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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 <em>BYTE</em> columnist Jerry Pournelle talks about the multimedia promotion opportunities the Internet offers writers.

Daniel Dern

April 7, 2012

11 Min Read

From the Boskone 49 science fiction convention BYTE's Daniel Dern interviewed famed science fiction author and BYTE veteran Jerry Pournelle. In this fourth and final podcast segment, Jerry talks about the value of editors, the multimedia possibilities of advertising books and short stories on the Internet, and the best fields of study for prospective science-fiction authors.

Click on the graphic below to listen to the podcast. Keep reading for the full transcript.

DANIEL: We'll take some more questions from the audience. I'll repeat them into the mike to make sure Jerry can hear. Questions writing or otherwise, science fiction...

JERRY: I'm sorry, I'm not hearing you.

DANIEL: We're going to see if anyone in the audience has questions. I'll repeat them. Hands? Sir.

AUDIENCE: What technology that's come out recently that you never saw coming?

DANIEL: The question is, can you name any technologies that came out recently that you didn't see coming?

JERRY: I don't think of any. After all, I did talk about this publishing revolution back in a book called A Step Farther Out, which I wrote from my columns when I was science columnist for Galaxy in the 70s.

And I wrote that there would be these information utilities, and as I remember the way I put it, authors will put their book up in the information utility and the reader will read it. And the royalty will go from his bank account to mine, and where's the need for that blood-sucking publisher? [Laughter]

It turns out that there is a need for that blood-sucking publisher, and it's a need that most authors don't foresee, which is the editing function. That's still the one thing that editors do that authors generally can't. It doesn't mean authors can't find a way around it. Some of them are married to good editors. Niven and I edit each other, which is good, because Larry and I are close enough friends that if he writes something I don't like, I can tell him, "That stinks," and if I write something he doesn't like, which is more often, he'd say, "You can't say it that way, that's stupid."

And we don't mind doing that, because we know it improves the book.

If you can find a partner who is willing to tell you when you write something that sucks, hang onto them. Because editing is probably the one thing that publishers used to do that you don't get in self-publishing.

I have to say, I saw most of this world, although not the consequences of the technologies, quite a long time ago. They're mostly in A Step Farther Out, which I wrote, published, what, in '83, '84. The world is not a terribly surprising place any more. That I can say again, because after all, I did spend 20 years as probably the best known technology columnist in the business and I had people like Mr. Dern and the Peterboro staff, lots of people helping me understand that world. Nowadays I don't have that big support outfit. So I'm not so dead sure...

Did I see anything that surprised me? Probably we're further along in biology than I thought we would be by this time back in the eighties and nineties. But it no longer surprises me. With DNA sequencing, very little we can do in biology should surprise you now.

DANIEL: Next question... sir?

AUDIENCE: Are you surprised with the promise of different ways of telling stories with the Internet, that has regressed back to the linear printed-only version?

DANIEL: Given that the Internet and multimedia offer a lot of ways for writers or authors to tell stories and present them, are you surprised that we are still mostly in the linear read-it-in-this-order text, etc? Is that a fair paraphrase? As opposed to hypertext, "choose your adventure," we don't seem to have a lot of those compared to things that could just be presented as books.

JERRY: That is a very interesting thing to think about, and I have given it considerable thought. I used to think that that would be more what I would call enhanced books, that when electronic publishing came out, there would be more in the way of maps, diagrams, perhaps photographs, authors might even have friends dress up in costume so they could get a picture of what they thought their characters ought to look like. That sort of thing doesn't seem to be happening. But it may.

After all, the reason... there used to be people known known as public stenographers, because most people couldn't read, and they couldn't write. And a lot of early books were dictated. It's not known whether St. Paul could read, he dictated all his books, we do know that. Over time, reading became common, everybody could read and write, and you had the era where the amateur writer suddenly became rich and famous. Charles Dickens being a good example of such things.

The technology allows the writer to write, that is, to get his words on paper, without any expertise of other people involved. Now we are moving from that. The music industry has taken that step, it is now possible for any artist group in music to have the equivalent of what used to be a million-dollar sound studio in their garage. You just need to take the trouble to put up the sound-dampening stuff. The electronics are well under $20,000, and any garage band can afford the mechanism for doing really good production-quality music.

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.


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About the Author(s)

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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