My writing career, to put none too fine a point on it, is screwy. But the first thing you learn, trying to make writing your business, is that everyone’s career is screwy.
Recently while playing MechWarrior Online (I play videogames! That’s socially acceptable now!) I was talking to another player in a public channel about his daughter, who is generally making efforts towards a career in writing at age fifteen. Her schooling’s tuned in that direction, family supportive, she sounds driven — already at the stage where writing’s something she has to do, not something she wants to do. (If by some completely random chance you’re reading this, Erin, hi and good luck!)
It’s not a path towards writing that I, or anyone else I know, has taken. In fact the only universal I know of is that every writer seems to have their own twisty path towards their career, and the end result is never the same for anybody. Though, to be fair, you occasionally find writers with similar kinds of career clustering around the same places — conventions, specific publishers, that kind of thing. But each ‘cluster’ is still very different to the next.
So, there aren’t any universals, and I know that, but even so, I get the feeling that my career is a twistier path than some others are on.
I took my writing from ‘hobby’ to ‘maybe this is something I can do seriously’ in the talent-incubator of the furry fandom. The furry fandom, for those who haven’t met it, is a weird and sprawling label for a lot of things — but the key factor I’m talking about here is that it acts very much like the fandoms around established intellectual properties, for things like Harry Potter and Supernatural and Star Trek, but we have no central canon. We make it up ourselves, discard it, make it anew every day.
With no central canon, people take a very selective interest. Gaining recognition is an ephemeral attention-grabbing game, and the interior of the fandom acts a little bit like the larger marketplace — for the most part I start out feeling that my talents are ignored, and then I make the stunning discovery that I have more fans than I thought I did, and then people start saying some very flattering things about me.
It’s a small pond, and I’m still a relatively small fish, but I’m able to swim rather than sink.
In-fandom I made some print sales, but nobody wanted the electronic rights — it’s only in the past couple of years that furry publishers have started experimenting with e-book sales — so I had to follow in the path of my friend Kyell Gold and self publish the electronic editions. (If you ever think Dangerous Jade is expensive for an e-book novella, well, it is. I don’t want to underprice the physical print edition too much if I can help it, I like my publishers at Furplanet!)
Self publishing, again, is a strange country. There’s been a lot of noise recently about potential earnings and sales and the author’s platform, people calling it a gold rush as both positive and negative, and what I can say from my own experience is this: Self-pubbing is an even bigger pond, and I’m still in the stage where I feel like my talents are ignored. Mostly my self publishing efforts are directed towards fandom readers, but I’m looking forward to discovering my fans in the wider market, but I don’t quite know when that will be. What I do know is that preparing my own manuscripts and obsessively proofing them (although errors always, ALWAYS slip through) has been a good experience.
On top of this, I write and market short stories — I have some forthcomings which appear in my slush pile cover letters but have no planned publication date yet I know of, and I’m waiting on news about edits for what may turn out to be a very significant sale for me — and I know some writers who are in a similar place. So I’m not even at the stage where I have anything to feel ignored about, but it’s already an interesting part of the journey.
But then we add to this a somewhat unusual experience that puts a twist in the tail of my career — somehow I landed a work-for-hire gig. (There was a rare open submissions period — I have no idea what the regular path to work-for-hire is.)
Work-for-hire is a little bit unusual these days, I gather, though it used to be a lot more common. It’s still the way most licensed Star Wars and Star Trek type novels get written. Essentially, you’re commissioned to write something specific by a publisher off an outline, and you sell the full rights for the work at a flat fee, no royalties. This is not something you want to do without careful forethought about what that means, because in some cases it means the people who have bought the rights can (if they choose) strip your name out of the work, re-edit it without your consent, make a film series based around it, whatever. They own it. (Only ever go work-for-hire with publishers that have happy authors working for them, is my tip.)
And, if you know what you’re getting into, that’s okay. Because unlike every other writing gig I’ve met, there are two very significant advantages work-for-hire offers. The first is that there’s a contract, and if you deliver, you will be paid. There’s no concern about will it sell or won’t it, or whether or not you’ll manage to turn your hard work into a brief taste of fiscal security. It’s a done deal — meet the criteria of the contract, keep your editors happy, and you are paid.
The second advantage my work-for-hire gig gave me was the chance to work on a more professional level. Abaddon books, the imprint I worked with, is one part of a multiply-threaded publishing beast inclusive of Solaris books and 2000 AD under the roof of Rebellion Developments. My work-for-hire book (Orbital Decay, available now, click here for promotional gubbins) has been a fascinating chance to dip my toe in yet another body of water — the ocean where writing, publishing, and related work is everyone’s day job. (My in-fandom publishers are great, and I love them, but at present I don’t think anybody’s made it their full time job — I would love to be corrected on this.)
Working in-fandom, everything’s self organized. We work almost exclusively with our friends, and when it comes to issues of paid publication (the majority of fur-fandom fiction is free) it’s mainly a question of putting together something reasonably professional that one of our publishers will want. The money’s small, and it’s mostly for the love of the work, and the amusement of fans and audiences. I think the model around the furry fandom right now’s a perfect talent incubator, bringing people together and helping them find their feet creatively — something that’s been happening a lot in other fan communities, but I don’t know that the various fanficcers quite have the miniature marketplace we do in the furry fandom, complete with publishing companies and yearly anthologies. I’m looking forward to trying to link that experience with my more professional efforts in the novel I’m working on now, Dog Country.
Working outside of the fandom, in the wider world of publishing? I consider myself very lucky to have been able to work with my editor at Abaddon — David Moore. The encouragement, and being able to rely on him and the rest of the Abaddon team to help out in areas where I fall short have made a real difference in the confidence I have in my writing. Mostly, I got a chance to do something valuable — sit down and take something from conception to completion with the added boost of David’s help and the knowledge that the work had a home waiting at Abaddon. Less talent incubator, and more learning in the workplace, letting me get a handle on what I need to do to make it in a safe environment. A good experience, and one I look forward to repeating when there’s a chance.
So. What’s better? Self publishing, working with small and medium press, doing it for the love or doing it for a day job?
I think it’s better doing all of it. My career’s been shaped more by the opportunities that have come up than by any particular driving push on my part. Being flexible enough to work where I can, and finding ways to get what I love working on to blossom in unexpected places, seems to be the path I’m following.
Technically, I think in the discussions rolling around I’m defined as a ‘hybrid’ author. Not really the case — I’m more of a ‘rat’ author, clinging to whatever ecological niche I can adapt myself to.
What next? Well, I have some comic scripts knocking around, and once I’m done with Dog Country I wouldn’t mind trying some more cupcake novellas, or, ooh, maybe one of those crazy self-pubbed series of short novels you see on Amazon with the free first book? Could pass the time while I’m trying to get an agent for Dog Country, but then again maybe I can write some more Afterblight stories, or, or, or…
… Well. I certainly have no idea what’s around the next corner for me, career-wise. But I kind of like it like that.