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The Rewards of Your Efforts

December 22, 2009

Last time, I ended contemplating a question: that given a large number of aspiring fantasy and science fiction novelists – and I suspect this may be true of writers of other genres as well – relatively few will ever succeed in actually seeing their work in print.  And of those who do not reach this coveted station in life, there will be many who are talented and determined to succeed, but meet time and again with failure in spite of their talent and determination.  What do you make of this disconnect between effort and the rewards?  I’ve thought and read a little about this.

The job of editors and publishers, I believe, is not unlike that of a casting director for a major Hollywood film.  In that role, you’d undoubtedly be exposed to any number of young, talented, and physically gifted  actors-to-be who lack nothing but for a chance to break out big.  Maybe some of them might even be extremely well-suited to filling the role you are casting for.  And yet, with huge Hollywood bucks on the line, time and again you opt for the big-name stars to fill your roles.  Why is this so?  Because a big-name star comes with a guaranteed box-office draw.  People will flock to see a movie more readily knowing their favorite stars are gracing the scene.  And that kind of certainty is often well-worth the extra cash you’ll have to pay the big stars.

So, too, goes it with the editors of large publishing firms.  The fact is, these firms are only going to print so many books in a year – and they want every one of those books they print to sell.  And so, given a choice between buying the rights to, say, Stephen King’s latest novel, or the rights to some new, unproven author’s contemporary horror, a publisher of horror is going to go with Stephen King every time.  Because Stephen King’s name on a book sells those books.

I’ve over-simplified the situation a little, of course.  There are contractual obligations involved with the big-name writers.  There’s lots of back-room wheeling and dealing.  And slots do open up for new authors in a publisher’s lists from time to time.  Even when that does happen, though, there are still other hurdles to overcome.  A publisher also only has so much money to budget for promotional efforts.  Again, the publisher is incented to devote the majority of that to the Stephen Kings and Dan Browns – because those investments will pay off in book sales in a very predictable way.  Investing promotional dollars on a new author, even one the publisher has chosen to publish, is still a risky proposition.  Sure, some editor liked the new writer’s work.  But it remains to be seen what the reading public will think of it.

Which leaves us with a certain catch-22 for new writers: even if you do obtain the dream, and your manuscript is picked up for publication, your dream may be short-lived if you can’t move copies of your book.  But how is your book going to reach a large audience without the promotional dollars to support it?

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