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Writers on the Storm

The legendary editor of Charles Scribner's Sons, Maxwell Perkins, worked with writers who became legends such as Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. None of these men knew celebrity until their first novel was published.

Back then, publishers invested in writers who could build careers. They paid modest advances and worked together to produce literature that could achieve commercial success. Some books would flop, others would yield a modest return, and some would be gigantic best-sellers. The best-sellers would fund the enterprise.

George R.R. Martin

Publishing has changed since then.

An unknown writer presents undue risk to a publisher. To achieve profit they must invest in those titles the industry will support as best-sellers. That said, a writer with an established audience has leverage. For example, the Obamas were awarded a $60 million contract from Penguin Random House for the President's and the First Lady's memoirs. A safe bet by any calculation, but the pendulum for today's writers can swing both ways. 

With a bona fide hit out of the gate, the pressure to follow it up can be overwhelming. One way writers can avoid the sophomore jinx is through a series that rolls like a snowball down a hill such as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Of course, a writer can become the series themselves such as Stephen King, Tom Clancy and John Grisham. Since many of the commercially successful books are wonderful pieces of literature, too, where does it leave today's aspiring writers?

J.K. Rowling

While the business of publishing has evolved with the marketplace, the marketplace has itself become more accessible. Backing from a publisher with promotion and distribution can smooth the path to fortune and fame, but it's never an easy path. It's a howling storm out there and writers must put on their boots, fasten their coats, hold on to their hats, and trudge along.
   

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