Tuesday, July 8, 2008

She's Baaa-aaack!

I feel like I've been absent for so long that I don't even remember what we were talking about. Sorry to disappear like that. My hiatus was unintentional. Let's just say that these four things definitely do not go together: national holiday, new software, end of royalty period, and death in the family.

I have to go back and read everything that Alicia posted in the last couple weeks, and of course I want to read all of your comments. And at some point, I'm going to have to figure out what exactly we were talking about before my world turned to crap. Reminders are welcome.

In the meantime, I thought I might share some conclusions I've gleaned from submissions, several very long meetings, and sales figures over the last couple of weeks. In no particular order...

1. I've had to deal with three manuscripts in the last two weeks which did not have a clear protagonist. One was an ensemble piece, and so the lack of a protagonist is a little more forgivable. Sometimes there just aren't clear protagonists in an ensemble piece. However, just because there are a lot of characters in the story, that doesn't make it an ensemble piece. A good rule of thumb for most stories: have a protagonist, and don't make the reader try to guess who the protagonist is.

2. Calling the villain an antihero doesn't make him heroic. An antihero is a very specific type of character, one who lives a bit outside the normal parameters for heroic behavior but still functions like a protagonist. A villain is also very specific type of character, and usually is the antagonist.

Also, if you want your hero to do bad things, you have to motivate it properly. You can't just say that he's an antihero and expect that to explain it. Don't get me wrong. I love antiheroes. This is not a complaint about the existence of antiheroes. What I'm really trying to say is, don't muddle the hero and the antihero character types. (Alicia, we ought to do some posts on antiheroes. I love me some bad boys.)

3. Passive behavior from either the hero or the heroine will almost always get you dinged. I'm sure it's possible to write a compelling story in which nothing happens, or in which things happen but they get no response, or in which things happen but they change nothing. I'm sure it's possible to write a story about a character who sits in her room and does nothing, changes not at all, and never seems to care one way or the other what happens in her life. But this is not the stuff of commercial fiction, and it's going to be a tough sell with me.

4. Editors love a writer who delivers what she promises. It's wonderful to be able to trust an author, and I've had a string of people recently prove their merit and trustworthiness to me. Those of you writing for my house, just know that I pay attention to good behavior, and I remember. :)

5. On the flipside, to those of you in any house who are contemplating a bout of difficult behavior, let me urge you to reconsider. I'm not saying this because anyone has been difficult in the last couple of weeks. In fact, as far as I know, we're a pretty happy bunch these days. I'm just saying it because I have at long last concluded that part of my job is to persuade people to avoid committing career suicide. So, ahem, please don't jump, put the gun down, step away from the pill bottle, and all that jazz. *crosses item off today's task list*

6. It's hard to be able to predict the direction the erotic romance market is taking, though I am happy to report that our sales are up a bit across the board. That's always a good thing. I would say that, in general, books with very strong male heroes do well. Bad boys, Alphas, Navy SEALs, adventurers, mavericks -- strong men behaving in strong ways. Readers seem to respond to this character type.

They also like sex. Go figure. For all the complaining that people do about explicit covers, graphic sex scenes, and the secret porny longings of romance readers, the truth is that sex sells. Like it or loathe it, I don't think it will be going away any time soon. For many female readers, of course, sex still works best when it's within the context of a story. But within that story, readers seem to respond more strongly to sex scenes that are even evocative, imaginative, fantasy-driven, and above all, smoking hot. Hot enough to melt the screen on your e-reader. Really. (Side question: why is it that the ultra-kinky books do so much better in digital than in print? Anyone have a theory on that?)

One other predictor of success seems to be how much self-marketing an author does, though it's not a perfect predictor. I think really what it comes down to is a combination of active self-marketing and publisher support. I think you need both. What I wish I understood better, and what I probably never will understand, is why some authors can get out there and do everything right -- write a wonderful book, promote the hell out of it, work well with her publishers, create a beautiful website, interact with her readers, all that great stuff--and still never seem to break through. It's an old saying, but it's true: success in publishing is a matter of being prepared when lightning strikes. I see quite a lot of authors who are prepared, who were doing the work day after day and doing it very well. And I keep waiting for that lightning to hit them.

Of course, the flip side of this is that if you don't do the work, lightning can't ever strike you. Keep that in mind the next time you're feeling a bit down. Careers in publishing are a tricky business. Keep your motivation high by focusing on the work that you're doing rather than on the results it's producing. You cannot control the lightning. None of us can. But you can control the process, and to some extent, the product.

I could probably do full blog posts, or maybe even series of posts, on each one of these points. These are big topics. But for now, I thought I would share some general observations that have come up in the last couple weeks. It's good to be back.



Anonymous said...

The answer about kinky books selling better electronically than in print is pretty simple, I think. If you're in the mood for a bisexual werewolf threesome book, there's a pretty good chance you don't want the whole world to know it, and with print, you've got a potentially suggestive cover as well as back cover copy (for your kids, roommate or spouse to stumble over) and you've got to bring the bisexual werewolf book up to the clerk at your Barnes and Noble.

Digital kink can be purchased discreetly, kept tucked away in locked or innocently labeled folders on your computer, and no one has to know you're reading them.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to back Cameron b's theory on why erotic e-books sell better than those same books in print. Unfortunately, there are still many individuals who are "in the closet" about their reading material.

I also wanted to agree with you that manuscripts without a clear protagonist are frustrating. I'm working on editing just such a text at the moment (luckily a developmental edit), and a large part of my problem is that the text seems to switch between protagonists in an unclear fashion that doesn't make much sense. While I understand multiple protagonists, I think limiting to a small number is key as well as making it blatantly clear who is acting as the protagonist in which scene.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, that's kind of my theory too. The shame factor. I'm just wondering if there might be other elements involved. I mean, we hear over and over again that people don't like curling up with a good computer screen. So how is it that digital kink is able to break past that objection? If we were to package erotic romance. In such a way that nobody can tell what it was -- for example, putting flowers on the cover -- does that mean that erotic romance e-books stop selling?

Anonymous said...

Teresa, you mean like the plain brown wrapper? Or putting a 'dirty' magazine inside a text book? No, I never did that in my life, but it is a bit cliche about doing it.

I wonder if there is some flow over effect from online porn gazing to computer accessible erotica, so that accessing the book on screen seems natural. I'm not a porn person either, so that is just a hypothesis.

BTW, welcome back!

green_knight said...

If anyone wants to look at an ensemble piece, they could do worse than look at Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers. Blyton does some very clever things with omni, and one of them is that you get a strong sense of a main protagonist... who actually does not spend a whole lot of time on-screen. But even when the action is carried by someone else, Darrel is there at the beginning of the book, and the end of the book, and every time the someone else's subplot needs a spearcarrier. Someone plays a trick in class? Darrel is shown laughing. Someone needs to carry a note to a teacher? Darrel runs the errand. So even when she's not involved much, she's always present.

Edittorrent said...

Jwhit, no, I mean an actual book cover with cover art that shows something other than nekkid bodies.

Porn is different, and I can't speak to their requirements, but I know a thing or two about erotic romance. In the very early days, back before there were e-books or any official "erotic romance" subgenre, the first Secrets anthologies had flowers on the covers. They were discreet and elegant but didn't give readers any insight at all to the contents.

Next came the wrinkled sheets covers. A lot of people don't like those. I do. I like the monochromatic schemes -- and if you're paying attention to these things, you probably have noticed that a lot of erotic romances from the big presses have color overlays to create a monochromatic feel. But alas, when you're doing books in a series, as we are with the anthos, you start to run out of colors to help people identify one antho from the other. I've heard readers refer to different anthos as "the blue sheets" and "the burgundy sheets." We would have ended up like a crayon box -- "No, volume 30 is the aquamarine volume, and 29 is sky blue. Can't you tell them apart?"

But the wrinkled sheets at least gave a sense of what was, er, between the sheets.

And that's where we get into trouble. You know what? I'm going to take this to the front page. I feel a genuine blog post coming on.


Jody W. and Meankitty said...

For me, I get the less hot stuff as paperbacks so I can trade it, give it to my Mom or donate it to the retirement center where my RWA chapter meets. I can't do that with ebooks! (Or kink *laugh*) I get my reading in e-form when I can, but if it's a particularly mainstream selection, I will go paper.

Wes said...

I hope I'm interpreting number 6 above correctly. My story has been rejected for being a "man's book". True, the MC is male, as are the two main supporting characters, but there are two strong female characters, a lover and the lover's mother. I believe my themes, slavery, Manifest Destiny, and corruption in religion, if not universal, would be of interest to both genders. However, I am concerned about it being perceived to be targeted to a male audience.

Genella deGrey said...

Theresa - (Welcome back, BTW!)

I like both the satin sheets and the models on the Secrets covers. As smokin' hot as the Secrets series is, I feel the covers are still discreet enough to take into the light of day. ;) Thank you for that!

While I agree that totally nekkid people on the cover of other books I've seen gets the content point across, it's not very inventive, is it?

A close up of hands/arms reaching for each other over a background of satin sheets would not only tell me what the book is about, but intrigue me as well.

I believe the cover art should be as powerful as the well-plotted book (or books) inside.

I am sure there are numbers somewhere saying how many people are compelled to pick up a book merely by seeing the cover.

I even tend to choose down-loadable books that have great covers when I browse around in ebook land.


Dave Shaw said...

Welcome back, Theresa! My condolences on the death in your family. I can certainly sympathize.
Um, just a gentle reminder - before you 'disappeared' you wrote that you had thoughts on Pitch 5 that you'd post later. Is it later yet? [grin]