(Almost) No Writers Are Famous

Dean linked to a great post that Joe Konrath made yesterday.  In it, Joe talks about how, contrary to what some out there assume, he doesn’t sell a lot because he’s “famous”.

I love reading this from him.  It’s not the first time he’s said it, but it’s great to see him spell it out so blatantly.  Here is what I think is the main takeaway quote from his post:

I’m mentioned a lot in the publishing community, which is small, closed, and uninteresting to anyone who isn’t in it. But because we’re in it, and we care about it, we incorrectly assume that because writers know who I am, readers must as well.

Dean says this same sort of thing a lot.  So does his wife.  Two weeks ago, Kris Rusch talked about a similar phenomenon in her Business Rusch post.  She, and Dean as well, gets really pissed off when someone presumes to say that she sells well because she is well known and famous, and that new writers can’t do the same things she can because they don’t have the name recognition she does.

Not to blow my own horn or anything (ah hell, who am I kidding?  You guys know I love to blow my own horn.) but in my comment on Kris’ post, I said the following after pointing out what she already knew, that she was not famous:

Hell, last February sometime, when I was starting to read writing blogs to learn how things worked (since I started writing my first novel over Christmas and then in January decided that I needed to know how the publishing business worked if I was writing a novel), I read or heard someone mentioning some guy called Neil Gaiman in their blog, or on their podcast, or something. My first thought? “Who the F^&K is Neil Gaiman?” I had never once, in my then 35 years of life, heard of the man or read anything he’d written.  Nor had I heard of Dean. Or you. Or any number of supposedly famous writers. And I read a lot of books….Seriously, writers know who the more successful writers are because they’re writers, and they hang out in writers’ circles and listen to what other writers do. Normal people do not. Normal people know the writers they’ve read before, or that their friends and family have read. Maybe they see a writer’s name on a movie credit and think to pick them up. Or maybe they just find someone at random. But aside from 4 or 5 HUGE writers (King, Patterson, et al), most people have no clue whether a writer is a best-seller or a brand new nobody like Michael Kingswood.

Sounds very similar to what Joe said doesn’t it?  I knew that without having to be told it, because a little more than a year ago, I wasn’t a writer.  I was a reader.  And aside from a few writers who I loved, and a few more who I knew were big (Robert Jordan comes to mind), I didn’t know who was what in the writing world.  But you know what?  Even those big name writers meant nothing to other people I knew.  I mentioned Robert Jordan to most people I knew and they responded, “Who?”.  That’s how it works because writing and publishing is a very small chunk of the larger world.

This is a fact that people in every industry can forget if they’re not careful.  Allow me to use an example from my day job as a submarine officer in the Navy.  How many of you people out there know who Red Ramage is?  Or Gene Fluckey?  How about Howard Gillmore, do you know him?  Those are three of the seven submarine captains in World War II who earned the Medal of Honor.  The other four were Sam Dealey, George Street (it was my honor to meet him once), Dick O’Kane, and John Cromwell.  In the submarine community these names are enshrined like those of Catholic Saints.  Everyone knows who they are.  But if you were to ask Joe or Jane Shmuckitelli on the streets who they are, you’d get a blank stare.

Time for a confession: I had to do a Google search for Medal of Honor winners to recall Dealey and Cromwell.  So even professional submariners don’t always remember the most famous people in their profession.

If the average person does not know the names of people who have won the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor, why in the hell do we think that the average person is going to know the name of a writer who happens to have sold a few hundred thousand copies of his/her book?  A few hundred thousand among three hundred million plus in the US alone, let alone among the almost seven billion people in the world.  Sheesh.  Writers really need to get over themselves and get some perspective.

I mean seriously, if any profession is completely insignificant in the sweep of history, it is the writer.  And don’t give me any of that tripe about how writers, by nature of their writing, change the world.  That is total bullshit.  Seriously, name me a fiction writer who, because of a work of fiction he or she wrote, changed anything in the world at all.  I can’t think of any.  I can count one or two non-fiction writers who had an impact on the course of history.  A little.  Thomas Paine comes to mind.  But then, he wasn’t a writer per say, was he? He was a political activist who wrote his political philosophy down and promulgated it in leaflets.  So seriously, what fiction writers changed the world?  None?  Yeah that’s what I thought.

Sorry if that offends any English majors out there who are desperate to think they matter in the grand sweep of things.  But sorry, you don’t.  You want to make a difference in the world?  Raise your kids properly, with a moral compass and a sense of honor.  That will have far more impact than any fiction you write.  Fiction is, after all, a lark.  A fun distraction from real life.  Entertainment.

So given that the average person on the street has no idea who the most successful writers are (not counting a very few who have become household names like Stephen King – they don’t count because they are the outliers of the outliers), why would their supposed fame be a valid reason for their success?  The short answer is it isn’t a valid reason.

That is very encouraging for a brand new nobody like me.  Maybe I do have a chance to do well, and make some good money, in this writing gig, provided I keep working at it and continue to improve my storytelling ability.