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Are We Successful Yet?
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[This is the last of five entries in which I reflect a bit on Michael Allen’s long essay on randomness in the publishing industry, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. I might end up merely restating what he’d said, or misrepresenting some of it, so please read the essay itself.]

Mary and I set out to get a novel published. And we did. But we’re not rich and famous. Nor are we full-time novelists. So, did we succeed?

Here are the facts. Poisoned Pen Press has sent out into the world five beautifully produced books (with a sixth on the way) which have sold thousands of copies in both hardback and paperback. An independent can't get the same distribution as one of the publishing conglomerates and our sales figures would probably earn a mid-list author the boot. On the other hand, plenty of mid-listers would enjoy the starred reviews we've had in Publishers Weekly and Booklist and our handful of awards/nominations. Plus, we are in hundreds of libraries all over the country which is a wonderful thing all by itself. Would we have been better off being dropped by a larger publisher after our first two paperbacks went unnoticed and failed to sell in sufficient numbers? Hardly. And that is the fate, it seems, of most new mid-listers these days.

Did I mention we get paid? Not barrels but more than I would’ve expected from a small publisher. Mary and I are luckier than most in that for the past decade we've worked full time as self-employed writers (although, mostly, not writers of fiction) so the royalties from our mystery novels allow us to take stretches of time (albeit short) to do nothing but write other novels. Just as John D. MacDonald's “salvage expert” Travis McGee took his retirement in installments, I'm taking in installments my career as a full-time novelist.

Also, it is kind of a hoot sending a Byzantine eunuch willy-nilly out into the masses of the American book buying public. (Stupid and self-defeating perhaps, but a hoot...)

While I agree with Allen that the chance of making a living writing fiction is miniscule and largely a matter of luck, I think that the chance of succeeding, if you define success as legitimate publication which will garner a reasonable number of readers, is larger and a bit more controllable. I am not sure whether he would agree. Certainly, the fact that Mary and I have managed to get published proves nothing for we might just be lucky rats attributing our good fortune to our verminous virtues.

I look at it this way. Aiming to write a bestseller, or even a book that will earn you a living wage, is like buying a lottery ticket to win a million dollar jackpot. Your chances are so small that even buying multiple tickets, although mathematically increasing those chances, won't raise your odds to anything near a realistic possibility. In fact, in my experience, you’d have a better shot at the lottery. I’ve met two winners of multi-million dollar jackpots in the normal course of my life, but have never yet run into a bestselling author. (I keep urging Mary to try harder...) However, if your goal is not to win the lottery but to win $10 on a scratch-off ticket, then if you purchase enough tickets, you have a good chance of winning your $10. The odds against you are much less.

The writer’s task, like that of the professional gambler, is to get an edge, increase his or her chances. If you practice writing for longer and learn more than most would-be novelists then your odds become greater than theirs. Likewise, you can increase your chances by understanding the markets better and keeping a more watchful eye on them. Just persevering gives you an edge. How many authors complete a single novel and then spend the rest of their lives waiting to be struck by Hollywood lightning? How many refuse to do their homework? You have a lot more tickets than they do.

And there are a lot of legitimate independent publishers out there. Are there enough publishers, and few enough diligent writers, that it might be possible to give yourself, over the course of years, a better than even chance of finally succeeding? That I don't know. (Although I am sure it is not possible to guarantee success).

Obviously, I may simply be falling into the very trap Allen is warning us about -- attributing what success we’ve had to our own efforts and palming off our failure to rise any higher to the randomness of the industry. In brief, self-serving twaddle.

I do know that I agree with Michael Allen’s advice (as I understand it) to make sure you’re writing something you want to write and enjoying it. Even if you were of a mercenary disposition, throwing away the integrity of your writing and the pleasure you might get from writing, in order to hit the Big Time, isn’t worth it. The chances of that happening are just too remote.

To bring this saga to its conclusion -- I feel that Mary and I have succeeded and I don't feel all that lucky.

Or should I just say...squeak?

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