How to sell fiction YOU want to write and even get a publishing deal— with (indie) sci-fi author Eliot Peper
Eliot Peper writes deeply researched (sci-fi) thrillers about the near future where climate change, big data, surveillance and injustice damage our lives.
If you’re an (indie) author, you want to soak up Eliot’s answers like Spongebob on steroids.
You focus on writing well-researched near-future sci-fi thrillers. What made you choose that genre niche?
I never set out to write in a specific genre and genre isn’t a factor I think about when drafting a new novel.
I write about whatever fascinates me. My dad is a professor and researcher so science was always a part of the conversation around our dinner table growing up. My parents taught me to love both stories and learning. I wound up studying geopolitics and then somehow ended up working in a few tech startups and a venture capital firm before ever setting pen to page.
I’m always reading WIRED, The Economist, and New Scientist in addition to books about everything from the history of medieval France to the forces shaping the future of the internet.
Many of the best ideas I find through reading, asking questions, and living wind up in my fiction. As a novelist, my entire life is the data from which I try to distill insight, so my curiosity guides the stories I choose to tell. Genres are marketing categories that help readers decide what books they might enjoy.
The fact that my books are deeply-researched near future science fiction thrillers reflect my enthusiasm for science, technology, philosophy, thoughtful speculation, self-discovery, imagination, and adventure.
Are you a plotter (who outlines and plans a story) or a pantser (who just writes without a plan, making it up along the way)?
When I started writing my first novel, I just opened up Microsoft Word and started typing Chapter One.
I didn’t outline. I didn’t plan.
I didn’t join a writing group or attend a workshop. I made up everything as I went.
It was exhilarating, and sometimes frustrating when I ran into dead ends. Eventually, the characters started making decisions that surprised me and the story found its shape. Even so, I went through seven major revisions on that manuscript after soliciting feedback from editors and beta readers. The changes were substantive and structural, addressing problems that ran the gamut from pacing to character development.
Ever since then, I’ve intentionally varied my creative process with each and every book. I’ve outlined entire plots, written first person biopic letters to familiarize myself with characters, and papered our house in notecards covered in nearly illegible scribbles.
My philosophy is that by trying out many different approaches to writing fiction, I’ll begin to hone in one the path that works best for me. In writing and in life, I tend to seek out discomfort. It’s only when we’re out of our depth that we can find out what we’re truly capable of.
Cumulus, my favorite near-future novel of yours, launched with a bang. Blogs, online mags, and famous authors raved about it. How did that happen?
Cumulus was self published, and launch days for self published books usually aren’t particularly eventful. With previous releases, I would send an email to my fans, give anyone who had read an advance review copy a heads up, post about the book on social media, and cross my fingers.
So when I woke up the morning Cumulus came out, it felt like any other morning. I leashed up the dog and walked my wife to work, brewed a cup of coffee when I got home, and made a bowl of granola and yogurt.
Opening the message with a mixture of excitement and confusion, I wondered how anyone could have discovered Cumulus and thought to query its rights status within hours of release. But even as I tried to formulate a response, another email came in.
And then another.
Literary agents. Film agents. Editors at publishing houses. Television production companies. It was surreal.
I signed onto Amazon to check the numbers and saw that Cumulus had sold hundreds of copies in just a couple of hours and was trending up the bestseller lists. An hour later, a friend texted me a screenshot from Reddit showing that the book had hit the front page.
That was the clue I needed.
It turned out that a technology journalist I had randomly met at a bar in Oakland months before had read his advance review copy of Cumulus and published a very generous review in Ars Technica. His review had gone viral on Reddit, racking up thousands of up votes and driving thousands of sales.
That stroke of luck helped Cumulus rise above the internet maelstrom for a brief and wild moment. It led to giving a talk at Google, fulfilling a fanboy dream of enjoying a phone call from William Gibson, and reviews from numerous other distinguished outlets. I did my best to leverage the momentum to help new readers discover the novel.
The whole experience was fun but disorienting, like plunging down a beginner ski slope only to discover that it’s a triple black diamond.
I learned three things from that particular rollercoaster ride:
First, popularity is impossible to engineer. If it were possible, publishers, movie studios, and record labels would be a lot more profitable. Luck is an enormous part of any cultural success, and creators should focus on making good art and sharing art they love, not trying to architect virality.
Second, build real relationships with fans. That reporter would never have reviewed Cumulus if we hadn’t enjoyed an in-depth conversation about privacy, civil rights, and the social impacts of tech at that local tiki bar. We’ve stayed in touch since, and meet up every once in a while to talk about the stories he’s working on and the novels I’m dreaming up. You never know who might wind up loving your work and broadcasting it to the world.
Third, launches are less important than they appear. While there’s a certain appeal to shiny new things, books succeed by earning true fans that generate word-of-mouth over the long term. I don’t write novels to be a flash in the pan, I write them to entertain and inspire readers and seek meaning in a changing world.
You have a publishing contract with Amazon’s 47North imprint. How did you get hold of it?
An acquisitions editor from Amazon Publishing sent me an email. She said she really enjoyed Cumulus and asked if I was working on something new. As luck would have it, I had just completed the manuscript of a new novel, Bandwidth. She read the manuscript over the weekend and made an offer the following week.
I didn’t have an agent at the time so I hired an experienced IP attorney and negotiated the deal directly. Bandwidth comes out May 1 and so far I’ve been extremely impressed with the Amazon Publishing team.
What is your daily word count and what’s one way of reaching it?
I typically write around a thousand words a day, five days a week, while I’m working on a rough draft. That said, I don’t maintain a strict daily word count.
Instead, I set a deadline for the entire novel, and keep a rough emotional gauge on where I am in the story. If I don’t make much progress for a day or a week, that’s fine. But if weeks go by and I’m no closer to the end of the story, I know I have to buckle down.
Rather than living by firm guidelines, I’ve found that for me at least, it’s better to simply do something, even if it’s drafting a single sentence. That’s not limited to work.
If every day I exercise, read, write, socialize, and relax, that day is a success. I don’t need to run a marathon or write thousands of words. Keeping that balance in mind helps me pursue creative projects I care deeply about without burning out.
Please share a (self) publishing prediction for 2018 and onwards.
Working in venture capital was a lesson in the obscene difficulty of prediction. I don’t have any special insight into the future, but I can offer one under-appreciated aspect of the present:
There has never been a better time to be a reader or a writer.
There are more paths to publication and more ways to share your work with the world than at any other time in human history.
Nobody can stop you from writing the book you’ve always dreamed of and the buffet of stories available to readers has never been as varied, deep, or rich. Read, write, and share what you learn.
What marketing/publishing/writing resource can you recommend for improving an author’s craft?
This four-part series of blog posts from Hugh Howey is an ideal place to start, especially for novelists. He outlines everything from the rough draft to post-publication promotion. I’ve re-read these four posts numerous times and always come away informed and inspired. Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday is a good follow up. It focuses on the core skills required to make and market a classic work in any field.
Which of your books do you recommend to newcomers?
If the anecdote about the Cumulus launch piques your interest, it’s a good place to start. Cumulus is a science fiction thriller following hackers, spies, and tech moguls through a future shaped by rising income inequality and persistent online surveillance.
Eliot, please share links where curious people can learn more about you and your work.
Every month, I send a simple email recommending three books that crackle and fizz with big ideas, challenge assumptions, and seek meaning in a changing world.
I also share insights into my creative process. If you want to get or stay in touch with me, this little newsletter is the way to do it: http://www.eliotpeper.com/p/
You can read my books here and I’d love to hear what you think if take them for a spin: https://www.amazon.com/Eliot-Peper/e/B00IRH82N0/
You can find out more about me here: http://www.eliotpeper.com/
If you like learning from authors, I run an interview series for Scout: https://scout.ai/story/
And you can hit me up on Twitter: https://twitter.com/eliotpeper
Check out Eliot’s books and please clap this interview if you found it useful!