This is a guest post from J Daniel Sawyer. It’s a little stronger than articles I personally write, but I respect Dan and he has written a hell of a lot of fiction so has way more experience than me. I interviewed him about his prolific word count here.
*Everything I’m about to say applies only to original fiction. Fan fiction is not legal to write, much less sell, so don’t even ask.*
A couple weeks ago a blog post started to make the rounds about putting a project in the drawer–a project that the author had spent years writing, looking for an agent on, and then having their agent search for a publisher. Now that the agent had declared the book dead, the author was talking about the grief and disappointment about putting the novel away, forever.
Yes, the author considered self publishing, but didn’t want to invest the large amounts of time and money that are allegedly required.
For this author, it is now officially what authors call a “trunk novel.” One that’s been officially abandoned.
Authors have always had trunk novels: either the ones they never finished (and thus aren’t suitable in any case), ones they finished very early in their writing career (and are virtually unreadable), and ones they never sold (but are perfectly servicable pieces of fiction).
But the world has changed, and now, not to put too fine a point on it, keeping a completed and coherent trunk novel (or short story) in the trunk is a mistake. It’s bad business. It’s simply…well…dumb.
If you keep a completed novel on your trunk–or burn it, as melodramatic authors have done in ages past–you’re leaving money on the table. Fact is that there are enough readers out there that almost any competently written story (and many that aren’t) will strike close to the heart of someone. Sure, if it doesn’t strike close to many hearts it won’t make much money, but even content farm books make some money.
And believe me, a book has to sell REALLY badly to fail to earn a profit as an indie ebook.
It takes fifteen minutes on a good day, forty-five on a bad day, to format an ebook. Add another twenty minutes to three hours to do cover art (and, if you’re licensing artwork, anywhere from $5 to $500), depending on what kind of an anal-retentive nutcase you are (I speak here mainly of myself), another hour to write your cover copy, create your tag cloud, and upload it to all the relevant markets, and you’re done. So, once you’ve had a bit of practice, you’re looking at a worst case of a work day invested, plus $500.
Of course, this doesn’t count the time you spent writing and proofreading and (if you’re a new writer who hasn’t learned better yet, “polishing” every sentence of) the book. That’s because those are your sunk costs which you’re gonna incur whether you go indie or sell on to legacy. So it’s not honest to include that cost in a calculation of whether to go indie or trunk a novel. The sheer sunk cost of the writing should make this decision easy: after all, would YOU work somewhere for several months, but then NOT go pickup your paycheck when they called and told you they don’t have your mailing address?
So, let’s say that when you do your bookeeping, you value your labor at $50/hr. That means, worst case, you’re into the book for $900 ($500 for VERY expensive art, and $400 for your time) , and probably a lot less. Since your ebook will be available forever, you’re going to make a profit on it even if it only sells one copy a month for the rest of your life (assuming you don’t have a reckless driving habit or a terminal disease).
If this is the case, then why do people not self-pub their trunk novels?
That’s an easy one. Ego.
The ego comes in a couple different packages, which mostly boil down to two sorts. And one of them is really, really unhealthy.
This unhealthy sort says: “If I self-publish I’m a failure/admitting I’m not good enough.” I’m not sure I can do justice to the different flavors of bullshit that go into this, but I’m gonna give it the old college try.
First, it’s childish. Children seek the approval of others to know they’re okay. This move makes your self-worth as an author–your professional self-respect–subject to the tastes of a small segment of the potential market. Books are rejected all the time for issues that have nothing to do with the quality of the prose or the storytelling–reasons having to do with marketing considerations, corporate policy, budget, the personal tastes of the editors, and the mood they were in the day they read the proposal/sample/manuscript.
Second, it’s a shield for unacknowledged insecurity. The fear that it might not sell oozes out the sides of a lot of mouths that utter this excuse. Hey, writers are afraid no one will like them. I get it. Even the truly egotistical among us have bouts with insecurity. But if self-pubbing is too ego-bruising, you really should be seeing a therapist rather than trying to win the approval of an agent or an editor. At least with a therapist, transference and projection are expected.
Third, it’s class warfare bullshit. The arts establishment in the western world is easily the most elitist bastion of cultural snobbery outside of the Skull and Bones fraternity or the legislative branch of the European Union. The people who sit at the top (critics, editors, and financiers) like being the ones who rule one thing in order, another out of order, according to their own tastes and politics, and have the world follow suit. It may be true that your trunk novel is a steaming pile of pig’s vomit, but if it connects with 1/1000th of 1% of readers, then for them it was a great book. To hell with the critics. (And if you’re worried about it damaging your brand, use a pen name).
Fourth, it reveals a slave’s mentality. If you’ve confused success with a particular business model (such as legacy publishing) with “legitimacy” or “being a REAL writer,” you’re thinking like a slave. A REAL writer is one who writes. A pro is one works his or her ass off to build virtuosity as an artist and a craftsman, who learns their business and exploits their properties in whatever markets they can gain access to. That includes finding end runs around roadblocks, and not letting your career and income be subject to the prejudices of less adaptable folk.
A healthy ego, on the other hand, is one that stands up for itself. It’s the master of its own destiny rather than the victim of circumstance,
and there are a couple reasons that come out of a healthy ego that some people decide not to publish a trunk novel:
1) The novel is very early, and virtually unreadable We’ve all got one or two of these. But if you’ve got more than one or two or maybe three, you may want to solicit the opinion of a trusted first reader to see if you’re not just fooling yourself. It may not be the best work you”ll ever do, but if it tells a competent story, there’s no reason to let it sit in the drawer. If you’re afraid of upsetting your regular fans who are used to the higher standards you set far later in your career, you can always use a pseudonym. Even Heinlein, Bradbury, and Silverberg used this trick for stories they felt weren’t up to their usual standards. With rare exceptions, none of them ever sat on their stories–they kept all stories on the market till they sold (even if they never sold).
2) The novel is ethically/politically/socially inconvenient It’s not uncommon to undergo one or two full-fledged worldview shifts in a lifetime, particularly if you’re a very inquisitive person. You may be a dyed-in-the-wool hunter who becomes a vegan, or a committed Scientologist who converts to Islam. In these cases, you can wind up with stories that are perfectly acceptable craft-wise, and would do well in your original community, but that are too didactic or specialized for a broad audience, or which espouse values which you now find morally objectionable. Or perhaps it’s a story dealing with radical ideas to which you are sympathetic, but which would damage your relationship with your readers (or your friends) if you published it under your own name.
These kinds of stories are sticky–do you publish them under a pseudonym? Do you plunder them for future stories? Do you abandon them entirely? The right decision probably varies with each story. I certainly have a handful of properties (that the betas really liked) that I wrote when I was writing theologically-driven religious stories. Since I’m now an out-of-the-closet atheist, I haven’t quite figured out what to do with those old stories yet.
— — —
For these reasons, and others, I think the time of the trunk novel is over. There’s no financial reason to trunk a novel. There’s no artistic reason to do so. There are damn few ethical reasons. It’s a concept that belongs on the scrapheap of history, to an era of publishing that’s now over, and ain’t coming back. There are only two people that matter in publishing now: The author, and the reader. If you find an audience, you’ve done your job. If you don’t, then learn to do it better–you’ll find them eventually, if you stick with it.
Do you have a trunk novel? What are you going to do with it?
J. Daniel Sawyer is a hat-wearing, obsessive-compulsive nutcase attempting to write his way out of the loony bin. He’s the author of The Clarke Lantham Mysteries, the award-nominated The Antithesis Progression series of SF spy novels, as well as numerous fiction podcasts including Sculpting God, and Down From Ten. Lacking in personal qualities things that make for respectable character (such as the ability to sit still and shut up), he’s forced to channel his lack of decorum into the fields of photography, a/v production, and writing for outfits like LinuxJournal and the occasional speculative fiction anthology.
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Ruby Blossom