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Back from Australia with Coldest War News

October 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Okay, so, I've been gone a while.

No surprises there, since I'm generally pretty awful at keeping my blog up to date.  This time, at least, I have an excuse for the long silence— I was fortunate enough to get to spend all of September down in Australia.  And generally having the time of my life.  (Tasmanian Devils are TEH KYOOT.)

Worldcon made a good excuse for my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere.  And I figured that if I was going to travel across the International Date Line for maybe the only time in my life, I ought to make the most of it.  Hence the month-long vacation.

Also, the timing worked out very well, because I turned in the manuscript for the third and final Milkweed novel, Necessary Evil, a couple of weeks before I left for Melbourne on August 30 (it was due on my editor's desk September 1).  Which meant that the trip coincided with the first time in over four years when I could enjoy down time—actual, honest-to-goodness down time with no obligations or deadlines pressing on me—and relax and veg out without being stricken with the crippling guilt that I wasn't working on Milkweed stuff right now.  Which is sorta how I've spent all of my free time since I started planning the Milkweed Triptych, way back when.

So I spent the month traveling around Australia while not thinking about Marsh, Will, Gretel, Klaus, Eidolons, Enochian, and all the rest.  And it was awesome.

I'll try to say more about my antipodean adventure in upcoming posts.  (No promises.  Because as we all know, I suck at keeping the blog up to date.)  But, while at Worldcon, I did get to sit down with my editor at Tor.  So, speaking of Milkweed, some updates below the cut...

The sequel to Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, has been rescheduled from February, 2011 to October, 2011.  The reasons are long and complicated, but believe it or not they're not actually bad.

Yes, I know I've been saying Coldest War would drop in February, 2011 for quite a while now, and in many public venues.  That was the plan, really truly, until very recently.  The rescheduling may have caught me by surprise, but it REALLY caught Tor by surprise.  It's complicated.  Bear with me for a moment.

First things first.  The delay has nothing to do with the quality of the manuscript.  Just as Bitter Seeds was delayed mostly for economic reasons stemming from Publishocalypse, Coldest War is being delayed for business reasons—issues of marketing and promotion that I'll get to in a second.  I've spoken with my editor about the manuscript itself, and he tells me that his editorial notes are mostly issues of wording.  Nothing structural, nothing regarding the plot, nothing regarding big-picture stuff.  It's the nitty-gritty details of getting the world right, particularly the use of period-and-class appropriate language.  That was one of the most difficult parts of Bitter Seeds, so this comes as no surprise to me or anybody.  Personally, I feel that the manuscript I turned in for Coldest War is far stronger than the submitted manuscript for Bitter Seeds

Okay, so, if the series hasn't taken a nose-dive in quality from book 1 to book 2, and might even be improving on the craft level, why are they delaying the sequel?  It's necessary to delay the hardcover release of Coldest War because Tor finds itself forced to delay the mass-market paperback release of Bitter Seeds by about half a year.  And it wouldn't make sense to release the hardcover of book 2 prior to releasing the paperback of book 1, right?

So far, so good.  But why are they delaying the paperback of Bitter Seeds?

Well, that has to do with what publishers call "the package".  Some booksellers and book buyers for the bigger chains aren't crazy about the way the Milkweed books are currently being presented.  As my editor put it to me, the feedback Tor has received indicates that reviews for Bitter Seeds are generally pretty good, the book is finding readers who enjoy it, and reader feedback to the stores is generally quite positive…but folks working on the procuring/selling side of the industry don't know what to do with these books.   The trilogy needs a package that instantly tells somebody who knows nothing about Milkweed just what to expect, how to explain it, and how to position it in stores.

It might sound complicated, but the problem is actually fairly simple.  Let me put it this way: if you read and enjoyed Bitter Seeds (because one doesn't necessarily follow from the other...), how do you describe it to your friends?  Do you describe it in one sentence?  Can you explain the book in 50 words or less, while capturing the flavor and concept of the book, including characters, plot, worldbuilding, and tone?

Probably not.  I sure as hell don't know how to do it, and I've been working on these books for years.  My agent doesn't know how to do it.  My editor at Tor doesn't know how to do it.  By which I mean we don't know how to do it that briefly.  Now, I'm not saying this to suggest Bitter Seeds is so blindingly original that nobody knows how to summarize the concept.  That's not the case.  Nor am I suggesting my work is so soul-shatteringly brilliant that it defies description.  Heaven knows that ain't the case either.  But what I am saying is that it's really hard to accurately summarize the book in a mere handful of words.   (And it's equally difficult to capture all of this in a single piece of cover art.  More on that in a second.)  And that's largely my fault, because I broke one of the cardinal rules of thumb for speculative fiction: the story is built upon multiple weirds.  Which means that regardless of how well I did or didn't execute the idea, summarizing the trilogy in terms of character, plot, worldbuilding, and tone is, frankly, a thankless bitch of a job.

Right now, the current concept isn't working.  And, much to my chagrin, that includes the delightful John Jude Palencar cover for the hardcover edition of Bitter Seeds.  Now, I love that cover.  Love it down to my toes.  Love it enough to have it framed in my house, which sometimes leads to awkward conversations about, "No, I wouldn't normally decorate my house in a skulls-and-swastikas motif…"  But not everybody has loved it.  Most importantly, some of the book buyers aren't wild about it.  And, you know?  Their opinion is REALLY important.  We—meaning me, and my agent, and my editor, and everybody at Tor—want to present Milkweed in a way that will excite the people who have the difficult job of getting those books into the hands of eager readers.

Which means that Tor is currently scrambling to re-define and re-package the trilogy.  Including Bitter Seeds.  Which means, in turn, that the paperback edition of Bitter Seeds will have different cover art from the hardcover edition.  Which means, again in turn, that the paperback for Bitter Seeds had to be delayed, to give everybody some breathing room and time to think carefully about how to approach the problem.  And once that paperback got pushed back, the other books had to follow suit.  Hence the delay to The Coldest War.

This feedback from book buyers/sellers and the attendant decision to reschedule the books happened just before (as in less than 3 days before) Tor was set to publish its Winter 2011 catalog. So that's why The Coldest War doesn't appear in the latest list of forthcoming Tor titles—Tor made a conscious decision to leave it out of the catalog at the last minute.  And it was the right thing to do.  Far better to delay a book before it gets announced in the catalog.  

I said earlier that none of this is actually bad.  And I stand by that.  I'm really, really grateful that Tor is willing to go to the trouble to try to repackage and relaunch a book that they've already devoted a lot of time and money and effort to.  And by extension, that they're willing to stand by the Milkweed books and to do what it takes to give the trilogy a fighting chance.  That's terrific news.  Seriously.  Because it would have been a lot easier for Tor to chalk up Bitter Seeds as a loss, and do the easy thing, by releasing the paperback with the original cover art.   But they're not.  They believe in these books and they're working very, very hard to create a package that will make people sit up and say, "Holy shit!" (In a good way.) 

In the end, we're hoping that the end result is short-term frustration for long-term gain.  Yes, it's a gamble.  But if publishing were an exact science, every book would be a bestseller and I'd be driving a gold-plated rocket-car to work every day.

And now I'd like to ask a favor of anybody who happens to stumble across this message-in-a-bottle:  please spread the word, hey?  I'd greatly appreciate it if folks expressing curiosity about the status of the Milkweed novels could be pointed to this blog entry.  (And yes, to all of you who have pointed out that I need to get on Facebook and Twitter, this proves your point about a hundred times over!)  

Here's the executive summary of everything I said above. 

(1)  The trilogy is finished, pending editorial revisions, copyedits and galleys.  I submitted the manuscript for Milkweed #2, The Coldest War, in June, 2009 and the manuscript for Milkweed #3, Necessary Evil, in August, 2010, both cases ahead of deadline.

(2) The mass-market paperback for Bitter Seeds is scheduled to hit shelves in September, 2011.

(3) The hardcover edition (along with ebook editions) of The Coldest War is scheduled to hit shelves immediately after that, in October, 2011.

(4) No news yet on publication schedules for Necessary Evil.  But it's far too soon to worry about that yet. 

(5) Tasmanian Devils are incredibly cute.  Even if they sound like they're possessed by Satan.

Oh, and in case anybody is interested: I am working on something new.  Something completely and utterly unrelated to Milkweed.  But it's way, WAY too early to say anything about that.  And it will be for a long time.

Comments

TEngland October 3, 2010 at 7:03 pm
So, what's the problem? "Evil Nazi mutants battle old English evil gods in Lovecraft's version of World War II." Eh, maybe not. Too bad about the Palencar art. On the bright side, it means the first hardcover edition of "Bitter Seeds" now becomes a collector's item whose value will shoot through the roof. Heh-heh. I've got one. Signed, no less. Bidding starts at $10,000. Well, whatever. Glad to hear Tor is staying on your side. The trilogy deserves to be read by everyone. Hope all ends well, Ian, and hang in there.
Ian October 3, 2010 at 8:31 pm
Hey, Terry! How are things out your way? Thanks for the encouraging words. You hang in there, too. Hope you're seeing better days. And I hope you'll be back here before long. (Haven't you realized that my signature actually reduced the value of your copy? Hate to be the one to tell you, but...)
Adrienne October 3, 2010 at 8:46 pm
Well, frankly, I'm a little pissed that my copy of Bitter Seeds is a Kindle edition. No $10K hardcover for me, your ONLY stalker. I'm actually excited that this is the reason for the delays; I was secretly terrified that I'd never get to read books two and three and now I find out it's just about cover art and blurb. WHEW. Pass this onto your people at Tor: "The Milkweed Triptych is a science-fantasy trilogy about WWII plus badassery plus a precog plus demons and stuff. Also, BATTERY-OPERATED BAD GUYS, Y'ALL." That's what I tell people in real life, anyway, and even though my five-year-old isn't allowed to read it, she can't wait until she's twelve and I let her.
Ian October 3, 2010 at 9:06 pm
I think a lot of people got worried that books 2 and 3 were vaporware, after Coldest War didn't appear in the catalog for Feb. 2011. But there are photos! Photos of my bookshelf! Showing the binders with the completed manuscripts! The books are really truly written, really truly, I swear! Your Kindle edition will probably end up being worth more than a HC because I wasn't able to deface it with my scrawl. I don't know what fills me with more trepidation-- the thought of a five-year-old waiting for the day she's old enough to read Bitter Seeds, or my coworkers reading it. But hey, if your daughter is already that excited about it, she can have a signed copy. That $10,000 edition will make a nice bump in the college fund, no? Consider your description forwarded to Tor.
James October 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm
How hard can it be? I've seen the following in several reviews: "Nazi X-Men vs. British warlocks!" There. Done. Anybody who would appreciate the book will nearly wet themselves out of pure WANT! at reading that. I know I came close and even though I feared the novel wouldn't live up to the expectation that line prompted, it actually surpassed it.
Ian October 4, 2010 at 4:55 pm
Thank you, James! That's very kind of you and a lovely thing to hear. I appreciate it a heck of a lot. I also jokingly refer to the book as "Watchmen meets Inglorious Basterds", even though it's so different from that. (But I do wish I'd written the line, "Me and the boys here, we're big fans of your work killin' Nazis.")
Alejandra October 5, 2010 at 4:04 am
So you don't know me, but let's forget about that for a moment. Let's focus on the fact that now I shall HAVE to purchase Bitter Seeds in hardcover, purely for the sake of the beautiful cover art. Well, it could be worse, I suppose. And on another note...Right now I'm in the middle of reading your story in this month's issue of Apex Magazine, and it's wonderful. Though I'll have to stop right here and pick it up tomorrow, because it's almost 3:30 AM and I have other things to do at the moment (like sleep, for instance).
Ian October 5, 2010 at 9:49 am
Hi, Alejandra, and thank you! It makes me smile, knowing I'm not the only person who loves the Palencar art (skulls and all). Thanks for the encouraging words about the story up at Apex, too. I'm glad you're enjoying it!
Shane October 6, 2010 at 9:59 pm
Another vote for the Palencar art. How could anyone not love it?!
Ian October 6, 2010 at 10:34 pm
Another vote for the Palencar art. How could anyone not love it?! I know, right? It blows my mind to think there might be people out there who don't love that cover. What's not to love about a charming Nazi fraulein traipsing barefoot over a pile of skulls?!? It practically screams "feel-good story". But maybe I'm biased.
Juhan October 8, 2010 at 8:55 am
Maybe give it to Michael Kormack?
Ian October 8, 2010 at 9:46 am
Great suggestion! His work on the new Wild Cards covers is amazing! I'd love to have a Komarck cover of my own. (I do have the cover of Suicide Kings hanging in my office, of which I'm quite fond.) I'd love to see what he'd do with Milkweed!
Richard October 11, 2010 at 7:57 am
Ian, Publishing of all stripes can look a bit like a black box from the outside; and so eagerly, eagerly awaited next-releases can disappear down this kind of lane. Knowing how to modulate my expectations helps quite a lot. Which is all by way of saying: thanks for letting us know what's up! Thanks for being open, honest and writing about it at sufficient length to allay my fears. Looks like I get to savor my anticipation even longer now... Yeah, savor, that's it... Thanks again!
Ian October 11, 2010 at 10:20 am
You're quite welcome, Richard. Thanks for the reassurances, and for spreading the word. I hope the anticipation proves worth it when The Coldest War hits shelves.
David October 17, 2010 at 11:12 pm
I read Bitter Seeds when it first came out and loved it. Then just this evening while having a discussion with some friends, who are med. students, about kids with "spina bifida" (I know odd) someone made a joke about experimenting on the children to form super soldiers (even more odd). I thus, remembered the joy i got from reading your book and I decided to look up to see if there was any updates your other works. I know that there are some delays but i am glad to hear that your books are coming along and that some day soon i can read the rest of the story. I guess now via the advise from the above comments, i need to run out and pick up a hardback copy before it goes out of print.
Brook October 17, 2010 at 11:30 pm
I was eagerly awaiting Bitter Seeds after falling in love with Rustbelt in Wild Cards but if that had not been the case I think that current cover would have sold it to me instantly. I don't know how they will be able to find anything better for the paperback but here's hoping they do and the right readers find the book!
Ian October 18, 2010 at 9:41 am
Thank you, David! It's wonderful to hear that you enjoyed Bitter Seeds and that you're keeping an eye on the sequels. I hope they live up to your expectations, and that I manage to provide the entertaining story your patience deserves :-) The good news is that the novels are already written, so they'll hit the shelves eventually.
Ian October 18, 2010 at 9:44 am
Hi, Brook! I thought I recognized you from Captain Comics :-) Thanks for the very kind words about good old Rusty -- I think he'd be thrilled to know he has a fan. Thanks, too, for the covert-art love. It's crazy, isn't it? I was so delighted when I first saw the cover, and I can't imagine people not finding the artwork striking. But I suppose there are things I don't like that others adore...
Tom Porter November 9, 2010 at 2:40 pm
How sad. The cover was absolutely what brought "Bitter Seeds" into my hands. My wife and I were scanning the shelves at a local big book box store, and she said "I think you may want to check this one out." Mind you, I thought "The Life Eaters" by Brin and Hampton was the bee's knees. Here's hoping that the cover art for the HB's fo the next two books are as compelling as the first.
Ian November 9, 2010 at 2:55 pm
Here's hoping that the cover art for the HB's fo the next two books are as compelling as the first. Thanks, Tom! From your lips to the publishing gods' ears...
Sara G. January 31, 2011 at 8:29 pm
For me at least. I was not going to be able to find a copy here in Costa Rica. I would then be distracted trying to figure out A. how to get one and B. when to read it w/o flunking something. And now, just as I was starting to gear up for 'It's February and Ian's book is supposed to be coming out and I can't read it' petulance, I learn that I'll be back in the land of English language and Borders by the time it comes out. Crisis averted.
John Dallman March 21, 2012 at 7:38 pm
You know Charles Stross' Laundry novels, of course. David Devereux's novels Hunter's Moon and Eagle Rising (on Amazon.co.uk) are less well known, but similarly well-written and twisted. They agreed a few years ago that they were in the same sub-genre, which got named "Occult Secret Service", the acronym being a fortunate accident, honestly. Milkweed fits cleanly into this sub-genre. The usefulness of an obscure description like this may be limited - but it seems like a better elevator pitch than "Nazi X-Men vs. British warlocks!" That tends to imply a lack of the depth and detail that goes into a good OSS novel.
Ian March 21, 2012 at 8:04 pm
"OSS" novels -- I like that! I wasn't aware of the Devereux novels, but thanks to your recommendation I'll check them out. Tim Powers's excellent Declare would fit in that sub-genre, as might Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz (which I haven't read) and some of the Dennis Wheatley books. Though I'd never compare my work to that of Powers, Stross, or any of the others!
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