The Year of Betrayal

The Year of Betrayal

No, that’s not the title of my next book, though it would be a good one. The year of betrayal is how I’ll remember 2022. A bit dramatic, yeah, but what else do you expect from me? This year was when the last flickers of my authorship goals were unceremoniously snuffed out. Oh, I’m not giving up, but the possibility of seeing my fantasy trilogy on a bookstore shelf–any store, any shelf anywhere–is now zero. How did that come to be? Well, come along children, and hear my tale of woe…

Warning: Lots of naughty language below

The Birth of The Heron Kings

Sometime in 2014 I began drafting The Heron Kings. (Side note: almost every time I type the title my fingers insist on typing “Heorn Kings” and I have to fix it. Like, 85% of the time.) It was a prequel to the story I’d been pecking away at since 2006, and was to be the origin of my ornery forest rangers. The file in my Lit folder is still called “HKO.” If I had absolutely no idea what I was doing in the first old attempt, this one was little better. The first draft took me about eighteen months and was at most 127,000 words I think. I did what I thought was a sufficient amount of revision (spoiler alert: it wasn’t) and started drafting my query. Anyone who’s been through this for the first time will know that of course neither my manuscript nor my query were ready. I’d workshopped the first chapter on AbsoluteWrite a lot and sent the query through the ringer, so I figured that was good enough. Nope. I sent out 81 queries before getting even a partial request. I eventually sent out 243 queries over the next year and a half, resulting in four partials and eleven fulls, leading to 238 rejections and zero offers. By this time I had gotten some excellent feedback, including from a few of those Twitter pitch events where you can get help from actual authors and agents. I cut the number of POV characters from a dozen to three, and the word count to 97,000. It became a much better product than it was at the beginning. Unfortunately, by the time I did this I’d already been rejected by all reputable agents. Seemed I was destined for the trash bin of self-publishing.

At the very tail-end of 2018 I received two nearly simultaneous offers. One was from a small press that accepted unagented submissions. The other was from a supposed agent of a brand-new literary agency, not based in NYC. Yep, you know where this is going. Understand, by this time I was desperate for anything, and I accepted the agent offer even though I had a publisher offer in hand. I don’t know why I did this, I guess I wanted the veneer of legitimacy, even if the veneer was only a few microns thick. My agent added little to the publisher offer. Nothing at all in fact, since the contracts are always “take it or leave it.” This notion I read every so often from professional advice-givers about negotiating contracts as a debut author is laughable. You don’t get to negotiate. There are thousands of other nobodies just like you just as desperate for a publication. There’s no motivation for even a small publisher to bother going even an inch out of their way for you.

I won’t go into the details of the contract. It doesn’t matter, it was pretty standard. In many standard contracts the license period is very long, authors have no control over the cover and no control over the price and no control over the marketing. Small presses are kind of halfway in between large publishers and self-publishing. Your mileage may vary, but in my estimation they are the worst of both worlds, not the best. The model seems to be to toss everything possible at the wall and see what sticks without any extra effort. Their marketing usually consists of a few blog tour posts and a few social media posts, maybe a few more things if there’s money and someone remembers to get around to it.

I signed a contract for The Heron Kings in March 2019. The manuscript was already in the hands of the editor, and edits, including line edits and proofreading, continued until September. About a month later I received an image that was to be the cover. It was awful. I had a minor panic attack when I saw it. It had this very generic bird on a shield thing in the middle, with bright red-orange swishes in the back and a fire graphic below. It told you nothing of what the story was about and looked like a ripoff of the Hunger Games. The bird graphic was a stock image, which I knew because I’d seen it on sites that licensed them while assembling my own little heron picture you see at the bottom of every blog post. The image file said V6 at the end of the name, implying they went through five other versions of this without even showing it to me. I told the editor all this, and he said there was no time to completely redo the cover. I asked them to at least change the background to dark green, and I suggested a different title font. This they did quickly, since it was all just assets thrown together in software. It was a slight improvement, but out of embarrassment over my earlier tantrum I simply replied, “Perfect!” It was not perfect. But there was nothing I could do.

The book was scheduled for release April 24, 2020. Smack in the middle of the pandemic. Figures. It got some mentions on blog tours, but little attention otherwise. It got some nice editorial reviews with some good quotes to use, and even a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which I mention at every opportunity not out of pride but desperation. I hoped this guaranteed a good reception. It did not. There was a mediocre 3.5/5 review in Grimdark Magazine, a place I’d been trying to get stories published for several years without success. They said the violence was “over the top” in many places. Yep, too violent for a magazine CALLED GRIMDARK. Thanks.

Sales were weak upon release. Weak, but not zero. It was disappointing. Turns out tweets and FB posts do nothing. They’re nothing. They’re worse than nothing because they’re nothing masquerading as something. Now, all this time no specific actions were asked of me, other than to like/retweet/whatever the nothings the publisher was putting out. Blog tours are useless these days, or so the experts say and my experience bears out. Editorial reviews don’t influence readers. I spent a LOT of my own money on paid ads that led to zero sales. I bought and reviewed multiple books by authors new and established that I thought were similar in some way to my work, in hopes they’d return the favor. That’s what all my “book and beer review” blog posts really are. Nope. Not a one. The only thing that works these days, according to those I’ve asked who have had success, is word of mouth. People who like the book talking it up and recommending it on multiple venues. Good example is Reddit. You go to the /r/fantasy sub, you see people reccing books all the time. Other people’s books. Because self-promotion is not allowed. That’s a common theme- people will tell you you HAVE to promote your work everywhere you can. Except everywhere that it might lead to results, you’re not allowed. Turns out the way to become popular is to already be popular for something else. Guess how well that works for me. I’ve never been attractive, or popular, or whatever else. I just wanted to write a story. Something I thought it didn’t matter what you looked like or how charismatic you were. But really it’s just the same beauty pageant everything else is. No one talked about my book on any platform, no one recommended it even when somebody asked for exactly the type of story it is. One bright spot was the BookBub deal. If your book is selected to be a BookBub daily deal, it pretty much guarantees some sales. Of course you pay dearly for this listing, so who knows whether it will be a worthwhile investment. The book was selected beginning September 22, 2020. I didn’t even have to look up that date since I remember it so well. The Ebook was set at 99 cents and it got somewhere around 1000-1400 downloads over the next few weeks. That created enough momentum that it eventually earned out its (tiny) advance and eventually did about 40% above that. I even got a royalty payment. Cool.


Flight and Flop

I had sent the MS of the second book, The Heron Kings’ Flight, to the editor around June 2020. This was the actual story I’d been working on since grad school, rewritten to not be terrible. The rewriting went very quickly, so I was excited about it. I heard nothing for four months, and finally broke down and very politely asked the editor if there was any interest sometime in October. I’ve only recently worked out that the reason for this silence was not the time it took him to read it but to see if the first book sold any copies. He said that he loved the book as much if not more than the first (Note what I just said: the acquisitions editor of a publisher flat out told me this book was as good or better in quality than the previous one), and I was sent the contract in the beginning of 2021. Since my supposed agent had stopped replying to my emails, I assumed that was no longer operative. Good riddance, he’d done absolutely nothing for me. Again, standard contract. We went through edits and proofreading, same as before. It was a smoother process this time around. They sent me the cover in late 2021, and it was the same as the first, just with a red background and some maple leaves instead of fire. Whatever, not like I expected any different. At least it was getting published. They insisted on branding this book as “Book Two of the Heron Kings Series.” I did not put this anywhere in any version of the MS I sent. This was their decision. They decided it was a “series.” This will be significant later. All this despite the fact that the first book’s product page doesn’t even link to the second.

This time around I was not a shiny new debut author. I didn’t realize how much this would affect things. The book got a positive Publishers Weekly review, but not a starred one.  Okay, no problem. But it didn’t get any other editorial reviews from trade publications or fantasy blogs. I was excited when a review from that old bastard of a mag, Grimdark Magazine, came out. Surely this one was going to be glowing, since the writing was far superior and the characters more fleshed out.

3/5. Fuck. I didn’t even read it. To this day I got no idea what it said. It doesn’t matter.

Very few ARC requests on NetGalley. Only a couple blog tour posts. One very nice review from a blogger in the UK, but that’s it. The book was released May 17, 2022. Zero sales. Not. One. Sale. On RELEASE DAY. About a week before release I received a demand from the publisher. They wanted me to make videos of myself. A lot of them. Answering inane questions and basically putting on song and dance acts they could post on TikTok. Also, I was to assemble a Spotify list of at least 30 (popular? current?) songs to go along with them. Excuse me? Excuse the fuck outta me? Let me explain a few things here. I’m over 40 years old. Old, fat, and close to bald. I’m not pretty or engaging, as I mentioned above. I am introverted almost to the point of being hikikomori. Go look that up if you have to. I almost had a breakdown just over sending them an author photo. I almost sent a fake photo of someone else. Seriously. I barely know what TikTok is. In fact I just had to go look it up to type that sentence just now to make sure I spelled it right. There was no way I was going to do this. You want to interview me? Send me the questions, or at most ask me over audio. There was no universe where me doing this was going to increase sales. I made this clear in as polite a way I was able, given the anxiety their demand gave me. I received no further communication from them. Still haven’t to this day.

So, yeah. No sales. No BookBub deal this time. I can’t put into words the panic and disappointment this instilled in me. Here’s a screenshot of the scAmazon sales rank so far:

the heron kings flight the year of betrayal

Total sales over all markets and formats? Ten. Seven US, three UK, zero anywhere else. Ten copies. Now, I don’t care how small you are. Being able to sell only ten copies worldwide is not even within the realm of believability. As I mentioned, this has nothing to do with the book’s quality, according to someone who’s job is to evaluate exactly that. Don’t you dare tell me my unwillingness to dick around making cringey videos of my ugly ass is responsible for that. You want me to do real marketing? Fine, tell me what to do. Cause I’ve done all that nothing with the “social” media posts, all the nothing with paid ads out my own pocket, the stealth self-promo in places where it’s not allowed. Tell me what to do that actually works. Cause I really do not know.


Best Of Luck…

I sent the MS of the third and final volume of my trilogy, The Heron Kings Rampant, to the editor in July. This was the grand finale to my fantasy series, a poignant conclusion to a centuries-spanning saga of vivid characters, exciting adventures and thought-provoking themes. Again, silence. Again I waited four months before very politely asking about it. This time, the result was, unsurprisingly, very different. I was done. They would not publish the last book IN THE SERIES since sales of the second book were nonexistent. Nothing to do with the quality of the book itself. The editor, who I had believed was a good guy, as everyone appears to be as long as things are going smoothly, actually gave me the form rejection line “best of luck in finding another home” for it. What? Tell me how the last book in a TRILOGY can go to any other publisher? That’s makes no sense. You insisted on calling it a “series,” stuck it with shit covers, did no marketing, and when it inevitably sold no copies, dropped the whole thing as though it was some unfortunate, completely unforeseeable happenstance? Are you fucking daft?

I never cared about money when it came to these books. This isn’t a business for me but a hobby, and hobbies tend to cost money, not make it. That fact seems utterly incomprehensible to people for whom it is a business. I offered to give them Flight with no advance if that would help it get accepted. The advance was token anyway, so it didn’t matter to me. To get Rampant made I would gladly have not only waived the advance but even financed production myself. The only value a small publisher has is the few things they can do that an author can’t do for themself, like getting editorial reviews and deals. I have a good paying job and few expenses. The money was nothing to me. But none of that mattered. I was dropped.

I asked about buying my rights back early, before the termination of the license term. Given the lack of communication I’ve received thus far, it’s no surprise that I’ve heard nothing. It’s not like they have any interest in making money off these books, so I don’t see why not. But companies big and small all seem universally obsessed with infuriating as many people as possible, no matter the money cost to them. Just take a look at the garbage coming out of Hollywood to see the proof of that. Edit: They won’t. Apparently “we have quite a few copies of the books in stock and it would be a large loss to have to destroy them.” Jesus Christ these people. I should buy them all myself and have a ritual bonfire of the vanities.

The only route left for Rampant is self-publishing. I know how that’s going to go. I’m not already popular, so no one is going to buy it. I can count on two or three specific people who I believe will buy it, but no more than that. My self-published short story collection is FREE and doesn’t even get many downloads. I have already contracted an editor, but he won’t be able to start work until March. I commissioned new cover art for all three books months ago and I’m only waiting on the last one at this point. So things are in motion, but I’m well aware that they’re in motion toward a place I never wanted to go.

I don’t think my books are great works of literature, even genre literature. I don’t harbor delusions of fame and fortune. But I think they’re good books. Good enough to be published by a Big (Five? Four? Who knows, we don’t do anti-trust anymore) publisher, or even a not so big one. But quality is not the determining factor. It never was, and yeah, I’m a little bitter over that.

So, 2022 was the Year of Betrayal. Who betrayed me? The publisher? Well, I can’t say. Hanlon’s Razor. Surely their unwillingness to communicate and work with me is disappointing. The inability to sell books without luck is annoying. Fate? Sure, why not. Did I betray myself? Yeah, that’s more likely. I did it years ago, submitting and querying my first book long before it was ready, cutting off any possibility of reputable, legitimate publication not just for that but the next two books as well. I’m 50,000 words into my fourth book, which is set in the same world as the Heron Kings trilogy but is a separate story. I don’t feel it’s very exciting though, and I doubt it will attract the attention of any real agents or publishers. This is still a hobby, and I have learned not to expect much. Thing is, I’m a loser and I don’t have anything else. This is it. And it sucks.

Happy New Year.

best of luck


heron kings logo The Heron Kings by Eric Lewis dark grimdark fantasy novel