Bend author makes sci-fi waves

Self-publishing is new frontier for Mary Pax

By David Jasper, The Bulletin

In August, science fiction author Mary Pax, of Bend, landed in the No. 1 spot of a niche category in the publishing universe: the top 100 free downloads of the “space opera” category on Amazon.com .

As a gateway to her “Backworlds” series, Pax — writing under the pen name M Pax — made the decision to give away “The Backworlds,” the first book in the series. And for that moment in August, “The Backworlds” landed ahead of “Starliner,” by David Drake, a popular North Carolina author of fantasy and sci-fi who has written or co-written more than 60 books, according to his website.

Pax’s books consistently appear in the top 100 lists of science fiction categories such as space exploration and colonization, sometimes putting her ahead of Drake and other well-known names.

“I’m sure they beat me at times too,” Pax said, noting that the numbers frequently shift due to reader whimsy. “It depends on the day.”

Nevertheless, it’s an impressive showing for the 50-year-old Pax, who, like one of the space voyagers in her “Backworlds” series, is working at the edge of a frontier: self-publishing.

Encouraged by a supportive husband, along with her peers in the Central Oregon Writers Guild, Pax said she’s now breaking even, making back what she’s been spending on her website, professional editing, publishing and promotion efforts.

With her fifth “Backworlds” book due out in March, and ambitions to publish more books this year, she hopes to begin contributing to the household income.

According to the 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, nearly 20 percent of participating self-published authors reported their writing generated zero annual income. The median income of self-published writers — who often refer to themselves as indie or independent, much like unsigned music acts — was reported as being between $1 and $4,999 annually.

Traditionally published authors, on the other hand, reported generating a median writing income of $5,000 to $9,999.

Pax’s growing success may have something to do with her professional background in marketing. Though she volunteers as a tour guide at the University of Oregon’s Pine Mountain Observatory during the summer, she laughs when asked about having other hobbies.

“I’m a workaholic,” she confessed. “Even though we’re authors and artists, we also have to remember it’s a business. You have to think about marketing and you have to think about money.”

Along with giving away the first installment of her series, Pax also writes a blog and has monthly giveaways at her site, mpaxauthor.com . She also stressed that it’s critical to use a professional editor as well as pro artist to design book covers.

Paying an editor out of pocket “is the biggest expense, but don’t ever skip that step,” Pax said. “And don’t skimp on it.”

Mike Rettig, a fellow member of Central Oregon Writers Guild, met Pax about five years ago, when the two entered the guild’s annual Literary Harvest writing contest. He’s also in a critique group with Pax and has witnessed her progress as a writer.

“She has really become a better writer. She works very, very hard,” Rettig said. “I think writers are pretty peculiar. Most singers who sing in the shower don’t think they could then become a Broadway star, but most writers … believe that they can be on the ‘Today’ show next month with their bestseller. There’s a huge reality gap.”

Pax, on the other hand, backs up her ambitions with hard work, he said.

“She does what writers need to do to get published, but 95 percent simply don’t do,” Rettig said. In the current climate of publishing, “if you’re not a self-starter, then it’s just not going to happen.”

Pax said that when she started writing a few years ago, she intended to publish through traditional means. But then she got wind of Lindsey Buroker, a fantasy author who told Pax she should put some free reads online. “Digital books were just starting to hit at that point,” Pax said, so while submitting her sci-fi stories to magazines, she also put them up for free online.

“My initial thought was just to start gathering an audience. You have a better shot at a (traditional) deal with an audience,” Pax said.

“I know it’s a weird fear, but I had this fear that if I went with a traditional publisher first … and I didn’t meet the contract obligation, I’d be dropped. So I thought, ‘get the audience first, and then I’m guaranteed to meet what they expect or want.’ But then it turns out that I really like handling the entire business myself.”

An editor sent her a page-long reply, “which is almost as good as getting published in this industry now,” Pax said, laughing. It was encouraging, but not without criticism. “She told me there just wasn’t enough action.”

“OK, I can do action,” Pax told herself. “I’m sure my readers would tell you that I pretty much pack it in at this point.”

Buroker also convinced Pax to “seed the series” with a free book on Amazon. Pax also sells paperback versions and e-books for Nook, but, she said, “Amazon has the largest market share, and for any author will be their largest chunk of change.”

Three months after putting up “The Backworlds,” she released the second book, “Stopover at the Backworlds’ Edge.”

Pax said she’s convinced that writing a series is the right way to go, citing surveys of readers who prefer to read a series over a stand-alone book. “The Backworlds” continues to attract new readers and fuel sales for the series.

Pax said she’s nearing 100,000 downloads of “The Backworlds,” and has passed 2,000 sales of the second in the series. The third and fourth books are closing in on 1,000. She expects book five, due in March, to do equally well.

“I think I always envisioned (“Backworlds”) as a series that could go on for a long time,” she said. Pax has also written other books, including an adult sci-fi fantasy, “The Renaissance of Hetty Locklear.”

Fan Julie Spearritt says it’s the “Backworlds” books that most appeal to her.

“Even my mother, aged 75, looks forward to the next installment of ‘Backworlds.’ She loves the series as much as I do,” Spearritt told The Bulletin by email from Australia. Pax is “a great storyteller, first and foremost. She can hook a reader and keep them held fast.”

Herself a writer, Spearritt — publishing under the name Julie Harris — has published by both traditional and independent means, she said. Her book “The Longest Winter,” a fiction account of a plane crash that took place in Alaska in the 1920s, was first published in 1995 by St. Martin’s Press.

“It took me nearly 20 years to get the rights back. It’s still selling in Germany, over 82,000 copies in fact,” said Spearritt. “But I had to get a regular job because, from enduring a 60/40 split with St. Martin’s, two agents’ fees, one German tax and double Australian tax on my 5 percent royalty, I made minus 2 cents per copy for that book (the German translation) while St. Martin’s clung tight to the rights, and it only ever had one print run in the USA. So don’t get me started about traditional publishing (because) I won’t stop!”

As a reader, Spearritt said, the publisher of a book doesn’t really factor in.

“When finding a new read, I think it’s important to read synopses and samples, but considering most ebooks by indies cost less than a cup of coffee, what’s to lose? There are many gems amid the crud — that goes for indie as well as (traditionally) published books.”

“It’s an individual’s choice,” Pax said. “I just decided (indie publishing) was the best choice for me. Because I don’t want to fail. This is what I want to do.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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