Creepy crawly aliens using humans as hosts to hatch in. Victims going crazy and/or mutilating themselves, in order to get rid of these parasites. Also, football-playing aliens (well, not proper football – only the American version). That is the world of author Scott Sigler. It is a world in which he calls his fans ‘Junkies’ and in which his fans lovingly call him ‘Future Dark Overlord’. And it is a world in which he found and built his fan base by taking his novels, recording his own audiobooks and putting them on the web for free as weekly, serialised podcasts. The question is: Can the Scott Sigler approach to publishing be replicated?
► I probably should start this interview by saying “thank you”. Seeing your approach to self-publishing helped me do away with the sentiment that only traditional publishing really validates an author.
Good. I’m glad that helped.
► But I have to imagine that you, much like myself, grew up thinking exactly that: You get a publisher or you’re not a proper writer. When did you change your mind?
Correct, that was what I was thinking for a long time. When I discovered podcasting in 2005, I immediately thought that this is a way to get past traditional publishing, to build a following and sell some books. But I still thought of it as a way to prove your worth to big publishing. Because if they see that you’re already selling a bunch of books, they’ll think signing you is less of a risk. Before that, I tried doing it 12 or 13 years in the traditional way. This might be difficult to imagine for people who are in their early twenties right now and who want to be a writer, but there was a time when the traditional way was the only way – up until ebooks hit the stage of publishing.
To anyone who is dedicated to the writing craft and who is willing to work hard on the marketing part the world is an oyster.
► Yes and no. No, because there was vanity press even in the ‘90s and before. Yes, because vanity publishing or printing did in no way measure up to the options writers have now.
There was vanity printing, true, but being successful in that field required a whole different business mindset. It was a lot like being in a punk band. You were selling out of the trunk of your car. You were selling to your friends and family. But yeah, there were exceptions. Still, for the rank and file, if you wanted to be a writer and didn’t want to spend a whole lot of your time on selling a garage full of books that no bookstore would take, there weren’t any options. Not until ebooks became big. Now there is an easy option. To anyone who is dedicated to the writing craft and who is willing to work hard on the marketing part the world is an oyster. As I said, to me it was in 2005, discovering podcasting, realising that this offers free, global distribution, at the speed of light – or at least the speed of internet connections. People could send the links to friends or post them in forums, which offers the opportunity to go viral. It seemed like a home run idea to me. And it did work for me and it was extremely satisfying – and still is to this day – to find success this way. Now the industry that shut me out for many years, because it didn’t know which shelf to put my books on, is a partner for me.
► Let’s track your story back a little. Earthcore was the first book you published. Was it also the first you wrote?
It was the first I published, but the first I wrote was Infected. Which is now out in stores as well, but when I wrote it, it was just an exercise to prove to myself that I had the discipline to write a novel. So I set up a very basic premise: One guy in his apartment, with something really bad happening. It was almost like an indie film, a one-set shoot, where a lot happens in the same place – and 24 drafts later it turned into the complex novel that it is now. So that was the first thing I wrote. Round about ’96. I finished it. I thought it was awesome. Then I thought it would be better to have two books ready before I start submitting. That’s when I wrote Earthcore. I had already gotten better at writing, through the experience with Infected. When I finished Earthcore, I pulled out Infected again – to give it a quick once-over before I would send both books out – and saw that it was absolutely horrible. The worst book you can possibly imagine. Putting away that book for six months wound up being a huge benefit for me, because it gave me some distance and the additional experience, with which I then rewrote it. Only then did I try to sell books to publishers.
► You partially succeeded…
Yes. I got Earthcore in with a company called iPublish, which was a division of AOL Time Warner. It was kind of a very early version of digg.com. You had to go in and review three books and give them ratings, before you could submit your own book. The editors would use that as a slush pile threshold. They only looked at the top ten per cent of the books the regular people reviewed. Earthcore made it through that and was chosen for publication. And it would have been out in every bookstore in the country in 2001, except that this particular imprint was scrapped as a result of the post-9/11 recession, and Earthcore went away, until about five years later, when I found podcasting.
► Where do the infamous 100+ rejection letters fit into that timetable?
Sort of all around that. I was in the middle of that when the deal with iPublish came on the table. The goal was to collect 100 rejection letters from agents and publishers.
► I don’t know if anyone ever told you, but usually the goal is to get one ‘yes’, not 100 rejections.
(laughs) Yeah, that’s usually the goal. But here is the thing: I honestly had no bearing on whether or not I was good. Of course I thought my stuff is good. But your own opinion is usually not a great way to measure your own talent. And I had learned so much from the experience with Infected – thinking it’s good and six months later discovering that it really wasn’t – that I realised it was going to be a more long-term project to get to where I wanted to be. The publishers might not sprinkle fairy dust on my head and anoint me as one of their chosen ones. So the thinking was that if I got to 100 rejection letters, I’m paying the price to actually become a full-time writer. And I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything stop me. When Earthcore was scrapped, I was at about 55 or 60 rejection letters.
► And what did you do next?
I just went back to work, kept going to conventions, meeting new editors and publishers, sending the book in, meeting new agents – trying to do anything to get a new book deal and get onto the shelves. My theory was always that, if I could get the people in the industry to stop overanalysing whether my stuff is military or sci-fi or horror – if I could just get them to put my books on the shelves, I could do the rest. Because marketing was my background.