The Long Overnight, or How I Became a Published Author, by Anthony Ryan
Although I’m something of a neophyte to the world of publishing, it strikes me that one of its most persistent myths is the notion of the overnight success. We’ve all heard the story: first time novelist wins humongous advance before going on to dominate the bestseller lists and live happily ever after wallowing in swimming pools of money beneath a choir of angels. Like every myth there is a grain of truth to this narrative, some previously unknown writers have indeed earned large sums for the first thing they ever wrote, but it should be remembered that these stories are widely known because they are exceptional. Most writers will spend a significant chunk of their lives on their first novel only to submit it and enjoy the prospect of greatly reduced decorating costs as the rejection letters supplied by publishers and agents will meet their wallpapering needs for years to come. However, the most important, and oft forgotten, element to the story is the simple fact that every overnight success had to write something first, and for most of us mere mortals learning to write well takes years.
In my own case I spent my early twenties writing what I now recognize as a rather awful gangster crime epic that certainly deserved all the rejection it received. Despite the embarrassment with which I now regard this episode, I also recognize its value in making me a better writer as well as engendering a determination not to trouble the publishing industry again until I had something worth their time. All writing experience, however execrable the results, brings the writer closer to the day when they produce something that isn’t an embarrassment.
It was with the completion of my epic fantasy novel Blood Song in 2010 that I finally felt I might have that something. I was aware this feeling may well have stemmed from the fact that the book had taken me about six and a half years to write, years I didn’t want to think of as wasted. The actual writing was spasmodic, three or four hundred words a day in a good week, much less in others as the demands of full time work and a part-time history degree took their toll and led me to wonder whether I shouldn’t just put it aside. However, something about the story of Vaelin Al Sorna’s career in the Sixth Order, and the endless intrigues of the Unified Realm, kept drawing me back. Although I had begun the book by penning a one page synopsis, mainly to give myself the security blanket of knowing I had an ending, there was much about Vaelin and his world I didn’t know and found the process of discovery a joyful one, however protracted it proved to be. So when the last rewrite was finally complete I decided the publishing industry was once again ready to receive the bounty of my imagination.
Although still somewhat jaded and cynical about the whole process after my previous embarrassment, I nevertheless sent the manuscript to an agent and awaited results. I would like to report that this is the point whereupon my story begins to match the myth of overnight success, that a gushing letter of praise arrived within the month attached to a big fat check, but that would be a big fat lie. Rejection followed rejection until, over the course of the following year, I had made my way through every agent listed in the UK Writers and Artists Handbook as dealing in fantasy. Not all rejections were standard form letters, a few were even complimentary, but they were still rejections and however hardened you may be, rejection never really loses its sting.
During this period I had been reading more and more about the growing importance of ebooks, and had seen an increasing number of people reading kindles (other ereaders are available) on the train during my daily commute. It also became increasingly common for people to publish their own books in electronic format without recourse to the traditional publishing industry. Like many writers, I had always been wary of self-publishing, seeing it as the province of the desperate or the gullible; stories still abound of new writers being conned into parting with sizeable sums for editing and marketing services that are either worthless or easily achieved for free. It was the word ‘free’ that proved to be key in my decision to give the whole thing I try.
I published Blood Song on Smashwords in July 2011, a free online service that distributes to most major ebook retailers, apart from Amazon which operates its own Kindle store. Once again I must disappoint anyone assuming that this was the point whereupon my long awaited overnight success became a reality, but no. From July to December 2011 Blood Song sold a total of five copies via Smashwords, garnering no reviews in the process. So when I decided to also publish on the Kindle store in January 2012 it was with fairly low expectations.
First month sales were hardly impressive by most standards but a considerable improvement on my previous experience, 20 books sold and a couple very nice reviews. I started a blog and received some pleasing comments from readers, including the first of many ‘where’s the sequel?’ queries. Sales doubled the next month and the month after that, leading to the day when I received my first ever royalty check. It was all very gratifying and validating but I still had a day job to do, and now apparently, a sequel to write. I should stress that at this point, although I had always harbored the ambition to write full time, I was in a job I liked, had no difficulty paying my bills and had never entertained the idea of starving in a garret, I like food way too much for that. So I viewed writing mainly as a sideline which would earn a small but welcome additional income. This was destined to change when Lars Townsend, an employee at the Politics and Prose bookshop in Washington DC, happened upon Blood Song as part of a personal reading project aimed at finding something worthwhile among the avalanche of self-published ebooks. Lars was sufficiently impressed to pass it on to a Penguin sales rep he knew, who passed it on to Susan Allison, Editorial Director at Berkley/Ace/Roc, and in May 2012 I received an email from Susan asking if I’d like to have a conversation.
So then, morning had broken, right? The long overnight was over. Well, not quite. I had to think about the offer for a while, there are pros as well as cons to self-publishing and my sales were reaching a point where I needed financial advice, all without the benefit of advertising or pro editing. Also, I found the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition to be an odd sensation, a curious mix of euphoria and anti-climax. Yes, I’d gotten what I always wanted but life still went on, there were no choirs of angels or instant swimming pools of money. I still had a day job and two very long books to write. It was the desire to go full-time that proved the clincher, if I was ever going to make a living from writing I felt I needed the backing of a major publisher, I needed to be in bookstores and I needed foreign sales.
So in July of 2012 I signed a three book deal with Ace and, as sales of the ebook steadily increased throughout the summer and foreign rights deals started to come in, I notified my employed I would be resigning at the end of the year. As of now I’m a fulltime writer, enjoying my new profession but finding, like any other, it has its share of frustrations and drawbacks but also entails a level of daily satisfaction that comes from doing the job I always wanted to do. Still no choirs of angels or swimming pools of money and, if I am an overnight success story, then I’m bound to say morning took a long time to break, but I’m glad it did.