This might be a bit on the long side. That’s the warning.
Some of you may remember a couple of months ago I said things were… stressful (possibly worst month ever) on Twitter.
If I had been thinking, I would have made certain to separate terrible month from pandemic, which has – for my family – remained a large and consistent weight in the background. We’ve been lucky; we’ve lost no one. We made sure that the less internet-savvy were signed up and vaccinated, and we got vaccinated ourselves; I have no under 12s in my household, and there are none in the household we bubble with when its safe to do so.
Mostly, however, what I was thinking was: How do I tell people? And what do I do going forward?
So let’s start with that first part: Telling people the bad news.
TLDR: DAW will no longer be publishing the West novels going forward.
My first four books were published by Del Rey. They were The Books of the Sundered, my first sale. And I watched those with anxiety. I’ve worked in bookstores since I was sixteen years old, so I knew that books that I loved with the passion only an adolescent can achieve disappeared without a trace, going out of print and becoming inaccessible.
It was shocking to me; it was inconceivable that something so brilliant could disappear without warning: when I was sixteen, I equated “good” with “successful”. If I loved it, how could it be unsuccessful?
The obvious answer is: not everyone loved it as I did, because we all have different tastes (the acceptance of this obvious answer would not occur until another decade had passed.)
So the first series did not, in the end, succeed at Del Rey.
I therefore knew that I could pour my heart into something that would, in the end, fail to reach the readers who would love it, a reminder that publishing is a business. Because I knew that this happened to 95% of all published books, I accepted the loss and continued to write. Because I believed that if I were better, readers would come.
I wrote the Hunter books; Hunter’s Oath was my first DAW title. I wrote The Sun Sword series.
The House War series was, in the end, eight books long. It was supposed to be shorter; it was supposed to be fewer books. It would have been, had Hidden City not insisted on being the book it became, because my intent with that, when I started it six times, was to write a braided past/present narrative.
I always watched the sales numbers with a certain tension, and that escalated with time. I have always loved my West readers, and I have always, always loved these books — but truthfully, the sales numbers failed to climb in any way.
In publishing that’s … not good.
I had written 201k words of the first book in the last arc of the Essalieyan Michelle West novels — and I had realized that a choice I made at about the 90k mark was the wrong choice. This meant losing 110k words, and also: revising the beginning again. As this was a decision about the book itself, an internal decision not a requested revision, it was less of a struggle for me; I’ve frequently tossed out things that don’t work or aren’t working.
In that case, I go back to the point at which I took a wrong turn, and then beginning writing forward again, throwing out all the previous words that didn’t work, with the knowledge that the book I have now will go forward in entirely different ways. And it’s particularly necessary for a first book.
While discussing this with my editor, a different cloud appeared on the horizon.
DAW is, and has been, distributed by Penguin Random House (PRH going forward) for decades (I could go into their distribution granularly, because they started with NAL, which was absorbed by Penguin NA, and then by Random House, but I think the general statement covers that).
DAW has offices in the PRH building in NYC; their books are produced in the PRH production department; their books are sold to stores by the PRH sales reps; their books are warehoused in PRH warehouses and shipped by those warehouses. DAW is, however, independently owned. But all of the elements of the publication process are tied tightly into Penguin Random House. Someone with no knowledge of SFF publishers could easily be forgiven for assuming that DAW is a division – like Ace or Roc – of Penguin Random House, given office space, etc.
Editorial is independent. Editorial decisions are made by DAW, not a PRH editorial board.
Distribution, however? All PRH. In order to be distributed by PRH, DAW has a distribution agreement, which gets renegotiated as it nears the end of its term. This agreement is what gets DAW all of the above: office space, production/PR departments, sales force, warehouse and shipping-to-bookstores. All of the above is necessary.
That negotiation period is this year. And the negotiations have impacted the West novels which are a) too long and b) not great sellers. My DAW editor has, in spite of this, continued to publish the West novels until now, because she’s always loved them.
But she can’t do that going forward.
This isn’t her fault. This isn’t, in the end, PRH’s fault either, although it is largely their decision. I’d like to think it’s not mine, because I wrote the books and as much as I can love anything I’ve personally written, I love them fiercely.
But the last leg of the West series will no longer be published by DAW. While writing is a creative art, publishing is a business. PRH has no personal connection to me or my writing; what they have is numbers, which is how business decisions are ultimately made.
So, now I’m here. I have an unfinished first book (of a theoretical four, but. Well. Me.)
First, I should make one thing clear: I want to finish the final arc in this series.
This has been a stressful couple of months as I’ve tried to envision some way forward. I did try to start again from page zero, to see if I could structure the books to be shorter, because shorter books would be acceptable to PRH. But as this would only be proven true or false when I reached the end, and no attempt I’ve ever made has worked, I gave up on that.
I then began to look at the publisher side costs. Editing. Copy-editing. Proof-reading. Covers. Those expenses would, except for the cover, be at least double what most self-publishers would have to pay, because the books will be longer, and most freelancers charge by either page or per 100k words.
Revenue neutral activity is, essentially, a hobby. It makes no money, but you do it for love. If the costs are higher than the income coming in it becomes an expensive hobby. We work to earn money and we pour it into our hobbies because we love our hobbies, right? But… for most of us, a hobby is distinctly separate from work.
It’s like I’ve been working two part-time jobs to make up full-time income, and I’ve just been laid off from one of them. What I should be looking for is another part-time job, right? That would be the professional decision. In this case that would mean … different books, different publisher.
Purely selfishly, I don’t want to do that. I want to write these books.
Could I write them in my spare time? Could I transition to hobby, to creation entirely for myself? Possibly. But the books would get written glacially slowly, because the hobby must be put aside for the day-job, the work, when there are tight deadlines.
But the West novels have been part of my writing life since 1994 (Hunter’s Oath was published in 1995). Even when I started the CAST novels, I wrote the West novels. At any time I’ve attempted to set them aside because of burning deadlines, all of the rest of the writing grinds to a halt. Some part of my creative heart rests in, relies on, the writing of these books. I write the West novels (and struggle with them) while I also write the Sagara novels.
Any household layoff has household repercussions, so of course I’ve been talking about this with the long-suffering husband: Can I skip finding another part-time job for six years, and how will that impact the household? How will the lack of income and the added costs of self-publishing affect the household? How much of those costs could be recouped?
Self-publishing will make some money. But…
Self-publishing is most successful at shorter lengths (like, say, 75k words), and at shorter publishing intervals (three to four months).
The Michelle West novels are exactly the wrong type of novels for self-publishing success. I don’t know how many of my current readers will follow ebook only new releases. (The cost for print on demand for Broken Crown, a book whose length I do know, would be 36.00 US for a trade paperback, assuming I make 1.00 a book, and the PoD service takes the rest. Page-count defines the price of a PoD book, sadly.)
Because the publishing gaps between books would be much longer than self-publishing ideal, and the books would be 3 – 4x too long, I… can’t gain traction, in a purely sales sense, publishing them myself. Also: These are related to the previous books; they’re not something new. They’re not the books that will draw in new readers because I can’t control the pricing/promotion of all of the books.
And so, I now turn to you; to readers of the Michelle West novels.
Someone had suggested I look at kickstarter, but I think an actual kickstarter would kill me, because kickstarter relies on excitement and hype and a type of bubbly cheer that … I don’t have. I might survive one Kickstarter, but I wouldn’t have to do that for just one book — I’d have to do it, over and over again, until all the books were written. Most of the people who live with me think it would kill me — or kill them by extension. They’re not fans of the idea.
But I think I could start a Patreon.
Patreon allows authors/creatives to create communities of interested readers/fans who can afford to pay a monthly fee (or a per-piece fee) to the author. They keep 8%-11% of that, and forward the rest to me.
The Patreon will focus entirely on the West novels, and the final arc in the Essalieyan universe; that will be its sole purpose. Any content, aside from progress reports, will be about, or come from, the West novels as they’re written.
I do not want this to be any pressure for my readers. I understand that readers want books, and readers buy/borrow books. Obviously, a Patreon is not a book. I’ll make the finished book available for Patreon supporters around the time its final form is ready for publication, and I will self-publish the book for readers who aren’t interested in the Patreon.
I’m not expecting to earn a living from Patreon, but the Patreon will do two things: It will defray the various necessary publication expenses, and it will remind me, when writer-anxiety is at its height (which, sadly, happens intermittently through every single book) that I’m not the only person who wants to see these books through to the end. There will be some comfort knowing that people who both want – and can afford – to support my Patreon are as invested in seeing these books written as I am. It will be a harbor, a small bubble within which I can continue to work, and from which these books will emerge into the wider world.
I know that covid has kind of knocked many of us sideways, some of us economically. I also know that some people aren’t comfortable with the Patreon model, and that’s totally fine. Some of you have been with me since the beginning – and without you, I wouldn’t have never have come this far. I’m grateful for that.
I will still give State of the Author posts here. I’ll write the books themselves, and arrange for all of the pre-publication editorial processes and covers, and I’ll let everyone know when they finally go up for sale. When they do, they’ll be folded into my web-site the same way they’ve always been.
But having made the Patreon decision? I’m a little bit excited. I’m excited about the idea of continuing to write the West novels. I’m excited about writing a book, for the first time since I started The Hidden City, in which I don’t start getting ulcers when the book itself hits 175k words and isn’t finished yet. I’m excited about being able to write the series until it’s done, without that terror. There are so many things I have to return to, to fold back in: The Dominion, the Voyani, Adam & Arkosa, Telakar & Elena, but also, the North & Angel — and more.
And with your help, I’ll be able to do that.
ETA: My Patreon link, because of course I forgot to add it to the post >.<