William Hertling: A discussion on fiction writing & self-publishing 

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William Hertling writes science fiction novels about the emergence of artificial intelligence, the future of technology, and the technological singularity. 

His first novel, Avogadro Corp, won Forewords Review Science Fiction Book of the Year and the second, A.I. Apocalypse, was nominated for the Prometheus Award for Best Novel. And the final book of this trilogy, The Last Firewall, was endorsed by Harper Reed, the CTO for the Obama Campaign.

As a fiction writer, Hertling’s publishing adventure is a highly inspiring one. And he’s also written a non-fiction book to share his publishing experiences. It’s called Indie & Small Press Book Marketing. In this book, he successfully covers many aspects of publishing from design to media relations. 

Avogadro corpDuring this Q&A, we’re going to discuss two skills that publishers demand from their authors: coming up with ground-breaking stories, and self-promotion. Then, we’ll dive into evaluating the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. And as experience goes, William Hertling is the person to whom to address these issues; he has his hands in both self-publishing and traditional publishing.

S.E. Sever: Hi, William. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you come up with the idea to write Avogadro Corp

William Hertling: I read two books back to back: Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, a non-fiction book about the technological singularity, and Charles Stross’s Accelerando, a science fiction novel about what it would be like to live through the singularity. The singularity is that point in time when computer-based artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent than humans, and then continues to accelerate its intelligence, whether due to self-optimization or just the continuing increase in computational power.

These two books caused me to think deeply about the singularity, and in particular, to examine that moment of emergence. What would it be like for the first people to realize they were confronted with a self-driven AI, and how would they react?

S.E.: Did you have writing a trilogy in mind from the beginning, or did the story unravel itself more and more as you wrote it?

William: I only expected to write the first book, but a chance conversation with another author convinced me to keep writing.

After I had written the first book and was submitting it to agents and publishers, I happened to attend Ignite, a Portland conference where the Hugo-award-winning author David D. Levine was speaking. Afterwards I went up to him and asked him if he had any advice for a new writer. He said “keep the pipeline full”, meaning that I should continue to write while I was submitting. This was an astonishing message because it was the last thing I’d imagined. I thought Avogadro Corp was going to be my only book. I had no intention of writing more. But the idea stuck with me, and even as I was putting the final finishing touches on Avogadro Corp during revisions, I started daydreaming about the plot for A.I. Apocalypse.

AI ApocalypseI see a lot of writers who get hung up on that first book, whether it’s submitting to agents or marketing it. I’m all for perseverance, but a writer can’t make a career off one book. They need to get the second one good.

I think this also points to the value of being engaged with a community composed of serious writers, whether that’s online or in the real world. Serious doesn’t mean traditionally published, but it does mean dedicated to being the best writer you can be. There’s so much to learn and so much that’s changing, and if you’re part of a community, you can benefit from everyone else’s experiences and wisdom.

S.E.: Who are your role models? Who has inspired you in your writing career the most?

William: Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross are two writers I admire because brilliant concepts and ideas are woven throughout their books. You can read a Cory Doctorow novel, and by the time you’re done, you’ve learned how to encrypt your hard drive and set up a secure network connection.

They were also inspiring because their writing craft is not as intimidating as, say, someone like William Gibson, whose early prose reads almost like poetry. Reading their books helped boost my confidence that I could write.

S.E.: Your characters seem to gain significant depth throughout the trilogy; what did you do differently?

William: I got feedback on an early draft of Avogadro Corp, when it was less than 30,000 words long. I thought I was done, and my friends seemed to like it. But the feedback I received from people I didn’t know was that I still had a way to go: that I was telling, not showing, and that everything took place in a white room.

I didn’t know how to fix those issues, so I took an eight-week writing class, found myself a critique group, and started attending conferences: local scifi cons, as well as dedicated writing conferences.

Through those experiences and the feedback I received, I learned to explore the characters more deeply.

S.E.: How did you know where to start?

William: I spent a year pursuing agents and traditional publishers. At OryCon, my local science fiction convention, I listened to authors speak about how long they pursued traditional publication: anywhere from three to twenty years.

My background is in the technology industry, and I thought there was no way publishing was going to stay the same for three years, let alone twenty. I also met a self-published author, Annie Bellet, who was making a steady income from her books. She was also the only self-published author I met, so whether right or wrong, I started with a mental model that self-published authors tended to do well.

My background combines several diverse experiences. I’m a computer programmer by education and training, and spent many years developing websites. So I’m not intimidated by technology, and I know something of the theory behind websites: how to make sure a visitor can find what they need, ways to display information. I also studied business and received my MBA, so I had a general background in marketing, and understood concepts like exposure and conversion rates.

I also have a long history with online communities, from bulletin board systems in the 1980s through online forums in the 1990s and social media. So I understand a lot about the cultural norms of those different groups.

I basically combined all of that – a general understanding of marketing, using online presence and social media – with an attitude of experimentation. I would try new things, see what worked, and only invest more in those specific actions that helped sell books.

S.E.: How about those moments of low confidence? How did you overcome them?

William: My low-confidence moments didn’t come from marketing so much as they do from getting negative reviews. As a writer, getting those one and two star reviews is incredibly painful. My coping mechanism is to realize that those folks are saying something important: either they aren’t the right audience for the book (in which case I need to market differently so I reach the right readers), or they are the right reader but they dislike the book (in which case, I need to fix something to make the book better).

One of the great advantages of indie publishing, like content on the web, is that it can always be fixed. I can hire a new copyeditor, tweak a character’s words or description of a scene. Even now I’m revising Avogadro Corp to address some of the issues with my writing craft.

S.E.: Now that your books are available through a traditional publishing company in Germany, you’re one of those writers who have their hands in self-publishing as well as traditional publishing. Could you tell us the pros and cons of both methods as far as your experience goes?

William: One of the biggest advantages of traditional publishing is being on shelves in bookstores. That’s nearly impossible to achieve as an indie author. It means exposure to a whole new group of readers I couldn’t have reached otherwise. Being translated into German, with my book already selling well in English, means even more readers will be able to enjoy Avogadro Corp.

The Last FirewallBut indie publishing is also great. Besides bypassing the gatekeeper to bring a book to market, I also enjoy tremendous flexibility in how I market my book. If I want to give away a few hundred copies to influencers in my field, I can. If I want to make a book free, or put it on sale, I can. Traditionally published authors can’t do that.

The royalties on self-published books are also much greater than traditionally published books. A self-published novel will likely earn the author $2.00 to $3.00 or more per sale, while a traditionally published book will net the author anywhere from $0.25 to $0.50. That means that modest self-published sales of 5,000 copies will make a material financial difference to an author, and sales of 50,000 books annually is enough to support full-time writing. By comparison, a traditionally published author would need to sell four times as many books to earn a similar amount.

S.E.: What’s next for William Hertling? What should readers expect?

William: The audiobook for my most recent novel, The Last Firewall, will be out in February. Many readers enjoy the series on audio. (Available from Audible.com and iTunes.)

I’m working on a kids’ detective novel, geared toward ages 7–11, called The Case of the Wilted Broccoli. It should be out in March or April. I promised this book to my children a year ago, when I realized they couldn’t read my adult fiction. As I mentioned, I love Cory Doctorow, who writes what I think of as “smart fiction for teens”. With this book, I’m shooting for “smart fiction for elementary school aged kids”.

I’m also a quarter of the way done with my next adult science fiction novel, which I hope to have out by the end of the year.

Readers who are interested in my fiction can find out more at williamhertling.com, where they can find descriptions of my books or sign up for my mailing list to get notified when new books come out.

S.E.: Thank you for joining us at the Mash Blog, William. You’ve addressed some crucial points in many writers’ careers. I personally love your work – it’s mind-broadening in many ways. I also strongly recommend to all our fellow writers, whether self-published or not, to check out your self-marketing book. And the cheat-sheet you have provided on your blog is a lifesaver.

Goodbye for now.

Quick Fire Round with William Hertling

My passion, except writing, is … building and inventing, anything from constructing a new garden shed, to making parts with a 3D printer, to writing software.

My parents always told me … I could do anything, and I embody that in much of my life. In fact, one of the greatest motivators for me is when a person says something is impossible, or that I can’t do it. I just have to prove them wrong.

One favourite childhood memory … was me walking back from the library with my mom. I’d have my head buried in a book, and she’d hold onto one arm to steer me and stop me from walking into the street. I’d always have the first book done before we got home.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given … is to keep the pipeline full. Once you’ve written that first book, don’t stop. Keep writing. It causes you to grow as a writer, and gives you more options. If that first book doesn’t sell (whether to a publisher, or to the market if self-published), then you still have options.


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S.E. is the Founder of Mash Stories. She has had short stories published in fiction magazines across the US and the UK. One of her stories was included in The Subtopian: Selected Stories. Her poetry book, Before Me, is published by Thought Catalog Books, New York. She is currently working on a science fiction novel called Split Watch. You can read some of her short stories and poems at http://sesever.com.

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