“I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer.”
Hubert Selby Jr., the author of such legendary books as Last Exit To Brooklyn and Requiem For A Dream once said that “Being an artist doesn’t take much, just everything you’ve got.” Before the dawn of the information age, such a career path was indeed a difficult one to navigate. In the literary world an author would need to find a way to raise money and self-publish his or her work – a method chosen by such influential writers as Virginia Woolf and Alberto Moravia – or they would need to seek out small presses or agents that would link them with major publishing houses. Often, this would mean enduring a plethora of negative responses before somebody would say yes, but often to achieve such a feat was and still is like finding a needle in a haystack. Even after such a battle is won, the difficulty doesn’t end there – linking with an editor able to understand one’s creative talent enough for fruitful communication between the two parties is as fortunate as it is rare. Case in point, the disagreement that John Kennedy Toole, author of the epic comedy A Confederacy of Dunces, had with his editor discouraged him so much that he gave up on his dream of seeing his magnum opus published and committed suicide in 1969, aged thirty-two. A Confederacy of Dunces finally was published in 1979 to great critical and commercial acclaim, winning the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
But even after the manuscript is made satisfactory, put to bed and published, two questions remain – will it reach its audience, and in such an event, will the creator be able to make a sustainable living? Although Charles Dickens was able to become successful publishing novels like David Copperfield and Great Expectations serially in literary magazines, the careers of Edgar Allen Poe and Jim Thompson were marked by poverty. Even more unfortunate, what little money the latter two writers made they drank away.
Self-publication has its share of success stories, but because the practice has become so widespread that whereas many talented authors have reached an audience that way, there have also been numerous people with a surplus of time and money but short on talent who have flooded the market with drek. As a result, both corporate and independent bookstores become reluctant to carry books by authors who pay print-on-demand services to publish their work, or are under contract to boutique publishing companies who use these services to make physical copies of the work available. Often these publishing companies have no return policy, which poses a difficulty for retailers. Even after an author has paid the exorbitant fee to have their work published, they often have to fork over the money to order copies of their work to sell at readings, and the success rate varies from being independently able to make a viable living and/or being picked up by a major publisher to being out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars and stuck with a storage locker full of books that nobody wants. As much as the cream rises, sometimes the scum floats to the top. Aaron Rayburn, a talentless horror writer, achieved widespread recognition with his novel The Shadow God, despite and because of that book’s grammatical errors, contrived dialogue and shoddily constructed plot.
With the dawn of the information age, authors have been provided with new opportunities to make their passion pay. Audiences have been reached by way of blogging and/or social networking. Case in point, Justin Halpern, a talented natural storyteller, began collecting gruff and raunchy nuggets of wit and wisdom uttered by his salty-tongued, no-nonsense father and broadcasted them via Twitter to amuse himself and his close friends. Before long, these Tweets reached hundreds of thousands of people, and he began receiving book, television and movie offers. Next thing you know, the gut-bustingly funny book Sh*t My Dad Says became enough of a success to inspire a failed television series starring William Shatner in the titular role. Although the show was a stiff, Halpern’s work drew praise from such television personalities as Chelsea Handler and Jimmy Kimmel, and a follow-up collection of autobiographical sketches, I Suck At Girls, in which his father features prominently was released in 2012.
But once again, even though the cream rises, the scum also floats to the top, and often it is neither the artist nor the publishers who decide the success of a book, but the public. As we all know, public opinion is notoriously capricious and arbitrary. Tucker Max blogged perfunctorily-written anecdotes of his college days, replete with one-note tales of spiritually bankrupt and hedonistic drinking and philandering, which resulted in I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, an absolute waste of time, money, ink and paper that was made into a forgettable cult film and followed by three more very similar and equally dreadful books: A–holes Finish First, Hilarity Ensues, and perhaps most appropriately titled of all, Sloppy Seconds: The Tucker Max Leftovers.
With the advent of e-books and e-readers, it has become easier for writers to self-publish. Amazon, Apple’s I-Books and Barnes & Noble each have free self-publication platforms, and Smashwords, a company based out of Los Gatos, California, not only offers free self-publishing, but also comprehensive distribution through all of the aforementioned distribution outlets. However, they vehemently advise authors not only to put their best foot forward as far as their own work is concerned, but to properly format the work so that it can be displayed properly on such devices as the Nook and the Kindle. In addition, Smashwords recommends that authors work rigorously to promote their work themselves. Considering the glut of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, each of which offer opportunities to network; and Authonomy, a social networking run by HarperCollins and designed expressly for aspiring and established authors that enables a lucky few to have their work reviewed by said major publisher, an author has no excuse not to promote his or her work through these avenues.
Although it has become far easier for an author to reach an audience, just like with any profession, one must enter into the field knowing what he or she is doing. Many authors have story ideas that have the potential to be great, but their writing chops are sorely lacking, perhaps either because they did not pay attention in English class, or because they themselves do not read. Although Jim Thompson only achieved critical mass with his dark, unsettling crime novels after he drank himself to death in 1977, he had an intimate familiarity with classic literature on his side, which enabled him to bring a touch of class to the pulp fiction world and earned him the nickname “The Dime-store Dostoyevski.” Just as musicians have to derive inspiration and formulate opinions by listening to other composers, aspiring authors should read as much and as often as possible, bearing in mind Stephen King’s righteous admonition – “If you’ve written more than you read, I don’t want to know.”