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Go Big or Go Home?

June 2, 2010

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.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2010 8:26 am

    Hi! I would stick with your own name. Your work is what people will read. The fan base will collect behind your name. And building a fan base is hard enough these days, so I don’t understand why anyone would want to make that process more complicated by adding to confusion to the author’s name.

    And no, I do not believe you can begin building your following too soon. In today’s publishing reality, the first thing an agent’s office does upon receiving a query letter is Google the writer. If nothing shows up, the odds of that writer receiving a rejection post card are about 99.9%. Traditional publishing houses are consolidating, cutting staff, and taking on fewer and fewer titles each year. If an unknown writer wants to stand a chance, the readership following/platform/whatever you want to call it needs to be established long before the book is finished.

    If you have a minute to visit my blog, I invite you to read the Blog Launch posting on November 4, 2009. There’s a lot of information in that post that will be eye-opening for you.

    Meanwhile, hang in there and keep writing. Hope we’ll stay in touch.

    • June 2, 2010 12:42 pm

      I agree, I’m not sure it’s possible to start blogging “too early”. It might, rather, be possible to start promising or teasing a novel project too early… (In your case, that doesn’t seem to be the case, since it’s available for those who’d like to read it.) For me, since I don’t intend to take the “self-publish first” route, I’ll have to be more careful. But for the blog – well, I’m enjoying it, so that’s the most important part, for now.

      As for a nom-de-plume… well… I hope things will work out that simply for me, but ultimately it will be the advice of a publisher or agent that will make a difference in that regard.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I have, in fact, already checked out that post on your blog.

  2. June 2, 2010 11:08 am

    I am totally at sea about all of this and in some ways, really, it smacks so much of something I can’t get my head round. Blockbusters and bestsellers: they may sell plenty, but is it art?
    I’m doing some rather challenging reading and thinking at the moment and I am beginning to think that the whole paradigm of publishing is about tidying the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

    • June 2, 2010 2:13 pm

      I disagree that the whole paradigm of publishing is on a crash-course for iceberg city, as it were. Certainly, the traditional publishing model faces some significant challenges and hurdles in the coming decade – that’s very clear. (Howbeit, traditional publishing has been facing significant challenges and hurdles, by all accounts I’ve read, for the past several decades as well.) Some of those challenges, though, will force publishing to evolve, but not to sink inexorably beneath the waves. Because there will always be some demand for books, and the question becomes: how to best meet that demand, given the changing climate in the publishing world.

      I’ll also take a stab at answering your question: is it art? Yes. Although, for any art, there are varying standards of quality and meaning. But pop-art is, nevertheless, art, and by virtue of popularity (i.e. bestsellerdom), I do not think that a work is necessarily degraded. Would we be more apt to consider it art if it were unpopular?

      Tied up with this, I think, are the motivations of the “artist” – in this case, the author. For those of us who write, we are typically concerned with the creation of a thing of beauty: a story that has real merit on some level. Writers exist at all levels, though, from those who aspire to high art to those who aspire only to express themselves creatively. But I think it would be dishonest for most of us to say that, at some level, we don’t crave both the popularity and the financial freedom that comes with writing a bestseller. (I’ll allow that there are those pure idealists who would be appalled at the idea of writing a bestseller, but I suspect they are few.) And I don’t think it demeans the writer to desire to be able to make a living by their art and craft. Most of us, on the other hand, are probably yet content just to write, and to have some few who read what we write. We do, after all, write for the joy of writing. But if we could be fabulously wealthy just doing what we do… then why would we not take that opportunity?

      Of course, the question is largely academic, in a sense – most of us will not write something that achieves that level of notoriety or popularity, and for many reasons having nothing to do with our skill in writing nor the value of what we have to say.

  3. June 2, 2010 12:29 pm

    About pseudonyms, I think you should stick to your name if you’re proud of it. I did a Google search just to see how common it is, and your blog is already up to the 2nd spot in the rankings. That means your platform is already being built up. I don’t think it’s too early to start. Blogs change and evolve as you do. It’s ok if you don’t have a novel to promote. I think the biggest advantage to starting now, is meeting like minded people that are also going through the same things, and it takes a while for a blog to mature, to hit it’s stride.

    TS Bazelli is not my legal name, but I don’t consider it a pseudonym, as Bazelli would be my married name if I took it (I still might one day). The T S is.. well.. I get lazy typing up the whole thing LOL. I thought it would be easier for my website address, and easier to remember.

    • June 2, 2010 2:19 pm

      Yeah, I Google myself from time to time, and I’ve been proud to watch my blog’s ranking rise from so deep in the search ranking there wasn’t a meaningful number to describe it all the way to the second spot. (Although, I do feel bad for kicking down another Stephen Watkins who has apparently been struggling to find his abducted children.)

      I agree that one of the biggest advantages to blogging now is the community development – generating contacts with others who are likely to break in and influence the genre writing community in the future. That’s been a great thing, so far. I’ve read that, in the past, groups of writers often break in together in cohorts (or at least that’s apparently been true of genre writers). So… Now’s definitely a good time to start identifying my cohort!

      And, at last, the mystery of nom-de-plume of T.S. Bazelli is revealed! It definitely rings to my ears, and sounds like a highly marketable name for your future endeavors.

  4. June 2, 2010 9:23 pm

    About building an early fanbase: I hope that by the time my Grand Novel is ready to be published, then I can just put up on my blog, “Hey yall, I’m publishing a book!” And zocko, an instant fifty-thousad+ readers are clawing to get into Borders Bookstores—internationally—to grab my superly awesome novel! YAAAAHHH!!!!

    However, perhaps I’m too enthusiastic. Ahem.

    Yay for Google! Hopefully by the time my Grand Novel is ready to be published, J. P. Cabit’s blog will come up as hit #1. (Fortunately, there are VERY few “Cabits,” on Google page one in the first place…).

    Yes, T S Bazelli is a marketable name like Stephen said. I guess the double-initial-last-name combo is popular amongst us successful writers, lol 🙂

    -j.p.

    • June 3, 2010 10:34 am

      I’m not quite so optimistic as that – although I’m optimistic that in time my work will reach the audience that will find the most value in it.

      Indeed, “J. P. Cabit” seems to have a similar marketability to “T. S. Bazelli”. I think part of that is the sound of the plosives in both names. They give the names a memorable sound and a particular rhythm. Unfortunately my two names begin with a sibilant and a semi-vowel, respectively (although the sibilant hasn’t been terribly burdensome for the venerable Mr. King) – overall, those are weaker sounds, and less rhythmic and lyrical.

      Yes, besides the relative commonness of my name, I’m actually concerned about the strength of the consonants and the lyrical qualities (or lack thereof) of my name…

      Still, overall, “Stephen Watkins” doesn’t sound that bad, does it?

      • June 3, 2010 10:37 am

        “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

      • June 3, 2010 10:49 am

        ‘Tis true, of course.

      • June 3, 2010 10:53 am

        I think “Stephen Watkins” sounds great and very marketable. And that’s who you are, so embrace your true identity. What matters ultimately is the writing. Stick with your own name and pour all of this name-searching time and energy into creating the best quality product you can possibly write. In the end, if readers love what you write, they’ll follow you even if your name is Joe Schmoe.

      • June 4, 2010 8:36 am

        Thanks for the encouragement!

      • June 3, 2010 4:52 pm

        Stephen Watkins sounds just fine to me. Easy to remember and not difficult to pronounce 🙂

      • June 4, 2010 8:38 am

        Oh, you’d be surprised… I think the worst I ever got was a substitute teacher sometime in either high school or undergrad calling for a “Stephanie Watson”. There was no Stephanie Watson… 😦

      • June 3, 2010 5:01 pm

        I think Joe Schmo is actually a genius pseudonym. 🙂 Ditto with the others, Stephen Watkins is memorable and seems to be the kind of name that would be sprawled across the cover of a three-hundred page NYTIMES bestseller!

      • June 4, 2010 8:36 am

        See, that’s how I always imagine it 😉

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