Monday, November 24, 2008

Where to now, dear Henery?


So what do I write?
An amazingly high proportion of writers started at this point: (book in hand, eyes raised to heaven.) "This is a best-seller? I could write better than this."
And thus we plunge forth. Most of us take -- instead of said piece of TBAR (throw book across room) Drekk that inspired us to do better -- as a model a book which we’ve loved and would desperately like to write like the author of.

And herein lies a grim lesson to think about. The piece of Drekk almost certainly got there for a reason. The reason could be that the author is married to the publisher. Or that the editor absolutely loved it, and has pushed the boat out. As has been repeatedly proved, you can promote anything once. Send the author on tours, wine and dine booksellers, go for a vast laydown, book dumps at the counter, advertising and coverage in the media... it will be a best-seller no matter how bad it is. If the book is not actual bum-fodder, the author -- having now established a name -- will enjoy some/great subsequent success too. Of course we all know opposite extremes too. Books we’ve read and thought: why is this person NOT a multi-million selling best-seller? And we’re not always wrong either, as the example of the great Terry Pratchett illustrates perfectly. He did find a small-press publisher at IIRC 17 and sold some quite brilliant books... and was ignored for many years. I’ve read some of his original works - CARPET PEOPLE, DARK SIDE OF THE SUN, STRATA. The sheer genius of the man shines through. I guess it took 20 years to penetrate publishing, by which time most of us would have given up and gone home. There is of course a third possibility... one man’s Drekk is another man’s diamonds.


Sales numbers are rather like democracy -- a mess but better than all the alternatives available right now. Just don’t expect it to reflect reality and you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately it is the mess that you as a new author have to deal with.

Now the standard bits of advice as to what you should write usually go "go with your heart." or "write about what you know about."

Muckin’ wonderful advice. I have a BIG wide heart, and actually I know a lot about a whole mountain of stuff. I’m sure I’m not alone.

So: dear Henery, where to from here...?
If I knew the answer, I’d use it myself. I have very strong ideas (which I am sure real stats --corrected for marketing, distribution cover etc. instead of raw figures -- would bear out.) about what readers want.

But publishers? What is going to make them buy, and what is going to make them put in money to promote the book?


A couple of things -- If you arrive with a large readership, or personal fame... and bizarrely look right and fit the profile, for certain parts of the industry...(look at literary writers).

You also have to consider what they have bought -even the book you thought was Drekk. And remember that in micro-trend sense this WAY behind the curve - about 3 years from when the idea was bought. So don’t slavishly follow the trend.

Finally here is a piece of advice I got from Misty Lackey. I paraphrase: "They always say they’re looking for something new. But what they really want is new old."
Think about it.
Dave Freer

4 comments:

Pati Nagle said...

You made me laugh. "I can write better than this" is what tipped me into the decision to pursue a writing career. Spot on!

"New old" is exactly right, also. It's what results in glut of drek - the industry publishes anything resembling the hot trend, with so little discrimination that readers eventually turn away from it and the trend dies. They go to something else, make it a new trend, and the cycle starts all over again.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I would say 'write what you want to read', then at least you can read something you like, while writing it.

if that makes sense. :->

Dave Freer said...

Pati, having sampled a little of your prose, there is no doubt that yes, you do write better than most of it.

But... well, the error I made was this: 'I am sure I can write better than this -- therefore publishers will be beating their way to my door once they see it.' Well, they didn't beat there way to Terry Pratchett's door. There's a historical romance writer (Grace Ingram/Doris Sutcilffe Adams) that I think is one of most delightful writers I ever read... and she's barely known, whereas say Victoria Holt (who is not the worst, but not in the same league - yes, I have read all of them:-). I've also read all the Tom Clancy's) did very well.

Let's be realistic, because there is no attempt at compensating for all other the factors besides just 'how much did readers like this' in sales figures, aquisition editors have a terrible job trying to 'guess' what readers actually want, because there are so many factors that mask the real poplarity. This is fairly high order statistics (about half of fisheries science is statistical modelling) and would require a professional statistician, and quite a lot of data and market research. Of course getting it right a very high proportion of the time would probably make publishing a very, very lucrative industry.

My simple take is if you got onto the NYT bestseller list after a large publishing house threw everything including the kitchen sink into getting you there, you MIGHT be good writer. If you get to selling 7K with a crappy cover, terrible distro, and absolute minimum effort from your publisher... you ARE a genius and they should throw everything at you in future :-)

Dave Freer said...

(grin) OK Rowena... I enjoy reading Georgette Heyer, David Drake, Tom Sharpe, John Steinbeck, Louis Lámour, Yeats, Kipling, Science Journals, Peter Beagle, McKillip, Gene Wolfe, Robert E Forward...
I don't really read much in the way of Mil sf (except DD) and am not that fond of horror or modern literary...
One of the things this ol'hack has learned: you can make something you enjoy out of the worst topic. I think that is what seperates the pros from the amatuers.