MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Jay Lake today. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction, and has been nominated for numerous Hugo awards and World Fantasy awards. His web page is here.
JAY LAKE: Michael, thank you for having me here. I’m very glad to be sharing my experiences with your readers.
VENTRELLA: Jay, how did you get started in the business?
LAKE: I began with short stories. Sold my first story in the spring of 2001, and two more that year. Sold about a dozen stories in 2002. Since then it’s been a big part of my writing practice. Did that for a while, all the way through earning the Campbell nod in 2004, before I got traction on novels.
That’s not to say that short fiction is the way everyone should enter the field. In some ways, novels are easier to sell. And if one wants to write novels, one certainly should. Don’t force short fiction because someone like me said it was the path.
VENTRELLA: You’ve placed a few short stories on your web page for free; do you advise this approach for new authors trying to establish themselves?
LAKE: In my case, the stories on my Web page are either Web reprints of older stories that have been in print already, or occasional one-shots of short pieces that for some reason I didn’t feel were what I wanted to market.
For a newer writer, the appeal of a “free sample” approach can be powerful, but I’m not certain of its value. You’re an unproven quantity until you’ve passed through the gateway of an editorial proxy. And most of us don’t have a good sense of the quality of our own writing. Posting something that you and the world would later see as sophomore work migh be iffy. On the other hand, I’m all about being proud of who you are.
VENTRELLA: What are the legal and contractual limitations of doing so?
LAKE: Well, the primary issue is first rights. I’m not an attorney, and I don’t play one on the Internet, so this is not legal advice. But it is common sense advice. If you don’t already know how copyrights work, learn.
Basically, a copyright is a piece of property. You rent it out but you rarely if ever sell it. Each of those rentals is done by licensing a right. The rights are not explicitly defined in law. The rights themselves are defined on a case-by-case basis in each contract, and generally include such things as print rights, audio rights, electronic rights, ebook rights, gaming rights, film rights and so forth.
The first time a work is published is considered to be “First Rights”. While electronic publishing (e, appearing on a Web site) does not in fact expire the first print rights, most editors will view any prior publication as a first rights usage. So if you put someting on your Web site, you’re making it unlikely that anyone will be willing to buy it later for professional publication.
Note that aspiring writers are often concerned about protecting their ideas, or having their work stolen. While this can be an issue in Hollywood, it is rarely an issue in print fiction (defining “print” fairly loosely to include online, ebooks, and so forth). The reason that this is rarely an issue is that ideas are the easiest part of the process. Why would anyone need to steal your ideas when they can make their own?
Think about it. You write a fantasy about a quest through a magical kingdom by a mixed band of adventurers. Is that such an original idea that you’d be harmed by someone else writing such a book? There are already thousands of them in the market, an entire subgenre’s worth. Your fantasy includes a dwarf werewolf named Yoni who has a crippled foot from a sliver of moonsilver embedded in the sole when the wizard bar-Simon was assassinated by the Carmine Council. Is that such an original idea that you couldn’t make up another one just as good in the same ten seconds it took me to write that sentence? And probably better?
Short of outright plagiarism, which is quite rare for us, theft isn’t much of an issue. Where it does occur is in the area of unauthorized reprints, and ebook piracy, and those are largely concerns of established writers. To be blunt, if you have such problems it will be because you’re already succeeding.
VENTRELLA: All authors these days spend a large amount of time on self-promotion, from posting a regular blog to producing podcasts to appearing at conventions. What’s your opinion on the relative value of each?
LAKE: Writers write, first and foremost. The rest of it is just marketing, of little value if you have nothing to market, and of not much more value if you do it at the expense of further writing.
That being said, I’m a fan of doing anything to raise your profile and build your brand among readers, editors, reviewers and critics. But only if whatever you’re doing is fun for you, and more importantly, fun for the people who encounter you. In a professional sense, it’s not entertaining to read about your cat’s trip to the vet, or how many smoothies you made for breakfast this week. Likewise sitting around a convention bar griping about how your landlords keep screwing you on security deposits. But, if you can be relevant, or entertainingly tangential, in your blog or podcast or convention persona, you have a hook.
Plenty of people have done this. Mur Lafferty has made a niche for herself with her “I Should Be Writing” podcasts. I have my noisy-fat-guy-in-loud-shirt persona I wear around at cons. (And honestly, in real life, too.) Jim Van Pelt used to run a Campbell Awards Web site. Jeremiah Tolbert edited “Fortean Bureau”, and now “Escape Pod”. All of us did so while building our presence as writers. But we’re all having fun doing what we’re doing, and fun is contagious.
Doing something because you “should” is the kiss of death in this business. There are some exceptions: You “should” use standard manuscript format. You “should” enclose a SASE with postal submissions. You “should” read your contracts carefully before you sign them.
But in self-promotion, there really aren’t “shoulds”, there are only “coulds”.
Take me. I’m a demon blogger. I use my blog, across both LiveJournal and WordPress, with feeds to Twitter and Facebook, to talk about a number of things that interest me. I have regular content on a daily basis, special features several times a week, and continuing series about certain topics, such as my kid, writing processes and my journies through cancer. Some people read me for my strong leftie politics, some can’t stand that but read me for the daily round up of culture and science links. Some people follow me because they’re fans of my kid. Some people follow me for my fiction alone. I offer a range of content, all of which is interesting and engaging to me.
On the other hand, I’ve tried podcasting. It bores me. I don’t do podcasts much at all, because I can’t make them interesting enough, because they don’t interest me. If you like audio production, and expressing yourself through that medium, and have a lot to say, by all means, it’s a growing area. I’m probably missing out by not doing it myself. But it just doesn’t work for me.
As for conventions, I am of the first belief that one can have an entire highly successful career in this field and never set foot inside a convention. At the same time, writing is by its very nature a solitary act, and conventions are one of the few frameworks where we authors get to interact face-to-face with our peers, our editors and agents, and most importantly, our fans. If your social skills are on the outliers of the bell curve, this may not be the venue for you. Likewise if you are so introverted that groups of strangers are literally painful for you. (Both of those are true of many writers.) But if you can be personable and engaging and enjoy yourself, they’re a hell of an opportunity for networking.
VENTRELLA: How important is the social media (Facebook, Linked in, My Space and so on)?
LAKE: Ask me in five or ten years. Five or ten years ago, I couldn’t have given you a reasonable answer about how blogs would work out. I can tell you that far more people read my Twitter feed every day than read my blog directly, and that I have about as many Facebook friends as blog followers. I can also tell you that my Facebook feed gets more comments than my blog feed, at least most of the time. But the nuances of that? And the long-term value? No clue. Not yet. I do it becaus it’s fun, and because those are places where I can interact with people.
VENTRELLA: What trends in current genre literature do you hate? What vents your proverbial spleen these days?
LAKE: Enough with the vampires already. And I can rant for hours about how most magic systems violate Newton’s laws, as well as the basic rules of economics. But really? Not much hating going on. Taste, yes. I refuse to read TWILIGHT. But millions have read and loved that book and its sequels. I can’t hate on anything that gets people to look at print literature.
VENTRELLA: Who do you love to read? Who has inspired your work?
LAKE: Gene Wolfe. Ursula K. LeGuin. Jeff VanderMeer. Lois McMaster Bujold. Jeffrey Ford. K.J.Bishop. M. John Harrison. Terry Pratchett. Maureen McHugh. And so on and so on and so on. Our field is full of marvelous writers working from every direction, every theme, every plot.
VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?
LAKE: That’s like asking me of which child I am the most proud. (Admittedly, I only have one child, so that question is not so hard to answer.) I suppose I’d point your readers to my latest Tor book, GREEN. It’s a coming of age story set in a secondary fantasy world, about a girl sold into slavery at a very young age who is trained to be a courtesan, while secretly being countertrained to assassinate the man she is intended for, a powerful Duke. She rebels against both fates, tries to go back to the land of her birth, and makes a mess of a great many things before being forced to save a city, some lives, and even a god or two, in the course of repairing those messes. It’s courtly fantasy, with sex and violence and cityscapes, though not so much with the magic.
I wrote the book for and about my daughter, very much drawing from her character to build Green, the protagonist. Getting inside the head of a young girl of color with Green’s peculiar history was quite a stretch for me as a writer, but so far the readers have loved it. I hope you will, too.
VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Do you advise new authors to go this route, or is it better to not publish at all than to be self-published?
LAKE: I share the rather strong tic again self-publishing which can be found among the community of professional writers. Especially for aspiring or early career writers.
Here’s the simple reason. You don’t have any real idea how good your work is, or what its flaws are. Nobody does, especially not early on. That’s what editors are for.
I’ve been publishing professionally for almost a decade, and I’m only beginning to see it in my own work. That story of yours that is brilliant, better than anything you’ve seen in print this year? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But you’re not likely to be able to judge that.
What the self-publishing route does is three things. It allows you to commit work to print that you will quite likely later come to question the wisdom of. If the work is as good as you believe, you’ve lost the ability to sell first rights by self-publishing. And it will reduce your standing in the eyes of professionals in the field, especially editors.
Note that for some purposes, self-publishing is a brilliant tool. Family histories, local interest cookbooks, private editions for a holiday gift, etc. But as a success path for commercial fiction? Not so much. And yes, there’s always a story about this author or that who got a huge contract after a self-published success, but no one ever tells you how many people didn’t.
Remember, editors and agents aren’t out to publish their friends, or suppress new talent, or any of the other things you hear people grumble about it. Quite the opposite. They want nothing more than to find hot new talent, and be the one to bring the work, and the author to market. And they do have an idea of how good work is, and what will succeed in the market.
Publishing is a meritocracy, but it’s not a just meritocracy. Nothing is ever quite fair or sensible. But if you want the credibility and impact of being commercially published, you need to follow the routes that work to enter commercial publication. And yes, it’s a game whose rules change all the time. So far, the rules haven’t changed to include self-publishing as a strongly valid option.
VENTRELLA: You’ve blogged about your fight with cancer. (As my wife is a cancer survivor, I certainly can relate in some small way.) How do you think this will affect your future writing?
LAKE: Cancer will indelibly affect my future writing. It already has. My voice, my themes, my view of myself and the world have been bent in a new direction. Not one I would ever wish on anyone, least of all myself, but there’s a lot of passion, power and pain in cancer. As I write this, I’m two weeks from surgery to remove a metastatic tumor from my lung. Second trip through the cancer mill. Believe me, I have learned new lessons in fear and terror, but I have also learned new lessons in hope, glory and blinding love.
That cannot help but change everything. Once again, I won’t know how til years down the road.
VENTRELLA: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first began trying to break into the business?
LAKE: Really, I got plenty of good advice. I mostly wish I’d taken more of it.
I think most aspiring writers go through phases. One phase is “I’m an undiscovered genius”, and it’s characterized by a lot of hot pride. Another phase is “publishing is a conspiracy”, characterized by fear and resentment. Another phase is “I suck, and I’ll never make it”. You get the drift.
Each of those phases brings with it a certain wilful deafness. I wish, when I’d been in those phases, that some future me, or someone wise enough to speak in a way that got past my defenses, had simply said, “Shut up and write.”
Because “get back writing, then write more” is the only real advice.
In fact, it’s what I’m going to do right now. Thank you.