Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Problem and its Likely Solution

Readers may think this post is a whine. I hope writers will not, most of you having had this conversation with yourself a time or two and understanding why it needs to happen, though maybe not as publicly as this.

Why don’t my books sell better?

The reviews are good, given their limited numbers. (Sincere thanks to all of you who have reviewed any of my books, regardless of your opinion. I appreciate you taking the time.) People approach me with unsolicited praise at conferences, so I feel secure that the books hold up. I take my craft seriously and folks seem to appreciate that.

More than one agent has said that I might have had a nice career as a mid-list author thirty years ago. Part of that compliment—and I do consider it as such—is because thirty years ago there was the possibility of making a living as a mid-list writer. If I’m being honest with myself—which the situation demands—I have to admit part of that is because I write the kinds of books that were popular thirty years ago, before serial killers and sociopathic spouses and constantly raised stakes took over the business.

I’m not complaining, just observing. The market is what it is and it always will be. I posted last week about bestsellers and I’m not here to complain about people’s tastes. I read exactly the hell what I feel like reading, too. Life is too short to worry about what books someone else thinks one should read. The question here is, “What can I do to get more people to read my books?” Or even, “Is there anything I can do?”

Shall I move away from the private investigator and small town procedurals into more high-octane stuff? I’ve seen friends shift gears in a similar manner and do very well. There are two things that have to be determined before answering:

1) Do I want to do it?
2) Do I have the ability to do it?

I am among a fortunate few writers who doesn’t need much—any—writing income to live a comfortable life, at least by my limited standards, as the current day job pays the bills and then some. This frees me to write whatever the hell I want, but it also removes a sense of urgency I might feel if I needed writing income. That’s okay. Frankly, I don’t do my best work under that kind of pressure; I’m a plodder.

I write what I do because I like it and I know I’m good at it. The fact that it doesn’t sell much is an inconvenience, not a crisis. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t rankle.

A few years ago I realized both my current series read like novels based on 70s crime movies. I love 70s crime movies, so to me this is not a bad thing. Of course, 70s crime movies were popular forty to fifty years ago, so having that as my wheelhouse is a distinctly limiting factor.

Can I tweak the series to bring them a little more in line with popular tastes without losing the things I like about them? More action? Less foul language? More linear story lines? All are possibilities that may well align more closely with my gifts than the radical departures considered earlier.

Paraphrasing Mencken, all these questions have answers that are simple, clear, and wrong. Some would work for others but not for me because of elements missing from either my personality or talent. All I can hope for is to achieve a balance that will keep me on the right side of the Reward vs. Bullshit Curve.

And, as so often happens when writing, Serendipity smiles upon me. After finding the nine-year-old post I linked to in the previous sentence, I decided to read it again. I’m way more accomplished now than I was then, and I thought of myself as successful when I wrote that piece.

So I’ll just keep plugging away. Try a little of this and a little of that. Don’t double down on something that isn’t working without a damn good reason to do so. Benoit Lelieve over at Dead End Follies recently had a great post about the hazards of trying to make a living doing what you love. Go on over and have a read; he nails it. His timing is impeccable from my perspective, reminding me as it did that because I have a reliable source of income I never have to worry about forgetting why I write.


Scott D. Parker said...

Fascinating post, Dana. You love 70s crime novels and write like that. My love of history seems to spill out into writing books that would have been popular forty plus years ago, too. Maybe even eighty if my love of pulp is any indication. I also have a day job so the impetus to write more isn't always there. When I read Frank Gruber's The Pulp Jungle about his life as a pulp writer in the 1930s, I'm thankful to have the day job and write on the side. I look at those successful writers and think I could easily do that, but wonder about the pressure to produce. There's a comfort in knowing there's a paycheck every two weeks. Still, I do wish the books sold better... Thanks for this post.

Dana King said...

Thanks, Scott. I almost didn't post this, wondering if it would come across as too whiny. I knew it was good to go as soon as I stumbled across the happy ending. (Maybe another reason my books don't sell: not happy enough endings.) The other thing that led me to publish was the thought that I wasn't the only writer who had these doubts and it might give others a chance to think about something we too rarely talk about. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Mark Bergin said...

When you write what you love, and love writing, every day is a holiday. We aren't working in the highest-paid genre and I'm not sure what that is. But few can competently shift genres, subject and voice to go after the big-bucks readers. So you (and I, soon) write small town procedurals and hope readers find you/us. But maybe put "Girl" in your next title. My muse, my god and guide in fiction, is George V. Higgins, and I bet few today know his name or can name more than one book he wrote. But I, too, am not dependent on royalties, and am free to scribble what I want. If I had to pay the rent, maybe I could put together a potboiler. I doubt it, though. We write what we know, and I know cops and crime and crushing pressure. I'm working with a publicist, whose questionnaire asked for the pronunciation of my name. I wrote "Jaymz Pattursin." Might help.

Dana King said...

Thanks for the chuckles and validation.

And, because I love a challenge: THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, THE DIGGER'S GAME, COGAN'S TRADE are the three that pop to mind.

Jeff Markowitz said...

B.J. Novak, in an interview several years ago in the NY Times, said, "My goal is not to make popular things. My goal is to make the things I love as popular as I can make them."

Dana King said...

That's worth hanging on my wall next to Lehane's comment "No one cares." (Written as an exhortation to do what you want when stuck.)

Charlieopera said...

Mark, good to meet you (a fellow Higgins fan/devotee). I read his bio a few years back and it was sad to see how his end came about. I’ve read all his novels and as many essays as I could find. He remains my favorite crime fiction writer … but to Dana’s post: I gave up several books ago trying to find new readers (I suspect mine are or have died off). I’ve recently stopped writing crime fiction altogether. Frankly, I grew bored with it. I’m back to writing drama/plays (talk about a great idea for added income [sarcasm intended]), which was where I started and where I’m feeling a challenge worth my effort. The few times I made the effort to increase sales (publicists, etc.), proved a bust and putting myself in uncomfortable situations (for me) such as writers conferences, etc., was more a dread than something I could look forward to. Readings at local bookstores are more often humiliating than exciting, so I ended those with my last crime novel.

Mike Dennis said...

Excellent post, Dana. Your thoughts are easily related to, at least by me anyway, and I think you're positioned perfectly to pursue your writing. Your job provides income and support for your family, you have the time to write, and you're able to apportion it pretty much the way you want. If you want to take time off, which you have done on occasion, you can do it without worrying about relentless deadlines. Are your books more suited for a 1970s market? Who knows? But like all writers, your books are not for everyone. All writers except me, that is, whose books are not for anyone (my last two, which took a whole lot out of me remain unpublished in the bowels of my laptop).

Mark Bergin suggested you put "Girl" in the title of your next novel. I might amplify on that by suggesting "The Girl From Penns River Who Was Gone On A Train To Get A Dragon Tattoo: A Love Story

Dana King said...

We need to find a way to work "50 Shades" into that title and i think we're all set.

Dale T. Phillips said...

Yup, I'm in a similar boat. Writing good books that I'm told would have sold a lot in those old Gold Medal/Fawcett paperbacks. The market today is different, but some people still want good stuff that reminds them of Travis McGee. We make art, and commerce is different, and only pays well if one gets lucky.