Surviving the Book Contract that Wasn’t

Guest blogger Kameron Hurley does most of her ranting at her blog, Brutal Women. You can find  some of her recent fiction in Year’s Best SF 12, Strange Horizons, and EscapePod. She currently makes a living as a marketing and sales copywriter in Ohio, and has sold or nearly sold or sort of sold or is still in the process of selling a book called God’s War, which may or may not actually be published at some unspecified period from an as yet unspecified publisher. Stay tuned.


Surviving the Book Contract that Wasn’t

I’ve been writing with the intent of becoming “a writer” on and off for the last 15 years. Published some stories, etc. Done some guest blogging. I even make a living now as a copywriter. I’ll be turning 30 in January, which gives you an idea of how long I’ve been slogging away at becoming a storyteller.

But what is that? A storyteller. I can tell stories all day long. To friends, at parties, in letters, in emails, on my blog… but whether or not we take a storyteller seriously has – for the last half century or so – largely hinged on one’s ability to be published by a major press. Today, $$ success often equals seriousness and respectability, as Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown can attest (ha!). And I grew up with the intent of being a “writer.”

But… I do actually write copy for a living. Doesn’t that make me a writer? What did being a “writer” mean to me?

It meant publishing books.

End of story.

Because that’s what being a “serious” writer is.

Right?

So you can imagine my delight when I sold my first novel, God’s War, as part of a three book deal in February of last year. After over a decade of writing like a mad woman, scrambling madly across the world, scribbling madly through writing workshops, spewing much snarky rage on my blog, attending beer-and-books conventions, collecting well over a hundred rejections, and writing madly, passionately, crazily, and – often – very badly – I had been awarded that solemn tag of writerly respectability – a book contract. This wouldn’t be a publication in a pulp magazine, the sort that left my friends and family merely bemused. This was a major contract from a major publisher.

So I did what any new writer does, after screaming and scribbling for over a decade:

I got soft.

There’s something strange that happens when you sell your first book. For me, it was initially pretty anti-climatic, then… it was like somebody let all the air out of my tires. I’d been so close for so long with so many different books that actually selling one felt like falling off a cliff after hiking – barefoot and bloody – for days. You’re so exhausted that the freefall feels effortless.

So I waited for things to get started.

And waited.

And… waited.

I met with my editor at Wiscon that May, and learned we would start edits in July.

But July soon turned into August. August to September, then November… and nine months after I sold my novel, with no movement or update on what had been going on with it since May, I got a call from my agent telling me that my editor had been let go. They were still publishing the book, she said, but I’d be working with another editor.

I felt far sorrier for my awesome editor than myself, frankly.  Publishing fucking sucks.

My buying editor gave me a call after that and explained the reasoning behind passing my book off to another editor at the house and not another (which I wholeheartedly agreed with).  It was a shitty situation all around, but everybody was doing their best to make it bearable.

Once I started working with the new editor, things started to clip along. I got regular updates on what was happening with the book. My release date was pushed back to spring 2010 instead of fall 2009, but who cares, you know? At least the book was being published. I had expected far worse.

My new editor and I worked mad ages to clean up the book. We finished three rounds of hard-won edits and got to see the book improve by – if not leaps and bounds (it was a pretty good book already) – then certainly by significant lengths (and certainly with far more sense and less confusing fight scenes). When we were ready to wrap it up, my editor sent it off for copyediting.

I wrote up and sent in my acknowledgements page.

It felt good to send off that acknowledgements page. I was tracking my progress with another writer I knew who had just sent off hers a few weeks before. We both had three book deals. It was fun to pace myself with other writers.

I started getting excited about writing book three, since book two was just about finished and just needed some revisions.  I started writing the opening chapter after sending off the acknowledgements, full of a serene sense of the inevitable awesomeness that would be book publication.

And then… a strange period of silence.

Only a few days, yes, but on one of those days, I was supposed to receive my copyedits.  And my editor was always good about acknowledging emails, but hadn’t responded to receiving my acknowledgements page.

Ripple of worry across a still pond.

When your agent calls you in the middle of the day, you’ve either sold a book or had your contract canceled.

In May of this year, my agent called me at lunchtime and told me my contract was canceled.

Three books.

Just like that.

Nothing personal, apparently. They were just looking for ways to cut costs, and an untested debut novelist with a three-book deal is a good candidate for the ax.

I had hardened myself for this news before the call. That pond ripple helped. So I took it pretty well. After all, things could be worse. I was still employed and had health insurance.

It’s not like anybody died.

We were going to get all the rights back, and we were going to get paid.  I figured we could turn the book around fairly quickly, resell it, and I’d still get to see a book published before I was 30.

But the bottom was slowly falling out of the publishing world.

And I was caught in the middle of it.

I waited three more months for the book to get released and paid out so we could sell it again. In publishing terms, three months isn’t a lot of time. But trust me, when you’ve got a three book debut series sitting around in limbo, it feels like three years.

I stayed tight-lipped about the whole thing aside from a few writing folks, because it felt incredibly embarrassing to have a contract canceled. It felt like I’d done something wrong. Like I was somehow deficient. Like I had failed as a writer.

I tried to be pro-active. Asked my agent if we should shop another series in the meantime (yes, I have a five book series waiting in the wings). Tried to work on producing other projects. But she felt strongly that this series would make a great debut, and I knew she was right.

That didn’t make it any easier.

And I just couldn’t get myself to write anything in the meantime.

So I sat on my hands for three months.

Getting a book contract cancelled isn’t the worst thing in the world. But the waiting is a fucking nightmare. The sitting around with no control over anything. You sort of own your work, but not really. And… you know, I’m not a bitter mid-lister. I don’t have any experience with this sort of thing. I had no idea how to conduct myself.  I had no lack of projects to work on… But I had lost all motivation to do them.

I had finished book two before the fallout, so I tried to concentrate on that. I kept opening and closing and re-opening the files, dithering around with revisions and line edits. Dither, dither, dither.

I tried to start book three again – got a chapter and a half in – and just… stopped. And began to dither, dither, dither.

I started working on some stalled short stories.

Dither, dither, dither.

I spent a lot of time cocooning with my partner, and reading, and cooking. I put all of my energy into my day job. Took on more responsibilities. I became intensely career focused.

But my whole fiction writing world had stopped turning.

Why?

Why, after 15 years of slogging along with very little outside acknowledgement, did I suddenly let the loss of something I’d never really had get me stalled?

The trouble is, when you give somebody else a measure of control over the timeline of your career, you’re not really sure what to do when they drop the ball.

You need to be polite, and demure, and easy to work with – that’s what all the agents and publishers and pros tell you. You need to grin and bear it and show your teeth and say, “Why yes, yes, these things happen in publishing.”

Because they do.

And you can’t do a fucking thing about it.

For better or worse, we have a lot of tools that weren’t available to writers a decade ago. We have paypal donation buttons, easy online publishing, lulu.com, and social media. If we’re willing to put in the work without the initial injection of cash we’d get with a formal advance, we can create whole worlds in virtual space and go back to the old patron system.

But it still helps to have some measure of success and respectability before you start supplementing your income from cash-strapped publishing houses.

So, despite how much the world has changed, I still want the respectability. I want my book sitting on a shelf at Books & Co. I want to be reviewed. I want to be read. I want to be able to sign physical copies of books that don’t make people sneer because only “really terrible fan fiction writers” and “wanna-be”s use lulu.com.

I want that delighted tone in my mother’s voice when I named my publisher and she said, “My God, that’s… that’s a real publisher!”

The old houses may be cash-strapped dinosaurs, but they still give your work a measure of seriousness and respectability that you just can’t get by selling copies out of the trunk of your car.

But the price we pay for that sometimes feels pretty raw.

Someday, we’ll resell God’s War. Someday I’ll see a book of mine at Books & Co. But until then, I have other things I have to do with my fiction. Things I have control over. I’ve got an old trunk novel I’d like to share, some short stories to finish, and another book to start. Because though my writing life may have stalled out for the last two years, the real world has not. The real world keeps spinning.

If I want my fiction life back, I have to take control of it again. It was never anyone else’s to begin with, of course, but… sometimes it’s easy to forget that when you enter into a contract with a big publishing house.  Sometimes you still expect that when you win the book publishing lottery, all of your work is done, and all your dreams will come true.

In fact, it marks the point where your hardest work begins.

No one cares more about my work than I do.  And I’m ultimately the one who’s responsible for its success or failure…  And defining what exactly “success” and “failure” mean.  I can tell you right now that having a book contact canceled doesn’t make me a failure. But not getting up afterward? Not pressing on after two years of dithering?

That would make me a failure.

And it’s my fear of remaining a failure that’s kept me out here in the dark for so long.

17 comments on “Surviving the Book Contract that Wasn’t

  1. Thanks. That was wonderful. And a nice kick in the pants…

  2. I recall, recently, trying to explain to an editor at a major house that one could achieve critical success and still be unsuccessful because of situations outside of the writer’s control.

    (That editor, who shall remain nameless, cut me off midsentence and stormed off in a huff because he thought I was talking out of both sides of my mouth…)

    I can say that I had a critically successful book, but my imprint died after six months. And… Just like that I was back at square one, this time with a sales record that stinks.

    I’ve been writing a lot more short stories these days. Part of the reason is how when magazines and anthologies crash, collapse, and otherwise mess up in my general direction, I haven’t really lost quite so much work.

  3. Oh, hit submit before remembering to mention:

    I sympathize. I wish you the best of luck with “God’s War” Stories like this make me want to read it more!

  4. Will Hindmarch says:

    Sorry you had to ride such a lousy rollercoaster. You’re absolutely right that you should get back on your feet and plow ahead. Do not stop.

  5. Contract craziness is a pretty common thing in publishing, so I was prepared for it intellectually. I just wasn’t prepared for the crazy waiting times and bizarre book limbo and “failure” shame that I internalized and attached to it.

    If nothing else, the experience was a long, drawn-out, and ultimately exhausting wake-up call about how important it is to take ownership and responsibility for your own career.

  6. Meghan says:

    Damn! I mean I know I’ve only been waiting a couple years for your books to come out in a material form but I guess I’ll look forward to hopefully reading your other work in the meantime. Best Wishes from a lurker on your blog.

  7. Cat Sparks says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Kameron. I swear, nobody outside the business has the first clue how hard the road to even the smallest kind of achievement really is. If you don’t have a book on the shelf, you’re nothing, no matter what else you might have done. So harsh.

  8. Meghan – just a couple more years!! In the meantime, yeah, I’ll be working toward getting some more short stories out there and see what I can do with my newfound Windows Moviemaker skillz.

    Cat – I can understand the thinking behind the “if you haven’t published a book, you’re not a writer” thing, of course, because it does haunt me so much. It’s harsh, and weighs you down, but I do think we’re in a weird place in history where we’re watching that change.

    I do take solace in the fact that you can now go to Amazon.com and get a book that somebody got a $1.5M advance for and a book somebody published themselves at lulu.com (which, more and more, is NOT the dying place for crappy books – the excellent Groppi/Moles “Twenty Epics” anthology being a good example of great work coming out via lulu). For the record, I think this is awesome. I’m just not sure what to do with it yet – tho I’ve started playing around with some ideas, and I know many other writers are too (Jeff has done a *lot* with mixed media).

    Because I am a strong writer, the booklife I’d like would include traditional and not-so-traditional publishing. It still makes for a stronger brand, and much more credibility (even Gary Vaynerchuk, social media marketing guru who charges 10k an hour for consulting time, went the traditional route when he published his first book [10 books, $1M deal]. He could have very easily self-published and made a profit, but chose not to. Even Cory Doctorow gives much of his work away free as *part* of his traditional publishing campaign, and has only recently started to branch out into more non-traditional self-publishing ideas now that he’s built up the following and credibility).

    One of the reasons I like publishing short fiction at online publications as opposed to paper publications is honestly because it makes my stuff more accessible. I think that’s some of what the “book on the shelf” thing does, too. “Hey, just go pick it up at your book store, or Amazon!” If it’s a weird publication that they have to order from a dodgy-looking website (I’ve had a couple of those), you’ll simply be taken less seriously. There are very, very few paper mags you can actually find at the book store these days.

  9. JA Konrath wrote a similar post, but from the perspective of someone who has several books published by a major publisher and who just saw his entire genre cut with that publisher.

    It’s a short but good read. I think he expresses many of the same frustrations with the current system.

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2009/10/game.html

  10. So very sorry. You are a gifted writer. Publish it yourself and let the readers be the gatekeepers, as they say. The big houses can only go with the rainmakers right now. Too bad that doesn’t make anyone feel better.

  11. BOUKHROUFA says:

    I AM A WRITER I HAVE FINISHED THE TRANSLATION OF MY LAST BOOK TITLE THE INVADERS OF DREAMS I AM INTERESTING IN TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING I WANT TO PUBLISH MY BOOK. AMAR

  12. HELLO My name is wanda nicholson i wrote a short story call What Happen To Heather and. I wrote a novel recently the name of is the Dr Diagnosis. If you want to read my book feel free to contact me the above email address or you can reach me at this number 1312842-2012 I hope hear from you soon thank you and god blessed you.

  13. Brian Turner says:

    Strange – I would have thought this post would have been updated with the news that she was indeed signed up, by Nightshade Books, and published?

Comments are closed.