Today’s interview features author and consultant Eliot Peper, a 28-year-old from Oakland. He’s published the first two books in his Uncommon Stock trilogy, thrillers in the tech world. The third – Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy – comes out this July. (You can buy the first two, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 and Uncommon Stock: Power Play, on Amazon.)
The remarkable thing is that a couple years ago, when Peper was offered a publishing deal by FG Press, he turned down a great job opportunity to focus on the books. For a young author, that’s a huge risk. Peper describes it as “terrifying.”
Peper and I talked about that, the state of publishing, the pros and cons of traditional publishing versus indie/self-publishing, and much more in a great conversation.
I’ll let Peper do the talking from here. As usual, the interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity. I’m italics, Eliot’s regular font.
And, as always, you can trust me – it’s worth your time.
Who are you, how old are you, what’s your background?
I’m 28 years old and live in beautiful Oakland, California. I studied international affairs, planned on becoming an environmental policy researcher, and then took a left turn to join a tech startup while I was still in school. I loved the startup work so much that it took over most of my attention and effort. I eventually cofounded a business with a few friends, we advised cleantech companies on international expansion into new markets (clients included everything from tiny energy storage startups all the way up to one of the top ten global solar firms). Then I got recruited to be an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at a venture capital firm where I worked as a drop-in-operator to advance our portfolio companies past growth milestones. Now I do similar work as an independent advisor to fast growing technology companies. Oh, and I write novels.
What should we know about your trilogy?
The Uncommon Stock Trilogy is a startup thriller series that follows a college student that drops out to cofound a tech company. They build a software product that identifies and diagnoses fraud in financial data and along the way end up getting caught up in an international money laundering conspiracy. They have to wrestle with all the real conflicts that entrepreneurs go through everyday and fight for their lives at the same time. If you like Michael Crichton, John Grisham, or Cory Doctorow, it’ll probably be right up your alley.
You’ve published the first of two books and are finishing the third – what inspired this story? What drove you to see it through to the end? What’s the whole process been like – writing, publishing, promoting, etc.?
Wow, this is a huge question. I’d need to write another book to answer it in full so please forgive my brevity.
When I was working in startups and venture capital, I saw all the human drama inherent to the venture world. Soaring success, scorching failure, and high-power personalities are everywhere. It’s an insular industry that’s the perfect setting for an adventure story. Fiction gives you a secret window in the hearts and minds of entrepreneurs that nonfiction business books can’t quite capture. I’m a bookworm, and when I couldn’t find a story like that to read, I decided to try my hand at writing it.
I opened up a Word document and stared at the blank page for a while. Then I just forced myself to start typing. Book one eventually emerged from that process. I didn’t outline, plan, or really do any preparation at all. I just began writing and followed the narrative line. It was painful and frustrating and draining but I eventually finished the rough draft. Then I worked with my editor and beta readers on seven revisions before the story was ready to share with the world.
FG Press, a new venture-backed publishing company, published Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 as its first title in March 2014. I immediately got started on the sequel, Uncommon Stock: Power Play, which came out in December 2014. I’m currently in editorial on the final book of the trilogy, Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy, which will launch in July 2015. Unlike a traditional publisher which typically offer a 15/85 royalty split (author gets 15%), FG Press offers 50/50 net. They also do most other things differently and it has been a fun, educational, experimental process working with them.
We did promotion very differently. Organic word of mouth recommendation is the only way new readers find good books. Typical paid marketing and promotion just doesn’t work very well. I read a lot, and I’ve never bought a book because of a billboard or banner ad. Instead, we just tried to find ways to delight fans. We created a real website for the fictional startup in the book and Foundry Group, a major venture capital firm, issued a fake investment in them on April Fool’s Day. The protagonist has a real Twitter account and did an “interview” for a big tech blog that was written up as “real” CEO profiles. We partnered with TechCrunch to give the book to attendees of Disrupt San Francisco. Techstars, the leading startup accelerator, bought a site license for the book so they could share it with all their current and future founders. We event serialized the first book and published the entire thing on Medium.
My goal with promotion is to find ways to make people’s day. If I can do that, they’re more likely to check out the books, and more likely to remember and recommend them.
What’s been the most difficult part of the process for you? I know most people think the hardest part of writing a book is writing a book, but in my first couple of experiences, that’s only half the battle – marketing the thing is a whole other beast, and to me, it’s way harder than actually writing it. But what about you? What’s the hardest part of all this for you?
The hardest part for me is forcing myself to actually write. It’s so easy to get caught up in the firehose of distractions that are always at our fingertips. Between Facebook, Twitter, and email, it’s amazing anything gets done at all. Daydreaming about the book you’ve always wanted to write doesn’t make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer. It’s as simple as that. So I do my very best to do as much writing as I possibly can, without overthinking it.
On the promotional side, if I think about it all as marketing, it sucks. I don’t want to be out their just selling myself all the time. Instead, I try to think of each component as a fun way to expand the story and engage with fans. Nothing’s more inspiring to an author than hearing from readers so I respond to every email and as much social media as I can. I have a newsletter that gives fans behind-the-scenes secrets and updates them on new books. I find like-minded folks, like you, to share the story with to see if it resonates. As long as it’s fun, I keep doing it. If it feels forced, I drop it.
What’s your favorite part of all this?
- When I get emails from strangers sharing how the books impacted their lives, entertained them, or made them think.
- Dreaming up new worlds, people, and stories.
- Finishing a productive writing session. It fees like finishing a hard run.
What sacrifices and compromises have you had to make in your life in order to make sure this work gets done?
The biggest one is time. Long form writing takes a lot of time. That means I have less time for everything else: work, hobbies, friends, etc. It takes a consistent, concerted effort to make that time and that has opportunity costs.
What else do you do? What are some of the other companies you’ve worked with, and what kind of work have you done?
I work with a select few top entrepreneurs to build new technology businesses. As an advisor, I help tackle the bigger and bigger problems that every company faces as they become more and more successful. That might be spearhead a financing, exploring a new market, securing a critical partnership, or building a new business line. They’re usually skunk work business or corporate development projects. I’m the first-man-in to help filter out uncertainty to find signal in the noise, and then leverage the results to move the needle for the core business.
What would you say is the most important part of your life?
My wife, family, friends, and dog. Finding ways to touch other people’s lives and make a contribution to things bigger than myself. Always pushing myself to be more present and genuine.
What’s your dream? Five, ten years from now, what’s your ideal life?
To be honest, I’m pretty thrilled with life right now. I’m writing books and building businesses that push my creative and strategic boundaries. I mean, sure, I’d love it if the books suddenly achieved wild popularity and contributed more to my grocery budget. But on the whole, I’d love to keep doing what I’m doing, and help others forge their own path at the same time.
Why did you decide to go self-publishing for the third book?
I’ve been planning to experiment with self publishing since before working with them on the first book. I love interacting directly with readers and I get very OCD about the quality of editorial/design/etc. on the books themselves. Self publishing gives me that level of control and I know the buck stops with me. I continue to be interested in testing out all publishing paths to find the best fit so this is another step along the way.
Could you elaborate a bit more about what you’ve sacrificed to write these books – what you’ve had to not spend time doing in order to spend the time needed to do the books well? How has it affected friendships, work, other things in life, etc.?
The most dramatic impact has been on my career trajectory. After working as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at a venture capital firm for a few years, my plan was to found or join a new tech startup. That was the natural next step for me. My wife and I took a sabbatical and travelled for nine months through Nepal, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and a number of other countries (ending at Burning Man!). I finished writing the first novel during the trip.
Within two weeks of landing back in California, I received offers to join the management team of two separate promising tech startups. I also received the publishing offer from FG Press. I knew I couldn’t join the leadership team of a fast-growing company and publish a novel at the same time. The level of commitment required simply doesn’t calibrate and I would end up doing a mediocre job at both.
Instead, I accepted the publishing offer and continued my drop-in-operations work as an advisor and independent consultant to tech startups. This was a huge career pivot for me and my wife can attest to the mental and emotional roller coaster that led to the decision. Now that things have settled out, I’ve found that the combination allows me to make time to craft the best stories I can and make a meaningful contribution to the companies I work at the same time.
So how do you feel about the decision to work on the books – a far less certain career plan, at least by appearances, compared to taking a salaried job with a company. Tell me a bit more about that mental and emotional roller coaster. Sounds like a really hard decision.
It was terrifying. I was turning down offers for the job I had always dreamed of, helping lead a new, fast-growing startup to success. Instead, I was putting everything on the line and risking my income and financial stability to write a novel, hardly a lucrative endeavor in the best of times. Aside from financial impact, it also made me question my overall career trajectory. I had been working hard to become an expert operator so I could transition into founding a startup. Refocusing a lot of my energy into the purely creative aspect of writing fiction was a big jump. At the time, it felt like I was putting everything on the line.
Now, I’m very happy with how things have turned out. Hindsight can make personal crises look overwrought or even silly. I’ve been very lucky to continue to dabble in both worlds by mixing writing with consulting. Ultimately, I asked myself: 40 years from now, what decision would I regret more? Giving up on the book or passing on the “perfect” job offer? I knew that if I didn’t give it my best shot, I’d almost dream of what might have been if I had written the book. Optimizing to minimize death-bed regrets is a useful life heuristic.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the state of publishing and new opportunities in the industry – I’m passionate about that stuff, and always looking to learn more.
There’s never been a better time to be a writer. The barriers to discovering and engaging readers have all but disappeared. The only thing that stands in the way is the dedication to tell stories worth telling, and hope that they resonate. Changes are reshaping the industry. You can self publish, work with a small press, or go the traditional route. All paths have their merits and most savvy authors I know are hybrids that balance the pros and cons of each to maximize overall impact. I’m thrilled to be writing right now and I hope you are too! I could talk your ear off about this stuff.
Also, one more question: What do you see as the pros and cons of self-publishing, working with a small press, and the traditional route?
The amazing thing is that writers have multiple routes to getting their work in front of readers. That’s why I’m so excited to be building my career as an author right now. All publishing paths have their strengths and weaknesses.
Self publishing allows writers to go directly to readers. The writer gets to control every aspect of the process but it also means that the writer is responsible for everything: editorial, production, distribution, promotion, etc. There are a lot of crappy self published books because many writers don’t invest enough time, attention, or effort into each part. But those who take it seriously can easily self publish a book with the same production values as the Big Five traditional publishers, readers would never know the difference.
If you get a good contract with a large advance with a traditional publisher, they can really help you up your game. You give up control over everything but the story (they decide on cover, title, etc.). On the other hand, you’re getting a check right away and if they bet heavily on your book, their marketing teams will leverage their relationships to get you coverage. However, if you get a small advance and they do not prioritize your books over the hundreds (or thousands) of others in their portfolio that year, you can expect virtually none of the support you were hoping for even though they still take their cut of the royalties (usually an average of 85%).
Small presses are somewhere in the middle. There are many independent publishing companies that vary widely in size and behavior. Like a traditional publisher, they usually give you and advance and handle most of the production process. Unlike a traditional publisher, their advances are usually smaller but they are more flexible and give you more input throughout the process. You should evaluate them on a case-by-case basis and only seek to work with one where there’s a very clear fit with the kind of book you’re writing and the audience you’re trying to reach.
Thanks again to Eliot for taking the time. This was great.
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