by Hugh Gilmore
This column is dedicated to those of you who have just opened a fresh manuscript copy book, or put a new sheet of paper in your Olivetti, or opened a new Word file on your computer, with the intention of writing an honest novel.
It’s not dedicated to you just to applaud your good intentions, however. Nor is it dedicated to you because you have a pure heart and a deep longing to improve the human race. In fact, I shouldn’t have said it’s “dedicated” to you. I should say this column is sent to you with my sympathies.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to express yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to tell your story, whether your story is exceptional or not. Everyone has a right to decide that question for him or herself. And in this day and age of easy self-publishing (I’ve done it myself six times), you too can publish a book if you work hard. Wait … I take that back. You do not have to work hard. You just have to type some pages. How many you type is up to you. They don’t have to be labored over either. Just say what you want the way you want and send it along to the self-publishing company. You’ll have a book for sale on Amazon shortly thereafter.
I guess that was a bit snarky – taking self-publishing to its extreme. It’s true that anything you write can be published nowadays if you finance the enterprise yourself, but the aspiring writers who read this column want to do better than that. So let’s talk about your working very hard, and being honest and insightful as you write. And let’s assume that you try to make it interesting – a good read.
So far, so good. But suppose you’ve written what the publishing industry calls literary fiction. (As opposed to mystery, thriller, romance, supernatural, fantasy and so on.) Ever since your youth you have yearned to write a novel that rang true to life. A story filled with great scenes that stirred intrigue and emotion. A story that showed what it is like to be a real, live human being who is trying to live and love on planet Earth. Perhaps it’s set in the past, or even the future, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is honest and that it originates in your heart.
I’m here today to say that you should go ahead and write your story. But I want to warn you not to daydream that an honest novel will ever make you rich or famous. Perhaps you know that. Perhaps you are willing to sacrifice wealth for having created art. But have you ever considered just how wide of the mark you’ll be? The most recent numbers are just in, brought to us by Neilsen Company, the leading measurer of consumer behavior.
Many people know that Neilsen measures television-watching habits and audio purchases, but Neilsen also provides the final word on book buying through a service called Neilsen BookScan. It measures point-of-sales purchases at selected retail outlets throughout the world and provides both local and global reports for customers.
Here is Neilsen’s very recent list of the top-selling print authors of the past decade (with his or her best-selling title listed in parentheses):
1. James Patterson (“First to Die”)
2. J.K. Rowling (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”)
3. Nora Roberts (“Red Lily”)
4. Dr. Seuss (“Oh, the Places You’ll Go”)
5. John Grisham (“A Painted House”)
6. Stephenie Meyer (“Twilight”)
7. Dan Brown (“The DaVinci Code”)
8. Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook”)
9. Janet Evanovich (“One for the Money”)
10. Jeff Kinney (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”)
11. Stephen King (Dreamcatcher”).
(For more: confer nielsentopten.com/?portfolio=who-wrote-the-top-books-of-the-last-decade)
None of these writers has made it onto that list by accident. They are all highly skilled, hard-working professional writers. They have made a good living, have become rich, in fact, by writing books that the public wants to read. In fact, that is the key point for emphasis today.
They did not sell a lot of books and make a lot of money by writing literary novels that describe life as it is. They write about other worlds than ours, dream worlds where rights are wronged within a lifetime, worlds where characters finally wake up and smell the coffee and roses in time to brake for sunsets and drink piña coladas and walk in the rain. They know how to evoke tears and draw blood and provoke a laugh and scare the heck out of you, but they also stop short of being real.
The only serious money being made today in the world of movies and fiction, even in memoirs, is made by defending dishonest fantasies. Our culture needs them in order to have its nice day.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write your honest book in an honest fashion. But you should write it because you need to tell your story. And because you believe your story should be told. And most of all, because you love to write.