The Future of Publishing …

9. Brass Ring Syndrome – March 22, 2015

Merry-go-round horses

With past articles in this series on the Future of Publishing,1 I have been most hopeful about the prospects for independent writers and hungry readers in this new world of ebooks and print-on-demand books. Being free of the time constraints imposed by inventory controls and publishing cycles, an author’s works can be made available longer and generally at a lower price. Now I want to address the subject in the back of every new author’s mind: the money.

Short answer: there ain’t any. Long answer: it depends …

If you write non-fiction, especially on assignment, you can make a decent living commensurate with your talent, energy, and expenses. You will write magazine articles, how-to and self-help books, history and analysis of popular or topical subjects, or biographies of recognized and beloved figures. You will be able to test the market and its interest in your kind of work. You will go where the market puts its money. With skill and effort, plus a good marketing plan, you will be successful.

If you write fiction … well, you still have some options. You can—with the right introductions and connections—write as a junior author in collaboration with a senior established author.2 You can also ghostwrite for name authors on an established series or “media tie-in.”3 To get these gigs, you usually have to publish at least one or two books on your own to prove your skills. From there on, you are working closely with and taking orders from others: authors, editors, movie and series producers, and sometimes curious functionaries such as “book packagers”—all of whom have a stake in the project and generally take a larger cut of the proceeds than you will as the mere content producer. Still, with the right collaborator or series, you can make a decent and sometimes an excellent living.

But most of us don’t dream of writing novels as the content producer for a cash cow. We want to be the next Robert A. Heinlein, Norman Mailer, or Scott Turow. We want to be recognized, admired, beloved, and rewarded for our unique talent and insights. It’s happened before. It seems to happen every year or two. So why not with me?

You might think that writing a bestseller—for that is a necessary condition of achieving literary fame and fortune—is a matter of analyzing the current marketplace, figuring out the tastes and interests of readers, and synthesizing a book that checks off all the right themes, memes, and leitmotifs. To do this, you must believe that a perfect novel for today’s marketplace—like Plato’s ideal horse—exists and can be conjured out of marketing reports.4

Writers are not the only people who believe in the “ideal novel” for the current marketplace. Editors and agents are infected with the notion, too. They will quickly assure you that every project is different and that the author’s approach and talent play a big part in the process of making a bestseller. Still, they tell you to bring them a story about “X,” because they can really sell that kind of book right now. Today, “X” is probably the story of “a nice girl trapped in a romance layered with sadomasochism,” or “the unlikely heroine fighting a dystopian future society.” A dozen years ago, it was “a boy wizard with glasses.” Years earlier it was “a detective with a physical or mental handicap,” or—back when I was starting out—“the unknown heir to a fantasy kingdom.”

Whatever the formula, it is based on what’s popular in the marketplace right now. And that’s a trap. The trap is temporal and goes in two dimensions. First, the trap is already behind you, it’s hindsight, because what is popular right now took the author some finite amount of time—possibly decades, but certainly a year or two—to conceive, formulate, and write today’s popular book. Then it took more months and probably years for the author to make that initial sale to an agent and subsequently to an editor.5 And finally, it took a further year at least for the editor to prepare the manuscript, print the book, and perform all the marketing to bookstore and chain buyers through the publisher’s wholesale channels and release advanced press on the retail side.

Second, the trap is still in front of you, and you’re already late to market, because even if you know all about today’s top market trends, it will still take you at least a year to formulate and write your trend-matching book, and then another year for the publisher to edit, prepare, and market it. Taken together, you are now about four years off the cycle. By the time your “X” book appears, the market will have moved on and be wild for “Y.”

With self-publishing through ebooks and print-on-demand services, you can usually cut the cycle time down. And you will have a clear shot with your own trend analysis, because you don’t have to work through the serial filters of first an agent’s and then an editor’s interests, prejudices, and notions about where the market is going. But you are still up against the trap of hindsight and the delay for writing and preparation time. If you are really nimble, you might just make the tail end of the “X” trend, but by then you will be discounted as a “me, too” author on the way to being an “also ran.”

The new marketplace also pits you against a sea of other authors. Where traditional publishing, with its “gatekeepers” in the person of agents and acquisitions editors, might produce only thousands of new books in all categories and genres each year, the current market produces millions. And, without the economics of inventory keeping and returns policies to limit their lifespan, those books will stay in production and be available to readers for much longer—years so far, and probably for decades still to come. That’s good for an author with an established readership but stifling and frustrating for a new author trying to make a name for him- or herself—for anyone, that is, who’s trying to catch the brass ring.

What can a fiction writer do? If you can’t tie into an established senior author or series, I suggest a Jedi Mind Trick. Tell yourself that writing isn’t about the money. This shouldn’t be far from the truth, because most people write their first stories or books without the promise an assured sale.6 In the traditional literary marketplace, writing a book as a first-timer was the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket and had about the same odds of winning the jackpot, which was just getting published. But instead of the ticket costing you a few dollars, you bought it at the price of perhaps a thousand hours of hard work, depending on how fast you could write, followed by a year or two of dogged submissions. In the new self-publishing paradigm, the odds of getting published have risen to near certainty, but the odds of making a monetary success are now much worse.

The Jedi Mind Trick is to tell yourself it doesn’t matter. You have to say, “Oh? … Money? … Well …”

And that frees you. You can stop chasing the market, at least with the goal of making a fortune no matter what it might cost you in terms of personal interest, taste, or satisfaction.7 You can write what you like to read and think others will like in the long run. You can exercise your imagination and find something new and interesting to think, do, and show the world. You can be disruptive and daring and refreshing all at once. You can focus on quality.

Once you stop reaching for the brass ring of bestsellerdom and focus on achieving something unique and powerful, something intended to catch a reader’s mind, only then do you have a real chance at attracting loyal followers and making a new market that will be all your own.

1. For the earlier entries in this series, published about two years and more ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit
        5. Welcome to Rome, 475 AD
        6. How to Survive in Rome, 475 AD
        7. I’ll Survive in Rome, 475 AD
        8. The Best of Times

2. I did four of these novels back when I was publishing with Baen Books: Crisis of Empire: An Honorable Defense with David Drake; The Mask of Loki and Flare with Roger Zelazny; and Mars Plus with Frederik Pohl. See the Science Fiction books page on my website for fuller descriptions.

3. Many famous book series, like the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, were ghostwritten. The author’s name on the covers—Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, respectively—are of people who never existed. Both of these series were the work of publisher Edward Stratemeyer in the 1930s. I’m sure other, more modern series that you would recognize today are published the same way.
       A modern variant of this is the media tie-in market: writing fresh, new novels set in the universe and using characters popularized by a movie or television show. I believe Alan Dean Foster was the first to try this, with a series of Star Trek novels that appeared soon after the original series went off the air. Now such novels seem to cover about a third to half of store bookshelves—at least in the Science Fiction section. The good news is that you usually get your name on the cover. The bad news is that your work must be approved not just by the editors at the publishing house but also by the production company of the original product. But if you can walk the line and take direction, you’ll make good money.

4. In local parlance, this is called “the great American novel.” I once tried to write an intentional bestseller in the thriller category. The result was Trojan Horse, an unsatisfactory book both for myself and, apparently, for my readers.

5. The tribulations that bestselling authors go through, with rejection after heartbreaking rejection of a story that everyone now loves, is the stuff of legend. For a summary, see Literary Rejections. This shouldn’t be surprising: every book that becomes a notable bestseller offers something new and refreshing to a market that’s looking for excitement. Such a book must change or disrupt established patterns, and the best of them establish new patterns of their own. That is always a risk and a gamble for established publishers.

6. I wrote two and a half novels and left them in manuscript before I wrote a book that could attract an agent and make a sale. I think most authors do about the same while they’re learning to write and finding their niche and voice. If you see a successful “first novel,” understand that it’s probably the author’s third, fourth, or fifth attempt. My mantra is that every overnight success is ten years in the making. It’s called learning the craft.
       Of course, for everyone who actually writes and finishes a book, fifty wannabes who are otherwise unhappy with their lives still cherish the notion that if they could just sit down and write their novel or screenplay, they could sell it and make a million dollars. They could also win the lottery, which is a whole lot easier.

7. The money trap is all around us. Maybe it’s a feature of the current American culture, where every Horatio Alger who studies hard, puts in the hours, and remains cheerful and persistent can grow up to be President of the United States, or CEO of his own company, or in some other fashion catch the brass ring. But the reality is that only two or three Presidents get elected in each generation, as only a couple of dozen people will rise to the C-suite of the major companies in each industry. But all of this striving does keep legions of local politicians, salesmen and –women, or engineers at work, and a fair number of them will eventually move up to become senators and congressmen and –women, regional sales managers and heads of marketing, or vice presidents of product development and design. In the same way, a lot of writers will eventually get a following and make a modest mark in the world—and some might even make a modest living.