Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 7)

1988 was a watershed year. Of course, I've had so many watershed years, my history is starting to look like the Mississippi delta by now. While Phil Jennings scored first and big, by landing a contract with Baen for Tower to the Sky and a book to be named later, I scored later and bigger, by landing the contract to write an Isaac Asimov® Robot City® book.

At least, that's the way the minion of Byron Preiss who recruited me for the project pitched it to me. He told me I was just exactly the kind of rising new talent they were looking for to write this exciting new series exploring Asimov's world; bright, talented, energetic, young, just on the brink of launching a brilliant career.

He left out the part about, "and too naive to know anything yet about Byron Preiss Visual Publications*."

(* Generally known as BPVP, or "BeepVeep.")

Look, I have to stop here and throw in an aside to the audience. I've been writing and discarding this part of the story since Monday. I can't quite say why; Preiss died in a car accident in July of 2005, and I just feel weird writing about him. He was a brilliant guy, very charming, very likable. He was a writer, an editor, but most of all a book packager, who specialized in creating lucrative book deals for publishers, and he was a very successful one at that.

So obviously, he must have treated most of the people he dealt with ethically. The fact that he treated everyone associated with the Robot City project like a bunch of illegal migrant bean pickers must have been an aberration. Right?


Oh yeah, and as long as we're on the subject of disclaimers and fair warnings and all that: I realize that many people out there think Jim Baen could walk on water. I happen not to be one of those people. So if you are one of those people who thought Jim Baen was the second coming of John W. Campbell Jr., you'd best stop reading now, because what's coming up next will only upset you.

(By the way, I actually do believe Baen was the second coming of Campbell. But if you know anything about Campbell, you know that this assertion is not an unalloyed compliment.)

Tower to the Sky was released in March of 1988, to — er, reviews. For a time Phil was perversely proud of the one that said Tower was "either brilliantly obscure or just plain awful, I honestly can't tell which," but after awhile the thrill faded. He was delighted when Baen agreed to take a short-story collection, The Lingering I, in place of that second novel to be named. He was perhaps inordinately proud of the way he "maneuvered" Baen into releasing him from all the exclusive options language in his contract...

Another aside here. Baen was an incredibly astute businessman. So far as I've been able to tell, the secret of his success amounted to the consistent employment of four principles:

1. Identify old names with cachet who are on the far downhill sides of their careers, and lock up the rights to their backlist and intellectual property for cheap.

2. Identify promising new talents very early, and sign them for dirt-cheap when no one else is looking.

3. Lard your contracts with exclusivity clauses and right-of-first rejection options, so that the new talent especially is effectively prohibited from trying to sell novel-length fiction to anyone else.

4. If the new talent balks at being locked in to dirt-cheap rate, offer to extend the number of books covered by the contract and pay the on-signing advances for all those books now, so that the writer (being chronically broke) feels like he or she is getting lots more money, and only later realizes that he or she now has to deliver all those contracted books.

This, by the way, is how Baen managed to get all of those early and award-winning Lois McMaster Bujold books for scandalously cheap advances.

Therefore, when Baen allowed Phil to maneuver him into "granting" Phil a release from the exclusivity clauses, what Phil didn't realize was this was Baen's way of closing out the books and cutting him loose...

The Lingering I, renamed The Bug Life Chronicles and given a stock-art cover treatment to make it look like it was a sequel to Tower, was released in January of 1989.

In a sense, it is a sort of a prequel to Tower, as some of the same characters and situations introduced in some of the stories in Bug Life later reappear in Tower. (Heh! Looking at it now, I also realize that a "Dr. Bethke" appears in the story, "Trees." I'd forgotten about that! That was Phil's retaliation for my writing him into "It Came From The Slushpile!", a story which is, if I may be so bold, an absolute masterpiece, and which can be found in the anthology, The Best of Aboriginal SF, as well as in other collections.) If Amazon sales rankings mean anything, Bug Life remains a better seller than Tower, as it has a rank in the 2.45M range compared to Tower's 4.56M ranking.

Meanwhile, I was deep into writing my Isaac Asimov's Robot City novel, Renegade

— except that the guy who was on the hook to write an earlier novel in the series turned in a manuscript with an absolutely incoherent and very '60s New Wave title, so BPVP, needing a new title in a hurry, renamed that book Renegade, and told me to come up with a new title. Given that "Renegade" was not merely the title of my book but also the name of the lead character, this worked a certain hardship on me. Thank goodness for search & replace.

But in due time, I finished all the requested revisions, and turned in my final draft. And waited.

And waited...

The contract was structured as a 3/3/3 deal: one-third of the advance on signing, another third on delivery of the rough draft, and the final third on acceptance of the final draft. While the first payment had come through promptly, so far I'd had nothing but excuses for why I hadn't received the second payment (which was now months overdue), and my prospects for ever seeing the third payment were beginning to look pretty questionable.

And then, in one of those glorious sorts of moments that could only happen back in the day when writers and editors worked in ink on paper, BPVP sent me the only existing copy of the final copy-edited manuscript, with instructions to give it a final proofread and Fedex it back to them (at my expense) ASAFP.

The only copy.

I doubt they ever made that mistake again. Because what I did, frankly, was take the manuscript hostage, and fax BPVP a nice little note explaining that I would be happy to start proofreading it just as soon as my agent was in possession of a cashier's check for the remaining money due me, just as I would be happy to Fedex it back to them just as soon as they gave me their Fedex account number.

The check followed with amazing rapidity, and the book was slotted into their ridiculously long production schedule and finally released in August of 1990.

For more than 15 years now, I have refrained from commenting publicly on this book. It's not that I'm ashamed of it. In fact, there are some things about it I'm still very proud of, like the way that Jerry Oltion (another name your should have heard of but probably haven't) and I worked together, outside of the "official" channels, to coordinate our books, so Alliance (Book #4), Maverick (Book #5), and Humanity (Book #6) form a sort of mini-trilogy within the larger series.


But there remains one problem, and it's one I still have trouble talking about. The Robot City series has remained in print for close to twenty years. I continue to get kindly fan mail from all over the world about this book, because the series has been translated and reprinted in unknown numbers of foreign languages. For example, here's the cover of the recent Brazilian edition, which I learned about from a fan:

(Don't ask me where that giant laser-shooting starfish came from. It's not in the book.)

In a way, I'm quite pleased that this book lives on. But...


The book was not a flat work-for-hire. I was supposed to get royalties and a cut of the foreign sales and derivative works. But according to BPVP's accounting, despite being in print in one form or another for more than 15 years, this book has never earned out!

And then, in July of 2005, Byron Preiss was killed in a car accident, and within a very few months the entire house of cards that was BPVP and iBooks came a-tumblin' down into Chapter 7. And there was much litigation...

But I've broken out of my chronology here, and I need to get back into it. Because, in the spring of 1989, at the same time as all of this other nonsense was going on with BPVP, I signed the deal with the devil, and became one of Jim Baen's new talents.

To be continued...