Jeff Carlson is the international bestselling author of Plague Year, Interrupt, and The Frozen Sky. To date, his work has been translated into sixteen languages worldwide. His new novel is Frozen Sky 2: Betrayed, available on Amazon, Nook, Kobo and Smashwords. Readers can find free excerpts, videos, contests, and more on his website at www.jverse.com
by Jeff Carlson
Adding to my weird saga, I swerved sideways from self-publishing at the height of The Frozen Sky‘s popularity.
Through a joint effort, my agent and I placed epic disaster novel Interrupt with 47North, the e-devils themselves, who released the book in July 2013. Amazon’s new publishing wing cannot accurately be described as a traditional publisher, but they have all the best elements of New York in professional editors, marketing teams, publicists, artists, accountants, and, yes, even a good lawyer or three.
It was a relief to hand the book to an accomplished crew. They handled most of the tasks I’d shouldered myself for Long Eyes and The Frozen Sky, although they welcomed input and collaborative efforts.
In case you’ve been living under a turnip, it should be noted that 47North’s primary distribution outlet is Kindle. They can’t give front-of-B&N placement to their authors. What they can do is front-of-the-hottest-e-store-in-North America.
Interrupt jumped out of the gate with 20,000 sold in two weeks, then doubled that number before Thanksgiving, so color me happy.
Directly contradicting my thoughts on the sweet spot of $2.99, however, they priced Interrupt at $3.99. You can do that when you’re a world-beating corporation with a killer promo machine.
Goosing sales, they also ran a few $1.99 and .99 cent specials (mostly while paying royalties like the price was still $3.99, which was a very non-New York thing to do). And with each special, we immediately saw a spike in bad reviews. Please see the E-Report Part 3 for some guesses why.
To be honest, Interrupt has a number of things going against it. I love sprawling end-of-the-world novels with big ideas and widespread casts of characters. Interrupt is my Lucifer’s Hammer. Alas, the concept is more complex than a comet striking the Earth. Comets and meteors have been done. Super flu. Super quakes. Zombies. War. I wanted to blow up the world in a new way because blowing up the world is fun. The apocalypse backs your characters deep into a corner and demands their best to prevail.
But while Hammer delved into the environmental movement and racial tensions of 1970’s California, I went ahead and combined biology and evolution with religious history and geopolitics.
I’m accustomed to pissing people off. Human beings are crazy. We have limited range and unlimited delusions – two attributes which often combine in passionate ways. Every one of my books has generated hate mail or bizarre accusations. That’s just part of the game.
Interrupt took the hate to a new level. It’s been among my most successful novels, so I can’t complain, but the pushback has made me reassess what I’ll write in the future.
King Kong Joe Konrath said it well: “People would rather defend their beliefs to the death instead of admitting they might be wrong.” He was talking about the e-revolution versus traditional publishing, but his mantra also applies to life.
Here’s the thing. I never got into this business to write manifestos of any sort. I’m philosophical, and the world is a fascinating place. Clearly it’s burdened with problems. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to push an agenda. Dammit, Jim, I’m an entertainer, not a politician. I want to wow you with car chases and exploding helicopters. If I can also make you think a bit, I’m content. Provoking your sense of wonder is my whole gig, but I’m not coming from either end of the political spectrum. It makes me laugh in frustration to see myself labeled a racist, a liberal, a sexist, a feminist, an imperialist, an Obamacare-lovin’ Dem and a heartless Republican – all for the same book.
How the heck did I manage that?
I believe a lot of people only see what they want to see, and what they like to see are their own personal demons. They enjoy being upset. It feels important. Strong emotions release neurotransmitters like serotonin. That’s why the Sith Lords want you to release your anger. You don’t know the power of the Dark Side!
We’re a very self-involved society right now. Every other show on TV is a cop / private investigator / spy / agent thriller because we’re obsessed with ourselves. Nobody’s looking upward or outward…
Nobody except the tech savvy, tech friendly demographic reading those geeked out sci fi novels, and I freakin’ love you guys for it.
My point is sex and violence are fun but they’re not enough for me by themselves, so I salt in weird science, weird history, wry observations and irony. That’s dangerous ground, but I was surprised and disappointed by the amount of negative reader reviews for Interrupt.
To be fair, some people said it was slow-paced, and, no question, the book is chock full of astrophysics and genetics. Others said they couldn’t put it down. You win some, you lose some. I don’t expect to click with everyone.
What I object to is people objecting to the subject matter.
Interrupt deals with sensitive issues. To me, those topics are the most intriguing. I try to handle ’em with respect. I look for strength in the weak, good in the bad, reasons in the inexplicable. Basically, I think everything is a gray area. I’m not interested in black and white.
Sci fi and tech thrillers are about pushing the envelope. We should be able to examine what makes us tick without blowing up in anger… but my advice if you want to write bestsellers is make them as bland as possible. They can have twists and turns. They can even be edgy. A little edginess is the chocolate frosting on your cupcake. But don’t load yer cupcake with frosting and caramel and coconut flakes. You’re asking people to swallow too much.
A well-written concept can go a long way.
Beware politics and religion. Beware education.
Especially in our polarized age of insta-flame opinions on the net, your characters can be adulterers or murderers or sociopaths – these are everyone’s neighbors – but heaven forbid your characters should work in scientific fields or have studied the past.
My least favorite complaint about Interrupt is the characters are too smart. Several readers said it wasn’t realistic for a radio astronomer to understand geology. Another claimed it was ridiculous that a biologist could take a blood sample.
I can take a blood sample. It’s less complicated than tying your shoes. As for an astronomer understanding geology, well, c’mon. My highest level of formal schooling is a B.A. in English Literature, and yet I learned everything in the book. That’s how I wrote it. The declaration that one person can only know one field is really disheartening.
Then I had my first email condemning me as pro-industry and a climate change denier since I’d written a book in which solar activity is partly responsible for temperatures on Earth. Um. Dude. If the sun wasn’t shining, things would get chilly in a hurry on our little planet.
I’m not pro-pollution. Who the heck is pro-pollution? Interrupt is an amusing doomsday novel, no less, no more. Let’s not imagine I’m affecting policy in the world’s capitals. Nevertheless, months later I’ve heard from half a dozen readers who are so locked into their political views, they were offended by the notion that the sun affects temperatures on Earth. I get it. Carbon dioxide bad. Sea levels rising. I agree. Some of the characters say so in the book. The fact is nobody knows what would happen if the sun dramatically altered its output. We do know there have been intense changes on Earth throughout prehistory. I was merely imagining a new adventure. That’s it. That’s my whole agenda. I wanted to make life uncomfortable for my heroes because conflict is necessary to genre fiction. I’m not Dick Cheney in disguise, I swear.
Where’s the middle ground?
Looking backward to a safe choice for analysis, The Da Vinci Code was a mega seller because at the heart of it, here’s the pitch: Jesus had sex. Ooh. Naughty. The concept is titillating but not too hurtful for he was the son of man as well as the Son Of God. The rest of Code is paint-by-the-numbers corrupt officials and international assassins with a veneer of puzzle solving. This book ran on all cylinders. It should be requiring reading for all genre writers.
Bland is better. That’s my controversial idea for you today.
Now my words of warning. Like everything in life, popularity is a two-edged sword. If you change yourself to pursue the hottest trends – if you write a book you’ll hate because you hope to strike it rich – you might find you’ve created a dud franken book that nobody likes (not even you).
I believe in sincerity. I believe in being yourself. I returned to the world of The Frozen Sky because it has a million plotlines to explore. The story is literally as big as a moon. Also, I like books about smart people doing smart things. Many readers feel the same. They’re my audience, and I want to give them what they want. Of course I also want to expand my readership, which is a gamble. I’ve already braced myself for a new round of hate mail because the heroine is educated and willful. She’s based on my wife, an accomplished woman with a moral compass. She likes science. She’s frank about sex. The series is a virtual minefield sure to upset different people in different ways.
All I can suggest is a thick skin. Laugh at the nutjobs and enjoy your fans. Take the best lessons from both. Shrug off the rest.
If those sound like slogans, yes they are. I chant such mantras to myself when the crazies are making me crazier. You can’t please everyone, but absolutely you can improve your craft. What else is life except learning and growing? Find your niche, then widen it. Be brave. Work hard.
I’ve got another book to write.