Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Death of the Midlist

I finished Ansen Dibell's book on plot last night (the last chapter was on non-plot methods of storytelling, something I've almost never enjoyed, but that's for another essay). I had read an interview with Don Maass, a literary agent of some regard, in The Writer magazine. I was impressed by the interview, so I picked up a copy of his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. His writing style is a bit ... breathless ... but there's no denying he has some high-powered clients who have made some high-powered sales. I'm always interested in the opinions of editors and reputable agents, so I think this book will be worthwhile.

While I've only read the first two chapters, so far there's nothing earthshaking in the book. What he does do is inspire you not to be lazy, to make conflict on every page, characters with depth (which he defines -- a very useful thing), etc. He doesn't give any magic formula, and that's good, because my bogus alarm would have gone off if he had. He does provide some useful advice on what he looks for in a book, however.

One thing he does mention, though, is something I've suspected but never really had confirmed: If you want to be a career fiction writer, it's not good enough just to get published. In today's world, it's not even good enough to be midlist. In fact, writing a poor-selling novel can be worse than not selling a novel at all, since you may kill your chance of ever selling a book again. Maass points out that you can't blame it on uncooperative publishers who don't promote your book. He says that book tours and such account for perhaps 2000-3000 sales, total. That's a tiny, tiny fraction of what you need to sell to make it as author. All of the rest of those sales, Maass says, come from word of mouth. Someone reads your book, gets excited, and tells his friend, "Here you've got to read this!" So, according to Maass, the "secret" of writing the breakout novel is writing a story that will get the reader excited enough to tell a friend.

Well, yeah.

But Maass makes his point with an enthusiasm that makes this rather obvious statement worth reading. What I find most interesting about Maass' book so far is that he unapologetically raises the bar. It's bloody, bloody hard to get published -- but just getting published isn't good enough. You will get little to no support from your publisher in generating sales for your book -- but that means that the element for success lies 100% with you and your writing. You don't need luck, and you don't need connections, Maass says. You need to be able to write well. So, what seems like a statement of gloom and doom is turned into one of optimism. He's definitely a "glass half full" kind of guy.

In truth, I like to be challenged. I don't want it to be easy; I want to accomplish something hard. Financial rewards have never been my goal (or else I wouldn't be considering leaving a $50k/year paying gig), but the acclaim and repect of my peers is something I value. I want the publishing challenge to be hard, so I find that I'm drawn to Maass' attitude. Of course, if I didn't really believe deep down that I've got the talent, I'd be scared witless, but I really do believe I can pull this off. I've gotten some good comments from some respected professionals. My fiction writing skill is not there yet. But I think the raw talent is there, I just need to get it trained, refined, and honed to the sharpness needed to succeed. If Maass' book serves as nothing more than a motivational kick in the pants, I think it's worth the cost of admission.

I'll let you know.

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