ETA, 6 November 2016: The social-media initiative originally mentioned in the body of this post is long over. However, the STARLIGHTGUILT discount at Ebooks Direct has been reinstated for those desiring to continue inflicting guilt: read the post for more details. Thank you for your interest!
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. 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 (in the publishing sense) relatively few. This truth doesn’t cripple me. A series set in a quasi-medieval alternate Earth with a kinda-pansexual culture was always going to be aimed at a rather niche market.
And another aspect of this truth is that 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. All went OOP in short order, though there were complicating factors in that the books lost their Corgi editors early on — said editors leaving the publisher to go freelance. A book without an in-house editor to shepherd it through the pre-sales process tends not to do well, and these, unfortunately, were no exception.)
…Anyway, 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 (because publishing the last book of an OOP series is almost never done). So I should set the idea 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.
(ETA 6 Nov 2016: As mentioned above, the social-media-sourced interest-gauging effort that previously followed the above request is long over, and has been removed. However: Part of it involved a 15%-off discount at Ebooks Direct, using the discount code STARLIGHTGUILT, which those interested could use to (a) get a price break on ebooks and (b) while doing so, send the author a fairly concrete message conveying their interest in TDIStarlight. This code has been reinstated and can now again be used by those interested for all purchases in the store, even in conjunction with other sale offers ([as long as those don’t also involve codes: the store can’t handle two codes in a transaction.] So knock yourselves out.) 🙂
…So let’s see what happens. Meanwhile, I’m going to go off and see about that Malt-O-Meal.
Five years later, in 2016: Time to make a choice, I’d say.
Having had a good many months to consider the (fairly positive) response to the above post, and (finally) being at a point in my general work schedule where it’s become realistic to start moving forward, I’ve moved The Door Into Starlight onto my work schedule for 2017-18. Please note that I will from this point on be making only general statements about progress — don’t expect word counts or bar graphs. I will not discuss any dates until I have a completed first draft in hand and have had time to talk to my agent about where to go next. So wish me luck… if there is any such thing. 🙂
Meanwhile, this is the page at MiddleKingdoms.com to watch for further news on this subject. (It also contains links for various mailing lists you can sign up to if you’re interested in receiving periodic newsletters on progress,)