Why Best Selling Authors are Your Best Friends

I generally do not waste my time reading hateful blogs, but then I am made aware of their existence every now and then. I recently came across this, which talks about writers or would-be writers with hateful blog posts about best selling authors ruining the field for other writers (numbers 2 an 4).

I can’t blame writers for being ignorant about economics and market dynamics. But seriously, why should writers complain about other successful writers like E. L. James and James Patterson? If anything, they are cultivating the market for the rest of us. In fact, every time someone writes a best seller, every time someone receives a record advance or a record payment for paperback rights, it is more opportunity for the rest of us.

Back in the day when Peter Benchley got over half a million dollars, $575,000 to be exact, for the paperback rights to JAWS, people thought that was preposterous. Once that barrier was broken, it was followed by a string of other best sellers notably Colleen McCullough who sold the paperback rights to  The Thorn Birds for 1.9 million dollars, a new record. Okay, those were the seventies. Times were different then. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent was more recent (1987) and the paperback rights were sold for 3 million dollars. A breathless article in The New York Times reported “Industry officials say that assuming the paperback edition is priced at $4.95, Warner’s will need to sell at least 1.5 million copies to recoup its investment.” Sydney Pollack bought the movie rights for an additional 1 million dollars (and made a movie starring Harrison Ford) and people thought that was insane.

Now contrast that to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone published a mere decade later. By 2001, the book had sold over 5 million copies in hardcover and 6.6 million copies in paperback, 19th and 7th place respectively, among children’s books. Not among all fiction, but among children’s books. (The series went on to break all kinds of sales records, but more on that later.)

Why is this good for you and me?

Firstly, every time a record payment is made, a mental barrier is broken. In 1987, Sally Beauman broke the record by getting a 1 million dollar advance for her debut novel Destiny. Preposterous for a first book, right? Then in 1993, Allan Folsom got $2 million advance for his debut novel The Day After Tomorrow. Then, in 2002, in a two book deal, for his first book and a promise of a second, Stephen L. Carter received an advance of $4.2 million. Doesn’t a $25,000 advance sound puny after that? That’s ten times what J. K. Rowling got for her first book.

Secondly, big payments for best selling authors reflect a larger trend. The publishing industry in the United States was selling just over $3.1 billion in books in the early 1970’s but is selling over $25 billion today. That’s an 800% increase. What on earth happened? In a word, computers. Computers have made books easier to write, edit, print, and distribute.  Up until the early 90’s, most writers still sent in their manuscripts as bundles of paper. Editors were people who could estimate the number of words, and consequently the cost of printing, from the thickness of the bundles. Proof reading was a monumental task before the time of word processors. So was editing and typesetting. Once the proof reading, re-typing, editing, re-typing and typesetting was done, the printing and binding would be done on mechanical, non-computerized printers. Once that work was set and done, and the books sold well enough to offset the initial investment, re-prints were made to be sold for profit, due, in large part, to the economy of scale. This meant that publishers loathed taking on new writers and depended heavily on previously published works. Today, thanks to computers, the initial investment in publishing a new book is a lot lower. That means new books can be printed more readily, which contributed to the higher sales and, ultimately, higher advances for new authors. Which, at least in theory, applies to every writer.

Thirdly, the best selling authors are expanding the market for books. Back when Sony had just released the Playstation and Microsoft was expected to unveil the X-Box, Nintendo executives were asked in an interview about the impending threat, to which they answered, contrary to all expectations, that their greatest worry was not competition from another game consul, but the possibility that children will rediscover baseball or storybooks. That threat came true in the shape of Harry Potter.  A whole array of pundits marveled at the time that children of the multi media age were actually going back to reading print. The British Medical Journal actually ran a article about how playground injuries decreased in the month when a new installment in the series became available. It is thanks to Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling that we have a whole generation of children addicted to books instead of video games. And you might hate the skippy prose of E. L. James, but you cannot deny that millions of people read a full length novel on their iPads for the first time thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, which recruited a whole new audience to the world of digital books.

So why hate best-selling authors at all?

In the late 80’s, some critics thought that the publishing trend toward mega-selling authors like Stephen King and John Grisham was killing the opportunities for small selling authors with staying power, because publishers were relying more and more on fast selling new authors rather than their backlist of great writers they signed on decades before. In reality, industrialization was making publishing of new writers easier, thus making the publishers less dependent on old books they no longer had to edit and typeset. It was just a temporary economic fluke. Editing and typesetting was once so expensive that publishers preferred to keep old, medium selling books in print rather than sign on new authors. Technical innovations in the 60’s and 70’s made typesetting and book binding cheaper and easier. That coupled with television advertising made mega-bestsellers possible. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping old books in print remained the same. So, instead of publishing low selling “serious” literature with staying power (something very difficult to predict), publishers shifted to fast selling trendy books. Book critics (remember them?) saw this and there was a chorus of voices saying that mega-selling popular fiction was ruining quality publishing. That may have been true for a while, but it lasted only a few decades. Today, thanks to digital publishing, you can keep old books in print, and keep making profit, without keeping physical books in stock. This is highly advantageous to books that sell a very low amount over a very long time. Now that books can stay in print indefinitely, “serious” books are making a characteristically quiet but steady comeback. Digital books do not need to fight for shelf space or storage space with high volume best sellers anymore. So best selling authors are not crowding out anybody.

But isn’t there a limit to the number of books a reader can read in a year? If big selling authors hoard the reading time of our readers, won’t they take over the reading time away from our works? Yeah right, like people read that many books. Your main competition is television, movies, games, internet reading material (blogs, e-zines, etc) and YouTube. Not best selling authors. Best selling authors actually tear people away from these competitors. Remember how Harry Potter was Nintendo’s worst nightmare? Potter addicts who finished reading the series were looking high and low for similar fantasy novels that can satisfy their craving for the next fix. Your book could be that next fix they crave. Best selling writers are your allies in the fight for audience time against other forms of entertainment. They are not your enemies.

Okay, so how about people like James Patterson? He doesn’t write his books alone. He employs ghost writers and co-authors to churn out lots of books, unlike we regular folk who need to keep our butts on our seats and write by ourselves. Isn’t that, like, cheating? We little writers have the right to hate James Patterson, don’t we?

This one is my favorite subject actually. If anyone talks about James Patterson’s strategy of employing ghost writers and co-authors, my response would be: Oh year? What are you doing? Writing is not a solitary activity anymore. Look at all the people in the NaNoWriMo communities constantly encouraging each other, asking and answering questions, plot bunnies and story prompts popping up on the internet every few seconds. The only difference is that James Patterson pays his people to do it. We are experiencing the dawn of “rock band” writing, where a group of three to five people collaborate to create novels. Readers cannot wait another year for the next volume any more. James Patterson has proven to publishers that “rock band” writing can be economically advantageous, paving the way for the next generation of “rock band” writers. (“Rock band” writing is my coinage, by the way.)

Back in my day, when I was struggling to write as a teenager, there was no internet, there were no mutual encouragement groups, there were no other writers for miles around that I knew of, and there were no plot bunnies and story prompts delivered to my doorstep. Hard copies of the New York Review of Books were delivered by mail. I can still come up with a brief story prompt every minute for ten to twenty minutes running without breaking a sweat because I trained myself to do so. NaNoWriMo and its communities have changed the activity of writing completely. In fact, technology and all its 21st century wonders have changed writing completely. James Patterson is just half a step ahead of the curve. Even people who believe they write alone have “support structures” of beta-readers, twitter followers and e-mail subscribers who provide support, input and feedback, which are things Dickens and Tolstoy did not have. Everybody today are writing in groups.

If you still want to write your novels Victorian style, cooped up in a comfortable cubby hole, socially isolated and away from distractions, writing by the seat of your pants without plotting or structuring, laying down long expositions and lovingly detailed sketches, styling sentences with refrains, symmetries, rhythmical word strings and surprise metaphors, you still can. Nobody is ruining that experience for you. Nobody is hoarding the printing press, the shelf space, or the storage space anymore. Best selling authors are not your enemy. They are your best friends.

One thought on “Why Best Selling Authors are Your Best Friends

  1. I agree. It’s an explosion of possibilities. I still, secretly, dislike certain authors, but that’s another matter.

    Well researched and thought provoking. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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