Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions


Apocryphal Success

October 27, 2015 by Richard Wright in Journal, Writing

Sadie DrivesI don’t have an appropriate image to go with this post, so here is a picture of my dog Sadie driving a fricking car. HOW AWESOME IS THAT!

You’re welcome.

Anyway, something is cooking in writing land. Something really, really big. So big that I’ve dropped everything I had planned for 2016 just to concentrate on it.

That’s right. I’ve erased some things from a list. And amended a calendar.

The ultimate sign of commitment.

This shit got real.

Seriously though, it’s a big project. The research alone…it makes my head hurt just thinking about it. I’ll tell you more about it in the next couple of months, although I’ll be annoying cryptic on lots of the detail. When it comes to January, when it all begins,  I’ll find a way to share some of the whole process with those of you who want to play along. I already have some ideas for that.

The scope of the idea (for an early clue pop along to Goodreads, look me up, and check out the sort of things I’m reading right now) is massive. My touchstones are things like Lost, The Leftovers, and A Song Of Fire And Ice. It’s not really like any of those, but they’re all stories that have fed into it in some way or another, as is my own book The Flesh Market. Again, there’s no direct connection between that novel and what I want to try next, but as a writing experience it was different from what went before. The characters lived in a different way, and I want to do a lot more with that. You’ll see what I mean someday.

Or perhaps you won’t. You might not get to read it, ever. It might be unpublishable.

Well, not unpublishable. Everything is publishable. It just might not be worth publishing. That’s what would have put me off writing it not too long ago. It’s a major commitment, a massive investment of time (next year won’t get me done, it will just get me started), and when I was still hoping to be writing freelance for a living I wouldn’t have considered the risk worth taking. I would probably have planned three or four different things to write over such a time frame, all different, all targeting specific markets. I could self-publish a couple of them, perhaps hold a third back and try to interest a regular publisher. I could look for ways to keep my career moving, a step at a time.

I thought about doing just that, and it didn’t motivate me at all. It’s chasing a type of success that I don’t seem to crave any more. Building a career a block at a time has lost all thrall over me.

Success is a massively variable benchmark, measured in innumerable different ways. For the last five years, when it comes to longer fiction, I’ve concentrated on self-publishing, which becomes much more of a business effort then other forms of publishing. You need goals, and benchmarks. My markers for ‘success’ were practical, and based mostly on money. Could I break even? Could I turn a profit? The answer, so far, is no. Individual titles have, but overall the self-publishing experiment is in the red.

Some writers will look at units sold for a measure of success. I’ve read in several articles that an ‘average’ novel in the US sells about 250 copies in its lifetime. I’ve been unable to trace this back to a source (um…it didn’t come up on Google when I searched just now) so it might be entirely apocryphal. A lot of people quote it, in its depressing smallness, probably because it’s a nice easy number that anybody can get their head around. For the sake of play, and to draw a line under the last few years, here’s how my own novels have sold against that apocryphal average. 250 copies is the mark to hit to reach ‘average sales’, and therefore ‘success’.

The Flesh Market – Published last year, and in most people’s eyes my best book, The Flesh Market has struggled for traction and sales. Even then, it’s sold 320 copies to date, so if there’s anything to the 250 rule then it’s one and a bit successful. The most recent copy sold was last month, September, for the Kindle.

Thy Fearful Symmetry – Released in 2012, to date this has sold 579 copies, mostly in its first and second year. The most recent sale was a paperback in June. Who said print is dead? Thy Fearful Symmetry is just over two times successful.

Craven Place – Published in 2013, Craven Place has so far sold 698 copies. This month it sold twice as an audiobook, and once on the Kindle. Two and a half times successful.

Cuckoo – It’s actually a little difficult to quantify Cuckoo, mostly because it had two separate publishers prior to my bringing it back into print in 2011 (Hard Shell Word Factory in the US, and Razorblade Press in the UK). For the sake of this accounting, let’s ignore copies sold through them entirely. Since I produced my own edition five years ago Cuckoo has sold 1078 copies. The majority of those sales happened in 2012, but it still moves in unexpected dribs and drabs. A paperback copy sold at the start of this very month. Against the 250 copies rule, Cuckoo is four times successful. Success to the power of FOUR, bitches.

So technically Cuckoo  is my most successful novel. That might have statistical merit, but it doesn’t feel right to me. For me, my most successful novel is the one that so far has sold least – The Flesh Market. Most writers will tell you that about their most recent novel, and so they should. In general, anybody who cares about their craft strives to get better over time. The Flesh Market is easily my most accomplished bit of writing. Whether it’s the most enjoyable, or anybody’s favourite, is another matter. I’ve been reading Stephen King for my entire life, but his earlier, less technically honed stuff has stayed with me longer than anything he’s put out in the last two decades.

I digress. My point is that money made or copies moved don’t seem to matter to me very much at the moment, so I can get off the conveyor belt and stop chasing those things. The books above are available, and will stay available. When they each eventually hit the 1000 copy mark (as I hope they each do, some distant day), I’ll probably feel a little pleasure (nice round number, that), but it won’t make them feel any more or less successful than they are. Not to me, anyway.

So what, really, will I mark as success? Well, I don’t know. There are many writers of my acquaintance, more experienced than me, more visibly ‘successful’ than I am. Not a single one of them in public or private have ever turned around to me and said “I AM THE SUCCESSFUL NOW RICK! I HAVE SUCCEEDED AT THE THING AND FEEL IT IN MY BONES! I HAVE DONE THE SUCCEEDING AND CAN STOP!” I don’t expect ever to feel as though I’ve succeeded.

But knowing what success, for me, is not…well that’s freeing. That’s liberating in ways that make me feel fresh. I don’t have to worry about whether this next thing will work, or push me in the right direction, or any of that. I can just immerse myself in it, and see what happens.

Want to come along for the ride?

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