Scott Sigler was the first author to start podcasting novels, and built up a huge online following that led to a five-book deal with Crown Random House. Two of his books are currently in development as TV shows. His new novel, Pandemic, the third book in the Infected trilogy, is out now.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show.
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Your new book is called Pandemic, and it’s out now. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Pandemic is the final book in the Infected trilogy. This is the classic invasion tale, but told in three parts across the trilogy. In part one, which is Infected, we zoom in on one faceless individual who would just be a statistic in most invasion movies—as in, “Now there’s 17,000 dead. Now there’s 18,000 dead.” Who are those people, and how do they react when this thing breaks, and no one has any idea what’s happening, and there’s no information at all? Then, in the second book, Contagious, the camera pulls back to see the national response to this. What is the president doing? What is the army doing? The CDC? And how does a nation respond to an unthinkable horror that is spreading from citizen to citizen? This isn’t a disease. This is actually people being turned into killers, or people being turned into other things entirely. It’s quite horrific and quite violent in the second book.
Then in the third book, they think they’ve got this thing bottled up, but as happens in fiction, it sneaks out. In the third book, we pull the camera all the way back and let you see the entire world succumbing to this infection and the growing cataclysm as the numbers shift. The number of people infected is getting close to overwhelming the number of people who aren’t infected. So Pandemic is a global apocalypse story, and watching the survivors try and find a way to win, watching governments hold on by the skin of their teeth, and watching humanity try to avoid utter extinction.
You said on Reddit, “By the time I was finally done with Nocturnal, I wanted to take it out into a field and pee on it. I was pretty close to the same place with Pandemic.” What makes a book like Pandemic such a challenge to write?
Well, it’s the third book in a series, and I don’t have any retcons in my books, and if something goes onto a page, that is permanent within the storyline. So there are no characters coming back from the dead; there are no magical resurrections. A lot of the things that can happen in certain types of stories, certain genres, you can’t do it in a modern day, realistic, hard science setting, so incorporating all of the plot elements that I put into Book One and Book Two, and making them consistent through Book Three—that proved to be a challenge. The other part of the challenge was all of my stories are in the same continuum. They’re all in what I call “The Siglerverse”: There are modern day horror thrillers, then, 500 years from now, there’s some military science fiction, and then beyond that, 700 years from now, there is a young adult series called The Galactic Football League, and that’s an American Pro-Football league with aliens playing different positions based on their physiology. It’s cool and fun, but the point is, I want to be able to bring the world to the brink of destruction—but to actually throw it into a world that looks like The Stand, or The Road, or The Passage, where civilization has utterly collapsed, is kind of unrecoverable in the timeline, unless I want to write stories along those lines, those post-apocalyptic stories. So figuring out a way to actually destroy the world, but allow the world and civilization to rise like a phoenix from those ashes, setting that up in a certain construct, that proved to be really, really challenging.
The final part of what made it frustrating for me is I kind of grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King and Dean Koontz and small town horror, where it’s really easy to provide isolation. Here’s our ten to fifteen characters, here’s why they’re isolated and can’t just call for help, and you watch a story develop from there. With Pandemic, you’re really looking at global politics, relationships between nations, and a lot of political complexities in which I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination.
The scenes in the situation room felt very plausible to me. All of the military stuff felt incredibly believable to me. I saw on your blog that you had at least five different military consultants. Could you talk about how they helped you out?
I’ve got three different groups of consultants. I’ve got my biology consultants; I’m really lucky to have two biology PhDs and a research MD who go over everything and tear it up. Then I’ve also got a couple of political consultants, like there’s a gentleman who is high up in FEMA, and he helped a ton with this, giving me the way we would actually react, and some of that information was sobering and shocking—looking at what America is prepared to do if the crap hits the fan, so to speak. And then there’s the military group, which is a major at Mountain Home Air Force Base, and then a full colonel who’s done a lot of different things and served in a lot of different areas in the Air Force, and a gentleman who’s served a couple of tours in Iraq and now teaches close combat to SWAT teams. These guys and women go through the book, and the amount of corrections they will make on what we think is normal in popular culture—“I’ve watched enough soldier movies. I’ve watched the Delta Force movies. I know how this stuff works”—those movies are wonderful and fun, but when you give them to real soldiers and real airmen, you find out a lot of that information is completely false, and you just never knew.
Could you give an example of something that you wouldn’t know, or that a sort of intelligent person who follows the news and follows the military casually would need an expert to tell you to get right?
There are a couple of things. I won’t get too much into it for plot purposes, but the Air Force colonel was very helpful in situation room incidents, and what is not only the order of succession to the presidency, which is easy to look up, but when that starts to fall apart, and people are in different places and cut off from communication, who has to make the important decisions that have to be made on the spot? Do we attack this city? Yes or no? And every second you wait, more people are becoming infected, and the situation is spiraling towards a level where even if you do attack it, it’s already too late. Those critical, real-time mission decisions, if the President, or the Vice President, or the Secretary of State isn’t available, who has to make that call? I would have had no idea how that works.
Then the other thing that was very helpful was what equipment was actually on what Air Force bases? How many troops do we have? Who do we have available to respond? If there is a crisis in Oakland, what troops are available to go in and pacify that situation? And the one that really wound up being important was: How long does it take them to do that? What is the response time? Now, that’s the thing that in popular culture we tend to see: “Oh, that’s the rapid response force, and let’s load up this C5, and we’ll have troops on the ground in twelve hours.” There’s a certain number of troops that are combat-ready at any given time, but in the States, a large number of troops being ready to deploy to another area in the States is way more complicated than you think. There’s a limited number of troops available, a limited number of equipment available, so responding to things within twenty-four to seventy-two hours, I learned through these consultants, adds a really complex level to a story which is based on the rapid expansion of an infectious vector. So every hour that you don’t have troops on the ground is another hour that the [number of] people who are infected is increasing exponentially. That timing was a huge part of Pandemic.
Speaking of exponential growth of the infected, throughout this entire book you give specific numbers, or specific estimates, anyway, of how many people were infected. Where did those numbers come from? Did you have some sort of formula you were using? Or model?
There was some information out there from the CDC and some infection rates, and then the biology guys and the medical guy, they’re all doctors—those three were critical in trying to come up with a realistic rate of infection. My initial vehicle for the vector had a rapid expansion, and then all three of them came back and said, “Yeah, scientifically, this does not work.” So then I would have to come back, and being a biology fan, but just a layman, come back and research, “What if we did this? What if we did this?” Because it’s a really detailed, delicate plot, and I needed things to expand at a certain pace to give you that thriller feel, that race against the clock feel. It was a matter of working with the biology consultants to say, “What, in the real world that we have right now, would help me achieve this particular level of expansion?”
These consultants that you’ve mentioned, I gather they’re mostly sort of just fans of yours who offered their services to you? Or how did you find them all to begin with?
They’re absolutely fans. I started out my career before I had a book deal with anybody. I’d been trying for about ten years to get a book deal and got over a hundred rejection letters from agents and publishers, and the problem with my fiction was it’s cross-genre, and they were afraid of that back then. They didn’t know whether it was military, a thriller, whether it was horror, whether it was science fiction—and if it was science fiction, it’s happening today, so that doesn’t work, and if it’s horror, could you write some vampires in? No, I can’t write vampires in. So basically people liked the writing, but they just didn’t know how to sell it, and it was more of a risk. So in order to try and prove that, I started to record my own audio books and release them as unabridged, serialized podcasts. I started to build up a great online audience of people who listened to the podcast every week, and emails started to filter in from people who really know their stuff. I filed all those away, and I’ve got sort of my Rolodex in my address book, and I just put in key words for everybody. Okay, now I need a nuclear physicist, and I’ll search and two or three names will pop up, and I’ll start emailing people and asking them questions.
Wow. You mentioned that you podcast. You started out by podcasting your novels, and obviously, since I do a podcast, I pay a lot of attention to the iTunes rankings for the literature category, and your books are always near the top of those lists. Obviously, you want to write good books and make them freely available, but is there anything else that podcasters could do, you think, to rise up the ranks in iTunes?
The only thing I can speak on there that I really know about is podcasting books, and the big issue with podcasting books is you need enough content to be able to podcast consistently every week. The single biggest factor, I think, in success at podcasting is consistency. If you podcast every month, it’s got to be every month. If you podcast every week, it’s got to be every week. Every other week, I’ve found, doesn’t work, because in our Western culture, we’re trained that it’s January 1st that magazine comes out, or Tuesday that show is on, we’re trained weekly, and we’re trained monthly. That’s the biggest thing. So people, if they’re recording their own audio books, they need to be ready to have two or three books ready to go before they start, so that they can be podcasting consistently for two, or three, or four years before they expect to see any kind of real audience growth or any kind of development. Of course, there are exceptions to that like Welcome to Night Vale, which kind of comes out of nowhere and does something different, or We’re Alive, the zombie full-cast production, but even with We’re Alive, they’re going on three or four years now, and they’re very consistent when they put out a season. That’s the biggest thing.
I started podcasting my books because there was no way to get content out to a subscription-based audience. The only person who was doing anything back then that was similar was Cory Doctorow giving away PDFs of all his books and showing sales stats. People were telling me, “Dude, oh my god, don’t give away your audio book. Are you crazy? You’ll lose your audio rights and no one will buy your book because they got it for free.” And there’s Cory saying, “I give away all my books as free PDFs and my books are in third, fourth, fifth printings.” They keep selling, and he thought it was the PDFs that helped make that happen. So I hijacked that model, but with audio. That was before the ebook revolution. So when I started out with Earthcore and Ancestor, there was no way to get your content out to the world and have an audience that was ready for it.
Now there’s Amazon and the Kindle Store. A lot of authors like J.A. Konrath, for example, or Hugh Howey, that’s what they’re specifically using the Amazon market for. Like, here’s all these people ready for ebooks, I’m going to put out a well written, well edited, well formatted ebook, and boom, I’ve got a global audience of whatever Amazon’s user base is, which is a hundred million people ready to read books, so it’s a great way for aspiring authors to have that same captive audience and go after people who are waiting for content, and have that free global distribution without being in a recording booth for four or five hours a week, and editing, and having the RSS feed, and maintaining all of those other things.
I actually saw that you said on Reddit that the podcast novel scene is largely dead now. What do you attribute that to? Is that just a growing professionalization of podcasts or . . . ?
It’s that there’s less low-hanging fruit, to use a cheesy business term. When I got into this, there were three guys who started out right about the same time, not knowing each other, and that was myself; Tee Morris, who wrote a book called Morevi; and a gentleman named Mark Jeffrey, who wrote a book called The Pocket and the Pendant. So all of a sudden there’s three full-length serialized novels out there that were free, and the audience went kind of crazy for them, and because there was nothing out there. You didn’t have ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, and NPR, and ESPN flooding the podcast marketplace. You were able to get a podcast novel into the overall Top 100—not just the Literature, but the overall Top 100—and have sudden exposure to all of these people who were discovering podcasting. We were in it before iTunes had anything, before they had any podcasting support at all, and then iTunes podcasting comes in, and you’ve got that Top 100 chart, and that “New Podcasts,” “New and Noteworthy.” And you were able to pick up a ton of listeners kind of out of nowhere. Well, that’s gone now, largely, because you’ve got professional media flooding the podcast market. How do you compete against Rachel Maddow, who’s got this whole professional editing operation behind her, or Joe Rogan, who’s got twenty to thirty years of experience in entertainment? There are all these really talented people who understand the medium and are using it to get their content out and entertain people, and then here’s me, some schlub who’s like, “How does a microphone work?” It’s really difficult to overcome that, so that’s a lot harder.
Then the second part is most of the people who got into making podcast novels are done. They podcasted all their books, and they’re out of content. Out of that whole beginning crew, there’s only a handful that are still slugging it away every week, and I think I’m pretty much the only one who says every week we’re going to have an audio book episode for you regardless. Then there are other great podcasters like Mur Lafferty, who, like, gives away her book, and then also has her weekly show on “I Should be Writing” and talks about the writing craft, so they’re able to stay in front of their audience on a weekly basis. But strict, serialized audio books are really hard to do because of the work that has to go into making the books. That’s a lot of time, having enough content to be able to do it on a weekly basis, and overcoming the hurdle of a flooded marketplace. So I’ve got some advantages because I started out way-back-when; I already have an audience that’s expanding on its own weight, and since I’m able to write full-time now, I’ve got content backed up. I’m ready to go for the next three years.
Speaking of your equipment and using a microphone and stuff, you have this video online, sort of this MTV Cribs style of thing, where you show people around your apartment. You have—what seems to me—pretty amazing equipment in your house. You have this little recording closet and this backdrop for filming stuff. Where did all that equipment come from? How did you decide what to get and so on?
It’s a gradual process. I started out with a cheesy microphone and an old “Flower Power” iMac in my closet, because that was the only place that I had sound baffling. The apartments right above Franklin Street in San Francisco, which is three lanes one way and going 24/7, is full of noises. So I started out just trying to find any way I could to make it sound semi-professional, because you’ve got to have a good signal if people are going to listen to you every week. And that was nine years ago now, so I’ve gradually built up equipment as I have gone.
The two big things were when I signed my five-book deal with Random House, all that advance money went right in the bank except for, “All right, I’m going to go out and buy a Mac Pro, and I’m going to buy an RE47 mic, and I’m going to buy a tube pre-amp.” I bought all this gear to give me that really professional sound, and then came across that booth, and it’s a 4×4 sound isolation booth, pretty standard for people in the recording industry. They’re also very expensive. I happened to get that for free, which was awesome, from a company called Pixel Core in San Francisco. I went there to record some stuff with them, and they had it sitting out sort of in a hallway because they were building a really nice, detailed studio, and they said, “Yeah, we don’t know what to do with this. We’re going to give it away.”
I’m like, “I’ll be here tomorrow with a truck,” and snagged it. Then I jammed this giant 4×4 recording booth into the closet in my house—had to rip down shelves, just completely lost my security deposit there—and so that was the next level. At some point, it just became logical that I needed to go get an office because now we had physical books, and we had the recording booth, and we had the recording gear, and we needed to expand into video, so we went and got an office a few blocks from the house, and that is where we are now. It’s a really tiny office, but it’s divided up into four even tinier rooms. There’s one room for the recording booth and the computer, there’s a room to shoot video, and that has worked out pretty well. So it’s been a gradual accumulation of good gear and constantly trying to make things sound better and look better for the audience.
So why did you decide to start getting into the video?
You look at people who are doing extremely well on YouTube, like Toby Turner or SXEPhil and dozens of others: It’s a massive, massive market, and there’s hundreds of people who are now making their living putting out regular videos. The other thing is just the sheer number of users on YouTube, and the younger demographic is really into short-form video and watches an enormous amount of it. So a high school junior or sophomore might not be into reading books at this particular time, but they’re watching three-, four-, and five-minute videos on YouTube by the dozens. So that’s a way to go out there and try, just like I did with podcasting. I’m going to try to get into video, get some viewership, get people to start sharing the videos, and build up that brand name as an author. It’s worked out pretty well—I’ve got a good number of subscribers on my channel, and we have over half a million views on the channel, so it has worked, and we’ve got the videos out there. But we had to scale back. We did a show called Monstrosity, which was about science fiction, horror, and fantasy pop culture, and had to dial back on that to finish a bunch of book deadlines because that’s the day job. Maybe we’ll get into it in the future.
The biggest benefit YouTube has given us is book trailers. We do a full, professional book trailer, to the max budget we can afford, for every book that comes out, and those things just sit there, and they clock hundreds of views a day, and it just keeps adding up. The biggest one for us is “Infected,” the first trailer I put out, and that has over 250,000 views and continues to get twenty, thirty, forty, fifty views a day on YouTube. People stumble across that, people watch it, a lot of people go, “Eh, whatever,” but out of that twenty, thirty, or forty, probably one or two people a day go, “That looks awesome. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for.” They will go out and get the free podcast, or they will go out and buy the book, and then I’ve got a chance to get a new reader for life.
Why don’t you tell us about the Pandemic trailer? I don’t know how many spoilers you want to go into, but could you just tell us how did that come about? How did you decide what content to put in it, and stuff like that?
I’ll start that story by saying we did a user-generated video contest for my novel Ancestor, and that was won by a director named Adrian Picardi, and he started a company called Aureus Grex, which does all kinds of different video projects. It was a scene from Ancestor, so we had four scripts which were four word-for-word scenes from the book, opened it up to the public and said, “Here are some video assets; go shoot your vision of this scene. Take this script and go shoot it.” And he killed it. People can see his user-generated trailer at scottsigler.com/ancestor. We have both the book trailer and the little movie that he shot there.
So when it came time to shoot the trailer for Pandemic, I gave Adrian a call, and he had started his own company, and they were looking for projects, and they had already done some amazing stuff. They’ve done some work for the video game industry, and people should look at it—it’s aureusgrex.com.
They were excited because they liked the books, and they wanted to do something with me. So we said, “All right, let’s make a trailer.” We picked a scene from Pandemic, and we don’t have the budget to shoot crazy, full-on special effects. Pandemic—it’s a 250 million-dollar movie if it’s a penny to shoot. We don’t have those kind of resources, so we picked one scene from the book that was shootable, and they went out, and they cast a great actor in it. They wound up using the same warehouse that was used in Inception, so the warehouse scene in Inception is where my trailer is shot, which is kind of awesome. And then they just shot that scene from the book, and I gave him the script, and I said, “Here are the things that I’m looking for. I need something really startling to catch the viewers’ attention.” Because, going back to the YouTube channel, I’m able to look at stats and see most people drop off in the first ten to fifteen seconds of a video unless there’s something really compelling right out of the gate. So for the Pandemic video, we’ve got a guy smashing in a person’s skull with a two-by-four in the first two seconds of the trailer, and most people are like, “This is going to be interesting,” and then they’ll watch the whole trailer and get to see that it’s actually about a book.
So we shot at that warehouse, turned it over to Adrian, and let him and his crew do the magic that they do, and I would love to make a trailer that’s even more over the top, with more special effects, but they totally maximized the limited budget that we had. They did a really good job. I got to be in the trailer as a dead body with a triangle growth on my neck, which is kind of cool, and the fans really dig that. Overall, it’s worked out well. It just went over like 7,000 views, and we’ll continue for the next five to ten years. It’s just going to sit there and continue to get views and hopefully sell books.
It’s funny, because you posted this video on YouTube, right, this trailer, and it’s a scene in the book where somebody posts a video on YouTube.
[Laughter] That’s true.
When you wrote that scene did you have any inkling that you might make that into an actual video?
No, it didn’t occur to me until after. But then flipping through the book to try and find something they could shoot on the budget that we had, I came across that—that’s one of those trying to blur the lines of reality things that I try and do with the book and with the marketing for the book. So, once I figured that out—like somebody who’s going to be reading this in the book and see that the characters in the book are watching a YouTube video of a character talking, trying to get some help—if they scan “Pandemic YouTube” or “Sigler YouTube trailers,” they’re going to be able find that actual scene from the book. It’s got a real meta feel to it. There’s also a pair of Twitter accounts in the book of two characters tweeting information back and forth, and when people look up those Twitter accounts, they’ll see these Twitter accounts have been active for over a year, and there’s a ton of information there, and then you get to the point where the tweets you read in the book are actually sitting out there under that account on Twitter, and there’s just that moment of, “Whoa, that’s kind of awesome.”
Speaking of Twitter, there’s sort of a chapter in the book which is nothing but tweets of people reacting to the pandemic, and I thought it was really well handled. The way that the sort of anti-vaccination movement, that people’s mistrust of the government and Big Pharma and stuff—you take that into account in describing how this scenario would unfold. Could you just talk about your thought process behind that?
I’m very fortunate in my career in that I don’t wear my politics on my sleeve in the books, or online, or on Facebook, or anywhere like that. A lot of authors do it, and that’s great, but me not doing that has developed this strange culture where I have people from the far left and the far right, atheists, hardcore Christians, hardcore Muslims . . . People read my stuff, and everybody sort of thinks I think like them, so I’ll get a lot of information back to me about, “Hah, look at these idiots. They’re not like us.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m nothing like that.”
What has surprised me is all of my stuff is extremely hard science-based. I do take some liberties for the purpose of writing a great story, but 99% of what you read in the books is absolutely real. Those things exist. They’re out there. If you want to look hard enough, you can find them. To create that sense that this is something that could happen to you and me and all the people around us.
I’ve been shocked at how many anti-vaxers I have as fans, because I’m very much against that movement and very much believe that vaccination and science is what gives us our culture and keeps most of us alive. But to see that these are people I interact with on a daily basis and like, and then I post something vaccination-related and to see their reaction—it made me stop and think as a creator, like, “Wait a minute, this is just like the religion thing, this is just like the Republican-Democrat thing. There are people who are smart and who I talk to on a daily basis who are totally against this particular branch of science.” It was sort of a wake-up call to me, that I could write characters that have that anti-vax mentality and not make them caricatures, and not make them dummies, and not make them excessively violent, and not portray them to be some kind of monster.
To work that into the book, it became something where I really wanted to show the potential damage of what this anti-Big Pharma, anti-government, this conspiracy theory mentality is. We’re seeing it in real life now, with kids dying of small pox and measles, and the flu killing people. These are dangerous, real-world things. Okay, extrapolate that out to this crazy, fictional, incredibly contagious vector, and then the government says, “We have saved the day. We did the scientific work. We’ve got this formula that you can drink and it will protect you against this thing that will turn you into a monster and make you kill your family.” And the number of people in America and in Europe who would be like, “Oh, no, that’s a trick. You guys are trying to trick us. You’re trying to addict us to this Big Pharma thing. You’re trying to make us mind-slaves. This is just another version of chemtrails.”
What’s different, a little bit, in Pandemic, is it’s the people who are not going to take it that create enough of a population base to become infected and then therefore go out and either be a violent monster or spread the disease faster than it would have spread before, so the anti-vax movement within Pandemic becomes a major part of the plot.
In college, I studied constitutional law, so I’m always interested in that sort of stuff. I’d never heard of this case you mentioned, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which established that the government has the power to compel vaccinations. I was wondering, how did you come across that? Did one of the experts tell you about that?
Yeah, that was the guy from FEMA. I was like, “What does the government do if you’ve got . . . we can save fifty million lives if we force five million people to take this vaccine, for example.” And that case came out, and learning enough about it to put in the book—it’s logical and common sense if you look at large, successful governments as their own biological entity, and hard-wired into our laws and our codes are “America is going to survive no matter what we have to do.” That seems to go against what America is all about. There’s that larger gestalt concept of a communal organism that kicks in, and that law that you just mentioned is part of it.
It was a little surprising to find out that that exists, because of our culture of independence in this country, but it’s there, and if something really bad is happening, the government is going to find a way to bring you back in line and protect the larger population.
I listened to the year-end review podcast that you recorded with your business partner, A. Kovacs. I listen to a lot of author interviews, and it’s very rare to hear somebody say, “Oh yeah, we just really screwed up this year,” so it was really striking to me when you guys mentioned that you had sort of a big misjudgment this past year in terms of publishing your YA Galactic Football League series. Could you just talk about how that happened?
Our whole business—A. Kovacs and I run a company called Empty Set Entertainment, and it’s just the two of us, but we are able to hire a significant number of freelancers, and book editors, and book designers, and artists, and people who do our website. It has been a great experience to build that business, but we built it on the concept that there is no impossible. We’re swinging for the fences all of the time, and using my career arc as a model, from going from someone who has 120 rejection letters sitting in a file, to ignoring everybody’s advice that I knew in publishing, “Do not give your stuff away for free. That’s crazy,” and saying, “No, we’re going to do this because this is logical, and I understand how the internet works, and this just makes sense.” Then plowing forward to do that.
Then the next step was putting out The Rookie, which is book one of the Galactic Football League series. Before Kickstarter existed, we did a Kickstarter. We had enough of an audience on our podcast, we said, “Hey, we’re going to put out this really expensive, tricked out, thirty-five dollar hardcover, with an embossed cover and sixteen color plates inside, of this podcast that all of you have already listened to. Will you pay us money now, and we’ll give you the book in eight months?” We’re like Popeye’s Wimpy of the publishing world, and 2,000 people said, “Yep, here’s our money.” We’re like, “This is awesome. We’ve got enough money to put out this book and make a really, really high quality product, and we’re already profitable before we even do one thing,” which is unheard of in the publishing industry. That’s the Kickstarter model, and it worked out great for us.
And people told us that wouldn’t work. Everybody is like, “That’s ridiculous. You won’t get enough money, you’re going to have to compromise the product, and what if you have to give the money back?” A. and I largely just said, “Well, if we screw it up, we’ll figure out how to fix it somewhere down the road.” But we were successful in that, and that attitude has largely been successful for eight years.
Then we decided to get our own distribution and put out all four of the Galactic Football League books in every Barnes & Noble in paperback, and get them into Amazon, and become more of a book publisher, and we had to partner with a publisher in order to get the distribution, and the people at the distribution company loved it. They were like, “This is like young adult, based on football, and it’s science fiction. There’s nothing like this for young athletes in the young adult market, so boys and girls who are really into sports kind of don’t have anything to read, and we’re going to give them this awesome seven book series.” The publisher went nuts, and the publisher said, “Well, you should print 10,000 copies of each of the first two titles.” That’s a lot of books for a small company like us. We were going to print 3,000 because that’s a number we know we’re going to be able to sell through, one way or another, within a year or two. The mistake we made was this time we actually listened to the experts in the publishing industry instead of saying, “We’re going to follow our instincts, which has worked great so far.”
We wound up printing three times the number of books that we were planning on printing, and our instincts wound up being correct, and we have not sold that many. There were a lot of breakdowns in that process. We were supposed to be front-of-store display—it’s called co-op marketing—and all the Barnes & Nobles were supposed to have displays of the book out. That never happened, and a couple other things didn’t happen, and people didn’t have the books in time, and all of that was completely out of our control. The end result was the series just flat-out didn’t catch fire the way that everybody thought it would, and we’ve got a lot of copies left over.
So our mistake was two-fold. Number one, we should have listened to our conservative nature, and kind of like, “Well, we know our audience, and we’ll start out with this many, and if it blows up, then we’ll print more.” That was number one. And number two was listening to somebody else’s opinion and how they thought our content would go, which has never really turned out to be right in the past eight or nine years. This was another example of that, but we were excited. They were saying like, “This is going to be like a miniature sports version of Harry Potter. It’s going to go crazy. You’ve got to have thousands of copies ready when this thing takes off.” And our chests swell up, and we’re like, “Well, that’s wonderful! Of course we would like to sell lots of books and be household names.” So our own hubris sucked us into that, and yeah, we made a mistake. And we’ve learned from that mistake, and next time we do this we’ll be much more conservative. The paperback printings of Books Three, Four, and Five will be 3,000 copies, and we know we’ll sell through that, and we know we’ll make a profit, and we know we’ll entertain people. So live and learn, and fortunately the other areas of the business are doing well enough that that didn’t put us under, and we’re still moving forward.
Speaking of household names, you’ve written very favorably about your adoration for authors like Stephen King and Michael Crichton. I’ve been involved in the science fiction world for a long time, and I’ve noticed that a lot of sort of hardcore science fiction authors and readers seem to kind of look down on Michael Crichton, and I was just wondering if you’ve experienced that at all, and as a big fan of his, what do you think about that?
I’ve experienced that, and it’s very puzzling to me. Part of it is because he takes big liberties with the science, like the science in Jurassic Park. But Michael Crichton was a thriller writer. He is writing a story, and he is writing a story that he envisions will translate well onto the big screen, so these are relatively formulaic stories with formulaic characters, and they are kind of traditional thriller plots, and then what he did differently was take a scientific concept and go crazy with it, and make the story based on that scientific concept.
I’ve just never really understood it. You can take a story like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, for example, which is an awesome book, but because it’s in the far future, there’s this magical grey area of between now and three hundred years from now where we’re going to have the technology to be able to do these things. So Scalzi’s transmogrification, if you will, of the main character from what is into what he becomes—so I don’t give any spoilers—there’s huge liberties taken with the science. Huge. And the readers don’t seem to have any problem with that because that’s in the future, and we’ll figure that out between now and then. But because Crichton writes modern day and also takes huge liberties with the science, there seems to be some kind of pushback against that.
It seems also to me that a lot of science fiction fans and scientists have a very positive view towards science, and when you write book after book that combine horror and science, it just conveys this impression that science is sort of something that only ever leads to bad outcomes. Is that something you worry about, writing science and horror together? How do you handle that?
It has not become a big deal for me because—I can’t speak to other science horror writers—but I spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to make the science as realistic as possible. The science consultants read three full drafts of the book to make sure that everything is as right as it can be, and I think that people pick up on that, too. So the men and women who make their living in science, who make their living making our world a better place, can see that respect on the page, and it gets me that street cred, and I don’t get that much pushback.
The other thing I do that I think helps me out is I do not have the stereotypical, clichéd mad scientist in my book. I try to make them complex characters with their own wants, needs, and motivations, and relationships, and how they approach their science, why they approach their science, trying to make them as realistic as possible. I don’t have the female assistant damsel in distress. I’ve got the lead character in the Infected series (Infected, Contagious, and Pandemic), is doctor Margaret Montoya, who goes from being a second-tier CDC scientist, for example, to being thrown into the forefront of this because she gets the disease like nobody else gets it, and then you watch her life get torn to pieces because she is sacrificing her life in order to try and make the world a better place, to try and save humanity. Whatever it takes for the greater good, she’s willing to do. I think that scientists empathize with that. I have a couple of high school buddies who are PhDs, one in chemistry, and the amount of things that they’ve given up in their lives to pursue science, when this same brilliant dude could have gone into business and made ten times as much—that is a constant raw emotion with scientists, where it’s hard. Like, “I’m trying to do these things to do good, and there’s a lot of sacrifices that I have to make.” Constant grant proposals, moving from school to school, the demands of academia, etc. So, to show characters going through that same kind of struggle, that helps a lot, too.
Finally, when I do have the mad scientists, the motivations are there for good. And Ancestor is the best example. In Ancestor, we have a gentleman named Dr. Claus Rhumkorrf, who is brilliant in his own right, but is largely collecting a team of people smarter than him, and then sort of cajoling them, coercing them, bullying them into creating this artificial organ donor animal, a herd animal that has human compatible organs. His goal is to get butt-stinking rich, but more than that, it’s if he pulls this off he’s going to save hundreds of thousands of human lives every year and add decades onto the average human lifespan. So although his methods of achieving his goal are nefarious and wind up causing a lot of science-gone-wrong damage, his intentions are pure, and he’s genuinely a good guy who is trying to save lives and improve the quality of life. So, I really haven’t had any pushback from the scientific community, and I think those are the reasons why.
Okay, so the SF movies that have influenced you the most, you list as Aliens, American Werewolf in London, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, and They Live. And you say of Aliens, “I’ve watched this movie over a hundred times now, and every new viewing brings a new lesson on overlapping tension arcs.” Could you talk about what you mean by “overlapping tension arcs?”
What James Cameron, the director, does in his movies is, you’ve got Problem A and Problem A has a beginning, rises up to a middle, then there’s a solution, a resolution, and then it drops back down to zero, so one to two to back down to zero, for example. What he does that is why I constantly watch that movie over and over again is, as you’re on the upwards arc for Problem A, and then as it starts to come down just a little bit, like, “Oh, I see the solution; now we have to go out and execute that solution,” Problem B is on its rising problem arc. So by the time A finishes, you’re already halfway into the rise to Problem B, and then Problem C has already begun.
It’s this subtle technique of never allowing the tension to fully turn back to zero. So instead of—to make it really simple—four characters have to go out and get this resource, face the monsters as they do, and then come back to their fully protected bunker, and everybody is safe; instead, three of those characters will go out, one will stay behind, and as the three come back with the resource, and get to the bunker, and will be safe, and can take a breath, something has come and grabbed character number four, and now they’ve got a new set of tension where they have to go rescue character number four. That’s an oversimplification of what you see in the movie, but it’s these constant overlapping arcs so that you do get that experience of high tension, and then you start to recover, but you never get to come back down to zero. When I watch that movie, you’re on the edge of your seat for ninety straight minutes, and it’s a textbook in how to keep people turning the page.
You have a story called “Complex God” coming up in John Joseph Adams’s Robot Uprisings anthology. Could you tell us about that story?
That was really fun to work with John and Daniel H. Wilson on. In the “Complex God” story, I was able to tie that into the Siglerverse. So in the Galactic Football League series, there is a race called the Prawatt, and they are kind of the boogeymen of the far-future seven hundred years from now. They’re misunderstood, you can’t communicate with them, they kind of just show up and destroy things, but because the Siglerverse is a continuum from modern day to there, I wanted to be able to show how that all began.
It began with a scientist named Petra Prawatt. So “Complex God” looks at her research, and her efforts into bioremediation, which is trying to use fungus or bacteria or any kind of biological entity to get rid of pollution. So why would we send humans in to clean up a nuclear bomb site or a nuclear waste site, if we could send in bacteria or we could send in insects that would get the same job done with no damage to human life? And she does this with a combination of nanotechnology and bacteria, and those two things create a symbiotic relationship, like an ant colony, so that the nanotechnology can reproduce and make more copies of itself, and as it does that, it is able to incorporate this radiation-eating bacteria. That’s her goal, trying to clean up a large radiation site, which is a direct result of the end of Infected, which is book one of the Infected trilogy.
Speaking of the way that all these different stories tie together, we had a listener who wanted me to ask you what’s your favorite example of that from your work, of some clever way that things tied together.
I think I just talked about it, and it’s Petra Prawatt. It’s really fun, because I’ve had this plan in my head for twenty years now, where I was going to create a realistic spread of novels that cover seven centuries, so that I could write the modern day horror/thrillers that I love so much as a reader and a viewer. I could then write five hundred years from now, that military SF, and kind of attack the Gene Roddenberry concept where all intelligent races will come together, and we’ll all speak the same language, and everybody will just kind of get along, and we don’t need money anymore, and all of this utopian vision he has. I love Star Trek, but I watch it as a fan, and I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t think it’ll go that way. We can’t even get along together on this planet, and we look almost exactly alike, and we have the same vocal apparatus. It’s like, that’s not going to happen.”
So five hundred years from now, different alien races fighting like cats and dogs, eating each other, complete disrespect for cultures, it’s a really dirty and dark era. Then two hundred years from there, seven hundred years into the future, where it is more of the Roddenberry-esque vision where races get along so well they can actually join each other on an athletic field, and if you’re playing a team sport and you don’t have all five races, because of the way they operate in different positions, there’s no way you can win. So you have to learn how to get along. So this giant spread of novels, and knowing that somebody who’s like five years old right now, ten years from now they’re going to pick up one of my books from the far future, and read and enjoy it, and then when they’re in their twenties, maybe they’ll go back and read the older books, and there will be that moment as a fan where you say, “Wait a minute, this is that character all the way into the future, and this is that company. Holy cow, all of this stuff connects.” And then watch them have to tear through all the novels and get that joy of discovery in finding the different pieces and linking them together.
I understand that next up you’ll be writing sequels to some of your existing books, but that actually first, you’re going to go back and rewrite some of the earlier books before you start on the sequels. Is that right?
Right. The first book that I put out as a podcast was called Earthcore, and I had been promising the fans the sequel to Earthcore, which would be called Mount Fitzroy. I’ve been promising them that for nine years, close to going on ten years. I promise it with the best of intentions, like every year I say, “Yes, I’m writing that this year!” And then other things pop up and I don’t get it done, which is why I’m partnered with A. Kovacs in the first place, because she knows how to organize and schedule things and I don’t, so together we make a pretty good fighting team. I’m finally getting around to putting out that sequel, Mount Fitzroy, but because everything is in a timeline, as I mentioned, and because the timelines matter, the day the book comes out in the real world is also the first day of the story in the fiction world. So today is January 21st, 2014: That is the real world date. The book Pandemic, which comes out today, also begins on January 21st, 2014. And the purpose of that is again so that person who’s five now, will be fifteen in a while, ten years from now, I’ll have thirty or forty books. Somebody who really falls in love with what I do is going to be able to go on Wikipedia or go on Amazon and sort by publication date and be able to see the actual order of events, because everything ties together. They can start at Book One and tear through the whole thing. Because of that, Earthcore hasn’t really come out in hardcover, so I’m going to rewrite it. The day we put that out in the ebook store, and if we put out a print book, will be the day in the story as well, so now I’ve got to back-fill in Ancestor, Nocturnal, Infected, Contagious, Pandemic, etc.
So it needs a minor rewrite to bring it in line with the timeline. I’ve got to do that first, go to put out Earthcore first before I can write the sequel, Mount Fitzroy, so that’ll finally get that off my head. And then I’ve finally finished my first trilogy, so there will be no more sequels in the Infected trilogy. Then I have a sequel to write for Nocturnal. I have, eventually, a sequel to write for Ancestor. And then that military SF story is called The Crypt, and The Crypt has another book that needs to be written this year, too. So I need to start working on writing standalone novels that don’t have sequels, because it’s difficult to get to all of these sequels when I keep writing Book Ones.
How about the film projects and TV—are there any announcements about any of that stuff?
We’re still working on it. We’ve got a deal done for the Nocturnal option, and Nocturnal is being produced by Lloyd Levin, who produced Hellboy, Hellboy II, Die Hard 2, Watchmen, Boogie Nights, a very accomplished individual in Hollywood, and he’s a big creature-feature fan. If you like monsters, you’ll like Lloyd’s movies, and you’ll like my book, so hopefully that’ll work out okay. That’s going to start actually getting pitched to networks now in the next couple of weeks, and hopefully we’ll find somebody who wants to fund the pilot, and be able to make that, and let the marketplace decide if that’s a good show or not. The other one is the Infected trilogy. The producers of Justified and Elementary are Carl Beverly and Sarah Timberman, and they are the production team that is picking up Infected. We are going to soon start writing a pilot script for that, and see if we can pitch that out as well.
You mentioned that the second half of Pandemic would be a 250 million-dollar venture; do you have a 250 million-dollar budget? I wouldn’t imagine, or do you expect them to make big changes to the story?
They’re going to have to make big changes to the story, and what Carl Beverly likes about it is the arc of the main character Perry Dawsey, the main character in Infected, and his struggle, and what he has to go through to overcome what’s happening to him—it’s horrific and violent, and he has to do things to himself that the average person looks at and goes, “Yeah, I would just roll over and die.”
Now, as we get into the end of Infected, they’re going have to figure out what they want to do, because that’s got a fairly big-ticket finish. Contagious gets way more budgetary-wise. There’s a lot of military combat in it, and figuring out what they want to do, but I think his plan is two options. Number one, if you look at the Dexter series—which was incredibly well done, and made everybody a lot of money, and made a lot of fans happy—Book One of Dexter matches Season One of Dexter, and then after that it goes off in a completely different direction. It has absolutely nothing to do with the book series. So Carl’s got that in his back pocket. If he has a hit with the Infected TV show, and then as the writers get into the writing room, and you write all these episodes, things just naturally change in the story and in the narrative. And if they follow that and it’s a different path, they’ll have a unique show that can go any number of different directions. So that’s possible.
If they put out Infected and it’s a huge hit, and they’re like, “Yeah, we do a slow build, and at the end of season one we’re going to bust out all these helicopters, and this artillery, and blow people’s faces off,” they can do that largely with computer graphics and CGI, and then they can move into Book Two, and they can match Book Two exactly. I don’t know. I have no idea. They’re the ones who can raise the money to make the show, and if they place it with CBS, who they have a development deal with, then CBS gets to decide how much they want to spend. I’ll just be happy to watch the process, to tell you the truth. If it makes it actually to TV, I’ll be happy right off the bat, and get kind of the joy of discovery of watching where things go.
Yeah, that’s always a big question, isn’t it? Best of luck with that. It would be really exciting. I think we should probably start wrapping this up now, but I really enjoyed Pandemic, and I’m really looking forward to all of these projects you’re talking about. I really want to thank you, Scott, for taking so much time to talk with us today.
Thank you for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.
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