Thursday, April 17, 2008

Don’t Be This Guy

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.



Dave Shaw said...

Science has so far been unable to determine whether trollish behavior is the result of a gene, a virus, or learned behavior. The fact that many trolls seem to have difficulty learning anything at first seems to rule out the last possibility, but one hypothesis suggests that it's only after they reach full-fledged trollhood that they cease learning. Regardless of the cause, the most successful method of repelling trolls is to ignore them, although in some cases good-natured humor has also worked. Your mileage may vary, of course.

I feel bad for your friend, Theresa.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately, I really am beginning to think it's human nature to be jealous and vindictive of someone else's success. I couldn't agree more about the genre snipping too. My friend and I tease each other about our book choices. I comment on her picking yet another vampire book and she gets at me for all my serious book choices. It's all in good fun and we both understand that it's the pleasure of reading that draws us together.

Anonymous said...

Wise words! Am applauding and saluting you, Theresa.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Moon today coined the term 'Dungbat' for this kind of person - completely deranged *and* malicious.

Ok, there might be times when writers directly compete against each other - but more often, we compete with the complete entertainment industry and all the other demands the economy makes on people's pocketbooks.

People valueing books is good. Boundary-pushing books being published is good, because it makes my livejournal-style diary (a second-world fantasy novel) slightly more publishable.

The more I learn about the publishing industry, the more I begin to understand some of the choices agents and editors make. I think there's a lot of bad stuff going on - corporate practices that hurt the midlist and anyone trying to break into it ('let's publish only the bestsellers', anyone?) but the bar for publication hangs justifiably high.

I've just beta-read a mss for a multi-published friend, and the difference in quality between her stuff and the stuff I see from most unpublished writers - myself included - is pretty humbling. There's a reason she's doing well, and it's simply that she's producing good ideas *and* executing them well.

I'm slowly getting there, but it's a lot of work. And I think you're unlikely to develop the critical skills you need if you approach this with a sense of entitlement: I've given a year of my life, so publish me.

Sadly, every single self-or vanity published weriter I have come across on the net who was railing against the prejudices of the publishing industry had been lagging several tiers behind.

I do not think this is a coincidence.

writtenwyrdd said...

It's so sad that the trolls of the internet can be so ghastly toward others. i think the false sense of anonymity is at work. Peole forget that good manners are more important when you are not face to face, not less.

The sort of behavior you describe is like doorbell ditching with a flaming sack of poo was in the 50s and 60s. Cheap and disgusting.

Anonymous said...

Re trolls, if it's really bad, your friend should consider blocking the person. That may mean stopping anonymous postings. So be it. I'm sure the members would appreciate the offender being gone, too. There is no excuse for uncivility. Points can be made without being nasty. I would imagine this person has already been told multiple times about his/her behaviour.

As for competition, I mentioned in a talk a few weeks ago that I was astonished and thrilled to find that the writing community was so giving and sharing. As a relative newcomer [<5 years and still working hard to get something good enough to be published], this open aspect was not expected and I was thrilled to find it.

Re genre or lit or scrapbooking even, we're all story-tellers. The essence of the effort boils down to that. Whose story and who is interested in reading it or hearing it is unprescribable. That's what makes it so important. Any story can be told in many imaginative ways. And in today's world, it's even less of an economic issue to have stories shared. Creativity and narrative are nearly available to all. Wow!

Anonymous said...

So sorry for your friend. There is a way to monitor and delete comments--your friend may want to consider learning how to delete unwanted comments that serve no purpose other than to advance the bizarre theories of this guy. Good luck to her!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Geez. No one deserves to go through that, especially good people.

I just got back from the Romantic Times Convention and the vibe there was incredible. There was a HUGE awareness that we're all here to help each other. Not just writer-to-writer, but writer-to-reader, too. I am hopeful that more writers are getting and sharing this message.

As for the same but different thing, I made a point of picking up all the free excerpts I could. I read a bunch of them -- and put one down because it read TOO MUCH like something else I'd read. It wasn't different enough.

I sat in a panel about multicultural books, and at the end, I was chatting with the lovely editors of Kimani Press. I said to Linda Gill, even I am tired of reading about nothing but White women.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking different is good. Helping fellow authors is good.

Trolls are evil, however.

Anonymous said...

even I am tired of reading about nothing but White women.

Now there's a can of worms.

I write fantasy, and you'd think speculative fiction would be immune to that - one of my characters is half tree, for heaven's sake, and the whole field is full of aliens and cat people and people doing magic and whathaveyou - but we *still* get, on occasion, admonished that readers want to read about 'people like them' and we shouldn't appropriate cultures we have no rights to.

Well, I partly read because I want to know about _other people_. I want to know what it's like to be male, a mother, an astronaut, a dragonrider... so that doesn't fly. And second, I am such a multi-facetted being, that 'people like me' is meaningless as a category - there's only one person like me, and while my life sometimes reads like a penny dreadful, it certainly wasn't planned that way.

It disturbs me that there seems to be a forced segregation, a - mostly unspoken - assumption that people only want to read about their own skin colour and gender.

Dave Shaw said...

"Cultures we have no rights to" - isn't that just a can of worms? Who decides who has 'rights' to a culture? How restrictive should it be? Should I only be writing about middle aged male computer geeks who work for flooring manufacturers in the southeast U.S.? Is it too late for me to include engineering colleges and dairy farms in upstate New York, or can I mention them as long as I state the right decades?

I guess I need to drop the 3-eyed, 2 trunked elephants before they become offended...

ssas said...

In a lot of years in various arts industries, I've run across my fair share of jealous trolls. The size of the air of entitlement, in my experience, is directly related to the quality of the work. I tend to ignore them.

As an editor, it's easy to spot them when they come across your desk.