Running Off the Cliff: City on Fire

by wjw on May 8, 2012

This 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.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Finn May 8, 2012 at 11:34 am

Just to say I live in Ireland (for which UK published books are sold) I bought Metropolitan as soon as I could from Forbidden Planet (back when they sold books not comics). It was the US edition illegally imported and resold by them, as was the copy of City on Fire I got as soon as I could. Getting your works here was a royal pain up to about 8 years ago, then there seemed to be a flurry of works released. By then I had abandoned the traditional bookshop for Amazon, most traditional bookshops alas think that good sci-fi and fantasy have to be Film or TV tie-ins. I just pre-order your stuff online and then it arrives as if by magic. Or Plasm.

If it helps I think at this stage I have bought both books twice (in paperback) and now in ebook. So I most certainly will buy the third book at least twice.

Ratshag May 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Wow, what a shitty set of experiences. I noticed the shift in the paperback racks, and always assumed it was because somebody who knew what they were doing decided people like me weren’t a big enough market to bother catering to anymore. Silly me.

DorjePismo May 8, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Sorry the money was bad for the Maijstral books. Actually, I’m sorry they came along too late to be set as operas by Richard Strauss, which would have been perfect.

I can sort of sympathize with the readers not treating Metropolitan and City as fantasy; they certainly don’t read like genre SF, but at the same time, when one’s mystical powers come from metered plugs on the wall . . .

Brian Renninger May 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I thought there was weirdness afoot in the mid 90′s. It just became hard to find anything on the paperback racks. Living in Alaska with limited bookstore selection I just had to turn to ordering my favorite authors specifically as there was no guarantee that the paperbacks would show up in the racks. Of course back then the problem was knowing a book was even out.

If it’s any consolation, I remember seeing The Rift hardback on prominant display and thought, “Aha, Williams finally hit the bigtime.” I look forward to that story.

Also, it was a a very comfy thing to find The Praxis trade paperback in the Gatwick bookshop and grind through it all the way back over the Atlantic.

Now, I can’t remember the last time I bought a paperback off a drugstore rack — there just isn’t anything there of interest. E-books are the new paperbacks I guess.

–Brian R.

Howard Carter May 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Walter…really appreciate the background you have been giving. Very interesting!

For a possible third book, have you considered Kickstarter? I know Tobias Bucknell did that for a book (I pledge for it) so that could be an option

Bill M May 8, 2012 at 5:48 pm

I hope City on Fire sells well as an ebook. It should — it’s a genuine masterpiece.

Erich Schneider May 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm

If you want a great example of the three phases of revolution in SF, you can’t go wrong with the first three Dune novels. Dune shows the old order being overthrown, Dune Messiah shows the revolutionaries governing, and Children of Dune shows the next generation trying to make the new system work after the original revolutionary leader is gone. (In my opinion, that’s where you can profitably stop reading Dune material.)

Walter, I’m sorry to hear that the Metropolitan books turned out to be such a nightmare, given that they’re probably my favorites of all of your work.

Foxessa May 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Yet, here you stand, and are standing by no means invisibly either.

So you, if anybody, gets to go “Nyah, nyah, nyah publishing industry that did its best to destroy me.”

Whew! What a rollercoaster.

Best wishes for this next phase of your career. You’re gonna Kill — Clobberin’ Time!

Love, C

DensityDuck May 8, 2012 at 7:13 pm

“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…”

you got a straaaaange definition of the term ‘worse’ if you think that “I’ve got an outline for the third book in this series” is worse.

Dave L May 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Wow, that explains a lot. I used to get my local bookshop to order your stuff in from the States. I apologise on behalf of the entire UK.

Ralf The Dog. May 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I will continue to say, Rift was your most groundbreaking work. People will continue to ignore the very bad pun.

I look forward to reading Metropolitan III, The only real problem with the third book is, it might be a bit too distant, time wise from the other two (from the marketing perspective). So, are we looking at around two years before it is released? Are you planning on a direct to ebook release or are you going the more traditional path?

Having read your books for quite some time, I have always felt that there was a bit of hostility to you from the publishing industry. Perhaps, it has felt that way, because, they have not known what box to put your books in.

Allen May 8, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Okay, just reread City on Fire for the first time since 1997. Awesome awesome awesome. Again, even better than I remember.

Actually I’d forgotten nearly every everything about it – so this was very much like reading it for the first time. Seems as fresh and original as any of the more recently published works I’ve read of late. Hard to believe it’s 15 years old.

I think it was just ahead of its time. The world wasn’t ready for it.

Though I do think that part of the confusion that readers have is that Metropolitian seems like “Futuristic Fantasy”. It seems to be set in a future where “magic” works. But it doesn’t give any explanation of *why* magic works in the future, given that it doesn’t work in the present.

If it had been made more clear that this isn’t *our* future, but rather is the future of the Dragon Lance universe, or the future of Oz, or the future of EarthSea, or the future of Middle Earth – i.e., the future of some place that had *always* had magic, from the beginning of time, and had just “industrialized” it – that would have eliminated all of the confusion right away.

Either we need an explanatory bridge that connects our non-magical present to this magical future – or we need it made explicit that this world has *always* been magical, even before The Shield went up.

I think.

Allen May 8, 2012 at 11:14 pm

ALSO – what is the meaning of this passage??? It struck me as rather…surreal. An odd vignette that doesn’t really connect to anything before or after. An inter-dimensional refugee from another fantasy universe perhaps?

“And then, directly in front of the camera, someone flashes into existence from out of nothing, popping right onto the roadway. He is small and slight, shaggy-haired, with strange tall ears, and he carries a long glittering blade. He looks about, bewildered, for a second, and then one of the armored vehicles rolls him down. Aiah stares for a moment at the strange, fated apparition. A teleport gone wrong, she thinks; someone popped a twisted person right into the war, armed only with a big knife.”

drakes May 9, 2012 at 11:28 am

On the one hand, there’s nothing I’d like more than to be able to read the follow-up to City on Fire (my favorite book).

On the other hand a part of me knows that the most enjoyable read will be the book that you’re most excited about writing.

To think these may coincide is utter bliss.

DensityDuck May 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I always thought it was an inside joke, a cameo appearance by someone from a MUD or something, and it was Walter twitting one of his friends. I didn’t think there was intended to be any world-describing significance to the event other than “random horrors of war”.

Allen May 9, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Ya, seems like a cameo appearance. I picture it as something like this:

http://fc02.deviantart.net/fs45/f/2009/115/7/f/Usagi_Yojimbo_by_Ninja_Turtles.jpg

TJIC May 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm

This is a fascinating series of posts, and I want to thank you for them.

There are two reasons I love this series so much: 1) as a rookie writer now rewriting my first novel I love to see behind the scenes; 2) the Metropolitan novels are among my favorites by you.

wjw May 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm

That scene was pretty much a joke. It was me saying, “This is how long one of your traditional sylvan elves would last in =my= badass fantasy world.”

I don’t think I had any particular elf in mind.

Hobbits, I think, would fare a little better.

DensityDuck May 10, 2012 at 11:10 pm

haha, I never thought of it as being Usagi Yojimbo!

Walter, is it okay if I pretend that actually was a shout-out to Stan Sakai?

Michael_gr May 11, 2012 at 7:23 am

The thing I really liked about City on Fire was the description of parliamentary elections and politics. There are many presidential elections in SF, but CoF is the first work I encountered where the rulers needed to create a coalition and (appear to) make some concessions to a religious minority party. Coming from Israel, I can say that this is the exact way most elections end up here. The way things unfolded after the revolution is also quite similar to what happened in many Arab countries lately. Even with all the magic, there is quite a lot of reality in CoF.
Come to think of it heaping a bucket of cold, harsh reality on some popular fantasy / SF notion (to the delight of the reader) is probably the Walter Jon Williams signature move! Now when can we get that WJW vampire novel?

Shash May 14, 2012 at 3:22 am

I hated the consolidation of IDs. And I’m just a reader.

Walter, I first encountered your writing at a newsagent (Shinders, in fact) that had a wide selection of SF paperbacks. I used to be able to count on drugstores to have something I’d be interested in reading on a day when I wasn’t going to get to the library.

But since the consolodation, it’s all been crap. Target and Walmart also carry the same predictable crap, forcing me to Barnes and Noble. Well, they carry the same crap too, and even more of it out here in suburbia. All these businesses made me run to Amazon like an alcoholic runs to the bar at opening time. I rely a lot on second-hand bookstores too. And now, of course, I rely on Kindle.

Fedemone May 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Well, I never thought that professional writings can encounter so many, incredible, mind wrecking difficulties… If it can help you, think that you have die hard fan scattered from al over the world. Here in italy, both Metropolitan and City of Fire have been published in low-cost-high-distribution SF paperback series, and your work is really appreciated – even if SF reader populaiton is not that big. We are all eager for a sequel to your awsome novels!

Jerry May 15, 2012 at 7:21 am

Wait — did you say there may be MORE than one more book in the Metropolitan series? Four? Five? Oh, frabjous day!

Brian May 18, 2012 at 4:06 am

Mr. Williams-

A friend recently lent me some of his best sci-fi (fantasy?) books while I was recovering from an operation. I had never heard of your works before. I read Metropolitan and then City on Fire and was stunne. These novels were simply fantastic. As a student of history and politics i found your insights into revolutionary activity, bureaucracy, and the difficulties of wielding power absolutely insightful. I also found the world you developed compelling and fascinating. I am very excited for the final volume in the series, and it looks like i may have read your books just at the right time! Good luck to you and please give us the final chapter of Aiah’s political education!

Ron May 18, 2012 at 6:22 pm

I got my copies of Metropolitan and City on Fire thru the SF book club in the US. I’ve heard that the authors don’t make much off of those sales, but before Amazon it was the best way to get a steady stream of decent SF. Stopped buy from them years ago when they went to mostly crappy vampire novels.

I second the suggestion of trying KickStarter to fund the next book if your current publishing contracts allow it. It’ll take a bit of work on your part to get the books printed and shipped, but you get the funding up-front. I haven’t heard if any known authors have used it, but I know that music artists seem to be having good luck with it. Amanda Palmer (married to Neil Gaiman) funded her new record that way to the tune of over $700,000. More than she’d ever see from a major label contract.

Charlie Stross May 20, 2012 at 10:38 am

If you write it, I will read it. (I’ll also yell at everyone who reads my blog and twitter stream to read it, too.) OK?

wjw May 21, 2012 at 4:23 am

All and Charlie, I will definitely write it. Timing, as always, is complex.

Dave Doolin October 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I picked Implied Spaces last year somewhere (Baen?) and really liked it. A lot. Then I reread it and still liked it. Then I ran across it on Amazon, where it seems to have gotten less than stellar reviews. For which my response was “WTF!? That was one the best books I read last year. So who is this WJW and how come I never read any of his stuff before?”

Long story short, I’m about 1/3 of the way through your work, and have 6 in queue on Kindle right now. I’m quite sure if you write it, I’ll end up reading it at some point.

Working my way through the blog as well.

wjw October 7, 2012 at 6:25 am

Glad you’re able to find my stuff!

As for why you never heard of me, the sad fact is that you shared this lack with the majority of readers, even the majority of readers in our field.

WTF, indeed.

A. Coward February 12, 2013 at 5:30 pm

The reason I read you is that my middle-school library had a translation of Hardwired. So when I stumbled on another of your books, I was inclined to give it a chance. I seem to have missed all the marketing. ;-)

In any case please consider putting up a Kickstarter or some such, else we are left with no other option than to buy multiple copies of the first two books which is hardly the most efficient way to land money in your pocket.
I’m not a fan of Kickstarter by the way but I’m totally willing to make an exception for this.

Robotech_Master June 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Now that these books are with Baen, will you write the next one soon? Please? Pretty please?

Esa January 1, 2014 at 3:31 pm

I’m beginning to appreciate the best bookstores in Helsinki even more – you’re always in stock.

John B. February 20, 2014 at 9:57 pm

I found a Book Club version of Metropolitan many years ago in a used book store, and City on Fire in yet another used book store. To think I may find the new one for sale new and unread is more than I can handle right now. Best news I’ve heard all day!

Larry October 10, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Any new news on timing for the release of “Heaven in Flames”?

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