Tomorrow, Tuesday 6th October 2015, sees the publication of my second novel If Pigs Could Fly (Buy on Amazon UK | Buy on Amazon US), by my own imprint Wild Jester Press. It’s been a long journey and I thought now might be a good moment to share some of what I’ve experienced along that journey, and what I’ve learned.
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Nearly eight years ago, my first novel, Game Night, was published, under a sort of hybrid small/self publishing model. My very good friend James Wallis published the book via his gaming company Magnum Opus Press, but the product (editing, cover, typesetting etc) and the marketing (publicity, posters, sales at conventions etc) were both down to me. Game Night was moderately successful, achieving something like 1700 sales in paperback in the couple of years following its launch, but in many ways, I think it was just a bit ahead of its time.
Back in 2007, e-books were just getting started, and Game Night was printed in paperback format only. (I literally recall any conversations in which anyone suggested me printing an electronic version). Social media was also in its infancy; I didn’t join Twitter until well over a year after Game Night’s publication. Game Night achieved some initial success, with an ENnie nomination and some stunning reviews, but then essentially… stalled. I did do a Kindle release some years later, but by then the momentum had gone.
Meanwhile, I was working on my second novel, and had hit the quoted-to-the-point of cliché but nonetheless true problem of “second album syndrome”. When I wrote Game Night I’d been riffing on the gaming humour I’d employed in my gaming webzine Critical Miss. I won’t say that writing the novel was easy, but I was in my comfort zone, in a niche with which I was familiar. For the second novel, I wanted, and felt I needed, to break out of that niche in order to reach a wider audience, and frankly, I struggled.
I started an offbeat fantasy, grew discouraged in that after 60,000 words, wrote a 100,000 word time travel novel that failed to attract any agent interest, and then eventually around 2010 or 20011, started work on the novel that would become If Pigs Could Fly. During all of this, my dream was still to be a conventionally published author. I’d had enough of trying to sell my own book. I don’t think Game Night was a failure by any means, but emotionally, it felt like one.
Along the way, I’d gone from a gaming background, where “indie publishing” was the norm, to a literary one, in which self-publishing was regarded with pity at best, and scorn at worse. I wanted to go to conventions like Eastercon wearing the reassuring status of a “published author”. I’d had enough of feeling like a pathetic wannabe, trying to be something he wasn’t, fearful of the heads being secretly shaken behind him. (I’m sure this never happened, and I’m sure no-one ever felt that way towards me. But it was how I felt, and once feelings like that get a hold of your insecurities it’s hard to banish them.)
Incidents like the one I described in a blog post from 2009, didn’t help of course:
The Big Name SF Author
I was in the audience for a panel supposedly about writing courses. For the first ten minutes or so, the four panelists managed to largely contain themselves to merely being mildly smug and self-congratulatory about the courses they’d run or attended, but then for no particularly compelling reason the big name SF author segued sideways into a long, sustained, mean-spirited and frankly vicious attack on the self-publishing industry and self-published authors, with the former being described as “evil” and the latter being described as angry, socially dysfunctional individuals with an inability to take criticism, a burning belief that they were right and that everyone else in the world was wrong, and a fanatical desire to prove the rightness of that latter conviction through the successful self-publishing of their novel.
(Midway through this, he did backtrack slightly, and concede that self-publishing firms weren’t actually evil…)
As you can no-doubt guess from the way in which I’ve described it, I was somewhat enraged both by what he said, and by the cold viciousness in which he chose to say it. I’m not saying that he’ll remain at the bottom of my “writers, personal opinion of” chart for ever, but I’d advise anyone wishing to seize that bottom place from him to begin their interaction with me by punching me hard in the face if they wish to have a fighting chance, such is the degree to which I’m still outraged by what he said.
And finally, now that he’s made me aware of just how much prejudice there is against self-published books in the publishing industry, I now always feel compelled to point out that my own novel ended up being small-press published rather than self-published. This is of course the same moral cowardice that leads people to begin attacks on homophobia with the line, “I’m not gay myself, but…”, and yes, it does leave me feeling similarly disappointed in myself.
In pursuit of this dream, I was attending various “How to get an agent / how to get published” type panels at this point. Now Game Night used to get many quotes and reviews of the following sort (emphasis mine, now, and please feel free to skim over them):
“Game Night, the debut novel by Jonny Nexus, is a work of absolute genius, and is definitely ranked as one of the most fun and enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time, and in my opinion is at least as witty as the likes of Terry Pratchett. ”
“Reviews of this book have claimed that it has an air of Discworld about it. I’d agree with that, especially Pratchett’s early work; its plot is similarly chaotic and the comedic style is similar.”
“A Pratchet-esque debut novel of gods, roleplaying, and game-night kerfuffles … Buy Game Night. It’s a fun, fresh, irreverent read that’ll ring true to any gamer even if, unlike the protagonists, you happen not to be a god.”
“Game Night is on my top 5 books of all time, and that list includes such celebs as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Jonny Nexus is hilarious!”
“I issued more laughs from reading Game Night than I do from an average Pratchett novel… Clash of The Titans meets Discworld, neatly blended with a little Red Dwarfism.”
“Start with a generous helping of Terry Prachett, add a dash of Douglas Adams, a pinch of Christopher Moore and season heavily with Dead Gentlemen’s Gamers. This is one of those few books that I actually laughed out loud when I read it. All in all, it’s a fun look at life around the gaming table through the eyes of a group of slightly dysfunctional gods.”
“Most humour books try to be novels-with-jokes, if you will. As such, aren’t as funny as say, sketch comedies which are simply a series of great jokes run together. The last novel I read that was devoted to just being a string of comedy sketches was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (taken of course, from a radio show that was a series of sketches run together). Hitchhikers was, as a result, the funniest novel I’ve ever read, and the only one that has ever made laugh out-loud. Until, that is, Game Night came along.”
All those people comparing my writing to my heroes Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett: good thing? Nope. Bad thing. Bad, bad thing. As I described in a blog post written in 2011:
…an agent who, in a very thoughtful, constructive and helpful email… turned me down. Mainly this was due to my writing not setting him on fire. That’s fine. Writing is, as he himself said, very subjective, and I think humour is doubly so. But he also said something else, that I’ve previously heard from other people, which (paraphrasing his words) is this:
As far as the mainstream book world is concerned there isn’t really such a thing as a market for, or genre of, humorous SF/Fantasy. There’s just a Terry Pratchett market, and that’s that.
Basically, the thing I’ve learned over several years is that humorous SF/F of the sort written by Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett is a genre that is regarded as, if not stone-cold dead, barely luke-warm at best. At one “How to get published” type panel, I asked a question in which I said my work typically got compared to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and asked what the panel would advise me to do.
The reply I got from the agent on the panel, paraphrasing slightly for humour, but not by as much as you might think, was basically, “Oh you poor bastard. I’m so, so sorry.”
(I should stress, he was a very nice man. He actually sought me out later at the convention when I was doing a Game Night signing to essentially give me a personal, one-to-one apology for having to break such bad news to me. He clearly felt quite bad about it.)
Basically, it was looking like if I wanted to get published I needed to cut out the funny. And I did try, but it’s not me. (In the roleplaying field, I once observed that any straight Star Trek RPG in which I am invited to participate will inevitably turn into Galaxy Quest).
Why is humour SF/F regarded so negatively? Well to a certain extent, the why is irrelevant to me now. I accept it as a truth and will waste no further time howling and wailing at a metaphorical moon of unfairness. But if you want a theory, I think that in the 1990s, following Terry Pratchett’s breakthrough with the Discworld series, so much rip-off, derivative, copy-cat crap was published that it essentially did to the humour SF/F genre what two generations of Oklahoman farmers did to the Oklahoma soil.
Basically, the bastards dustbowled the entire sodding genre.
At one point, while trying to research what humour SF/F there was out there, I asked for recommendations from my blog/Twitter/Facebook followers and got one reply saying: “Avoid like the plague any book that compares itself to either Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett”.
Which pretty much proves the point.
Eventually, by the summer of last year – after four drafts, and two minor drafts, including a pretty radical “third act” plot transplant – If Pigs Could Fly was finished, and I started down the long, depressing, and soul-destroying path of submitting it to the handful of agents in the UK who handle SF/F (science fiction and fantasy). Alongside all of this, my situation had been changing. Work, life, family: all had cranked up over the previous two years. Responsibilities and distractions had increased exponentially. The time I had to write had shrunk.
I long known that were I to get the publishing contract of which I’d dreamed of for so many years, I’d be required to write one book a year, every year, on top of a day job, for the foreseeable future. Hell, If Pigs Could Fly had been explicitly designed to be suitable for just such a schedule. I had, and have, rough plot ideas for the first six novels.
But somewhere after the way, after a four-month work schedule in which I’d made three separate trips to Singapore, interspersed with a trip to Stockholm and a trip to Istanbul, with all those agents I’d thus far contacted coming back with rejections, something snapped.
I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.
So I put my spreadsheet of agents away, with its names of agents still uncontacted, and decided that from now on I was going to please myself, big shot author be damned. I was going to publish the stuff I enjoyed writing, when I wanted to write it. I was going to self-publish.
In Part II of this series I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of how I went about getting If Pigs Could Fly into the hands of readers.
Next Post: The Road to Publication: Part II >>
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Amazon UK (£1.99): [link]
Amazon US ($2.99): [link]
Smashwords (£1.99 | $2.99): [link]
Amazon UK (£6.99): [link]
Amazon US ($9.99): [link]
If Pigs Could Fly should also be available on iBooks, Nook, and Kobo within a few days of its publication.
“West Kensington Paranormal Detective Agency. Doctor Ravinder Shah speaking. No case too weird, no problem too bizarre. Strangeness a speciality. How can I help you?”
London Social Worker Rav Shah moonlights as a paranormal detective, aided by one of his clients and a Border Collie he rents by the hour. It was supposed to be a bit of fun: a search for truths out there; a quest for a life more interesting than the one that fate, destiny, and personal apathy had granted him.
But then a case involving a Yorkshire farmer and a herd of flying pigs leads him into a world darker and more dangerous than he’d ever dreamed.
The truth is indeed out there.
And it’s got Rav square in its sights.