For our second interview I was lucky enough to speak with techno-thriller author and Bay Area native, Eliot Peper.
Eliot Peper writes fast-paced, deeply-researched stories with diverse casts that explore the intersection of technology and society. He is the author of Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and The Uncommon Series and his books have hit #1 in their categories and been praised by The Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, io9, and Ars Technica. Eliot is an editor at Scout and an adviser to entrepreneurs and investors. He has helped build various technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil’s Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, TechCrunch, and the Chicago Review of Books and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, Future in Review, and the Conference on World Affairs. His sixth novel, Bandwidth, comes out May 1st, 2018 and follows a group of techno utopian activists hacking the global feed to influence the psychology of world leaders. Eliot also maintains a popular reading recommendation newsletter in which he shares books that crackle with big ideas, challenge assumptions, and find meaning in a changing world.
Eliot and I share mutual friends and though we have traveled in similar circles, we hadn’t connected until this year. Eliot is super smart and resourceful and has been very generous in sharing his wisdom and offering me guidance. I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview him for this series, and I think you all will enjoy his insights into publishing.
Interview with Eliot Peper 12/7/17
Tell me a little about the books you have written. What genres do you write in? How long have you been writing? How long have you been publishing? How many books have you published?
I started writing in the fall of 2012. Since then I’ve published five novels, and my sixth is coming out next May.
I write science fiction thrillers about the intersection of technology and culture. My books are fast-paced, deeply-researched, near-future stories about the social impacts of technology. I write about what I like to learn about. I think exploring those themes via human stories, versus essays or analytical pieces, can provide more useful insights.
When you first decided to publish, which methods of publishing did you consider?
When I decided to start working on my first novel, it was because I was looking to read a certain kind of book, but I couldn’t find any like it. So I decided I would write it.
At the time I was working for a venture capital firm that invested in startups. I was in this world of tech startups and I saw so much human drama: people starting new companies, creating tech that they hoped would change the world, fortunes won and lost. It was a fascinating milieu.I was surprised that there wasn’t more fiction that took place with that as the setting. A lot of the fiction that did take place there, felt like they didn’t know what working and living in that world was actually like. I thought that world was compelling, so I decided to try my hand at writing about it. I didn’t do any planning. I didn’t have an outline. I just knew I wanted to write a thriller that took place in the world of tech startups.
I always planned on publishing that novel. I’d been blogging for awhile and done a lot of work on the internet, so I was aware that I could always self-publish. I decided I was going to write this book for myself and I hoped there were other people out there who would feel the same way I do.
Once I started writing that book, I began researching what my publishing options were. I started to ask, how does this whole process work? What are the different options?
When I learned about the traditional publishing path of finding an agent and querying publishers, I realized that that path can take several years, and there are a lot of factors that are outside of the writer’s control. At that time, that did not appeal to me. I had built and launched products before. I was confident that I could hire editors and cover designers myself.
Along the way, I had been sharing rough drafts with a friend who happened to be a major venture capital investor. When I sent him the final draft, he said, “Hey, I’m starting a publishing company, would you be interested in publishing with us?” It was not my plan, but I had a lot of respect for him. I jumped at the opportunity to work with him. So my first few books were published with FG press, a small press based out of Boulder, Colorado.
How did this change over your next books? What factors were important to you or influenced your decision?
I learned a lot about publishing and the publishing industry working with FG Press. I loved working with them; I had a blast. But I had always remained interested in going the indie route. Essentially, I was an entrepreneur before I became a writer. As an indie, you have complete creative control. The internet has changed the publishing industry and the medium such that you can now self-publish really professionally. So I decided to go indie with that third book.
Right around that time, FG Press closed their doors. I got my start with them, and I owe them a lot. They were incredibly generous in dealing with all of their authors as they shut down. They gave us back our IP and handled the closing of the press really professionally.
So, along with the third book, I re-released the first two books independently. That started stage 2 for me, which was self-publishing.
I now have five books and a short story self-published and I really enjoy that whole process. I put my books through at least as rigorous a process as the big five traditional publishers. Often I’m working with people who have worked in the traditional publishing industry. My philosophy is that readers come first. Anything I offer needs to be at the same level of quality as they would see from anyone else. They don’t care whether my book is published by Crown or TOR.
That was Books 1-5, but last summer I signed a three-book deal with Amazon Publishing. The first book Bandwidth comes out next May. I’m midway through writing the second book of that sequence now.
Can you tell us about the difference between Amazon Publishing and the other Traditional Publishing houses, and why you decided to sign a deal with them?
Big Five publishers own many of the imprints that people see on the spine of books. Usually, when people say traditional publishing they are referring to five companies all based in New York.
Amazon Publishing is a new publisher, fully owned and operated by Amazon. It operates just like a publishing house. Just like Amazon Studios is an independent film and TV studio.
It operates just like Random House but is owned by Amazon. If you look at industry sales data, like the Author Earnings Reports, Amazon Publishing is rising quickly as a new large player.
When I look at publishing, I don’t have anything against traditional publishing. It’s not a philosophical divide between owning all your stuff and working with a publisher. When you look at the pros and cons of both, the benefits and drawbacks change depending on how famous you are. The more famous you are, the better it works out for you in traditional publishing, because you have people coming to you and asking for you to do work for them.
If you are an unknown author, you are in the weakest possible position for negotiating. It’s really hard to get a deal and a fair deal. I’ve been in a lot of contract negotiations. I know how unappealing it is to have no leverage.
What ended up happening last year was I had a book come out and it had an internet moment. Cumulus went viral on Reddit. It was random and non-engineered. That then caused me to get a lot of inbound inquiries from literary agents, film agents, and publishers. They started asking me, what are the rights to this book? Who owns this? Who represents you? What are the plans for this?
For every book, I do a recalculation of what is the best publishing path for this book right now. That answer can change and it can even change for previous books as my situation changes.
With the new series, I asked the same questions. Amazon Publishing reached out to me. The acquiring editor had read Cumulus, and asked if I was working on anything. I said yes and sent her what I was working on. They read it and said they wanted to make an offer. Within about three weeks we had a three-book deal done. I hired an IP lawyer to assist in the contract negotiations.
I was more excited to work with Amazon Publishing then perhaps any other publisher, because they understand Amazon readers. The vast majority of ebooks are sold on Amazon. The vast majority of audio books are sold on Audible. Close to half of all print books are sold on Amazon. They have insight into those readers. Because they have the secret sauce, they can make good decisions about my books.
As it should be for any author, it will be a book-by-book decision for me in the future. It’s about finding partners that you work well with. The best fit for one writer is not the best fit for another writer. I know trad writers who would hate the project management piece of self-publishing, and indie writers who would hate to give up creative freedom. Make sure that you internalize your decisions and understand them so that you don’t complain about them later.
Did you work with an editor? A cover designer? A publicist? A marketer? How did you find these people? Were they provided by your publishing company or did you find them yourself?
For self-publishing, I’ve worked with development editors, copy editors, professional proofreaders, cover, and interior designers. I found each of them. It was a very book-to-book process. I found some of them from having worked with them previously at the small press. We had a good working relationship so I worked with them again, this time directly.
I found others through a lot of research on online forums. I also knew authors and asked them for recommendations. Now I would recommend Reedsy. Reedsy is an online platform for finding the professionals that you need to publish. It wasn’t around when I started.
For new people I didn’t know, I asked for referrals, references, and some sample edits. Sample edits work well for a copy editor or proofreader. If you can proofread 5 pages, you can proofread 500. But for hiring a developmental editor, sample edits are sort of useless.
If you are hiring a developmental editor, you really need to make sure that your worldviews align and that you are on the same page. With proofreaders, something is either grammatically correct or not, and you can decide whether you want to accept it or not.
I tried to hire a PR person, and I literally couldn’t. I did use Reedsy to look for a PR person. I asked very basic questions about what they had achieved for previous clients, and they couldn’t answer them. I hired a friend once on one book launch to help me stay on track, but otherwise, everything on the PR and Marketing side I handled myself.
Do you enjoy handling the marketing yourself? What have you done to promote your book? Have you seen that any of these things have had a big impact on sales? Were any of these methods rewarding in other ways?
I do enjoy doing PR and marketing because I look at it in a specific way. Some people just say they hate marketing. What they are really saying is that they hate bad marketing. I actually enjoy the marketing I do for its own sake.
I maintain an email list with reading recommendations for fans of my novels. I like reading. And it turns out that fans of my book like to know what I’m reading. Sending out some ideas of what I’ve been reading lets me have interesting conversations with my readers.
I also interview the authors I love and then publish the articles in various periodicals. If you have a question for an author and you actually get to ask them, it’s really special. It’s really meaningful to get to connect with those writers. I’ve learned a lot from those conversations that have synthesized into my future creative processes. And you can build a relationship with those writers, and sometimes they end up being excited about what you’re writing.
I’m really enthusiastic about the art that I love and I share that enthusiasm with other people. That’s what I think of as marketing.
There are other more tactical ways to do things. Like if you writing a book about a topic, then trying to go to the places where those people hang out so that your work gets in front of them. You can write an article about your subject matter so you can connect with those people. I try to be pretty careful with how I think about marketing so that I keep having fun.
What are the benefits you see of your chosen method of publishing? What are the drawbacks?
There are things I‘ve done with self-publishing that would have been harder to do otherwise. When I was self-publishing, I was publishing two books a year. Because traditional publishing houses need to slot other writers in, they sometimes don’t support a pace like that.
Some of my books are in the 50-70 thousand word range. That is short for a traditional novel in the genres in which I write, but it was the right length for my stories. If someone asked me to pad a story that was complete, I wouldn’t do it. Just like I wouldn’t cut from a story that needed the word count it had. There are norms in traditional publishing that could have made my work much harder to sell. So there are things like that with self-publishing that I’ve taken advantage of.
What it comes down to is that no matter how you publish, you are going to have to learn a lot about publishing. To be an indie publisher, you have to learn about hiring designers, and publishing, and uploading your books. If you go traditional, you have to learn about agents, querying, cooperation, and working with an editor. And all those things are good to learn.
Your priority as a writer should be to tell the best story you can, then learn about the other areas and try to figure out how to offer the reader your best work. Write a book that you are proud of.
When people talk about publishing there is a lot of noise in the room. When writers talk about publishing, it is just how you share your writing with the world. Your work is your intellectual property. So that means read your contract and understand all the terms. Know where your rights are. It’s the same with self-publishing: you are in charge and you need to realize all the stuff you are getting into.
Being an artist is being an entrepreneur, because you are putting your work out into the world. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be fast. But it is the only way.
I don’t think there’s ever been a better time in history to start writing and to start publishing. We are blessed that we even need to discuss the tradeoffs of different paths. If you were in any previous time in history, we wouldn’t be having these discussions. We have choice and that is a good thing. There’s never been a better time to be a writer so run with it.
Don’t think about the pros and cons of indie publishing, think about the best way to publish this work. It doesn’t make sense to evaluate any option, without evaluating all of them. It depends on the work, the goals, and the writer. If you want to win the next Booker prize, it is going to be hard to get the book into the right hands if you self-publish. If you want to grow a readership and you are an unknown author, it is going to be hard to do that with a traditional publisher because there are a lot of milestones in between you and your goals.
Do you write full time or do you have another job? Would you say profits from your books make up a minuscule, small, medium, large, or all of your current income?
Income from my books makes up a large component of my current income. I’m a strategic advisor to a couple different companies, but writing is the vast majority of my income.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were publishing your first book? And what advice would you give a writer who is just starting out?
I wish I had known to enjoy the feeling of pub day. You are so worked up about it and so excited. Sometimes you are so excited that it gets in the way of the feeling of satisfaction. That’s too bad because you are only ever going to publish your first book once. No matter how you are publishing it’s really cool that you wrote a book and it’s out in the world. Even if you only sell 10 copies, it’s still a huge accomplishment. It’s something many people want to do, and now you’ve done it.
I was so involved in trying to be successful and checking the rankings. Now I try to carve out time when my book comes out to say, ‘that what awesome’.
Relax and take some time for reflection so you can appreciate what you’ve done. Writing and publishing can be a painful process. So it’s important to take that time to process what you’ve learned and to appreciate the effort you put in.
What are you working on now? And how can people find out more about you?
I have a book called Bandwidth coming out next May. If you like reading fast-paced, near-future thrillers it might be up your alley. It is a story about the accelerated impact of climate change and how algorithms shape our lives. If you’re excited about it, check it out.
If you like reading, you might enjoy my reading recommendations newsletter.
For anyone who would like to learn more about the tactical details of Eliot’s publishing and marketing experience, he’s shared this article from Indie Hackers: https://www.indiehackers.com/businesses/eliot-peper
Thanks to Eliot for the great discussion, and thanks to you all for reading!