“Why won’t they love me?!”
It’s said that schadenfreude is an unworthy sentiment. But after reading this tearful piece, I must confess that my schadenboner is prodigious. Few things amuse me like watching a self-assigned moral and professional better slowly and painfully realizing that (s)he gets to be stuck in the marketplace just like the rest of us. There is no royal road to fame and fortune. No guaranteed path to glory. You dig it out of the mud like all of us, and if it doesn’t come with the first book or the tenth book, or it doesn’t come at all, that’s just the breaks of living and working in an era when more people are writing more quality prose — in the English language — than at any time in history. We also have more readers, too, thank goodness. But as Kevin J. Anderson once said, if publishing is now easier than it’s ever been before, success is still just as hard.
[my book got] more buzz than I’d seen for any book I’d ever written. People were telling me on Twitter that they’d bought three or four copies and were making all their friends read it. I heard from booksellers that the books were flying off the shelves. We went into a second printing almost immediately. I did a book signing in Chicago that sold a bunch of books. The reader response at BEA was surreal. It was magical.
Setting aside the fact that the author is talking about a non-fiction work of opinion, I feel like it’s worth pointing out that the advent of universal social media has also created universal concrete silos, into which many authors descend. These silos become perfect echo chambers: constantly reflecting praise and wonderment back to said author, until said author is sure in her heart that she’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Get yourself a few hundred loyal sycophants, plus a cadre of like-minded peers — all sending you digital love notes every time you open your mouth — and it’s easy to perceive yourself as being on the crest of a wave.
This, I thought, is what it must feel like to have a book that’s about to hit it big. This was it. This was going to be the big one. It was going to take off. I gnawed on my nails and watched as big magazines picked up articles from it and it got reviewed favorably in The New York Times, and I waited for first week sales numbers.
Thing is, what does “big” look like? There are waves, and then there are waves. J.K. Rowling is probably the 21st century diamond standard, where Fantasy & Science Fiction literature is concerned. She’s second only to Tolkien, in terms of broad, deep impact. The whole planet knows Harry Potter just as the whole planet knows Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. If not through text, then certainly through movies — successful, big-money, silver-screen adaptations being the holy grail of all commercially engaged fiction authors.
But there are other waves, besides the 3,000-foot tsunami.
Not far south of me, there is a nice guy named Brandon Sanderson who is certainly enjoying his own wave. To my east and north is Larry Correia, who built his wave in just about the most difficult way I can imagine. Every time I visit a Utah authors’ conference of any sort, I bump into people who are riding different waves at different heights. I think you’d have to go to New York or the Pacific Northwest to find more bona fide successful authors crammed into the same geographical footprint.
Again, the era of social media has tended to create silos. Especially in New York publishing, which (as I noted in this space in an earlier article) tends to be a bukkake club of self-referencing, self-blurbing, self-praising, and self-promoting. It’s why so many authors — against all sanity — still make New York their home. Despite the crush of people, and the insane cost of living. It’s worth it to be “in the swim” as it were.
But even being in the swim, doesn’t necessarily translate to mass market traction.
I expected to see at least twice the number of first week sales for this book as I had for any previous book. The buzz alone was two or three times what I was used to. This had to be it . . .
But when the numbers came in, they weren’t twice what I usually did in week one. They were about the same as the first week numbers for The Mirror Empire. And… that was…. fine. I mean, it would keep me getting book contracts.
But . . . it wasn’t a breakout. It was a good book, but It wasn’t a book that would change my life, financially.
Reader, I cried.
Ohhhhhh, the heart bleeds! Her great political non-fic tome — which the whole world was squeeeeeeeeeeeing about, and lurving over, and Tweeting at light speed! — simply did average.
Again, I point to Larry Correia, who gets maybe a tenth as much New York press coverage as our plaintiff. He recently bought his family 50 acres on a mountainside. Over the next two years, he and his lovely wife will build themselves the dream home of dream homes, where they will finish raising a family, grow old together, and die.
I’d call that a wave worth celebrating. And Larry did it all by working his ass off, being entertaining, working his ass off, working his ass off, and oh yeah, working his ass off. 100 hours a week, or more; when he was still pulling down day job paychecks and writing full-time to boot.
Now, for somebody living on a New York City high-rise budget, Larry’s amount of “wave” may not go nearly as far as it goes out here in Deplorable Country. But that’s why I always encourage fledgling authors to use internal metrics and standards to create goalposts. If you’ve spent your adult life in the lower-middle class income bracket, a modestly successful series of books will change your financial situation forever. You will be rich! Or at least, you will feel rich. But if you’re from the silver spoon set, even a very nicely-performing book (or string of books) will seem like just so much chump change.
It’s been strange since then, because everywhere I go, people come up to me and congratulate me on the release of the book. It has the best reviews of any book I’ve ever written. People come up to me and burst into tears at the head of the signing line and thank me for writing it. It’s a transformative book for people. It’s a manifesto. It’s a book that’s even more relevant now after the election. It changes people’s lives. I’m very glad I wrote it, though it nearly broke me to do it.
Here again, the concrete silo. “How could my book not be a hit?! I don’t know anyone who didn’t buy it, and tell me it was pure awesome!”
Sort of like, “How could Hillary Clinton lose? I don’t know anybody who didn’t vote for her!”
The lesson — for those adult enough to discern it — is that you can do everything right, play the game precisely the way it’s supposed to be played, do the bukkake circle and bathe in the admiration flowing from the fonts of prestige — and still turn in a so-so performance. Not terrible, mind you. But not earth-shattering, either. Just kind of . . . midlist.
Gasp! That word! Midlist! Horrors! The giant graveyard of egotists with swollen heads!
Or, if you’re sensible, the wide, fertile field of robust commerce. Where even folk of modest ability can still make okay money. Enough to pay a few bills. Maybe a car payment? The rent? The mortgage? Or more? There is no shame in being a midlist author who handsomely supplements a “mundane” primary income, with writing dollars. In fact, if you don’t have a bloated ego — really, I can’t emphasize enough how important this is — the midlist can be your Shire. Replete with rolling hills covered in green crops, where the Party Tree is always alive with happy Hobbits raising a mug and putting their feet up. They still have to work during the week, sure. But it’s not misery. In fact, there are few finer places in Middle Earth — if you’re not obsessed with thrones and heraldry.
it’s not making money hand over fist, I’m not quitting my day job, and while yes, it’s selling steadily and well, this is not the breakout book I was tentatively expecting it to be (not this year, anyway). It will likely earn out by the end of this year, based on what I know (though we’ll see. I’ll get royalty statements soon). But it’s hard to say this out loud to people when they congratulate me about the book. Lots of people would love to have a book that’s sold as well as it has. But that’s the sixth book I’ve had in print, and you know, you get tired of the emotional rollercoaster in this business after so many years of it (only five years! But egads, I feel that I’ve lived a lifetime of publishing bullshit in that time).
My first novel earned out during its first six-month period of release. My royalties have only climbed in the period since. Granted, my publisher was smart enough not to freight a first-time novelist like me with a dead elephant contract — the kind many would-be novelists dream of bragging about, until they later realize that earning out a substantial five-figure or six-figure advance is tough even for established pros with an established audience. Once more I ask: how big does your “wave” have to be, before you’re satisfied? Each of us must ask ourselves this question, and determine what we can live with.
I always advise optimistic modesty. Don’t quit your day job. Moreover, don’t work a day job you hate so much, that you can do little else besides dream of quitting. Do a day job you can like, or at least tolerate. Work out a writing schedule you can tolerate too. Set sane, reasonable goals. And each time a book is released, have sane, reasonable expectations. The novel earns what it earns. You’ll be amazed how even a small royalty check seems kingly, if you’re not living an aesthete’s life where writing is the only thing keeping your tummy full.
I have two non-authorly jobs. When I am not deployed, the military income stream is my tertiary, writing is my secondary, while healthcare tech is my primary. My pie-in-the-sky objective — over the next ten years — is to try to make my authorly income the primary, then I can make military secondary, and perhaps won’t need a tertiary? This outcome is largely beyond my control, because it’s predicated on one or more books/series becoming over-abundantly successful, to the point that all my debt is cleared, my home is paid off and fixed up entirely, and I’m sitting on a Smaug-sized pile of cash in the bank.
Sounds like I’ve set myself up for failure, right?
Nope. I’ve ensured that I won’t jump too early.
I’ve seen what happens when authors jump too early. They’re so desperate to escape their day work — either because they detest punching a clock, or they are ego-infatuated with the idea of being a full-time author — that they put the cart before the horse. Which is fine, I guess, if you’re single and lack dependents of any sort. Living in a garret is the luxury of being unattached. But if you’ve got mouths to feed? Little ones to clothe and shelter? Set the escape velocity high, and keep it high. That way you’re never having to explain to either spouse or children why they live like urchins.
It’s difficult to say these things out loud to new writers, that most of the books you write will mean a lot to some people, but that they won’t make you rich. They won’t even pay enough for food and health insurance. You will have to work two jobs, novels and day job, until you retire. And maybe even still then. We want to talk about the six or seven figure book deals, the breakout hits, the fairytale stories. But the majority of writers face only this: writing the next book and the next book and the next book, building an audience from scratch, from the ground up, hustling out a living just like everyone else does, cobbling together novel contracts, Patreon money, day jobs, and freelancing gigs.
It’s not difficult at all. It’s necessary. Burst that bubble early, and often. Keep re-bursting it. Put their feet in the soil. Get their heads out of the clouds. Again, the Shire is a wonderful place to live. If you’re not obsessed with thrones and heraldry. There are authors in the midlist making anywhere from the cost of their electric bill each month, all the way up to buying a new house with cash. I’m friends with folk all up and down that spectrum, to include some full-timers of the seven-figure variety. And even the seven-figure folk will tell you: being happy with a supplemental writing income is not a sin. It’s normal. And there is zero shame in being normal. Zero.
Certainly, any of my backlist books could still breakout at any time, but I need to acknowledge the emotional cost of that rollercoaster of hope and despair. We are all of us just working to put food on the table and revolution in the mind, working, and working, until death or the apocalypse or both.
I’m going to gently suggest that replacing the word “revolution” with “entertainment” might be the key to putting more food on her table. She’s spent far too long in her concrete silo.
People are less interested in revolution — even the Pussyhatters — than they are in being shown a good time. Revolution may sell well with zealots, but really, unless you ply your trade exclusively as a pundit at the Bill O’Reilly level, revolution is going to get you lots of praise from like minds — but precious few dollars in your pocket, as originating from wallets beyond your concrete silo.
Madonna and Ashley Judd didn’t become famous (or wealthy) by making batshit insane tirades whilst standing on platforms at marches. They became famous and wealthy being entertainers first and foremost, and they will remain famous and wealthy if they keep (or go back?) to the correct order of priorities. I know authors — cough, especially Left-wing authors, cough — like to see themselves as grand harbingers of the coming transformation of humanity and society. But here again, beware the power of ego. Of all the truly “transformative” books in the West’s considerable archive of same, precious few were ever written with the author thinking, “Yes, this book is going to change everything.”
Of the few who did set out to write such books — Karl Marx? — the results are often historically horrendous. So no, please, skip the revolution. Just forget it.
Take people on a journey instead. Lead them into the mines of Moria. Show them the Balrog. Let them cheer as the Fellowship fights off goblins and orcs. Keep your soap box tucked under your desk, as a foot rest.
And yes, don’t get your heart stuck on the idea that you’re waiting for The Hit. I know it’s hard, because every time we see somebody else enjoying The Hit, we wonder what it would be like to ride that kind of wave. But if you’re so caught up in waiting for The Hit you’re unable to recognize the good things you already have, when they come, what’s the point? Then your career truly does feel like agony! Because you’re perpetually progressing toward your far-off destination, without ever reaching it.
Better — I say — to set yourself up with a model for success which is quietly abundant. No Hit required. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. did it, and he lives better than sooooooo many New York types do. Like Larry (and Brandon for that matter) Lee was very practical and pragmatic in his approach. He has never, by his own admission, had The Hit. But he owns a whole shelf at Barnes & Noble, filled with books which are seldom out of print. And he enjoys a princely existence of productive retirement.
You could do a hell of a lot worse than Lee. Especially if you let your ego do the driving.
Don’t. You will be saner. And happier.