What We’ve Learned: Conversation between SFWG Founders Alain Gomez, C.c. Kelly and Jason Varrone

Alain Gomez: So I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t help but laugh at myself when I think about the things I did when I first started publishing compared to the things I’m doing right now.

I found out about self-publishing when I got an e-mail ad from Barnes & Noble that promised me a surefire path to success. At the time I had one completed novella that I had been writing off and on since high school and one short story. I had never even considered publishing them because I knew they were both too short.

The ad made everything sound so easy. It said something like, “Just upload your work and let our website do the rest.” How easy is that? So I uploaded my work with no cover art and only to the Barnes and Noble website. (I thought to myself about the cover art, “If the story was truly as great as I thought it was, people would buy it no matter what”). I found out about Amazon’s self-publishing a week later but I stupidly refused to upload there for almost a month because I was “team B&N.”

C.c. Kelly: And now?

Alain Gomez: It’s incredible to me how much of a learning curve I had to go through. Like how to distribute to a wider audience, social media, the importance of editing, how to make cover art, how to FIND cover art…the list goes on.

In retrospect, I’m not sure if I even would have published that first story if I had known what I was getting myself into.

What about you guys?

C.c. Kelly: I came about this a little differently. I got my Nook and started reading Indies without even knowing it at first, and then, once I learned what was happening, decided to explore providing cover art for writers. Then I discovered Konrath’s blog and, well, now I’m almost a year into my own learning curve.

Jason Varrone: I’ve always wanted to write, and did so from the time I was about 6 until middle school, creating cheesy little fantasy stories. Then I stopped, lost confidence in myself. Life then got in the way: college, marriage, kids, house, the suburban nightmare, or dream, depending on your viewpoint.

Finally, when I was 39, I just decided I was wasting my time dreaming of doing it, and sat my booty down and wrote a short non-fiction book about taking back control of your time. I self-published it on Amazon and the indie author craze took hold and refuses to let go.

Alain Gomez: Are you guys going about things differently now that you’ve had some experience under your belts?

Jason Varrone: Absolutely. It is easy to get caught up in all the other aspects of being an indie: cover design, Twitter, Facebook, other marketing platforms, e-book formatting, etc. Then the actual writing time dwindles and dwindles, and the next thing you know, you barely have time to get out 1,000 words.

A writer writes. I know that’s a cheesy line from age-old writing manuals, but it is the foundation of our passion.

Farm out the services you can, and just write.

C.c. Kelly: I’ve always written, mostly short stories. I had no idea self-publishing was even an option until last year. I had my stack of rejection letters, like many Indies, and once I realized this was possible, I jumped in with both feet.

I have a background in marketing, but I still spent the better part of six months establishing a brand in my cover art and design and refining my genre. Each genre has its own customer expectations regarding covers. And that is just one small part of the process.

I’ve tried to build on each new element I’ve learned. And there are so many, from the craft of writing to covers, blurbs, distribution and marketing in general. And the industry changes almost monthly, so I’m constantly researching the business side and remaining open to oppotunuties.

Jason Varrone: I think we can also get caught up in the perfect being the enemy of the good: the search for the perfect blurb, the perfect cover, the perfect opening line…it’s all unnecessary. Obviously you don’t want to embarrass yourself. But if the cover is professional looking, your blurb is attractive, and you continually learn new writing skills, it’s all good.

Alain Gomez: I think the biggest difference for me is how much time I spend promoting my work. I agree, Jason, writers write. But it took me a long time to “get that.” I used to obsess over staying up-to-date with Twitter/Facebook/Blogs/Goodreads. And it honestly burned me out.

I think this is a trap a lot of new authors (as in, published) fall into. They expect instant results and blow all of their energy on the wrong things.

Jason Varrone: I hear you, Alain. I spent more time trying to design covers and learn e-book formatting and my writing suffered tremendously as a consequence.

C.c. Kelly: I was mostly worried about the writing when I started. I quickly realized that the actual book was only a small part of the  business of self-publishing, the most important part, but still. I agree though, the pursuit of perfection can be a waste of time, which is not the same thing as a “good enough” mentality.

I was just blown away by how much there was to learn. I’m just happy I heard the mantra “Indie publishing is a marathon” early on and based my goals accordingly.

Jason Varrone: It is most definitely a marathon. And a heavy dose of luck can come in handy as well. It’s a shame we don’t hear more often about short fiction taking off, like Wool and some others, but it is rare, and there is a fair bit of luck involved.

Alain Gomez: I feel like short fiction is really more of a numbers game than it is for novels.

Jason Varrone: That’s the cool thing about short fiction: instant gratification and sense of accomplishment by publishing short stories quickly.

C.c. Kelly: The harder you work, the luckier you get. Who has the next cliché?

I’m not sure about the numbers game as an absolute. I think satisfying a particular audience is very important, specifically your own. Which doesn’t mean writing for the market, but writing within your genre, within your reader’s expectations.  I think it’s possible to do well with fewer titles.

Alain Gomez: Right. But I’ve seen so many authors write/publish 10 short stories, the stories don’t sell, and then they give up on them. A single short story has no hope of survival. In order to appeal to that niche, you need 50+ stories.  100 stories to 1 reader rather than 1 story to 100 readers.

C.c. Kelly: I’ve found that short stories take a fair amount of time, because everything matters so much more than in a novel. They must be much more precise. Although, less time to write than a typical novel.

I think people pick up on the exceptions, like Wool. But yes, to establish a brand as a short story writer, your odds improve by publishing lots of shorts and fairly quickly.

Jason Varrone: Right, other than the occasional lightning-struck story that sells in massive quantities, a major key is volume. Let’s face it, short fiction is a niche product. It does not appeal to the masses, to our detriment, so constantly filling the market and bumping your chances of some success is vital.

C.c. Kelly: But, shorts do seem to be gaining popularity. Especially with short novella length series.

Alain Gomez: So what future adjustments are you guys going to make to your publishing strategy?

I’ve been aiming more for the novelette-length work. It takes me a few extra weeks to write but it seems to be worth it. That length sells better and you can charge more for it.

C.c. Kelly: Besides write more?

Alain Gomez: Haha. Seriously, that’s not a bad strategy.

C.c. Kelly: I’m planning on two collections, more shorts, two novels this summer, and I’ll be starting a new pen name for a new YA-ish drama. And I plan to get more involved with Goodreads, not so much as an author, but it’s just a cool place to hang out.

Jason Varrone: Well, right now I am branching into novel-length work. I am probably going to intersperse some short stories within the same series during that time.

I wish I had time to “hang out.” 🙂

C.c. Kelly: Ah, you have to make time. I find the whole indie thing fun and exciting, inspirational even.

My works have been getting longer, but in an organic way. It’s just taking longer to tell the story.

I do think there is a length that readers enjoy and serves e-books well, the short novella. Apart from the novels already in editing, I’ll probably try to work in this length, assuming my characters cooperate.

Jason Varrone: The bottom line with short fiction, to me, anyway, is that it is just a fun format to both read and write, a nice bite-sized nugget filled with crunchy goodness.

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9 thoughts on “What We’ve Learned: Conversation between SFWG Founders Alain Gomez, C.c. Kelly and Jason Varrone

  1. I have just published my first full-length book. I agree that I also find myself getting caught up in the “stuff” and doing less writing. I did learn a great deal from this experience though, like I am NOT a cover designer or all that great at formatting. So, I hired that stuff out.

    I also have gotten caught up in the trap of staying on Twitter and Facebook to hype my book and gather followers. I need to wake up and realize that I am getting away from what I love about being an author…the writing. I do want to make a living from my writing, but I must learn balance.

    I have started the follow up to the new book. At the same time I am writing short stories for a compilation book (because short stories are my first love).

    I’m glad to see that someone else has my same struggles.

    • The thing is with social media is that unless you’re already famous, you’re not going to have a following hanging on your every word. It’s very rare to become famous from social media alone.

      So the logical energy output should be on the product that will make you famous =D

  2. Wow my path is a lot like Jason’s. I just decided to stop talking about writing and just do it this summer (I’ll be 39 in October). I started with short fiction, and really enjoyed it. I’m attempting a novel now, but short stories sure are fun to write.

  3. Very interesting. What I think is important to consider is the life-line that the new technology offered our craft. It’s not very long ago that headlines in obscure places would as if the short story were dead or not, usually concluding that it either was or was about to be. That was backed up by sales in traditional publishing.

    The ebook has given the story a new lease of life and has brought a lot of writers out of the darkness/woodwork/garret and thank goodness for that.

    It does mean that the short story will always have a slight battle on its hands in terms of sales, but I’m happy to celebrate the fact that there’s a market out there (more that there’s a readership) at all.

    It’s a craft and a passion and maybe an obsession this short form and it’s a great skill to work at. Let’s hope we can make the market bigger by writing great pieces.

  4. I spent my whole life making up stories as well. I’ll be 40 in a few days, but about a year ago my wife basically demanded that I start writing full-time. I’d spent over 15 years in the tech industry and we had spent our money well, and also saved well. Basically…this is what I get to do for as long as I want to do it.

    I’d have to give the biggest props to both Konrath and Amazon. Amazon for giving us the opportunity to get our work out to readers without the gatekeepers of traditional publishing putting the damper on it, and of course Konrath for laying it all out. I was pretty lost as well, but luckily I found Konrath’s blog the same day I finally decided I needed cover art. Then I found The Passive Voice, which I read every day as well. Now Kboards is kind of ‘writing home’. All great places where you can find a wealth of information about every aspect of publishing (and writing).

    I love writing full-length novels, but my passion will always be short stories, flash fiction, and novellas. I’ve spent a ton of money on sci-fi and fantasy anthologies over the last twenty years, and was disappointed to hear that ‘the short story is dead’ from apparently The Internet. Then again, The Internet keeps trying to tell me that the only way I will ever be taken serious is to have a traditional publisher. Hmph.

    Thanks to you guys for having a site dedicated to the short fiction. I wish more readers understood what short fiction really is about and gave it more of a chance.

  5. Some interesting stuff there.

    I did the same: finally decided to stop thinking about writing and get on with it. I’ve written on and off for years, but rarely finished anything.

    I wrote a novel, but before I started rewriting I read a Konrath piece (I think) on short stories, how you could sell them standalone and in compilations so your work went further, it meshed with the advice of needing more than one book to become a success.

    I aimed to write five of 5,000 words. I completed five, but the shortest is 8,500 words. I’m slowly releasing them as they each finish their multiple drafts. It’s already taught me a lot.

    Shorter fiction does seem to be a harder sell, especially when you can’t go below 99 cents and many full-length novels are the same price.

    One aspect I’m interested to see develop is serial releases, multiple novellas that are then rolled into a novel (like Wool). I’m hoping to do that with one of the shorts I’ve written.

    It’s exciting times in the publishing industry, with the whole thing being shaken up and the rules for success being rewritten daily.

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