As you may have heard, Thomas Pynchon’s new novel INHERENT VICE was published last week, which is newsworthy for many reasons, but my favorite tidbit is that the notoriously publicity-shy Pynchon actually lent his voice to his book trailer and provided a playlist of songs for Amazon. It is indeed 2009. But other than these activities Pynchon is remaining completely out of sight as he has for virtually all of his life — there are hardly even any photographs of him.
This got me thinking about a perpetual debate among authors and publishing types: Can you be “just an author” these days, pecking away at a typewriter in a basement somewhere but otherwise completely eschewing publicity and remaining out of the public eye, Salinger- and Pynchon-style, writing in a bubble-like Platonic ideal of authordom?
I think a few authors can probably pull it off, particularly those who are already established. But it’s increasingly rare for authors breaking into the business.
Every author is a product of their time and had to deal with the realities and constraints of their publishing industry. Hemingway found his way to publication in part because he knew the right people (namely F. Scott Fitzgerald), and his success owed a great deal to his larger than life stature, a literary self-promotional archetype dating back to Byron and beyond. Herman Melville became famous because he wrote travelogues about far flung locales during a time when technology and trade was opening up the world, then crashed and burned when he tried to write novels about silly things like white whales, which didn’t even sell through its 3,000 print run.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the authors we most associate with seclusion and anonymity became popular in the late ’50s and ’60s, the time when counterculture and anti-establishment sentiment was running highest. Let’s face it – Pynchon and Salinger are some of our best writers, but the whole seclusion thing just added to their mystique and cred during a time when a popular phrase was “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Pynchon and Salinger mastered the “drop out” part.
But setting aside what was true in the past, can an author today expect that they can write in, drop out and leave the publicity to the publisher?
As we all know, these are tough times for the publishing industry yada yada yada. Sure, publishers are buying fewer books, but they also have to make difficult decisions about which books will receive precious marketing dollars and the all-important “push” that can make the difference between obscurity and bestsellerdom. How do they make these decisions?
Often they go for bang for the buck. And one of the best ways to get bang for the buck is to start with an author who is doing everything they can to help out with publicity, thus multiplying the publisher’s efforts.
As Lisa McMann’s interview from a year ago describes, she received a push and lead-title status from her publisher for her novel WAKE in large part because of her self-marketing efforts. And, sure enough, WAKE wound up on the bestseller list.
This creates a self-perpetuating cycle. Authors who have platforms and who are savvy with their web presence and who are professional and composed and plugged into the industry have a better shot at receiving promotional dollars and marketing pushes from their publishers. Sure, there are exceptions, and let me state loud and clear that writing a great book is the most important thing.
But still, all things being equal, the edge goes to the plugged-in author. Take it from a real life sales assistant at a major publisher: they want you doing stuff. We can debate whether this is the best strategy or how many books blogs actually sell or whether this system is right or wrong until we’re hoarse, but the fact is: this is the way the business is right now.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
Melville lived in a time when the world was physically opening up due to inventions like steam power, Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in a time when radio and movies were helping create global celebrities, and Pynchon and Salinger became popular during a time of discontent and the rise of a powerful counterculture.
We live in a networked time. The Internet is quickly organizing itself into tribes of far-flung, plugged-in, like-minded individuals and shaping how we learn about the stories we consume. Popular books from THE SHACK to TWILIGHT spill out of highly devoted and connected small groups who then spread their passion to the population at large. The authors who engage their audience and inspire devoted clans of fans have a leg up over those who sit back and let the publisher take care of that whole promotional thing or who hope lightning will strike on its own.
There’s no such thing as “just an author” anymore, and I suspect there never was.
Just remember: even Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah.