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Uncommon Author - An Interview with Eliot Peper

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on July 31, 2014 Leave your thoughts 💬

Eliot Peper

“For someone who loves a book, would make their day? What would make them happy or make them think of it again or think that it’s cool? And I’m always struggling with that.”

Update! We interview Eliot again for the release of the sequel to Uncommon Stock - come check it out!

Eliot Peper is the nicest man in the world. At least, that’s how we felt coming away from our interview. His first novel, ‘Uncommon Stock,’ a startup thriller, is both an indie success story and the debut book from Colorado’s FG Press. Eliot’s background is in venture capital and consulting for the tech industry, including spells running his own startups. We met to talk about what it was like transitioning from entrepreneur to authorpreneur, and what it was like working with the newly-minted FG Press.

Edit: As of 2016, FG Press has closed its doors. Eliot Peper is now a full-time indie author.

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REEDSY

Your first novel is about startups. You’ve had plenty of experiences in the business world, but had you written much before?

ELIOT PEPER

I hadn’t written fiction since high school, but I had experience with storytelling. My background was in startups — I was a founder, then an early employee at a couple of different startups, and then an entrepreneur-in-residence at a VC fund. As you guys I’m sure know yourselves, the fuzzy front-end of building a business, most of it’s storytelling. You’re trying to pitch investors, you’re trying to bring in talent, you’re trying to tell people about the problem you’re trying to address; you’re always telling stories whether it’s to customers, investors, partners, team members — that’s a lot of what you do on a day-to-day basis. So I’d been doing a ton of that, but I’d not been doing anything like writing a novel.

REEDSY

I thought it was interesting how widely your book was picked up by the business community. A lot of business writing is generally non-fiction, right?

ELIOT PEPER

Non-fiction is interesting for obvious reasons. Most non-fiction is “Here are the lessons I learned doing something,” or with biographies “What did this person learn through living their life?” For business, I find fiction particularly interesting because it gives you this secret window inside the character’s head.

There’s a boatload of non-fiction out there about business — “I built GM, or I was the CEO of X company, so here are the things you should think about when starting a company or in your daily life.” But it doesn’t show you that, as I’m sure you guys are experiencing right now, when you’re building a business it’s a human experience, right? Especially for founders who are struggling through their first company or their first couple of companies. It’s a crazy emotional roller coaster. The human side of startups doesn’t get a lot of exposure because everyone wants to talk about advice and best practices. Few people want to talk about how it destroyed their relationship with their wife; or how they were sleeping with their co-founder; or how for their series B round they were about to get a ten-x valuation bump on the first round until lead investor had a heart attack the night before and it fucked up their entire company. That stuff happens all the time. I’ve been shocked by the shit that goes down in Silicon Valley.

People don’t talk about that stuff publicly in a non-fiction context — they don’t want to make that their sort of public life. The beauty of fiction is that you can experience that alongside the character. You can give people a window into what it’s like to be the startup or to be in business. And I think for people interested in learning about entrepreneurship that’s really special because there’s a lot more to it that just lean product development.

REEDSY

Yeah, like you don’t need to have abstracted a principle for a story to be useful to someone

ELIOT PEPER

I’m sure you guys are experiencing this if you have advisors or mentors that you’re going to for advice. You’ll talk to one guy and he’ll say “Well, in my last business we did this, and we learned that you have to do X.” Then you talk to someone else and they’ll give you the exact opposite advice based on a totally different anecdote.

A lot of business non-fiction is like that — it’s a lot of anecdotes, and it’s really easy to mythologise people. So you look at the big names like Steve Jobs or whatever, and once they’ve achieved success it always feels like you can retroactively go back and say why they achieved success in the past. That’s a really weird thing to do. From a scientific process perspective that’s really bad, but that essentially covers all narrative non-fiction. You have to have that “What did you learn at the end of the fable?” ending, and I think fiction gives you a lot more freedom in that sense. You’re exploring just how humans wrestle with and overcome obstacles. Those obstacles could be killing Gilgamesh, or it could be taking a company public.

REEDSY

It’s like parables, basically, or Aristotle’s version of Ethics. He doesn’t try to say what bravery is, he just says “Bravery is Achilles.”

ELIOT PEPER

I think the human mind is wired to understand complex problems through stories. It’s boring to read a complex problem that isn’t part of narrative.

REEDSY

How have you applied your startup background to the daily routine of writing? I feel like a lot of startup advice is of the ‘work smarter, not harder’ variety. Can you apply that to writing?

ELIOT PEPER

I think the process of writing is very grinding, in terms of the actual drafting of the manuscript. I don’t even know how you would go about doing that smarter. I don’t really outline, I just spend time brainstorming constantly. On a walk I’ll think about where the characters are, where things are heading, what the next scene should be, what the final scene should be. I feel like I’m in good shape if I know the next scene I’m gonna write, and some kind of North Star that the climax will be. If I have more than that planned out it usually gets stale or I don’t stick to it anyway. I have to spend time immersed in the world psychologically, then I sit down, start writing, and there’s very little I can do aside from forcing myself to make the time, sit in front of Word, and not go on twitter. A lot of it is knowing how to be diligent and how to have discipline.

That corresponds to business. It’s way too prevalent with my friends in tech and the startup world who are like “Oh my God I was up until 4am finishing this last release!” To me that’s like saying “Oh my God, I’m terrible at managing my time!” You know, that’s basically what you’re saying. It was less that I tried to take the lesson ‘work hard at all costs,’ and instead take the lesson ‘only do what matters.’ That’s really difficult to do.

As an author it’s so easy to spend all my time blogging and emailing and pitching journalists or influencers to try and get more coverage for the book, to do events, to do signings, to just be on Twitter and Facebook or whatever promotional tools you’re using. You can let that suck away all your time. But at the end of the day the people who read my books, my actual readers, they just want the next book — they don’t give a shit what I post on Twitter. To an extent, me having a public face, at least they can feel like they’re getting to know me.But you really have to look back and say “I need to be spending at least the majority of my time doing what actually matters.” In business it’s just as difficult. It’s very easy to spend your time just being external facing when the only reason people are going to be interested in you is to improve their lives by solving a problem. If you’re not solving that problem in what you’re doing every day, that’s a problem.

I think that’s probably the one lesson I took from business. The ‘work smarter, not harder’ side’s more relevant in the PR side of things and how you connect with readers. We’re trying to experiment with that. I have a twitter account for the protagonist of ‘Uncommon Stock.’ We built a real website for the fictional startup in the book. We got Foundry Group, the VC firm, to announce an investment in them on April Fools day. That’s sort of fun. My dearest hope is that if I do something that delights my readers, that when they’re at happy hour tonight and they’re quaffing a beer, they’ll say to their friend “OK, they actually did this.” If that happens that’s one more word-of-mouth referral. Anything I can do to inspire or delight my readers, that’s what I’m going for.

REEDSY

It seems like delighting a reader is much healthier than growth hacking.

ELIOT PEPER

Yeah. If you look at the public discourse about how to get readers, the majority of it is the growth hacking kind of stuff. It’s all about how can you engineer your own success and manipulate people into liking you, and I don’t know — I don’t really like to be manipulated as a reader, so I don’t really want to do that as a writer.

REEDSY

Do you have any role-models in the self-publishing space?

ELIOT PEPER

I like Hugh Howey. He’s the wünderkind, right? But he’s also really personal and personable. He shares what he does, and it feels real. Or, you know Neal Stephenson? He’s a prototypical Big 5 author; he’s been a best-selling author for decades, he has a huge audience, in that sense he’s very mainstream. But he writes on Slashdot and other random forums all the time. The people writing for the New York Times Book Review would never have heard of these places. He’s interesting because if you go to his website, it’s pretty minimal. It’s sort of lame. But he’s also on Slashdot and all these random place, writing super in-depth, honest answers to forum questions from trolls. I find that compelling because it’s like “That’s pretty cool, you’re just being real, that’s who you are, you’re a sort of goofy nerdy guy, you read Slashdot so you started writing there too.” It’s been very popular. His forum posts turn into memes that people share around writing blogs — I think that’s fun.

You don’t even have to stick to publishing. Macklemore self-published his first albums, was never signed by a major label, and was able to build a fan-base because his songs are awesome and he made funny videos for them. Now he’s turned that into having some of the top-listed songs over the past couple of years. That’s pretty cool, that’s pretty fun. With the writers I admire most the biggest thing is they write really good stuff, but the other part is in the rest of their lives they come across as really genuine.

REEDSY

What sort of relationship are you building between yourself and your readers?

ELIOT PEPER

I try to think of writing as literally storytelling. I don’t just hand over the manuscript and that’s that. I try to think of it like I’m literally sitting at a campfire talking to people. If you’re sitting at a campfire with your friends, you don’t want to be awkward, right? It’s better to tell a story they want to hear. And afterwards you’re still their friend. It’s not like the relationship is over — you’re going to roast marshmallows over the fire and have a conversation about it. That’s how I look at being a writer. I can connect with my readers in a new way or share something with them they might not otherwise know. Like on my blog I write about business because some of my readers are interested in startups and that’s part of why they read my stuff, but I also share personal stuff because if they like my book they might want to know more about me.

Do you know Joss Whedon? I find him really interesting. I’m not very sophisticated about films, but what he’s famous for is that while many of the shows he’s made haven’t been that popular in terms of ratings, the people who did watch it were obsessed with it. He’s had the highest aftermarket sales of anyone. The prototypical guy for this is George Lucas. He turned a weird 70s sci-fi movie into the underlying mythology of America, and represents some enormous amount of toy sales and other crazy external licensing sales.

The guys who are now doing all these superhero movies are obsessed with Joss Whedon because they’re trying to do the same with these comic book franchises. So they’re trying to take X-Men and turn it into these multiple blockbuster movies but also have video-games and all these other ways fans can experience the story. Joss says he has one question in mind that I think applies to every authors, and that’s “What can you do that would really delight your fans?” For people who really like your story, how can you double down and give them extra stuff that they would just want more and more of if they really love that story? There’s a really wonderful essay on this, that’s also relevant for early-stage entrepreneurs, called ‘1000 True Fans’.

I’m still figuring that out. If people read Uncommon Stock, what more would they want? I know they’d want the sequel because they’re all asking for it, so that’s good — I’m working on that. But beyond that what are other things that, for someone who loves a book, would make their day? What would make them happy or make them think of it again or think that it’s cool? And I’m always struggling with that.

If I was constantly thinking about how I could sell more books, I wouldn’t enjoy the experience of being a writer much. If I want to look at the world cynically, my experience becomes cynical.

REEDSY

It’s a bad filter on the creative process.

ELIOT

You’re going to have a filter no matter what. If your filter is ‘how can I create something that people will love,’ that’s a fun filter to have. If your filter is ‘how can I create something that people will buy, not only is that less fun from the creative perspective, but it’s also very difficult to ascertain. It’s not obvious what people will buy. If you’re trying to select for that, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have any higher chance of success than someone who’s just trying to create something that people will love, and they’re going to have a much better time doing it.

REEDSY

You worked with FG Press on ‘Uncommon Stock’ — what was that like? Did it free you from the commercial pressures traditionally published authors work with, like having to earn out an advance?

ELIOT

First of all, FG Press gives no advances. You have a 50/50 split on all royalties. A typical big-5 contract gives the author about 15% — that’s fancy math, but that’s more or less what it breaks down to. FG Press is giving a much larger cut on royalties and they’re giving no advance, and I wanted it that way. I think the advance system sets up the wrong incentive. Then the author is writing a book and selling it to a publisher, rather than selling it to a reader. The people who are important to me are my readers. My publisher is important to the extent that they help me either produce something better or do something that makes my readers more happy. I would self-publish in a heartbeat if FG Press was not providing those things for me.

The commercial pressures are tied to advances, but the reason that authors are subject to those pressures is because they want the advance. That’s where things can get messy, and that’s part of what FG Press set out to try to do differently. Does that create different challenges? Of course. If you’re not giving advances, the writer has to support themselves until book sales start coming in — if they do. That’s not a universally good decision — you need to choose which risk factors you want to take on to produce the kind of content you want to make. That’s what they’re doing, that’s their model, and that’s why it’s different. They’re betting that authors who publish through them willingly want to build a readership and want to earn money based on how popular the damn book is, regardless of whether a high-level editor thinks you have potential.

REEDSY

What is FG Press offering their authors in exchange for the initial 50%?

ELIOT PEPER

First of all they’re writing the checks for the initial production costs. It’s true, they take that financial risk, so that’s great for authors who can’t write the checks to take the risks for editing and production. That’s useful and it shows that they’re committed to the title. It just doesn’t cost that much to produce a book. The part where they really add value is through helping to establish a community of readers. As a — very personal — example I was sharing my book with Brad because I thought he would like it, and he’s a well-known guy among people who might also like it. If he likes it and writes a review of it, it could be really useful for helping me connect with new readers.

When I wrote the book and we released it, that was super useful. Not only did he post about it but he talked to TechStars. TechStars bought ‘Uncommon Stock’ on a license for all of TechStars — present and future founders. So every TechStars person now gets sent a digital copy of Uncommon Stock. I’d have never been able to achieve that on my own because I don’t have those relationships and I don’t know those people. But working with FG Press it was really cool to be able to do things like that. Or as another example, Foundry Group issued a fake investment. Would they have done that if I was a random self-published author? Probably not, right? So there have been many opportunities working with them for serendipity in terms of working with them that have definitely benefitted me hugely and that I really appreciate that I think also benefit readers. That was a cute stunt, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that for readers.

Honestly, the way that I see it at the end of the day and the way that I think FG press is trying to build themselves and the philosophy they take to the table is that they want to just create a publishing model that makes common sense for authors and book production, and then they want to treat everyone like a friend. I’m doing a panel at a tech event. I called FG Press and said “Guys, I have this opportunity with this big panel — wouldn’t it be fun if we could like get excerpts of the book to everyone going?” So we’re creating this co-branded landing page where everyone can go pick them up if they want to. Then FG Press said “If you’re looking for people for the panel, here are a couple of CEOs in the Foundry portfolio that could be a good fit.” So that’s awesome, it makes the panel even better. And so I get to meet a bunch of CEOs who give me good material for my sequel. It’s an all-around everybody-wins.

REEDSY

How important was it working with an editor?

ELIOT PEPER

First of all, I need an editor, and I think anyone who thinks they don’t is crazy. If you want to produce something that’s really fun to read, it needs to be edited by someone who knows what they’re doing.

I had a couple of different stages. I shared the drafts with Brad but he wasn’t providing on-going feedback and I didn’t want him to. When I’m working on my first rough draft feedback slows me down, it doesn’t speed me up. I need to basically vomit onto the page, and then take that sack of shit in Word format and try to make it better. My first filtration process to try to make it slightly better was sending it to a couple of beta readers who I’d been really selective with. These were people who I had to trust would both be super honest — not just say it was nice or whatever. I had to know that they’d give me lot of constructive negative feedback.

They also each had a specific perspective they could add. One of them for example was probably the top Angel investor in San Diego, and he also studied Literature at Stanford. And so he has this dual perspective of knowing a lot about the English language and loving books, but also being very involved in tech and early-stage startups. I had a friend from grad school, who ended up being my developmental editor, who used to be an editorial exec in Hollywood. She had the whole movie perspective on how those structured plot elements. Movies are incredibly structured stories, and I don’t know that stuff. Having her perspective to help inform where the story could be improved was really useful. They sent back feedback in different forms. Some sent an email with high-level thoughts, some people sent me page references. I thought it through, took it on balance, incorporated it.

Then I wanted to do a more in-depth, structural look at it because, as I said, I don’t really outline. That’s how I feel comfortable in the creative process but it means more work at the end because you end up having things that don’t work or don’t make sense or aren’t tight enough in terms of plot and character development. So I did three rounds of developmental editing with my friend from grad school. We made a lot of notes, had a couple of phone conversations, and then I would go through and address the problems I thought were important. We did three of those, and each got more gritty. The first one, she didn’t even make notes. She read it, wrote down thoughts, talked through some of the high-level issues. The next one was more scene-oriented, and the final one was more paragraph-by-paragraph.

Once we were done with that, I did one more round of beta readers, different people, got different feedback, incorporate it… and that’s when Brad was giving a lot of detailed feedback. Finally, once we were satisfied with the content we moved onto language. So I did a round of copyediting, then two rounds of proofreading before formatting it for Kindle and print and all that.

REEDSY

Thanks for your time Eliot.

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