GenCon Interview: Self-publishing author Michael Stackpole (Part One)
September 12, 2011 | 11:15 am
Stackpole is best known for his extensive work in writing BattleTech and Star Wars tie-in novels, and he also wrote the novelization of the recent Conan movie. We have covered Stackpole’s blog posts on self-publishing fairly extensively over the last few months, as well as his GenCon panel seminar.
In this first part of the interview, we largely discussed the early history of e-books and e-publishing, with a diversion into how to restock the public domain. We get more into direct self- and e-publishing matters in the further segments.
Me: I’d like to start by asking: how did you get into self-publishing?
Michael: Well, probably the very first stuff I was self-publishing was my how-to-write newsletter, The Secrets, which I taught classes at GenCon and other conventions for many years and decided to do a newsletter. Decided to make it Internet subscription only, so starting about 7, 8 years ago I was doing this bi-weekly newsletter as PDFs. So that was the very first thing that I did. Right there I realized the possibilities for doing this.
Many years ago I had gotten Apple Newtons and gone through a series of Palm Pilots and every time with the Apple Newtons, with the Palm Pilots, always get the software that would allow me to make electronic books that would work on those devices. Because again I just found it fascinating, and found that huge potential there.
You fast-forward to the Kindle coming out and now all the tablets and all the dedicated readers and suddenly all that potential that I was seeing those many years ago both had devices that made it easier for other people to use and also put in place marketplaces that suddenly made it possible to have an economy based on selling your own work.
Me: It’s funny, you know, those of us who’ve been reading e-books ever since the nineties had gotten to the point of despairing that anybody would ever be interested, and finally Jeff Bezos came along and basically single-handedly created the e-book market.
Michael: Right. You know, I really thought when the Newton came out, because it had on more reader software—I really had high hopes for that. And then when Apple abandoned the Newton and didn’t do anything else to follow that up and didn’t keep that software alive, I felt that that was unfortunate.
And then the software that was being used to make books for the Palm Pilot—unfortunately the company that put it out hit on the plan of charging a royalty for the authors who used their software. [eReader, nee Peanut Press. When Fictionwise bought the company, it discontinued this practice. —CM] And I absolutely balk at that. I mean, this is like the guy who built your house having a percentage every time you sell it. No, no, this job was done along time ago! So I didn’t like that.
So again, now we finally do have both a means to make it convenient for people and an economic structure that makes it very viable for authors to be able to do things, even original things, which is kind of cool.
Me: Yeah, it’s funny that eventually one of the companies that was using eReader’s, or rather Peanut Press’s software back then eventually bought it.
Me: And that was Fictionwise, and they completely opened it up, but by then it was kind of too late.
Michael: It was, and down through the years I’ve gotten in touch with Fictionwise and what they wanted for an author to self-publish was they wanted you to have at least ten things—ten novels or whatever—that you were going to be able to bring to that. And even as a published novelist who owns the rights to certain things, I didn’t have and I really didn’t think anybody else was going to have a catalog of books that we’d be able to toss out there just ready to go.
I also think I didn’t like the terms of their contracts—and fortunately we’ve seen the exclusives aspects of contracts going away now, which is good. That’ s always just been stupid. Especially when you’re watching new formats and new platforms come out, why would you sign something away forever when you know in the next week somebody may come up with a brand new thing that will be the new hot thing, and suddenly you’ve signed those rights away. That doesn’t make any sense.
Me: Uh-huh. And certainly one of the big issues in publishing right now is the percentage of royalties.
Me: With a lot of publishers balking at giving any kind of high percentage royalties on backlist e-books, and then there’s Amazon and to a lesser extent Barnes & Noble offering 65 to 70% royalties.
Me: And so we’ve actually seen estates of major authors like Ian Fleming and Catherine Cookson and so forth taking their backlists directly to Amazon.
Michael: More important than that is you’ve got J.K. Rowling doing electronic books herself. There it’s not even an estate, it is an author who still retains those right who just says, hey, look, I can do more and I can do better than the publishers can.
Me: Uh-huh, and it’s also kind of impressive that she’s going to be doing it without restrictive digital rights management.
Me: Basically it’s kind of funny, because all the people—including me—who’ve been complaining about for the longest time expected that when she did eventually come out with them they’d be in the same digital rights management formats that everybody uses and everybody who knows how cracks.
Michael: That’s it, that’s always been my response—whenever another author says to me, “What do you do with DRM?” it’s like, why? You know [it’ll get broken] the second you put it on—I’m not smarter than people who can crack this stuff. I use a form of “moral DRM” which just says, hey look, if you enjoyed this, come on, shoot me a couple of bucks. It’s a fair exchange. My feeling is that if you’re going to use my product for entertainment, and I give you five hours of entertainment, it’s really not too much for me to ask you to give me five bucks.
Me: I remember back in the early 2000s you wrote sort of a treatise on piracy in which you challenged would-be pirates to scan some rare out-of-print public domain works rather than the works that were readily pirated.
Michael: Right, right. Because I think, look, if you’re going to run a scanner, if you’re going to do that sort of thing and you can look at Project Gutenberg as basically doing that, then gosh, just do something useful. Bring a lot of this stuff back in. There’s some fantastic early science fiction which is out there and I love getting this stuff and reading it all to find—oh, this is the guy that Edgar Rice Burroughs was reading before I got to reading my stuff.
Me: I’m a big fan of Maurice Leblanc myself, the Arsène Lupin novels.
Michael: Oh sure, yeah.
Me: And it really depresses me that so many of them were written after 1923, and they may never get into the public domain, Mickey Mouse being what he is.
Michael: Well, ’23 shouldn’t be a problem. It’s about ’63, ’64. If your book was printed after Walt Disney died, the copyright is never going to get broken. If Walt Disney predeceased the author, it’s never going to come out. Doesn’t mean authors can’t make available, but…
Me: I find myself hoping eventually the public wakes up to what a travesty this extension of copyright is and does something about it, but it’s probably a pipe dream.
Michael: To be quite honest, I think the better place to attack it is not with the public because the public doesn’t pay attention to those things. I think the better place to attack it is with the authors. Think about the fact that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and a number of other billionaires have all gotten together and pledged [that] while they’ll set some money aside for their heirs, they will donate the vast majority of their money to charitable stuff.
You could probably start a movement among authors to say, “I’m going to give orders to my literary estate that after I’m dead I’m going to let my work put my kids or grandkids through college. But twenty-five years after I die it goes into the public domain. And I think working with authors to do that is a lot more reasonable—a smaller audience and target audience that is going to be susceptible and reasonable to that particular thing. The reason you’ll never get a change in legislation is because Senators and Representatives write books.