Jason Gurley is an author and software designer from Portland, Oregon who began writing novels when he was 18 years old. It wasn’t until 2013 that he experimented with self-publishing. His novels Eleanor and Greatfall have been Amazon bestsellers, and since its publication in the summer of 2014, Eleanor has been acquired by a publisher. In 2016, it will be reintroduced in the U.S. by the Crown Publishing Group, and in the U.K. by HarperCollins.
Why did you decide to self-publish at first rather than publish traditionally?
In late 2012, after I’d spent about 11 years working on a single book, I spotted a novel-writing competition that Amazon runs annually. I was interested in submitting some work to the contest, but it seemed disingenuous to try to rush that eleven-years-in-progress novel to completion just to submit it to a competition. (The contest deadline was only about four weeks away when I discovered it.) So I experimented. I wrote a short new novel—called The Man Who Ended the World—in about three weeks’ time.
I had to consider the odds when I finished writing The Man Who Ended the World. I was probably going to be one of several thousand entrants. It would take many months for the contest judges to work their way through the tiers of entries. That’s when I started to seriously look at self-publishing as an option. When I realized that it had matured in the years since I’d last considered it, I gave it a shot, and to my surprise, it worked out pretty well.
Many of your books are rooted in the science fiction genre. How difficult are these to sell in the Indie space?
It’s difficult for me to comment on what sells well, especially for independent and self-published authors. There are sea changes in that space daily, it seems; what sells well on Monday might be tired on Thursday. Many authors I encountered were extremely focused on writing the thing that will sell, and I wanted to write the thing I wanted to read. That’s not to say that my stories weren’t marketable, but I tired not to chase trends.
I enjoy writing science fiction. I love reading hard sci-fi, but I don’t dare attempt to write it; I’d put a quasar where a quark should be and never hear the end of it. Someone once told me that I specialize in “weepy” sci-fi, and that’s probably sort of accurate. Not necessarily in the sense that my books are designed to make a reader cry, but that I’m much more concerned with real humans in those genre stories. If I blow up a moon, that’s pretty cool… but I’m much more interested, personally, in the way such things affect a living, breathing, hoping, wishing person. I enjoy small stories that feel big.
What was your first indie work and how well did it do in terms of sales?
The Man Who Ended the World was the first, and I celebrated with the first week’s sales as though I’d been shortlisted for the Pulitzer. I think it sold about 60 copies in its first month. Those numbers picked up, and I was encouraged enough to write and self-publish a few more titles. The most successful of them, at least in terms of sales, was, interestingly enough, a fan fiction novel called Greatfall. That was a story I’d written in Hugh Howey’s Wool universe, and the response from readers really startled me. Greatfall sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 copies. Amazon reviews were wildly positive, with the exception of a few die-hard Wool fans who weren’t exactly thrilled about some of the liberties I took with the setting.
Your novel, Eleanor, has been picked up by the Crown and gotten some pretty strong pre-pub attention before Crown releases it in January. How is it a departure from form for you, if it’s a departure at all?
I began writing Eleanor in 2001. I was 23 years old, with three other novels in a drawer already. I didn’t realize I was starting a book that would take 14 years to complete. I certainly hoped it would be the one a publisher might believe in, but you never really know, do you? When I put the novel aside in 2012—to write The Man Who Ended the World—I wasn’t sure how long it might be before I picked it up again. I needed to remind myself that I could finish a project, after all those years.
After finding moderate success with my self-published titles, I returned to Eleanor, scrapped most of what I’d written in the preceding decade-plus, and set about rebuilding and then finishing it. I originally self-published Eleanor in the summer of 2014; it found some quick success, helped me find and sign with a literary agent, and ultimately was bought by Crown. We’ve also sold rights in several other countries: HarperCollins will publish in the UK, Rocco in Brazil, Heyne Verlag in Germany. Honestly, it all feels very dreamlike to me.
As for being a departure from form, or not—well, Eleanor is a dramatically different book than any of my self-published titles. It’s not straight genre novel, like The Man Who Ended the World or Greatfall. Novels like The Lovely Bones or The Time Traveler’s Wife were enormous influences on me as I was writing Eleanor. I think that Eleanor shares a lot of DNA with those wonderful books.
You’re not just an indie author but also an established jacket cover designer. What has that path been like for you? How did you get started and how does the process usually play out for an assignment?
This is such a trip for me. My career, for the last sixteen or seventeen years, has revolved around visual design. I’m a user experience designer for Puppet Labs in Portland, Oregon, presently; for many years prior I was a creative director and designer in the digital marketing space. I’d never once considered designing book covers until I began self-publishing my own novels. I stumbled into designing book covers for other authors, mostly fellow independent authors, who enjoyed the covers I’d created for my books. I didn’t do this for long; about two years, during which time I designed covers for Hugh Howey, Max Allan Collins, John Joseph Adams, and other terrific authors, editors, and publishers.
Assignments were wildly different based on who the project was for. I’d interview the author about the book, ask for a plot summary, spoilers and all, and we’d talk about the book’s themes and iconic moments and imagery, until a concept would start to form. (I usually wouldn’t take a project if the author knew exactly what they wanted. There’s very little enjoyment in simply executing someone else’s vision.)
I “retired” from cover design last year, though I had so many projects scheduled that I’ve only recently wrapped up most of the work. I found myself, rather accidentally, in high demand during those two years. Suddenly I had a balancing problem: I was writing novels, working full-time, designing book covers, and trying to be a present husband and father. Something had to go, and cover design was the only optional part of the equation.
Why do most indie authors not pay enough attention to book covers? What role do you believe a book cover plays in the delivery of a complete book?
Well, as much as we might protest, a book cover is utterly important to the process of creating and selling a book. I’ll admit to this: I judge books by their covers all the time. Wonderful books that I’d love to read escape me constantly because their cover sends the wrong message, or isn’t very good, or doesn’t portray the book that’s wrapped within it.
Self-published authors have gotten very good at book covers. It’s not always easy to tell the self-published books from the traditionally-published ones. That was my personal goal for my own self-published titles. I strived to remove a many barriers to the books as I could from a reader’s point of view. Having a professionally designed cover is the first big barrier. There may not be a publisher’s mark on the spine, but if the cover passed that initial test, a reader might not be swayed by the absence of a publisher’s involvement.
What’s been the most pleasing or revelatory aspect of self-publishing for you?
Without question, it’s been the access to readers. There are plenty of things that I enjoyed or disliked about self-publishing, but the connection that it gave me to readers I’d never met, and who had never heard of me, is irreplaceable. I’ve met so many interesting people, many of whom have gone on to share my work with their friends and family. After years of writing in a vacuum, this felt like a gift.
What has been the most difficult aspect of self-publishing?
Well, for one, the overnight changes in the self-publishing space can be very difficult. Watching a successful book practically disappear from readers’ radars, with no apparent reason, can be hard to swallow. Self-published authors are at the mercy of the terms & conditions and policies and algorithms of the distributors they list their books with, and sometimes that means an author’s hard-won success can be halved without a moment’s notice, because one of those things changed slightly.
I’ve struggled with the black-and-white nature of the self-publishing community, though. Certainly not all authors are guilty of this, but many loudly proclaim the wonders of self-publishing while decrying traditional publishing as the devil incarnate. That’s really not a pleasant environment, particularly if you’re interested in all kinds of publishing avenues. What’s best for me and my work is almost certainly different from what’s best for another author. But that kind of sentiment often seems to get drowned out.
What is your advice to other writers considering self-publishing?
Ask yourself what you hope to achieve by self-publishing. If self-publishing is truly the best way to achieve that goal, then you should absolutely pursue that. Resist publishing before the work is truly ready. Don’t fall prey to the publish-fast-publish-now-OMG mantra. Do what’s right for you; no one else can tell you what that is.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelancer with a passion for books.