?

Log in

No account? Create an account
[process] Selling the unsellable - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-01-16 20:48
Subject: [process] Selling the unsellable
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:tired
Music:my fingers typing
Tags:process, publishing, writing
In comments on ktempest's Livejournal here, mmegaera asked:
Can you point me in the direction of some viable advice for selling otherwise good work that doesn't happen to fit today's market?

Some serious advice, other than wait till what you're writing is popular again or write to the market, instead?


I thought I'd take it on here, and throw the question open to the gentle readers of this blog.

Most people will tell you to write what you love. There's a good reason for that. Your voice, your passion, your craft, will all be deepest and richest if you're writing what you love. There are exceptions to this, but in general I wouldn't say write to the market.

The simplest reason not to do that is that what you see in the market today was being bought two or three years ago (or possibly longer), and what's being bought today won't be out much before 2010. More to the point, writing to the market won't give you the genuine voice that attracts readers. Certainly not in an early or pre- career phase where an author's conscious control of craft is generally still developing.

Waiting til what you're writing is popular again isn't so much a solid idea either. I mean, if nurse romances are your thing, what are the odds of nurse romances coming back anytime soon? Likewise pulp Westerns. Everything comes and goes, but not in predictable cycles. Some things really aren't very sellable, no matter how good they are — in our field, non-Eurocentric fantasy is very difficult.

Ultimately, so far as I can see it, work which won't sell in the market needs to be redirected in one of two ways. Either find another vein to mine for your love of the writing, or find another market to hit. Books which aren't viable on a trade P&L out of a New York publisher may do just fine in the independent press, for example. The break-even numbers on a POD deal with royalties-only are very small indeed, so the capacity for risk taking is much higher.

Just because you work hard, or are brilliant, doesn't mean you'll automatically succeed. If you truly think what you're writing doesn't fit the market, you either need to bet on being then next market-changer (they do happen, but that's probably the longest odds you could play in trying to get published), or you need to make a change in direction.

Is that fair? No. But there isn't a right to be published. It's not a reward for doing all the correct things, or having suffered enough for your art. It's an imperfect process, run by imperfect people for an imperfect market.

Am I right? Wrong? Other takes?




End Note from the Department of Toughlove: In practice I'd tend to question the assumption that if someone's work isn't selling, it's because it doesn't happen to fit today's market rather than because of quality issues. How does an author know that? There isn't an editor or agent out there who would leave good work on the table simply because it didn't fit this year's expectations. Publishing really isn't a conspiracy of insiders and kingmakers. I don't find it difficult to make the case that the most reliable validation of work being good is whether it sells. (This assumes commercial aspirations, of course.)
Post A Comment | 20 Comments | Share | Link






JoSelle
User: upstart_crow
Date: 2008-01-17 05:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I write a lot of stuff that is rather unusual, and I'm quite happy with small presses. Also, nothing is wrong at all with a small press that uses POD technology - technology used to print and distribute a book doesn't reflect negatively (or positively) on a book's quality, despite what some people think.

I agree with you, Jay. I'd recommend that she try small to midsize presses if she hasn't already. They do great work and often take a lot of risks.

ETA: But not having actually seen his/her work, I'm not sure how to diagnose the problem. Whether it's, "You're trying the wrong market" or "You could use a good workshop for this." Either could be a workable answer.

Edited at 2008-01-17 05:44 am (UTC)
Reply | Thread | Link



User: dsgood
Date: 2008-01-17 06:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Another problem with writing to the market: Not that long ago, there was a steady market for "Soviet Union invades the US" novels. Some niches are very unlikely to disappear as completely -- time travel romances would probably still be around if time travel was invented, for example -- but a whole lot are somewhere in the middle.
Reply | Thread | Link



mmegaera
User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-01-17 06:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
First, thank you for bringing this to your blog, Jay. I will definitely keep my eye on this discussion and any comments it brings out.

BTW, nurse romances are still quite popular in certain circles, and are still being bought and published [g] -- see the Brit publisher Mills and Boon, and certain Harlequin lines.

I know there's no "right" to be published. I do, however, wonder how many good books do never get published because they were passed over by an ill-managed system, because I and every other writer who's participated in writing groups over the years knows personally of at least a few. Having been told as I won a contest with a particular manuscript a number of years ago that the only reason the judging editor didn't want to take it on was the current unpopularity of the subject matter does tend to bias my opinion.

Anyway, thanks again for giving my question a wider audience. And for your thoughts on the subject.
Reply | Thread | Link



JoSelle
User: upstart_crow
Date: 2008-01-17 06:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Having been told as I won a contest with a particular manuscript a number of years ago that the only reason the judging editor didn't want to take it on was the current unpopularity of the subject matter does tend to bias my opinion.

Wow, I'm sorry that happened to you. What a horrible thing!

Don't give up on that ms, though. Have you sent it to anyone since?
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



mmegaera
User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-01-17 06:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not in a long time. It's not the one I'm trying to market now. I've gone in a different direction, and I want it to go in that direction with me, if that makes any sense, so I want to rewrite it before I do anything else with it. It worked as a romance, but now I think it would work better if the romance was a subplot, not the main story, and the historical and ghostly parts took precedence.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2008-01-17 06:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As someone who's definitely in the "early or pre-career phase," I'd add that a lot depends on the writer's personality. I've made two short story sales. One was to an anthology with specific requirements that I thought were cool. The other was a story written to a teacher's prompt (the "market"), with an additional challenge I set myself, resulting in a story for which I saw no market, but sent to a magazine a third person suggested. What I'm saying, I guess, is that for me, the right "market" was one of the things that intrigued me and got me into the story... even though I wasn't writing "to the market."
Reply | Thread | Link



farmgirl1146
User: farmgirl1146
Date: 2008-01-17 08:44 (UTC)
Subject: It's the editors not the writers or the readers
As someone who will probably die an upstart writer with too few writing credits and too much malaise, I have to say that lots of good writing doesn't make it, and lots of bad writing does. Some of it is luck, timing, and bad luck.

I would say that a good 25% of my friends over the past 30 years (OH GOD!) are (were) working writers who earn most or all of their living from their publishing. I've watched perfectly good careers nose dive because someone decided that their work was not in fashion.

I have watched others skyrocket, but most develop enough of a following to sell 20,000 copies of a book or more, and keep their career alive.

It is fashion. Do you think you could sell a 1980s David Brinesque book today? NO. David Brin doesn't even write those. They were good, they would hold up today, I believe, but someone decided they were not fashionable.

Sometimes it is not luck but bad business. I have been the fly on the wall, OK the person on the couch, at cons listening to editors, who should know better, getting authors to agree to accept print runs that are too low to warrant publicity so they will never go into a second printing which is where they have to go to earn out. You can pull up the 10-K reports and such of the publicly traded companies and in one out of five find the magic earn-out number spelled out in shiny little pixels. It has hovered at a minimum of 17,000 for most MSM publishers for two decades.

I listened to Dave Dederer, formerly of the POTUS rock band. He spoke first hand about what it takes to make it to the top of the music world. It takes 24/7 planning, and working that plan. He talked not only of POTUS, but of Guns & Roses, and how every day the guys would sit down with their drug of choice and have a 2 hour business meeting. Very scary, and something few people do (not drug of choice but action planning). Talent is but one aspect of getting published.

You are right, Jay.
Reply | Thread | Link



The Green Knight: writing tools
User: green_knight
Date: 2008-01-17 10:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing tools
There isn't an editor or agent out there who would leave good work on the table simply because it didn't fit this year's expectations.

I don't know. I prefer to think that the feedback I got ('good writing, but I can't sell this') was genuine. It's a hell of a lot more encouraging than 'Not There Yet' (and I've gotten that, too, on another project).

Maybe 'good' above should read 'exceptional'? For a truly exceptional book there will probably always room in the market, but 'good enough to be published on a topic the editor is buying at the moment' isn't 'good enough to be bought when the topic/style are unpopular.'

Reply | Thread | Link



jp_davis
User: jp_davis
Date: 2008-01-17 12:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
How true are all these statements when applied to short fiction markets? I'm definitely still in the novice phase and still learning which markets to target with which pieces, but in my limited experience, most markets, even those who claim that they accept, say, "all fantasy, as long as it's good," publish some work I don't care for and reject work I do. Alot of it comes down to individual tastes of editors, mixed with the specific demands of the market, and I tend to think of short fiction as having a dwindling supply of diversity (for the very good reason that there's a diminished readership). What are your thoughts?
Reply | Thread | Link



Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-17 13:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You can go crazy in short fiction, because the editors can afford risks. Which is to say, 1/6 of Asimov's or 1/20 of an anthology can be a fringe or edgy story, in a way that an entire book cannot afford to be. If anything, short fiction's diversity is much stronger than single title fictions, because short fiction isn't nearly as tied to genre marketing categories, and a lot of the independent press action out there is in short fiction.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



Sarah/Katherine: cats: problem
User: truepenny
Date: 2008-01-17 14:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:cats: problem
Also, there are and will be editors who want to buck the current trend and thus are looking for stuff that doesn't fit today's market. Not many of them, no, but they're there.

Trying to figure out "today's market" seems to me like a particularly complicated form of rejectomancy--not necessarily a bad idea, but you gotta be careful it doesn't divert mental energy that could be better used somewhere else.

(Okay, just realized, I was automatically answering as if the question were about short fiction. I think because the idea of trying to figure out how to pitch a novel toward market trends seems to me mostly impossible, the sort of task for which you need a sonic screwdriver and a left-handed blunderbuss.)


Edited at 2008-01-17 02:18 pm (UTC)
Reply | Thread | Link



The Green Knight: Decision Time
User: green_knight
Date: 2008-01-17 17:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Decision Time
the idea of trying to figure out how to pitch a novel toward market trends seems to me mostly impossible, the sort of task for which you need a sonic screwdriver and a left-handed blunderbuss

To a degree.

It helps to know lots of writers. I'm not just seeing novels bought three years ago that have now been published, I'm hearing about being novels that were bought last week. It would still take me six months to write that novel, but the lead time is considerably shortened. ('You bought one like this, would you like another?' does sound like a _very_ stupid marketing strategy, but there are certain books that seem to have better chances than others.)

That urban fantasy/paranormal romance crossover with the kick-ass vampire hunter? I could write it for a five figure advance, but probably not _well_. (They still seem to sell...).

But given the reaction I've had to my gentle renaissance-ish fantasy with a feel that's somewhat close to Sorcery and Cecilia or Stranger at the Wedding, and given the much more daring books that seem to do well, the next thing I will tackle from my to-write queue will not be another book in the same world, or a book with a similar feel (even if it involves the Wise Old Mentor ^H ordinary elderly wizard discovering that the World won't stay saved and that, when people mutter 'someone ought to do something' that someone is him), but an idea that stands out from the crowd by its concept and setting.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2008-01-17 15:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd like to offer an orthogonal view of Jay's end note, keeping in mind his own amendment:

The quality of the writing and story don't matter at all if BookScan (or other prior sales records of dubious validity) says that the author's name is poison, regardless of whether the work itself fits a hot/lukewarm/colder-than-Antarctica marketing paradigm.

Keep in mind that a commercial publisher — a publisher attempting to sell its wares in the stream of commerce, which includes most small presses — operates under a mercantilist economic model. Unfortunately, the economy at large and business expectations are founded on the comparative-advantage economic model. Perhaps the best example of this conflict is the recent Southwest Airlines series of commercials about "productivity enhancers"... that focuses solely upon sales presentations as "productivity," not actual production of goods and/or services. That represents the mercantilist view. However, the publishing companies are all being judged — whether by stockholders, banks, or the taxman — on the comparative-advantage paradigm, which is where we get even the concept of "productivity." Needless to say, this leads to some rather interesting (in the Chinese sense) management decisions. One of those management decisions is the increasingly early involvement of sales-and-marketing dorks who haven't read/seen/heard the work in question in the acquisition process in the entertainment industry, including — but certainly not limited to, as evidenced by what's on TV this year! — the publishing industry.

All of that theoretical stuff (which is immensely condensed from an academic work in progress) leads to this: The "author brand" applied to a literary work is at least 20-25% of the weight in the decision process today, and sometimes it's better to be an unknown than a known author with a bad sales record for even award-winning work (Exhibit A: Megan Lindholm, who "became" Robin Hobb). Whether it should bear such weight is another issue that I explore in that academic work in progress; the simple fact is that it does.

So what that really means is that "writing to market" is far less relevant than anyone who hasn't been on the dark side of the editorial desk really understands. Which is, I suppose, consistent with Jay's endnote as he later amended it... in an orthogonal-to-the-curve sort of way.

— CEP
Reply | Thread | Link



mmegaera
User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-01-17 21:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It has occurred to me, as this discussion has gone of on some interesting tangents, that perhaps I did not phrase my original question correctly.

I do hope that if something is good enough, no editor is going to turn it down. The question then becomes, how do you get the full manuscript to the editor's desk so that s/he can read it? The problem then becomes a query that automatically gets turned down because of the book's subject matter without the book itself ever having a chance to prove its worth.

Which is, actually, where I am with the current manuscript. Any ideas?
Reply | Thread | Link



mmegaera
User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-01-17 21:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's a good thing I proofread my manuscripts better than my posts...
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-17 23:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That would be the magic of a strong query letter.

That's also one of those situations where networking can help, or otherwise having a reputation through a short story career or some other activity.

Also, writing more books is useful. One of my most beloved novel projects probably won't see print before at least 2014 or 2015 (seriously) because it's unsellable for me right now. Instead of hammering myself to death on that, I've written more books, and sold them. Building my career path until my freedom to publish expands due to my (hopefully) proven base of readers and fans.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



mmegaera
User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-01-18 02:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ah, yes, queries. Which of the three versions and countless tweakings would you like? [wry g]

I've got to get up the guts for the FTF networking. I seriously doubt you remember the early Saturday morning of Foolscap last September. I was the one in the corner of the lounge area eating up the conversation you were having with somebody and desperately trying to get up enough guts to join in.

I'm working on the more books as we post. Some of us just don't write at lightning speed like some people I know whose names I won't mention [d,r].
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-18 03:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It doesn't take much guts to talk to me -- I'll talk to paint, frankly, so a human being, especially one with a pleasant smile and/or something interesting to say, always captures my attention. Do speak up next time!
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



mmegaera
User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-01-18 04:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks, I will. It'll be easier now, too [g].
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



browse
my journal
links
January 2014
2012 appearances