Painful Lessons in Publishing

A more official word will be going out soon, but it looks like we’re cancelling the Outliers series for good.

The fact that it was ever made at all is something of a small miracle. Five authors putting together a world of stories and characters, each shared and culminating towards a greater epic? That’s no small feat. Yet even before founding Thunderbird Studios, we had a publisher who backed out. This was early 2016, and the small press market seemed to be in a real flux. So, I started an LLC, grabbed some ISBNs and got to work with Manuel.

To help promote it, we even put together a primer, Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, that was regularly given away for free. What threw us for a loop was that the primer seemed to do pretty great. The shorter length plus the art helped us quickly reap ten very positive reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

It looked like a really promising start for us.

Then we published the first volume of five novellas.

And it did not sell.

That was a year ago. We blamed some of it on the election upset last year and kept trying to turn it around. Facebook advertising, reaching out to folks directly, trying to get reviews. We had almost 250 followers on Facebook and several groups we could tap for more, and a few more on Twitter. We had our own personal networks. And we even launched our own product site, backed with freebies. But none of this helped.

Ask me why and I can think of a dozen reasons. Maybe more.

We really fought against labeling it as “superheroes,” focusing more and more on the science fiction elements. We dived into more grounded concerns, a formula that involved adding incredible talented people to say… the nursing profession, government bureaucracy, crime and law enforcement, the plight of the poor, and market manipulation. There were even a few modern day political points, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police being required to use cameras.

These weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary folks who could do something unique, and the world itself was reacting instead of the other way around.

We had serious and lasting impacts from our antics. The final story of Outliers: 2016 involved a sizable chunk of New York burning down. In future volumes, that section of the city is still very gone. And the politics of that event were still being debated. Less laser beam eyes and more modern cloak and dagger.

But I guess people took one glance, saw superheroes and didn’t look again.

What’s wrong with superheroes? Nothing, unless you’re not Marvel or maybe DC. Jon called it when he pointed out that the glutted market (especially with three companies using Marvel’s properties) makes anything one does seem derivative. Particularly when Fox came out with The Gifted, one of several in-universe terms we used to describe our Outlier characters. He described it as “a kick in the teeth.”

And speaking of terminology, Outliers was not a great choice to call our series. Search for it and the first thing you’ll discover is the book by Malcolm Gladwell. Keep digging and you’ll find The Outliers, a novel by Kimberly McCreight that was released earlier in 2016. Our efforts were a painful third.

Another big sign, one I should have watched for, was that the only people who ever seemed excited for Outliers were other authors and writers. Conversations about it drifted towards, “Can I pitch something for that?”

Yet most of them backed away when they realized that Outliers called for no small amount of homework. We weren’t big on “limitless powers,” and frequently nerfed what our protagonists could do. There were factions to develop, and sharing characters meant learning about their backstories, abilities, relationships and philosophy. Basically, every contributor was an encyclopedia in a series. And the wiki we developed to hold all this information got pretty damn big.

Joining us was buying into a creative contract. And when they realized that meant limitations, they seemed to lose interest.

In the past, a few people who were cross with me called prior works failures. I always shrugged. Those efforts never bothered me because they were trial and error, and I was always upfront about that. They were projects of learning that actually did go on to make several dozen sales. In the case of Far Worldsa couple of hundred.

But Outliers was a true failure. It sucked because most people remained silent on the matter. Folks said that they would review it, then they flaked. Not only friends but family just couldn’t be bothered. No one wanted to be honest and say, “Yeah, cool. Listen, I’m not really interested in reading that. But good luck.”

Not loved, not hated. At best, unknown. At worst, no one cared. And we’re left humbled hard by that truth as we leave our work to be trampled into dust by time.

Sigh…

…Anyway. The Outliers site is shutting down in a few days. The primer is coming off market too, and we’ll probably be retiring our social media outlets as well.

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Random Thoughts

It’s Friday so I thought I would unwind with a few off-the-cuff thoughts on events as of late.

First, I’ve been getting started on the new novels I’ve always wanted to write. There is something new in the works for The Banner Saga. I can’t talk about it too much— the ink’s not dry and I’m leaving room for changes, but it is about 20% complete. This particular work isn’t a sequel to The Gift of Hadrborg, but that door isn’t close either.

I’ve also gotten started on the research for another, original title… it has no name, but it is a horror novel with a unique setting. It’s been years since I’ve written in the genre, and my approach pretty offbeat. Less gore, zombies, and bodily horror. More existentialism, psychology and ghosts.

Still, I must admit to being apprehensive: there’s a great section in Writer’s Digest that outlines dozens of potential literary agents. The problem is that the majority of them flat out say that they’re just not interested in horror.

Genre fiction is generally stiff-armed, but horror is singled out. I imagine it has the same problems other genres do: rehashing of old tropes, the same recycled ideas. Likewise, there’s also the risk that a submitted novel is just “murder porn” or a thinly veiled revenge piece (which can open the door to some real problems).

And then there’s misunderstanding about what attracts people to horror. The fans do tend to congregate around particular communities, and they have their own views about what’s good and not. The problem is it can be hard to tell what’s good-good and what’s so-bad-it’s-good. Is a line truly terrible or is it purple prose? Is it unreadable, or by some occult hand would it become celebrated and cherished? That’s a heavy question for an agent.

Agent hunting is a sign that I’m really starting to “get serious” about publishing. Sure, many small and medium sized publishers are happy to host the open door submissions policy. But lately there seems to be backtracking from the practice, likely as they discovered the deluge wasn’t worth it. Convincing one person your book can sell is often the right first step.

 

Thunderbird Studios Now Live

thunderbird-bg_04You may have noticed my drop of output here. That’s because I’ve divided my personal blog from all semi-professional efforts like reviews and articles. Where have they gone?

Thunderbird Studios.

I’ve been dreaming about this for a few years now. Growing frustrated with the small press market, I wanted to do something bigger, something greater. But I also realized that we don’t need another company pumping out half a dozen titles a year. They needed more of a marketing answer.

I highly recommend you follow Thunderbird on Twitter or Facebook. If you’re a reader, check out the interviews and expect more in the next few months, or take a gander at the various reviews to look into something you like. And if you’re a writer, keep an eye out for the upcoming submissions window.

But yeah, I’m not giving up the blog just yet. But it would just be for my personal thoughts or the occasional book announcements these days.

La La Land and the Winter Blockbuster

la-la-landI decided to hold off on writing up the last of my New York trip to discuss the movies, especially after seeing La La Land last Sunday night.

December is usually a crowded month as many directors pursue an Academy Award. Most of these films aren’t even that memorable; often flawlessly acted but without compelling scripts or interesting cinematography. Anything between science fiction and fantasy, or based on comics or pulp, rarely escape the technical awards category.

The most common winners (or high-reaching nominees) tend to fall into two categories. The first are the period dramas or the “based on true events” winners such as The King’s Speech, SpotlightArgo and 12 Years a Slaveas though Hollywood were trying to do important work by recording their vision of history. 

The second type however, is anything involving the struggling artist. In the last six years: The ArtistHugoBirdmanBlack Swan, and arguably Damien Chazelle’s prior film Whiplash. You can guess under which category this film falls.

Hence there’s little question that La La Land is a contender. Probably even the winner unless Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea are better than we realize (admittedly I’ve yet to see them), or if the academy finally feels this is the year to break ranks and put sci-fi film Arrival forward (unlikely but one can dream).

Like the Now Kiss! meme, producers have seen fit to pair Emma Stone with Ryan Gosling again (prior pairings include Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) in a love letter to the whimsy of old movies, musicals and dance numbers. Gosling is Sebastian, a musician determined to reclaim his Jazz club after his last venture failed. Mia, portrayed by Stone, is a barista and aspiring actress who has yet to find her first big break.

Because it’s determined to pay respects to many facets of these gone-but-not-forgotten era performance pieces, La La Land stays away from any mundane formulas. Sometimes you get a tap dance routine almost out of the blue, sometimes it’s more a solo that tells a/the story in real time, while duet numbers tend to be these flights of fantasy that stretch a few seconds into three minutes of daydreams. As you can imagine, the latter category lends itself to romantic scenes of Venetian waltzes across the stars or fast paced montages through Paris and what could be. Cinematic care was taken to ease the audience into these moments: too long and the film risked going well over its two-hour length, too fast and it risked being jarring or unintentionally hilarious.

The former point about its running time was probably a factor in its somewhat abrupt leap to the ending. The movie would have been ripe to have been split into two parts (not sequels), as I felt somewhat cheated in this investment in the characters as a pair. The storyteller in me wants the whole.

But there’s no denying that this is an exceptional piece of movie making that everyone should see, even if musicals aren’t their normal fare. Damien Chazelle put genuine, hard effort into La La Land where as most other directors feel like they’re just doing the rounds; creating what they think the academy wants, relying heavily on the skills of their actors while crossing their fingers and hoping that the rest of the competition isn’t trying.

But the funny thing is, I’m not certain as many directors and studios followed that formula this year at all, with a dearth of dramatic movies and more “Winter Blockbusters.”

Doctor Strangerogue-one, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Assassin’s Creed and of course Rogue One (no spoilers, I have yet to see it). The strange thing is there were signs that maybe audiences preferred more action and adventure films in the colder months as far back as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I suspect Hollywood dismissed the sign because of the existing popularity of Tolkien’s magnum opus. At least until one Mr. Eastwood made a movie about one American Sniperand Hollywood took notice of both the critical respectability and financial success that was.

And indeed, while most of these movies are franchises, they were still considered moderate risks: no one was exactly clamoring Marvel for Doctor Strange before, but we quickly loved it afterwards. Fantastic Beasts finally escapes the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort to tell its own great story. Assassin’s Creed is based on a video game (and reviews suggest it will fare no better than usual) while Rogue One is the first Star Wars film independent of the regular episodes.

But the numbers certainly suggest we could use hot action in the colder months. Maybe January of 2018 will see more interesting films than the first month of the year often gets.

Book Magic

outliers-volume-1It’s been a long and very exhausting two months, but we finished it at last. Outliers: 2016 is now available in paperback. Forthcoming posts on the Outlier’s main site will cover more about the actual content of the series. I’m more drawn to the technical how.

Usually when people find out about publications I do, they approach with “hey, I got a story of my own.” I’m sympathetic to people who want to tell stories, but many personal experiences have educated me in the difficulties in producing quality books. I’m certainly not trying to crush anyone’s dreams, but I do think many folks underestimate the incredible amount of labor it takes to get to print.

I’ve come to suspect that events like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) have become more part of the problem than the solution. The event tends to promote an erroneous idea that writing a novel is easy. The timing creates a spike in material that builds slush mountains (not piles) at larger publishers, or hemorrhaging on Amazon and other self-published distributors throughout the winter.

Amazon and other services who promote NaNoWriMo do not care how much poor quality material is produced because even if only a few copies are sold to the author’s immediate family, they still make a profit. Or else they would pull the plug so fast, you’d wake up the next morning to discover indie publishing all but died overnight.

Instead, a lot of what goes into publishing is primarily about 1,001 magic tricks, such that readers never know, never spare a thought to every minor detail. To borrow from Christopher Priest…

The Pledge. 

Something ordinary, seemingly a book. These days, for a story to be exceedingly original is very rare, such that the description will sound similar to what others have written. This is fine, but there are unsaid expectations: hopes of proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, page numbers, etc, etc, etc.

The strange thing is that the more there are of these simple but professional elements, the more ordinary is the book in question. This is because of our expectations caused by prior generations of book publishing. And by applying these elements, we would not otherwise be distracted from…

The Turn. 

The pledge is the responsibility of the formatters and editors, to convince us of something grounded. But the turn, the second act in which an ordinary story does something extraordinary, that is up to the writer. The turn is the point where true magic is unveiled, when we are shown emotions that we didn’t expect to feel from reading.

Sometimes, that is to experience something in writing that we wish for ourselves.
Sometimes, that is to discover and explore an idea we had never considered.
Sometimes, that is the twists and turns of plots that subverted our expectations.

It is the most important magic, for it conjures something we never thought we could think or feel. And that is why we read until…

The Prestige.

All stories end. The extraordinary becomes ordinary again, and people have to go back to reality. Such is the demand of the natural universe.

But if the spell is good, then the magic will travel from the reader’s mind to their mouth. Emotions always want an outlet, or such we wouldn’t bother writing to begin with. And it is the goal to create something worth discussing, so that the magic can spread and live on. Thus the prestige is left to neither editor or writer, but the reader. They have to want to believe in that magic.

That’s what goes into creating a story. And I suspect, that’s more than most expected to weave.

Pardon the Life Interruptions

“Signal to noise is $%#^ed right now,” Alec said today, absolutely nailing the latest temporary problem.

Advertising our newest release has been put on pause until after Tuesday. The presidential election in the US and the rulings regarding the UK’s Brexit have been occupied the headlines, Twitter and Facebook in some nightmarish, endless loop.

coahtrMajor news outlets and comedy shows aren’t the only ones who have been benefiting. My Facebook feed is plagued with dozens of tiny political outlets and blogs on both sides, spewing quintessential mendacity and propaganda. Trenders fall into two categories: those who acknowledge the lie but fear the mentioned candidate winning, and intense, narrow-pupil zealots who are best avoided. Pondering and vexations as to the weaknesses of democracy often follow in their wake, to no meaningful conclusions.

In such times, relaxation is in order to relieve the body of stress.

Titanfall 2 with my brother offers some relief, as was the very impressive Doctor Strange. Although I enjoyed the movie as well as Netflix’s Luke Cage, my friend Adam nailed it when he said he was “Marveled out” for the rest of the year. While Marvel’s properties never fail to entertain, there does seem to be a saturation point where people need a break from even extraordinary characters, though interest often resurrects after a few months.

The entertainment industry is fickle as such. Entire genres can be tired out and placed in the cooler until such a time that they are dusted off to try again. Westerns for example, particularly those by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, gave us some of the best films throughout the 60s and early 70s until finally dying down. Perhaps twice a decade, the genre tried again, resulting in flicks like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. But we are possibly on the cusp of a renaissance in other media, such as with HBO’s Westworld and the upcoming Red Dead Redemption title by Rockstar Games.

doctor-strangeStill, the Marvel property is far from dead, despite the doom-and-gloom entertainment articles which are increasing in frequency and almost always disproved. While I doubt that superhero films will become inert as a genre for quite a while, there’s definitely a limit to how much people can and do enjoy at one time. Still, Doctor Strange helps by opening the door to the mystical elements of Marvel’s properties, likely giving Marvel’s properties more longevity.

But perhaps most telling… if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does well, the market will learn of audience’s appetite for urban fantasy. If not, then Doctor Strange may have found people’s limits for magic on the big screen. And if the former is not a sign that people want to escape from reality for a while, I don’t know what is. So pay attention: you may learn a spell to conjure a fortune.

Franchises and Stuff

There’s a degree of palpable anxiety in the air.

The release date of the new Outliers volume is fast approaching and we’re perhaps 85% the way to complete. Much of what’s left is primarily grunt work: formatting, administrative, distributive. Being an editor for the project has me weighing in on techniques and methods to improve my writers’ skills. A great deal of the process boils down to something like this:

Step 1: The writer is tired and not as stoked because their creative energy was invested in writing the synopsis. They start writing.

Step 2: In the rush to finish it (and get to mentally rest), the writer blindly cranks out the first draft. The draft is never great, because in their haste, they:

  • overlook redundant sentences or even whole paragraphs
  • misuse form/from, pubic/public and other spell checker-immune horrors
  • forget to add a somewhere (hint: reread that)
  • use the same words, phrases and grammatical approaches too often
  • leave scenes too flat, or include an additional scene that doesn’t add much (I’m raising my hand on that latter point)
  • use too many words to superfluously describe something technically
  • or describe a technical matter badly
  • have POV errors galore
  • write plot holes

Step 3: Editor receives draft. Pretends he’s a proofreader and issues minor edits. Smiles and pats everyone on the back. Yay! Good job!

Step 4: …Editor suddenly remembers he’s an editor and the publisher. Transforms into Mr. Asshyde and starts tearing into the drafts. Process involves:

  • staring with total disbelief at a scene involving software security or medical operations that even a Hollywood writer would laugh at
  • researching appropriate details about said technical matters and rewriting section
  • wondering why the last two hours were blown making one single page look correct
  • cussing such profanity that would make a sailor blush
  • pondering what happened to that massive wound the main character received just one minute ago
  • privately wishing your own stories received this degree of abusive love
  • stopping pronoun juggling
  • consoling yourself with alcohol because you aren’t getting paid extra for this
  • finishing the last page and firing it to the writer, while finally understanding every story rejection you’ve personally ever received

Step 5: Editor wonders why people hate him.

I feel it takes frank honesty to transform a story one notch better than what it was. And I admit that fear is powering many of my decisions: if the series isn’t addictive, people will put it down. Great writing should be smooth, balanced between the eye opening and the jaw dropping, and leave readers hungry for more.

If your audience stops reading, they won’t talk about it. And that kind of silence is death.

And this is a factor that’s going to get tougher for me, because I have rapport with the five guys I’m working alongside. Outliers is a shared-universe, not another book series. Generally authors rarely allow others to develop in their literary universes, but the franchise nature changes the dynamic considerably.

Fellow authors whom I show our releases to swiftly pop the question, “Can I submit to this? When’s the open submission window?” And the reason I cannot give direct answers is because there’s a vision, a direction that the series is going.

Outliers is a road, and I hesitate because any writers joining us for the journey have to be prepared. Some are being readied even now, others are coming in time.