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“Law and Order” Meets “Minority Report”

On Tuesday I took a little time to tell you how to submit a manuscript to Amazon imprint 47North. I talked about how it made me feel when I crept carelessly back into that miserable process. But I didn’t tell you why I suddenly wanted to pursue a semi-traditional print publishing deal. I also didn’t mention which title it was for.

In fact, it’s for a title you’ve probably never heard of before. Ghost Targets: Surveillance.

Near-Future Science Fiction Technothriller Cop Drama

You might have heard of my science fiction series, Ghost Targets. It has no ghosts in it. Not the spectral sort, anyway.

No, the series focuses on a world very much like ours, set about thirty years in the future with all the cool techno gadgetry that might come along by then. The most interesting change is the introduction of total universal surveillance.

Cameras and microphones everywhere record every word spoken, every movement, and do their best to map that data to actual identities and store it all in a massive database.  That information is available to the government and law enforcement, but it’s also available to all manner of services–think of the apps you might install on your smartphone–and even available to the general public.

Something like Gods

So the databases know where you are. They know how much money is in your bank account and (statistically) what you like to have for dinner on a day like today (especially given what you had for lunch today and what you’ve had for other dinners this week). They know the nutrition information for every restaurant in town and they know the results of your most recent blood tests and they know how much you care about that sort of thing.

In my back-cover description for the Ghost Targets books, I always start with this:

We abandoned privacy and turned databases into something like gods. They listened to our prayers. They met our needs and blessed us with new riches. They watched over us, protected us, and punished the wicked among us. We almost made a paradise.

And that’s why I called the first book in the Ghost Targets series Gods Tomorrow. It’s a reference to the databases. They’re almost gods, they’ll be gods tomorrow, but for now there are still gaps.

One of the gaps is that it’s still possible for some people to deliberately hide their actions. Little bits of data disappear from the historical record, and they can get away with murder. When the police try to search through the database records to review the scene of the crime, there’s a big hole where the perpetrator ought to be. He’s invisible. He’s a ghost.

And so the FBI established a special high-tech division to track down these special cases. They called them Ghost Targets and tasked them with doing the impossible. That’s a fantastic premise for a long-running sci-fi mystery series.

Missing the Market

They’re good books, too. They’re action-packed and fast-paced and fun. The technology is pretty well researched but also deliberately accessible to the “Law & Order” crowd. The characters are vivid, and their conflicts are consistently entertaining. I love writing them, and I’ve gotten really positive feedback from everyone who’s read them.

Unfortunately, “everyone who’s read them” isn’t that large a number. I’ve sold some frankly astonishing numbers of my fantasy books, but my sci-fi series is barely moving at all. I think I know why, too. I’m convinced the problem is marketing.

The series is called “Ghost Targets,” but it’s not a ghost story–neither horror nor fantasy, despite the distressingly long list of categories it does fit in. That’s a big problem, too. Taming Fire sold a lot of copies on its own, I think, because it was so squarely set in the very heart of a well-established genre. Everything about that book screams epic fantasy.

But you try screaming “near-future science fiction technothriller cop drama for the ‘Law & Order’ crowd” without running out of breath. It’s a challenge, and while I’m prepared to argue in defense of the slightly misleading “ghost” in the series title, I do have to admit that it doesn’t help offset the marketing problem I’m already dealing with.

And then, on top of that, I titled the first book Gods Tomorrow. It’s a terribly poetic title once you know what it means. But then, once you know what it means, I no longer have to convince you to take a chance on the book. If you  don’t know what the series is (and especially if you accidentally read in an apostrophe to make it God’s Tomorrow), the book looks an awful lot like it’s going to be inspirational religious lit.

I’ve got nothing against inspirational religious lit, but it’s a long way from near-future science fiction technothriller cop drama that’s not about ghosts for the ‘Law & Order’ crowd.

In Defense of Outsourcing

I really think I shot myself in the foot with the promotion on God Tomorrow. It’s a story that could be really, really popular if it could find its market, but even with all the success I’ve had with Taming Fire, I just don’t yet have the marketing muscle to make the Ghost Targets series work.

I’m trying, though. I’ve decided to rename the first book from Gods Tomorrow to Surveillance (so it’ll match the other one-word titles in the series). That doesn’t just eliminate the religious-lit confusion, it also better characterizes the central focus of the story.

We’re working on that now, designing a new cover for the new title. But while I was at it, I decided to take a stab at outsourcing the heavy-duty promotion. I decided to see what a (sort of) traditional publisher could do to build a market for the series. And that’s why I went begging to Amazon’s science-fiction and fantasy imprint 47North. I offered them the chance to find an audience for Ghost Targets.

It could be a very interesting partnership. I’ll let you know when I hear back from them.

In the meantime, if you haven’t ever checked it out before, give the series a try. You can get a free sample on the Kindle app or pick up a rare first-edition of the Gods Tomorrow paperback before it gets re-released as Surveillance and sells a million copies.

Either way, you win. And I get my story told, so I win, too. Awesome.

8 Responses to ““Law and Order” Meets “Minority Report””

  1. Dave Doolin says:

    I think the naming is probably ok, but if renaming is required to pick up momentum, that’s pretty important.

    And you’re right, you should be selling *loads* of these things.

    I do think you’re correct about the covers, though. They could be a lot better. Katie just looks really stiff. There is no motion, no action, no drama in this cover. It’s true: many people *do* judge a book by its cover. It’s something I’m dealing with for my technical publications as well. Maybe a kickstarter campaign? I bet you could troll deviantart and someone who could blow away the covers on the whole series for a very reasonable price.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Dave, I think I’ve told you this before (and if I haven’t, I should be ashamed of myself), but your enthusiasm for this series has really meant a lot to me over the years. It’s one of the things that’s kept me working when I really wanted to give up at times.

      The covers are pretty tricky. It gets back to the complex genre I mentioned above. I need them to say “This is action, even though it’ll make you think at time…but then again, it’s really mostly a beach read.”

      I need them to say “Look, yes, it’s science fiction. Yes, it’s got some future-y stuff. But it’s not super wild and crazy and out there. You don’t have to like sci-fi to like this…but it is a kind of sci-fi, so if you hate sci-fi, you’ll hate it.”

      If I make Katie look too interesting on the cover, it could look like more of a thriller than a mystery. I’ve got a pretty limited special effects budget, and exactly how I use that to highlight her gadgets is where I start tripping over the sci-fi-ness issue.

      This is why the traditional publishers are so quick to reject anything they can’t fit neatly into a category. Obviously we’re committed to fighting that mentality, but it does make covers a challenge.

      As of our last design meeting, we’re thinking it might be best to just target a cover squarely at the one best market for a book (so in this case…probably science fiction, maybe female-sleuth mysteries), and rely on things like product description and blog posts to try to clarify the nuances.

  2. Schayne says:

    Originally read the book description but wasn’t fully interested by what I thought it would turn into ,but reading this has inspired me to give it another chance.Definitely agree with the redesign of the cover, doesn’t seem very interesting. Now to start reading.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks, Schayne! You’ll have to let me know what you think of it.

      I certainly don’t expect everything I write to appeal to every reader (or even for my sci-fi to appeal to my fantasy fans). But I’m pretty confident these books deserve a better packaging than I’ve managed to give them.

  3. Aaron, I agree that marketing is the problem…but I’m not entirely sure I agree for the same reasons. When I think of Gods Tomorrow, I always come back to Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye — which not only has “God” in the title but is also a blatant wordplay on two passages of Christian scripture. And yet, the novel is about as hardcore sci-fi as you can get, and as far as I’m aware, the sci-fi crowd has never had a problem with it.

    Granted, Mote came out in 1974, when the sci-fi audience might have been more forgiving — but I doubt they were. On the other hand, maybe I’m assuming that today’s sci-fi audience devours the classics as much now as it did when I started reading said classics.

    The gripping hand (nod to Niven and Pournelle) is that wherever Gods Tomorrow‘s audience is, we haven’t found them yet — and whether that means delving more deeply or re-branding, something does have to change if we’re going to find them.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      You do make a good point, Courtney, but one thing you have to take into account there is that The Mote in God’s Eye was released by Simon & Schuster. That could have meant some significant amount of promotion, but (more to the point) I’m sure their readers felt a certain degree of trust for the titles.

      That’s not to say any publisher has ever really achieved any level of name recognition among consumers, but the gulf between tradpub and indiepub in those days was so vast that readers could take for granted that a book with a normal-looking sci-fi cover was probably a safe sci-fi read.

      Of course, the writers had some name-recognition, too. By the time Mote was released, both had been writing (and receiving awards) for years. I do believe Gods Tomorrow could conceivably flourish under that title if it had significant promotional backing from an established player. I always thought it was a viable title, or I wouldn’t have published under it (or long since would have changed it).

      Five years from now we might be in as strong a position as anyone else to make the book happen however we want it to. For that matter, if I earn enough of a name on my own (especially if I manage to earn a name in sci-fi), readers aren’t going to pass over a book because of an iffy title. It’s a question of timing, more than of absolute need. It’s only an issue right now, but right now there are too many cards stacked against the book and we need to consider changing what can be changed.

      That’s precisely why I’m exploring a title/cover change in-house and testing the waters for getting a (sort of) traditional publisher behind the project. Those are the elements I can impact. If I had the time, I might be supremely tempted to try to get Seatac on our publishing schedule and see if that’d land me some sci-fi credits.

      In other words, none of this is desperation. It’s just moving sliders and pushing buttons and seeing what happens. Perhaps the most revealing bit of information in the whole conversation is the sheer volume of business decisions that have to be based on nothing more than guesswork and flimsy inferences.

  4. PJ says:

    This sounds like your series might appeal to the people who read JDRobb’s “death” series about a futuristic cop. Enough so that I’m gonna but the first book in your series and see how I like it…I’m an avid reader of all sorts of fiction (not much on horror, though) and I’ll let you know how I like it. now to buy it and get to reading!

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks, PJ!

      I’m glad you mentioned that. Back when I released Gods Tomorrow, JD Robb wasn’t even on my radar, but I can certainly see the parallels. I look forward to hearing what you think.