Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

It shows you all the valley

It's been a watershed week. I've learned to do a lot of new and previously impossible things, which is good, because there's nothing like learning radically new skills for keeping the brain in shape. When I've decompressed a bit, I'll share a few stories with you. Right now, GOING GREY is finally out, meaning that it's either on sale already in the Kindle store or due out as a paperback next week, then as an iTunes book, and eventually as an Audible audiobook. So I'm switching back to another live job on my desk, which is a new comic series that'll be announced next week.

I had some near-disasters when the cover and interiors for GOING GREY didn't materialise, so I had to start from scratch a few days before the deadline and do it myself with the aid of a good buddy who cleaned up my HTML formatting and other technical messes after me. You know all those jobs I've had in all those different branches of the media over the decades? Well, now I'm glad that I had them, even if some of them made me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork at the time. All those print, design, and marketing skillz were dusted off and deployed. And I met my deadline, because I'm still an old journo at heart, and that's what journos do. It still feels primally satisfying to hit something on time no matter what.

When my techno-design-whizz buddy is ready to be outed, I'll name him so other authors wanting his services can get in touch. He needs to recover from my onslaught first. But he's good, and you'll want to hire him. Just remember that I saw him first and I call dibs.

The weird thing is that however frenzied the process became, it was still nowhere near the amount of hassle of a traditional publishing cycle working well. (And "well" is not the default for Trad Pub.) Indie publishing is actually enjoyable, even the bits that go wrong and need fixing, and, more to the point, it's utterly transparent. I'm going through something of a self-bashing phase at the moment, berating myself for not having jumped sooner. But it's not my more recent experiences that soured me, although they were the wake-up call that told me to get out from under before it was too late : it was looking back at everything that had been done to me since I was first published ten years ago.

A line from a song by the wonderful Clive James sums it up perfectly – it's the last hill that shows you all the valley. I realised that one way or another, I'd worked for all the Big Five, the huge media corporations* that dominate traditional publishing, and for the most part it was a less than pleasant experience, relieved only by finding that I had so many terrific readers. Over the next few weeks, I'll share a few stories that explain what I mean, and shed some light on things like "nurturing" and royalty statements. Traditional publishing is a broken business model, and it broke itself long before Amazon got big enough to challenge it.

So I'm now waiting for a box of trade paperbacks. You always get a box of author copies for a title. As they're part of a trad pub contract, i.e. part of the payment, I never turned them down even when my home began looking like a book warehouse, although the charity shops around here have done well out of it. Now my author copies are part of my business costs, so I won't despair about finding storage space for them. I suppose that was an epiphany on my indie publishing road.

Picking a trim size for a book – i.e. deciding how big it's going to be as an object – is pretty key to the reader experience. GOING GREY is almost the same dimensions as the trade paperback of MORTAL DICTATA, just slightly longer and a bit thicker, but not too big for comfortable handling for most people. How customers use things – books, games, utensils – is something that everyone who creates Stuff should consider first. How does your customer use your product? To put it another way, if they love a shampoo but can't open the cap, you've failed as a shampoo manufacturer even if the bottles are made by someone else. It's common sense. Remove barriers to use. That's the heart of all design and good interaction. It's also the heart of good business.

If people can only snatch minutes at a time to play games or read a book, writers can make it easier for them by dividing the content into smaller chunks; if they have long, tedious periods to fill, and they can't be seen sitting down and reading, or they drive long distances, then a nice long audiobook is ideal. You get the idea. Look at what ticks you off when you're using something and consider your own Stuff in that light.

Some writers might be appalled by the idea that usability can matter almost as much as the content, but I'm a storyteller, and that means I want to engage with an audience. I pay attention to whatever "delivery factors" help them enjoy my stuff rather than create a barrier. Right now the feedback I get is that my readers want a big world to immerse in and to get to know the characters, so I'll keep doing long books with long chapters that enable that.

Now that I've got no constraints with my fiction, though, I'll start looking at other formats for future work like serialisation, audio chapters, and so on. If it can be recorded or enshrined in a document file, it can be done and distributed. So let me know if there's a format you like and I'll take a look at doing fiction that might fit it.

Yeah, it's a brave new world, all right. I was just late struggling up that hill to see where it was.

(*Please don't pity big publishers because Amazon is eating their lunch. These aren't cute small presses living on handouts and arts grants, folks. They're part of multi-billion-dollar international corporations that also own news media, and the record profits they're making sure as hell don't go to the writers who create their goods for them. Judge the news you hear about publishing accordingly. Follow the money. Ask awkward questions.)