This week I have been following with interest the rise and rise of indie-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking. In case you missed it, Hocking has over the last year or so been building considerable sales of her self-published paranormal romance novels through the Kindle store. Estimates of her sales run at on average 100,000 a month. Then at some point in the last few weeks, Hocking’s success became a story in and of itself and that part of the internet concerned with books basically caught fire and exploded her up to the heights of web-stardom. The latest news is that Hocking has signed a traditional publishing deal, and it seems likely she will be remembered at the very least as the first true indie-publishing star.
Amanda Hocking’s good fortune raises a few interesting issues. It certainly rocks the traditional publishing world, who simply can’t compete with indie authors that can make their work available online at $1 a pop or less when publishers are insisting on ebook prices of $10 or more to preserve their publishing model. And it makes it abundantly clear that e-books are now the primary delivery vehicle for fiction, and particularly for new writing.
But. The more interesting question arises from the intense excitement generated by Hocking’s success. Because while Hocking has demonstrated that indie-authors can tap real audiences with self-published e-books, it is not millions of paranormal romance fans who have made her a star. Instead it is the incredibly large number of writers seeking to imitate her success that have, through their fascination, become the very fuel of that success.
(I should at this point admit the existence of my own ebook, a short story published recently in the Kindle store, after being published in print and soon to be podcast.)
It is not news to anyone involved with writing or publishing that there are a very large number of people who carry the ambition of becoming a writer. It’s really impossible to know how many, but what we can say is that, between the vast growth in education and wealth in the developed world, and the array of democratic publishing technologies provided by the internet, it is exponentially more than a generation ago. In fact there are now so many aspiring professional writers that they have become a common object of pillory:
And yes, many, indeed most, will fail for exactly these reasons. But putting aside the millions of hopeless wannabes who will never get close, there are still literally tens of thousands of people putting in serious work, hour after hour, to honing their craft and drafting and redrafting short stories and novels. And given the very small number of people who will ever ‘succeed’ at the holy grail of becoming a professional, full-time writer, one has to ask…why?
At which point, I must turn to you, dear reader. If you are reading this then you (like I) are likely engaged in the thankless task of ‘being a writer’. Why, I ask, are you doing it? Do you enjoy pain? Are you addicted to rejection? Do you crave the patronising reactions of your more successful peers at dinner parties? What makes you do it? Why do you write?
Here is my answer. I write for al the reasons that we all do. I write with the deluded fantasy that I, despite the astronomical odds against it, might become successful and escape my mundane life for that of a famous author. (Did I mention I have an ebook? I did? Have you bought it yet?) I write because I’m one of those unfortunate souls who keep succeeding just enough to keep that fantasy intact. Somehow or another I have shaped some kind of career around writing, writing about writing, teaching writing. And I write because I like writing. I enjoy the muscular sensation of wrestling words towards some kind of meaning on the page.
But if there is one single reason above all of these why I write, and why the thousands of hours I have invested in writing have been worthwhile, and why none of the millions of aspiring writers out there are wasting their time, it is this.
I write to grow.
Emotionally. Intellectually. Spiritually. Socially. If I did not write I would be less a person in all these ways. I would probably have thousands of more hours TV watching under my belt, but I would understand far less about the world. I might have a few more friends, but they would be far less interesting than the friends I have made through writing. I would be less fulfilled in almost every way, of that I am certain.
We live in an age where, quite amazingly, millions of people are able to grow as humans by exploring their own fundamentally creative nature. That is a true wonder, and, while I might secretly resent the competition, if we ever reach the point where everyone of the seven billion humans on the planet are striving to be an artist of some kind, it will be a very good sign for our species.
But we also live in an age obsessed with the cults of success and celebrity. And I question how compatible the drive for creative fulfilment and the drive for celebrity can ever really be. The dream of success is no bad thing in itself, as a goad to fuel our creative development. But when that dream becomes the goal in itself, it risks completely destroying the creative growth and development which is the real reward of writing.
Amanda Hocking is, I have no doubt, creatively fulfilled by her writing. Her novels are well written, they know their readership and I believe they grow out of their authors genuine creative interests (if they did not I doubt they would have succeeded at all). They do the most important thing for any work of fiction, which is express their author’s true voice as an artist. But I truly doubt this is or will be the case for the millions of writers self-publishing dark fantasy, high fantasy, sci-fi, horror or other generic novels on to the Kindle. And this is a great shame.
Back in the pre-interent days of paper publishing, there were very few ways for people to succeed. Which, in creative terms, was a good thing. Because with every rejection it kept challenging aspiring writers to break the model of their work, and rebuild it…better, stronger, faster. As much as the multiplying opportunities for publication, recognition, success are an incentive, they are also a trap. Because with a few thousand ebook sales, or a few dozen good reviews, or a fan voted award or two, the temptation to say ‘I’ve made it! I’ve succeeded!’ becomes very strong, even when the truth is that you may still be a very long way from fulfilling your creative potential. From growing in to what you might become.
(ahem…did you catch the bit about the ebook. Its an urban fantasy. Kind of. Maybe more life an anti-urban fantasy. My Lovesick Zombie Boy Band. Go. Buy. Read.)