Lee & Miller history lesson re “crowd funding”

Formerly posted on Blog Without a Name at sharonleewriter.com, and Eagles Over the Kennebec at LiveJournal on March 20, 2015

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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?