Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Interview with Jeffrey A Carver


Briefly describe your journey in writing your latest book project.
I'm currently working on a hard SF series called The Chaos Chronicles.  It started with Neptune Crossing, back in the mid 1990s, and the fourth volume, Sunborn, was published just a couple of years ago. The print versions were published by Tor Books, and they also published the ebook edition of Sunborn.  But I went indie with my own ebooks of the first three books. (Actually, I started by putting them out for free, in preparation for the publication of Sunborn. They'd been out of print for a while, and I wanted new readers to be able to get up to speed on the story before the fourth novel came out.) Those free downloads were my first real exposure to ebooks as a reader as well as a writer. Some of my other backlist books had been out from E-reads (http://www.ereads.com), but I'd never really tried reading ebooks myself until it came time to proof my own productions. And, to my surprise, I found that I loved reading ebooks!

On the writing side, The Chaos Chronicles were my own answer to a series of long, complex novels that took forever to write. I tend to think big in my storylines (far-future science fiction novels), and I'd finished a number of books that took way longer to write than I wanted, from the point of view of keeping a roof over my head. So I conceived a hard SF series that would be a continuing story—my big concept—told through a series of shorter novels, each of which would be a self-contained reading experience. It made sense at the time, and that's how it started out. But one thing led to another, and now each new installment of the Chaos series has turned into a long, complex novel. Yikes! Sunborn took years to write, and I'm now some years into the writing of the fifth book, The Reefs of Time.

Maybe it's karmic payback for my using chaos theory both literally and as a metaphor for the life of my poor protagonist, John Bandicut, who gets a noncorporeal alien—Charlie the quarx—in his head while exploring Triton, moon of Neptune. The next thing he knows, he's caught in a web of impossible missions, first to save Earth from a rogue comet, and then joining the company of aliens to attempt similar missions on a galactic scale. He certainly never expected to encounter sentient stars, back when he was operating a survey rover on Triton; but that's what happens by the time we get to Sunborn and his effort to discover what's causing the premature deaths of stars in the Orion Nebula.

Did you query agents and traditional publishers?  How long before you got your offer of representation/your first contract?
I've been working with an agent and traditional publishers for many years. My first novel contract came about as a consequence of repeatedly trying to sell short stories to a particular anthology editor, the late Terry Carr. That exchange led to Seas of Ernathe, my first novel, published by Laser Books, which recently saw the light of day again for the first time in several decades, with its new edition from E-reads (ebook and print-on-demand trade paper).

After the sale of that novel, I was able to get an agent, and my second novel went to Jim Frenkel, then at Dell Books. He's still my editor, through several publishers, now at Tor. We first met at an SF convention in Boston, where I was trying to slip into a "closed" publisher party, as an unknown new author. He greeted me at the door, read my name tag, and said, "I'm the SF editor at Dell. I have your manuscript, and I'm planning to call your agent on Monday to make an offer." Not a bad way to get started with a new editor. And yes, he let me into the party.

What factors influenced your decision to go with a particular agent or publisher?
Things were simpler in those days, or at least they seemed so. Someone recommended an agent, and soon he was my agent. The publishing wasn't a matter of choosing, exactly; it was a matter of who wanted to buy my stuff!

Are you currently under a traditional publishing contract for future books or do you have manuscripts that you will publish directly for Kindle?
I still have two more books in the Chaos series under contract to Tor. I also have a completely unrelated project, not SF, not a novel, that I may do the indie route. And, by the way, Kindle is just one platform for indie authors. I actually sell more books at the Nook store, and I also have my books at Smashwords, which in turn distributes to Sony, Apple, Kobo, Diesel, etc. I have other backlist books published through E-reads, and those are available at Fictionwise and Baen Webscription (both of which have DRM-free editions), in addition to the stores I just mentioned.

What lessons have you learned being an indie author vs. being traditionally published?
Good question. There are certainly many reasons still to publish through traditional publishers. Working with a good editor is one of them, plus of course the design, marketing, and distribution through traditional paper book outlets. Ebooks are growing by leaps and bounds, but they're still a minority position in book sales. The big publishers continue to play a valuable role as gatekeepers, an editorial filter, if you will, to maintain a certain level of quality in books. That doesn't mean that indies can't be just as good, but indie publishing is definitely the Wild West, in terms of what you might find, as a paying customer.

On the other hand, the profit margin of indie publishing is huge, compared to the per-book earnings for an author through the old system. So much more is in the author's control—from the actual formatting and quality control of the book itself (particularly ebooks, which the big publishers have not yet learned to do all that well), to the price, to monitoring of sales in real time. Plus, of course—and this is big—you get your money a lot faster than you do from a regular publisher.

I've also developed the philosophy, contrary to the position of most mainstream publishers, that DRM on ebooks is bad, and that you'll do a lot better by treating your customers as honest partners in a business exchange, and encourage them to go ahead and put their copies of your books on whatever device they want. More power to them.

To new writers, I still say there are good reasons for trying to break into publishing the old-fashioned way. But for established writers, writers with backlists, the converse is clear: unless you're a big enough name that your New York publisher will keep you in print indefinitely, with continuing promotion (and how often does that happen?) you can do a lot better putting your backlist out yourself.  To this end, a growing number of published authors are seizing control of their backlists and going indie with them. Many of us, in a variety of genres, have joined together as Backlist Ebooks (http://www.backlistebooks.com) to help each other with promotion and general support. Others have joined groups such as Bookview CafĂ© (http://www.bookviewcafe.com) with a similar aim. Just in the last few months, I have seen my monthly ebook earnings grow from beer money to mortgage-payment money. And I'm nowhere near the level of some of my backlist colleagues.

Did you design your cover art? 
When I put up my Starstream Publications editions of the first three Chaos books, I created my own covers—and for that matter, the ebook files themselves, which I still do. (I use the open-source software Calibre to produce the ebook files for Kindle and Nook.) Once I saw them in store catalogues as thumbnails, I realized they weren't quite up to the standard I wanted.  I hired a cover designer, Pat Ryan, who is both an experienced designer and an author, to create a new cover for Eternity's End; and then again for my first omnibus edition: The Chaos Chronicles: Books 1-3. She's working now on my next ebook project, Dragon Space, an omnibus of my two science fiction dragon novels, Dragons in the Stars and Dragon Rigger, set in my Star Rigger Universe—the same future history as Eternity's End. Eventually, I hope to get new covers on those individual three Chaos books; but one thing at a time, you know?

If you used a graphic designer/publisher’s designer, how involved were you during the creative process for your cover?
I was completely involved. The designer and I worked very well together. We bounced ideas off each other, and went back and forth on wording of the text, and subtle adjustments to the art. It was a lot of fun, actually. And I was delighted with the results.

What kinds of social media [twitter, facebook, webpage, blog, writing forums] are you involved with trying to garner publicity for your book(s)?
Ah, that stuff. First, let me say this—I'm not a natural social networker, at least not internet-style. I hold my own: I've maintained my own website since 1996 (and yes, it's overdue for a graphic redesign), I post to my blog maybe once a week and those posts go to my Facebook page. I'm not really a Facebook aficionado, and my participation in that great social experiment mostly comes down to responding when folks comment on my blog posts. Twitter...ah, my daughter threatened to disown me if I started tweeting. I created a Twitter account, took one look at the page that landed me on, and never went back. On the other hand, there are forums I enjoy, such as MobileRead (http://www.mobileread.com). And I do the occasional spot appearance, such as this one.

I also teach. Together with my friend, fantasy writer Craig Shaw Gardner, I run the Ultimate Science Fiction Writing Workshop in the Boston area. While that was going on, I was asked to pinch-hit for SF great Joe Haldeman when he became ill, and I taught science fiction writing at MIT for a semester. I've instructed at a variety of workshops, including Odyssey Workshop and the New England Young Writers Conference. I find teaching to be demanding, invigorating, and rewarding—and I've made some wonderful friends in the community of new writers.

What is the best advice you can offer new authors?
Read a ton—and write, write, write.  Rewrite, and demand a lot of yourself and your work. Find and join a good writer's group. I've been part of one for over thirty years, and it's made a tremendous difference in my writing, and in my approach to writing. Seek out good criticism and listen to it—but don't be a slave to it, either. Be persistent. Write what you have a fire in your belly to write, not what you think will sell this year.

I have a page of advice to new writers, actually:

And an entire free online course for aspiring writers, especially young writers:

What’s next for you?
I'm hard at work on The Reefs of Time, the fifth in the Chaos series. And I hope to have Dragon Space up for sale soon.

If you'd like a quick look at some of my work, take a look at:
http://www.starrigger.net/Downloads.htm, where you'll not only see my indie books for sale, but you can download my Battlestar Galactica miniseries novelization for free! There's also some free short fiction for you to read.

Hey, thanks for the questions, and for listening to my long-winded answers!

—Jeffrey A. Carver

Blog: Pushing a Snake Up a Hill at http://starrigger.blogspot.com