This one time at Writer's Camp…
Scary Tales in Publishing
(Warning: this contains spoilers for Ctrl-Alt-Revolt! Continue at your own risk)
As a writer, one of the things I dread more than anything else is the editor’s response to the finished product. Oh sure, gutting it on your own to clean it up and make it acceptable for publishing is hard enough. But having a professional who does it for a living? It’s terrifying.
However, as you become a solid producer of words, you are given a little bit of leeway within your story’s construct. Well, usually at least. There are cases where this is not the usual occurrence. Such as the case of Nick Cole.
Nick is a talented author, there is no denying this. His novels have been solid sellers for a few years now and he has built up quite a bit of backlist which, for any other, means better money. Living money. So one can assume that this is a guy who’s earned some credibility with his publisher and, as such, should be given some leeway when it comes to telling his story.
Except that it didn’t work out that way.
An editor somewhere along the line at his publishing house determined that his antagonist’s reasoning about why humanity had to die was not worthy of being published and was deeply offended by the idea. Now, traditionally SF is the place where “troubling” ideas go to be presented to the rest of the world as strange “what ifs?” It was the place where authors can test the boundaries of ideology without being set upon by the aggrieved masses.
However, now it appears that some deeply offended editor is going to cost her company not only a lot of money but also the matter of public opinion, which in today’s social media/viral world can be a death knell for any publisher. Especially given as to how much traditional publishers and book stores are hurting financially.
His latest book, titled Ctrl-Alt-Revolt!, was not put out by his publisher and his contract subsequently torn up because of something minor that the villain of the story uses to justify the evil they wrought upon mankind. Something that really wasn’t even an issue (quite frankly, I would have balked at the ending if I was a publisher, but only because it was a little too pat for my tastes) and shouldn’t have even been commented upon really. It was a cast-off line, meant to show how fear can delude the minds of even a critical thinking machine (because SILAS’ response was based on fear, which makes for an interesting conversation of it’s own: that a sentient AI’s first emotion to anything is fear).
I thought it was well-done and very pragmatic. I also understand precisely what Nick is going through right now, because I’ve gone through the very same thing.
I’m assuming that the majority of people have read Corruptor by now (if you haven’t, well, I understand… but I’m going to spoil a bit of the middle of the book here). When I had first written it, I had two scenes in it that were very… difficult to write. The first was a rape scene that made me very uncomfortable writing about, given my past. The second was the emotional and mental collapse of one of my favorite secondary characters, which in turn led that person to betraying their friends.
One of the coolest things about this book was that it sold in six days. That’s freaking unheard of for an unknown author. I had submitted it on Feb 17, 2005 and it was sold on the 23rd. The publisher apparently liked it that much. Hey, I wasn’t going to argue. I was excited, the publisher was excited… for a first time author, that was a career-maker. I was given an editor to help me clean it up some and then it was scheduled to be released in Oct 2007.
To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement.
However, when I received the very first notes from the editor, the two scenes that I had been concerned about weren’t even mentioned by the editor. No, the editor was freaking out about something that made her decidedly uncomfortable. I asked her what it was and she told me that the idea of grown men finding a 16 year old girl attractive while under the guise of an avatar in a video game disgusted her. She had a 16 year old daughter and the idea that grown men would find her attractive within a game made her sick. She demanded that I change it. I balked and said no.
It was obvious to me there (and remains obvious to me now) that my editor had never played any sort of MMORPG in her life. It was painfully obvious that she didn’t even grasp the basic idea of how an avatar can be changed, appearance-wise, at the gamer’s whim. She told me that I needed to change it, I said no. She went to the publisher and refused to edit my book, so another editor was brought on.
I kid you not, but the second editor did the exact same thing. Nobody had yet to complain about the rape scene (which I actually decided to tone back a little because it was bothering me) but the idea of men finding this character attractive disgusted them beyond measure. I told the publisher that I was not going to change that because it’s pretty much how a lot of gamers react when they find out that the other player is a Real Life Girl. Yes, immature and irrational thought, but still a common one.
Oh the fuss she raised. The publisher removed her and got a new editor for the book.
Meanwhile, we’re in 2009 at this point. Publishing date has been pushed back indefinitely. My life was in shambles at that time but was slowly starting to turn around. I was frustrated, angry, and tired with the publishing world. So I figured “Screw it. This is the last book I write.”
(Thank God I didn’t listen to myself)
The new editor simply went through and copy edited instead of asking me to change anything. She offered suggestions to sentence structure but the story as a whole she left alone. I was thrilled. I finished the recommended edits in about a week and sent it back in, excited over the prospect of finally seeing this book out in print.
2009 came and went… no book. I was unhappy but I understood how publishing schedules worked. You needed to schedule those bad boys a year or so in advance. So I queried my publisher and asked about a publication date.
Much like Nick found out, I’d been put on a little list. The publisher stopped talking to me and communication dropped to almost nothing. Again, I figured it was all my fault and resigned myself to not ever seeing anything else out in print again. I had no idea when the book was to come out. It was a frustrating experience.
It grew worse when I received a message on Facebook from one of my friends yelling at me for not letting them know that my book was out. I was confused. It was the week before Christmas and I had no idea that it was out. I hopped over to Amazon and, sure enough, my poor lost novel had been published and released into the wild… on November 30, 2010.
At the time I was simply happy that it was finally out. After working with various publishers over the years since, however, I can say that what happened was a bit of a jerk move by the publisher. My understanding now is that this is how a publisher gets rid of a “problem writer.” No marketing behind the book, no news out, bad links on the website… there was a laundry list of issues that I had ignored early on but only became aware of later on. The book would have faded into complete and absolute obscurity (as would have I) if not for fans of a different publisher.
So now I’m rallying everyone I know. Go read this book. It’s an amazing and fast paced novel. I finished it this morning three hours after purchasing it. It’s only $0.99 on Kindle as well. It’s really good, and will probably join my Hugo shortlist for next year.
Now, I will be the first to say that my experience wasn’t that bad, all things considered. I received far worse treatment at the hands of people due to being on the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies Hugo lists last year than I ever did from that particular publisher. And I’ve reconciled with that publisher (sort of) by referring to them some great new authors whose books didn’t quite fit into the traditional publishing “norm”. But still, I can understand where Nick is coming from, his reaction, and his counter-move.
Which I loudly applaud.