So Dean Koontz had a pep talk today. An excerpt follows but you can read the whole thing here.
My second literary agent was a great guy. We became friends. He did good things for my career. Then he began to decline one book pitch after another: “I can’t market this. You’re pitching bestsellers, but you’ll never be a bestseller. You’ll always be a mid-list writer.” I was 29 years old and couldn’t accept that I’d already peaked. We remained friends, but I changed agents.
When Whispers sold only 6,000 hardcover in 1980, but a million paperbacks a year later, I expected better hardcover treatment. Instead, the publisher, a savvy woman who had much success, said, “You’ll always be a bestseller in paperback now, but you’ll never be a hardcover bestseller.” My next book, Phantoms, received only a 5,000-copy hardcover printing with no ad budget.
When Strangers hit the hardcover list in 1986 and Watchers in 1987, there was no negativism. But when I delivered Lightning, my publisher said it broke so many rules of commercial fiction that it would be a failure. She didn’t want to publish it “for seven years,” until after I had other bestsellers and could “get away with it.” I insisted Lightning be published in 1988, and it rose to number 3 on the list.
In 1989, following Lightning, when Midnight became my first number one, the publisher said, “Great news. You’ll debut at number one.” Before I could express delight, she said, “Don’t expect this to happen again. It’s a fluke. You don’t write the kind of books that can be number one.”
We had four more number ones in a row. Each time I was told it would never happen again. WTF? I was having success, but I was being treated as if I was repeatedly sticking a fork in an electrical outlet. I eventually moved to Bantam Books, where I have been ever since.
One of the hardest things a writer needs to do is learn to tell the difference between worthwhile criticism and mere naysaying. Here are a few ways to tell the difference.
- Worthwhile criticism will be highly specific; naysaying will be a broad kind of negativism.
- Worthwhile criticism of specific detail will be delivered in a helpful tone; naysaying will have a snarky edge to it.
- Worthwhile criticism comes from people who have a deep experience of fiction—writing it, editing it, marketing it; naysaying comes from people who have done none of that.
I’m struck by two thoughts, reading this. The first is that this naysaying appears in most areas of life, not just with writing. These words need to be heeded everywhere. The second is that this might be the most insidious war on the soul. Resistance, as Stephen Pressfield calls it. It comes from those who you love, respect or in some cases admire.
Also notice that he had these experiences after some measure of success.
He had an agent. He had a publisher.
For some of us, that would be a mountain climbed.
To ask for more or expect more might feel greedy. But Mr Koontz wasn’t wrong and by every measure I know of, he earned his success. If he had not understood his work’s own value, he might not have weathered these trials as well.
I see the book bin at the dollar store, full of books from authors I’ve never heard of. Those bins make me ache because every one of those books is a broken dream. They reached the goal, got the agent and the publisher. Yet there they are. Unread. Unknown. It’s real. Somehow those shards of hope feel more stabby, more bitter because there was some success.
Did those authors listen to the naysayers during the publishing process and that’s why they ended there?
I wonder if many don’t go into self-publishing just so they don’t ever face it.
Because while indie publishing is more respectable and yes, profitable than ever, there is a certain amount of grace too, still, when you’re not read.
It’s there, no matter all the protests of how legitimate indie publishing is. I do think indie publishing is legitimate and likely even smarter than traditional publication these days. Certainly it can be lucrative. But there’s still a niggling thing with it. It’s still there, we all know it. That thing is that this book didn’t go through the fires of rejection by the establishment.
Well, even those fires don’t always prove a book is worthy. Maybe the answer is to write books you know are worthy, know in your soul, before you bother with publication. Maybe that knowledge and confidence carries you through the naysaying and if you don’t have it, you need to go back to the drawing board. Revise. Edit. Rewrite. I think it is possible to know when your book is good.
It does give you some insight into why the naysayers do what they do, doesn’t it? It helps me to remember those book bins when I hear naysaying.
I know I’m going to have books published and they’ll be read. I know this not because I can self-publish, but because I feel a real calling. I know it’s not all up to me. I end in a library, like River Song. I know a bit of Mr Koontz’s background and can relate to him. A lot. I think he has similar beliefs. He’s got a strong Catholic faith.
I think it held him to his purpose and encouraged him. That made me think about my own faith. I’m not capable of separating this work from my faith and in truth, it would be wrong to try.
That brings up a whole host of other thoughts, mostly having to do with “you can’t get published by a normal publisher if you’re honest about your faith.” that I regularly push away.
But I’m not writing so-called “Christian” books. That’s not my calling.
A real Christian writer isn’t always interested in writing preachy Christian allegory. Many times they just write the world as they see it, and that world contains wonder because the world is actually full of wonder. Mr Koontz is certainly recording journeys of his imagination, but there’s an insight there into motive and character and the strangenesses of life that makes me really happy to read his work. It’s very honest.
I remember going to a women’s retreat and the subject was books. The speaker said we need more Christian writers not because we need more Christian fiction. (She lamented the amount of pablum, as do I.) Instead, it’s because we need more fiction written by Christians. More Jane Austen, more Tolkien. More Madeleine L’Engle. More Dean Koontz.
I think that was the first day I felt the call. That was in 1998. I’ve felt it for a long long time. It was a very insistent voice telling me to write. It sustains me through all the negatives. I don’t know how people function without it, am very thankful.
All roads hold their perils. It’s good to see them and to know others have made it through. I’ll remember not to listen to the naysayers. Thank you Dean Koontz.