Steph Swainston’s Exit

There’s a fascinating article in the Independent regarding the exit from the genre of author Steph Swainston:

“I don’t have a problem with fandom,” she says. “But I don’t think fans realise the pressure they put on authors. The very vocal ones can change an author’s next book, even an author’s career, by what they say on the internet. And writers are expected to engage and respond.” She pauses. “The internet is poison to authors.”

Swainston is also unhappy with the “book a year” ethos of modern publishing: “Publishers seem to want to compete with faster forms of media, but the fast turnover leads to poorer books, and publishers shoot themselves in the foot. And it’s as if authors have to be celebrities these days. It’s expected that authors do loads of self-publicity – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forum discussions – but it’s an author’s job to write a book, not do the marketing. Just like celebrities don’t make good authors, authors don’t really make good celebrities.”

The saddest thing to this has been seeing negative reactions on Twitter, which has made me want to say a little on the subject.

Authors are all different people.

I’ll say it again, everyone is different. Authors cope and react in different ways to fandom and the Internet. You need to be wired in the right way to cope with it (my trick: I take the writing seriously but not the Internet).

We all know there’s no longer just the writing. There are interviews and blogs and all the paraphernalia that comes with writing – because publishers encourage it; it all helped to sell books, and I do think that a couple of years ago there was a lot of merit in jumping in to build an online profile.

Not now. The Internet is saturated with all levels of writers, self-published up to writers-to-be, through to small press to large press. Saturated. For any new author to get heard out there these days is next to impossible, certainly to be effective within a couple of years. But of course authors have to because it’s included in some marketing brief somewhere as a good thing (it’s not a bad thing, it’s just hardly effective these days).

Steph’s also right to assert it’s tricky to hit a book a year (especially if you’ve a full time job), though I know that Gollancz are the type of people who seem happy to wait a while to get a good book. The year deadline is not a strict rule, but it’s useful to hit a book a year because the industry likes that regularity.

Steph highlights another problem with writing: you’re often on your own to cope with it all, and the nature of the whole business online – attention, microscopic picking over your work etc – seems to magnify both the importance and the solitude. It can quite easily fuck writers over and I’m surprised that there aren’t more suffering out there.

I suppose in teaching – Steph’s chosen exit route – you have others around you, which really does help protect one’s mind. That’s probably why authors get together and have a good moan at convention; certainly Twitter has helped put me in touch with other writers, so that’s useful to shoot the breeze sometimes.

So I can fully understand her decision to do things in her own time. Churning out shit is easy. Being happy with what you’ve done in a year and letting that get out into the public sphere is not always that easy. Some writers are wired to work in a fast-paced environment; others are wired to take their time. Neither one is better.

I don’t think the Internet is poison, but I do think it is a drug. Some authors are addicted, some go cold turkey to cope, some get withdrawal symptoms, and none of it is particularly constructive to one’s sanity.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. I’m really glad to read that she’s continuing her writing, but at her own pace and under her own conditions. I’m a huge fan of her work and hope that she’s happy.

    You talk about this above, but she makes a really good point with “it’s an author’s job to write a book, not do the marketing”. Especially over the past few years, there’s an expectation that authors serve as a marketing platform for their own books. Not just events, but also Twitter, Facebook, blogging… the works. It isn’t about connecting with fans (although that’s an inevitable side effect), it is about creating awareness within a cluttered category.

    For a lot of authors, this is part of the fun (and honestly, were I an author, I’d probably enjoy it too). But I can also see how it isn’t for everyone. If your goal is to capital-w-Write, and you feel your job (even if it is “author”) is taking that from you, well… she’s making the right decision.

    If I recall correctly, she’s also a big whisky fan. So clearly she can do no wrong…

  2. I wrote a few words on my blog about and joined in the conversation on twitter (though hopefully not in a negative way).

    One of the best quotes I saw was:

    Don’t give ‘em what they want, make ‘em want what you give.

    And if you’ve been working on the same series and at the same time feeling isolated and looking on the internet for feedback and not knowing what to write then you are going to feel some sort of pressure.

    China keeps things changing to keep his momentum, so do you. Jim Butcher on the other hand with Harry is using an awful lot of skill and talent to use the series itself renew and reform even though he’s mostly using the same ingredients he’s continuously reinvigorating it. But he had Ghost Story delayed in order to make sure it’s the best book out.

    And I can’t see why any big publisher would jeopardise an authors changes if a slight delay would help them. I guess the problem comes when you don’t know what to write or you’ve spent all your time writing something that ultimately will die no matter how much you patch it and you’ve still got a contract to fulfil.

    And at that point I guess you need to refill the well but first you need to go out and find it?

  3. “Awareness within a cluttered category” – precisely so, and it will only get more cluttered. I still think there’s room for authors to persistently build a profile over the years, but not months like it used to be.

    Whisky? Perhaps I should get her to do a guest review!

    Gav – it isn’t big publishers who would jeopardise the author’s career, it’s the book trade buyers who love regularity. It helps them build a brand in a cluttered marketplace.

    As for “Don’t give ‘em what they want, make ‘em want what you give.” Yes, to some extent I do agree with this sentiment, but how would it manifest in reality?

  4. As you well know, the solitude of it all gets to me the most. It seems often that we’re in a rock and a hard place, as authors. The general wisdom is to not respond to criticism, not get involved with the drama of reviewers, what have you. But then we’re also suggested to get involved with the community and it seems we can be easily branded as antisocial or anti-fan if we’re not as involved as others.

    To date, I haven’t figured out a good answer to that.

  5. You can’t please everyone – online and with your books. But as I say, my trick is to not take stuff that happens online too seriously. It’s the Internet! It’s constructed out of madness.

    But I think that’s why I also spend a lot of time blogging about other stuff, just to keep me sane.

  6. @Mark I was thinking with my writer’s head on about motivation to write and keep going. But can see what you’re saying about need for regularity from sellers.

    How does – Don’t give ‘em what they want, make ‘em want what you give – manifest?

    China is an example – so are you. You’re both examples of writers who could easily do easier to sell stuff (whether it would is not the point :P) like him staying in Bas-Lag or you focusing on more traditional series structure rather than leaping out as you do. You’d build a following of people who expect that basic structure.

    What I’m saying is that Swainston seems to have mined herself out under her current conditions and needs to refuel.

  7. @ Sam – how to engage with people online? I think the writers who tweet seem to get it but then they also seem like people who want to share. It might be engaging enough with a narrow band of people who like all good followers will spread the message on your behalf?

  8. In general, I’d say that’s a good rule of thumb: if it’s good, do it, if it isn’t, then don’t.

    But the internet isn’t really a bunch of privatized rooms. And when you’re all in one concentrated field (genre fiction, writing, what hast thou), it seems like all the negativity gets up with the positivity. When you tweet, you find a good review of yourself and then two seconds later you find someone who straight up hates you. Is that just the nature of the beast, though?

  9. Caveat lector.

    I don’t know Steph Swainston. I’ve never interacted with her online or at a convention, and I haven’t read her work. From what I can gather from the article, she’s had second thoughts about her current career as a genre writer.

    This happens, I’m sure, and Swainston is not an isolated case. What we’re seeing is just the ripple it has created across an increasingly incestuous media-sphere where everyone feels increasingly entitled to comment.

    I also suspect this storm in a tweet-deck will actually be a nice boost for her sales – not that I suspect her of playing the dark arts with online media in this case. Already a wave of sympathy (which to be honest, feels just as misplaced as any more negative reaction) has gathered pace.

    It’s a shame, that one of the more interesting parts of the interview seems to be being lost in transliteration: the loneliness of the long-distance writer.

    Writing can be an introverted and isolating profession, as Mark C. Newton notes and one with unique demands. It is telling, that this remains so for many authors despite, or perhaps even because, of the changes brought about by social media.

    You’re never more alone than when you’re in the middle of a crowd, if you think that the crowd doesn’t get what you’re doing. That it doesn’t appreciate you, the writer, the artist, the person. Doubly so, when that crowd is made up of virtual strangers.

    It is easy to feel in our time of Twitter followers and Facebook befriending, that fans are real people whose company we’d enjoy even if we were just sharing a pint. It can lure us into believing that we’re connected, that we know each other – better than we do. I can imagine feeling hemmed in by such surface attention, drawn thin, and ultimately, drawn out beyond our comfort zones. We don’t make circles in real life, of 2,000+ friends. But we don’t necessarily think about limiting ourselves when it comes to those on the web.

    Now some fans are just that, people we’d probably get along with if we had met some other way. And I didn’t get the sense that Swainston was any more misanthropic in her outlook than most – but there was a whiff of that disillusionment that I associate with overindulging on online relationships of any sort. We can’t keep up, just as we can’t always make a grueling deadline.

    The level of opprobrium which follows her honest comments which contained among them, a denouncement of the internet and her unhappiness with the pace of her contractual obligations, seems intensely personal – no one’s business really, but her own and her publishers.

    And yet I can also understand why people online who think they have a certain investment in her because they know her, or have read one of her novels, or share the same trade – feel slighted. Authors are just people, and writers can have notorious prickly feelings about other writers. That they’re not as talented, or as hard-working, or have gotten a luckier break than they have.

    Fans are often people who write stories or think that they would, if they only had the time. Envy, schadenfreude, and all manner of darker emotions can run side by side with passion and a shared interest in the same thing.

    And the internet *is* poisonous, for many people at least, just as “real life” can be. To treat the honest confession of one writer as an attack on the wider community or some portion of fandom, is to miss the point.

    This is a cautionary tale much needed in our age of kindle millionaires, debut authors, and relentless self-promotion. Being a writer is not for everyone, and not everyone gets out of the business of writing novels what they expect going in.

    That’s good advice, and something to think about. I don’t think it’s tragic or a sign of weakness, or even all that newsworthy. But it is easier now for the wrong assumptions to spread like viruses. Traded as quickly as we can type a few characters, among strangers whom we think we know, and know us better than they do.

  10. I think it’s a valuable lesson to all those envious “would-be-writers” that it’s not always as “glamouress” a life as people wish it to be.
    Good on her for stepping back though, with any job in life – if it’s making you unhappy it’s time to leave/change (if the option is available). I hope she enjoys her new job more 🙂

  11. Eric – thanks for sharing all that. I read that nodding all the way through; and when I got to the last word I thought to myself, “I agree, but I still want to write…” which probably is a good thing!

    Neil – indeed. Writing is often thought of as the most favourable career, a lovely job (and, though it is only one of two for me, it is still a lovely job). But it isn’t without consequences and sacrifices…