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Nobody Knows Anything – Love Your Work, Episode 286

August 25 2022 – 07:30am

Nobody Knows AnythingIn 1977, Richard Bachman published his first novel. In an unusual move for a first-time author, Bachman made his publisher promise to release his books with hardly any marketing.

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Bachman stacked the dice against himself

Bachman’s books were to skip the hardcover format and go straight to bargain-bin paperback – the kind you’d find mixed in with other nobody-authors, at a truck stop on I-80, somewhere near Grand Island. He also insisted he was unavailable for interviews, which cut his books off from a key marketing channel. Most publishers wouldn’t agree to such bizarre terms, but they were especially excited to release Bachman’s books.

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But he still did pretty well

Today, forty-five years later, most people have unsurprisingly never heard of Richard Bachman. His books did alright, though: His fourth was optioned for film rights, his fifth sold 28,000 copies, and he got a couple letters a month from fans of his writing.

Bachman wasn’t Bachman

But his books were so good, one Washington D.C. bookstore clerk was suspicious. Steve Brown dug through the Library of Congress copyright records, and confirmed his suspicion: Richard Bachman was Stephen King.

Why did one of the world’s hottest authors publish – in the same genre – under a pen name? At the time, King’s publisher had an almost-superstitious belief that if they published more than one of his books in a year, they would distract readers from This Year’s Book (that they let King publish Bachman books with so little fanfare speaks to their conviction in this belief). King later described it as like being married to someone with a drastically-smaller sexual appetite: He had to find an outlet somewhere else.

“Either find an audience or disappear quietly”

While he was publishing under a pen name, he figured he’d conduct an experiment. He wondered, to what degree was his massive success due to luck? So, as he has said, Stephen King “stacked the dice” against Richard Bachman. He wanted Bachman’s books “to go out there and either find an audience or just disappear quietly.”

After word got out that Richard Bachman was Stephen King, his books sold even better. That book that sold 28,000 copies for Richard Bachman – Thinner – quickly sold ten times that as a King title.

Is seven years & five books long enough?

At first glance, King’s Bachman experiment is an open-and-shut case: Bachman’s books sold way more copies with Stephen King’s name on their covers. But King himself feels his experiment got cut short. He said of Bachman, who he killed off in a press release by “cancer of the pseudonym,” “He died with that question – is it work that takes you to the top or is it all just a lottery? – still unanswered.” Bachman worked in anonymity for seven years, and released five books – how is that not enough?

Even the pros don’t know

William Goldman was a two-time Academy-Award-Winning screenwriter. He wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and Misery (which was supposed to be Richard Bachman’s sixth book, but instead was released by Stephen King). In Goldman’s book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, he pointed out that in one typical movie season, sixteen major films were released by the major studios. One was a runaway success, and ten of those sixteen lost more than ten million dollars.

Why did those studios bother making the stinkers? Because, as Goldman said:

Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.

Nobody knowing anything takes the appeal out of King’s Bachman story. It sounded like the perfect story for aspiring creatives to point to and say, “Look, the universe is conspiring against me. If you don’t have a big name already, you’re screwed.”

Nothing guarantees creative success

But really, nothing can guarantee success. You could say you have to have connections, and I could point out that Richard Pryor’s son played at the Apollo, and got booed off the stage. You could say you need name recognition, and I could tell you that the 28,000 copies Bachman’s fifth book sold was four-thousand more than Stephen King’s own fourth book sold. You could say all you need is your big break, and I could remind you that Steve Martin was on The Tonight Show – the big break in the comedy business at the time – sixteen times before someone recognized him in public.

Nobody knows anything. If movie studios knew blockbusters, that’s all they’d make. If record companies knew hits, that’s all they’d release. If publishers knew bestsellers, that’s all they’d launch. And if venture capitalists knew “unicorns,” they’d just be called capitalists.

Quality can’t hide

Nobody knows anything, but somebody knows something. As Goldman himself said, you can make an educated guess. I bet he’d agree that a ninety-minute cellphone video of a ham sandwich sitting on a plate is unlikely to fill theaters.

There was another author, named Robert Galbraith, whose debut novel didn’t do great. It sold 1,500 copies in the first few months – not bad either. But there was something fishy about Galbraith’s work. A journalist tweeted that she had enjoyed Galbraith’s book, but it seemed way too well-written to be the debut novel of who was supposedly a retired military officer.

An anonymous account tipped this journalist, saying That’s because it’s not a debut novel: Robert Galbraith is actually a really well-known author’s pseudonym. That led to a computer linguistic analysis and the London Times confronted the alleged author. J. K. Rowling admitted that she was Robert Galbraith, then The Cuckoo’s Calling, a crime novel, proceeded to sell like hotcakes. So, of course Rowling’s name recognition helped the book sell, but try as she could to hide her identity, she couldn’t hide her quality. Her writing was, to paraphrase Steve Martin, so good it couldn’t be ignored.

Stephen King got to enjoy the anonymity of his pen name for seven years. Rowling hers about three months. Maybe there’s some others out there who never got caught, but it seems social media and computer linguistic analysis has shortened the life of pen names. But King and Rowling both had the same problem: You can’t hide quality, and you can’t hide voice. From the beginning, King got letters asking him if he was Richard Bachman.

Bachman had the extra challenge that he wasn’t merely copying the style of an author already dominating a genre – he literally was that author. Sometimes a copycat does better than the original, because they can’t help but be different as they try to copy. For example, Kurt Cobain said he was trying to rip off the Pixies when he wrote Smells Like Teen Sprit. An exact copy doesn’t have much chance, because the original already punctured the exact same vacuum.

You can’t know anything, so know your work

Jerry Seinfeld likes to tell beginning comedians they’ll never make it. Because if they hear that from a comedy legend and still do comedy, he figures, they might have a chance. Maybe it’s not satisfying that nobody knows anything. It kind of makes you want to throw your hands up and say, What’s the use?! But maybe that’s a good thing. If you can know that nobody knows anything, and still be dedicated to your craft, maybe you have a shot.

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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