Self-publishing: Avoiding the pitfalls

The following might conjure up feelings of nostalgia in some readers (others will just be plain confused):

It’s dark. You can’t see a thing.

What now? inventory

You are carrying a box of matches.

What now? light match

The match flickers into life.

You are in a dusty cellar. Cardboard boxes are stacked against the west wall. A rickety staircase leads up to a door. On the bottom stair, a huge rat stares balefully at you.

What now? up

The rat bares its fangs and hisses, startling you into retreat.

What now? open box

You open the box. It is full to the brim with books, each one stained with blood.

What now? take book

You pick up a book.

What now? examine book

What you thought was a bloodstain is actually part of the book’s cover art. The cryptic word Chion is printed along the centre.

What now? light book with match

You hold the match under the book. Fire begins to consume the pages.

What now? throw book into box

Who remembers the likes of the above? I’m guessing you’re over thirty and you probably owned a ZX Spectrum computer (or similar) in your youth. The above quote is a made-up example of a style of game that I once found quite stimulating: the text adventure, or interactive fiction, as it is more commonly known today. The reason I’m drawing attention to it is because back in the late 1980s there was something wonderful that happened in the computer games industry which forms an interesting parallel with what I’m doing today as a fiction writer.

Most text adventures were written in one of three programmining languages: The Quill, GAC (Graphic Adventure Creator), or PAW (Professional Adventure Writer). These languages were a lot simpler than Z80 assembly language, enabling the average Joe with good grasp of logic and an imagination to produce competent games. Aged only fourteen, I spent many an evening coding in GAC, and even produced one full game, entitled Alien Complex (sadly now lost). Many of these games were released by well-known publishers such as Incentive and Firebird, but many more were self-published by the programmers themselves under their own publishing name. One of the most prolific of these home-grown publishers was Zenobi Software. To order one of these games, you would send a cheque or postal order directly to the author, and you would receive the game from him on a typical Memorex/BASF/Sony cassette tape with a home-made black & white photocopied inlay card. The reason these games were successful was because the popular computer games magazines of the day (Crash, Your Sinclair, Sinclair User, etc.) supported the enterprise. These magazines had adventure game columns, such as YS Adventures by Mike Gerrard, and the columnists treated the homegrown games with the same respect as the commercial games.

Sometimes I wish I had been slightly older during the 1980s, because it would have been a joy to be active in the homegrown adventure publishing scene. But I’ve just realised: i’m actually living out that same dream today in the arena of self-published fiction. In observing a parallel between then and now, here’s an interesting question or two: what is it that made those games sell? And why is it that so much self-published fiction today fails?

I can see two reasons why the games sold:

1. They got publicity, in particular publicity where it counts: reviews by respected reviewers in popular magazines.

2. They were cheap to buy, commonly £2.50 + postage.

By those standards, the self-published author today has a lot a lot going against him. On the issue of publicity, I don’t even read magazines with book reviews in them, and I don’t know anyone who does. In fact, I don’t buy magazines, period. The internet has replaced all that for me. This may initially seem like a blessing, since anyone can set up a website for next to nothing. But things look different when you consider the sheer amount of websites that are clamouring for the public’s attention. The best advice I can give is, make the best of it. Produce a good-looking website; offer free examples of your work; use any means you can think of to get visitors coming. Offer your book to popular review websites. Sell signed copies on eBay.

On the money side of things, you’re also in trouble. Most self-published authors use firms such as iUniverse, Lulu, Authorhouse, to publish their work, and these firms invariably put high retail prices on the books they publish. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not necessarily to do with bad business practice, just the way the pie has to be sliced: printer, publisher, wholesaler, bookseller, author. What I have to say on how an author can keep the retail price of his book low is an entire blogpost in its own right, so I’ll hold my tongue for the moment. Suffice it to say, I’ve managed to price my novel Chion at £3.99. In my experience, I consider that figure to be the sweet spot. We’re nobodies, we self-published authors, and unless we can offer bargain basement prices, few people will take a chance on us.

Self-publishing is a journey fraught with pitfalls. I think a lesson from how things were done in the homegrown games arena of the past might help us avoid the dangers. “Those who forget the past are …” No, I won’t say it. I’m a geek, but not a cliched geek.

5 thoughts on “Self-publishing: Avoiding the pitfalls

  1. Michael Reed

    Me and my friends once typed “do a poo” and the game replied “I don’t know how to do an poo”. Ah, to be 28 again..

    I must admit that I can’t be bothered with interactive fiction these days. I have an infocom intepreter for the Psion 5 and I’ve got a few of the old classics such as THHGTTG etc. IF sounds appealing, in principle, but once it gets to a really difficult puzzle I soon give up. I suppose that I’m too lazy to actually make a map on paper or anything like that.

    Perhaps the genre could have a renaissance but how could it be spruced up?

  2. Darryl Sloan

    I think IF adventures were replaced by the point-and-click variety, such as Broken Sword. Very much a niche interest nowadays. I’ve often toyed with the idea of learning one of the modern IF languages such as Inform or TADS, but never got around to it.

    Yes, those puzzles were darned hard at times, weren’t they? But there was such a sense of accomplishment in overcoming them. Sometimes, in my spare time, I’d be thinking about a game I played, and suddenly the logical solution to a puzzle would click into place, and I’d be dying to get to my computer. I don’t know any other kind of game that you can play like that!

    The various IF compilers are bound to exist for Windows Mobile 5. I’ll have to locate them and relive some memories. So far, I’ve got a SCUMM emulator and a ZX Spectrum emulator running on my Pocket PC. Had a go at an old classic PAW detective game called The Raven; quickly got stuck!

  3. PRAEst76

    I have PocketSCUMM on the Gizmondo but I haven’t really had the patience for it. I rarely have time to do much more than fire up emulated Turrican or sonic. I did play Treasure Island Dizzy for a few hours. I had an incredible soft spot for those games.

    I’ve always thought there is a place for a hybrid of tabletop and computer role playing games. I’m an avid D&D player and I’ve always wondered how more improved the game could be if we used computers instead of scruffy bits of paper with holes rubbed in them.

    That said, I’ve never really got into the online gaming thing. Other than playing World of Warcraft and Everquest but I never got the same buzz out of playing with strangers, most of them seem to have the same personality and communication skills as a bot anyway…

  4. Darryl Sloan

    The only gaming I do with other humans is chess – something I love.

    I’ve never really gotten into role-playing games. The only computer-based RPG I’ve played a lot is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Despite the breaktaking beauty of the game, every time I met a character, it was painfully apparent that I was trudging through a world of computer-generator morons. It sort of spoiled the effect. So, yes, I can understand the need for playing against actual human beings in this sort of game.

    But the main thing that puts me off RPGs is all the stats. The idea of building a character’s levels just doesn’t appeal to me. I like puzzle-solving.

  5. Jeffrey Allen Davis

    I’m with Praest. I, too, am an avid D&D player, GMing two different groups. Just like video games, it can take up alot of time, but I really enjoy the human interaction. I’m currently playing with a friend that I’ve known for over twenty years.

    I remember those text-based adventures. Our school’s computer lab used to have a bunch of “Apple IIEs” with these games on them. I never enjoyed them as much as a good game of “Pac-Man.”

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