Balticon 47 Highlights, Part 1: Lessons in Self-Publishing

Attending Balticon 47 wasn’t something I did solely for entertainment (although it was, in fact, a very enjoyable event). I’m in the beginning stages of executing my own self-publishing plan, and I wanted to learn as much about that section of the industry as I could in the time that I had. Unfortunately, various commitments allowed me to attend only the last half of Saturday and the entirety of Sunday, so I wanted to cram as much learning into that time as possible.

In this two-part article, I’ll discuss the sessions that I attended and try to distill some of the major points that I derived from each session. Part 1 will cover Saturday and Part 2 will cover Sunday.

You’ll see from my choice of sessions that I was very focused on self-publishing, but that I also branched out to learn more about podcasting, voice acting and short films. These are all areas where I think my skill set is well-suited, even if I clearly have much to learn.

So, let’s explore together what Balticon had to offer for someone like me. Also, for those who share similar interests, Balticon did record the audio for most of their sessions, which they plan to release eventually as podcasts.

Saturday, May 25

I drove to Hunt Vally, MD, from northern Virginia, which took me about an hour-and-a-half. Once I got registered, and took the mandatory quick spin through the Dealer’s Room, it was a couple of minutes after 4:00 PM, so I slipped into my first session just a couple minutes after it had started,

4:00 – 5:00 PM 1. Make Your Book Shine!
A. L. Davroe, Allison Gamblin (Moderator), Starla Huchton, Betsy A. Riley

Basic information on interior formatting and layout of manuscripts and book cover design. Includes when to DIY or hire someone, how to find the right people for the job, and why all of these elements are important for a successful book.

The basic takeaway that I got from this session is that it’s a competitive market out there. The days when you could self-publish anything you wanted, and then just slap a crappy, amateur cover on it, are gone. If you’re going to succeed with self-publishing, you need to produce a quality product, including a good story, competently copy-edited text, a solid interior layout, and a professional-looking cover. Ideally, you want a prospective reader to be unable to distinguish your product from one produced by a traditional publisher.

The panelists had a mix of skill-sets, in addition to all of them being writers, which provided an interesting cross-section of perspectives. Starla Huchton is an author, an accomplished voice actor (I got to hear some of her voice work on Sunday), and a cover designer. I liked her cover samples, so consider Starla if you need a cover for your next story. Betsy Riley is an author and editor; Alison Gamblin is a WordPress consultant and blogger (and the husband of writer Brandon Gamblin); and A. L. Davroe is a writer.

5:00 – 6:00 PM 2. Put Together the Total Package
Collin Earl (Moderator), Allison Gamblin, Starla Huchton, A B Kovacs, James R. Stratton

Tips on how to make your book sell, including various self-publishing avenues and requirements, marketing strategies, and tools to promote your work.

This session echoed some aspects of the previous session. The fundamental aspect of selling a book requires that you have a solid, professional product.

There was some discussion of where to sell your self-published stories, but the consensus was that Amazon was clearly the top market. If you only had time to “do” one market, then make it Amazon. But you should promote it in other venues and formats if you can. Some very good points were made by A B Kovacs, who is essentially a publisher (teamed up with author Scott Sigler).

Numerous tools were discussed, including Google Docs, as a great collaboration tool; Google+ for its video Hangout capabilities; and others. Most of the authors, if they Twitter, used some sort of tool to manage their tweets, such as HootSuite, TweetDeck and others. There was also a mention of justretweet.com, to help organize re-tweets.

It was a generally informative session, but without any tips or revelations to rock my world.

6:00 – 7:00 PM 3. Google+ for Authors
Brandon Gamblin, Pamela Gay (Moderator), A B Kovacs, A. C. Wise

Google+ is built to showcase your skills and expertise. Come learn how authors can leverage this first-ever social layer to win fans and showcase their expertise across all of Google’s properties.

I have an Information Technology (IT) background. I have a pretty solid grounding in services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many others. But Google+ has been one of my blind spots. I just haven’t had a chance to do much with it yet. I thought I’d give myself a lift up by attending a Google+ talk at Balticon, which was nicely moderated by Dr. Pamela Gay.

Now, Pamela Gay is a smart lady. According to the Balticon Convention Program, she’s “an astronomer, writer and podcaster focused on using new media to engage people in science and technology.” She was also clearly the most knowledgable on the panel about Google+, as she uses it to promote AstronomyCast, a popular astronomy podcast, and CosmoQuest, an online portal targeted towards getting people interested in astronomy. As an aside, both initiatives are highly recommended.

My overall impression from Pamela Gay and the other panelists is that Google+ seems like a cleanly designed, tightly integrated product from a technology company — one that is trying to leverage its high-tech expertise to out-innovate competing social networks. In contrast, Facebook seems like a duller, less innovative alternative that’s having trouble matching the new media features in Google+.

I think Facebook is dominant now, but Google+ seems like a contender in the future. Additionally, the usefulness of features like Hangouts for distributed video communication, interviews, and podcasting can’t be underestimated. I came out of that session thinking that I needed to become an expert with Google+ as quickly as possible, not just for promotional purposes, but also for collaboration, communication with different groups (circles, in Google+ parlance), and using the service’s new media features.

7:00 – 8:00 PM 4. Nurturing Online Communities for Writers and Fans
Pamela Gay, Abigail Hilton, A B Kovacs, Patrick Scaffido (Moderator), Scott Sigler, Jeri Smith-Ready

How do you encourage your readers to form a rabid online fanbase? Can a writer nurture fans to gather in groups so large they rival the might of Joss Whedon’s Browncoats?

The general takeaway from this session was that, if you were lucky enough to garner fans for your work, you needed to be “genuine” with them. Having a fanbase is like having a relationship with a bunch of people — you need to be sensitive to their needs, because they can always go somewhere else. At the same time, there’s a balance to be determined, because you can’t let fans dictate how you live your life either.

Scott Sigler and his partner, A B Kovacs, mentioned that they had many Sigler fans who had formed friendships on the forums of their web site. When they periodically revamped their web site, they tried to be sensitive about preserving the history and features of the forums, so as not to “pull the rug” out from under Scott’s fans.

Jeri Smith-Ready also mentioned that she communicates with her fans, and that her fans are thrilled to hear from her. Again, she tries to be respectful and considerate to her fans. Much of her fanbase has organized itself, though, without her input. The other panelists agreed, and augmented, most of these points as well.

To me, having fans seems like a good problem to have. Treating them respectfully and taking steps to encourage them seems not just like a good idea, but common courtesy.

9:30 – 11:30 PM Concert: Ditched by Kate

Next, I had a long dinner. I missed the start of the next round of sessions, so I watched a rock concert with the band, Ditched by Kate. They weren’t superstars, but they were a solidly entertaining 5-person rock act. I had a great time. It was an excellent way to cap off a day that, for me, began at 5:00 AM. Afterwards, I drove back to northern Virginia.


Overall, I was thoroughly pleased with my first day of Balticon 47. I’ve attended the convention in the past (I think this was my fourth time since 1983), and I’d like to commend the Baltimore Science Fiction Association for hosting yet another well-run event. It was definitely well worth my investment in time and money to attend the convention.

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Promotion 101 at Balticon

I had a great time attending Balticon 47 this past weekend. I was there to learn as much as possible about self-publishing. Now, one of the key challenges in self-publishing is discoverability. You’ll hear that keyword like a mantra whenever you talk to self-published writers. Basically, it boils down to this question: Given the multitude of stories available, and the many writers clamoring for attention, how can you stand out so potential readers will discover your work?

Many of the sessions I attended were focused on promotion. Which is why I was so shocked to see some glaringly bad promotion … on the part of some of the panelists from the sessions that I attended. Note that I’m not going to call out any panelists by name.

What’s my background in promotional activities? Well, I’ve been creating web sites since 1998, which led to me working off and on in the Internet startup world since 2000. In this world, promotion is everything, because your promotion has to make your business viable before your money runs out. I’ve done business promotion, leveraging Internet marketing techniques to build an audience. Additionally, I’ve been organizing and promoting events, such as conferences, since 2008. I don’t consider myself a marketing expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m not a layman either.

So, based on what I saw at Balticon, here are some promotion tips for writers:

  • Have a Bio and Picture Ready to Go: All panelists had the opportunity to have a picture and a short biography printed in the Balticon 47 Convention Program. It boggles my mind that, in this age where “discoverability” is so important, that anybody would neglect to provide both of these items. But some panelists didn’t, including a couple from the sessions that I attended. Never, never, never pass up any opportunity for advertising, especially 3rd-party advertising (having someone else promoting you is far more powerful than self-promotion). Bottom Line: Have a bio and picture prepared, and easily accessible. Any time a professional opportunity arises, provide them promptly to whoever the appropriate recipients might be.

  • Your Bio Needs a URL: If somebody asks you for a biography, make sure that it includes the URL for your web site (where you SELL your stuff, or link to somewhere that SELLS your stuff). If somebody is interested enough in you to look up your biography in the convention program, give ’em somewhere else to go where they can find out even more.

  • You Need a Web Site: I didn’t think I’d have to add this bullet point, but there was at least one panelist from the sessions that I attended who was promoting their work at Balticon, but didn’t have a web site (and couldn’t even be found on Amazon). Seriously, you need a web site. It’s not that hard.

  • Ask for the Sale: Your web site doesn’t need to do a “hard-sell,” But make it clear that your work can be purchased from your web site. If you have the technical capability, sell it direct in various formats (you get to keep even more of the money that way). Failing that, at least link to someplace like Amazon or Smashwords where a prospective reader can purchase your work.

  • Have an Elevator Pitch Ready: Somebody has just asked you about your latest book. You have 30 seconds to get them interested. You need two or three sentences that will engage their interest. You’re a writer — you can come up with two or there sentences, right? Here’s an example: “Well, it’s basically a bent fairy tale with delusions of grandeur, on steroids. Plus, you know, the prince doesn’t always deserve to get the girl, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why.” Don’t give them the plot, plant a hook.

Impressing your audience is one of the first steps in converting potential readers into buyers. These simple tips will enhance your image as a professional writer and position you to more effectively take advantage of opportunities when they arise. As the famous philosopher, Anonymous, once said: “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.”

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My Winners from the 2012 Worldcon

I attended the 2012 World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon as it’s usually known, in Chicago. It was held at the end of August and extended into early September. At Worldcons, authors are on display. It’s their chance to hobnob with fellow professionals, do some wheeling and dealing, and, perhaps most importantly, connect with the fans who buy science fiction and fantasy books. Impress enough fans, and you might just kick-start enough word-of-mouth about your books/stories to propel your career to the next level.

I thought I’d blog about my winners at the Worldcon, the writers who hit my radar screen in positive ways.

For the 2012 Worldcon, the four writers that were my biggest winners were:

  • Hugh Howey
  • Seanan McGuire
  • Jo Walton
  • Kij Johnson

Wool by Hugh HoweyHugh Howey: I saw Hugh Howey on my first day at the conference. He was participating in a panel called “To Indie or Not Indie,” which basically turned into a debate between several indie-published writers and a more traditionally published writer of a military SF series (Mike Moscoe, who writes as Mike Shepherd). Having successfully sold a number of indie books previously, Hugh was starting to have what looked like some break-out success with a book called “Wool.” It had even been optioned by Ridley Scott, the director of such famous SF films as Alien and Bladerunner.

I ended up having dinner with Hugh and a bunch of his fans at a meet-up that he’d scheduled online earlier with his fans. I had a great time, and Hugh even bought dinner for everybody (something I certainly wasn’t expecting). The next day, I had no trouble plopping $20 down for the trade paperback of Hugh’s novel, “Wool,” which had been recommended to me by all of his fans as “his best book.”

When I subsequently had a chance to read the book, I was pleased to discover that it was, in fact, a very good book. Equally interesting, it had been indie-published in five parts, some of which even featured different viewpoint characters, all of which slotted together nicely to form one highly coherent novel with numerous plot twists and surprises. The novel that I bought was, in fact, an omnibus of those five original stories.

Since Worldcon, I’ve had a chance to publish a review of Hugh’s book on this site, as well as mention him in several blog entries. “Wool” has indeed become Hugh’s break-out book; he recently signed a lucrative deal with traditional publishing to augment the indie sales of his novel, and is currently indie-publishing a prequel to “Wool.” I feel like I’ve helped discover one of the field’s up-and-coming writers.

Deadline by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)Seanan McGuire: I discovered Seanan McGuire because of her pseudonymously published “Newflesh” trilogy, a horror series that takes place twenty years after the human race has successfully survived a devastating zombie plague. Under the pseudonym of Mira Grant, her second novel in the series, “Deadline,” was nominated for the 2012 Hugo award for Best Novel.

I soon learned that the first novel in the trilogy, “Feed,” had likewise been nominated for a Hugo award the previous year, and that the concluding novel, “Blackout,” had just been published. Oh, and her related novella, “Countdown,” about how the zombie plague began and propagated, had also been nominated for a Hugo for Best Novella.

Before the end of the conference, I owned the entire “Newsflesh” trilogy, and even had them signed by Seanan McGuire. She also publishes fantasy under her own name, most notably the October Daye series, so I bought some of those books as well. Since the convention, I’ve been gradually buying all of her books. She’s a multi-talented writer with a wicked sense of humor that often comes through in her writing. She’s now pretty much on my must-buy list.

Among Others by Jo Walton, Hugo winner, Nebula WinnerJo Walton: Jo Walton’s “Among Others” was nominated for, and won, the Hugo award for Best Novel. It also won the Best Novel Nebula award as well, making it one of only seven novels to accomplish this feat.

It’s an odd, but strangely mesmerizing, coming-of-age story featuring magic and the discovery of science fiction by a traumatized teen-age girl. It may not be for everybody, but I thought it was a carefully crafted gem of a novel. Jo Walton may never be the type of writer who hones in on the SF bestseller list, but she’s certainly willing to push the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy to attempt something new. She’s a brave, unflinching writer who deserves more readers.

Since reading “Among Others,” I have begun picking up all of her other books. “Farthing” was equally delightful, albeit in much different ways, and “Tooth and Claw,” a semi-Victorian story featuring dragons, is next up in the queue.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij JohnsonKij Johnson: Kij Johnson authored the novella, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” which I thought was easily the best novella of the year (and it did, in fact, win the Best Novella Hugo). I’ve been advising all of my friends to read this story. I think it’s a legitimate classic. Since then, I’ve begun reading other stories that she has available online. To my knowledge, she has not yet written any novels.


While these were the four writers who dominated my attention the most at Worldcon 2012, they weren’t the only ones that I noticed:

  • Jack McDevitt was impressive on panels; he’s a gracious panelist, as well as a consummate craftsman as a writer. I’ve been gradually working my way through all of his novels, most lately with “Eternity Road.”

  • Neil Gaiman was very nice to talk to in person, and even let me get a photograph with him. I already own most of his works (both graphic novels and novels), which is the only reason why he’s not one of my “winners” this year.

  • Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo-nominated novelette, “Kiss Me Twice,” was excellent. I checked out her web site, and it turns out that she’s written two novels: “Shades of Milk and Honey” and “Glamour in Glass.” Both have been well received by critics, and look interesting to me, so they’re both on my “to buy” list.

  • Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Hugo-nominated novella, “The Ice Owl,” was very good. Accordingly, she’s on my watch list, and I’ll be checking out more of her stories.

  • B. A. Chepaitis was impressive on a panel about storytelling, as well as one on screenwriting; I have since picked up one of her books second-hand to “try her out.”

  • Lyda Morehouse and I had a surprisingly witty exchange during a long and crowded elevator ride; I was left thinking that if she writes nearly as well as she speaks off-the-cuff, she might be worth checking out.

  • I accidentally discovered Laura Mixon’s new book, “Up Against It,” written under the pseudonym of M. J. Locke. Her best book yet, and set in one of my favorite venues, the Asteroid Belt.

  • It was also nice to discover that the influential “Bordertown” series is alive and well.

Writers, don’t discount the impact of the Worldcon. I, like many other readers, vote with my wallet. If you can get my attention in a favorable way, I will spend money on you. And if I like what I find, you may very well become part of my own personal SF subscription, as did my own personal top four winners from Worldcon 2012.

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