First thing this morning, as usual, I fumbled around on the bedside table and grabbed for the smartphone to see what interesting things had happened while I was asleep. And there in the shiny new Google+ app (thank you Colm!) what do I see, in reaction to the notification about the upload of the new edition of the Middle Kingdoms omnibus yesterday, but:
"Were there any more books in the series planned? I remember reading these three several years ago and thinking the last one felt a little incomplete."
"Now that someone else started it (cough)A Door into Starlight please?(cough)"
And on Twitter:
"Speaking of which, is The Door into Starlight still under construction or did it get abandoned?"
"The Door Into Starlight is the book I've been anticipating most for the longest. Every time you mention Middle Kingdoms I get giddy!"
…And I lay there in bed for a while (assisted by the excellent Cat Goodman, who came to help with my cogitations by lying on my chest and digging his claws in just above my collarbones… I swear, I think sometimes that cat distrusts gravity…) and started composing possible responses, each one of which I immediately virtually tore up on the grounds that I hadn’t yet had any caffeine.
I’ve had the caffeine now (and am also considering some Malt-O-Meal, as it’s a July morning afternoon in Ireland and the local temperature’s about what it would be in the Alps in April). So I’m in a better place to deal with the question. It is, after all, one I get occasionally at US conventions (and in the past, at some of the UK ones). Somebody will corner me in the bar, or after a panel, and say: “What about The Door into Starlight? It’s been more than twenty years since the series started.”
“Yes indeed, it has. In fact, it’s been more than thirty, but who’s counting?”
“So where is it already?”
“It’s in progress, and I work on it now and then. I have a lot of scattered bits and pieces of it, with a lot of huge empty gaps between them that need to be filled in so that the whole thing works. As I’ve said before: I know how it starts, and I know how it ends – I have done since I finished The Door into Fire. But oy, the middle! …In the meantime, since my family would not appreciate starving for my art, I do other work as well. Other books, the occasional movie. Starlight I’ll get around to again when I have the inclination and the leisure.” And there has been an additional reason for the non-completion lurking in the background, but mostly I don’t introduce that into these conversations.
Most of the time the questioning stops here, and people change the subject and go off to do something else, like abuse George R.R. Martin about A Dance with Dragons. (And here I pause to wave at George, who I’ve known for a long time, and grin. How satisfying this week must be for him [setting aside the way Amazon.de did a whoopsie with the book's shipment embargo]. Yet at the same time, the fans will be screaming at George for the next one within hours, if not minutes. Such is the writer’s life.)
Yet as regards Starlight, the questions have been getting a little more persistent lately. Could it possibly be because I’ll be turning 60 shortly? :) (And to the person who Tweeted me a month or so back in the wake of the European E. coli outbreak, telling me to please write Starlight before I died, and then hastily erased the message? Whoops, I saw it first! And no, you weren’t just kidding: I know the signs. You think I didn’t have such thoughts about George McDonald Fraser and the specific Flashman books I wished to God he would get on with before he expired? But under no circumstances whatsoever would I ever had said as much to the man. Tsk, tsk! Anyway, I forgive you.)
Let me assure everybody that it is my intention to write The Door into Starlight before I die. Mostly for the good and sufficient reason that I said I would. (An issue I’m more than usually sensitive to while still completing publication work on The Big Meow.) But I’ve been in no particular hurry about it, as there has been a dirty secret in the way, one that’s kept me from making more of an effort to find the time to finish the last book in this series.
And it’s this: These books have never sold all that well, suggesting that not that many people are interested in reading the last one.
If there’s a more painful admission for a professional writer to make, I’m not sure what it would be. Deep down I suspect most of us wish that everything we write could be a vast worldwide hit and that people would climb over one another’s bodies to get at them. But it doesn’t usually work out that way. And although the Middle Kingdoms universe was my first one, and a place I love dearly, the numbers suggest that those who share the love are relatively few.
The series has never done all that well in sales in any of its editions. Fire earned out, but paid royalties (in its various US editions) for only a couple/few years, then went out of print when Dell SF went under. Shadow came into print, earned out and paid maybe a couple of years’ worth of royalties, then went OOP as well. And if I remember correctly, Sunset never earned out on either side of the Atlantic. (All the books came into print at one time in the UK as part of a deal with Transworld/Corgi in the 90’s, but they didn’t fare well there either, and all went OOP in short order.)
…You see how this is going? If this trend was to continue, then if I did write Starlight, I’d probably have to pay people to read it.
:) …Okay, maybe that was facetious. But the sales record cannot be ignored. The last publisher to be interested in the series was Meisha Merlin: we did indeed have an agreement to publish Starlight, for a very small advance, and I restarted work on it. But then MM sadly went under. And when I next discussed the question of Starlight with my agent, a year or so after the fact, he told me gently that after inquiries, no other publisher had any interest whatsoever in the fourth book, and I should set it aside and turn my attention to other things.
So the only other way for this book to see the light of day is through self-publication. Yes, certainly the self-pub model has changed very significantly in the last couple years. (And to this I say HURRAY for the new options it offers both the beginning writer and the established one.) But it nonetheless brings with it a new set of unknowns. And though those who contact me about The Door into Starlight without a shadow of a doubt really want to see it, I have to consider the situation with a cold eye, because it’s possible that their message, however heartfelt, nonetheless translates at this end as, “We want you to sit down and spend hundreds of hours of your (theoretically) paying writing time on something that will make us very happy but may never pay you even minimum wage.”
Am I wrong about this? If I am, give me a sign. Here we are in the heart of the Social Media age, with Facebook all over the place and Twitter a force to be reckoned with and Google+ roaring about the landscape making everybody all excitable and nervous.
So use them to convince me. Facebook folks: Hit the “Like” link or share the message here. Twitterers: Retweet this message, or (if you prefer) Tweet the Bitly link to the message with the hashtag #doorintostarlight : let's see if there are enough of you interested to get it trending. Google+ people who’re interested in this: use the Share button to share this message with your extended circles, and/or use the +1 button on the posting. (ETA: Yesterday's link wasn't set for public availability -- the repost at the link above is set right.) Ask everyone you know who might possibly care about this issue to do the same. Convince me how many of you are out there who give a damn. Otherwise: just leave a comment here or on the main posting at Out of Ambit.
This effort will have a couple of useful side effects:
(a) I’ll get a serious idea of whether more than a very few sweet and persistent enthusiasts care about whether they ever see the book or not.
(b) If nothing in particular comes of this, that result will itself give me something concrete to point at. When someone comes up to me at the next convention and says “So where is it…?!”, I’ll be able to pass them the URL(s) of this message in the various places where it appears. That way they can see the size of the response for themselves, and understand by direct observation why I either got on with finishing the book, or decided to continue dealing with the project in the leisurely manner of the last couple of decades, in between other projects as opportunity dictates.
Now if the results convince me, I’ll formally lock the book into my second-half-of-2012 work schedule (that being the earliest I could reasonably get to grips with the project, as I have contractual commitments on the table that must be fulfilled first). Please note that even if this happens, under no circumstances will I at any point be setting any kind of completion date. The Big Meow project has taught me to be way more cautious with such commitments. This will also never be a crowdfunded project, for the same reason: crowdfunding is not a good work model for me and I won’t be doing it again. I’ll just get to work on the book, and people can then start nagging me periodically for word counts. (omg what am I saying…)
One last thought. Maybe you’re one of the people vitally interested in seeing the last book, and you want to add some guilt to the equation? Then go over here and buy an ebook. Doesn’t matter which one. (Though try this one if you like: it’s the first book of a new series and I’m very fond of it. Also Audible will be doing it as an audiobook in a while, which is cool.) Spend no more than what you’d spend on a Starbucks latte or a beer. After all, if you spend that much on an ebook, you still have the ebook afterwards. If you spend it on a beer…where’s that beer ten hours later? Even if you hate the ebook, you’ll still be ahead of the game the next day. :) If you decide to do this, use the discount code STARLIGHTGUILT when you check out: it’ll give you a 15% discount on your total purchase and also mark you as someone to be notified should something start happening with Starlight in 2012.
...So let’s see what happens. Meanwhile, I’m going to go off and see about that Malt-O-Meal.