I participated in a… Well, I don’t really know what it was. It was called “Five College Publishing Day” and it offered panel discussions related to academic publishing. It was described as beginning with “a roundtable discussion with editors, agents, and authors who will share their perspectives on the rapidly changing world of publishing today, followed by four sessions on different areas of publishing and writing.”

Organized primarily by the UMass Office of Faculty Development with support from Amherst College Press and other members of the Five Colleges, it brought together a range of professionals from academic presses, but also a literary agency and a non-profit independent press.

I’ve had little connection to academic publishing. As an NTT faculty member, my rewards are disconnected from publishing so it’s not something I’ve pursued professionally. I did, at one point, explore trying to translate the books by Kalle Kniivila into English and contacted two academic presses to see if they would be interested, but both declined.

In the past year, I’ve started working with Water Dragon Publishing and spent a fair amount of time exploring the current publishing market. And I was somewhat surprised to discover how utterly disconnected from Academic Publishing that world is. They call it “trade publishing” and they seem to wrinkle up their noses when they say it.

It was pretty clear that, as a non-tenure-track faculty member, I was in the wrong place. People said things like:

Where do you find the time for this? That’s when the luxury of tenure really matters.

Pawan Dhingra — Amherst College Press


A second book is an immense amount of work. Your first is a bit easier because you’re really just revising your doctoral work.

Olufumi Vaughan — Amherst College Press


We invite you onto the marketing team as a VIP member — especially for your second book because that’s the book you want to write rather than what you need to write.

Maura Roessner — University of California Press

I asked a couple of questions, both of which seemed to leave the panelists flat-footed.

There is now burgeoning world of publishing opportunities: academic and trade publishing, but also the independent and small presses that exist on a spectrum down to self-publishing. How you make the calculus on how much time spend exploring this spectrum versus making a choice to situate your work?

This question left them bewildered. I got a range of replies that were utterly disconnected from my experience in publishing. One said “Figure our your authorial identity!” Another said, “Within one’s discipline, it’s pretty clear who your peers care about.” Another said, “Schedule time to explore the space. Find ‘comp titles’.”

The responses to my second question were even funnier.

There’s a lot of discussion right now about digital media offering broader kinds of genre publication (e.g. Kindle Unlimited, Project Vella, etc.): not just novels, but novellas, novelettes, and serial publication. How do you see the market moving?

Nobody actually touched the question. One panelist wrinkled up her nose, “Fiction? We mostly don’t do fiction, but don’t dismiss university presses that may be trying to build a home for trade because they’re trying to diversify their portfolios.”

So, it was a pretty weird event from my perspective as some looking in at academic publishing from the outside. But it helped me understand the role of the academic press. To get tenure, faculty (in some disciplines) need to publish books. And the books they need to publish are mostly not books that would be profitable in the trade publishing business. So universities and non-profits subsidize this publication.

Which is not to dismiss the scholarly significance of these publications. But as someone looking at publishing from the other side, it’s pretty wild.

I don’t know how else to say it: I love my writing. I love everything about it. The process, the results, and all of it.

I love the initial forays I make into a story, writing some of the candy bar scenes that motivate me to tell a story. And the opening scene. And I love plotting the rest of the story. I love when I write the ending. And when I fill in the rest in between.

I love editing the story. Reading it over and over again, finding gaps and inconsistencies in the story. Or discovering a small change that really heightens the drama. Or the clever turn of phrase that captures the humor of the moment. Or the subtle change in word choice or order that makes it read more smoothly.

I love just reading my own stories. I love them. I lurve them!

And when other people read them. And comment on them. And when they’re surprised. And when they see the thing I was trying to do.

And, of course, I really love to sell a story.

I really, really love that. And I love all of the parts of that too: Getting the initial acceptance. Seeing what the editor finds to suggest. Seeing the work actually come out in print. Adding another line to my CV.

I love it all.

But I really can’t say I write because I love it. It’s more like a compulsion.

I haven’t always loved writing. I was a terrible writer as an undergraduate. As a doctoral student, I improved a lot. But my fiction was still execrable. It’s only recently, in my late 50s, that I feel like I’m hitting what I’m aiming at.

I can see that a lot of writers really struggle with liking their own writing. And I’ve certainly known perfectionists who could never make their own work perfect enough to satisfy themselves. I may be just arrogant and overconfident, but I don’t have that problem.

I was chatting with my publisher, talking about organizing writing events, and I had an idea. I said, “Maybe I should do a twitch stream of me writing!” I was totally joking, imagining people watching me stare at a computer screen with a look of focused concentration. (Or, you know, look at Twitter.) But he said, “It might actually be fun to do something like this for everyone one afternoon. ‘Watch our Authors at Work.'”

I thought a little more and said, “Maybe we could make up a stream that has cameras watching the authors like Hollywood Squares with word counts visible while we do sprints.”

At first, I speculated that it might be complicated enough to do this that I should look for a student or someone to do it but, upon reflection, it proved to be relatively simple to set up. Maybe there are easier ways, but here’s how I did it:

First, it assumes the writing will be in a text file called “obs_sprint.txt” in your home directory. To write the file, I use atom.io with the autosave-onchange plugin turned on. But other editors would be possible.

To do the word counts, I wrote a bash script: “obswc.sh”

#! /bin/bash
while [ : ]
	echo Words: `cat ~/obs_sprint.txt | wc -w` | tee ~/obs_word_count.txt
	sleep 30

Every 30 seconds, this script outputs the word count to the shell (so you can see it) and saves it to a second text file called “obs_word_count.txt”. The script runs until you kill it with control-C. (Note, we could easily change the delay if 30 seconds isn’t frequent enough.)

Next, I configured OBS Studio to have a Text “source” reading from the word count text file. Then I made the text big (200pt) and placed it up a bit from the bottom (so it won’t be covered by the Zoom controls). Finally, I used “Start Virtual Camera” and selected the virtual camera in Zoom. (Note that in Zoom, the preview it shows you of yourself is flipped horizontally, but other people will see the correct view).

Now I can start the script, empty out the obs_sprint.txt text file, and start writing. Every 30 seconds, my word count will be updated on screen.

Now if we can just get John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig to go head-to-head!

Years ago, I read about the idea of guerrilla marketing: a low cost way to try to attract interest. The core was to post something mysterious, funny, or inexplicable that would get people to notice something and that you could use to tie to what you wanted people to buy.

With my new book For the Favor of a Lady coming out on March 25 (via Water Dragon Publishing) I thought perhaps I could attract some interest doing something other than just plugging the books.

I figured out one way to avoid just plugging by attaching my announcements to the story fragments I write for #vss365. Every day there is a new prompt and I usually write a one tweet story fragment. Periodically, I write a fragment that references characters and situations from my existing stories and, as a second tweet in the thread, I add a pitch for my stories. I don’t have metrics that indicate it “works”, but it makes me feel better than posting and reposting the same plug. But I wanted to try something new.

On the book covers, we’ve begun to develop some motifs. One is that each cover has a dirigible on it. And we’ve also added some framing around the edges. So I wondered if I could take some photographs that had framing like that and then photoshop in a dirigible.

I went through all my old pictures and found that I basically didn’t have any pictures that that kind of framing. So I gave up on the part.

I went to Flickr and found three pictures of dirigibles that were by themselves in the sky (easily photoshoppable) and were not restricted against remixing or commercial use. In some cases, I had to make some adjustments (erasing text on the dirigible). And then I inserted them into some pictures.

“Good Year Blimp” flickr photo by tequilamike https://flickr.com/photos/hyttinen/2273716687 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
“Goodyear Blimp” flickr photo by Phil_Parker https://flickr.com/photos/45131642@N00/6996190987 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
“German Zeppelin NT” flickr photo by Kecko https://flickr.com/photos/kecko/4080605473 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

It worked about as well as I could have hoped. (OK — I could always hope that it would go viral and get millions of views). But a friend was only too happy to play tsukomi to my boke:

I couldn’t have asked for a better straight line.

I can keep doing it for a while to see if I can fish anybody else in.

A couple of months ago, I volunteered to read submissions (aka “slush”) for Water Dragon Publishing when I had some time. After picking his jaw up off the floor, the editor welcomed my offer and said he would send me some manuscripts when I was ready. With the beginning of spring break, I finally had time and was provided with 16 manuscripts to start with. It’s been a fascinating experience for me.

When my brother Philip Brewer attended Clarion, he mentioned that he’d been expecting that getting his own manuscripts critiqued was what would be the most useful thing. But it turned out that critiquing other manuscripts and seeing what other people made of them was actually more useful. Reflecting on the experience he wrote a blog post about how to critique a manuscript. In my case, I was writing something far short of a full critique, but I found these principles helpful to structure my thinking.

I’ve come to realize that most of what is published in science fiction falls into a rather narrow slice of what gets written. And so studying what’s been published is not particularly useful for learning. What gets submitted, however, is a much richer source of data for learning to recognize problems. It’s hard to look at my own writing and recognize problems with exposition or pacing. But the slush pile has a lot of manuscripts where these problems are manifest. It’s been really helpful for giving me a better sense for how to recognize and address these problems with my own writing.

I’ve finished a first slug of manuscripts and requested another set to look at before spring break is over. It’s not something I’m going to want to do forever, but it’s been a fascinating adventure. What I really should do is join a writing group. But I haven’t found one yet where I feel comfortable. I’ll keep looking.

When I attended Boskone several years ago, I had a brief interaction with Walter Jon Williams. He wrote many stories that I loved, but I particularly enjoyed a trilogy he wrote about a character named Drake Maijstral, Gentleman Thief. In these science-fiction stories, humans had been incorporated into a galactic empire and one of the customs was a role for people to be an “Allowed Burglar” provided their thievery was carried off with panache. They were written as a “comedy of manners” and undoubtedly are some of the inspiration for those elements in my own writing.

Anyway, when I thanked him for writing these wonderful stories that I had loved, he replied, “Oh, so you were the one who liked them!” He clarified that they had not been a commercial success so it was unlikely there would be any more. That’s sad, but at least I got to read those three. I should probably buy new copies and read them again — they were wonderful.

Another story you don’t hear people talk about much anymore is Space for Hire. This was a book by William F. Nolan who became famous for his book Logan’s Run. His earlier book was a pastiche of the noir detective novels with the main character, Sam Space, clearly modeled on Sam Spade of the Maltese Falcon. They were silly and lighthearted. And, as a teenager (or perhaps still pre-teen) I loved that book.

As I was going to write this blog post, I couldn’t quite remember the name of the book so had to google it and found this blog post by someone else who also identified it as a “forgotten book.”

Another story I remember from my teenaged years was a Heinlein novel. This story, in some ways, might better remain forgotten — except for the fact that it’s ideas are still jiggeting around inside my head.

One of the challenges about getting older is how much culture changes: all of the messages and ideas you’re exposed to in your youth influence you in complex ways as you grow up and become an adult.

This was brought home to me when I did my graduate study in science education. One of the key things I learned in my course of graduate work was a really simple idea but that had profound repercussions for everything I later did professionally. Many of our traditional educational practices are based on the false premises that students come in without advanced knowledge and that our teaching transmits the necessary knowledge to them. These fundamental ideas appears everywhere in our traditional thinking about instruction — for example, we might ask ourselves after a lesson, “Did they get it?” (Meaning, did I successfully transmit the concept?)

In my graduate work, I came to understand that learning is not the product of teaching: it is the product of the activity of the learner. Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up and you can’t transmit knowledge to them. Students already know a lot of stuff and, for students to learn, they need to consider what they already know and then replace and extend it through their own activity.

It’s one thing to know this and it’s quite another to expunge a lifetime of experience and metaphors and everything else. For many years, I would find myself saying something and only while I was saying it, realize that it was yet another transmissionist idea or metaphor that I had uncritically learned, but never seriously considered or questioned — or updated with my new found insights.

The book I’m talking about is The Day After Tomorrow. At least, that’s what it was called when I read it. I was unaware a lot of the history of the story until I looked at the Wikipedia article. The story idea actually came from Joseph Campbell who has been pilloried in the science fiction community over the past 10 years for his openly racist ideas.

In this story, published originally in 1941 (during World War II), the United States has been conquered by a “pan-asiatic” army and a tiny outpost of American military develops a super weapon that can discriminately kill people based on racial heritage. The whole book has a lot of racist thinking in it, of the kind most of us thought had died out, until Donald Trump made white supremacists think it was OK to crawl out of the sewers and cesspools they’d been hiding in for years.

The thing I remember best from the story was the use of infrasonic vibrations. They use low-frequency vibrations to disorient people. Of course sound has now been weaponised by the LRAD.

But who knows what else I remember from the story that is still in there waiting for me to bring it to mind to consider and expunge it? It’s a long-term problem. Fortunately, it’s a problem of fixed term.

When we first started talking about the cover of For the Favor of a Lady (Book Two of Revin’s Heart by Water Dragon Publishing) I said, thinking of the climactic last scene, “Well, it’s gotta be Ravensbelth with an airship overhead, right?” So we started with that. But when I looked at the proposed artwork, I realized it actually fits even better for the next book Storm Clouds Gather. So we set that one aside and started thinking again. Then I remembered a passage from the story:

Lady Momoire occupied a luxurious suite of rooms on a corner of the palace, with windows looking north and west, over the ocean. Revin imagined watching the sunset through the windows and then shook the image out of his head.

Seeing a cover come together for a story I wrote still doesn’t seem quite real. It’s such a magical experience to have other people becoming invested in my stories. Seeing the scenes I imagine coming to life through the eyes of other people is something I had not really thought about before I was published as an author.

The covers for Paper Angel Press are being done by Niki Lenhart and I could not be happier. As we have gone from a single story to a series, we’re starting to identify motifs: in the first, we viewed an airship through a porthole. This time, through a window. And there will likely be similar framing for the stories going forward. It’s as though we’re developing a pattern language for the covers that tie them together. As I’m writing the next stories, now I’m beginning to think of iconic scenes that would work well for cover imagery.

Who knew that writing could be so much fun!

The real challenge will be when we do the fix-up novel that collects the novelettes. I predict that’s going to be tough to choose.

Once upon a time, I thought an author would write a book, get it published, and then write their next book. But, once upon a time, I also believed in Santa Claus.

Let me start by admitting that I have never seriously considered becoming a “writer” as a career. I’ve had an eclectic employment history, but I came to writing rather late in life. My first speculative fiction publication (in Esperanto) was in 2010 (in my late 40s). That is also the year I self-published my first book, Poŝtmarkoj el Esperantujo, a collection of haiku in Esperanto and English with imaginary postage stamps, using Createspace.

I went on to self-publish another three books. These are books where I did very nearly everything (although I got a friend to help me edit the manuscripts — you really can’t edit your own manuscripts.) But I did the writing and page layout and cover art and interior art. And “promotion” — if you could call it that.

These books were not commercial successes. But I never expected them to be. I made them mostly for fun — so I could give copies of my poetry to friends and family. And to learn about self-publishing. It was an interesting and valuable experience. But I also came to appreciate how much work it is to self-publish.

I’ve never been traditionally published, although I’ve seen book publishing up close. I’ve worked on several book projects for traditional textbook publishers. And been invited on some of their junkets. My father published several books. And my brother has always been interesting in writing and publishing.

But the key point I’m making is that I’m not personally that invested in my writing becoming a significant part of my financial support. I wouldn’t mind, but that’s not primarily why I’m writing. And this fact drove a lot of my decisions about how I approached choosing a publisher for my work.

In Fall 2021, I signed a contract with Water Dragon Publishing (an imprint of Paper Angel Press) to publish my first work of speculative fiction in English, The Third Time’s the Charm. Working with a small press offers unique opportunities and challenges to an author. But it’s not for everyone. Anyone who is tempted to go with a small press should probably be aware of the trade-offs before signing a contract.

Publishers are a kind of specialized venture capital firm. They put up the capital to publish a book hoping to recoup their investment plus profit. But more importantly, a publisher hopes to discover the Next Big Thing. That’s what they’re really hoping to do: to discover the new writer today that becomes tomorrow’s great and famous writer.

Large (traditional) publishers basically require you to work with an agent. A small publisher probably won’t. Agents can be helpful in terms of negotiating the terms of the contract. And knowing which publishers are most likely to be interested in your manuscript (and, indeed whether your manuscript is likely to be publishable by one of the traditional publishers.) But, of course, their labor doesn’t come for free either. Their interests are aligned with yours but, at the same time, they’re also probably on friendly terms with the publishers too. (Make of that fact what you will.)

With a small publisher, you’re on your own. This is, front and center, one of the primary reasons that Writer Beware warns against small presses. “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” You, as the author, will be negotiating with them directly.

That said, a good small publisher will act like your agent for many of the tasks you would otherwise need to do yourself if you were self-publishing. And, in some ways, is better than an agent: An agent probably has some good ideas about what kinds of manuscripts a publisher is accepting. But the small publisher knows. 🙂

Small publishers tend to not have deep pockets. So don’t expect an advance. But you will probably get a more favorable revenue sharing arrangement. What does a small publisher do? They do the publishing: they edit your manuscript, do the layout, arrange for the cover art, etc., etc.

Perhaps, the biggest challenge is that small publishers (and authors) face is publicity. The large publishers have a track record and established relationships with the national vendors and media outlets to help get favorable placement for their authors in book stores and advertising. Small publishers mostly do not.

In point of fact, however, the large publishers have been pushing authors to take larger and larger roles in publicizing their work. Authors are encouraged to maintain a presence in social media and try to develop a fanbase that can help get “word-of-mouth” referrals, which is the gold standard (or, perhaps, best manure) for growing sales. And as the traditional publishers make the author do more and more of the publicity work anyway, there are fewer and fewer downsides to going with a small publisher anyway.

If you imagine a line between self-publishing (where you do everything) and traditional publishing, there are a whole range of small presses in between that offer more or fewer services. Shop around! Look at what kinds of books they’re already publishing: Will your work complement what’s already there? Do you like their selection of cover art?

And be sure to do your due diligence: What’s their track record? How long have they been around? Have they been reported as a vanity press? Are people complaining about them?

But if you do decide to go with a small press, you should understand that the relationship is a two-way street. The press has chosen to invest in your work. They’re going to do whatever they can to help you succeed. And that means it’s incumbent on you to also help your work succeed. You need to advocate for yourself and get your work out there. But you should also try to help raise the profile of the press: their success will also be your success.

Don’t publicize your book with links to distributors! Link directly to the publisher! They can provide the links to a range of vendors that buyers might prefer. And people going to look at your book might find other things at the press to buy.

Tag the press when you post about your work! Help the public to discover and learn about the press! The more people are looking at the press, the more likely they are to discover what other stuff they might have — including stuff you have there.

Work together with the other authors at the press! They can help cross-market your work and coordinate with publicity. And help discover opportunities (awards, conventions, etc.) that might be useful. Who knows? You might even make a friend or two.

At its best, your relationship with a small publisher is a kind of partnership. If you were self-publishing, you’d be on your own. But with a publisher, you’ve got someone you can work with, ask questions of, and get advice from. Take best advantage of this partnership and work together.