A friend of mine, a successful, multi-published writer, is being harassed on her blog by this guy who came out of nowhere. He posts nasty comments accusing her of all manner of literary crimes. He simultaneously complains about the poor quality of her books and brags about his refusal to read anything like what she writes. He’s trying to shame her by saying awful things about everything from her writing process to her commercial success. It’s ugly, and it’s the kind of thing that would make industry professionals vow never to work with this guy.
Now, he tries to position himself as a literary writer when he’s ranting in her comment zone. And he posts a link back to his own blog, which I checked just out of curiosity. Turns out, he’s not writing literary novels, but genre novels of a type and style that have a small but dedicated readership. So that’s an automatic strike against him. He either doesn’t even know what he’s writing, or he's being dishonest about where his work fits into the publishing spectrum. (I want to make clear that I have not, nor do I intend to, read this guy’s work. None of this is meant to be a comment on his writing talent, which may or may not exist.)
In any event, his rants betray a deeply flawed understanding of the way people buy books, the way this industry operates. He seems to blame her for the fact that his brilliant masterwork was summarily rejected without comment by dozens of industry professionals. No, not “seems to.” Outright accuses her of interfering with his publishing career. Apparently, her success led directly to his failure. He has theories about how this works, which I will not bother to relate simply because they are all 100% wrong.
One writer’s success never leads to another’s failure. Never. In fact, the reverse is true. One writer’s success can and will lead to enhanced sales for many writers, across genres and platforms. Or, as the brilliant Jenny Crusie says, “A rising tide raises all boats.”
You know how we sometimes lament our inability to accurately predicting a book’s performance in the marketplace? This isn’t because we’re all clueless dolts. This is because books don’t sell according to the same predictable models as other commodities. The rules are different.
When readers like a book, they will go back to find another book just like it. This is the “same but different” phenomenon that leads to hot trends and strong backlist sales. If a reader picks up, say, a terse noir paranormal-thriller hybrid with a strong dystopian setting, and loves the book, he will return to the bookstore for more. “More” will be defined by whichever element the reader appreciated (say, the thriller angle, or the dystopian setting, or the fact that the hero knows martial arts) which cannot be predicted until after the reader has read the book. Or, “more” will be defined as all other books written by the same author. Or, if the publisher or bookseller is able to draw parallels, “more” will be defined as a different book by a different author that may or may not contain obvious parallels to the original book.
Most other products are defined and marketed on the basis of product differentiation. We’re inundated with ads telling us why a particular product is different from all other products in its class. But in publishing, product differentiation doesn’t work. We need to tap into the reader’s desire for “more” in every way we can.
The other side effect of the “same but different” yen is that sometimes a reader driven by the quest for “more” ends up stepping outside the boundaries of their personal definitions of “more.” In other words, you might go into the bookstore looking for another dystopian thriller, and end up buying a cookbook. Or a literary debut. Or a sweeping historical romance. And that original desire for “more” will often be satisfied by these purchases just as if the reader had bought nothing but dystopian thrillers. Because sometimes, what starts out as “more dystopian thrillers” changes into, simply, “more reading material.” This means that a runaway bestseller like Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code can translate into increased sales for all kinds of books. A rising tide lifts all boats.
So your astonishingly inventive and original masterpiece is not doomed to failure by virtue of its originality. There may be other factors dooming it. (In this case, I suspect this guy’s sheer nastiness comes across in his proposals and makes industry professionals flee.) But originality and literary merit do not prevent a book from making it to the marketplace. They might make it harder to market with “same but different” approaches, and they might have a harder time finding an audience if its natural "more" links have failed to satisfy readers in the past. But we all know that when “more” means simply “more reading material,” almost any book in the bookstore can be sold to almost any reader. Readers read both within and across genres. Anyone who's been paying attention to my reading list on the sidebar will have seen evidence of that.
In fact, given that profits from commercial successes are often used to subsidize small literary efforts, literary writers ought to be delighted every time some commercial novel sells a bazillion copies. Those profits make it possible for publishers to take risks on books unlikely to demonstrate wide commercial appeal.
Here’s a fun fact I stumbled across recently. I can’t personally vouch for its accuracy, but I read from a reliable source that nominees for the NBCC award average sales of 800 copies per title. That’s over the life of the book. That *might* cover the expenses of producing the book. Just barely. If that. So how does a publisher manage to stay afloat after publishing a book that sells only 800 copies? By publishing a book that will sell 800,000 copies.
In other words, this guy, this nasty commenter, so busy deriding my friend for her commercial success, fails to grasp that a) his “literary” book might just sell a few extra copies to browsers who liked my friend’s books enough to return to the bookstore for more, and b) my friend’s success makes it possible for publishers to take risks on inventive books whose sales and critical success might be hard to predict under existing models.
I get a little tired of the constant division between writers of various genres. It’s not just a one-sided problem. It crops up everywhere. Even a recent issue of a literary and publishing review called erotic romance “trashy” in an article praising -- get this -- a set of graphic novels. Is that the level we’ve fallen to? Are we seriously contending now that a graphic novel is somehow less “trashy” than a graphic romance? This is absurd enough to be shocking, I think.
That’s not an invitation for you all to tell me why graphic novels are awesome. I’m sure they are, and more power to anyone writing them. My problem is in all these false distinctions of merit we assign to various slices of a single pie. All the slices have merit, each in its own way. Graphic novels have no more or less inherent value than spy novels, poetry volumes, or any other kind of book. And as soon as we start comparing all these different slices -- if we say that one genre is better or worse than the other -- then we have to do it within the context of the entire publishing pie, which, as we've seen, is absolutely not a zero-sum game.
This is also not an invitation to bash literary writers. The truth is that these folks are at the vanguard of new techniques which we can all adapt and profit by. Commercial writers can respect literary writers for this, and literary writers can respect commercial writers for getting readers into bookstores, and we can somehow find ways to muddle along together without all the sniping. Right?
A rising tide raises all boats. Or, in other words, celebrate the successes of all writers, because they might just make your own success more possible.