Go Big or Go Home?

On Blockbuster Books, Pseudonyms, and Platforms

A couple weeks ago, in David Farland’s Daily Kick, he suggested something that I thought was provocative, with regards to the careers of new writers. He basically suggests that, unless a new writer can launch their first novel in a big way, his or her career will not last.

As a result of [a lot of changes to the book industry], it has become imperative that an author “launch big.” You need to sell your first book in hardcover. You need to write a book that is aimed at the market, that takes current tastes in literature into account, and that more than satisfies your publisher’s expectations. Indeed, we’re seeing more and more publishers launching first-time authors as best-sellers.
~David Farland

My reaction was: really? Really, that’s the only way? I’ll concede that we’ve reach a post “long-tail” reality. But to suggest that our only hope is to go big or go home, to my mind, is not so much encouragement as, well, the opposite of encouragement. (It’s called discouragement.) Because most of us who write, as it is, are unlikely to win a publishing contract for our books. Few enough of those will ever succeed at the “go big or go home” strategy.

He goes on to say something more that makes me a little suspicious, though:

Typically, the publisher will pay anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 for a novel that they intend to launch big, and they’ll offer to launch it in hardcover.

I don’t know about the offer to launch in hardcover, but those advances are way out of whack with statistical evidence on the issue of first advances.  Author Tobias Buckell’s survey may not precisely be scientific, but it does show that the frequency of very high (6-digit) advances is very rare with respect to the population of writers as a whole (out of 108 speculative fiction authors who took his survey, he doesn’t find a single 6-figure advance for first-time novels, suggesting that the real likelihood of that eventuality is significantly less than 1%).

So, I’m not so sure about the validity of Farland’s claims on this question. Certainly, many of us dream of striking it big, just so, but, at least at present, there still seems to be plenty of room on the “midlists”.

Farland later suggests that if we fail to achieve this blockbuster opener on our first novel, that all is not lost:

So your only option is to take your money and—quite probably—start over. Write another potential blockbuster under another name. Do it enough, and eventually you’ll get the push that you deserve.

This got me thinking about the topic of pseudonyms. It sounds like Farland is suggesting an ever-revolving door of pseudonyms until we find a novel that sticks in the blockbuster status. This made me reflect back to an interview author Jim C. Hines did with a writer who’s basically doing just that.  This made me wonder about the role of pseudonyms in an author’s career, especially as concerns myself, personally.  I write this blog under my real name, and I’ve commented before that I have a rather common name.  And I’ve wondered whether that will present a challenge for me in the future, when I try in earnest to break in.  So, I’ve considered the possibility of a pseudonym… And I’ve come full circle.

Several years ago, I was already considering this issue, and had picked out for myself a pseudonym.  But I was struggling with the issue.  Then, one friend asked why, rather than agonize over what to use as a pseudonym, why don’t I just use my real name.  That question rekindled in me the pride I had in my name.  Since then, I’d planned to use my real name as my writing name… and so that’s what you see here on this blog.

But when I consider the challenges inherent in trying to brand myself while using so common a name, I am forced to consider that a pseudonym might be a necessary tool in my writing arsenal.  (Though, in a bit of irony, the pseudonym I had picked out for myself turns out to be uncomfortably close to the name of another, established science fiction author.  So, back to the drawing board, as it were.)  And now I’m back to considering: if I must have a pseudonym, what will it be?

And if I do have a pseudonym, can I keep it open?  By that, I mean, must I necessarily keep it a secret (as the writer Benjamin Tate, the one interviewed by Jim Hines, is doing)?  Or can it be a known fact that “Mr. Nom-de-plume” is, in fact, me.  I wonder about this because, it seems to me, building an audience – and a platform – is no easy feat.  And to have to start from scratch every time I have to take a “new” name seems to me to be a terrible waste of the potential resource of an existing fan-base.  If you have a few fans, wouldn’t it be better to transfer that fandom to your new name?  And wouldn’t the easiest and cleanest way to do that be to say to them: “Hey, if you like my stuff, you might want to check out the stuff written as ‘Author X’ – my new nom-de-plume!”

Then, related to this, is another article I read, recently, on the subject of self-promotion, on the Writer’s Beware blog, which asks the question: can you start self-promoting and building your “platform” too soon?  That particular article suggests that, perhaps, starting to build your network and platform several years before the launch of your novel is, just maybe, too soon.  Which gave me pause.  At this time in my “career” I’m intending on focusing on short stories, because I know I don’t have time to devote to novel writing.  Consequently, I know it will be several years before I even finish writing a full novel draft.  Then, shopping it around, waiting for responses, and doing all the rest will mean years more before I’ll be a published novelist.

Have I started this blog too soon?  Do I stand something to lose by blogging now, when all I have to show for myself are a handful of mediocre-quality short stories?  Will potential readers happen upon me and, finding nothing exciting, give a collective “meh“, and move on with their lives?  It’s a legitimate question, and one that has me thinking.

Ultimately, though, I feel alright about this.  I’ve started this journey.  Heck, I started this journey years ago, long before the idea for this blog, or any other blog, entered into my mind.  And now that I’m here, I’m here.  And I’m going to keep going, trudging onward in the direction of my dream.

Happy writing.