Yes, it’s simple math. The rich get richer and the poor remain poor. Economics? Nah. Publishing and sales.
People publishing their first books are schooled in this hard, Adam Smith-like fact of life more than any other. Their novels, short story collections, poetry collections, or collected essays may be good. They may even be very good. But they aren’t going to sell much outside the demographic known as family and friends comma very comma very close.
- A first published book is like a first drunk. It goes to your head. Quickly. You feel dizzy with unreasonable delight. Your delusions become grandeur. Just as you once, as an adolescent, assumed you might be Death’s exception (after all, this is me we’re talking!), you assume that somehow, someway, your baby, your beautiful book will find a way to top the charts. Or at least assault them. Or at least give them a good scare.
- You don’t realize how crowded this field is. The competition is akin to New York City’s population. There are that many you’s out there. And none of them are saying, “Here’s looking at you and your beautiful work, kid.” Nope. They’re just walking on by, heads forward, hearts pumping me, myself, and I just as yours does.
- Marketing is easier said than done. Even if you make it a full-time job. Really.
- Internet “friends” (or “followers”) will pledge like furniture polish, but very few will buy. Fewer still will read. And fewer still will write a review. Investing in them is like chasing last year’s hot stock. Celebrate the few who come through! Don’t have such high expectations. Imagine if you yourself bought and read every “friend’s” or “follower’s” work (especially if you have thousands, you “popular” person, you). Repeat after me: “Adam Smith, Adam Smith, Adam Smith.”
- As you watch your friends buying and reading established names like Stephen King, Alice Munro, and Billy Collins (and not you, you, or you), don’t hold it against them. Established names have earned their establishment through talent or moxie or something Rubik’s cube-like you haven’t figured out yet. Even if those names are living on past reputations, they’ve earned as much. If it bothers you that the rich get richer, maybe it’s because you’re not one of them. Smile about that.
- Your writing may be better than the rich’s writing. Chances are, it’s not. But it may be. And if it is, you only have time and discipline and work ahead of you. Life may eventually reward you, making you rich in publication and sales. Or the frustration of posthumous riches may visit upon you. Or, most likely, your talent may go hiding with you to the grave. Prepare for that contingency. Celebrate quietly as you write wonderfully. Be appreciated and famous to yourself. Not everyone’s work earns a fair hearing. Life is the ultimate kangaroo court.
- Resentment and hard feelings are detrimental. Work on. Create positive sweat. Believe that talent will out and riches will someday be yours. Or, if that sounds way too capitalistic, focus on art for art’s sake. Creative riches are capital, too, earning interest–yours, if no one else’s.
Keep on keeping on, fellow writers! Art and economics may make strange bedfellows, but four feet are sticking out from under the sheets, so live with it and carry on!