Agent to the Stars, Ten Years On
Here’s a fun fact: This week marks the 10th anniversary of the print release of Agent to the Stars. It was released in a limited edition hardcover from Subterranean Press, which makes it to date, and likely for the next decade at least, the only novel of mine released first by a publisher other than Tor Books (Tor later released it in trade, mass market and paperback editions, and Audible has in audiobook). Only 1,500 of these hardcovers (plus a few publisher copies) exist, making it the smallest and rarest of my first edition hardcover releases. I’ve seen it on rare book sites listed for over $1,000, although right at the moment on alibris you can get one for just $130. I have several. I’m saving them to pay for Athena’s college.
Although the print edition of Agent is a decade old this week, the novel itself is rather older. In fact it’s the first novel I wrote — it’s my “practice novel,” the novel I wrote to see if I could write a novel (the answer: apparently!). I wrote it mostly on nights and weekends in 1997 in my apartment in Sterling, Virginia, on a desk shoved against the wall in our bedroom, using Microsoft Works, the company’s off-brand word processor. Before I started writing the novel, I was trying to decide whether to write a science fiction novel or a mystery/crime novel, as I enjoyed both genres equally; I ended up flipping a coin, and science fiction it was. If the coin landed in the other direction, I might have had both a vastly different writing career, and a very different life overall.
At least some of you know that once I wrote Agent I made no real effort to sell it to publishers; as a “practice novel” the point was not to write something salable, but to write something that was novel-length, and then use that to see what things I did well, what things I should improve on, and what things I shouldn’t do. So when the novel was done, I showed it to Krissy (who was immensely relieved when she liked it — she was married to me, after all, it would be awkward if she thought I was a crap writer), my friends Regan and Steven and a couple of others, and then otherwise pretty much kept it in a drawer for a couple of years.
Then in March of 1999, I decided, what the heck, I needed stuff on my Web site, and the novel wasn’t bad. So I put it up here as a “shareware novel” — people could read it and if they liked it, could send me a dollar in the mail. Over the next five years I ended up getting around $4,000 sent along, a not bad sum for a time when people had to actually make an effort to physically mail you money in an envelope (this also makes me an old school indie author, which is one reason my response to people who think there is some manifest division between “traditional authors” and “indie authors” is one of, well, amusement). It did well enough that when I wrote Old Man’s War, I didn’t think too hard about whether to post it up on the site, either. I did, and then it was found here by Patrick Nielsen Haden of Tor. He made an offer on it, and the rest is history.
But note that Patrick didn’t make an offer on Agent, despite the fact that it was on the site, available and not bad, in Patrick’s estimation (he read it after he read OMW), and despite the fact that Tor offered me a two book deal when he bought OMW, the second book of which would become The Android’s Dream. When I ask Patrick why he didn’t want Agent, he said, in characteristic pragmatic bluntness, that it would be difficult to sell, in part because it was humorous and in part because it didn’t easily slot into a category for booksellers. It wasn’t military science fiction, it wasn’t space opera, it wasn’t “new weird,” which was a thing at the time, etc. I appreciated Patrick’s pragmatic bluntness — and I was getting a two book deal out of him anyway — so I didn’t worry about it. And besides, Agent was doing fine hanging out on the Web site.
Fast forward a couple of years, to January 2005. Old Man’s War’s been published and is doing well, and I get an email from Bill Schafer, the publisher of a small press in Michigan called Subterranean Press. He’s read Agent to the Stars on the Web site and wants to know if it’s available to be bought. Well, I’ve never heard of Subterranean Press, so the first thing I do is check it out to see if it’s something more than a guy with a mimeograph machine (it was) and that this Schafer dude isn’t just some creep trying to take advantage of newer writers (he wasn’t).
So I let Bill buy the book for a limited hardcover release. We asked Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade to do the cover; I’d advertised Agent on Penny Arcade waaaaaaay back when, so he was a friend I could throw some money to, I liked his work a ton, and (because I wasn’t stupid) I was aware that as the first book cover Mike would ever do, the book would have collector value to fans of Penny Arcade even if they had no idea who I was. He said yes, turned in a really nice piece of art, and in July of 2005, the book — by that time almost sold out on pre-orders — went out into the world. It sold out entirely shortly thereafter.
Here’s why, today, I’m happy the Agent was released then. First, because it started my relationship with Bill Schafer and with Subterranean Press, which is a relationship that continues to this day — SubPress publishes my limited editions and most of my shorter fiction. Bill and SubPress did well by me when I was just starting out, and I’m happy to keep working with them today. Relationships matter. Second, because Agent being published in print gave it an additional life: We sold it into foreign markets and to Tor for paperback (Patrick, again with his pragmatic bluntness, could buy it in 2008 because I had become a name, and readers would buy it because they already liked my stuff. I found this to be a delightful reason) and into audio. We get the occasional film/tv query about it, too, which is nice.
Third, because it allowed me to not worry about “the sophomore slump” — that is, whether my second book would sell as well as the first or be appreciated as much, among the other bits of anxiety authors have about their second book. Agent was a small press limited edition, so I didn’t have to worry about whether it would sell as well or better; we already knew how many copies we were going to sell. It was going into a collector’s market where “quirky and humorous” was not a problem for sales. It was already written, so I didn’t have tie myself up in knots about it or freak out about deadlines. Basically, it was a really optimal “second novel” experience.
Occasionally at signings, people will come up with a copy of Agent and confide that it’s their favorite novel of mine, as if that’s something weird, because OMW or Redshirts are the usual suspects for that title. But I like it when they tell me they like Agent. It’s my firstborn (if second-published), and it was written not because I wanted to sell, but because I wanted to learn. Writing it was a joy, if for no other reason than the dawning awareness I had writing it that, yes, in fact, I could do this thing, and I liked doing it, and that I wanted to do more of it if I could. That’s what Agent gave me that no other novel could, or will. It’s special to me. I’m glad when it’s special for other people too.
So: Happy print anniversary, Agent to the Stars. And thanks, Bill and Subterranean Press, for publishing it. Here’s to more work together.