At first glance, British author Warren Ellis—known to his fans as Internet Jesus—doesn’t seem a likely candidate for self-publishing. Hailed by critics for his cult-classic novel Crooked Little Vein and the New York Times bestseller Gun Machine, Ellis is perhaps best known as the creator of the comic series Transmetropolitan and for his work on mainstream series like X-Men, Iron Man, James Bond, and Batman. Despite his success with traditional publishing and his good relationship with his current publisher, FSG, Ellis self-published a book of essays, Cunning Plans, in June. Released through Smashwords and priced at 99¢, the e-book reached #2 on the company’s bestseller list and climbed to #130 on Amazon in the weeks after its publication.
Cunning Plans is an unusual success story, given that the indie bestseller lists are dominated by romance and erotica. Based on talks Ellis gave at technology and futurism conferences, including Brighton’s DConstruct and Manchester’s FutureEverything, the book covers a broad range of subjects familiar to Ellis’s fans, especially the connection between futurism and folklore, or how the language of the supernatural informs the language of the technological. “Every now and then,” he writes in his online journal about the conferences, “I’m lucky enough to be invited somewhere to swear at a sealed room full of people.”
One of the reasons for the book’s success may be Ellis’s ability to connect directly with readers rather than publicizing the book via the usual channels: the author has more than half a million Twitter followers, 18,000 Instagram followers, and 13,000 subscribers to his weekly newsletter. “I was curious to see what would happen if I limited things to my personal organic reach,” he says. His dedicated fan base includes readers of his earliest works as an artist in the 1990s. After getting his start publishing original stories in the magazines Deadline and Blast! and through Tundra UK (the British arm of the publishing company founded by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman), he also began accepting invitations from American editors at Marvel and DC Comics to write company-owned material. Now, 25 years after his first short story was published in Deadline, the bestselling writer is enjoying success as an indie author.
Finding an Outlet
Ellis’s reasons for self-publishing were based on a variety of concerns—most notably the feeling that his publisher probably wasn’t interested in “a ragtag collection of talks I’ve given in basements and sheds across the Northern Hemisphere.” In fact, his editor at FSG, Sean McDonald, was supportive of his decision to self-publish, Ellis says. The author also raised the question of volume: “No publisher is going to soak up the number of short stories and essays I find myself wanting to write.” His first indie title was Shivering Sands, a collection of short pieces published through Lulu in 2009, two years after the publication of Crooked Little Vein. Ellis says he sees self-publishing as an outlet for shorter works that will support the profile of his traditionally published titles. “Certainly a few of [my friends] still consider self-publishing to be a small-time, second-rate way of doing things,” Ellis says. “But, hell, sometimes that’s all you’ve got.”
In addition to his weekly newsletter and indie and traditional publishing pursuits, Ellis maintains a daily online journal, and is involved in an adaptation of his Gravel graphic novel series, among other projects. His daily routine sees him start work at noon, break for a three-mile walk, then work until two in the morning after which he reads for an hour. “Some days it’s triage, some days it’s sitting down and deciding what I’m in the mood to work on that day,” he says of his workload. He’s active on social media. He even met his book cover designer through Instagram.
The book cover, created by artist Roger Strunk (with whom Ellis says he shares several obsessions, including modernist design and “weird old things”), was inspired by vintage paperback covers from the ’60s. The design “plays with the idea of how we use technology to interface with the world around us in a manner akin to magic,” Strunk says. He notes that at Ellis’s request the cover also features the British typeface Transport, which is used on U.K. road signs. In addition to hiring Strunk for the cover design, the author worked with his friend and PR specialist Ed Zitron, founder of EZPR. Zitron engaged a copy editor to review the book before publication.
Ultimately, however, publishing the essays that make up Cunning Plans allowed Ellis to move on from the concerns expressed in the book before he became “an obsessed old man living in a shack in the woods and screaming at the squirrels about ghosts,” he says. Spoken like an artist that’s concerned about the future. As he writes in his journal: “Never let yourself believe for a moment that any condition will become the Way Things Are. Everything is in motion, much of it is strange and beautiful, and most of it wants to kill you. Keep walking.”