The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



Writing fiction isn't nearly as lucrative as most people seem to think. People look at Stephen King and John Grisham, and they say, "Heck, that looks like a pretty cushy life," and they forget the thousands of novelists and short story authors who live at the bottom of the pyramid, earning too little to support themselves and so maintaining day jobs to keep the wolves at bay.

For some of these people, writing is simply a hobby, and they're delighted to make a little beer money doing something they'd probably do for free anyway. I envy these people, because for the most part they're satisfied with their lives, or at least with the state of their writing careers.

For others, though, probably for most working writers, there is the hope, often very unrealistic, that they will "break out" and start earning serious money. In this context, "serious money" means anything over a lower-middle-class income of about twenty- five thousand dollars a year, which is a lot of money to a writer. The typical novelist in the 1990's pulls in a third to half that much, and many earn even less, especially romance authors, who can clear as little as a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars per book. Short fiction earns still less, and those whose talents lead them in that direction have a tough road indeed. Full-time authorship is a mirage to these people, a dream that may keep them moving ahead, but which always withdraws as they approach it.

Of course, some new authors, a very tiny fraction of the whole, catch the eye of a publisher, reviewer, awards committee or bestseller list, and for whatever reason are catapaulted to instant fame with their first or second novel. Sometimes it happens because the writing is really that good, but often it's simply a statistical fluke, or coincidental overlap of subject matter and current events, or a marketing push summoned up by the obscure, voodoo logic publishers use. Every author knows a few people that this has happened to; it's not really that uncommon. But it's far from usual, and certainly nothing any of us has a right to expect.

And there's yet another group of writers: those who have a decent shot at a decent career, if the fates are kind. If an author's first few books maybe sell better than average, or better than expectation, if they maybe earn a little critical acclaim and word-of-mouth advertising, doors are opened. More money, more enthusiasm on the part of the publishers... If it happens consistently, if each book does a little better than the one before it, the road will eventually lead to that auctorial holy grail: the middle-class income. The full-time writing job. For some, it may even lead to fortune and household fame, although this is relatively rare in science fiction. Especially the fortune part.

So far, this is the category I've been in. No false modesty here, and no false hopes; if things keep going like they've been going, if I keep getting the reviews and speaking invitations and steadily increasing sales that I've been getting, I have a serious shot at dropping my day job and writing full time, without going blind and broke and crazy and dead, and without putting my family in the poor house. Potential family, that is, because while Cathy and I are planning children, we both agree this is not the year to start. Later, when she's out of school, and when my success or lack thereof has become more apparent. Two years, we're thinking, maybe three.

The problem is, a lot can happen to derail that train to Successville. I or someone I rely on could fall victim to illness or bankruptcy or disaster, to a sudden loss of faith, to a nervous breakdown. Or maybe the words will simply dry up and I'll become a non-writer, like most of the rest of the world. Or maybe I'm just not that good after all. It happens. All of these things happen to people, all the time.

Fortunately, certain hedges are possible. The prepared man is ready for his luck, good or bad, when it comes, and so insurance of a sort is available, for those willing and able to take the steps. First: work hard. Keep your nose to the grindstone, writing and writing and writing on those books. Not turning out crap, of course, but serious book-a-year authors tend on average to be a lot more successful than their slower cousins. If you can keep the pace up despite the full-time job, you do it. Also, a continued devotion to short fiction can keep both your name and your skills fresh, so the occasional novelette or short story is highly recommended.

Second: work smart. Know when to stick to your guns, and when to bend to external forces. People do get famous writing derivative crap, but most famous people get that way by bringing something unique and irreplaceable to the field. On the other hand, not many people get published by acting like inflexible egotistical, know-it-all jerks. A smart author knows how and when to take advice.

Third: promote your own work. This is really important, because especially in the early stages of a writing career, the publishers have no real budget for promotion, no real enthusiasm for it, and nobody whose job it is to see that your particular book does well. Marketing departments back only their darling cash-cows, and treat the rest of the list with a kind of scattergun mentality; some of the books will hit the target, some will not, and it's really no big deal which ones are which. Agents sell rights and negotiate contracts, but don't normally do any actual marketing. Publicists... well, I don't know. There are good ones out there, I'm sure, but the ones that work for the publishers have bigger fish to fry, and the freelance ones cost more money than most authors have to spend. This leaves, to a first approximation, only ourselves to handle the promotion.

Some authors seem to feel this is beneath their dignity, even that it's some sort of sin. But laboring in obscurity is beneath my dignity, and I think the archetypal Wise Author leans more in my direction than the other, especially when he's starting out. So, he gets friendly with his local bookstores and writers' organizations, and travels frequently to conventions and conferences in other cities. He isn't shy about hobnobbing with his fellow publishing professionals, and isn't afraid to spend money on things like bookmarks and business cards and perhaps even the occasional magazine ad. Resources are finite, though, especially if the writing income is the only surplus revenue available for the task, and writing time is the only time available for sacrifice. As with COCO programming, a certain cunning is required: where can a little bit of effort be applied to do the most good?

Which brings me again to the present. My new publisher released my third novel in hardcover four weeks ago, and my fourth novel, which for various reasons is a paperback from the publisher of my first two books, comes out "next month," which is actually publisherese for "this month," meaning the book is available now. My short fiction track record and my first two novels have earned me some level of name recognition within the SF field, and my sales figures, while not spectacular, have been respectable enough that those first two books are still in print. So that's four whole books available at the same time, and I've learned enough to know this is an unusual and special and highly exploitable thing for an author as young as myself.

So the self-promoter in me says it's a turning point. For the past several years I've been throwing 110% of my energy at writing hard and fast and (I hope) well, and now I sense it's time to start shifting my focus, to take a breath and change direction and throw that same level of energy at the promotion problem for a while. Time, I think, for a major signing tour. My publishers both heartily agree, particularly since I'll be paying for it myself. There was talk for a while of Tor/St. Martin's sharing some of the expenses, but since I turned down their best-and-final on my next book and took it instead to Del Rey, that possibility kind of dried up.

The primary news venue for the SF, Fantasy, and Horror publishing world is a magazine called LOCUS, and my evil plan is to hit as many as possible of the stores that feed into the LOCUS bestseller list. You never know exactly which stores they're going to poll, but I've studied the list, and studied my database of bookstores, and concluded I'll probably hit about 25% of the pollees, which sounds like a lot. It should definitely nudge up my position on the list, which should bring me to the attention of a greater number of book chain SF buyers and managers, which should get more copies of both books into the chain stores, which in turn should cause more copies to be sold, and more readers snared. And when that third novel comes out in paperback, a year or two from now, it should certainly benefit from this inflated performance on the part of the hardcover, meaning that the effects of what I'm doing right now will ripple down through at least the next couple of years. More, if those new readers like what they see.

It's the oldest principle of engineering: leverage. Small forces producing large results. With a long enough lever and a place to stand, you can move the world, or so the theory goes. You also have to be sure the lever doesn't break.

This is the first and last time I'm ever going to do this. If this huge effort, this one-man invasion of the bookstores of the American west, can't bump me high enough on the pyramid that I can consider quitting the day job, I'm not sure anything ever will. Cathy and I have agreed that if Successville is not in sight by the time MURDER IN THE SOLID STATE hits paperback, I will back off, and accept my lot in life as a "hobbyist" author. It will be easier in a lot of ways, like I'll have most of my evenings and weekends back. On the other hand, if things take off enough that I can write full time, I won't need to go on tour again, and if the publishers want to send me for their own capitalistic reasons, well, they can jolly well pay for it themselves. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: This has in fact occurred)


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