Robert J. Sawyer is the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell Memorial, Heinlein, Hal Clement, Skylark, Aurora, and Seiun Award-winning author of twenty-three bestselling science-fiction novels, most recently the #1 Locus bestseller Quantum Night. A Member of the Order of Canada—the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Canadian government—his physical home is Toronto and online it’s at sfwriter.com.
by Robert J. Sawyer
THE HOT NEW THING
I’ve been a published novelist twenty-seven years now. In any other field that much experience would make me highly valuable. But publishers don't want experience; they want the hot new thing—someone who doesn’t have a track record, who doesn't have a sales history, someone who has had years--decades!--to shape their debut book.
The best my current publisher, or any other, can do for my next novel (or that of most of my colleagues), no matter what song-and-dance their sales force puts on, is to ship perhaps ten percent more copies than they did of my last book. Even if my editor and I agree that this one is my magnum opus, my best book yet, my crowning glory, there’s no way in hell they can initially move out substantially more copies than they did the last time.
Why? Because booksellers don't care about what the new book is about, or how good the publisher claims it is. All they care about is how well your previous books sold--and woe betide you if your last one didn’t sell as well as the one before it; if you’re trending downward, your publishing days are numbered.
These thoughts were brought to mind by a recent flood in my storage locker. Suffering some water damage were my copies of Locus, the trade journal of the science fiction and fantasy fields, from 1990, 1991, and 1992, right around the beginning of my book-publishing career. I brought them back to my home to dry out (something writers occasionally have to do for other writers, anyway, so I figured why not extend the same courtesy to those magazines?).
I thought it would be nostalgic fun to leaf through these old issues. But it wasn’t. Not because so many of the big-name pros from back then have since passed on; that was to be expected. But rather because so many members of my own cohort, the new writers of the late eighties and early nineties featured in those pages, even though they are mostly still alive and well are no longer being published, and, indeed, many of them haven't been for a decade or two. It would be impolite to name these poor souls, but there were far more who had been dropped by their publishers than had been kept by them.
Of course, bookselling has changed a lot since my crowd was breaking in. Online retailer Amazon is now the largest bookseller in the world, and it controls to an almost monopolistic extent the e-book marketplace. As Amazon consolidated its power, I supported the merger of Penguin (my current publisher) and Random House, because they said they were doing it to form a megacorporation that could stand up to Jeff Bezos. But, even combined, they couldn't--and so they, and other publishers, instead find ways to keep money that should go to their authors.
In the almost three decades I've been a published novelist, there have been enormous cost-savings in the book-publishing business, ranging from cheap in-house computerized typesetting directly from the author's freely provided wordprocessing files to a vast reduction in the number of bookstore accounts that have to be serviced. Not one penny--not one--of those cost savings has been passed on to the authors by the publishers.
More: when I started, publishers paid authors their advances half on signing of the contract and half on acceptance of the manuscript. Later, it shifted to thirds: some on signing, more on acceptance, and part three on publication--a year or more after the author had finished his or her work. Now, the Penguin Random House standard is four installments: signing, acceptance, first-format (usually hardcover) publication, and second-format (paperback) publication, some two years or more after the author has finished writing the book.
I long ago observed that few authors get substantially better than their first sale: a mental switch is thrown that says, ah, okay, I'm publishable now, and for most writers, that's the end of their creative growth. Oh, sure, there are exceptions, but not as many as you'd think.
But now there's another reason for creative stagnation: a lack of monetary incentive. If you spend three years on a book (as I did on my last one), instead of the usual one (or, for some of my colleagues, if you spend nine months on a book instead of the usual three), there's simply no economic model by which the extra effort will be rewarded—because there’s no way (short of starting over under a pseudonym) for you to be seen as the hot new thing.
Indeed, one of the big five SF publishers recently whispered to an agent I know that its entire strategy now in science fiction is looking for splashy debut novels, a la Andy Weir's The Martian (despite the fact that this very publisher, along with all the other New York SF houses, turned down The Martian when it was submitted to them).
Okay, so the Class of 1990, in those moldering pages of Locus, is mostly a lost cause. But how can you--a new writer--make a publisher think your first novel is going to be that coveted next big thing? Well, for starters, they’d like it best if you've got what's called a platform--a popular blog, or YouTube channel, or whatever, that demonstrates a preexisting audience for your work because, as another long-serving New York editor once confided in me, publishers have no idea at all how to build an audience for a science-fiction author.
And, yeah, having a platform can work spectacularly. My friend John Scalzi is the gold standard, bursting on the scene as a bestselling author with Old Man's War (2005), thanks in large measure to the huge following of his blog "Whatever." But the platform notion fails more often than not; it would be impolitic for me to mention writers by name who have huge online presences but negligible actual sales--but they’re far more common than the Scalzis of the world.
So, then, how do you raise the heat?
I was contemplating this question recently; a great friend of mine has made a bit of a name for herself with short stories in anthologies and major magazines (including this one), and she's looking to make the leap to novels.
The best advice I could give her was what I alluded to in the first paragraph of this column: take your time, write the best damn book you can, knock people's socks off, be that splashy debut author that publishers are salivating for--because you only get one chance at being new.
It’s win-win: she got good advice and, if she follows it, we’ll all get a great book to read, a standout in a field that, because of the lack of economic incentive I discussed above, has mostly stagnated into predictable mediocrity.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert J. Sawyer