Sunday, July 06, 2008

Success = Pwned

Call me crazy, but I believe that when a writer creates a character, they're allowed to decide what that character says and does.

But, strangely enough, when a writer reaches a certain level of success, they have less control rather than more.

A few weeks ago I was at a local restaurant-slash-arcade watching some people play the new Rambo video game, which involved shooting large plastic assault weapons at a giant screen. When David Morrell created the character more than thirty years ago, he probably couldn't have conceived of it some day being a coin-operated attraction. But when David sold the rights to that novel, and that character, others were able to decide what Rambo did.

Rights, however, don't matter much to fans. I've noticed a growing trend on Amazon.com where fans somehow feel justified in saying authors aren't being true to the characters they've created.

I'm guilty of this myself. My very first (and only negative) Amazon review was of Hannibal written by Thomas Harris. I was hugely disappointed in how Harris had turned the ultimate evil serial killer into a hero who only kills rude people.

Apparently I helped to spearhead a disturbing trend, because in recent years there have been thousands of fans heaping such criticism at Anne Rice, Patricia Cornwell, Janet Evanovich, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, and many others, claiming these authors have disrespected their own protagonists.

What a fascinating social phenomenon this is.

It's one thing liking or disliking a book. But it is something else entirely for a reader to take ownership of a character, and to chastise the creator of that character for causing said character to do things the reader doesn't believe that character should do. Can you imagine painting a picture of a duck and then having other people tell you that it isn't a duck at all?

Expectation plays a huge part in this. When we're entertained by things we've read, we expect more of the same. But when the writer does something that we don't agree with, then our expectations aren't met, and we're disappointed and perhaps even angry.

Consider how odd this is. Characters are no longer confined to the page, or to the imagination of the writer. They exist in the minds of the readers. And if something on the page doesn't mesh with what is going on in the reader's head, the author is to blame.

But the author really can't be untrue to a character they created. It's impossible. As the creator, the author can chose to do whatever they want with the character. There is no intrinsic right or wrong, true or untrue, fair or unfair.

Yet readers can become attached to characters to the point where they take ownership of them, and then they decide for the writer what is allowed and what isn't. If they believe that the writer wasn't true to their own creation, the 1 star scathing reviews begin to accrue.

Does this affect the writer? It has to, to some degree. All opinions are valid, even if you disagree with them. The artistic part of the writer can't help but be hurt by the negative comments, and the business part of the writer can't help but think that haters can't really be good for the bottom line.

So does that mean, when you reach a certain level of success, creativity is more about placation than invention?

I haven't reached a level where I get scads of emails from people who don't like what I've done with my characters. But I can foresee it happening. Books are like children, and once they're out in public the writer/parent has little control over what they do and how they effect others. Success means you will invariably disappoint a segment of your audience.

Strangely, though, our expectations and opinions can change. We've all seen movies that we disliked, then saw them again and liked them, and vice versa. Art needs an audience, and is only endowed with the attributes we ascribe to it. In other words, what you bring to the table may be more important than what's being served.

So now I look back on my review of Hannibal and I think I was wrong. Not in disliking the book, but in blaming Harris for my disappointment. Hannibal Lector belongs to Thomas Harris, and only he can dictate what his character does. He saw his character differently than I did, and he's allowed to do that because he created him. I'm allowed to dislike the choices that Harris made, but I have to realize that biases and expectations aren't on the page; they're in my head.

Because we're such an opinionated species, and because the Internet allows for the anonymity to say things we'd never say in public, we're quick to voice our disappointment in public forums.

But maybe instead of rushing to post that 1 star review we should try to figure out who is truly to blame...

46 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

The writer creates something that exists largely in the writer's fantasy world, and then puts it to paper. Once it leaves your head and goes on paper and "out there" what readers BRING TO the work is out of your control. I got one of the angriest emails ever from a reader who was upset that a certain character in The Roofer was a child abuser. WHY had I done this when the reader himself was such and such a type of character and would never do such a thing. It was really weird, and all I could do was write back a "thanks for your opinion" kind of WTF. I get, more than ever, that people come with expectations and they bring something to the equation, and unless I visit every reader and start trying to explain my choices to them, it is what it is. I don't WANT to explain . . . the work stands on its own, and there are just some people who will agree. And some who won't.
E

eviljwinter said...

It is, in a way, part of the real reason a lot of writers/producers/etc. don't like fanfic. I don't mean to diminish the question of someone appropriating someone else's work without permission. There is, however, a culture of possessiveness that permeates fanficcers that spills over into readership/viewership at large. Fans develop expectations of what they want from a character, then go postal when those expectations aren't met.

That said, I'm with JK Rowling, who answered fans upset about the deaths of Dumbledore and Snape. "Hey, it's mine. Get over it."

Mary Racine said...

It's important to note that this is a phenomenon of series characters (books, TV, movies, comics, etc.). I think it comes with the territory.

Part of experiencing a series as it is unfolding is imagining what is going to happen in the next book, movie, etc. And if a creator has built enough of an audience to sustain a series, it is mathematically certain that some readers/viewers won't like the direction the author has chosen.

As Henry Jenkins of the MIT Media Lab has written about, series entertainment has an element of "world-building" to it (even mystery fiction). Link to a discussion of the fan trashing of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.

Note: Hidden in the archives of the Wordplayer boards is a wonderful ongoing argument between a writer for XENA, WARRIOR PRINCESS and a fan who insisted that the people making the show didn't understand the character of Calisto.

Katie Alender said...

I guess I agree, although I don't think this is a new phenomenon--just newly publicized by Amazon.com and the internet. But people have been feeling possessive of characters as long as books have existed. Ever heard about the hoopla over a British actress cast as Scarlett O'Hara?

And I don't think Amazon reviewers represent typical readers. I don't know whether to hope someone is so invested that they feel that type of closeness to my characters, or to hope they keep their paws to themselves.

(btw, ur spelling of "pwned" is slightly off)

spyscribbler said...

I've noticed a certain growing attitude around the internet, especially with programs. Take Firefox: there are thousands of plugin programs because people want to be make someone else's program work the way THEY want it to.

The younger generation, once it's in their hands, want to personalize it THEIR way. They'll boycott if the programming is not "open-source" and they're not able to make the program do exactly what they want it to do. With music, they'll switch to Amazon because it's not DRM. They'll decide they'll only check voicemail twice a week, or email once a week, or whatever.

You can say they're self-centered, but it just is what it is. I'm sure this attitude colors their experience of entertainment. I'm not sure how it will or is translating to fiction.

Elizabeth said...

Let's not forget that reviews are supposed to help potential buyers make informed purchases, not to boost the author's ego by telling them how OMG FABULOUS they are.

Most of the books I read are average, 3 stars. Nothing remarkable about them, be it good or bad. Sometimes books are above average; sometimes they're below average. Sometimes they're so good I could eat them up; sometimes they suck and blow at the same time. I'm not sure why it should be my duty to lower my expectations and standards to accommodate those books I don't like.

There have been more than a few times in my life I've asked people if they were okay or on crack or having their periods, because they weren't acting like themselves and were, quite frankly, starting to get on my nerves. So it's not a stretch for me to see where readers would comment about wonky characterization in a book. It just shows that the author has failed to suspend that reader's belief in the character's abrupt and inexplicable change from who (s)he was to who (s)he is now. And if that is, indeed, the reason they weren't feeling it, that makes it all the more valid. It's a whole lot more informative than a hundred 5-star reviews from people who have nothing better to say than "OMG IF U DONT LIKE THIS BOOK U R STUPID AND CRAZY AND JUST TRYING 2 B MEAN!!!!!1111~"

Writers can write whatever the hell they want. They know it, and as a reader, so do I. But it isn't my responsibility to blame myself for buying a book I mistakenly thought I would like, nor is it my responsibility to be a Paula in a Simon world just because Author X doesn't like it when I opine about protagonists who are Too Stupid to Live or plots with enough holes in them to service a whorehouse for a year. Nuh-uh. That cat don't scratch.

Readers read. The job description ends there. If a reader doesn't like it, he doesn't like it. Doesn't much matter why.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Occasionally I'll notice a few reviewers provide evidence for why they disagree with a character's actions, in the sense that they feel a character says or does something that seems out of character based on what has already been revealed of the character's personality, background, motivation, etc. I can think of a few characters myself whose actions or thoughts seemed, at certain points, to just not fit based on what I had already learned of the character. These are just a few instances and were mostly due to poor writing and not fleshing the characters out enough to show why they were acting against expectations.

But I agree that the phenomenon you're describing is what happens in the majority of cases. A lot of times, fans simply don't like the choices a character makes and rail against the author for it, rather than feeling that the character's choices just don't make sense within the story. It does seem to get worse with larger fandoms. But you know, it's the writer's choice. I don't think the writer is "disrespecting" their characters, even if I would have done something differently were I writing the story. At the worst, I may do a critical dissection of what I felt were the weaknesses in the author's creation of the character, and then simply not read it anymore. But the moralizing, whining, and offense that some people take in such situations always baffles me.

Jude Hardin said...

Thanks for finally admitting you were wrong about Hannibal. ;)

Surely it's every writer's wet dream to have one of their characters become a cultural icon. Until, of course, you end up helpless and in the care of a crazed fan who doesn't like the way you handled the character in the last book and who breaks your legs and forces you to change the story to her liking...

Damn. Sounds like a good idea for a novel.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I remember years ago when I heard that John McDonald had died--my first thought was, "Wow, I bet Travis McGee feels bad."

Good characters do become real to readers.

Anonymous said...

Because of Hannibal, I will never read another Thomas Harris book. He is perhaps the most over-rated thriller writer ever. Elmore Leonard is a close second.

Angela said...

I'm with the posters who think the issue is characterization. The character may be the writer's creation but the character can't/shouldn't have a life that only exists in the writer's head. The reader has to be clued in through the story.

One of my favorite writers kills off characters, characters I love, with great frequency. I don't like it but I know it's going to happen.

This isn't a characterization issue though. It's not something the character does that's a problem but what happens to a character. The author is free to kill off any character she wants, but she's not free to have characters suddenly become someone different without explanation.

I hate that she does kills characters I love but she continues to do it and I continue to buy her books. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Readers read. The job description ends there. If a reader doesn't like it, he doesn't like it. Doesn't much matter why.

True enough, in a bottom-line sort of way.

That said, it doesn't address a very real issue that writers face, particularly those who write continuing characters and definitely those who write in shared-world settings. This a blog about writing. The topic of readers' perceptions and sense of ownership was bound to come up. It doesn't indicate that JAK is a) a needy whining bitch in need of constant ego-stroking or b) a writer who disrespects readers. Quite the contrary.

Reader ownership of characters is an issue writers HAVE to consider. Ironically, part of this consideration is deciding when NOT to let readers decide the fate of characters. I've read a couple of books that seem to have been written in an attempt to placate certain very vocal groups of fans, readers who held varied and sometimes contrary opinions. The term "lowest common denomination" comes forcefully to mind. Writers can best serve their readers by writing the best books of which they are capable, knowing that not ALL readers will agree with ALL the decisions the characters make.

And that, I think, is what it comes down to. People, real and fictitious, make decisions. Every decision carries the potential for change. Consider the model of a decision tree (also known as "plot"), and it quickly becomes apparant that any given choice can result in quite a different path. Even if the author is carefully considering and skillfully writing the character arc, at some point along the way, the character is bound to make some decisions and take some directions other than those a reader would prefer. It seems to me that THIS is what JAK is talking about, not a character who suddenly acts OUT of character. (If an octogenarian--a refined and proper lady of the Boston Brahmin variety--suddenly started watching mud wrestling and belching up Bud Lite, any reasonable reader would expect an explanation, and if none was forthcoming, would get pissed off.)

But even "out of character" is a subjective judgement. Perception of personality and character can vary rather widely, both in fiction and IRL. I'm given to making odd pronouncements with a deadpan expression. Some of my friends finds this highly amusing, others don't seem sure whether or not I'm being serious, some just think I'm odd, some look startled to hear me say somethign that, in their opinion, is "out of character." And let's face it: no one, real or fictitious, acts with 100% consistency; in fact, it is often the carefully presented INconsistency that makes characters seem real.

I think most writers WANT to take their characters in directions that readers will approve and appreciate. As a reader, I love those moments when my eyes widen in surprise even while my head is nodding in recognition. As a writer, I try to achieve that in-character twist, but even the most carefully prepared "surprise" can be a risky thing. What one person perceives as an interesting and logical plot twist, another may very well perceive as out of character.

This is where I remind myself that no one ever told me this would be easy. :)

ec
www.elainecunningham.com

Anonymous said...

Oops. That should have been "lowest common denominator." My fingers and my brain are not in synch today.

ec

Margaret Yang said...

What Elizabeth said.

Adrian McCarthy said...

I couldn't disagree more.

If the readers don't think you're being true to the character, then you have failed, not succeeded.

It's a question of verisimilitude. If a character's words or actions seem, er, out of character, then you've failed to accurately convey who that character is and what motivates him or her. Or you've transformed the character without giving a plausible explanation for the change.

If your characters span a series of books, then readers know a lot about them. With all that detailed "backstory" your characters' actions better align with their histories.

It's not the readers that are curtailing your freedom to make your hero into a child pornographer. It's the writer who has an obligation to maintain a level of realism that supports the suspension of disbelief.

This is not to say your characters can't be surprising. They should be, but by projecting them into situations that force them to react. Their reactions may be surprising, but they must also be consistent with who they are.

This is also not to say that a character can't change. But a major transformation is probably a story in itself. You can't have a character adopt a radically different mindset without some life-changing experience. That can be a great book.

JA Konrath said...

--I agree, Erica. I often tell newbies that they aren't perched on the reader's shoulder, able to explain why they wrote what they wrote. The writing has to stand on its own.

--I don't mind fan-fic, Jim, as long as it is clear that I didn't right it. I don't mind people loving my characters and creating their own stories, but I don't want their stories to be confused with my stories. It dilutes the brand.

--I agree, Mary.

--Katie, I 'm curious what type of readers Amazon represents...

--Spy, good observation. And a scary one.

--Elizabeth, I'm not asking readers to lower their standards. But if you've ever changed your opinion about anything (and most of us have, from our feelings about certain people or foods or TV shows or songs or whatever) then it's important to truly understand your opinions before you damn someone in a public forum.

--Kristin, I think the best reviews are those that back up their opinions with examples. But then what exactly is the purpose of a review? Is it a vent? A recommendation? A call for attention? A detailed critique? A form of expression? I've gotten professional reviews that are nothing more than a listing of some major plot points, then a thumbs up or down. I've gotten amateur reviews that had more insight than I had while writing the book. It's a fine line.

--Jude, Hannibal still sucks. The structure, character motivation, conclusion, and infodumps are awful.

--Judy, I'm a huge Travis fan.

--Angela, who is that writer?

--EC, actually I ama needy whining bitch. :) Great comment about inconsistency. That's why most real life wouldn't work as fiction--it's unbelievable.

--Adrian, I agree. A writer should keep her audience in mind, and should respect the characters she's created.

That said, by the time I finished Cherry Bomb, Jack was a completely different character than she was in Whiskey Sour. Hopefully this is a case of the story lending creedence to the change...

Katie Alender said...

When I said Amazon reviewers (not Amazon readers) don't represent typical readers, I mean that they are a small portion of the readers of any book. "Rusty Nail", for instance, has 32 reviews. A very small percentage of your readers.

And they're readers who are vocal enough and have strong enough opinions (or other agendas) to motivate them to take their time to go online and share their thoughts. They have access to computers and the internet. They have Amazon.com accounts.

Out of 10 avid readers I can think of, I'd say three have written reviews on Amazon. And not about every book they read--unless they're gunning for a spot in the top 1000.

Not to say their opinions don't matter. Just that they aren't representative of the average American reader.

JA Konrath said...

Nicely said, Katie.

Jude Hardin said...

Joe:

Stephen King and I respectfully disagree.

I bought Hannibal Rising this afternoon, so now I have all four of the books in hardcover. I'm looking forward to reading this latest installment.

JA Konrath said...

Hannibal Rising isn't as bad, but boy, it ain't good.

Gunslinger said...

Joe, I take back all the disrespectful things I said last week. Please ignore those comments. It was just rude. You are doing everything in your power to succeed, and I can just no longer bring myself to argue with that. Keep up the good work.

JA Konrath said...

You are doing everything in your power to succeed, and I can just no longer bring myself to argue with that.

What fun is that?

I've been wrong before, I'll be wrong again, and people with opposing views are not only welcome here, they're essential.

Conflict isn't only interesting, it's essential in strengthening positions.

It would be a boring, and probably useless, blog if everyone thought I was right.

gunslinger said...

oh, I don't think you're right about most things. But I don't want to be a jerk, either.

JA Konrath said...

Hell yeah I'm right about most things.

gunslinger said...

If you are right about most things, how exponentially have your sales grown from book to book?

JA Konrath said...

If you are right about most things, how exponentially have your sales grown from book to book?

That question doesn't make much sense.

Sales are dependent largely on print runs. Print runs are set by the publisher, and determined by pre-orders. Pre-orders are tallied by the discouting and coop dollars stores get, and how many stores are stocking the books.

If my publisher provided an ad campaign, and coop dollars, and discounting to non-bookstore outlets, then my print runs would be higher and my sales would be higher.

That said, each book has performed better then the previous book out of the gate. I say "out of the gate" because my backlist continues to sell, so overall numbers for Whiskey Sour are better than overall numbers for Dirty Martini because it has been selling for three more years.

But where did I ever say "Self-promote and you'll become a bestseller."?

I've said, "Self-promote and you'll sell more books and open up more opportunities."

Fuzzy Navel came out yesterday, and its the first book of mine to crack an Amazon bestseller list (Women sleuths). Dirty Martini, my last hardcover, was my first to go into a second printing.

You need a publisher behind you to grow your sales by any large degree. But I have evidence my personal efforts are widening my audience.

gunslinger said...

That question doesn't make much sense.

It's a very simple question, and it makes plenty of sense. I'm happy your earlier books continue to sell. But I'm referring to the new hardcovers out of the gate. You say "better", but to what degree? How significant an improvement? 7,000 copies instead of 6,000? 12,000 instead of 10,000? Or 50,000 instead of 30,000?

Give us some real numbers for a change.

JA Konrath said...

Give us some real numbers for a change.

That's cute. Real numbers don't exist in publishing for at least a year, sometimes two.

I haven't gotten a royalty statement for my numbers for the hardcover of Dirty Martini, even though the paperback is already out. Publishers aren't truthful about print runs, and reserves are held against returns on statements for a long time.

On my last statement dated March of this year the hardcover numbers of Bloody Mary jumped by 2000 units. That book came out in 2005. It has outsold the hardcovers of Whiskey Sour, which came out a year earlier, but it only did so on this last statement.

So the numbers I'm privy to really don't mean much, and there aren't any ways to draw conclusions from them.

I go by what my publisher tells me were shipped, but that often doesn't mesh with my royalty statements. That said, they seem to be shipping about 10% more a year, if they're telling the truth.

I suppose you could Bookscan me if you have thousands of bucks a year to spend on Bookscan, but that only accounds for some of the industry, missing libraries and many bookselling outlets.

Besides, your question is void for reasons other than just the inability to know numbers. It's impossible to attribute my efforts to my sales growth. There are too many intangibles. How do I know if what I did a year ago is selling books for me this year? How do I know what my numbers would be if I never did a single thing to promote myself?

I can't guess on the impact I've had on my own sales, other than the thousands of books I know I've handsold. But surely I've had an impact beyond those.

But, again, my efforts don't mean much compared to a publisher with coop and marketing bucks.

That doesn't mean my efforts are worthless or futile. They just don't have as dramatic and immediate an impact.

For example, I have a friend who is a few books ahead of me. We've compared royalty statements, and her sales aren't much higher than mine, even though she's gotten coop and I haven't. Her last book hit the NYT List, the result of a several hundred thousand dollar marketing campaign.

Does that mean I'd hit the List with the same amount of dollars behind me? Who knows? Does it mean my efforts are comparable to the lesser coop amounds she received (and I didn't) prior to her big push? Maybe. Maybe not. I've never been on the 20% off New Release table, but I sell as well as some who are there. What conclusions can be drawn from that? None.

The bottom line has always been: The more you do, the more you'll sell.

When I do hit the NYT list, it will be because a publisher is behind me, not because I busted my butt promoting. But until that happens, my efforts are earning me royalties, branding me, and spreading name-recognition.

Jude Hardin said...

Hannibal Rising isn't as bad, but boy, it ain't good.

Well, Joe, I'm sure you at least appreciated the fart joke on page 84.

;)

Anonymous said...

GS: If you are right about most things, how exponentially have your sales grown from book to book?

JAK: That question doesn't make much sense.

GS: It's a very simple question, and it makes plenty of sense.

Actually, not so much. According to my son the mathematician, "HOW exponentially have your book sales grown..." makes no sense whatsoever. There are no degrees of exponentiality. A growth function is exponential, or it is not. Furthermore, he claims that while rapidly growing books sales might be expressed logorhythmically, exponential sales growth is exceedingly unlikely.

Exponential growth has to do with the rate of doubling and the effect of time on the growth curve. Even assuming the term was meant in a colloquial rather than a strictly mathematical sense, it seems to imply an expectation that book sales should double from book to book (or perhaps from books one to book three), and continue to double. That is not a reasonable expectation; therefore, I would agree with Mr. Konrath that your question did not, in fact, make much sense.

gunslinger said...

Exponential growth has to do with the rate of doubling and the effect of time on the growth curve. Even assuming the term was meant in a colloquial rather than a strictly mathematical sense, it seems to imply an expectation that book sales should double from book to book (or perhaps from books one to book three), and continue to double. That is not a reasonable expectation; therefore, I would agree with Mr. Konrath that your question did not, in fact, make much sense.

Wow. I tuned out halfway through that. Please write a novel so I can read that too.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I tuned out halfway through that. Please write a novel so I can read that too.

Heh. That's amusing, in a snarky sort of way. Not as funny as "how exponentially," of course. "Real numbers" was also amusing, given the context. You're a pretty funny guy, but I guess you hear that a lot.

Okay, here's the Middle Reader version of that post: If you insist upon being a jerk (not a term I'd ordinarily use, but since it's how you've described your behavior on this forum, let's go with that), the least you can do is know what you're talking about.

gunslinger said...

Middle Reader version

Sigh...

It's impossible to voice an honest opinion here, Joe. So I think I may be moving on from your blog.

Chris said...

I wouldn't say it's impossible to voice an honest opinion here... but it seems that most of your opinions come down to "Unless you give me your bank statement, I don't think what you say works".

Honestly, Joe can only let us know what works for him. Whether the returns are what you'd want or not is up to you.

Besides, the bank statement is worthless without the ATM pin number... So, cough it up, Joe. I'll let you know how successful of a writer you are by how many Wii's I can buy from the money I "acquire" from your account.

OK, so here's the skinny (from my perspective). I don't know how successful others on this board are in relation to Joe, but I'll go under the assumption that most are still striving for his level of success.

With that assumption, from a writing/success perspection, Joe is both everything I want to be, and everything I fear.

He's what I want to be, because he's reached a level of success that I wish to someday reach.

He's what I fear because experience has made him realistic (and, if there's anything creative people don't want to be, it's realistic). He understands that the business side is a crucial part of success, and has geared his career in that way. Sure, he may want to write a book about zombie chipmunks, but he always comes back to what pays the bills (and, don't misunderstand me -- the JD books are great).

For those of us that have always wanted to write whatever we want (and expected to make gobs of money doing it), it's a scary proposition to have to think of our writing in "business" terms, and whether or not the book we've spent 6-12 months writing will actually sell.

gunslinger said...

"Unless you give me your bank statement, I don't think what you say works".

Couldn't care less.

Joe has received two contracts for his JD books. He currently has a paperback deal with a new publisher for Afraid. We will see if Hyperian re-ups on JD, and whether G/C re-ups on their side after that paperback comes and goes. The JD books are a series and publishers generally give those a little more time to live and breathe and build an audience. Stand -alones pretty well sink or swim right of the gate. If the first JD had been a stand-alone, I think that most likely would have been the end of it, and I believe Joe planned that very wisely. But by the time the sixth book of the series hits shelves next year, the series should have found its audience and begun to really take off. I just don't see signs of that happening.

Chris said...

I guess my question is: Why do you care?

From as early as your first post, you seem somewhat insulted that he dare give ANY advice, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why. Are only people with success levels of King and Koontz allowed to give advice?

Anyone can give advice -- take it for what it is. He just happens to be in a position to have some insight into an industry that is baffling in the best of times.

JA Konrath said...

Zombie chipmunks rule.

Beginning last year, Hyperion is no longer publishing mysteries. This was a company-wide decision. I'm their last mystery author.

They've asked to see another Jack book after #6. My own plans for the series may not mesh with theirs...

Here's essentially what I'm trying to say about sales numbers. Let's say Whisky Sour (book #1) sold 10,000 copies, and Dirty Martini (book #4) sold 8000 copies. What exactly have we learned? That the books are in a downward spiral? That could be a good assumption, but it would be a wrong assumption, because all the numbers aren't in for Dirty Martini. Perhaps it has sold 15,000 copies, but we won't know for a few more royalty statements.

What if Whiskey Sour sold 10,000, Bloody Mary sold 6000, Rusty Nail sold 11,000? What can we learn from that? That Bloody Mary wasn't as good a book? That readers didn't like it as much, and that's why it didn't sell? Or that it didn't have a marketing campaign, and that's why it didn't sell?

What if Whiskey sold 15,000, Bloody Sold 14,000, Rusty Sold 12,000, Dirty Martini sold 16,000.

What can we learn from this?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Numbers have subjectivity. Even though "9867" is a solid, real, true number, the reason for that number is open to many interpretations. It can be good, or bad, or imponderable, depeding on your perspective.

So I say in all honesty, looking at sales trends and figures really doesn't give anyone a good indication of how my career is going.

A better indicator is cumulative sales, number of reprints, and royalty checks. And I'm doing well in these areas. My books are all in print, all continue to sell, and I'm making a living, which is something only a few hundred fiction writers in the world are doing.

But by the time the sixth book of the series hits shelves next year, the series should have found its audience and begun to really take off. I just don't see signs of that happening.

First, where's your data that a series has to take off by the sixth book? Have you done a study of NYT bestsellers who write mystery series and charted their book-by-book progress? Or is this just a general impression based on a few examples?

Second, how many of these series that did "take off" did so without major publisher coop? Find me 20 NYT bestsellers that aren't on the New Release 20% table at the bookstores.

Third, what "signs" are you looking for? Fuzzy Navel has been on an Amazon bestseller list for about a week now. That's the first time this has happened with one of my books. Is that a sign of something?

Is getting more fan mail a sign? Is being invited to speak at events a sign? Is 70,000 hits for my name on Google a sign? Is earning out royalties a sign? Is multiple printings a sign?

Am I successful yet? By some definitions, yes. By my definition, no.

But I'm a reaaaaaaaaly long way from failing.

gunslinger said...

I guess my question is: Why do you care?

I guess I don't. Bookmark deleted.

Peace Out

Chris said...

Um, about the 70,000 hits on google, 69,850 of those were me...

I have a very rare condition called "Google OCD" where I search for the same thing over and over and over. It's a sickness, and I think because of it, I'm directly responsible for the fame of Dane Cook (for which I'm doubly sorry).

Sorry about that. But good thing about those other 150, huh?

JA Konrath said...

The measure of a person's strength is what finally makes them give up.

Stacia said...

Do you know...in all my years of reading, I have NEVER read reviews of others work?

I enjoy making my own decision about a book or an author (no matter how much Firefox will not let me use an apostrophe tonight, go figure...) a character is owned by THAT AUTHOR...I am overjoyed when my reader wants to also make commentary, but you know what? I live with that character day in and day out for many more years than the reader ever could. Sometimes, they just do not go away.

So, do I read other comments on an author? No. I read the book. Then I make an informed decision. For example, Cat said, you should read the Konrath books, but you probably will prefer someone else...and you know what? I enjoy the books you write, I love them! So what, I prefer paranormal romance....and, I am completely ok with reading outside my genre. LOL.

People need to get over themselves and learn to reach.

I am in agreement with the poster commented about JK Rowling ;) (That and I would REALLY like Firefox to allow me to use ALL my keys! ACK)

Sarah said...

The reader/writer relationship is a funny one. I'd be very disappointed to learn that any author I love only writes to earn a paycheck or get fame. Let's not discuss how hard it is to obtain either! Which leaves the question of why get published at all. What is added by the reader? It's not unheard of to talk about users being the end-designers in new technologies and a lot of technology is more straight forward and narrow than a good novel. Yes, there are fans and fanatics who try and take way too much possession of another's work. But I feel that when a debate relating to this subject, or fandom in general, comes up it sometimes becomes a bashing fest. I don't think that's what you were doing, but I think the spirit of "hands off the cookies!" or "those cookies aren't yours anymore!" is negative. I like the special and distinct yet warm relationship between authors and readers.

As to your point: I think authors own their creations and have the right to do whatever they want but actually can be untrue to the creations. Though I think it's caused by the writing being poor or the author losing touch, rather than poor decision tree choices.

gdtownshende said...

Okay. I'm a little late in leaving my comment on this, but reading your post reminded me of something else I've seen happen at Amazon.

Not too long ago, I read AT RISK, by Patricia Cornwell. After reading it, I decided to read reviews of it at Amazon. (That's how I prefer to do things. Go see a movie, read the silly reviews. Read a book, read the knucklehead reviews. I always start with the bad reviews, too, because I enjoy a laugh.)

The book received 2 out of 5 stars. One of the most common criticisms I recall reading was, "This is more like an outline of the novel it could have been." Novel? The book was originally published in 15 installments in the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, and the book form was simply all 15 installments put into one volume.

People also criticized the character development, saying it was "skimpy." One reader criticized that the text was "double-spaced", which obviously meant that the publisher "padded" the thing so that it would fill out the allotted pages.

I read things like that, and even though I've yet to be published, all I can think is these are criticisms from the ignorant. Cornwell normally writes novels, so these readers approached the book as if it were a novel. When they found it wasn't, they were disappointed, so they heaped wrong-headed comments upon the book and upon Cornwell (!), as if they were experts.

In my own review, I defended the book, even to the point of saying...

The fact is, AT RISK ***IS*** a complete story, despite the complaints of some. ALL the parts of a complete story are there! As a writer, I know the parts. I've written complete stories in less than 100 words. I've also written complete stories in 7,000 words, 12,000-15,000 words, and longer. My point is simple: the character and plot development in this story are quite sufficient when you factor in the story's length.

The majority of my review was spent explaining why I thought "most of the reviews [were] either misinformed or ignorant (...)", and then I finished by offering my own criticisms. I gave the book 4 stars. Twelve people rated my review. Only 4 found it helpful.

I've seen the same thing happen with other short books, such as the reviews of ART KILLS, by Eric Van Lustbader. One reviewer said, "This is an average skeleton outlining the plot of what may well be an enjoyable novel when the author gets round to writing it." (The punctuation error in the quote is the author's, not mine. His statement also tells me that he doesn't know what "plot" is, let alone why Lustbader's book is a complete story and not a skeleton.)

Rob said...

Gunsliger has some issues, I think. I think you have a stalker, Joe.

James A. Ritchie said...

My own feeling is that a writer can do anything he likes with a character, but only in the beginning. Once the writer firmly establishes what a protagonist is like, what his personality is, what his belief system is, etc., the writer had better find a darned good, believable reason for having that character do something that's out of character.

If the protagonist doesn't become a real person in the reader's mind, the writer has failed completely.

Story is great, but I think it's character that makes for great fiction. When readers find a character they love, they want that character to grow, but they do not want him to become someone else, and rightfully so.

I don't think this is a matter of what rights the writer has, but simply a matter of what most readers want, expect, and demand.

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