The following article was originally published on the Penguin website in June 2012, but now seems to have disappeared. So, with the publication of Tower Lord looming, I thought I’d post it here for anyone who hadn’t read it before. Enjoy…
The Long Overnight, or How I Became a Published Author
Although I’m something of a neophyte to the world of publishing, it strikes me that one of its most persistent myths is the notion of the overnight success. We’ve all heard the story: first time novelist wins humongous advance before going on to dominate the bestseller lists and live happily ever after wallowing in swimming pools of money beneath a choir of angels. Like every myth there is a grain of truth to this narrative, some previously unknown writers have indeed earned large sums for the first thing they ever wrote, but it should be remembered that these stories are widely known because they are exceptional. Most writers will spend a significant chunk of their lives on their first novel only to submit it and enjoy the prospect of greatly reduced decorating costs as the rejection letters supplied by publishers and agents will meet their wallpapering needs for years to come. However, the most important, and oft forgotten, element to the story is the simple fact that every overnight success had to write something first, and for most of us mere mortals learning to write well takes years.
In my own case I spent my early twenties writing what I now recognize as a rather awful gangster crime epic that certainly deserved all the rejection it received. Despite the embarrassment with which I now regard this episode, I also recognize its value in making me a better writer as well as engendering a determination not to trouble the publishing industry again until I had something worth their time. All writing experience, however execrable the results, brings the writer closer to the day when they produce something that isn’t an embarrassment.
It was with the completion of my epic fantasy novel Blood Song in 2010 that I finally felt I might have that something. I was aware this feeling may well have stemmed from the fact that the book had taken me about six and a half years to write, years I didn’t want to think of as wasted. The actual writing was spasmodic, three or four hundred words a day in a good week, much less in others as the demands of full time work and a part-time history degree took their toll and led me to wonder whether I shouldn’t just put it aside. However, something about the story of Vaelin Al Sorna’s career in the Sixth Order, and the myriad intrigues of the Unified Realm, kept drawing me back. Although I had begun the book by penning a one page synopsis, mainly to give myself the security blanket of knowing I had an ending, there was much about Vaelin and his world I didn’t know and found the process of discovery a joyful one, however protracted it proved to be. So when the last rewrite was finally complete I decided the publishing industry was once again ready to receive the bounty of my imagination.
Although still somewhat jaded and cynical about the whole process after my previous embarrassment, come the advent of 2010 I nevertheless sent the manuscript to an agent and awaited results. I would like to report that this is the point whereupon my story begins to match the myth of overnight success, that a gushing letter of praise arrived within the month attached to a big fat check, but that would be a big fat lie. Rejection followed rejection until, over the course of the following year, I had made my way through every agent listed in the UK Writers and Artists Handbook as dealing in fantasy. Not all rejections were standard form letters, a few were even complimentary, but they were still rejections and however hardened you may be, rejection never really loses its sting.
During this period I had been reading more and more about the growing importance of ebooks, and had seen an increasing number of people reading kindles (other ereaders are available) on the train during my daily commute. It also became increasingly common for people to publish their own books in electronic format without recourse to the traditional publishing industry. Like many writers, I had always been wary of self-publishing, seeing it as the province of the desperate or the gullible; stories still abound of new writers being conned into parting with sizeable sums for editing and marketing services that are either worthless or easily achieved for free. It was the word ‘free’ that proved to be key in my decision to give the whole thing I try.
I published Blood Song on Smashwords in July 2011, a free online service that distributes to most major ebook retailers, apart from Amazon which operates its own Kindle store. Once again I must disappoint anyone assuming that this was the point whereupon my long awaited overnight success became a reality, but no. From July to December 2011 Blood Song sold a total of five copies via Smashwords, garnering no reviews in the process. So when I decided to also publish on the Kindle store in January 2012 it was with fairly low expectations.
First month sales were hardly impressive by most standards but a considerable improvement on my previous experience, 20 books sold and a couple very nice reviews. I started a blog and received some pleasing comments from readers, including the first of many ‘where’s the sequel?’ queries. Sales doubled the next month and the month after that, leading to the day when I received my first ever royalty check. It was all very gratifying and validating but I still had a day job to do, and now apparently, a sequel to write. I should stress that at this point, although I had always harbored the ambition to write full time, I was in a job I liked, had no difficulty paying my bills and had never entertained the idea of starving in a garret, I like food way too much for that. So I viewed writing mainly as a sideline which would earn a small but welcome additional income. This was destined to change when Lars Townsend, an employee at the Politics and Prose bookshop in Washington DC, happened upon Blood Song as part of a personal reading project aimed at finding something worthwhile among the avalanche of self-published ebooks. Lars was sufficiently impressed to pass it on to a Penguin sales rep he knew, who passed it on to Susan Allison, a senior editor at Ace/Roc, the Sci-Fi/Fantasy imprint of Penguin, and in May 2012 I received an email from Susan asking if I’d like to have a conversation.
So then, morning had broken, right? The long overnight was over. Well, not quite. I had to think about the offer for a while, there are pros as well as cons to self-publishing and my sales were reaching a point where I needed financial advice, all without the benefit of advertising or professional editing. Also, I found the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition to be an odd sensation, a curious mix of euphoria and anti-climax. Yes, I’d gotten what I always wanted but life still went on, there were no choirs of angels or instant swimming pools of money. I still had a day job and two very long books to write. It was the desire to go full-time that proved the clincher, if I was ever going to make a living from writing I felt I needed the backing of a major publisher, I needed to be in bookstores and I needed foreign sales.
So in July of 2012 I signed a three book deal with Ace and, as sales of the ebook steadily increased throughout the summer and foreign rights deals started to come in, I notified my employed I would be resigning at the end of the year. As of now I’m a fulltime writer, enjoying my new profession but finding, like any other, it has its share of frustrations and drawbacks but also entails a level of daily satisfaction that comes from doing the job I always wanted to do. Still no choirs of angels or swimming pools of money and, if I am an overnight success story, then I’m bound to say morning took a long time to break, but I’m glad it did.
May 14th, 2014 at 5:34 pm
I always find it interesting when such amazing stories are rejected so many times, makes me wonder how many other Vaelin Al Sorna’s are out there unpublished.. Blood Song is one of my all time favorites and i have your self publishing to thank for that!
May 15th, 2014 at 12:18 am
I like the phrase “the long overnight.”
David Eddings (and a few other writers) have said that an author has to write about a million words before they’re ready to write something good. I guess that figure will vary from person to person, but I think the idea is sound. Of course, nobody ever reads those first million words. But as you say, the experience isn’t wasted – it helps shape what they do read.
May 15th, 2014 at 10:44 am
To ask the dangerous question, does this mean Vaelin’s story will be a trilogy are will it potentially move beyond the 3 book deal.
Also looking forward to Tower Lord
May 15th, 2014 at 11:28 pm
The current story will end with book 3. After that… well, I’m thinking about it.
May 16th, 2014 at 2:07 pm
Good to know. Trilogys work well.
May 15th, 2014 at 2:40 pm
I’m glad that you’re able to write full time. Blood Song is amazing, one can only wonder what magic you can create with your next million words. The Twitter buzz going around with the reviews of the Tower Lord ARC makes me even more impatient to have my own copy in my hands!
May 15th, 2014 at 11:30 pm
Only 46 days to go, Amelia. Keep the Faith.
May 16th, 2014 at 12:40 pm
Thank you for your perseverance Anthony, Blood Song is one of my favorite novels.
It astounds me that quality works can be passed over so many times, when I read the book I literally forced my friends to buy a copy so I would have someone to discuss it with.
We are all eagerly awaiting Tower Lord.
May 21st, 2014 at 6:45 pm
I think Blood Song is great! Your characterization of Vaelin and other sinister characters reminds me of Frank Herbert’s Paul in Dune. Can’t wait for the sequel.
May 25th, 2014 at 11:05 am
I was just in Dubai and picked up a copy of Blood Song. I had never heard of it before, but it has hooked me! Well done! I’ve never had anything more than some flash fiction published and that was painful as well. I’ve been working on my own fantasy novel over the past five years (ideas stay there for a while) and jsut began putting it to paper. I enjoyed reading about your journey and you sticking to it. For me, ideas don’t go away; they haunt me until I get them all down on paper-I must write. Thank you for staying the course as well and I look forward to finishing Blood Song and more titles from you!
May 25th, 2014 at 3:41 pm
Thanks Scott. Good luck with it all and remember it’s a marathon not a sprint.
June 7th, 2014 at 8:08 pm
I happened to hear a comment on Patrick Rothfuss’s blog I think (years ago) about your book from someone which made me look at the amazon reviews of your book. It sounded great and I wasn’t disappointed. Lucky to get it before it got expensive! Can’t wait to read the next one! Can’t believe you have had to sit on the Tower Lord for so long!
June 23rd, 2014 at 9:11 am
I hear you on the benefits of having a publisher, but man it would have been so cool if the book became a “word-of-mouth” self-published phenomena after all those mind-boggling rejections. People who like fantasy overwhelmingly really enjoyed the book. In the end, the fact that self-publishing allowed you to get the story out there where readers could enjoy it and support it and essentially decide for themselves if it was something they wanted, is extremely cool in itself. Doubly cool for helping you finally get a publishing deal and become a full-time writer. I personally picked Blood Song up as an ebook for $2.99 in November of 2012. I think it was still only available as an ebook back then (first ebook i ever bought actually). I’ve since bought the hardcover and i’m planning on pre-ordering the next book sometime soon. Congrats on your long overnight. Well earned. Well deserved.
July 30th, 2014 at 11:12 pm
Frankly, I needed to read this, and the timing couldn’t have been better. I’ve written three books, a novella, and several short stories (two of them even published in a couple lesser known anthologies). It’s felt like such a long slog to get even the tiny readership I have that I’ve had several moments of throwing my hands in the air, ready to turn my manuscripts into kindling. I had one such moment a week ago; luckily the wife talked me away from the chimney. Perseverance, it seems, counts for much in all things, especially writing.
All that to say this: Thank you.
Oh, and to add my pebble of praise to your pile, Blood Song is the best story I’ve read in years.
July 30th, 2014 at 11:42 pm
Thanks Sam. Happy to help. You’re one up on me anyway, I’ve yet to make a short story sale.
Keep the Faith and best of luck with it all.
June 23rd, 2015 at 6:52 am
I think it’s an inspiring story for anyone who has a dream, for those who want to achieve their goals. Glad you never gave up on writing. Hard work doesn’t always pay off, but sometimes…
August 27th, 2016 at 2:07 pm
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July 23rd, 2018 at 7:18 pm
The Raven’s Shadow triology were the first books I finished where I felt a complete emptiness without them. I missed the characters like they were close friends. It has inspired me to pick up the pen once more.
Blood Song is the greatest story I have ever read, no book has had me so captured, even after multiple reads. The fantasy genre has always been a welcome escape for me, and I’m glad I have The Unified Realm and more to escape to whenever I want. I just finished book 1 of the Waking Fire series and started book 2 already. Another classic. I look forward to all you have to offer to the genre.
July 25th, 2018 at 9:57 pm
Thanks, Lloyd. Much appreciated.
April 19th, 2019 at 4:58 pm
Thanks for writing this Anthony. It can be difficult as a writer reading some of the truly amazing novels that are out there, and wondering if you’re good enough. I don’t want to be a writer for the money, obviously, but to make enough money from writing that it can be my actual job is a fantasy I think about every day!
It’s good to know that authors I admire weren’t just born with a gift and blessed with an idea. It validates the hard work I put into this passion we share.
Looking forward to the new installment of Raven’s Shadow!
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