Hard to believe, I know, but The Blade Itself was first published in the UK on May 4th 2006, ten years ago today.
To put it in context, (and a context I have some trouble getting my head around) The Blade Itself has now been out as long as A Game of Thrones had been out when The Blade Itself first came out. Ten years. Makes one reflect on all that has happened since…
For a debut, it certainly did well out of the gate, but at the time it felt pretty unspectacular compared to my hopes of sweeping down a marble staircase with a dirty martini to instant rapturous approval from the public. Casting my mind back, I wasn’t prepared for the way that, after the first little flurry of generally pretty good reviews and attention, once the book was published it seemed to drop into a pit of silence. I’d scour the internet hourly back then, hoovering up every mention, revelling in every kind word, obsessing over every criticism. But the series built steadily, particularly once it found a US publisher a year after coming out in the UK, and each new book drove interest in the first. It’s only just coming out now in some territories – I think Simplified Chinese may have been the most recent, and these days The First Law is published in close to 30 languages.
I guess you could say I’ve been a published author for 10 years, although honestly I’m only just getting comfortable with describing myself as a ‘writer’, and ‘author’ still feels somehow presumptuous. In fact you could probably say that I’ve been a writer since 2001, as that was when I started experimenting with the book that would become The Blade Itself, and a professional writer since 2005, as that was when I signed my first deal with Gollancz. Still, though it meant I could take my writing much more seriously than I had been doing, my first advance was far from life-changing, and I was still working as a TV editor when I wrote Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings, and even Best Served Cold. It wasn’t until maybe 2010 I could reasonably describe myself as a full-time writer, and I was still doing the odd editing job for a year or two after that.
In the 10 years, I’ve published 10 books (if we’re counting a collection of short stories which just creeps into the period by a week or two), though I’ve actually written a bit slower than a book a year. The fastest were the Shattered Sea books at maybe 10 months a piece, the slowest Red Country and Best Served Cold which took maybe 20 months each. Evened out over the whole period – the average pushed down considerably by the time I’ve spent planning, revising and editing and therefore not writing new words – it seems I write about 10,000 words a month.
I’ve sold, in all territories and all formats – and you’ll have to forgive the inaccuracy because you’d be amazed how difficult it is to get hard data on these things – somewhere in the region of 3-4 million books. Most of those are in English, and I probably sell very roughly the same amount of books in the UK market as the US. UK numbers include Australia and a lot of English editions sold across Europe, but the US market is still considerably bigger, so perhaps unsurprisingly that makes me much more successful at home than across the pond. My last five hardcovers have made the UK top five, only one has troubled the US bestseller list, and that crept on to the extended list somewhere around no. 25.
It’s been quite a ten years to be in publishing – the landscape of the industry has transformed since 2006, probably more than in any other decade since the printing press came in. It seems hard to believe now, but when Pyr bought US rights in the First Law in 2007 they actually weren’t interested in the e-book rights. These days e-book is half the game, at least in some territories and for some types of fiction, and audiobook has become vastly more important too. When I signed my first deal with Gollancz, self-publishing – with the necessity to print and warehouse your own copies and somehow rep them to individual bookstores – was close to unthinkable. These days it’s an increasingly popular and effective route to market. When I was first involved in discussions about sales the great fear was that the terrifying colossus of Waterstones – which had just gobbled up Ottakars in the UK – would come to monopolise bookselling, and publishers were doing all they could to help out plucky little niche sellers like Amazon. Now Amazon are challenging not just brick and mortar bookstores but the whole paradigm of traditional publishing.
In spite of the upheavals, though, I feel optimistic. Upheaval can mean vibrancy, and innovation, and new opportunity. It seems as if paper books are finding an equilibrium with e-books that leaves room for both, and my own feeling is that traditional and self-publishing will do the same, keeping publishers on their toes and opening up new options for writers. In the end, whatever the medium and method of publication, there’ll always be a hunger for good writing. Writers will always need the guidance and support of good editors and agents, as well as art, design, marketing, publicity, and all the processes that connect a reader to a book they enjoy. Writing can be a solitary business, but no one can do everything themselves. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for over the last ten years it’s the people I’ve worked with, especially the editors who’ve championed and improved my books: Lou Anders at Pyr, Devi Pillai at Orbit, Tricia Narwani at Del Rey, Jane Johnson, Nick Lake and Natasha Bardon at Harper Collins, and lastly but by no means leastly, Gillian Redfearn, who bought The Blade Itself as an assistant editor at Gollancz, has been my partner in crimes against fantasy fiction for the whole ten years, and now runs the imprint.
Anyway, this is starting to feel more like an obituary than a celebration. With luck and a fair wind I’ll be exasperating editors, disappointing readers, and poisoning the genre for decades to come. Happy Birthday to The Blade Itself. Many happy returns, say I…