In 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.
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.
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