any common sense it’s plain that luck is not a transferable skill. If one ticket wins the lottery, buying the ticket with a number one up from it does not mean you will also win.

Commercially, Whippleshield Books has not been a “winner”. I’m okay with this – I didn’t set it up to make me pots of money. If anything, I expected it to be a financial burden for much of its life. Happily, it went into the black in March this year… but then the ecommerce annual fee came due and I also had to reprint Adrift on the Sea of Rains. But it’s been back in the black since the beginning of May and seems likely to remain there. Whether it’ll have earned enough to pay the cost of producing book three of the Apollo Quartet is a different matter, however. I’ve been funding Whippleshield Books out of my own pocket so far, so if it doesn’t it won’t affect my planned publishing schedule.

Speaking of which, I’ve received three submissions in the past twelve months. One I bounced immediately as not meeting the guidelines. The other two I rejected after requesting the full ms. To be honest, I had expected to be sent more, even if most would prove completely unsuitable. I can only surmise I’m the only person writing the type of fiction I want to publish. Happily, I’m not the only person who wants to read it, as sales for the first two books of the Apollo Quartet have shown:


The two spikes are due to mentions in the Guardian (here and here). The second one coincided with Adrift on the Sea of Rains winning the BSFA Award, so the win may also have contributed. But given that the full novella was published in the BSFA Award booklet for members, I suspect it didn’t have that much effect. I’ve added “WINNER OF THE 2012 BRITISH SCIENCE FICTION ASSOCIATION AWARD” to the product description on Amazon, but I’ve no idea if that has had any impact.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains continues to sell well on Kindle – better in the UK than in the US, it must be said. The number of Amazon paperback orders has also picked up, typically now around one a week. Of course, I’d sooner those sales took place on the Whippleshield website, but I know of no way to drive customers there from Amazon. When I mentioned in a previous blog post that Kindle sales were “more or less pure profit”, someone on a forum responded: “I had to laugh at this one. Shows a real lack of understanding of the costs involved in running a successful website. Electronic files take up disk space which has to be paid for. The transfer of electronic files uses bandwidth that has to be paid for”. To which I can only say, if you’re paying for storage of a single electronic copy of your book, and can actually work out the cost of uploading that file to Amazon, then I suspect other people are laughing at you.


The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself has not been selling quite as well. Nor has it been reviewed as extensively as Adrift on the Sea of Rains (review e-copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are still available, incidentally), though the genre venues that have reviewed it seem to have taken to it slightly better than Adrift on the Sea of Rains. But then I did write it in such a way to force a reading protocol more tuned to sf readers.


Of course, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself has only been available since late January this year, so around four months in total. And word about Adrift on the Sea of Rains is still making its way throughout the genre landscape – such as making an appearance on SF Squeecast here, courtesy of Paul Cornell. Two books is a slim presence, especially given that they’re novellas too. I’ve had no short fiction published in genre venues with large audiences, at least not yet. So my platform remains small, and still chiefly confined to the UK.

Interestingly, Wunderwaffe, a short story of 9000 words which originally appeared in Anarchy Books’ Vivisepulture anthology, and which I produced as a chapbook limited to 12 copies before publishing it on Kindle, has been selling surprisingly well in the US. This may due to its low price. The $1.16 price-point, and the clearly stated length of 27 pages, however, hasn’t prevented a couple of people from leaving one-star reviews complaining that it isn’t a novel. I’m especially impressed by the review which states “stick to established authors that don’t give short stories under the cover of a book”. I think you’ll find “established authors” have also been known to publish short stories on Kindle too. In fact, John Scalzi’s latest novel was serialised, with each chapter sold as a separate ebook (not entirely the same thing, I know, but you know what I mean).

So there you have it – Whippleshield Books after twelve months. More or less. Plans for world domination may have to be put back another year or so. I believe Adrift on the Sea of Rains is the first self-published work to win a BSFA Award – although there are a couple of self-published works in this year’s Hugo shortlists. The stigma attached to the word “self-publishing” is slowly being eroded, but that doesn’t mean the self-published market is still not full of badly-written and poorly-edited derivative rubbish. But the good stuff is getting easier to find. I like to think that Whippleshield Books is, and will be, seen as a purveyor of that “good stuff”.


Lessons in bestsellerification

I forget my reason for visiting, but while I was on the site I had a look at the various beseller charts. The science fiction one proved especially interesting. Here are the top ten “Bestsellers in Science Fiction” on Amazon for 8 March 2013:

1 Wool, Hugh Howey (Kindle edition)
2 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (Kindle edition)
3 The Mongoliad Book Two, Neal Stephenson (Kindle edition)
4 The Martian, Andy Weir (Kindle edition)
5 Three Feet of Sky 2: Outside Eternity, Stephen Ayres (Kindle edition)
6 The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams (paperback)
7 In Her Name: Redemption, Michael R Hicks (Kindle edition)
8 The Phoenix Rising, Richard Sanders (Kindle edition)
9 Wool, Hugh Howey (hardback)
10 Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (Kindle edition)

And no, I’ve no idea why Les Misérables has been classified as science fiction.

Eight of the ten books are Kindle editions. As far as I can determine, six of them were self-published (I’m including Wool, although the edition which appears twice on this list is from a major imprint). Two of the books started life as serials on their authors’ websites – Wool and The Martian. Three are sequels, and one is an omnibus edition of a trilogy.

So what does this tell us? That most sf sold on Amazon these days is sold via Kindle. That self-published sf is out-selling sf from major imprints on Amazon. That the best way to build a platform for a self-publish sf novel is to serialise it on your website. And that I’m not the only person to have written a realistic treatment of a mission to Mars (and we both called our Mars programmes Ares, too).

Aside from the last point, all of the above seem to run counter to what is actually the case. Paper books still outsell ebooks, as far as I’m aware. And fiction from established imprints still far outsells self-published novels. And where are the big sf names? George RR Martin appears at #11 (and it’s fantasy not sf, but never mind), followed by Stephenie Meyer at #13. John Scalzi sneaks in at #19. But where’s Peter F Hamilton, Iain M Banks, Neal Asher, China Miéville?

It’s probably worth pointing out that all 20 books in the “Bestsellers in Fiction” list are all Kindle editions. I checked the Amazon list against the one given in the Guardian Reviews section for 23 February 2013. Only two titles are in both lists – Life Of Pi (#2 on Amazon, #5 in Guardian) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry (#19 on Amazon, #2 in Guardian).

So if there’s a conclusion to be drawn from all this, I’m not entirely sure what it is. It seems self-evident that Amazon has “massaged” its figures… But to what end?

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My trip into space

Well, into the National Space Centre, that is…

I may have been involved in science fiction for 25 years, but I’m relatively new to this “author” thing. I’ve done plenty of panels at conventions, but I’ve never given a reading, and I’ve certainly never spoken about something I’ve written to a bunch of complete strangers who may or may not have come to hear me talk or indeed have any clue who the hell I am.

But that’s what I did last Sunday.

The National Space Centre in Leicester had organised a two-week celebration of “Space Fiction”, beginning on 9 February and lasting until 24 February. I was asked if I’d like to contribute on one of those days as one of the clients of the John Jarrold Literary Agency. Since Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are proper hardcore realistic space fiction books it struck me they’d be well-suited to a reading in the National Space Centre… And so it was arranged: Philip Palmer, Chris Beckett and myself would each give a 30-minute talk/reading on Sunday 17 February.

As you approach the National Space Centre, the first thing you see is a giant pupa pointing up into the sky above Leicester. That’s the Rocket Tower. The rest of the building looks more like something you’d find on a university campus or science park. I’m not sure what I was expecting – something like a museum, I suspect – but it’s far more resolutely modern than my dim memories of visits to museums as a child suggested. I was immediately taken with the Soyuz on display in the main foyer. And it really is a tiny spacecraft. I’d known that, of course – I’ve researched this stuff, after all. But you have to see it in the flesh, so to speak, to realise quite how small and makeshift and fragile it is. The Soyuz is apparently only one of two on permanent display in the West.

I was collected from the foyer by Charlie, who was wrangling the three of us that day. She did an excellent job of looking after us, so much thanks. The actual venue for the talk proved to be a small lecture area just off the main concourse, with rows of benches facing a small stage backed by a large screen. There was another screen above the stage. Most of the National Space Centre is one big open space, partitioned into display areas by walls no more than three metres high, so there was a lot of background noise. But we had microphones.

Phil Palmer’s talk began at 12:15. He talked about science fiction and extrapolation, and it was obviously something he had spoken about before. He then read from both Debatable Space and Hell Ship. The audience was mostly families with small children – about twelve to fifteen people in total. Chris Beckett arrived during Phil’s talk.

Afterwards, we had a thirty-minute gap before Chris’ session started at 13:15, so we went to get a bite to eat from Boosters Restaurant. It was sandwiches and soup, so my face fell when I saw it. I asked one of the staff if they had anything that was dairy-free. He told me they’d make me any sandwich I wanted in a dairy-free version. That level of service and helpfulness still impresses me – it shouldn’t do, not in the twenty-first century; but it’s still unusual enough in the UK to be a pleasant surprise.

Chris’s talk was not as well attended as Phil’s had been. He spoke about rogue planets and how they’d been scientifically proven about he’d written Dark Eden. He also described the inspiration for the novel, and then read one of the chapters.

There was then another thirty-minute gap until my talk at 14:15. Phil had booked a ticket for the planetarium show, so he shot off to that while Chris, his wife Maggie, and myself went for a wander round. We headed for the Rocket Tower, though I was a little worried about suffering from vertigo on the top deck. But I was fine as long as I didn’t get too close to the railing. The LM simulator looked more like a computer game than an actual copy, but the 1960s living-room was good. The three of us recognised several items in it from our own childhoods. There was a piece of moon rock in a globe of the Moon, and one wall gave an illustrated timeline of the Space Race. The next deck down celebrated Soviet achievements, though from what I could see the Soyuz simulator was just a little room with a plastic seat in it. I didn’t linger as I needed to get back to lecture area.

Then it was time for my talk. I’ve not done public speaking since I left school decades ago, and I knew this was going to be nothing like being on a panel at a convention. For one thing, my audience would be just walk-ins, who had likely wandered across to see what was going on. My name will have meant completely nothing to them. (In the event, beside Phil and Chris, at least two members of the audience knew me – Will Ellwood, who I know via Twitter, and Dave Caldwell, who was a member of an APA I was in back in the 1990s.)

As soon as I was ready to begin, I hit my first snag. I only had two hands. I was using a PowerPoint presentation, so I needed to hold the clicker to advance the slides. I also needed to hold a microphone. And then there was the script of my talk, which I hadn’t learned off by heart. Damn. I’d need three hands. Charlie happily lent me her hands-free mike. She then introduced me and I started babbling…

I thought it went quite well. I managed not to speak unintelligibly fast, and I clicked through the slides in mostly the right places. I spoke about realistic space travel and science fiction’s poor record in depicting it, using ocean liners as spaceships rather than actual real spacecraft (such as the Soyuz in the foyer), and how I came to write the Apollo Quartet. I cut down the excerpts from Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself I’d planned to read, and that proved to be a wise decision. I finished it pretty much exactly in thirty minutes. And the entire audience stayed throughout the entire talk. Afterwards, a couple of people came up and thanked me and said they had found it interesting.

Phil, Chris and myself then moved across to a table in the main concourse, where people could buy copies of our books and we would sign them. We were actually approached by more people asking for directions than we were people who wanted to purchase our books. But never mind.

It was a fun day. I’d liked to have taken the time to explore the National Space Centre more fully, and I certainly think it’s an interesting place to take children. Personally, perhaps, I’d have preferred more hardware and less science, but that’s what fascinates me. All the same, I could happily spend a day there.

Finally, the last two slides of my presentation were hints to the stories of the final two books of the Apollo Quartet. And here they are…




Self-publishing for fun and profit

Some people have made a lot of money very quickly through self-publishing; some people have won big prizes on national lotteries. I’m not sure which has the better odds, but I suspect there’s little difference in it. You can, of course, increase your chances of doing the former – write something derivative that plugs into an existing fanbase, and self-promote to such an extent you’re indistinguishable from spam. If, on the other hand, you self-publish because you have a vision and you want to get it out there, but no one else is interested in publishing it for you… Well, in that case, don’t give up the day-job just yet…

I’ve made no secret of my reasons for self-publishing the Apollo Quartet. I didn’t want to compromise on my vision for Adrift on the Sea of Rains – a vision that has been happily vindicated, since the novella has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award; and I wanted to launch the book at the same time as Rocket Science, and no existing small press, had they chosen to publish it, could have done so in time.

I also chose to publish the book as both paper and ebook. I could, of course, have just released it on Kindle, as so many self-published authors do. But instead I paid a printer – MPG Biddles – to do me hardback and paperback copies.

I have learnt much about writing and publishing over the past ten months…

1 the elephant in the room
It’s actually a huge South American river, not a pachyderm, but it certainly dominates book-selling. And it treats us small fry very badly. If I hadn’t signed up for Amazon Advantage, my books would be shown as unavailable on the Amazon website (I’ve only signed up for the paperbacks, so the hardbacks are indeed shown as “currently unavailable”). Signing up for Amazon Advantage, I have to accept the 60% discount Amazon takes. So every sale I make through Amazon is at a loss. If they ordered 100 copies tomorrow, I’d have to refuse the order. I can’t afford to fulfil it. As it is, the orders Amazon has placed for single copies in dribs and drabs over the months are costing me more as I have to pay postage for each copy I send them.

Incidentally, I’d be happy to cut all my ties to Amazon, but I see no alternatives. I use the Amazon affiliates scheme on this blog, and I had planned to drop it. So I investigated a few alternatives. The Book Depository one is simple enough to use, but they’re owned by Amazon anyway. The Waterstone’s one is a joke. It’s run by a third party, you have to apply for approval first, and I couldn’t find out how to link to individual titles on the Waterstone’s site. They should sort that out – they’d get a lot more business.

2 it doesn’t have to be ebook all the way
Publishing on Kindle is trivial. You format the document, knock up a cover, and then upload it to Amazon through the Kindle Direct Publishing website. Easy. Publishing paper books is harder, but not that much more so. And it does cost money, which publishing on Kindle doesn’t – but even then, it’s not that much. For The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, I formatted the document as PDF, and had the cover-art done the same way. I got an estimate from MPG Biddles, then placed the order, uploaded my PDF files to their website… and weeks later boxes of books were delivered to my house. It cost me £202 for one hundred 80pp paperbacks.

Of course, selling paper books is more difficult than ebooks. You have to hold stock of a physical item, and ship it to customers when they order copies. For Kindle ebooks, Amazon does all the work for you. You just watch the sales mount up (or not). And selling around the world is trivially easy. Except Amazon US pays you in US$, which is a problem.

3 what’s the bottom line?
Amazon offers 35% and 70% royalty rates on books published on Kindle. You chose the price at which you sell the book. It’s best, of course, to look at the price of comparable ebooks. Too high and no one will buy it, too low and people will think it’s not worth reading. The ebook market is still in flux at the moment, with huge numbers of low-priced self-published books, and ebooks from major imprints priced roughly the same as hardback copies. So there are as many pricing models as there are publishers. I chose to price my ebook editions at about two-thirds of the paperback price – £2.99. That seems to be working quite well.

For self-published paper books, there is no royalty. There is only sale price minus unit cost. I priced Adrift on the Sea of Rains at £3.99, because I felt that was a fair price for a 80pp paperback novella. Unfortunately, I was thinking like a buyer not a seller. It was too low, and I’d have to sell the entire print-run of 100 to cover my costs. So for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself I increased the price to £4.99. Which means…

Cost per unit: £2.02
Cover price: £4.99
Profit per unit sold: £2.97

For copies sold over the internet, I include p&p in the £4.99, so that’s –
£4.99 – (£2.02 + £1.10*) = £1.87 per sale

For copies sold by hand, I only charge £4.00, so that’s –
£4.00 – £2.02 = £1.98 per sale

(* I don’t include the cost of envelopes as I re-use as much as I can; but if I did, it would be an additional 20p)

If I sold copies only over the internet, I’d have to sell 52 copies to break-even; if I sold only by hand, it would be 51 copies. The true figure is probably slightly higher as I sell using both methods, and there’s those copies I sell through Amazon Advantage. Nor do I factor in the cost of the copies I give away for review.

Of course, this is only the manufacturing cost. There are a host of unpaid contributions which create the final product – not just myself as writer, designer, promoter, publisher and book-seller; but also the cover artist and the editor. At present, I’ve been lucky enough to receive all that for free (though I plan to pay once Whippleshield Books is more established). There are also peripheral costs which have to be included – ISBNs, the ecommerce website – so it’s going to be a while yet before Whippleshield Books climbs out of the red.

However, those £2.99 Kindle ebooks are more or less pure profit (less Amazon’s cut, the VAT they charge but do not pay, delivery cost, etc.). The money from Kindle sales helps finance the paper versions of the books. I’ve also sold more copies on Kindle than I have paperbacks or hardbacks. In fact, it’s been interesting watching sales uptick when Adrift on the Sea of Rains gets mentioned online. There was small jump in sales when SF Signal reviewed it. And a considerably larger one when the book was mentioned on the Guardian’s book blog“one of the most outstanding self-published books of the year”. More copies were bought on Kindle as a result of that mention than in the preceding nine months.

Having said all that, there is one advantage to publishing a book as a paperback or hardback rather than just on Kindle: you get taken seriously. If I’d gone for the low-cost option – ie, ebook only – I very much doubt I’d have sold as many copies, seen the books reviewed so many times, or even had one shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The future of publishing may lie in self-publishing – I hate the term “indie author”, incidentally – but, with the exception of a handful of outliers, the rewards are proportional to the effort, and money, you put into it…