1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Four: Books

Well, this one is simple. In 1998, I had no published books. In 2018 I have —

(counts fingers)

(counts toes)

(counts fingtoes)

thirty, depending on whether you count individually published novellas (I do), and that number will rise by the end of the year. This number doesn’t count books I didn’t write entirely but to which I have contributed, including short story anthologies, Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers and various textbooks which have published essays or stories of mine. If you include them, the number goes up past fifty. It also doesn’t count foreign editions of the novels. If those were counted as individual publications, I’d be well past a hundred by now, since Old Man’s War itself is in 25 or 26 languages, and most of the novels are in at least five to ten languages by this point. It’s a lot.

But in 1998, nothing. I had written my first novel, Agent to the Stars, the year before, but at the time all it was doing was sitting in a binder on my desk; I wouldn’t even put in on my Web site until 1999. I had an agent for non-fiction and he was pitching a few books out there in the world for me — a pop philosophy book, a book on astronomy, and a book of columns — but we weren’t getting serious nibbles, and it wouldn’t be until the next year when my agent would volunteer me to write a book on online finance (on the grounds that, as I was writing AOL finance newsletters at the time, I already knew this stuff, which, sure, why not). I wanted to write books; I wanted to have books published. But twenty years ago, what I had on the book front was bupkis.

I don’t recall being too anxious about this at the time, although I could be misremembering (it was twenty years ago). But if memory serves, I was less worried about writing books than I was by the fact that I was no longer writing opinion/humor columns, which was a thing that I’d been doing for a decade, and which I still thought would be the main thrust of my writing life. It’s why I started the Whatever, in point of fact; I wanted to keep sharp in the format.

I did want to write books, and be a published author, to be clear. But my philosophy of books at the time was that they would be a writing side dish rather than the whole meal. I would publish books — and at the time I was really focused on non-fiction books, as that’s where my experience and, I thought, my talents, were — and they would bolster my reputation as a freelance writer and a columnist. Writing books was part of an overall writing strategy, in other words. Not the focus.

Also, with regard to the author anxiety front, I was arrogant. It never occured to me that I wouldn’t eventually sell a book. I knew I could write; I knew my agent at the time had sold books before. It was just a matter of time. Looking back, it’s easy to pat the head of my former self and go “Oooooh, twenty-something Scalzi, you were adorable” with regard to this blithe and heedless confidence. But on the other hand, I wasn’t wrong. In 1999, my agent called me up and said, more or less, “Hey, I told Rough Guides that you could totally write a book on online finance. You can, right?” And I said “Sure.” And there it was.

Here’s how I wrote about getting that first book deal, in 1999:

As you might imagine, I’m very excited. Why? Well, most obviously: Hey, I get to write a book. A real book, which will be sold in real bookstores. For a writer, there is no validation like being able to walk into a bookstore and see your name on the cover of a book. Yes, newspapers, magazines and Websites are great too — I’ve been published in all of them, and believe me, I’ve never doubted that I was a writer. Be that as it may. When you write, books are where it’s at. Also, sometime next year, I’ll be able to sign on to Amazon and obsess about where my book is on the Amazon rankings. Will I be in the top 1000? Or languishing somewhere like number 29,453? So many new vistas for neuroticism. I can’t wait.

(Incidentally, the current Amazon ranking for that now-outdated and long out-of-print book? 5,682,830. As it should be. Seriously, don’t buy it, it’s ridiculously useless today.)

That first book, I will note, was a massive commercial failure. It came out in November of 2000, after the first Internet bubble collapsed and no one wanted anything to do with finances online, and my book tour, which was meant to include TV appearances, was swamped out by election news. I was scheduled for four stops on the tour; after two they told me to go home.

But! It was still a book! That I had written! And was published! I was still an author now, and no one could take that away from me. On the day it came out I went into the local bookstore and took pictures of it on the shelf. Also, the Rough Guides people seemed to grasp that the collapse of the Internet Bubble and the 2000 election were not my fault, and that I wrote to specification and to deadline, and signed me up for two more books, one on astronomy and one on science fiction film. Beyond that my work with the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader books convinced them to let me write two books for them as the sole author. So before I had a novel published, I was already the author of multiple books that were either out or in the pipeline.

Which made me happy, and also worked out pretty much as I had figured they would. They didn’t make me rich and they weren’t my primary focus as a writer, but they were largely fun for me to write, put a bit of money into my pocket and were a benefit on my resume — turns out financial services companies liked using a freelancer who had written a book on finance, for example. It assured them that I could handle the verbiage on their brochures for their mid-cap value funds. Everything was going to plan.

Then came the novels, which upended the plan a bit.

Here’s the thing about the novels: I honestly, truly never expected to make any real sort of money with them. Agent to the Stars was a “practice novel” which I never meant to sell, so I put it up here on the site in 1999 and told people to send me a dollar if they liked it. And while I did write Old Man’s War with the intent for it to be a novel I could sell, when it was done, the thought of trying to sell it exhausted me, since my agent was for non-fiction and I would have to either submit it into a slush pile or get a fiction agent, and uuuuuuuugh whyyyyy, so I did neither and just put it up here on the site as well. In both cases there was no plan to do anything else with the novels; I just assumed they would live here. And if I wrote any other novels after that, they would probably go on the site too. I mean, I was already an author, and I was already publishing books. My ego was satisfied in that respect. And I was lazy.

But then I got an offer anyway, from Tor, for Old Man’s War, when Patrick Nielsen Hayden wrote me and said (more or less) “I read your book online! Can I buy it?” and I said “Sure,” and then he asked if I had another book besides Agent to sell to him, and I didn’t, but I said yes anyway and then suddenly I had a two book deal. Then I got an agent by writing to Ethan Ellenberg and saying “Hey, I have a two book deal with Tor Books, wanna be my agent?” And he “sure.” And then Bill Schafer from Subterranean Press came around and said “Hey, can I buy Agent to the Stars?” and I said “Sure.” And suddenly I had sold every novel I ever wrote and had a third one in the pipe besides.

I distinctly remember, when I sold Old Man’s War, saying to Krissy, “Well, novels will be a nice little thing on the side.” Which was a reasonable thing to say, considering my previous experience in non-fiction, and because my advance on Old Man’s War was $6,500 and by that time I was already making more than $100,000 a year doing freelance and non-fiction writing. I was well versed in what the average advances for science fiction novels were (about $12k, then and now), and that most novels didn’t earn out their advances. I liked writing novels! And if someone was going to pay me to do that, that was even better. But it would have been foolish to expect to make any real money from them, or to prioritize them over other, more remunerative income sources.

It took me until 2010, when my advances had been substantially boosted, my royalties were a non-trivial stream of income and I was selling into international markets, that I finally recognized that it made sense to focus most of my writing efforts into novels. And it took until 2015, when I got That Deal, that I truly accepted that what I was actually doing, and what I would probably mostly be doing for the rest of my working life, was writing novels, with everything else as an add-on.

It’s a little weird to think about, even now, nearly two decades after my first book was published and more than a dozen after my first novel hit the shelves. I know, without doubt, that I got lucky. I’m good at what I do, and my personality and social skills are nicely tuned to be an author in the public eye. But the same could be said of a lot of other people. As much as I have an ego, I’m not so exceptional at what I do that others couldn’t and wouldn’t be where I am, save for my own good fortune and timing. I keep that in mind. I’m where I am largely by happy chance, and where I am was unexpected, and not in keeping with my own plan, where books were meant to be on the side.

And what if everything had gone to plan these last twenty years, and the books were still on the side? I like to think I would still be happy. Because: Books! Would I have as many of them or would they have done as well? Possibly not, but I don’t know that it would matter. When my first book was published and later my first novel was in the stores, here’s what I thought both times: no matter what, I have done this. I had written a book and a novel. I had become an author. In itself, it was enough. I want to believe it would still be enough in itself, no matter what else I was doing. I think it would be.

12 Comments on “1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Four: Books”

  1. After watching Neil Gaiman’s twitter for the last day or so, I have a perverse desire to contradict various facts in your discussion.
    But that would be stupid, and also I can’t think of anything to contradict that would be as funny as the notion of telling someone that their life happened differently because I once read something different on reddit or something.

  2. I wish I still had our initial emails. I can remember actively looking for _you_ for two years, and being delighted after reading OMW to find that you not only had a robust internet presence, but an already written novel that was quite suitable for a press such as ours.

  3. I know you know how lucky you are. I have close friends who are published writers and none are close to your level of success, financially or otherwise.

  4. Agent is one of My All-Time Top Three which is amazing for a “practice novel”. I have two copies of it, both are dog-eared paperbacks.I wonder if there are any hardcover 1st editions (or later) out there?

  5. I worked at B&N during the “Uncle John’s” years. I remember the year I transferred from the NYC/UWS location to a Milwaukee suburb, one of the Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers was the book selected for our annual hand-selling competition. Management would choose a book that we were exhorted to hand-sell during the holiday season, and we were to complete with the other stores in the district. I don’t know how many we sold, but as a cynical, fussy bookseller who hated any and all corporate mandates, I found myself delighted with the selection, and not only recommended the title, but purchased a few as gifts. I do know we did better than the one my UWS store had recommended the previous year, which was some dog related, vaguely heart-warming glurge of a hardcover. Yours was a much easier hand-sell, in that a. most of the staff sincerely enjoyed it, and b. it was a paperback.

  6. For what it is worth, I really (many really’s actually) loved Agent to the Stars.
    Practice novel or not, it makes me smile just to think about it. It is one that I will/have read a few times. To tell you the truth, if you wanted to edit it for the middle school reader I’m pretty sure it would go over great there too.