Monday, August 2, 2010
Defining Success: Sometimes it's just survival
A writing friend of mine was wondering what he was doing "wrong" in not selling as many books as he'd like, and I shared this little story:
I just watched Ralph Stanley, old timey music legend, in a concert, and he did his thing pretty much the same all his life, lots of shows and albums, and while he was always known in his niche, and respected by musicians, it wasn't until O Brother Where Art Thou that anyone outside that regional musical circle heard of him. He was about 76 then (he's the KKK guy who sings "Oh Death" in the movie). When he sang that in the concert, 1,700 people were stone silent--even the little kids. You could feel the transcendent chill sweep over the audience. That was what you call a "moment," the phenomenon to which most artists aspire and which are precious and rare--the three-pointer at the buzzer, the essential stone in a chimney, the orchid of a hothouse gardener.
I bought a CD after the show just because Ralph Stanley joked that if we bought from him, he'd get all of the profit. He is amazed by his current success at 83 and he's enjoying it and grateful for it.
Hopefully we won't all have to wait that long for our own success, whatever that looks like. But you just never know when your time is right or when the world is ready for you. Do your thing and let the world catch up. Better to have potential than have peaked. You still have 6.5 billion people yet to discover you.
I was on a BBC radio show Wednesday and it reaches 40 million people and I am not sure I even got a single sale from it. One person emailed me and said they'd heard it. It was fun. I went to a comics convention yesterday, sat all day, maybe made $30. But an old friend from my radio days came by and agreed to do some audio of my work. And I met writer James Robert Smith, whose career is getting a big boost with a movie deal for his thriller The Flock. Maybe that was the reason for the "wasted" day.
You just never know which is the right thing, so do the things that feel right. I'd been active on the forums but now they have no conversation, just ads. I'd been tweeting a lot about the problems of the publishing industry, but honestly, nobody cares much except a handful of people in the industry. Readers sure don't. And even if it sold books, I am not sure I'd want that to be my "job." Running the indie books blog is one of my favorite things, and I am not sure it gives me any attention, but at least it adds something to the world.
I looked at my web visitor patterns yesterday--they come for the FBI profiler article, the Appalachian legend articles, the paranormal articles. So I know I need to work on those instead of more writing advice if I want to communicate and offer something to my visitors. I don't know anything about writing anyway, except sitting down and typing.
My approach is foundation building. Sure, I get a mild panic when my rankings slip, but this is like stocks--they rise and fall but they're always paying dividends. The worst thing you can do is not be ready when your time comes. When I had my most "success" in paperback, I was an alcoholic getting divorced. I was drunk when I wrote half my books and I made mistakes that probably prevented me from having an ordinary career, where you write a book a year and slowly build an audience--I was checking out at the time I should have been growing, because I didn't want to deal with people.
I don't know if those were related but I sure do know what I don't want out of a career. If I had been a bestseller I'd probably be dead. But that's just my story. I guess I'm just grateful if I can reach even one reader today.