Two weeks ago I participated in Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford's "agent for a day" contest. I contributed the query letter I used for THE COPYCAT KILLER, my fifth completed manuscript that became my debut novel THE PREY. The contest was simple: read fifty query letters and request only five. Amidst the fifty were three published novels, mine plus two in production.
If you're interested in the contest, you can go to Nathan's site, my blog to read my reaction to the rejections of my query, or Murder She Writes where I reflected a bit more. I don't want this blog to be about the contest, but since it's Sunday and you might have some reading time, it is interesting to review the contest, especially Nathan's post on the results and his subsequent post on concepts.
One of the comments on my blog has bugged me since I read it. Both Nathan and I had blogged that ultimately, selling was all about the writing--not whether the query letter followed all the "rules" or whether the premise wasn't "unique." (Seriously, it's all been done before--and long before printing presses were invented.)
But Adam said:
A lot of people like to say this but it just isn’t as true as we’d like it to be. Marketability is more important than writing. I got a slew feedback from agents and editors that was of the “great book, very well written but I don’t know how to sell this,” variety.
On the other side of that coin, a good friend of mine has had several books published at a major house and he readily admits they aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. He had no trouble selling them though because they fit a certain market. Those books are so bad that we routinely mock them in conversation and he loves it…he also loves paying the bills with the money they make.
In short, if it’ll sell, the writing need only be mediocre. Sad but true.
I'm not picking on Adam--I don't know him from, well, Adam . . . and he didn't leave his email. His comment is certainly valid and based on his experience. Yet it annoyed me. Immensely.
What successful published author is going to go around and mock his readers? Because, ultimately, that's exactly what he's doing. It's not that the books are "so bad," it's that people are willing to pay money for these allegedly "bad books." To me, this is the epitome of elitism: "The masses don't know what's good" or "they're ignorant."
"The masses" make the world go 'round. Commercial fiction sells because it's entertaining. Authors with a mass fan base give their readers what they want, which is the emotional or physical feeling the reader gets from reading that author's stories. The story is only the vehicle; readers want the feeling of the story.
Is it the puzzle of the mystery, or the feeling of being intelligent or observant we have while trying to solve the mystery with the protagonist? Is it the sex in a romance or the emotional warmth of knowing two people who love each other will live happily ever after? Is it the stakes in a thriller, or the physical reaction to a fast-paced dangerous situation?
If a novelist is churning out books that "aren't worth the paper they are written on" then they're not going to sell en masse. They apparently "fit a certain market." Obviously, a market that craves bad books.
Oh, to make a living writing bad books. That would be easy. /sarcasm.
I'm not so naive to think that every book published by a major house is outstanding and worthy of awards and NYT status. And honestly, I'm sure all of us have read a NYT bestselling book and thought, hmm, why? And then there's the books we love that never seem to go anywhere, and we think, for the love of God, why isn't this a #1 NYT bestseller? Is everyone an idiot?
The first time I had that "Why isn't this a NYT bestselling author" was when I read PSYCHOPATH by Dr. Keith Ablow. You might think the name sounds familiar--he did write a #1 NYT bestselling book called INSIDE THE MIND OF SCOTT PETERSON. It was a good book. Rather simple and direct, but illuminating. But Dr. Ablow published six thrillers with St. Martins and never hit a list. They are among the best books of the genre, and he's not writing them anymore. Probably because he's making plenty of money in the NF world. The books are very dark and edgy, the protagonist--Dr. Frank Clevenger, a forensic psychiatrist like his creator--is certainly flawed, but they're captivating stories.
What if we shouldn't say, "It's all about the writing;" and instead say, "It's all about the story?"
Are you more willing to forgive an author who writes simply but tells a terrific story, or an author who writes beautifully but the story is mediocre?
This leads me to Adam's key point:
In short, if it’ll sell, the writing need only be mediocre. Sad but true.
I'd like to know what "mediocre" means. Because if something is selling like hotcakes, I doubt it's mediocre. There's SOMETHING about the book that resonates with readers. And if it truly is mediocre, maybe the author is selling based on past performance--we all know this happens to some authors. They get burned out and start writing retreads. But I think I speak for most authors when I say we are always trying to write a better book than the one that came before. For me, this is my greatest struggle. I have been late turning in my last two books because of a great fear that my writing is subpar. You'd think that after writing eleven books that number twelve would be a breeze. Not! If anything, it's harder than all the books that came before. (Okay, that's not quite true. Number eleven, FATAL SECRETS, was the hardest book I ever wrote. It gave me fits. I wondered if my readers would allow me a dud. If my career was over. I just found out it got a top pick in RT Book Reviews. Which goes to show that authors absolutely can NOT judge their own writing.)
I think, perhaps, that Adam and his published friend have a love-hate affair with commercial fiction. Because, let's face it, the money is primarily in commercial fiction. Read: stories for the masses. These are stories that resonate with readers because they tackle universal themes; they may be adequately written or beautiful written, but they are 1) accessible to the average reader and 2) they tell a universal story well.
Telling a story well doesn't necessarily mean the writing is exceptional.
I recently read an email where someone had in their signature attributed to a best selling author (and I can't remember who--but this is not my quote) "It's hard to write a book that's easy to read." That sums up commercial fiction. I've never been offended when readers tell me my books are "easy" or "a quick read." People are busy; I want to satisfy their human need to be entertained. And most of the time, we don't want to work to be entertained.
I don't want my readers to pull out a dictionary and look up words. I don't want them to be confused or have to re-read sentences that are beautifully, but archaically, structured. For me, it's not about the words, they're almost the necessary evil of a story well-told. Because in the best of commercial fiction, the words themselves almost disappear.
But there are people out there who think that anything "easy" is therefore "inferior" or "bad." Books that are fun and accessible are thus "mediocre writing."
And sometimes that's true. But ultimately, it's about the STORY.
There was a brouhaha a few months ago about Stephen King saying that Stephanie Meyer was a poor writer. But he acknowledged that she was a good storyteller writing for a specific audience. I'm sure some people focused on the "she's not a very good writer" part of the story and missed the "people are attracted to the stories" part. He commented that Dean Koontz could "write like hell" and sometimes is "just awful." King has been self-critical of many of his own books and I, a diehard King fan, never made it through a couple of them. But King is all about the story--and most of the time, he tells it better than anyone.
Publishers want to make money. It's business. This is something I tell myself every time I go into negotiations. It's not personal, it's business. Publishers want to make a profit, and publishing itself has a low-profit margin. So yes, marketability is important. Crucial. Publishers need to know where the book fits into the realm of sales. That's why they love genre so much. It's a romance! It's a mystery! It's a fantasy! They know the audience, they know how to design the cover to appeal to that audience (well, we hope they do--sometimes they, too get it wrong), and they know how to sell-in to the buyers. They'll say, "This debut author will appeal to fans of Janet Evanovich" or in my case, my publisher put, "Julie Garwood meets Thomas Harris." Sales needs to sell the book, and thus marketability--the value the book has to a defined readership--IS important.
But is it MORE important than the story?
I doubt it. The story has to resonate in some way for readers to pick up the next book and the next book. The story has to deliver on the story promise.
If it's a romance, it has to have a happily ever after.
If it's a mystery, the crime has to be solved.
If it's horror, it has to be scary.
If it's comedy, it has to be funny.
Marketability is important otherwise publishers don't know where to plug in the book. Fair? No. Reality? Generally. It's much harder as a female author to sell as a straight thriller writer than to sell as a romantic suspense writer, which is why many women choose to adopt gender-neutral names if they're not writing romance.
It kind of sucks, really, but it's not so much the publishers as the readers.
When I worked in the California State Legislature, it was common knowledge that if you were going to have a major tax policy or economy statement, you had a man present it. If you were going to have a major education initiative or statement, a woman had better be the speaker. This was based on extensive polling that showed that voters had a more positive impression of an economic plan if it was "male" and a more positive impression of an education plan if it was "female."
I suppose one could argue that the industry is continuing the bias by feeding the bias. But when it comes down to it, it's not the industry as much as deep-seated values that are neither right nor wrong. So politicians, and publishers, and every other successful enterprise will look at who the consumer is and target their idea or product to that "type" of person.
So yes, marketability is important. But if you don't have a good story--however it is told--you have nothing to market.