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Getting better at difficult things

I’m going to engage in a little nostalgia this morning. This is part of an object lesson, about what can be achieved with persistent effort. It relates to last week’s post on discipline.

New writers sometimes complain that they don’t have the necessary talent, that so-and-so was just born a better writer. And there’s a little truth to that. Some people are more naturally talented than others. One of my childhood friends was simply a good drawer. He never learned the thing about the face triangle or how to balance the proportions of the body or any of that. He just sat down and drew what he saw, and it looked right. But just because you don’t have a talent for something doesn’t mean you can’t get good at it. Allow me to demonstrate.

I love miniatures. I use them in RPGs, in wargames, sometimes I just buy them to paint, because I think they look cool. But I have no natural talent for the task of painting these tiny little things. I just decided, almost thirty years ago, that this was something that I was going to do, no matter how badly it went. Behold.

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That’s the first miniature I ever painted. I had a little experience with 1:35 scale military modeling, but I knew nothing of the fundamentals of miniatures. Still, I did an okay job, I think. The rivets on his armor are silver, the borders between flesh and clothing and beard and steel are well defined. So I guess maybe I had a little talent. But nothing great. This was in high school, and I remember thinking “Hey, this cost me a couple bucks and kept me interested for the whole day. I could really get into this.

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This is probably four years later. There are a lot of space marines between now and then, but I wasn’t making great leaps in the skill department. I was neat, and that’s about it. I chose this model to show because it’s both neat and detailed, but there’s no highlighting, no shading, none of the stuff that marks improvement. I spend a lot of time on this model. It was expensive at a time when I didn’t have money to push around, and I really gave it my all. Again, good detailing. The borders are occasionally soft and blotty, but overall I was proud of that model.

Funny story: I never played Blood Angels. I was Space Wolves all the way, baby.

After I got married I took a break, because I really, really didn’t have the money, nor the time, to devote to any of my hobbies. Some years later I picked it up again and, after some brushing up of the old skill set, produced this:

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It’s hard to pick out in the pic, but I’m starting to highlight. I had developed a love for inks, too, so there’s an interesting shadow mix on that metallic. I even highlighted the eyes! I’ve become aware of more advanced techniques and am trying the out. This is around the time I started writing professionally. Again I got busy, but this time I kept painting. And that stretch of practice brought this.

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I’m very happy with this model. There are maybe five levels of highlights on the muscles, the hair took base, shadow, highlight and final highlights, I’ve really got some nice ink work on the greaves and bindings. I really feel like this is a serious improvement in my skill.

It only took twenty-five years. And there was a lot of stopping and starting in there, and I’ve never had a second of guidance. This is just me sitting in a room and trying things with paint to see how it works. And I still have a lot of room for improvement. I’m not sure how much better I’ll get. To be honest, my eyes are starting to betray me. I’m already painting with reading glasses on, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to see the finer details as well as I could in college. But that just means I’m less aware of my mistakes, so it’s all win, all the time.

One other thing: none of those models are properly based. I’ve never based a single model. I’m not sure that I will. I don’t even know where to begin on that.

How does this relate to writing? Simple. Work hard, and improve over time. Get frustrated with what you do wrong, but rest easy in the knowledge that recognizing failure is the first step to success. Becoming aware of advanced techniques, whether that means inking, highlighting, two-brush blending or dialogue, pacing, narrative description, just the act of seeing that in other people’s work and thinking about how it might apply to your own creations, that’s an improvement. There may be techniques that you’ll manage just naturally. I’ve always been a neat painter. I’ve always been good at description. But that doesn’t mean you can rely on that one technique to create your masterpiece. Depend on it, but learn the related skills.

Work hard every day. Get better with every failure. Play the long game.

Why I am weak, and how I am strong

I have a problem with discipline. Up until a certain point in my life, no one ever made me stick with something I didn’t want to do. I played soccer in middle school, but after I got hit in the face with a ball I told my parents I didn’t want to go anymore, and so I didn’t. I practiced piano for exactly one year, found it difficult, and quit. Social interactions never came easily to me, so more and more my parents let me stay home rather than hang out with strangers who might have become friends. I narrowed my life into the things I wanted to do and the things I wanted to avoid.

Fortunately, I recognized the essential wrongness of this at some point. College and the years that followed were mostly a game of remaking myself into someone I could respect, but I still have those initial tendencies baked into my brain. I wasted a lot of really good opportunities in my life because they required difficult things, and I had spent too much time ducking out of my responsibilities.

The turning point was my writing career. I have a certain amount of inherent talent that let me coast through my college writing courses. But when it comes to writing professionally and commercially, that talent is only worth so much. It takes discipline to actually make it in this business, and discipline was a thing that I sorely lacked.

I found that discipline in two ways. First, I took up various physical activities. My father is especially derisive of the life of the body, preferring to focus on the life of the mind, and so in my childhood whenever I expressed an interest in sports or exercise he was, to put it politely, disdainful. In those cases I wasn’t just given an opportunity to quit, I was given an argument for it. So once I got serious about writing, I also got serious about my physical well being, because the discipline learned in the one form aided the other.

The second thing that I did was stop making excuses. I have a history of giving up, whether that’s something in my psyche, or something that I was trained to do as a child. Having a history of it makes it easier to give up in the future, too, because I’ve already come to expect it of myself. The people close to me can just roll their eyes and write it off. I can blame my schedule, or my depression, or my upbringing. It’s easy. And people are so empathetic to quitters. We’re a generation of wasted potential and legitimate excuses.

But each and every time that I’ve given up on something, it’s been a decision that I made. There was a point where I could have kept on going, and instead I stopped. When I’m running, it’s each and every step. When I’m writing, it’s each and every word. I can blame my history, but at the core, I am the only one who can overcome my own failings.

I have excuses, but none of them are reasons. I have failings, but none of them are failure. I have successes, and each one is hard won and hardly notable.

In the end, I overcome myself.

Getting Fired

Over the course of my life, I have been fired from one job, and that was on the day that I quit. I was a baker, working the 2 AM to 9 AM shift. I had just gotten married, and frankly I was tired of only seeing my wife in passing, so I turned in my two weeks notice. The owner fired me on the spot. Life goes on.

Writing novels is completely unlike that. If you take up the job of writer, you will never be fired. You will most likely have to take other jobs at the same time, you will certainly have to curb your budget during the transition from salaried employment to freewheeling novelist, you may even have to depend on the patronage of strangers. If you’re fortunate, your family may be willing and able to carry the extra burden of your fiscal irresponsibility. But no one is ever going to call you into their office, make a few offhand references to your performance reviews, and then show you the door.

Instead, you’re much more likely to starve. That is to say, your sales may suffer for whatever reason, so your publisher might not pick up their option on your contract, and the next publisher might not offer as much of an advance, or the buyers in charge of stocking the distributors might order fewer copies of your next book, until you’re facing a smaller and smaller income stream. And then one day you wake up and realize that you have to get another job, and maybe put this writing thing behind you.

I guess it’s more accurate to say that the only person who can actually fire you from this job is you. They say that writing is some combination of hard work, talent, perseverance and luck, but it’s also possible that you just might not be smart enough to fire that lout at the keyboard.

Driving the Story and the Game

In the early drafts of The Pagan Night (when it was still called The Heretic Blade) I had a problem with characters. Their motivations, specifically. My readers kept saying things like “I have trouble believing so-and-so would do the things that he’s doing” which is a troubling thing to hear. I spent some time tinkering with backstory and with the scenes that led up to the scenes in question, but I was never able to get it quite right. That’s part of the reason that draft never saw the broader light of day. Even the draft that made the rounds to the publishers continued to suffer slightly from that problem. The fact that I’ve rewritten this book six times has something to do with it, but the larger problem was really a matter of character creation. And it’s something I saw a lot in other books, and in my own writing in the past, so I think it’s worth addressing.

In the book, my problem was in order of creation. As with most books that I write, when coming up with the world of Tenebros I started with a single theological truth. Then I created some cultural institutions around that truth, devised ways that the different cultures interpreted that truth differently, and iterated that a few hundred generations to get the final religious/social/cultural structure that would define the world. That’s just how I create.

Once I had that, I looked for the points of tension in that culture, and the institutions that would drive that tension. Up to this point I feel like my process is pretty solid, but then I made a mistake. Once I had those points of conflict and tension, I came up with the plot of the book. Once I had the plot, I created the characters that would fill in the plot holes. And that’s a mistake. Because everything that my characters did after that point was in service to the plot, rather than in service to themselves. I think this last iteration of the book solves that, because I stripped it down to a couple of characters and had their personal conflict (father and son, hero and heir, heretic and saint) drive the story. Looking at the world that way really refreshed my own perspective on things.

While waiting for edits back, I’ve started working on something else. Always writing. That’s how writers are, man. But this time, while I’ve done the Great Theological Truth thing, and the world creation, and the social/cultural/religious structure, I stopped at that point and just created a character. One person who I personally can relate to, and I’ve put him in an interesting situation, and I’m going to let the story grow on its own. I have some ideas, some scenes, and some conflicts that I intend to insert, but I’m going to get to those places organically, and not worry about what happens in between.

For the curious, here’s the first paragraph from this enigmatic new work:

The eldren had a way of forgetting, of sealing memory into stone and dropping their sorrows into the black waters of the lake that lapped against their floating city, to sink beneath the surface, never to be remembered again. The lake is gone, the city is gone, the eldren dead and legend, but the stones remain. They whisper underfoot of broken love and angry hearts, of children dead, of glory never realized and dreams turned to ash in an age before the age of mortal flesh. I walked among these stones, looking for a friend.

Writing the World

This past week I finished a book. Finished is probably a strong word, because there will be another round of revisions, and then maybe a final copyediting pass, but the book is by and large done. I have been writing some version of this book for the last four years, ever since Dead of Veridon came out and it became clear that the direction of my career was changing. The book has had many titles, starting in my notes simply as The Winter Sun, then spending a lot of time as The Heretic Blade (a name I will probably reuse, though not in this trilogy) and finally evolving into the book that is now being marketed as The Pagan Night.

If you look at the original book, there is almost no similarity between it and the final product. The characters are all different, the tone of the book has changed, even the scale has shrunk. I originally wrote a ten thousand word outline of the series, something I planned on telling in five books. My plan was to retell the Reformation as knightly adventure, something that I think might still be interesting at some point. I’m pretty sure none of that outline survived. It might be fun to dig it up sometime and compare notes.

I’m telling you this for a simple reason. You’re never completely sure which book you’re actually writing. No matter how hard you try, the thing that you end up creating isn’t going to match up to the thing in your head. And once it goes through the process of editing, revising, re-revising, more editorial evaluation, feedback from your writing group, from your friends, from that little demon that lives in your heart that doesn’t have anything better to do than criticize everything you do… once all of that has passed, you will have a book in your hands. Something that you wrenched out of your head and put into words.

The best thing you can do is love what it is, rather than compare it to what you meant for it to be. This is important not just for your book, but also for your career, your family life, your circle of friends, your belief system… everything.

Reading this, you might think I’m disappointed in The Pagan Night. Nothing could be less true. I love this book. I especially love what it’s become, now that I’ve stopped trying so hard to make it something that it shouldn’t be.

By the way, while all of that negotiating and revising was going on, I wrote a different book. I really had no idea what I wanted from it, and it shows. And now, while the next round of contemplation is going on, I get to work on that book once again. It’s refreshing. It’s different. And it’s a little bit scary, because I’m still not sure what I want from it, or what it wants to be. But experience has shown me that the only way to find out is to sit down and write the world that presents itself. Write the world you see.

Versus Obscurity

My last post generated some discussion in the realm of self-publishing, specifically a good deal of speculation about why I continued to pursue a traditional route after enduring such a disastrous launch for my first novel. It’s a good question, and something I’d like to address.

First, some disclosure. I am not an exclusively traditionally published author. The Veridon books are currently available, in conjunction with my agent, in ebook form. That’s not strictly self-publishing, but Joshua provides certain services that I would rather pay for then do myself, and I’m still getting a healthy cut of the profits. Beyond that, I have collected all of the Veridon short stories and released those myself, as well as a handful of novellas and other short works. All of these are available on my Amazon page.

But for the majority of my work, and especially for the epic fantasy novel that I just finished, I’m sticking with traditional publishing. Why?

First, because I’m really only a very good writer. I’m terrible at marketing, I can’t do layout, I’m not going to design my own cover and I would rather not be responsible for editing. Yes, I could hire people to do these things for me, but it’s a broad marketplace and I don’t have any experience shopping it. The marketing aspect is something I’m going to have to do myself at least a little, but there’s a reason the world is full of publishing houses, and their expertise in these areas is the best of those reasons. Is it still a crap shoot? A little, yes. I certainly didn’t get several of these foundational pillars of support from Solaris the first time around. One of the reasons I signed with Titan (and we had other offers) was because of their established history of excellent support for their authors. They’re the pros. I’m going to let them do what they’re good at, so I can do what I’m good at.

Now, by itself, that’s not a very good reason to stay with the traditional route. Anyone can tell you that the market is fraught with peril, and produce a dozen stories about bad marketing and disastrous publisher support. My own story is a pretty good example of that peril. But the plural of anecdote is not data. The fact is that you’re more likely to find success as a traditionally published author than you are as a self-published author.

But wait, you say, what about… and then list a bunch of people who have made it. Yes. Some people make it. But most do not. And even if most traditionally published authors also are not “making it”, the potential for success is greater. And I stick with the odds. I’m conservative like that. And the odds favor hybrid writers by a more than seven to one ratio. You can choose to bet against those numbers, believe in your ability to beat the odds, and do all that extra work yourself, or you can do the thing that’s most likely to make you the most money (as well as garner the most attention, win the most awards, impact the genre most effectively, involve your name in the endless discussion that is SF/F, etc). I am doing the latter.

And seriously, read that article. It’s data. Not the narrow echo chamber of self-publishing evangelists, many of whom are trying to sell you their marketing expertise or editing services, or who are just so invested in their belief system that no amount of data will change their minds.

I’d like to point you again to my own article, The Tyranny of Choice. In there I point out that 265 new titles are coming out in April in the SF/F world. At that rate, there will be over 3100 new books in the genre this year. That’s a lot of books. I have said before, and many other authors echo this, that the single greatest threat to an author’s success is obscurity. It’s not digital piracy, it’s not the rising cost of paper or the decentralization of the industry. It’s the sheer number of books that come out, the narrow bandwidth of books that readers can pay attention to, and the disparity between those numbers. Good books disappear unseen into that gaping maw every day. Who knows how many? That’s the danger we face.

The most recent estimate of books published in the US, both new titles and re-editions, across all genres and forms, is just under 305,000. Those are traditionally published titles.

The number of self-published books in the same period, depending on whose data you believe, was between 600,000 and one million.

I hope you see my point.

There’s a lot of passion around this subject. That’s good. I’m passionate about my writing, and I don’t expect you to be any less passionate. But at the same time I don’t want to vilify people who make a different choice than I do, nor do I expect to be vilified for giving you my reasons for my choices. I encourage you to do whatever is best for your book.

As for me, I’ve done my research, I’ve studied the market, and I’ve made my decision. And I’m already cashing the checks.

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.

The Absolute Least I can say about the Hugos

I went back and forth as to whether I was going to say anything about this week’s Hugo drama, and finally decided that it would be weird to stay utterly silent. So. Here’s my post, in which I say absolutely as little about the Hugos as I possibly can.

First off, let me say that I’ve never had any respect for the award. The voting population is an extremely small, extremely self-selecting group of insiders. Yes, anyone can buy a supporting membership, but even then you end up with a very small group of ballots. Last year, the total number of votes cast for the award’s largest category was 3137. That’s actually high for the Hugos. The vote counts for the previous two years were around 1600. And the community of people committed to voting on these things is fairly insular. That’s been true since I first started paying attention to the publishing industry.

Three thousand people who happened to have the money to vote, and not only the money but also the time necessary to commit to reading the nominated works, that simply isn’t a valid voting pool. The results of such a poll aren’t something we, or anyone else interested in the genre, should really care about. Yes, it still has cache among the insiders. Yes, it can get you a better contract, and it might help generate a few sales. But we can’t honestly say that the award goes to the best book, and it certainly doesn’t go to the best selling. It’s a popularity contest that you pay for the right to participate in. And if what we value when we read and write is what will draw the attention of the Hugo voters, then it’s no wonder the industry is in trouble.

That’s the sum of my position. Stop caring about the Hugo.

The tyranny of choice

Last week I talked a little bit about the nature of the publishing business, and why your author of choice is probably poor. This week I want to expand a little on that, with some examples of the kind of reality the current publishing business model creates, and what that reality means to both readers and writers.

Let’s start with a list. As it does every month, SFSignal has been good enough to compile a list of all of the sf/f books that are coming out this month. You can find it here. Take a moment to go browse through it.

Just to summarize for you, there are 265 new titles coming out this month. That is so many books! So many! And while it’s great that all of these authors are getting a chance to see their books on shelves, there are some practical matters that determine how successful those authors can be in that environment. First, let’s go over some practical matters.

How many titles does your local bookstore stock? My local is good enough to put the new stuff on separate display, though I’ve noticed that not all of them make it. Many just end up on the stacks. But I don’t think the new display exceeds a dozen titles in each format, probably fewer. So you have *maybe* thirty or forty new titles at one time. The sheer difficulty in getting new books in a place that readers will notice it seems a little overwhelming, don’t you think?

Secondly, how many books do you read a month? Because of the peculiarities of reading and writing at the same time, and the fact that I’m naturally not a very fast reader (I savor words. No one who reads me should be surprised by this.) I don’t think I manage more than three books a month. I know that’s remarkably low, but it’s a reasonable number.

Finally, take a moment to go through that list at SFSignal that I linked earlier. How many of those books interest you? With nothing to go on but the cover, the author’s name, and maybe my familiarity with the genre and the buzz generated in the industry, I would say that there are maybe thirty-seven books in there that catch my eye. Maybe a couple more that I would at least read the first page. Mind you, that’s in a vacuum. That’s assuming that I didn’t already have a couple dozen books in my office waiting my attention, that I wasn’t expecting to see just as many interesting books next month, and that I hadn’t skipped buying any books for the last six months because of all the books I already have to read. Thirty-seven.

At my admittedly slow reading rate, that’s a year’s worth of books.

Now, the reality. I know for a fact that I am only going to buy two of those books. I won’t tell you which two, but I think you get my point. It’s simply not possible for most of these authors to succeed, especially when it comes to a second or third book. If I were in a considerably better financial situation, *might* buy some percentage of these books that interest me, but there’s no way I’d get around to reading most of them. And when the second book in a series comes out and I haven’t read the first one? Not going to pick it up. It’s entirely possible that I might love that book, and the first book, and every book that that author writes, but we’ll never know, will we? Because there are too many damned books.

And that’s what I mean by the tyranny of choice.

A bit of the business

Last summer, my wife and I went to the block party in our old neighborhood, just to hang out and see some of our friends. We’ve been gone four years, and while we don’t live that far away, we rarely see most of these people anymore. Their social structures are all churches and children. Ours are not.

Anyway, the point is that we spent the afternoon wandering from group to group, having pretty much the same conversation. It went something like this:

Them: And what are you up to now?
Me: Well, I just signed a three book contract with Titan, and (a bunch of details they don’t care about)
Them: Great! (turning to my wife) And are you still working?

There’s this fundamental misunderstanding about the financial metrics of writing. So in the interest of openness, I’d like to talk a little bit about how this business works, and why your favorite writers are probably either struggling to make ends meet, or have a day job, or, as in my case, are dependent on their spouse to pull the financial weight.

Just to start, the above conversation was really difficult for me to have. It had been a very trying few years for us. I made roughly $10000 over the course of that time, almost all of it in the form of a single check I had just cashed. I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to make that much for the next few years, because my pay schedule for the three books was contractually established, and there was no single year during the course of that contract when I was guaranteed more than $6000. If the books do well, then the advance can be earned out and might start seeing more money, but none of my previous three books earned out. There were a variety of reasons those books didn’t make it, but the point is that I’m not willing to count on earn outs, at least not yet.

So when people turned to my wife and ask if she’s been able to quit her job yet, because obviously your husband just signed a three book contract so that must mean big money, it’s difficult to not laugh and cry and run screaming into the night. Obviously.

But let’s be clear; book selling is a business. Writing is only a part of that business, along with editing, agenting, cover design, marketing, distributorship, retail and wholesale… there are a lot of moving parts. And while you would think the core employee in that system would be the writer, that’s just not the case. To understand why that is, you need to understand how publishing works. This is a very broad overview, but I feel like it’s a pretty good nuts-and-bolts breakdown. Enjoy!

The first thing you need to understand is that publishers don’t know what books are going to sell well. In some case they can follow trends, in other cases they know a certain author has moved so many books in the past and will probably move that many in the future, but when they consider a new book from a new author, they really only have their own preferences and experience to depend on. And books are terribly subjective. Two very well read and experienced professionals can read the same book, and one of them might hate that book and one might love it.

The best and most gloriously capitalist way to decide which books will succeed is to publish a bunch of books and let the readers make that decision. I’m in favor of this, mostly because it means a wide variety of books, and a more diverse catalog of authors, genres, subject matter, protagonists and stories. But in order to do that, the publisher needs to watch the margins on those new authors with unproven profitability. That means lower advances, lower levels of support in marketing, less of a push with the distributors, etc, etc. Simple math.

And if any of those books do well, then they get more marketing, better advances, higher exposure in the critical world, etc, etc. And then maybe those authors can start thinking about possibly quitting their day jobs, maybe, if they have some way of getting insurance.

And for the rest of us? Well. We struggle on, taking other jobs and cutting our budgets, and putting a lot of our hope in the success of the next book. Because without hope, the math doesn’t look too good.