Friday, February 1, 2013

Confusion at ConFusion

I don’t consider myself a real author.
Some of you might be surprised by this, but I find it similar to being young and just having your first child. You don’t feel like a real parent either. You have a child, so of course you know you are, but you still know there is a world of difference between you and your parents.

When I was first published by AMI, I told myself I was an author at last. Technically it was true, but I came to understand it wasn’t. Just publishing a novel falls far short of what I understood to be an author. Some people—the ones that didn’t know any better—acted impressed that I published a book. But I quickly learned that putting out a novel through a tiny, unknown publisher and garnering very few sales, didn’t translate to what most people thought of as an author. When I resorted to self-publishing the rest of the series, I lost even that little credibility. Even when I made seven times the income of the average traditionally published author, there was still a dark cloud looming. Real authors looked at me with a suspicious, nearly angry expression that emoted: that’s not right—you’re cheating.

By the time I was published by Orbit, I had trained myself not to be taken in again. I hate thinking I’ve achieved something only to be let down. Even though I was traditionally published I knew I wasn’t anything special. How many thousands of freshmen authors land that first deal and disappear in a few months, never to be heard from again?

There has always been a debate about when you should call yourself a writer. I wrote a post on it once. I mentioned that the definition of writer is fluid and changes for each person, and alters as their career advances. Author is more specific. You at least have to write a book before you can even begin to reach for that title. But here too the definition is somewhat elusive. Just having written a book doesn’t seem enough. I wrote thirteen—all of which were just thrown into the attic. Not one ever made me feel like an author. Oddly, getting published failed to make the grade. Selling a quarter million books didn’t either. I thought being published by one of the big six would do the trick, but no…I didn’t feel a bit different after signing the contracts.

I did feel something when my wife quit her job and I became the sole support for our family. Living off the proceeds of your books does help make you feel like you might be an author. All that writing isn’t a waste anymore, and family members respect your “alone time.” As working instead of goofing off. They no longer insist that dealing with the garbage is more important than writing—which in reality it actually is.

But I still didn’t feel like an author. Still not somebody, I’m only an almost-author. Authors—at least in my mind—are identified and recognized as such. Few people have ever heard my name.

Two weekends ago I went to Immortal ConFusion—a fantasy and science fiction convention in Dearborn, Michigan. I’m not a huge fan of conventions, but I admit they do serve the wonderful function of reminding myself that I’m nobody. For years I attended many in the hopes of gaining readers, and each time came away questioning my choice of career.

Robin convinced me to go, saying ConFusion was the place where the cool kids hang out, and I should go so I can at least be seen standing near them. Robin is my publicist wife, and always after the photo-op. But seriously, a fantasy convention in Detroit? I was born and raised in Detroit, I know Detroit, and this sounded weird. I mean who goes to Detroit for Science fiction and fantasy?

Turns out a lot of really big name authors do.

Last year Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercombie, Peter Brett, Brent Weeks, John Scalzi, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Robin Hobb, Jim Hines, Myke Cole, and Saladin Ahmed all attended. There weren’t that many fantasy names at ComicCon in New York. And Abercombie and Lynch came from England! To Detroit. Seriously.

The con itself is quite small, and several, like Brent Weeks, and Joe Abercombie, weren’t even on the Con’s author listing, so they weren’t there for exposure. Instead I discovered ConFusion isn’t so much a convention for fans so much as a secret convention for authors that readers in-the-know are invited to visit.

Honestly, everyone I met the first day was an author. Turns out a number of them live in the general area and just started convening at ConFusion to see each other. Then last year a who’s-who in fantasy literature got together and arranged to play an epic game of Dungeon’s and Dragons. That has to be the nirvana of every fantasy fan. 

Word of this D andD extravaganza got out. Rumor had it, they planned to do the same this year. I had to go.

I wasn’t going to play. I hadn’t played in centuries and never followed the rules when we did, but the whole thing sounded interesting. Besides, my mother lives twenty minutes away and likes when I visit.

As usual I didn’t know anyone. I never do at these things. I met Myke Cole at Balticon last year, but he was coming in late. That left me with no one I recognized. I managed to identify Scalzi because he was signing a couple of books with his name on the spine. But I don’t know the man, and wasn’t about to bother him.  

I had a prearranged meeting with Bradley Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo, and we had lunch together. After checking, in Brian McClellan, (a protégé of Brandon Sanderson,) over heard my name and introduced himself. He’s one of this year’s freshman class. His first book Promise of Blood is due out in April and we share a publisher and editor.  I was actually reading his ARC just before coming to the con and now estimate it will be the next big thing in fantasy. Brian knew more people than I did and waved over Doug Hulick, author of Among Thieves. While we were chatting, Howard Andrew Jones suggested we grab dinner at the hotel bar.

I did a lot of hand shaking with the likes of Sam Sykes, Peter Orullian, and Saladin Ahmed and I honestly can’t remember who else. I doubt they remember me either.

A couple of fans, having learned I was coming, arranged to meet me. Robert Aldrich and I had a drink together. I had another with uber fans Mike McCrum and his wife, Susan, who had made a trip to the area a mini-vacation staying over at a nearby hotel because the convention’s one was sold out. They picked up a set of signed hard covers to add to their Riyria collection. Robin and I ended up going out to dinner with them and talking all night about how much they love my series—I’ll admit this was the highlight of the trip.

I was starting to think I might really be an author.

Then came the mass signing—the equivalent horror of picking teams in gym class. All the authors filed in and sat at tables lining the room with little paper name plates before them. Then the doors opened and in swarmed the hordes of readers carrying books and looking for their favorite authors to sign them.

A massive line formed for Patrick Rothfuss. Another sizable one for John Scalzi, and a healthy one for Peter Brett. Robert Aldrich saved the books he wanted me to sign and came over, thus saving me from complete humiliation. Brian McClellan was nice enough to have me sign a copy of Theft. Both of those I didn’t feel counted.

And there I sat, spinning my pen as the hordes rushed about ignoring me. Eyes glanced at my name. No one had a clue who I was. I’m not really an author. I just published a few books. There’s a difference.

One fella did see my name and grinned. He stopped, then walked away. Coming back, he pulled his con badge card out of the plastic holder, and turned it over. “I love your books,” he told me. “But I don’t have a copy with me. Can you sign this?”

I’m sure he has no idea how happy he made me.

In the bar I ran into Peter Brett, author of The Warded Man and Desert Spear. His latest title, TheDaylight War, was voted the most anticipated book of 2013 by Fantasy Faction, beating out, A Memory of Light. Almost a year ago at Balticon, Myke Cole had graciously introduced my wife and I to Peter. The meeting was fleeting. I didn’t expect him to remember me. Back then Myke had said Peter wanted to meet me—I nodded politely because I didn’t want to call Myke a liar. The man is in the military and looks like he could dis- and re-assemble me in sixteen seconds with a blindfold on. So pretending he might remember me I began talking to him and I must have mentioned my lack of legitimacy as an author. I kind of expected he would say, “You’re an author?” Instead he said something that surprised me. First he made a disparaging huff, and I think he might have rolled his eyes—actions that announced he was about to insult the living crap out of me. I might have actually winced in anticipation, but then he said, “You’re selling as good as I am.”

I wasn’t certain I had heard correctly.

I was still getting over the fact that Peter Brett knew who I was. Moreover, he knew how well my books were selling. And he’s right, according to Amazon rankings, we are selling at about the same rate (right now at least—in a few weeks his third book comes out and he goes on his multi-country signing tour. I’ll be left in the dust of a real author). Even if that weren’t the case, he’s way out ahead of me. I hear through the grapevine that he’s sold over a million books and I’m only a quarter of that. The gruffness of his voice and the almost irritated tone, sold me that he wasn’t being polite. Peter almost sounded like he considered me an equal.

I quickly explained his error and tried to illustrate that he was an author, and that I was just an almost-author. When I signed people’s books they were always first time buyers and hadn’t read them yet. I tried to convince Peter of his mistake, but I wasn’t successful. Granted, my heart wasn’t in the debate. I sort of wanted him to win.

Myke Cole finally arrived. He looked cold, tired, needing a drink, and discussing how he’d forgotten that dwarves made good thieves in D and D. The discussion moved on, but my mind remained on the conversation I’d had with Peter.

I still think about it.

I’m not convinced I’m a real author yet, but I’m starting to think my chances of getting there are looking better.


  1. Having attended DefCon 6 years running now, I know what you mean. I know everyone there, but none of them know me.

    I've given away signed copies of my books to friends and they still didn't know I had written it. "Um yeah, I wrote it. I gave you a signed copy, remember?" It gets better when they say, "No."

  2. Interesting thoughts Michael. Could it have something to do with how you grew up seeing your favourite writers as "authors", and so now even though you've succeeded with your novels, it's hard to perceive yourself as "like them"? I bet it something many people who are successful with their art experience.

  3. I just read pirated copies of you first 3 books (riyria). Then googled you to see what else you have written, and ended up here and see this post.

    1) I am going to buy your books, if I see them at any bookstore here (India). I have a policy of now reading the pirated ebook, and buying a hardcopy only if its good enough to merit addition to the collection.

    2) My god, man, you have issues :-) Okay, how do I put it nicely - if your ebook are good enough to be available on torrents, then you are an author.

    3) The books are stellar - well they could be slightly deeper, and more intricate (as less following the standard tropes), but you know - that will happen as you write more. Anyways, as I can see, starting from self publishing to all this, you have come a long way - so things are just getting better. Anyways every fantasy fan, wants a good old sword and socrery book from time to time, and that is exactly what I was looking for, and found with your books. I assume, while writing, you also couldn't avoid that.

    I guess I stole some money from you, but it will be made by me soon.

  4. If it makes you feel any better, if I saw your name on a list of attending authors for a Con, I'd definitely pack my Riyria books to get them signed! Your a full blown author in my eyes!

  5. I have to agree with Manolin. Wake up, Michael! You are an author. I realize that was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but do you realize how many of us look up to you? Again, great catching up at the con. Hopefully see you at another one soon.

  6. Actually no, I honestly don't know that anyone looks up to me, but thank you for saying so. Such news comes slowly to where I live--which is a good thing I think--and even then I have a tendency to question it. Perhaps I saw too many films where the boogie man gets up, even after being shot and dropped off a cliff while on fire. I'm always looking for that other shoe to drop (where does that saying even come from?) Keep in mind, my series has only been "out there" in a traditional sense for a year. This likely has a lot to do with it. I haven't had time to accept the success that others tell me I've achieved, and my books haven't been out long enough for people to have read them, spread them, and remember me. In all likelihood I might have to wait for a generation to pass so that people who read my books at the age of thirteen grow up and fondly remember them. I think that's the best way to reach that lofty shelf of Author.

    Sadly by the time I reach that level, I'll have forgotten why I wanted to attain it, along with my own name and which pill I'm supposed to take that day.

  7. I agree with Peter, hmmph, you are an author, you are just going to have to accept it my friend! In fact, your name among the "official" attendees was the only one that made it worth consideration to make the trip out there for myself personally. I admit I am a fan of Brent Weeks, and plan to try out Peter Brett's series... but your name belongs right there with them without any question in my mind whatsoever.

    But I think it's just something that comes with time.

    Speaking of that, know of any cons in Chicago that you'll consider attending in 2013??

  8. I have no cons presently scheduled. Right now I'm heads down writing. I do that in winter. All tucked away under the snow in a burrow...well there isn't any snow here at the moment, but you know what I mean. Busy making a new world. In spring I might poke my head up.

  9. If you're not yet a "writer" there's truly no hope for me! Congrats on your many successes. I think those humbling moments are important too. If you ever felt like you'd arrived, you might find your writing going stagnant.

  10. Seriously! Stop worrying my friend! I discovered your books on Audible recently and have been listening to them continuously! Excellent stories (Calling young Tim Roth and young Gary Oldman to the casting office). I can't say how frustrating it is to know I'll have to wait until Aug/Sept for the next installments... I have been pointing my friends who are need of a slightly-less-sadistic fix after waiting for George R.R. Martin to get the next installment out, and they all love your work.

  11. Thanks for sharing this story! I have a feeling that if someday I do get published that I will be feeling the exact same's nice to know that someone I am a fan of feels that way too. Been hearing from all the folks I recommended Riyria Revelations to and...they love love love the series. If I was there I would have definitely been standing there to get my books signed by you. :)

  12. Heeey! I just finished reading your first book in the spanish edition. Your book is amazing, I really enjoyed reading it!

    So don't worry too much if you think nobody knows you, I didn't know who was Peter Brett before your post and after reading some reviews I think his books don't seem as interesting as yours :)


  13. I have been looking for a book to read and to share with web design columbia sc. It is always cool to have someone to talk about the stories we read. Can't wait for the next one.

  14. Since we emailed a couple of times after I discovered the Riyria books and pretty much demanded to know more of the earlier adventures... I am incredibly glad to see Crown Tower and the Rose are coming out, I have pre-ordered them on Kindle without hesitation.

    To me, you have to be pretty special for me to just pre-order a book several months in advance of publication - i added to your kickstarter fund too - because it means I KNOW you're going to write good stuff, and that my friend, makes you an AUTHOR. Writers are, perhaps less professionally acclaimed, Authors however, now they are the stars. And you are one.