The Escalator Myth

My first assumption to debunk is the Escalator Myth. This is an idea that I have heard expressed many many times, although the escalator analogy is mine. (You know that I love analogies as much as theories!)

There is a persistent idea in writers’ groups that all any given writer has to do is to sell that first manuscript to a publishing house. That’s it. People have explained this to me time and again, that all you have to do is sell that first book and then you’re “on your way”.

The underlying assumption here is that all writing careers progress at some measured rate, passing through a series of levels in order, until the author reaches his/her career summit – which for all authors is the same. So, when you sell your first book, according to this theory, it’s only a matter of time until your book is in the #1 slot on the New York Times list of bestselling books. Give it five years.

I call this the Escalator Myth, because this thinking assumes a measure of passivity on the part of the author. All he/she has to do is hang on to the railing and ride the ascent. “Oh look, we’re at the USA Today Top 150 level! Hang on!” So long as the author keeps writing, everything progresses on schedule – the escalator keeps going up up up.

This is, of course, nonsense. There is no evidence to support this idea – in fact, the available evidence challenges it. Very very few authors who are published land on the NYT. Ever. No matter how many books they publish. No matter how prolific they are. There are only 15 slots on the list each week (in several formats, but still) and hundreds upon hundreds – if not thousands – of books are published each month.

Obviously, it is impossible for all published authors to ultimately land on the NYT. There are also anecdotal stories – we can look up many authors whose work we enjoy, whose careers have spanned more than the magic five years, and see that although they still are publishing new books, they have not been on the NYT.

We are human, so we choose to find the problem with the individual and not with the theory itself – many people would insist that the authors who do not reach the NYT have only themselves to blame. Hey, they must have let go of the rail or – gasp – gotten off the escalator.

In fact, it is the idea of a steady guaranteed progression that is wrong. Sales do not always increase steadily for an author’s successive books – because markets are fluid, because tastes change, because the author’s work changes, because the world is constantly in flux. When the US goes to war, for example, fiction sales plummet – during the first Gulf War, we were all watching CNN instead of buying books for a month or so. After September 11, book sales were decimated for the rest of the calendar year. This has nothing to do with the individual authors or their work.

Publishing is more like a vast uncharted sea than an escalator. Even better, it’s a sea that is constantly changing – what sold today might not sell tomorrow. This is particularly true in popular fiction, like romance, because popular fiction must reflect popular culture to be resonant with readers — and popular culture changes.

Selling a first book is more comparable to launching a dingy into that vast uncharted sea than to stepping on to the escalator. With any luck and foresight, the author has chosen a good launching spot and fine weather for his or her journey. There can be many surprises along the way when the author sets out to cross an uncharted sea, and there are no guarantees. Just because some have reached the other side and returned to tell about it doesn’t mean that the next author will. (Much less that every single author will!)

On your own journey, you may reach the other side in a year; it may take your whole life to get to the opposite coast; you may, in fact, end up somewhere more interesting and opt to stay put instead of following your original plan. There are thousands of possible destinations, destinations as unique as each author and his or her writing. And it’s not a passive journey – authors must actively pursue their goal, in the absence of certainty.

In fact, that’s what makes it interesting to pursue a career in publishing. There is no escalator and I’m glad of that. Do you really want to have the same destination as everyone else? Wouldn’t you rather follow a unique path, one that speaks best to your needs and dreams? Isn’t that what living a creative life – or living life creatively – is about?

5 thoughts on “The Escalator Myth

  1. Like any other business, there’s only a handful of people who can occupy the top positions – and under them are hundreds of very good people who just don’t make it up there.

    Sometimes it’s luck. Sometimes it’s looks – ever notice how very few of the top authors are ugly, fat, old women? Sometimes it’s charisma and charm and hutzpah. But not everyone is going to make it there, and people need to realize that.

    There’s nothing wrong with aiming for the top, but you do have to realize you can do all the right things (for years) and still not make it there. And that’s OK!


  2. hmmm, I must have jumped on the wrong escalator there for a couple of years. 🙂

    Now I’m back out in that sea, with a slightly larger dingy, rowin’ with all my might. I’ve even got a couple of paddles going and despite a few whirlpools and just some improper rowing techniques I’m heading in my right direction now.


  3. I’ve always viewed the NYT as a kind of popularity contest. It’s not what you write but who you are. Not that I am taking anything away from those that have been on it or would I say no if a position was offered to me. LOL

    Having worked in a chain book store and learned how many prime positions are “paid” positions, I think it jaded me to idea of any TOP 10 type of list.

    I can’t say I like the idea of everyone’s careers following the same path to the same ending. I’m looking forward to the day I can launch my rowboat, and see where the tides take me.


  4. Actually, Corinne, as the quality of data has improved over the past decade, the US lists are more accurate reflections of actual sales. Until there are point-of-sale data collections at every possible outlet, there’s still some wiggle room, but there’s a lot less than there used to be.

    Which is why so many authors of popular fiction now make the lists.


  5. That’s great to hear Claire, thank you for adding that. I should have mentioned, I haven’t worked in a book store for almost 13 years so that would account for my out-of-date attitude. LOL

    I would imagine that having point-of-sale data from every outlet would be almost impossible, so wiggle room is inevitable. Although, when you are dealing the numbers that the bestsellers are doing, being out a bit isn’t going to make much difference.


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