Friday, July 20, 2007

Yeah, but What Have You Done for Us Lately?

When I sold my first novel, to Pocket Books in 1975 (I think), I was sure that my writing career had begun a smooth upward trajectory that would take it all the way to the Moon, baby! and would very soon take me out of the workforce. I don't remember if I said as much to any of the older and more experienced writers I met as a result of that book sale, but if I did, they would have been justified in snickering behind my back.

It's all in the numbers - the sales numbers. That's no surprise to anyone, but it's still painful when you learn that your numbers aren't good enough and your current publisher isn't interested in seeing new proposals from you. What has surprised me is how often this happens to writers I thought had solid, flourishing careers but who now can't sell their new books, or who are selling books but sense that they're on a downward trajectory. Understandably, people prefer not to talk about this when it's happening to them. When they do, the conversations are carried on in private places, online or not. In some cases, I've learned about the dormant state of someone's writing career from a third party. In every case, it's been a shock.

In a way, it's even more shocking when I see this happen to someone who came up the ranks after me than to someone who was already there when I first got published. With the older writers, I just assumed that they had grown tired of writing, or age had interfered.

But there was a long period when the realization was sinking in that my career had stalled. "That's all the power there is, Captain! Mah puir wee bairn engine's canna deliver any more!" "Our orbit is starting to decay, Captain. We will impact the planet's surface in approximately 5.287111965493 hours." Meanwhile, I was watching the rockets of Hot! New! writers taking off and heading for the Moon, baby! They were the buzz. They were brilliant. They were changing everything. I was filled with envy and poisonous resentment that I didn't want to feel but couldn't purge myself of.

And now, some years later, I'm hearing sad laments from some of those very writers. Few of them are still well known - or even being published.

What a depressing post this is! The point I want to make, to the extent that there is one, is that if you sometimes wonder what happened to X, a writer you really liked a few years ago, and why hasn't X written anything lately, don't assume that he hasn't. Don't assume that X got bored with writing. Assume that publishing got bored with X. Assume that he's still writing, but to the publishing biz, he has become a non-person. He's yesterday's Hot! New! writer, and now he's cold and old. It's even possible that, in despair, X has given up writing entirely. Now, that's depressing!

Oh, there was another, related point. Back when I used to whine to friends about the state of my writing career (I learned not to, finally), some of them would protest that I had proved myself. I had so many published novels I could point to. I was a proven professional. Yes, but what I had proved was that my books didn't sell lots and lots of copies. Oopsie. On the bright side, if you're a newcomer, you haven't yet published books that didn't sell lots and lots of copies. Therefore, in the eyes of the publishing biz, you still have the possibility of becoming one of the Hot! New! buzzthings. They're actually more likely to take a chance on you than on someone they know is cold and old.

So write on. You'll have two or three books to prove yourself. And you might well be one of the ones who makes it to the Moon, baby!


alternatefish said...

well, that was depressing. pardon me, realistic.

thanks for pointing out something that I'd kind of suspected but didn't want to think about.

what happens if a writer has mediocre/poor sales in the beginning of his career, then ten or twenty years later writes something truly brilliant? would a publisher only look at it in the context of the previous mediocre sales or would the publisher be able to see the writer's new maturity and skill?

David said...

I hope I'm about to find out. :)

My feeling is that such a writer should be able to start over again and be treated as almost a newcomer. To some extent, that's wishful thinking on my part, but I think I remember that happening in the past -- people who had pretty much disappeared, showing up much later with a hit.

They used to say that the thing for such a writer to do was try to break in again using a pseudonym. I don't know if that's good advice or not. Certainly it would be far more satisfying to make it, at last, under one's own name.

Travis Erwin said...

There is nothing like a dose of reality to taint your dreams.

Actually I now enough publoished writers to have been involved in conversations about this topic.

Hope things work out for you under your own name or with a pseudonym.

David said...

I really didn't mean that post as a taint to anyone's dreams, and I'm sorry if it came across that way.

For a new writer, the situation is actually positive. In this biz, one thing you don't have to worry about is tenure block! As I said in that post, the newcomer is more welcome than the non-bestseller oldtimer.

It is a warning, though. A writer who has just broken in needs to be aware of this possibility lying ahead.

Lahdeedah said...

I'm going to live in that delusional state where I'm sure EVENTUALLY something will get published and we'll take it from there.

What really needs to happen... more independent publishers....

Big Music has indie labels and underground music.

Every now and again, they put on 'indie' films.

Lets write Indie Books!

David said...

That delusional state is where you have to live in order to write, I think. Maybe some people can write even while convinced that no one will ever read their books, but they must be a small minority.

I don't know why indie books don't work, in a business sense. Maybe it's because most people still wanted printed copies. If you have your book printed yourself, or a small publisher prints it, which in practice nowadays means POD, then the copies cost far more than books published by major publishers.

Maybe e-books will become so big that we'll be able to publish our books that way, with a realistic hope of significant sales. That would be the equivalent of indie music, I guess.

John A. Karr said...

Publishing = a crap shoot.

Writing has intrinsic payoffs. Daily. The marketing of the work after it's done is necessary, but it is not writing.

Write until unable, or nothing left to say.

Any $$ or recognition gained along the way is bonus.