In the Beginning
I started reading before I started school. In the beginning, I just made up stories based on the pictures in my Little Golden Books. When I was four, I shocked my parents by actually reading to them.
But even then, I think I wanted to be a writer.
Growing up, writing seemed like a good, clean job. Indoors, out of the weather. Maybe air conditioned. Nice chair. Just you and the work. I learned to type because my handwriting lacks readability, even today. Maybe especially today.
The problem I ran into involved getting paid for that job.
For much of my life publishing didn’t yield the kinds of income that could support me, let alone my family or bankers. So I did what any normal person would do.
I got a real job.
Several actually. Starting with enlisting in the US Coast Guard at 17 to avoid being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. I had three to five careers, depending on how you count them. Everything from temporary agency to VP. Spent a couple of decades in the corporate data mines. Did a couple different stints as educator. One as a stand-up corporate trainer. One as adjunct faculty. Worked as technology director (bit-twiddler) for a national 501( c )( 3 ) serving the low incidence disability sector.
That last one is important because it resulted in me finally becoming a writer. Being mine, the path I followed wasn’t exactly a straight line.
My specialty is distance education. Specifically, online. While my grad school classmates came from educational backgrounds to learn technology, I came from a technology background. I needed to learn education.
That’s a story in itself as they kept telling me that technology wouldn’t do the kinds of things I actually did with it on a regular basis, but I digress.
I really wanted to figure out a way to get access to higher education to a huge swath of rural learners. In those days, post-Mosaic but pre-broadband, that meant trying to get high bandwidth content like audio and video to people who only had dial-up access to the internet.
In late 2004, Dave Winer, Adam Curry, and an intrepid band of internet people invented what we call podcasting today. I latched onto it and stuck it in my ears.
In early 2006 I discovered fiction podcasting with Podiobooks (now Scribl) and listened to every novel they had. It wasn’t many. Podcasting showed me two important things.
- The downloads happened “off hours.” They came to my computer overnight when I wasn’t using it. They didn’t need high bandwidth.
- The writers/podcasters were having a lot of fun.
Here was a possible answer to two of my long standing problems. How to deliver quality audio over dial-up and how to get my stories to potential readers. In this case, listeners.
Don’t quibble. Reading is reading.
The only remaining problem was — well — I had to write something and produce it. Not just anything. Podiobooks only accepted novel length works. I think they asked for at least five episodes, delivered weekly. Most of them ran longer but could I write a novel?
I’d started half a dozen times over the course of my life. Bought old typewriters and refurbished them for the old Dashiell Hammett feeling. Burned reams of paper. Never found a story. I spent too much effort on the image and not enough on the work. Could I do it this time? With something at stake?
Yeah. I could.
I had a friend, a fellow science fiction fan who egged me on. She read the chapters as I completed them and pushed me to make them better.
January 12, 2007, I wrote the first line of what would become my first completed novel. Which is to say I stole a famous first line from somebody else and just kept going. (I kept that gimmick for years until I ran out of lines I wanted to steal and had to make up lines of my own.)
On January 22, 2007, I finished the novel at 78k. Second draft took it over 82k and another three days. I had what I called a final draft by the 25th.
That was when I discovered I hated the sound of my own voice.
Luckily, that’s a pretty common problem. Nobody else had any problem with it so I sucked it up, printed out the first episode worth of text, and started recording in the front seat of my car. It was the quietest place I could find.
Obviously, I wasn’t driving at the time.
In mid-February, 2007, I uploaded the first episode to Podiobooks and started my publishing career.
I wrote four novels that year, including one during NaNoWriMo. None of them were very long. I got all of them onto Podiobooks by year’s end.
By that time I had about 100 listeners. Within a few months, I had 1000. At last count — sometime in 2010 — 80,000 people had downloaded the last chapter of the last book I narrated.
In the spring of 2009, I was getting half a dozen emails a month from people who wanted to read the books for themselves. I wouldn’t send them manuscripts or PDFs (Permanently Damaged Files) because I still had the idea that I might want to publish them someday.
So I did what anybody would do. I started sending out queries.
I sent out six. I got a request for some first pages, but eventually I got rejections from those who answered. Now, I thank that last agent for rejecting me.
About that time, I had occasion to chat with J C Hutchins, fellow Podiobooks alum, great writer, and supportive colleague.
He asked, “What do you want from your writing?”
I had no answer.
“Figure that out, and the rest will follow.”
It took me a couple of weeks. Money? Not really. I had a good day job, one I liked. Writing was something I just did. I wanted to keep doing it.
I kept getting the emails. “Where can I buy your books?”
I had to answer “You can’t.”
I hated that answer. So I changed it to “You can’t yet.”
Eventually I realized that the only thing I wanted from my writing was to get it into the hands and heads of readers.
That became more nuanced later on, but it’s still the core value.
I want my stories to be read.
At that exact point I realized that the best answer an agent or publisher could give me was “no.”
The problem lies in what publishers do. They sell books to bookstores, relying on the bookstores to sell them to readers. That’s if they publish them at all. Unless you’re a big name — and nobody starts out that way — your book is on one of the back pages of the quarterly catalogs. A bookseller might see it after they’ve picked up all the copies of Big Name’s latest blockbuster. If they get a few copies, they’ll go onto the shelf beside all the other books that aren’t on the front tables or end cap displays.
I mean, sure, it would be cool to see your book on a bookstore’s shelf but that just means it hasn’t been sold. Ideally, you’d like to see it sold out, but they don’t label shelves like that.
So I did what any normal person would do.
I ran some numbers.
They weren’t any better in 2009 than they are today in 2022. Only one in a hundred submissions get accepted by agents. Maybe another one in a hundred get picked up by publishers and see actual publication in a quarterly catalog.
The average advance for those books getting picked up was $3000 spread across three payments — on signing, on completed manuscript, and on publication. Only one out of ten books earned out, that is, earned the advance back in royalties. If you didn’t earn out, you didn’t get another contract. Don’t pass Go. Don’t collect $200.
If the typical royalty was a dollar per sale, that meant that only one out of ten sold 3,000 units. Most sold fewer. The latest trial testimony re Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House gave pretty stark numbers that some sold many fewer than 3,000.
Could I sell 3,000 on my own?
I did what any normal person would do.
I looked at marketing.