How My Latest Book Ended Up Self-Published

Arkhangelsk has been doing pretty well.

Which is to say, it hasn’t catapulted me to stardom, nor has it bumped Project Hail Mary off any bestseller lists. But it’s been well-reviewed, and has in fact garnered more Amazon ratings than either my second or third books. My first book has received a little bump in attention, which from the timing seems clearly to be a knock-on effect from the publication of Arkhangelsk.

People have liked it. That’s the best part.

It’s not at all uncommon for trade published authors to self-publish other work. There are a lot of good reasons for it. But that hadn’t been my plan for Arkhangelsk, and I thought I’d write up a brief history of how it got where it is.

Arkhangelsk was born in late 2016, when my then-agent told me, with some surprise, it was possible my career hadn’t been annihilated by bad sales. She said she’d discussed with my editor as many as two more series books, and possibly a prequel. I had thought quite a bit about the history of my Central Corps universe, and how the world might have looked centuries before my wildly undisciplined mechanic enlisted in an interstellar military organization. I was thinking about what the first interstellar flights would have looked like: what was happening in the world, how were expeditions organized, that sort of thing. I’d intended the focus to be on getting off the planet for the first time, the denouement of the book being a successful airlift.

Of course things with my publisher didn’t play out like that at all. I turned in Breach of Containment, my last book for them, and began focusing on drafting something to offer as an option book. After the 2016 elections, relentless optimism seemed an impossible thing to imagine, so the story began to shift. The chaos of first flight would be history; I would write about what happened afterward, when people left everything familiar behind to head into a relentlessly hostile environment. How would they adapt as a group? What parts of humanity would they bring with them? What lessons would they learn, good or bad?

In short: how much do people really change?

I drafted a few chapters and a synopsis. The publisher declined the option, saying the book was “too dark.” (I had drafted chapters for the next series book, but I have no idea if they were told those existed, or if they would have looked at them if they knew.) So I was out of contract, but my agent was excited about the book, so I wrote it. I had a draft finished in August of 2017, two months before Breach of Containment was released.

My agent fired me.

Those close to me know that whole story, and I’m not going to rehash it here. Suffice to say it derailed every creative impulse I had. How do you fight impostor syndrome when you’ve been told by a professional that you’re an impostor?

Still I wrote. And wrote. I kept working on the next series book. I drafted half of another standalone novel.

I revised Arkhangelsk. Over and over and over. And in 2019, I queried the book. By December I had signed with another agent.

Cue the pandemic.

I worked through a lot of revisions with my agent, but back-and-forth communication was slow for so many reasons. The book finally went on sub in late 2020/early 2021, but it was a sluggish and haphazard process, and not particularly filled with hope. I believed strongly in the book, but between politics, imprint consolidations, and general confusion, I was never quite sure where it was or how it stood. In the summer of 2021, I parted ways with my agent.

That was a hard choice. The book was still, as far as I knew, out with a few publishers, although most had come back. There’s no good way to explain what I did without sounding like I was just impatient. I can only say that wasn’t it at all, that there were things going on I won’t discuss publicly, and that if there had been a way to wait out the subs and move on professionally, I would have done that.

Instead, I released my hopes of trade publishing Arkhangelsk, and took my baby back.

I had a cover artist in mind, having commissioned a cover for Condition of War earlier in the year from Seth Rutledge. I had a book designer: my friend Patrick Foster, who’d packaged Survival Tactics for me so beautifully. I contacted them both, got my ducks in a row, and sat down to do a final readthrough of the book before turning it over to Patrick.

And discovered it wasn’t finished.

I mean, it was, sort of. It was a completed story. It had narrative shape and conflict and climax and resolution. The way in which it wasn’t finished was relatively subtle. But once I saw the issue, it became a flashing neon light, and I couldn’t believe nobody else had caught it earlier. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t caught it earlier.

So I fixed it.

Would I rather the book had sold to a publisher? Yes. Self-publishing has been a much better experience than I’d been anticipating, but for a lot of reasons outside the scope of this post, I would have liked the trade publishing machine on my side here. At the same time…would a publisher have caught the problem? (Perhaps the ones who had a chance to reject it did!) Would I have seen what needed to be done, and had the opportunity to revise the story into something I feel is dramatically better?

No idea. No way to know. So I’m in the odd position of regretting not having a trade publisher for this book, and being so, so grateful it didn’t end up going out the way it was.

It took me several months to make the changes. There wasn’t a lot to add to the story, but there were things that needed shifting, emphasizing, reordering. (I actually love this kind of fiddly work.) In the end, it took me until November to have something I felt comfortable pushing out into the world, and I sent it to Patrick.

I put a lot into promotion. I uploaded it to Netgalley, and ran a few promotions there. That got me a whole lot of pre-release readers, which was terrific, and some reviews–but if you’re self-publishing, Amazon doesn’t allow pre-release ratings or reviews. I had wonderful reviews on both Netgalley and Goodreads, and a few in some other places, which was gratifying. One Netgalley reviewer also reviewed the book in Sy Fy Magazine.

Preorders were not bad. Not, as I said above, hit-the-bestseller-list numbers–but enough to make it clear more than just a few of my friends were finding the book to be pretty good.

I released it on March 8, 2022, six years to the day after the ill-fated release of The Cold Between. Maybe good luck will cancel out bad; I don’t know. I don’t really believe in that sort of thing, but the symmetry pleases me. And my publishing history could do with a little overwriting.

I have a whole pack of thoughts on the benefits–and pitfalls–of self-publishing a novel after you’ve been trade published. All that will show up in a blog post at some point. I’ve learned so much, and in the large it’s been fun. I’ve also learned there are some useful strategies I’m never going to be able to apply because they don’t work with the way I write. But I have to say–I’m very happy self-publishing has become as inexpensive and accessible as it has in the last 20 years. I’m not sure what it is about being a writer that makes it so important to us to share our stories, but to be able to see this book out into the world after its rocky start has been marvelous.

I’ll do it again. Next time I’ll know more. Will that make it easier? Who knows? But I know, now, all things are possible.

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