The Business Rusch: Murder Most Foul
Here’s what they don’t tell you when you start out as a writer:
1. You need to learn business.
2. You need to learn copyright because that’s what you sell.
3. You need to learn how to hire people because the wrong people could destroy your life and career.
4. Your traditional publisher doesn’t give a crap about you, unless you become a blockbuster, and even then, they only see you as earning potential.
Instead, they teach you how to be an ahhhhrtist, how to write lasting works, how to produce ahhhhhhrt. Workshops, college courses, other writers all focus on craft because (here’s the big secret) it’s the easiest thing to teach young writers. (Also the most destructive: see these posts)
But this is a business blog, and much as I want to dwell on business, I can’t always.
Because in writing, business is personal—to the writer anyway—and any writer who tells you otherwise has trained herself to be hard as hell, lies, or is totally clueless about both business and personal stuff. You have to learn to separate them in your own head as a writer—you really do. You’re writing from who you are, and then you’re taking bits of yourself to market. Once at the market, those bits of you are a commodity.
Readers understand the glimmers of humanity—they wouldn’t read you otherwise—but they don’t see you. They did, after all, buy a book, a commodity, something that might end up being personal to them for completely different reasons than it does to you. Or the book might mean nothing to them, and get donated to the library sale because they couldn’t finish the damn thing.
Writers with long careers have learned how to separate the business from the writing—most of the time. We can play the intellectual game of “It’s my baby! No, it’s a widget!” with the best of them.
But there are other problems as well. For example, we writers run a small business. Its product is our work. We might produce a book a year or, if we’re prolific, several books a year.
Traditional publishers publish more books than that per imprint per month. Books are, to big publishers, interchangeable widgets because big publishers publish so many of them.
So if a vampire detective series book has a bad cover, the editor at the traditional publisher checks the profit-and-loss statement. If the book got a small advance, well, then, the book is stuck with the bad cover, which will hurt sales, which will probably guarantee that the next two books in the series won’t do as well, if they get published at all. So sad, says the editor. The cowardly editors never break it to their writers; the good editors own up and apologize, and explain that they’re sorry but they can’t do anything to fix it.
The traditional publishing house can eat the loss. Or maybe, it’s not a real loss for them. The vampire detective series book is a September release, and it won’t do well as expected. Everyone can see that before publication, so the publisher will mitigate its losses by (for example) printing fewer copies. But the vampire detective series novel for March (by a different author) has a much better cover; it’ll do very well.
The publishing company can shrug off the September loss in anticipation of the March gain.
The September author can’t. Even if she has the widget/baby dichotomy down, even if she understands that it’s not personal, it’s business, she will not be able to shrug.
After all, it’s her series, her livelihood, her business that got screwed up here, and she’s going to have to recover from it—or not.
Last week, Judith Tarr wrote a lightning-rod post called “The League of Shattered Authors” and got shredded on some writer business boards for catering to whiners. Those writers should disappear, someone said on one list. They’re not up for the new world of publishing. Let them vanish.
Just writing that makes me release a small breath of discomfort. Because, without Dean, I might have joined that league.
I decided to write this very personal post after the reaction to Judy’s post and after my own post last week about the stages writers are going through. I thought I’d let you know how hard it’s been for me, and how I am sometimes in several stages at the same time.
I am a very strong person, one who clearly understands the difference between being a businesswoman and being a creative person. But I’ve gotten stung several times by traditional publishing. Mostly, it’s stupid stuff and it makes me mad. Often, I catch the problem ahead of time, and figure out how to solve the problem given the situation before the problem gets worse.
But I’ve had my heart broken too. Usually the heartbreaks are small enough to set aside. But on one series, they weren’t. My heart got seriously, horribly broken. What’s-the-point-of-writing broken. I’m-going-back-to-my-day-job broken. I-give-up broken. That heartbreak was with the Smokey Dalton series.
I like to say I was naïve about that series. I like to say I was dumb. I blame me, because in the old world of publishing, you couldn’t blame your publishers. The world was what it was, and if you wanted to work in that world, then you had to accept it.
Things have changed.
This week, the newest book, Street Justice, went to the copy editor. We’re preparing for a March, 2014 release. More on that below.
But let’s talk about the series for a moment. The formerly dead series. The series that was, I can tell you now, a victim of murder most foul.
I wrote the very first Smokey Dalton novel after I turned in my resignation from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. My experiences as editor of that magazine were soul-sucking, something I didn’t say much about at the time because I wanted to continue working in the sf field. The transition between my editorship and the new editor was absolutely brutal. The things said, the things done, the things written at the time belong in a different blog, but let’s simply say that my lawyer was and is still angry that I didn’t go to court to protect my reputation. My argument was that if I still planned to edit professionally, I would have gone to court. But I wanted to write, and I could ignore all that was said and done to my editing reputation by the libel and slander that was going on.
I retreated into writing. I wrote one novel just for me. (And when I sent it to my agent, she made my cry by telling me in great detail how unmarketable the novel was. I should have fired her right there. Live and learn.)
Then I wrote a detective novel. I picked an unusual setting—Memphis in March of 1968, just before Martin Luther King’s assassination. My detective, Smokey Dalton, happened to be black, because I knew he had grown up with Dr. King. Characters come to me first, and I let them dictate.
But aside from the setting, the novel was classic—almost too classic—detective fiction. My loner detective sitting in his office in a dingy part of town gets a visit from a beautiful blonde. There’s a mysterious will. There are family secrets.
When I finished, I thought the novel’s biggest problem was its classic framework.
Nope, my agent told me. The novel’s biggest problem was me. I’m white and Smokey’s black. Apparently, there’s a rule in traditional publishing that white people (white women?) can’t write about black people (black men?) at least from a first person point of view.
But once the agent established that I was not planning to hire a black actor to play me in public (seriously; she said that. Why in hell didn’t I fire her?), she marketed the book to all the big publishers. In the late 1990s, Oprah’s book club dominated the book world, and all of these traditional publishers figured Oprah would love this book because she’s black, and Smokey’s black, not factoring in her actual tastes. The publishers saw major dollar signs.
I had several six-figure offers on the table. Then my lovely agent called and said that one publisher in particular wanted to know if I could tour with the book. My agent was panicked, because I’m a white woman from the Pacific Northwest. She was thinking of lying now. I didn’t understand the problem.
Of course I can tour, I said.
She told them that, and told them I’m white.
The offers vanished. Literally vanished.
It shouldn’t have been news to me that traditional publishing is racist. I saw a major black sf writer lose his temper at his white editor when he saw the cover of his next book. The book had a white woman on the cover, even though there were no white people in the book. He was furious.
I figured it was an sf problem. I was naïve. It’s a traditional publishing problem. I’ve been told to my face that only white people read books (this from a sales rep). I’ve been asked what was wrong with me; why did I have to write about black people? (From a vice-president in a publishing house). I’ve been told…well, you’ll see.
And if you think this problem no longer exists in this 21st century, look at this article from last week’s Los Angeles Times. Read it now, then think about this: Saladin Ahmed had to have his editor and publisher guarantee that they wouldn’t “whitewash” the cover of the book. The fact that he had to ask, had to insist, is ridiculous. They should have put a good, accurate cover on from the beginning.
I suppose I expect too much. After all, it was only four years ago that the industry had to deal with the controversy over Liar by Justine Larbalestier. The first version of that highly acclaimed book out of Bloomsbury had a white person on the cover when the main character is black. Protest got the cover changed. If you follow this link, you can see both covers–the original and the cover after the protest. Realize that what happened to Larbalestier is unusual only in that the cover got changed. Not that a black character was depicted as white in the first place.
Protests are happening nowadays, and traditional publishing is improving, but Betsy Wolheim of Daw Books is correct in that article when she compares where traditional publishing is on racism to the late 1960s.
The racism I encountered on the Smokey Dalton books was limited to the book companies only, and was breathtakingly vile. I honestly have no idea how Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, and Walter Mosely survived in traditional publishing in the 1990s or in the earlier part of this century. Even now, I think the racial insensitivity is amazing.
I was in New York just before the debacle with the withdrawn offers on A Dangerous Road, and I had been talking to Kelley Ragland, a relatively new editor at St. Martin’s Press. She had inherited the mess that was Hitler’s Angel and had treated me very well. She had also indicated an interest in any other mystery I would write.
So I told my agent to send the book to Kelley, who promptly bought A Dangerous Road for four-figures—not the six that had been on the table just a few days earlier.
I took the deal, beginning to catch a clue that this book might have no home at all if I didn’t.
Kelley was fantastic. She is an insightful editor, and she really championed these books. She worked hard, negotiating all the problems in-house and in the traditional publishing infrastructure to get the book out in the proper way.
Through her efforts, A Dangerous Road got favorable reviews everywhere. Barnes & Noble chose it as one of the top ten mysteries of the year. The novel was chosen for the New York Public Library’s prestigious Books For The Teenage List. The book was nominated for the Edgar, and won the Herodotus Award for the Best U.S. Historical Mystery.
In fact, thanks to Kelley, the books always went to the top reviewers. She constantly championed the series. But she couldn’t do much, because of the low advances and the way that the sales force continually subverted the novels.
These are the novels that the publisher sent me on book tour for—book tours that had no books, because no one in sales bothered to send them to distributors or bookstores. I got repeatedly invited to book fairs in Chicago because the later books were set there, but couldn’t get a guarantee of books to be sent to those fairs from my so-called publisher.
I talked to the head of the sales force about this (it would have been in 2005 or so) and he told me that the reason they felt Chicago was not the place for me because he said seriously, and I quote, “there are no black people in Chicago.”
I am still stunned by that statement. It was profoundly racist and unbelievably untrue. It also assumed that the only audience for a book about a black detective were black people who, according to that screwed-up industry, did not read. And, I was told by this self-same person that he had tried to get my books in the African American section of the chain bookstores “where the series belonged,” but the chains wouldn’t take the books for that section because I’m white.
I managed to answer that one. I said, “These books are mysteries. They belong in the mystery section, like any other private detective novel.”
He ignored me. Thought I was “confrontational.”
Midway through the series, my agent recommended that I take the books away from St. Martins and go to a different publisher. Even now, I wonder if I should have taken that advice. But I also knew from my mystery friends at the time that a book sale in the middle of a series had become impossible, and I personally talked to some mystery editor friends of mine who said such advice was very 1990s.
Kelley wanted me to write a big book to promote the series, but didn’t like any of my proposals. I didn’t want to write what she and my agent wanted me to write. It was good advice for that time period, but I declined to take the advice.
The final offer I received for books seven and eight from St. Martins was embarrassingly low. The advance is what I call book-killer advances. The company wasn’t taking the books to mass market paperback and they wouldn’t publish them in trade either. Only one hardcover edition, limited to fewer than 5,000 copies. You can’t grow a series that way, and we weren’t.
I asked for some guarantees in the contract to try to improve it, and St. Martins said no. We mutually decided not to work with each other again. My agent (a different one) decided I was too much trouble and essentially kicked me to the curb.
The Smokey Dalton series was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Yeah, I wrote some short stories, and I figured if I waited long enough, maybe I could write a “break-out” Smokey novel that might revive the series. But I knew that was a long shot.
And I was devastated.
You see, I had always believed that if I wrote a really, really, really good book, one that readers clamored for, one that got all kinds of reviews and awards and fantastic word of mouth, those books would sell better with each volume, and would make my career.
The Smokey Dalton series had good books, readers clamored for it, got fantastic word of mouth, award nominations and more. It got starred reviews on multiple books. Readers demanded copies. Bookstores told me that they had ordered the books and the publisher had not fulfilled the orders (!). Libraries wanted the books. I kept hearing from people all over the country that they wanted to buy the books and couldn’t get them.
For the first time in my career, I had done everything right—and I knew it. I had written the right kind of book, I had gotten better with each volume, I had readers who loved the series and told friends about it—and the books failed.
Not because of me.
Not because of my editor, who was a gem.
Because of my publisher. They refused to go back to print on the later books. They “tried” to send the books out big, but never printed enough copies to fulfill to the bookstores. Let’s not even talk about the covers, which are spectacularly ugly on the books that they wanted to take big.
I watched as this publisher destroyed a series that could have been popular, if the publisher actually acted like it wanted to sell books.
That’s when I gave up. I stopped trying for months. I saw no point in continuing with a writing career because there was no way to succeed in it. Dean was extremely supportive. He kept saying he’d move with me if I decided to go back to school. He’d help with anything I needed. But, he kept asking, if you don’t write, what will you do?
And the answers I had I didn’t like.
At that moment, the local radio station needed a news director. I looked at the job listing, saw the salary, and realized that if I only wrote short stories, I would make more money as a freelancer than I would working 60 hours for someone else.
So I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started writing again. Short stories. Which did save me.
Eventually, I sold some books, but not mysteries and not Smokey books. And I still felt almost every day that there really was no point.
That’s when the e-book revolution started. And when Dean and I figured out it would succeed.
It’s hard to believe that it was a little over three years ago that we figured out how to make it work. I knew I would write the next Smokey Dalton novel, but I kept putting it off.
Part of that was I needed to figure out how to do a better job distributing the books than St. Martins did. I wanted appropriate covers. I wanted the backlist reissued. I didn’t want to do the same thing as St. Martins and fail to support the next book in the series.
Eventually, WMG Publishing put out the backlist with some good covers. We talked about doing the print books when I finished the next novel.
As WMG grew, I realized that I finally had the ability to send the next Smokey Dalton book out at the level I wanted it to go—to all those reviewers, yes, but to the bookstores that had clamored for the book years ago. We have a game plan.
Then, last week, Allyson Longueira, WMG’s publisher and spectacular book designer, showed me the covers for the trade paperback books. She tweaked the old e-book covers and improved them. Then she added the proper back cover copy and all those great reviews the series had garnered.
The covers are spectacular. They’re not whitewashed. They’re appropriate and breathtaking. The cover for the upcoming book, Street Justice, is as good or maybe better than I could ever have hoped for.
And with the review quotes in their proper placement on the cover, and a new design feature on some of the books, listing the awards and honors for each volume and, in one case, for the entire series, took my breath away—for a variety of reasons.
The first is this: I would buy these books knowing nothing about the author. I would snatch them up in a heartbeat.
The second: These are the covers the books should have had in the first place.
Last week, I wrote about the emotional journey that writers take through this new world of publishing. I mentioned that sometimes, a writer can be in multiple places on that list at the same time.
When I looked at those covers, I felt a mix of emotions. Fury—complete and utter fury—at the way the books had been treated in the past. Relief that I hadn’t seen those covers before I wrote Street Justice, because I might not have written it, too worried that I couldn’t live up to what I had done years ago. Joy that the books are finally getting their due.
And incredible happiness that the series will continue. I will write more of these books because I know that no one is actively trying to kill them. They will all be in print at the same time for the very first time and they will have publisher support. (And before you ask, Street Justice will appear in March.)
Writing Street Justice turned out to be a lot easier than I expected. When you have a book in your head—blocked because of external things, not because of any writing thing—the writing goes quickly. I was happy with it, which surprised me. I always slowed down in the past. I thought it was because these novels are so close to noir, but really, I think now it’s because I knew I was tossing them into a pit when I finished with them.
That’s not happening any more.
The sense of freedom is so overwhelming I can barely convey it. I can write more Smokey Dalton. I can write the spinoff novels I had planned. They will go out into a world of readers who really don’t care what color my skin is or if Oprah is interested in buying the book. The novels will live and die on their own, which is how it should be. They will have, for lack of a better term, a natural life.
I always hesitate to write blog posts like this one because of my training, both personal and professional. Because traditional publishing was a monolith for so very long, writing something like this, truthful as it is, would have gotten me blacklisted from the very industry that I wanted to work in.
Fifteen years ago, had I said anything like this outside of a private setting, I would have been branded a troublemaker, impossible to work with, and someone to be avoided. Because of some of the things said about me in science fiction, I am still dismissed by much of the field as a “hack” or a “terrible writer” or someone who somehow gets work despite the lack of quality in my fiction. That all comes from the F&SF period in my career, and the whisper campaign started by some folks to destroy my career. It would have worked if I hadn’t genre-hopped and written tie-ins.
I learned how to reinvent myself, because that’s how you survive in a closed system. Fortunately, I wasn’t an actress, with my name attached to my face. I was a writer, who could use pen names.
The changes in this new world of publishing have freed me and others like me. We don’t have to get blacklisted for speaking the truth. We don’t have to worry about offending the wrong person and never working again. We can write what we want and actually make money at it, because readers want good fiction, and don’t care who said what to whom at the last gigantic publisher’s party.
Still, I had trained myself to be silent for so long that writing about my own career in this way—particularly how much it hurt to have a beloved series destroyed—feels like tattling. Or whining. Or like I’m volunteering to have my career destroyed. Old habits die hard.
This week, I published my blog on the stages, Judy published hers on the devastation left by the last ten years of traditional publishing, and we both got attacked for talking about emotions (and those poor writers who are still stuck in this mess got called “victims” because they got hurt).
I also received a large audio book payment for the entire Smokey Dalton series. The audio books would not exist without the reissues and the new book, all made possible by the changes in publishing.
For the last three years, A Dangerous Road has been under option in Hollywood. The company that holds the option is actively marketing a fantastic screenplay based on the book, and is finally getting some traction. But two years ago, the man I’ve been working with expressed surprise to me: I had no idea, he said, how frightened the American movie industry is of black protagonists.
I knew it. I didn’t tell him when he optioned the book, hoping he wouldn’t run into it. Besides, his company is based in Europe, and we decided if the project couldn’t be made here, it would be made there. He keeps renewing the option as he puts a team together. For the first time ever, he’s getting meetings at the big studios because of the success of films like 42. There’s hope.
That’s what amazes me. Had traditional publishing remained the only game in town, I would be staring at a dilemma. If A Dangerous Road does become a film (or a TV series), then I would have had to try to convince some publisher all over again to take a risk with a series of books written by a white woman about a black man.
Now, the books are out, other subsidiary rights publishers/managers are finding it, and the entire series is moving forward again.
I’m amazed, and I’m grateful.
The new world of publishing saved me from becoming one of those jaded, bitter writers who sit in bars and drink away their broken dreams.
It would have been so easy to join them.
I am so lucky that the publishing world changed, and I was able to move with it. That’s why I write the business blog, hoping that other writers realize there are opportunities now that didn’t exist five, ten, or twenty years ago.
There’s hope, and beyond it, joy. That love of writing? The thing that got us all started in the first place?
It’s back for me, and not so long ago, I thought it was gone forever.
“The Business Rusch: Murder Most Foul” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Bless you for writing about your experiences. Keep on writing and I’m adding your book to my Christmas list for my Dad (and myself). Now that there’s no more Louis L’Amour books, he’s moving into mysteries.
Keep writing the books that you want to read, all of you! Don’t give up because someone is trying to be the gatekeeper of all books. Take the best revenge possible, do it yourself and become a successful author. Just keep writing!
I would like to thank everyone for the great comments here. I’m coming out of the workshop with a mountain of e-mail and work that I’m behind. I’d love to answer everything personally, but I’m not sure I can. So let me say a blanket thank-you to everyone who has commented here. I greatly appreciate it.
Thank you for writing such a great post. It’s great to see the truth and to to help me know that going the indie publishing route is what’s best for me.
About the negative whispers about your work: I remember reading SF&F when you were Editor and I was always impressed the work you did with that magazine. Your name stuck in my head and your words spoke for you: Readers know the difference on who is a good writer and worth reading.
It’s horrible to hear what you have gone through, but I’m happy to hear that you haven’t given up and keep on writing.
“Let’s not even talk about the covers”
Sorry, but let’s. That red cover is by far the worst I’ve seen in a long time, including crappy self-published ones. I can excuse dilettantism and the delusion of knowing better, leading to whitewashing.
But this one says: “Meh. We don’t care.” And that’s probably the worst insult.
Michael Jackson accused Sony of not promoting his last (?) album enough because he was black. At the time I thought he was stupid and that Sony didn’t care if he was white, black or purple with green dots as long as he made them silly amounts of money – why would they sabotage their business?
Stories like yours, Kris, make me re-think my opinion of his mental sanity. Well, at least in that regard.
One aspect of the ongoing technological and cultural change in publishing, which you touch on briefly, is the climate of intimidation that has silenced women writers and writers of color for decades. “Don’t speak up. Don’t defend your rights, or you’ll get a name for trouble-making. You’ll never work again if you say that stuff.”
The gatekeepers are running scared, now that they’re losing that hold.
It’s bad enough that most of us endure harassment and terror at our day jobs. To meet it on the field of dreams, over and over again, is soul-destroying. We’ve lost too many talented people, and we continue to lose them. I’m sick of reading smug, dismissive, mean-spirited commentary that tells the done-over that it’s their own damn fault.
I write multicultural characters in present-tense dystopias. The white-washing and deliberately stupid (racist, sexist) marketing is the major reasons I went independent. More than half the great multicultural SF/F I’ve read in the last year has been independently published — Steamfunk, anyone? — and I feel energized and hopeful for the first time in years. It’s a big world out there.
Meanwhile, I’m off to buy your Smokey Dalton series entire. Your excerpts enticed me, and your account above sold it. My mentors include a number of civil rights veterans, and you got the atmosphere of those times pitch-perfect. Brava!
Wait…did you say “steamfunk”? That is a thing? (scurries off to check it out)
Also, I agree about the Smokey Dalton series. It sounds very interesting.
I’m that black author who wrote a book with a black protagonist. Got the biggest agent at the time 2001. Couldn’t sell the book. I was told that black people don’t read. So, I stopped writing the sequel midway and put it under the bed. Moved on to write books with white protagonists. Changed my name on my queries (to obscure my big ‘ol web presence as myself). Have an avatar instead of an author picture – and viola – I’m able to write and sell books. Still hate traditional publishing, but that’s another gripe. Still PO’d about those books. So, I’ve finally decided to pull them out and self-publish them. But for money. White protags, author anonymity.
Go for it! Self publish those books under your name and laugh all the way to the bank! And if it’s science fiction or fantasy and suitable for teens, YA (or that new stupid tag “new adult”), like in the PG-13 or milder range, let me know so I can add it to my website, Alien Star Books!
The “crabs in a bucket” behavior of some writers in some writer venues is sad as well as disgusting…the fear of not maintaining the aura of total competence, confidence, and superiority blinds those writers to the fact that they’re standing on quicksand. Their criticism of Judy Tarr–or you–or any others who are brave enough to admit what they’ve been through–reminds me of people who routinely blame the victims of domestic violence or other abuse.
Kris, thanks for sharing this heartbreaking story. You certainly did hide all this quite well from us your students and friends. Believe me we care about you very much and we’re pleased you made it through that terrible time. (A loving, supportive husband certainly helps too.)
The Smokey Dalton books are fine stories and as well written as anything from the mystery authors at the top of Times list. You should be very proud of those books and I for one will continue to buy them and read them.
St Martins made a huge mistake not backing these books. The reasons are truly disturbing. Just when i think we’ve made some progress this kind of nonsense rears its ugly head. The irony is Smoke Filled Rooms deals with the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King! If Dr. King were around today he would have stormed St. Martins offices and helped them understand how important these books are to bridge the racial gap that is dividing this world. In Dr. King’s memory, shame on them.
I haven’t read the Smokey Dalton books, but want to assure you that your reputation did not suffer in my book from your F&SF tenure. In fact when I came across your blog, I started reading it because I recognized who you are from your F&SF days. Take care, and God bless!
Your story about your Smokey Dalton series having difficulties because of race and ethnicity different from yours isn’t unique.
Nobody dissed Truman Capote because he wasn’t a murderous, sociopathic pair of drifters and ex-cons. Yet “In Cold Blood” is a masterpiece.
But there’s the other side of that. Back in 1983 a novel “Famous All Over Town” was published and hailed as an accurate portrayal of Latino life and aspirations in LA. Chicano activist organizations praised it highly. It was used in college classes as a text. The author was Danny Santiago. Which was later revealed to be the pseudonym of one Daniel L. James, a Seventy-something white guy who lived in Diamond Bar. The activists who had praised the book were outraged. They felt they had been “tricked.” Much of the book’s former praise was switched to angry denunciation.
It is the writer’s craft to get into someone else’s head and heart, and effectively communicate those thoughts and feelings to readers. Doesn’t matter who the writer is; it’s the writing that counts and stands on its own. As it should.
It’s only Friday and I’m already late to the party I gather from all these comments.
I almost cried reading this. I know you as strong and keep a smart business head. Yet, I also knew there was emotion under the surface, especially when I reflect on you being an introvert but one can hardly tell when one sees you at conventions and such.
It took a lot of courage to write this and I think it needed to be told. I’ve always been a fan of Smokey Dalton and I remember the news about the former death of the series. However I don’t think I knew the depth of how it affected you.
The business learning is important–you and Dean taught me that–but we all still get attached to the worlds and lives we create. Even some who I most admire. I am thrilled about more Smokey Dalton, even more thrilled you found that writing joy again, Kris. I’m so happy that you’re happy to get these books out there again!
To quote so many of the other comments, Wow.
First, thank you for writing this. I know it couldn’t have been easy. But it needed to be said. And for what it’s worth, your posts in which you move beyond just business and get personal are the ones that seem to speak to me the most.
Second, I read and loved the first Smoky Dalton. I never could find the others. I’m glad they’re back. I’ll be buying and reading them.
Third, I never realized you went through the experience you did when you left F&SF. I’ve read the magazine since I was in high school, long before you edited it. Your tenure on the magazine was one of the high points, in my opinion. I’m glad you’re back editing with Fiction River.
Fourth, even though graduate school and life limited my reading for years at a time, you’ve always been one of my favorite authors. I’m glad so much of your backlist is now available. I’ve got some catching up to do.
Kris, thank you for sharing your story and for hanging in there. You are one of my favorite and my most admired writers. I’ve always looked up to you: blown away by your talent and stories and amazed by your resilience and perseverance. To see someone with your talent and experience go through such soul-crushing doubt is gut-wrenching, but when I see you climb up victorious, I know you’ve emerged even wiser and stronger than you were before. Thank you for sharing this. And your fiction.
As someone not very far down the path and who constantly struggles with confidence and feeling like a “real” writer, reading this post gives me hope. I haven’t experienced these kinds of situations, but I do understand the shattered writer. I’ve been there. Reading this story from someone at your level pushes me to keep up the fight.
To quote Foghorn Leghorn, “Fortunately I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency.” I’ll keep numbering my feathers so they’ll be easier to reassemble when everything gets blown to hell again. And I’m so glad to hear that you will, too. 🙂
I’m thrilled to see the reissue of all the Smokey Dalton books plus a new one!
Kris – Those covers are WONDERFUL, and orders of magnitude better than the earlier ones – now some great books have covers worthy of them. Congrats to the entire team. It’s good to know the series is continuing after such a tortured past. You are awesome – woman as well as writer. (May I also say intimidating?) I think it only adds to your image that you are able to show your vulnerable side; and you provide a valuable service with your classes and your blogs. Kudos to you.
I remember when the Smokey Dalton books came out and all the awards. I also remember your heartbreak at how they never truly had publisher support. I am truly pleased to see the entire series come out under WMG and to know there is a new book coming early next year.
Race and class are distinctions that many authors include in their novels. It is race and class that has been the reason for many wars, and continues to this day. In America, my experience has been that it is too often the “educated” class who are too often also the most blind to their own prejudice.
I grew up in a poor, working-class,and very integrated neighborhood in southern California. Growing up I had no idea that people lived in places where blacks and whites were separate, where mixed-race children were ostracized, or where a person of one race believed that a person of another race could never speak to their common human experience.
Unfortunately, as an adult and an Academic, I saw first hand that those who were the most educated, and consequently usually in better economic circumstances, were often the most prejudiced. Oh the stories I could tell.
I still believe we can have a world, or at least substantial pockets in the world, where we recognize that we are more the same the different. But then I do write and, some would say, live in a fantasy world. That’s okay. I like it there.
As I was reading this I thought about Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. Is it because it’s both historical and mystery that she was allowed to continue writing it? I’m not sure when the series started, though. Before 1997 I think.
Even she had to shift publishers at least once, though. I think the house publishing the Ben January stories is a smaller one? Smaller/UK imprint, maybe? *looks around and fails to find one of the newer ones, drat* And there was definitely a gap between publishers.
I suspect it helped her that she’s got a job teaching history. (But I haven’t asked at her blog or anything, so I’m only speculating.)
Kris, thanks for writing this. I thought I was being paranoid when a novel I wrote that featured a Japanese-American female protagonist with a Navajo best friend, and Latino love interest was turned down by a major publisher because the marketing director said, “I don’t know how to market this.” They passed on the book despite the fact that three editors at the house read it and wanted it. I tried to tell myself it couldn’t be a race thing because … well, it just couldn’t. There had to be something else wrong with the book … that two agents and several editors have loved.
I’m beginning to wonder if I might not have an easier time selling the book if the characters were Caucasian … which ain’t gonna happen.
You were a great editor at Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, one of the greatest in the genre in fact. Anyone that doesn’t recognize that has ulterior motives. Your insightful choices brought me some of the most amazing short stories I have read, and I am sorry some tried to besmirch your reputation, which will always be sterling to me and many others that knew you at that post.
As for the rest of this article, it is shocking on many levels, but I am glad you are past the “and things get worse” part of your own personal story.
Warmth and sunshine,
I always dreaded ending up in the black authors’ section, tucked away in a corner somewhere. Why warn people that an author/character(s) is black? I even added a white protagonist to a book to balance out the black one. I didn’t want race to get in the way of being trade published.
Never again. As a self-publisher, my books always have a multi-cultural cast. I don’t want people to assume the characters are white. Plus I live in London, England, where it’s very multi-cultural. I want my stories to reflect the world we live in.
And what on earth was the designer smoking when they produced that cover? They call that a professional?
Thanks, Kris. Informative as always. I suppose you’ve seen this, not that it is news: http://aardvarknow.us/2013/06/04/e-books-and-profitability-what-weve-always-said-and-publishers-have-always-denied/
However, it is always interesting to see what one has been saying for several years proven.
Kris, while this issue of race is ever ongoing, the thought that the author can not write the story of a character of a different gender, social class, or race is flatly absurd. The world of books would be a horrible place. Personally, I would be telling tales of a white, male, middle-class world.
Huffington post recently posted Walter Mosley’s introduction to a New Pulp collection called Black Pulp. Here is the pull quote – “Reading can also allow us to imagine a different world, a different self.”
The authors in the collection are a mixed bag, something Mosley seems to approve of and so do I.
Exactly. For me this is what writing is all about—viewing the world from someone else’s point of view. If writers aren’t mandated to do that, if we don’t hold ourselves to that goal, we all end up in a rut of writing not what we know, but what we are.
I know many have already said thank you for sharing your story. But I just had to add my thanks to the chorus. I’m so glad you decided to share this story with other writers and that the industry has changed enough so writers can be more open about what it has been like to survive and continue writing. And it also makes me sad to think of the number of writers who quit. Like others have mentioned there are a few writers whose books I loved who stopped after only a couple and as a reader I always wondered why. I loved their books and would have happily bought the next one. Maybe one day they will come back as you have brought Smokey Dalton back.
Congratulations on making it through. And thanks for sharing your story. What’s scary about your experience is that it’s just one of many I’ve heard about with such a similar theme. I feel very fortunate that we writers have so many opportunities now, and no one can hold us back. People talk about writers needing the “support” of publishers. Where is that mythical creature?
Seems like yesterday (Thursday) was a day for articles about -isms and revolting against terrible behavior and antiquated ways in our society. I read a pile of them, and I’m amazed that people still think this way in our country, in 2013.
The only way to stop that is to do what you did — share your experiences.
I’m angered and frustrated by how you were treated, and by the attitudes of bookseller (no black people in Chicago????), but I’m ecstatic about the new Smokey Dalton books. I read the first one years ago and loved it, but now I’m gonna snatch up the ebooks and read them all.
Yes, the covers are perfect.
Love this new world of publishing.
And thanks for sharing!
Thank you so much for this inspiring post! How you could put up with so much stupidity and bad treatment and still keep writing is amazing to me. But, your readers never abandoned you, and we are so grateful that you managed to find the strength to continue. It’s wonderful that all of us can now put our work out there and let the readers decide. It’s incomprehensible to me how traditional publishing could decide to ignore the readers. Most other industries (at least the ones who would like to stay in business) care about keeping their customers.
Wow – this was very timely for me! My agent has just told me the latest MS isn’t sale-able because it doesn’t have a hook the marketing people will go for – but she also said it would not harm my career or reputation in any way if I were to self-publish. I was wondering whether to embark on this new road of self-publishing new MSS… I think I will!
I have followed Smokey Dalton’s publishing misadventures from early days. Kris may not even remember this, but I interviewed her a long time ago (2001? 2002?) for my Nink column, which piece can be found in my book REJECTION, ROMANCE, & ROYALTIES. We discussed Smokey’s sojourn to find a publisher, with great offers coming in, only to be withdrawn when publishers learned the author (gasp!!) was not identical in race and gender to the protagonist.
IIRC from our interview, -age- was another “problem.” Because the atmosphere of the book was so rich and detailed, editors assumed not only that you were a black man, but also that you had lived through the Civil Rights era as an adult and must therefore now be in your 50s. That you were, in fact, in your 30s… threw the book’s credibility further into question, um, rather than highlighting how well you had researched and written the era.
(As if anyone currently writing about WWII, the Depression, or, oh, the Crusades had been an adult then and is writing from memory rather than research…)
At the time, we agreed I wouldn’t identify you or the book by name. You had recently gotten the SMP deal, you hoped they’d put their weight behind it, and so you didn’t want to appear to be speaking ill of the deal (by describing the bigger deals that had been on the table before your shocking dissimilarity to your protagonist came to light). And, boy, a LOT of water went under that bridge in the next few years. (sigh)
Been there, done that, survived it, too.
So the story of Smokey’s misadventures isn’t new to me… But reading about it today reminds me sharply of something I haven’t thought of in a while.
About 10 years ago, when the digital and self-publishing revolutions weren’t even a blip in the distance on our radars, I attended a writers conference in NYC which I was excited about and at which I expected to learn a lot. Because the organizers had done a tremendous job of rounding up a large number of professionally important speakers for the discussion panels. Session after session was chock full of CEOs and presidents of major publishing programs, VPs and Associate Publishers from the big houses, VPs of marketing and sales, Executive Editors and Editorial Directors, senior agents at major agencies, the founders/heads of well-known and highly-respected smaller and mid-size agencies, senior employees from the big distributors, etc.
So the program represented an extraordinary amount of experience, knowledge, and (in terms of what gets published and how it gets distributed) power. And as the conference proceeded… I went from being excited to bemused, to dismayed and disappointed, to appalled and disgusted, to very, very depressed and rather scared. By the time I went home, my mood was so low, I could scarcely write for the next couple of weeks.
Because, although there were a few impressive individual exceptions… Overall, these people were the most jaded, apathetic, burned-out, indifferent, mediocre group of people I could ever recall encountering. Moreover, their collective culture of contempt and dismissive disdain for -writers- and -readers- was self-evident and undisguised.
I came away from that conference with the stark, appalling realization that the people IN CHARGE OF the industry where I made my full-time living were people I genuinely wouldn’t want to put in charge of a roadside lemonade stand, so utterly incompetent and disengaged did they seem to me. I found it depressing and scary, because in those days, they were the only conduit between writers and readers, and they seemed utterly ill-equipped as people or professionals to meet the challenges before them. They seemed to me to be driving the industry–and therefore my profession–straight into widespread failure.
And THAT is the industry in which your Smokey Dalton experiences were occurring.
In fact, it’s the industry in which experiences like that are STILL occurring. Have a look at this article:
“Saladin Ahmed had to have his editor and publisher guarantee that they wouldn’t “whitewash” the cover of the book. The fact that he had to ask, had to insist, is ridiculous. They should have put a good, accurate cover on from the beginning.””
Actually, they did. The article says: “‘My editor and another editor who made an offer on the book explicitly committed to not whitewashing the cover,’ said Ahmed… Ahmed ended up signing on with venerable Penguin imprint DAW. Betsy Wollheim, DAW’s president and publisher, said for her the idea of wrapping Ahmed’s book in a misleading design was never under consideration.”
(By way of disclosure, DAW is my publisher these days, and it’s the first house I’ve ever dealt with, in 25 years in the biz, that respects authors, books, and readers.)
What’s ridiculous, of course, is that it was clearly =necessary= (as per the example given next in the article of Larbalestier’s LIAR) for Saladin to establish packaging intentions when choosing a publisher. It’s clear in observing the industry that he could not just -assume- that publishers wouldn’t package the book misleadingly because “readers won’t buy a book that looks Middle Eastern,” or whatever.
Wow. Thank you everyone for the responses. I am humbled and honored by them.
I am in the middle of teaching a workshop on mystery, which is taking 20 hours of my day, so I can’t answer every comment at the moment. But I am reading them, and am really touched.
I hope to answer by Monday.
Kris, thanks for this post, for all of us in similar situations, but especially selfish thanks for getting Smoky out of the grave, so I can now read the rest of the series, which I LOVED.
You will definitely have a sale of the entire series–but that’s not much of a surprise, as I buy all of the Kris Rusch books, regardless of how you try to hide your identity.
BTW, I’m from the Windy City and half the students in my high school were black. They must have been imported from Mississippi for the football games.
Thank you for being you.
BTW, I’m from the Windy City and half the students in my high school were black. They must have been imported from Mississippi for the football games.
Jerry, as always, you’re my hero.
Thanks for sharing that, Kris. And thanks to Dean for helping you through. Compassion is an easy thing to lose when we’re feeling so empowered in this new world of publishing. But it’s just as easy to get jaded on the high of success as it is in the trenches of perceived failure. I’m happy to see you have compassion for those who have had their dreams manhandled.
I can’t count how many times I’ve Googled some writer whose books I loved only to find they no longer write. I think about how much their stories mean to me. To think that business, industry, money could be responsible for stealing future stories from the world just makes me sad. And mad. We’re human. We get our feelings mangled. Sometimes it’s hard to come back.
We don’t all have the same support networks, the same access to information, the same access to technology, the same anything. The playing field has improved greatly, but it’s still not fair to think that just because I wouldn’t quit because of X set of circumstances, anyone who does is a whiner and doesn’t deserve my compassion.
The things that have stopped me, that are currently stopping me, I’m sure would make me unworthy of publication in these same people’s eyes — these people who happily declare who should and shouldn’t vanish from writing, based not on their stories but on their personal circumstances, their business sense, anything but their stories. It must be nice to never doubt, to never fear, to never get sidelined or sideswiped. It must also be nice to always know what someone else should do. That’s not sarcasm either. I wish I had that, even though I think it’s arrogant, because I imagine it makes life easier.
But I know there are writers who I would sit with every day and happily hold their hand and coo comforting lullabyes at if it meant it would help them write the next book. There are writers whose work I miss the same way I miss the open space that’s been filled in by subdivisions in my neighborhood.
You, however, seem like someone who has never doubted, never faltered for a moment. Your destiny seems to have always been shiny and filled with promises that had best be kept or you’d damn sure go out and collect on them by force if necessary. That’s how it looks from the outside. That’s how it looks from the strength of your writing, the sureness and power of your prose. Thanks for sharing this little bit of vulnerability, this insight that even someone like you gets jerked around sometimes, jerked around pretty hard, and that if you, with all the magic of your writing can get treated poorly, any of us can, and we can get through it too!