Painful Lessons in Publishing

A more official word will be going out soon, but it looks like we’re cancelling the Outliers series for good.

The fact that it was ever made at all is something of a small miracle. Five authors putting together a world of stories and characters, each shared and culminating towards a greater epic? That’s no small feat. Yet even before founding Thunderbird Studios, we had a publisher who backed out. This was early 2016, and the small press market seemed to be in a real flux. So, I started an LLC, grabbed some ISBNs and got to work with Manuel.

To help promote it, we even put together a primer, Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, that was regularly given away for free. What threw us for a loop was that the primer seemed to do pretty great. The shorter length plus the art helped us quickly reap ten very positive reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

It looked like a really promising start for us.

Then we published the first volume of five novellas.

And it did not sell.

That was a year ago. We blamed some of it on the election upset last year and kept trying to turn it around. Facebook advertising, reaching out to folks directly, trying to get reviews. We had almost 250 followers on Facebook and several groups we could tap for more, and a few more on Twitter. We had our own personal networks. And we even launched our own product site, backed with freebies. But none of this helped.

Ask me why and I can think of a dozen reasons. Maybe more.

We really fought against labeling it as “superheroes,” focusing more and more on the science fiction elements. We dived into more grounded concerns, a formula that involved adding incredible talented people to say… the nursing profession, government bureaucracy, crime and law enforcement, the plight of the poor, and market manipulation. There were even a few modern day political points, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police being required to use cameras.

These weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary folks who could do something unique, and the world itself was reacting instead of the other way around.

We had serious and lasting impacts from our antics. The final story of Outliers: 2016 involved a sizable chunk of New York burning down. In future volumes, that section of the city is still very gone. And the politics of that event were still being debated. Less laser beam eyes and more modern cloak and dagger.

But I guess people took one glance, saw superheroes and didn’t look again.

What’s wrong with superheroes? Nothing, unless you’re not Marvel or maybe DC. Jon called it when he pointed out that the glutted market (especially with three companies using Marvel’s properties) makes anything one does seem derivative. Particularly when Fox came out with The Gifted, one of several in-universe terms we used to describe our Outlier characters. He described it as “a kick in the teeth.”

And speaking of terminology, Outliers was not a great choice to call our series. Search for it and the first thing you’ll discover is the book by Malcolm Gladwell. Keep digging and you’ll find The Outliers, a novel by Kimberly McCreight that was released earlier in 2016. Our efforts were a painful third.

Another big sign, one I should have watched for, was that the only people who ever seemed excited for Outliers were other authors and writers. Conversations about it drifted towards, “Can I pitch something for that?”

Yet most of them backed away when they realized that Outliers called for no small amount of homework. We weren’t big on “limitless powers,” and frequently nerfed what our protagonists could do. There were factions to develop, and sharing characters meant learning about their backstories, abilities, relationships and philosophy. Basically, every contributor was an encyclopedia in a series. And the wiki we developed to hold all this information got pretty damn big.

Joining us was buying into a creative contract. And when they realized that meant limitations, they seemed to lose interest.

In the past, a few people who were cross with me called prior works failures. I always shrugged. Those efforts never bothered me because they were trial and error, and I was always upfront about that. They were projects of learning that actually did go on to make several dozen sales. In the case of Far Worldsa couple of hundred.

But Outliers was a true failure. It sucked because most people remained silent on the matter. Folks said that they would review it, then they flaked. Not only friends but family just couldn’t be bothered. No one wanted to be honest and say, “Yeah, cool. Listen, I’m not really interested in reading that. But good luck.”

Not loved, not hated. At best, unknown. At worst, no one cared. And we’re left humbled hard by that truth as we leave our work to be trampled into dust by time.


…Anyway. The Outliers site is shutting down in a few days. The primer is coming off market too, and we’ll probably be retiring our social media outlets as well.


Book Magic

outliers-volume-1It’s been a long and very exhausting two months, but we finished it at last. Outliers: 2016 is now available in paperback. Forthcoming posts on the Outlier’s main site will cover more about the actual content of the series. I’m more drawn to the technical how.

Usually when people find out about publications I do, they approach with “hey, I got a story of my own.” I’m sympathetic to people who want to tell stories, but many personal experiences have educated me in the difficulties in producing quality books. I’m certainly not trying to crush anyone’s dreams, but I do think many folks underestimate the incredible amount of labor it takes to get to print.

I’ve come to suspect that events like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) have become more part of the problem than the solution. The event tends to promote an erroneous idea that writing a novel is easy. The timing creates a spike in material that builds slush mountains (not piles) at larger publishers, or hemorrhaging on Amazon and other self-published distributors throughout the winter.

Amazon and other services who promote NaNoWriMo do not care how much poor quality material is produced because even if only a few copies are sold to the author’s immediate family, they still make a profit. Or else they would pull the plug so fast, you’d wake up the next morning to discover indie publishing all but died overnight.

Instead, a lot of what goes into publishing is primarily about 1,001 magic tricks, such that readers never know, never spare a thought to every minor detail. To borrow from Christopher Priest…

The Pledge. 

Something ordinary, seemingly a book. These days, for a story to be exceedingly original is very rare, such that the description will sound similar to what others have written. This is fine, but there are unsaid expectations: hopes of proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, page numbers, etc, etc, etc.

The strange thing is that the more there are of these simple but professional elements, the more ordinary is the book in question. This is because of our expectations caused by prior generations of book publishing. And by applying these elements, we would not otherwise be distracted from…

The Turn. 

The pledge is the responsibility of the formatters and editors, to convince us of something grounded. But the turn, the second act in which an ordinary story does something extraordinary, that is up to the writer. The turn is the point where true magic is unveiled, when we are shown emotions that we didn’t expect to feel from reading.

Sometimes, that is to experience something in writing that we wish for ourselves.
Sometimes, that is to discover and explore an idea we had never considered.
Sometimes, that is the twists and turns of plots that subverted our expectations.

It is the most important magic, for it conjures something we never thought we could think or feel. And that is why we read until…

The Prestige.

All stories end. The extraordinary becomes ordinary again, and people have to go back to reality. Such is the demand of the natural universe.

But if the spell is good, then the magic will travel from the reader’s mind to their mouth. Emotions always want an outlet, or such we wouldn’t bother writing to begin with. And it is the goal to create something worth discussing, so that the magic can spread and live on. Thus the prestige is left to neither editor or writer, but the reader. They have to want to believe in that magic.

That’s what goes into creating a story. And I suspect, that’s more than most expected to weave.

Musings & Outliers: 2016 Available Now!


We’re losing control.

Director Zimmerman won’t admit it of course, but the projections are bad news in all directions. Outliers, men and women of extraordinary talents, are exploding in numbers across the globe thanks to the new drug “Illumination.”

We think the clandestine group “Legion” is responsible for spreading the substance, but not for producing it. And they’re not the only ones on the move, as others are playing in the shadows. AURA has begun operating in other countries, and our network is growing to match that of the CIA. But I can’t shake my gut feeling that we’re making a mistake, that we’re spread too thin to see what’s really coming.

The future is a jigsaw puzzle that we try to rearrange into something pleasing, but the image it’s taking is horrible…

–Dr C. Reynolds, PhD

Outliers: 2016 is now available in eBook format for the United States and the United Kingdom. The print version will be available next week, but until then be sure to follow us on Facebook or Twitter for more news!

I finally have this thing called “spare time” again. Not much, but some. So much of last week was spent formatting and preparing Outliers for release. The eBook version maybe complete, but the print version isn’t just yet.

What little spare time I’ve had has gone into preparing the Halloween costume, playing Bloodborne (tis the season of beast-hunting) or catching up on television. We finished Luke Cage and Downton Abbey very recently, so we’re are currently catching up on Orphan Black which we left off after the first season.

I really have to give Tatiana Maslany credit for going above and beyond with the demands of her many, many roles in Orphan Black. Toni Collette had a similar position with the United States of Tara, which was set against the backdrop of being a dramedy, but whatever comic elements are found in OB are strictly an occasional byproduct of its genre as a sci-fi drama. Maslany does a fine job of truly wearing the many, many masks of her characters, from accent to history, body language to quirks to truly create unum de multis (the opposite of e pluribus unum).

Well, back to work…

Franchises and Stuff

There’s a degree of palpable anxiety in the air.

The release date of the new Outliers volume is fast approaching and we’re perhaps 85% the way to complete. Much of what’s left is primarily grunt work: formatting, administrative, distributive. Being an editor for the project has me weighing in on techniques and methods to improve my writers’ skills. A great deal of the process boils down to something like this:

Step 1: The writer is tired and not as stoked because their creative energy was invested in writing the synopsis. They start writing.

Step 2: In the rush to finish it (and get to mentally rest), the writer blindly cranks out the first draft. The draft is never great, because in their haste, they:

  • overlook redundant sentences or even whole paragraphs
  • misuse form/from, pubic/public and other spell checker-immune horrors
  • forget to add a somewhere (hint: reread that)
  • use the same words, phrases and grammatical approaches too often
  • leave scenes too flat, or include an additional scene that doesn’t add much (I’m raising my hand on that latter point)
  • use too many words to superfluously describe something technically
  • or describe a technical matter badly
  • have POV errors galore
  • write plot holes

Step 3: Editor receives draft. Pretends he’s a proofreader and issues minor edits. Smiles and pats everyone on the back. Yay! Good job!

Step 4: …Editor suddenly remembers he’s an editor and the publisher. Transforms into Mr. Asshyde and starts tearing into the drafts. Process involves:

  • staring with total disbelief at a scene involving software security or medical operations that even a Hollywood writer would laugh at
  • researching appropriate details about said technical matters and rewriting section
  • wondering why the last two hours were blown making one single page look correct
  • cussing such profanity that would make a sailor blush
  • pondering what happened to that massive wound the main character received just one minute ago
  • privately wishing your own stories received this degree of abusive love
  • stopping pronoun juggling
  • consoling yourself with alcohol because you aren’t getting paid extra for this
  • finishing the last page and firing it to the writer, while finally understanding every story rejection you’ve personally ever received

Step 5: Editor wonders why people hate him.

I feel it takes frank honesty to transform a story one notch better than what it was. And I admit that fear is powering many of my decisions: if the series isn’t addictive, people will put it down. Great writing should be smooth, balanced between the eye opening and the jaw dropping, and leave readers hungry for more.

If your audience stops reading, they won’t talk about it. And that kind of silence is death.

And this is a factor that’s going to get tougher for me, because I have rapport with the five guys I’m working alongside. Outliers is a shared-universe, not another book series. Generally authors rarely allow others to develop in their literary universes, but the franchise nature changes the dynamic considerably.

Fellow authors whom I show our releases to swiftly pop the question, “Can I submit to this? When’s the open submission window?” And the reason I cannot give direct answers is because there’s a vision, a direction that the series is going.

Outliers is a road, and I hesitate because any writers joining us for the journey have to be prepared. Some are being readied even now, others are coming in time.

Info on Amazon Reviews

primerToday, I want to talk about Amazon reviews. And this is of importance for both readers and authors.

First, I want to give a huge thanks to everyone who has been supporting, reading and helping us promote Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come. We truly hope you’re enjoying our work. It’s also available for free on Amazon until the end of today (September 16th), a magazine-style release complete with stories and artwork so why not pluck a copy to read later?  Last time I mention Outliers until next month, promise!

Now although we’re loving the promotions and marketing side of this, there’s a point that we could really use outside help.

Amazon uses a number of algorithms and business flows to help decide on what to market, what to suggest and promote in front of other buyers. There are millions of titles in the United States, and even within genres you can easily be talking some tens of thousands of titles.

Who knows what they like better than the readers themselves?

Or at least, those who are vocal about it by submitting reviews to the vendor. Right now, there’s a rumor that 20 reviews, good or ill, “bump” the appearance of a title on suggested reading lists. Another piece of gossip states that 50 reviews puts it among the spotlighted positions of mailing lists.

Now, it’s a safe assumption that these statements are just scuttlebutt. Maybe someone noticed a loose pattern in the advertising and drew these assumptions. Or maybe they were or even are true, although the latter is subject to change. Even the Amazon business guys probably couldn’t comment with certainty because code and formulas are always being tweaked and modified. In tech, what’s true today might not be true tomorrow.

But it’s also a safe assumption that there is some validity to it. Reviews undoubtedly have an effect on advertising suggestions. Feelings of any kind are a more valuable metric than numb silence. Whether you love it like the first season of True Detective or hate it like the second, saying so with reviews matters. So please, if you enjoyed or hated our work, say so. Artists cannot grow in the absence of valid criticisms, nor know what to keep producing without compliments to encourage that which is enjoyed.

Now… there’s one final point to cover, and I must admit that this is a saddening factor for authors: Amazon divides its reviews by region as well.

Some argue that it’s cultural preferences. I disagree, as few seem to care geographically where their entertainment comes from. The United States imports some of the finest actors from England, almost all variations of Sherlock tend to do well and Warhammer 40,000 of Nottingham is very acknowledged here. Likewise, I pal with my English friends knowing that we can quote The Simpsons with abandon or even recruit them into my growing Stranger Things cult.

But the stars from the site aren’t appearing on If nothing else, people browsing work would see far less in the ratings. Amazon is doing a beta of “the most helpful reviews” on the pages themselves which crosses the ocean (for example, with Far Worlds in the UK), but the results thereof are not being added topically into that region’s ratings.


If you read our work, we love you. If you enjoy it, please say so back. And if you’re really feeling generous, try to log onto both and to leave reviews on both sites. I believe the login credentials are shared which should make it much easier. And thanks again for reading!

Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come

Outliers Primer CoverLadies and gentlemen, I could not be more proud to announce the release of Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, a free chapbook we’re giving away to promote our forthcoming book series, Outliers.  The chapbook contains four short stories and immersive flash fiction, with character profiles and artwork by the amazing Manuel Mesones. And you can enjoy all of it for nothing.

So here’s the deal. It’s available for free on SmashWords and via DropBox. Amazon is forcing us to charge for it. So next week, we’re going to move to Kindle Select and Unlimited to see if we can promote it for free from there. But for the mean time, try one of the other sites and if you WANT to pay on Amazon, we’ll accept.

But more than money, the best ways to support us are to leave a review on Amazon (you don’t have to have purchased through them) and GoodReads. Also, you can help by following either @TbirdStudios or @OutliersSaga on Twitter or the Outliers Facebook page.

Amazon (mobi/azw4)

SmashWords (epub)

DropBox (Hi-Res PDFRegular-Res PDFmobi)


LitOps: Authorial Cross-Discipline

Outliers Primer Cover

Announcement: Join our Facebook event for the launch of our free chapbook set in the Outliers universe, available September 6th!

This post is about writing. Just bear with me a moment…

In 1776, a Scotsman by the name of Adam Smith published a book entitled The Wealth of Nations. As his work defined early capitalism, one of his largest concerns was how labor (particularly manufacturing-based) risked learning skills and tasks that were too specialized to acknowledge the greater whole of the process.

Fast forward to 2016 and in some fields we have the exact opposite problem: we’re asked to do almost too much.

If you ask me about my day job, my usual response is that I’m a developer. In truth, the term for my field is DevOps (Development Operations), a cross-discipline that consists of various kinds of programming, networking, and database administrations. I create interactive webpages, set up the end points that they pass on their way to the databases, plural. Sometimes I triage network or server performance issues, sometimes I connect to remote servers for deployments. Name just about any technical difficulty and I’ve either dealt with it or were somehow involved in the resolution thereof. Being a developer these days involves a great deal of skills and knowledge.

Being a litterateur (writer) is rather similar.

I suppose you can call it LitOps, literary operations. But whether it’s a truly self-published author or an independent press trying to get booted, there are many hats to wear. Aside from writing and editing manuscripts, there’s formatting (more complex these days due to print versus e-reader files such as mobi, pdf and epub). There’s cover art, which not only includes the illustrated or graphic front but measurements for the spine and the back cover. And all of this grows more complex with any experimental introductions, such as adding illustrations or e-book linking.

I’ve never tried a “choose your own adventure” book with hyperlinks but I suspect that would be technically interesting…

Outside of production there’s marketing; setting up promotions, contacting critics for reviews, author signings, online advertising and anything else that can influence readers. Sales can be automated online, but at conventions there is a need to ship or transport the goods, prepare the table, handle direct sales, and then break all that down after. And then there’s managing public relations. Aside from face-to-face, people often ask questions on Facebook or Twitter and they’re probably going to want to be answered in a professional manner.

And there’s even a legal side. At its simplest, a publisher has to deal with the terms of service with his/her distributors. If publishing third parties, there has to be written agreements regarding how rights and royalties are handled. If you work with other creators, there are franchise agreements too. I’ve signed and worked on franchised works include Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga game series (The Gift of Hadrborg‘s print version is coming soon) and now my company’s forthcoming Outliers universe.

I suspect that if you’re an up-and-coming writer, you’re probably reading all this and saying “No, no I don’t want to deal with any of this!” Well, the old ways aren’t dead. There are still the successful and established publishing companies out there that can afford to have its employees and contractors specialize. A friend of mine mentioned how great it is to work for one of these: all he does is write and answer questions regarding editing, and occasionally attend a few signings.

But the hard truth is that many of those established, profitable publishers truly want established, profitable authors. Sometimes an author will “make it,” and get paid a professional’s salary. But unless they keep at it and find their audience, there’s little staying power. How often does a short story ever take a person to the top?  How often is an author’s debut novel the pinnacle of their bibliography? Examples exist, but it’s like that one school kid who becomes a professional athlete; exceedingly rare compared to the size of the field.

Learn. Grow. Expand. We all want to write, but never be afraid of kaizen. Sometimes that means doing things you don’t want to do, but someone has to. And no one is going to care more about your work than you. Learn the business, because knowing is powerful in its own right.

This is what it means to be an author these days.  And it is better to embrace the change until it affords one a better opportunity than to assume that the opportunity is ever coming.