Republibot’s Burt Cottage interviews Samuel “Sam” Ben White on his recent success with selling Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels on Amazon’s Kindle platform.
Burt Cottage: Good morning.
Sam: It’s afternoon where I am.
BC: No kidding. Anyway, tell us about Kindle.
Sam: Actually, I only know what I have read on Amazon, which may be extremely truthful but is—after all—advertising copy. What I do know is that Kindle is an electronic reader that’s supposed to be a quantum leap in the field. The screen, they tell me, is like reading printed words on white paper—as opposed to looking at print on the “white paper” of my screen.
BC: Before we go further, tell us a little about the novels you have for sale on Kindle.
Sam: “Us”? There’s more than one of you there?
BC: It’s an editorial thing. I speak on behalf of all my readers which may very well be a plurality.
Sam: Ah. You know, I’m sure your questions are well thought-out, but let me tell you what I want to tell you, then we can go from there.
BC: I don’t think that’s how it works—
Sam: I wrote “First Time: The Legend of Garison Fitch” many years ago and even signed with a small publisher in Minnesota. Sold something like 28 copies of the book, then they decided they wanted a re-write.
BC: Wait, they wanted a re-write AFTER publication?
Sam: Yes, they were new at the business. I was, too, so I agreed. But then their suggestions for the re-write started coming in and they began to go way beyond stylistic points and actually began to monkey with the plot and the themes. After extensive back-and-forth, I told them, “No” and cancelled our agreement.
Sam: I realize that a publisher—who is sinking their money into the project—deserves some say as to how they spend that money. I have no problem with that. But they had bought (and published!) my novel, then they wanted to change it into a completely different novel. At some point I had to decide whether I wanted to be published just to be published or whether I wanted to stick to the story I had written. Every time they would call or write, they would start out telling me how much they loved a passage, then suggest—and eventually impose—changes that would completely change the passage. Not to say I’m a grand master, but their suggestions were along the lines of telling Leonardo, “We love this ‘Mona’ painting but we have a few suggestions. Could you make the smile more pronounced? And put a cheeseburger in her hands? And maybe lose the chick entirely.”
BC: That’s funny.
Sam: It is now, but it was extremely frustrating at the time. So I pulled my book from them, asked for the payment on the books I had actually sold (which I never received) and went back to the laborious and fruitless pursuit of sending my novel to every publisher and agent in “The Writer’s Market”. Several years, re-writes, one contest win and a stack of rejection slips later, I stumbled across the idea of self-publishing. I self-published “First Time” in 2001 and sold enough that I was able to pay my way out of the hole I had dug—selling the neighborhood of 2-300 copies, mostly to friends and relatives but a few over the Internet from my web site and a few more at a couple book signings.
BC: That sounds promising.
Sam: It is, sort of. But it’s also very frustrating. It’s a little like being a child who once a year gets one of those little sample spoons of ice cream from Baskin-Robbins but is never allowed to eat a whole scoop.
BC: That’s sad.
Sam: I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
BC: What happened next?
Sam: Since “First Time” had been moderately successful (I consider almost any time I’m not broke to be a success), I decided to release “Saving Time: The Legend of Garison Fitch—Book 2”, which I had been writing simultaneous to doing all the re-writes on “First Time”.
BC: Quick question about those re-writes. Were they along the lines of the suggestions from the publisher you had worked with?
Sam: No. They were generated by the conviction that no one was writing the kind of stories I wanted to read, so I would write them. I like character-driven stories where the conflict is more within a person than with an outside antagonist. The self-published book of “First Time” is almost 40% larger than the original published version. Almost none of the “action” has been changed, but the characters are much more fleshed out and even the action is—I believe—better narrated.
BC: So even though you were meeting with rejection after rejection for “First Time”, you went ahead and wrote a sequel?
Sam: Yes. Sometimes—well, actually, with all the novels I’ve written—I just get an idea and I can barely sleep or accomplish anything else until I get that idea on paper (or computer). Then I wrestle with it. Sometimes it comes to naught. Or the final product bears little resemblance to the idea I first had. But when I finished “First Time” for the first time, I knew there was more to Garison Fitch’s story. A few years later I started exploring what it might be and “Saving Time” almost wrote itself.
BC: Who is “Garison Fitch”?
Sam: Haven’t you read the book?
BC: It was a generalized question. An attempt to give you an opportunity to explain your character to those who might not have read the book.
Sam: Gotcha. OK. Garison Fitch, at the start of the first book, is a reclusive scientist who lives in the Soviet Americas. In some ways, he’s a little over the top. Very smart. Very handsome. Athletic. All that. His Achilles Heel, though, is that he’s pretty socially awkward, owing to his being so smart he had no friends in school and the fact that his parents died when he was fairly young. As the story opens, Garison is about to test a machine that he believes will allow him to travel interdimensionally. I would like to add something here, if I may.
BC: Go ahead.
Sam: I have actually gotten some letters and calls from people who disagreed with my whole concept of multiple dimensions. The thing is, they were working in completely theoretical areas (as am I). They forget: Garison grew up on this North American continent, but under Soviet rule. I have often wondered—if such a thing were to be—would things such as theoretical physics be the same there as here?
BC: Wouldn’t they?
Sam: I wonder. How much of our theorizing is based on absolute fact and how much is based on previous theorizing? Take Einstein out of the picture—or some less famous theorizer of 200 years ago—and how might all the theories that followed be different? If Einstein had never been born, would someone else have come to the same theory of relativity? Or, maybe someone would have, but it wouldn’t have happened for another century. One of the recurring themes of my time travel books is that history is kind of like a game of Jenga (except infinitely more complicated) in that we have no idea how things might have been different if one thing had been done differently. So, in my books, I’m exploring one possible outcome if one or two things had been done differently.
BC: What is it that’s done differently in Garison Fitch’s world?
Sam: Without giving too much away, let’s just say that someone who is considered very pivotal in the formation of the Western world—and especially the United States—dies as a child. Garison, however, runs his experiment and travels through time—rather than through dimensions, as he expected. In the past, he saves this child from death. In so doing, he re-writes the world.
BC: Very interesting!
Sam: I thought so. I’ve always been fascinated with time travel. In all the stories I’ve read or seen where someone traveled to the past, though, they were always worried about screwing up their/our present. I began to wonder: what if OURS is the screw-up? Then, I had Garison come back to our time and discover this world he created. Then he’s got a new dilemma: live with the world he created, or travel in time again and try to return the world to what he knows as “normal”. Within that is the ethical dilemma of whether he COULD let the child die if he had the means to prevent it. And what about free will? Even if he went back and let the child die, would everyone in the subsequent centuries make the same choices they made before? Would it really return the world to his normal? Then, “Saving Time” deals with Garison discovering that his earlier trip through time has torn a hole in time. So his dilemma there is how to go back in time and keep himself from making the first trip through time without using his time machine to get there, which would just tear still another hole.
BC: And isn’t there a third book in the series?
Sam: A third book published so far (he says with a knowing wink). It deals with an apparent contradiction of logic wherein a trip to the future changed the past.
BC: Pretty weighty questions.
Sam: They are, but I try to address them in the midst of a story that's fun and entertaining. It’s not page after page of debate on these topics. They are covered within the “action”, sometimes almost subliminally.
BC: So, can you tell us about Kindle now?
Sam: Probably. I am an inveterate Amazon shopper. Probably spend 1/3 of my income there. Not really, but it seems that way. So I was always seeing the ads for Kindle. I was intrigued, but it was out of my price range—and I’m still kind of a dead-tree person, anyway. One day I was looking at my books on Amazon (yes, they are for sale there in actual paper copies) and there was this little ad that said something like “Are you the publisher of this book? Put it on Kindle!” Or wording to that effect. I looked into the process—found out it didn’t cost me any money—and gave it a try. I put “First Time”, “Saving Time” and a novel I’d written about addiction and co-dependency called “Psalm 88” on there … and forgot about it.
Seriously, I had no idea how to drive people to my books or anything. They were advertising that they had 250,000 books available on Kindle (now it’s 300k) and I had never known anything about marketing. Still, I put them out there and wrote a little about them on my blog … and nothing happened. That was August of ‘08.
Then, in March, I was looking at my checking account and noticed that Amazon had deposited $28 and change in my account. At first, I thought they must have overcharged me for something, but then I realized if that had happened they would have put the money back on my credit card. I did some checking around and found that, in December, something like 7 copies of my novels had sold on Kindle and the deposit was my royalty (which goes out 60 days after the close of a month in which sales were made).
BC: Who bought your books?
Sam: I have no idea. I’ve blogged and emailed and Facebook’ed and I don’t even know anyone who OWNS a Kindle. The only clue I have about who is buying them is that of the three novels I put out there initially, two are about time travel (which I indicated in the description) and those are the ones that have sold. I’ve never sold a copy of the other book, so I have to figure that whoever is buying my books are looking for time travel stories.
BC: Am I to understand that you have a fourth book on Kindle now?
Sam: Yes. It’s called “Lost Time: The Legend of Garison Fitch—Book 3”. It’s the third book we alluded to earlier.
BC: And has it sold any copies?
Sam: I put it out there in early April and it has sold a few copies, which furthers my theory that the people buying my books are looking for time travel stories.
BC: So, you’re still selling copies?
Sam: Every month since December. My “best month” was April of this year when I sold 11 copies. It’s not making me rich, obviously, but it is both gratifying and puzzling.
Sam: I’d love to know who’s buying these books and (presumably) reading them. Are they enjoying them? Did it start with one person who bought and read it and then has been telling friends? Are they random strangers who don’t know each other (but could somehow be persuaded to join a cult that sends me money)? Seriously, I’d love to know who they are and how they found my books in hopes of parlaying that knowledge into getting the word out to other people.
BC: Do you have any other novels you intend to make available on Kindle?
Sam: I do. Several, actually. I’m just trying to figure out some of the “ins and outs” of it all. Not that I would be losing money or anything else if I were to put a book out there and it sold nothing, but if given the choice I’d much rather put books out there that follow “First Time” than books that follow “Psalm 88”.
BC: Well, thank you for answering my questions.
Sam: You’re welcome. Thanks for letting me use your name for one of the characters in “Saving Time”.