Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Why Books Fail (A Mini-Rant)

I just found out that a friend of mine got dropped by her publisher. She was in the middle of a series and, “due to lackluster sales” they pulled the plug on her W.I.P.

I’ve been there. It hurts. The worst part of it is that, in the current publishing climate, this sort of thing happens more often than we’d like to think about. As I said in my post over at SF Novelists about pseudonyms, while many authors are ready to point out bestsellers that don’t “deserve” their success (just think back to the flack around Bridges of Madison County,) even though they should know better, they’re often more than willing to believe that books die due to quality alone. The unspoken implication is that if you’d written a better book, it’d still be in print.

This is a lie. It’s also a very hurtful one, because the nature of writing (and its life of rejections) is already full of self-doubt. It’s often easy for a writer to believe they sucked themselves out of a book contract. And stop writing.

Maybe you think I’m crying sour grapes. After all, my books tanked. When my second book was remaindered I was looking for other professional writers to talk to about it – commiserate, talk shop. I cast around and someone who’d been through this sort of thing was recommended to me. I sent her an email. This writer, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, later told me she’d read my book, “just to make sure” before talking to me. Make sure, she didn’t have to say, that I didn’t actually deserve my fate… and that the books were actually “good.” After determining that, she felt free to give me career advice.

It was hard to listen to any advice this author dispensed because I knew (even though it had happened to her!) that part of her bought into the publishers’ big lie: that good books do well and bad books die.

As much as we like to gripe about how the other guy is merely a hack, truly bad books don’t make it over the transom. An entire team of people, including the bean counters, approve a book before an editor makes an offer to a writer (or, rather a writer’s agent, who also had faith in the book enough to try to sell it). Also keep in mind that “lackluster sales” for a mass-market book often count in the tens of thousands. Books that are critical successes – not only loved by reviewers, but also by award committees – still tank. (Think about Megan Lindholm).

Also, there are a lot of factors that completely fall outside of anyone’s control (even the publishers’), like readers’ trends. It’s absolutely true that a cover sells a book, but it’s still a big question as to what it *is* about a cover that gets readers to pick it up. There are lots of theories: one of the reasons you often see people’s faces on the cover of books is that it’s generally believed that readers’ respond positively to an image of a person on the book. Apparently, they like it even better when that person is looking directly at them. Of course, books aren’t normally shelved with their covers’ facing outward, so the book has to do even more than catch your eye to people to pick it up. What that is is anyone’s guess – publishers have admitted that a lot of this stuff is completely baffling to them as well (see NY Times article).

Books fail. It’s just the hard cold truth of today’s publishing industry. It’s nobody’s fault. The only thing a writer can do is keep writing.


Kelly McCullough said...

Thanks for posting this Lyda. I think it's a great topic for conversation-as I said over on your home blog.

In an attempt to port the discussion over here, I'll repeat my first comment.

I said:

You should post this over at Wyrdsmiths later. I agree with a lot of what you're saying, particularly that many good books don't do as well as they deserve–yours for example. On the other hand, I'd have to know exactly what you mean by "bad" when you say "truly bad books don't make it over the transom," before I'd agree to that part. I think any number of genuinely awful books make it into print (for several values of awful)–I thrown a number of them across the room. Likewise, as someone who teaches and mentors any number of writers (just as you do) I've seen some damn fine work that no one is willing to buy. Anyway, I think this could make for a lovely debate.

Kelly McCullough said...

If you want to check out Lyda's response and the rest of the back and forth, it's here

Anonymous said...

I thrown a number of them across the room

Oh me, too.

sexy said...