[I conducted an email interview with David Wong, aka. Jason Pargin – series author of John Dies At The End, Zoey Ashe, and other novels. This is a writer whose stories I encountered first in the movie John Dies At The End (from the movie rental where I worked), and then encountered the living room legend of how this serialized blog excerpt story became a phenomenon. These questions, excerpted, focused on his experience going from online serialization to print, and how his career evolved.]
“So a publisher picked you up eventually, and then they edited. What was that like, did you and your readers mind the changes much?”
Editing has always been painless for me, but I have no idea if that experience is typical.
Like I’ve actually never had an editor demand changes, it’s always more of a collaborative thing where they explain issues and you kind of work together to figure out the best way to fix them. But I also had some leverage during that process, too. By the time I was working with an editor for the 2009 St. Martin’s release of JDatE, the online version had already gone viral several years before (some 75,000 readers saw it for free online starting around 2000) and I’d self-published and sold a substantial number of print-on-demand copies (something like 6,000). So the one time they did suggest a big change (cutting a certain chapter) I argued that existing fans would see this as an incomplete edition, and would rebel. And those existing fans were the ones we were depending on to build hype for the hardcover release and leave reviews etc. But it wasn’t some huge argument, they suggested it, I explained why I didn’t want to do the change, that was the end of it.
Every other suggestion from the editor was less substantial but always made the book better (pointing out plot or continuity errors, incorrect phrasing, confusing action descriptions, quoting copyrighted song lyrics – stuff you can’t really argue with).
“How many groans were there when they took the serialized story offline? Did you feel like that changed your way of relating to your audience?”
Well, there’s some additional context there. Completely aside from the book, I was a mildly famous blogger starting in the late 90s (not that I made any money from it, but I had a lot of readers and was pretty well known-among other online creators). So I gave my work away for free for years and what you find is that the most passionate fans do feel some sense of entitlement, even when they’re getting all of the content for free (for example, there were constant complaints about the banner ads, even though they barely covered my costs and in no way paid me for my time/work).
I don’t even mean that in a negative way. It’s just the way it is, fans will always demand more, so any change (say, if I switched the publication schedule to be less frequent, or took a few weeks off, or ran something they disagreed with) there would be loud complaints and messages implying that I owed them now, that I needed to make up for my mistake, even though again they’d paid nothing and about a third of them were using ad blockers. They just assumed that because I was so widely read, I was surely getting rich off it thanks to them, and that I thus owed them.
So the angry messages that came from me pulling the free version of the novel offline were there, but those kind of messages are always there – if not about that, then people complaining that the site was slow, or that they were getting error messages on the forum, etc. Often I’d have to pull old articles because something would be broken with the formatting (due to an update to web browsers or Flash version or whatever) and as soon as it came down, a bunch of angry people would claim it was their favorite article and why didn’t I pour hours into fixing it instead.
It doesn’t take many years of that before you kind of grow numb to the complaints. Not that you don’t care or stop listening to feedback, but that you realize that’s just kind of the background noise of your life and you don’t let it cause you stress if you know the change was one you had to make. Complaints are just the noise an audience makes sometimes.
“What has novel publishing been like since, are you still with the same publisher?”
Same publisher, same editor. What happened was the hardcover of JDatE sold pretty well (I earned back my advance in seven days) and then they signed me to do a sequel, which came out right when the movie did in 2012, so the hype/press around the movie put the second book on the NYT bestseller list. After that, the publisher signed me to a multi-book deal for a legitimately huge amount of money. I’m on a schedule where I publish a novel every two years and it takes me every bit of that time to write one, that’s just the speed at which ideas occur to me. Still, I had a full-time job separate from novel writing until early 2020 at Cracked, and had intended to always do that. Things just didn’t work out that way so I’m writing novels full time but that’s not by choice. I assume I’ll get another day job at some point.
“Is serializing something you only did that once, would you again? Why did you serialize in the first place? You were working in insurance, right.”
Here’s where I’m worried my advice might not be relevant in 2022 or, more importantly, to someone trying to start a paid writing career. In the late 90s to early 2000s, I was working two office jobs (doing data entry for an insurance company and filing/billing for a law office, jobs I was just getting through a temp agency) and was blogging on the side with some hopes that I could get popular enough to turn it into a side job via banner ad revenue (that never happened). The first “John Dies at the End” post wasn’t called that, it was just another blog post, one I did for Halloween in I think 2000, a standalone haunted house story in which “David” and his friend investigate a haunting and get chased around by meat.
Back then, the blog was just any kind of humor essay I felt like writing, sometimes reviews or fake news stories, other times comedic narratives starring David and John. So this Halloween post wasn’t out of character, occasionally I’d just have a funny story starring these two guys, and the format of the site was that each story would start off with some kind of normal setup and then wind up somewhere extremely stupid.
That next Halloween, leading up to the holiday people started asking when the “sequel” to the previous year’s scary post would be up, and that was the first time I realized I was going to have to write another one. So those stories became an annual Halloween tradition until I wound up with something novel-length. Then in 2005 or so I put them all together with their own navigation and section of the site, and heavily edited the whole thing, going back and retconning changes and adding foreshadowing to events I wrote later, so that it all appeared to be on purpose. It was written over the course of five years and those posts were basically my fiction writing school; I’d barely done it before that. I think I’d written a total of two short stories in my entire life prior to 1999. But I’d written plenty of silly fiction as part of the blog.
But I can’t make this clear enough: I never aspired to be a full time novelist, and actually never thought I’d like doing that as a job. I have never shopped for an agent or publisher, I literally don’t know what that process looks like. I’ve never researched the industry to find out what’s hot or what genres are selling, I’ve never kept up with trends or looked into the best ways to get a foot in the door, it all just happened to me mostly on accident (more on that later).
“I was super happy for you to hear that you were subsequently hired to write for Cracked, and it looks like your career continues smoothly.”
Yeah I got the Cracked job in 2007 but that was due to a whole bunch of good luck and circumstance (there were more famous writers up for the job, but I was friends with the guy who had it before me and his reference went a long way). It was absolutely a dream job that any friend of mine would kill to have (working from home writing blog posts full time, with benefits). But when I got hired, I assumed it wouldn’t last more than 1-2 years, dotcom startups had a bad reputation for flaming out and I was taking a huge risk by taking the Cracked job and quitting my much more secure insurance job. My rationale was that if nothing else, it would build my resume and allow me to get other writing jobs in the future.
Instead, it was a huge success for the first several years. Then around 2014 the industry started to change and in 2017 the site was sold to a new company, who fired pretty much the entire staff (aside from me) less than a year later. But we were always understaffed, I think I averaged 100 hours a week for five straight years, putting in at least some hours on every single weekend, holiday and sick day.
I held on until 2020 but it was a steady process of budget cuts and layoffs and constantly feeling like every day would be my last. I left in early 2020 because they basically eliminated my position and I just didn’t feel like pivoting to a new one, because at that point the years of stress had taken a massive toll on my health (I still need medication to digest food normally). I only recently stopped having stress dreams that I’d overslept and missed some important meeting or deadline.
“Do you now find it easy to write a book in secret and release it the traditional way, now that you have industry support?”
The industry support is great, but that extends to them working with bookstores to make sure the book gets stocked, and doing some of the promotion. The rest of the promotion is up to me, and it’s literally a full time job (this is true of any author). In order to maintain a network of connected readers I can announce books to, I maintain three Facebook pages, a Twitter, an Instagram, a Mailchimp newsletter, a Substack blog/newsletter, a Goodreads page, a website and a YouTube account:
I maintain all of those myself, for the most part. I also do publicity year-round, in 2021 I guested on about 32 hours of podcasts; that’s all unpaid, it’s purely for book publicity:
I also write guest columns on other sites, again the main benefit is to get the book order links out there:
The video trailers I release for my books are arranged entirely on my end, for the last Zoey book I hired a production company here in town, writing the script myself, approving every aspect of the production down to the props, and paying for every bit of it out-of-pocket:
For each book, I’ll spend about $20,000-$25,000 of my own money on promotion, plus several thousand hours of my own labor in updating socials or doing guest posts. So the industry support is amazing, I know every author would kill for it, but I can’t emphasize enough that my life is 80% publicity/promotion and 20% book writing.
“Is serializing something you only did that once, would you again?”
Well the issue is that I don’t actually write my novels in order, I do an outline and frequently skip ahead to write some part I feel more like working on that day. The process of circling back to change the beginning (to add foreshadowing or to set up payoffs) continues right up to the end of the editing process. So the only way I’d release something in serial form today is if I wrote and edited the entire thing, and then released it a chunk at a time. And at the moment I don’t know that there’d be any advantage to that. But if I was starting my career new, I might consider it (but even then would probably release it primarily as an audiobook or podcast, with the text version as like a bonus for those who prefer it).