Eliot Peper: Five Things I Learned Self-Publishing My Novel, Cumulus

In the not-so-distant future, economic inequality and persistent surveillance push Oakland to the brink of civil war.

Lilly Miyamoto is a passionate analog photographer striving to pursue an ever more distant dream. Huian Li is preeminent among the Silicon Valley elite as the founder and CEO of the pervasive tech giant Cumulus. Graham Chandler is a frustrated intelligence agent forging a new path through the halls of techno-utopian royalty. But when Huian rescues Lilly from a run-in with private security forces, it sets off a chain of events that will change their lives and the world.

The adventure accelerates into a mad dash of political intrigue, relentless ambition, and questionable salvation. Will they survive to find themselves and mend a broken system?

THE INTERNET GIVETH, AND THE INTERNET TAKETH AWAY.

I’ve had a weird month. Cumulus came out on May 5th. Within 24 hours of release, it hit front page Reddit, became the #1 cyberpunk bestseller on Amazon, raised thousands of dollars for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510, and generated a dozen separate inbound literary/film/tv rights inquiries from major agencies and production companies. William Gibson called me two days later to talk about the book, and I went into a fanboy coma. Google invited me to come give a talk. Esteemed folks like Tim O’Reilly, David Brin, Ramez Naam, and Cory Doctorow among others have shared or said nice things about it. 

I know what you’re thinking. This douchebag probably has a big shiny advance, a publicist in a bespoke suit, and a horde of evil marketing monkeys doing his bidding. What can’t you accomplish with a monkey army at your command? How many bananas do they consume per day? Do they demand organic bananas, or are they cool with the regular kind? But here’s where it gets goofy. I self published Cumulus. To my eternal disappointment, there are no monkeys (or fancy publicists, etc.). Just like with my previous novels, I sent out a few advance copies, pinged my reader mailing list, harassed people on social media for a day, and pressed publish. I was more shocked than anyone when it went viral. Since then, I’ve been trying to hang on for dear life. Internet buzz is fleeting. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is whether the story resonates with readers. In the meantime, I will continue to do my very best to follow the sage advice of this blog’s estimable proprietor:

JUST KEEP SWIMMING.

Last weekend, I climbed Mt. Shasta with my wife and two of our friends. It was one of the hardest things any of us had ever done. We spent months training, going on endless hikes with serious elevation gain carrying backpacks stuffed with books and water bottles. For the ascent to the summit, we donned our crampons, roped in, hefted our ice axes, flicked on our headlamps, and set off from base camp at 3AM. That’s when the altitude sickness kicked in. I was seeing stars, overwhelmed by nausea, and dizzily stumbling along the edges of thousand foot cliffs. I could only focus on putting one step in front of the other as we climbed the gulches, faces, and ridge lines to the top. Eventually, I had to call it 100 feet below the summit (~14k feet up), lest I endanger myself or the rest of our team. Luckily, my wife and friends reached the tippety top and wrote a note in the guest book. Then we marched right back down, glissading most of the way (glissade is a fancy verb for sliding on your butt). Beer has never tasted as good as our first pint back in town.

The entire experience felt a whole lot like writing a book. Adversity is part of what makes life beautiful. Focus. Put one word after another. Enjoy the view. Repeat.

ACT LIKE A PERSON, NOT AN INFOMERCIAL.

When my first book came out in 2014, I was totally and completely obnoxious about it. I posted a constant stream of updates to Twitter and Facebook, cold emailed a countless bloggers, and basically wouldn’t STFU. But we don’t discover new gems because jewelers are shouting from the rooftops. I read dozens of books a year, and I’ve never bought a novel because the author was screaming down the interwebz at me like a gorilla with a megaphone. I find new books just like we all do, usually through a recommendation from a trusted friend.

Now that my fourth novel is out in the wild, I’ve reined myself in and try to let fans do the talking. It’s also changed how I think about how writers engage with readers. Write something you love and hope that others share your taste. Be nice. Be helpful. Be yourself. We all have our favorite books, movies, bands, and art. Sharing your enthusiasm for stories you love is the best way to attract the enthusiasm of others to the stories you craft. Give your favorite artist a high five, and then get back to work making something wonderful.

GO BIG, AND GO HOME.

Two weeks ago, there was a drive-by shooting 40 feet behind my wife and I as we were walking home from our neighborhood BART station. It was broad daylight on a busy sidewalk in a residential area. We dodged behind the nearest brick wall just as a door in said wall swung open.

“Were those shots?” asked the worried face peering out around the doorjamb.   

“Yes,” we responded breathlessly, hearts in our throats.

“Do you want to come inside to wait it out?”

“Yes, please.”

Welcome to Oakland, where friendly strangers save you from the not-so-friendly variety. Right now, my hometown feels like a microcosm of many of the issues facing our nation. New art studios, restaurants, dog parks, and breweries are popping up everywhere. There are places to forge your own broadsword and study the intricacies of evolving federal cannabis legislation. Nonprofits are planting trees in blighted areas and teaching underserved kids to read. Technology companies are fueling an economic boom and promising utopian dividends for the community. But at the same time, Oakland struggles with endemic social problems. We had a triple homicide on our block last year, the same block that neighborhood kids zip up-and-down on tricycles nearly every day. Gang violence is a perennial challenge and we often fall asleep to the sound of gunshots. Too few children have access to educational and professional opportunities. The City is in a permanent budget crisis. Racism and poverty seem to erode every attempt at progress. We are tearing ourselves apart in the middle of a renaissance. I realized there was a story here. A story that lies at the uncomfortable intersection of present problems and future promises. A story that wrestles with some of these questions, and keeps pages turning at an energetic clip.

When you’re rooting around for an idea, don’t be afraid to be ambitious or to explore your own backyard.

NO MATTER WHAT, KEEP WRITING.

William Gibson shared some advice on that phone call. First, never do a multibook deal. Second, don’t buy the big house. Sound counsel, although I was bummed that sinister monkeys weren’t somehow involved. He also said that many of his most successful writer friends are distinguished by the fact that they KEEP WRITING, rather than getting distracted by side projects or celebrity. The week before Cumulus came out, I finished the rough draft of my next novel. It’s currently in editorial and I’m gearing up to dive into a new story. Writing is the ultimate democratic artform. If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably written an email. If you’ve written an email, you can write a book. It might not be the Next Great American Novel, but it would be yours. If you’ve written a book, you can write a better one. If you’ve written a better one, then please don’t stop because I want to read everything you dream up. When it comes to storytelling, we are the only things standing in our way.

* * *

Eliot Peper is a novelist and strategist based in Oakland, CA. He writes fast-paced, deeply-researched stories with diverse casts that explore the intersection of technology and society. His first three books constitute The Uncommon Series, which has attracted a cult following in Silicon Valley and is the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon (think Panama Papers). He is currently working on his fifth novel, Neon Fever Dream, about a dark secret hidden at Burning Man. He’s helped build numerous technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil’s Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang.

Eliot Peper: Twitter | Website

Cumulus: Amazon | iTunes

28 comments

  • Nice interview, story. Sounds like great advice. I have an Oakland story, though many years ago. Sorry about the gunfire and good luck w the book Cumulus.

  • Excellent words of wisdom. Thank you for this post, Eliot. Big congratulations on the success of Cumulus!!

    *throws gorilla suit and megaphone in trashcan*
    *returns to writing my heart out while darting glances at sky in hopes of monkey army showing up*

    • If you find that monkey army, send a platoon my way. The gorilla suit and megaphone might actually help bring them under your command, FIVE STAR GORILLA GENERAL.

      In the meantime, write your heart out.

  • I so need to hear/read more pieces like this. We get stars flitting around our brains thinking that we can take the internet reading community by storm and forget that whatever is Trending has everyone’s attention for a millisecond. Squirrel! Eliot’s right that this is more like a climb, or a marathon. Words I appreciate so much!

    • It’s natural to hope to take the world by storm. We pour everything into the things we make, and we want others to recognize that. But it takes a lot of time and practice to get really good at anything, and more time after that to earn attention in a crowded multiverse. I’m still very much a baby writer at the beginning of my career. I hope to learn to be a better and better storyteller and *hopefully* earn the trust of more and more readers along the way.

  • “Writing is the ultimate democratic artform. If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably written an email. If you’ve written an email, you can write a book. It might not be the Next Great American Novel, but it would be yours. If you’ve written a book, you can write a better one. If you’ve written a better one, then please don’t stop because I want to read everything you dream up. When it comes to storytelling, we are the only things standing in our way.”

    I think I’m going to frame these words and hang them up so they’re the first things I read in the morning and last thing I read at night. Thank you Chuck and thank you Eliot.

  • After mumblemumble years in the writing game, I am always surprised that everyone’s Good Advice About Writing is always the same advice, just said with different words. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing. I’ve been fortunate to know some “William Gibsons” in that time, and they too pretty much had the same advice he did.

    It can all be boiled down into two words: Keep Working.

    Best wishes for success with this novel. From the perspective of 30 years in Okeefenokee West, I have this advice for you if they get serious with their contacts, get a lawyer and get an agent and let them do the business stuff. As with lawyers, the writer who represents themself has a fool for a client.

    Good luck again.

  • Woo hoo! Way to go, Eliot. Wow what a launch. Another overnight success story?
    But very sound advice for another newbie self-pubber (i.e. me). Especially the “be yourself” mantra, I struggle with the feeling of being a skeezy shameless self-promoter. But seriously, buy my book. 🙂

  • I’m seen some authors here in cyber space write about the book they just published for months on end. The notices will be at every media site three times a day at least, in every blog post they write, and have added the title with link to their signature everywhere. Letting the world know your book is out is one thing, but they’re killing it with overexposure. I hope these particular writers are reading your blog.

  • I’m glad to hear your book was so successful, and that you didn’t get shot! Yikes. That’s…beyond scary. Damn.

  • Great post, Eliot. Now I have to go track down your book on Amazon!

    I too have grappled with writing and self-publishing. I was all prepared to go indie and self-publish a big nonfiction computer history book I’ve been working on for many years. But I had a nagging concern that could not be assuaged no matter how much thinking and research and talking to people: self-published books that work are genre fiction books. Not serious narrative nonfiction. Everybody was telling me, “OK, well, be the first!” And I seriously considered it, was right on the verge of doing it. But at the last minute I got an offer from a big famous publisher and I signed the contract. If I were writing a novel, I would’ve gone all the way and self-pubbed and never looked back. But things are much more dicey and difficult in the world of book-length narrative nonfiction and history (despite the fact that my book should resonate with the exact same audience as yours), something that champions and cheerleaders of self-publishing rarely talk about. We still have a long way to go. But I hope we get there.

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