Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jealousy, Part Two: On the Fairness! O the Fairness!

Last night, while grappling with software and cursing over a Freak Camcorder Accident for a v-log, I dashed off a post about jealousy and writers. And I’ve been seeing some interesting comments to the post, and I think what they mention is worth bringing up.

And basically, it is this: the thing about working hard to become a writer is that the amount of work you put into it rarely correlates to the amount of success that you have. Some folks work for 20 years and never get published, and some people dash off a manuscript in four months and sell it for six figures. And this strikes many as unfair. I even said that in a reply to a comment: “well, the business isn’t fair.”

But then I realized that I don’t really believe that. I just don’t think it’s fair in the traditional, ethical sense, where good people get to go to the front of the line and friendly dogs always find homes and good writing becomes a successful.

I do think, though, that in the most basic sense, publishing is very, very fair. The fairest thing out there. Because all publishing cares about is that you sell books. It doesn’t matter how long you took to write it, how well it’s written, what it’s about, if you’re a great person . . . publishing, as an over-arching being, just cares about how many copies it will sell. It’s not subjective, and that’s as fair as you can get, right?

I hear a lot of griping about celebrities writing books. They didn’t do the time! They can’t write! I bet someone else wrote it for them! But for me, this is the easiest formula to understand. Even if a memoir by the latest teen star isn’t my thing, I can guarantee you that it will be hundreds of thousands of other people’s thing. A lot of them will be people who don’t ordinarily pick up books. For a publisher, this is gold.

That’s fair.

I think a lot of unhappiness comes from a lack of self-awareness, as far as our writing goes. So many people want to write bestsellers, but, really, most books just won’t be. It has nothing to do with being well-written. There are loads of well-written books. Imagine how many books you like. Imagine how many books your sister likes. Imagine how many your father in law likes. Now imagine how many books you all three like.

That’s a bestseller. What are the odds?

And this really isn’t a negative thing, or a condemnation of books that aren’t bestsellers. I have this theory that most people’s favorite books never appear on the bestseller list (mine certainly don’t. Two of my favorites, KETURAH AND LORD DEATH and FIRE AND HEMLOCK, are so far from ever appearing on a bestseller list that is a little sad). The bestseller list is made up of books that a whole lot of people can LIKE, but they don’t have to LOVE them. Just like them enough to recommend them to their mom and their dentist. Well-written does not equal bestseller.

A lot of people are unhappy with the size of their debut deal or with their midlist career, plugging along selling a few hundred books instead of a few thousand, because they wanted to be a bestseller. I think you have to try to judge what you have in your hands. I love my first two faerie books. They’re precisely the sort of books I loved as a teen. I don’t think they’re bestsellers. I think they’re genre books with a limited appeal. Maybe not as limited as other fantasies, but still, the fantasy element is written in such a way that it will narrow the readership. And I’m okay with that.

So this all trickles down to aspiring writers and jealousy and all that. Really, my main hope is that before aspiring writers so willingly ascribe their fates to chance and luck and subjective things completely outside of their control, they’ll consider what is in their control, what is objective, and turn any negative feelings into kick-ass character development in chapter three.
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