How my first novel nearly ended my career

Writing is a business. It’s a business that’s in trouble, or at least a business in dire transition, but it still follows the fundamental rules of capitalism. When you’re coming up in this job, when you’re still holding on to the warm fuzzies that you get from writers conferences and other supportive, aspirational environments, it’s easy to think that writing is somehow immune to the hard edged efficiency of the business world. But it’s not.

Here’s how I figured that out, and also how that discovery nearly ended my career as a writer before it really started.

Like most hopeful writers of my generation, I was a reader first. Actually, if you’re a hopeful writer and you’re not a reader, fuck off. Stop what you’re doing and spend ten years reading. I don’t care who you are, writers have to read.

Okay, anyway. I was a reader. And I formed a bond with other readers, and fell in love with the idea of writing. I started writing pretty young. I used to carry a pile of looseleaf paper in my coat pocket, and I would write these tremendously long stories about robots, that wad of paper getting bigger and bigger until I had to type a bunch of it into my dad’s Apple II, and then I would start over with another wad of looseleaf. So I spent a lot of my youth telling people I was a writer, and I was going to be a writer when I grew up.

That lasted through college, and then I got busy with being an adult. I got married to a woman I actually liked to spend time with, got a job that beat me into the ground each day, bought a house that needed maintenance on the weekends. And in my off time, as little of it as there was, I had hobbies that weren’t writing. Like drinking. And videogames. And I was only spending maybe one or two days a month actually writing, and nothing was coming of it. Obviously.

Then I turned thirty, and realized that if I was actually going to be a writer, I needed to get the fuck at it. I started making sacrifices with my time and health. I entered a phase where I was pretty much going to work, coming home, eating dinner and then shutting myself into my office to write. Everything else in my life suffered. But I was writing.

I made my first pro sale in six months, and within three years was selling pretty much everything I wrote. I started attending conventions. I met the man who would eventually be my agent and started the long, complicated dance of becoming one of his clients. But I was still in a pretty unbalanced place. I was desperate, as so many young writers are, absolutely desperate for that novel deal.

Along came this publisher named Solaris. They were an imprint of The Black Library, Games Workshop’s publishing arm. I’ve been playing GW games since I was a child, so this interested me. And then I noticed that they were willing to look at proposals from unagented authors. So I wrote a proposal and submitted it, along with my (in my mind) impressive resume of sales.

They took it. They asked for three chapters and a synopsis. So I wrote three chapters, googled how to write a synopsis, and hoped for the best.

They took that, too. So I called the man I was hoping would be my agent. We agreed to terms. He happened to be coming to town for a convention, so we met at a bar in a hotel at Windycon. We signed a contract. I didn’t have a final offer from Solaris yet, but it was just a matter of details.

That was December 2007, five years after I decided to get serious about writing. Almost to the day.

Anyone who knows how these things work will tell you that that’s a rapid ascent. I felt amazing. I felt like I was going to be the next big thing. Everyone who read my stuff agreed. Even thinking back on those days, I get a little kick in my heart. It was the best I had ever felt in my life.

The contract took some time. 2008 was spent actually writing the book I had contracted, attending conventions to try to get my name out there, and writing the proposal for the next book. At WFC in Calgary, my editors asked to see that proposal. I told them I would send to their offices in the new year. Flying high, man. I was flying SO high.

Communications faltered. Solaris was strangely unresponsive about the proposal. I started kicking other stuff around, actually started writing that second book. We were six months from the release of the novel.

March 3rd, 2009. I received a call from my agent, informing me that Solaris was putting itself up for sale. The imprint was profitable, but GW had decided to put all of their eggs in the Black Library basket. I was standing in my office, at the job I hated more than I’ve ever hated anything, listening to Joshua Bilmes explain why my career may be over.

We tried to negotiate away the contract. Other authors had better luck with this, but as a debut writer, I didn’t have a lot of pull. Let me just summarize the next six months: bad things happened. Solaris didn’t do anything in terms of marketing. They didn’t send out review copies. Their sellers had no motivation to push the book. Buyers at the various bookstores were leery of picking up a debut novel from an imprint that might not exist in a few months.

The book, Heart of Veridon, got to shelves. But it arrived out of the blue, it hit the shelves at terminal velocity, and it cratered. Sales were bad. Reviews were good. The book disappeared.

I was able to secure another contract with a different publisher for a book to appear the next year. I was extremely grateful for that contract, and I feel like I wrote a good book, and had good publisher support. Unfortunately, that one got caught up in the Borders sale. Nearly all the copies of it that sold were during Borders liquidation sales, and none of that money ended up at the publisher. Solaris found a buyer, and they eventually offered a contract for a second Veridon book. I wrote my best book to date, but the second novel in a series that no one has really read the first book is climbing up a very steep hill, and sales reflected that.

Sometimes, someone will come to my site looking for a third Veridon book. It warms my heart, and it makes me sad, and it reminds me that things can go very wrong, very quickly.

6 Responses to “How my first novel nearly ended my career”

  1. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

    Thanks for sharing this, Tim.

    People are looking for more Veridon books like people are looking for more Child of Fire novels by Harry Connolly (who again, got excellent reviews but the sales were not strong enough to keep the series going)

    • Tim Akers

      I’m hopeful it’s something that I’m able to revisit, Paul, but you’re right. My time has a cost potential to it, and even if I kickstarted another Veridon novel, right now it would have to pay equivalently to the Pagan Night stuff. And not even the original contracts did that.

  2. Diana

    I still don’t understand why you are going the trad pub route instead of self publishing. You should check out Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report, J.A. Konrath’s blog for indies/self publishing and The Passive View.

    The Kboards Writer’s Cafe (online) is also a great resource.

    If your writing is as good as you say it is, you will be making a lot more self publishing than writing for a publisher. Do yourself a favor and check out the self published world.

    All the best,

    • Tim Akers

      Diana, my post next week is going to address this exact topic, but I’ll give you the short version now. I’m what’s called a hybrid author. I do traditional publishing because, despite my own history, it’s still the best way to get my books noticed by the largest percentage of readers. Plus traditional publishing pays the best up front, and offers a larger chance for individual success in the long run. Howey and Konrath are outliers, at best.

      But I also do some indie publishing. The Veridon books reverted to me, and are now available in ebook form on every major platform. It’s been professionally edited (not true with so much indie stuff), the cover is professionally produced and formatted (we ended up using the German covers for both books) and of course it’s professionally written. And it gets me about $40 a month.

      Meanwhile, the advance for The Pagan Night was $10,000, with another $20,000 guaranteed in the next two years, and that doesn’t take into account if (and when!) the book earns out. The money is just better.

  3. Patrice Fitzgerald

    Tim: Thanks for sharing the good and the bad of your journey. I would point out that the money is better so far *for you* with your traditionally published books, but that may not always be the case. I know quite a few sci-fi/fantasy authors who are self-publishing and clear six figures a year. May you continue to have success in whatever roads you travel!

    • Tim Akers

      Oh, so do I. I’m not one of these people who discounts the value of indie/self publishing. I just think that trad publishing is a surer way to success, despite its many problems. If anything, I think the success of indie publishers will push traditional publishing to be more flexible and less horrific. Or at least I hope. I had a post about that a couple weeks ago, actually. Check out The Wolf at the Door.

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