The Life and Times of a Midlist Author

The Life and Times of a Midlist Author

A Plunder of Souls-smallLate last summer, I was interviewed by Garrett Calcaterra for a Black Gate article on the writing life of midlist authors. That article, which also drew upon interviews conducted with Patrick Hester, Wendy Wagner, and M. Todd Gallowglas, can be found here and is still worth reading.

But I thought it might be interesting, a year later, to revisit the life of at least this midlister to see how things are going. A bit of background first: Under my own name, David B. Coe, I have been writing professionally for twenty years now, and I’ve been a published author for seventeen. “What’s the difference?” you ask. Well, I signed my first publishing contract and received my first (microscopic) advance in the summer of 1994. But that first book needed to be edited, revised, edited again, revised again, copyedited, and proofed. And it needed to be fitted into the already crowded publishing schedule of Tor Books. It finally was released in May 1997.

Which brings us to the first of many hard truths about the publishing industry: It moves at its own, sometimes glacial, pace. Yes, this is one reason why some writers grow so impatient with the business that they turn to self-publishing, which offers more immediate gratification for those who are eager to see their work in print. But for more reasons than I can go into today, that is not a path I have chosen to follow.

Writing now as D. B. Jackson, I am the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The first two books, Thieftaker (Tor Books, 2012) and Thieves’ Quarry (Tor Books, 2013), have been received very well critically and did well enough commercially that Tor bought two more books from me. The first of these, the third in the series, is called A Plunder of Souls and it drops on July 8, 2014. (Please buy it. In fact, feel free to buy a few copies; they make great gifts and come in an attractive package complete with artwork by Chris McGrath. We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post . . .)

The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, will be out next summer. And here we come to hard truth number two: For most full-time writers not named Martin, Gaiman, or Rothfus, one release per year is not enough to make a living. Most of the writers I know have a couple of projects going at once. I’m no exception.

I figured out the other day that I am going to do at least some significant work on six different novels this year. Yes, six. Some of this work is editing, some of it is promotion, some of it is as simple as proofing the galleys of a finished manuscript. But “being a writer” is about far more than just what we think of as writing.

Thieftaker-smallStill, if you’re more of a literalist I can also tell you that I will be writing three complete novels this calendar year. I have recently sold a contemporary urban fantasy to Baen Books. Spell Blind, the first book of that series, will be out in January. I wrote Dead Man’s Reachearly in the year and handed it in on April 1. I then wrote His Father’s Eyes, the sequel to Spell Blind, and handed it in on July 1.

The third book in this new series, Shadow’s Quarry, is due January 1, and I will hit that deadline.

In addition, I have proofed the paperback of Thieves’ Quarry, which was released in June. I have revised Spell Blind and will soon be dealing with copy edits and page proofs. I have proofed the hardcover edition of A Plunder of Souls and am now promoting its release.

I have two new short stories coming out in anthologies this summer and fall. I have been asked to write two more pieces of short fiction before the end of the year. And I am mentoring two students in a university Master’s program.

I offer all of this not to brag, but to illustrate a deeper point and, yes, one more hard truth. I am working harder now than I have at any point in my career, and making just about the same money I did a decade ago. And I assure you, I am not at all alone in that regard. Such is the state of today’s market.

Yet, I am also happier in my work than I have ever been. I feel that even at this faster pace, I am writing my best work. I take more pleasure in the process than I used to, in large part because I am so much happier with the finished product.

Don’t get me wrong — I still love my older books and I take pride in all of them, in large part because I know that all of them represent the best work I was capable of doing at the time. But I am having tremendous fun now with the Thieftaker books and the new series for Baen. I love that I get to teach on a regular basis. I’m flattered that so many editors want short stories from me. And I have been deeply gratified by the critical response to my books.

No, my books haven’t yet made me rich. To be honest, I doubt they ever will. But I’m not starving, and I love what I do, which is a form of wealth in and of itself. Earlier this year, I was on a panel about writing, and my fellow authors and I got to talking about the business of writing and how hard it has gotten. A member of the audience asked us if having Hollywood buy our books for movies or television was the only path to real success that authors had left. As he put it, “Is that the only way left for authors to win?”

Spell Blind David B CoeAnd to my surprise, and my great pleasure, all of us answered him the same way. Paraphrasing our collective response: “Winning” is self-defined. If we define writerly success purely in monetary terms, very, very few of us will ever succeed. This is not a path to riches.

But every new contract is a win. Every good review is a win. Every reader touched, every turn of phrase that leaves us glowing with pride, even if that pride is private, every completed scene that makes us think, “Wow, that came out exactly as I hoped it would” — all of these things contribute to success.

I never dreamed of being a midlist author; I’m not sure anyone does. When I looked forward to my career, I envisioned myself hitting the bestseller list with each new book, and I still strive for that goal. But the truth is, I have friends who hit the lists regularly, and they’re not rich either.

More importantly, while this might not be exactly the career of which I dreamed, it remains a career I choose every day to pursue. No one is holding a gun to my head telling me I have to be an author. I could walk away any time I wanted.

But why would I? For a few bucks? No way. I get to make up stories for a living. I give voice to characters and discover new worlds filled with magic and intrigue. I have the best job I can imagine, and while I’m not a big believer in fate, I do believe that I am doing exactly what I am meant to do. I wouldn’t trade that for a larger paycheck.

So where does that leave this midlist author? Happy and hungry. I am happy in my work, content to spend the rest of my days toiling in this slow, stingy, exasperating profession.

But I’m also hungry for more: I want that next rave review. I want to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of each new book. That’s a good thing. As long as I still feel ambition stirring inside me, I know that I remain driven to improve my craft, to make the next book better than the last. And that’s the greatest success of all.

DB Jackson-smallD.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback.

The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, will be released in hardcover on July 8. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015.

D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

His last article for Black Gate was an interview with Ethan Kaille, Thieftaker.

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Sean McLachlan

Interesting article! As a midlist writer who has a hybrid career (indie fiction, traditional nonfiction) I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for sticking with traditional fiction publishers.


Hi, Sean. Thanks for the comment and question. I have stuck with traditional publishing because I believe that it is a better option for me from a business perspective. Yes, my royalty rate is lower than what it might be if I were to self-pub, but there are a number of advantages to traditional publishing that, to my mind, more than compensate for that. My books are professionally edited. They’re professionally copyedited. They’re proofed, type-set, marketed, publicized, and then distributed to every major bookseller in the country. My books have unbelievably good artwork on the covers (for the Thieftaker books, my covers are done by the amazing Chris McGrath). I get all of that done for my books at no cost to me. None. I don’t pay a penny. And, in fact, I receive advances on my royalties, which means that I get money from the publishers months, sometimes even a year or more, before my books ever hit the shelves. This is an advance against my royalties, of course. I understand that. But still: I get a professionally edited and packaged book with outstanding art AND I get money up front. If I was self-pubbing, I would get none of those things for free, and I would see no money up front, which would mean that I was making an investment that may or may not pay off. First rule of writing: money flows TO the author. If I’m paying to get my book out, to my mind, something is not right with the system. To me it’s a no-brainer. But I also know that many authors see it differently, and that is their decision to make. Hope I’ve answered your question. Thanks again.

[…] Tour takes me to two more sites today.  I have an article up at the blog of Black Gate Magazine on “The Life and Times of a Midlist Author.”  It’s actually a follow up to an article by Garrett Calcaterra that appeared last year at […]

[…] crazy business I’ve decided to make my own. David Coe (aka D.B. Jackson) wrote about this at Black Gate just a few months back, and I didn’t have the wit to remember it was his essay that had […]

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