This post is brought to you by the phrase, “…but don’t start here. . .”
A discussion began on Facebook re: reader reviews, honesty, why books do — or don’t — get published, and how writers earn money. I reacted emotionally to the continued beat of, “It’s a good book, but you can’t start here,” and I said I would try to explain why that was. Follows the explanation.
For those who may be alarmed by some of the comments made below: you are in no immediate danger of losing Liad. We have five Liaden books under contract as I write this.
The discussion has run a little long, but I hope you’ll stick with me.
Let’s do this thing.
As most people reading here know, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee (that’s me) have been mostly writing in a big, sprawling space opera universe that they built all by their onesies back in the mid-1980s (in the last century; when what portable phones there were weighed more than a beagle, and the overwhelming majority of civilians had landlines (we won’t go into party lines, your head would explode); impact printers walked the earth, dispensing text from 9 to 24 pins; 300-baud was considered Quite the Thing, modem-wise; and you could smoke cigarettes anydamnwhere you pleased and be thought So Cool).
Lee and Miller’s first book, establishing that sprawling space opera geography, which later became known as the Liaden Universe® — was written in 1984 and published in 1988. It was titled Agent of Change. Yesterday, July 5, the 19th novel in the Liaden Universe® was released. It is titled Alliance of Equals.
We repeatedly make the case that the Liaden Universe® novels are not a series, which is to say, they are not necessarily sequential, though some are, and form mini-series within the whole tapestry. The books tend to follow the doings of a particular set of Liadens called Clan Korval, with a penchant for trouble. Just to keep you on your toes — sometimes we write about characters and situations that are not about Clan Korval. For a complete explanation of our books and universe and how the books fit together, see this page.
In the 28 years since the first book was published, the Universe has gained many readers, and fans. This is Good and Wonderful. We are grateful to the readers and fans of the Liaden Universe® who twice brought our career back from the dead, and allowed us to continue writing in our universe.
Now, back in the day, after we had died the first time, there were only three books in the Universe: Agent of Change, Conflict of Honors, Carpe Diem. Readers and fans encouraged other readers by telling them to start with Agent of Change and continue. This was reasonable; the Whole Liaden Universe® at that time was contained in three +/- 100,000 word novels. Any reader worth their salt could polish them off over a weekend.
Came our first resurrection, which saw the reprinting of the first three novels, and the publication of ten new novels. Long-time readers, whose mass market paperbacks of the first three Liaden novels had long since been read to pieces, snatched up the reprints and pushed them to their friends, who may have missed them the first time around. The subsequent novels continued the pattern.
Then we died again, not for very long this time, and we continued to write in our big sprawly space opera universe. As I said, the 19th novel just came out; there are three novels’ worth of short stories published in three collections, and there may eventually be a fourth, since we can’t seem to break ourselves of the habit of writing short stories.
Now — leaping back in time to 1988, 1989. . .the reason that there was no fourth Liaden book in 1990, was that the first three books did not have numbers. This means, nobody bought our books. Which was — according to those very numbers, which the publisher shared with us — true by the standards of the mass market standards of the time.
Imagine our surprise, then, when we learned, after the internet finally arrived in Maine and those readers and fans of the first three books found us — a lot more people — a whole lot more people — had read our books than had bought them.
How was this possible? Well, the folks who had bought the books lent them to their friends, of course, just like anybody does, when they find a book they like a lot.
As one person told me, when we were still in our first, decade-long death: “Everybody knew there would be more Liaden books, because they were so much fun! We were really sad when there weren’t any more.”
Which brings us to the title of this post.
Buy my books.
There is a reason why authors say, “Buy my books,” and not necessarily, “Read my books.” It’s a low, unworthy, venal reason, that ought to have no place in the House of Art, but here it is —
Authors get paid when somebody buys their book. It’s a simple transaction: You buy a book, we get our percent, and we go away. Afterward, you can read that book a million times and we don’t earn one cent more. Unless, of course, you buy another copy of the book for some reason, or recommend it to a like-minded friend, who then buys their own copy.
But, wait! There’s more.
Publishers are not satisfied if readers buy one book out of 19. Publishers are very zen creatures, living in the moment. It’s nice if the backlist sells, but that’s free money, in a sense. What they need to keep an eye on is how this book sells. And if it doesn’t sell well, and is seen, perhaps, to be one of several in a row that have not sold well (where “well” is a moving target decided by the publisher), then. . . Understand, that the House guards the House’s profit, as is only meet. If a series does less-well enough, and it’s no longer profitable for the House — the House kills the series.
No, really; it does happen. Be honest — have you not, yourself, been enchanted by the first two books of a trilogy, and been seriously annoyed — at the author — when the third book is never published? Sometimes, yes, this is the author’s fault, but not always. I would go so far as to say, not usually.
So, real harm is done — not just to the authors, but to readers of particular series, or universes — if the chorus upon every new book hitting the shelves is. . .but don’t start here.
To bring this back to the personal — Steve and I are not idiots. We have written portal books into the Liaden Universe®; we layer backstory into every book — both to remind existing readers of various details, and to clue new readers in. It is possible for a new reader to read the 19th book (for instance), and follow the story. Even, possibly, we hope, enjoy the story. No, they will not know everything and everyone from all the rest of the previous stories, but I put it to you —
When you first read Agent of Change, or whichever Liaden book you did read first — did you know every single bit of backstory? All of Val Con’s relatives? The place of Korval in the trade culture of the universe? Did that stop you from enjoying the story? Or did you want to know more?
Now, I understand that people want to be truthful; they don’t want to mislead other readers. That’s honorable, and I salute you.
Some readers will, indeed, be put off if they aren’t given all the backstory at once. I’m certain people stopped reading Agent of Change, ‘way back last century because we didn’t explain enough up front. Why am I certain? Because people have said as much to me, or around me. And that’s OK; we don’t all like to read the same thing; we all have different comfort levels and different things that we want from our pleasure reading.
But, I think you’re shortchanging the intelligence, resilience, and story-sense of a whole bunch of potential readers by actively discouraging them to try the Liaden Universe®, at whatever point they care to enter. I think that they deserve the chance to try, and see what happens.
I will tell you that I — we get to see the royalty statements, after all. We get the checks, and we can look back and see what the check for last year’s book was, and how many sold in the first period — I have seen a worrisome (to me; I worry; it’s my job). . .downturn in the first reported sales of Dragon in Exile, which is possibly the first Liaden novel to have a concerted. . .but don’t start here! campaign brought against it by readers and reviewers.
Now, there are many other reasons for a book to experience low(er) sales. We may have written a lousy book. The title might have turned readers off. The cover art might not have spoken to folks who would potentially enjoy the story. The economy sucked and book-buying budgets went down the drain. There are lots of reasons why some books do less-well than others.
But, the reality is: if people don’t buy our books, if readers are discouraged from buying the new book — we’re dead again, as authors.
For those of you who remember landlines and party lines. . .The tradition we and the Liaden Universe® come from is that of Andre Norton, whose many novels took place in a full-realized universe. Has anyone seen a review of an Andre Norton book that included. . .but don’t start here?
Robert Heinlein came to the realization that a “universe” was a desirable thing very late in his career, and his attempts to cobble up his work into a cohesive universe was not, imho, very successful, but! Do people write reviews of Heinlein novels that include. . .but don’t start here? (Leaving aside those folks who think you shouldn’t read Heinlein at all.)
. . .I’ve been mulling over the reviews garnered by some of our colleagues. Lois Bujold is probably doing the closest to what we’re trying to do in the Liaden Universe®, in writing novels as they occur — which is to say “out of order.” And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a review of one of her books that said. . .but don’t start here. There are many, many, many authors writing multi-books series — and remember, the Liaden Universe® is not a trad series — and I don’t see. . .but don’t start here.
Steve and I are, I think, doing something unique in the field, and we’ve been doing it for 28 years. It’s hard to be unique in publishing, because unique is difficult to explain, and because unique doesn’t fit into the cozy little sub-genres the bookstores invented to make business easy on themselves. And, if you do something for 28 years, you tend to be trivialized by. . .people who Form Opinions based on Their Opinions. Oh, that’s Lee and Miller doing That Thing that they do. Bodice rippers in space. Too bad they don’t have any original ideas. . .
So. . .you who are readers of — who are friends of — Liad. . .by all means write reviews, and share your honest opinion of our work with other readers. Especially share your opinion of the newest Liaden adventure, along with, perhaps, one of two of your personal favorites. If you liked the book, say so. If you didn’t like the book, say so.
But, please, don’t tell people not to read our newest book.
Thanks for listening.