Popcorn and the Single Writer

Kevin J. Anderson uses a popcorn analogy to illustrate two methods that beginning writers can use to break into print.

One of them consists of writing a single novel and polishing it and perfecting it until it is the absolute best it can be. He compares this to putting a single grain in a pot with just the right amount of oil, at the right temperature and waiting till it pops to produce the perfect single kernel of popcorn.

While this can work, if the kernel you put in is a dud, or if the one novel you concentrate all your work on is unpublishable, for reasons having nothing to do with how well crafted it is (theme, market, events in the world that make your premiss untenable) you're going to fail.

Then there's the other method that I - and a lot of other people used - you throw some oil in a pot at as close to a perfect temperature as you can make it, and you heat it. A whole bunch of them are going to pop, even if you get a few duds. (This doesn't mean by the way that we care less about each individual kernel... er... novel. And it doesn't mean that in the middle of the "okay" kernels there won't be one or two perfect ones. Possibly not the ones we expect.)

This approach, of course, takes its toll on the writer, but it has the opportunity for bringing the greater rewards.

What Kevin didn't say is that for at least the last ten years and probably more, publishers have taken this approach to writers themselves. It used to be they carefully selected a writer and often invested considerable time and effort in helping him or her perfect the craft and improve. Perhaps there are still editors out there that do that. One or two of mine have been very good, but often work with limited time, because these days their job is not to help the writer progress, improve or even become more commercial. At best, if they're interested in you, they give you a call and make suggestions. My friend Rebecca Lickiss, for instance, at one time got asked to write a "bigger" novel. But that was all the guidance she got.

Gone are the days of legendary editors shaping a house to their vision and keeping writers for years as long as they were paying their own way, trying to help that writer develop a following.

These days, and I think since publishers have been able to control every process of distribution and exposure a writer can get/have so that they could "comfortably manufacture bestsellers" at will, they have used the popcorn theory with authors.

Well, not quite, because they do have favorites. In the center of the pot, they would clear a little space and drop one or two little favored kernels they shepherded to the popping into bestsellerdom. The rest of the kernels were thrown in haphazardly, around the edges, where it might be too hot or too cold. And if they didn't pop they got thrown away and other kernels thrown in.

This total absence of response to market signals - in fact, inability to get market signals - since what the system was rigged for was GIGO, that is to give you back what you put in, didn't bother anyone, because those perfect kernels that popped meant great profits for the houses. Also, the smart ones were aware that the house giveth and the house taketh away and they would toe the line. The dumb ones... well, there were always replacements for those.

But now in the brave new world of electronic publishing, which will only grow faster as paper books grow more expensive - and for our friends across the pond, this is guaranteed as our price of energy is skyrocketing, thereby skyrocketing manufacturing and transport as well - anyone with a name, no matter how acquired has a great incentive to publish him or herself. As Dave Freer detailed in his Monday post, over at Mad Genius Club there is no real reason for bestsellers to go with mainstream publishers anymore, and sooner or later they'll all realize it.

This means the popcorn theory of publishing is dead. Heaven alone knows how many publishing houses it will take with it.

To me this seems amazingly obvious, as it seems amazingly obvious that the only way for a publishing house to stay afloat and prosper is to establish a brand - a taste if you will. The only way for a publishing house to stay afloat is to return to the days of legendary editors, say a Hugo Gernsback or a John W. Campbell, who take authors in whom they find a glimmer of something that could be great and mold and shape them and help them find their audience.

The big ones will still escape - unless you really make sure your brand is a value added (and you might. I know people who read everything Baen publishes, for instance, just for the brand) - but by the time they escape they'll have been writing for you for years and getting incrementally better. And those who aren't total SOBs might even write for you, on the side, for years after they start a solo-publishing career, because they're grateful for the help you gave them.

Why aren't any of the businessmen in publishing houses seeing this? Have I made some huge mess in my reasoning? Because this has gone beyond "obvious" to "plain as the nose on your face." I don't understand how anyone can miss it, much less people whose livelihood depends on the current, soon to become toxic, model.

*crossposted at According to Hoyt and Mad Genius Club*

posted by Sarah on 03.09.11 at 02:18 AM


I know people who read everything Baen publishes, for instance, just for the brand

You sank my battleship!

Phelps   ·  March 9, 2011 2:18 PM

Ran across this "Crime Writer Makes a Killing With 99 Cent E-Books" - thought you might find it interesting.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  March 9, 2011 5:24 PM

The way that I see it shaking out is that instead of editors at the traditional publishing houses selecting those few with promise and shepherding them along and perhaps at the end of it reaping great rewards when they write the best-seller, or a literary agency doing the selecting ... I think the marketplace is doing the shaking-out, of those writers who do have a)talent, b)persistence, and c) mad self-promotion skilz. Those indy-pubbed or self-pubbed writers who do establish a following will be seen as worthwhile additions to the traditional publisher. Meanwhile, the already well-established traditionally-published writers who have a large readership -- they will go over the walls to be indy-pub writers because of the greater control. So traffic in two ways, on intersecting paths. And no, I don't think the traditional publishers see it. They're too busy chasing celebrities.

Sgt. Mom   ·  March 9, 2011 5:40 PM

I sounds like the niche for publishing houses is to take authors from minor celebrity status to celebrity status. The super celebrities then go out on their own - even more so those who went from no name to minor celebrity on their own.

It may well be a profitable market. It will not be a large one. And it is self limiting.

M. Simon   ·  March 9, 2011 6:08 PM

Sgt Mom (btw, I lost my password to that email account. yes, I'm hopeless, why do you ask.)

My HUGE issue is self promo. Partly because I TRULY don't enjoy it. The whole thing Eric posted about introverts. My favorite place is at the keyboard, with cat on lap, writing. BUT life is what it is, eh?

Sarah   ·  March 9, 2011 6:34 PM


Was it a submarine?

Sarah   ·  March 9, 2011 6:34 PM


I left home early this morning, right after posting this, and didn't come back till just now. I did insty on the kindle, which means I didn't click on that one, as I want to ANALYZE it. Intuitively, though, sounds about right. And after I get a replicator (ala Calvin) I'm going to set one of the Sarahs to writing a mystery and/or romance line to test this hypothesis.

Sarah   ·  March 9, 2011 6:36 PM

M. Simon,

That's one of the approaches I see. For smaller houses, perhaps picking up midlisters who've shown the kind of promise that Sgt. Mom talks about and then making them minor celebrities.

My big issue is I want my writing to be a celebrity but not me, necessarily.

Sarah   ·  March 9, 2011 6:37 PM

M. Simon - I know, I really love nothing more than to sit down at the computer with cat-on-lap for a day of writing...I don't think that I am an extrovert at all, it's just that I've learned by constant practice, how to do a good "introvert" in personal interactions. It is easier when the people I am interacting with are book-fans, and want to talk about them: think of yourself then, as the support system to your books/writing.
I think that was one of the reasons I went with a pen-name. The real ME is back there, behind the scenes, living an ordinary life, cooking dinner and running out the recyclables on trash-collection day. The writer-ME is the persona out there, doing book-talks, and marketing on-line. Just like I used to do as a radio DJ - the persona I put out on the radio, and later on the internet - that was an aspect of ME, not quite the real ME.
Slightly schizo? Yes, I suppose it is, but if you are out there as a public persona -- even if in only a minor way -- then for your own sanity, I believe that you have to make that separation, and to take it to heart.

Sgt. Mom   ·  March 9, 2011 8:11 PM

*sigh* my heart for a good edit after function. Second sentence should read:
I don't think that I am an extrovert at all, it's just that I've learned by constant practice, how to do a good "extrovert" in personal interactions."

Sgt. Mom   ·  March 9, 2011 8:14 PM

Sgt Mom
that was me, not M. Simon :) But I do something similar. I have "con Sarah" who puts on makeup and talks a lot, and can be wickedly funny. It's not REAL Sarah.

But my problem is more basic, I've found. Because I flinch away from spotlight, I don't SEE marketing opportunities. Which is kind of stupid, but true, anyway. And my husband has to go with me to cons, otherwise when people say "what do you write?" I say "Books." You see the problem?

Sarah   ·  March 9, 2011 8:42 PM

Oh, dear ... that answer does not work at all. Could you try saying "I write books about ..." and add a sentence or so about your latest?

Sgt. Mom   ·  March 10, 2011 8:18 AM

My introversion has stifled many a blog post, and I often wish I could blog somewhere anonymously.

Eric Scheie   ·  March 10, 2011 10:58 AM

Sgt. Mom, unfortunately I blank out when faced with strangers asking questions. My husband has taught me to introduce myself as "I'm Sarah Hoyt and no genre is safe from me." Unfortunately I tend to segway into panic and hear things like "Next up, YA and male adventure, but not together." after that lovely introduction.

Sarah   ·  March 10, 2011 10:43 PM

Hmmm ... maybe your husband can coach you some more. On the other hand, I've always heard that joining a club like Toastmasters is a good way to practice speaking extemporaneously.

Sgt. Mom   ·  March 11, 2011 8:21 AM

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