Hughart, Rasmussen, and little guys versus the juggernaut

My question in the Bookseller Furor post about what happened to Barry Hughart and Alis Rasmussen was rhetorical. I know what happened to both of them; I was oddly involved in both writers’ careers.

Barry Hughart was the brilliant, World-Fantasy-Award-winning author of Bridge of Birds and its sequels, The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. I came into this story late. I’d read and loved all three books and hated the fact that there was no fourth.

My then-husband, ironically a Waldenbooks bookseller and one of the best hand-sellers I’d ever met (this was, in fact, how we met), my then-publisher, and I were at dinner, and over dinner, the conversation wandered to who in writing was good, and my publisher asked me who I thought he ought to buy. I don’t know if this is something he routinely asked authors, but I know that I didn’t even have to think about my answer.

I said, “Barry Hughart.” I described the books, the awards, the brilliance, and the fact that he wasn’t currently writing for anyone, and my publisher shrugged.

“Couldn’t sell him,” he said. “His numbers got eaten by the chains ordering system, and I couldn’t get them to order anything new in by him in numbers large enough to be anything but a loss for me. Maybe if he changed his name…”

As for Alis Rasmussen, she and I had the same first publisher, (though at different times). She did one book with him, then pursured a more lucrative offer from an editor at another house. She did a most excellent trilogy for that editor, and it died by the chains order-to-the-net policy. Her career was dead under her own name. I met her after she’d changed her pen name to Kate Elliot, and was selling Jaran, another brilliant book. We shared a signing table at a Waldenbooks, and because traffic was painfully slow, had plenty of time to talk. At a later date I recommended her to my then-agent, and he loved her work, and took her on, and moved her to DAW, where she broke out in no uncertain terms—deservedly, and after years of having her career beaten to pulp by the same computerized ordering system that hurts most of us.

It’s a David and Goliath story, told over and over again. Anyone who isn’t King, Koontz, or Nora Roberts has fought with it. And while many people root for and stand up for the underdog, there are as many—as witnessed by the angry chain booksellers currently rubbing their hands gleefully at the prospect of stripping my books, who think if the giant is a giant, it must be because he’s good (and who will hotly defend even the giant’s basest practices, even to the point of lying about those who point them out), and who truly believe if little guys get crushed under his feet, it is the little guy’s own damn fault. And by the readers [same to links, read the comments] who fervently believe that if the writer’s books do not survive, it is because they don’t deserve to.

It’s a good reminder for any of you thinking of pursuing a career in this business.

All articles in this series, in order:






10 responses to “Hughart, Rasmussen, and little guys versus the juggernaut”

  1. Robert L Avatar
    Robert L

    How depressing. I’m just starting out. Do I just throw in the towel then?
    That’s rhetorical – obviously my answer is NO.
    It does give me pause.. and an excuse to crack open another bottle of Scotch.

    1. Holly Avatar

      The world has changed. For writers, it just got massively better. No, you don’t throw in the towel.

      Because the little guys have teeth now, and distribution, and the ability to keep our backlist in print forever. Thank e-books, thank Kindle for bumping royalties to 70%, thank e-readers people actually like…

      The world has changed for writers, and here’s how, and here’s what I’m doing about it.

  2. BirthdayPirate Avatar

    I went to buy a copy of Talyn today. There were three copies, cover-out. I would have bought all of them and then put in an anonymous request for more, but I’m flat broke. I did buy one, though.

  3. eitje Avatar

    i would argue that the situation holly describes is, in some way, tied to the declining literacy levels & rates in our country. there’s just an overall, societal disregard for the written word.

    improve literacy rates and you’ll have more customers. improve literacy levels, and you’ll have more customers that are interested in intelligent works.

  4. Jaye Patrick Avatar

    When Holly speaks, Blogland listens and is polarised.

    One thing the naysayers can’t deny, however, is the amount of shite being published these days while emerging authors are shut out, and established authors see their income whittled away by lower returns.

    My question is this: is there any hope for new authors in this era of sell gazillions or die?

  5. Jim Avatar


    I’ve heard enough portions of this story from others, hanging out at cons for the past five lustrums, and personally know several small booksellers, to know exactly what you mean. It is a problem, and it can be a career killer. Perception is everything.

    Which is not to say that every author that it happens too is a victim of the system either. I know an author right now who has had — at a minimum — to go through an apprenticeship writing with an established author at his house before they would look at a third book under his own name. Having read his first two novels, I understand; his first book was a very decent effort, but his second novel provided no structured challenge to the protagoist after about chapter 9, when he somehow gained “magic powers” (abscribed to Clarke’s Law, but still…) and thereafter stumbled through situation after situation at breakneck pace without ever making a mistake.

    As to Dan Brown…well, I got through The Da Vinci code with only a modicum of suspension of disbelief, because most of the plot and clues are really outside of my experience. But reading Angels and Demons — well, that is a subject that I know fairly well, and I was snorting — but playing along — by page 4 when the protagonist was climbing on board the CERN Director’s private multi-passnger SR-71 Blackbird. It was the rare case where I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, but after a while I didn’t even want to try anymore. Maybe because it was so over the top as to constitute a parody of the conflict between science and religion.

    (Note — I don’t want to launch into that debate on Holly’s site, so please direct any follow-ups to me. I get mail at “John Smith, General Delivery, Fiji” 😉

  6. Rick Avatar

    Um, wow. All I see here is an awful lot of people in need of a hobby.

    Ignore them, Holly. Maybe they’ll go away.

  7. The English Rose Avatar
    The English Rose

    Oh goodness, I am overworked. Ignore my awful grammar in that post, please! (Why doesn’t [everybody] know who MR is? Why [haven’t] JL or EPJ sold…)

    And that’s a great quote, Scott. I wish it weren’t so true all the time though.

  8. The English Rose Avatar
    The English Rose

    To the angry chain booksellers: Um… you KNOW what’s on your shelves. You can’t really think that the good stuff is what sells all the time. (I’ve never even gotten through a Dan Brown. Am I a moron not to appreciate his obvious genius? Since when did quantity equal quality? If that were the case, why doesn’t anybody know who Marilynne Robinson is? Why hasn’t Jhumpa Lahiri or Edward P. Jones sold a bajillion copies of their stuff? *shakes head*

  9. scottbryan Avatar

    I can’t remember the exact quote or who said it – I’d like to think it was Mark Twain – but there’s few things people despise more than somebody who’s right. Might even be an unforgivable sin in today’s world.

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