Back in the day when Muskets and Monsters was “Macmillan New Writer”, the headline for the blog was “the highs and lows of being published for the first time.” Grumpy Old Bookman said “Lows? How can there be any lows?” It wasn’t until later I realised he was being ironic (or at least I hope he was), and that being published means there will be lows. Believe it or not, lows are part of being published. There isn’t a published writer alive, even spectacularly good ones, who haven’t suffered lows in the publishing world.
To coin Stanley Adams, “what a difference a year makes… 8544 ho-urs…..” And you know, it really does. This year was a mix of great highs, and great lows, oddly splitting the year roughly in two.
Book One, Book Two, Not Book Three and Certainly not something else: Winter/Spring 2009
2009 started off nicely with the publication of The Secret War in paperback and The Hoard of Mhorrer in hardback. Sure there was the disappointment of my publisher not wishing to muddy my “branding” with The Black Hours but this was offset by the publishing deals with La Factoria de Ideas and Random House for the German and Spanish translations of the books, and my first short story being published in the magazine, First Edition. I was on cloud nine. The promise of financial reward would surpass what I received for the hardback of The Secret War and all of a sudden people were taking notice of me. The reviews for the books were mostly positive and with more publicity on the internet than I received in 2007 for the debut, I was gaining some kinda momentum.
Writing-wise I couldn’t have been happier during the early months of 2009. I was enjoying writing the drafts of The Black Hours and researching The Traitor of Light, an ambitious book – probably the biggest challenge of my writing career thus far, and I was confident of pulling if off. The future was bright – it was Secret War shaped.
I guess the writing – ahem – was on the wall when, like The Black Hours, The Traitor of Light was similarly dismissed that spring as it didn’t meet the criteria set out by my publisher. Yet I didn’t suspect there would be a parting of the ways several months down the line. After all, I’m a reasonably flexible sort of guy and I negotiate well. When these two projects were not to my publisher’s liking, I had one up my sleeve that I was certain they would like: The Fortress of Black Glass (another William Saxon novel).
…Yet I’m also reasonably cunning when it comes to writing (and quite obstinate too) so while my publisher might have believed I had shelved both The Traitor of Light and The Black Hours permanently, I was actually tinkering with them in my free-time with a view to getting them out through an independent publisher.
So these were small knocks, but only small as the two dismissed books were still at the forefront of my thoughts while my publisher wanted me to press on with The Fortress of Black Glass.
What to do when you computer doesn’t recognise your voice: Summer 2009
By the summer, I was a father for the first time, suffering from sleep deprivation (as all new dads are) and trying to cope with a brain that was turning to mulch due to little sleep, baby talk and the overwhelming sensation of fatherhood. Obviously my writing took a hit, but when I eventually returned to the laptop, it wasn’t all that difficult to remember how to put more than two words together on the screen. The blog suffered as did any promotional work which was relegated to the bottom of my priorities. But I was largely optimistic about the writing itself.
And then I had problems with my wrist. With the onset of what the doctor suspected was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome late that summer, everything turned on its head. I had a deadline to meet, but no means to write. I used speech recognition software to write a first draft but spent more time trying to teach the computer about my voice than write properly, making the first draft of the Fortress of Black Glass a write-off. August came and went and the deadline approached with nothing concrete to deliver. Now I was panicking a little.
When my hand started to return to some semblance of normality after a few weeks of physio, I went back to the keyboard and started again. It wasn’t easy, but I wrote six chapters of the new book to get the feel of it again, and went back to rush out what the publisher wanted: the first chapter that would resemble the final product.
Which is where it all went wrong, I think.
What a publisher wants and want a writer can deliver can be so different: Autumn 2009
Every author writes differently. I’m the kind of writer who will make great changes to a book with each subsequent draft, until probably draft 4 where the book is basically intact and only the prose itself needs tinkering with. During those early drafts opening chapters are often discarded down the line and sub-plots are tossed aside, until I’m comfortable with the structure of the book. The first two Secret War novels were written that way, with three alternative opening chapters to the Secret War discarded, and two for the Hoard of Mhorrer. So realising this might happen with The Fortress of Black Glass, I sent two chapters to my publisher, not one, just in case the opening chapter didn’t work and chapter 2 could step up. I guess it’s called hedging my bets.
When the first two early drafts and the synopsis landed in my publisher’s inbox I was reasonably confident, I admit. After all, the story was a massive improvement on the first books, and while the opening chapter needed work on it, chapter 2 wasn’t bad at all. It was a view that my publisher shared, and yet...
And yet what I didn’t expect was that the one weak-ish link in the submission - the rough Chapter 1 - would be reason enough not to continue with the series.
I was shocked. So were other people who had read the opening chapters, with a few people telling me on the quiet that it looked like – at least to them – the decision on the series had been made before the chapters 1 and 2 had been sent.
My initial reaction, like anyone’s would be, was bewilderment, a little bit of anger, and then more bewilderment. Usually in these situations an aggressive determination kicks in, and this was no different. But that aggressive determination was ruled by common sense too. My gut reaction would do no one good so I sat down for a few days and asked myself, "where do I go from here?" And that's when I made my decision.
When I announced my split with my publisher there were quite a few shocked expressions in the room. When I announced my reasons, there was less shock but more surprise over why my publisher didn’t wish to pursue the series considering the modest success it had achieved within the relatively small print runs and good foreign rights sales. Economics had intruded, that much is sure, but as publishing houses are often closed books even to their authors, if there were any underlying reasons i.e. other editorial influence and taste, I was and still am unaware of it.
I think the main reason for me leaving my publisher was the sense of finality. There was no negotiation for Book 3, which has surprised most people. Everyone knows my views on advances, including my publisher. It would not have surprised anyone if I had agreed to the third book being published on the same terms as the first two i.e. no advance. But even this was not offered and for me that was enough to believe my publisher had lost interest.
Even though an offer was made by one of my editors to read any of my works in future (an offer which reflects what is still a good relationship with someone I respect and enjoy working with), my belief then - and now if I’m honest - is that my career had run its course with my current publisher.
Publishing is based on risk and personal preference, and it might be that both intervened in the decisions that were made on the Secret War books. Decisions that I still don’t understand, and probably won’t ever. In light of this, to send any further books their way would be to miss the point... so within days of their decision, I decided to move on.
That steep learning curve and the Freedom of the Word: What’s to come in 2010
If you had asked me if I expected this outcome by the end of 2009 – a year which saw two of my books published, I would have simply made a complacent chuckle.
I didn’t see it coming.
No one outside my publisher did (nor have some readers who have contacted me personally), but now that it has happened, I am no longer surprised by the decisions made in the publishing industry, an industry that has run the gauntlet this year and come out the end in bad shape with a number of casualties lying on the playing field, authors and booksellers among them. 2010 doesn’t look so rosy for publishing either and whether or not a publishing revolution might occur seems more a reality now. Possibly an electronic revolution, possibly a revolution where authors take more control of what they write.
And that suits me just fine.
What has happened may have left me temporarily without a publisher, but not bruised, and in all honesty it changes very little. I was never contracted to my publisher. They had first refusal on two books but that was all. And the money… Well, the money has been nice but not life changing. To most writers it never is.
Since I split with my publisher I have rediscovered the freedom to progress my writing without the restriction of branding that was – in retrospect – quite absurd for a writer who never wanted to be seen as a historical novelist. The Secret War was the first historical novel I had written. The Hoard of Mhorrer was the last. I want to write fantastical adventures and will set them in any time I see fit, from the 19th century to the 21st century. Setting is just that to me. The Black Hours and the Secret War series may in fact be just blips in a growing work of writing that will lean in other directions too, not just the 19th century.
As I go into 2010, I do so with a sense of strange relief that I am no longer tied into writing something I’m not prepared to write yet or write at all, which I think might have happened if I’d stayed with my publisher and signed up to an advance. I now go into 2010 writing a novel I’m committed to finishing (The Black Hours) a novel being researched (The Traitor of Light) and a novel to write in 2011 (The Fortress of Black Glass). I also go into 2010 with the view to finding an agent and a publisher for my fiction. At the moment, I don’t care who the publisher is. I don’t care if they are a major, a minor, or an independent. I don’t care if it’s self-published or e-published. Whatever gets it out there is fine by me.
What matters most is the writing itself. Something I’m committed to doing. And something I will always do. Something I love doing and no amount of money or vanity can interfere with.
And in that respect 2009 was a good year.
And I expect 2010 will be too.