Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Terry Goodkind and His Latest Self-Publishing Endeavor

Terry Goodkind is arguably the most frustrating author on the planet.

There, I said it. I needed to get that off my chest, because his latest book, The First Confessor, came out earlier this month, and I'm still having fits about it. I've been a reader of the Sword of Truth series since I was a freshman in high school, and a fan for a shorter time than that. I'm not sure when it all completely went off the rails for me, but I know that the last two books he wrote, The Rule of Nines and The Omen Machine, were just...terrible. I wrote a review for The Omen Machine when it came out, and called it, among other things, a "shameful...ridiculous money grab" that "may be a contender for the worst book I've ever read." The novel that preceded it, The Law of Nines, was only marginally better, with "[s]ome of the worst writing I have seen...within an interesting story." Either way, considering the first book still ranks among one of my favorites?

I mean, what happened to Terry Goodkind, where did it go wrong, and what now?

News that Goodkind was self-publishing his latest came as a surprise - Tor, his traditional publisher, has been extremely good to Terry Goodkind on a whole. So the story goes, they won the rights to The Sword of Truth series for a six-figure deal after a fairly significant bidding war. The 11 books in the Sword of Truth series all hit the bestseller list, and were almost certainly profitable for Tor, but Goodkind decided to sign a deal with Penguin to publish The Law of Nines, which was a modern urban fantasy in the same universe as the Sword of Truth even if Goodkind insists otherwise. This predictably flopped, so he went back to the Richard and Kahlan well.

Goodkind's not one to really make a lot of friends, I suppose. He's consistently demeaned the fantasy genre while writing in it (His famous quote on the matter: "First of all, I don’t write fantasy. I write stories that have important human themes...Most fantasy is one-dimensional. It’s either about magic or a world-building. I don’t do either."), many of the books in the series became long-form paeans to Objectivism, with Faith of the Fallen in particular being Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead with magic and dragons. While the sci-fi/fantasy world definitely has some roots in libertarian-esque beliefs, it's...strange to see it so overt and ham-fisted, especially by someone who really might not be the best person to wield that brickbat. Aiden Moher's post title kind of tells the whole story, and even as someone who is/was a fan of Goodkind and has some sympathies with his points of view, it's hard to disagree.

Anyway, I don't want to harp too much on Goodkind overall - it's fairly well-understood by those who are not complete and utter fanboys that the quality of his work has declined considerably, and that he's not really the most diplomatic of people. That's what makes this self-publishing turn both so logical as well as baffling. Goodkind himself wrote about the turn here, and, at least in theory, it seems to at least have roots in a more Radiohead-esque control/experiment:
(1) It's not a money thing. We gave up a very lucrative advance and we risk all rewards, putting the content of the book first. It's success will now live and thrive upon your appreciation and acceptance.

(2) The publishing world does not like what we're doing. Upon release, this book will effectively be banished by publishers. It is unlikely you will ever see it in print (unless you managed to get one of the 300 Limited Collector's Editions which sold out very quickly).

(3) We've kept this book under lock and key, without any outside interference. We've brought it to you within weeks of having finished the final keystroke (with enough time for editing review and testing) and we plan on supporting it for a long-time to come. That means updates, free things on our website, additional content at a later date, and much more.
At least put out there like that, it's fairly reasonable. Goodkind, control freak as ever, wants to make sure that his book gets put out the way he wants it. As good as Tor has been to him, I suspect he had a lot of problems with management, with deadlines, and who knows what else, and this allows him to get some of that back. Plus, Goodkind is of enough stature that he can afford to perhaps take the publicity hit and the distribution difficulties and dip his toe in the water. It's win/win for him - someone will always be there to publish his books moving forward because he's an established, profitable writer with a fanbase that will buy his books. If this works, he keeps more of the cut. If it doesn't, he goes crawling back to Tor or Penguin or whoever else.

I'm skeptical, though. I really don't believe this is just a control freak thing as much as the publishers finally putting their collective feet down. The Law of Nines was not only abysmal, but sales weren't great, as it peaked at #10 on the New York Times bestseller's list. While The Omen Machine debuted at #1, it fell off the charts fairly quickly and is not entirely well regarded. I found this take by the folks at Borderlands Books to be interesting information:
The final book of his fantasy series, Confessor, was published by Tor in 2007. In 2008 he signed a contract to publish three "mainstream" novels with a different publisher, Penguin Books. One was published in 2009, The Law of Nines, and was not successful compared to his other books (it hit the NYT bestseller list at #10, whereas Confessor hit at #2, and Phantom hit #1). The significant numbers of hardcover copies that were remaindered also suggests it was not a success (when there are stacks of a hardcover for sale at Barnes & Noble for $2.99, it is not a good sign).

The following year he signed a three book contract with Tor. His next novel, The Omen Machine, was published by Tor in 2011. No other books have appeared from Penguin to date.


To my eye the picture overall looks like Goodkind left Tor for more money (probably) and a bigger audience (by writing a main-stream thriller). He failed to get anything like the sales that his new publisher was looking for and either they kicked him to the curb or he broke the contract. The he went back to his old publisher, who took him on. But then, not happy with them for some reason, he has now decided to self-publish.
I read the free Kindle preview of the newest book. It's honestly terrible - it's nearly all dialogue, no world-building, no interesting conversation. Just a terrible wall of text. This is similar to The Omen Machine, which is tragic, because his worldbuilding was so solid in the early Sword of Truth books. It's as if he picked up a Brad Melzer book and said "I want to be more like this." No one does that.

If I do decide to pick up The First Confessor, I'll be sure to share my thoughts here. I'm not sure I will, though - idle curiosity only gets me so far, and I'm not entirely sure I want to pretend I didn't learn my lesson after the last couple books.


  1. I deliberately avoided The Omen Machine thanks to your review. The only reason I finished the earlier books was because I already owned them and I'm anal retentive like that. By the end of Confessor it was borderline unreadable. It became very difficult to even like the main characters, nevermind root for their success. Sure, it was easy enough to root against the cartoonish villains, but I kept wanting just everyone to lose.

    Richard in particular is so irritating as an Objectivist archetype. Isn't the whole philosophy supposed to be built around independence and hard work? Richard hasn't had to work for a thing in his life. Everything comes naturally to him. He's good at things (like magic) that others have spent several lifetimes studying.

    Rooting for Richard was like rooting for Superman. The only things he isn't good at (strike that, not only good, the best at) are things that he hasn't yet tried. That's great for 6 year olds and fanboys, but some of us would like a story.

  2. Oh man, I gave up on Goodkind a while ago. I've read and re-read Wizards First Rule, and ventured further into the series, but about four books in it became painfully hard to keep reading - every book was soaking in thick slabs of exposition covering the evens of preceding books, and it became an epic chore to keep reading. Which sucks, because I think the basic premise behind Khalan is awesome. And it takes a helluva lot of abuse for me to abandon a fantasy series (screw you Goodkind, it's fantasy).

  3. Can't really add guys are all correct! I couldn't BELIEVE I made it through the entire "sword of truth " series. Confessor was the LAST. Screw your "first confessor" :D

    he's probably just jealous of all the game of thrones love and trying to get some attention :D