2014: Some (Honest) Publishing Numbers, and (Almost) Throwing in the Towel

About this time last year, GOD’S WAR, which had been out in the UK for a solid seven months, had sold just 300 copies there, and every single major publishing house had passed on THE MIRROR EMPIRE, the epic fantasy novel I thought was the most marketable thing I’d ever written.

I was, to be blunt, pretty fucking devastated.

A lot of people think that once you publish a book, that’s it – you go on publishing books. The publishing world opens its arms to you and welcomes every book like a precious squealing babe. The reality is that publishing your first book is when the real work starts. All that time you spent leveling up your craft, on dealing with rejection, on editing and revision: that was just a warm up for the crushing reality of life day-in, day-out as a published author.

In early January of this year, I was getting ready to shelve THE MIRROR EMPIRE and take a break from writing for  a while, and come up with something somebody wanted to read. I knew MIRROR EMPIRE was a good book, which was frustrating: it was just a good book nobody wanted to buy at the moment. I needed to wait for the market to shift. The plan was I’d just hold onto it until somebody at some house got a new job – new editors have different opinions. Maybe somebody would buy it some day. In the meantime, I had no project idea that was more marketable than this one, so… I was going to need to take some time to recover from my disappointment and write something new. Another slog of a year, I figured, with no new book coming out, again.

Like a lot of Night Shade Books debut authors caught up in the spiral of near-bankruptcy and eventual sale, my work had suffered from declining sales, especially the third book. RAPTURE had sold low, just 2,000 copies, only about 350 of which actually showed up on Bookscan. Low sales like that give editors on the fence about a project a good reason to pass. The performance of that third book was not helping MIRROR EMPIRE.

Sure, “We Have Always Fought” had gone viral in May the year before, and I was seeing that pop up all over. That was gratifying. But you can’t eat blog posts. You can’t build a fiction writing career on blog posts alone, right? Eventually some of those folks need to be your fiction readers, or you’re just screaming on the internet.

I was fucked. I knew it.

But when you are fucked, when you’ve reached the very bottom of the barrel, when your writing career is over before it’s even started, well, there’s nothing you can do to injure it, right?

So you might as well fight for it.

god's war tpb-packshot 50percent (2)Del Rey UK was coming out with the B-format version of GOD’S WAR in January 2014 (sort of like their mass market paperback), so I decided to schedule a blog tour around it, inspired by the blog tour Myke Cole did for his first book, CONTROL POINT. I emailed every writer and reviewer I knew with a UK reach. Called in every favor. I begged for blog post space. I scheduled a massive three week guest blog tour. I wrote a tie-in novelette for Del Rey UK to publish exclusively on their blog during the release.

If I was good at blog posts, well, I’d double the fuck down on blog posts.

The blog tour kicked off in early January of this year, and continued to the end of the month. It was brutal, for me – up to two posts a day for three weeks – but I wasn’t doing anything else; MIRROR EMPIRE was still on the market, so my next project, whatever it would be, was up in the air. I poured everything into the blog posts. For three weeks, a lot of people in the online genre world couldn’t go anywhere without reading a post from me, without being reminded I was alive, I wrote books, I had shit to say.

I got really fucking tired of talking about myself.

Screaming at the fucking wind.

But people shared the posts. They talked about them. I heard, again and again, “Oh, I didn’t realize GOD’S WAR was out in the UK.”

And some shit started happening.

Angry Robot made an offer on THE MIRROR EMPIRE in mid-January, in the middle of the blog tour, right before I attended CONFusion last year. I remember this because despite the offer I still wanted to bawl my eyes out at CONFusion. Looking at boilerplate contracts is distressing for authors (obviously that wasn’t what we signed, but it was the first time I had a chance to see a boilerplate contract, and like all of them, at every house, it was brutal), and the final advance agreed upon was just $7,000. This was in line with what I’d been paid for my other books: $6,500 for GOD’S WAR, $6,500 for INFIDEL, $7,500 for RAPTURE.

But, you know, I actually thought MIRROR EMPIRE was marketable. I thought it was a bigger book.

Bawled my eyes out.

You won’t get rich as a weird author on book advances alone, no.

But Angry Robot gave me what a lot of big presses with more money wouldn’t – they were passionate about the book. They gave me lead title for the fall, the full support of the team, and the Angry Robot marketing machine. I knew I was going to have to invest my full efforts in this one. I knew it was my last chance to pull a career out of the wreckage of the Night Shade disaster, and if Angry Robot was all-in with this book, then by god I was going to go all-in too.

We signed.

Right before we signed, the BSFA nominations came out. GOD’S WAR was on it.

We announced the sale.

Then the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominations came out. GOD’S WAR was on it.

The blog tour had reminded people I wrote shit, too, and that some of that fannish writing was OK, and then it was Hugo time.

The Hugo nominations came out.

I was on it.

“We Have Always Fought” was also nominated for a British Fantasy Award.

Every time you turned your head, suddenly, the woman with the book who sold 300 copies in the UK  was everywhere.

Some people call this “hype.” It’s the illusion that someone whose work is not selling well is actually selling well.

But the wild thing about hype is that it can also transform somebody who isn’t selling well into somebody that sells more.

Chicken/egg.

Clearly, that blog tour in January was working, so I toiled over the planning of one again for August and September, knowing it was going to kill the fuck out of me if I survived it. The pace for this one was relentless; I wanted to move out of blogs and add podcasts, radio, convention appearances. The more diverse places I could be, the more places I had a chance to reach readers who weren’t online.

I went to CONvergence, GenCon, and ReaderCon. I prepared for every panel. I drank too much scotch. I spoke tirelessly and graciously to every single fan. I printed out 1500 MIRROR EMPIRE samplers and stuffed them into bags with the generous folks at the GenCon Writers’ Symposium.

And I blogged.

Dear lordy lord did I blog.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpi-forrevealI had talking points for every radio and podcast appearance. I talked for hours, endlessly, about THE MIRROR EMPIRE.

I… drank a lot of scotch. Did I mention the scotch?

I sent out 50 postcards to genre bookstores and local libraries, and my alumni libraries, handwritten postcards of the “Buy my book!” variety.  I distributed another 75  at local cons, along with more samples. And the free books: boxes and boxes of copies sent for giveaways, put onto freebie tables, sold early at GenCon, not just MIRROR EMPIRE, but the whole God’s War trilogy. Then there was the massive promotion the first two weeks of release for those who bought from Barnes and Noble…

The week or so before the Hugo ceremony, right before MIRROR EMPIRE came out, my agent got a call from Joe Monti at Saga Press. He was looking for a space opera – it so happened I had, I thought, an unsellable one. But within a few weeks of winning two Hugos, I had a new two book deal with an advance for each book that was about three times what I was paid for THE MIRROR EMPIRE alone.

With Angry Robot’s total, unflagging support, a fabulous cover, solid early reviews, and a lot of blood, sweat, and more than a few tears, THE MIRROR EMPIRE sold over 1,000 books the first week it was out, and even squeezed onto B&N’s (very) long list of fantasy trade paperback bestsellers for the week.

To date, best I can tell, we’ve sold about 7,500 copies of THE MIRROR EMPIRE in the US and Canada alone, and it’s been reprinted in both the US and UK. As the UK had a first print run of 1500, I think I can comfortably say we’re probably nearly at the 10,000 copy mark by now (I’ve only seen real POS for US/Canada; I’ll have actual total numbers when I get royalty statements early this year).

The book has been out four months.

Four months.

For comparison, the buzz-laden GOD’S WAR has sold, in the US and UK, about 12-13,000 copies in four years. 

About three weeks into the release, I stopped looking at MIRROR EMPIRE’s Bookscan numbers via Amazon. The Angry Robot numbers they graciously supplied me were real numbers anyway (Bookscan is an estimate, at best) and they were good with keeping me updated with those. But mostly, I stopped looking because I’d reached some threshold of sales where it really didn’t matter to me anymore. I had another book to write, after all. I’d earned out my advance.

Am I some bestselling mega-wonder now?

Hah ahahahaa hahahaa

No.

Rumor has it Rothfuss sells like 20k his first week. Bookscan was telling me another bestselling fantasy writer’s book, which came out the same week as mine, was pulling at least half that. That’s 10k in a week vs. my 8-10k in four months, so you can see the difference in scale, there.

But in this race, I’m not racing against other people. I’m racing against myself, and 10,000 in four months is leagues better than how I started the year, let me tell you.

I sacrificed some stuff to do this, it’s true. I’m behind on my second book, EMPIRE ASCENDANT; I lost about three months of my life to promotion of MIRROR EMPIRE. I’ve heard folks say you should just write the next book, always the next book, to promote your backlist. But the thing is: if you’re writing a series book, and no one reads the first book in the series, how will writing a second book in a series that no one has read do you any good? Authors and publishers push a first book. Second and third and subsequent books in that series get carried along by the strength of the first.

If MIRROR EMPIRE had tanked, I’d be sitting here crying over writing a book that nobody was going to fucking read, no matter how good it was, barring some movie deal or celebrity endorsement.

There is no point in writing a second book when the first tanks. Your publisher is demoralized. You’re demoralized. Your fans are demoralized. It’s just… demoralizing.

So I gave this book launch everything I had.

And more.

What I think is so interesting about the story of my year is that it so clearly illustrates the confluence of luck and hard work. I was lucky to be on that Clarke shortlist, and the BSFA shortlist. I was lucky that ANCILLARY JUSTICE did well, and Joe Monti was looking for a space opera, and I had one. But Hugo voting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and having a blog tour in January, during the nomination period, certainly had the additional effect of keeping me top of people’s minds. And Monti wouldn’t have known I had a space opera if I wasn’t blathering about it on Rocket Talk during the MIRROR EMPIRE promotion.

Luck. Hard work.

I was talking to another writer about the brutal promotion schedule for the book, and how it’d made a big difference, and he pointed out something a lot of new writers, especially newly self-published writers, forget:

Sure, I’d done the promotion for the book. I got eyeballs on the book.

But it helped that when the eyeballs turned to the book, what they found, most often, was a really good book. If I had written an utterly shit book that no one wanted to read, no amount of college radio station interviews or sampler bag-stuffer promo items was going to help me.

What also becomes invisible is the legion of support I got with this book release, from the folks at Angry Robot – who had their own rollercoaster of a year – to my tireless agent, Hannah Bowman, who wears editor, agent, and career coach-don’t-jump-off-a-cliff-it’s-all-fine hats. And then there’s the fans and reviewers who brought – if not always unmitigated praise – then certainly a lot of passion in their reviews of the books, and my friends and colleagues in the industry who shared, endorsed, blurbed, and talked endlessly about the book, even and especially when I was so fucking done with it. If I try and thank everyone by name, I’m going to leave someone out, so I’m not going to try, but know that each and every one of you – even and especially the fans who send emails, who cosplay as characters, who bring me Laphroaig to signings (therefore raising the super fan bar EVEN HIGHER), who debate the books endlessly online, who encourage their libraries and their friends to buy them, who force them on family members, who make them the passionate debate dejour at their holiday dinner tables – yes, even and especially thanks to all of you.

I promised that if people bought a lot of THE MIRROR EMPIRE it would mean, bluntly, more books from me. And it does. You did it. I’ve got my first big press book coming out in 2016, THE STARS ARE LEGION and the sequel that I can now say a not insubstantial number of people are probably waiting for in 2015, EMPIRE ASCENDANT.

It’s my job to make sure that the folks who would love these books best know they exist, but their fate after that relies entirely on the people who love them.

So, thank you. All of you.

I look forward to seeing what we’re all going to do together in 2015.

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