Saturday, November 25, 2006


Linking to authors' websites from my list of Irish crime writers, you will find quite a few claims of bestseller status. Some are true, but most of us could never live by our writing. Well-respected authors often sell in minuscule quantities, and brilliant reviews do not correlate with brilliant sales. The "bestseller" claim is still worth making, however. A mass-market paperback can do well on the mistaken assumption that the original edition was a success, and "By the bestelling author of XYZ" makes a nice strapline. Most previous bestsellers seem to have been "#1", rather than #5.

My first book did actually wander onto an Irish bestseller list (presumably due to a computer error), and I have had the odd sensation of watching customers buyng my books, or reading them on trains, which many writers have never witnessed. So, relatively speaking, I have been "blessed".

The plight of the "midlist" author ("midlist" being a euphemism for "commercially unknown") is regularly canvassed in trade publications. One lives in constant fear of being dropped by one's heartless publisher. One is paid less per hour than the people who pack the books in the warehouse. And so on and so forth. Writers can be great grumblers.

Why do we do it, then? Because we can. Because we have to. But also because we might break out and make some real money. It's exactly the same principle as being a minor drug dealer, as described in the wonderful FREAKONOMICS by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (published on this side of the Atlantic by Penguin). Levitt and Dubner's chapter "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" point out that minor employees in the crack cocaine distribution business get paid less than the minimum wage, and work in conditions of extreme danger. Why would anyone take such a job, they ask. Because at the top end -- if and when you become a bona-fide drug baron -- the rewards are simply enormous. Winner takes all. But you can never reach the top unless you've started at the bottom. Ground-level drug peddlers do it "for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood".

That rings true, at any rate. The waitresses on Sunset were certainly among the loveliest in their profession.

"To the kids growing up in a housing project on Chicago's south side," Levitt and Dubner write, "crack dealing was a glamour profession. For many of hem, the job of gang boss - highly visible and highly lucrative - was easily the best job they thought they had access to. Had they grown up under different circumstances, they might have thought about becoming economists or writers."

FREAKONOMICS spent 35 weeks on the US besteller lists in 2005, so the authors probably made the right decision. The rest of us will have to wait and see.


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