“You’re Only As Good As Your Last ISBN” or “Do You Really Want To Be Doing This?”
by Rick Hautala
Let’s look at the situation. Literally there have to be millions of people who say they want to write a book. I regularly get letters, phone calls, e-mails, or personal approaches from people (usually at book signings, which is one reason why I don’t do many signings), asking me to write their story with them. The idea is simple. They have a “great” idea, something way better than anything that’s being published today, and they’re more than willing to share their idea with me. My part in this, at least the way they see it, is easy. All I have to do is “write it for them,” and then we’ll split the money fifty-fifty.
Sounds easy, huh?
Especially for them.
They have no idea what writing a novel really entails. Or maybe they do. Maybe they’ve tried and failed. In any event, if they keep writing, they’ll probably end up reviewing books for Amazon.com., slamming the works of others … under a pseudonym, of course, or using no name at all except “a reader.”
And these are just the people I meet.
No doubt every published author has met such people.
So every year, I’m sure there are literally millions of people who say they want to write a book (or screenplay—I hear that a lot lately). Of that number, a tiny percentage of them actually start writing, and of that number, an even smaller percentage of them actually finish the book. Of those books that actually get finished, a very small percentage is any good. And even of the ones that actually are any “good,” I’m sure only a miniscule percentage is publishable … that is, if the person has enough literary market savvy to jump through the hoops of finding some way to get their manuscript to an agent or publisher (that’s a whole ‘nother story).
Then the odds really start stacking up against you because of all the books published, only a small number actually get promotion and succeed. Most of what’s published sells so poorly, in fact, that 1) the publisher declines to publish the author’s next book (if the author has the determination to go through the ordeal of actually completing a sophomore effort), or 2) the author decides the writing business doesn’t love him or her enough, and gives it up to find a job much less demanding but a lot more remunerative … with a steady paycheck and benefits, no less.
So how in the name of all that’s good and beautiful does a writer actually go about making a living at it?
I’m not talking about those authors who have a day job and devote any and all available off hours to the task of writing. And I don’t mean those writers who have a trust find or a gainfully employed spouse or life partner who is willing to support them in their chosen calling (and pay for their medical benefits). I’m talking about that small percentage of people who can’t stop writing no matter what. It “drips out of my head,” as my friend Glenn Chadbourne is fond of saying. If some people aren’t writing, they’d be up on the roof of a building with a rifle and scope. I pity them partly because I’m one of them, and I know their pain.
So even if you beat all these odds, even if you’ve done what most people only talk about doing when they’re drunk (and I’m NOT talking about dating Jennifer Aniston), what are your chances of actually making any kind of living writing books?
Okay. There are those select few whose first book “gets noticed.” They have the “hot” book and they get the push from their publisher, so they get the astronomical sales. Then they get the movie deal and the multi-million, multi-book deals with one of the best publishers in the country. Their first book may even make it onto the New York Times bestseller list (but a lot of books that are lucky enough to get that push don’t make it onto the lists). These are the select few, and the odds are better, I think, that you’ll get hit by lightning (although that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun).
Then there are the rest of us—the working writers in the trenches who don’t have the mega-deals, who don’t have the movie deals, who don’t have the financial backstop, but who do have to write and who do have a readership. Sure, that readership would move on and find someone else to read if our next book never came out. That readership also has a handful—sometimes a very large handful—of “favorite” authors, many of whom are in the same boat. Not many readers would miss out if our next book was never published, and what do you do if your last book didn’t sell so well?
Oh, it may have been a perfectly fine book. It may, in fact, have been the best book you’ve written to date. (Aren’t they all?) But for whatever arcane reasons, sales of your last book were … let’s say, “disappointing.” Your career path is going down what I affectionately call the “death spiral.” That’s where the sell-through our each of your books is progressively smaller, so the publisher prints fewer and fewer copies of each successive book until the projected print run for your new novel is so insignificant the publisher tells you they’d just as soon not put it out. “Good luck placing your book elsewhere.”
If you don’t take the route of doing work for hire (novelizations or other such projects—and that’s also a whole ‘nother story), and if you have a good working relationship with a publisher and a sympathetic editor), short of quitting this demanding business, you might consider putting your next book out under a pseudonym.
I’m sure there are many reasons for authors to use a pseudonym. Some authors start out publishing under a pseudonym because they want to mask their real identity, like Zorro or Batman. Or an author may be so prolific he or she doesn’t want to glut the market with too many books with his/her name in any one calendar year. So they come up with a new name. I’m thinking Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb, and Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman.
On a much smaller scale, that’s pretty much what prompted me to start publishing under my pseudonym A. J. Matthews. For personal reasons I refuse to go into, I had stopped writing for about a year. By the time I got back to it, I had a backlog of books (The Mountain King, The Hidden Saint—my Poltergeist: The Legacy novel, Bedbugs, and The White Room) lined up to be published. That, and the fact that my previous publisher was not supporting my books the way they used to, made putting The White Room out from Berkley under a pseudonym a no-brainer.
A pseudonym offers a writer a whole new lease on life. You have no track record. There’s no history of “disappointing” or declining sales. You’re tabula rasa. I’ve said it jokingly … well, okay—you caught me—only half-jokingly … that perhaps having two “half-assed careers” could add up to one “full-assed” career, and that’s the beauty of using a pseudonym. You have a fresh start. You can use your new name to publish books that are uncharacteristic of your previously published work, or you can use the pseudonymous books as a way to get into print books you just have to write. Either way, you have more books out in the marketplace, earning more income, and who knows? Maybe one of them will finally be the one to hit big?
So if you’re one of the very small percentage of people who wants/can/and does write novels, and if you find you want to keep doing it (or are unable to stop—an entirely different situation), you might find that a pseudonym is a good outlet for work that’s been building up inside of you. Otherwise, you might head on down to the hardware store and buy a rifle and scope.
And I’d hate to see that happen!