By the time I turned 25, I felt thoroughly done with publishing. Not writing—I can’t imagine a life where I don’t scribble down stories for myself—but the business, as far as I was concerned, could go kick rocks. In the four short years since I’d sold my first book, I’d seen that book rapidly go out of print, had a trilogy cancelled two books in, and told I must be the reason my books weren’t selling well enough. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the lack of in-house support, or the fact that publishing is, even on its best days, an educated guess, and on its worst, a gamble where authors’ careers are the currency, rashly bet, and easily forfeit.
Frustrated and demoralized by my seeming inability to guess what publishers and readers wanted (attempting to write to trend will almost always lead to disappointment, since no one knows what will be selling when the book eventually hits shelves), I was ready to quit.
But because I’m also an ornery asshole, I decided I would write one more book. A swansong. And instead of making it a hail Mary, a last roll of the publishing dice, I’d write the book I wanted to read. The one that was exactly as weird, and dark, and unsellable as my little heart desired. Because it didn’t matter. Nothing I did mattered. So why not have fun? Why not just go back to doing what I’d done before the business cogs began to whisper and nudge, and have a good time?
The grim truth is, you can’t make a book succeed. But you can write the book you want to write, the one you want to read, and thereby guarantee that you are never disappointed in the end result. You can write as if what happens after you hit The End is out of your control, because it is.
So I wrote Vicious. It was the kind of story I’d always wanted to tell, a thesis on the arbitrary assignation of the terms hero and villain, a look at who we root for in stories, and why. A love letter to Professor X and Magneto by way of The Secret History, at once violent and dark (and darkly humorous). I loved every moment of writing it, and even so, I knew it was unpublishable—after all, it was essentially a comic book without pictures, at a time when the only superheroes (or in this case villains) on shelves came from Marvel or DC.
I knew it was unpublishable and I didn’t care because for the first time in years, I was having fun again.
Years later, my long-time editor would admit that the deal was less a vote of confidence in my weird ass supervillain novel’s ability to sell copies, and more a vote of confidence in me and my future work. Hell my agent, whom I adore, wasn’t confident she could sell it.
But she did. And on September 24th, 2013, Tor published it.
And this book that I’d written for no one but myself, this book I’d thought no one else would ever “get,” let alone like—that book? It appealed to thousands of readers. Readers who felt like I’d written it just for them, when the truth was I’d written it just for me. There’s a fallacy that broad books have broad appeal, but my experience is that paradoxically, the more personal the lens, the more universal the appeal. Those sales were empirical evidence that the more I allowed my own weird/dark/quiet style to lead, the more readers began to follow.
Buy the Book
I didn’t quit publishing. But I also began writing with a new rule: every book had to be for me. Not for a mysterious and unknowable audience. Not for my publisher, or the industry, or the rolling tide of trends. I wrote what I wanted to write, what I wanted to read, so that no matter what happened after, I could be proud, and happy of what I’d made.
Whether it was a portal fantasy about interlocking Londons, each with different relationships to magic (Shades of Magic), or a sequel to Vicious introducing a woman who starts turning men to ash because they won’t let her finish her sentences (Vengeful), or a story about a French girl and a deal with the Devil over 300 years (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue), every time I sat down, I held to my rule. Instead of following in the grooves I’d already made with sales, I carved new ones. Instead of guessing what my readers wanted next, I asked myself.
It’s been 10 years now since Vicious was first published. Over those ten years, my audience has exploded. Shades of Magic is an internationally bestselling series, with a comic book spin-off, and a new trilogy starting this Fall. Addie LaRue has reached millions of readers, and is published in 40 countries. These are the kind of metrics authors dream of. The kind I have always dreamed of. The kind I’ll never take for granted.
But my attention is drawn, again and again, to Vicious.
Over the last ten years, its audience has continued to grow, not in giant swells like Shades or Addie, but steady steps, inching upward every year, from the thousands to the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands, and each and every one feels like a victory, an affirmation, a hand holding up this dream of mine. Each a reminder that I was going to quit, because I was convinced no one would ever like my weird little stories.
And it turned out, I just needed the chance to find the ones who did.
VICTORIA “V. E.” SCHWAB is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty books, including the acclaimed Shades universe, the Villains series, the City of Ghosts series, Gallant, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and The Fragile Threads of Power. When not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, she lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters.