Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Too real, too soon

I've had a few questions arising from the think piece I did for io9 this week on indie publishing, so this seems to be the best place to address them.

One thing that I didn't go into is the curse of the Real World Book. I've had many stories get overtaken by real world events. It's a particular curse for journalists who also write fiction (as opposed to journalists who write fiction labelled "news") because we're really, really skilled at extrapolation. Give us a scenario, and we can crunch all the variables around it like a mainframe to come up with a likely next move. It's based heavily on the data sets of experience, i.e. the older you get and the more you see as a journo, the more likely you are to predict things, and not in a Nostradamus kind of way. On a smaller scale, it's the same kind of analysis that enables me to create characters. So, multiplying characters together and factoring in all kinds of stuff, a news hack of the old school can make a reasonable stab at what's coming next – not enough to play the stock market with huge success, alas, but enough to say, "Bloody well told you so."

Anyway, when you're writing a novel, and you're linking significant parts of the plot into the real world around us, you run the risk of some real human being in the real world doing stuff that blows your book. Everyone's heard the story about the bloke whose novel about Bin Laden (alive) came out or was due out around the same time that the bearded chap met his end at the hands of SEAL Team 6. That's every writer's nightmare. Well, among several events that got in the way of Going Grey was the Snowden revelations. And the sound of ripping paper, or at least delete keys, was heard in the land.

There's a fine balance between writing the most realistic book you can and making yourself a hostage to fortune. There's also the curse of the politically logical: you sit down, look at a scenario in the world, and think: "What if that government reacted like this? And then what if X did Y, and Z responded by...?" It's a predictive habit. I believe it's one of the reasons why "formative causation" seems to be alive and well among journalists. One slow news day, you'll be sitting in the newsroom, trying to think of a story to follow up to fill the void, and you suddenly get the urge to make a few phone calls and check out the latest on a story that you filed maybe a year ago. It's a cold case, a dead story, but a follow-up is a follow-up, so you think it'll be fresh because nobody else is thinking what you're thinking.

But as soon as you make your first call, the spokesman or contact on the other end says, "You're the sixth reporter today to ask me that. What's started you all off? Is there something I don't know?"

It happened to me so often that I was pretty sure it wasn't random. I don't think it was paranormal weirdness or a collective unconscious, either, but I do think that journos read microscopic, subliminal signs all around them, they learn to read them in the same way, and then, when they find themselves in a situation where a number of factors occur at the same time, they all have the same response – to pick up the phone and find out what happened to Joe Bloggs.

Anyway, the point is that when we come to write fiction, as quite a few old hacks do, we tend to extrapolate real world events in such a way that we end up looking clairvoyant, and usually at the most inconvenient time. The relevance to indie publishing is that once I've finished writing and editing a book, I can get it through my own production system and on sale in a day, provided I get stuck in and don't get distracted. Yes, one day. Not one week: one day. Traditional publishing can get books out very fast if it really has to, which is normally real world memoir stuff rather than fiction, but we're still talking weeks or months even when they're going flat-out. The usual cycle for fiction is now often eighteen months, even two years. There are reasons for this, part of which is the practice of having to sell titles into the bookstores that now have two sales "seasons" rather than three, according to a sales-savvy editor I know, but it still means that writers whose stuff rests on real scenarios are left sweating all that time, hoping that they don't get caught by external events.

So once I've written a novel and it's ready to roll, I can get it on sale immediately. I can do the sequel as soon afterwards as I please – I don't have to worry about the publisher's catalogue or the sales team selling the book into a chain that has its own schedules geared to a much longer timescale. If I've written enough to publish an entire series in a year, six* books or more, then I don't have to factor in how long the books will take the publisher to feed out into the market, or having too many titles out at once. It's just not relevant when the titles will go on sale online and will always be on the virtual shelves as long as I want them to be, so that readers can work through them as fast or as slowly as they want.

And that's a really significant advantage that indie authors – and small publishers, who can be equally agile – have over traditional big publishing companies. I won't get into why having a critical mass of titles for sale helps increase sales, but it's a factor in visibility and building a readership. But for writers who sail perilously close to the disruptive potential of the world actually doing stuff that messes up their story, getting to market fast is a life saver.

(*No. Just no. I'm too old and tired now. But I'll keep taking the vitamin C and see how far I get.)