Wednesday, December 28, 2005

There's no accounting for taste!

I woke up this morning realising why I haven't added a new print author to my autobuy list in the last two years.

I've always said that authors have to sell to agents and publishers, not to
the reader, at least initially, until their work takes off.

It's this "big concept" idea. The idea that bursts out of a book, that
pushes the author on to the best seller lists, and makes that author the
next big thing - until the next big thing. So writers who have found the
Big Idea have sold, and explode on to the scene, only to putter down in the
next couple of books.

That works very well - but only once or twice. With my reader hat firmly on
my head, I can say that I've been taken for an exhilarating ride for a book
or two, only to find that poor plotting, clumsy prose or repetition of an
idea has made me abandon that author and go back to the writers I trust to
give me a thoroughly good read.

When I look at my list of favourite authors, classical or modern, the ones
I go back to, the ones on my keeper shelf, have a good, rounded list of
attributes. They can tell a good story, they have vividly drawn characters,
they have prose you can linger on and enjoy, and they have well constructed
plots with no gaping holes in them.

Looking at my keeper shelf, I see Jo Beverley, Dorothy Dunnett, Laura
Kinsale, Susan Elizabeth Philips, Nicola Cornick, Jane Austen and the writer I read more than any other, Charles Dickens.
Not one which has emerged in the past couple of years.

I love the historical, including the much maligned Traditional Regency (not the
Regency Historical although I love that too). I'm lucky, in that there are many backlists I haven't fully explored yet, but the Regency genre has no Big Ideas, merely providing me with a good read I can lose myself in for a few hours. That is
what I look for in a book.

Historical inaccuracy drives me demented, which is the main reason I haven't found a historical author I want to stick with in the last few years. To the historical, maybe more than other genres, a proficiency with elegant prose is also important, and something I appreciate, something I look for and have been repeatedly disappointed by in the last few years.

Having gained my MBA and worked at the sharp end for several years, (in
fmcg marketing), it's only too clear where this attitude has come from. It's the fast sell, the instant sell through, and the concept of piling high and selling fast. It works for food, because food is gone in a few weeks. It works for books, or rather, it does initially. But a good food retailer must also provide consistency of product if there is any chance of longevity of brand. I suppose the food retailers are better at it, because in many ways the book market is new to this idea, and demonstrates some amateur approaches to it. I worked for companies that knew the difference between a core brand and a variety, and have worked for many years with the concepts. I have done some strategic planning, and in that it is far more important to develop a good product portfolio than it is to concentrate on the Next Big Thing. That was the job of the product managers, a step down the management tree to the general management level, where I was working. It seems the book market is fast forgetting that. You need your new product, but you also need an author who can improve and develop.

All this doesn't just depend on the writer. It also depends on investment in product, and this is another area many publishers are skimping on. All writers have to promote their books. This is all well and good, but writers are writers and not marketers. They can come up with ideas, but to expect a writer to come up with a consistent marketing plan is like asking a product manager to write a novel. They will probably be able to do it, but it won't be as good, or as efficiently done, as a professional can do it. It isn't just lack of ability, and very often has little to do with that, it's to do with lack of expertise and knowledge. Why should a writer know anything about product placement, portfolio management and the other factors? And even if you do know, there is little a writer can do without access to the numbers.

Promotional activity depends on the results, and without results, all promotional activity continues to be a shot in the dark. You only get the really useful numbers if you're prepared to pay for them. A company like Nielsen in the UK collects sales figures at various levels - distribution, manufacturing, and retail, and produces them in market sector reports. A good strategic manager collects Nielsen, together with market research figures and government figures to produce an overall report, and that is the only way effectiveness can be measured. But - when I was a market
research manager, my annual budget was in the millions. Pounds, not dollars. As far as I can gather, no consistent data exists, no regular Usage and Attitude surveys to provide hard numbers to back up hunches. Or if they are, they are strictly in house. Which means publishers aren't sharing, which means short term thinking prevalent through the industry.

Don't forget, fellow authors - when you sell your first book, you are not selling to the reading public, you are selling to agents and publishers. When the public gets to know you, then you can create demand and write what you want to write, but until then, you are not selling to the public. So you need to research your market, find out what editors are looking for, what's hot. Now I am in no way advocating that you tailor your book to the market, but if you happen to write something that is becoming hot, you want to know when to present your work, don't you? And if you write in more than one genre, you might want to favour one over another when it comes to sales.

Naturally, if you've written a brilliant, mould breaking visionary work that will take the world by storm, ignore the above. It just doesn't apply to you. And yes, I do mean it. JK Rowling proved it could be done.

The reader can only demand what he or she knows exists, a basic tenet of marketing that pushes understanding and philosophy. It's vital to take into account what publisher and agent wants, as well as your own ideas.

But watch the e-publishing market. So many new voices and styles are coming from the e-publishing world. Writers like Angela Knight, MaryJanice Davidson, genres like the urban gothic are turning the market for e-books and print upside down. Sales are currently low compared to the print market; the e-publisher has a few hundred years to catch up on. But new readers, more used to reading off their phones and pda's are making their demands felt and by using the internet, writers can communicate with readers like never before. Most of my books are published electronically (as well as being available in print) and that's by choice.

Lynne Connolly


Anonymous said...

Great post! I especially loved the comment about historical inaccuracies driving you mad!

I was recently reading a Regency romance by a New York Times bestselling author and I was rather enjoying it until the hero, a Scotsman, told the heroine:
'Are you kidding me?' Needless to say, the book went back to the second hand bookshop and that author is now off my list.

For historical romances, I think the M&B Historical Romances are amongst the best in the market. I recently tried a Liz Carlyle novel which was exceptional. The characters felt and spoke like British characters which is rather unusual for a book by an American writer.

Anonymous said...

'for a new writer it's vital to produce what the publisher and agent wants, without considering the reader'.

I'm not convinced. It seems to me that writers who create a product for the consumption of the publisher ignore the fact that publishers and agents are also readers. It also sounds like you're suggesting that a writer write to the market. And if they do that they won't be so good at creating an interesting, lively, heart-felt, unique voice. They'll be producing a pastiche of whatever the current hot trend is. Maybe I've misunderstood your advice, but it worries me. I think authors should write books that they love, not churn out something they think will sell. Perhaps there are some people who are happy to churn out formulaic stories, but generally the best-loved authors have a unique voice, and their writing often reflects the author's own personality/mindset/experiences.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Inaccuracies drive me mad, too. But the problem is, as a writer of historicals told me, that the romance is the important part and not the history, and that no one in the process of getting a book published ever cares about mistakes.

Except a few readers like me. :-) I don't see a reason why you can't have a good romance in a correct historical setting.

Another prejudice I keep hearing is that you can write historical fiction by having read some 3-4 standard books about the time, because it's ... well, fiction. Sorry, but you can't. I've read some 50 books for my Roman trilogy, and for a reason. Also, I keep checking things during the writing.

*ok, rant mode off* :-)

Anonymous said...

Gabriele, I was really surprised by your comement actually as to me that feels as if the writer is cheating her readers.

One of the reasons why I love historical fiction, be it romance or otherwise, is due to the fact that I want to read a book and feel as if I am living in another time. I want well developed characters, sure, and in a romance, a love story that keeps me on tenterhooks, but I also want a vivid sense of place and the historical setting to come to life. If the author you spoke to feels like that, then she obviously doesn't know what historical romance readers want, because if she thinks that all historical romance readers want is a hero wearing breeches, then she's obviously on the wrong track and writing in the wrong sub genre.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Julie, I was a bit shocked, too, but since I've read a bunch of - mostly Scottish - romances which sucked historically, I'm not surprised you can get away with sloppy research.

I write Historical Fiction (with the occasional romance subplot), and I hope I can carry future readers into another world. :-)

Also, research is fun, imho. *grin*

Toni Anderson said...

I love attention to detail and I really believe the research is important. I've read a couple of Scottish historicals which seemed to be written with minimum effort--add a brogue and a kilt and details such as raccoons in the Scottish undergrowth don't matter. Well it matters to me!

Hope I can get it right going in the other direction, writing American's in a modern setting :)

Carla said...

What an interesting post! I wonder if publishing has become more corporate and thus more Dilbert-ised than it used to be? Hit the narrow target on your objectives list and never mind about anything else.

I don't like the idea of writing for the market rather than for readers. For one thing, with the honourable exception of Mills & Boon, agents and publishers don't specify what they want. For another, as I think you're saying, it leads to a rather soulless product that isn't very interesting to read and probably wasn't very interesting to write either.

I'm not published and the more I read about the mainstream industry the more I wonder if I want to be. It seems much more appealing to write what interests me and put it up on the net to see if it interests anyone else.

To Gabriele C - it may well be the case for some romances. Mills and Boon's guidance for authors stresses that the romance is what matters. I read four Mills and Boon historical romances recently and one of them was riddled with ludicrous historical inaccuracies (12th-century Welshmen wearing kilts and woad. I kid you not.). This annoys me, but I can see it might not annoy someone who just wants to see the hero and heroine get together at the end after some cartoon adventures.
I write and read historical fiction to get back to another world. If the historical details don't fit, I write the story in an invented world where it does fit.

Historical Romance Author said...

I'm flattered the post has had such reactions and even more pleased that so many of you agree with me about historical inaccuracy in historical novels!

It really does annoy me when someone who has seen "Braveheart" then writes a book about that famous kilt wearing Highlander William Wallace, who spoke in a thick Scottish brogue (none of the above is true - Wallace was a highly educated lowlander who probably spoke 'standard' English or court French). And they get published.

It is the romance, of course, but does that mean you have to get the history wrong? I agree, when I read a good romance I want to get into the period, be taken to another world.

BTW, there was a paragraph missing from the blog. Comes of copying and pasting from Word! I put it back. About the importance of the internet in modern publishing, and a way the writer and reader can talk directly. I'm a bit peeved I didn't see it when I revised the piece, and so I've put it back.

Lynne Connolly

Gabriele Campbell said...

I read those Scottish Romances for fun - and because I was through with my own books, the TV program more boring than watching the washer, and there was a stack of them lying around in my B&B. Not only wrong, historically, those books, but also predictable: A chief captures an English girl to blackmail her daddy into something, and while she so far considered every Scot a bare assed bandit, she falls in love with that chief because he has red hair, calls her "lass" and is a man, contrary to that whimpy English lord she's betrothed to. A few problems ensue, and voilĂ , HEA.

I spend too much money on new books after that. :-)

Carla said...

"Historical inaccuracy drives me demented, which is the main reason I haven't found a historical author I want to stick with in the last few years. To the historical, maybe more than other genres, a proficiency with elegant prose is also important"
Have you tried the Circle of Ceridwen trilogy by Octavia Randolph? All three books are available free for download from the author's website at They are set in late ninth-century England against the backdrop of the conflict between Alfred the Great and the Danes. The historical accuracy is superb, and I mean really superb. This is my period of interest and as far as I can tell the historical detail is flawless. The prose has a spare, understated style reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the time. At first the pace may seem a bit, well, stately, but stick with it for a few chapters and the narrative draws you into its own unhurried rhythm. Highly recommended.
(And an example of the power of electronic publishing in connecting reader and writer, BTW).