My writing career began, properly, in early 2011 with the publication of God’s War, a book that I’d finished writing back in 2007 and sold both in 2008 and again in 2009. And while I’d had a few short stories published prior, God’s War was the bloody, exciting, bug-filled debut that introduced most folks in the genre to me and my work. It earned a Nebula Award nom and Clarke Award nom, and won me a Sidney J. Bounds Award for Best New Writer and a Kitschy Award for Best Debut. Lots of folks loved it (and it’s still in print!) yet the launch was darkened by a shitbrick of publishing woes.
It was a weird book for the time. Readers jumping into that series now are much less put-off, but in 2011 this weird genre mashup about a bisexual bounty hunter living on what’s clearly a colonized planet that has bug magic was a bit out there for a mainstream publisher at the time.
Looking back with what I know about branding and marketing, it also should have had a different title, as it’s often been confused with religious fiction.
It didn’t make me rich.
So instead of doing the “wild debut success” thing, I realized I’d have to do the “slowly building a strong career” thing, which takes a lot longer, and requires a LOT of stamina.
With subsequent books, I have quietly(!?) and steadily built a career over the last decade, one gritty, glorious, pulpy book at a time. I’ve grown a great fan following of dedicated readers whose story donations every month via Patreon keep me in health insurance and life-sustaining drugs, which is something very few pulp writers ever got, based on how many of us die horribly, not-rich, of some wholly treatable chronic condition that we couldn’t afford to manage.
It’s a good, working-class career right now, but not enough to be really sustainable on its own, which is why I’m looking forward to picking up some day job work in 2020 that can help backfill the debt we’ve piled up since I lost my day job in February.
My decade of writing novels has been me writing and hoping for “the big one,” the breakout novel that gets the movie deals and the bestseller status and sells regularly every year to create a baseline sustainable income.
I’ve written and/or published eleven books this decade:
- God’s War
- Apocalypse Nyx
- The Mirror Empire
- Empire Ascendant
- The Broken Heavens
- The Stars are Legion
- The Light Brigade
- Meet Me in the Future: Stories
- Geek Feminist Revolution: Essays
That’s enough books for, like, one person’s WHOLE CAREER – and I did it in the first ten years, all while still holding down a day job and – for the last four years of it – writing about a short story a month for Patreon subscribers. That said, you know, I look at posts like this from Chuck Wendig, who debuted about the same time as me, and he’s written twenty-five books??? So clearly there’s levels of hustle, here.
In 2014, I burned out for the first time after writing three books in a year, and watching as each one of those books performed better than the last. Yet there was no breakout. There was, at best, a working-class income generated by book checks and royalties and patreon pledges.
Every book is a lottery ticket, you know, and you do the best you can, hoping for that spark of luck – right timing, right audience, right cultural callback. I worked tirelessly on writing and promotion, and lifted myself up into the high midlist, which is great! But the bump from low-midlist to high midlist is a lot easier to manage on your own than going from high-midlist to the 1% of publishing. To do that requires a lot more than merely my own tenacity, good business sense, and hard work. It’s going to require a shitbrick of luck.
But I don’t want this survey of the first decade of my career to come off like midlist whining, you know the drill: “HOW AM I NOT RICH!! I HAVE WRITTEN TWELVE BOOKS in TEN YEARS, A SHORT STORY A MONTH FOR FOUR YEARS, AND HELD A DAY JOB NEARLY THE WHOLE DECADE.” Because really those questions could be answered with another question, which is “WHY IS HEALTH INSURANCE AS MUCH AS MY MORTGAGE?”
Instead, I want to talk about some things I’ve corked up the last decade by always pushing toward that breakout book. Don’t get me wrong, we all have to hustle, I get it. But after the first three books, it all became about the hustle, the grind, and it became less about the process of creating exceptional stories that I loved to pieces. Sure, I was writing the books I’d always wanted to read, but I was writing so much so quickly that I remembered very little of it. Books like The Stars are Legion went to print without me ever having time to read the final manuscript all the way through. I was just too exhausted. The book work may as well have been day job work, for all the satisfaction I was getting from the process of creating it.
While the first half of the decade was me burning myself out, the second half was about me scrambling to produce exceptional work at the pace of publishing – a book a year – while medicating my burnout in many glorious and innovative ways. My first several attempts at writing the final book in my fantasy epic were… “not good” as my agent put it (she was right). I lost a lot of time being angry and drunk about both my seeming inability to write effortless bestsellers and the election.
What saved me was, as ever, the work itself, and my agent’s confidence in my abilities. Not publishing. Not “fame” (whatever that is). Not sales numbers. Not advances or royalties or accolades or travel. Just the work.
The experience of writing The Light Brigade and pulling off such a blazingly complex book, structurally, was a huge high, for me. I reread that book start to finish at least four times, and was fiddling with it to make it perfect right up into the proofs. While there were some… issues with the publisher there at the end, I’m still extraordinarily proud of the final result. That pride in my work has to be the prize. Creating something from nothing needs to be enough. It’s all I can control. And I’ve gotten far too wrapped up in other bullshit.
This is not to say I’m not going to care about publishing and numbers and etc here in the new roaring 20’s. It means that, in fact, I will care deeply about what actually matters to me. I want to celebrate what I love and write what I love – in all its pulpy grotesquerie. I’m honestly tired of working toward a “breakout” book. If it happens, great, but not at the expense of me falling out of love with my own work and hating what I’m doing.
Life is too short, and burning toward a breakout has literally been killing me. It will happen or it won’t. Knowing me, I’ll be like GRRM and finally get my hit book when I’m like 65. Better late than never.
In the meantime, I want to create a body of work that I’m proud of, one that I can look back and say, “Yeah, I leveled up with every book. I wrote books that mattered. That meant something not just to me, but to a lot of people.”
I do also, however, want to create a sustainable career, because I’m nearly 40 now, and have a chronic illness, and yanno – not getting any younger and all that. So while I concentrate on creating the work, I also want to ensure that I’m mindful of continuing to grow my career and revenue streams by leveraging that work and understanding its worth.
To that end, I have a few goals in here in the coming year that I’d like to achieve by growing the audience for my wild pulpy books. What I’ve found, as ever, is that the more work you have out there, the more chances you have to create a real living from said work. Every piece is a lottery ticket. Every revenue stream keeps you one step further away from abject poverty.
And every book, every project, gives you the chance to create something fun and good in the world.
So yes, the goal is to grow the Patreon subscription base; to revamp this website in the spring to be more media-friendly (and surface all that video and podcast content I’m creating); to finish a couple of TV series treatments featuring my Worldbreaker and Apocalypse Nyx books and pitch them to my film agents; to pitch a brand-new book series; to get the Geek Feminist project ready to pitch to Amazon in the spring; to add more merch to my Kameron Hurley Workshop; to be a more efficient writer. My other goal is, of course, to continue to demand what I’m worth.
This year a producer interested in optioning one of my books didn’t want to pay me my minimum option number because, as they put it: “I can option bestsellers for $5k.” My response to my agent was, “Then they can go option a bestseller.”
Fuck you, pay me.
But more even than all that, my goal is to embrace what I love, and who I am. I changed my Twitter bio to “Not a Bestseller. Queen Calanthe is my God now. I drink a lot. I like dogs. My books are messy bitches. Witness me.” And let me tell you: That’s the energy I’m bringing with me into the roaring 20’s. Messy imperfection. Heartfelt fandom. Embracing my strengths and faults in equal measure. I mean, I’ll be forty in a few weeks. I’m tired of pretending I have my shit together. Tired of faking it til you make it.
I don’t want to fake it. I want to live exactly what my life is, and embrace it, and love it, because I really do enjoy so many parts of it, and by sitting here and always scrambling after someone else’s career, comparing myself constantly to what I don’t have, I’ve just been miserable and adrift.
I want to love the whole imperfect world again. To rage against it, yes, but also to just unabashedly love what I love, and to fuck the rest.
That’s how I want to spend the next decade. Not burning out again. Not screaming at fate. I want to make my own fate, yeah, and enjoy the journey there, too.
I’m not (yet) a bestseller. I’m not (yet) the world’s greatest writer. But I am Kameron fucking Hurley. And you know what?
Being Kameron Hurley is pretty fucking great.