Friday, July 27, 2012

Would You Rather: Revisited

Okay.  So a couple of days ago, I posed four impossible questions to writers.  If you haven't read that post, go do it now.  It's okay.  I'll wait.  

Right then.  So now it's time for my own responses, yeah?

Would You Rather...The Author Edition

If suddenly your favorite genre stopped being published entirely by the major houses, would you rather switch genres, or start publishing small press/self-pub?


  • No question.  I would jump ship and find a way to get the stories that mattered to me out into the world in whatever way was necessary.  I don't know exactly what factors influence the market -- why some things get huge while others fade into obscurity -- but I feel that there will always be a place for good stories of any kind.  More importantly, I would not want to live in a world without fantasy and horror stories.  (How's that for over-dramatic?) It's true, though.  There are certain types of books that I, as a reader, enjoy.  If those stopped being picked up by the Big 6, I would turn my back on the Big 6 and go out looking for them.  

Would you rather have your book read by as many people as possible but not get paid for it, or get paid really well for it but only a handful of people read it?
  • This is probably the single hardest, meanest question on this list.  Nobody ever wants to be stuck in this position.  But I can say, honestly, that I would rather have the distribution without the cash.  Put another way, I would rather have a copy of my book in every library in the country than in every book store.  Part of this is because of my values as a reader.  I grew up in libraries.  I read a lot of used books.  I've been affected by so many authors who are deceased, or out of print, or otherwise will never, ever know what impact they've made on my life.  I'd like to think I could maybe have the same effect on somebody else some day.  Would I like a huge advance?  Sure.  Of course I would.  But only because I want the money.  When I fantasize about a 6-figure advance, it's exactly the same as when I fantasize about winning the lottery.  The only thing going through my mind is paying off student loan debt and buying a new car, maybe a down payment on a house.  I don't equate the money of the advance with my career in any meaningful way.  In other words, it's not any more attractive or important to me if I get $100,000 from a book advance, inheritance, the lottery, whatever.  It doesn't have to be my book that makes me rich.  But it is attractive to me to think that I might be leaving a legacy behind that could affect someone else's life, even if it was just one person, with my writing.  That's something I can only accomplish with my writing.  Does that make sense?
Would you rather write dozens of books, trying to find the "right" one for your dream agent/publisher, or find a home for the one book you have, even if that home isn't ideal?
  • This is probably the most pragmatic question on the list.  The others are sort of theoretical, but this one is a real question that people struggle with every day when they're in the querying trenches.  After you shop a book and it doesn't get any bites, do you trunk it?  How many books do you write and try to sell before one finally sticks?  Now, obviously, a lot of books need to be trunked.  I have about 10 novels that will never see the light of day.  From the time I was 11 until I was 21, I wrote those books and taught myself everything I know about writing.  I queried a few of them.  But I always knew in the back of my mind even as I did it that they weren't good enough.  I just couldn't tell what was wrong with them and thought maybe somebody else could.  
  • But some books don't deserve to be shelved.  I refuse to accept that if a book doesn't instantly find its home or sell a lot of copies that it's bad.  And I refuse to accept that because the corollary is not true:  Not every book that's published is demonstrably good.  It comes down to money, and to a very messy acquisitions process full of a lot of guess-work: "I think this is what the agent thinks the editor thinks will sell."  It's far from being a perfect system.  And besides, since when has "the market" been an infallible judge of quality?  Not just the pop culture "mommy porn" obsession, but throughout history.  How many books that we currently revere as classics were completely obscure during their own time? 
  •  Look.  I'm not saying that every book is a classic or even that every book is good.  If you're getting turned down by every person in the publishing world, it's pretty likely that there's a problem with your book.  But at the same time, if you're getting a lot of "This is great, but I just don't know if I can sell it..." comments, or if you're not getting any bites at all but you and your beta readers know in the depths of your heart that the book is good...maybe it's time to take a chance.  Maybe instead of putting all of your beloved books in a trunk until an industry professional tells you you're good enough, maybe it's a better idea to self-pub them, or find an enthusiastic small press for them.  It's not "giving up."  There's nothing stopping you from continuing the search with other books.  But maybe -- just maybe -- a project would be more useful to you with a small audience from a small press or self-pub or whatever than it would be collecting dust on your hard drive while you wait for your prince to come.  It's an option worth considering, at any rate. 
Would you rather have a small group of extremely devoted fans, or a wide readership of casual readers?
  • It's interesting to me that, for the most part, this is the one question that people had the easiest time answering.  Pretty much everybody I've talked to has agreed:  small group of fans.  What's interesting about that is it's kind of contrary to marketing advice.  If you want to be the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Twilight or whatever else the huge blockbuster is, you have to tap into the casual readers.  The only thing that makes these books successful is they -- as Kristen Lamb points out -- mobilize "the fat part of the bell curve."   They sell books to people who don't usually read books. 
  • But that's not quite fair, is it?  Because that's comparing a small group of devoted fans....to a huge group of devoted fans.  In a weird way, the people who read only a couple books a year are the people who are most passionate about the books they do read.  So the would-you-rather question is kind of misleading.  
  • For my part, I'd rather have the small group of fans.  It goes back to how I feel about having my books in libraries.  I'd rather like to think that I was making some kind of impact in some way on some people -- even if it was just a few people.  Even if I only had a couple of true fans outside of my circle of friends and family, it would be enough.  I would get more affirmation from having a reader whom I have never met to tell me that my book was somehow influential in her life than from getting a bunch of great reviews or awards or accolades (but I wouldn't mind those, too). 
So, there you have it.  My answers.  I learned a lot about myself by thinking about these things.  I still have to synthesize the information and decide what I'm going to do about it, but I feel like I know myself (and my future career) better by sorting out how I feel here.

I've got a follow-up post in me about all this, but I'll save it for another time since this has already gotten pretty long. 

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