Ask Nick: Publishing 201 — Am I Spider Rico?
Hello, and welcome to Publishing 201—an occasional column in which I'll answer your questions about writing and publishing, so long as they haven't been asked and answered a million times already. There is plenty of 101-level advice out there, and thousands of writers who can repeat it, but very little has been written for writers further along in their careers or aesthetic development. If you have a 201-level question you'd like me to answer, reach out!
Here's our very first question:
I have 15 books under contract, a handful of award nominations, and I get to write pretty much full-time. But the money isn't there. Not long-term solution at least. I guess my question is this: Even though I am doing better than many, I am not doing as well as I could. Every day I see the BIG authors with their BIG deals, and I start thinking, 'Maybe I'm not Rocky. Maybe I'm Spider Rico.' How do you know when you've plateaued and simply aren't good enough?
—Beat Down in the Bay Area.
Good question, because it's the wrong question to ask, though an inevitable one. I've read some of your stuff, Beat, and it's good, but we both know it's not the sort of thing that leads to BIG deals. Not because it isn't good enough—it's just not the stuff of best-sellers. The sad fact is that most best-selling novels in the genre of your choice (crime/thriller) involve huge stakes, larger-than-life characters, and plenty of wish-fulfillment. Imagine the wealthiest person you know, and now imagine the adventures he might daydream about having. There's the average protagonist of a best-selling crime thriller.
Of course, it is also the average protagonist of many many failed or unpopular novels. Becoming a best-seller is arbitrary. Yes, there is a "best-seller mode" in American fiction—short paragraphs and chapters, frequent reversals of fortune, exotic locales, a soupçon of ethnicity or historical trivial, larger-than-life characters—but that mode is also the mode of the dying midlist. You could change your style and try to break out of the small press, but you may just break into the larger ranks just to serve as "wallpaper." That's how books sell: even though roughly 20 percent of the novels out there sell 80 percent of all copies sold, nobody wants to walk into a store or click over to a website that only stocks the book customers actually buy. Part of book-buying is choosing a title from a significant selection, even if the choice of title was preordained by reviews, publicity, placement on the front-of-store dump and the like. Wallpaper books lure people into stores and to websites to buy the twenty preordained successes. Choice is not freedom, but choice sells.
(Occasionally, unusual books become best-sellers, especially if they are evocative or visual enough to make for a film. Lots of luck trying to systematize that!)
So what you should do, Beat, is be the Best Beat You Can Be. I suspect you don't want to stop exploring the themes you do, though you could expand upon them a bit. Write about life in your thirties and forties instead of your twenties. Tap new veins in your current mine. Will this lead to BIG deals? Probably not. Will it lead to more interesting stuff and, potentially, an expanded audience? It could. The only challenge you can take on is the aesthetic challenge.
I'll also say that writing a best-seller isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. Some of your best-seller pals were only on an extended list, and in slow months such as February or March. There's a big difference in sales between "#19 for the week ending April 3rd, back in 2011" and "top of the list through Christmas." Most of my acquaintances who are New York Times Best-Sellers (wow!) have either managed it by writing a Star Wars or other media tie-in title, or blipped onto the list and then never made it again with subsequent books. And BIG deals have a tendency to be LAST deals. I have a few friends who got that nice $100,000 advance on a first book, and after it flopped they couldn't give away a second book. Being a best-seller is like winning the lottery; not only is it beyond our control, the money goes away more quickly than you imagine.
And if the money just isn't there, Beat, keep in mind that you live in the single most expensive part of the country. Move 100 miles in any direction save West (glub, glub!) and you'll feel much better about the money your writing brings in.
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