A few thoughts prompted by a few readings here and there: an interview with the author Hugh Howey, a book review of the new book by author Thomas Pynchon (Bleeding Edge), a blog post by the author Misha Burnett, and my own little experiments in the world of authorship.
There are several distinct goals in view when a person sets down to write something. 1) The process of writing is a self-communication of great value in and of itself, discovering the way your mind works, becoming familiar with its rhythms and voices, following where it leads to see where it might take you, and all great benefits and worth the effort. 2) what is written would like to be read. Writing – as far as it is story-telling or imparting of information – is a form of call-and-response, and being read is the implied counter-reaction to its action. Stories that want to be told also want to be listened to. To this end, one goes about putting a book into the world and trying to draw attention to it in whatever ways one can. 3) Authorship, as opposed to the mere amateur status of writing, implies getting paid. Readers are great, sure, but readers are consumers, customers, buyers of things, and one’s book is no exception to the way the world works in terms of products and distribution and sales and all that. Lately the opportunity to give books away for free on the internet has been leveraged successfully as a marketing tool by many. There is still money to be made even that way, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. 4) Authorship also implies a certain vanity. One wants readers, one wants readers to pay, one wants readers to like the book and serve as references to others who will pay and also like and also serve as references, and so on in a glorious spiral in which everything comes together nicely and what started out as a fun little hobby becomes a joy ride of fame, fortune, glory and happiness.
We all know that the odds are against you. Winning the lottery, getting struck by lightning, being bitten twice by the same shark in different oceans, having your book become a major motion picture series franchise featuring the cutest young men and women in Hollywood. It happens! (Well, maybe not the different oceans thing). It does and we know it does and there are the one in a million, and then there are the nine hundred ninety nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine. I count myself among those.
I’ve been lucky. Due to a number of circumstances a few of my books, three especially (Zombie Nights, Snapdragon Alley, Tiddlywink the Mouse), have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, enough to have a real chance of catching on, if the readers liked them enough, to generate the wondrous word of mouth and spread like wildfire throughout the galaxy. What happened, though, was that the readers did not like them enough. This is on me, not them. As Katie Kitamura notes in this interesting interview, whether we like to admit it or not, ”the flaws in a piece of fiction are, unhappily, so often also the flaws of the writer.” I accept that completely. In my case, the books did not provide an experience satisfactory for many of the readers. The characters were not compelling enough, the plots were not thick enough or juicy enough, the endings were not pleasing enough, the books were also not long enough. In short, there were plenty of flaws in these books – and in my many others which also benefited from the exposure, and have been downloaded many times themselves.
You often hear that “the market” will sort it all out, and it will. What you hear less often is that failure is always an option. It can and does happen, most of the time, in fact. The world is big enough for everything, but it’s not big enough for everything to be big!
There is time, though. As Hugh Howey points out in his interview, ebooks are forever, and an undiscovered book is always new to the reader who comes across it for the first time. My books continue to be downloaded. Most of them are available for free on Feedbooks, some remain free on Amazon and Smashwords, or else they can be purchased for a very low price, and I continue to write, mostly for reasons number one and two described above. I love doing it. My latest is an anti-hero anti-fantasy anti-epic comico-tragical adventure called “The End of the Line”, a continuation of the Epic Fail saga I’ve been cowriting with my young son (Entropic Quest, Prisoners of Perfection). Earlier this year I also wrote a book I quite enjoyed writing called The Lemon Thief’s Ex-Wife’s Third Cousin, which was doing quite well for a while on Feedbooks, if nowhere else. Nothing will stop me from writing what I want, when I want, and putting it out there, and occasionally blabbing about them. The only thing that might get in my way is success. Fortunately, there seems to be no imminent danger of that!