(This is part 3.5 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
Alex Verus #4, Chosen, was the first big transition book for the series. There’s a very noticeable shift between books #1 to #3, and books #5 through #12, and it was in Chosen that the shift happened. To explain why, you need to understand what I was thinking back when I started writing Chosen in 2012.
2012 was Alex Verus’s make-or-break year. Books #1, #2, and #3 were all being released one after another, three months apart – Fated in March, Cursed in June, and Taken in September. This was a deliberate strategic decision that had been made by my editor Darren Nash all the way back in 2010. In an email to me and my agent, Darren explained that his preferred approach for this kind of book didn’t involve big advances and large early print runs. His reasoning was that the success of these kinds of books depended on readers becoming invested in the series and the characters, and you got that via word-of-mouth publicity, online buzz, and time. One way to help with that was momentum, which was why he’d asked me to write books #2 and #3 as quickly as possible, in order to put three out in a single year.
Now that I go back and re-read Darren’s email, it’s pretty impressive how good his predictions were. He specifically said that this approach was a long-term one, depending on ‘long tail’ sales, where you start with very modest numbers of readers and gradually grow them up. Eventually you get enough readers that when a new book came out, fans will buy it in a much more concentrated time frame, and that’s how authors like Jim Butcher and Charlaine Harris can hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list with book #15 in a series. My sales numbers are nowhere close to those two, but I’ve reached the point where I do show up on bestseller lists from time to time, and it’s by exactly the process Darren explained back in 2010. Darren Nash has been gone from Orbit for many years now, but he deserves some of the credit for Alex Verus’s success.
But back in 2012, the question wasn’t whether the Alex Verus series would be a bestseller, but whether it’d be continued at all. It’s hard to remember this now, but in the years leading up to 2012, urban fantasy was all the rage. The Twilight movies had brought urban fantasy, YA fantasy, and paranormal romance into the spotlight, and all of a sudden everyone wanted to get in on the action. Not a month went by that some new author didn’t launch a book series with some witch/shapeshifter/vampire/faerie protagonist running around some US city dealing with vampires/weres/magicians/fae and investigating, killing, or having sex with them (usually all three). You could close your eyes and chuck a dart at a map of the USA, and wherever it landed, the nearest city would be the base of operations for some Plucky New Urban Fantasy Lead (First In A New Series!) By 2012, new urban fantasy series were common as celebrity marriages.
They lasted about as long as celebrity marriages, too. The Internet and the convention circuit were packed with new urban fantasy authors desperately struggling to stand out from the crowd and make a name for themselves, and most failed, for the simple reason that people only buy so many books a year. Of those books, only a small fraction are urban fantasy, and out of that fraction, most of the sales go to the big names – Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, etc. The new urban fantasy authors were fighting over a fraction of a fraction of the market, and there just wasn’t enough room for more than a handful of them. The result was as depressing as it was predictable. Each new series would be launched with a lot of fanfare, gain some temporary recognition, then its author would have the soul-crushing experience of watching the series that they’d worked so hard on slowly sink without a trace. Back in 2012, in my debut author year, I went to some events and conventions and was introduced to quite a few other urban fantasy writers. Now that I look back on it 9 years later, most have disappeared. The ones who haven’t – the ones who are still writing and publishing today – are pretty much all ones who were already successful before I met them. The “new arrivals” are almost all gone.
(Note: I’m writing all this with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, I knew very little about the market and had no idea how hard a task I’d set myself by trying to make it as an urban fantasy author. If I had, I might have had second thoughts.)
So when Fated came out in 2012, it had a steep hill to climb.
Still, Fated did have a few things going for it. It had gotten an endorsement from Jim Butcher – this was a big deal, as he was probably the biggest name in the genre and didn’t endorse books often. Fated, Cursed, and Taken had all received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, which is the number one magazine in the industry. And possibly because of this, pre-order sales had been decent.
As a result, when my agent got in touch with Orbit in March 2012 to discuss more Alex Verus books, Orbit were willing to listen. They held off for a couple of months to see how Fated would do, but by May 2012 the sales of Fated (while still low) were good enough by new-series standards that Orbit agreed to offer me a new contract. However, this time it was for two books, not three.
The Alex Verus series had gotten a life extension, but I didn’t know how long for.
All of this affected my mindset going into book #4. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that this was going to be the “proving book”. Books #1 through #3 had earned me a bit of leeway, and I needed to use it to show that I could do something interesting enough to make my readers stick around. It was with all this in mind that I sat down in May 2012 to start writing what would eventually become Chosen.