Category Archives: self-publishing

The Martian: A Modern Classic


This week­end, my body has been clean­ing the house, doing some Kindle admin, mow­ing the lawn, and eat­ing. My mind, how­ever, has been on Mars, thanks to the audiobook The Martian by Andy Weir.

I’m not going to tease you: This is the best hard sci­ence fic­tion book I’ve read in years, pos­sibly since Dune. Bear in mind that:

  • I don’t keep up with cur­rent fash­ions in sci­ence fic­tion, so maybe there are bet­ter hard sci­ence fic­tion volumes out there

  • I don’t like polit­ic­ally earn­est (or even insin­cere) sci­ence fiction

  • I may not even know what hard sci­ence fic­tion is, given that I’ve included Dune as an example

  • This book isn’t a door­stop with eighty char­ac­ters, sub­plots, and a gloss­ary of swear­words used on the planet Ah’hrrhr!g. It’s as long as it needs to be and that’s that.

The Martian begins with astro­naut Mark Watney regain­ing con­scious­ness on the sur­face of Mars hav­ing been left for dead by his crew­mates. What fol­lows is a grip­ping novel that reads like Apollo 13 on an epic scale: to make it, Mark has only his wits, his sci­entific train­ing as a bot­an­ist and an engin­eer, and re-runs of 1970s TV shows. Meanwhile, NASA is work­ing around the clock to help him work out ingeni­ous solu­tions to life-threatening prob­lem after life-threatening problem.

Here are some things that occurred to me as I searched for more chores this week­end in order to pro­long my listen­ing time:

  • If you’re going to write about space, know about space.

    • Get shit right. If you wrote a novel about foot­ball, you’d be embar­rassed if you didn’t know the off­side rule.
  • Just because the set­ting is highly tech­nical, that doesn’t mean your char­ac­ters can’t be well-rounded, human, and funny.

  • If you’re not inter­ested in pub­lish­ing tra­di­tion­ally, go ahead and do it anyway.

As far as I’m aware, Andy Weir wrote this book as a free serial. That’s when he star­ted to pick up read­ers. The ori­ginal draft he uploaded to the Kindle had plenty of typos, but by doing his home­work and writ­ing well, Mark accrued so much good will that his rat­ings were sky high.

Now, the novel has been picked up by a major pub­lisher. Andy Weir deserves it. He didn’t set out to make money, but I hope he does, because I’ve paid a lot more over the years for sci­ence fic­tion that is well below the bar set by The Martian. You know what? I’ve just pre-ordered a phys­ical copy for £12.99. It’ll be released in early February and it’ll be going onto my shelf.

In case you didn’t between the lines, I liked this book very much. Here’s my Amazon review:

This book is, quite simply, one of the most engross­ing reads I’ve come across for a long time. It’s metic­u­lously researched, funny, mov­ing, and just about the pin­nacle of hard SF.

Conversations in the Margin of Déjà Vu

So I’m not a dir­ector. But, if I were, I’d be first in the chair when they asked me to chat­ter away about the movie. I’m a writer, and I’m doing the next best thing.

I’m not sure where I first came across ReadMill. Somebody on Twitter men­tioned it, I expect. ReadMill is a com­pany that provides read­ing applic­a­tions for mobile devices. So far so nor­mal. The Kindle applic­a­tions do this, too. What sets ReadMill apart is that its applic­a­tions are well designed–to judge from the iPad one, at least–and allow read­ers to have con­ver­sa­tions in the margins.

I’ve always thought that the high­lights fea­ture on the Kindle was a missed oppor­tun­ity for Amazon because of the rel­at­ive lack of inter­activ­ity. ReadMill addresses that.

So here’s what I did, and what you can do too (with most books).

  1. Sign up with ReadMill.

  2. Buy a book on any one of these ser­vices. I down­loaded Déjà Vu from the Kobo store, where it is cur­rently free.

  3. Download the ReadMill app for your mobile device.

  4. Sync your lib­rary and look for com­ments by other read­ers. If you have Déjà Vu, you’ll see my ‘director’s commentary’.

What kinds of things am I includ­ing? Well, I’m not sure what people will find inter­est­ing, so I’m adding bits of trivia, thoughts on the cre­at­ive pro­cess (nat­ur­ally), and hints about deleted scenes. You can see some of them on the ReadMill page itself.

At some point in the near future, I’ll be work­ing with ReadMill on a giveaway of Déjà Vu. For the time being, if you want to check out what it’s like to use (remem­ber that the app and my book are free right now), it’s worth a shot.

Branching Out

In April of 2011, I pub­lished my only novel, Déjà Vu to the Kindle store. I was at the end of my tether with the intransigent (for me) tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing industry. I had a story I believed in and nowhere to place it. Finally, I chose the Kindle store, which was the only game in town. Over the next two years, I made enough money to edit, proof and dec­or­ate my four remain­ing books (Flasback, The Amber Rooms, and Proper Job. So my pro­fes­sional writ­ing has sus­tained itself financially.

One of the great aspects of the Kindle store is the Kindle Select Programme. This allows authors to make books free for a period (five days in every ninety) in return for exclus­iv­ity. Even though the per­cent­age of people down­load­ing and, cru­cially, read­ing free books is not high, the deal worked out well for me. Off the back of these pro­mo­tions, my books ten­ded to ride high in the paid chart after­ward, and many of the best reviews of Déjà Vu begin with “I down­loaded this for free and wasn’t expect­ing much, but…”

But. The Kindle Select pro­gramme isn’t what it used to be. Probably as a res­ult of Amazon mov­ing its focus away from Select (and because the algorithm might sup­press older books), the pro­gramme is one of dimin­ish­ing returns. Eventually, the exclus­iv­ity isn’t worth it.

At the same time, I’ve been mov­ing towards a more auto­mated way of pro­du­cing books, as you can see in these posts. I’ve now reached the point where a single text file (the novel, styled using Markdown) can be passed to a pro­gram designed to gen­er­ate val­id­ated ebooks (com­plete with table of con­tents, about the author, and so on) for Kindle, PDF, and iBooks.

About iBooks. I did use the Smashwords meat-grinder, once upon a time, to pub­lish Déjà Vu in many ebook stores, includ­ing the iBook­store. There was one advant­age to this and sev­eral dis­ad­vant­ages. The advant­age: It was free, and that’s great. The disadvantages:

  • The pro­duced ver­sions looked like crap (incon­sist­ent place­ment of images; vari­able line height within body text; even–saints pre­serve us–failure to indent at the start of chapters).

  • At the time, the Amazon Kindle store was huge, and even good sales for these oth­ers amoun­ted to pennies.

The first dis­ad­vant­age was the killer for me, though the second might have iced my cake. I del­is­ted the book from Smashwords. This meant that Déjà Vu appeared briefly on iBooks. Enough to pick up a couple of reviews, then disappear.

Déjà Vu is now back on the iBook­store. It looks good. I designed it (and all my other books) from the ground up using Markdown, CSS and Apple’s proof­ing tools. My pre­cious indent­ing is cor­rect and the over­all impres­sion is much closer to a pro­fes­sional one. I’ve even added my own fleur­ons.

We’ll see what hap­pens with regards to sales. My sus­pi­cion is that they remain quiet because Apple’s sales are driven almost entirely by brand name and expos­ure on the front page of the site. Amazon, by con­trast, is much more aggress­ive about push­ing unknown authors on the basis of match­mak­ing to the reader’s book his­tory. M’acquaintance Scott Pack, relates his exper­i­ence of pub­lish­ing Confessions of a GP on iBooks, which bene­fit­ted extremely from front-of-store pro­mo­tion by Apple. Advertising is the Achilles’ Heel of the inde­pend­ent author; we just don’t have the clout. Everything has to be word of mouth, and the iBook­store isn’t good at amp­li­fy­ing that.

Are you ask­ing your­self: “But, Ian, how can I help you out?” If so, you are very kind. The main dif­fi­culty for me is the lack of reviews. Each book starts afresh. (I’m not sure what the iBooks policy is on includ­ing Amazon cus­tomer reviews in their product descrip­tions; I might check that out.) But if you’ve read any of my books and feel dis­posed towards rat­ing them once again on iBooks, I will feel briefly warm and fuzzy.

You can see all my iBook­store books here.