Friday, April 4, 2014

Writing Tribulations

Like many others, I read the Dragonlance novels back in the day and as a spotty gamer teen I enjoyed them. For that matter, they retain a guilty pleasure sort of reread status even now, though I doubt it would occur to me to buy them new these days. And thus my confusion over an article I came across recently which reported on an interview with Tracy Hickman in which he lamented the state of the industry.[1]

I am a bit saddened to hear that Tracy Hickman is finding it ever more difficult to make a living as a writer, but I have to wonder if the problem is really the disappearing bookstores and the market. 

There certainly are both new- and old-guard fantasy and science fiction writers who seem able to make a living.  And there are some, like Robert Jordan[2], came to their peak after Hickman was practically invisible on the shelves and far surpassed him in popularity writing much the same kind of fiction.  While I doubt Jordan ever rode around town in a gold-plated Humvee drinking champagne and snorting coke[3], my impression is that he made a decent living.  

Here's the thing: Hickman has had some very interesting ideas over the years, particularly when he was working with Margaret Weis[4], and while some of the early work was rough around the edges in my opinion I know he was working under odd conditions, particularly with the TSR stuff [5], and I think that later he caught his stride and produced some pretty good work. 

Pretty good, though. Not great.  Not for my tastes anyway - I know there are people who live and breathe his worlds.

My impression of Hickman is that he's firmly a pulp fantasy author, though a better than average pulp fantasy author.  And there's nothing wrong with that at all - full disclosure: I love pulp - but:

If that's your market, then you have to understand two very important things:

Thing the First:
Tastes shift, and they shift fairly quickly in pulp.  Take a look at the pulp (whether it be fantasy, SF, crime, or what have you) being produced now vs what was being written in the 50s, and the 60s, and the 70s, and the 80s.  
Every decade seems to have its own distinctive flavour. Unless you really are one of the greats of the era such as Robert E Howard[6] it's vanishingly unlikely that your work will enjoy steady sales.  In other words, it's not that readers can't find his older books - it's that marketers feel can't sell them.  There's a very limited nostalgia value market after all.  

To make it in pulp, you need to shift what you're writing very quickly to match what is in vogue.  A sad truth, but important, and an explanation for why he needs to write so much: if the older books aren't selling, you need new books that match the modern market to take its place.  Even the favoured genre of pulp customers changes over time, after all [7] - but very little of what he writes isn't fantasy, so he's limited to whatever the current fashion for fantasy pulp is.

Thing the Second:
The way the market works is different now than it was when he started in with Dragonlance.  Back then, pulp paperbacks where everywhere in book stores, drug stores, airports, supermarkets etc. They were in your face and easy to find. 

In the e-book era (which to his credit he seems to have embraced) you're not as visible. With so many authors, booksellers can't have everyone on the shelves.  And anyway, there's more profit to be had selling something else in that space for any shop that isn't specifically a bookstore.  

There are lots of great marketing opportunities available to drive people to your books and I don't see him doing any of them other than getting out to fan events.  Where are his stories in podcasts? Where are the audiobooks? Where are his appearances on high profile webcasts such as with Wil Wheaton and his gang?  Self promotion is critical now that books aren't automatically thrust into readers' hands and you have to compete with Amazon's whole library.

I'm sad that such a long contributor to the genre feels it's getting harder for him to make a living, but to be blunt I think the message he offered in this interview [8] is less "it's hard to be a writer and getting harder" but more this one:

Writers can no longer rely on the big publishing houses and the basic dynamics of mass-market retail to put their names and their books in front of potential buyers.  Writers need to actively cultivate their public personas and court their readers, keeping themselves always on the edge of memory.

Is this worse than in the past?

In some ways, maybe - the reduced involvement of the publishers (or rather the reduced impact) is certainly unfortunate for a certain type of personality, and that personality seems disproportionately represented in writing. [9]  But in other ways, I think it's positive.  

It has opened the door to a wider range of writers, which certainly makes competition fierce, but honestly speaking the proportion of people who are really writing well is just the same as it was - it just means that now those who want to self-publish have options beyond the PR machinery of the big publishers to draw on.  And since self-promotion is such a major aspect of the market these days, there's more opportunity for even middle-range writers to cultivate a population of loyal readers.

In the article, Hickman is quoted as saying that he has 6 million followers and yet has to struggle to write enough to keep afloat.  I think he misunderstands the numbers though: he has 6 million readers, I'm sure.  But to have followers, you have to cultivate them.  

Perhaps if he were to spend a bit more time marketing himself and cultivating a rich public persona he could generate a smaller but more rewarding community of followers who would buy more of his books and actively promote him to their friends.

Or maybe he's been misrepresented and in fact things aren't as rough as this article makes it seem - but even so, thinking about the message that has been put in his mouth is an interesting study for an aspiring writer:

Is it really possible to just write something and rely on interest to sell it?

For that matter, was it ever possible?


1. Noted that one of the people actually present for the session actually commented on the article that it presents Tracey's comments as being more pessimistic than it seemed at the time.

2. The Robert Jordan of Wheel of Time fame. Sadly, he passed away in 2007 before completing this epic series.

3. Being more inclined to smoke a pipe and take communion multiple times a week.

4. Which appears to have been most of the time.

5. Very tight deadlines and huge volumes.  Some reports say that they put together as many as 30 novels in one year, though obviously not all of them were published on that schedule.

6. Think about it: how many authors also popular during Howard's peak are common names in the pulp genres?

7. My impression right now is that horror is the main one, with sci fi making a strong come back at the moment.  I'm not seeing much fantasy, but if anyone knows of some good fantasy pulp authors please don't hesitate!

8. As noted, it may not be quite an accurate representation of what he meant to say...

9. I suspect if I tried to make my living writing I'd be living in a cardboard box within a week.

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