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Podcast Part 4: Pournelle On Using Multimedia To Sell Books

In the fourth and last installment of our podcast interviews, sci-fi writer and iconic BYTE columnist Jerry Pournelle talks about the multimedia promotion opportunities the Internet offers writers.

That's happening in publishing now. In ebooks, anybody in this room can afford essentially to get their books up. Or, as in my case, many of my old books, I don't myself put them online. Eleanor Wood, who is my agent, who is the successor to the Lurton Blassingame agency I started with, they sold those books in the first place, and I let them put them up. And she takes her 15% and sends me the rest.

And that works out very well. So [Lucifer's] Hammer, and The Mote in God's Eye, a number of our old books are up, but our agent took care of all the technical work. Now I did in fact proofread the ebook editions, and I am a better proofreader than they were, but they're doing it.

So the production side is easy for writers now. It's not hard at all to have a number of books or short works or anything else. What you then need to do is let people know it's there. And we went over that before.

As the technology improves, it becomes easier and easier to put production quality, cut scenes. I could, for instance, if I really wanted to, hire a couple of Hollywood actors--they're cheap, there's lots of them, they're waiting on tables. We could, if I really wanted to, with the resources of the LASFS [Los Angeles Science Fiction Society], we could put on scenes out of The Mote in God's Eye, complete with costumes and fairly decent actors, and do it all with equipment I have available here at Chaos Manor.

I've never done it, but I've often thought, wouldn't that help sell books, to have a reasonably good actress and a reasonably good actor from our local ... do scenes out of some of the books. I don't know. I'm getting old enough I'm not going to try it. But some author is going to exploit the capability. The technology is... there.

I'll give you another enhancement. David Gerrold has a series of interstellar stories, Star Wolf, the ships are very complicated. And they're hard to visualize. I think those books would profit enormously if David had the ability to do a virtual walk-through of that ship, so you could see where the various parts are, how they relate to each other. That wouldn't be beyond his capability, now.

I think some author is going to do that. You're going to have complicated scenes, and you're going to have a virtual spaceship. You can sit on the bridge and see what's going on during the battle. [David] Weber could probably do that very well, with some of his stories.

Maybe that's coming. It hasn't become popular, it hasn't happened much yet. But then we are only now getting a generation of young authors who are familiar with all this technology and who could use these dang computers the way I use a doorknob.

DANIEL: I do know there is a growing movement for authors to create video trailers for their books and post them.

JERRY: Video trailers for books I would think might well help sell them. They could go on Facebook and lots of people might see them, and people might see them and say, I'd like to read that book.

I think it may well be that that kind of thing is the means of the new publicity. And the technology is there. Everybody can now, for a few thousand dollars, have the ability to make at least short amounts of Internet video quality production videos and things.

Some people are going to be good at doing lectures. There are people who are making a living doing online lectures right now. I heard that there is a significant number of university students taking most of their courses online. I've been asked to teach constitutional law for one of the big ones. I'm not going to do it, I don't have the time or the energy. But a lot of that is in the air, too. I don't know where it's going. But it's going to be a very interesting next decade this way.

DANIEL: We have about five minutes left, so any more questions before we go to wrap up. Questions?

AUDIENCE: Jerry Pournelle has a uniquely, perhaps diversified background of being an expert in lots of different things. What fields does Jerry believe would be good to be in, before you become a science fiction writer?

JERRY: It's a very good question. I sort of lucked into it. My first professional job was as an aviation psychologist for the Boeing company. I have a masters' degree, and was working on a doctorate at Boeing in the experimental. And Boeing needed somebody to help conduct a bunch of human factors experiments, and I did that.

But the peculiar nature of my psychology degree was that Hal Horst, who was my advisor, required us to take higher math from the math department--not the garbage that's taught in the social science department, statistics and math, but the real thing--probability theory, operations research, that sort of thing. And I ended up as a so-called systems analyst. A systems analyst is a person who knows less and less about more and more, until he knows nothing about everything in the world.

And I would say, that kind of generalist education--until I started writing for a living, I made more money out of my advanced calculus course than out of any single thing I studied in school. And interestingly, because I was in the operation research business, I got to look at anything. That's why I ended up as the editor of Project 75, because it was a generalist study, it was about everything we knew about ballistic missiles. And they wanted somebody who had some abilities in technology. But they weren't looking for a technology engineer, they were looking for somebody who could evaluate all this stuff.

I notice one of the exciting new writers recently, at least one that I like, is Commander Henry, who was a ship driver in the navy until he retired. That's a pretty good background. Larry Niven's a mathematician by trade, or at least by degree. Asimov was a biologist. Fred Pohl had no college at all, but he was a weather charter for the Air Force, learned a lot about scientific method and methodologies during World War II. Vernor Vinge is a professor of mathematics.

So you can look at kinds of writers you'd like to be, and see what their background is, is maybe the right answer to that question. Otherwise I don't have the answer. If you're looking for the field that is going to be the most exciting in terms of what it accomplishes in terms of the next few decades, it's likely to be biology.

DANIEL: And they're going to give us the 'You're Done' signal in a minute. So, Jerry, is there anything else you'd like to add as we wrap up? Anything else you'd like to say that I didn't ask the right question for?

JERRY: No, I thought you did a great job. [Laughter.] Thank you. I don't know how many of you there are, but thank you for coming, and listening to an old guy with a bad cold trying to make sense at this hour of the morning. It's a little later for you than it is for me, I guess. And thank you all for coming.

DANIEL: Thanks again, Jerry.

[APPLAUSE]

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