Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You Can Only Sell What’s Hot
This myth kills careers, this myth stops thousands and thousands of book sales, this myth destroys careers.
And it’s just stupid, even though the myth seems to have a logical base in publishing.
Out of the mouth of top professionals this myth spouts all the time in one form or another, and usually with the best of intentions. And it has for as long as I have been in this business.
But lately, with the advent of the slush-reading lower-level agents, this myth has taken on deadly consequences for many writers. Why? Because they believe it.
So as I do in these chapters, let me take a look at the origin of this myth first.
Actually, the origin is simple. It came about because editors and agents and publishers want to make an easy sale.
Yes, editors sell books as well. They sell a book they love to their publisher, they sell the book to a sales force, and they ultimately are responsible for selling a book to readers. Books that are different, that don’t fit in what has been done before, are very, very difficult sales for editors and publishers and always have been.
And it has been proven that if a reader likes a certain type of book, they will look for that type of book.
Now remember, publishers need so many books per month in this churn of book lists, so they have to find books to buy, and when they can find an easy-sell book, it makes their job easier.
And it’s human nature to want to have your job be easier.
Of course, easy-sell books are usually pretty flat. (Not always, but usually.) They are often following a trend. The books tend to do little if anything new, which is why they are easy sells. Another book bought by a more gutsy editor has already paved the way. Easy-sell books are also easy to promote. “If you liked ‘X Book’ you’re going to love ‘X Book Same.'” Easy sell.
Now understand, I wrote a ton of easy-sell books. Media books such as Star Trek have a pretty set audience a publisher can depend on. So when Pocket Books came to me to write some Star Trek novels, they knew exactly what the book would sell and so did I. Easy, no thought on the publisher’s part. What was a hard-sell book(s) was Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. It took John Ordover years of fighting to get that series going and the fact that Pocket Books kept it going for ten years was not because of sales, but reasons of relationships with readers and Paramount.
Interestingly enough, over the history of publishing, the really monster books, the ones that people talk about and remember for decades, were not easy-sell books. Often they would have fifty or more rejections before finding an editor willing to work for the book and a publisher took a chance. Then when the book became a hit it was called new and fresh and readers loved it.
And then that fresh idea, fresh book would spawn (like a bad horror movie) thousands of “easy sell” books. But no one has made much of a long career writing only easy-sell books, because the target just keeps moving. One day one topic is hot, the next day the next topic is hot. As a writer, if you try to chase that “hot topic easy sell” thinking, you are lost in short order.
But then comes editors and agents sitting on panels at writer’s conferences telling new writers what they are looking for, what’s selling, what isn’t selling. In all honest truth, as an editor, I didn’t know what I wanted to buy until I read it.
And as an editor for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds for ten years, I constantly told writers I hated the character “Q” from Next Generation. But I always ended up buying a “Q” story because some writer wrote one so well, with such a fun twist, that I couldn’t not buy it.
Attempting to write what is hot isn’t a new trend. It has been around since the beginning of this business. And the myth that you need to write what is hot, what is selling is as deadly today as it was fifty years ago.
So why is this myth so deadly?
The answer to that question is back in the writer’s office. Each writer is different. Every chapter in this book I have been pounding that simple fact home.
Every writer is different.
And what makes your books interesting to readers is YOU. I have also warned about taking the YOU out of your work over and over in these chapters as well. You can’t see or hear your voice because to you it sounds dull because you hear it all the time.
And your ideas might seem dull because guess why? They are yours. They are as unique as you are, as how you write the ideas down.
But then you go trying to imitate some other writer, try to write what is “hot” because some editor or agent told you that is what is selling. So what do you do? You take the YOU out of your work and it becomes mundane and just like everything else and won’t sell.
A SIMPLE RULE: In fiction, sameness and dullness do not sell.
Yet when a new writer hears an editor or agent tell them what they are “looking for” in books, the young writer goes home and attempts to imitate the book the editor said they are looking for. They create nothing unique, nothing new, nothing of themselves. They write the same boring old crap that has already been done to death.
So How Do You Solve This Problem?
Simple: Kick all the editor and agent voices out of your writing office and write what makes you passionate or angry or excited. Or as Stephen King has said, “Write what scares hell out of you.”
Some basic guidelines on how to do this:
1) Never talk about your story with anyone ahead of time. Their ideas, unless you are very experienced, will twist the story into partially their story.
2) For heaven’s sake, never, ever let anyone read a work-in-progress. Totally stupid on so many levels I can’t even begin to address. If you want to collaborate, make sure you have a collaboration agreement, otherwise, keep your work to yourself until finished.
3) Never think of markets or selling when writing. Enjoy the process of writing and creating story. When the story is finished, then have someone read it and tell you what you wrote and then market it.
4) Follow Heinlein’s Rules, especially #3 about never rewriting. In other words, fix mistakes and then mail it and trust your own voice, your own work. Never rewrite to anyone’s suggestions, especially a workshop. (And never use the word “polish” in front of me. When you take a unique piece of work and polish it, you make it look like all the others.)
5) When an editor says they are looking for a certain type of book, ignore it. They are just trying to be helpful to all the new writers looking for shortcuts to getting published. There are no shortcuts. When agents say what they think will sell to editors, just laugh. They have less of a clue what will sell than anyone in the business bar none.
6) Get passionate and protective of what you write. It’s your voice, your work, for heaven’s sake, grow a backbone and stand up for it. Sure, in the first million words you are going to need all sorts of help with craft and storytelling issues. Go learn that and take it in and study and practice and get feedback. But don’t rewrite it beyond fixing typos and mistakes. When you write a story or novel, trust yourself and mail it. Protect it from all who want you to write what they think you should have written.
So, in summary, I am telling you flatly and bluntly to ignore any advice from any person about what is selling, what is hot, what you should write.
Write your own stories.
And if you do write your own stories and believe in them and mail them to editors, you may be the next big thing and then thousands and thousands of writers will be trying to imitate you.
And they will fail, because there is only one of you.
Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.
If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.
And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!
If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.