self-publishing vs traditional publishing

It used to be that self-publishing was the realm of vain, delusional losers who paid large sums of money to have their books printed, only to find that no one wanted to buy a crappy book written by “some guy” or “some girl” that had never passed through the hands of an editor.

But times have changed. Now self-publishing is, well, exactly the same as it was before except these days the author no longer has to pay any of their own money up front. And that is simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing.

Because with self-publishing, you get to have complete creative control over your work. You get to make the decision about the cover, the layout, the format, and most importantly, the content. And you get to control when, where, and how your book gets published. Plus, you get to keep a greater percentage of the profits.

And that’s pretty awesome.

On the down side, quite a lot of people out there simply have zero interest in buying a self-published book. And for good reason. Because when you see a publisher’s logo on a book that’s come out recently, it signifies that the book has gone through an agent, a contact person at a publishing house, and a full-time editor employed by said publishing house. Whereas a self-published book has probably at most gone through the hands of a few of the author’s friends who were too kind or too embarrassed to tell the author that their book sucks. And the few truly exceptional self-published books that are written run the great risk of being drowned beneath the towering waves of all the crappy ones.

My book sucks. I’m fully aware of this. It’s sold a grand total of nine copies so far, and I’m almost positive that every one of those was to someone who knows me personally. But I’m ok with that. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and my Peace Corps memoir has exactly 50 chapters. It was a personal goal of mine to have the book published this year, and as it was rejected by every agent I sent it to the only way that was going to happen was if I self-published. So I self-published it. If nothing else, the only way for me to find out what people actually think about it is to put it out there, so I put it out there.

The thing is, it’s exactly the way I want it to be. Typos and all. Because I actually wrote at least half of it while I was still in Africa, and while it could doubtless benefit from the skill and expertise of a professional editor, I can’t help but feel that something valuable would be lost. The rawness, intensity, honesty, and laughable naivety that I put into that first draft as I sat in front of my laptop in Korogwe, Tanzania may not perfectly translate into quality reading, but it reflects a pure, unfiltered distillation of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. And that’s what I was going for.

I’ve already started a new novel. I’ve got the first draft of the prologue, chapter 1, and chapter 2 written so far. And in terms of quality it’s light years ahead of my first book. And I’m going to do everything I can to get it published by a traditional publisher.

Because I always want to be improving myself and my writing. And while I would love to say that I know better than any literary agents or publishers, the amount of books that they’ve sold versus the amount of books I’ve sold pretty much says it all.

In a lot of ways it’s analogous to the movie industry. Blockbuster films are often familiar and formulaic and have big names attached to them because movie producers have a good idea of what’s most likely to sell tickets and want to maximize the chances of a profitable return on their investments. But at the same, they’re reluctant to take any really big risks. Independent films on the other hand are more willing to take chances, and while they do sometimes end up getting it right and produce something truly moving, brilliant, groundbreaking, and awe-inspiring, more often than not they simply suck ass.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve written my “Indie” book, and now I’m going to see if I can write a “blockbuster”.

Wish me luck.

Oh, and if you’re interested on reading something more insightful on the topic by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, check out this post by Stephen Leather.


I made the right decision

I used to believe in Fate. I’m not sure if I still do.

I read a book while I was in the Peace Corps called The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In the book, the protagonist was guided virtually every step of the way by people encouraging him to fulfill his destiny. And while he faced many challenges, through the strength of his convictions he was able to overcome them, and in the end he succeeded.

Which is why I think that book is a complete load of crap.

Because it’s easy to pursue your destiny when you know exactly what your destiny is. For me, the greatest challenge I’ve faced in being a writer is my own self-doubt. If someone had come along and told me that Fate had decreed that I was meant to be a writer, that success was a foregone conclusion, I’d probably have several books published by now. Because writing itself comes easy to me, but the fear that my writing sucks is a constant hindrance. So I procrastinate way more than I should, because I’m afraid to confront the possibility that I am simply not good enough of a writer to succeed.

On the other hand, if I knew for a fact that I was destined to succeed, it would take all the satisfaction out of the success. I wouldn’t feel any sense of accomplishment if I knew for certain that I was guaranteed to be successful no matter what. Given the choice, I would definitely prefer not to know.

So yeah, I don’t know if people have a Fate or a Destiny or anything like that, but I definitely am 100% certain that I made the right choice in leaving the field of scientific research to pursue my dream of being a writer.

For one thing, I’m just so much happier now. I feel so much better than I did before. And don’t get me wrong, because my boss was awesome and the people I worked with were really, really cool, but for the past few months every single day  I went to the Institute was a complete fucking drag. I couldn’t make myself interested in what I was doing, and I just felt constantly drained of energy and motivation.

Things are so different now. In the week I’ve been away from work, I’ve written a short story and a nonfiction essay and submitted them to a literary magazine, finished the prologue of my latest novel, designed a cover for my book, learned about various publishing options and formatting guidelines, and uploaded my book for publication as a traditional paperback from, as well as an ebook from Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other retailers. It should be available in various formats within the next couple of weeks.

And like I said before, I don’t expect to make a lot of money from my Peace Corpse memoir. But it is helping me a lot to learn the process of writing, editing, revising, and formatting. And in the near future I expect it’ll help me learn about promoting and marketing. Which should be interesting.

I’m definitely making a lot of mistakes though.

I asked a friend of mine to design the cover because he’s a fantastic artist, but he’s pretty busy at the moment so I went ahead and designed one myself. I showed it to a couple of friends and they said it was kind of ok, but really not that great.

Which means it matches the contents of the book perfectly. So I think I’m going to go ahead and go with it.

Within the next few days I’m going to start a new blog to specifically promote the book, and I’ll be contacting book bloggers and asking them to review it. From what I’ve read this seems to be the best way to promote a self-published book. And who knows, I may get lucky. All it takes is for the right person to like it, and if that happens I’ll be pretty much set.

But the important thing is that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing with my life. Honestly, I can’t think of anything else I could do that would make me happier. And while I may never be good enough of a writer to make a successful career out of it, I really feel like this is the right thing for me to do with my life right now.

This is what I wish for all my friends and family. I hope everyone can find something they truly enjoy; something that they actually look forward to pursuing, engaging, and working on.

And yeah, I do realize that some dreams are unrealistic, and pursuing them will simply result in agonizing and soul-crushing defeat, but that’s just part of the fun of life, right?

so far so good

Technically last Friday wasn’t my official last day of work since I’ll probably still make an appearance at least once a week for the next few weeks (to make sure the student who’s taking over my project doesn’t have any problems), but for all practical purposes I’m done.

And I’m pretty happy about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned, but I’m glad to be done with it. As a friend of mine pointed out, I’m not really into the idea of being a computational chemist. It would be nice, but just not good enough. It’s just not something I could devote my life to.

But I think writing is. I spent all day Saturday researching options for publishing, and I spent all day Sunday formatting my manuscript. I have a good friend who very kindly agreed to design a cover for me, and as soon as that’s finished I’ll be ready to sell it.

I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route. And by “decided” I mean “all 27 literary agents I sent a query to rejected me”. Apparently there just isn’t a booming market for Peace Corps memoirs written by someone who isn’t already notable in some other way. Who knew?

Still, self-publishing isn’t what it used to be, thanks to the internet. There’s actually a growing number of writers having pretty decent success with it. Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath are two notable examples.

With self-publishing you get to have complete creative control over your work and you receive a greater percentage of the profit from sales. Which is pretty cool. But at the same time you have to take full responsibility for promoting and marketing your work yourself. And when you consider how many books come out each month that your work is effectively competing against for a potential reader’s time and money, this is a pretty big deal.

For the record, I don’t expect my first book to be a huge success. Hell, if I sell ten copies, and more then two of those are someone besides my mom secretly buying multiple copies to make me feel better, I’ll be happy. As I said, there just isn’t a big market for Peace Corps memoirs, but if nothing else it’ll be a major learning experience for me. I plan to use this book as a test run to see how the process works, and hopefully I’ll be able to gain the knowledge and experience I need in order to have greater success in the future.

Regardless, I am absolutely certain that I made the right decision in quitting research to pursue a career as a writer. I really enjoy learning everything I can about the process of producing and marketing a book. For the most part, research generally felt like a chore to me. Sure I had moments of enjoyment, but by and large I was doing it because I had to, and not because I wanted to. And while I may end up failing hilariously and spectacularly, at least I’ll be able to say that I gave it my best shot, and I wasn’t afraid to take the chance.

Of course, I’ll still be in pretty big trouble when my student loans come due, but I’m sure I’ll figure out something.

this is it (sort of)

This is it. My last week of work.

Well, sort of.

My boss told me he’s going to go ahead and pay me through May regardless. He said that’s what his postdoc boss did for him, so he figured he’d do the same for me.

And while that’s a pretty damn awesome thing for him to do, there is no way I could take the money without feeling incredibly guilty, so I guess I’ll be working at least part-time through May.


It’s funny though; a thousand dollars isn’t a whole lot compared to my boss’s total budget so I can see why he didn’t feel like it was a big deal, but that’s still a heckova lot of money to me, and I’m definitely pretty appreciative.

Of course, he is getting something for his money. I told him that even after I’m long gone I’ll still always be happy to edit any papers written by him or any of the other research group members. And if this doesn’t seem like a big deal, I’d just like to point out that papers can fail to get published—even if the science is of high quality—if the quality of the English fails to meet the journal’s standards.

I think that’s one of the most important things I’ve learned in my year and a half as a postdoctoral researcher in China; while I’m not actually that great of a researcher, I am a pretty good writer. Specifically, I’m good at taking complicated concepts and explaining them in a simple and straightforward manner.

And if that sounds like bragging, well, yeah it is. But it’s also true. A few months ago, my boss asked me to write a book chapter with him on “How to Benchmark Methods for Virtual Screening”. And if that phrase means absolutely nothing to you, then you know exactly how I felt when he first asked me to write it. Because while technically it’s in my field, it’s way outside my area of expertise (my primary area of expertise mainly consists of video games and porn, but that’s not the point). Regardless, I was able to read all the relevant background material, understand it, and then condense it into a single book chapter that was accepted for publication without the need of subsequent edits.

Yeah, I’m pretty awesome.

But seriously, as a researcher I kinda suck. I hope to submit a paper based on the actual research I’ve done over the past year and a half to a pretty well-respected journal this week, and I’m seriously worried that it’s going to get rejected. I’m proud of the quality of the writing, but slightly embarrassed by the quality of the research I wrote about.

Hopefully I’m just being paranoid.

Still, if nothing else this merely reinforces my feeling that I’m doing the right thing in leaving the field of research. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be leaving science entirely.

A paper written by a good friend of mine was published recently. He listed me as second author despite the fact that I did none of the actual research. What I actually did was some of the writing, a lot of the editing, and I was the one who actually found an appropriate journal that was willing to publish it, and I was the one who jumped through all the hoops to make it happen.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I don’t really enjoy doing research, I do love science, and I particularly enjoy making science accessible to others. What’s more, I’m actually pretty damn good at it. And while I would love to have a lucrative career writing fiction and narrative nonfiction, I suspect I’m far more likely to have a successful career as a writer of scientific articles.

Take this article for example. I actually cringed when I read it. What’s more, I knew for a fact that I could do a lot better job of writing it myself. Because even a great writer can’t explain a scientific concept if they don’t understand the concept in the first place.

As science becomes increasingly complex, I think there’s an ever-increasing need for people with a solid understanding of science and scientific research to explain the work of scientists to everyone else in a clear and comprehensible manner.

And I’m all about satisfying needs, baby.

Or something. Yeah, I should probably go to bed. It’s late and I still have a lot of sciencey stuff I need to do this week…..

no offense

Have you ever thought about how fucking silly it is to get offended by shit?

Obviously I haven’t.

But seriously, when you allow yourself to be offended by something, you give someone else a power over you that they really shouldn’t have. I mean, if someone can come up with a well-researched, logical, reasonable argument detailing how you’re wrong about something, but you can reduce them to speechlessness and thereby win the argument by default simply by calling them a “fuckwit” or some other such nonsense, isn’t that, well, kinda stupid?

Now for the record, I make a distinction between “hurtful” and “offensive”, because sometimes when someone attacks you verbally you can’t help but be hurt by it. But when I think of the term “offensive”, the image that comes to mind is a small child on a playground, face scrunched up in outrage, foot stamped, accusatory finger pointing, declaring with typically childlike indignation, “You can’t say that!! That’s offensive!!”

To which my response is generally, “………so?”

Which is not to say that I take pleasure in saying (or writing) things purely for the sake of causing offense. I don’t. On the other hand, I do often choose particular words because of the effect I want them to have on the reader. And yeah, I don’t always get it right, but that’s all part of the learning process. The point is that I’m not interested in limiting myself or my vocabulary simply because I’m afraid of offending someone.

Now it may seem like people being overly sensitive and easily offended is something new, but I don’t think that’s the case. I have no doubt that for as long as the human race has contained various permutations of stupid people and assholes we’ve had stupid assholes getting offended by stupid things (like being called stupid assholes, for example) and we’ve doubtless had other assholes who figure out pretty quickly what offends the stupid assholes, and then intentionally do those things to piss them off because it’s funny. Not that I’m condoning such behavior, mind you, but I’m not exactly sympathetic either.

Because there is nothing in this world that offends me. Seriously. Nothing. Now I’m sure plenty of people could find plenty of hurtful things to say to me, but there’s not a single thing anyone can say that would make me so outraged that I would insist that they not be able to say it.

Because I want to know what people are thinking. I want to know who the douchebags are, rather than getting blindsided by them later because I wasn’t able to readily identify their true nature from the start due to their veneer of Political Correctness. I want people to be open and honest and direct, because if nothing else, it makes it a hellova lot easier to know who I’ll want to avoid.

And doubtless there’s at least one or two people out there who feel the same way about me.

But that’s fine. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me about everything. And if someone can explain to me how something I’ve said is truly hurtful, odds are I’ll adapt my language. But if someone were to bitch at me because according to them I’m offensive, odds are I’d just make fun of them.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s the person who claims to be offended who is really trying to take power from someone else, because what they’re actually doing is trying to control what someone else can or can’t say. And I think that’s pretty lame. At worst, it’s an insidious way to try and limit free speech. After all:

“If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed.”

–  St. Jerome (347-420 AD)

So there.


I’m feeling kind of discouraged right now.

It’s currently the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, and technically I’m supposed to be on vacation, but instead I’m at my cubicle. The lone person in my office.

Lucky me.

There were three main things I wanted to accomplish during the break: 1) find an agent for my book 2) finish writing the paper on my most recent research 3) find a solution to my anxiety problems.

I failed at all three of these things.

Last Thursday I wrote 17 query emails to literary agents. Friday morning I had three responses—all rejections. Basically, no one is interested in a “Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa” story because it’s been done to death. And even if I think I have a new and unique and interesting take on it, that’s not enough to excite an agent.

I was pretty disappointed, but I did have one tiny ray of hope: one of the agents mentioned that he noticed my credentials, and told me if I had any ideas for a book about science or specifically biology, I should contact him. Well, as a matter of fact I have been thinking about writing a novel about my experience as the only non-Chinese researcher at the top biological institute in China. So I wrote to the agent and asked if this was something he’d be interested in. He responded right away. To tell me that this might be a good topic for a magazine article, but not for a full book.


Alright, on to the next thing: finishing my paper.

I woke up early Saturday morning, fixed myself a pot of coffee, booted up my laptops (yes, plural), and…nothing. I couldn’t even get started. I just couldn’t get my mind to focus. And the harder I tried to motivate myself, the worse I felt.

So I decided to move on to the next thing.

I have been in more or less constant pain since I was 17. It started as a dull burning sensation in my shoulders, then spread to my back when I was in college. When I was in Africa, it spread to my throat and lower abdomen, increasing in intensity as it went along. At first I didn’t even know what it was, until someone pointed out how tense the muscles in my back were.

And yeah, that’s all it is. It’s just muscle tension induced by stress and anxiety. But there is not a God damn thing I can do to make it go away, and it causes me CONSTANT pain. The worst is when it’s in my throat, because it feels like I’m being choked by an invisible hand. That’s where it is right now, as I write this. And the most frustrating thing is the more frustrated I get about it, the worse it gets, and then I get frustrated because I can’t make myself stop being frustrated. And so on.

So I decided to spend the rest of the weekend meditating. I’d read a bunch of stuff on the internet about meditation techniques, and I was cautiously optimistic.

Turns out this optimism was rather unfounded.

Because every time I started to relax a little, my heart started racing, pumping adrenaline into my system. It’s like my body has decided I need to remain at a certain level of alertness at all times, and as soon as I do anything to reduce this level, my body compensates by increasing my anxiety until I’m back where I started. Basically, I spent the whole weekend meditating, and by Sunday night I felt exactly the same as I did Saturday morning.

Fuck me.

So yeah, I’m feeling pretty discouraged right now. And no, I’m not looking for sympathy or anything, but I set myself a goal of writing one blog entry per week, and I don’t have the energy or motivation to write about anything else, so this is it.

But I’ll get over it. I’m moving to Australia in 3 months, and I’m going to visit a good friend in Japan next month. Plus, the cute Chinese girl I met a couple weeks ago called me on Saturday, and she wants to get together with me later this week. She said we could “go play”. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’m really hoping it’s a euphemism for sex.

So yeah, things aren’t all bad.