A New Hope, A Different Tack, pt. 3

I met Robin Sullivan of Ridan Books at the Nebula Awards Weekend, held in Washington, DC in June, 2011. Robin has had a varied career: writing software, managing a software firm, and running her own advertising agency. Most recently, she founded Ridan (the opposite of “nadir” – I love that) to publish her husband Michael Sullivan’s six-book fantasy series after his first, small press publisher went out of business. Her business model focuses on e-publishing and diligent, sustained outreach to the science fiction and literary communities on the Internet. Last fall, the distribution of e-reading devices hit critical mass, and Michael’s sales shot through the roof. Robin began handling e-books for a handful of former mid-list science fiction and fantasy authors, folks who, like me, had achieved a certain level of success with traditional publishers but who had subsequently suffered career setbacks and fallen off the radar. Her “special sauce” of meticulous, leave-no-stone-unturned marketing has worked wonders for them, as well as Michael, propelling several of Ridan’s authors into the top ranks of Amazon’s Kindle listings. She is very loquacious and approachable, and when I mentioned that I’d retained at least partial e-publishing rights to The Good Humor Man, she asked to see one of my copies. I inscribed a copy for her, and she read it while traveling to New York to speak at Book Expo America. After a bit of negotiation with the good folks at Tachyon, she agreed to republish The Good Humor Man as an e-book, feeling that the novel could potentially entice a larger readership than the one generated by its small first printing. More significantly, we’re talking about putting out one of my other novels as an e-book original in the fall of 2011, seeing how it does, then taking things from there.

Why is Ridan potentially a big deal for me? Why don’t I just self-publish to Kindle, Nook, iBooks, etc., and be done with it? Short answer — I don’t want to be a publishing company. Make that, I don’t have time to be a publishing company; between my being a father of three, a husband, and a full-time employee of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, I barely have time to write my novels (thank heaven for my two-hour round-trip train commute!). I enjoy doing a bit of public relations on my own – I like blogging, I love going to conventions, and I don’t mind setting up bookstore visits in places I’m traveling to. But I recognize my limitations, and I know I’m no public relations dynamo. Robin Sullivan, on the other hand, is. I won’t go into detail regarding Ridan’s publishing philosophy, but I recommend a visit to Robin’s blog, Write to Publish, where she describes her company’s goals and strategy. Her approach to the publishing business is nearly the diametrical opposite of that taken by the big six publishing houses. She wants to sell writers, not just individual books. She recognizes that every new book an author makes available to readers serves as an advertisement for every other book that writer has for sale. Thus, it isn’t in her interest for her to artificially limit an author to one book per year, or to only writing books within a given series. She isn’t making an up-front financial investment in the books she agrees to publish – she offers no advances, but does provide a 70/30 split, in the author’s favor, of all net proceeds – so if an author’s latest book does relatively poorly in sales, she chalks it up, not as a loss, but as a smaller-than-hoped-for gain, since even relatively unsuccessful books will still serve to advertise other books the author has written. Which, since they are e-books, do not go out of print, nor do they get returned by bookstores for refunds after a couple of months.

It is hard to overstate the pressure this change eases. In the old days of dead-tree-only books, an author had at most a two-to-three month window in which to “hit” with a new book. Unless the book proved to be a word-of-mouth or critical phenomenon, or unless it got turned into a movie or TV show, eighty to ninety percent of all the sales that book would ever see would occur within those first two to three months. After that, the bookstores would return all the unsold copies and, apart from any residual online sales, that would be that – unless the book were part of a successful series, in which case sales would somewhat pick up again when the next book in the series appeared. Stand-alone novels, however, had one shot in the sales spotlight, and the magnitude of a stand-alone book’s success was pretty much determined by the original print run; the average novel could be expected to sell about half of the copies shipped to stores. The rest got pulped or resold at a vast discount as remainders, with no royalties paid to the author. And that was that. In down times – and every year of the past decade has been “down times” for traditional publishers and book sellers – book buyers at the major outlets would only order “the net” for an author’s new book, or only the numbers of copies actually sold of their most recent book. Given, again, that most novels sell through about half the number of copies shipped to stores, this led to the infamous “sales death spiral” experienced by so many writers. Which led to the somewhat perverse reality that, at least for the past decade, it has been far, far easier to sell a first novel to a big six house than a third novel. Editors can sneak one past the P&L hawks when their writer doesn’t have a BookScan track record.

So, to close the circle of this essay, I have decided to stop being insane, to stop doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Oh, I won’t ask my agent to stop submitting my stuff to the traditional publishing houses; after all, plenty of people play the lottery, and there’s always a chance that I’ll hit that “sweet spot” and cause some New York editor to fall hopelessly, helplessly in lust with one of my books. I still love traditional books, and I still love traditional publishing and bookselling, and I’m still enchanted by the thought of someone coming across one of my novels in City Lights in San Francisco or Book People in Austin or Books and Books in Coral Gables, glancing at the blurb on the back cover, reading a page or two, then sitting down with it at the coffee counter and losing herself in it. One can still dream, after all. But I’m not counting on dreams coming true, nor long shots coming through. Not anymore.

I’m not doing this for money. Not primarily, anyway. If that were the case, I would have quit long ago. Treacly as it may sound, I’m doing it for love. Mostly. Just like A Chorus Line’s Cassie, who was once a featured dancer on Broadway but who auditions for a spot on a chorus line, just to stay in the game. Because she loves dancing. Because she can’t imagine not doing it.

I love telling stories. I love watching my characters magically evolve as I usher them from chapter to chapter, seeing them change from shadows into sketches into people, seemingly beyond my volition. I love the thought that somewhere, sometime, some reader may respond to one of my stories the same way I responded to Nightwings by Robert Silverberg or The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin or Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard – with a thrill of sympathy and recognition and a sense of emotional and intellectual companionship found. A sense of being a little less alone in the world.

A book is not complete in and of itself. A book is a shared performance between a writer and a reader. The performance doesn’t come off if only the writer does his part. If a reader doesn’t bring her unique sense memories and emotional responses to the gestalt, the book remains inert, a dead thing, a code untranslated. If switching to a newer model of publishing — less prestigious, more entrepreneurial — is what it takes to bring me new eyeballs, to break me out of the straightjacket traditional publishing has become for me, I intend to see it through.

I’m doing it for love. And, in the end, that may well be my “secret sauce.”

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