I can think of about a hundred people who’d argue that writing this post is the dumbest, most counterproductive thing I could possibly do— that I’m not only burning my bridges behind me, but burning others before I come to them. These people would tell me to keep my opinions to myself, for the sake of my career.
They’re probably right.
The thing is, though, it’s not always about hustling the next book or making the smart career move. Sometimes it’s about being able to look at yourself in the mirror.
From David Nickle (who I’m guessing would be one of the hundred), in commiseration. He really knows how to pick ’em. The last time he bought me a bottle, it was a Cab Merlot called “Guilty Men”.
Well, that was fast. Turns out I’m not doing a “Person of Interest” novel after all.
I did warn you. I told you that the whole thing might get junked if they didn’t like the outline. As it turns out, though, the project is dead for a different reason entirely.
It turns out they didn’t like my last blog post.
For my part, I was rather fond of it. I’d been sitting on the news ever since last summer, unable to share; even after the book ended up on Amazon I still figured I should get explicit permission from Titan before going public. Permission in hand, I framed the story as a bit of good news, albeit hard-won good news that had to be fought for; I talked about the inevitable delays that gum up the works when multiple corporations, all with their own vested interests, have to get on the same page. As far as I was concerned it was like pointing out that Canadian winters are cold— not an insult, just an unpleasant fact. The way things are.
Evidently that’s not how certain other parties felt. (Exactly which other parties remains unclear, other than they obviously live somewhere in the Titan/Warner Bros./Bad Robot triumvirate. No one has communicated directly with me on the matter, so this is all coming via my agent with the serial numbers filed off.) They saw it as an extensive and detailed list of my own personal irritations and frustrations, name-checking of the characters involved, and complaints about remuneration. The most egregious sin, in their eyes, was the fact that I spilled “confidential” information— to wit, the title. That was enough to cancel the contract outright, Japan’s apparent interest notwithstanding.
If you go back and review the post in question, you’ll see that none of these claims stand up to scrutiny.
For example, if I’d wanted to “list my irritations and frustrations”, I would have mentioned the fact that I was given three months to write a novel, then put on hold for almost a third of that time while waiting for someone to approve a 5-page proposal. Or the contractual clause obligating me to return my signing installment if the project were cancelled up to the detailed-outline phase— in which case I’d be the only person on the project expected to work for free (unless Titan and WB employees routinely hand back portions of their salaries every time a project goes south). I’d have talked about the uncertainty of working up ten thousand words of prose, scaffolding, and outlines— without a contract and without payment— purely as a show of good faith, because I knew time was pressing and I didn’t want contract negotiations to slow things down even further. The teleconference that answered nothing; the makeup conference promised, but never delivered. There’s no end to the “frustrations” I could have “detailed”.
What I actually wrote was “There were contractual issues, but I figured we could work those through— because sometimes, as my buddy Mike Skeet opined, you just gotta tell the story.”
Name-checking the involved parties? The only person I named was JJ Abrams (who, let’s be clear, I’m pretty sure was not involved)— and unless his role as head of Bad Robot is supposed to be some kind of trade secret, I’m unclear as to how this constitutes any sort of breach. I didn’t mention remuneration at all until someone in the comments talked about a dream come true. My response— “You haven’t seen what they’re paying me”— was intended more as a wry commentary on general midlister income than anything else. (Titan was actually paying about a third of what I’d received for my previous tie-in, so in this case the remuneration was especially low. Which was, ironically, why I didn’t mention it.)
As for the real deal-breaker— spilling the title—to which title are they referring? “Person of Interest Novel #1”, which someone had already plastered across Amazon websites the world over? Or “The Hephaestus Iteration”, working title for an outline that had already been scuppered from above because it didn’t reflect the latest state of the narrative? A title, and an outline, submitted months before I was even signed?
Nothing in that post was factually inaccurate. Nothing breached contract. Nothing was even really all that negative, especially in light of the things I could have said; basically just generic grumblings about the speed at which corporations move. So why, after alternately working my ass off and twiddling my thumbs for extended periods over the past several months— after having had the work I submitted described as “brilliant”, “really cool”, and “fantastic”— after seeing myself described as “the perfect person to write this book”— why am I suddenly out of a gig?
The reasons that have filtered through to me simply don’t hold up (the claim about name-checking is pure fabrication). I’ve seen grumblings about “lost trust”, but the foundation laid out for such a claim is so insubstantial as to be meaningless—mealy-mouthed evasion to mask some other reason, some real reason, that remains unspoken. So, in the absence of first-hand information, we are left to speculate.
We could speculate that this was a diversionary tactic meant to distract from whoever jumped the gun and released the novel info in the first place. Maybe someone, red-faced, figures they can take cover behind related collateral.
Maybe. But I doubt it.
I think this may have more to do with the prevailing power dynamic between publishers and authors in general, the reason my hundred advisors would advise me to keep my mouth shut. When you’re a midlist author, you just don’t talk about this shit. Whatever the merits of your complaint, whatever steps you’ve taken behind the scenes, there’s a kind of gentleperson’s agreement that publishers never get called out in public. It’s partly decorum (no one wants to look unprofessional by airing their dirty laundry) but it’s also fear, a fear informed by the fact that there are so very many writers and so very few publishers, fewer with each passing year. You make the wrong person look bad and you just may never sell a book in this town again.
The threat is by no means universal— at a rough count I’ve had dealings with somewhere around thirty publishers over the course of my career, and working with most of them has ranged from hassle-free to downright joyful. Still, the power imbalance weighs more heavily than you might expect from reading the relentlessly upbeat blogs of your typical midlist author. I belong to a couple of online writers’ lists, those private communities where they say things they’d never be dumb enough to express in public. The nickel-and-diming, the questionable accounting, the deliberate cutting of authors out of every relevant loop. The manipulative editors, the incompetent agents, the endless ass-covering. Writers bitch about it behind the scenes, and ask each other for advice; they compare notes about this potential career-killer or that potential career-savior.
Never in the open, though. We hide in the closet and we commiserate over our mutual misfortunes, but everything’s prefaced with Obviously this is in strictest confidence and Don’t tell anyone, it’ll only get him mad…
So I’m thinking, maybe I told someone.
I wasn’t trying to. I wasn’t on any kind of crusade, wasn’t trying to Speak Truth to Power or any of that shit. I kept carefully mum about all my real gripes. The stuff I did mention— the glacial pace of corporate decision-making, the top-down creative control exerted on media tie-ins— just weather reports, as far as I was concerned. Generic stuff, impersonal, elements for the protagonist to endure on his quest for a cool sandbox and a happy ending. I named no names— hell, I didn’t even know any.
But perhaps even that mild, good-natured grumbling is still a bridge too far. I guess, without even meaning to, I called them out.
At this point, the smart thing would probably be to make some brief announcement— couldn’t come to terms, creative differences, yadda yadda yadda— but that would be horseshit.
So here’s something that isn’t. I am bummed, and I am pissed— because while the gig may have been frustrating, the book would have been great. I was really excited about writing it, and I was honored to be invited into the coolest AI sandbox TV has ever seen. But that doesn’t change the fact that these guys got me to put my life on hold and then dicked me around for a third of a year. I wasted months, turned down other gigs that would have paid more. I was happy to. Sometimes you just gotta tell the story.
There will be other gigs. There already are. My royalties alone for last year were almost four times what this book would have netted me (admittedly, it was a good year for royalties), so I’m not ending up on the street any time soon. Even if I did, there’s little joy in a relationship that lets one party piss with impunity into the punch bowl while giving the bum’s rush to anyone with the temerity to remark upon it.
The problem, my hundred smarter advisers would say, is that most of the industry operates exactly that way. Maybe all.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe any other publisher who passes this way will read the tale and say, “What a fucking diva. Can’t trust him. Put him on the list of Difficult Authors to Never Work With.”
But maybe, some will say “Huh. I guess I’d be pissed too, if someone kept jerking me around like that. Since we don’t treat our people that way, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
There’s cause to hope. Like I said; thirty publishers, and most have been just fine.
But if I’m wrong— if the entire industry does, in fact, think it’s the author’s job to just shut up and smile, regardless— well, then I’ve already lasted in this business far longer than I should have.
‘Bye, PoI Novel #1. Too bad we couldn’t make it work.
It would have been glorious.