The Coattail Hypothesis
When you are a small-time published author (such as myself) or an aspiring published author (such as myself as of a couple years back), you are constantly thinking about how little old you could, somehow, make the big-time. Now, obviously, the immediate answer would seem to be “write a kick-ass book.” Thing is, though, you’ve done that. You know you have. You know you’ve written books better than (insert name of best-selling author of choice here) and nobody noticed or cared. How is that possible, you wonder? How can there be books out in the world no better than my own that sell millions while mine languishes in obscurity?
So, that’s when you set upon an insidious idea: There must be some trick. Some eldritch formula. A secret handshake at a dark doorway.
All that remains, then, is for you to use the secret catchphrase in a query letter or, perhaps, make allies with somebody powerful and influential, and then the money will rain from above!
Case in point: Just at the end of last week, my publishing imprint signed Wesley Snipes to a book deal. Not only my publisher, mind you, but my specific editor at said publisher is going to be working with Mr. Snipes. Cool, right? And of course, my initial thought was this:
Boy, I hope they plug my book inside the back cover!
Because Snipes is going to sell a lot of books. A lot more than me, at any rate, and this is regardless of how good his book actually is (which, mind you, it may be quite good – I know nothing of Mr. Snipes’s talent as an author). Snipes has fans everywhere. They will buy. If it’s a good book in its own right, and one assumes it is (my editor has good taste), it will sell mountains of copies.
I and my friends over at Harper Voyager had our own private little freak-out over the opportunity having a big-name Person Of Note in our imprint might represent. Would there be group signing events? Could we get Snipes to blurb our books? Might there be Harper Voyager panels? We were literally falling over one another with ideas, partially in jest, but also partially because we, as low-end to mid-list authors, savor any possible way to make ourselves known. We are hoping for some magic escalator to the bestseller list.
You run into the same thing, sometimes, at cons. People see a successful author, they want to talk to them, and as much as they know they’re a person with thoughts and feelings and likes and so on, the primary motivator for wanting to talk to them is the desperate, slim hope that they might hit it off and become friends and then your good buddy (insert name of best-selling author here) will introduce them to their mega-agent and then super-stardom is not far behind.
But it doesn’t work that way. Well, not exactly. Yeah, networking is important – it’s always good to be a familiar face – but having a five minute chat with somebody from Locus on an escalator once does not get you some kind of magic ticket. Even supposing, by some miracle, I happen to run into Wesley Snipes at a convention and we are sitting next to each other at a signing table and we realize we like the same movies for the same reason and we hit it off and hang out all night and become best buddies, that does not equate to my books riding that magic escalator. That’s just not how the business works. Your book sells or does not sell thanks to often unpredictable market forces over which you have very limited control. Granted, there are ways you can improve the odds in the margins (to paraphrase Chuck Wendig: you can, through great personal effort, move hundreds of books, but only the big publishers can move thousands, and only the public at large can move millions), and networking is one of those ways. Riding coattails, though, is not a guarantee of success.
And this is even without considering the fact that trying to befriend people just because of how they might assist your career is a shitty thing to do. Those are called “false friends” and they suck. Don’t be that person. Don’t aspire to be that person. You should befriend other authors (successful or otherwise) because they are nice people that you like and admire, not because you hope by clinging to them you might scrabble to the top of some heap. Besides, even if that is your goal, being genuine friends is vastly more likely to achieve it. That, of course, means you can’t fake it – which means it can’t be a stratagem or a ploy, and therefore is not something you can consciously employ for your own gain.
So, yeah, it’s really cool that Wesley Snipes and I share an editor. I hope I get to meet him someday. But I’m not planning on riding his coattails. I’ve got too many of my own books to write.