By the time this gets posted, I’ll be on a trip to attend two speculative fiction conventions, Au Contraire in New Zealand and AussieCon 4 in Melbourne. I have a busy schedule at both, appearing on panels, giving a workshop and fronting up for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, for which my novel Heart’s Blood is short listed along with an interestingly diverse collection of other novels by New Zealand writers.
However, at the time of writing this post my mind is on the roller-coaster of publishing success and failure. I have plenty on the plus side of the ledger, with several books currently under contract, an international award earlier this year, and the Vogel short listing. But I’ve been feeling despondent about my writing career recently. It’s not lack of confidence in the current project, which is bubbling along nicely. It mostly has to do with my backlist.
I hate putting bad publishing news up on Writer Unboxed. I suspect it’s not sound business practise to parade one’s failures in a public forum. On the other hand, the WU community is one where honesty is valued, I think, and where we can all learn from each other’s ups and downs.
In the last year or so I’ve had several bumps on the publishing road. My publisher in Germany has dropped plans for a German edition of The Well of Shades, third novel in a series. My former UK publisher made a decision not to bring out Seer of Sevenwaters in a separate British edition. And three titles from my backlist have gone out of print in their UK editions. One, Foxmask, is also out of print in the US, though it’s still available in a Kindle edition.
It’s hard not to see such a pattern of events as a personal failure, sign of a career on the downslide. It’s hard not to fixate on the negatives and start scrabbling about for reasons or, worse still, apportioning blame. Did the agent negotiate an unrealistic advance? Were the books not pitched at the right readership? Was I stupid ever to believe the readers who loved the romantic, mystical, Celtic world of Sevenwaters and my first person female protagonists would forgive me for plunging into a Viking epic and then a big historical fantasy set in the kingdom of the Picts? Or were those just not very good books?
I don’t often slip into such a negative frame of mind, especially since my brush with cancer, which forced me to re-evaluate what was important to me. But I’ve always hated to fail. It’s at times like these, when the business news feels like a personal kick in the teeth, that a professional writer needs to take a step back. I took hold of my sad, disappointed, feels-like-a-failure self, and made these points:
1. This is your back list. Face forwards.
2. It’s too late to rewrite those books. They sink or swim on their merits. You can learn from what worked and what didn’t work. Apply that learning to your new writing.
3. You may love something and believe in it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will feel the same. Accept it. Be proud of the book if it was good, and move on.
4. Publishers make these decisions based on sales. If bookstores have stopped ordering in copies of your book, why would the publisher keep it in print?
5. Don’t lay blame, either on yourself or others. Negativity is unproductive and unhealthy. The market changes. The global economy changes. It’s a volatile business.
6. The most important book is the one you are writing NOW.
That pep talk helped a lot! In particular, it reminded me that I still feel happy and confident about my current project (more about that in a future post.) And I have learned from the ups and downs. I’ve learned, among other things, that the publishing game is full of surprises. There’s no point in trying to second-guess the market; there are just too many factors involved. To a certain extent I have followed the advice of editors in planning new projects (far more than I did back in the days of Foxmask) but I’ve continued to write from the heart. Perhaps my main learning is not to be too ambitious; to retain the ability to be thrilled by the publication of a short story or by a modest reprint.
By the way, all my books are still in print in their Australian editions at this point. Now back to the work in progress.