14 July, 2010

So you think you can write? OK... who cares?

Today Nathan Bransford has a post asking, in just so many words, why it is that so many people feel they're entitled to break into the writing world as novelists. After all, Bransford muses, people playing pickup basketball don't think they should be drafted into the NBA. Why, therefore, does eveyone with a working computer think they can write a best-selling novel?

Well, for one thing, there are some best-selling novels out there that are crap. It's easy for an unpublished novelist to point to one of those and say, "I write better than that: ergo, since that crap is published, I should be published also."

There is some merit to that argument -- however, there is an important nuance that can't be ignored: the game is not "who can write the best book" : the game is, "who can sell the most books."

Publishing peope talk about 'branding' ad nauseum, but it's true: quality writing is only one of several factors that move books off of bookstore shelves and into beach tote bags. In fact, it may be one of the least important factors. Why? Simple:

A book buyer cannot tell if the writing is any good without reading the book. If she needs to read the book to find out whether it's any good... then what's the point?

The buyer can get around this problem if the author is established. She knows what she's getting when buying another Dan Brown, Sue Grafton, or Estate-Of-Clive-Cussler.

If the author is NOT established, the buying decision can come down to whether the book is on a subject the buyer wants to read about.

It's true! For a while I was reading anything set in the British navy of the Napoleonic era. Other people are nuts for Regency romances, or steampunk, or Viking stories, or cozies featuring sleuths who are also Franciscan monks, or whatever.

And this is why a genre book is easier to sell as a first novel -- it taps a ready market. The bar for writing quality is set lower. And so I postulate further:

A 'genre' book will sell in the established market for that genre, as long as it does not completely suck.

Which brings us around home again. A novelist wannabe could easily write a high-quality piece with no established market. There is little reason for a publisher to take a chance on a book like that. And it will be quite easy for that wannabe to find a book that got published into an established market which does not suck (or maybe it does), but is not as good as that wannabe's stuff.

And so the 'pickup basketball to NBA' analogy falls apart. It's not whether we can play better basketball than the status quo: it's whether anyone wants to pay to see us play. And unlike basketball, sheer performance on the court is not the thing that convinces the paying public to part with their cash.


  1. I think this is so true.

  2. I'm with you up until here, Richard - The bar for writing quality is set lower. I do know what you mean by it, but I think it's more that there are certain conventions to each genre that are more established and hitting those conventions is sort of the primary target, whereas for a non-genre book, you're floundering in the weeds, as you quite rightly said, looking for what will hit the right notes with an unknown audience. Of course, the expectations of genre can work against you too, if you don't know what they are...

  3. Well, you've got a point R.A.B., and perhaps a better one than mine :) Every genre and style of book has different conventions and therefore a different valuation model for the writing. The successful author will self-assess by comparing his writing to other books in his genre/style. I suppose I put at least one foot into the very fallacy I decried in the post!

    Rejection makes a man bitter that way :)

  4. Very good point. I'm up to about 30 rejections, (all of them personal, encouraging and polite,) on my historical novel because of its unusual subject matter, which some of the guidelines claim they want. They say they're tired of the same ol', same ol', but slip the rejection into the envelope and mail it to me anyway.

    Thanks for the amusing way in which you spoke the truth.

  5. I'm jealous of your personal, encouraging, polite rejections, Aimee -- I only get a 'Dear Author'!