Writers: Down, But Not Out

J.C. Hutchins.

I have full confidence I don’t need to tell you who he is, but in case you don’t know, I already told you way back when.

Yesterday, The Hutch took to the Interwebs and wrote what was a genuinely stirring, moving piece about how his publisher, St. Martins, has declined to publish the continuation of Hutchins’ 7th Son trilogy.

You can read that post right here. I recommend it. If only because it’s homework for the things I’m about to discuss.

[EDIT: You can also read Eloquent Eddy Webb’s response to that over yonder. Do that.]

I don’t claim to be an expert on publishing. I don’t claim to be an expert on marketing. I certainly don’t know J.C. Hutchins’ heart, though I’ve heard he’s a truly nice and geniuine dude, so I can’t speak to his mindset outside what you find in the post he wrote.

I do think his post presents some… lessons? Talking points? Question marks? Exclamation points? Fuck. I dunno.

Let’s get into it.

Well, Fuck Me In The Ass With A Dildo Named “Disappointment”

My initial response to the Hutch’s post — outside of a groundswell of sympathy for the dude — was, “Uh-oh.” Here’s a guy with what appears to be a ready-to-roll army of supporters, right? He’s got a deeply engaged audience. They are his street team. His efforts at mobilizing that audience appeared to be going quite well. He ran contests. He tweeted like a man on fire. He — and I didn’t realize this explicitly — put a ton of his own money into getting word about his book out there. Early looks at the book sales seemed good.

And yet, here we are, months later, and the publisher isn’t picking up the series.

Hard not to feel disheartened, right? Hard not to feel like… man, no matter how much I push, this baby just ain’t coming out of the uterus. That baby’s entrenched. He’s putting up Ikea shelves. You might as well just get used to carrying the weight around, maybe.

I mean, let’s look at it. Reality check, writers. You get a book published. It goes into a bookstore, where All The Other Books live. People have as much chance of finding your book on the shelves as they do, say, the Arc of the Covenant in that evil warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (We won’t go into Crystal Skull. It’s just not worth it.) Okay, sure, the book also goes to Amazon. There, I’d say the chances might be even less — you browse a bookstore, fingers drifting along book spines, seeing titles, authors, colors, covers. Amazon? You don’t browse Amazon. Not the same way. Sure, your book is there. It’s a bit or a byte on a whole beach of bits and bytes.

Publishers don’t spend marketing dollars like they did in the past on books.

So, it’s on you.

Hutch knew that. He marketed his ass off. You damn sure can’t say, “Well, he could’ve done more.” More what? You can only throw so much of yourself at something.

So, Maybe It’s Not About “More”

Please believe me: I am not knocking the Hutch’s efforts. Again, I’m no expert. I’m just yammering. I’m just spitballing. It goes like this, though: he put his everything into it, and his everything wasn’t enough. That means the answer isn’t necessarily “everything.” It’s “something.” More specifically, the right something.

I’m not making a case for his book, but I am making a case for yours. What this means is, when you have a book — or some other creative storytelling product — the answer may not be, “Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” The answer may not be, “Cut out your own heart onto the altar of progress and possibility.”

The answer may instead be, “Find one right thing to do.” Or, “Find the five best things.” Things appropriate to your story. Things appropriate to your audience.

I know. I’m speaking in abstracts. I can’t speak to specifics. Not yet. This isn’t fully formed. Again: I’m just talking over here. What it means is that we as creators don’t have a Proven Plan. Right? You can’t just march in there and knock ’em all down in a hail of bullets. You need one bullet. You need the right bullet for the right gun. You need the right strategy for the right story.

Quality over quantity. Right? Maybe? Is that the way?

Ye Of Little Faith

Upon reading his post, my gestalt trembled a little. It bucked like my guts do anytime I eat a pile of really hot hot-wings. Anytime a good writer doesn’t make it up the ladder, you feel sick inside. World’s gone topsy-turvy.

But you have to find your moorings.

It’s very easy to lose faith. You read his post, you see that his own faith has potentially been shaken (again, I don’t know his heart, I’m just reading into his post). But it’ll come back. He’s just been dealt a mighty punch to the throat. He’s trying to catch a breath.

I suspect he will. If you follow him on Twitter, you can tell he’s got enough energy for ten men (and one crack-addicted minotaur). He’s a nice dude, a smart guy, and a talent to watch. He’ll find his feet. The post he writes a couple days after that kind of news is going to look a lot different than the post he writes six months from now.

But this isn’t about him.

It’s about you and me.

It’s going to be tempting to feel disillusioned. That’s okay. A little disillusionment is good. Reality isn’t nice, but it’s necessary.

We all need to feel its sting so we can adjust our expectations.

It’s easy, though, to go too far. To pass the zero mile marker labeled “Reality” and come out the other side, as far from “Illusion” as posible.

All the way to straight-up “Cynicism.”

Don’t go into the light, but don’t go into the darkness, either. You might hear a lot of voices that say, “so-and-so model is broken,” or, “transmedia is not the future,” or “free doesn’t work.” Worse, you might suspect darker notions are creeping around your margins: “If he can’t do it, neither can you. You don’t have his audience.”

Well, fuck all that.

These strategies didn’t work for him on this one project. That’s it. No, that doesn’t mean you go back to the well and try the same thing again and again, banging your head against the wall, right? Hell, maybe it does. It does if you believe in that particular strategy for this particular book. Just because This Thing doesn’t work over there doesn’t mean This Thing can’t work over here. Make sense? Further, one “failure” does not constitute a pattern of failure. Others appear to have had some success. It might mean mixing up the methods a little bit. It might mean a modification to the approach. It might mean getting help from someone. I dunno. I’m simply suggesting that there are uncertain processes at work, and you can’t base your hopes on those uncertain processes, but you also can’t base your fears on them, either.

You can’t be afraid of failure.

Shit, if you were, you wouldn’t be a writer, out there trying to thread that needle.

You can’t say free doesn’t work. Because free can work. It just doesn’t work all the time. Nothing works every time. That’s my point. No magic strategy. You have to find what’s right for you. Something like this, they’ll suddenly balk at “free” like it’s poison in the water. Ask the Penny Arcade guys how free failed them. Or how free failed Homestar Runner. Answer: it didn’t. Free succeeded. Because that’s what worked for them.

You can’t say new media doesn’t work. This isn’t an attack on new media. Heck, 7th Son is an old media approach. Sure, it came about because of new media, but where it ended up was a print book on bookshelves utilizing the old model. (To be fair, it’s also not an example of the old way doesn’t work, because — well. Just ask Dan Brown, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling. The old way can work just fine, thanks.)

You can’t say he didn’t do it, so neither can I. Even at its most fundamental level, if 100 people jump off a building, we’re all going to land differently. Ninety of us might splat. Ten percent might land in that dumpster filled with pillows and cake.

Consider, too, that we don’t have all the facts.

With the 7th Son situation, we don’t have a metric for success or lack-of-success. Hutch hasn’t shared the numbers. (Maybe he will, though?) Did he get a small advance and the book just didn’t sell? Did he get a large advance and it sold well but not well enough cover expenses? Was the book technically a success but not enough for the publisher to feel that this series was the horse it wanted to back? I don’t know. He obviously retains a good relationship with the publisher (and the upswing is that they will surely look at any new work he sends their way).

If anything, what this should tell you is that you need to find The Way to do That Thing You Want To Do. You may say, “Man, this is a book like housewives and teen girls across America are going to eat up, because it involves sparkly vampires battling Vatican assassins who are trying to take over a School of Wizards,” and so you hit the trail walked so many times before. You may say, “This book doesn’t have a mainstream audience, but I think I can build up my own micro-audience with this book — and if I do it right, and I do it myself, I might be able to carve out a living.”

That’s on you. Figure it out. And keep plugging away.

*pant, pant, pant*

I’ve gone on long, and this post is rambly and winded. What I’m saying to you is, keep on keeping on. Hutch will. You should, too. Find the strategy that works for you. Don’t throw everything at the wall. Don’t go broke. But don’t be afraid of risk, as Eddy Webb states in his post. Yes, it’s going to be a challenge. Of course it’s going to be hard, and the odds are way the fuck against you. You don’t like it? Don’t be a writer. Or a filmmaker. Or a creative type of any stripe.

One failure is not the end.

Hey, the first airplane didn’t fly, did it?

I’ve written… six novels before I got an agent for the last. I didn’t stop after the first. I learned lessons and I moved on, and I kept doing what I do. It’s not like the book sold yet. If it doesn’t, I won’t quit. Will you?

You always fall on your face first. That’s how it is.

Don’t let the voices within, or the voices without, tell you any differently.