The myth of posthumous success

According a Unesco study, 328,259 new books were published in the United States in 2011, the most recent year for which complete data are available. That is by far the most conservative of many estimates, some of which range up to 10,000,000.

There’s general agreement among publishers and book retailers that more than 85% of the books published each year sell fewer than 100 copies. Even at the low Unesco number, that’s 279,020 books that will never find an audience beyond a small group of the authors’ close friends and relatives.

In the face of that dismal prospect authors console themselves with high hopes for eventual recognition and vindication because, as they often proclaim, “Many great writers are not recognized in their lifetimes, but achieve posthumous fame.”

Not true.

The authors who are ignored today will not be magically lionized after death. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a single English-language writer who went from invisible to literary luminary after shuffling off her or his mortal coil.

The nineteenth century offers an excellent example.

Quick, name an unrecognized nineteenth-century English-language author or poet who went on to posthumous recognition.

The six most common responses are Thoreau, Poe, Keats, Austen, Melville and Dickenson. But actually the work of all six was, to a greater or lesser extent, reasonably well disseminated in their lifetimes:

Henry David Thoreau famously had to self-publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and he only sold 300 of the 1,000 copies he had printed. But given the number of literate people in America in 1849, that’s the equivalent of about 9,000 copies today. Certainly not fifty shades of a blockbuster book, but not a dismal failure either.

Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” was an immediate success and although Poe never became wealthy he did eek out a living as a writer.

John Keats managed to secure a publisher, though critical approval eluded him in his lifetime. But just getting a publisher is better than most of the 279,020 under 100 copies writers can manage.

Jane Austen had publishing successes with Sense and Sensability, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma in her lifetime, despite a lack of critical enthusiasm for them.

Herman Melville was forgotten by the time he died, but his first book earned an advance that would be $36,000 in today’s dollars. The next one got a combined $65,000 advance (again, in 2012 dollars) from his British and American publishers. Not J.K. Rowling money, but that would be more than respectable for most authors today. And those books were Typee and Omou. Billy Budd and Moby Dick were yet to come.

Emily Dickenson’s poems “Nobody knows this little rose,” “The Snake,” “The Sleeping,” “Sunset,” other poems and some letters were published in the Springfield Republican during her lifetime, as were poems in Drum Beat, the Brooklyn Daily Union and an anthology, A Masque of Poets.

There are four key factors which will keep this generation’s unknown books and writers from becoming the next generation’s literary celebrities:

1. The six writers or poets most often touted as posthumous successes all had perceptible literary presences while alive, and that their renown – and/or their sales – grew from a pre-established base after their deaths. Like Elvis.

2. No one seems able to come up with any nineteenth-century English-language writer who was completely unknown is her or his lifetime and became celebrated after death. (I use nineteenth-century writers as an example because now, just over a dozen years into the twenty-first century, there may still be time for twentieth-century writers to be discovered.) Not one. The six most often cited all had some perceptible literary presence.

3. No completely unknown writer emerged from complete obscurity to prominence among the mere thousands published in the nineteenth century. It is inconceivable that one will emerge from under the pile of the half billion or more who will publish in the twenty-first century.

4. Books represented a much more significant possession in the nineteenth century. A volume – even one which the owner did not greatly admire – had substance and value, and was unlikely to be discarded. The collections of electrons on our Kindles and Nooks will almost certainly disappear.

So as Robert Herrick said, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Literary celebrity is not likely to be retroactive.




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Ten tips for building a freelance writing career

Getting started as a freelance writer can be daunting. It’s harder now than it was when I got into the business when I was fourteen, more than half a century ago. But these ten simple tactics can help.
1. Approach former employers. Also other companies in the same industry and suppliers to and customers of that industry. Plus trade magazines and blogs targeted to that industry. A base of expertise (or even just familiarity) is a significant benefit to people who buy freelance writing. It means you don’t have to be educated about the industry before you can take on the project, you’re less likely to make mistakes and you’re more cost-efficient, since you’ll need a bit less time to do the job.
2. Master a wide range of media. Blogs, speeches, brochures, white papers, corporate videos, TV commercials, magazine articles, press releases, annual reports (careful about the financials sections – perhaps it’s best to stick with just the “vision” copy), interactive training, websites, direct mail, corporate meeting scripts, training videos, print ads, YouTube videos, corporate Twitter feeds and more. I’ve often found that after finishing a project the client says “I love the video. Can you turn it into a website for us?” Or turn an ad into a TV commercial or a speech into a blog.
3. Once you get into a company with an assignment, try to migrate to other sections or departments. I got an assignment to do a television commercial for one department of a fairly large corporation. I have since done dozens of TV commercials, websites, newspaper ads, magazine ads, videos, displays, outdoor ads, direct mail and communications strategy consulting for eight other divisions of the company.
4. Develop areas of expertise. Mine were environmental, health care, travel, financial, food/beverage, boating, media and telecommunications. Clients like to hire subject matter experts because it shortens the learning curve, speeds delivery time, allows the writer to deliver a more accurate product and makes the process more efficient since fewer hours are needed. You need several because a few areas will not be in demand at any given time.
5. Be patient. Most freelancers I know began by working at a newspaper or advertising agency to hone their skills, then went out on their own. During the first six months we all lost money as we had start-up costs but little or nothing coming in. By the end of the first year we were earning about as much as our former salaries. Somewhere between the second and fifth years we doubled our former salaries. If you’ve been freelancing a couple of months, you may be right on track. If you’ve been doing it a few years, there may be a problem.
6. Initially, spend 40-50 hours a week prospecting for clients, gradually reducing it as business comes in. But never less than 10 hours a week.
7. Be absolutely reliable. Delivering on schedule, keeping the project within budget, being absolutely correct in your facts, perfect spelling, grammar and punctuation and effectiveness – that is, a product that accomplishes the client’s objectives – are essential. If you do those things, you will succeed. If you don’t, you’ll fail. I once had a retainer client double the number of hours she contracted for each month. When I asked what the key factor in the decision the answer was: “You’re absolutely dependable. When I give you an assignment I know that it will be delivered on time and it will be right.” Not great writing, not innovative thinking, dependability.
8. Be very, very good at what you do. There are many marginally skilled writers attempting to freelance. The most effective way to compete is by mastering the skills and techniques of writing. You may be born with (or without) talent, but you acquire skill and technique. In my experience, only a tiny percentage of freelance writing jobs require talent. But they all require skill and technique.
9. Never accept an assignment which you cannot do well. If the job is direct mail and you don’t know the techniques of the medium, refer the client to someone who does. If you try to do something for which you aren’t qualified you’ll probably lose the client for all projects. But if you say, “I’m not qualified to do that, but I know someone who can do a great job for you.” The client will learn to call you first with most projects.
10. Never work for free or at a discount rate except on pro bono projects for bona fide charities. There are prospective clients who will try to get you to do a “sample” job for free or at a discount with the promise of more and better paid work to come. The paid (or full-price) work never materializes, and when you get tired of being taken advantage of they’ll just move on to someone else foolish enough to fall for their lies. If you don’t respect your work enough to charge a reasonable price for it, why should anyone else?
Freelance isn’t for the faint of heart. Especially not at the beginning. But it’s a rewarding and remunerative career if you have the skill, persistence and luck to break in.


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Anyone who wants it enough and works hard enough can be a professional writer? Hogwash.

“Anyone can be anything they want to be if they’re determined and work hard enough and get enough support,” is a recurring mantra of our “Every child gets a trophy” culture.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. A recent example? Mitt Romney wanted very much to be President, but he failed. Because they didn’t want it enough? Of course not. He’s a politician. He wanted it fervently. But there were two serious contenders for the position and just one opportunity to succeed.

There is a finite limit to opportunities in most fields. Thousands of high school quarterbacks desperately want to be starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but only 32 can succeed.

Olympic athletes? Pilots? CEOs? Many aspire, few attain. There simply aren’t that enough opportunities for everyone.

Just so, there are a finite number of opportunities for professional writers.

I used to select candidates for writing jobs with a large communications organization. I typically had several dozen applicants for any open position. A small minority were qualified, and I hired those. A slightly larger group had some, though not all of the attributes needed to succeed. I counseled those on how to gain the skills they would need to write professionally. And by far the largest group simply didn’t have the skill sets and attributes to be professional writers. I counseled them to look in another field.

This is not to say they couldn’t be writers. Anyone with a writing implement and basic literacy can be a writer. My point was that they could not be professional writers. There were finite opportunities, and an ample pool of better qualified people who would get the available jobs.

So perhaps they couldn’t be professional writers. But how about authors? Can’t anyone make a living as an author? Don’t e-books and publishing on demand expand the opportunities for authors virtually infinitely?

Before hiring writers for a big communications company I screened authors at a literary agency. The vast majority – certainly more than 90% – of the submissions in the slush pile were unpublishable. Today that ratio has gone to 99%. Yes, anyone can self-publish. But the book-buying public is finite. And readers have well-established preferences in the books they buy. That’s why the vast majority of books published in the U.S. sell fewer than 100 copies. An author can’t make a living on that volume.

It’s unrealistic to say anyone can be anything if only they wish — and presumably work — hard enough. My 20/400 vision would prevent me from becoming a commercial pilot no matter how much I wanted to be one and how hard I worked at it. A 112-pound girl isn’t going to be an NFL defensive tackle, want it however much she might. A person with a double-digit IQ can’t become a rocket scientist.

Some people can’t make a living as writers no matter how much they want it and how hard they try. There are far fewer opportunities to write professionally than there are people who want to make their living at a keyboard. And not all the happy, delusional, wishful thinking in the world is going to change that.

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