Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How I sold One Jump Ahead

Maria asked me to write about how I sold my first book and whether I have an agent, how I work with mine, and so on. Here's the story on the sale of One Jump Ahead. The tale begins about 23 years before I sold the book, so bear with me as I go back in time quite a way.

I made my first professional SF sale in May, 1982. May 1 is the day I received the acceptance letter, which is easy to remember because it's my mom's birthday. The story, by the way, was "My Sister, My Self," which was the first one to feature Jon Moore and the only one in which his sister, Jennie, actually appears. (I had previously made a sale to a semi-pro magazine, so I received money but not enough to count under SFWA rules as a pro sale.)

A few years later, I'd sold another story or three, but in my own neurotic way I was writing infrequently and fretting constantly.

One day, I was talking to Dave Drake about novel ideas and mentioned a concept he agreed was promising. He said I should do it, and he said he'd call Jim Baen to get Jim to listen to my pitch. He did, and Jim called me--five minutes later. Jim and I discussed the idea on the phone, Jim gave me some very good ideas to consider, and he bought the book based on the phone proposal. He and Dave always maintained he bought the book on the idea's merits, but I remain convinced Jim did it as a favor to Dave, and Dave did it to get me writing.

I was worried that I couldn't or wouldn't do the book, so I negotiated with Jim some very unusual terms: I would pay back the advance with 10 percent annual interest if I did not deliver the book. I felt this was honorable, because this way Jim would not lose money on his investment should I fail. Jim laughed at me and told me I was insane, but I wouldn't sign without that agreement, so he eventually reluctantly agreed.

I was worried I would fail. Dave was sure I could do it.

We were both right: I could have done it, but I didn't. Multiple years passed. I finally admitted my failure, called Jim (or maybe emailed him; I can't recall), and told him I wanted to pay back the advance.

He laughed again. He had long since written off the money. Apparently, authors never give back advances on books they don't finish, and they sure as hell don't pay interest on that money.

I insisted, but Jim pointed out he had no real bookkeeping method for taking the money, because he'd written it off. I insisted some more. Eventually, he allowed as how he did need some computer gear, so I bought enough of it to match my debt: the advance and the interest.

Now, flash forward to early 2005. I had been farting around with fiction writing all those years, selling some stories, getting one in The Year's Best, and so on, but I was never really able to commit to writing. I had turned 50 in March and was using the occasion to reconsider many things. My fiction writing was one of them. After much thought, in the middle of May, I decided I would give up fiction and thus gain more peace in my life.

I couldn't sleep that night. I couldn't give up fiction.

If you've read this blog regularly, you know that my advice to writers is that if you can possibly not write, don't. I couldn't stop.

At the same time, I barely wrote fiction, maybe a story every few years.

So, on the day after my sleepless night, I resolved that on June 1 I would start writing every day. (I chose that start date to give myself time to live with the decision and see if it was correct.) My goal was simple: each day I had to devote at least 30 minutes to staring at a blank screen (or notebook or sheet of paper) and doing nothing else. No word minimums; just at least 30 minutes of time that belonged to fiction. I would not allow myself to go to bed until I'd done it. Every day. No exceptions, no matter what.

(As I've written, this past June I screwed up my back, was on painkillers, and so missed some days because I didn't trust I could focus well enough to write. It was a terrifying time, because I feared I would never start again. I did.)

I made a deal with myself that I would take a day off writing after I had finished my third book. I now consider that a bad plan. Maybe after my fifth book.

I had written and sold two stories featuring Jon and Lobo, both with an eye toward using them in a novel one day. On June 1, I began plotting that novel, which ultimately became One Jump Ahead. I finished plotting that month and immediately--no days off, remember?--began writing it. I had to heavily rewrite the stories when I hit those parts, so I did that. I finished the book in December and ran it by Dave Drake and Eric Flint for their opinions. Both thought it was good (and both later blurbed it).

In early October, I had been at Dave's annual pig-pickin' birthday party (as I have been every year since 1985), and Jim was there, also. I walked him to his car, told him I was writing the book, described it, and asked if he'd like to see the finished ms. As I said to him, I felt that my failure to deliver the previous book he'd bought from me gave him a moral right of first refusal to the new book. I also told him directly that if he wasn't interested, he should say so, and I wouldn't bother him. He said he'd take a look, but only at a finished ms. I don't believe he thought I would finish the book; that was certainly the smart money bet from his perspective.

About January 1, I sent the final version of One Jump Ahead to Jim. I was already writing, though on a short story for Eric, "Slanted Jack," which appeared in Jim Baen's Universe and which I used as a starting point for the novel of the same name.

Months passed. I wrote every day. I heard nothing.

In early June--and from here on I probably have some of the day counts wrong; it was a rough time--I mentioned to Dave that I hadn't heard anything and asked if he thought I should check with Jim to see where I stood. Dave said he'd be talking to Jim and would bring up the topic if it felt right to do so.

A few days later, Dave called me. He said he'd mentioned it to Jim in a call a few minutes earlier, and Jim had said, "Yeah, I took that book."

Dave said, "Did you tell Mark?"

Jim replied, "I thought so, but maybe not." After a pause, he said, "How much do you think Mark wants for it?"

Dave said, "Pay him the standard minimum. He wants to earn whatever he gets." Dave was, of course, correct.

I had heard nothing. I received a contract a few days later.

Jim fell into a coma a few days after that, and then after some more time, he died. One Jump Ahead was the last book he bought. I hope he would have been proud of it. I like to think he would.

Toni, who became first Interim Publisher and then officially Publisher, treated the book well, made it the June 2007 lead hardcover title, and after seeing the early reception, bought three more books in the series.

I recognize it's not a normal sale in some ways, but that's how it happened.

Yo, Maria: Aren't you sorry you asked?


Maria said...

Sorry??? Not one single bit. That is the most fascinating tale to publication I have ever heard. Did you make it up??? Or are you just crazy???? :>)

Excellent. Most excellent.

I was submitting to Baen's Universe through the slush pile when the news was posted about Jim's passing. Like was just a huge loss. He did things his own way--and that made a difference to so many people.

Of course he is proud of the book. He bought it. He loved it. Don't be silly or you'll be walking to your car one day and feel a funny breeze smack you on the head, hard. You'll know whence it came, too.

Mark said...

Thanks for the kind words. It's entirely true. Whether I'm crazy depends on whom you ask. I certainly don't think I am.

Yeah, I should probably take Jim at his word on this one.

Maria said...

Any chance of your already published short stories ever appearing at I've put together a few anthologies that I'm planning to buy around Christimas time. It's quite possible there's room to squeeze another story or two in at least one of them...

Mark said...

Unlikely, because I still hope one day to have someone buy a short story collection.

Frederick Paul Kiesche III said...

I wonder if there is such a thing as a "normal" sale! Fascinating stuff!

I think the "pig sticking birthday party" needs a post of its own, though!

Mark said...

Yo, Fred,

I expect many first sales are indeed unusual.

It's a pig-pickin', and it's big fun indeed. If any SF fans are in our area and aren't coming, email me (there's a form on the blog), and I'll get you information.

Frederick Paul Kiesche III said...

I may have to come to the area just to attend. And bring a big stack of books (well, a big stack of Drake books and a smaller stack--but growing--of Van Name books)!

Mark said...

You'd be most welcome, Fred.


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