I don’t even know how to introduce Jennifer Foehner Wells. She’s awesomeness wrapped up in fun, wrapped up in a pizza. (That’s right, I’ve delayed lunch and I’m hungry, but I couldn’t want to get this interview posted.) If you haven’t read my review of Fluency, check it out here. Jen is so great in this interview. I love how we get her take on the book, a tease of the next one, and her journey as a self-published author. Thanks so much to Jen for sharing all this fantastic stuff with us.
Zen: You’ve done what every self-published author hopes to do, which is to engineer a breakaway hit all by your onesie. That was totally easy, right?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: Yeah. So easy I don’t know how I did it! People ask me all the time how I did this and I can’t say that I actually know for sure. There are so many layers to this kind of thing. I think that the best thing I did was to cover a ton of bases before I hit submit. I worked damn hard, but a lot of it was fun.
First and foremost, I wrote the best book that I could at that time. I bought the best cover art I could afford (I just totally took a chance—I had to use family savings to pay for it. It was worth every penny and more.) I was lucky to have a speculative-fiction-oriented writing group (we call ourselves Working Title) to read and critique my work. I was also fortunate to have a family member that runs a University Writing Center who agreed to proofread it.
Then there was Twitter. I had read a ton about the power of social media in self-publishing and I’d seen enough of Twitter book-spam early on to know that I didn’t want to do that. So I took a different approach entirely. I looked for people who had the same interests as I did and followed them—and then provided them with content daily that I found interesting, thinking they probably would too. My reasoning was: I was writing the book I wanted to read. If I looked for other people like me, they might want to read it too. As a secondary benefit, this made Twitter a whole lot more fun for me!
By the time I was ready to release, I had amassed ten thousand twitter followers, most of whom were SF fans. On the day I launched, 500 of those people bought my book. From there the amazon algorithms took over and made the book very visible. I did very little marketing or promotion for the first 4 months. All I did was talk about the exciting things that were happening with my book! That was enough. Word of mouth took over. It took me two to three years to get to the ten thousand twitter follower mark. In the last six months, that number has doubled.
Zen: I was surprised to find out that your readership is 90% male. Why do you think that is?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: The day I realized that was the case, I was surprised too! It’s starting to change, ever so slowly, especially since Rachel Aaron mentioned she was reading Fluency on Twitter and then interviewed me on her blog.
I’ve chatted about this issue with my twitter followers and some people insist that the reason is that mostly men read SF. Aaaaaaaaand… to a degree, that’s correct. Personally, I used to get really frustrated with the dry, soulless SF books I’d find on the shelves at the local bookstores—you know the ones: focused so much on concept at the expense of developing much more than a stock character if a character is even important to the story at all? Whole chapters devoted to infodumps about esoteric sciency things? Yeah. Hey, I’m a science nerd for sure, but that’s not my idea of fun. There for a while there was a whole lotta super hard SF being published and not much else. So, guess what? I stopped reading SF. I bet a lot of women did.
That kind of sterile SF pleased a certain (very small—I’m convinced) subset of readers while the rest of us gave up on finding SF to read that we could enjoy. In the 90s I kept watching great television shows like Farscape and BSG and movies like Equilibrium, Independence Day and Total Recall–and wondering why I wasn’t finding novels on the shelves with the same kinds of visceral excitement and fascinating characters.
That’s changing! SF has changed dramatically. There is a lot more to love in the SF world now, especially since the self-publishing boom. I read a statistic that 70% of the SF people are actively purchasing is self-published. That allows us to move outside of the restrictions of the traditional model and publish stuff that crosses genres. Fluency wasn’t considered by traditional publishing to be viable. Boy, were they wrong!
Right now my biggest obstacle seems to be to get women to discover my book. Despite the fact that the colors I asked Martiniere to use on the cover are soft purple, pink and blue—totally feminine colors—women see that giant ship and assume it’s hard SF. I don’t know how to combat that. If you have any suggestions, please tell me!
Zen: It’s my unscientific opinion that Space Opera is the next big trend coming for female readers. What do you think?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: I think: Damn! I sure hope so! SF is HOT right now and Space Opera is one of the biggest players in the genre. Space opera is MY favorite subgenre of SF. Who didn’t love Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar? There is more interest being poured into the space program. The international imagination has been sparked. We are ready to journey to the stars—inside the pages of a book, on tv, and on the big screen at the very least. And I think there are equal numbers of women and men interested in SF—we just need to write stuff they want to read. That’s been my passion for a long time and now I’m very happy to say it’s become my JOB!
Zen: For authors, trade publishing vs. indie vs. self-publishing is a very current dilemma. You suffered some letdowns yourself when looking for a publisher. As someone who has made self-publishing work for you, what do you make of this trichotomy and the current conditions of the industry?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: It’s changing faster than anyone can keep track of. I mentioned some of my thoughts in my comments above. Hugh Howey has done a ton of research into this and he estimates that successful self-published authors make at least six times what a traditionally published author makes. In my case, the figure is closer to twenty times. So, I really don’t understand why more trad pubbed authors don’t convert. They already have an audience and could make a killing…not to mention quit day jobs and write MORE.
Of course there’s no guarantee for a debut that you’ll have a hit on your hands or get any kind of traction. To that end, I encourage new writers to hone their craft, write the best book they can, and invest in experts to help them polish it. (I will never publish again without a developmental editor and a line editor.)
And keep writing. It takes a ton of words under a writer’s belt to gain any expertise. A lot of people aren’t willing to put forth the effort to improve skill, are blind to their own mistakes, and can’t handle criticism. Thus we have a huge slush pile for sale on Amazon. Amazon continues to try to come up with creative ways to deal with that problem. I don’t know what the answer is. But for me, setting aside my ego, understanding that writing is plastic and seeking out criticism and studying that crit and wanting to LEARN to do better is probably part of why I was successful. I’m still no expert. I worry every single day that I’ll be a one-hit wonder. Does that answer your question? I think I meandered a bit there. Sorry. : )
Zen: I was surprised to see a couple references to the Alien movie franchise and the Ripley character in relation to your book. I imagined Fluency more like The Abyss, because the relationship between the humans and the aliens was not inherently adversarial. It was simply a big unknown. Which do you think is more similar for this particular novel, and the series as a whole?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: I think you’re on the mark with The Abyss for the reasoning you mention. I’ve also seen people compare Fluency to Rendezvous With Rama, but that’s a bit of a stretch from my point of view.
I think people reference Alien and Ripley because the focus of the story is a female protagonist and Jane does kick some ass. But Jane is a lecturer not a merc or a freight hauler. She’s not quite as prepared to fight and I don’t think she’s as badass as Ripley in a physical fight. She also doesn’t have the knowledge of engineering that Ripley has–which allows Ripley to be more resourceful. However, Ripley does save the cat in Alien and she risks absolutely everything to try to save a little girl in Aliens (when the man in charge said it was too late), so, yeah—THAT sounds like something Jane would do. I think we will continue to see Jane being challenged, put in uncomfortable situations, and forced to rise to the occasion. Her character arcs will always be about that kind of personal growth.
Actually, I think the best comparison might be to Contact, if I might be so bold as to put my own work in the same sentence as Carl Sagan’s (Sagan was a god. I am just a small nerdling.). Ellie and Jane have a lot in common. There is the same reverence there for their work, wonderment at the unknown, and appreciation for the beauty they encounter in their journeys. Both have the same attitude toward stepping up when duty calls. Both have family heartache and trauma in their past, making it difficult to connect with another human, even though that connection is something that they both crave desperately.
Zen: Speaking of the series as a whole, can you give us any sneak peeks into the next entry in the series? When do you think that will come out?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: I’m aiming for June of 2015 for Remanence, Book 2 in the Confluence Series. That story takes Jane and crew to Sectilius where their reception is not what anyone expected. Then there is an attempt to find and save all the stranded Kubodera around the galaxy. I can’t say more than that. : )
After that I hope to finish up another novel I have partially written that is set in the same universe with a new cast of characters. That is a superhero origin story about a girl named Darcy Eberhardt who is abducted by aliens. It’s called Druid. Once that’s out, I’ll complete the Confluence trilogy.
Zen: Finally, because this is WomenOfBadassery and we live for totally kickass women, who are your favorite heroines in books and film?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: Wow. That’s tough. Truly, there are lots, but there should be many, many more!
Well, as far as movies go: I’ve already talked about Ellie from Contact and Ripley from Alien. Those are the main two that everyone things of. But I don’t want to forget Sarah Conner in the Terminator movies and Leeloo in The Fifth Element (mostly because she retains her femininity and vulnerability, is open and honest and TOTALLY BADASS—I find that so darn appealing.).
TV list: Sarah Manning from Orphan Black, Starbuck and Laura Roslin from the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, Aerun Sun of Farscape, Zoe Washburn from Firefly (OMG—SO BADASS!!!!), Gwen on Torchwood, Martha Jones on Dr. Who. I’m sure there are some I’ve missed as television is the one arena where women have flourished the most in badass roles.
As for books, the first one that comes to mind is Sirantha Jax from Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace series. When I read that novel about four or five years ago…I stopped dead in my tracks and decided to stop putzing around and write SF. It was an intense moment for me because it was the first book I’d read in years that was Space Opera with a female protagonist. Suddenly I felt like there could be a place where I could fit in. If Aguirre could be successful, I felt there was at least a chance for me.
Aguirre’s Dresdemona Devos from her Dred Chronicles is very good too. Cordelia in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga doesn’t get nearly enough story–she’s totally badass. Devi Morris in Rachel Aaron’s Fortune’s Pawn series is INSANELY BADASS. If you haven’t read that series you MUST and SOON. Octavia Butler’s Dawn was a recent read for me (LOVED IT) and I totally want to read more of that series and Parable of the Sower very soon!
I could go on and on…is that enough? 😀