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Podcast Part 3: Pournelle On Ebooks

In part three of our four-part series of podcast interviews with science-fiction writer and <em>BYTE</em> institution Jerry Pournelle, he tells how to write bestsellers in the age of Internet publishing.

Daniel Dern

April 7, 2012

5 Min Read

But it has always been the case that promotion is as big a part of making a real success at writing as anything else. There is another side to that: you don't have to be a bestseller to make a decent living at this if you're in the right niche. The mid-list writer has never been treated well by publishers. The mid-list writer, the guy who's never going to be a bestseller, but who turns out a good book every couple of years, the problem with it is that in the old days, in order for somebody to buy that guy's book, they had to go to a bookstore wanting the book, because it wasn't being pushed at them. And it had to be on the shelf at the time. And the bookstore owner had to decide whether to keep two copies of, say, "The Whiffenpoof Song" or whatever it is on the shelf, and often it wouldn't be in the inventory.

Today, if you get that book up on Amazon, it's there forever. And if somebody tells somebody else, hey, you ought to go read "The Whiffenpoof," the guy can go over and the store is always open and the book is always available. So there is a means for mid-list writers to have a niche in this market that they never could have had before.

When I was president of SFWA, there were only 20 people in science fiction making a living at it. And that included me, [Larry] Niven, who was making what most people considered a living but who didn't have to live on what he was making out of science fiction. It included [Isaac] Asimov, who hadn't written a science fiction novel in 10 years, when I was president. That was 20 people in all the world making a living at science fiction. I would guess there are 100 now.

So in that sense, things are not as bad as they look. If you're a beginning writer, it's probably the same as it's always been. You have to find people who think your book is good, and get to those people and let them know it's available. That's not as hard now as it used to be. Things can go viral on Facebook, for that matter any place else. I have a daily journal that I do that has a fair number of subscribers, so that gives me a base for any new book that comes out. You just have to remember that if your book is under $10, and it's on Amazon, the royalty is 70%. That means you can get as much as five or six dollars per ebook that you sell. And Amazon sends it to you monthly, not on credible threat of lawsuit, which is what the old publishers used to do.

So you have this chance now of selling a hundred books a month, at seven or eight dollars. That's not a lot of money, but if you've got 10 of them, that's a fair amount for the old mid-list writer who wrote a few books every now and then, and lived off of faculty teas and speaking engagements and things.

There is a bigger place for the mid-list speciality writer who writes a certain kinds of story that appeals to a certain audience that there never was before. You don't have to have a big fan movement, but you do have to be able to find it and communicate with it. I'm going to leave that as an exercise for the reader. But it's possible.

DANIEL: I know, back when I wrote my Internet book [The Internet Guide For New Users, McGraw-Hill, 1994] 20 years ago, one of my favorite resources was a book, Marketing and Selling Your Book. It started by saying, "If you believe that your job is done when you write, 'The End,' you're not serious about this."

JERRY: Oh yeah, well, The Mote In God's Eye became a best-seller, and it did not get a big advance. It was a big advance for those days in science fiction--we got ten thousand dollars, from Simon & Schuster. But the way it became a bestseller wasn't from big promotion by the publisher. They didn't do a bad job of it. But what they didn't do, is because I had been in the space program, and because I had cooked astronauts in the Human Factors Lab, and done some of the war plans and done a lot of things in the space program, I could get on talk shows as a space expert rather than as a fiction writer. Because everybody in the world wants to be on a talk show. And every fiction writer in the world wants to, and the producers are tired of them. But if you can get on as something else, you can still talk about your book.

And I did that. Boy, in those days, I was on every coffeepot radio program in the country. I was on the Long John Nebel Show in New York. It was on at two in the morning. They first asked me to be on the Long John Nebel Show and I had to go to New York from California to do it. I asked my agent, I said, "Lurton [Blassingame], is that worth doing?" and he said, "Well, Jerry, you gotta understand, there's a lot of insomniacs who read books..." [LAUGHTER]

And boy was he right! I got on that show, they liked me on it, I interacted well with Long John and his wife Candy. I was on it several nights in a row, and our sales just spiked like crazy. And it got me on the Joey Bishop show, he happened to be listening to it, and told his producers to get me on it.

So you never know with publicity. You just have to take all the opportunities you can get. And you try to be interesting. That's easier to do when you're 30 years old, than it is when you're an old ghoul like me.

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Daniel Dern


Daniel P. Dern is an independent technology and business writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected]; his website, www.dern.com; or his technology blog, TryingTechnology.com

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