Before I get into the meat of this week’s column, I’d like to remind everyone who’s able to get to Vancouver that Oct 1 will mark the debut of our local convention’s FORTIETH year! Yes, VCON debuted the same year I went to my first convention—but it wasn’t this one. In 1975 I was living in Pullman, a smallish university town in Eastern Washington that hosts Washington State University (go, Cougars!). A few years prior, I had begun our local fan group (awkwardly called PESFA—the “Palouse Empire Science Fiction Association”) by hosting a free class on science fiction at the “Free University” at WSU. The Free University had been started by Paul Brians, a professor of English—if memory serves (and if not, I’m sure Paul, who’s long since retired and moved to Whidbey Island or someplace like that); it was a place where anyone could teach a “class” in anything they felt they knew enough about, and thought maybe there was enough interest in, things like breadmaking, juggling, or basket weaving. I started my class—which lasted a couple of years—as a way to find out if there were more SF readers in the area than me and my best friend, the late Jon Gustafson. We ended up with a loose “club” of about 20 people—out of a permanent resident population of maybe 16,000 combined in Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, eight miles away. Someone brought some fanzines at one point, and we became aware that there were conventions on the West Coast—conventions we could actually attend—where we could talk to other fans and even meet real, live SF authors!
At that point, in 1975, we barely knew there was a Canada up north of us (when you live in a tiny town nestled in the wheatfields of Southeastern Washington, you kind of get insular and isolated), let alone that there might be a fan community in the “other” Vancouver (for those who don’t know, Washington has its own Vancouver, much smaller than the Canadian city—Vancouver, WA is just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon). But we found out that on the Fourth of July weekend there was going to be a major SF convention in Oakland, California, called Westercon (it was #28, called the OakLaCon), and the Guests of Honour (GOHs) were David Gerrold, Charlie and Dena Brown and Ian and Betty Ballantine. So five of us (me, Jon Gustafson, Dan Mullen, George Allen (?) and possibly Dave Christie) piled into my little green Opel and drove the 860 miles to Oakland to our first ever convention. If we had only known!
We could have gone to Vancouver, BC to meet Guest of Honour Robert Silverberg at VCON 4 (If you’re wondering why the numbers don’t match to the dates, look it up on Google; there’s a lot of water under that particular bridge), and saved a lot of time and money, had we but known. (Actually, Westercon was so much fun!) We (Jon and I and other PESFAns) didn’t actually get to VCON until Westercon 30 (XXX), which was actually VCON 7; then after Norwescon 1 in Seattle and NonCon 1 in Edmonton, the rest of the group finally let me—and helped me—put on our own convention, MosCon 1, in 1978. As I said, we attended VCON 7/Westercon 30 (Figure 2 shows my younger sister—who was pregnant at the time—dressed for the masquerade). So Jon got to be Fan GOH at VCON 9, Mike and Beth Finkbiner (from PESFA) got to be Fan GOHs at VCON 14; and I got to be Toastmaster at VCONs 19 (which was Westercon 44) and 36; and my wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk was Art GOH at VCON 30! But I have never (hint, hint!) been Fan GOH at VCON. So anyway….
This coming October 2-4 weekend, VCON hosts its 40th annual convention, with Author GOH Joe Haldeman, Artist GOH Rick Sternbach, Fan GOH Steve Forty (who else?), Toastmaster Spider Robinson, Editor GOH Eric Choi, and Game Designer GOH Ed Greenwood! Unfortunately, online registration closed on Tuesday, September 15th, but there will be plenty of at-the-door tickets—both weekend and daily rate (reduced rates for students and seniors!) That is going to be one hellaciously fun weekend, folks, and it’s coming closer! The theme this year is time travel, so strap on your flux capacitor watch, hop into your DeLorean, and meet us in Vancouver!
All right! On to the review section! Up for review—with a fairly big chunk of advice for aspiring writers who haven’t yet published, and who are considering ebooks and self-publishing—the SF/F writer Ed Howdershelt. Right now you may be wondering why you’ve never seen any of Ed’s books in your local bookstore, whether it be Coles, Chapters or Barnes & Noble; the answer’s easy: Ed only makes ebooks of his writing, and has done so since he began self-publishing more than a decade ago (he feels that Print On Demand titles for paper books are too expensive: “I wouldn’t pay $24.00 retail for a paperback science fiction novel, so I wouldn’t ask anyone else to pay it,” he said).
*Thanks to an article by local author Joseph Picard (author of the recent novel Rubberman) in a book called How To Write A Book: Tips From Authors For Authors, from NightFire Publications, available from Amazon.com, I now know that you can actually have your books printed—trade paperback only, no hardcovers—for about $5 a copy (not including shipping/handling) from CreateSpace. So physical books—while still not as cheap to make as ebooks—are now reasonably affordable for the do-it-yourself author!* But I digress….
Ed has written both fiction and non-fiction, plus a category he calls “semi-fiction”; that is, SF books using people and incidents from his past—naturally, he changes people and place names to “protect the innocent,” as Dragnet’s intro used to say. In books like Bitten and Smitten, a vampire novel, he incorporates fictionalized material from his tour of Viet Nam. Ed is, by the way, the main—or at least the protagonist (Point of View or POV character as well)—character in most of his books; this is often a very bad idea for an author, but in my opinion he carries it off well. A word of caution for parents—most of Ed’s fiction includes some fairly explicit erotica; there’s nothing kinky, but many parents would feel the descriptions of sex between the protagonist and some of the many women who inhabit Ed’s books might be inappropriate for YA readers. Most commercial SF/F doesn’t include explicit sex, which might be one reason Ed chose to be an “indie,” or independent writer. Most of the covers, by the way, resemble figure 5, with only the title changed. He has written, and published as ebooks, something like 33 books (if I counted right). All of them are available from his website in various formats (as singles or bundles), from Fictionwise or Barnes & Noble as Nook books, and from Amazon.com in Kindle format as well as from two other locations as epubs or PDFs.
Figure 4 shows Ed on one of his many motorcycles—which, like his hang-gliding, are also featured in most of the books; both the motorcycles (usually Kawasaki Vulcans, and lately 1600 ccs or bigger) and his hang gliders are also described. If you’re at all interested in his motorcycling, he describes—in more than one book—why he uses a car tire (and lately a van tire) for his motorcycle back wheel: it gives him a better “footprint,” which means more traction, for example, when it’s raining, plus “When I hit the brakes, it’s like I dropped an anchor. Stop times and distances are amazingly short and the back wheel doesn’t try to wander much.” He also talks about the cooler on the back (see Figure 4) and why his hat stays on when he rides. (Speaking of the hat, he also talks about DragonCon in Atlanta; when he went this year, he told me, “they overbooked by about 30%. Or vastly under-anticipated, or something like that. 63,000 paid admissions. Lines like you see at Disneyworld rides, and halfway around the block to get into the vendors building. Every panel had people at the doors to say, ‘No more seats, no more room. Sorry’.” When he attended this year’s DragonCon, Tricia Helfer [Battlestar Galactica] tried his leather hat on.) Ed used to live in Florida, like his namesake protagonist, but now lives in Ohio.
So what kind of SF does he write? His most popular book series—up to 17 books at this point, and he is 11 chapters into number 18—is called 3rd World Products; the book titles just add the book number. Figure 5 is a separate stand-alone book not related to that series, and is about an alien unwillingly stranded on Earth many years ago, but if you substitute 3rd World Products Book 16 for Ansen, for example, you’ll see the cover of most of his books. Every fiction book I have read—I have read most of them, though not all—has Ed for a protagonist (POV) character. Like Ed the writer, Ed the character served in Viet Nam (he has the Viet Nam service ribbon on the back of his motorcycle cooler), and was a civilian contractor for more than one of the “spook” agencies in various countries. Which gives Ed the character a very colourful background that has come in handy in various books. The 3rd World Products series involves extremely human aliens who come to Earth looking for a new market for various technological wonders they are selling—and they’re also looking to set up a factory in the asteroid belt to make them! These are “field devices,” that can make tangible and intangible force fields to perform various tasks; the aliens also have real AIs (Artificial Intelligences). Ed is one of the earliest contactees, as he can sense these fields without equipment; he also becomes one of the earliest users of field devices and invents—without knowing anything about their inner workings—a portable field device that can be carried on the body and can generate fields in conjunction with a “core” (AI-run computer core).
After rereading all seventeen in a row it becomes impossible to single any one of that particular series out; I enjoyed them all. The aliens (they’re called Amarans; all of the known alien “races,” let’s call them that, are human, leading to theories about galactic “seeding”) are not in Florida to set up a factory; that will happen out in space, and the base will be in Carrington, North Dakota. They’re in Florida to mingle with the locals and acquire knowledge of Earth culture as it is, not as depicted in books, movies, etc. Since meeting Ed, who is ex-military, ex-spook (and doesn’t spook easily, forgive the pun, when he meets Ets) and knows how to keep his mouth shut. For that and various reasons Ed is asked to become a contractor for the company the Amarans have set up, which is called “3rd World Products.” Not at all coincidentally, his ex-boss Linda (from when he was a spook)—who is in a wheelchair, having lost her legs in an auto accident—is the top person of the 3rd World troubleshooting and liaison team, as she knows how to get things done; and she is the person who secretly nominated Ed to the Amarans as a contractor. The Amarans have, from our perspective, unbelievable medical technology, using both AI doctors and medical nanobots, and can heal just about any disease or medical condition known to mankind; new legs and a new spine are part of Linda’s price for working for the Amarans.
It gets better from there; this is only part of the first book. The Amarans have “flitters” capable of flying hundreds of miles above the planet (though not to the moon or the asteroid belt); Ed becomes the only person on Earth with his own personal flitter… all others are owned by 3rd World; he acquires the ability to make and direct fields directly through implants in his brain tied to the core; through Amaran nanotechnology Ed, Linda and others working for the Amarans acquire immunity to all disease and a lengthened lifespan. And there is adventure after adventure—17 books in all, so far (the real Ed has written 11 chapters of an 18th book, but has had health issues that have prevented its completion to this point—both on Earth and at the Amaran station in the Asteroid Belt; enough that by the end of book seventeen, we really know Ed (at least the character) pretty well. Sure, they’re wish-fulfillment; Piers Anthony—whom the real Ed has helped by installing/connecting a computer system—says of Ed’s writing in Stardancer that “This is adventure without particular depth, compelling as it goes but I think not for the ages.” Fun, well written, but maybe wouldn’t—if they were well known outside the ebook community—win Nebula awards (but possibly might win Hugos).
Which is not to say that they’re flawless; few books are. A few things that grate on me, personally, is the fact that Ed never fails, as far as I can see. (Even Jack Reacher gets a concussion now and again; see my last column) Ed finds a way over, through or around every obstacle thrown in his way… which is only noticeable once you’ve finished a book. Howdershelt uses certain memes over and over, too: the women who insist on misunderstanding what he (Ed the character) does or says; the way he calls every woman a “goddess” or “milady” (that gets really old really quick, in my opinion); the way he pours coffee into the hole in the lid of his travel mug and a few other somewhat minor things that are magnified if you read seventeen of the books in a row. Otherwise, you might not notice them. One of the particular things I like about Ed the character—which I’m sure Ed the writer would do if he could—is that when he becomes master of a flitter that can use field technology, and when he becomes master of field technology himself, he is always available to help local police and fire responders with accidents or incidents simply because he can!
So I give—for older readers—a thumbs-up (but although I was mistaken about the demographics of Jack Reacher readers, saying they were probably mostly male; Candas Jane Dorsey, the Edmonton, Alberta writer, told me in a comment that many women read Reacher as a vicarious way of not feeling powerless! Too many women SF/F readers have no way of feeling powerful—physically or mentally—when compared with men; Reacher is a way for them to feel that power as if they personally were able to right wrongs or even just intimidate people with physical presence.) with qualifications: first, because of the descriptions—never lurid, but usually fairly graphic—of sex scenes, the books aren’t really suitable for YA readers, who might really enjoy the SF stuff. Secondly, this time—because Howdershelt the character doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and many of his personal conflicts are with women in power—it may actually tick off some female readers, especially younger ones. (And here I might be thinking of Sarah Silverman‘s comment that people who get upset by PC stuff are old!)
One of the reasons I was reviewing this series today was to talk about ebooks versus physical ink-and-paper books, and the successes—whether you view money or awards or simply getting readers as success symbols—that can accrue to ebook writers. I know that many ink-and-paper published writers are now getting into ebook publishing; maybe not necessarily through their own efforts, but also because the traditional “big”publishers are beginning to see ebooks not just as an adjunct to traditional publishing, but as a force in themselves. And the vendors, too: brick-and-mortar bookstores generally don’t, as far as I know, concern themselves with ebooks. Right now, there are fewer brick-and-mortar stores than there were even a decade ago, and one of the best ebook markets, Fictionwise, once one of the top places to buy ebooks, has become just a front-end for Barnes & Noble. But Ed has never published paper books, so what has that meant in terms of what he would consider success? (At least one of his 3rd World Products books is on the Fictionwise list of all-time best-sellers, the “Fictionwise Top 50.”)
I put the question to Ed: “What—in terms of sales—has worked out best for you: your Abintra Press website, your Amazon.com sales, or Fictionwise?” (In case I didn’t mention it, Ed’s Abintra Press offers a $40 US deal where you can buy all his SF ebooks at once!) He said, “Fictionwise was the absolute best sales venue before BN bought it. Now I sell more from my website than Amazon and Amazon sells much more than Barnes & Noble.”
“And without getting into information that’s not really our business,” I asked, “how much would you say your writing ebooks only has garnered you over the last decade or so? Has it really been worth the time and energy you put into it?”
“Well, Piers Anthony told me,” Ed said, “that I made more in my first year of selling through Fictionwise than most new authors received as advances. Added benefit: no publisher chargebacks. When I put my first 4 titles on Fictionwise (2001), quarterly checks ran around $2,000. Adding a couple of titles a year kept the numbers high for almost a decade. Fictionwise knew how to market indie ebooks. Barnes & Noble does NOT.”
I might add here that according to Publishers Weekly (in a story published on September 11), the Authors Guild surveyed their members about how much they make from full-time writing. (The survey, conducted this spring by the Codex Group, is based on responses from 1,674 Guild members, 1,406 of whom identified either as a full-time author, or a part-time one. The majority of respondents also lean older—89% are over the age of 50—and toward the traditionally published end [64%].) The unsurprising result was that most full-time writers in the U.S. would be living below the Federal Poverty Level if they relied solely on income from their writing.
Ed continued: “I can, however, list some things paid for by ebooks:
- A new roof on a 3 bedroom home in Florida. Not just a re-shingle; much of the wood was replaced.
- A 60-foot screen porch behind the same home.
- Cataract surgery on both eyes in 2007, roughly $5000 total.
- A 2007 Ford Focus Station Wagon in 2009.
- My last 3 motorcycles, all Kawasaki Vulcans. I went from 750cc to 1600cc in 3 bikes, selling the old ones myself rather than trading them in.
- Some of the money paid off various debts between 2003 and 2006. Other than what’s left of a home mortgage, I’ve been debt-free ever since.
If becoming debt-free isn’t enough encouragement, I don’t know what would qualify. :)”
So there you have it. Want to write books? Maybe you can take a page from Ed’s book(s) and self-publish; just remember that because ebook authors number in the many thousands, you will need to have a marketing scheme in order to make your books stand out, whether you publish paper books (like Joseph Picard) or ebooks like Ed, or a combination of the two. In a future column, I will have some ideas about that for you too.
Just remember that before you self-publish, you MUST get someone—preferably someone with an English degree, and not a friend or family—to edit your book. It’s not enough just to have a good plot, tell a good story or have involving characters or situations: you need to have a readable book. Because—let’s say you self-publish an ebook and get it on Amazon, which will have a sample chapter available—if a prospective buyer looks into your book and it’s badly written, the writing is what will show up before the buyer gets into plot or character, and then you are sunk! I’ve read too many self-published books lately where, had it not been my tablet or computer, I would have screamed in frustration and thrown the book across the room! (I can’t afford to do that with a tablet or computer, where I have done so with paper books.) Once a reader thinks you are a bad writer, you will probably never get that reader back. Think about it. I may do a whole column on how to edit your own book, but it’s better if someone else checks your writing.
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