Monday, January 30, 2012

Successful Failure

I dunno if I told you this story before, but if I did, it's been a while, and it came up during a discussion about ebooks, so I thought I'd offer it.

Some years ago, when I was blowin' and goin' and doing a lot of writing in major franchise universes, I got a call from a guy who worked for a game company. The company was a pioneer in online first-person shooter interactives, and doing really well with it. They were about to roll out another incarnation of the game, and would I be interested in doing a book tie-in?

I wasn't against the idea in general, but not particularly interested in that moment. I had a couple of high-profile, well-paying projects going, a couple of my own books stacked up behind those, and I allowed as much to the caller. But he was a fan, and he wondered if he and another game guy could come by, buy me lunch, and pitch me.

Okay, free lunch, why not?

So they came and pitched the idea. Action-adventure, military space opera, I could go in pretty much any direction I wanted. It would be fun, they said. Right up my alley.

Working for folks who don't have any real experience in book-land can be problematic. Having somebody look over your shoulder while you write is a pain in the posterior. You expect that in TV or movie stuff, it's part of the game, but in bookery, I want to be left alone to do the job. 

We'll leave you alone, we promise.

Tempting; still, I was busy and really not that interested, so I rattled off a figure so high that I expected that would end the discussion. 

They swallowed when they heard the number. We'll, uh, get back to  you.

I grinned inwardly. Yeah, that's what I figured. So I went on my merry way, and thanks for lunch.

Few days later I got a call. Okay, let's do it!

Whoa! Really?

I talked to my agent, who got the parameters of the deal, and, well, I, um, reassessed my thinking.

Let me rephrase that: It was an offer I couldn't refuse. Not only was I looking at a nice six-figure advance, they were willing to ship a copy of the book with every game, which, if it was anything near the first version, would run to a million units. Be a lot of potential readers. And maybe more books like it down the line ...

But, wait–!

Once the book was published, my royalty on that would be 50%. Fifty percent? Where ten is normal for original stuff, and 1-2% is what you get on most tie-ins? Fifty percent?

They didn't know any better, we weren't going to tell them, and let's face it, greed laid her velvet claws onto me. Visions of sugar plums danced in my head.

Hear me rationalize: Hey, I'm gonna write stuff like this anyhow, and why not get well-paid for it? I mean, we've already determined what you are, Steve, now we're just haggling over the price ...

So. I came up with a storyline, filled it with martial arts, intrigue, lotta running and gunning, gave it a catchy title, and pitched it. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad, I thought.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

First thing that happened is the head honcho of the game company wanted to lay his hands on it, and he started offering helpful suggestions that indicated the man had never actually read a book: Ooh, wouldn't it be cool if we did this?

Actually, no, it would exceedingly stupid if we did this. But I said that politely.

Then the size and scope of the project was reassessed, altered, and the monster advance had to be shrunk. It was still a nice high five-figure advance, and the royalties would be the same.

It could still work. 

We kicked the springboard back and forth a couple times, came up with one that was acceptable

Should have heard the rumble then, but avarice had stoppered my ears. I decided to go for  it. Yeah, yeah, there was some risk, but it could really pay off. I mean, I buy lottery tickets now and then, so maybe ...

I started writing. A few weeks into it, a bigger game company cruised in, flashed sharkish teeth and gobbled up my employer. Bought 'em, lock-stock-and-barrel, then fired everybody, save the one book guy, who was so far down the line they didn't notice him. 

But we were still okay.

I turned the ms in, got paid, and lo! a third game company came in, bought out the second, and the new owner looked around and ... shelved the entire project. 

The book guy tried, he hustled his ass off, but IWDJ -- It Was Dead, Jim. 

Did I mention that I was wrong about this project?

This kind of thing happens in Hollywood all the time. I know writers who have made good livings for years writing or rewriting scripts, none of which ever made it to the screen. But that rarely happens in the book world with a finished, not-too-badly-written genre book for which you have been paid. Only time it's ever happened to me.

What this all means is that I had written–I thought–a pretty good space opera novel that nobody was ever going to see. Got paid well for it, but even though I am much the hack, money isn't everything. As a writer, you want to see your stuff out there.

If I had it to do over again, would I? Probably. Money isn't everything, but on balance, I came out ahead. 

This is, I think, why the appeal of ebookery is so strong. You can get it out there. Yes, maybe fourteen people will buy copies in the next nine months, and you won't get to go into the local book store and point at it and brag about it. But at least there's a chance it will be read. Somebody skimming down the page on might come across it, say "Hmm." and download it.

Something to be said for that. 


Dave Huss said...

Anyway you might get the rights back and E-publish it?

Also, can you still put stuff out on the old site. I tried to download Jolly Rodger, but Amazon wants to sell me a Kindle. I have an E-pub reader that worked fine with where some of your other stuff is.

Steve Perry said...

Not likely, too much of it would have to changed, names, places, like that.

Steve Perry said...

FYI, if you download's free reading app, you can download and read Kindle books without having to use a Kindle:

Anonymous said...

I know it's off-topic, but I found this; it's neat:

It's a Matador timeline.

Steve Perry said...

I've seen this, cool, isn't it?

Dan Moran has a somewhat more complete version he did, you can see it reflected on the dates on the covers of the books up at the Fat Sam store. Starts with the disappearance of the Zonn and goes to the beginning of Churl. Nice reference, got all kinds of things in it I didn't know ...