December 21, 2008

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Can A Truly Passionate Book Fail?

Absolutely and over and over again.

Let’s say I pour my heart into a novel (of course, this is purely a mental exercise) and I finish it, do several drafts, polish it when I can’t think of anything else to fix and then send it off to an editor or agent. Whichever one gets it, reads it, likes it and soon sells it. Marketing departments get behind it (at least they don’t object to it), cover art is commissioned, turned in and the book is put together. A Big Name, Recognizable Writer agrees to say something nice about it for jacket copy. There’s a short wait and then a dramatic launch! Ten thousand copies are printed, the author lines up a book tour around their personal Five-State-Area. Excitement is high, initial sales are good (not Stephen King good – but good nonetheless). Bloggers chat it up, it gets nominated for something or other…And then it’s done: 2356 copies were sold (1254 to your mom), the rest remaindered…those go on the B&N Bargain Racks…and finally it becomes Used Bookstore Fodder.

Cue: crickets chirping, warm muggy air, faint fog swirling around neatly lined up headstones, dead silence

Cue: bass line from Queen’s classic, “Another One Bites The Dust”

Dejected but undefeated, you get another idea, sends it to the editor who politely returns it and says, “Doesn’t look like you talked to anybody. Got anything else?”

What happened to the fervor, passion and excitement of the initial publication – nah, even the initial ACCEPTANCE for publication?

Readers got bored.

Why? Because you didn’t feed one of their causes/vices/political agendas: not titillating enough, not revealing enough, not drugged enough, not about something they already know about and read, not short enough, not “their” political flavor enough, not Harry Potter enough (oh, I already said that), not blood spattered, naked chick, with an exploding vampire wizard enough, or not Obama enough.

Norton Award winner Justine Larbaleister points out: “…the size of your advance says nothing about your capabilities as a writer. It speaks only to your publisher’s assessment of your market value. They can get it wrong. How a book does is very often a crapshoot.”

Passion has nothing to do with writing and getting readers. Giving people what they WANT is what it’s all about. The Bible even has something to say about this: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” 2 Timothy 4:3.

In these flagging economic times, writers are worried (as is everyone else). At least one major publisher has laid a moratorium against buying new work -- . But has anything really changed? Nah – it’s just more of the same. I’m sure if the next J.K. Rowling popped his or her head up, they’d buy. If people said they wanted something, New York would listen and give it to them. So save your passion for the boudoir and find out what readers want and ignore what you want.

Then you’ll be famous – and only then.


Paul said...

James Macdonald (that's James, the science fiction writer, not John, the mystery writer--and, yes, apparently the first d is lower case) has said that Best Seller is as much a genre as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, or Mystery. It's at least partially made up of members of all the other genres, but nevertheless has its own conventions--numero uno being that popularity trumps quality. That doesn't necessarily mean best sellers can't be examples of artistic merit--only that such merit comes in second--sometimes a distant second--to a work's ability to attract money. I guess it comes down to which of the two masters you want to serve.

William said...

"First catch thy hare . . ." (apocryophal old recipe for hare stew). I'm still in the beginning phase of trying to sell a novel and find my rejection list discouraging enough without worrying about how success can go wrong. One hard lesson of writing seems to be that just because you're passionate about writing something, it doesn't mean a particular editor/agent/reader will like it. And unfairly enough, imitating an existing successful book usually results in a . . . well, a cheap imitation (Brash writer--"Greetings, dear agent. Lucky you! I've written the next Harry Potter and I'm giving YOU an exclusive first look!" Bored agent--"No thanks."). I think it's true that "best-seller" is a particular genre, and if you want to write one, you probably have to concentrate on formula and audience expectations (there's probably a Dummies book). I still think the best writing advice is to write what you're passionate about . . . realizing there are no guarantees of sales or readership. Writing is hard enough anyway--why make it worse by plugging away at a 500-page novel that even you don't care about?