Alternative Career Building through eBooks

This is the seventh in a series of essays on electronic publishing. You can see the previous entries by following these links:

Essay 1
Essay 2
Essay 3
Essay 4
Essay 5
Essay 6

Over the course of this series of essays, I have discussed a number of different ways that an author can produce work and distribute it directly, be it print or audio. The logical next step is to look at how these methods can be an alternative for building a literary career.

There are really two main traditional routes that an author takes to become established in the science fiction and fantasy genres. In the first, an author writes a lot of short fiction and slowly builds an in-industry reputation in the short fiction arena before turning to novels. In the second, the writer starts with novels and breaks into print without going through the short fiction phase. Both traditional methods work, and probably will continue to work for some time.

And the strategy is still legitimate. There sure seem to be more SFWA-eligible short fiction markets than ever before, thanks to the group allowing online-only publications that meet the criteria. Those publications on the SFWA list do get noticed.

And, some authors still manage to blindly stumble their way into success by starting with novels. Dani and Eytan Kollin had no idea what to do when they started writing The Unincorporated Man, and learned a lot about the publishing industry while stumbling their way into publication and ultimately a Prometheus Award for their first novel. I interviewed them on the last episode of NovyMIRror podcast, and they discuss this aspect of their emerging careers.

But then, there are the stories about people using alternative methods to gain an audience, and later, contracts with major publishers. John Scalzi began by blogging his novel, and the right person–a Tor editor–started reading. It launched a career that is still growing. And, Scalzi continues to blog daily, and his audience has grown to enviable proportions.

Scott Sigler, as I mentioned yesterday, started out by podcasting his novel, and grew his audience enough that publishers started taking notice of him. He has several print books out now, and is a New York Times bestselling author. Yet, he continues to produce his fiction in audio form. He still dances with the one who brought him to the dance.

But even authors who are already established have turned to electronic forms to enhance a career. Michael A. Stackpole is probably the best known advocate of electronic self-publishing, at least among those inside the genre. Dissatisfied with the results he got from New York, he took matters into his own hands by self-publishing backlist. Having good results with that, he now produces original material that he only sells electronically, while at the same time producing print work through traditional publishers despite giving them regular tongue-lashings.

But Stackpole is prolific. He makes his living as a writer and gives the same time and effort to his writing as other people put into their own regular jobs. Producing that quantity of material makes it possible for Stackpole to participate in that much diversification. He is enormously productive.

Stackpole’s influence on the evolving model of how to build a writing career in the new era cannot be disputed. He has taken heat from the traditionalists, yet is always called upon (or taken aside) when people want to know about electronic publishing. And he’s not done yet. Stackpole is always experimenting with new ways to drive traffic to his material and improve his visibility. The interested up-and-coming author would be well-served by following Stackpole’s blog.

Given those three examples of successful writing careers, the obvious question is how the emerging writer can learn from these successes. Whether history can regularly be repeated only time will tell. Still, each of these writers exploited new technology and the result was, in all cases, career enhancement.

I believe that participating in as many formats as possible can only improve a writing career. By making work available to as many people as possible, an author allows more people to find it. Letting people find an author’s fiction lets people try it, and ultimately buy it.

Simply cross-posting my blog to Twitter and Facebook boosted the daily average hit count of this blog, and I don’t even have a way of counting the facebook-only hits that don’t click through. My free non-fiction eBook-construction PDF (eBooks for the 21st-Century Author) still has a modest but steady download rate 5 months after it was posted.

eBooks can boost a career, just by virtue of making material more available. How much of a boost depends on the author and how the marketing end of things is handled. It still comes down to making people aware your work exists, whether that work is sitting on a bookstore shelf or waiting for somebody to click on a download link. After all, people don’t buy things they never encounter.

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