Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for kids of varying ages. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series — Penguin/ACE, and the forthcoming School for Sidekicks — Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star — part of an NSF-funded science curriculum — and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited — funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, G+, ello
Lonfiction asked a question about whether or not you might regret anything you’d written if you knew that nothing you wrote would ever be published going forward. It made me realize that things I have written and things I’m writing are completely different animals for me. It’s really worthwhile to go read the whole thread over there as there are some very interesting conversations going on. Here is my response:
It’s an interesting thought experiment, but one that strips gears in my head, because at some fundamental level writing forward and past writing are unrelated creatures for me.
I write what I’m writing now because I fall in love with the story and fall in love with the writing of it. I do write it with the intent to sell it but that’s only so that I can afford to fall in love with the next story.
Once it’s written, unless I’m doing sequels of some sort, it becomes an artifact to be sold or (sometimes) parked and is no longer really “writing” for me until I engage with it again, either because I’ve fallen in love with some changes to the story, or because someone has bought it and I’m getting paid to revise.
So, going forward, writing is process, looking back, writing is artifact. For me, regretting the artifact would be like regretting a couch…in storage…that costs me nothing to store…and that I never see. Until, that is, someone comes along and offers to buy it if only I’ll reupholster it, or until I think, hey that couch would be so much cooler with some throw pillows. Then it becomes process again.
I personally adore reading on a screen—when my publisher shifted to an all electronic work flow for editorial I was delighted—and it’s certainly very likely that e-books will become a large part of books sold sooner rather than later. At the same time, I don’t think that books are going away any time soon and I’m not at all certain that the shift to CD and MP3 is a good comparison to a shift to e-readers.
For one thing, the formats killed off by digital music had much shorter histories and testing periods. The LP lasted what, a bit over 40 years as the primary delivery system for recorded music? (2014 edit: and is now undergoing a renaissance among audiophiles) Recorded music itself goes back to the 1850s and has had significant format improvements every 20-40 years. The book in codex form goes back to Republican Rome with only minor changes—that’s 2,000+ years of optimization.
For another there’s the delivery model. Publishers, in one form or another, go back further than the codex (Sosius and Co would be a Republican Roman example). Record companies? Not so much. It’s perfectly possible that digital is going to completely and utterly change all that in a year or five or ten, but everyone said the internet made recessions obsolete too, and look what happened there.
The codex (and many of the big publishers) have survived the advent of talkies, radio, television, the serious audiobook, and (so far) the e-book. The weight of history is currently on the side of publishers and physical books surviving for at least a while longer and e-books only becoming a part of the mix.
Is it possible that physical books will go away completely? Meh, we’ll see. Become boutique items only? Probably, but it may well take a lot longer than the digital visionaries expect it to.
Are publishers going away? Almost certainly not. Despite what many people have been saying lately, they serve a lot of valuable purposes in the production of books. Will the current publishers be the publishers of tomorrow? Some of them probably will, some won’t. Just as some of the publishers of yesterday are the publishers of today.
I wrote the note below in response to someone saying (for the 5,000th wrong time in this Amazon thing 2014 edit: Macmillan Amazonfail Feb 2010) that publishers are no longer necessary because of internet distribution of ebooks. It takes a lot of money to produce a book in terms of editing, copyediting, PR, and even gatekeeping (yes there’s value to gatekeeping, it helps readers find books they have much better odds of enjoying). Now, the particular comment I was responding to was a slightly more sophisticated version of the “you don’t need publishers” argument in that it at least acknowledges that those things need to happen and suggested outsourcing. But that’s still not a terribly workable model because it ignores the economics of the situation. So let me address that:
Under the current model one of two things happens: 1) I write the book, my publisher buys (the rights), fronts all the other costs, and I get paid so that I can eat while I’m writing the next book, then—assuming I earn out—more money comes in on a regular basis starting between 6 months and several years after publication, allowing me to continue to eat. 2) My publisher buys the book on proposal and I get paid in advance to write it, then they front all the other costs and the rest follows.
If I want to become my own publisher I have to front all those costs myself and have to wait till the book earns out (maybe) to recoup those costs (again maybe) up to several years after I’ve fronted them. But, since I don’t have a spare 3-20k* sitting around that I can bet on a possible return potentially several years down the line, what actually happens is I stop writing and find a new job and there are no more Kelly McCullough books. So, yes, ____ was pretty much all wrong.
And that’s without accounting for things that my publisher does that don’t go directly into the making and selling of the book, like my publisher’s legal department—which I hope never to become any more familiar with than I am now. In a perfect world none of my books will ever get involved in a legal dispute of any kind, but if someone decides to sue me for any reason whatsoever in regards to my writing, the fact that I have a major publisher on my side significantly reduces the chance that a frivolous (or otherwise) lawsuit bankrupts me.
*Updated to add: I should probably also note that 3-20k is what a publisher pays for copyediting etc. and that the price they get based on their volume and reliability is much better than the price I would be likely to get for those same services (assuming I want a similarly professional job).
Why yes, I do have my own blanket, why do you ask?
Radiator cats=happy cats.
Did you want something? I’m happy here but, for you, anything!
Yes, I do need a whole radiator to myself! I am that walrificent.
Almost every professional writer or artist or performer that I know has a deciding-not-to-quit story—that moment when they decided to persist in the face of great adversity and keep writing or dancing or pursuing their photography. It’s the nature of the beast, it’s a tough, draining, demoralizing road, and sometimes you want to give up…and that’s okay. Sometimes giving up is the right answer. Sometimes, you’re not on the right road. I say this as someone who has succeeded at writing to a degree that’s incredibly rare. I also say this as someone who decided to quit, and walked away from acting.
I didn’t always want to be a writer. In fact, I didn’t seriously try to write anything for publication until I was in my early twenties. My degree is in theater with a performance focus. At the age of eleven I stumbled into an acting class by accident—a story I’ve told elsewhere. I stumbled into acting and I fell in love. I was a pudgy awkward kind of kid, raised on Shakespeare as much as Tolkien, with a storyteller’s instincts and a quick mind. Theater was perfect for me.
It let me play at being someone else—someone better and more handsome and funnier—and it gave me a sort of simulated popularity that I’d never experienced before. When I was on the stage I was cool, and I could make people laugh or clap—or, at least, that’s how it felt when I got the laughter and applause. It felt great, and I became wholly focused on the goal of becoming an actor from around the age of twelve. I took classes, I acted in plays, I did improv, and various sorts of performing with Renaissance festivals. I was quite good, and I know people from those days who say that they thought I was one of the few who could actually make it and earn a living as a performer.
They’re probably right. I could probably have made it to a place where I was getting enough character parts in paying shows to barely scrape by…at least for a while. But I was never going to make it big. I was never going to become a star of stage or film. At best, I might have become a big fish in some local community theater pond. That’s nothing to laugh at or condemn, but it’s not what I wanted.
I wanted the dream, and I simply wasn’t hungry enough, or pretty enough, or funny enough to manage it. I wanted it, but other people wanted it more, and many of them were better than I was ever going to be. I mostly pretended to myself that wasn’t true, but there were moments where I could see it, and again, there’s no shame in that. I was good, and I could have been very good, but you have to be great, and lucky, and, to borrow a phrase from the late Jay Lake, you have to have psychotic persistence. Being gorgeous is a huge help too. But I kept at it. I worked hard to get better. I tried.
And then I met the woman I was eventually going to marry, and I started thinking more deeply about my future and what I could accomplish and what would make me happy, and I had to make the hardest decision I’d ever made to that point, the decision to quit theater. I still loved it, and to this day there are parts of the whole enterprise that I miss enormously, but it was never going to make me happy, because I was never going to get where I wanted to go with it. So, I walked away, and I haven’t done a show since. It wasn’t easy and it still hurts sometimes, like I cut a part of myself off forever, but it was the right choice, and I’ve never doubted that. Just like I’ve never doubted my decision not to quit writing at a particularly low point in my life a decade or so ago.
I have friends who’ve walked away from the arts completely and who are much happier for it. Sometimes, you have to fold your cards and walk away from that particular table. Sometimes, quitting is the right choice.
A number of years ago I was sitting around a table with a bunch of novelists at the World Fantasy Convention talking about the people we knew who had started when we did but then later walked away from writing for one reason or another. It was very much an Auld Lang Syne moment—old friends fallen away as time passed and the road grew too steep or the costs to high for them to keep along the path—and every one of us was aware how easily that could have been us. I know people who are better natural writers than I am who couldn’t continue, or harder workers, or who got a much faster start. We all did. There’s no shame in it, only sadness for what might have been. On Thursday, my brother-in-law and fellow Wyrdsmith announced his decision to fold out of the game. I wrote this mostly for him, but also for all the other writers I know who’ve made that same decision.
So, deciding not to quit or deciding to quit. I’ve made both choices in my life, and I don’t regret either one. The important thing isn’t what you ultimately decide, it’s that you make the right decision for you.