June 2006

Editorial: I Un-Changed My Name

Publisher's Note: The personal views of the publisher, expressed here, do not necessarily mirror those of other contributors to this magazine. This is always strictly my own personal rant.

Mars the Divine Clocktower Books has released the first of a new series of SF novels—Mars the Divine by John T. Cullen (Time Train Series) Fictionwise.

Dumping Pseudonyms At the ten-year evaluation point in my published career, I find myself instinctively reaching toward a new set of measured goals. Ten years ago, many of us naively plunged into web-based (e-book and POD) publishing, and I must say—that is ten long years of a lotta hard work behind me, and I do think I have learned a few things.

Dean Koontz, the best selling author, and a fine individual, has devoted some amount of breath to the topic of pseudonyms in his how-to-write books. Dean is one of many writers who in their early years pour forth oodles of fiction under a variety of names, for a variety of purposes, and one day start to wonder why. Dean says he came full circle and prefers to publish under his own name.

When I recently made the decision to dump John Argo, Terry Sunbord, and Ann Cymba overboard, to opt for John T. Cullen, I had a real sunny feeling inside. Not only was it a matter of simplifying things, but it was sort of like calling my scattered stories home. I had some strategies in spreading myself apart like that, but they didn't particularly pay off. Now I have a new strategy, or a set of strategies, revolving around the concept of 'critical mass.' I know that's a much used term, but it is relevant here. Why leave my 125,000 opus Nob Hill (a historical thriller with a strong and unusual romantic angle, set in World War II and early Cold WAr) dangling out there as the lone accomplishment of the mythical Ann Cymba? Cymba, by the way, is Latin for 'boat' and fits with a wild scheme I almost had going about making up all my pseudonyms using elements of the Boat Constellation in the Southern Cross—until I realized there aren't any attractive enough names in that batch.

I have already republished all my pseud titles under my real name at Fictionwise.com. I am now in the process of re-pubbing all my pseud titles on the POD side (LightningSource). At the same time, I have further simplified my life by eliminating a lot of the websites I had spun off and wasn't able to keep updated.

That, in fact, seems to be the milieu in which many of us have floundered the past decade. The Web is ever exciting, but no longer in the 1990s sense of no limitations, no direction, and frankly 'no there there' in many cases. I was online before Web commerce, publishing material, and that was fun. It was amazing, as an insider, to see the vapor being sold by all sorts of nuts and sharks in the 1990s, and being bought by millions of gullible victims in a scene reminiscent of Holland's tulip bulb craze a few centuries ago. Since I was struggling to make a few dollars a week by honest toil and genuine thought, it was breath-taking to watch fortunes built on fog, and just as quickly lost.

It was comical to see the fossils of the dead-tree publishing industry react with confusion and anger to the new publishing medium. Many of them reacted with fear, others with disdain, and a few early saw the promise in the new medium—which, for my money, has not even begun to unfold its publishing capabilities. I have written much about that elsewhere, and will do so again. It was funny to see Barnes & Noble blustering onto the scene, bellowing "we are the real publishers" at Amazon, and promising to blow them away overnight. Years later, my feelings about B&N have moderated a great deal, but it is a fact that Amazon has gone into the black, while B&N.com pulled the plug on their e-books years ago. Amazon is still innovating, shoulder to shoulder with true Web entrepreneurs like Google, and it will be interesting to see where they go. I can comfortably predict where it will not go: into some sort of reincarnation of the same tired old mineralized print publishing industry—and by now, I think even most of those folks have gotten the message. It only remains for The True E-Book (the one you can cuddle in bed with, while doing searches or listening to a built-in iPod) to arrive at last and save millions of trees. I think the Dot Com Collapse had a lot to do with the failure of e-books to change publishing forever, early on, but I think that is around the corner someplace.

People I have worked with online, like myself, have shown a tendency to go off in all directions and devote more hours than they comfortably should. I think the Web has sucked wind out of a lot of sails, including the postal mail, book reading, and just plain leisure. Where you might spend an evening puttering over a pipe or a bowling ball years ago, you are apt to spend that time and more playing computer games, browsing the Web, or, in my case, writing/editing/publishing/web designing. Just today, doing a book cover in PhotoShop CS2, I learned the bitter truths about trying to bring vivid RGB colors into the forbidding world of CMYK. There went most of my day. That's how it's been for us Webbies the past decade.

The flip side of the coin is that, knowing what I know now, I am able to plan my endeavors a lot better. In publishing, we used to devote ridiculous amounts of free time helping each other out, and doing tasks that don't always make economic sense—like managing websites with book reviews of a million turgid grade-z e-books that never stood a chance with the book buying public. Hey, you hiss at me. Hiss all you want. The truth is that people are just saturated and it's hard to get them to watch another commercial, listen to another pitch, or buy your e-book. I read a story not long ago about a casino that installed some sort of video advertising in men's urinals so that we would watch a one-minute commercial while peeing on it. People are stuffed full of info, from billboards to television to the Web and beyond, and your opus or my opus is going to have a hell of a time reaching the surface in that maelstrom. That's just a fact of life. If you want to get through that barrier, you have to do something extraordinary. And what might that be?

I have this stunning theory that if you find out what people want, and give it to them, they'll give you money.

I know it sounds too good to be true.

My strategies now are built around that concept. Look, the Web promised and delivered. I am in charge of my publishing, and therefore of my destiny. I have several books in work that I think conform to what I hear people saying what they want. More on that in a later editorial. For now though, I'm planning to work smarter, not harder. Maybe it's because I am getting older, but I want to be focused and have a clear plan and, when I launch a book, I know a number of secrets now that I didn't ten years ago. I won't be coy about it: the book must have that "oh wow" punch to start with (and I don't mean the dream of some starry-eyed story teller; I'm talking about the look in a book buyer's eye); the book must have a targeted audience (like my upcoming San Diego tour book); the book must have endorsements (like my upcoming re-release of my Ancient Rome tour book, which has been vetted by Classics professors and at least one famous author to date); let me repeat that last—you cannot have enough endorsements, and without them you might as well hang it up; finally, the book must have some kind of path to market, and follow up in terms of promotion, because without exposure and follow-up, all is vanity.

I have come close with a number of publishers, including some of the top ones. I actually did break into NY print, but my publisher died and that's a whole 'nother story. In the end, I still believe that I can only rely on myself, and only in so far as I can trust myself to know what I'm doing. I have in hand the means of production, my own publishing house, and there is no reason now to keep beating my head on walls where one deserving author gets into print for every twenty equally talented writers. Whether I can make this Conestoga wagon trek to a decent income from publishing remains to be seen. The promise of the Web is stronger than ever, but Web industries are starting to gel, starting to become synchronous with traditional brick & mortar

.

In a sense, it's been a gold rush, in which typically the few become mega-wealthy, the many lose their shirts, and everyone has a hell of an adventure. I'm kind of in the place now where I don't really want to pan for gold—I'd rather just sell the shovels and pans to those who are going to the river. All I ever wanted in life, pretty much, was to write stories and let others read them. The trick is to get them to want to do so. More on my decadal insights in a future writ. Until then, live well and prosper.