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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Will Not Sell My Novel

In this very blog last month I wrote about why my latest novel, The Opposite of Art, is not going to sell very many copies. To my surprise it caused a slight ripple in the blogosphere, with discussions here and there about whether Christian readers are up to the challenge of enjoying symbolism and theme and so forth.

I felt kind of guilty about that.

I shouldn’t blame anybody else for my sales challenges. And although a few people thought I had engaged in a rather devious reverse psychology promotional effort, actually I think that blog might have done some damage to my cause.

In an interview last week I was asked why so many people think my novels might be hard to read. Ouch.

Obviously that’s my fault for posting blogs that make it sound like I only write for eggheads. (For the record, I try very hard to write page-turners.) So I kicked myself a little, but at least last month’s blog did touch briefly on another reason why my newest novel will not sell, and it had nothing to do with readers. In fact, it’s my fault entirely, and probably it’s the main explanation: I am not a very professional author.

Consider what it takes to be a real professional in this business:

“Karen Kingsbury, a popular inspirational novelist, has sold upwards of 5 million books. She wrote eight books last year alone and can sometimes turn out a draft in five days. ‘. . . I love writing [she said]. But the business of writing takes up ten hours to every one hour of writing.’” (Karen Kingsbury interview, Christianity Today, April 30, 2007.)

Now consider this: what Ms. Kingsbury does in one year, it has taken me 17 years to accomplish.

I have published eight novels and one non-fiction book, but that doesn’t make me a professional. I write full time, but that doesn’t make me a professional, either. To be a truly professional author, you not only have to write professionally; you also have to work hard – very hard – at promoting your own writing.

It wasn’t this way when I was first published. Back then, writers wrote, and publishers took care of the publicity. Authors just showed up when and where they said we should. Ah, the good old days. That was one of the reasons I went into writing in the first place.

I entered college to study painting. But even as a wide-eyed youth I soon realized I had to eat, so I transferred my attention to architecture, which seemed like a good compromise. Then, as so often happens when we compromise, the scales tipped too far the other way. I went into architecture for artistic reasons, but ended up spending most of my time on the business side of things. It robbed architecture of all joy for me.

I vowed I would not make the same mistake with writing. I would write to the very best of my ability. I would listen to my editors and do what they said, even when it meant mass-murdering my darlings. I would work hard at improving my craft. I would think deeply about themes, characters, settings and plots (and writing page-turners!). I would strive to make every single word exactly right, and leave the business side of things to my agent and publishers.

At first that arrangement worked just fine. Then came the awful blitzkrieg. Mega-corporations began annexing small publishing houses. On-line sales put pressure on the bricks-and-mortar stores, which put pressure on book prices. Electronic books arrived, applying still more downward price pressure. Shrinking budgets. Consolidations. Downsizing. Layoffs. And most recently, the Great Recession. If publishing was a business before, the business had become an all out war, and in-house publicity departments were among the first casualties.

Pressured by their shell-shocked publishers, my author friends began to talk about their “platforms,” an idea I had only heard before in connection with political campaigns. They started publishing websites. Then blogs. Then posting every day on Facebook, and then Tweeting every day. Every hour. Every minute. They squeezed their novels in somehow — sometimes eight novels a year — because readers need new titles or they will forget us.

“When do they find time to write stories?” I grumbled. “When do they find time to think about the words?”

I had seen all this before, and knew where it would lead. The battle would go not to the finest writers, but to the best at business. This was not what I had signed on for. I resolved not to repeat my architectural mistake. I would dodge the draft this time. I would not become an ersatz advertising copywriter. I would be a conscientious objector to all of that instead.

None of this is intended to disparage any other author’s choices. One can be creative in business just as in literature. I learned enough in business to know that. Some are even blessed to be creative in both areas at once. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens were master promoters who from all accounts worked hard on their “platforms.” Rubens, Leonardo and Michelangelo, too. I would be an idiot to deem my path superior to theirs in any way. But again, it’s not what I signed up for.

Oh, how I wish I was cut from that same cloth, but for the life of me I can’t imagine enjoying a life spent writing something beautiful and interesting one minute, and then working to convince people it's beautiful and interesting the next. I was raised by an artist and trained in schools by artists to believe all good art speaks for itself. That may not be true, but I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.

Still, in wartime one must try to do one’s duty.

I published a website, (but I only remember to modify it when a new novel is published). I have a blog, (but it has been almost five months since my last post). I am on Facebook, (but currently it seems somehow I have nearly 300 unopened messages and unanswered friend requests). I do not Tweet and have no plans to do so. I post here every month of course, but (please don’t take offense, dear reader) I usually dread the interruption. I devote most of my on-line time to editing at DailyCristo, but that has nothing to do with promoting novels.

In the fog of war I even came close to repeating my architectural mistake. A couple of years ago it had become obvious I must work harder at the business side of things or my career as a novelist was doomed. Losing sight of the Main Thing, I thought seriously of writing something that wouldn’t take so long to finish. A series of little pulpish somethings, actually, which would leave more time for the business of promotion.

Then I had lunch with a friend, an artist who knows me. He listened to my plan and asked if it would make me happy. He stared at me silently, waiting for an answer. He knew what the answer would be. He would not let me lie about it to myself. He saved me from a fate worse than the death of my career. This explains the dedication in The Opposite of Art:

“For Brad Coleman, who reminded me you cannot serve both art and money.”

My longsuffering agent will read this post today and sigh. (Greg, may God richly bless you for your patience.) My publisher will read this, and hate it. In fact my publisher may call it naive, and unfair given their investment. (I hope they will at least give me credit for remembering to include the novel’s title in this blog . . . twice!)

Others will think I’m self-absorbed. God has given me a gift, they’ll say, and I’m being a bad steward by not doing whatever it takes to make a go of it. I don't want people to think that way about me, which is a part of why I cobbled a makeshift platform together, but my heart just isn’t in it. I wasn’t put here to sell novels; I was put here to write them.

To those who think that sounds like pride, I can only promise it is not. And for comfort I can lean on Thomas Merton’s words, which I found years ago in a chapter called “Integrity” in his New Seeds of Contemplation:

“It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not. It is as much as saying that you know better than God who you are and who you ought to be. . . . And so it takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody but the man, or the artist, that God intended you to be. You will be made to feel that your honesty is only pride. . . . But the greatest humility can be learned from the anguish of keeping your balance in such a position: of continuing to be yourself without getting tough about it . . . . One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of him. In fact they are not sure if he is crazy or only proud; but [they will say] it must at least be pride to be haunted by some ideal which nobody but God really comprehends.”

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am not a hero or a saint. But I do have this ideal which haunts me: I was called to write novels, and only that. If someone wants to say that means I’m naive or unfair, or prideful or careless with God’s gifts, with fear and trembling I must disagree.

But I will admit it means I’m no professional.

Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the DailyCristo website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards. His most recent novel, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, art, and murder as spiritual pursuits. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I've no doubt that many are in agreement with you, Athol.

  3. Your heartfelt words are refreshing, Athol. Keep writing excellence.

  4. Wow, Athol. What a lovely, well-written and well thought out post. It doesn't come across as prideful and I think finally gets across your heart the way you mean it. Bravo on getting your point across and your intent. Perfect balance. I'm fairly good at the business of writing, but even I, long to just write most days. I'd guess it's that way even for Karen. We are so blessed to be able to get paid to write but the Bible says we will toil on this earth and so, as writers, the toil part is in large part the business of promoting. Thanks for sharing this. It really spoke to me.

  5. I am in agreement. I couldn't understand it more. Let those who excel in both be "professionals" as God called them to be. Let those who can force themselves to be "professionals" labor under the weight of being both writer and seller.

    Some of us just can't do both . . .

  6. Bravo, brother Athol. I love the art of storytelling. I don't love the business of storyselling. Some people are experts at both; they've got the skill to tell and the skills to sell. I daily feel the pull away from the writing desk to do that which does not come naturally to me. Thanks for the encouragement that comes from knowing I am not alone.

  7. Maybe this is why I may never even get published. God has given me the gift of stringing words together to tell stories (I've been told I'm good at it by people who aren't related to me), but it seems like to even be taken on by an agent these days your work has to fit a certain mold -- UNLESS God really, really wants you to be published, in which case He will make a way. So that's what I'm counting on. I don't want to fit a mold, I want to be the person/writer God wants me to be. I'm perfectly willing to polish my work until it's as close to perfect as it can be on this earth, but I don't want to "write to fit." That's not who I am.

    I also really stink at selling anything. I was always the kid in band and choir who had to pay my own way on our yearly tours because I couldn't sell enough candles, peanuts, lightbulbs, fertilizer (yes, fertilizer!) to make my quota. I failed miserably at retail, and went deep into debt selling Stampin' Up! card-crafting products. I am NOT a salesperson by any stretch.

    God has finally told me that if He wants me to be published, He will be in charge of that. And I would assume the same goes for publicity should it come to that Someday.

    Thanks for your post, Athol. You're doing the right thing, being true to the person God made you to be.
    Many blessings,
    Stacy Aannestad

  8. Love this, the beauty of your honesty, and I could've said so much of this myself. The irony that writing is a labor of love, and to do it, we must labor at things we don't love. Despise, in fact. Self promotion feels so . . . self. When all I want to do is sketch and paint with words and speak in layers of story and in tones and meaning and symbol that touch people. I feel like my story and my words are my tentative hand reaching out to strangers, to connect. Promoting myself feels like a violation of that tentative new bond.

    But we want to reach those people and we ask the publisher to partner with us, and while they get our addiction to art and words and they applaud our desire to reach readers, they are a business. And not an art gallery, but a producer for mass consumption. I understand my need to compromise for the sake of partnership, all the while cringing on the inside, reminded that introverts would rather work alone than have to expend precious energy to work in partnership with others. But if mainstream professional publishing is the means we've chosen to make our words known, we are agreeing to partner as a professional on our partner's terms.

    It's like marriage. I can't enter into a marriage partnership and then stay holed up in my writing cave and leave my spouse to carry on the relationship alone and do all the work without any effort from me. (Although if you look at my daily life, you might see something that looks like that...from time to time...)

    I am preaching at myself here, just so I'm clear. I wish I could have nothing to do with the painful labor of the business. I also wish I could be a princess in a shiny castle with someone to clean toilets and prepare my meals and keep the laundry going. I would love to write 24/7 and I probably would, if not for the fact that I would also like someone to actually read what I write and be touched in some way, and for that to happen, I have to step outside my cave and engage in the complicated business of partnership with those who know how to reach those precious someones.

    Thank you so much for this, my heart is blessed to know I am not alone!

  9. Thank you for letting us know that it's okay to revel in our individual strengths(whether word-stringing, promoting our stuff online, whatever), that it's okay to blend magical realism, suspense and spirituality (or whatever other genre we're supposed to write in), and that it's okay not to love feeding the "machine" of blog/FB/twitter.

    This is heartening. But I'm thinking, to get our foot in the door in this market, we have to bow to the trends that be and sacrifice some of ourselves to get that debut novel out there. I'm hoping that after that, I can become a social recluse and just write deeply felt prose the rest of my life...hee. Wishful thinking.

  10. Those to whom this all comes so easy are no more "professional" in my mind than those who have to work hard at it. In my opinion, authors who can publish multiple novels in a single year tend to be sloppy pulp writers. But because they seem to have a charisma to their writing, they are so fluid in their writing, most people don't notice that no time was invested in it.

    I prefer a book that has been loved and wrestled with by it's author. One that has been sifted and refined to a higher standard of quality. One that tells a story that someone had inside them and needed to get it out. A genuine story form the heart. Not one contrived for a target audience based on current trends and marketing demands. The idea of crafting a story with the goal of being an instant best-seller just seems very wrong to me.

    It may be many years before I finish my first novel. I am not a professional and have no intention of ever being one- but I intend to produce a professionally written novel. Will anyone buy it? I think good art does speak for it self... over time. It's a much more gradual process to become a beloved classic than to be the NT Times best seller of the week, but which one will have the greater impact, and be read by the most people? I'm not writing for money. I'm writing to tell a story.

    All that to say, Athol, you are a professional because writing is what you do and what you love. I think anyone who has published a novel and still loves writing and keeps writing after that whole process with marketing included- they all have earned the right to be called "professional".

    But I also sympathize with your team... It's one thing for an Olympic runner to downplay his talent- whether he gives all the glory to God, or just very humbly acts as if he has no talent. It's a very different thing for him to shoot himself in the foot before a big race.

    In your posts it seems like you are asking people not to buy your book, telling us that we probably won't like it- either because of the content or that it wasn't written by a professional. You had me convinced. But after you sharing your heart today, I think I might need to overlook what you've said about your book and just read it for myself.

    I hope your team continues to support and cheer you on, and even if you don't come in fist place I'm glad you keep running (even with that hole in your foot). You are in the Olympics, a "Professional Writer", and once you are there you are already a winner in my opinion- gold medal or not.

  11. Heather wrote, "I'm thinking, to get our foot in the door in this market, we have to bow to the trends that be and sacrifice some of ourselves to get that debut novel out there. I'm hoping that after that, I can become a social recluse . . ."

    I think that's both right and wrong. Nowadays, you probably do have to demonstrate a willingness and ability to promote your work in order to get a traditional publisher's attention. So that part I agree with. But although I wish the second part was true, I'm afraid in order to continue on with Book Two and Three and so forth, you must keep promoting. The days of reclusive novelists are mostly over. (Except for those already famous. I doubt if Steven King or John Grisham’s publishers care if they blog or tweet.)

    I was lucky enough to get published just before this became true, in the last years of the old model, when the division of labor put promotion firmly on the publisher's side of the fence. That has changed, of course, but I have not, which is the point of today's post.

    Unpublished writers reading this should understand that I have paid a price, and they will, too, one way or the other.

    For some, it might mean never getting published, at least not traditionally. For me, it has meant sales of my novels peaked several titles ago, and have been in decline ever since. That's what happens when the party who once promoted a product stops doing so, and no other party steps up to fill the gap.

    This presented me with a heartbreaking choice: to return to the business world I thought (and hoped) I had left behind forever, and where I am a fish out of water, or to accept the slow death of my writing career. For some time it seemed those were the only two possibilities, and I felt the desperation of a prisoner of circumstances.

    Only recently have I begun to remember that writing and a writing career are not one and the same. So the death of my career does not have to mean the death of writing. There is a third way.

    Speaking for myself only, as a person who was not given the gifts necessary to promote a product, if I can surrender my preconceived notions about what constitutes success in the literary world and find a way to ignore the pressure of that world to see success in terms of numbers, then I can continue to invest the talent I’ve been given.

    And that must be enough, because it means I must be willing to become unpublished. Or at best, merely one more unknown writer in a tidal wave of self-published novelists.

    It’s important that every writer reading this should understand that, especially those who aren't yet published. Are you writing to be recognized as a writer and/or sell books, or are you writing to write? Unless you’re one of the few who are truly gifted in both areas, given the way things are in publishing today you had better make up your mind and commit to your decision, because there’s going to be a steep price to pay, either way.

  12. Gwen Ford Faulkenberry12:55 PM, October 20, 2011

    This is a huge struggle for me. If I didn't have to make money to help support my family, I think I could be happy just writing to write. But to justify the time I spend on writing, I have to be also growing a career that pays bills. I have not found a satisfying balance yet between the art and business sides in my own life, but your words clarify as they comfort and help me. Thank you!

  13. Yup, I know, that's why I added that "hee...wishful thinking." I know that there's probably more pressure for the following books than the first (and what if you lock yourself into a genre you don't want to stick with, with that debut novel?).

    I'm so sorry to see the reclusive novelists go...along with the idea that your work will sell itself, if it's good. I'm still attempting to avoid the big bucks for conferences and get into the system some other way. I agree, Gwen--when we do this, even if it's our calling, we'd also like to make some money on it to JUSTIFY the time we dump into writing/polishing/promoting our novels. I know God can bless us this way, merging our love of writing and our need to help with finances. I know this, but I'm still praying to see it become a reality in my life!

    Thanks again for the wise advice, Athol. I always learn something from your posts!

  14. I've read Kinsbury, and I've read Dickson. I think you're writing for a very different reader. Not better, not superior -- just very different. You last two novels -- Lost Mission and The Opposite of Art -- left me rather stunned, thinking for days afterward about what I had read. Very few authors have that effect.

  15. On the one hand, I do believe great art sells itself. On the other hand, if you weren't a contributor to this blog, I might never have heard of The Opposite of Art, which I loved and would not have missed for the world. So while I wholeheartedly empathize with your position, please don't stop doing that little bit of promotion you do. But do keep dedicating yourself to the art of words.

  16. The concept of writing stories that will never get read is somewhat alien to me. I've written in the fanfiction world for years, and is one of the Places To Go for such things. Writing fanfiction, you know you can never legally make money off your work, so you write for the love of it, and for the reviews left by people who (hopefully) also enjoy your work.

    So in the hard, cruel world of publishing, why must we moan that our work will never get read? We could always treat it like fanfic, and share it for free, as long as readers promise to pay us in feedback. :-)

    (Not that this is much fun in the real world, and I'd love to make a few bucks off my stories, but I've been on the other side of the fence for years, and it's not so bad.)

  17. I had better buy up the rest of your books before they disappear!

  18. Thank you for giving me permission to give myself permission to draw back on publicity and write. :)

  19. I was told many years ago to remember this principle: It is my job to deepen my ministry and God's to broaden it. Since you know how hard I too have worked over the last three years to go the traditional route, and during the most trying time of my life otherwise, I think its time to remember that nugget of advice about my writing.

    Thanks, Athol, for ever encouraging me to stay the course with the craft of writing. My gift back to you is that I marketed The Opposite of Art every way I could and will continue to do so. Net results so far: four sakes that I can verify and more who will continue to hear me extol the wonder of its prose and story.


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