Interview With Cliff Pickover: Mainstream/Indie Author

Dr. Cliff Pickover is a very successful scientist, researcher and mainstream author, with over 40 published titles to his name and a list of accolades and reviews that reads like a who’s-who of the publishing and media businesses. So why has he gone indie with some of his books?

 
Dr. Pickover is the author of over 40 books (many of which can be found on various Amazon bestseller lists on any given day). He has published through mainstream presses such as Oxford University Press and John Wiley and Sons, through smaller outfits like Smart Books, and he has self-published as well. His books have received rave reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Booklist and Wired magazine, and he’s collaborated with celebrated fantasy author Piers Anthony on the book Spider Legs. He’s also the author of the tremendously popular Mind Bending Puzzles series of calendars and cards.
 
Dr. Pickover’s professional stature as an inventor and scientist is no less impressive. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, he holds over 50 patents, and his research has received attention from such media outlets as CNN, Wired magazine and The Discovery Channel.  
 
Dr. Pickover: you’ve been a mainstream author, and a very successful one, for a very long time. Yet your novels, The Heaven Virus and Jews in Hyperspace, are indie endeavors.
 
I have published both fiction and nonfiction books, but finding a publisher for fiction is much more difficult than for nonfiction. More generally, if the ability to find a publisher for nonfiction can be compared to walking across the street, finding a publisher for fiction is like walking from New York to California, backwards. According to Marc McCutcheon, author of Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That?, of the 50,000-plus new books published each year, only about 3,500 are fiction. A mere 120 fiction releases each year are first novels of an author. Although these numbers are a few years old, it gives you an idea of the magnitude of the challenge.
 
I’m not the only author to realize the immense challenge in publishing fiction. For example, John Scalzi has written extensively on the difficulty of publishing science fiction. First let me tell you a little bit about John. He is a published nonfiction book author. He has written for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Post, the San Diego Tribune and the San Francisco Examiner. He’s even been on Oprah. John has been an editor, most notably for a humor area on America Online. He even has an agent — for his nonfiction.
 
Scalzi believes that in order to get science fiction published, you need to have accomplished only two things: 1) You must have published a science-fiction novel in the past, and 2) You must be writing military science fiction. He’s conducted extensive surveys of bookstore shelves devoted to science fiction. By his estimate, eight out of the ten books on the shelves are from well-established science-fiction writers, many of them dead, such as Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Niven. The remaining two books of the ten are from relatively new authors, and most of these are “hard” science fiction dealing with space battles, military machines, starships, and the like. Scalzi concludes that this leaves only “four science fiction books out of a hundred that feature new authors not writing about space navies and powered war suits.”
 
Some fiction publishers receive so many submissions in just one day that they would need huge staffs just to read the first few pages of each submission. Even having an agent can be fruitless. For example, publishers will read few manuscripts submitted by agents who are not very well connected or well known. Many publishers and authors have said, “Your odds of getting hit by lightning are higher than getting a novel published by a name publisher.” 
 
Along those same lines, with respect to your mainstream-published books, what has your typical marketing and promotion experience been?
 
If you are speaking of author-based promotion for mainstream books, then I would have to say that book-signing at local bookstores has little value. I’ve been interviewed on some big radio shows, such as Coast to Coast, and this appears to be useful. 
 
Your earliest books were strictly nonfiction. At what point did you decide to try your hand at fiction, and why?
 
For a long time, my mainstream science books have incorporated elements of fiction. For example, in order to teach readers about black holes or time travel or mathematics, I have used fictional settings in which the reader explores the science with a quirky set of assistants. In other words, many of my own science books include science-fiction story lines to stimulate readers’ interest in the serious science. For example, my “nonfiction” books Black Holes: A Traveler’s Guide, Time: A Traveler’s Guide, The Stars of Heaven, Surfing through Hyperspace, The Mathematics of Oz, The Loom of God,and The Paradox of God all feature fictional characters who investigate astronomy, physics, mathematics, and religion.
 
I have always written fiction. As I said, fiction is very hard to publish, even if one is a published author and even if one finds an editor who likes the novel. As an example, an editor at a mainstream publisher actually liked the sample of my latest novel Jews in Hyperspace but did not have the time to proceed further in his consideration of the work. Science-fiction editors are so swamped and drowning in submissions that they often are too busy to respond to most authors and continue the dialogue needed to get a book submission published. For Jews in Hyperspace, I decided to publish directly to the Kindle as an experiment. I consider self-publishing an experiment that gives authors hope and more exposure.
 
I’d like to help novelists reading this interview with this “Tips for Writers” page, which I’ve assembled for you. I hope you and your readers find it helpful.
 
Have you made the decision to go indie—whether that means publishing yourself or through indie presses—for your future works? Why or why not?
 
I have relatively little problems selling math or science books to traditional publishers, so I wouldn’t “go indie” for those. Indie is great for experiments with fiction, and we can always hope that such an experiment will bear fruit. It is easy to publish to the Kindle, and I give tips for writers who wish to publish to the Kindle. In fact, April, I learned a lot from your great document on Kindle publishing. All indications point to the fact that the Kindle is taking off in terms of popularity and importance. It may be a turning point in the history of book publishing. I want to help authors publish to the Kindle, and I hope that the instructional document I have placed at the web site is of some use to authors and to your readers.
 
Have any of your books gone out of print, and if so, do you have plans to re-release them yourself?
 
Yes, some of my books have gone out of print. In fact, Sterling has brought back into print The Loom of God , and some of my other books have been brought back into print by mainstream publishers. I have no major plans to bring my out-of-print books back into print, preferring to focus on new works that would help me connect with readers.  
 
Many of your works are available in Kindle editions, but no other e formats. What is it about the Kindle that convinced you to release Kindle editions of your books?
 
In fact, the mainstream publishers of my books made the decision to release Kindle editions. I suspect that they felt it a valuable experiment, given the ease with which people can purchase books from Amazon.com for the Kindle. In seconds, an author’s book can be downloaded to the Kindle.
 
Incidentally, my novel The Heaven Virus is available as a 99-cent download from Lulu.com. I have not yet determined if setting so low a price helps sales, because potential readers may feel that if a book is too inexpensive it may be of inferior quality.
 
None of your books are available in audio format. Do you have plans to create audio or podcast editions in the future?
 
I do not have plans for audio format at this point in time. Many of my books are quite visual, with numerous figures, and many have equations. These may be a little bit harder to convert to audio than works such as novels.
 
A common complaint among authors is the difficulty in finding time to write. You’re extraordinarily prolific as an author—releasing a book a year on average—, as well as an inventor and researcher. You’re the editor of Reality Carnival, an editor of technical journals, a regular past contributor to Discover Magazine, a frequent contributor to numerous other periodicals, and you’re a very avid reader as well. Do you have any advice or tips a more typical author can use to improve his or her level of productivity?
 
The key is for writers to avoid perfection as they write. Writers should give themselves permission to be sloppy as their thoughts gel.
 
The French writher Marcel Proust composed his books in a haphazard fashion. He did not start at the beginning and finish at the end. He did not write linearly. Instead, ideas came to him in flashes as he went about his daily routine. Most of my own books are composed in the same way. As ideas come to me during the day or in the realm between sleep and wakefulness, I jot them down and continue to fill in details in the book. For me, writing is exactly like painting, adding a spot of color here, a detail there, a twig on this tree, a bit of foam on that ocean wave… No painter starts at the top of the painting and finishes at the bottom.
 
My approach to filling in detail, like a painter dabbing paint, is fine in the age of word processors, but it was amazing that Proust used the same approach so well. He would dictate to his stenographers who would type an initial manuscript. Then, he would crowd the margins with additional details and establish links between scenes and characters. He would paste in new pages and have the new work typed again and again. Edmund White notes in his biography of Proust, “If any writer would have benefited from a word processor, it would have been Proust, whose entire method consisted of adding details here and there and of working on all parts of his book at once.”
 
When I start writing my novels, I do not know how the stories will end. I let the characters and initial crazy situation drive the plot, forcing both me and the book’s characters to attempt to solve the challenges that come along. 
 
It’s obvious how your education and professional experience have informed your writing, but do you feel your experiences in authorship have informed your professional life to any extent?
 
My writing has greatly influenced my professional life in ways too numerous to mention. However, it is easy to see how my own writing has made me more skillful in editing the work of others, which plays a role in my professional life as a journal editor. I also do a lot of inventing and have many patents. For inventing, the ability to write helps quite a bit. One of the challenges for new inventors is the need to express the essential aspects of an invention in words.
 
As you must know by now, self-publishing and promoting your own books takes a lot of time and effort. Given that you’re already very successful in numerous other venues and can probably go on selling nonfiction and reference manuscripts to publishers for many years to come, why bother with indie authorship?
 
Indie authorship lets authors connect with people— it lets authors experiment, it lets authors hope, it lets authors dream. Through the Kindle, Lulu.com, and similar avenues of publication, authors gain exposure and learn about the process of writing and promotion. One thing is certain: the author has no chance of fame and fortune without trying and connecting with readers. Indie authorship gives everyone a chance.
 
Finally, can you tell me a little more about your book, Jews in Hyperspace? What is it about, and can readers without any background in science or Judaism understand it?
 
Jews in Hyperspace is one of my favorites, and I published it directly to the Kindle. I give a free excerpt here — a website at which I also tell your readers how the book came to be written.
 
Readers need no special background in science or Judaism to enjoy the wondrous adventure. In the book, I mix higher dimensions and religion, miracles and modern technology, and politics and physics to produce a gripping tale set in a future Jerusalem. It’s a strange blend of scientific thriller and a quest for religious harmony.
 
April, here’s the premise. Orthodox Jews are disappearing from Jerusalem. One moment they are praying at the Western Wall, and in the blink of an eye, they seem to evaporate, occasionally leaving behind only their fur hats—their shtreimels—that sit like small, soft flying saucers, perched on stone pavement in the dwindling light. In order to build the Third Temple while being respectful of the Islamic structures on the Temple Mount, the Jews have discovered a way to access a fourth spatial dimension. They will build the Third Temple invisibly "above" the Temple Mount and "above" the Mosque in the direction of the fourth dimension. I discuss everything from the future of Israel and Jerusalem to Parallel Universes, the building of Third Temple in Jerusalem, Nephilim, angels, and the fourth dimension.
 
Without indie publication, this novel would be difficult to publish. Jewish publishers are not accustomed to publishing science fiction. Thus, it would surely be difficult to find a route to publication through Jewish publishers.
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