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[GUEST POST] The Last Of The Mohicans – Jeff Carlson on Aliens, Spaceships and The Frozen Sky

Jeff Carlson is the author of Plague Year, Plague War (a finalist for the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award), and Plague Zone. To date, his work has been translated into fourteen languages. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in a number of top venues such as Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Boys’ Life, Strange Horizons and the Fast Forward 2 anthology. His latest book, The Frozen Sky, is available as an eBook.

Aliens, Spaceships and The Frozen Sky

I’m fourth generation sf/f.  My great-grandmother built her library around Frank L. Baum’s Oz series, the original fantasy epic.  She passed those beautiful hardcovers to her son, my grandfather, who kept them alongside “Doc” E.E. Smith novels  such as Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol, which were the cutting edge in his time.

Later, when I was a boy, my grandfather introduced me to the world’s first media tie-ins like Han Solo’s Revenge and Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye.  This was not a man who sneered at popular good fun.  He entranced me with Star Wars books, then fed my new addiction with the classics.

At the same time, my father was bringing home doorstoppers like The Hobbit and Clan Of The Cave Bear, which reads very much like alt history with strange people in a strange world.

My point is I know a good piece of science fiction when I see it.  Tell me this doesn’t fit the bill:

BENEATH THE ICE.Something is alive inside Jupiter’s ice moon Europa. Robot probes find an ancient tunnel beneath the surface, its walls carved with strange hieroglyphics. Led by elite engineer Alexis Vonderach, a team of scientists descends into the dark… where they confront a savage race older than mankind…


I’m hooked.” – Larry Niven

A first-rate adventure.” – Allen Steele

Here’s the rub.  The Frozen Sky is self-published.  Why? Settle down, kids.  Let me tell you how the world worked when I was young, for I am The Last Of The Mohicans.

I may be one of the last writers to come up the so-called traditional route.  At the turn of the millennium, I broke into the field selling short stories to small and semi-pro markets, some so small they’re collectibles now.  I’m talking about ink on paper.  My first appearance in print was in the guidebook for MosCon 16, where an über-fan named Jon Gustafson published my story and paid me with a free membership to the con.

Eventually I began cracking pro markets like Strange Horizons and Asimov’s. Then I graduated to novels and sold Plague Year in a minor bidding war in New York.  This was 2007. It felt like the big time.

Also in 2007, I sold a novelette called The Frozen Sky to the Writers of the Future 23 anthology.  Because the story is a near future sci fi thriller, my meat and bread, I pitched the idea of a developing it into a novel to my editor at Penguin as my follow-up to Plague Year.

She didn’t want it.  Plague Year is a present day apocalypse.  For marketing reasons, they’d immediately pigeonholed me as an end-of-the-world guy.

In those days, the Great And Powerful Marketing knew all.  Marketing dealt with other marketing heads in other corporate environments such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, Tower, Target, and Wal-Mart.  Their computers matched numbers with other computers; the computers wanted simple, readily identifiable brands; and if this smacked a little of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, try not to think so hard about it.

To my dying day, I’ll remember her words in rejecting a novelization of The Frozen Sky: “Oh, Jeff, all those aliens and spaceships.  Who really reads that stuff any more?”

This from a science fiction editor at a science fiction imprint!  I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d said she was an alien.

She’s a sharp lady whom I like and admire, but, like all of us, she works within the constraints of her environment — and it’s true that in genre fiction, Category B had outsold Category A for many, many years.  Boy wizards and magic rings dominated the bestseller charts.  Marketing had the numbers to prove it, and publishing is not a business driven by great profit margins.

Most novels, especially first novels, lose money.  They sink without a trace.  I was lucky to strike it hot with Plague Year.  The publisher rightly wanted more.

I wrote my sequel, Plague War, a decision which worked out well.  The marketing machine knew what they were talking about, but the direction of my career was laid by the publisher dictating to the writer rather than trusting the writer’s instincts.  I’ve always had one eye over my shoulder wondering what else I could do with The Frozen Sky.

Meanwhile, the global economy imploded.  Publishing took a larger hit with the advent of strong, low-priced, well-organized e-stores and e-readers.

Late in 2010, I republished my novelette of The Frozen Sky on Kindle, Nook, and iPad. It’s sold 40,000 copies.

“Huh,” I thought.  “I guess somebody’s reading aliens and spaceships.”  In fact, from a glance at the top sellers in ebooks, there’s clearly a large demographic of tech-savvy, tech-friendly, literate people who love a good mind-bending novel.

E-readers have revived science fiction, which is precisely what you’d expect from futuristic gadgets.

Oh, sweet irony.

As soon as I cleared my desk of deadlines, I started writing the novel of The Frozen Sky. I never had any intention of pitching it in New York.  At best, a Big Six publisher would offer a mid four-figure advance, then lock up the rights for ten years.  Or ten decades. I’ve earned $14,000 republishing Sky on my own as a 99 cent stand-alone.  That won’t cover my mortgage.  It did pay off my wife’s car.

Equally important, money isn’t my only goal.  Writing is my job, but I also want to be read.  The ability to leap directly to readers is a wild experience for a guy who spends a lot of time alone in a room with his laptop listening to the voices in his head.

John DeNardo sez: Wait.  My mathematical mind wonders how selling 40,000 copies at $1.00/each equals $14,000?  Do you mean 40,000 downloads, some of which were free, some of which were sales?

Jeff sez: Excellent question.  No, I mean I sold 40,000.  The royalty splits with Kindle and its brothers break down like so.  From .99c to $2.98, the author receives 35%.  From $2.99 to $9.99, the author receives 75%.

Since it was a 60 page short story, I thought 99 cents seemed reasonable.  Amazon, which saw the vast lion’s share of activity, kept nearly $25,000.  I kept $14,000.  Hard to complain.  It’s their ballpark.

Meanwhile, other writers are selling 100,000 or 1,000,000 copies of their ebooks.  This is insanity.  It’s chaos.  And chaos is opportunity.

Self-publishing The Frozen Sky is an e-experiment for me.  Wonder of wonders, the book is also available in print for anyone who still prefers dead trees (myself included).  An audiobook narrated by the esteemed Amy H. Sturgis will be out next week.

This is a freedom even Heinlein or Clarke barely imagined.  Search your feelings.  The truth is out there.  Live long and prosper.

Welcome to the e-future!

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] The Last Of The Mohicans – Jeff Carlson on Aliens, Spaceships and The Frozen Sky

  1. Hey, that sounds really cool. I read The Frozen Sky in the WOTF anthology it was first printed in and thought it was the best story in the anthology. It’ll be very interesting to see how the 3.99 digital price tag works out for income and sales on the novel. I’m actually really surprised that it was possible to earn 14 grand on a novelette. I had no idea that you could pull in that sort of income on a 99 cent novelette.

  2. So I just bought it for the Kindle.

    $3.99 is pretty much as far as I’ll usually go, unless they resurrect middle-period Heinlein. Yours was attractive because of Rockets! and Spaceships! and kind words from Niven and Steele.

    At $1.99 I’ll usually say What the hell and spring for it.

    If I like the book your name goes on the Okay at 3.99 list.

  3. “Oh, Jeff, all those aliens and spaceships. Who really reads that stuff any more?”

    [Insert Patrick Stewart facepalm image here.]

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