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MILKWEED UPDATE (or, What the Hell is Going on With The Coldest War?)
I've been trying to figure out how to write this post for a couple of weeks.
There are two reasons for the difficulty. First and foremost, this topic makes me feel helpless, and furious, and very very depressed. Second, I've been dithering over how much of this I can talk about in public. The very last thing I'd ever want to do is sound like a disgruntled troublemaker.
But a few days ago I unwisely let something slip in the comment thread to a recent blog post, where I thought very few people would see it. Instead, it ended up on Twitter. (I really wish I'd taken a more moderate tone in my off-the-cuff comments there.)
So I'll cut to the chase: My publisher has delayed—yet again—the publication dates for the mass market paperback of Bitter Seeds, as well as for the hardcover of Milkweed #2, The Coldest War. This means that contrary to my last announcement (which came on the heels of a face-to-face meeting with my editor), Coldest War will NOT debut in October 2011.
This post isn't intended as a woe-is-me story. But lately I've been getting a lot of questions about the publication date for Coldest War, and I've decided that if I have to announce yet another delay, I'm going to lay out the situation in as much detail as I can. My intent is to give a clear and complete accounting of the history of the Milkweed books' publication process. Because it seems that every so often I'm forced to come up here to eat my words and rescind a previously announced publication schedule. Which makes me look, and feel, like a lying bastard. Which, you know? Not fun.
But anybody kind enough to care about my books deserves to know why I keep changing my tune. Please believe me, brothers and sisters: it ain't by choice.
Below the cut, I'll try to explain how and why this is happening. (I say "try" because, frankly, I don't fully understand it myself.) But I want to be very clear that I've never, ever announced a publication date that didn't come straight from my publisher. And in the meantime, my agent and I have done everything in our power to try to push this series forward, including most especially meeting my contractual obligations and even finishing each manuscript ahead of schedule. (Which is pretty much the only thing an author has power over.)
OK. So what happened? And why will more than 2 years pass between the publication of Bitter Seeds and its sequel, The Coldest War?
First and foremost, nobody wanted things to turn out this way. My editor didn't, my publisher didn't, my agent didn't, and I sure as hell didn't. And yet...
Nothing is carved in stone in the publishing world. But in what follows, bear in mind that a good rule of thumb for your average genre book is that under normal circumstances it can take roughly a year to turn a manuscript on the author's laptop into a physical object in a bookstore. Of course, the turnaround can be (and frequently is) much quicker for hotly anticipated books from successful, well-established authors.
But for somebody like me, that year is a good benchmark. Turning a manuscript into a physical book is a complicated process. Many things have to happen, relying upon input from many different people, for the process to work successfully. And unless the book is a very high priority *cough*DanceWithDragons*cough* that process takes many months. So among other things, it means that for a small-fry author like me, editorial notes on a book should ideally arrive no more than a few months after the manuscript has been submitted. Keep that in mind.
But nothing is ever ideal; we live in an imperfect world. Sometimes VERY imperfect.
In what follows, I'm going to lay out the facts of the situation without interpretation or embellishment. The facts are the facts; nothing here is in dispute.
A Brief History of the Milkweed Books (So Far)
Late September, early October, 2007: My agent, thinking ahead to how she'll try to sell my trilogy when the time comes, read what I'd written thusfar of Bitter Seeds. This was an unfinished, as-typed "zeroeth" draft. A few days later she asked my permission to start showing the book around right then, before it was finished. I agreed.
Late October, early November 2007: My agent arranged a meeting between me and my soon-to-be editor at the World Fantasy convention in Saratoga, NY. He expressed much enthusiasm for the trilogy. I'm flattered, flabbergasted, and over the moon: we're on the verge of selling my first trilogy on the basis of roughly the first two thirds of the unfinished rough draft of the first book (complete with notes to myself still embedded in the text!). Perhaps it was hubris, but I felt elated and proud.
January, 2008: I signed the contract for the Milkweed books. It specified the following due dates for the manuscripts:
Bitter Seeds: May 1, 2008
The Coldest War: July 1, 2009
Necessary Evil: September 1, 2010
May 1, 2008: I submitted the original manuscript for Bitter Seeds to my editor. At this point, the book was on track for publication in summer of 2009. My editor responded by saying that he was looking forward to reading it, but that it would take "a few weeks" because his current workload was, in his words, akin to a herd of elephants all trying to walk through the same door at the same time. This would be the last meaningful communication that either I or my agent would have with my editor for the next nine months.
At the time, I saw no cause for alarm. Everything was going according to plan. So I focused on my responsibilities, and started writing The Coldest War.
January, 2009: My editor issued a public admission/mea culpa that his work had slipped quite considerably in the preceding year. It was heartfelt and sincere. While my agent and I were disappointed that things had gotten off to a less-than-promising start, we knew that nothing arose from malice or ill will. It was simply an unfortunate set of circumstances. Still, things needed to change.
Early February, 2009: Concerned that nine months had passed without any word on editorial notes for Bitter Seeds, my agent arranged a lunch meeting for her, my editor, me, and a few others.
During the course of that meeting, our suspicions were confirmed: it was no longer possible for Bitter Seeds to debut in 2009. The long (and still largely unexplained) wait for editorial notes had shifted the publication date for Bitter Seeds to April, 2010. This was Delay #1.
The good news was that Coldest War was now easily on track for publication in ~February, 2011: ten months after the debut of book 1, which is very good. So the silver lining of this original delay was that it provided plenty of time to get ahead of the game so that the entire trilogy could be published on schedule.
My editor apologized for the delays. He also made it clear that if I wanted to change over to a different editor, that he would support the transition with absolutely no hard feelings. But I declined the offer. For me, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to stay with the editor who had initially acquired my books and expressed enthusiasm for them. I had, and still have, tremendous respect and admiration for his body of work.
We all agreed that everything was back on track, and all delays were behind us. I took the April, 2010 and February, 2011 dates for Milkweed #1 & #2 as gospel, and publicized them as much as I could.
June 28, 2009: I submitted the original manuscript for The Coldest War to my editor.
At this point, 14 months had passed since I submitted the manuscript for Bitter Seeds. Editorial notes had yet to arrive. This meant I had written an entire novel while waiting for notes on the previous book.
Mid-August, 2009: A little over 16 months after submitting the manuscript, I received editorial suggestions in tandem with the copyedited manuscript (CEM) for Bitter Seeds. As requested by Tor's production department, in order to keep things running on the new schedule, I returned the revised CEM in six days.
Early November, 2009: I received the galley pages for Bitter Seeds. I reread the book in this format, and made minor corrections to the typeset pages. I sent the corrected pages back to my publisher about a week later.
April 13, 2010: Bitter Seeds was published. Hooray! A very, very happy day.
At this point, I made a mental note based on my one and only datapoint: production scheduling meant the CEM and editorial notes had to arrive about 8 months prior to publication of the actual novel. (Which, by the way, is consistent with that one-year rule of thumb I gave above.) That's not the case in general, but it was my only guiding star for what to expect for the rest of the trilogy.
Mid-June, 2010: At this point, The Coldest War had been submitted for almost one year. Judging by the production schedule for Bitter Seeds, editorial notes and/or a CEM for The Coldest War should have arrived around this time to ensure Milkweed #2 came out in February, 2011. I started to worry. So did my agent. But all queries from my agent to my editor went unanswered.
August 12, 2010: A conscientious reader emailed me, wondering why The Coldest War didn't appear in Tor's latest catalog. Didn't this contradict what I'd said online about a Febuary, 2011 release? I went online to check this for myself. Sure enough, my newest book wasn't listed among Tor's upcoming Winter/Spring 2011 releases. This was the first I'd heard about any delays to Coldest War.
I emailed a query to my editor.
August 15, 2010: I submitted the original manuscript for Necessary Evil to my editor. This is the second time I wrote an entire novel while waiting for notes on the previous volume. (Necessary Evil is the longest of the three Milkweed books.)
At this point, I'd met or exceeded all of my contractual deadlines for the Milkweed books. Aside from editorial revisions, copyedits, and reviewing the galley pages, the bulk of my authorial obligations had been met.
August 26, 2010: Two weeks after my initial inquiry about the publication status of Coldest War, my editor explained that the decision to delay Coldest War was made at the very last minute, just a few days before the catalog went to press. This was done in order to give everybody time to devise a new "marketing package" for the Milkweed books. This was Delay #2.
Early September, 2010: We met in person (in Australia!) just over a week later to discuss the situation in detail. During this conversation, my editor explained the new publication plan was to have a mass market paperback of Bitter Seeds out in September, 2011 and the hardcover/ebook edition of Coldest War out in October, 2011. These books would feature cover art devised for the new marketing plan. (Also during this meeting, my editor stated that he'd begun reading Coldest War, and that thusfar his editorial suggestions were mainly issues of wording and foreign dialects.)
I announced these new publication dates, and gave a long explanation for the reasons for the delay, here. At the time, while I felt deeply disappointed about the delay, I was also quite excited about my publisher's decision to push for a repackaging of the trilogy—that's a great show of support for a new author!
At this point, Coldest War had been submitted and awaiting editorial notes for about 14 months. But, there was still plenty of time for us to hit the new October 2011 publication date.
But five more months passed with no observable progress. Once again, my agent's queries went unanswered. She attempted to arrange two separate lunch meetings with my editor during this period; both were cancelled on short notice.
My agent and I became very, very worried about the Milkweed books.
Mid-February, 2011: Judging by the production schedule for Bitter Seeds, editorial notes and/or the CEM for The Coldest War should have arrived around this time to keep things on track for publication in October, 2011. At this point, the wait for editorial notes on The Coldest War had stretched to almost 20 months.
Also in mid-February, I met with my editor again (this a few days after an email conversation). In this conversation he confirmed the fears that had been causing me months of depression and anxiety: a new marketing/packaging strategy for Milkweed never materialized in time for the September/October 2011 publication dates mentioned above. This necessitated yet another delay in the publication of The Coldest War. This is Delay #3. More on that below.
My editor confessed that during our previous meeting in August, 2010, he'd already begun to worry about the October 2011 date for Coldest War. Looking back on the situation over the previous 5 months, he expressed some regret that he didn't re-raise the possibility of moving the Milkweed books to a different editor within the same publisher.
He apologized for how things have unfolded with the Milkweed books. This entire situation is, in his own words,
...a massive failure on my part... it represents pretty much the worst thing I've been completely responsible for in more than two decades on this job. I'm not going to bend your ear about how I got into this hole. It's my responsibility to figure out how to stop doing damage, make what amends are possible, and do whatever I can that will get matters back on track.
It's difficult to understand how things got to this point because, as I said above, never at any point did anything transpire out of malice or ill will. The Milkweed books just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and fell victim to an epic case of, in my editor's words, "editorial vapor lock". I won't go into details, but he did provide a somewhat lengthy description of what that means. It's not quite the same thing as apathy, but it's impossible to make that distinction from outside. It may be a philosophical distinction rather than a practical one.
I asked, bluntly, whether the problem stemmed from an extreme distate for my work. This received a vehement denial. So too did my suggestion that I'd somehow caused the problem by being unpleasant and difficult to work with. So I don't think the massive setbacks and delays sprang from an excruciatingly poor draft of The Coldest War.
I don't know what more to say about how these delays came to happen and why they kept happening. I doubt I'll ever fully understand the situation. And I know for a fact that everybody involved feels very badly about it. (Not as badly as I and my agent do, however.) But this doesn't change the fact that I've watched friends conceive, write, sell, and have published entire books in the amount of time that The Coldest War has been languishing in editorial purgatory.
I'm only human. This has been depressing.
In outlining the above sequence of events, I've purposely chosen to focus on my own interactions. My agent, the fabulous and wonderful Kay McCauley, has been at my side for every step of this struggle. And, frankly, things would be much worse today if it wasn't for her. Kay has been an unceasing champion for me, and without her I'd have been lost adrift long ago. I'm so damn grateful to have her on my side.
Remarkably, and quite unfortunately, I'm not the only one of Kay's clients whose books have suffered in this fashion. Melinda Snodgrass experienced very much the same thing over the same few years. She has shared her thoughts about it here.
Looking Back, What Could I Have Done Differently?
I have met or exceeded every single deadline. And I've strived, to the best of my ability, to write the best books of which I'm capable. That doesn't mean the manuscripts are perfect—far from it, and besides, there's no such thing—but they were written with 100% effort on every page.
And that's just about all an author can do. The author is merely the typist; it takes many more people to produce the book.
I suppose my agent and I might have considered changing editors when the topic first came up in February, 2009. But hindsight is always 20/20. I had no intention of breaking with my current editor, whose body of work I greatly respect and admire. But if I had known this would cost us so much time, I would have done it then.
OK. So What Now?
Believe it or not, there is hope.
The Milkweed books have moved to a different editor. (They're staying at Tor, so this is purely an in-house move.) The move has the blessing of all invested parties: me, my agent, my previous editor, and my new current editor. It wasn't undertaken out of spite or anger. The sole purpose of this 100% amicable move, as agreed upon by everybody involved, is to try to put the Milkweed books back on a reliable publishing track. Because clearly the old arrangement wasn't working.
When I spoke with my new editor on the telephone a couple of weeks ago, I was blown away by her passion and enthusiasm for these books. In less than two weeks, she had already read the published version of Bitter Seeds, as well as the 20-month-old manuscript for Coldest War, and was a few chapters into Necessary Evil. And she even plans to go back and reread Coldest War again before consolidating her notes on the book! I've been told to expect an editorial letter by the end of this month. Best of all, we had a broad-strokes discussion of her analysis, only to discover that we're very much on the same wavelength. I truly believe we're going to make a good team. We're going to make the remaining Milkweed books stronger than they would have been on their own. It's exciting.
In the comment thread for the blog post linked up above, I said that the tentative schedule for the hardcover/ebook release of The Coldest War is summer 2012 (again following a month after the mmpb of Bitter Seeds). I have reason to believe that this time there will actually be an effort to make that stick. But I'm not making any official announcements for at least a little while.
What About You, Ian? How Do You Feel About The Whole Thing?
I'm really excited to be working with a new editor. It gives me a lot of hope. As recently as a few weeks ago, I'd pretty much abandoned hope that the remaining Milkweed books would ever see the light of day.
But otherwise? How do I feel when I consider everything prior to a few weeks ago?
Pretty shitty, thanks for asking.
Look... I know I'm not the only person to ever fall through the cracks of publishing. And, hell, even though I did, it's not like I rely upon writing to pay my mortgage. And other writers have been through worse experiences (although this situation is pretty extreme by most standards).
And in the grand scheme of things, considering the state of the world right now, it's small potatoes.
But you know what? This was still a crappy situation. Nobody denies it.
I haven't written much in the past few months. Once I figured out that Coldest War was getting delayed again beyond October 2011 (I say "figured out" because nobody ever told me up-front about any of these three delays), much of my desire to work on a new novel evaporated. Sorta seems pointless, you know? I already have two books languishing in an endless pipeline. I haven't felt motivated to exacerbate the backlog while it remains unclear how or when that goddamned pipe will get unplugged.
I'm not going to be melodramatic and make sweeping claims that I'll never write again and oh what a tragedy... That's unrealistic, it's childish, and it's wallowing in self pity. Of course I won't abandon writing forever. But I have been very sour on it recently. Which I think is perfectly reasonable, given the circumstances.
Consequently, I ended up withdrawing from a novel-critiquing workshop that I had planned to attend in April. It damn near broke my heart to pull out of Blue Heaven this year; I really, really wanted to go. I love the people at Blue Heaven, and it's a great 'shop— I ran Bitter Seeds through Blue Heaven back in 2007. But thanks to a long talk with my friend and mentor Charlie Finlay, I came to realize (in spite of his urging to attend regardless the status of my current novel project) that it wasn't the right thing for me to do right now.
Pulling out of Blue Heaven didn't help my mood any. It was the right thing for me to do... but it also compounded my sadness. It bummed me out quite a bit.
Like I said up top, this isn't meant to be a woe-is-me story. Nor am I casting myself as the victim in a melodrama. Because again, none of this arose from spite or ill will. But there's no denying that it was shitty, it was unprofessional, and it hurt. Nobody set out to target me or my books; nobody did this intentionally. But I hope I've made the case that the Milkweed books have fallen victim to a long series of unfortunate events that I could not prevent.
One of the things that bothers me most about this situation is the worry that folks will begin to doubt my claims that I've finished the manuscripts for the Milkweed novels. Hell, I know that if I were watching this farce from the sidelines, I'd be cocking an eyebrow at that Tregillis jerk right about now. So let me try to convince you I'm not blowing smoke when I say the books are finished (pending, as always, editorial revisions, copyedits, and galley proofs).
Last summer, in this blog post, I posted photographs of my research bookshelf. Prominently displayed on the bottom shelf are the rough drafts of Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evil. Those binders are still there. And I promise you they aren't filled with blank paper, okay?
Furthermore, I can name at least half a dozen people who have read the entire trilogy from beginning to end. Vic Milán has even bragged about it, may the sun shine on him every day of his life, as he noted in the comment thread for this recent blog post. I've been blessed with a dogged and determined group of beta readers, who have patiently slogged through my first drafts. They made my work better because they read every word of it. I'm grateful to Vic, and Melinda, and Walter Jon Williams, and Steve Stirling, and Sam Butler, and Char Peery. Other terrific folks have read wide swaths of the books, but these are the folks who read every. damned. word. (The poor suckers.)
I know I'm probably being a little paranoid. But I really, truly want folks to know that I've never misrepresented my efforts or my progress.
But it cheers me up when I hear people are talking about this situation and being sympathetic about the delays, such as in the brief twittersation here, here, and here. (Thanks, Mr. Hatter and Mr. Yeti.)
I don't say this enough: I am so damn grateful for every single person who has expressed interest in my work. I can't tell you how much it means to me. Honestly, and sincerely. Thank you.
And now, I'd like to ask a favor.
It's no secret that I'm a complete failure at social networking. (Who knows... Maybe someday I'll turn that into my "shtick" and use it to become "famous".) When it comes to spreading information quickly, I might as well be Amish. So I'd really, really appreciate it if anybody reading this could provide the link to the post to any interested parties. The number of people who care about Milkweed is pretty small, so I'm not asking for billboards and submissions to Slashdot. But if you frequent boards where people discuss upcoming SF/F novels, for instance, and if you hear folks wondering about The Coldest War, it would be tremendously helpful if you could point them in this direction.
Thanks for listening.
[Addendum, 15 March 2011: Melinda Snodgrass has elaborated on her original post about the publication troubles plaguing her Edge series. Her new post can be read here.]
[Addendum, 5 May 2011: The situation is improving! I'm delighted with my new editor, as I've mentioned here.]