THE THREE BIG ONES RULE
One day during the Frankfurt Book Fair of 2001 I happened to sit down with an ex-editor of mine and proceeded to complain about the disgusting success one of Germany's bestselling Young Adult authors was enjoying. How could this man (whose writing many agreed was "trash") churn out bestseller after bestseller?
The editor I was speaking to was Friedbert Stohner, the man who'd discovered Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World— the world's bestseller for 1995. Friedbert had bought my novel Unemotion to later be published by Carlsen Verlag, and soon after that, bought the rights for Phillip Pullman's, His Dark Materials trilogy—The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. He was also involved in the acquisition of the German-language rights for Harry Potter.
In other words, he was someone whose opinion I highly valued.
What is it—I asked him—that makes certain writers sell like crazy, even if their writing isn't exceptional … maybe even shoddy?
Friedbert's reply shook me to the core, more than likely sensing the subtext behind my question:
"Maybe you have to look at your own writing and see what it is that you are doing wrong."
What the hell was he talking about?
It took me a while to understand what he was trying to get at.
In short, a commercial writer needs to understand his craft, but also the business of publishing. You must understand that the odds are against you, and one of the ways to overcome this is to figure out which category and in what sub-genre you feel most comfortable.
If you wish to write and publish and not worry about whether you earn much if anything at all from your endeavors, then go for it, write in whatever category and subgenre you wish, simply go across the board. Nobody will care.
But if you feel you would actually like making a living from writing, then you must heed the "market" and the forces that move the world of publishing.
You must learn to look at your craft as a "form of art" where the art is as much part of what and how you write, as well as how you go about the business while still remaining true to yourself, true to your original drive.
Publishing is a business with forces that will inevitably bind you the moment success knocks on your door, squeeze you while there is still juice in you, and throw you away without remorse if there isn't any juice left, no matter how many millions you made.
In a way, writing success can become something similar to a pact with the devil.
You may get the riches, but you might have to pay for it with your soul.
I'd seen many successful authors—brand names—go down that path.
I saw is that if you want to be successful, you must choose to write in a sub-genre. Yet if you actually find success doing it, you must stick to that genre or … well, it might just be the end of your career as a brand name.
A Room for Three, a lobby for many
One day, while reading one of the many books on the art and craft of writing, I came across an interview with Nicholas Sparks, published in Brian Hill's and Dee Power's book The Making of a Bestseller (page 151-152).
"Essentially," Nicholas Sparks stated, "I came to understand that genres could be broken down into sub-genres—for instance, thrillers could be legal thrillers, techno-thrillers, etc,—and each sub-genre could support three major authors."
Nicholas Sparks decided to raise the odds of his success by playing on this. "Once I realized this simple fact," he said, " I set about finding a subgenre that, at the time, didn't have three major authors. I came upon love stories."
I heard Nicholas Sparks' story again from a friend of his, none other than David Morrell, the "father of Rambo" (First Blood), during ThrillerFest 2013—ITW's annual gathering of thriller writers and fans. The novel he wrote was The Notebook and he became Number Two in his sub-genre.
The lobby where many hope to pass the velvet rope and enter the exclusive room of the very successful is crammed with those who haven't realized there is only space for three in there.
The statistical analysis becomes even more important when you consider something else. It appears (though not yet verified numerically) that once the Three Big Ones are established, a sort of "Pareto's Principle" comes into play—the 80-20 rule, the "law of the vital few" … but with even smaller odds.
In other words, eighty percent of the sales in a given sub-genre are apparently shared between the three major authors, while the remaining twenty percent gets spread out between all the other authors in that same sub-genre.
This is the reason why, I thought, unless you are one of the Three Big Ones, you cannot hope to become a major brand name nor find the breakout success most commercial writers secretly crave to achieve.
OK, so I found out what core condition was to "make it big." Of course, many other variables apply, but the "Rule of the Three Big Ones"—as I started to call it, pun intended—meant simply that if the slots were already taken, one of them had to die or stop writing before another could hope to walk in those shoes.
Yet walking in those shoes comes with the inevitable conundrum, the Catch-22 "genre-pigeonholing" syndrome I'd discovered before, the "Thou shalt not write in another genre" curse.
Breaking the genre-pigeonholing curse
What Nicholas Sparks' interview gave me, though, was not only an insight into the absolute Rule of the Three Big Ones, but also the discovery that to follow that thread in order to become Number One, something else had to happen.
Long story short, those who became Number One were typically the ones who created their sub-genre.
Remembering my conversation with Friedbert Stohner at the Hanser Stand during the Frankfurt Book Fair of 2001, I now found myself with a new insight into what I had to do.
First, write within and stick to a sub-genre.
Second, choose one that doesn't have three major authors … preferably one that doesn't exist yet?
The quandary on what would happen if success came still haunted me (I want to be free, you see), but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
I had something to aim for.
What if I created in a new sub-genre? Could I set the rules myself?
If so, could I set certain rules that could help me break the pigeonholing curse?
In other words, could I find a way that didn't force me to write the same book over and over, constraining me to a series of convergent genre elements and conventions, that would turn my newly-created sub-genre into a straightjacket, into a life sentence in a jail of my own making?
I set myself to look at this frustrating conundrum from various angles. I asked myself what genres I would feel comfortable writing within, what genres wouldn't constrain me, allowing for greater freedom, and perhaps the rise of new sub-genres.
The answer didn't come to me right away.
Still, when I finally realized what I had to do, it hit me as an ‘Aha! Eureka I have it!’ Moment.
As a sudden flash of insight.
Life comes to the rescue
I had for most of my life been dealing with paradigm shifts in many major areas: education, health, economics, energy, to name but a few. These shifts were explored not only in theory, but in practical, experiential ways, and in some cases, over decades.
I'd even given conferences on such topics, for crying out loud. So, what if I could turn those interests into… thrillers?
Jeez, the victims certainly are many.
I had been exploring the thriller genre in the past few years, even written and published a book—the first scientific thriller in Ecuador: Cotopaxi Alerta Roja—Cotopaxi Red Alert, where the highest single-standing historically active volcano in the world threatens to awaken (first edition, Graf News, 2006; second edition, Libresa, 2013).
Suddenly it all came together.
I even realized that I would need to approach the English speaking market again, in spite of all the entry obstacles.
Everything I'd learned in the past decades about the publishing business and the craft of writing would need to be part of this new adventure.
The creation of Paradigm Shift Thrillers.
Now, The Galapagos Agenda, Book 1 of the Paradigm Shift Thriller series, is on sale. My agent—Ken Atchity of Atchity Entertainment International—took me on as a client because he saw the film prospective of it all. He seems genuinely excited by this new sub-genre and its potentials.
Or perhaps he’s simply as delusional as I might be.
That is to be determined.
More about Paradigm Shift Thrillers here.
If you are interested in purchasing THE GALAPAGOS AGENDA, click HERE.