By Chris Pitchford
Benny had two of my all-time favorite jobs. He was a writer and he commanded a space station. Actually, he was a character played by Avery Brooks in one of my favorite television shows. In one memorable episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Benny’s original writing was attacked by hostile indifference. The publisher pulped an entire run, destroying the magazine’s complete monthly edition, rather than let a story featuring a prominent person of color see the light of day. Benny’s remaining options were few. When it was suggested that he publish his story himself, he said, “More people would read it if I wrote it in chalk on the sidewalk!”
That idea has stayed with me ever since, and I’ve misquoted it regularly. So why am I self-publishing my new novel, The Agility of Clouds? (“The what of what?” my mother might have said—our memories will surely differ on this account. “Clouds can’t be agile…” She is one of my toughest critics. Naturally, I dedicated the work to her. I suspect this pleases her yet simultaneously drives her nuts). The Agility of Clouds is part Jane Austen, part James Bond; but more than that, it is a story of a woman who questions what it means to be a woman and what it means to be flawed but moral. As I am none of those things, I had plenty of questions to work with.
But when it comes to the question regarding whether to self-publish, the answer is much different today than it was in the nineties when DS9 originally aired. And that decade had more in common with the Golden Age of Science Fiction when the story was set than today. (As a self-published author, I can truthfully attest that more people have read my novel, Sonata: A Fantasy in One Movement, than read what my kids and I wrote on my sidewalk). While the market for short genre fiction is still strong, it’s not nearly the same today as it was seventy years ago. Being published in periodicals was how some of my favorite authors of the last century, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury among others, cut their teeth as professional writers. Unfortunately, being a novelist means that my work isn’t well suited to periodicals. I love reading Analog, Locus, Strange Horizons and others. But the self-contained book is the definitive text for me, so what could I do?
Traditional publishing then and now is going strong. According to John DeNardo (SF Signal) http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/author/john/, over 300 titles are scheduled to be published on genre-related topics in the month of August alone. It is apparently a very crowded field. So crowded, tossing one’s novel over a virtual transom in hopes of it landing upon a suitable editor’s desk is surely the height of fantasy. Also, successfully pitching one’s work to hungry but savvy agents is also a dream come true for only a few. Did I mention how crowded the field is? And the demands of publishing all those titles mean that control passes largely from the creator to the producer. Like Benny, an author can do all that a creative type can but the final say is ultimately in someone else’s hands.
The alternative, being self-published, is almost a misnomer, as many, many people can still be very much involved. Getting early feedback from readers was critical—but also inspiring—for the work on The Agility of Clouds. Littleton Writers and RMFW were almost as tough and as supportive as ‘me own mudder.’ Once the novel was written, getting a real, honest-to-goodness, hard-as-tacks editor was next on the list. And Karen Conlin of grammargeddon.com was just the independent wordsmith with a background in fantasy (having worked at TSR, once the home of Dungeons and Dragons) that this project needed. Also, a brilliant illustrator was one of the early readers who inspired me, and so my main character, Seramis Helleborine, took visual form under the pen of Marjorie Schott, http://www.facebook.com/WaterstriderDesign.
I’m not getting any younger (thankfully, as I never want to see the inside of a Junior High classroom as a detainee ever again), so it turns out to be a good thing that self-publishing is much quicker than traditional publishing. But a publisher can’t rush some things. And a publisher also has to make decisions using vastly different criteria. As a writer, I wanted to see the cover of the book sport a fully realized airship, an eighteenth-century caravel soaring through the skies. But as a publisher, I looked at what covers of books that sold looked like and saw that main characters were featured more often than the gee-whiz cool things. Gone are the days of the DAW edition of The Gods of Mars by ERB featuring two almost indistinct warriors battling upon a flying ship on the cover. Fortunately, working with an illustrator and a cover artist meant that I could do both. The cover presentation would be designed to sell books (and somehow be legible at postage-stamp sizes on Amazon), and the content would cater to the dreams and hopes I’ve had since I was a child for action/fantasy with a strong female lead character.
Speaking of Amazon (and selling books in the same sentence—coincidence? I think not), their options for self-publishing allow for a great deal of freedom and control. From CreateSpace to Kindle Direct Publishing, the publishing options start at free so the price is right for someone just starting out. Benny would have rather enjoyed the empowerment, I think. Of course, while it remains doubtful that I will have the opportunity to share with Benny the two dream jobs of writer and space station commander, at least one of those jobs is possible with the addition of adding one more to my curriculum vitae: that of self-publisher.