It’s Official: The Twenty Palaces Series Has Been Cancelled (long)

(Update to this post: I’m shutting down comments because it’s been over a week and they’re still coming. What’s more, I don’t really want to keep talking about it. Thank you.)

(Second update: Disabling new comments hid the old comments, which I didn’t want, so comments are back on again.)

Yep. It’s true. Based on the sales of Circle of Enemies, Del Rey has decided not to offer me a contract to write more Twenty Palaces books.

What? Why?

Well, Pretend Questioner, let me address that in a very long blog post :

I sold Child of Fire (then called Harvest of Fire) to Del Rey in early 2008 in a pre-empt deal. (That means that Del Rey thought it would go to auction and they wanted to avoid that by going straight to the expected top price, sort of like the “Buy it now!” button on eBay.) Unfortunately, it underperformed and each book since has done worse. When sales of Game of Cages came out lower than the first book, my editor explained that book three would have to show an upward trend for the series to continue.

And it didn’t?

Hoo boy. No, it didn’t.

Come on, man. Give us some details.

There aren’t a lot of details to give. For a couple of years now, mass market sales have been in decline for a lot of authors, and ebook sales for my titles haven’t picked up the slack. Child of Fire had a print run of 30K but sell-through was slightly below 50%. Ebook sales that first year (2009) were about 3% of that.

Game of Cages had much lower initial orders, for the obvious reason, and there was never a reason to go to a second printing. Ebook sales were better, but still low. With Circle of Enemies, the ebook sales have been unexceptional, and the print book sales have been awful. Really awful.

Man, it sounds like your publisher really worked you over.

Ha ha! NO!

Seriously, Del Rey has been nothing but great and I wanted to be sure to cover this because there’s always someone out there who says “I liked this series but the author got screwed!”

That didn’t happen. What actually happened was that Del Rey gave me a ton of support. With Child of Fire they didn’t just send out ARCs to reviewers, they sent out Advanced Reader Editions–essentially, a copy of the book that looked like the final book, full-color cover and everything. Just last summer, to promote book three, Del Rey dropped the ebook prices for books one and two; book one is still at 99 cents right now. (More on that price drop later)

They did much more than that, too, including giveaways and offering me a spot in their “A Glimpse of Darkness” project.

Still, if you’d gone indie–

What? What could I have done? Earned a larger percentage of a dwindling series?

If I had “gone indie” I wouldn’t have gotten a “Best 100 Books of 2009″ from Publishers Weekly for Child of Fire. I wouldn’t have earned starred reviews from PW. I wouldn’t have gotten terrific reviews from Locus. I wouldn’t have gotten blurbs from Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, Charles Stross, and so many more. I wouldn’t have Jim Butcher recommending my books to his readers while he’s touring for his latest novel. I wouldn’t have French, German or Russian editions. I wouldn’t have the omnibus edition from the Science Fiction Book Club.

I’m not listing these things because they’re fun merit badges I earned. This stuff sells books and reaches readers. But in my case, even all this wasn’t enough.

What’s more, the books wouldn’t have been edited. This is the platonic ideal of “burying the lede,” but I’ve been very lucky to work with editor-in-chief Betsy Mitchell, and my books wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are without her input.

But if all these great things happened, what happened to sales?

::sigh::

I’ve heard a lot of explanations about why the books haven’t sold as well as expected.

* The market is in turmoil.
* The protagonist isn’t likable enough.
* The covers (some readers really didn’t like the covers).
* Urban fantasy readers prefer women writers and protagonists.

I don’t like that last one.

I don’t like any of them. And I don’t believe them.

I don’t know much about covers but other writers are doing well right now, and if readers are embracing them in large numbers, they could also be embracing me. I’m talking about writers with grim protagonists/dark stories, dudes writing UF, series premiering in mmpb, the whole deal. If those other writers can reach large audiences, I should be able to do so, too. But I haven’t.

Have you figured out why?

That’s not really something I can ever know for sure, but… See, there are a lot of writers out there who never read reviews (which is a legit choice) but I’m not one of them. I like to skim through Amazon.com or Goodreads to see what people are saying. There are plenty of people who like the books, but a significant percentage are either “meh” or actively dislike them. Here’s a list of the main complaints I see from readers:

* No romance/romance angle mishandled
* Too fast-paced
* (on Child of Fire) Nothing happens for the first third of the book.
* Too much ghost knife
* Twenty Palace Society in particular and the setting in general weren’t explained clearly enough.

There were others, but those were the ones I heard most often.

The first two I don’t much worry about. I didn’t really want to write a romance novel, although I suppose I should have realized that Ray and Cynthia’s “morning after” conversation would have registered as a plot complication to many romance readers.

The folks who believed that nothing happened in the first third of Child of Fire confused me at first, until I realized that, until Ray and Annalise identify the villain they’ll be chasing, the plot question for the book was “What the hell is going on?” For some reason, a sizable segment of the readership doesn’t recognize that as legitimate narrative. That’s surprising and interesting to me.

As for the complaints about the overuse of the ghost knife, that was probably my miscalculation. I reasoned that, if I were writing a crime thriller, my protagonist could use a gun in scene after scene without annoying the reader, as long as he didn’t always do the same thing: he might shoot to kill, intimidate, break something, hit someone, whatever. I figured a single enchanted object would have a similar effect in the story, especially since I designed the second and third books so the spell didn’t work/couldn’t be used much of the time. Guess I figured that wrong.

Then there was the big one: that not enough was explained.

Most urban fantasy is what I (lovingly!) refer to as “tour guide” fantasy: the protagonist is an expert in the setting and part of the fun is letting them lead the reader through the world. Even when the protagonist is a noob, an advisor character will show up right around the quarter story mark to explain the situation. It gives some context to the story and makes the stakes more concrete.

And that’s fine in most cases. But it’s annoying to see a supposed secret society giving Our Fresh-Faced Hero a guided tour of their headquarters, complete with an introduction to the irreplaceable person in charge. It’s not realistic and it doesn’t make sense.

So having the magic, players, dangers, and stakes inferred by the protagonist based on the events of the book–leaving things mysterious, in other words–was a choice, and many readers didn’t care for it.

Learned something, have you?

Sure. There’s a balance between chasing what you think the market wants and who cares what the readers want? I think I’m negotiating it pretty well.

So let’s put that to use for book 4! When does the Kickstarter campaign start?

There isn’t going to be one.

Then you’re going to write it on spec and self-publish it?

No, I’m not planning to write another Twenty Palaces book right away.

Dude… Dude, you can’t just leave things where they were at the end of Circle of Enemies. It’s not fair.

I know. Jesus, I know that.

Look, I never planned to stop writing the series at this point, and I’m still not planning to stop. I also never expected the books’ sales to tank. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.

Truthfully, that ending of Circle of Enemies, where [spoiler!] Ray and Annalise head off into the darkness, determined to change things for the better? I wrote that months before Game of Cages even hit the shelves. I figured that, even if my books never broke the bestseller lists, they’d do well enough that I’d be offered another contract… even if it was for less money.

The thing is, while the readers I have are seriously the finest people on the planet (hello, example number two of burying the lede), I mean, seriously wonderful people who have been fantastic about the books, there don’t seem to be all that many of them. When I mentioned that Circle of Enemies was not doing well, er, let’s call that polite understatement.

Sure, Borders closing hurts. Hurricane Irene delaying the mmpb from hitting the shelves at Barnes & Noble until two weeks after publication also hurts. But the Bookscan numbers didn’t jump when it finally did hit the shelves at B&N; they continued to drop. And while Bookscan doesn’t capture all sales, the percentage it does capture leaves no room for wiggling.

Circle of Enemies is a book I worked like crazy on. I tore my hair out over it. Then it tanked. The Bookscan numbers took four weeks just to barely break into four-digit sales. And ebook sales? They haven’t been great.

So I’m not kidding when I talk about a dwindling series. Because that’s really really bad.

The thing is, I think these books are successful artistically. They’re pretty much what I was hoping to create, and I think I did a good job.

But commercially it’s failed and there’s no one else to blame for that but me. It’s my job as an author to overcome hurdles, not blame them for tripping me. Cover art? Format? Weather? It doesn’t matter. It’s my job to write a book so awesome that it breaks through every barrier. And while there are readers who’ve really loved the series (best people on the planet, no joke) the numbers are irrefutable: there aren’t enough of them.

Even with all the promotions Del Rey has done?

Remember when I said I’d come back to the 99 cent Child of Fire promotion? That happened mid-July, and that first day I tweeted the hell out of it, and a lot of people helped me spread the word. As a result, the book climbed way up the Kindle contemporary fantasy list. It even surpassed Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story for a short while (a week before GS came out).

But it didn’t stick. Some readers who tried it recommended it to their friends, but not that many of them, and the book slowly sank back in the rankings.

Shortly after, I talked to my agent about it, and she thought I had assessed things correctly: Whatever we believed about the quality of the books, readers weren’t responding. If the books were going to reach a lot of people, it would have happened then.

So none of this is a surprise to you.

That’s wrong; I have been surprised. While it’s true that I indulged in that awful four-letter word that destroys happiness and wrecks plans (that would be “hope”) I never expected Circle of Enemies to sell so poorly.

This is sorta depressing

Jesus.

How about you tell us something that isn’t horrible, then?

I’m going to publish the prequel as soon as I can put it together, so readers who love Ray and Annalise can see how they met, how Ray betrayed her, how he created his ghost knife, and all that. Seriously, I’m hoping to have that together ASAP.

Beyond that, there are new books. A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark is the first novel I’ve ever written outside the Twenty Palaces setting. It’s pretty different (I wrote it as a change of pace from the grimmindark of the Ray Lilly novels) but still fast-paced, and still different from the usual sort of thing you see in urban fantasy (I hope). My agent likes it, but will it sell?

And of course there’s my current project, a second-world fantasy with the working title A Blessing of Monsters. Again, I’m planning something that’s hopefully a little different from the usual epic fantasy but is just as harrowing as the Twenty Palaces books have been. I’ve wanted to write a gigantic fantasy for a long time, and I’m excited to be working on it.

Also, for both of these projects? The story ends on the last page.

But I do have to move on. With luck, I’ll have learned enough from my earlier books to create something even better with these new projects. Someday, I hope to return to Ray Lilly and his world–I do have a long arc planned for him and the society–but I can’t do that right now.

I’m still pissed about being left hanging.

Sorry.

I know it says “(long)” in the subject header, but this post has gotten really, really long. Anything you want to say to wrap this up?

“Thank you,” is what I want to say. Thank you to everyone who’s read the books, recommended them to their friends, blogged or tweeted about them, or sent me kind notes. I hear all the time about authors having weird or contentious interactions with their readers, but that’s never happened to me. The fans of this series have been great.

There are no guarantees in writing. You work like crazy on a story that means a lot to you, and when you send it out into the world, it’s met with scorn, or indifference, or casual contempt. There are no guarantees that X will be a great story or that Y number of readers will fall all over it and spread the word. I know as well as anyone that no one owes me anything.

But I am humbled and grateful to everyone who has read and enjoyed these books. Thank you. I’m sorry there aren’t going to be more of them for a little while, but hopefully I can return to them in not too many years, and hopefully you will enjoy what I write in the meantime.

That’s all.

Added later:


 
  • The prequel to Child of Fire: see here for more details

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Named to Publishers Weekly's "Best 100 Books of 2009" list. Get the audiobook here.

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