By Published: Nov. 30, 2017

Self-publishing enables novelist, CU grad Zindell’s return to ‘pure joy’ of writing

At the outset of his writing career, David Zindell was that true rara avis in American publishing — one of the few, the talented, the fortunate, who found success with ease.

He sold his first novel after publishing just a couple of short stories, swiftly garnering praise as a complex, literary science-fiction writer and eventually graduating to a million-dollar advance.

But now Zindell (Math ‘84) has joined an increasing number of successful authors in stepping away from traditional publishing — no more contracts, no more agents, no more writing to the dictates of someone else’s bottom line. He self-published the American edition of his latest novel, The Idiot Gods, in August, and now offers self-published editions of his earlier work through his website ( and most online booksellers.


David Zindell

“My primary aim is no longer to be a commercially successful writer. If it happened, I wouldn’t turn down fame or money,” says Zindell, 64. “Today I’m writing for the pure joy of writing — the best motive of all for writing.”

“The Idiot Gods” is a kind of “alien contact” story, narrated by an orca who is drawn to communicate with humans, often disastrously. The whale, dubbed Arjuna by the novel’s “translators,” serves as a witness to humanity’s ongoing destruction of itself and the planet that sustains it.

The novel tackles big-canvas, moral quandaries — animal captivity, nuclear weapons, climate change, war, slavery — and ruthlessly skewers contemporary American culture, from Viagra (“to excite their diseased, drained-out males”) to acid rap. The book’s title, it’s worth noting, is the name that the orcas have given humanity.

“It may seem hackneyed to say things are getting worse,” Zindell says, “but cultures really do reach a high point and decline. They do fall.”

But Arjuna’s suffering does eventually lead to a surreal journey and awakening, concluding on a hopeful message: “You can be good. … You are stardust; you are drops of water in an ocean that can never be destroyed,” Arjuna tells humanity. “… Someday, you will come to love the world. You will sing of life. You will sing our songs.”

Raised on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Zindell grew up reading voraciously, from Harold Robbins to Dickens to Hesse. He left Bard College when his high draft-lottery number reduced his likelihood of being sent to Vietnam, and headed west to become “a ski bum and rock-climbing bum.”

Living in Boulder, he worked as a bartender and began to write short stories and a novel in his spare time. When he failed to sell any of his work after several years, he enrolled at CU the University of Colorado to study mathematics.

While coaching high-school students for standardized tests, Zindell has noted that most kids read only what they are assigned for school (if that) and says many parents don’t keep books in the house. Even many students destined for good colleges have what he calls “impoverished vocabularies.”

But in the summer of 1984, before abandoning his dream, he attended a workshop in Cannon Beach, Oregon, taught by three science fiction and fantasy writers known for their complex, literary style: Gene Wolfe, Michael Bishop and the late Edward Bryant of Denver. Zindell had read widely, including science fiction, but wasn’t particularly looking to become a genre writer.

“I just wanted to learn from three really great writers,” he says.

He soon sold two of his workshop stories and his story Shanidar won the Writers of the Future contest. One of the judges, writer and editor Robert Silverberg, called to ask Zindell if he’d write a novel set in the same universe as the story.

“For me that was like god calling. Silverberg was one of my all-time heroes,” Zindell says. “I thought, ‘That’s all there is to it? I enter one story in a contest and people are contacting me?’”

By the time he graduated at age 33, Zindell had contracts to publish his debut novel Neverness in both the United States and United Kingdom, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. He soon signed contracts to write a trilogy set in the same universe and six years later, sold a four-volume fantasy trilogy for a combined advance of a million dollars.

All that may sound like nirvana to aspiring writers, but Zindell was about the walk into the diamond-edged buzzsaw of big publishing.

Following a merger, his publisher was in a cost-cutting mood and demanded that he cut 27 percent from the first novel in the fantasy series, The Lightstone. He spent six months cutting, only to learn that the publisher was canceling the contract.

His British publisher, Harper Collins, published all four volumes of the Ea Cycle. And American paperback house picked up the first two volumes, then dropped the series.

“Think of what contempt that shows for readers,” Zindell says. “Here they have thousands of new readers of a new series, who suddenly can’t find the books. … That was the beginning of the end of my desire to publish with mainstream publishers.”

Zindell has always been popular in Britain, and he’s pleased that Harper Collins published The Idiot Gods last summer. But he’s glad to be out of “the ruthless big business” of mainstream publishing in the United States, where bottom-line pressures have led to increasingly “dumbed down” books.

Zindell’s novels are full of biblical or literary references, where the mega-bestsellers and potboilers he sees on supermarket racks are written “at the level of a first-grade reader.” There is now a paucity of “books that take any kind of chances,” he says, or feature complex syntax or vocabulary.

While coaching high-school students for standardized tests, Zindell has noted that most kids read only what they are assigned for school (if that) and says many parents don’t keep books in the house. Even many students destined for good colleges have what he calls “impoverished vocabularies.”

“Ambivalent, tact, surly, austere, egregious, unmitigated, stark, persecute, culmination, pinnacle, apex, altruistic,” he intones, citing just a few of the words his college-bound students don’t know. “Those don’t strike me as hard words.”

Zindell sees all of this simplification and bowdlerization as a reflection of much deeper problems with a society that has embraced 140-character media, “fake news” and ever-more-brazen lying by public officials.

“I think our culture is completely decadent, on the road to collapse and publishing is a microcosm of that,” he says. “I may be wrong, but I feel like somebody should be writing about this.”

The Idiot Gods by David Zindell. Self-published, 506 pp. $23.95.