Stephen Case’s story, “Barstone,” appeared in Shimmer #13. It’s about a monster, of sorts. It’s about a romance, of sorts. It’s just plain good storytelling. Stephen joins us here to talk about his new short fiction collection, Trees and Other Wonders, and how he came to publish it.
When I first started writing, I considered self-publishing online. This though was back in the day when the only option would have been my own blog, and then who would have read it and how would I have known whether it was actually any good? The process of writing, submitting, writing, rewriting, learning what to do with loads of rejections, writing some more, and finally working with an editor to get a story into print is, I think, invaluable for an aspiring writer. It was for me a very large (and continuing) part of my education.
But what happens after you get your first stories published? They are read (hurrah!), and they earn you a bit of cash perhaps (huzzah!), and then they are laid gently to rest in an online archive or pile of back issues somewhere. Maybe down the road an anthology will pick one up, if you’re lucky.
I figured this was normal: a long line of hibernating stories that might come out of retirement to appear in collected form when I had written enough to get some publisher’s attention or something. Maybe Gene Wolfe would notice me and take me out to lunch and explain how this all worked and what I needed to do to become the next Ray Bradbury (besides, you know, actually write like Ray Bradbury).
An epiphany moment for me came when reading Hugh Howey’s opinions on electronic publishing on his blog. Howey (whose work I admit I have not read) is a huge proponent of online publishing. What struck me about his argument was the idea that my stories didn’t have to go into some sort of limbo or forced retirement. I could continue to leverage them to expand my readership. Sure, I had a website with links to all the places where my works had appeared, but who was going to follow all those rabbit trails, regardless of the truly delightful places they led? Putting my work together into a collection, a collection that I would maintain control of, seemed the next logical step. Unlike publishing conventionally, my collection wouldn’t have a specified run and then disappear out of print to haunt used bookstores. I could control the pricing, and I could control the content.
So I took the plunge, and here are a few things that I learned along the way. Please note well: I am certainly not claiming to be an expert at this process. My book has been available for less than a month. The process has been a self-education, and as one of my professors used to caution, “All education is an experiment. And most experiments fail.”
Make sure you have all the rights to your content
Usually magazines purchase first-time publishing rights, but sometimes there’s also an exclusivity clause in the contract, a period during which the story cannot appear anywhere else in any form. At the end of that though, it’s still your story, and you can do what you want with it, including putting it in your own collection. If you’re not sure what a contract implies regarding republishing or anthology rights, ask. I found that most editors are happy to explain. Plus, sometimes they might even be willing to bend the letter of the law. One of my stories, for instance, was sold to a market with a twelve-month exclusivity clause. I wanted to include it in my collection before that year had elapsed, so I wrote to the publisher, explained the situation, and asked if I could. They said yes, so my collection did not have to go forward lacking a piece of Lovecraftian horror.
Acknowledge where the story first appeared
There are lots of ways to do this, but you should definitely acknowledge where your story first saw the light of print. You’re thanking those publications that first gave your work a chance, and hopefully you’re directing some of your readers to those markets so the cycle can continue. Before the table of contents I inserted a copyright acknowledgement page with an entry for each story in the collection, noting the year it was originally published and where. Then in the afterword, where I took some time to provide a bit of background on each story, I thanked a few editors in particular who had been especially helpful in my writing journey. Again, the principle here is simple: speculative fiction is a community endeavor.
Format your book for Kindle
This was by far the easiest part of the process. I chose to publish on Kindle because it was free, it was simple, and it made my book instantly available to anyone with a computer. I consulted Building your Book for Kindle, a free download on the Kindle store (also available as PDF) and a guide that shows exactly how to use Word to format your document for conversion to the Kindle platform. My only hiccough was that the version of Word for Mac I was using didn’t have exactly the same menus and features as the version for which these instructions were written. I had to switch to the version of Word on my old PC laptop to get some of the formatting right.
This aspect of things—how incredibly easy it is to publish online—was what originally made this avenue intimidating for me. It’s so simple that anyone can do it, which is why there’s such a glut of content available out there of such widely varying quality. How do you keep your own from getting lost in the morass?
Design an awesome cover
If you’re publishing a collection of your own previously-published short stories, you want it to stand out. You want it to be clear that its contents set it apart from 95% of the stuff out there because these pieces have already been edited and published before, maybe in professional markets. But how to make this apparent? Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if you’re a designer), your book is going to be judged by its cover, so spend some time to either design one yourself or find someone to design one for you that looks professional. This was the step that took me longest. I’m cheap and a control freak, so I wanted to do it myself. I did, however, get some very helpful pointers from my friend Ryan Myers, of Helveticards fame, and with his guidance came up with something simple and (I hope) effective.
Promote without being obnoxious
Once your book is online, it can be a steady and growing source of new readers and revenue. You just have to let people know it’s there. Depending on how far you want to take self-promotion, there are hundreds of things you could do. First of all though, you should create an Amazon author’s page. This is where people can learn something about you and where your other books will eventually live. (Here’s mine.) In addition, if any of the magazines you’ve published in have Kindle versions and have listed you as a contributor, you can link them here. This helps you promote the magazines that originally published you, and it may also help those magazines take an interest in promoting you as an author. Plus, links to a $0.99 Kindle edition of a magazine in which one of your stories appears, for instance, can provide a good sample your work for potential purchasers of your collection.
Tell your friends, of course. Use social media (though here’s where the “without being obnoxious” aspect comes in). Link your website, your Amazon author page, your Twitter account, Facebook, etc. so anyone who finds one can easily find the others. When your book is complete, you have the option of downloading a preview file to read on your own Kindle. As far as I know, there’s no problem with sending this file to editors who might be interested in reviewing your book or mentioning it on their respective blogs. And perhaps most exciting: keep writing, and keep selling more of your stories. Now that you’re published and have control of your own book, every time you have a new story appear in print you’ve got a chance to direct readers to your collection through your bio.
Finally, don’t quit your day job (as long as you love your day job)
And as along as your day job gives you plenty of time to write. Because maybe you’ll get rich. But probably you won’t. What you will get though is an opportunity for more readers, and more readers somehow always seems to spur more writing, and that’s definitely what it’s all about.
Stephen Case is a historian of astronomy and author. He is using this guest blog to shamelessly promote his first collection of short stories, Trees and Other Wonders, which is available on the Kindle Store. His website is www.stephenrcase.com.