1995. That was the first year I wrote a novel. Really, more of a novelette, an attempt to tell a story about a unique girl’s journey and an unscrupulous doctor’s comeuppance from pursuing her. That was the beginning of my quest to become a successful author… a quest that led me through sharp rocks, brambles, biting insects, ominous shadows and poisonous plants, before finally leading me over a cliff.
Yes: This is the story of what turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life.
As a youth, I pursued illustration, and had an appreciation for science fiction and graphic novels. During my last year of high school, I worked on an illustrated version of the classic SF story Metropolis, creating original design and art to create a 100-page graphic novel. It was far from perfect, but it looked like the rough beginnings of what I thought could be a money-making living.
But after college, I had trouble developing original material for my graphic novels. When, one year, I developed a set of characters and a vague premise for a graphic project, I realized that I didn’t initially know what to do with them; and I finally realized that I needed to write a script for the project, so I’d have a direction for my art. After taking a few notes, I decided to write my first script as a short story, so it would include the detail I wanted to include in the graphic novel.
Utilizing for my storytelling skills the English education I’d gained in the Montgomery County, Md, public school system, plus the shelves of SF books and magazines I’d read since my childhood, I started writing, telling the story and providing the detail about the universe and characters I needed. After I wrote the first, another story came to me, and I wrote that. Then I wrote a third. In no time, I had a series of short stories in a current theme, enough to consider a short series. And when I stopped and reread them, I discovered my writing skills were far better than my illustrating skills. Kind of a painful realization about my illustrating skills, but at the same time, presenting the possibility of a new potential pastime, maybe even a lucrative career… if I played my cards right.
At this time, I was also self-teaching myself the beginnings of HTML, hoping to develop a career in producing web pages. I created my own websites, and to satisfy a need for content to show off my skills, I started to write my first science and science fiction articles. And as I continued, I thought about the possibilities of using my websites to sell my own products; novels in the newly-minted digital format of the 1990s… ebooks.
Jump to 1995, when I wrote my first story, entitled Robin. It was short, but it proved my ability to write a coherent story. Soon I was working on my second story, this one a full-length novel, and was more than satisfied with my progress. Having found a forum site devoted to ebooks by then, I became a regular commenter and contributor, including discussing ebook processes and references with forum members. Soon I made my first stories available and garnered enough support and praise from members to keep going.
Upon writing my third book, I tried shopping them to publishers. However, and unsurprisingly, most of them didn’t even bother to respond to my queries, and the only one that did sent a boilerplate rejection letter. It was clearly disappointing… but I’d already sold my first books as ebooks, a few dozen sales at best through the ebook forum site. It occurred to me that, if traditional publishing wouldn’t help, I could still make an income from my e-books through the process of self-publishing.
So I set about on the long strategy of building a library of books to sell. I promoted the books through my website and my connections on the ebook forum, hoping that the members of that forum would help me spread the word about my work to others. And along the way, I worked on finding new connections and fans on other SF sites that would provide new voices to my promotional efforts.
And throughout, I kept writing. I developed my first series, The Kestral Voyages, and other standalone stories. I managed to get reviews from some smaller sites, and even an interview from an Indian SF site. I started off publishing the novels through different ebook sites, which allowed me to sell in various popular ebook formats. Over the years, the market boiled down to two formats, provided by Amazon and Barns and Noble, and I winnowed down my formats to suit. I had also spent years using my skills with Photoshop to create my own covers, which got better and better over time.
But I was beginning to see the problem with my promotional strategy: It depended on other people to spread the word about my work; at first, readers and fans; and later, other SF lovers who would find my work thanks to the voice of my fans, and who had fans of their own. It was the “And So On, And So On” strategy that depended on the quality of my work to take me viral.
And try as I might, I could not make that happen. I tried to walk the fine line between self-promotion and public annoyance, creating promos, offers and free content, as well as finding new places to appear and provide a professional-sounding voice to the SF arena. I also attended conventions as a speaker, including one as a solo speaker in my own session.
Unfortunately, circumstances always made sure I didn’t get to meet the people who’d invited me to the cons, or any of the big names who’d attended. I was a shy person in the first place, and insinuating myself into guest rooms and conversations almost never worked out. I appeared, then I disappeared, with no one being the wiser. And I was never invited back.
Another thing I didn’t have to use for promotion was… money. Many authors could afford to print boxes of books to sell at paid-for booths at conventions, or buy advertising space in popular SF magazines. Other authors could afford to travel to many conventions a year, to hobnob with SF regulars, supporters and authorities and encourage them to hawk their books. I couldn’t afford any of that.
So, with nothing and no one to spread the word about my books, they went absolutely nowhere. Few mentioned them; fewer saw them; and fewer still bought them. I would get positive reviews, reaching a 4.6 rating on Amazon, most notably including: “Ranks up there with the best scifi writers of the past century.” (Honest.) But because those reviews were so few, people ignored them, and probably assumed I’d just paid for them.
I tried to fight this negative trend, developing new stories, a new series, and trying other promotional strategies. And then, one day, I realized that I’d been doing this for 25 years, publishing a total of 18 books, and in all that time hadn’t made enough money off of them to take my wife out for a 5-star meal, with drinks. I don’t mean in any single year… I mean all of them.
I’d also realized that, in all that time obsessing about my books, what I should have been obsessing about was my web career. Over the years, my web skills had stagnated and I’d fallen behind. When I had to leave my job, I spent years in crappy contract jobs because I was so far behind the curve. My salaries plunged, which put me in debt for years. I failed to make financial opportunities… vacations… anniversary events. I wallowed in confusion, depression and self-pity.
I’d finally realized I’d been enabling a self-destructive habit that I could no longer stand or afford. Novel-writing was the monkey on my back, the compulsion that had consumed the best years of my life, leaving behind a yawning sense of loss and self-doubt that made me a bad man, a bad husband and a bad friend.
So, in a blatant bid to recover my sanity and sense of self-worth, I stopped writing novels. I’m presently putting my full concentration into rebuilding my career skills and salvaging my financial life. I’m also trying to recover the relationships that I’ve wasted, especially with the wife I’ve unfairly neglected for far too long.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go cold turkey; I still write short articles, and I have a file of potential novel material left on a private drive. And I constantly wrestle with the idea of rewriting my novels as movie scripts, to try to sell them to Hollywood. (I actually did one, just to see if I could do it. And unfortunately—for me—it came out just fine.)
I feel like, if there was an Authors Anonymous for writers, I’d probably be a regular visitor… mainly because, in the same way alcoholics often struggle with the temptation of finding liquor around them at every turn, I struggle with others who ignore the angst I often record on these pages and try to convince me that writing books is my calling, my life’s meaning, my greatest accomplishment. And much like drinking, it’s not the act of writing that’s necessarily bad; it’s how it adversely impacts your life that matters.
One of the greatest American myths is that all a person has to do is work hard and believe in themselves, and they will ultimately succeed. The reality is that, for every self-made success, there are untold numbers of people who never got ahead, and never will before they’re gone. They may not exactly be failures, but they didn’t succeed at their goals. It’s taken me a few years to come to grips with being another one of those untold non-successes; as well as to accept that my lack of success doesn’t define me as a failure. I have to remind myself of this, every day.
And what does the future bring? How would I know? —I’m still struggling through the present, trying to rebuild my life. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I figure maybe a decade to get it done before I’m forced into retirement. And once retirement happens… might I take up novel-writing again? Well, if somehow I got convinced that I could overcome the promotional obstacles and actually profit from my novels… maybe I’ll put my old books back on the market, and see what happens. And if they actually sell well, then maybe—maybe—I’ll write more.
But times change. The popular entertainment and media of the past may not be the popular material of the future. It may be that there will be no viable future for novels, so there may be little point to update my old novels or write more. Or maybe their future is in some other media, like screenplays or audiobooks. Or maybe the possibilities of “breaking through” the wall of popularity that so strongly impacts product sales will become harder and make it even less likely that I’ll be selling my work. There’s no telling what the future will bring.
For the present, I’ll continue to fight the urge to punish myself for my futile attempts to entertain others (for now, participation is enough), attend my mental AA meetings to keep up my sense of self-esteem, and work to recover my place in the world.