Rifting Down the Mississippi

by wjw on October 29, 2013

rift-smallSome thoughts on my novel The Rift, which has now been re-released in electronic form, and is available via Amazon, Nook, and Kobo.  (I’ve been trying to load and convert the file onto Smashwords for something like 30 hours, and it seems to have comprehensively crashed.  All I can get now is “500 Internal Server Error,” which can’t be good.)

The Rift was my biggest book in the most literal way.  310,000 words, about the size of A Game of Thrones, so large that it tested the limits of the bookbinder’s art.  Intended as a breakout book that would enhance my career, it instead brought my career to a staggering, screeching, gear-stripping, smoking halt.

Before The Rift, my career trajectory was a nice, smooth rise.

After The Rift, I didn’t sell another book for five long years.

The Rift was “published dead,” which is to say brought into print without any of the support from the publisher that would have guaranteed its success.  The publisher might as well have decided to take all the money it has spent on the venture, pile it up, soak it in gasoline, and set fire to it.

And it wasn’t the last of my books to be published dead, not by any means.

But before going into that, a bit of background.

Beginning in the early 1990s, American publishing went through a fundamental change known as the “collapse of the IDs,” the Independent Distributors that put books and magazines on the racks of your local supermarket or drugstore.  When the IDs went “in play,” they were reduced from over 200 to under 10.  (I believe they’re now under five.)  As the IDs oompacted, the fundamentally brain dead ideas of modern, rationalized management were applied to the trade by the speculators and hacks who bought up the businesses, and the result was that the sales of mass market paperbacks declined by something like 50%.  (Apply new business principles, lose half your business.  And then congratulate yourself for your financial genius!  Such was the spirit of the Nineties.)

Since most of my sales were in mass-market paperbacks, I didn’t relish the notion of losing half my sales.

I had just got through the bruising business of writing Metropolitan and City on Fire.  Neither of those books were easy to write by any means.  City on Fire was particularly tough, because it was quite the doorstopper in its own right, over 200,000 words.  I was a year later in delivering it, I’d had to hire a lawyer and threaten to sue the first publisher who bought it, and remember, I’d never intended to write a series!  I’d thought Metropolitan would be only one book, and then I’d get on with other things.

Anyway, I found myself physically and spiritually exhausted, and I badly needed a break from the Metropolitan books.   My sales were being threatened by developments outside my control.  I needed to take charge.

I flew to Texas for a signing for Metropolitan, and the Texas fan and bookstore manager Willie Siros drove me from Austin to a bookstore in Houston (or maybe San Antonio), and on the way we stopped at a roadside joint in Bastrop for lunch, and he told me about geologist friend of his who was researching some of the macro effects of the New Madrid fault, the giant earthquake fault that runs down the Mississippi from, roughly, St Louis to Memphis.  There had been three huge earthquakes over the winter of 1811-12 (which I vaguely knew about), and which had destroyed parts of Missouri and the surrounding areas.  Large parts of the country sank beneath the water, and islands rose where there had been none.  There were tsunamis on the Ohio River and falls on the Mississippi.  Uncounted lives had been lost, but casualties were relatively low because the area was thinly populated, only maybe 5000 Europeans.  There were lot of American Indians, of course, but their stories have not been preserved in history.

And, in the years since, fifty million or so people had moved to the earthquake zone, and practically none of them lived in earthquake-approved structures.

Well, I thought, that might make an interesting blockbuster.  Because a blockbuster was something I was looking for.

Fiction is, of course, the home of multiple genres, but one of the most intriguing of genres is that of big bestseller.  Big bestsellers might technically be in one genre or another— historical, say, or thriller, or romance— but in fact they transcend these genres.  As Gertrude Stein might say, a bestseller is a bestseller is a bestseller.  Bestselling authors write any damn thing they want, and somehow they remain bestsellers.  From the outside at least, this seemed pretty sweet.

I wasn’t trying to make money so much as preserve my independence.  Swing a big enough dick in the world of publishing, and nobody’s going to tell you what to write.

A big bestseller might be the solution to my problem of losing half my paperback sales.

Fortunately my agent and my editor agreed, and I not only sold The Rift, but I got a big bestseller six-figure advance for it.

And I was going to do this book right.  I was not only going to do massive amounts of research, I was going to traverse the country I was going to write about.

In October of 1996 I and a friend drove the Mississippi from New Orleans north.  I talked to everyone I could along the way, lock keepers, ladies dressed for Natchez Pilgrimage, bartenders, ferryboat operators.  I corresponded via email with bond traders and engineers.  I visited Mound Builder sites, antebellum mansions, slave cabins, Graceland, Civil War sites, graveyards, black history museums, the wonderful Rural Life Museum outside of Baton Rouge, riverboat casinos, the “home of throwed rolls” in Sikeston, MO, the headquarters of the Mississippi Valley Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, and the Tom Sawyer Caves in Hannibal.  I muttered notes into a handheld tape recorder and transcribed them each night.

My characters would be taking this trip in reverse, drifting down the Mississippi in a banged-up bass boat, a modern-day Huck and Jim encountering the terrors and follies of their flooded universe.

I ended my trip in Chicago at the World Fantasy Convention, where the fact of the collapse of the IDs, and the loss of paperback sales, were just being felt by the writers.  There was the tang of flop sweat in the air.  Careers were threatening to collapse on all sides as everyone adjusted to the fact of lost sales.  I congratulated myself for neatly evading this trap.

And then I sat myself down to write the book, and— as with City on Fire— it promptly ran out of control.  Pages began piling up.  Subplots multiplied.

And, as with City on Fire, I had an outline.  Outlines are supposed to prevent your work from running amok, but somehow this one didn’t.  I began slicing out whole storylines.  It didn’t help.

Day after day through two long summers, I sat in a boiling-hot house, wearing only a pair of swim trunks, with a towel around my neck, writing while the sweat dropped off my nose into my lap.  We now have refrigerated air, but in those early days of living in Droughtland we didn’t, we had swamp coolers, and the swamp coolers were incapable of making head against the scorching temperatures.

By and by, I finally finished the book.  It was a year late and three times as long as I’d planned.  As far as I was concerned, Harper Collins had got 200,000 words for free.

My editor John Douglas modestly opined that the work was terrific.  “We can either work on this really hard and cut maybe fifteen percent,” he said, “or I can just send it to production and see what they say.”  Production said nothing, and the book came out more or less as she was writ.

But it came out dead.  Not because of me, but because of internal politics at Harper.

In that period Harper Collins was losing tens of millions of dollars per year.  (I have heard eighty millions in losses that year, but have no way of confirming it.)  Harper is a huge bureaucracy, and had a kind of insane legacy structure of of a Paperback Division and a Hardback Division, which naturally were at war with one another.  (The Paperback Division could always make sure that the Hardback Division’s books failed when they hit mass market.)

There was one division of Harper that made money, and this was the new science fiction line run by John Silbersack and John Douglas.  Clearly this could not be allowed to continue— they were making everybody else look bad.  So the science fiction line was expanded to include a lot of divisions that lost money— like calendars, which of course have so damn much to do with science fiction.  Silbersack saw the writing on the wall and bailed, leaving John Douglas in charge of a ship that was taking on water fast.

Now another way that you can destroy a fiction line is to make certain that their books fail.  Here was John Douglas with a big wannabe-blockbuster for which he’d paid a six-figure advance.  If all that money could be flushed down the toilet, that would be a black eye for John, and good news for the incompetents in the other divisions.

So what do you do to make sure a book fails?  Well, if it’s a wannabe-blockbuster, you publish it as science fiction, which it isn’t.  The Rift came out from HarperPrism, the SF line, and did about as well as my SF, which was fine for SF but of course catastrophic in terms of blockbusterdom.

Ere long, HarperPrism was no more, John Douglas was out of work, and I believe the mass market paperback of The Rift was its last release.  (You don’t ever want to be the last release of a fiction line, you just don’t.)

Nobody wanted to buy a new big book from me while we waited to see how the first one did, and of course nobody wanted anything at all after the book flopped.  I naively thought I could don my SF hat and write Metropolitan III, but my agent said he couldn’t sell it.  Plus, there was no longer HarperPrism to sell it to.

And who gets blamed when a book fails?  The author, of course.  I’d cost the publisher a lot of money, and it was all my fault even if the publisher had set out to lose that money in the first place.

So that was that.  I lost not only Metropolitan III, but the big book I’d intended to follow The Rift.  Nobody wanted my fiction because I had this big L for Loser branded on my forehead  So instead I wrote some movies that I got paid for, but that didn’t get made.  I scripted a video game that didn’t get made, either.  But still, that six-figure advance rolled in installments over the years, and I had money in my pocket.

When the call came, it came via LucasFilm.  My next book was to be a Star Wars tie-in, the writing of which was a very intense experience that, to my surprise, I rather enjoyed.

My agent in the meantime was negotiating hard to keep my advances up, and in the end I sold the Praxis books to Harper’s new SF line for pretty much the same money I’d got for the Metropolitan books.

All I lost was about seven years of my productive life.  If I’d just gone on chugging out one SF novel per year, I’d have made more money, and maybe not lost so much momentum.

What happens when you go all-in on a big gamble and lose?  Even if you find out subsequently that the game was rigged, you’ve still lost the money, the time, and a very large slice of hope.

The problem was that I couldn’t stop caring.  I cared about The Rift, I cared about the hard work I put into it, and I cared about what happened to all that work in the end.  I can’t help but think that it deserved a lot better than to be caught in a power struggle between inept publishing company executives.

What I mostly got out of those lost seven years was a lot of frustration and disillusionment.  The only positive thing during that period was The Rift itself.

And now The Rift is back!  And maybe, fifteen years on, it has a chance of finding the audience that the publisher originally denied it.


TJIC October 29, 2013 at 11:01 am


That…well, “sucks” is an understatement.

I remember when The Rift came out – I was a bit peaved that there was no Metropolitan 3, but it still looked good, and I bought it in hardcover and read it over just two or three days. I really enjoyed it, and waited for the next WJW book, which would, I was sure, be Met3.

…and then nothing.

…and nothing.

Interesting to see behind the scenes.

Many of us have had this one big career beat down. The Nieztsche quote about “making you stronger” isn’t always applicable; sometimes it just really sucks and grinds you down instead of forging you into a better shape.

Glad that you came through it and kept writing!

Best of luck with the e-pub of the book.

TC October 29, 2013 at 4:20 pm

I have this in hardback and mass market.

Kobo says pre-order, and I’d prefer to avoid Amazon and Nook. Google Play Books would be nice, but I can wait for Smashwords. Let us know when it works there.

Hildo October 29, 2013 at 4:42 pm

When the Metropolitan books came out, I had started buying WJW books in hardcover (pricey, as I was living in Europe at the time). I snapped up the Rift on a visit to New York , enjoyed it even as it was a departure from the regular WJW fare, and then… nothing. I purchased the entire backlist while waiting for new books to come out (but skipped the Star Wars book) and was much relieved when the Praxis books finally came out.

I am really, really pleased by these ebook releases and hope they will be financially worth the effort you’ve out into them. But even so – any news on a new book?

Rosie October 29, 2013 at 5:35 pm

The first WJW books I read were Metropolitan & City on Fire. I waited for the third one thinking, ‘why can’t writers just finish what they start?’ I would have bought RIFT, but I never saw it in a book store or in a Locus book review, so I missed its existence. So when the first Praxis book came out, I decided to wait until they were all released before buying or reading them. Now, I’m happy to have the backstory. I guess it’s time to get myself over to the electronic marketplace.

Matt October 29, 2013 at 7:41 pm

I really enjoyed The Rift. I’m glad it was in the SF section of the bookstore, otherwise I likely would never have seen it. So while the behind the scenes stuff was terrible, I’m still a dedicated fan!

Sean Craven October 29, 2013 at 9:46 pm

The more I learn about this stuff, the more important it is to me to be able to go to Hell by my own route, of my own volition. Jesus, Walter. I’ve heard the story from you at Taos, but I’m still appalled.

wjw October 30, 2013 at 2:34 am

TC, Smashwords is still problematical. The book is available there, but only in HTML form to be read online.

I’m a-workin’ on that.

Zora October 30, 2013 at 2:49 am

Already have it in paperback, but I splurged and bought the ebook. Because I now hate heavy, unwieldy deadtree books. They aren’t even backlit!

Brian Renninger October 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm

FWIW, I bought The Rift after seeing it prominently displayed on the tables in the front of a Barnes and Noble. I had never seen your books so well displayed. I remember thinking, “Woohoo, Walter’s hit the big time!”

I read the book that summer in a hiatus between jobs after moving to Seattle to for my wedding. It was a good one with all the little hallmarks typical of WJW (in particular explosives chemistry) but, it also tapped into particularly American themes and issues (race, religion, and place of government versus self sufficiency) while also alluding to classic American literary tradition (the Huck Finn parallels are hard to avoid). While it is not my favorite of your works it certainly pushed to fun buttons while also meeting the demands of a larger audience. And, of course, it served as a nice primer in understanding the events at Fukushima thus demonstrating that one of the great strengths of SF is a sounding board to think about potential events.

Thinking of that time, it seems you were not the only SF author to choose this strategy. I remember a number of well known SF writers putting out less overt science fiction books — techno thrillers seemed to be a trend. Soon after reading The Rift, with the birth of my daughter, I lost track of following authors as parenting young kids is fairly all consuming. Then about five years in, when parenting things settled down, I looked around and noticed, “Wow, a lot of my favorite writers seem to have fallen off the radar.” This is a bit of an overstatement as further investigation discovered that most had been publishing in smaller imprints or in much diminished paperbacks or media tie-ins, or computer games. It was a bit of a surprise to see Greg Bear writing Halo novels, and you writing Star Wars, and Keven J. Anderson writing Dune.

It is interesting to what went into those decisions and some of the drivers. It seems that that era prematurely truncated some of the literary trends (and careers to a degree) of the time and shifted the focus of the market. IMO SF has shifted to target the young adult more, toward fantasy (and its subsets), towards less rigorous speculation (steampunk can be fun but it doesn’t scratch the same itches that Aristoi does), and away from future oriented science fiction. It is nice to see e-books, at least somewhat, making room for more types of writing.

Ralf The Dog. October 30, 2013 at 6:15 pm

I remember the 90’s as the time where I would walk into a bookstore and ask, where did all the good stuff go?

I have my own scale I use to gauge the potential popularity of a book. I loan out a copy of the book to friends, then I see how many I get back. I loaned out four copies of Rift and got none back. The book had potential.

One related question, I see many new independent authors popping up with good ideas, if not the best skills in the world, and doing quite well. (A bit of editing would do wonders.) Are the publishers dead? Will this do long term harm to the quality of books published? Do we need some kind of advanced writers workshop, giving authors a toolbox of skills to help them write, self edit and market their work?

DensityDuck October 30, 2013 at 10:47 pm

“Apply new business principles, lose half your business. And then congratulate yourself for your financial genius!”

The audience for books hasn’t shrunk, it’s clarified.

TCWriter October 31, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Yay, Smashwords now has the epub version. I’m basically holding my breath and refusing to buy any more non-transportable ebooks (I’m getting tired of looking for a book I bought, unsure whether it was on my Amazon, B&N or Google accounts).

Too bad about the timing on The Rift release. In my years as a copywriter, I’ve seen some startling turf wars break out between divisions. too bad you stepped into the crossfire on this one.

Nonayour Bizniz January 21, 2017 at 12:20 pm

I was a trade rep for St. Martin’s/Tor Books way back when (mid to late 80’s). I recently re-read Hardwired, Reap the Whirlwind, etc.. Always loved your writing and made sure my accounts were well-stocked with your work. Most of those accounts (independent bookstores and distributors) are gone now. Thanks to this essay, (and your e-newsletter) I will finally read The Rift.

Best of luck in this uncertain, seemingly fact-free, dumbed down world.

Mike January 25, 2017 at 1:17 am

Jon, just started reading Rift tonite and am enjoying it. I’ve been reading you sincerely Hardwired/Whirlwind and Wild Cards back in the 80s. It would be interesting to track down some of those “businessmen” from 25 yrs ago……m

wjw January 25, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Being that kind of executive is probably its own punishment, but they’re probably doing okay in some related field. The scum also rises . . .

Bob January 26, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Thanks for getting/ this out in e-book format. Wasn’t reading much
SF in the late 90s so finding this was a pleasant surprise. One of the best of its type I’ve come across!

wjw January 27, 2017 at 10:24 am

Thanks, Bob! Glad you enjoyed it!

Etaoin Shrdlu January 29, 2017 at 6:45 pm


Now I know where WJW got some of Dagmar’s backstory from.

And this explains a lot about a contract job I was offered, momentarily, at a small bookselling operation in Seattle which appeared to be rapidly going out of business, and the rise of Amazon, which happened right after that place evaporated into thin air.

I guess maybe that bookselling operation imploding wasn’t the fault of the completely incompetent inventory-management software place I worked at for those few months. I always thought their crappy software wrecked the other company’s business. Oh well, either way, poetic justice got served and the software outfit imploded too. And I got faxed another job offer for much more money ten minutes before they pulled me into a meeting to fire me.

I miss those days.

M Kramer February 4, 2017 at 12:24 pm

Found on Book Bub. I listened with Whispersync. It’s SO good,I listened twice.
Good on ya!

wjw February 6, 2017 at 7:40 pm

Hey, thanks! I’d like to think I’m better on the second read.

Matthew Candel March 7, 2017 at 12:57 pm

I read this book at least once a year and have every year since I got it. I have read it so many times that it fell apart. I was thrilled to run across it in my app store.

wjw March 8, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Matthew, “I have read it so many times that it fell apart” is about the greatest compliment an author can hear. Thank you. You made my day.

Kevin Ure April 13, 2017 at 5:09 am

Hi, thank you. I was not able to put The Rift down. I’m sure it will be looked back on as a classic. Feels very relevant today and I’m glad you resisted the urge to update it before it got re-released.

Mike April 20, 2017 at 11:22 pm

The NMF is a significant risk area. It is not
A matter of if a major earthquake will happen, but when. Unlike other siesmic areas along the west coast, I doubt the mid-west is prepared for this type of ground movement in their building codes! This is a great read and a true drama of survival,

Shelli Houge April 21, 2017 at 9:03 pm

What a book!! I want to shout praises from the mountain tops! I’m so glad it popped up as a “suggested read” on Amazon. A brilliant work of art. The only negative things I have to say are, I didn’t want it to end and there isn’t a sequel! Thank you Mr Williams, well done Sir!

wjw April 22, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Thank you, Shelli! I love it when I inspire readers to the repeated use of exclamation points!

James Silberschlag May 20, 2017 at 4:07 pm

Just finished The Rift in two sittings — old guys gotta sleep sometime! Wonderful story. Great, troubling, terrifyingly real. Sadly, some of the terrifying folks are still around making mischief. I find the President’s speech spot-on regarding them. Now I have a back catalog to find and devour. Keep up the good writing!

wjw May 21, 2017 at 9:22 pm

Hey, thanks! Two sittings for such a big book— I feel honored!

Paula anderson May 21, 2017 at 11:29 pm

What a great find just stumbled across it,when I first opened it I was shocked 900 + pages but excited too because it was so good. I spend my evenings reading and this one kept me up more than one night. Thanks for an absorbing read. Loved it!

David McCoy July 6, 2017 at 8:48 am

I bought and read The Rift when it first came out and have just read the e version. Wow! It still has the same impact and I can’t believe it has not been filmed as a huge summer blockbuster! Your book is one of very few that I have read more than once. I have experienced earthquakes in Tennessee, California and the Philippines as well as my home state of North Carolina, and I have had a lifelong interest in the subject. Thank you for the realistic and enjoyable experience!

Gwinelle Colson July 23, 2017 at 7:36 pm

I found your book quite by accident. So glad I did! Your words provided such realism, I could almost feel the quakes and the hunger of your characters. This book would make a great movie…..

Gwinelle Colson July 23, 2017 at 7:38 pm

Waiting for the movie version.

wjw July 24, 2017 at 2:46 am

I’m waiting for the movie version, too. You wouldn’t happen to know someone with $200 million to spare . . . ?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.