Last week I very much meant to respond to Sam X’s comment on my post about becoming a brand versus writing what you want to write but last week was crazy busy. Plus I soon realised my thoughts were many and it was going to have to be its own post.
Here’s part of what Sam X said:
Still, I think there is a bit of a complication in wha t you wrote. “…whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.” Writing as your job does require at least a token thought to the story’s marketability, and perhaps some changes to the overall story you’re telling so as to buttress that marketability–in which case it’s not purely the invention of your imagination, but a combination of that and market concessions.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing, simply a factor that needs to be understood when critiquing stories. Yet it does take a little away from the romantic notion of simply writing what you want. But you’re a working writer: Maybe you can illuminate this for us?
What I didn’t make clear in that post was that I was largely addressing people who aren’t published yet. As it’s mostly amongst aspiring-to-be-published writers that I see these conversations taking place. I truly think it’s a total waste of time for any writer—published or not—to be worrying about whether they should concentrate on “being a brand” but it’s especially pointless for those who haven’t found their own voice and writing style. Before you’re published is the time to be experimenting and exploring and honing your craft and figuring out what kind of writer you are.1
Once you’re published, yes, there are ways in which you do have to think about the market and whether what you’re writing is commercial or not. If you write a romance with an ending in which the hero and heroine do not get together no romance imprint is going to buy it. But maybe a non-genre fiction imprint will. There could still be an editor out there who adores your book. It’s just that what you’ve written is not a romance.
Which is to say that once you’ve written your book or proposal and it’s as good as it can be is when you and your agent should start thinking about who will be a good fit for it. If it goes out and no one bites then you start thinking about whether you can change it to make it more commercial. Maybe you can engineer it so heroine and hero get together at the end and thus find a home for it at a romance house.
When I say “commercial” I simply mean “will sell”. What is or isn’t commercial is not a static thing. When I was writing Liar, which has a deeply unreliable narrator, who keeps changing her story, and is, um, prickly and is a book that does not have a clear-cut ending I was convinced it was deeply uncommercial. I worried that my publishers were going to hate it and would end the contract and demand the advance back. To date it’s my bestselling novel. So what do I know?
Zombies versus Unicorns was done as a lark. I never thought it would sell as well as it did. Anthologies notoriously don’t sell well and are more a prestige kind of publishing project. I suspect the draw of Holly Black’s name had a lot to do with ZvU‘s success. Not to mention the unbelievably great design and fine array of contributors.
My point is that no one knows what’s commercial. Not really. So if someone, even a published writer, is advising you too change x or y about your unpublished novel to make it more commercial and you feel in your gut that those changes will make the book worse? Don’t do it. So often we authors are the last person to know whether a book is commercial or not. We’re plague to all sorts of doubts and second guessing. It’s much better we get on with the writing and worry about that stuff later.
Also often people will tell you they’re passing on your book for reason x. When the real reason that they’re passing is that your book is not a strong enough example of that particular genre/storyline/whatever. If they had liked your book more than reason x would not have been a factor.
And, of course, too weird, too left-field, too unclassifiable is only one of the reasons that a good book can fail to find a publisher. More often books go unsold because there’s a glut of that particular kind of book.
When Team Human was being shopped around by our agents both Sarah and I were nervous that it wouldn’t sell because so many in the industry are convinced that the most recent wave of vampire obsession is over. And, indeed, some publishers passed on it citing that reason.2 Or that they already had too many vampires on their list already. So far Team Human has not sold in many non-English language markets. Often the reason given is that they have a vampire glut. Or that their market doesn’t like funny vampire books. Personally, I don’t think vampires will ever completely lose popularity no matter how over them editors might be. I cite this n-gram as proof of the continued demand for vampires.
It’s really hard to plan for gluts given that for most of us it takes at least six months to a year—if not longer—to write a book. Say when you started there were no dystopian books around but by the time you finished half of the shelves in the YA section were now dystopian novels and all the editors were groaning and saying, “Send me anything but a dystopia!” It sucks but there’s nothing you can do but write the very best dystopia book you can. Often there’s still space in even a saturated market for a truly excellent book about whatever the done to death thing de jour is. Just write the very best book you can.
I have twice changed a book to make it more commercial. I wanted How To Ditch Your Fairy to have a shot at being picked up by the Scholastic book club so after I had a first draft I took out all the swear words. I did this because the book had no sexual content and it skews younger than any of my other books. I reasoned that if it was what the Scholastic book club considers to be “clean” than it would also be clean enough for middle school libraries in the USA and other swearing-averse markets. Given that I had already invented slang for the book it was dead easy to get rid of any real-world swear words and replace them with invented ones. Frankly, I think it improved the book. How To Ditch Your Fairy was picked up by the Scholastic book club. I was right about it skewing younger too. Most of my fan mail about that book is from 9-14 years old.
Given that experience, when we were writing Team Human, I was insistent that we also avoid strong swearing. Again the book had no sexual content and I thought it would work for some younger readers. (Though it doesn’t skew quite as young as How To Ditch Your Fairy does.) It hasn’t been picked up by Scholastic’s book club but it still might. HTDYF had been out for over a year before it was picked up.
Contrary to what many believe, the cleaner a book is the greater its chances of being more widely sold and/or purchased by places like school libraries—especially middle school ones—and certain book clubs as well as by various retailers like Walmart and Target.3 One of the questions that librarians and teachers and parents often ask booksellers is whether or not a book is clean or suitable for younger readers. It was important to me that they be able to say yes about both those books.4
I have no problem taking out swearing if it doesn’t stuff up the book. For instance, there’s no way I would clean up Liar because that’s Micah’s voice. She wouldn’t be her if she wasn’t using real world swear words. The book I just finished the first draft of, ditto. It’s dark like Liar and skews older.5
I do know some writers who consult their agent before they start writing their next book. They run their different ideas past them and the agent will tell them which ones intrigue them most. I’ve heard of a few agents who will adamantly veto some of their clients’ ideas. My agent tells me all my ideas sound great, which is lovely, if not totally necessary in my case given my tendency to bounce around genres so much.
However, although I have written urban fantasy, science fictional, realist, comedic and not-remotely-comedic books and have just finished the first draft of an historical—every one of those books is YA. I think it would be a lot more difficult if my books were marketed to adults. But even then there are ways around a penchant for writing different genres—like using a different name for the different genres a la Nora Roberts and J. D. Robb.
Do remember though this is just my experience within my genre of YA having published books with a handful of publishers in Australia and the USA. I’m sure writers working within other genres or across them and in other countries will have had different experiences.
To answer Sam X more succinctly, thus far I have been able to write what I want to write with some minor swear word removal to make two of my books more saleable.
Who knows if that will continue? There could stop being a market for my YAs. At which point I would switch to writing books marketed at adults or at children. I’m fortunate in loving almost every genre. I’d happily switch to writing thrillers or romances or historicals or westerns or whatever. I’d have no problem with doing so under a different name if my own name developed a sales track of doom.
Just as long as I got to keep writing. And, yes, I would keep writing even if every publisher under the sun rejected my work no matter what name I wrote it under. I wrote for almost twenty years before I made my first sale. Been there, done that.
For me—like so many other writers—writing is the thing that I can’t not do.
- You continue to do those things after you’re published but it’s much easier to veer across genres when you haven’t sold your first book and there are no expectations. [↩]
- Though remember they could also have simply not liked Team Human and being over vampires was just the excuse for passing. [↩]
- Though those two have cut down massively on selling books in the last year or so. [↩]
- Though, of course, there were people who did not consider HTDYF to be clean because there are gay and lesbian characters. To them I can only stare in disbelief. I will never ever pretend only straight love exists. [↩]
- Yes, I did it again. I followed up a light, funny book with a nightmare stab to the gut kind of book. I am a marketing genius! Sarah, the co-writer of Team Human has been much smarter. Her next book, Unspoken, which is out in September is pretty much the perfect follow up to Team Human. Featuring another Nancy-Drew-like sleuth, who is every bit as wonderful as Mel from Team Human. If you loved Team Human, you’ll love Unspoken. And, no, that wasn’t Sarah being all calculated about the market. She got the idea for her Unspoken trilogy years before we got the idea for Team Human. [↩]