In late 2012 Hugh Howey was an unknown writer of science fiction, even to most dedicated science fiction readers. And yet he had sold over 250,000 books, optioned film rights to the legendary Ridley Scott, and agreed a six figure book deal with major publisher Simon & Schuster. All this before his dystopian sci-fi novel had even, in traditional terms, been published.
Howey has gone on to become the poster boy for a small but quickly growing band of sci-fi and fantasy authors who are independently publishing their own books, and making a small fortune in the process. These ‘indie authors’ are surfing the crest of a wave driven by the rise of the e-book, the smartphone and the Amazon Kindle. And the popularity of the sci-fi & fantasy genres is putting them at the cutting edge of the revolution.
Sci-fi and fantasy writers have always had an air of mystery. Men and women in high castles sharing their outlandish visions of other worlds. We know them by their attention catching names; Issac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville. Or the enigmatic middle initial employed to give that air of mystery; Arthur C Clarke. Robert A Heinlein. Iain M Banks. J R R Tolkien. Their books are proclaimed as winners of the Hugo or Nebula awards, as though the powers of the universe had decreed that you must read these books.
These mysterious authors and their wondrous stories fascinated a generation of young sci-fi and fantasy fans, growing up in the sprawling suburbs and grey cities of the mundane world. Through the decades sci-fi evolved as more than just B-Movies and pulp fiction, but as part of an escapist counter-culture. It could be hard to find. Books had to be hunted out in the back rooms of 2nd hand bookshops. Finding a stash of Analog or New Worlds magazines at a car boot sale in Bracknell was the geek equivalent of striking gold. And many sci-fi fans held the same dream, that one day it might be their middle initial gracing the cover of a sci-fi novel. A dream that, until very recently, seemed nigh on impossible.
And then came the internet.
In the land of the technically incompetent, the semi-HTML literate geek is king.
Sci-fi culture had already grown to embrace comics, role-playing games and video games, and a rapidly multiplying number of film and television franchises. But with the internet came the realisation that, even if you were the only sci-fi geek in your family, school or entire town, you were not alone. There were thousands and even millions of geeks, all over the world, and now they could talk to each other. And sci-fi fans didn’t just populate the internet with Star Trek sites, they were building the technology of the web itself itself. In the land of the technically incompetent, the semi-HTML literate geek is king. And geek culture took to its new status with gusto.
Sci-fi and fantasy writers now have a celebrity status that reaches far beyond sci-fi fandom. Neil Gaiman isn’t just a rockstar writer of kick-ass fantasy, he’s the leader of a tribe of 1.8 million Twitter followers that makes him one of the best known entertainment brands in the world. Cory Doctorow doesn’t just write groundbreaking visions of the near future, he’s influencing the world of today as a leading voice of tech culture. Being a sci-fi writer is now seriously cool, and seriously big business. And tens of thousands of people are after the job.
Until very recently, getting a gig as a sci-fi writer meant penetrating the labyrinthine world of sci-fi publishing. The major sci-fi imprints like Del Rey, Tor, Gollancz and Orbit have been gatekeeping what does or does not reach the shelves of major bookshops – and hence the imagination of most readers – for many decades. Some argue that those gatekeepers ensure quality in pursuit of creativity, others that they stifle diversity in pursuit of profits. The truth is probably equal parts of both. But the gatekeepers have lost control of the gate, and a mob of ambitious wannabe sci-fi writers are pushing their way through.
In early 2010 Amanda Hocking was a struggling, unpublished writer living in a tiny apartment in Minnesota when she chose to self publish one of her completed manuscripts. Amazon’s independent publishing platform Kindle Direct Publishing had then been active for just over two years. But the platform, which allows writers to self publish an ebook to anyone with a Kindle device for up to 70% royalty, was still unproven. Hocking uploaded her first book to the Kindle store, the Twilight inspired urban fantasy Switched, expecting only to earn a few hundred dollars to pay outstanding bills. Six months later Hocking had sold 150,00 copies of her Trylle trilogy, and is now estimated to have earned over $2.5M from Amazon ebook sales alone.
The time and discipline required to write a great book are still beyond all but a very few.
The roster of authors joining Amanda Hocking in the ‘Kindle Millionaires’ club has grown steadily. Fantasy author J.R.Rain has sold a reported 400,000 books through the store. Between them Tina Folsom’s 14 paranormal romances have sold over 300,000 copies. B V Larsen and H P Mallory, both prolific authors with dozens of novels for sale, have reported sales of over 200,00 copies each. Brutal economics underly the massive popularity of the Kindle platform with indie writers. With a 70% royalty, compared to as little as 5% offered by major publishers, writers stand to keep much more of the profits of their labour.
Tens of thousands of indie writers are now flooding the Amazon store, and its competitors; Apple iBooks and Kobo, with a tidal wave of indie published sci-fi books. A recent hunt for quality self-published sci-fi books conducted by The Guardian received over 800 recommendations, but found only 5 worthy of publicising to readers. Self-publishing an ebook is technically within the reach of almost anyone who wants their share of stardom, but the time and discipline required to write a great book are still beyond all but a very few.
But for those who can, indie publishing may now be the first choice for talented young writers. At least Hugh Howey believes so. “Self-publishing is the best way to launch a career.” Claims the worlds bestselling indie author. Rather than spend years whooing agents and editors, writers can now get their best work directly to readers. “Your books never go out of print. Both the ebook and the print on demand book will be available for decades. And you own your work forever.”
Howey’s words reflect the attitude of many indie writers, for whom self publishing is as much about taking and keeping control of their own creativity as it is about becoming the next Stephen King. But Howey is clear that in the age of indie publishing, it is readers who chose the sci-fi stars of tomorrow. “You will be responsible for connecting with readers, for promoting your works, for answering emails, for all the things that give your work a fighting chance. If you aren’t interested in doing these things, self-publishing is not the way to go.”
Originally published in SFX magazine.
Thanks to Hugh Howey for his contribution.
My Top 5 Picks of Indie Published Sci-Fi & Fantasy Novels
Wool by Hugh Howey
Mankind clings to survival in underground Silos, where dystopian government rules and justice is harsh. But is the world above all that it seems? Gritty storytelling built around a classic Hard SF concept.
Switched by Amanda Hocking
Wendy Everly is just an ordinary young woman, until she meets Finn Holmes and discovers her true royal heritage. Fans of Twilight will enjoy this urban fantasy saga.
Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan
Epic fantasy may have gone to the dark side, but Thief of Swords drags it back to the more light hearted and humorous side of sword & sorcery.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales
A group of astronauts marooned on the Moon, a forgotten Nazi artefact and a quest through parallel dimensions, all wrapped up in classic golden era sci-fi style. What more could you ask for?
The Vorrh by Brian Catling
Bakelite robots lie broken – their hard shells cracked by human desire – and an inquisitive Cyclops waits for his keeper and guardian, growing in all directions. A classic of weird fiction praised by the great Alan Moore himself.