The Sky Is Falling!!! (Not!)

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Well, it is if you’re here in Baltimore, like I am for the weekend. The remnants of Dennis blew into town shortly after I did and combined with Chesapeake Bay’s already unpredictable weather. Note to Baltimoreans: I hereby promise not to go to Marley Station to shop anymore. It rains hard every time I do.

But I’m not talking about the rain when I say the sky is falling. What I’m talking about is the “Woe unto us! The poor, bedeviled professional novelists!” Last week, I read no fewer than three blog posts about how making a living at writing novels is hard, and how there will never be another Ed McBain because there’s no opportunity.

I also looked at the authors’ Amazon ranks. On the day in question, all three had lower ranks than I had at the time. I am a small press author who has to fight to get on store shelves and depends quite a bit on out-of-trunk sales and online shopping. Theoretically, my rank should be somewhere around Boston Teran’s last novel (which effectively killed his career for the forseeable future.)

They blame the publishers. They blame the chainstores. They blame their agents. Nowhere do I hear authors blame themselves. They ask, “Why can’t I be Ed McBain or Lawrence Block or Stephen King and write prolificly?”

First off, McBain, God rest his soul, was a freak of nature. This is a man who, at the start of his career (as Evan Hunter) forced himself to slow down to 8000 words a day. (For those of you who want to know, that translates into 32 typed, double-spaced pages.) Stephen King, no slouch himself when it comes to production, banged out about eight pages a day before he kissed the grill of a minivan and slowed down. There will never be another Ed McBain again not because the opportunity isn’t there. Create the next 87th Precinct and you might not be able to produce them fast enough. It’s because only Nora Roberts comes close to his level of production.


“Oh,” you say, “but she uses ghost writers.” No, she doesn’t. This woman writes all day long, seven days a week. She takes her laptop to public appearances and writes in the car as she’s traveling to and from the event. She’d probably write during the event (or maybe she has) if she could get away with it.

And Lynn Viehl? I envy her. I can do one or two books a year. (Or three this year, but the stories are fully formed for two already.) Since 2001, Lynn has written 28 freakin’ novels and those are the ones already scheduled for publication.

Yes, kids, if you build it, New York will come. So the whole “The industry is against me” line doesn’t wash with me.

So why, then, are these guys upset? Well, because the era of the insane seven-figure advance is over. And good riddance, too. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind having a very early retirement financed by Random House, but the truth is it’d end my career out of the gate.

But even then, most writers I know, including a couple of the blog authors despairing the state of the publishing industry, seem to understand you don’t get rich right away. But they can’t seem to understand why they don’t break out.

I’ll tell you why.

Meet Joe Konrath. Joe’s a beginning player like me. Unlike me, he signed with a fairly big house, St. Martin’s. And while St. Martin’s seems to have paid him well for his first three novels, along with doing the requisite PR, Joe doesn’t think that’s enough. He presses the flesh. He goes to conferences and conventions. He visits his publisher and the publisher of his audio books. Joe Konrath is involved with every single aspect of selling his book. And yes, he does a book a year.

And that’s what’s REALLY wrong with publishing. I hired a publicist (mainly as a much-needed tax write-off.) My Amazon rank has stayed in the low six figures to mid five figures since March. It’s been higher than a lot of better known (and in many cases better) writers. Why? I gotta pimp my wares.

There’s no room for the “Marketing is icky, let the publisher do it” mentality anymore. There hasn’t been for years. You have to shake hands with booksellers, find out what the chains want. Publisher didn’t make a big push for your novel? Guess what that advance was for. That’s right, bucko, you gotta sell yourself. Patterson does it. Grisham did it (and still does). And when you do all the traveling Ken Bruen does, often on his own dime, then you can complain nobody’s reading you.

I know this is a tough business. Someone recently pointed out that novelists have only a 1-in-380 chance in making a living with their work.

What they forget is those are better odds than when I was in high school.

Sorry, kids. The sky ain’t falling. There just wasn’t the pie up there you thought there was.

9 thoughts on “The Sky Is Falling!!! (Not!)

  1. I came across this paragraph from Don Maass’ book “The Career Writer” that might be appropriate.

    “The Cheney Report … found that book publishing was ‘best-sellerized to the point of death by suffocation.’ It also pointed out that the industry as a whole suffered from greedy authors, too many titles, lack of list rationale, inefficient distribution, poor marketing, merger mania, a dearth of statistics and wishful thinking.”

    The report says: “The industry has made a fetish of the accident. It is organized not so much to sell as to wait for a bestseller.”

    This was the state of the book industry in 1932.

    I can’t play the role of Polyanna and say that Terrill Lankford is wrong. He’s not. But it appears that what’s happened is that there’s a sea change in the industry, and authors have to ride it or sink. Be publicized, get yourself out there, write a blog or pose for your author photo looking constipated. Whatever it takes.

  2. Well, as a published author I will lay it all on the table and admit that the reason my book was not as successful as everyone would have hoped for was due to three things that “I DID”:

    1. I refused to go on Conan O’Brien because I despise the political opinions of Max Weinberg (the drummer)…

    2. I started a silent fued with my editor after the book had come out because at a lunch he tasted my shrimp cocktail without asking, and that’s personally – a big mistake…

    3. Something that had to do with cheese.

  3. “Something that had to do with cheese.”

    Yeah, that cheese thing’s a tough one to beat, unfortunately. Bill mentioned Terrill Lankford’s article, and unfortunately, Terrill didn’t have time to cover this. (It was on someone else’s blog, and unlike John, they didn’t let guests ramble on as incoherently as Mr. Scalzi lets me.) (And Terrill doesn’t abuse parentheses as badly as I do.)

    Until this cheese mystery is solved, we as published authors will continue to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the blatant plagiarism of Shakespeare’s works, and high cholesterol.

    It’s a tough, tough business.

  4. I am reminded of a story Guy Gavriel Kay told when he was here in Israel. He was at a con with Terry Pratchett, and both were at some n event at the con (I believe it may have been the opening ceremony). TP was sitting next to GGK in the front row, and had his laptop open. And he was writing.

    TP was then called to the stage. He closed the laptop, went up, gave his speech. He then returned to his seat, opened his laptop, and resumed writing.

  5. As someone who wants to make a living writing fiction one day, I read this sort of stuff with more than passing interest.

    I keep going back and forth on the matter, but I think that Amazon offers opportunities that traditional marketing and sales models could not do. That is not to say that the traditional publishing house is obsolete: I think that it will be around for a long time yet. But Amazon has added another revenue source, one to which co-op money means little.

    The trick, of course, is how to navigate the waters. Only a lucky few get to work using an old-fashioned model, in which an auther signs a multiple book deal and just cranks them out and receives regular royalty payments. To be successful, most modern authors will have to spend a lot more time marketing.

  6. Amazon’s sales ranking is an unfathomable mystery, I think. My book “Demonsouled” started at 125,000, dropped to 250,000, jumped to 75,000, did a jagged line all the way down to 1,100,000, jumped up to 33,000 again (the high point so far), and has since slid to someplace in the 600,000 range.

    It was also the #1 Early Adopter Item in Science Fiction and Fantasy in mid-May. I suspect that means, in practical terms, absolutely nothing (May must have been a slow month), but it sounds impressive in casual conversation.

  7. “Sheila Kelly, who blogs at http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com writes around 9-10 thousands words a day.”

    If I am wrong, I’m sure she’ll correct me. But Lynn (as I know her. And I thought I had identity problems.) also works on multiple projects at the same time.

    Which probably goes back to both your point and my original one.

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