Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Why I Self-Published
The Red: First Light

October 8th, 2013
This is a revised and expanded version of a post originally published at Charlie’s Diary, the blog of Charles Stross. Six months later, I have a little bit more to say.

The Red: First Light by Linda NagataThere is no best path in this business of writing fiction and every author’s career is different. I started in the usual way, with traditional publishing, and had six science fiction novels published by New York houses between ’95 and 2003. My work garnered good reviews and there were a couple of awards, but despite my best efforts no meaningful amount of money was going into the family coffers. Economically, I was wasting my time. Emotionally I was inhabited by a deep, dark sense of failure, with no viable means to turn things around. So circa 2000 I more or less walked away from the field for almost ten years. I did not stop writing entirely, but it was close.

In 2009 I woke up to the ebook revolution.

My background and situation let me jump right into self-publishing. I’d worked in web development for nine years, so I knew how to handle the HTML behind ebooks, I was familiar with Photoshop, I’d learned the basics of InDesign, I had the rights back to all my novels, and I had time to devote, since the recession had ended my programming job. So I became my own publisher and reissued the novels, first as ebooks and then in print-on-demand editions.

I found that I loved this new business, because I was in control.

In traditional publishing, after a book is sold, the important decisions are made by the publisher—format, cover art, cover copy, sales date, pricing, promotional budget (if any)—and once those decisions are made they can rarely be changed. So my near-future bio-thriller Limit of Vision was released with a pulp cover featuring giant bugs, while my far-future novel, Memory, was released with a back cover description that got the basic facts of the story world wrong.

As my own publisher, I make mistakes too, but because my business model—low upfront costs and no warehoused inventory—is radically different from that of traditional publishing, I’m in a position to correct those mistakes. I can—and I have—changed cover art, cover copy, and pricing after publishing a book.

Of course these days, self-publishing out-of-print backlist isn’t controversial. The question writers debate is what to do with original fiction. I looked at it from a business perspective, asking What’s best for me? And I couldn’t justify trying New York again.

For some writers, sticking with traditional publishing makes sense. Maybe you’re getting a lot of support and publicity from the publisher, maybe you move a lot of books through bookstores, maybe the advance money is essential to your business plan.

For me, the equation is different. If I try to market a manuscript, I can expect to wait months (years?) on a response, more months to negotiate a contract, and no doubt the advance would be low. Suppose I accepted $10,000. Fifteen-percent would go to the agent, my home state of Hawaii would take 4%, and I would be left with only $8,100, stretched out in multiple payments. Going by past experience the advance is all I’d ever see. Traditional publishing, even when done well, is no guarantee of success.

Of course financial success with self-publishing is unlikely too.

There. I said it. Self-publishing is not a magic solution, and still the odds of success look better to me because my profit per unit sold is much higher than it would be for a traditionally published book, and the potential exists to generate that profit for the life of the copyright (subject to the risks of piracy, irrelevance, or the end of the world, of course).

These are reasons I made the decision to self-publish my newest science fiction novel, The Red: First Light, released last spring.

That said, I think it’s fair to ask if I had a realistic shot at selling this book to a traditional publisher—and in all honesty, I’m not sure I could have. On the plus side, I’m an award-winning writer, and over the past year-and-a-half my original short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Analog, Asimov’s, and Nightmare magazines.

On the negative side? Well, I don’t exactly have a great track record of book sales, but even putting that aside, TRFL has a lot of strikes against it:
• It’s hard science fiction (written by a woman)
• It’s military science fiction written by someone with no military back story
• It’s written (by a woman!) in first person from the point of view of a male protagonist

None of these factors says anything about the quality of a book, but they are all things to make traditional publishers look with doubt on a submission. Sorry, but those are just the facts of life as I understand them.

So it wasn’t a hard decision to independently publish this book.

The ironic thing? If I had managed to sell the book to the traditional market, it probably wouldn’t be published until next summer. As it is, it’s been out over six months now, and it’s beginning to get some buzz in the genre. It was reviewed at Locus in August, and a few weeks ago it was reviewed at by Stefan Raets who said:

The Red: First Light is a dark, intelligent, cynical take on military SF. It’s an excellent novel that deserves a much larger audience.”

Heh. I’m still working on connecting with that larger audience…

Next time, the second half of my original post: Bringing the book to market

Posted on: Tuesday, October 8th, 2013 at 12:41 pm
Categories: Publishing.

14 Responses to “Why I Self-Published
The Red: First Light

  1. James C. Glass Says:

    Good for you. After a start with Baen I’ve gone to the small press route and have experienced what you’ve experienced. I’ve read your analog stuff, and like it. Good luck with your efforts.

  2. Linda Says:

    Thanks Jim! I hope your own endeavors are going well.

  3. James C. Glass Says:

    Well, my books are being published by Wildside Press and Fairwood Press, but my numbers are nothing like mass market. Right now I’m back to short stories.

  4. Kathleen S. Allen (@kathleea) Says:

    I’ve self-pubbed and worked with small presses. Right now I’m trying to find an agent so I can move up to the next level. I’ve had some small success with one of my books (it sells about 10-20 copies a day). I recently wrote a space opera I’m currently querying with some interest. I know that SF is a hard field to get into. Most of my writing is YA but I do have a couple of murder mysteries out too. I will probably self-publish again if I don’t get any interest and I have self-published a novella and short stories because those don’t get much attention from agents. I’ll be sure to check out your latest book because it sounds good. Good luck to you!

  5. Bob Says:

    Outstanding, Linda. I just published my first eBook with help from my mentor, G. M. Frazier. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read “… It’s written (by a woman!) in first person from the point of view of a male protagonist …” because my book, Stepping Up, is written from a woman’s point of view.

    Had I followed the “traditional” route I’d probably be spending hours hawking the manuscript, hoping to get a toe in the door somewhere.

  6. Abigail Padgett Says:

    You definitely know the facts of life and made the right move with your new one! Congrats on not spending literal weeks writing customized agent queries 85% of which will never be read, the other 15% resulting in phone calls from agents telling you your book is fantastic but they can’t rep you until you have at least 3000 Facebook likes and a 6-figure Twitter following.
    The whole thing is a mess right now, and I agree – the smart move is to put it all up on the ‘Zon, keeping all the income AND the rights – until agents and publishers sort it out and come up with author-favorable contracts and e-publishing at least as fast as we can do it ourselves. Go, Linda!

  7. Linda Says:

    Well, I had an agent for years, but decided to go it alone on this one. No regrets!

  8. Scarlett Says:

    Linda thank you so much for this post, it made my day—please any advice for us newbie indies on how to generate buzz?

  9. Linda Says:

    I wish I could advise you, but sadly, buzz is not my talent. Kris Rusch’s advice is probably best early in your career: Keep writing and build a quality list. It takes time–usually a lot of time. I was writing for five years before I sold my first short story. Good luck!

  10. Bob Blough Says:


    I have loved your books since BOHR MAKER and was thrilled to pick up your new one. I admit, it’s still in my to-be-read pile (still trying to catch up on 2012!) but I am excited that you are back. Your short fiction last year was great.

  11. Linda Says:

    Bob, thanks so much! I really appreciate hearing that. 🙂

  12. Jennifer Ellis Says:

    Thanks for the very inspiring and honest post. I think traditional publishing works for those at the top of the heap, but it is a very challenging existence for most other writers. It is nice to have your post to confirm what I already knew and make me feel better about my decision to try the self-publishing route. Best of luck in your new venture.

  13. Bob Blough Says:

    You are welcome. Linda. You keep writing as much as you want and you have at least me reading it!

  14. Linda Says:

    Thanks Bob!

    And thank you, Jennifer!