Coe’s writing advice at Magical Words, along with conversations I’ve had with steampunk pioneers James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers (similarly, successful pros who aren’t rich!), and my own personal experiences struggling to make a living as a writer, all served as inspiration for the new article I wrote over at Blackgate magazine. Coe was kind enough to agree to being interviewed for the article, and since I was only able to use a small portion of my conversation with him, I’m happy to present the entire transcript here at my personal blog.
David, welcome, and thanks for your time. You received a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1993 and your first novel, Children of Amarid, came out in 1997. Can you describe your journey going from graduate student to published author to full-time author?
How did you make ends meet during that period?
By the time I put the finishing touches on my dissertation (U.S. history), in the spring of 1993, I was harboring some serious doubts about pursuing a career in academia. My wife, who is a terrific scholar and loves her work, had finished her biology Ph.D. the year before and was now teaching at Sewanee, the University of the South. We had moved to Tennessee during the summer of 1992, and while I finished my thesis, I also did a bit of teaching in Sewanee. And I could tell that I wasn’t as cut out for the work as she. Still, I had the degree in hand, and I dutifully planned to apply for teaching positions in the fall, both in Tennessee and elsewhere.
Now, as you point out, it was another three years before the book came out. I had sold the book on a few chapters and an outline, and had to finish it, and then it needed a lot of revision. And that first advance was pretty small. But my wife and I were living in a cheap rental house, we had no kids, she had health insurance through her job. So I started out writing full-time, and she basically supported me until my career started to take off. I was lucky in all sorts of ways—having a friend who knew publishing and agreed to be my agent for my first few contracts, having a wife who loves me and believes in what I do, and having that first editor see my book and like it.
Do you perform any freelance writing work or odd jobs these days to supplement your novel-writing income?
Well, I’m still married to my supportive wife, who is now a full professor and associate provost of the college, so that helps with the income issue… But yes, I do some work outside of my novel writing to supplement my income, but it’s all related to my writing. I do some mentoring in an MFA program at a university—not my wife’s college; a different school that seeks outside mentors for their graduate students in writing. It doesn’t pay a lot, but it helps. I do writer’s workshops, and they pay—again, not well, but something. For a while I did some lecturing—history-related—at Sewanee, but it’s been a few years now since I did that.
I have considered doing some editing on a freelance basis. I get requests all the time from people in my town who are working on a book, or a memoir, or something of the sort, and are desperate for professional feedback. But as of yet, I haven’t taken that particular leap. The fact is, my writing and promotional work take up most of my time, and what those activities don’t consume, family obligations do. And, for now at least, we’re doing all right.
You wrote great piece earlier this year called "A Writer's Manifesto:The Doubts and Resolve of a Midlister" at MagicalWords.net in which you ruminated on the struggles of being a midlister author, but ultimately resolved to work harder and take advantage of new publishing opportunities. Have you found it difficult to transition from the old publishing model, where print was king, to today's publishing world, where anything goes—self-publication, e-books, the re-birth of the novelette and novella, etc—and where authors who aren't already bestsellers need to really embrace things like social media and blogging to reach a new audience? What's worked well for you? What hasn't? What are you striving to do better?
That’s a complicated question and not an easy one to answer. I got into the publishing business just as the world was changing. When I started out, I would get oohs and ahhs from people when I mentioned that I had a webpage. “Wow! You have a webpage?!” Now there are domestic cats with better webpages than mine. And that really is where the change is most noticeable. Okay, not so much in the emergence of web-savvy cats, but rather in the degree to which promotion is so deeply tied to online social media, and so heavily the responsibility of the author.
The fact of the matter is that publishing has been hard on midlist authors for a long, long time. Yes, it’s gotten tougher, and part of the challenge now for authors like me is just getting oneself heard through all the noise. There are more “books” being “published” now than ever before. Many of them are self-published e-books that have not necessarily been properly vetted and edited by professional editors. Are there good self-published electronic books? Absolutely. But there is also a lot of junk out on the market, precisely because of the lack of an editorial intermediary. And so it can be frustrating for a midlist author who is still being published traditionally, who is going through the editorial process because he/she believes that approach is the best way to turn out a quality product, and who has to fight like hell to get people to notice his/her books.
I reinforce these online events by Tweeting about them and drawing attention to them with posts on Facebook and at my own blogs. And the result has been that both Thieftaker books have been released with a fair amount of buzz and fanfare. People are talking about my work a good deal, so I suppose my strategy is working.
What factored into your decision to publish under a pseudonym (D.B. Jackson) for your new historical fiction novels Thieftaker and Thieves' Quarry?
This was really a branding issue more than anything else. The books I wrote as David B. Coe were epic fantasies. (Mostly; the one exception was the novelization I wrote in 2010 of Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood.) They were extended story arcs—series of three or five books that combined to tell one over-arching tale. They were set in alternate worlds, were filled with sorcery and castle intrigue, had large casts of characters including a number of point of view characters, and had complicated, multi-strand plots.
You frequently attend conventions and writers' workshops. What do you find to be the biggest misconception readers and young writers have about being a published author?
Funny you should ask: as I answer this question, I am on a plane, flying to Calgary, Alberta, where I will be leading a writer’s workshop and then appearing as Guest of Honor at WhenWordsCollide, a genre-oriented convention.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that writers—all successful published writers—are rich. We’re not. Not by a long shot. For most of us, success in today’s market means continuing to be published by a reputable house. It means managing to get a book out every six months to a year. It means, in essence, finding satisfaction in the work we do, and in the fact that we get paid to do it, even if that pay is not all that great. Yes, a few writers get rich doing this, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
And the other misconception is that one can write successfully by waiting for inspiration to strike and then writing like a mad person. The key to my success over the years has been discipline and perseverance. I say this not to brag—not at all—but to make it clear that I’m not the most talented writer in the world. I’m not, and I’m okay with that. But I work really hard. I write every day for hours, I set word count goals for each day and I meet them. I hit my deadlines. In short, I put my butt in the chair, and I write. That’s how this business works.
It's been about four months since you wrote the aforementioned article at MagicalWords. Are you still just as determined to keep at writing or are you tempted to trade it all in for a cushy "normal" job?
I’m really not convinced that there is any such thing as a cushy job. Everyone I know works pretty hard, and there seem to be certain struggles and frustrations endemic to every profession.
But to answer your question, yes, I remain every bit as determined as I was when I wrote that post. As I might have mentioned in the essay, a friend of mine—C.E. Murphy, who has done very well writing urban fantasy—posted something on her blog about how hard it is to make a living writing full-time. In response to that piece, Judith Tarr, who has been writing successfully since before I began my career, chimed in to say that what Catie had written was absolutely true. It truly is harder now, even for established professionals.
I found reading Catie and Judith’s thoughts on the publishing business incredibly liberating. If they’re struggling a bit, it makes sense that I would be, too. And given the critical response to my Thieftaker books, particularly Thieves’ Quarry, which was released about a month ago, I know that I’m doing good work. I love what I do, I’m doing well, if not spectacularly on a commercial level, and I’m getting terrific critical response. Really, I can’t ask for more than that. Why would I give it up?
Anything else on the writing life you want to sound off on?
Just this: the key to maintaining a career as a professional writer in the current market is loving what we do. We’re probably not going to make ourselves wealthy, and there certainly are plenty of challenges to overcome. But if we love to write, if the idea of doing anything else with our work days makes us a bit queasy, then this is the correct path. It’s not easy, but as wiser men than I have said, nothing worth doing is ever easy. I love to write, and that’s what keeps me at it after all these years.
Well said! Thanks so much for your insights, David, and please don't ever give it up.