Writers are pretty good at anguishing over stuff, and I’ve been anguishing over what makes a book successful. I have two novels out there, and a third on the way, but sales are slow. There’s no lack of advice and paid schemes aimed at authors who want to live the dream and make a lot of money, but is that the only measure of success?
Certainly, selling a lot of books is some measure of success, and since I don’t sell a lot (“yet,” she said hopefully), I haven’t met that bar.
Success could and should also be about writing a great book, whether it’s fiction, poetry or nonfiction. This quality is more difficult to measure, though reviews or a fan following might help convince you that you’ve achieved it.
Lastly, do you like your own book? Writers are a self-critical bunch, or at least the best ones are, and so they may be more likely to beat themselves up over their flaws. If you can see flaws, chances are you have some perspective on your work. And in spite of those flaws, if you still like your work, if it satisfies you at some basic level, then you probably are a success, even if it’s only in your home office.
Those who are simply out to sell books, which is what we are told over and over again we must do as professional writers (professional = paid), seem to take different tracks to achieve their goals. And since (a) I want to write to please myself but (b) I’d also like to sell some books, I’ve been wondering if selling books has to mean, in some sense, selling one’s soul.
I love Pixel of Ink and check out the free e-books it mentions every day. I even download and read some of them. But despite its diverse highlights, sometimes I think I’m reading the same description over and over. I don’t care how hot young-adult fiction is; when the summaries are interchangeable, either there’s an appalling lack of originality, or people are writing to a formula to sell books. They go something like this: “When 16/17/18-year-old Jane discovered she had hidden powers to fly/move stuff/read minds/time travel/talk with fairies, she never counted on learning about them with hunky teenage alien/sorcerer/telepath/angel/vampire Joe, her secret protector. Together they must save the world/fight the totalitarian dystopian government/hide their superpowers while they go to high school.” Hey, I get it. Young people (especially young women) want stuff to read that they can relate to, and we all like a good escape.
As a girl, I devoured Trixie Belden detective stories and mysteries by Phyllis A. Whitney and other books starring young women, and I enjoyed them. (This was in the Pre-Twilight Era.) But by high school, I was reading a lot of different stuff, some crappy, some brilliant, and I appreciated an author that had respect for my brain. I think it’s great if young readers consume everything to sharpen their critical acumen, but as a writer, I’d like to feed them well. Some books transcend their genre and sell a lot because they’re genuinely good (“The Hunger Games,” for instance). But I’m depressed by the amount of stuff that’s more derivative than daring.
I wonder sometimes if I could write in one of these genres deemed “hot,” maybe under a pen name. Maybe I should sell out, join the crowd – not that there’s a guarantee I’d sell books then, either. And you have a point if you say, no, you should just write a really good book that will sell because it’s really good, no matter what the subject matter; make your own trend. But, let’s face it, books have a leg up when they’re in a marketable genre, and a leap up if they seem to be kind of the same as something else that was already popular. Some literary agents say you shouldn’t write to a trend, because by the time your book is out, the trend may have changed. That advice doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone, and my general impression is that many agents and publishers are fond of proven sellers, not iconoclastic new voices. After all, publishing is a business, and art is its increasingly rare offspring. (Gwen Stephens shares one agent’s perspective on writing to trends here.)
If you had any doubt about marketing that capitalizes on previous successes, look at book covers. Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books retweeted a great image of a cover today (as spotted by @helen_machness) that shows hands holding a rose, “Twilight”-style, but with wrists bound, to make it clear it’s in the sexy-book-dominant-guy category. That’s in case the title, “The Diary of a Submissive,” didn’t give you a clue. It’s one thing to trade on the conventions of your genre for your book cover; it’s quite another to rip them off. I did a quick check online and found three different covers for this book (marketed as memoir) by Sophie Morgan; two were in shades of gray. Or should that be Shades of Grey?
I enjoy well-written genre books. And I might even write a mystery or a romance or a young-adult fantasy someday. But I don’t want to do it just because I think it will sell, especially if the formula involves a passive female creature whose one goal in life is to be noticed by a man. We deserve better as writers and as readers. Success may be elusive on every level, but perhaps we can start by finding it in the obscurity of our home office, writing stories from the heart.