Breaking into scifi: Amazon, yay or nay?

Last night I Googled “breaking into scifi”.

The first result there is from Robert  J Sawyer, Candian scifi writer par excellence. He’s won the Hugo and Nebula, had a long and interesting career. I wouldn’t call him mainstream scifi, but he’s part of that circle that you begin discovering after you’ve gone through the good people at the door, like John Scalzi and Margaret Atwood, and into the party beyond.

The other is Michael Stackpole, a game designer and author whose work spans fantasy, scifi and game IPs; he wrote the BattleTech and Mechwarrior books I grew up reading. In my books he’s up there with Dan Abnett for versatility and story-telling power.

Both of them say completely different things.

Sawyer, in that first note, says the best way to break into scifi is through the magazines; to test yourself on short fiction, then start leveraging that into novels, which, he says, are completely different scifi to what you see on the silver screen. There’s some stuff happening in the ebook scene, he says, but dismiss it: it’s not serious.

Stackpole, on the other hand, is all-out for digital. He points out that the world’s changing, and that you have to keep ahead of that. He posits that the only way forward for new writers is digital.

I haven’t got the writing credits of either, but a bit of analysis – perhaps coming with an outsider’s perspective – tells me they’re both wrong.

Let’s think about what happened when the Amazon self-publishing scene exploded.  A veritable supernova gave us authors like Andy Weir, Hugh Howey and Bella Forrest (ends of a spectrum there). Hot on the heels of that, bookstores closed (Borders, anyone), major publishers consolidated, and by 2015 there was a thriving publishing industry whose top end looked something like this:

  1. The Big Five – who own practically all the major top-and-mid-tier imprints and by 2015 had all inked deals with Amazon
  2. Amazon’s own publishing branches
  3. Indie authors who were making bank, enough to set up their own fair-size publishing outfits (Michael Anderle, for instance)

And every so often, writer would get discovered and be brought into one of these three folds.

Science fiction, which has always been a few miles ahead of the curve, had inklings of this trend going on before the explosion.  Scalzi  wrote his way into the scene by publishing his work online. Dmitry’s incredibly successful Metro 2033 took off from his blog. Even Andy Weir built up his following on his own digital space before taking the world by storm with The Martian.

Their existence disproves Robert Sawyer’s casual dismissal of electronic publishing as a fringe thing. There’s an additional nail in the coffin: these people are more successful, in terms of audience and revenue, than Kameron Hurley, who is a trad-pubbed, Hugo-award winning author.

So the establishment is not all it’s cooked up to be.

In fact, I wouldn’t be here without Amazon and digital publishing. My book, Numbercaste, was something no local publisher wanted to try. I put it and a couple of short stories out there, they took off, and that attention landed me the contract with HarperCollins. I don’t think I’d have gotten into the Big Five otherwise.

As for Michael Stackpole’s claim that digital publishing is the future for new writers – Stackpole is very market-savvy, and obviously knows what he’s talking about, but I respectfully would like to downgrade that to “digital publishing is A future”, a view that Scalzi seems to share.

I think it’s a valid way to get a book out there. I think both digital/self-pub and traditional publishing are hard for the author. If you’re going solo, you need to do a lot of legwork – covers, publicity, the works. If you’re going trad, you’re going to spend that same amount of time dealing with rejections, trying to get a foot in the door – and you have to promote yourself anyway.  I think the best thing any new author can do is:

a) figure out where the readers  of your genre are and where the numbers are – if you want Amazon, for instance, check out Alex Newton’s genre reports from K-lytics; or look up sales-based bestseller lists, like the USA Today list, for trad pub
b) figure out the kind of audience you want talking about you – even within genres, these are diverse demographics – look at who the awards go to, and who publishes them
c) go with whatever option gets your book into those people’s hands, instead of taking sides in a conflict.



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