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.