‘Of making of many books there is no end’
Or only when you die or give up.
“It’s a long, long road you drove us down” (The Cutter and Clan – about a son coming back to Scotland to cut peats for his mother.)
I’ve been on the ragged the edge of exhaustion and despair with this profession for the last while. Pushing myself, giving just that bit more.
It’s a profession in which you are the well. Sometimes good folk will throw extra buckets of water into you, and sometimes the cracks of real life will leach it away faster than you can fill the bucket to make the words. They’re drawn out of your hopes, dreams and experiences, direct and observed, and you invest everything you think you can in them. Sometimes that is not enough. But they are you, and that failure… well, some give up and run, and others get up and fight again, again, and again and again. But you carry those injuries.
I had old friends and fans coming to visit us on the island in the last few weeks, and family straight after/during the same time. Barbs works – she has to, emigration knocks you back 30 years, and while we’re frugal, grow/catch our own food and are good at it, there are still costs, in time, money and labor, and we dream to own a home again one day. She’s out from 8 AM – 6 PM, her payment per hour is 5 times my earnings per hour (and hers is not ever an hour late, let alone months), which is why, to try and compensate, I have been living on five hours sleep for years. I drove myself even harder, to try and finish a complex book in time, so I could take time to spend with people who are important to me.
I reached (over-reached) the word target, despite nearly cutting my finger off, which hampered my typing a lot. I still didn’t quite manage to finish. A book is as long as it needs to be, and this one needs to be longer.
And so: for the first time in many years I just put it aside, and wrote not one more word. Did almost none of the normal blog/tweet etc. which is as natural and easy for me as ballet is for a lump of rock or honesty is for a politician. The only thing I covered was MGC (and to my shame, not well) because this is a group effort, in which I support my comrades-in-arms in this war, and some of my fellows make huge effort and sacrifice to keep their side up. If we don’t try, our readership drops. There’s not a lot flattering stuff they can say about me when I am dead, but keep I up my end for my fellows… that’s what honorable men do, and I try to be that, so my kids can have ‘He was solid bloke you could rely on, a real battler’ said to them when I am worm-food, as I had said to me, about my father. It meant a lot to me, and I decided it was worth aspiring to.
I fed people, showed them places, took them diving, hunting, gathering. Took joy in the land and sea, in friends and in being a man.
And now I stand at picking up my shovel (or nail-file), and facing the Augean Stables again. Looking back at that long, long road, a road that I started down twenty-one years ago. As with all of us, there were forks, roads not traveled. Mistakes I made. Mistakes others made that I could do sod all about.
I started in this profession in the mistaken delusion that, while publishers might be people you do business with, they would comprehend enlightened self-interest. That the concept of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’ was merely common sense, as well as the conduct of honorable folk. I always tried to do more than my share, be more helpful and not to ever whinge. Eventually, I learned that merely means they think you’re a sucker, and there is always another meathead to do the hard work. Gradually you start writing the cover copy, getting the quotes, doing most of editing and the proofing through others, and always doing the promotion, and follow up on any issue of supply – not because you expect a return on that from the people who should do it, who have the skills and get paid to do it, but because that way it gets done. And squeaky wheels get grease. And self-promotion is all that is available. Reject it at your peril, but use it with care.
Still, I put in lot. A lot and more, and much of it not for my direct benefit, but theirs. That is what I am.
I finally called the favors due – after 10 years, having sold a lot of books, when our emigration came through and we had to pack up our lives, dogs, cats, and move not just to a new state or town, but to a very different country. I am very glad we did emigrate, glad we could do it, and grateful to Australia for having us. But the older and more settled you are, the harder this is. It was damned hard for us, we had deep roots.
I had my first solo, non-part of a series book coming out – DRAGON’S RING, since the THE FORLORN, smack in the middle of all of this. A MANKIND WITCH had done relatively well in hardcover – 3.5K, which had in theory meant it should have sold an absolute minimum of 4 times as many (and as Eric and I had established we were selling 7.5 times the HC sales for Rat Bats & Vats and over 6 for Pyramid Scheme, I had had reasonable hopes for more) but in one of those ball-drops that no author can do anything about, the book got a minuscule paperback print and no reprint – which means I now have the rights back and it is being a nice little earner for me as an e-book (the picture is a link), having already comfortably earned more in a year than all the royalties I had been paid over many. On the other hand it did my figures no good, and should have.
But A MANKIND WITCH was part of a series with other authors, DRAGON’S RING was my own. I wrote to everyone I had addresses for at my publisher, reminded them of my support for the publisher and promotion of other and the various help and hassle free times I’d given them. I explained I’d be without home, internet and between countries and drowning in bureaucracy of changeover, I’d not be available to fix last minute hassles, to get cover copy, to endlessly promote… could they please please please let me know now if there was anything that needed doing while I could, and not drop the ball while I could not even try to catch it, as I desperately needed this to go not just well, but very well.
I don’t need to tell you that was like filling in an army form about where you want to be posted. Maybe I should have tried reverse psychology and said ‘see how few copies you can get into stores to sell’. Never had any book of mine done as badly.
When, eventually (9 months too late, like many other 9 month late things, when it was too late to unscrew the screw-up) I got the horror surprise of seeing the figures… I, and various fans, and fellow writers, tried to salvage the wreck that that bit of trust had made of my career. The paperback sales were at least respectable as a result. And I’d got up and fought from being knocked down before – but that was down for the count of 9, and barely staggering around the ring when I stood. I got saved by the bell in the shape of two books sold to Pyr – not that that was a vastly different experience, but it lifted my spirits, just as the occasional fan letter does, or a sale of one the books whose rights reverted does. Every sale is drop of water in that well.
Then out of nowhere, the one in 100 000 chance you get once a lifetime… I got an approach for the film rights for PYRAMID SCHEME, which like all the other rights, the publishers had demanded, but never sold, or as far as I know made any attempt to. A respectable Texas-based Anime company, not wanting an option, but the rights. Now this is on a 12 year old book, still selling a trickle, but on the edge of reversion. From an author where the total sum of other rights sold is zero. Where active selling is required to sell rights and thus barring a miracle the prospects of selling these rights is very close to zero. Where zero percent of zero is what you will earn otherwise, and 1 cent is a 100% increase. Where the upside potential exists and possibly is very large, and the downside is non-existent. I rushed and frantically jumped through every hoop, phoned the US several times which I really can’t afford… finally got some action, with the matter being referred to the ‘Hollywood Agent’. I was full of hope, the well of inspiration getting a good inrush. I could finally see, if not much money, a decent amount of publicity and exposure, meaning book sales, and as a rising tide floats all boats – I could help a fair number of friends too.
All the ‘Hollywood Agent’ had to do was make sure there were no – or minimal, restrictive clauses. A ten minute job with a willing buyer, willing seller. I wasn’t greedy and my publisher was getting money for nothing. Any money would surely be better than the nothing they had, and they would get years of extension on something they were about to lose. A shoo in, really.
And that is where that died.
Eventually, I got desperate enough to demand answers. My own agent had sent the Anime crowd CUTTLEFISH after their query (to which I have the movie rights, if you’re interested) and they had plainly read it, but said they were looking for adult books with humor (which described PYRAMID SCHEME). None of my peers on the very extensive list I belong to had had similar approaches. None of my friends off that list had. But the ‘Hollywood Agent’ informed my publisher the Anime Company were just trying to do a mass rights grab, buying everything in sight for cheap. Which was pure, unadulterated BS, on the basis of the evidence, and anyway, sold cheap and never used would still have been vast improvement on never sold at all.
I tried to point this out, but got nowhere. And at this point I wasn’t just bleak, I was down on the canvas, bleeding depression from both ears. In the fullness of time we may get the rights back, but these are not opportunities that remain open forever.
Because I’m a battler, and because I have friends like the other ‘Geniuses’ and because I have responsibilities to those, I got back up, trying to swing the next blow. But I have learned something (yeah, I’m slow but even I learn eventually) which I hope will save you same knockdowns:
Firstly: The person who will work hardest for your book is you. The next is your friends and comrades-in-arms, fellow writers, especially if you do likewise for them, and, in far, far distant third place your publisher. Your retailer comes in fourth, a long way below the publisher, mostly (barring the occasional independent who happens to love your work) at the ‘if we did any less we’d actually be doing you active harm’ level. As for the distributors, I have yet to see any evidence that says they don’t they come under the ‘active harm’ level. Once – when there many of them, they had a function, now they’re more like an appendix. You can manage perfectly well without one, and the only other time you notice them is when they nearly kill you by having a problem. I would rate the ‘Hollywood Agent’ as something to look out for when you need a good dump. So – when it comes to support, doing your part in any project, it’s yourself and friends you don’t let down, and not ever for the benefit of those lower on the ‘do unto’ chain. Do favors for a retailer if it’ll help friends and fans. Do what is required or what they neglect for your publisher, but do not hope for a return, beyond the minimum to recover their advance, and even that can be messed up, as a friend who got a 2 book 80K a book advance and thought he was on the gravy train for life, found out. If you have Delhi-Belly, do look for the ‘Hollywood Agent’. They’re soft and soothing if used for that purpose. This is roughly inverse order of their power to help, so while you and friends deserve loyalty, they can only do a little, not for want of trying.
Secondly: some people win the lotto. They are rare, but it happens enough to encourage suckers. Good luck to you if you think you’re the one. Some people kiss up or do the echo chamber so well that their publisher may give the water of several wells to them. If you’re not one of these, brace yourself for a very very very long and relatively unrewarding fight.
Update – here is a better view of the same
Yes, some people are naturals at self-promotion or get lucky with an internet meme that brings them fame. Generally, though, you won’t win by direct self-promotion of your books, but you may by networking and promoting the work of others, and by providing entertainment so people want to support you.
Thirdly the joy of being independent is at least these are your mistakes, and you don’t feel so helpless. Trust me: like friends, that is priceless.
Fourthly the game is rigged. But you can’t win if you don’t play. And the only way to play is keep writing until you die in harness.
Ach. Bugger looking back. So where is that nail-file and the stable? I’ve got a river to divert through it, and when all you have is a nail-file, you need to put in a lot of hours.