The Reason I Will Never be Wildly Famous
Written while listening to Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin
Know what’s my least favorite phrase in the whole world? Since you’re my captive audience, you get to hear. This is my least favorite set of words to hear:
I have this great idea for a book [insert description of book here, for instance “it’s a story set on a ship making the cross to the Colonies in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and, here’s the clever bit, there’s a werewolf on the ship]
That’s not the part I hate.
Here’s the part I hate:
But…but what? I always think.
I think it, and I never ask it, because I know what.
The numbers are stacked against writers.
That’s what. It’s stupid, it’s annoying, and, on a philosophic level, it’s as ironic as saying, “those fish need to learn to swim.” I’ll unpack that some other time. For the moment, suffice it to say that the mathematical facts currently preventing tens of thousands of good books from ever finding an audience are about as mind-numbing as a the experience of literally turning your skull into a freezer.
Because the mathematical facts are these…
In the U.S., five major publishers control ninety percent of a market spanning a population that includes all English-speaking apes you can imagine. In order to turn a profit, those five major publishers need to churn out around 25,000 books every month in order to turn a profit. That’s 25,000 different titles, not individual copies of five or six different books. And that number would be fine, if those 25,000 different titles were usefully distributed among the four hundred million English speakers in a way that was easy to peruse or browse so that you can find what you want. The fact is that does not happen. Exactly in the same way that Huffington Post or Buzzfeed churns out pointless content — thousands of empty pieces of content a second — these five major publishers churn out 25,000 books every month without any significant market management. They just slag them onto the world and say, here, try ALL of this. Which would be okay, if the key element in the book production industry weren’t writers, who are notoriously terrible at advertising and marketing.
And the reason this business plan works for those five major publishers is because one in a hundred of those individual titles make it big. Printing is so cheap, relatively speaking, that if they make money off of 250 out of 25,000 books, then they can continue to just churn, churn, and churn their presses, flooding the market, and degrading the value of every individual book to a point where all we see is stacks and stacks of empty, easily repeatable paperbacks, created by some anonymous machine.
Which ends up devaluing a lot of writers. We’ll be some of the first to tell you, in our timid, frontin’ like we ain’t hurtin’ tone of voice, that our books are part of ourselves. Those 25,000 titles a month, churning out of the publishing mills of the English-speaking world, are 25,000 pieces of souls. Because of a flooded market, their value has experienced such wild deflation that they’ve made a complete transformation out of humanity and into statistics.
And that’s just the numbers for the finished product. The other numbers, the “vetting” numbers that, as writers, we need to cope with just to get to that churn, those are a little more difficult to procure. I know some of them.
Our first gatekeepers into the publishing industry:
I happen to know of a literary agent who’s considered respectable in her field. She receives 50,000 manuscripts every year from aspiring professional writers. Of those 50,000, she accepts maybe six. Given her reputation, those six enter that churn of 25,000 a month.
If you do that math, that means she pushes one half of a book into the churn monthly, which, if her numbers are fairly representative — and I’m given to understand they are — means she’s one of 50,000 literary agents pushing books into that churn. 50,000 literary agents, all processing 50,000 prospective manuscripts every year, is 25,000,000 aspiring writers every year. 300,000 of them get published. 3,000 of them make a living at it.
25,000,000 writers, shopping around a piece of their soul, and trying to make some money off of it.
Not everyone who’s got a book in mind has broken those numbers down for themselves. Probably wise. Whether they do or not, we all have an instinct that the numbers are something like that.
And so they say… I have an idea for a book…but…
Here’s the thing…
There is a major flaw in this system.
That flaw boils to one ratio:
One to eighty million.
That’s 1 to 80,000,000.
Because if there are only five major U.S. publishers, and if their global market is four hundred million — which, roughly, is the case — then that means each of those major publishers is attempting to manage a market of eighty million people.
Which would be fine, if people weren’t all fucking different from each other.
Breaking down the numbers above a little further, each of the five major publishers churns out 5,000 titles every month which they distribute among the market of eighty million they command. Which would be fine, if any of these five major publishers put sufficient work into marketing each of those 5,000 titles to make any of the books successful.
And that leads me to my one piece of audience interaction: Please send me a link to ALL of the marketing materials for books that you have ever encountered. Only one rule: if the marketing material is either a) the fact that the book got made into a movie, or b) produced or overseen by the writer of the book, then it is immediately disqualified from this game.
You will find almost none. Publishing houses do not, usually, put much money into advertising for books. Advertising is expensive. Books are not. It’s way cheaper to publish 5,000 books a month than it is to advertise for even a hundred of them. And so they publish 5,000 books a month, just to play the odds.
And the odds work in their favor. The odds always work in favor of content mongers. If you decide to adopt a model where the only most significant advertising you utilize is corporate brand visibility — which is what they’re doing — then you’re banking on one percent of your content making money. If you churn out enough content, then that one percent gets large enough to make you a lot of money.
Which is why your read-to-follower ratio is depressing, and why you’re depressed about your chances of landing your book deal, and why you will probably never read my friend Abi’s horror novel about an Inquisition era ship on its way to the new world with — here’s the twist — a werewolf on board, slowly infecting the whole crew.
Believe me, it’s the most amazing book you’ll probably never read.
Which is all really fucking stupid.
So I can twist the annoying word around. It’s my right and my own power to do it.
I’m savoring this for a second…okay. Moving on.
But, there is an alternative.
I know that there is because I’ve watched other people take this alternative route in other, more flashy industries. They don’t do it much, because we’re all made nervous by it.
(Can you do that? We’re always going to ask.)
It’s not comfortable. It’s not common. It does not fit anywhere in our understanding of how the system works. But if you think hard about it, you have seen it working in farmers markets and street fairs since the first time you ever heard of such things, and I’m only going to propose a larger version of a similar model.
That said, here is one major example I’m going to use, because it is the one major example I have in mind:
Amanda Palmer, performance artist and musician peculiar
Recently performed a concert at Coney Island.
THE DRESDEN DOLLS LIVE @ CONEY ISLAND - watch the WHOLE SHOW. | Amanda Palmer on Patreon
Official Post from Amanda Palmer: (THIS IS AN OFFICIAL THING! and public post, with a thanks to all the patrons...)HOLA…
And she funded it by asking her fans to pay her. Not by working with a studio or publisher or venue or by getting funding from any corporate entity at all. She built up a fan base, and she operates through a website called Patreon to fund her career.
Basically, what she’s doing, is she’s decided to be a street performer. She’s performing an art form that she loves, and she’s going directly to people to ask them to give her money for doing it.
She’s doing exactly what a street performer does, but she’s got the ever-loving balls to ask thousands of people to support her doing it.
Which is exactly like craftsmen who set up booths at street fairs or farmer’s markets.
Or, in a related vein of thought, exactly the opposite of what writers are doing right now. (See numbers above.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking…
“Oliver,” you’re thinking, “you have no idea what I’m thinking, so you can shut the fuck up.”
And you’re right about that.
If you react in a similar way to me to this train of thought, though, then you react like this:
“You’re suggesting that I should try to advertise for myself and ask for money for my writing, aren’t you?”
“Hell no!” I react further. “That means talking to people. And fuck that.”
This is the part where I actually explain why I will never be famous. It’s not all the numbers up there, as depressing as they are. It has to do with how much I want to help with the success of other people.
Because I recognize that the concept of asking strangers for money doesn’t appeal to most personalities.
So this is why I will never be famous…
You see…I really want to read that book by my friend Abi, about the werewolves on the ship during the Spanish Inquisition. And I’m using her book as an example, because it’s one of the first ones I can think of, not the only one I can think of. I can think of a lot of books that I want to read that I’m afraid I’ll never see. There are many examples.
And I don’t just want to read them. I want to hold the hard back copy, cherish it for its cover art, and enjoy it with a pot of tea.
I don’t want these books simply written.
I want these books in the world, shared around how they deserve, and I want their writers to be making decent enough money so that I can hope for the sequels, spin-offs, or the disappointment and subsequent excitement of a books set in new and different worlds.
I don’t even care if these friends get famous or if their books get made into movies or whatever. I just want them to make enough off their writing so that they can write full time.
I want that for them, but more importantly I want that for me, because I’m tired of hearing about these amazing stories and never getting to read them. It’s annoying.
Unfortunately, all of those oppressive-as-a-caul numbers up there, in addition to the basic mathematics of survival that I haven’t even covered, are interfering with my ability to read these amazing and currently, inconveniently, nonexistent books.
The friends I have, and the new acquaintances I’ve made, who have stories and aren’t making money off them are all intelligent and practical people. They’re all excellent writers, probably better and more driven about it than I will ever be, but they also suffer from two character traits that, as far as I’m concerned, are absolute blessings. But blessings in a way that will kill every single one of these books.
Those two character traits I mean are these:
- They’ve all got enough common sense to realize that they can work for a living and not die, and
- They’re all, or mostly, the unassuming writer type who isn’t likely to pull an Amanda Palmer and ask a few thousand people to give them money.
I love that they have common sense and that they’re the unassuming writer type.
But, by hell and all the profane, the mathematics set against them is killing any chance I’ll ever have to read that book about a werewolf on a ship to the New World during the Spanish Inquisition.
And I want to read that book!
I will never change anyone else.
I’ve learned that in my years of life. People are how they are, and I want them to be that way. They’re amazing people, and I’m glad to know them.
As much as I’d like my friend Abi, and all the many dozens of writers I know personally to spontaneously decide to pull an Amanda Palmer and drop everything and ask the world to pay them, as much as I’d love for that to happen, it won’t. They’d have to change. I don’t want them to change. I want them to be who they are so they can write the stories they have so I can read those stories.
No. They’re the right people already.
I could never change them to convince them that they need to pull an Amanda Palmer and change their world.
I have no control over anyone but myself.
Therefore, in spite of every instinct for self-preservation and calmness that’s built into my receding daisy type personality, I decided several years ago that if they couldn’t be famous by themselves, then I needed to get famous first.
I’ll rephrase that because it sounds weird.
I can’t force anyone else to drop all their common sense and change their shy personalities and become full time writers. No matter how much I’d like to, I can’t force anyone else to change their lives to make it so that they can achieve that. And, lord, how I want to. I want to convince Abi to finish writing that novel. I want to know about that Spanish Inquisition werewolf.
I can’t force her, or anyone else, to do anything.
I only have any influence over what I do.
And even though it sounds terrifying and unpleasant — outdoors…and talking to people? ew — I can forge my own inroads towards fame.
So, because I want that comfy chair with a pot of tea and my hot-off-the-press hardback of A Spanish Lycanthrope’s Tale (she hasn’t titled it yet, which is why this title sounds dumb because it’s one I’ve just made up), because I want that, I’m expanding my social faceprint.
Because if I can achieve some fame, any appreciable amount of it, then, if I’m cunning — and that’s one thing about myself I’m convinced of for sure is my cunning — , if I’m cunning, I can create opportunities for Abi.
And for Caitlyn,, and for Classical Sass, and Courtney, and Tom, and Amy, and Jay, and Heath, and Neil, and Wil, and Joe, and Zac, and every other writer I meet that I haven’t here mentioned. You know who you are. We’re getting to know each other, and it is pleasant.
(Yes, I know that many of you that I’ve named are already more famous and successful than I am, but we can always use more opportunities.)
No, the reason I’m never going to be wildly famous is…as soon as I have any modicum of fame of my own, I want to bend every mote of it into opening as many doors for them as I can. I want to help all the writers with the numbers slated against them who are working on things that I really, really want to read.
I will never be wildly famous because, as soon as I start having any major opportunities for advancing my fame, I’ll probably start sabotaging my opportunities in order to advance Abi’s career.
Starting with her, because I’ve known her for longest.
The numbers I outlined above are depressing numbers
And that is mainly because they are numbers that are managed, in today’s market, by entities that are attempting to profit by you. You are a source of product, and their consumers are statistics. In the current system it’s all anonymous, scary numbers.
Because, to publishers, making money is purely a numbers game. Plug in X amount of material, spread it arbitrarily to Y amount of places, and you will get Z profit. By the numbers.
Which feels really fucking weird to me.
We’re talking books.
Books are parts of souls. Books are humanity in print.
As the system currently works, we ask publishers to represent our interests in the book-making system. But they aren’t behaving as if they’re interested in representing our interests.
So I say we chuck ’em.
Don’t need publishers. For as long as we rely on publishers for our books, writers are product and consumers are statistics. When we writers take the market into our own hands, we become creators again, and those four hundred million possible consumers become our potential client base, and all of us become human again.
No, we don’t need the major publishing houses.
Know what we need? Proper coaching and an introduction at the right party. We need to know how to “book” well, and we need good advertising. Big publishing houses, as a technology, are obsolete. The word “publish” means “to make public.” Part of the reason that publishers are crap at advertising is because they’re job is to take the private thing and make it a public thing. Printing and distribution. They had a corner on those markets, but the markets have changed. None of the five dominant publishing houses are the only good avenues for printing and distribution anymore.
Can you tell I’ve thought a lot about this?
I would like to ask you to do something.
If you are a writer and you want to make a living at it but you aren’t, or you know someone who fits that description, or you heard that someone you know in turn knows someone who fits that description, or you’re a writer who is making a living at it but any part of what I’ve said jives with what you believe, then do this:
Share this rant. Share these angry words.
Share them with your writer friends and your reader friends and your supportive grandmum. Please, don’t just give it to people either: Tell them a little bit about what I’ve said, and ask them to read it, and ask them to share it. If you’ve only got a small circle, that’s fine. That’s better, almost. I’m talking about building and keeping relationships here. Human contact. That’s the key.
Share it with your humans. Share it with your social networks. Share it along with a rant of your own. If you’re a writer or a reader then the issues herein outlined affect your future closely.
Share this. More than that, tell people why you’re sharing it. Tell them that you want to make it as a writer, or that you want to encourage the writers, and that this bonkers dude is trying to get famous just so that he can have a hand in revamping the publishing industry. Share it if you believe in me — share it just for laughs because you think I’m nuts, and why not? — share it if you disagree with my mission and you want to commemorate the day I fall on my face, so you can be there to tell me you told me so.
Please, share this rant.
I will never be wildly famous. But I aim to be famous enough to open doors for writers.
Books matter. Writing matters. Writers matter. The Craft is being treated as a second-rate magic, easily shunned, easily flogged, and not worthy of renovation or renewal.
It needs renovation and renewal. It needs respect.
I’m not the first person who’s said this. I haven’t said it best. I won’t be the last to say it. I’m not going to be its best herald or its strongest bastion. But I’m putting myself forward as a test subject for a new age.
The times are changing. We need to change too.
I’m going to go try out the newness. Better me than you, right? New shit…scary…
I can’t do it unless you give me a bit of a boost. A hypothetical catapult wouldn’t go amiss, actually.
Please, please, tell all keepers of the faith to say hi. I will never be wildly famous, but I need a lot more clout than I have now to get this shit done.
If it’s good over there, I’m coming back to get you.
p.s. I’m working with a handful of people who are already making waves in this ocean. Go prod Todd, Ned, Veronica, Lisa, alto, Clayton, Tom, Cristina Juesas, Jacky, Sonny, Raquel, and the rest of that crew. Ask them about their adventures.
p.p.s. I’m not as confident as this makes me sound. I’m trembly as a trembling thing. I believe in this, though. So I’m saying it.