22 October 2011

Do writers write to market trends? Should they?


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Writers know that the most important strategy for success is to write the best book they can every time. Countless successful authors, publishing professionals, and writing teachers tell aspiring writers, “Don’t try to chase a trend. The trend will be gone before you get your manuscript to market. And if it’s not what you passionately want to write about anyway, that will show.” At the same time, agents say, “I can’t sell this if the editor can’t tell the marketing department what shelf to put it on.” Some include in their submission guidelines, “Commercial fiction only,” or even, “I’m looking for the next big blockbuster.”

If anyone could predict what will next catch the public’s fancy, the publishing industry might not be in as much trouble as it is these days. On the other hand, none of us want to spend a year pouring our hearts and souls into an unsalable manuscript. So how do we strike a balance? Some writers do it by moving out of their comfort zone to explore subgenres that have a better chance in the marketplace.

Potential inspiration for at least three cozy series
I have several cosy writer friends who spent years writing and revising manuscripts that ranged from romance to thrillers to noir, querying agents, and in general doing everything they could to hone their craft and join the ranks of the published, before signing contracts for paperback series about suburban or small-town female amateur sleuths who trip over clues as they go about their daily business in a variety of occupations or pursuing popular hobbies.

These are good writers. They work hard to bring their characters to life, keep their dialogue lively, and provide fair-play plots with logical solutions. Some of them have made the New York Times bestseller lists, been nominated for and occasionally won awards, and signed contracts for extended and in some cases multiple series. Cosies are popular, and sales recently got a big boost when one of the big box stores (can’t remember whether it was Walmart or Costco) decided to start carrying them. That means big print runs, bigger readership, and bigger royalties. And if the price is for the author to include recipes and knitting patterns with each chapter, so be it.

I am not talking about potboilers here. “Potboiler” is a derogatory term for something that doesn’t exist: a novel tossed off effortlessly in a few weeks for readers the author despises, doing it only because its success is guaranteed, although the author could surely produce the Great American Novel if offered a big enough advance. The truth is, almost all of us do write the best book we can every time. It’s a necessary condition for publication, if not, alas, a sufficient condition in these difficult times for writers.

My own dilemma is that I don’t seem to be able to write fiction about anything but what I actually want to say. A few years ago, I heard a senior editor at a fairly big press say, during a talk to writers, that they published only serial killer thrillers and stories that you could put a puppy or a kitten on the cover of, even if there was no puppy or kitten in the book—nothing in between. Since I write precisely in between those two extremes, I crossed that publisher off my list on the spot. It’s not a matter of ethics or aesthetics. The particular gifts and skills of writers differ, and I can’t do either bloodbath or cosy.

7 comments:

Janice said...

I couldn't agree more.
The only thing a writer really has to offer is how she sees the world after all.

Fran Rizer said...

Liz, not being a counselor, I can't diagnose you like you did Rob, but it certainly sounds as though you have a major problem with those of us who might be classified as cozy writers. I intentionally set out to write cozies, sold to Berkley Prime Crime thinking the Callie books are cozies, but they marketed them as Mainstream Mystery. Most of us, including the really big names, write what's in our hearts, and that's what gets them published.

Dixon Hill said...

Liz, this time it's my turn to say: WOW!

I feel you really mined the depths of a frustration that I suspect most writers deal with at some point in their careers. Finding a compatible agent or publisher can be very difficult. Particularly for the introvert who enjoys cosseting him/herself in front of a computer and setting the imagination free, but then has a hard time “selling” that work to the necessary publishing gatekeepers. I agree that it can be tempting to shift target from what you’re naturally good at producing, to producing what you feel an agent or editor is looking for. And I think you make a good argument that results are not always ideal.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the established system of agents, editors or publishers. Nor am I suggesting that writers completely ignore potential markets. Instead, I’m saying that I think you touched on some of the difficulties a writer can encounter when trying to interface with publishing. And (IMHO) you did so in a very heartfelt and moving way.

Your article touches on part of an idea I alluded to in my own recent post, when I indicated that selling my work is what I consider “The HARD part of writing.” Writing (whether short stories or novels) is a difficult, time consuming, complicated task. And, selling what you’ve written can also be difficult, time consuming and complicated. But: I believe the two activities require very different skill sets.

And therein lies the rub. At least, in my opinion.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Fran, I tried hard to make it clear that I do NOT have a problem with cozy writers. All I'm saying is I can't be one myself. Several of my friends who are doing well with Berkley did not start out doing that kind of writing, but they do it very, very well and it's given them success in their writing careers, since that market seems to be booming. I can't write like Tana French or Sara Paretsky either, much as I admire them. We all have different gifts.

DavidDean said...

I don't think I would even bother writing if it were for strictly commercial purposes. Without it meaning something to the writer, it's just work, I think.

That being said, I enjoy getting published as much as the next guy (or gal), so the dilemma Elizabeth posed remains It once came to pass that I had an agent (who shall remain unnamed, of course) that was (is)a very nice gentleman and something of a powerhouse in the publishing world. He actually approached me and wanted to work with me. I was terribly flattered and very excited; only one little problem...every story, or idea, that I put before him he rejected as unsaleable. It turned out that he wanted a very specific type of product that I had very little interest in writing. In fact, I'm not even sure I could have written it and grew increasingly baffled at our relationship. In the end, I concluded that he believed in my skills as a craftsman, but had little interest in my individuality as a writer. We parted company amiably and I doubt he's lost much sleep over it. I, however, still wrestle with my decision from time to time. The bottom line is that I still write what I want to write; whether it's published or not...well, that's the rub, isn't it?

Leigh Lundin said...

I certainly understand that, David.

Jeff Baker said...

As I'm not writing for a living, I take O. Henry's advice and I write for me! I'm lucky that other people (including a few editors)seem to like what I've done.