Okay, this is weird. I meant to simply upload this photo to my website… and that headline was supposed to be the caption… but somehow it accidentally became a blog post instead. Well, now that it’s here, I guess I better hurry up and say something about it.
I just returned late last night from Billings Montana, where I attended the Spur Awards, which are the Oscars of western writing. I’ve always been a huge western fan and I’ve been looking for an excuse to attend the Western Writers of America conference for years. I finally got one: DOUBLE WIDE by Leo Banks won two Spurs — for Best First Novel and Best Contemporary Western — and it was published by Brash Books, the company I co-founded with Joel Goldman four years ago. So I jumped on a plane to be there for Leo and to bask in all the praise he’d be getting.
I was delighted to discover that my old friend producer Rob Word was there, too. Rob and I teamed up some years back to turn Bill Crider’s OUTRAGE AT BLANCO into a TV mini-series. The project fell through, but we had great fun casting and scouting locations in California and Calgary (we haven’t given up hope on filming it someday). He’s a true western lover and historian and is the host of A Word on Westerns. We headed out to Little Big Horn for the day, which we really enjoyed, and hung out at the conference with western literary legends like Craig Johnson, Loren D. Estleman, Preston Lewis, and Johnny Boggs, among others. Rob even convinced me to buy a cowboy hat for the Spur Awards banquet. And it’s a good thing I did, because it turned out that Brash got matching Spur Awards to go along with the two that Leo won.
There are scores of professional writers out there who are incredibly prolific, sell huge numbers of crime novels and westerns, and yet are virtually unknown. One of those writers is Robert Vaughan, who has sold 40 million books, mostly westerns. He was interviewed about his under-the-radar career recently and he’s pretty frank about his lack of celebrity.
I have written well over 400 books. If I had written every one of those books under my own name, Robert Vaughan would be a name that is immediately recognized. I would have established something of value that my survivors could capitalize on after I die…(such as I am doing for others now….continuing the name of a deceased author for the benefit of his survivors). Don’t get me wrong. I am also benefiting from this name….but with this author….and with two others, I have had seven books make it onto the NYT best seller list. Two novels, LOVE’S BOLD JOURNEY, and LOVE’S SWEET AGONY, which I wrote as Patricia Matthews, made number one on the list. In 1981, I sold 6 million books. In my life time, I have probably sold 40 million books, but nobody knows who I am.
But I bet he didn’t really have a choice. Like many writers, me included, he probably took the jobs that came along to pay the bills (do you think I wanted to write for The New Adventures of Flipper or Baywatch?) and didn’t necessarily take a long-range view of what the cumulative effect might be on his career.
I have enormous respect for authors like Vaughan. They are true craftsman, and don’t get nearly the attention, or financial compensation, that they deserve for their crimes novels and westerns. I’m talking about pros like James Reasoner, Mel Odom, Bill Crider, Robert Randisi, Ed Gorman, Raymond Obstfeld, Mike Newton, Chet Cunningham, Donald Bain, to name a few… guys who can write just about anything in any genre…thrillers novels, crime novels, western novels, romance novels and do it well. And who have ghost-written scores of books, or toiled under house names (a pseudonym created by a publisher or book packager for a novel or series of books), while others repeated the lion’s share of profits from their efforts. A few such writers have emerged from the shadows into wide popularity… guys like Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, John Harvey, and John Jakes… but most toil in obscurity, writing sometimes hundreds of books in virtual anonymity as “work-for-hire” authors.
But I believe that is finally changing, thanks to Amazon and the e-book revolution. There has been a massive shift in the economics of publishing, and it’s increasingly becoming financially impractical for a prolific, self-starting professional author to toil in the “work-for-hire” field, where you don’t own the copyright, advances can be as low as $3000, and royalties as pitiful as 1 or 2%…if you get any at all.
More and more writers who used to live on work-for-hire gigs are now turning to self-publishing…which offers them the opportunity to own their books, make more money, and become known for their work. For example, Crider, Odom and Reasoner are writing and publishing the Rancho Diablo westerns… just the kind of “house name” series they used to toil on as anonymously “work-for-hire” writers with no ownership stake.
Vaughan, meanwhile, has a new western out under his own name (When Hell Came to Texas) and is also writing romances for Pocket Books with his wife Ruth under the pen-name “Sara Luck.”
And though the Sara Luck books don’t have my name, Ruth and I at least own the name.