6Qs: Tobias Buckell, Traversing Publishing’s Diverse Fantastic

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“It was a roller coaster, and it was more work than I expected. But at the end of it, I have another book, one that in a prior age might never have been written.”

Tobias Buckell

One of the good (and bad) things about social media is that it has changed the paradigm for author-reader interactions, moving beyond the controlled conversation space of blogs into a free-for-all cocktail party. Some authors took to it immediately, some reluctantly, some avoid it completely, while others SHOULD probably avoid it. (*sideeyes Bret Easton Ellis*) For those who “get” it, it’s become an integral channel, not simply for marketing themselves and/or their books, but for truly engaging with readers and far-flung colleagues. In many cases, it’s resulted in gaining new readers, establishing new working relationships, and even developing IRL friendships.

I first “met” Tobias Buckell, bestselling author of the Xenowealth Trilogy (one of my personal faves) and The Cole Protocol (set in the hugely popular Halo universe), after reading Crystal Rain two years ago, and tweeting about how much I loved it. Over time, I read and enjoyed more of his work, we became Twitter friends, and even met in person at last year’s Book ^2 Camp in New York City. When he launched a Kickstarter earlier this year to fund the fourth book in his Xenowealth Trilogy, The Apocalypse Ocean, I jumped right in and am looking forward to receiving my limited edition hardcover any day now.

Suffice to say, I’m a fan of his — as a writer, a professional, and as a person — and doing this interview with him was a personal thrill. I’m betting you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

GLG: I first read Crystal Rain based on a recommendation from our now mutual friend, Pablo Defendini, in response to my looking for good sci-fi/fantasy with non-Eurocentric mythologies and characters. You were on a pretty short list of names that were thrown at me by a variety of people, and I feel like if I asked the same question today, that list would probably include Octavia Butler and maybe 4-5 others. Is the market for sci-fi/fantasy really as Eurocentric as publishers seem to think it is, or am I just not looking in the right places?

Tobias Buckell: I mean, just plain demographics in the US has changed so much in the last twenty years, and I think some people are still running on a paradigm that’s a little out of date: that people who like genre work are older, white males. This might make sense if all you constantly interact with a certain, greying, core genre audience that is often the main current at US SF conventions. But I think it ignores the fact that under 35, the demographics of the US are different. And not a lot of the under-35 crowd are showing up at conventions, so they’re sort of a silent readership. At least, in the days before the internet. It’s a more diverse youth this country has, and it’s diversifying further.

And yes, there is a sort of conservatism within the core readership. I get an email, once a quarter or so, ever since 2006, from someone, that usually goes something like ‘it’s a shame you keep falling for the whole political correctness thing and insisting on writing about characters who are minorities. If you were to stop doing that, you’d sell a lot of books and be a better writer.’ Or worse. And that’s disheartening to hear from the core readership, the people that you had hoped would be your tribe because when you grew up you read all your favorite authors talking about how inclusive, and smart, and awesome core fandom was. So that *is* there. Junot Diaz recently talked about how, he found it weird that the same people who’re happy to read orcish and elvish languages while in a Tolkien book could get so bent out of shape about him having Spanish in his books. And I feel pretty similarly puzzled about the rage I get in some mail about the fact I have some Caribbean patois in my books.

And because of people like the above, who make their views known, there is also a form of thinking about the market that assumes diverse people read diverse stuff, and white people read white stuff. The segregation of the fantastic, so to speak. It’s an assumption that seeps in everywhere and that has bedeviled me in some ways. Because publishers know that the above paragraph happens, and they look at the bottom line (they are businesses), they often become part of the larger system pre-rejecting books because they’re worried those reactions above will hurt sales.

Crystal Rain, by Tobias BuckellYet, and this is what heartens me, most of my readership is white and happily reading about diverse characters. And no less awesome for it. They’re perfectly happy to read about Pepper kicking ass in orbit, even though he’s brown and has dreadlocks. Readers read across all sorts of boundaries, and I think it does a disservice to them to focus on the negative, to accidentally segregate literature out of the fear of offending a core group of loud, graying angry people.

That being said, it still has to be acknowledged that it’s out there all over the place (and not just by white structures). For example, for my first few books, I had a database of places to send my books for reviews. Places above and beyond all the usual high visibility genre outlets. Magazines or places that wanted to find bi-racial or diverse voices. With hope and excitement I, time and time again, sent out review copies. Most times it was crickets. Fair enough. Other times… I got back mail that basically said ‘our readers don’t read this white fanboy stuff.’ Which is just… well, sigh. Way to buy into the same myth. Did you all see how excited Samuel L. Jackson was to be in Star Wars? C’mon.

And lastly, to shift this up, I’m also not playing a US-only game. I’m trying to create a world-wide readership. I think modern-day writers need to think beyond their borders.

Two summers ago I was in Barbados, at an event called AnimeKon Expo. It’s like a smaller Comic Con for the south Caribbean, with people from Trinidad, St. Vincent, and Grenada attending. I think it was several thousand strong? Which is cool considering that Barbados has a population, I think, of about 300,000 or so. So anyway, on a hunch, I took two whole suitcases full of books down with me. Hardcovers I’d purchased when previous novels had gone out of print.

I sold *every single one* and had to turn people away. It was epic. I’ve never had so many people lining up for me. One of the big things they were telling me was that local bookstores wouldn’t carry much SF, and that they all had to ship from Amazon to get physical copies (despite high shipping fees). They have to work for it, man, and yet they’re there!

Is there a market?

Hell yes.

And we’re not doing a great job of finding it, I think.

Your bio notes that you’re “a bi-racial Caribbean boy who’s ‘light but not quite white’ and long-proud in his Caribbean roots.” How has being “light but not quite white” influenced your writing, and external perceptions of it? Have you found yourself and/or your novels placed in ethnic sub-categories of traditional sf/f?

Tobias Buckell: It’s hard to analyze yourself entirely. But one thing I try to do is bring more diversity to my characters. And another is that a sort of ‘little guy playing against the dominant forces’ aesthetic seeps into my stuff. I’m interested in power dynamics, having grown up in a small nation that was buffeted by global forces and policies set by larger nations.

As to how I’m perceived from the outside, I’m not really sure. I’m bi-racial, but I look white. It’s confusing to Americans, where I live. It’s easier to hold onto that identity where I grew up, in the Caribbean. People know there where I’m coming from. Here, it’s complicated. Many times I see ‘comprehensive’ lists of non-white SF/F novelists and often never see my stuff listed or noticed. Some do. Sometimes I wonder if the light-not-white thing means I fall between the cracks. I’m never sure if it’s the quality of my work, my reach (I mean, hey, honestly, lots of people just don’t even know I exist, they’re not trying to slight me, it’s a big world with lots of noise and discoverability is *hard*), or a decision that I’m not non-white enough, or too white, or whatever. I wish I could reach more people in the Caribbean based on my experience of being so welcomed in Barbados. Does it sting a little? Maybe. But in the big game of being an author there are worse indignities and I’m grateful those people are curating any lists at all, to raise awareness of the cool writers on them. And the adult thing for me to do is always promote, link, and pass on those lists and just keep writing and letting my work be what it is. There are so many ways to get in your own head, worrying about how I’m perceived is one I made a strong decision to not worry about a long while back. I try to focus as much as I can on the work, particularly these days. I just have to believe that the work is what matters, and if I keep working at my craft I will keep finding my audience and things will work out.

Ragamuffin, by Tobias BuckellAs to the question of whether I have found myself placed in ethnic sub-categories of SF/F, I’m not sure. In the beginning, when I was trying to sell my first novel, I had a weird experience of editors really wanting me to write, sort of magic realism set in the Caribbean, or about recent immigrants with a magical ability (I’ve had two editors actually give me that logline and ask if I’d be interested in writing that story, but it’s just not there for me, I’ve got other stories still to tell). There was a strong sense that, hey, this is how you can be marketed as a Caribbean novelist. I think a couple people expected me to be a Nalo Hopkinson/Tobias hybrid. And, fuck, I love Nalo’s work. She’s amazing. But she’s amazing in ways I can’t be amazing, or even decent at. She’s Nalo. She’s a grand-mistress, a stateswoman. I’m Tobias. We all have to find our own paths and voices. I’m trying to write space opera, massive dumb objects awakening, hard cyberpunk, techno-thriller. I wanted to go after big explosions and adventure with guys in dreadlocks plugged into a massive starships.

So I headed that way, and man did it confuse the hell out of a lot of people.

Karen Lord, an SF writer out of Barbados (please, if you read this, go read Redemption in Indigo right away), is writing these amazing novels, and people are finding her. And she’s charting her own whole course. And I think what everyone will find is that ‘ethnic SF’ isn’t a thing, it’s just SF written by people who happen to be ethnic. There will be things, concerns that we share in common due to having some common experiences. But as a group, we’re a pretty wide-ranging bunch of thematic writers. As far as I can tell from reading.

How does living in Ohio impact your writing career? Are there compromises that come from not being closer to New York City, or has the industry evolved to the point where NYC is no longer the center of things?

Tobias Buckell: Well, to be honest, the biggest impact is that living in the gray weather of Ohio negatively impacts my productivity. I don’t get enough sun on my skin, and the gray winters are depressing. Add that the to the whole rust-belt chic aesthetic all around, which also brings me down, and I really do find it a bit of a downer. I’m used to sunlight and bright colors, and people being able to walk everywhere.

But on the other hand, it’s cheap to live here. I can afford to freelance and write fiction and make ends meet. So on that end, it helps my career way more than it hurts it. Or maybe, during the winter, it’s a bit of a wash!

Sly Mongoose, by Tobias Buckell

But that’s more locational aspects. In this day and age, the distance from place shouldn’t be considered in miles, but in hours to destination. Most New Yorkers involved in publishing I know live minutes, to as many as two hours away via train from Manhattan. I live four hours away (1hr drive to airport, 1 hr wait for flight, 1.5 hr flight, 1/2 hr cab ride) from Manhattan. If I moved closer to an airport, I could cut that down to 3.5 hours away.

I’ve bugged out of my house in the morning, caught a plane, done a lunch meeting for an important client, and been back home later that night in DC. It’s a long day, but not unfeasible, to do it for a lunch in NYC (but I usually prefer to stay with a friend overnight and do something fun and come back a day or two later).

It means that I still go into New York a couple times a year and meet people. Science Fiction is cool because we often attend a lot of conventions, so you also touch base with a variety of people randomly in different places across the country throughout the year.

I do feel it’s important to go in person to NYC. Yes this digital future is more connected… but to contacts you already have. There is a magic to random introductions, and face-to-face friendships and contacts that just ‘click’ and become alliances, sources of enablement, and development, and honest friendship. You mentioned Pablo Defendini recommending my books. I met Pablo on one of my many self-funded in-person trips to my publisher to meet the faces behind the company. And I consider him an amazing and close friend now. I doubt it would have happened without my venturing out in person.

So I still feel it’s important.

Recently, several companies that moved their headquarters out into the ‘burbs to save money have moved them back into the city. Why? Random personal interaction increases productivity. The more dense the area, like cities, or college campuses, the more patents per thousand people are filed. The more creativity there is. And I think it’s simply because you have more chances to randomly plug-in to a connection or a potential friendship or source that you never may have met if scattered out.

And I do feel that, although I’m glad I can afford to write/freelance full time and I’m lucky, luckier than many, that when I can afford to move a bit closer to NYC, I will be doing so. Just for the simple fact that I will create more interesting opportunities.

The Apocalypse Ocean is the 4th book in your Xenowealth Trilogy (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose), and while the first three were published by Tor, you self-published this one via a successful Kickstarter campaign. Why did you go that route, and how would you characterize the experience? Would you declare it a success?

Tobias Buckell: The first three books were doing okay. They were earning out, but not turning into runaway hits. We were gaining a small number of readers with each book. But with each book, bookstore chains were carrying fewer books. Readers were compensating by buying them direct. So we had a strange pattern of stable, slightly growing readership, horrible bookstore numbers spiraling down, and a dilemma. My editor and I put our heads together and I decided to write a new kind of book (near future) and see if that could prod me into the next level.

But that meant letting the series get canceled. And I’d already written a portion of The Apocalypse Ocean.

So I had this large fan base that liked the Xenowealth books, and wanted more. And due to the bookstore sales, I couldn’t sell the next book in the series to a publisher. But I’d been watching Kickstarter, and for over a year, wondering if I had enough of a fanbase to Kickstart a whole book.

I decided to jump in and try it.

The Apocalypse Ocean, by Tobias BuckellWe raised enough money to make it a feasible project. I had 130 or so passionate readers willing to pony up for an unwritten book. I had Pablo Defendini agreeing to help design it with me. Suddenly I was writing a book directly for my fans, trying to find a proofreader, printing my own copies. It was a wild ride. I learned a lot.

It was a roller coaster, and it was more work than I expected. But at the end of it, I have another book, one that in a prior age might never have been written.

Was it a success? Well, after paying for the design of the book, the printing, the shipping, the profit is quite a bit less than my going advance. But, it gave me some capital needed to even conceive of turning down freelance work to write it. So… as I often say, at the end of the day, if I’ve created art and not bankrupt somehow, I’m ahead.

We really find out if the book is able to match the money I make from ‘traditional publishing’ here over the next few months. As the backlist sales kick in, they’re all profit. Once I have some more of that data, I can get a better idea of how this way of doing a book compares.

Now, I’ve also done a short story collection of mine, Mitigated Futures, as a Kickstarter. And I can tell you right now that for me, the economics of a collection work far better as a Kickstarter than traditional publishing, or even a straight eBook release, has for me so far. It’s ‘common knowledge’ that short story collections don’t earn money for authors, but that project is really turning that assumption upside down for me.

Amazon, ebooks, Kickstarter, self-publishing… the publishing industry looks very different today than it did five years ago when the first Kindle launched to mixed reviews and self-publishing was synonymous with vanity publishing. What are the three biggest things that have changed for you as a writer over that period, and do you consider them positives or negatives?

Tobias Buckell: As a writer I now have more choices. And that’s positive. I know everyone’s stressing. There’s a lot of change going on. That’s always hard to wrap one’s head around when you want to have your head down and focused on art. But since I got started with my first short story sale in 2000, I’ve tried to make sure I was agnostic about how my story got delivered, and focused on a) getting paid, yo and b) reaching as large an audience as I can. I was early to the idea of letting my work go up online, as long as I was getting paid for it. I was early to blogging (since 1998), which allowed me to reach (now) some 2,000 people a day. Back when Fictionwise was first to sell eBooks, I signed up to sell my short fiction through them. I also put up creative commons stories for free. I test and try it all out, and make sure I have a pulse on everything and a diversified basket of income streams.

For whatever reason, thanks to foreign rights translations and luck, my traditional books still make the bigger income stream.

The negatives to all this? New stuff to learn. I have to say, making sure my manuscript was really well copy edited, had a cover, interior design, was printed, and then shipped, meant keeping track of a lot of variables and schedules. That’s all new stuff to learn. Uploading digital books, testing out eReaders. More stuff. Filtering out messianic personalities who claim to have The One True Way and spread a lot of Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt on all sides, that takes work. A lot of egos are bound up in this transition.

But I think cool-headed folks who diversify, roll with it, they’ll be fine. They usually are. I like my hybrid career. I mean, right now I have my latest novel out, The Apocalypse Ocean. It’s currently for sale at all the usual eBook outlets. It was pre-sold to fans via Kickstarter, who raised the seed money to make it happen and got limited edition hardcovers and ebooks of it, depending on their level of support.

Earlier this year, my novel Arctic Rising came out from Tor, a semi-independent division of Macmillan. And that’s awesome.

And I have two short story collections. One has limited editions for sale via a smaller press, Wyrm Publishing, as well as the eBook which I sell directly via eBook outlets. The other I launched and sold directly as an eBook, but then later a smaller press asked for print rights and let me keep the eBook selling.

All these methods have their place in my tool set.

The last thing I’d caution is that I wouldn’t assume this period of awesomeness via Kindle will last. I’m seeing that most of the newest regions added don’t have 70% royalty rates *unless* you agree to use Amazon’s lending program and withdraw your books from other bookstores.

Seeing as that Kindle initially began with a 35% royalty rate offered, and only changed because iTunes said it would be launching with 70% and spooked them, one can see where some of that momentum is slowing. It’s one reason why I’m pushing really hard to do direct sales via my own website as much as I can, and why I thought Kickstarter was a really good additional arsenal in the toolbox.

For anyone who has enjoyed (or is intrigued by) your Xenowealth Trilogy, what are three other series you’d recommend as read-alikes, each with a one-sentence review?

Tobias Buckell: If you liked the Xenowealth, then try reading C.J. Cherryh’s Merchanter’s series. Somewhere between space opera and hard SF, or just good solid adventure SF, I still reread Merchanter’s Luck over and over again. Also, you’d probably enjoy Iain M. Banks if you liked Ragamuffin; start with Consider Phlebas and work forward. And really, you have to read Alastair Reynolds. Just trust me.

BONUS Q: Who is your favorite non-white superhero and why?

Tobias Buckell: Black Panther, as done by the BET channel recently in a motion comic. Normally I hate motion comics, it’s neither animation nor a comic. But they got Djimon Hounsou to do the voice, and it’s really, really awesome once you give the awkwardness of motion comic format to get past your brain. Djimon gives Panther the gravitas to get past some of the sometimes silly worldbuilding and on the nose characteristics of the original. Almost no one I’ve talked to has seen this, and maybe I’m completely wrong, but I thought it was awesome.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUQgWcmqYcw

Then again I could listen to Djimon read a phone book.

If you overrule me on BP, then it’s Spawn, man.

BIO: Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born New York Times Bestselling author. His work has been translated into 16 different languages. He has published some 50 short stories in various magazines and anthologies, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and Campbell awards. Longer bio | The Books & Stories.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, sometimes poet, always opinionated. Beer, bourbon, books, games, running.

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3 thoughts on “6Qs: Tobias Buckell, Traversing Publishing’s Diverse Fantastic

  1. Nell Bentley

    Tobias Buckell: I think it let me break in to print much earlier than most authors. I had a ten year head start. But I also got very dedicated to reading as much as possible, during a period of my life when you have a lot of time. I was reading as many as two books a day for most of my young adult life, which let me absorb a great deal of story and story structure. Again, this allowed me to jump ahead a bit.

    Reply
  2. Joaquin Chambers

    I’d be curious to see what long-term professional reviewers think about this stage. As an author you hit this stage, and you often see new writers hitting it. As they accumulate enough writing craft and books read, they pass through a great deal of 1 and 2. And it’s hard to talk someone down in the middle of that.

    Reply
  3. Woodrow Vasquez

    This was a very enjoyable read, but one has to be a die-hard Halo fan to really enjoy it (I am). The art is the highlight of the book and there is not much of it. The short stories were mostly good — the two that come to mind was the one about Preston Cole and the one titled Dirt. The poetry, well, that did not work for me — c’mon, Halo poetry? It was a good try.Overall, I really enjoyed the book and if you’re a Halo fan, I’d recommend it as a read.

    Reply

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