Lee & Miller history lesson re “crowd funding”

Most of y’all know this story.  Generally, I’m putting it here for those who have heard a garbled version, or who are justifying something they want to do by convincing themselves that we did that thing, and so it’s OK for them to do it.

In general, I’m not comfortable with being a justification for the actions and decisions of anybody else.  I mean, jeez, if you wanna do something, do it, and see what happens.  Though, I don’t — I really don’t — think it’s a good idea to quit your day-job and ask your friends to support you while you “try this writing thing,” if you don’t already have publishing experience, and a reader base.


Once upon a time, ‘way back in the last half of the 20th century, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller were working day-jobs and writing on the side, as one does.  We had collaborated on, and sold to a magazine called Fantasy Book, two short stories about a not-very-bright, if well-meaning, accidental wizard by the name of Kinzel.  The editor was very encouraging about the stories, asking for more of this, please, so we wrote a third in the series, and sent it off, feeling like we had a sure sale.

Lesson the First:  There are no sure sales.

The story came back by return mail, with a form letter attached, that said (paraphrased): Fantasy Book has gone on hiatus, due to lack of funds.  Just as soon as we have funding, we’ll let all our writers know.

That was in 1985.  Fantasy Book is still on hiatus.

Well, that was a disappointment, to say the least.

Now, for those who were born since those Halcyon Days of Yore, I will just mention here that home computers, cell phones, tablets, and the like did not always exist.  In fact, desktop computers were just starting to become available to regular people, and, courtesy of our advance money for Agent of Change, purchased in 1985 by Del Rey Books (an imprint of Random House), we had a Kaypro so-called portable computer and a 9-pin printer.  The Kaypro computer had an internal 300-baud modem, and we were members of several Baltimore (we were living in Baltimore, Maryland at the time.  In fact, we were both born in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1950s.  No, I never rode a dinosaur to school.) area computer bulletin boards (computer bulletin boards were pre-internet chat and (sometimes) group game systems).  We were on Midnight, KC’s Place, and. . .(memory fails:  Fallen Angel ran the place, that’s all I remember.  Lovely woman.  ‘Til Dawn, maybe it was called.). . .all of which were heavily messaged-based.  There was quite a tight-knit community of BBS users, and one night, Steve was “talking” about the Fantasy Book situation, and the fact that we had an orphaned third story in a “trilogy” and no other magazine was likely to take it, when one of his correspondents said, “Why not publish it yourself?”

“Takes money,” said Steve.

. . .and two days later, when we went to the post office to collect our mail, among the advertisers and the bills was an envelope containing two $20 bills, and a note that said, “Toward publishing your fantasy stories.”

Steve had the skills to do layout, having worked for several newspapers in several capacities.  He did the figuring — how many pages to publish not just the third, but all three Kinzel stories, got the quote from the printer, added in probable postage, asked Colleen Doran how much she would need to draw us a cover, and put the whole package before the BBS community:  This is how much it would cost to get this done, and everyone who donates — I forget.  $5? — to the project will get a copy of the finished chapbook.

Donations — I kid you not — poured in, we produced the book, friends from the community came over to our house to help us collate and saddlestitch it (we saved money by doing that part ourselves, rather than having the printer put the book together), we mailed them to subscribers, and!

That was our very first crowd-funded project.

Historic touchstone:  Agent of Change was published as a paperback original by Del Rey Books in February 1988; Conflict of Honors, was published as a Del Rey paperback original in July 1988; Carpe Diem was published as a paperback original in October 1989, as a Del Rey paperback original.  In 1991, I guess, Del Rey rejected the option book, and our editor there told us we were has-been writers.

We continued to write, though nobody bought our stuff, and we worked day-jobs to keep cats and house together.  I was a copy editor on night-side news at the local daily.  Steve was childrens librarian at the Oakland Public Library.  I was office manager for a wastewater service company; Steve did sales in a computer store.  I was executive director of SFWA.  Steve was internet librarian for a dot.com that went bust. You know the drill.

Around 1995,  SRM Publisher, Ltd. came into being, and?  Most of our 25 chapbooks, three trade paperbacks, and two hardcovers, were pre-funded by subscription — crowd-funded, if you will.

Then — we’re still in the 20th Century, now — Del Rey Books having dropped us, though, as I said, we continued to write — we got a call from Stephen Pagel, who was starting a publishing company called Meisha Merlin.  The idea behind the company was to reprint “underpublished” books — by which Stephe (that’s what he called himself, “Stephe,” and that’s how he spelled it; not a typo, OK?  A man can decide what he wants to be called and how it’s spelled) meant mostly 1970s and 1980s paperback originals that had been read to literal pieces and were now out of print, so people couldn’t replace their worn-out, much-loved books.

NOTE for those who were born into another time:  Ebooks existed at this time, but, since ereaders with nice resolution did not, nobody wanted to buy them.

So, Stephe at Meisha Merlin had heard good things about our three novels, and wanted to reprint them, if the rights were available.

Well, not only were the rights available, we had five more books (we’d continued to write, remember?) in series ready to go, and Stephe — for good or ill — purchased them on the spot.

Plan B, the fourth novel in the Liaden Universe® was published by Meisha Merlin in February 1999; our last book with Meisha Merlin — Crystal Dragon — was published in February 2006.  By that time, we were full-time writers, and earning more than the day-jobs had ever paid us.

Right around the time of Crystal Dragon’s publication, Meisha Merlin stopped paying us, and by the winter of 2006, we here at the Cat Farm and Confusion Factory were. . .in serious financial straits, barely afloat, despite the income that SRM was still bringing in.

Obviously, we needed to do Something, and in the end, we did three things.

1.  I went — as my colleagues there charmingly put it — “back to work” as a secretary in the History Department at Colby College.

2.  Steve and I put together the first five chapters of a Liaden book we called Fledgling, about a never-before-seen character, Theo Waitley, and announced to the interwebs that we would be posting the first chapter, free for anyone to read, on January 7?, 2007.  The next chapter would be posted when we had collected $300 in donations.  We further promised that anyone who donated $25 or more would receive a hard copy of the novel, if one were ever published.  (At that point, like the Kinzel stories, we figured we would publish the book ourselves.)

NOTE:  Kickstarter did not exist at this point.  In a sense, we pioneered the Kickstarter model in science fiction publishing.

3.  We asked our agent to send two active proposals for fantasy novels, to Baen Books, who had picked up the erights (which we owned) to the (then) 10 existing Liaden novels.

Number 1 above covered our health insurance, and brought in a modest amount of money, bi-weekly.

Fledgling did very well for us; and the following year we wrote the second Theo book, Saltation, in the same manner.

Baen purchased the two fantasy novels — Duainfey and Longeye.

In due time, Baen picked up the rights to publish both Theo books — and, the rights having finally been recovered from the smoking wreckage of Meisha Merlin — new Liaden titles, as well.

We are now full-time writers; I quit my day-job in the summer of 2011, because the loss of opportunities it caused outweighed the benefits it produced.  We will in May turn in our. . .twelfth novel to Baen books.  Our entire backlist is currently in print, as books, ebooks, and audiobooks.

. . .I think that’s it.  Who has questions?


15 thoughts on “Lee & Miller history lesson re “crowd funding””

  1. I thank you for staying the course. We Readers are definitely the winners.

  2. Yes. . .and there were other authors making their own chapbooks in 1985. Ideas rarely happen in a vacuum.

    The history related above is personal and is meant to inform those who apparently believe that Lee and Miller “suddenly appeared” in 2007 with a crowd-funded project that skyrocketed them to Fame & Fortune.

    Think of it as akin to correcting the people who insist on repeating the untruth that Roger Zelazny died penniless. If we don’t set the record straight, it will remain crooked.

  3. I love the whole history in one spot! Thank you!
    Persistence and talent win the day. 🙂

  4. It must have seemed at times as if you had anti-luck. Send something off to a publisher or a magazine and the company would surely flame out.
    I’ve been trying to promote your work for years in my professional capacity (public service librarian) and I kept getting the same suspicion: “If these guys are so good, and they’ve written so much, why haven’t we ever heard of them? Why aren’t they being promoted by major publishers?” Aargh!

  5. The two stories we published in Two Tales of Korval, SRM Publisher’s first chapbook, had both been previously purchased by magazines which then collapsed before the stories could be published. In the end, we stopped sending them out, for the good of the field.

    The promotion stuff. . .yeah. We were Meisha Merlin’s top sellers, but Stephe kept trying to find a Real! Big! Author! for his house.

    Funny story — funny, now, anyway.

    After Del Rey cut us loose, the internet happened, and publishers grudgingly put up websites, including Del Rey. A bunch of Liaden readers wrote to them, via the handy web board, asking whatever happened to Lee & Miller and why weren’t there any more Liaden books? The first few replies from editorial were patient, something to the effect of: We thought the Liaden books were great, but they just didn’t have the numbers. We can’t afford to publish books that lose money.

    Requests over time increased, and finally came the answer from editorial, sounding a little snappish, like: Look, the Liaden books didn’t earn out (though Agent of Change went into four printings, but that’s another story), and we’re certainly not going to take on losing books just to placate a couple hundred geeks on the internet.


  6. I remember Fledgling and Saltation very fondly. It was really frustrating but also really great to be waiting for that update. Refreshing the page. Eagerly reading the next chapter. And then spending the time until the next update wondering “What will happen to Theo next time?”

    As good as a weekly radio show or TV series!

  7. Chris Meadows — You’re apparently blinded by meme-brands. Lee & Miller were *actively* working with our chapbooks, starting in the 1980s; SRM Publisher started actively in 1995. We were in fact doing the crowd-funding bit well before the story-teller bowl model was running loose on the interwebs. Just because we didn’t call it that doesn’t mean it wasn’t effectively what we were doing.

  8. Although it’s a tangent to the main theme of how you and Steve kept a roof over yourselves (and the cats), I think it’s worth noting that SRM Publisher didn’t just benefit you, but that you also used it as a vehicle to lend support to other up and coming authors. A fact for which I will be forever grateful.

  9. Wow! I can’t believe it has been so long! I’ve been a fan since the SRM days (I think.) Or before. I remember, fondly, finding out about the books from an Amazon list. Trying to hunt them up at the local used book place and failing. Finally ordering them from Amazon. And the delight when my sweetie bought me ALL OF THE CHAPBOOKS! he could get his hands on about 7 years ago. An extravagant and thoughtful gift. The excitement of finally finding a Lee and Miller book in the actual book store. I got the Theo books in my local library. 🙂

    I look forward to many years and pages in my future. (And cat pictures, let’s not forget the cat pictures and stories.)

  10. Jonathan Briggs, I agree. I truly enjoyed Fledgling and Saltation as it was put together and read over the weeks and months. And I vividly recall the occasional weeks where a chapter was not available to be published/uploaded as planned (and the accompanying sorrow of not finding out what was happening with Theo, Kamele, Kara, Win Ton, etc)… after all, life frequently does intrude and impact anyone’s plans

  11. Jennifer C., I also can’t believe how long it’s been. I think of myself as a very late comer to the party: I picked up Agent of Change in a small bookstore in a strip mall in Waterville, Maine, sometime shortly I think after the crash of Meisha Merlin. I made the purchase as a random sf choice, and decided I had struck gold. I drove back to Waterville ASAP (not always easy to hop in the car in rural Maine) and bought all the titles they had.
    I wasn’t hooked into the news groups to find out about Fledgling until the hardback was published, so I missed all the week-by-week excitement. But the ride since then has been wonderful! Thanks to Sharon Lee and Steve Miller for an actively growing list– Liaden adventures are my go-to calmers when life is too exciting in the puckerbrush!

  12. Thanks for sharing the whole story – I’m a fairly recent convert to your writing (found the books in 2005 or so) so I only knew part of the story. Love your work!

    But what made me really laugh was the Kaypro. My sister and I were the envy of our college dorm 1986 because we shared a Osborne “portable” computer. It was about 40 pounds, triangle in shape, had an amber on black screen that was all of 6×6″ or so and used 5″ floppy drives – one for WordStar and one for your document. Oh, and we had the 9-pin printer too!

    Loved that thing!

  13. Sharon & Steve are definitely the pioneers in “crowd funding” writing…most of which I didn’t know for a long time, since I had no internet access. Kept reading (in print) about BBSs and GEnie and so on, but couldn’t afford the long-distance charges it would’ve taken to get on anything (we were long distance from *everywhere*) until a little ISP opened up 20 miles away and we had a slow phone-modem connection. That was several years after SRM was set up (and I didn’t know about it because…no internet…)

    Two things deep-sixed my own idea for a crowd-funding activity–the main one being my own lack of knowledge, experience, and skills (which are described as underpinning Sharon & Steve’s success) and the other a series of family crises that left me no time or energy to put into another major activity. But my model had been more on a group scale–primarily for short fiction, as the short markets were drying up, but organized cooperatively (maybe like Book View Cafe).

    It would’ve taken someone with far more understanding of all the tasks involved, and far more able to gather a good team, to make it work. So basically I’m an example of how NOT to attempt it. The people who’ve done it more recently have all, I’ve noticed, had talents and experience I didn’t have (and still don’t.)

    The closest I came was putting together a cookbook for the local library and that experience should’ve warned me away from any further attempts. My layout skills were such that the first page ended up as the last page, and my copy editing skills were exposed with a recipe that included “2 1/2 cups of flower.” You don’t get credit for correcting the misspellings in handwritten recipes when you create one like that all by yourself. (The bank president’s wife’s recipe, too. She was also head of the Library Board. When I screw up, I take no prisoners on the way.)

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