I can still remember the days when I first started stitching together the ideas that would ultimately become my first novel. Harry Potter had become a phenomenon, though none of the movies had come out yet. I remember listening to the first book on CD my senior year in collegeduring a twenty or so hour drive to spend spring break at a beach house in Virginia Beach. (That’s a story for another time).
I was captivated by the characters and blown away with the blatant creativity. J.K. Rowling did what many great authors have done, taking established ideas, tropes, characters etc, and putting them together in a way that was innovative and fresh. Could Dumbledore and Gandalf be distant cousins? Yes! But they are both compelling in their own way and have great traits and character arcs of their own.
I’d been telling stories and coming up with my own plots since I was able to write more than just my first and last name. Before that it was creating my own universe where He-Man and Lion-O could team up and fight bad guys together, or maybe mercilessly pummel Ken and take over the Barbie mansion.
In my middle and high school years I continued to write. Sometimes in spiral notebooks (which is a pain when you are left handed), or in yellow legal pads (which is still somehow a little awkward when you are left handed). I wrote stories that often included my friends which usually climaxed with their gruesome and sometimes hilarious and heroic deaths.I also read as much of Stephen King’s back catalog as I could, and a friend of mine gave me a steady supply of Dragonlance novels to read. (Speaking of, where is the Heroes of the Lance movie we all deserve?) I would rather die than share them now, for most of them were just Stephen King hodge-podges featuring carbon-copy characters with different names. Basically the literary equivalent of those bootleg action figures you can find at flea markets or occasionally at the dollar store: somewhat convincing at first glance but unable to hold up to close scrutiny, and certainly unoriginal.
I never considered the notion of writing the “great american novel”. Even now the idea of trying to write books for adults/about adults and/or adult things is a scary proposition; I just don't think I have a Holden Caufield in me. Fantasy, science fiction, and comic books are what I know, so that is what I have written so far.
What J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter was show me that you can write a fun, engaging, creative story that appeals to people from all walks of life, kids and adults alike. It doesn’t have to be a tome that you have to use two hands to carry around. It doesn’t have to be high literature that only sophisticated people read, if just to impress people at parties. One only need to check out amazon’s best selling book lists or peruse the movies showing at the local theater to see that there is a large market for this kind of material.
I wondered to myself: if she could do it, could I? I came up with what I thought was a pretty cool concept and tried a few times to get it started, but never got very far. Then came the self-publishing boom. Suddenly it seemed as though I might be able to find an audience for my quirky story that featured an alien race of talking green bear-like creatures. So I started writing in earnest.
I started having what Han Solo would call “delusions of grandeur”. It’s embarrassing to say that I had already predicted that my book would be a big seller. After all, I had done my research. I had read a lot of self-published books that were doing quite well, and I believed that my writing was as good if not better than a lot of books that were raking in the cash. I daydreamed about leaving the nine-to-five world behind, doing what King does: cranking out no less than three thousand words a day, going for daily walks, and reading as many books as I could. I evenstarted pricing the BMW I was going to buy when my royalty checks started coming in. Started talking to my wife about what hip, cool, and groovy city we should move to.
Then I published my book. Once it was live on amazon I began checking the sales page like a Kindle Direct Publishing junkie. I couldn’t stop. Of course it didn’t take off immediately, but that was to be expected, I supposed, since I was a complete unknown. But the cover art was pretty snappy and would not doubt catch people’s eye. And once amazon’s algorithms kicked in and started putting adverts for my book in front of potential customers, things would really pick up.
And there was one fine day where I sold somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred books. I was elated. I had finally made it. Surely this exponential growth would only continue. People out in the world were reading my book (I assumed) and would tell their friends about it, and it would spread like wildfire.
It didn’t. Sales haven’t gone higher than that initial peak since. I have to admit it knocked the wind out of me. It seemed unfair. Why were those other guys selling more than me? I read their books. What did they have that mine didn’t?
It had to be because I only had one book available on amazon, and the first book was ripe for a sequel (a little too ripe for a sequel, as some reviewers have complained, if you know what I mean). So with a little, actually a lot of help from my friends in the form of a successful kickstarter campaign, I was able to raise the funds to have the artwork and editing done for Letho Ferron: Book 2.
It didn’t sell anywhere near as many copies as the first. And again I was crestfallen. What was I doing wrong?
Nothing, is the answer, of course. I don’t have any statistics here, but I can imagine my novels appear as a needle in a massive literary haystack, now that anyone can write anything they want and upload it to the amazon marketplace. It’s a saturated market. Some of it’s great, and some of it’s garbage. It can be difficult for a potential reader to even find your book, let alone pick it from a heap of other independently published books, determining that your novel, over all the others, is worth his or her hard earned money. It’s like everything else, you have to hit at the right time, and even if you are pretty good you may never make it. I know there are tons of artists in all media formats struggling to make it, and the odds aren’t stacked in their favor.
After a while I closed down my pity party of one, put my big boy pants on, and started writing again. And I think I’ve figured it out. I shouldn’t be writing simply for money. Sure, it would be nice to make some bank doing something that I really enjoy, but I don’t think that’s the reason that many of the great artists I look up to create art. Everyone has to put food on the table and clothes on their backs, but is that really all there is to it?
I think they do it because they have to. Because they have something big inside that they think is beautiful and unique and it feels wonderful to birth it into the world and share it with other people. This is why people paint, write and perform live music, play in orchestras, act and sing on stage, sculpt things, design architectural marvels, and the list goes on…
So I’m going to keep on writing, and I’m going to finish my third novel, and release it into the world. Hopefully there are a few people out there who are waiting patiently for this day to arrive. I know I can’t wait until all the work is done and I can once again release something that I created into the world, for art’s sake.
But a few benjamins would be nice.