Tracy Hickman, author of the famous ‘DragonLance’ series spoke with an audience at AnomalyCon in Denver.
For the most part, the interview was typical. He talked about how he had to format his novels on typewriters in the eighties and his audition with the Mormon Tabernacle choir. He even belted out a few line’s from ‘The Music Man’. But the interview took a sudden turn when asked how he was able to write so many books.
There, Hickman went quiet. “I have to do more now,” he said finally. A hush went over the audience as Hickman continued to describe the conditions under which authors are laboring under today. One can write 12,000 words and sell it for 4.95, he said. At that price point, his 120,000 novel would have be $49.50, which would be impossible to market.
“I’m fighting for my life as an author,” he admitted frankly, his voice solemn.
He then said that his audience of 6 million no longer find him because the book store is dying. A booksigning in older days would have fans lining around blocks just to have his signature, but a booksigning now might only get six people. “I have a 6 million following,” he said quietly, “and they don’t remember me.”
Now, he works 12-14 hours a day writing four times the books he’s comfortable writing because he makes a fourth of what he used to.
At this point, an uncomfortable silence filled the hall. Hickman closed his eyes, and entered his thoughts, perhaps considering if this was really the message he wanted to convey to a room full of aspiring writers.
It was a startling reminder that the old guard of writing is dying out. I think readers are used to hearing that, but never has it come into such stark focus as when Tracy Hickman, a best-selling fantasy author with thirty years of beloved books, says that he’s struggling.
When Hickman opened his eyes, he changed tacks. Despite the dire circumstances of his career, he told one other story before his time was up. He asked an audience member to shut the door and refused to speak until it was closed.
First, he went into an academic discussion about how a reader understands the books. “There are as many books as there are readers,” he quoted. He meant to say that the meaning that a reader gets from book is different from that of another reader, or even that of the author, and it’s that meaning that they take that is important.
He told a story about doing a booksigning, and a man in a wheelchair came up to him with the most dog-eared copy of ‘Dragons of Winter Night’ he had ever seen. The young man told him that he had fought in Afghanistan and had been shot in the back. When he fell, he could see enemy combatants loading mortar shells, and he wondered what the character Sturm would have done (Sturm being a character he lived and died by the knight’s code without ever being a knight). With a shattered spined, he managed to warn his fellow soldiers of the impending danger.
‘Dragons of Winter Night’ saved twelve lives that day.
It was a strange display of ambivalence. On the one hand, Hickman isn’t sure of the rewards of writing, or if it’s worth doing anymore. On the other, he knows writing is meaningful.
Though he never said it outright, the juxtaposition of two such emotionally diametric stories was a metaphor for what is happening in the publishing world. There are still readers, and because of them there are still books to write, but the rules have changed, and it’s leaving some of our most beloved author’s in the dust.