By Mark Alpert
I’d like to start this post by referring to the photograph above, which my wife took at the book-launch party last week for my new novel, The Orion Plan. We held the party at one of my favorite bookstores in New York City, The Mysterious Bookshop. The owner of the store is Otto Penzler, the Edgar-Award-winning editor and publisher of mystery fiction, and the place is locally famous for its floor-to-ceiling shelves and rolling ladders. What’s so impressive about the store is the sheer quantity of excellent fiction packed into it. In this photo you can see the spines of hundreds of novels looming over me as I read a few pages from my latest book.
As Rod Stewart once pointed out, “Every picture tells a story, don’t it?” But when I look at this photo, I see a pair of stories, one positive and one negative. I’ll tell the negative story first. I’m very quick to see the downside of any situation, which is a bad habit that my wife will ruefully verify.
Anyone considering a career as a writer has good reason to feel daunted. The competition is fierce. The development of electronic books and non-traditional publishing has encouraged many more people to try writing fiction, and the new authors are churning out books by the hundreds of thousands. At the same time, the readership of fiction is under strain. Readers who used to plow through novel after novel a generation ago are now spending much of their time with Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Netflix. In economic terms, an abundant supply has overwhelmed a weakened demand, pushing down the prices that writers can charge for their products.
A similar trend is hammering the economics of journalism. When I was a freelance journalist in the 1990s the standard rate of pay was a dollar per word, and for premium work you could sometimes negotiate the rate up to $1.50. Over the past twenty years, those numbers haven’t budged. In traditional publishing, it’s harder to land a book contract nowadays, and advances are generally lower. The lion’s share of the publishers’ marketing money is devoted to their bestselling authors, forcing everyone else to fight for the attention of book buyers. Fewer newspapers and magazines review fiction these days, so writers have to set up their own stalls in the crowded Internet bazaar and come up with clever gimmicks to sell their novels.
Seen in this light, a photograph of floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with books can seem ominous. A writer at the beginning of his or her career might think, “How can I compete in this teeming market? Why would any book buyer choose my meager novel over all these literary masterpieces and much-loved bestsellers?”
But now, to the great relief of my wife and many others, I’ll tell the positive story behind the photo. When I gaze at the stacks of a bookstore or library, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t competition. It’s conversation. As I survey the titles on the spines of the novels, I hear a chorus of voices, each author contributing his or her unique dialect and viewpoint. Some of the voices are more compelling than others, of course, but the great thing about this kind of conversation is that if I’m not enjoying a particular author I can shut him up by simply closing his book.
Before my first novel was published, back in the days when I was just starting to learn the craft of fiction, I told myself, “I don’t care about selling a lot of books or making a ton of money from them. I just want to join the conversation. I want to add my voice to the chorus.”
This sentiment was a little naïve. Now that I’ve published six novels, I care very much about sales numbers and royalty payments. But for me, the greatest satisfaction of writing is participating in the give-and-take with readers. I answer all the emails from people who enjoy my books. I take advantage of every opportunity to visit schools and do readings and meet with book clubs. And I love throwing parties like the one last week at The Mysterious Bookshop.
The Orion Plan is about an alien invasion of New York City, and my obsession with extraterrestrials remains very strong. I recently wrote another article on the subject for the science section of the Huffington Post, which you can read here. If you want to learn more about The Orion Plan, you can go to my website.