Once in a great while, writing careers are easy to follow. Someone writes a book, gets rich and famous, and goes on from there to stardom across many fields. More often than that, writing careers are not so straight line, nor so glamorous.
We – that is, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller – we have had that second sort of not-so-glamorous career, for all that, yes, we have been pioneers at several points along the way. Of late we discover, suddenly and without warning, that our joint career is being pointed at as a good example of “how to do it” when about the only thing we can claim is that we’ve embraced the “Never give up; never surrender” motto from Galaxy Quest as our own. We also discover that there’s a fair amount of misunderstanding about the timing of our books and writing, so we’ll try to clear that up here, too.
To begin with, we were both writing before we met, and Steve was already published in small press zines and had placed a couple stories with Amazing by the time he met Sharon at BaltiCon 10, where she won the BaltiCon short story contest Steve was helping oversee in 1976. We soon started moving in the same circles and eventually, after orbiting about each other for awhile, joined both households and writing interests together in the late 1970s.
In those days, our paid jobs required a lot of non-fiction and so we were mostly writing short fiction on the side. When we sold several joint stories about Kinzel, an inept young wizard slowly coming in to his own, to the new-and-slick Fantasy Book magazine in 1983, we thought we were on to something good. The stories came out in several issues in 1984. In mid-1985 – after Sharon had sold them a standalone story – our editor asked us for another in the Kinzel series, and we produced it – only to have it returned in late 1985 because the magazine was going “on hiatus” while more funding was arranged.
Despite a semi-patient wait, funding didn’t come soon for Fantasy Book. On the other hand, our sales to Fantasy Book convinced us that we could work together at length, and we’d begun working on something longer – the first novel in a projected seven book science fiction novel arc. That book became Agent of Change – finished in October 1984 – and we started marketing it as soon as it was done. AoC went to several well-known publishers before getting a nibble in November 1986, which turned into a sale to Del Rey Books in December of that year, the proceeds of which financed two Kaypro computers, complete with built-in modems. We quickly joined the burgeoning Baltimore area BBS scene about the time that word came – Fantasy Book was dead.
We individually bemoaned the closing of Fantasy Book and the orphaning of Kinzel in several different BBS forums, and were surprised by the support we got from our online friends, who thought we might as well just publish the third story, along with the first two, ourselves. When we told them we couldn’t afford the printing costs, the folks from a number of online BBS communities – notably Midnight, Kcs, SWON, and Final Frontier II – came together and sent money toward our project.
Our chapbook The Naming of Kinzel was printed and hand-bound in June of 1987, becoming the first online crowd-funded SF book that we’re aware of. With a cover by Colleen Doran, it came close to selling out. We later reprinted the paper edition, and even later, it became our first ebook. In fact, it is still available as an ebook, through our own Pinbeam Books – http://www.pinbeambooks.com
Meanwhile, we continued writing the longer projects, and a second Liaden novel – Conflict of Honors – sold to Del Rey. Agent of Change and Conflict of Honors came out within months of each other in 1988, as paperback originals, while the third, Carpe Diem, came out in 1989.
Alas, shortly after finishing Carpe Diem is where the speckled part of our career really started. We heard from our editor that she wanted our next book to be “something different,” something not Liaden in nature, citing “weak numbers” on our first three books. We’d been planning a seven book series and now we were being asked to finish up our contract with something else. We dutifully wrote The Tomorrow Log – only to have it rejected in 1991.
For some years we tried to sell The Tomorrow Log to other publishers, with no success. Sharon wrote two mysteries, which she tried to sell – with no success. We wrote some short fiction answering questions we’d come up with while writing the Liaden books, and those sold to several magazines. Unfortunately, the magazines went out of business before publication so those stories remained unread. Around day-jobs, we continued to write, and we started a computer bulletin board of our own, called Circular Logic, which grew to be the second largest BBS in Central Maine. It was through Circular Logic that we discovered that readers were looking for our work, looking for the next story, and that Plan B, the supposed next book in the Liaden Universe®, was being sought by fans literally around the world.
At that point, a fan known as Pardoz stepped in and put together a Liaden-interst online news group which led fairly soon to our revelation of the existing, unpublished, stories. In a reprise of our initial experience with the sharing character of online fandom, in 1995 we started SRM Publisher for the sole purpose of issuing Two Tales of Korval, a chapbook comprised of two Liaden stories. Pre-orders – let’s call it crowdfunding – made the chapbook possible, and once the initial orders went out, there were enough “extra” copies to allow us to contact genre bookstores to see if they wanted any. They did, and in fact that wanted so many to fill the interest of fans that we had to reprint. In addition, as we found the following fall, we’d started a fannish tradition, and needed to come up with more Liaden stories for our readers, again crowdfunded through pre-ordering. The tradition continued for many years, as most of SRM’s projects – chapbooks, trade papers, and hardcovers – were crowdfunded.
In late 1997, after years of waiting, Del Rey relinquished the rights to the Liaden books and in January of 1998 Meisha Merlin offered to buy the rights to those first three books. During negotiations the initial three-book offer became an offer for seven books – the first three, and four new ones. Plan B did, indeed become the next Liaden title, just as fans had predicted, arriving in February 1999. We started on a yearly hardcover and trade paper publishing schedule with them, and later added Embiid as our ebook publisher, with Ace eventually picking up mass market rights.
Meisha Merlin was a lifesaver for us, allowing us to get back on the convention circuit and make the transition to full-time writers. In addition to the original contracts we also did an anthology with them, Low Port, and sold The Tomorrow Log to them, as well, in hardcover, trade, and mass market. We worked with them from 1998 to 2006, when Meisha Merlin’s ongoing organizational problems overwhelmed them. They’d fallen well behind in payments and by the end of 2006 things were extremely tight in the Lee-Miller household in East Winslow, with the on-going SRM Publisher projects barely paying off the increasingly demanding credit card bills.
At that point, Sharon went to work at a local college to cover our health insurance costs (as it turned out, a near prescient move on her part), and we turned to the online community again, offering up, in the first week of 2007, the plan to publish a novel, first draft, chapter-by-weekly-chapter, direct to the web, as long as support from readers and fans continued. That book was Fledgling, with Theo Waitley the protagonist. We’d been aiming at $300 a chapter in support, and before the second month was through we’d enough support to finish the thirty-three chapters the book eventually came to. This was, of course, long before Kickstarter came along – and not only did the idea work for Theo’s first book, but also for her second – Saltation. Since we had SRM Publisher to work with we’d also promised a book to anyone who contributed a set amount. . .and were happily surprised when Baen Books picked up not only two alternate world fantasy books, but the entire Liaden Universe® backlist – starting with Fledgling and Saltation.
The thing is that – unexpectedly, Fledgling and, later, Saltation, became role models for part of the suddenly expanding world of online and self-directed publishing. Not only did the novels come out as readable chapters most weeks, but then volunteer readers Sam Chupp and Charles Schlenker turned them into podcasts with our permission. The chapters were read and listened to around the world.
The role model thing was good, but had the unexpected effect of confusing people – especially those hungry for publication and subsequent fame. Some thought we were brand new, young writers, part of the new wave of electronic publishers, and that our being picked up by Baen was a lightweight equivalent to The Martian being picked up by Tor. There was no understanding that our online successes were merely an extension of a complex joint career more than twenty years in the making.
So, that’s a quick overview of how the Authors of the Liaden Universe® got where we are.
Let’s be clear. In a world with so many people giving so much advice about the best way for writers to get ahead, we’re really leery of being seen as modern role models. We arrived early at the idea that we needed to keep our books and stories in print, to not let them – as in the “old days” of the 1950’s and 60’s – just fall away into a nebulous, unexploited, back list.
And seriously, while you may be able to take pointers from what we’ve done, unless you were in the trenches when we were, you’ll have to find your own way forward, because our foundation is not social media, but readers and fans who have gravitated to our work since 1984.
It isn’t the media that supports writers – it’s the readers.