Running Off the Cliff: City on Fire

by wjw on May 8, 2012

COFNEW09x700liteThis is one of a series of essays written on recently republished works.  This one is about City on Fire (newly available in ebook form via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords).  Since City on Fire is a sequel to Metropolitan, it might be best to start with the three big essays I wrote on that work.

Are we up to speed now?  Good.

City on Fire was, firstly, an accident.   Secondly, it was very difficult.  Thirdly, it led to catastrophe.

It was an accident because I’d only intended to write a single book, but when I’d generated hundreds of pages and only got through the first few paragraphs of my outline, I decided to end the first book and write To Be Continued on it.

And then I had to hire a lawyer to threaten my publisher, and eventually got my book back and sold it to another publisher, and that all took time.   I spent part of the time writing the third Drake Maijstral book, which I still owed Tor on an old contract.  (I was paid so little for those books that I couldn’t afford to write the final book for what they would have paid me to finish it.  So Metropolitan and City on Fire ended up supporting me when I wrote Rock of Ages.)

City on Fire was hard because, well, it was.  It was just as hard as Metropolitan, only more so because it was much longer.  The book clocks in at 185,000 words, nearly 500 pages in the hardback edition, and was by far the longest book I’d written to that date.  I delivered it a year late, which must have had my editor wondering if it would ever arrive at all.

And worse, those 185,000 words only carried me about halfway through the original outline.  So at least one more book will be necessary in order to wrap up the story, and maybe more than one.

The first book in the series was about Making the Revolution.  That’s common in SF and fantasy.  In fiction, wicked rulers get overthrown all the time by pure-hearted revolutionaries.

City on Fire, though, was about Making the Revolution Work, and you almost never see that in our field.  In Lord of the Rings, you never actually get to see Aragorn running the kingdoms he’s inherited.  In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the Professor dies after the revolution, and Mannie and Wyoh retire to make babies or something.  Even Mike the computer retires.  Actual politics was beneath these people.  They might get their hands dirty.

Well, I thought there was a certain amount of cowardice in that.  Tell us what it’s like, I thought.  Show us what happens when idealism and/or ideology run up against reality.  Show us what kind of compromises have to be made in order to make at least some of your agenda possible.

Suppose you are, say, Nicaragua.  You’ve overthrown the tyrant, and you have an ambitious social agenda.   But there are counterrevolutionaries financed by foreign powers, and you get invaded, and in order to win the war you have to make alliances with unsavory characters, or impose a tyranny, or simply kill a lot of the people you’re trying to help.

So that’s the story of City on Fire.  It’s about how not to lose your soul when you exercise power.

I was probably halfway through writing the book when Metropolitan appeared, and I was able to see how the public was misreading my fantasy as science fiction, and why.  I saw that readers were obsessing about the Shield, which I had thought was completely trivial.

And so I did my best to fix it.  I rethought the whole project.  I adjusted the mythology.  I changed my original ending.  When the project is finally over, Book III or Book IV or Book V, the reader will find out about the Shield, about plasm, about the Ascended, all of the stuff I thought I didn’t have to explain because you don’t have to explain stuff in fantasy.

That’s not in City on Fire.  That isn’t what City on Fire is about.  But I could hint at what was going on.  There’s a reason plasm begins to sing when it hasn’t before.  Taikoen the Hanged Man has become part of a much bigger story.  And the Dreaming Sisters are going to be huge.

The Dreaming Sisters, I seem to remember, were a late addition, and got retconned into the story.  They’re an embodiment of the mystical, fantasy side of plasm, and their Imagoes— a kind of Metropolitan Tarot— are a way of reminding the reader who and where the story is.

The next book will be called Heaven in Flames.  For quite a while now I’ve thought of the book as a duty I owe to my readers for having led them this far into the story.  Now that I’ve re-read the first two for the first time ever, I’ve grown quite enthusiastic about returning to that world.  We’ll have to see when that can happen.

When I delivered City on Fire, I was exhausted.  I badly needed a break.  It was very hard working in this world, and after all I’d only intended to write a single book.  I never planned to Commit Trilogy, but now it looked as if I was going to have to.

But sales of the series were, pretty much, dismal.  Hardback sales held up, but paperback sales went into the toilet.

This wasn’t my fault.  This had to do with the wholesale catastrophe of the Consolidation of the IDs.

See, paper books have a distribution chain.  The publishers ship to distributors.  The distributors ship to retailers.  The retailers sell the books.

Back in 1990, there were over 200 Independent Distributors in this country, the people who put the books and magazines in the racks at your local supermarkets, drugstores, and stationery stores.  For various complicated reasons these distributors became “in play” in the early 1990s, and they began to merge or subject one another to takeover attempts.  I’m not sure how many IDs there are now, but I think it’s less than five.

Because they were “in play,” the IDs ended up being owned by speculators and raiders, not book people.  In fact, most of the book people got fired.

There was a certain folk wisdom in the IDs.  The “rack jobbers”— the guys who actually put the books in the racks at the store— knew to put more science fiction in the drugstore near the university.  They knew to put more romance titles in the supermarkets in the middle-class neighborhoods. They knew where the audience for each kind of book was, because they saw what was selling in each location.

The IDs’ new owners, because they didn’t know the business at all, decided to discard all this arcane folk-wisdom crap as unscientific, and to operate their businesses through centralized data management.   (Yeah.  They did.  And I can hear you rolling your eyes,  as it were.  And that’s because you are smarter than they ever were.  You know exactly where this is going, don’t you?)

Before the consolidation, you’d see a fair amount of variety in the paperback racks at the local store.   There’d be some bestsellers, and then there’d be westerns, and romance, and SF, and action-adventure, and so on.  After the consolidation, what you’d see mainly were bestsellers.   For instance the top row would be Nora Roberts’ latest, and the row below would be Nora Roberts’ other books.  Next to Nora would be Stephen King.  And next to King would be Robert Ludlum, or whoever.  There might be a few midlist paperbacks over in one corner, or there might not.

Most midlist authors, which I definitely was, were cut out of half the U.S. domestic market represented by the IDs.  Paperback sales went into the sub-basement, and pretty much stayed there.   And I don’t think the emphasis on bestsellers helped the bestsellers much, either, though I could be wrong.

(Actually those sales figures from 1996, disastrous at the time, now look pretty good, here in 2012.  I could make a career on those.)

The advent of the big book superstore ended up saving the midlist, because Borders and Barnes & Noble could stock all the fiction that the IDs were refusing to put on the racks.  But the huge bottleneck in distribution continued for years, when ebooks finally managed an end-run around all the distributors by going straight to the reader without having to go through an intermediary.

And while all this horrible stuff was happening in the US,  over in Britain I was being completely destroyed

I had been published all along in Britain, and while I broke no sales records, I sold profitably enough so that they kept buying the books as they came along.  And then I got a break with Metropolitan— it was going to be the first book published by Harper Voyager, a brand-new science fiction line!  Marketing muscle and massive worldwide attention would (finally) be mine!

The Voyager launch party was going to be held at the 1995 Glasgow Worldcon, and thence I traveled to be present at the event.  Along the way I stopped in London, where my editor took me out to lunch, and where I pitched City on Fire, which seemed well received.

Then I turned up at the launch party, which was held on this huge crystal-walled party barge on the River Clyde.  There was lots of food and drink and excitement.  There were fireworks.  There were great big pyramids of books.

But none of the books were mine.  Metropolitan just wasn’t there.  Instead there was the second title to be published by Harper Voyager.

I went up to my editor.  “Where’s my book?” I asked.

“Isn’t it there?” she chirped.  “I’ll have to look into this!”

The lying, deceitful little #$&()_(%.

My agent caught up with me a day or two later and told me what had happened.  “Walter,” Ralph said, “we’re in trouble.”  (He seemed to be saying that a lot during this period.)

Turned out that shortly after my meeting with my editor in London, she called Ralph and told him she wouldn’t be buying City on Fire.

Maybe I had brought a bad case of halitosis to the meeting or something.  Or I was too jet-lagged to be coherent.  But I was fucked.  Fucked.  Fucked fucked fucked fucked fucked.

I was destroyed in Britain.  It was the end of my career there.  Nobody was going to buy City on Fire or the next book, not when Voyager had the first book in print.

And of course Metropolitan never got the push that the first book of a new imprint should have got.  The book was shitcanned.  Shitcanned shitcanned shitcanned shitcanned.

It was worse than if Metropolitan hadn’t sold at all.  If Voyager hadn’t bought Metropolitan, the whole series could have been sold to another publisher, and my career in Britain could have continued.

I wasn’t published in Britain for another seven or eight years.  Which ended up being another catastrophe, but I can save that for another time.

Metropolitan and City on Fire had proved to be horrific nightmares from which I desperately needed to wake.  I needed to make an end-run around the whole system.  I needed to get my ass out of the midlist and onto the best-seller lists, because it was the only way to secure everything I’d worked for for the last twenty years, including Metropolitan.

I made my bid for the big time.  It was called The Rift.  And once again, publishers reached out to destroy me.

But more of that later.

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry March 18, 2019 at 9:35 am

My annual check-in on “Heaven in Flames” – any new news?

wjw March 18, 2019 at 2:13 pm

I’ve got 2.5 books to write before I can start moving on that, but I have an editor interested, so that’s gravy.

DensityDuck March 25, 2019 at 8:05 am

Not just the editor, hoss. NOT JUST THE EDITOR.

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