Changing Times

For more than a decade, I'd played with something I called The Freelancer's Survival Guide. I wrote the introduction. I outlined the book, chapter by chapter. I went so far as to write a book proposal, but I never mailed it.

I wanted The Freelancer's Survival Guide to be exactly what it sounded like—a nonfiction book for freelancers, one that explained how to have a freelance career. Not how to quit your day job or sell a few things, but to actually survive on your own, year after year, decade after decade.

When the recession hit with a thud in September of 2008, I realized I had missed my window. I should have proposed the book to New York publishers in September of 2006, so the book would be coming out in the middle of the recession. People lose their jobs in uncertain economic climates, and many people use that job loss as an opportunity to open their own businesses.

For a few months, I moped. Then I realized I could write and publish the Guide on my website. I was leery. I have been part of the internet since 1990 or so, and my experience of it was filled with flame wars, nastiness, and time sinks. I had heard horrible things about books published on the internet.

I also knew that some popular blogs became published books (and popular movies: witness Julie and Julia). So I contacted my friend Michael J. Totten, who has made a living off his blog for years. Dean and I got together with him and Scott William Carter, who also had an active blog, and talked about joining the 21st century.

A week later, I posted the first two chapters of the Freelancer's Guide.

That was April of 2009. On July 29, 2010, I wrote the last installment. I still have to organize the chapters and trim, but as soon as I finish that, I'll have a finished book.

One that's vastly different than one I would have written in the privacy of my own office. Readers commented, asked for advice and—oh, yeah—paid my advance through weekly donations. Michael suggested a donate button, so I put one up with hesitation. Sure enough, people contributed, and are still contributing.

I will release the book as an ebook by this fall, and then do a print edition as well. I did not sell it to a New York publisher, and am now unwilling to. In addition to the full-size e-book, I'm doing short e-books on particular topics. So if you only want to know how to survive after you quit your day job, you can buy that section of the Guide.

(Note: You can find the full guide on my site if you go to http://kriswrites.com/freelancers-survival-guide-table-of-contents/. You can find the short books on most e-book sites. You'll be able to find the full Guide in a month on all e-book sites as well.)

I feel as if I've lived years between the start of that book and its completion. Normally, I write one book at a time, but while I wrote the Guide, I wrote three other books, half a dozen short stories, and a lot of nonfiction. I also learned about the future of publishing, by getting my feet wet in all aspects of it.

What has happened in the 15 months since I started the Guide is that publishing got hit with game-changing technology. Starting a book on my website, even a nonfiction book, was still controversial in April of 2009. Now a lot of people are doing this. Publishing on the web has become expected. Recently, Marty Halpern published a few teaser stories from his collection Is Anybody Out There on his blog. One of those stories was mine. I volunteered. I have learned that “free” gets people through the door, so that they will look for your work.

In that time, I bought a Kindle and an iPhone, as well as a second (and third) iPod, joining the revolution myself. On Tuesdays, I listen to the free offerings in iTunes, and I've ordered a number of other songs by those artists. I have downloaded a dozen free books on my Kindle, and discovered several writers new to me, whose work I will now buy. I read The New York Times free on my phone when I'm away from home, but I find the tiny screen annoying, so I often pay a few dollars to get the Times on my Kindle, even though I know I can get it free on my computer as well.

The web is all about convenience. If I want a song I'm hearing on the radio right now, I can call up iTunes, spend 99 cents, and have the song in my iPod rotation within a minute. If I read a review of a book in Locus, I can type the title into my Kindle, and download the book before I forget that it sounded interesting. I'm consuming more product, rather than less.

And I'm accumulating product as well. I have several issues of new magazines on my Kindle, waiting for me to get to them, just like I have several physical issues of the Dell magazines sitting on my to-read pile. Sometimes, I order a copy of a magazine I already own so that I'll have it on my Kindle for convenient reading. I hear from other Kindle owners that I'm not alone in this.

Several sf magazines have started up in electronic editions. The Dell magazines have added e-editions to their paper editions and, according to Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov's, e-subscriptions have increased the magazine's sales tremendously. Circulation is growing again, instead of declining.

For years, many of you have read my increasingly strident posts about how narrow-minded the sf book publishers have become. Five years ago, I worried that sf publishing was going to slowly kill the genre. And if we had to rely only on the New York publishing establishment, we would have had only a handful of writers to chose from. But other, smaller publishers have started up. Some are doing well, like Pyr, and others are struggling. But they're bringing solid sf to readers.

As is electronic publishing. The ease of publishing ebooks has allowed a number of us to revive our backlist. Unlike the romance and mystery genres, the sf genre seems to believe that books should go out of print, even if they're part of a series.

That trend has stopped now. A lot of writers, from Mike Resnick to Kevin J. Anderson, are taking excellent books that were out of print, and putting them back into print in ebook format—and those books are selling. WMG Publishing has offered to reprint my entire short fiction backlist, as well as many of my novels. Suddenly, a reader can find the story they've been hearing about for years with only the click of a button.

This is great, not just for writers, but for readers. As someone said on my Facebook page a while back, readers don't care who publishes their favorite author, just as long as they can get the book. I understand that very well.

I am writing an article on alternate history for a textbook. In preparation, I wanted to read some classics of alternate history that I had somehow missed in my copious reading. I went to the Locus website to find the publication dates of some of those stories, figuring we had the magazine issues in our library. (My husband Dean Wesley Smith is a collector.) We did—not. For example, Murray Leinster's “Sidewise in Time,” for which the Sidewise Alternate History Award is named, was in the June 1934 Astounding, which was a pulp. Dean had sold all of our pulps.

Likewise, we didn't have Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The book is highly collectible, and Dean never found a copy. I went to our world famous used bookstore (I'm not kidding) and asked the proprietor if he had any Philip K. Dick. He said, “I wish” in a tone that told me he would have paid top dollar for any of Dick's novels.

So I went to Alibris and nearly died. A terrible copy of The Man in the High Castle—no covers, water damaged, stinky—went for $40. I could buy a copy new at any bookstore for $15.

But I could get it immediately on my Kindle for $9.99. Which I did. And by that evening, I had finished the book. I had also found Kindle copies of most of the books and stories on my list—all without leaving my house. As I looked at my research list, I found myself getting annoyed when a book wasn't available electronically.

I realized, in the midst of all of this research, that one thing I have always hated about reading was the search. You know what I mean. You find an author who is new to you, even though that author has been publishing for fifteen years. You want to read their entire oeuvre, and if you're like me, you'd prefer to read it in chronological order. But you have to read what you can find, and you might not be able to find all of their work.

Because we all used to be subject to the writer's initial print run. Let's use Philip K. Dick as an example. When The Man in the High Castle came out, Dick was a working writer with a strong core following. The initial print run on that book was small.

However, over the years, Dick's fans recommended his work to other fans, and they in turn recommended it to others. His novels had gone out of print. There were a finite number of copies of his books in print, and that number grew ever smaller. It wasn't until the spate of movies made from his work that his books came back into print. For years, readers had to rely on luck in finding that first print-run book to read all of Dick's works.

Dick was lucky—or rather, his estate was. Those books came back into physical print. Writers used to have to wait for that kind of lightning to strike to keep their entire oeuvre in print, and even popular authors had books go out of print.

Readers never understood that. Remember that Facebook comment: a reader doesn't care who publishes the book, so long as the book's in print somewhere. I often got letters from readers complaining about the unavailability of my novels, something I didn't like either. Even though I wrote back explaining the situation, I knew the reader really didn't care. All the reader wanted was my book.

Now they'll be able to get it. Or rather, they'll be able to get it within the next year or two, as the backlist trickles back into print. The dynamics of publishing are changing, and they're changing in favor of the reader, no matter what gloom and doom you hear in the press. The gloom and doom comes from traditional publishing, which has to change a lot of internal publishing practices to make e-publishing affordable.

None of that matters to readers. Books are books are books, whether they're available in electronic form or paper form. If you want book three in a seven book series that's been out for ten years, you don't want to be told that the publisher underpublished book three and you'll have to pay through the nose to get a copy. (This happened with book four of my Fey series, and as a result, that paperback often went for $200 on used book sites.) You just want that book as soon as you finish book two.

And now you'll be able to get it.

I hear a lot of talk now about how the internet will be the death of publishing. It's silly. Just like talk that digital music was the death of the music industry.

Traditional publishing adopted a lot of expensive, difficult, and unwieldy business practices. E-publishing will force the traditional publishers to make changes.

But for the readers, this sea change in publishing will mean we can read what we want when we want. We'll be reading more books than ever.

And it also means that we writers have more opportunities to write than ever before. Honestly, in April of 2009 when I started The Freelancer's Guide, I thought I'd get a handful of readers—maybe a dozen. I also thought that those dozen readers would help me maintain my weekly deadline—a pressure point, and nothing more. I didn't expect any donations. In fact, I was humoring Michael when I put up the button.

What I got surprised me. In addition to an actual advance, I got interaction and a community. I had thousands of readers come to my website, and people discovered my fiction through my nonfiction (and vice versa). It was an exciting, dynamic experience.

I'm having a lot of those through the internet now. Not just through my website, but through Twitter and Facebook. I'm working on projects with people from Italy and England, France and Japan. I'm in contact with fans in Russia and Germany as well as in the United States.

I keep hearing gloom and doom about publishing's future, but I'm not believing any of it. As a writer, I've never experienced a more exciting time.

As a reader, I'm overwhelmed with the amount of material I have at my fingertips—old and new. I'm beginning to wonder if sleep is overrated. I want to read more. I want to write more. And I love the interaction.

I like the way things are changing. And I didn't realize how fast things were moving until I finished the Guide. Sometimes you need a marker, and that was mine. I feel like the Kris who started the Guide lived in the Dark Ages, and the Kris who finished it lives in the Age of Enlightenment.

Now I've finished my online column, I'm off to read some Randall Garrett on my Kindle while listening to some Ella Fitzgerald on my iPod. Such is my life in this extraordinary summer of 2010.

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