By Susan Roberts
Can you imagine making a movie career out of deliberately avoiding the camera’s line of vision? It’s a bit like flapping along in the shadow of Icarus, staying out of the sunlight, refusing to fly too near the brightness. No fame and glory, but the payoff is surviving to tell the tale.
Years ago I read a book called Shake the Stars Down by Yolande Donlan, a memoir of growing up in Hollywood. The author and her dance partner appeared as dancing extras in a multitude of Hollywood musicals, but if you watch those movies you won’t see those two because they danced everywhere that the camera wasn’t!
Why? Simple. If they had actually been captured on film, they would have been paid off at the end of that day. On those old epics, producers would not risk the audiences recognising an extra in more than one scene because it broke the illusion. Donlan made a flourishing career out of being invisible, because it enabled her to stay on the payroll for the duration of each movie she signed up for.
Inspired by this theme of invisibility, I once considered writing – but not publishing –my own theatre memoirs. I figured that I had so much dirt on everyone I had worked with that I would make more money from blackmailing certain people who would pay me to NOT to write about them, than from selling my tell-all memoir to a publisher.
Of course, that was before I realised two things: first, actors will do anything to avoid spending money; and second, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Make that three things: third, no publisher ever buys a book by an unknown author.
I generalise, of course, but you get the idea.
I have a friend who calls himself a failed novelist because his sales on Amazon haven’t been as good as he would have liked. I told him that he is NOT a failed novelist because a failed novelist is one who fails to write a novel. He, on the other hand, has written a novel. Two, in fact. Actually more, but he hasn’t put them all up on Amazon.
We might both be failed booksellers, but that’s not quite the same thing. No one walks past a bookshop gazing in awe at the thousands of books adorning its shelves, and then says, “The people in that shop are failed booksellers, because they have been unable to sell all those books.” If we don’t berate the booksellers for not selling, why do we do it to ourselves?
Rather than think of myself as a failed novelist, I prefer the term Invisible Novelist. Since I became a writer, the idea of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak has struck such a deep chord in me, that I could almost swear J K Rowling invented that bit just for me. Me and the millions of other novelists out there who are invisible to the world.
Millions? Yes. Here are some interesting things I came across on the Amazon Kindle forums used by authors. According to one writer, a year ago Amazon had around 20 000 new e-books uploaded per month, but that figure has since quadrupled. How can our books compete against a glut of over 80 000 new titles every month?
While everyone is bemoaning the fact that sales are down, someone found a book that was ranked in the 11 millions. Another author posted a link to a book on Amazon that was ranked in the 12 millions. This was not mere supposition – we could click on the link, go there and see the ranking for ourselves. One author commented that if any of us had a ranking of under one million two hundred thousand, we shouldn’t lose heart, because that meant we were in the top 10% of book sales. That may be flawed logic, but I’m going to cling to it all the same.
And then there is the problem of the memory card. In the last few weeks two people that I know have just acquired new Kindles. Are they buying books? No, because each of them has some well-meaning friend (different people who don’t even know each other) who has just presented them with an SD memory card – like the ones that you stick in digital cameras – crammed with over 800 free books. No need to buy what someone gives you for free!
I took a look at one of these memory cards, and these are not free classics like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. There are 823 books by modern best-selling authors: John Grisham; James Patterson; Stephen King; Patricia Cornwell; Douglas Adams; Dean Koontz; JK Rowling; JRR Tolkien, and so on. The other recipient says her memory card has different authors, and she has spent two months whittling down the 900 books on it to about 200 that she thinks she might enjoy, but she admits that she probably won’t read all of them.
What is certain is that neither of these new Kindle owners will be buying a book for a very long time. In the almost fifty years that I have been amassing my own book collection, my total is just under 1100 actual books, 600 of which are non-fiction; 500 fiction. Since I bought my Kindle a year and a half ago, I have purchased 57 books on it. Can I repeat that? I have PURCHASED 57 books. Okay, 53; four were freebies. I’ve read 57 books in a year and a half; that’s an average of 30 books a year. Maybe I read slowly, but 900 free books would take me about thirty years to get through. That’s the equivalent of someone’s lifetime, and I probably won’t even live that long!
Yes, it’s hard work being an invisible novelist, but that doesn’t mean we must give up trying. I do try to make myself known through my website, my two blogs and the odd posting on Facebook. I give away advertising bookmarks and I check my sales, rankings and reviews for my three books on
I probably don’t do as much as I should to get my name out there as a writer, but I am primarily a novelist and not a bookseller. Happiest when writing. And like Yolande Donlan dancing behind the scenery for all she’s worth, I shall continue to write out of sight and make my books the best that I possibly can, regardless of the fact that few will read them. Those few who buy are important to me, and I want to give them the best that I am capable of.
Just another invisible novelist…