For the last several weeks, I’ve been running from one convention/appearance/trade show to another, and it seems that at every one of them I’ve run into at least one would-be writer who is worried about “selling out.” More accurately, they’ve been worried about having to sell out in order to get published.
These folks look at mega-bestsellers like the Harry Potter books and the Twilight series, identify one or more aspects of those books which they dislike, and then leap to the twin conclusions a) that the books are bestsellers because of the particular thing(s) they dislike, and b) that in order to be a bestselling writer (or in extreme cases, in order to sell any manuscript at all) they must incorporate these specific distasteful elements in their own work.
It ought to be obvious that these are rather silly things to worry about. If anyone could identify one thing (or even two or six or twelve things) that all mega-bestsellers have in common, there would be zillions of books out there with exactly those features already. Because publishers and editors aren’t stupid, and they want to make money; if they knew for sure what made for a mega-bestseller, every single book they publish would be one.
Unfortunately, most people don’t look at the process of making money as a writer logically. It is really, really, really difficult for a lot of folks to accept that once they have written the best book they can, the only work they have left to do is address envelopes, stuff them, stamp them, and mail them. It’s especially hard when the ms. comes back from editor after editor. It’s a lot easier to believe that there’s some trick to the whole process – that publishers insist on more violence, or zombies, or pirates, or star-crossed lovers, or whatever the flavor of the moment is that their book doesn’t have – than it is to accept that their wonderful, brilliant manuscript is going to take a long time to sell…or worse, that it may not be quite as wonderful as they think.
When this manifests as grumbling about how the Evil Publishing Conspiracy is too short-sighted and greedy to published Herman Q. Wannabe’s wonderful-and-brilliant first novel, it is mildly annoying to already-published writers. After all, it was those short-sighted, greedy Evil Editors who bought and published our books. Most of us just nod politely, knowing that the system itself will take our revenge for us: either Herman’s book will never sell and he’ll have to deal with all that rejection, or it will sell, and he’ll eventually have to listen to unpublished writers complain about the short-sighted, greedy Evil Editors who bought his book instead of Henrietta Q. Wannabe’s.
Too often, however, Herman and Henrietta lose patience and make up their minds to sell out. They will, they decide, knock out a couple of bestsellers according to the obvious formula that they (or some trusted authority) are sure is the secret to success, and once they have a name and a track record as a bestselling author, then they will get their brilliant, moving, wonderful, real work published.
There are so many things wrong with this scenario that I hardly know where to begin.
First off, see above comments about editors and publishers not being stupid, the lack of any reliable format for mega-writing-stardom, etc. Second, there’s the time factor: as of this writing, the mega-bestseller that everyone seems to be trying to duplicate is Twilight. Which first came out in 2005. That’s six years ago, and you have to add at least another year for the whole first-novel publication process. And 150,000 words or thereabouts takes a year or two to write, for most people. So we’re looking at folks trying to imitate what editors were buying seven or more years ago, hoping that when they finish it in another year or two, editors will still want something like that.
People, the market moves a lot faster than that. Even if you catch the latest mega-blockbuster hot off the press, you’re looking at something an editor bought two to five years before, which will probably take you at least a year to copy. So the absolute best case is that your manuscript will hit an editor’s desk with a three year lag – and three years is a long time in publishing. Don’t bother.
Next comes the mental factor, which Herman and Henrietta hardly ever take into consideration. They assume that all they have to do is hold their noses and crank out something that they don’t much like – indeed, that they actually have contempt for. (That is, after all, pretty much what “selling out” means.) It never seems to occur to them that writing something you dislike is exponentially more difficult than writing something you love (and writing is difficult enough to begin with). Also, if a writer is secretly sneering at his/her readers, it nearly always comes through in the writing somewhere, and since nobody likes being sneered at, sales of the title aren’t likely to be particularly good even if the author can get it past an editor. Which isn’t going to do much for that sales track record they’re hoping to generate.
But the biggest thing that Herman and Henrietta are overlooking is that editors aren’t looking for “the next Twilight,” not really, not even the editors who say they are. They’re looking for “the next mega-blockbuster-bestseller,” and odds are that the next big hit won’t look anything like the one right before it, any more than Twilight looks like Harry Potter.
Editors are no good at all at predicting what writers ought to write. That’s not their job. They are, however, quite good at identifying the Next Big Thing when it turns up in their in basket. Which they cannot do unless writers do their job and write something new and wonderful, instead of trying to imitate the Last Big Thing.
In short, I’ve never seen the sell-out thing work, not once in thirty years. I have to wonder why people keep trying.
But there’s another side to the whole selling-out discussion that rarely gets looked at. I’m going to talk about that next post.