What Do You Mean I Have to Wait a Whole Year?

Magic or Madness must really and truly be out because I’m already getting complaints that a year is too long to wait for the sequel. Yay! If a reader’s first response is to be eager for more then I’m doing my job. But, trust me, I understand about the whole waiting thing. Reading the first book in a trilogy and not being able to get my hands on the rest instantly drives me crazy. (Robin Hobb’s been torturing me for years.) But you should bear in mind that the wait for Magic Lessons is even worse for me because I’ve already written it (barring the last few rounds of spit and polish). I’m hideously impatient to see it as a finished book—to see the gorgous cover somewhere other than on a computer screen—and start reading the reviews, seeing it in shops, finding out what people think of it, but that won’t happen until March 2006. Sigh. So long . . .

Of course, I should be entirely focussed on Magic or Madness. It’s the one in the shops, being reviewed, and (I hope) being read right now. I should be doing what I can to promote and support my first born and stop thinking about the next baby (Magic Lessons) and the baby after that (Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi!—no, I will never tire of that joke). But I haven’t forgotten Magic or Madness, honest. On the 8th of May I’ll be doing an event at Books of Wonder in New York City: me plus Scott plus EOIN COLFER (!!).

In that vein, yesterday I went into Galaxy Books in Sydney because I’d heard a rumour they had a couple of copies Magic or Madness. Said rumour was true. There were three faced out on the recent titles shelves and one shelved alphabetically (disappointingly, not next to Tanith Lee as I had fondly imagined). I signed all four—my first novel-signing in a real-live bookshop. I saw an actual customer who didn’t even know me, pick up the book and giggle as he read through the glossary. I ran into a dear friend who’d come to Galaxy specifically to buy my book (and Scott’s latest) and watched her do just that (bless her). And, yes, that was thrilling too. And I was asked, yet again, when the sequel would be out and why it takes so long in between books.

Here’s the answer as I understand it:

Typically publishers reckon that only libraries, obsessive fans (such as me—I won’t bore you with the list of writers I must have in hardcover) and rich people buy hardcovers. Most people wait for the paperback. Some say the main job of the hardcover is to be an advertisement for the paperback (though if none sold at all there wouldn’t be any paperback).

I’ve been watching this process with Scott’s first Midnighters book, The Secret Hour. The hardcover came out a year ago, now the paperback is out and selling even faster than the hardcover (which did just fine). At the same time he has a paperback original, Uglies, out. Together the two paperbacks are generating a lot more Scott Westerfeld attention, a steady flow of fan mail, and are driving sales of the newly-released hardcover Midnighters 2: Touching Darkness. Most excellent.

Ideally a publisher wants an author to write a book a year, so that once a year the author has a new (hardcover) book out at the same time as their previous book appears in paperback. That way the sales of paperbacks and hardcovers feed on one another in an endless cycle and the author is never forgotten. That’s the theory anyway.

Scott has gone even further: he’ll have four new books out this year: Midnighters 2: Touching Darkness and his vampire novel, Peeps (I reckon its his best YA so far), in hardcover, and Uglies and its sequel Pretties in paperback. On top of that there’s the paperbacks of last year’s Midnighters 1 and So Yesterday. Next year he’ll have three new books: Midnighters 3 Blue Noon (hardcover), Specials, the final book in the Uglies trilogy (paperback) and an as yet unnamed (and unwritten) hardcover followup to So Yesterday and Peeps. Then of course there’ll be the Midnighters 2 and Peeps paperbacks. Too much Scott Westerfeld is barely enough.

By which time Scott will have suffered a nervous collapse. Frankly, I don’t recommend writing at the pace he’s been maintaining for the last few years.* But it sure makes for some excellent cross promotion. You liked the Midnighters books? Why not try Peeps? You liked Uglies why not try So Yesterday? And so on . . .

Some publishers actually fear Scott-Westerfeld-style prolificness. They worry that if hardcover and paperback books by the same writer come out too close together it will cut into the sales of the hardcover books. They imagine readers staring at the shelves thinking, "I can only have one Westerfeld book. One costs US$6.99 and the other US$15.99. Hmmm, which will I buy?" In amongst the many Westerfeld books you’ll notice that there’s a year gap between the hardcover and paperback of the same title.

However, publishers are much more against too big a gap then they are against too small. They fear that if you wait 18 months or more everyone will have forgotten about the book and it’s author. But many (I’d say most) writers aren’t like Scott and just can’t write that fast, particularly if they’ve got a day job, and/or children, or value their health.

No matter what pace you’re being published at, it really helps to have some kind of track record. Scott’s sales are increasing as he has more books out and more people have heard of him, he’s being more widely reviewed, shortlisted for awards (not to mention winning the Aurealis) and finding his way onto best-of-the-year lists. One of the problems first-time novelists like myself face is that you’re brand new, haven’t won any awards, and you don’t have any obsessive fans yet. The only place an impulse buy is likely to happen is at a real world bookshop. Especially if you have the luck to be shelved face out as Magic or Madness is right now at Galaxy (Sydney), Pulp Fiction (Brisbane), Books of Wonder (New York City) and some Barnes and Nobles in the US. I’ve had a few emails from folks saying they bought Magic or Madness because they were struck by the cover and the title.

But the face-out shelving won’t be in all stores and won’t last long. There are too many newer books waiting for their moment on the new teen shelves. Sales after my books moves into the land of spine-out-only are generated by promoting your arse off (see the Eoin Colfer event mentioned above, all the cons I’ll attend this year, and all the many bookshops I plan to visit and say "Hi, I’m Justine with the unpronouncable surname. You might possibly, if I’m reallly lucky, know me from such . . . "), good reviews, being shortlisted for—or even better winning—awards, making best-of-the-year lists, and, of course, the ever-mysterious word of mouth. If I knew how that worked I’d be a very wealthy girl indeed (though I suspect Scalzi knows the answer).

To sum up: Having Magic Lessons come out a year later (accompanied by the paperback of Magic or Madness) is not a nefarious plan on the part of my cruel publishers to torture those who are dying to know what happens next. Rather it’s all part of a cunning plan to make the trilogy sell over a longer period of time, and for me to have a more-than-ten-minute-long writing career. Fingers crossed.

For those who really must know, email me, and I’ll send you a five-word summary of the next two books. Or not. Depends on my mood. Oh, what the hell: he dies on the bus.

Just kidding.

Sydney, 11 April 2005

*Though our mate Sean Williams seems to have managed an even more insane pace for a decade now.