The Steep Climb

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In late 2003, I had a manuscript for the first book of a fantasy series, my first child on the way, a dead-end job at a crappy private college, and zero interest from a major publishing house. In my gut, I knew the series had promise, so I made the decision to self-publish. Back then, self-publishing was much more involved than today. E-readers were still in their infancy (when I submitted book one to Kindle, there were only 40,000 titles available, if memory serves), and self-publishing then meant launching an entire publishing company from scratch. As an educator, I didn’t have much money, so I secured funding through my aunt and uncle, who both read the book and agreed it deserved to be on the market.

There wasn’t enough money to do a color cover in an offset print run, so I decided to go a different route. I wanted to make the cover look old, like a relic from a bygone era. Looking back, that was my biggest mistake. Few people got it; most just thought it was ugly. But I still love the simplicity of that original cover. On February 21, 2005, my son’s first birthday coincidentally, book one returned from the binder, and The Brotherhood of Dwarves series was on the market.

For the first few months, I traveled to every bookstore, comic shop, gaming store, and library in a hundred mile radius, trying to get on their shelves. Some were receptive and encouraging, helping me gain a foothold; others were complete jerks. I organized book signings at local venues, and beat the pavement every free moment I had. I quickly learned that book signings by an unknown author are a complete waste of time. But in June or July 2005, I attended my first fandom convention in Knoxville and sold a bunch of books and T-shirts, so I began focusing my attention on conventions and festivals with solid incoming crowds. By late fall, I had sold about 75% of that first print run and decided to do a second. I made some tweaks to the cover, trying to get the right feel of an aged relic and added a blurb from my friend Cameron Judd, the bestselling Western writer.

At first, the second printing sold really well. I had tremendous momentum, and everything felt like it was moving in the right direction. Then, it was like I hit a wall. Nothing worked. By summer 2006, I couldn’t give the books away, quite literally. During this time frame, my relationship with that crappy private college was deteriorating rapidly, and my marriage was strained. I was working two jobs, plus running the publishing side of things and writing book two. I ran on three to four hours of sleep for almost a year. On September 5, 2006, my second child was born, and despite the joy of that event, everything in my life was crumbling beneath me.

The period from 2006-07 was one of the bleakest of my life. My books weren’t selling at all, my marriage evaporated, my career tanked, and on December 25, 2007, my wife interrupted me playing with my sons to tell me she wanted a divorce. I knew our marriage was over, but the cruelty with which she and the man she left me for handled it will never be forgiven. My memories of early 2008 are a fog. Being a father was the most important aspect of my life, the one thing that kept me going, and losing that full-time role was a blow I almost didn’t get up from. Unless you’ve been through it, I cannot explain the emptiness I felt.

Luckily, I have Scottish genes. Luckily, those genes infused me with an obstinate nature. Luckily, I refused to let her break me. In May 2008, I relaunched book one with a new, color cover and also released book two, Red Sky at Dawn. I slowly started getting back on the convention scene. I worked on book three. I focused more efforts on building an online presence. But sales were sluggish. Too much time had elapsed between books one and two. Most of my earliest readers had forgotten about me, and for a couple of years, I slogged onward, feeling as if I were starting from scratch at every new convention I attended.

My personal life was a wreck. I dated the worst possible women, emotional vampires who spoke sweet lies but beat me down at every opportunity. For several years, I made terrible decisions in my personal life, mistakes that probably set me back professionally, but that’s water under the bridge. No sense dwelling on things I can’t change now. Hopefully, I’ve learned my lessons and won’t repeat those same mistakes ever again. Today, I’m personally in a much better place and with a much, much, much better partner, a woman who accepts me as I am. But again, that’s all a different post for a different day.

By late 2010/early 2011, I realized I had gone as far as I could go as a self-published author, so I began talking to Seventh Star Press about taking over the series. I thought about looking at other publishers, but there was something about Seventh Star, though still a fledgling at the time, that appealed to me, and honestly, I didn’t trust any other publisher to take over my baby. No one else would’ve allowed me to keep the artistic freedom I demanded while offering as much support in terms of platform. On November 28, 2011, SSP released The Fall of Dorkhun. A few months later, they re-released books one and two with new cover art.

From the moment I signed with SSP, momentum began to turn back in my favor. Ever so slowly, I began to inch upward from a completely unknown, self-published author to something more. At conventions, I noticed a shift in how people perceived me. It’s difficult to describe the change, but it was palpable. In December 2012, Between Dark and Light was released, and just recently, book one became a legitimate bestseller during a promotional campaign. It’s been quite the climb, and I’m still not finished.

So here’s my warning to writers chomping at the bit for fame and fortune. Are you willing to wait nine years to see any return? Are you willing to drive 100 miles to sell two books? Are you willing to sit at your booth at a convention for eight hours and speak to every single person who walks by? Are you willing to stay at your booth for sixteen hours because there was a mix-up at the convention and your table is in an unsecured hallway? Are you willing to have doors slammed in your face? Are you willing to feel like you’ve let down everyone who matters to you? Are you willing to endure the slings and arrows from small, petty people? Are you willing to work two jobs AND still write a book? Are you willing to lose everything in your life that matters to you? More than once? Are you willing to press on despite every rational indication insisting that you will never break through? Are you willing to sleep in the back of a broken down SUV for seven weeks because you have nowhere else to go? Are you willing to endure those poisonous late hours all alone, with no promise of brighter days, yet still keep writing?

If you can’t honestly answer yes to every single one of those questions, a career as a fiction writer may not be the right path for you. Every serious writer I have ever met has had to pay their dues, in one form or another, and the great Steve Earle said it best:

Some folks say, if you keep rolling
And you keep it on the yellow line
It’ll take you to the big highway.
But there’s a toll to pay
So if you’re going,
The keeper at the gate is blind
So you better be prepared to pay

There is no secret to success other than never giving up, refusing to lose, refusing to accept no as the final answer. The only formula that works is persistence and faith during the darkest, hardest moments. Everything else is just window dressing. My climb is far from finished, and some days, I feel like there isn’t much gas left in my tank. But failure isn’t an acceptable option for me, so I’ll keep traveling to conventions, talking to readers, engaging people on a personal level, caring about them as human beings not dollar signs, writing these blog posts about my road, asking for reviews, and sincerely thanking people for using their hard-earned money to buy my work and their precious time to read it. That’s how I inch forward; that’s my formula.

I’m D.A. Adams, and I’ve just begun kicking ass!

6 thoughts on “The Steep Climb”

  1. Much of this resonates with me. We have had many similar encounters on our individual roads, and though I’m a few years behind, I hope we both maintain the tenacity to make it to the top! Slainte!

  2. I did quite a bit if suffering before I started writing, so I’d like to think the latter won’t cause more of the first, but yes, I only expect to be appreciated when I’m dead, and given the ripe age at which I’ve started writing, means you may not have to wait too long to see me get famous.

  3. Reblogged this on John Backer's Business, Technology, Coaching Blog and commented:
    Well said, this applies to so many things – not just authoring great books. DA Adams was once my college instructor in writing and although teaching might not have been his dream job or his long term passion, I can tell you he gave 110%. I learned a great deal from DA Adams and value not only what he taught me, but his friendship. It isn’t the destination, but the journey and yours is not over my friend.

  4. Sounds much like my own path. I didn’t choose to be a writer, but I damn sure chose to be a survivor.

    I understand struggle, I understand disability in the body as I myself was born with a debilitating spinal deficiency called Schuerremann’s Disease. I understand losing people you love as my husband was killed in a motorcycle accident 2 years ago, incidentally when I first began college.

    You once gave us a quote from Calvin Coolidge, and it reflected your beliefs in persistence while passing a strong message to the younger students in our class. Believe in the residual power of those messages.

    As a student of yours, I want you to know that what you do in the classroom hasn’t been for naught. While I’m one of the older students who has already figured out most of the life’s lessons you pass on to your students, I can still feel the power of the messages you convey. I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you’ve said many things to many students that will stick with them forever. I think we’ll miss you when you’re gone, Mr. Adams….David. 🙂

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