[GUEST POST] Jeff Carlson’s Adventures in Self-Publishing: What I’ve Learned So Far


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

Adventures in Self-Publishing: What I’ve Learned So Far

Self-publishing is five jobs and a half.  By comparison, writing the book was easy. It was also waaaaay more enjoyable.

I like writing.  That’s why I’m a writer.  But when you publish alone, you’re not really alone unless you’re a fantastically talented jack of all trades.  My strength, I hope, is in storytelling.  I liked to draw when I was a kid, but I hardly qualify as a professional artist.

Many people say cover art doesn’t matter for ebooks.  For the original short story of The Frozen Sky, it’s true that I used a simple placeholder designed by a super fan named Ben Metzler.  He created it for sheer love of the story after hearing the podcast by Amy H. Sturgis on Starshipsofa.  Then he emailed his artwork to me as thanks.  Thanking him for thanking me, I wrote Metzler into the novel as a squat, ugly, quick-tempered genius who’ll find himself eviscerated by a Europan ice monster.  Such is life in a Jeff Carlson novel.

His jet black cover was stark and effective for a 99 cent short story.  For the novel, I went old school.  People do judge a book by its cover.  Especially for dead tree editions, I believe it’s critical to have evocative, mood-influencing artwork, so I hired the talents of Jacob Charles Dietz.  I’m a starving writer.  I realize some of my brethren would squawk at forking out $500.00 for a schnazzy cover when a cheap-o slap-it-down file from PhotoShop will suffice… but does it really?

When the sentient raccoons rule the world in 3303 A.D. and discover your ebook among the toxic ruins of our civilization (after which they’ll power up our Nooks and Kindles with their zero point clean energy beams), don’t you want them to chirp and bark in amazement at your artwork (chirping and barking being the raccoon equivalent of oohing and aahing)?

Meanwhile, I don’t convert my manuscripts myself.  Yes, I know, I should be able to learn to do this for free on Calibre, but I don’t have the patience for it, partly because The Frozen Sky is salted with interior illustrations, maps, and org charts.  Again, my strength is writing the book.  I want to invest my time writing, not flailing around with computer programs.

I dropped another $500.00 in total on print-ready files, e-conversions, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Paperback files, and last minute changes as I crawled up and down my own personal learning curve.  For example, on the front sales pages I dropped the ball by listing David Marusek’s blurb as:

“Nothing short of amazing.”
–David Marusek, Tiptree Award-winning author of The Wedding Album

David Marusek has never been nominated for a Tiptree.  But for Pete’s sake,  the guy’s been shortlisted for so many awards, it’s no wonder I was bewildered.  If he would stop writing such mind-bending stories, I would stop being dazzled.  I’m in the process of replacing all print and ebook editions with the correct attribution: Sturgeon Award-winning author of The Wedding Album.  At the moment, those collector’s item goofball editions are still on sale.

Back to the topic at hand.

For bookkeeping purposes, I also attribute $250.00 specifically to upgrades to my web site for The Frozen Sky.  Developing my site is another chore I partially hire out because I’m not a programmer or a graphic artist.

Total costs for the new Frozen Sky: $1250.00.

Then I earned this money back in the first 10 days after it went on sale.  Kindle, Nook, and Kobo split another $900.00 for allowing me to use their platforms.  Chump change, right?  Making $1,250.00 in 10 days would be an abysmal failure for a traditionally published novel.

Plague Year sold 15,000+ copies in its first week.  I don’t mean it shipped 15,000 copies.  Penguin distributed a truckload more than that.  I mean actual receipts in hand exceeded 15,000 copies sold, and 15,000 is a small number indeed compared to the heydey of paperbacks long before I got into the game, much less the numbers of current New York Times blockbusters like Grisham or King.

Nevertheless, as a debut mass market genre original, 15,000 copies sold in seven days popped some eyeballs in New York.  Plague Year immediately went to a second printing to keep up with demand.  Today, Plague Year is in its eighth edition and has sold (not shipped, been returned, or lost in the magical world of reserves against returns) nearly 40,000 copies in North America.  That’s a nice set of legs.

Self-publishing is a different business model.  You know the drill.  No rent, no utilities, no editorial staff, no sales staff, no publicists, no marketing costs, no print costs, no warehousing, no shipping, no kickbacks for front-of-store placement.  It’s Day 10 and I’m in the black.  This ignores the reality that I spent the better part of a year writing, editing, and polishing the book (which I would also do with a traditionally published novel), but I’m in the black.

My track record with the original short story is exactly what I’d like to repeat, ideally in a tighter time frame.

During its first three months, the original story sold less than 500 copies.  “Eh,” I thought.  “So much for self-publishing.”  Then it found its audience.  Word of mouth reached critical mass.  The story took off.  With the novel, my biggest hurdles have been my own impatience and the myriad tasks of updating my web site, uploading and proofing e-files on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, proofing and sending pdf files to the printer, and checking and uploading audio files to Audible.com.

One thing I’ve learned is it’s impossible to release a book simultaneously across all platforms in all formats when self-publishing.  Each e-store has it own requirements and delays.  BN.com has a five week wait before it lists print titles.  Five weeks!  I can only jump through so many hoops at a time with a time machine.  Organizing every little piece of the puzzle is what I hate most about the experience.  Finally, most of my torpedoes are in the water.  Very soon I’ll be back at my next manuscript instead loading, arming, aiming, and firing.

The Frozen Sky is available on Nook, but for now print copies can only be found on Amazon and in select independent book stores.  As yet, it’s also unavailable on iTunes because while you can access your iTunes account from a PC, you can only add new material from a Mac.  I ain’t got one.  Two friends who live nearby are Macky Men.  They’ve allowed me to use their über–cool machines in the past.  Now their schedules haven’t matched up with mine, and I can’t ask them to quit their jobs and sell their families in order to make time for me.  I mean, I did ask, but they said no.  iTunes likely has to a wait another week or more.

Audible.com has also proven a small minefield.  Next week we hope to release the audiobook at last?

Thus go my adventures in self-publishing.

I also need to point out a mistake in my previous guest blog for SF Signal.  I claimed my grandfather’s copies of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978) and Han Solo’s Revenge (1980) were the world’s first media tie-ins…  And I call myself a science fiction fan!!!  Aha ha ha.

Both pros and fen took me to task for this blunder.  Here’s the truth:

Author and editor Richard Gilliam (the Grails series) pointed out that from 1907 – 1915, Essanay Studios made a number of films based on real and fictional people like Jesse James and Sherlock Holmes.  Essanay had a tie-in  program in which magazines printed stories related to these films.

Author David Smeds (Embracing The Starlight) said “I have the tie-in hardcover for the 1916 film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which included several photos from the film.  I don’t know if it’s the very first novel tie-in, but it’s an early example.”

Love it!