Business Musings: A Year of Experiments
This week, I did something I hadn’t done in nearly five years: I wrote a book proposal. Yep, I hit upon a project that I think would be better off produced through a traditional publishing company. If the proposal does its job, and the project sells, I’ll be more forthcoming about what the project is and why I went this way.
Suffice to say, these days all writers have options—and as I weighed my options on this particular project, I realized that the best way to handle it was to license it to some place traditional.
That’s not my only traditional project. Now that the Retrieval Artist series is done, I’m back writing short stories. Since the first of the year, I’ve sold several to traditional markets and have even more stories on submission. It took some effort to wrench my brain from an eight-book project to a 6,000-word project, but I’ve managed. I’ve even written (and sold!) a short-short.
At the same time, I’ve finished the first novel in a series I’ve wanted to do for almost ten years. The Fates series, which I’ve written under the name Kristine Grayson, introduced three teenage girls who were acting as the Interim Fates. I had written Tiffany’s story and had trouble selling it eight years ago. When I reread it, I realized that the book was just fine. Then I mentally reviewed the rejections I’d received on the project back then, and realized what the problem had really been.
The rejections had all focused on the “dialect” and the unacceptability of the point-of-view character. The young adult editors who saw the book said the point of view was unacceptable for the market, and no YA reader wanted to read about characters like this.
At the time I was truly confused. I’d sold books about those kinds of characters—magical characters negotiating our world—before. I couldn’t figure out what these editors were talking about. When I asked my then-agent, he said that the editors were just clueless. Comforting, sure, but not helpful.
Now I realize he didn’t want to tell me what the editors really meant.
So I didn’t know what I had done “wrong” until this year (nearly a decade later). It was a problem I had seen before; I just hadn’t recognized it.
Tiffany is African-American. Her race shows up in the very first paragraph. There is no dialect—there isn’t even slang in that opening. Just a rather sassy voice of a confused young woman who has entered our world for the very first time.
I never thought of the book as anything but a Fates book, so when I got horrid (and I truly mean horrid) rejections—mostly based on that first chapter saying that no one would read a book like this let alone publish it, I thought I had done something wrong in the writing.
I hadn’t done anything wrong. Unless you consider a non-white protagonist to be something wrong. I hadn’t. I still don’t.
But now I don’t have to deal with the perceptions of what is or is not acceptable to the YA market. I can just finish the trilogy-plus that I’ve been trying to write for years now.
The book is now in production, and I finished the next book, dealing with Tiffany’s half-sister, Crystal. In March, after I finish the seven (seven!) short stories I’d promised that are all due right now, I’ll write Brittany’s story, and then the final wrap-up novel.
Those novels will be published, one a month, later in the year.
I could never have done this in traditional publishing. Obviously, right?, since I couldn’t sell the first one because of Tiff’s race. But I’m not really referring to that: I’m referring to the one-per-month pace.
As most of you know, I’m publishing one novel per month right now, and whoa doggies, did that turn out to be a good idea.
Not just from a sales standpoint—which is sooooo much better than expected (thank you, Retrieval Artist fans!)—but from a creative standpoint.
As I wrote the saga, I knew that readers would be impatient with two back-to-back books that don’t feature the Retrieval Artist of the title. But both books are important to the story, so important that I couldn’t skip over them.
I kept thinking about the way that Reader Kris would feel if she loved the Retrieval Artist series (and its main characters) only to get the next book after a two-year wait and find there’s no Retrieval Artist in it. Then, after another year-long wait, there’d be another book with no Retrieval Artist.
Honest to God, Reader Kris would’ve been mightily pissed off. By the time year three rolled around with its Retrieval Artist book (and finally, the Retrieval Artist!), I would have picked up that book and weighed it carefully in my hands, trying to figure out if I really wanted to continue this journey with no end in sight.
Because, in that imaginary scenario, there would have been three more years of novels still to come, just to finish the storyline. Three more novels, and Reader Kris would already have been disgruntled.
I had to figure out how to satisfy my inner reader, and my inner reader told me that a single story should be read as quickly as possible. Even though the saga is eight books long, it’s one single story.
Hence the one-per-month schedule. That would give readers time to discover the books and time to read them. It also wouldn’t overwhelm WMG, which is a small company.
This month, with the release of the second book, validated my decision. A few readers have already complained on websites that there are two books without the Retrieval Artist, and have worried that there’s no point for this second book. The readers have all said they’re picking up the next, though, and they’ve mentioned that they’re pleased with the short release schedule, because they too can imagine how ticked off they’d be if they had to wait another year.
I think I would have lost a large percentage of the readership releasing the books the old-fashioned way.
This way, I’m watching the readership grow dramatically. More and more readers have come into the fold, and what’s impressing me is how willing they are to go with this experiment.
When I step back and think about it, I realize that readers are already attuned to the long-arc storytelling format, thanks to the last decade or so of television. Viewers know that some episodes might seem unimportant but really aren’t—that something will happen that will show those “unimportant” storylines to be the most important of all.
Other experiments aren’t creative ones: they’re opportunities presented by the short release dates, mostly with promotion. WMG has just started its Retrieval Artist promotions. Some promotions have been pretty visible, and others not so much. Some have worked well, and some didn’t succeed to expectations. More will happen in the next few months, and then even more when the entire saga sees print.
Once the final data is in, I’ll do a blog post about all of that—as a kind of follow-up to the Discoverability book.
So much experimenting, so many different projects, that I walk into my office and find my head spinning. Thanks to some changes we made at WMG in the past few months, even more opportunities have arisen, and I’ll be taking advantage of those as well.
What’s fascinating to me is that all of this—all of it, even the traditional stuff—wouldn’t be happening without the rise of indie publishing. I’m free to experiment—and I’m doing so in so many ways:
I’m experimenting as a writer with form and story structure.
I’m experimenting as an editor with projects that can take years to grow an audience. (Making them unacceptable in the traditional world; viable in the indie world.)
I’m also experimenting with skills I had formerly had to set aside, things I’d learned decades ago and can finally return to. I’ll have more on that in the next six months as well.
Dean and I are experimenting with some online classes (new sign-ups here).
We’re experimenting as publishers with designing a company for the modern age.
We’re experimenting with a vertical business model. Our new retail arm isn’t quite ready to go with books, but it will be soon.
And I’m back experimenting with the blog. I have three other blog posts already written, and I decided to use none of them tonight. I have a short story I need to finish ASAP (so I can get to the other six!) and two of those blog posts will evoke a lot of response from you folks, response that I simply don’t have time for right now. The third post, written last fall, isn’t appropriate due to some personal events that happened this week. I’ll set that post aside for a few more weeks or maybe for a couple of months.
I toyed with not blogging at all tonight. I could wait and write a longer blog when the story’s done.
But I’m so thrilled with the way the year is going, and the opportunities that are coming my way due to the changes in publishing, that I had to share.
I’m heading back to the story now.
Thanks for listening.
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“Business Musings: Year of Experiments,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.