There are scores of professional writers out there who are incredibly prolific, sell huge numbers of books, and yet are virtually unknown. One of those writers is Robert Vaughan, who has sold 40 million books, mostly in the western genre. 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 work. 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 and do it well…and 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.
And that means something.