Why I retired from writing fiction….

I get this question every so often, and I just ran across a blog post by Walter Jon Williams that wonderfully explains why I chose to stop writing fiction — almost 20 years ago (how time flies when you’re having fun…). He’s re-issued his novel The Rift as an ebook, and he talks about the environment that book was published in. 

I ended my trip in Chicago at the World Fantasy Convention, where the fact of the collapse of the IDs, and the loss of paperback sales, were just being felt by the writers.  There was the tang of flop sweat in the air.  Careers were threatening to collapse on all sides as everyone adjusted to the fact of lost sales.  I congratulated myself for neatly evading this trap.

In the mid-90’s I’d started selling short stories fairly regularly and was getting invites into theme anthologies, primarily those published through Marty Greenberg’s group. Short fiction wasn’t something I really loved writing, it was more a case of enjoying having written it. 

I had two novels in various stages of disrepair. I had a career in high tech that was increasingly making demands on my time and which was both moderately lucrative and a lot of fun. 

But I was becoming quite aware that I was doing what I later described as both burning the candle on both ends and hitting the middle of it with a blowtorch, and that it (well, I) wasn’t sustainable over the long run. I know a number of writers who are quite good at holding down a “real” job and turning out a professional writing career doing the moonlight thing — I realized I was not one of those people. 

I was watching good friends of mine get eaten alive as their writing careers were getting imploded. It wasn’t just the collapse of the Independent Distributors, but this was also the rise of the big chains (especially Barnes and Noble) and their programmatic buying practices. A weak sale on a book and your future books were DOA. Worse, in paperbacks, return churn was killing a midlist book’s chance of finding an audience. I’m not joking when I say a book you could spend a year writing and a year working with the publisher getting ready might only see three weeks on a shelf before it was stripped and returned for credit — and if it DID sell its copies at the B&N, they probably wouldn’t reorder it because it was time for the next book anyway.

The ability of a writer to make a living in the midlist — generating a regular stream of books that sell moderate numbers consistent — basically died within about ten years. The ‘midlist’ basically transformed into books by writers who’d broken out and could sell their backlist, or new writers who couldn’t be put into the high-visibility slots where they might get a marketing push for a breakout but which publishers hoped might find enough of a breakout to justify buying another book. If you weren’t already established, you needed to do well right away or you didn’t sell future books (at least under that name; a number of authors have adopted pen names and tried again to better success).

I took a close look at the kind of fiction I was writing and wanted to write. It was a lot closer to Keith Laumer or Harry Harrison but the author that most felt like the kind of work I was trying to write was James White and his Sector General series. 

I knew I could write publishable fiction, but I believed that what I wrote was going to be classic midlist, and it was what I wanted to write, and the market I would be trying to write to, I felt, was being destroyed. Established writers were having trouble staying afloat all around me in the science fiction world. 

So for me it became and easy decision: focus on my computing career where job stability and salary were both fairly high, or commit to my writing, where income levels were poor and prospects were poorer. If I’d hated my job it might have been different, but because I really enjoy working with computers, there wasn’t the “I need to get out of here” motivation. I chose the more lucrative and fun path over the more adventurous but poorly paid path. 

I will note for your amusement that I made that decision while I was working for Apple, at the time Apple was at the beginning of its historic implosion. And I stuck with Apple for another decade until Steve came in and fixed the mess. So much for job stability, although in reality I was only laid off at Apple once — and I talked them out of it before it was implemented (a decision that could have cost me about $50K when Apple revamped it’s layoff packages downward after that layoff if I’d been laid off later. oops.). 

I figured I could come back to the fiction later when it all settled out. Here we are, 20 years later. It has and it hasn’t. For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to decide if I wanted to fire up the novels again. I’m still trying to decide (memo to self: this is probably a hint the answer is no, but I don’t want to admit it). The e-book revolution has re-created an opportunity for the midlist, and it’s opened up publishing to a large swath of writers that the traditional publishing industry left behind. 

There are a couple of problems with this ebook self-publishing revolution, though: if you look at what happened with the IOS and other app stores, the opportunity is transitory; if you got in early you had a chance to ride the wave, but that wave flattens out, and then it becomes a lot of work for increasingly moderate returns — unless you break out. There’s still an opportunity to create a midlist model in independent publishing, but it presumes being able and willing to do your own marketing (and a fair amount of it) and create a number of titles over time; good, readable material plus working to drive people to find it. 

And at my age, I find I can’t find the motivation to commit to a ten year process of building an audience for my fiction in hopes of making it a sustainable income. Assuming I’m still here in ten years. 

I’m convinced self-publishing is going to follow the App Store model for financials and success as this all matures. that means there’s opportunity, but it’s the long-tail play for moderate gains and a hope for a big breakout. And I’m unconvinced I want to play that game at this point in my life.

At least with my fiction. Because I’ve also been toying with the idea of moving into writing an App or three. It may not actually pay better than if I wrote fiction and published it — but having ‘IOS developer’ added to my resume might help keep me relevant in the industry until I decide to hang it up for good; so there’s a secondary advantage to going in that direction. 

And maybe I’ll just decide to relax and enjoy not burning the candle on both ends; unfortunately, I seem rather hardwired to that. And enjoy it… 

In any event, seeing The Rift published in ebook reminded me it was a book I’d wanted to read when he originally published it and never got around to; it’s now safely ensconced on my iPad awaiting some free time to dig into…. And I suggest you might consider it, too. It is, from what I’ve heard, a good read…