In a recent discussion with other emerging authors about book sales, a thought suddenly struck me. (It doesn’t happen often, but when I have a thought, I am very proud, and feel obliged to tell people about it.)
Anyhoo. I thought about what most authors want; then I thought about what authors need, what they actually get, and how that affects them. And then I thought, it’s all very philosophically existentialist, when you think about it, with a measure of quantum physics thrown in. Because what an author needs depends solely on whether they are living or dead, and whether or not someone is looking at them, being as they are, living or dead.
An author’s needs are very similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, which is an obvious hypothesis, obviously, because authors are technically human (most of the time).
Maslow’s hierarchy is represented as a pyramid, where the bottom layers are made up of very basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter, but the very top consists of a whole pile of self-actualisation. Sense of self-worth. Contentment and fulfulment. You can’t get to the top without coming up trumps on all the bottom layers; to truly fulfil the top need, you have to have the foundation of having fulfilled every layer.
So, with that in mind, here is Sparling’s Hierarchy of Needs for Living Authors:
1. Respect, Success and Solvency
2. Success and Solvency
And for the Dead:
1. Respect, Respect and Respect
2. Respect and Respect
It’s all very well writing because we just, ohmigod, have to write! Look, it is a compulsion, and an admirable one (sometimes). It could be described as a need. But if it was an end in itself, you wouldn’t be reading this now.
Literary fiction makes no money. It’s a sad fact for a country full of highly respected – nay, venerated authors of literary fiction, who would make your eyes bleed with the poetry of the prose and the shocking insights into the damaged psyche of the peripheral European gombeen. We’re awash with lofty prizewinners and god-like literary genius. Every now and then they win decent cash prizes and have the odd sales spike based on nominations, long lists and short lists. But it’s not going to keep them in incontinence pants into their old age, is it?
And what of the bestselling authors? The folks who make all the money?
Well. They don’t live here.
What is literary success?
In a previous post I asked what if we all don’t want to be lofty prizewinners? What if you want to be the authoring equivalent of a middle manager in an office supply company? What if you just want to write, and get paid enough to live, with the possibility of a blockbuster ever within spitting distance – for motivation, like?
Lots of people will tell you that to write to get published (or to make money) is a base, mean goal. That it is an affront to the creative process, and should not be pursued under any circumstances. To that I say: Bollocks.
We all have to eat. We have to live, raise families, pay the electricity bill and have enough left over to have a night out at the cinema, before we chew each other to pieces staring at the four mortgaged walls we just can’t afford.
There is no shame in either making money, or targeting it. It is a business for publishers, agents and retailers. Why not authors? And in order to do make money, you have to write what people want. The best advice I ever heard, was to write what you would want to read yourself.
In the meantime, have a look at where you are on the hierarchy of needs. Our definitions of success will vary wildly, so if success means to you only that you have produced something you are proud of, so be it. And if you are independently wealthy and in no need of royalties, great: go and build your own pyramid (or pay someone else to do it).
At the end of the day, people can respect me all they like when I’m dead. I’d rather be a derided commercial author with money in the bank than a venerated genius who dies after a long struggle putting both pen to paper, and hand to mouth.