In the past, a large publisher’s most profitable strategy was to publish a relatively small number of different books with wide appeal, those for which they believed there was a large market. The large volume offset the cost of editing, cover design, printing, and promotion. This made perfectly good business sense. There were a few predefined genres, and books that fit the currently popular trends in each of those were what ended up being published and displayed on the limited shelf space in bookstores. This model worked well for the publishing business, but it didn’t provide much variety for readers.
When I was a kid, I read mostly space operas and sword and sorcery epic fantasies. That’s what the stores sold, and for speculative fiction, that was about all they sold because that is all the traditional publishers were publishing, which they did because they sold…
These books were often very much alike. If you tore out the title page, there is a good chance you would not be able to guess who wrote the story. They were as generic as fast food hamburgers and for the same reason—mass appeal, low cost, predictable content, and reasonable quality.
It seems that traditional publishers are still working to this model, and if you really want to read a new post-apocalyptic, dystopian, paranormal, vampire romance with demons, zombies and a teenage wizard, they’ll have one for you.* They’ll probably have dozens, in fact. That kind of stuff sells. They know this because they’ve already sold a bunch much like them. This doesn’t mean any of these books are good, nor does it mean all of them are bad, but it does mean that readers who want something completely different are going to have a hard time finding it.
Fortunately, the constraints of limited shelf space and mass appeal no longer apply, although I don’t think traditional publishers know this. Many authors and readers may not, either. Things are changing, though, and the change is good.
Online retailers do not need to be concerned about shelf space. This allows them to follow a different model. They can offer a wide variety of items to suit different needs and tastes rather than focusing on a relatively small number of currently popular items. Amazon may have been one of the first to adapt this idea to books, and they quickly came to dominate the book market because of it.
Then they went a step further by creating the Kindle, which made them the leader in digital books as well. They further expanded their eBook selection by encouraging writers to bypass traditional publishers and sell their books directly to readers (who had Kindles). I’m sure this wasn’t out of some altruistic concern or even due to some sense of duty to rescue the art of fiction from the doldrums. They are a business after all, and the primary business of business is, as we know, to make money, and I suspect Amazon is making a respectable profit from digital book sales. I have no idea how many eBook titles they now have available, but I imagine it’s a lot. They probably don’t sell many copies of most of these, but a few here and a few there can add a very large pile of nickels and dimes to their bottom line.
I did not realize how truly limited my book selection had been until I received a Kindle as a gift two years ago. In the years BK (Before Kindle), I got books from the library, brick and mortar bookstores, and online, but all of those books were published on paper through the gateway of a traditional publisher. I had no idea what I was missing. In the years AK (After Kindle), I have found many books that were fresh, different, that defied genre and convention, and, because of this, they were great reads. But they didn’t come from traditional publishers, which are still working to the old model of formulaic fiction for mass audiences. Many of the most enjoyable books I read last year came from small, independent publishers or were self-published by the authors.
The rise of indie publishing makes more books available to readers. But quantity is not what makes indie revolutionary. If all it did was increase the number of new vampire romances or zombie apocalypse stories released each year from a hundred to ten thousand, it would hardly be important. The greatest contribution of indie publishing is that it makes many different kinds of stories available to readers.
For a publishing business, the purpose of producing books is to make money. For many (but not all) indie writers, the purpose is simply because they have a need to create and share stories that are not like those coming out of the big publishing houses. Sure, indie writers would love to make piles of money, but few expect to, and I don’t think it’s why most of them write, especially those who are consciously not following the mass-market book trends. What this means for fiction readers is greater variety, more books, lower prices, and a better chance of finding a book that is fresh and wonderfully different.
I used to read about twenty new books a year. Now I read about seventy or eighty. The main reason for the increase is that I can now find more books that appeal to me. And, if this wasn’t enough, ‘indie’ eBooks tend to be much cheaper than their traditionally published counterparts. Many indie books are free. Not all of them are good of course, but not all the books published by traditional publishers are, either.
I have come to view traditional publishers as something akin to fast food chain restaurants. They offer items with wide appeal and consistent quality. I’ve found that some traditional publishers of speculative fiction tend to do this better than others do, but their variety remains limited and the difference between them is like that between Burger King and McDonalds. Indie publishers are more along the lines of local mom and pop diners. Some are good and some are not, but a few offer great things you cannot find anywhere else.
This is a good time for fiction writers. They can write stories they believe in and offer them directly to readers. It is a good time for readers whose tastes do not match those of the crowd. It is still difficult to find great books that match our individual tastes, but, because of the rise of indie publishing, those books are far more likely to be out there. What is now desperately needed is a way to sort through the many thousands of indie books available to find those that we’ll absolutely love. Variety is great, but it can be overwhelming.
*This is a slight exaggeration. Most popular books won’t have all of these elements. There is only so much, um, ‘stuff’ that will fit in any one bucket.
My email circle of friends and (self-imagined) world problem solvers recently discussed the expanding role of e-commerce. As with most of our conversations, this one began with something else. One member of our august group forwarded an email of dubious accuracy, which ostensibly related humorously poor predictions of future events by people who could be considered experts about such things.
Here they are:
- “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” — Dr. Lee DeForest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”
- “The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” – – Admiral William Leahy , US Atomic Bomb Project
- “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923
- “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
- “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
- “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” –The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
- “But what is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
- “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981
- This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us,” — Western Union internal memo, 1876
- “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
- “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible,” — A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)
- “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind.”
- “A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make,” — Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.
- “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
- “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
- “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this,” – – Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.
- “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy,” — Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.
- “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University , 1929.
- “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value,” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, France.
- “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.
- “The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required.” — Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University
- “I don’t know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself.” — The head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.
- “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse , 1872
- “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,” — Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.
- “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
I didn’t fact check any of these quotes, and I’m sure some are inaccurate or at least taken out of context, but the point of the email, I think, remains valid. It is difficult for anyone to predict what comes next. It may be even more difficult for experts in the field because they are so heavily invested (intellectually, not monetarily) in the status quo.
Of course, our email discussion drifted to computers and how none of us imagined a time when we’d need more than a couple of floppy drives and a dot matrix printer, then it shifted to what we use our computers for now, and eventually it evolved into a discussion about internet shopping.
That’s when I brought up Borders Books and its unfortunate demise. I would never have predicted it. I went there often, and the place always seemed busy. People would go there to shop, browse, seek help from polite, knowledgeable employees, or just sit and sip coffee at the in store cafe while working on their thesis or next book. I loved this place. But I must reluctantly admit that if Borders did not have what I wanted in stock, which most often was the case, I went home and bought it from Amazon.
That got me thinking – a dangerous habit, to be sure, but I can’t seem to help it. Was the closing of Borders indicative of some broad paradigm shift that extends beyond just their business model? The explanation I most often see for Borders’ failure is that they were slow getting on the e-book bandwagon. I don’t know if this is truly part of the reason. I’m sure it’s not the whole reason. A retail store that sold CDs and videos also went out of business near me and it brings me to wonder if there may be something even more fundamental underlying the issue that may affect not only other bookstores but all other types of exclusively brick and mortar retail stores as well.
A physical store has to limit its inventory because of space. This was not a problem when peoples’ tastes were limited by whatever radio, TV, and magazines made popular, and when consumer choices were limited to what major producers made available. The internet is a game-changer. It expands our options and allows us to sample different things we would never have been exposed to without it. Before the internet, many of these things probably would not have existed. They would have been squashed in infancy because major producers did not feel they fit current tastes, and people’s tastes were largely constrained by what these cultural gatekeepers allowed to become available. Of course, I am speaking mainly about books and music now, but it may apply to other areas, too.
My first experience with this was with music. What you heard when I was young was whatever they played on the radio. That was pretty much it, and it was fairly limited. I won’t say some of this wasn’t great music because it was, but a composer or band that created something different that music producers did not think they could sell easily would have little chance of wide exposure. If you didn’t live next door to these garage bands and heard them practicing, chances are you would never have had a chance to hear what they came up with.
Digital music changed this. Bands could reach out to the world on the internet. I recall the first time I heard an online recording of a song by a then fairly obscure European band, which quickly became one of my favorites. I had never heard music anything like this before. I loved it. I’m not sure where I found it, now. It may have been on YouTube or possibly provided as a link in an email from someone, but the point is that before the days of the internet, I would never have heard this. It certainly would never have been played on the radio because it did not fit an established genre and I doubt any producer would think it would ever become popular. I doubt it could be called popular now.
This is the point I’m driving at. Mass popularity may soon be an outdated idea. The things people know, believe, and like are limited by their exposure to them. With a worldwide internet, they are exposed to more, so their tastes can become more diverse.
Small publishers, music producers, and individual artists can now compete for audiences. I find that much of this ‘indie’ stuff appeals to me more than that which is cranked out by big companies. Physical stores won’t carry it. They couldn’t if they wanted to. Even if the worldwide market for it is large, it may not be big enough in individual areas to justify a carrying it in a brick and mortar store, which can only stock that which they can sell in enough volume to turn a profit. If your tastes deviate from mass market ‘pop’ stuff, the local store may not be the place for you to find what you will most like.
We are just starting to see this with books and music. I seldom find music I like in stores because they don’t carry it. Yes, they can order it (usually), but so can I. In fact, I can get it instantly by buying the MP3 album. The same kind of thing may be happening now with books.
I still shop at physical stores. Sometimes I even browse. But if I’m looking for something in particular, chances are I’ll be shopping for it online.
I went to an Orlando Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group meeting last night. It was our first get together in a few months because our organizer (Sarah Fisk) had to abdicate for job reasons and it took a while to replace her, although she has since moved back to Orlando and rejoined the group.
We held it at the food court of a local mall, an ideal place I thought because it easily accommodated our group without any expectation that we should be quiet or buy anything. Of the seven people at the table that night, one is a traditionally published author (Owl Goingback), one is a self published author (me), and the others are either writing speculative fiction books or have written some and are currently exploring their publication options.
Because we had a new organizer and a few new members, this was more of a chat session than our normal meetings, which focus on review and critique of members’ work. One topic that came up was self publishing. I suppose I was guilty of raising it because when publishing options came up, the implication seemed to be that the preferred option was traditional publishing. I wanted to point out that in the digital age there is another option and that it was my first option rather than a fallback position.
I was surprised that the other members seemed to either not consider this or thought of self publishing as the last, desperate act a writer would take and that books were only self published if they couldn’t meet the exacting standards necessary for traditional publication.
Obviously I don’t believe this to be true but the incredulous stares around the table made it clear just how pervasive this belief is, not just among readers, agents, and publishers, but among writers as well. Unfortunately this is not without cause.
Self publishing has some great advantages. For writers, these include retention of all rights to their work. They control everything from content to distribution. They control the cost of their books and they receive higher royalties as a percentage of sales.
For readers, self publishing means that there are more books in more subgenres than ever before. Books don’t need to fall into mainstream categories or follow whatever may be popular in their genre at the time in order to be published. A publisher’s impression of profitability does not enter into the equation. Self published books, especially ebooks, are almost always much cheaper than traditionally published books as well so readers have greater selection at lower cost. What could be better?
Well, there is the quality issue. The problem with anyone being able to publish is that anyone is able to publish anything. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to be coherent or readable or, in the case of nonfiction, even accurate. Now I won’t say this is an exclusive problem with self publishing because we have all seen traditionally published books that had these same flaws but if a major publisher’s logo was on the cover, a reader could be assured that it had at least gone through some editing process.
With self published books, there is no such guarantee and books can be released before they are ready. Some people, dishonest, scummy, and disreputable people who should be publicly flogged, tarred, feathered, and sent to their rooms without supper, have been known to scam this new openness by plagiarizing the work of others or intentionally throwing out dozens or even hundreds of short, poor quality books. There is currently no way to prevent this and it helps perpetuate the myth that all self published books are bad. I have seen other self published authors claim that readers can still tell quality books from reader reviews on sites such as Amazon. These certainly help and I don’t discount them but reviews and ‘likes’ are not necessarily a guarantee of quality either. Just as anyone can publish a book, anyone can write a review and writers can swap positive reviews and ‘likes’ with other authors as part of their promotion efforts, often with honest intent simply to help their peers.
There are a few disadvantages to self publishing for writers as well. They have to cover all of the up front costs themselves including editing, cover design, and formatting. Self published books are difficult to get into brick and mortar bookstores and the authors have to do all of their own marketing and promotion, which can be extremely difficult without the resources of an agent or traditional publisher to support them. Writers need to be willing to take on these challenges before they decide to self publish but their biggest hurdle may be the continuing stigma hovering over self published books.
I think there may be a fairly simple solution to this although it means readers will need to do a little research themselves. But since they are receiving the benefit of more options and lower costs, I don’t think this is asking too much. Actually my suggestion would apply to any author whose work you have not read before.
Before you decide to buy a book by an author unknown to you, read the sample pages first. If it still looks good, go to the author’s website. All legitimate self published authors should have one. There is probably even a link to it on the author’s page on Amazon or whatever online retailer sells their book. Look at the content. Keep in mind that self published authors may not be expert at web design but if the layout is logical and the content is good, chances are their books will be as well. If the book description looks like the type of book you would enjoy and the author’s website suggests that he or she is a competent writer, there is a good chance you’ve found something that will appeal to you. I know this is more work for readers but I think this inconvenience may be outweighed by the benefits readers receive in price and selection.
As always, if you have thoughts on this subject you would like to share, please leave a comment.
In December 2007, Terry Pratchett, the much honored and award winning author of the Discworld fantasy series as well as other books, publicly announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many of his fans since then have wondered if Discworld can continue once Sir Terry can no longer write or if it even should.
I came across a discussion on this very subject a couple of days ago on The Morporkian, a Terry Pratchett discussion group on goodreads. The question posed asked how people felt about the Discworld series continuing on without Terry Pratchett. You can see the discussion here if you’d like: A Surrogate Pratchett?
I visit Discworld often and I actually dread not being able to look forward to the next new book but I have sadly concluded that there is only one Terry Pratchett. I have looked long and hard for other writers who can capture a similar tone and mood and I have found none – none at all.
Pratchett is unique and (need I say) my favorite author. I’ve mentioned him several times in my blog as both a writer of wonderful stories and as an inspiration for my own but I’m doubtful anyone I know of can do justice to the series. Pratchett’s ability to create believable and truly likeable characters in an unbelievable world and his ability to create entertaining and humorous stories while providing deep cultural insights is enviable and wonderful.
I won’t say that it is impossible to find someone to carry on. Perhaps there are writers out there who can and if Terry Pratchett names a successor, I will certainly give his or her books a try. Quite honestly, I hope he does. A round world without a Discworld to reflect the truly important bits would be a much sadder place.
I love to read but even with the exponential expansion of available fiction, I still have a hard time finding new books that really appeal to me. My tastes are apparently somewhat outside the norm.
I was reminded of this recently when I sent out a call for help on Twitter. This is what I said:
I’m looking for a good 99¢ indie ebook novel similar in tone and mood with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Any suggestions?
I sent a few other Tweets in the same vein over the next few hours. Eventually a kindly Tweeter responded with a recommendation for a book by an indie writer that he was offering for free on Smashwords. It was a promotion to gain readers for the other books in the series. Great! Maybe there was a whole series of new books I would like.
I downloaded it. Last night I opened it on my Kindle and began to read.
It opened with a war scene full of action and seemingly mindless violence. This is normally a big turnoff for me but the Tweeter recommended it so I continued to read. Well, I thought, maybe it would get better. The nonstop action continued. I scanned ahead and there seemed to be no end of blood and brutality and nothing that indicated the book would eventually appeal to me and none that it bore any similarity to the wonderful books by Sir Terry Pratchett. I closed it and opened up my copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol mainly because I hadn’t yet moved it from my Kindle to my computer hard drive. Today I made an emergency visit to the library.
Now I know there are many people who thrive on nonstop action and I’m sure they would have not been able to put a book like this down. I just don’t happen to be one of them. To explain why not can be the subject of a later post but the short answer is that it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste. I find action by itself dull and uninteresting. I need to know about the characters first and there has to be something I find admirable about them before they are put in peril in order for me to care about their fate. Otherwise they are no different than those they are in conflict with. This is actually the same reason I was never a sports fan. I could never find a good reason to care which team won. The action isn’t enough. The game for the game’s sake isn’t enough. I need a reason to not only prefer one side over the other but also something to admire about the chosen side; something which their opponent either lacks or is opposed to.
I know this is out of the ordinary but that’s my point. With all the new indie authors publishing now you’d think some would be writing books that are not modeled on currently popular mainstream fiction and that there would be some that appeal to whatever niche you might find yourself in. I’m sure there are some out there for mine. Finding them is the problem.
So that is why I am asking for your help. I want to find more books to read and enjoy and I’m hoping some of you might know of some that suite my particular reading preference niche.
The following list should provide some indication of my personal tastes. Breaking out your tastes and preferences in a similar fashion may help you define and find new books you will like.
- Genre – I prefer Science Fiction although Fantasy is a close second. Mysteries and “literary fiction” can also be good if they share several of the other traits listed here. The target audience can be either adults or young adults. I find that YA books are often the most enjoyable. Within these genres, books that include insightful cultural satire are the most appealing.
- Mood – The mood is the overall feeling you get from a book. If you feel an emotion when you finish a book, the author has effectively conveyed a mood. I prefer books with positive moods such as, fanciful, happy, hopeful, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, or optimistic. If a book provokes a smile from me in the first twenty pages, that is a big plus. (You can find out more on mood here if you wish: Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood)
- Tone – The way the mood is expressed by the attitude of the author is the tone. It can also be thought of as part of the author’s style or voice. Tone reflects the author’s attitude toward the story, the characters in it, as well as toward the reader. The books I prefer tend to carry a prevailing tone that is amused, cheerful, humorous, ironic, lighthearted, optimistic, playful, satirical, or witty. (You can find out more on tone at the same link as above.)
- Theme – I tend to especially like books with an implied message of personal and/or cultural progress and discovery.
- Characters – There should be something admirable about the protagonist and his, her or its allies. They should be ethically and philosophically superior examples of humanity, even if they don’t happen to be human. This could be because they are unbiased, kindhearted, caring, nurturing, empathetic, or several other positive traits. This is what makes me care about what happens to them and makes me sure that their goals deserve to prevail. It also helps if the main character is intellectually above the norm. Those who are bright, analytical, observant, inquisitive, insightful or skeptical are especially appealing.
- Fantastic Creatures – If the story is a fantasy and includes such things as vampires, zombies, ghosts, or other supernatural or mythical beings, I prefer a certain amount of humor and satire in how these creatures are portrayed. I can suspend disbelief for the sake of a story and pretend such things can exist but it is more enjoyable if the tone of the book conveys that I’m not expected to.
So now know more about my taste in books than you ever wanted to. Thanks for letting me share. I have one more favor to ask. If you know of books that you think meet my somewhat peculiar taste by authors I have not listed below, please let me know either as a comment here or on Twitter.
These are some of the writers I know of who have written books that met the minimum threshold of my exacting standards.
- Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
- Piers Anthony (Xanth Series – These are almost too silly but can be fun to read.)
- Robert Asprin (Myth and Phule Series)
- Kage Baker (Company Series – a bit too much romance but not bad.)
- Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom of Landover Series)
- Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Series)
- Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl Series)
- Peter David (Apropos of Nothing Series)
- L. Sprague de Camp (The Reluctant King)
- Gordon R. Dickson (The Dragon Knight Series and others)
- Jasper Fforde
- Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)
- Neil Gaiman
- Craig Shaw Gardner
- William Goldman (The Princess Bride – one of my favorites.)
- Tom Holt (Some of his are good, others I didn’t much care for.)
- Jim C. Hines (The Goblin Series was especially fun.)
- Fritz Leiber
- Gregory Maguire (Wicked was enjoyable. The others, not so much.)
- Lee Martinez (Usually his books are a hoot.)
- Jack McDevitt (Alex Benedict Series)
- Martin Millar (The Good Fairies of New York)
- K.E. Mills (A bit verbose but not bad.)
- John Moore
- Grant Naylor (Red Dwarf)
- Terry Pratchett (My favorite writer by far. Fortunately a prolific one.)
- Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials)
- Robert Rankin
- Rick Riordan
- Spider Robinson
- J. K. Rowling
- John Scalzi (Fuzzy Nation)
- Martin Scott (Thraxas)
Thanks and happy reading.
Do you enjoy reading? Do you find yourself immersed in the fictional worlds you read about? Do you find written stories more satisfying than movies or TV because they allow you to understand the characters, their motivations, and their ideas far more deeply? When you read, do you often think you would like to tell your own stories? Is there something you really want to say, ideas you want to share?
If so, you should try writing.
If, on the other hand, you read fiction once in a while and think it looks easy, think you could do something similar and make money, then my advice is don’t write. If these are your motivations, you may publish and you may even make a little money, but chances are you’d be happier and more successful in a different job.
Writing has to be a passion for you but before you begin, here are ten harsh realities you should consider.
1: Writing fiction is hard work. You may have a great idea for a story but transforming this into a novel is far more than just starting on page one and banging out words on a keyboard. When you read, things seem to flow from one event to another smoothly and logically. You may think all you have to do to write your own story is start with an idea of how the story begins and ends, let the logical sequence of events unfold in your imagination and simply write them down. It doesn’t work that way. You will need to consciously develop characters, settings, and timelines and you will need to know more about each than you ever reveal in your story. The characters and settings are your raw materials. Know them well. With them you construct scenes that become components of the story you want to tell. You assemble your novel from scenes the way a builder constructs a house from bricks and lumber. Oh, and it helps to have a blueprint.
2: You first need a plan. Your blueprint is your outline, or your rough synopsis, or whatever you use to help you think out how to get from your first scene to your last. Some people are “pantsers” and essentially create stories by the seat of their pants but even they usually have notes to help them. I am more of a “plotter” and develop outlines for the novel, scene summaries, and other plans to help me make sure I know what I’m going to build before I start. Personally I think this makes for a better story and reduces the amount of rewriting that needs to be done after your first draft is complete. The time spent planning your novel before you start is time well spent.
3: It takes more time than you probably think. You can read a book in a day or a week in your spare time. How much longer can it take to write those words rather than read them? A lot longer–trust me on this. Sometimes the words don’t come; often they must be revised, replaced, or simply deleted. My personal goal for writing a first draft is to complete one chapter (normally 3000-5000 words) a week. This is not terribly ambitious. Some fulltime writers can accomplish much more. Part time writers should expect to be able to do less. At my goal writing pace though, I should be able to complete a full novel with twenty to twenty-five chapters in about thirty weeks. And I write almost every day. And then there is editing and revising. Aspiring writers must be willing to sacrifice a lot of their otherwise free time in order to complete a novel.
4: Don’t forget research. But I’m writing fiction, you say. Why do I need to do research? I’m just making this stuff up. Fiction must be believable and almost all fiction will contain elements that are real. If a scene includes people riding horses or fighting with swords, you need to know something about horses and swords. Certainly some of your readers will and if you make a mistake in describing some detail, they’ll notice and it will ruin the story for them. Fortunately the internet can make the author’s research job easier but it still takes time and effort.
5: You don’t get paid for your work. Unlike a salaried job, in which you are paid for every hour of labor, productive or not, as a fiction novelist your effort yields no money until someone buys the end result. You are likely to work for months or years on a project and never see a penny from it — ever. You hope your novel will sell eventually though, but you must be able to accept that yours will not. A simple fact is that most novels never find a traditional publisher so don’t quit your day job unless you have another source of income.
6: Prepare to be brushed off or ignored. After you’ve completed your brilliant novel, you decide you will allow an agent or publisher the privilege of seeing it. You send queries and you wait. You wait some more. If you submitted on line or through email, a response may come within days, sometimes hours. Other times it will take months and it will be a rejection. Statistically, your chances of acceptance are only about one percent. Don’t think this means you just have to send out a hundred queries. Each submission is a separate event. And the responses you get probably will simply say your work doesn’t meet their current needs, or something equally unhelpful. What those current needs might be and why your masterpiece doesn’t meet them will remain a mystery.
7: You can’t give up. You submit and resubmit your story and you keep getting rejections. Once in a while, you may get a request for a partial first. But ultimately it’s another rejection. You have to be willing to accept whatever advice the rejections offer or, more likely, be willing to accept that the rejections offer no advice at all and keep trying despite your frustration, confusion, and growing sense of hopelessness. I won’t offer any platitudes here and say that eventually you will find the ‘right’ agent or publisher. Odds are you won’t. You have to be willing to accept it and keep trying anyway.
8: Accept that you are not special. But, you might say, these gloomy anecdotes don’t apply to me. I’m brilliant and I can write a best selling novel in a month, which will be accepted by the first agent I query and immediately be sold to a major publisher. Sorry. This does apply to you because only exceptional people write novels and almost all agree it is a lot of work and almost all get rejections. In a world of about seven billion people, you are just another one of the millions of exceptional ones who write. Those who eventually – EVENTUALLY – find a publisher are a minority. Most novels remain unpublished.
9: Be willing to try again. You’ve completed your novel and queried every agent and publisher on your list (which takes even more research) but to no avail. Okay. It’s time to write another novel and go through all the work, sacrifice, and pain again. Chances are, you’ve learned something the first time and your chances may be a bit better with the next one. But you have to accept that the result may be the same as before.
10: Consider alternatives. With the rise of electronic books, self publishing can be a viable alternative for you. You can now publish e-books through Amazon, Smashwords, and other places. Publication is free, but if you want to actually sell copies, you will probably need professionals to edit your book, design the cover, and promote it. These services can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, which you can’t expect sales of your e-book to offset. Just having your e-book available on Amazon does not mean you will ever see any sales.
So how important is writing to you? Would you continue to write even if you found it difficult, even if it took up most of your free time, even if it never earned any money, even if it actually cost you money? Can you deal with rejection after rejection and still keep writing? If you can, you’re either crazy or a writer. Welcome to the club.
I was listening to an obscure band, playing music in a relatively obscure musical subgenre last night on my MP3 player when I realized that before the age of digital music, I would never have heard either this band or this type of music. It was simply too different, too outside the mainstream, and too risky for any music producer to take a chance on. But the rise of digital music has led to the evolution of many new musical subgenres and I can’t help wondering if something similar might not be happening for fiction.
I think it may. One bit of advice I saw recently for writers of e-books seemed counterintuitive at first but it reinforces this idea. The advice? – Don’t try to appeal to a broad audience. Focus on your core group, those likely to be strong fans and don’t worry about pissing off those who aren’t, even if that’s the majority of people on the planet.
I’m not entirely sure, but this might not be bad advice. It happened with music. It split into a great number of subgenres and I doubt many of them appeal to more than a relatively small group — but those who like them, really like them.
So what does this mean for fiction? Well, possibly the same kinds of things it meant for music but possibly even more so because almost everyone listens to music of one type or another but fiction readers are already a subset of the population and possibly more discriminating about what they read than most music listeners are about what they listen to. Fiction readers are more like the audiophile subset of music listeners.
Here are a few possible impacts of the e-book revolution that come to mind. Most of this is idle speculation, of course, but since the batteries in my crystal ball died, my prognostication abilities are somewhat limited. Still, these seem to make sense to me.
Specialization – More books that focus on specific themes, tones, and moods within each genre will become available. What this means for readers, as it did for music listeners, is that there will be works more likely to really appeal to them. If you like science fiction novels with an introspective protagonist, told in a satirical tone, conveying a hopeful mood, and a humanistic theme, well, there just may eventually be a subgenre for that.
Genre melding – This is already happening. There are fantasy detective stories, science fiction westerns, horror romances, etc. Digital books, I think, are likely to fertilize such cross breeding and give rise to new subgenres mainly because it will be less risky to explore such mutations.
More books – More books will be published simply because authors can bypass the traditional gateways (agents and publishers) and publish their work for little or no money.
More variable quality – The downside of letting anyone in means, well, anyone can come in. A lot of what gets e-published may do so with inadequate editing or review, meaning the reader can’t assume a minimal level of quality. A lot of what becomes available may be overly verbose, deadly dull, full of errors, or even incomprehensible.
Smaller audiences – Highly specialized subgenres will appeal to fewer people so individual books and authors may have few readers. The plus side, of course, is that these books and authors will be available to those readers where they were not before.
Larger audiences – No, this isn’t a contraction. It is quite possible that the total number of people who read may increase as more books that appeal to them become available. Most e-published books may have few readers but a lot more books will be out there.
Disdain for works with broad appeal – At one time there was a sentiment that if a song was played on the radio, especially AM radio, it could not be good. It was “popular” or “pop” music, which, almost by definition, no serious music listener would bother with. You sometimes come across this with books, although not as frequently. The reason bibliophiles don’t normally disdain best seller lists, I think, is because, as I said before, book readers are already an elite group. But if authors feel free to explore their art with less concern over popularity, you may see popular books being looked at the same way as pop music once was; it represents the lowest common denominator and appeals to those without cultured taste or much knowledge of the art form. I personally think this is somewhat elitist because when all is said and done, different people like different things. Taste in music or literature is a personal matter. It’s like food in that way. If you like beer better than champagne, who is to tell you you’re wrong?
Harder to find – With more books available, it may be harder to find things you really want. First there is the quality issue as stated above. The reader will have more to choose from, but much of it may be dreadful. This can make the good stuff hard to find. But even if you could weed out all of the stinkers, there will still be a lot of choices. It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant with a huge menu. It’s hard to decide because so much looks good but you can only pick one thing. Deciding what you want most is difficult because there are so many options that sound good. Unlike with the menu though, a lot of the book options, as is true now with music, are not obvious. It’s like there are a bunch of addendums and footnotes with really fine print on the menu so you may have to search a lot more. The most popular stuff will still be in big print on the first page, metaphorically speaking, but what you would like most may only found written in Mandarin on the back of the napkin under the soy sauce. On the plus side, it is available somewhere.
There does not seem to be a lot of consensus on the benefits and drawbacks of e-publishing right now. There are obvious issues, quality and piracy probably being the most troubling. But I think, overall, the e-book revolution will certainly be good for readers. I think it will also good for authors and for agents and publishers but not without some paradigm shifts. Sometimes more is less but in this more is better. More books, more published authors, more perspectives, more diversity, and more choices for readers. Problems exist and I hope they are resolvable, but as both a reader and writer, I see the rise of digital books and e-publishing as a very good thing.
Oh–The band I was listening to was Magion, a progressive rock band in the subgenre of female fronted symphonic metal with Gothic metal influences — not as symphonic as say Epica or Nightwish — but I digress. What can I say? I like it. You won’t hear it on the radio and you can’t dance to it but I like this stuff and yes, I did buy the MP3 album from Amazon and I don’t care that they will never make it on anyone’s top ten lists.