Further Thoughts on Being the Future of Printed Fiction, with a Side Disquisition–Traveling Geek Self-Publishing Novelist Blues: the Strange Loop Variations

Some whiles ago I published a long accounting of my decision to head on out to the uber hacker conference Defcon in 2010 to sell my geekoid novels, and what happened when I did. I entitled that post “Traveling Geek Self-Publishing Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations”, and it has become one of Wetmachine’s most popular stories ever.

Some little while after I wrote that piece, the pioneering cyberpunk author and celebrity curmudgeon Bruce Sterling referenced my blog in his vastly more influential blog on the Wired site, Beyond the Beyond, in a post he called The Future of Printed Fiction. In an oblique way, Sterling more or less said that sellers of printed novels would become kind of throwbacks to itinerant tinkers and rag-and-bone men of a hundred and more years ago. His tone was pretty snarky, as it always is (a friend wrote to me “if you catch a whiff of smug condescension, you can probably trust your nose”). My pride might have been a little hurt that Bruce Sterling was responding to me as a curio, a rag-and-bone man, not as a fellow writer in his genre, but in general I was happy for the attention. His article helped me sell some books and may even have given me the last little nudge I needed to get my panel on the future of the novel accepted at SXSW last year. I responded to Sterling’s post here, and he and I then had a friendly but brief email exchange in which I offered to send him copies of my books (print or ebook), and he declined.

I introduced myself to Sterling in person at SXSW when I saw him sitting in the front row of the grand ballroom where Tim O’Reilly was being interviewed on stage. After Tim’s convo I approached Sterling: “Hi,” I said. “I’m John, the future of printed fiction!” He shook my hand with a limp handshake and asked me how I did. (I hope I didn’t scare him!) A few days later I went to hear his closing SXSW keynote talk — an astonishing, almost Timothy Leary-hallucinatory thing, about which more at some other time, perhaps.

Since returning from SXSW (and as a direct consequence thereof) I’ve become added to a private listserv that discusses the future of the book & publishing & libraries & reading in general. The list is populated by several dozen publishing luminaries like Tim O’Reilly, at least one nobody (me), and several dozen other people whose literary luminescence is hard for me to gauge.

Every day on this list there are discussions of things like the Google Books case, the closing of the Borders bookstore chain, the idea of agency pricing, copyright law, libraries as digital distributors and community centers, Amazon’s strategy as a publisher and retailer, and similar topics. The demise of the bookstore is a perennial theme. (I used to sell lots of copies of my books through technical bookstores, many of them in Silicon Valley and near Boston. They’ve all gone out of business. I seldom sell a book through a bookstore these days.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon of the vanishing bookstore, the ubiquity of the ebook, and how right Sterling probably was when he said of future of printed fiction, “Itís all about being a make-do gypsy at the fringes of the web conference scene. Gothic High-Tech, Favela Chic.”

Below the fold: I take my act to Strange Loop.

Traveling Geek Self-Publishing Novelist Blues: the Strange Loop Variations

There was a software developer’s conference in St. Louis a month ago called Strange Loop and I took my gothic favela chic show there. (Here’s the story I wrote beforehand about why I was going to Strange Loop and what I was hoping to get from it. (See under: Hofstadter).)

Strange Loop is a much smaller affair than Defcon; indeed it’s one of the smallest geekoid venues I’ve ever sold books at. About 900 people attended it. As at Defcon, I set up my table with my books on it, rolled out my banner, put out some fliers and commenced my schtick. Alex Miller, Strange Loop’s organizer, had graciously given me a spot right next to where the food was dished out at coffee and lunch breaks — the ideal placement.

Three things made Strange Loop a little different from the dozens of other venues where I’ve done my book selling thing. The first is that the program was interesting enough that there were a lot of talks I wanted to attend, and did. (At other conferences I just kind of hang out at my table while people are in sessions. I sell books during breaks. It’s slow, but if anybody comes by & wants to chat, I actually have time to do so, and I don’t have to race back to the table to be ready for the coffee-break hordes.)

The second thing that made Strange Loop different for me was that, perhaps for the first time ever, I actually had a room in the hotel where the conference was being held — I wasn’t couch-surfing with a friend or staying at some cheaper place in a sketchier neighborhood a few blocks away in order to save a few bucks. So that was a great luxury, and very relaxing.

And the third thing was, I had a paying client (my main income comes from freelance technical writing) call me at 1PM on my first, biggest, sales day and insist that I do an immediate rewrite of something I had submitted the week earlier. So up I went to my room on the 10th floor and spent the next five hours writing a marketing case study for a cloud-hosting company instead of either selling my books OR attending sessions. That really sucked, but what was I gonna do?

Anyway Strange Loop was a very social affair. I met some old friends there; we went to a Strange Loop dinner and after-party and even to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. So it was altogether a much more fun and stimulating time than my usual lonely schlepping & hawking of books. Only problem was, I didn’t sell very many books. I sold enough to pay for my hotel room and half my travel to & from St. Louis, but still in all, at least in terms of cash-accounting over the four- day period, Strange Loop was a money-loser for me. (I’ve subsequently sold ebooks to people who discovered me at Strange Loop, so perhaps I’ve broken even by now.)

A couple of cool things happened at Strange Loop related to my book selling career. One is that I met a fellow, a fan of my books, with whom I’ve been in contact for ten years or so. He had bought a copy of Acts of the Apostles from me at the MIT flea market in 2001, and subsequently bought copies of each my other books when they came out. A true fan and a nice guy, he insisted on buying me dinner, and we had a great time. I also chatted with several people who’d bought one or more of my books in years past; some of them from me in person at another table at some other geek conclave.

On the second and final day of the conference a fellow approached me to say hello. He had a hint of some kind of eastern European accent, and seemed about 35 years old. He told me that last year when he was recovering from surgery for cancer and still getting chemo and radiation, a friend of his had given him a copy of Acts of the Apostles that he had bought from me at Cloud World Expo in New York City. He said my book had helped to keep him going when he was so ill, that he kept it still on his bedside table. That story kind of left me speechless, but it sure was nice to hear. He thanked me, I thanked him — and he bought a copy of The Pains, which I hope he found not too gruesome.

So, now, today, I’m thinking, trying to figure out what to make of it all.

Off I go to meet my readers, to show them the real physical objects, these books I’ve written & published. I give these people, (my people, I would love to think) printed reviews; I answer their questions and establish, I hope, that I’m a reasonably smart and reasonably nice guy. I sell five dozen books.

And then I come home and go online and read how this or that first-time author that I’ve never heard of is selling 4,000 ebooks a week and never leaves her apartment.

Sometimes I buy and read one of these books, and often they suck. Or, at the least, they’re not to my taste and are not literarily ambitious. (I’m not talking about every other writer! Just a few of the wildly successful new ebook stars!) The books are supermarket fare, and not even top-shelf supermarket fare. I’m happy for the success of these fellow writers, but clearly I’m jealous too. I’m not proud about that, but there it is. (In case it’s not obvious, I believe that my books are better than theirs, by my own subjective literary criteria.)

It’s depressing. It makes me wonder if Sterling’s right, if this is the future, or my future, in printed fiction — money-losing trips to sell a few dozen books. Yes, my books are available as e-books too, and I spend an awful lot of time trying to work the twitter and the blogs and the internets in general — not to mention radio & tv — to get some notice. But I’m not selling 4,000 books a week. Not by a long shot. Is my whole approach inherently flawed, or do my books really suck, or is it just that I’m like 999 out of 1,000 other writers, and will never make it any bigger that this?

I guess it’s foolish, but I still keep pinning my hopes on some nonlinear effect from all these in-person things I do. I mean, it has happened before, it might happen again, right?

I’ve proposed a panel for SXSW 2012, and I’m hoping that it’ll get accepted. I want to go to SXSW again and this time get that elusive buzz that will put me up there in the Bruce Sterling/Neal Stephenson/J.L. Borges discussion, where I belong. Not as a curio, but as a writer. Sigh.

As much as I enjoyed Strange Loop, as moved as I was to hear how much my books have meant to people, being a make-do gypsy at the fringes of the web conference scene is getting kind of old.



  1. I’ve been a fan of your work for quite some time owning Acts of the Apostles in print and directly from you a draft of that same book. I have read and reread it several times and it is great each time. I also have Cheap Complex Devices and it too is one of my favorite books. I am always puzzled as to why Acts has not been made into a movie but I assume that financial success requires a certain, um, relaxation of morals or scruples. Anyway, keep up the great work.

  2. Hello netbob,

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my books, and thanks for stopping by to say so. I do hope you’ll help me spread the word! A short review or two on Amazon or Goodreads would be much appreciated. I have a third book out (The Pains) and a few more things in the works. Hope you’ll enjoy them also.

    Thanks again,


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