Plotting Your Writing Career

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.


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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

6 thoughts on “Plotting Your Writing Career

  1. The blank face of bookshelves is, in my own opinion, not daunting nor is it a bad thing. But then, I grew up in a library. My Dad was librarian in a federal boarding school for American Indian students. (Creek-Kiowa-and-Cheyenne, I loathe the political designation Native American.) That library, in my day, was enhanced by the collection of materials sent by the War Relocation Authority when it closed the Gila River War Relocation Internment Center in 1945. Happily, the materials included tons of books, and tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of stereopticon side-by-side slides and viewers as well as an old-fashion glass plate projector and many, many glass plate sides. (When the Indian School was closed in 1988, I tried to see if these pictures might be simply declared surplus, and I would have hauled them off. But, alas, they apparently had been disposed of by a federal bean counter of some kind decades before the closure of the school.) To me, any library was the Happiest Place on Earth years before Mr. Disney usurped the slogan for use in some place called Disneyland.

    I said all of that to tell of an older man I went to college with. Over doughnuts and milk one day, he explained why he was just now getting back to school though he was in his mid-50s.

    “I was in college in New York,” he said, “and one day I was studying in the library. I happened to look at the thousands of feet of bookshelves full of books, and I realized how much I didn’t know, and could never know. A week later, I dropped out of school and joined the Army.” When he returned to school, the school library became an inspiration to him. “Now,” he said, “I look at all these books and materials, and I want to see how long it takes me to catch up with them.”

    So, I think, a writer has the same options. He or she can look at the plethora of books in any book store and simply give into intimidation, fearing he or she cannot compete with the writers who wrote all these volumes. Or he or she can decide there’s room for more books that he or she can put there.

    And the matter can be decided despite publishing data, book store orders, and other information that says there are too many books. One can point to the Book of Ecclesiates: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

    Or one can put one’s keister in the seat, pour another glass of Pepsi, tune in Doo Wop online, and work toward yet another important contribution to the Happiest Place On Earth, pre-Disneyland.

  2. Congratulations! The book shop looks like a great place for your reading. Your wife took a fantastic photo.

  3. Jim Porter,
    Enjoyed your comments. Seems like a daily habit of mine lately when I hear of someone complaining about what the government hasn’t done for them, and this that want to change everything from Politics to the Academy Awards. Anyway, at my age I don’t have much time left to wonder what all we did to the Indians who were here first. It’s enough to believe what I do know
    Also glad that over the last years my writing has been for my own enjoyment and I don’t have to pay someone to tell me about my voice, my plot, and my mistaken belief that I have to do much more than to sit down and write. I don’t worry about writer’s block and think it is wrong to scare people with the threat of blockage. I don’t think I have ever been expose to the number of scams I have seen in the interest of someone who wants to become a writer.
    One last thing is that I am appreciative of your father and his life’s work. You keep on keeping on.

  4. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…3/8/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  5. You mentioned writing something for Huffington Post. Please join me in boycotting HP until the gigantic collector of massive advertising dollars actually starts paying writers for the work we do.

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