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.