Friday afternoon, on the way home after The Chronicles of Riddick, we stopped at the market to get something for dinner. Spooky remembered there was a little write-up on Farscape: Peacekeeper War in TV Guide, and she got a copy. The next day, I picked it up and noticed the price on the cover: $2.49. Now, I'll admit, it's been a very long time since I bought a TV Guide. Hell, it's possible the last time was way back in the '80s, but I'm pretty sure that I paid something like fifty cents. This is, of course, of no interest to anyone.
We're looking at train fares and thinking we'll probably leave for Rhode Island sometime before Spooky's birthday on June 24th (she has an Amazon wish list, by the way). Which means there's a lot to be done betwixt now and then.
Lately, I've been thinking too much on the nature of popularity and how it pertains to publishing. It's no good to think on these things, unless you're one of the very few, very fortunate authors who has met with great success. And even then the thoughts can be a little daunting, I think, simply because the subject is so fundamentally confounding. I understand that I am a lucky writer. I have sold, to date, seven novels (and I won't bother listing all the other stuff). That alone is an enormous accomplishment, especially given the nature of the novels and of the market during the time that they were sold. I've won awards and praise from my peers and critical acclaim (at least from the critics who have bothered to read me). I've managed to support myself with the proceeds from my writing since 1996. No "day jobs." For tens of thousands of people (maybe a lot more) who daydream, however misguidedly, about becoming published authors, I suppose this all sounds wonderful. But, on the other hand, a hand I spend most of my time staring at, though I rarely discuss it in this blog, my sales have been less than stellar, and my readership, if it is expanding, is doing so at a rate far below that desired by my publisher.
In truth, this puts me in very good company. Many of the writers whom I most admire met with little or no commercial success during their lifetimes. But fantasies of post-mortem fame do little to please editors concerned primarily with the bottom line. The days when midlist authors were respected by the publishing industry vanished back in the seventies. And, of course, there's the matter of my making a living, which has a lot more to do with me coming back to this keyboard day after day after day than most readers would like to think.
Lately, I can't seem to get past the cold fact of "popularity contests." We tend to use that phrase in a strictly pejorative sense, as in, "I don't want anything to do with that. It's just a popularity contest." And yet, that's what publishing is. If you win, it's because you've cracked the secrets of the popularity contest, and if you fail, it's because you never figured it out, or never tried, or no one ever paid to put you at the top of the list, or whatever. And adding to the frustration is the importance of happenstance in this whole enterprise. How does someone achieve popularity? Well, I have to admit, at least in the short run, money helps. The more money is spent promoting your books, the more chance is weighted in your favour. But it's not at all unusual for books with huge advertising budgets to fail. In fact, that's what usually happens to books with huge advertising budgets, if only because that's what happens with most books (and forget the highly questionable and rarely questioned, even if often parroted, Sturgeon's Law; it's about as useful and relevant here as any adage). What really makes for success is that intangible, elusive ability to appeal to large numbers of people, for whatever reason. Authors tend to achieve success in the marketplace by one of two routes: a) an ability to speak the common tongue and tell stories that resonate with a large number of readers, or b) a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In either case, it's mostly luck. This is not an issue of art, or of quality, or of effort. No matter how hard one tries, or how well one writes, the odds of success are roughly the same. The work ethic fails here, along with all those American fantasies of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and naive beliefs that quality will out.
In March (or was it Apri?) of 2002, at the World Horror Convention in Chicago, I had something like the following conversation with another author (whom I shall, in deference to discretion, not name, but who has seen far more market success than I'm ever likely to see):
Me: It's just like high school.
Him: How so?
Me: Never mind. It's not like high school at all.
Him (sounding more confused): What do you mean?
Me: At least in high school there were rules to the popularity game. That's why I was so unpopular. I never minded them, or I could never figure them out, or I was physically excluded by them. But at least there were rules that you could see and understand.
Him: But that didn't change anything, did it?
Me: I don't know. Maybe it did. But that's not the point.
Him: Are you sure you have a point?
Him: Neither am I.
Me: It's just like high school, except the rules are a secret.
Him: That's a very unsettling thought.
Me: But it's true.
Him: Yes, it's true, but what's the use of dwelling on it?
Me: I'm a bitter old cunt.
Him: At least you know it.
Me: That I'm a bitter old cunt?
Him: No. That the rules are a secret. Well, actually, that the rules are unknowable.
Me: Does that give me an advantage?
Him: Not at all.
I hope, when he reads this, if he ever reads this, he forgives me for recalling so much of that conversation, or for putting it down here, or whichever sin I just publically sinned.
But, gods, I'm sick of the popularity contest...