I Love You 130: What is a Successful Novel?

It’s important to understand that there are large corporate forces at play against truly independent artists (link, starting at 21:37). This is true in the music industry and certainly no less true for writers.

Now, I know writers are always looking for ways to make more money from their writing. I also have observed that a lot of online, armchair advice is given that tries to make the artist feel as though they are doing something wrong if their work isn’t selling more.

Now, to be sure: this could be true. As I’m fond of saying: Sturgeon’s Law is always in effect. So, there may be objective reasons for a book not selling. But the reverse doesn’t necessarily hold true: a lack of sales doesn’t automatically reflect a lack of artistic merit.

“Immediate popularity has never been a reliable
measure for the enduring value of any work
of art or entertainment.”

—Scott Derrickson, Director (Doctor Strange, 2006)

Here’s the catalyst for this post: In the just over one year since I released my debut novel, The Be(k)nighted: The Untold Origin of The Precept, I’ve moved 130 copies.

Back in ’21, after a brief foray into querying that confirmed my belief that the industry’s interests were focused on just about anything but the merits of the storytelling, I self-published and never looked back.

Further, recently, I migrated ‘Anti-fascist, and sane’ for the Winter—getting off of Twitter and Facebook for good, in favor of more targeted and less morally reprehensible social media platforms. Honestly, neither FB nor the Dirty Bird were that instrumental in my novel’s sales.

130. Is that what I expected? Is it good? I felt this was a good time to blog about this first year; and to share my observations about art and profits and success. To be sure, my opinions have evolved since I began this journey.


First, I don’t blog as often as I’d like. Like most, I tended to use the aforementioned social media platforms to get my juices flowing, do some reflexive marketing, and otherwise just vent. Further, I have a special interest in #medialiteracy and so my perspective is a little different than most; but, the world at large is catching up to what I’ve been saying for a while: Social Media is an industry profiting off of a public health crisis that it itself is creating (like Big Tobacco in times past). So, Social Media represents a complicating factor in all of this.

But, before we get into the tall grass: first things first, this entire post is about sales, not profits. I make such a small margin on each sale, that—given what I used to charge for my time, professionally, before I retired—whatever profits I’ve made total? …Well, I’ll “spend” more than that, just drafting this blog post. My takeaway for you: If you’re writing SOLELY to make money, my suggestion is to sell used cars.

Even using the word profit is misleading. My up front costs (e.g., cover artist, copy editor, etc) will actually further offset anything I might make for the foreseeable future. That’s the just the economics of it. So, this post is really for those who feel they must write. They have a story they must tell, and, at the same time, would like some realistic advice about how to balance those artistic needs with the commercial realities. This post is maybe more for them. But I will try to cover both ends of it.


Within the past two months, the publishing industry has been a-flutter about some revelations that came out of the recent, victorious DOJ anti-trust lawsuit against PRH, and the resulting commentary from publishing industry insiders. The bottom line is that somewhere between 15-50% of traditionally published books sell a dozen or less copies in their first year. And there are no numbers for it—but, presumably, this number is exponentially less, once you factor in all the self-published titles, too.

This, of course, is disheartening to all authors, especially self-publishing authors like me.

Although, maybe it shouldn’t be. Analogize it to another art form: being a musician. What percentage of musicians make a full-time living with their music? One in 50 or 500? One in 5,000? One in 500,000? Would we be surprised by any of those numbers?

Anyway, with the data from those blog posts: I took the more generous of those numbers, and I had a math genius friend of mine graph it out. And my 130 sales—had I been traditionally published—would have probably clocked in at around 30th-33rd percentile. And, again, against all books, including self-published, I’m willing to bet my sales are in, at least, the top half.

Even on Amazon alone (which is only one avenue for my book’s sales), today my ranks are: #3,560 in Superhero Fantasy eBooks, #7,102 in Superhero Science Fiction, and #10,808 in Dark Fantasy Horror.

And, for a brief time this past October during a marketing putsch, it was ranked #22 in Superhero Fantasy eBooks! (That is, before Amazon’s algorithm realized it had inadvertently allowed a non-affiliated book squeak into it’s top rankings and systematically buried it back under 1,000 the very next day even though that next day had even more sales (!)).

Dystopia Alert: I can only imagine how much harder all of this is going to be when AI start producing most of the industry’s creative output.

In the early days of self-publishing, before Amazon’s dominance and the resulting glut-cluster, there was a truistic stat bandied about that the average self-published book sold about 150 copies in its entire lifetime (like, forever) and most of those in the first year. Logically, again, those number must have gone down since then—but, even if they haven’t, my novel seems to be on-track. So, it seems to have done all right.


So, what do we do with this information? Well, I’m of the opinion that there are two diametrically opposed forces at play.

First, there’s what I’ve dubbed The Artistic Method (which I define as the entire process: the message of personality that the artist wants to convey, into the through the Art, and finally to the audience and the audience’s growth from enjoying that Art. NOTE: Hopefully, you get the reviews and audience ratings that reflect your good work.

Second, there’s the industry’s marketing efforts, which are more geared towards conditioning both artist and audience to re-create and re-consume the same essential art over and over again. I think it’s self-evident these two forces work against each other.

Occasionally, a work of Art balances them both, perfectly: think the Shades of Gray phenomenon, George Lucas’s Star Wars, or the Harry Potter series. Sometimes the Art precisely pings the Zeitgeist, and the audience just won’t let the industry run its pass blocking. The audience insists on making its own hits.

But, increasingly, this is a lightning-in-a-bottle event. So, as an artist, I think there are two choices. First, you can, essentially, write to spec: team up with an editor/publishing house/agent and write what some sector of the market wants. This is a tremendously valuable skill and, frankly, short of the scenario I mention above, it will be one’s best chance to make any money at all at this. Bonus points if that’s what you like writing, too, right?

The other approach is to lean into your own artistic vision and hope for the best as to the other end of the spectrum. There are tremendous perks to this approach: true creative control; you own brand isn’t subservient to the work but rather vice versa; and it’s a lot of fun. You don’t ignore the mercenary aspects—you still do the marketing. But, it’s just not your starting point.

In the end, which approach you take should reflect which definition/s of success you use. In some cultures the very definition of how “good” art is is measured by how much it changes the artist. I think that’s not a bad headspace to be in.

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 4 of 4)

Part IV: …Judge them by their content (of their characters)

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that
I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to
win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though
not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.

-The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

People learn by saying wrong things— even offensive things—that can then be corrected!

-Garry Kasparov

I believe in the values of the Enlightenment and traditional education. Free Speech. Reasoned Debate Of Ideas. Scientific Method. The sorts of bedrock concepts where you capitalize all the words.

Yes, historically, that’s mostly a dead white man’s game. But isn’t the answer to that (and to the problem of not enough minority/marginalized authors) to bring diversity directly to those areas? Nothing about that needs to silence anyone’s voice—and certainly no such censoring should be based solely on the speaker’s skin color.

I also very much believe in and support social justice causes. I am against the way our country is careening into fascism. Things seem rather dire to me on that front. So, if I thought that seeking out, isolating, and punishing the creators of a certain class of art was an effective means of achieving social justice, I might even condone it (at least, in theory–and only as a short term, emergency tactic…a ban on nazi paraphernalia in the military and on police forces comes to mind)…

—that is, if it worked. But it doesn’t seem to. In fact, I believe our present situation has been largely fueled by this new, illiberal political correctness.

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 4 of 4)”

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 3 of 4)

Part III: …Don’t judge authors by their skin-color…

I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t believe art should really be fully separated from the artist. But, I don’t think that’s what I’m arguing for now. What I am saying is that we should not use a work of art as a trojan horse proxy for our pre-judgments about the authors (or the social group they’re associated with).

Like Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery”, people use complaints of cultural appropriation, aided by social media, as a modern form of cultural stoning. Better to target and set upon a particular author or artist like the proverbial pitchfork-wielding mob than to put all of that energy into creating new institutions or movements that will actually affect the real structural change one claims to care about. Or, I don’t know, maybe go out and write and self-publish your own book?

My brush with this so far is only a few Twitter spats. I argued against some randos who had successfully gotten a white female’s book contract canceled by her publisher because they had read it and found out that her book had a main character of another race. I debated against their failed logic of trying to prevent someone from writing fiction solely because of the color of that author’s skin. (Sorry—I have to keep repeating it, just to try and get my head around the stupidity of it). The various Twitter trolls, in turn, said—just by me presenting an opposing view—that I was displaying my white privilege and even committing violence against them.

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 3 of 4)”

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 2 of 4)

PART II: …I only ask one thing—

Culture has various definitions. Most agree that “culture” are the customs, institutions, and products of a common society, regarded collectively. Or, to put it more simply: “Culture” is the shared outputs of a particular group. NOTE: ideologies, or shared ways of thinking, are also part of culture; but, ideas inherently belong to no one. This is why, for example, you can’t copyright an idea, only a representation (like a book or a picture) of an idea. So, we’ll stay with “outputs”.

Next, what is appropriation? This is a more problematic concept. If you put a criminal overlay on it, as the verb itself suggests, you probably mean something like the legal definition. Roughly, separating out some elements in a useful way, appropriation is: (1) Taking, (2) without their permission, (3) someone else’s property, (4) with the intent to convert it to your own use? Most deeper discussions will add a fifth, underlying element: (5) And done in a way to further oppress or harm the people of that culture. We’ll come back to that.

As I mentioned yesterday, I deliberately (#1) “Took Culture” when the magic system of my novel was to be the underpinning to all (including Native Peoples’) religions. Mea Culpa.

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 2 of 4)”

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)?

Chief Illiniwek?

PART I: In an Uncivilized Debate about Cultural Appropriation…

I grew up about ten miles from the University of Illinois (U of I). The U of I began in 1867, roughly fifty years after the state was formed. The official mascot of the U of I was the “Fighting Illini”, a representation of the Illinois Confederation of indigenous Peoples (about a dozen tribes) known as the “Illiniwek”. The Illiniwek, who numbered over ten thousand in the 17th century, were more or less gone by the early 19th century. The few hundred who remained reportedly joined the Peoria Tribe.

However, “Chief Illiniwek” to me was the name of the school mascot. The U of I had been the “Fighting Illini” since 1926 and “Chief Illiniwek” was the guy who—as far back as anyone could remember, and with a very rousing marching band tune behind him—would dance an authentic, “ceremonial Indian” dance at halftime.

It turns out, the dance was actually invented by the first few students to perform as “The Chief”, back when the tradition started. I just recently discovered that they learned it, indirectly, in the Boy Scouts, from that organization’s handbook, in the section drafted by Ralph “Doc” Hubbard.

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)?”

NFTs: Assemblage for the 21st Century?

Once, when I was in my early adulthood, my girlfriend and I were in an artist’s gallery (that is to say, her dining room—she worked from home). And, in her gallery, what she displayed was something like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Hanging from her ceiling, at various heights, were mobiles of…well, let’s just say disparate objects. Okay, to describe it: For all the world, each of them looked roughly like the contents of someone’s kitchen junk drawer, super-glued together.

When we asked her how she got the idea for her ‘mobiles’, she corrected us. These weren’t “mobiles”, they were “Assemblage” (pronounced: ah-sem-BLAJ’).

Later, we, of course, had a lot of fun with that word. It became a shorthand for anything remotely pretentious. But, don’t get me wrong: as a former art major, I know that assemblage is a vital and important art form, with a lineage that goes back directly to Picasso.

Continue reading “NFTs: Assemblage for the 21st Century?”

Davey, Tell Us A Stooooory

Okay. These past few years, I’ve set out to become a dedicated storyteller. In doing that, I’ve started to look at prose books, comics, and movies/tv shows in a new way. Part audience/Part practitioner.

Just as background: my tastes run towards what you would call classical story-telling. Good ‘n Evil, Character Arcs, Subtexts, good conflict, high-concept metaphors where I can find them, and resolution. Like that.

So, what happens? Well, these days, like some sort of fiction-sniffing hound, I find myself looking for what the shows aren’t doing as much as I am for what they are; this is especially true if they aren’t landing for me. It almost always comes down to a lack of storytelling. When that happens, I ask: What crutch are they using, rather than just telling the story?

Just to kick things off, here are a couple of my most despised Storytelling Avoidance Mechanisms (StAMs).

StAM One – Grimdark.
Look, I saw Chernobyl Diaries at a hotel. I was super-excited by the trailer. The opening premise was good. The characters were introduced nicely— aaaand then?

Well, then the characters were all methodically slaughtered, one-by-one. Except for one, who was captured by unknown figures, and then killed, for reasons that are never explained. Roll credits.

Continue reading “Davey, Tell Us A Stooooory”

Writers’ Politics

I’m a fan of Josiah Bancroft. You’ll notice I didn’t say I’m a fan of Josiah Bancroft’s work, which I am, but this isn’t about that. Here’s a Tweet from Mr. Bancroft, in response to the attempted coup last Wednesday.

“As someone with a broad audience whose livelihood depends upon a certain ambiguity when it comes to political matters, I respectfully suggest that the people who are carrying Confederate flags into the Capitol are dimwitted treason weasels who stan their mother’s panties.”

I mean, sure, I could write my own blog entry; but, I’m not going to top that, so why try?

I will say this—the topic of whether or not an artist has a duty to address politics (or to avoid it, for commercial sake), is an important one. As Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art: “…when art becomes a job or a matter of social status the potential for confusing one’s goals goes up considerably”.

Continue reading “Writers’ Politics”


Would you buy a novel from this man?
Would you buy an epic fantasy novel from this man?

As we begin the 22nd decade of the 21st century (Math!), I want to pay a fitting tribute to the year we all love to hate. So, let’s talk about…

First, it’s more effective when your villain doesn’t act villainous. Remember, sociopaths/psychopaths typically present as quite positive. This is no doubt why they tend to rise to positions of power. According to the study: ”They [psychopaths] display emotions only to manipulate individuals around them.”

It’s all learned camouflage so that people won’t realize that they are empty inside. That’s why sociopaths can act so hatefully, without remorse, when they want to. But to present them exhibiting evil without first presenting the glossy exterior will render your villain into just another mustache twirling cliché.

Continue reading “2020”