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Thread: What sells today...

  1. #1
    sticking his oar in...
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    Exclamation What sells today...

    “What mainly sells today is mediocrity.” This is what a senior editor at a large publishing company told me the other day. He went on to say that building lists of titles that were eclectic, sourced from a variety of different countries, truly original and – frankly – clever, was getting harder and harder to do.

    I’ve heard other people in the business say more-or-less the same thing, especially since the recession started to bite. Most of them blame the retailers, the publishers, or the media, but I wonder if writers aren’t to blame a little bit too - writers and, to some extent, the Internet.

    Follow any forum for writers; and while many different views will be expressed, the core message from ‘those who know’ is the same: publishing is a business; you can’t buck the market; leave your ego at the door; the writer is the servant, not the master. Given the difficulties new writers face getting into print – the sheer size of the odds stacked against them – it’s no wonder the message gets home: writing is a craft, not an art. Like a screenwriter-for-hire, you produce what your paymasters want you to produce, or there’s the door.

    Allied to this is a subtle, but intimidating anti-elitism, that seeks to characterise artistic endeavour in many fields, but especially literature, as self-indulgent or pretentious. I read one comment posted on a newspaper forum that said: “The days when the few speak and the many listen are over.” He thought the explosion in twittering and blogging and YouTube meant that the novel was effectively dead, and good riddance (especially the ‘literary’ novel, naturally). He obviously preferred the alternative: that the many speak and nobody listens.

    I wonder if all this market realism hasn’t gone too far and struck home too deep. Should new writers (or old ones, for that matter) really be worrying about publishers’ bottom lines? Shouldn’t they – it almost sounds like heresy to say it – be worried about following their own vision, going where the Muse or the spirit or their imaginations take them? In short, thinking like artists – even if they fail. Because most are going to fail anyway, at least in financial terms.

    Myself, I think this is actually how readers and editors want writers to think. They don’t need any more accountants, or salesmen. The have plenty of those already.

    Does anyone share this perspective?


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  2. #2
    I think the only problem that the industry has is that there are far too many books being put out every year. No matter how far back you go, there has always been a healthy mixture of schlock to go along with the stuff we remember as being great. With today's technologies and numbers, the ratio gets skewed to make us think that literature is somehow being driven down a path of no return. It has the same problem that any of the artistic endeavors (music, movies, etc.) have; we're far too aware of the proliferation of junk compared to how it used to be.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Philip64 View Post
    Should new writers (or old ones, for that matter) really be worrying about publishers’ bottom lines? Shouldn’t they – it almost sounds like heresy to say it – be worried about following their own vision, going where the Muse or the spirit or their imaginations take them? In short, thinking like artists – even if they fail. Because most are going to fail anyway, at least in financial terms.[/SIZE]
    Speaking as someone who writes a genre that's tough to sell in a down economy because it's not exactly Twilight or Harry Potter or a nonfiction about managing debt solutions, I think writers should be worried about their own vision and going where their imaginations take them. My agent tells me that my genre is tough to sell right now, but she hasn't suggested I change what I write. I have a few editors considering my MS if I make changes to it, but the changes haven't been TOO drastic.

    I don't think I'll fail as a writer, but I would prefer that over becoming the Britney Spears or N'Sync of literature--that is, a passing fad here to make a quick buck.


  4. #4
    Toughen up. gothicangel's Avatar
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    If being a published writer means compromising my literary sensibilities then I would choose to remain unpublished.

    I actually find this kind of opinion and insult to real readers, who are the ones in spending money in bookshops week after week keeping publishers and agents solvent.

  5. #5
    Now serving Table for 300 shokadh's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Philip64 View Post
    “What mainly sells today is mediocrity.” This is what a senior editor at a large publishing company told me the other day.


    Does anyone share this perspective?


    http://thiswriterstale.blogspot.com/
    I have wondered this very thing, and find the answer to be quite disheartening, for the most part. As far as quality vs. mediocrity, the agents I have queried seem to be saying the same thing in many of their websites--that they are basically looking for a quick buck--tabloid style sensationalism--something that will sell commercially for it's Reality TV or American Idol bang of shallow fast-food literature. It may bring in a paycheck, but adds little literary value to the marketplace, in the long run. But I am not only a writer, but a reader as well, so I imagine there is still a sizable market of quality readers who are looking for something deeper than just the cheap paperbacks lining the convenience store shelves.
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    I think there's room for every kind of genre, but I admit to being cynical and thinking that what is selling is basically whatever's riding the coat tails of the last breakout book and anything shocking ghost written for celebrities.

    I'm not going to say literary fiction is dead, but I don't think it sells. And I don't think it ever really did, except for a few exceptions.

    There's always the small presses.

  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW GregB's Avatar
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    I think, as with film and music, you're really better off separating art and entertainment. Ultimately, the public dictates the kind of entertainment they're willing to pay for -- everyone else (writers, agents, publishers/producers, etc.) just tries to figure out what they want and give it to them.

    You're not going to sustain a movie industry on art-house films. The vast majority of the movie-going public doesn't like them and won't pay for them. That said, I don't want art houses going away. I just think you have to approach them as a cultural institution (and fund them that way) rather than part of the entertainment industry.

    None of this, in my opinion, is anything new.
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  8. #8
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    What GregB said.

    IMO, debating the "quality" of what's being published and why is useless and wastes energy.

    There are lots of literary successes. There are lots of commercial successes. Sometimes the twain meet.

    And I don't know any successful writers who got that way by following the market; rather, they wrote what they loved to read and in their writing or their stories was something the market enjoyed.



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  9. #9
    The grad students did it NeuroFizz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shokadh View Post
    As far as quality vs. mediocrity, the agents I have queried seem to be saying the same thing in many of their websites--that they are basically looking for a quick buck--tabloid style sensationalism--something that will sell commercially for it's Reality TV or American Idol bang of shallow fast-food literature.
    Can you please provide the names or websites of the agents who openly display this attitude--serious writers who frequent this site need to know so we can avoid them at all costs.

    Regarding the original post, this kind of handwringing and generalization comes through this place a few times a year, and still we don't see the bookstore shelves overrun with tripe. Yes, there is some, but there is a great deal of quality out there as well. And the quality sells. I don't think anyone here is going to dumb down their writing or compromise their artistic values just to put their names on tabloid-level stories. And I don't think for a minute that art and entertainment are mutually exclusive, no matter how much attitudes like those in some of the posts here try to say they are.

    If "they" are getting published and "we" aren't, I seriously doubt it's because agents and editors are ignoring original stories that are stylistically and craft-wise of the highest quality, in favor of humdrum stories that are mediocre in quality but ringing with reality TV-type hype. Good stories by good authors are still finding publishers, and there are enough readers out there who are not punch drunk on literary drivel to support quality literature.
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  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by NeuroFizz View Post
    I seriously doubt ...agents and editors are ignoring original stories that are stylistically and craft-wise of the highest quality, in favor of humdrum stories that are mediocre in quality but ringing with reality TV-type hype. Good stories by good authors are still finding publishers, and there are enough readers out there who are not punch drunk on literary drivel to support quality literature.
    With respect, NeuroFizz and Greg B, I don't think you're really up-to-speed with the changes that have been taking place in the industry over the past 6-12 months. All the major houses, almost without exception, have been closing lists (or merging them, as at Random House, New York), and firing editorial staff, especially those who handle or buy literary or imported (i.e. translated) fiction and non-fiction. If you think this isn't going to impact upon the range and number of titles published, you're dreaming. Add to that the closure of many/most book sections in many newspapers (The Washington Post published its last Book World section in February) and you see a massive withdrawal of investment in, and support for, fiction in general and non-genre fiction in particular. The money now, far more than ever, is in celebrity biographies, TV tie-ins and safe bets in familar genres (currently vampires, but that boat may soon have sailed).

    Of course, some truly original and clever stuff still gets through, and probably always will. But the intelligent (am we still allowed to use that word?) reader is being offered a poorer and poorer range of titles, subjects and styles - certainly locally. You can't see that in your nearest book store, because you can't see the books that aren't there - great European literature, for example, or even great books from the other side of the Atlantic.

    What I'm suggesting is that this state of affairs may be having an effect on the psyche of new and upcoming writers. I hope I'm wrong.

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    Last edited by Philip64; 04-05-2009 at 03:46 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by NeuroFizz View Post
    Can you please provide the names or websites of the agents who openly display this attitude
    Seconded.

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  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Philip64 View Post
    With respect, NeuroFizz and Greg B, I don't think you're really up-to-speed with the changes that have been taking place in the industry over the past 6-12 months.
    Yeah, that's probably it. I finished my first novel in the fall, started querying in December, landed my agent in January, and went on submission in February, but I haven't really been paying any attention to what's happening in the publishing world.

    Thanks for respectfully pointing out my ignorance. I'd been laboring under the assumption -- misled, no doubt, by my personal experience -- that agents still want good books to represent, that publishers still want to publish them, that booksellers still want to sell them, and that readers still want to read them.

    I've yet to hear from a writer who was rejected because his or her work was too good.

    But the intelligent (am we still allowed to use that word?)
    Yes we is.
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    But the intelligent (am we still allowed to use that word?) reader is being offered a poorer and poorer range of titles, subjects and styles - certainly locally. You can't see that in your nearest book store, because you can't see the books that aren't there - great European literature, for example, or even great books from the other side of the Atlantic.
    Of what great European literature do you speak? Is there modern stuff acknowledged as "great?" By whom? All the classic stuff is here, in my small local indie, and always will be, I think, as long as books have readers. And we have modern imports as well. The store also orders, for any customer, any title available for sale.

    I don't know the state of literary affairs in London, or elsewhere in Europe, but the major problem here in the States is that too many books are being published (IMO) rather than too few. And the range of titles is as wide as one could imagine or hope for in your average Barnes and Noble, of which we still have many. (Never mind the incredible availability of titles online.)

    What I'm suggesting is that this state of affairs may be having an effect on the psyche of new and upcoming writers. I hope I'm wrong.
    I don't know why it would. The market has always been tough, and the advice from agents and editors has always been the same: Write a good book.

    Sure, I know of situations where an agent or editor has suggested to an author that they write this or that "sort" of book because it happens to be hot. I even know a few authors who have done so largely against their will (having developed an unfortunate fondness for food and a roof to keep out the rain). But I know many more authors who refuse to "follow" the market or trends, and plenty of agents and editors who would simply never consider attempting to "guide" their writers in a direction patently wrong for them.

    All that said, I've been listening to gloom and doom predictions of various kinds for a long, long time now, and so far the sky hasn't fallen. Popular genres (including literary) have peaked and crashed in a regular cycle, and phenoms like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code come along from time to time just to prove to publishing that they really don't have a clue what's going to be a blockbuster.



    Those of us still publishing after decades have learned a simple truth and, hey, it's that one good agents and editors are still preaching.

    We do our best, every time out of the gate, to write a good book.

    No matter in what genre(s) we write. No matter what's hot and trendy in the market. No matter how many times somebody pops up to tell us anxiously that the sky is falling.

    Storytelling will always have value because --with the possible exception of sports and often even then -- storytelling is the basis for every form of entertainment going.

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    Quote:
    But the intelligent (am we still allowed to use that word?)

    Yes we is.


    I resisted the impulse to post exactly that.
    Last edited by CheshireCat; 04-05-2009 at 05:03 AM.

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    With respect, NeuroFizz and Greg B, I don't think you're really up-to-speed with the changes that have been taking place in the industry over the past 6-12 months. All the major houses, almost without exception, have been closing lists (or merging them, as at Random House, New York), and firing editorial staff, especially those who handle or buy literary or imported (i.e. translated) fiction and non-fiction. If you think this isn't going to impact upon the range and number of titles published, you're dreaming. Add to that the closure of many/most book sections in many newspapers (The Washington Post published its last Book World section in February) and you see a massive withdrawal of investment in, and support for, fiction in general and non-genre fiction in particular. The money now, far more than ever, is in celebrity biographies, TV tie-ins and safe bets in familar genres (currently vampires, but that boat may soon have sailed).
    Also meant to add that those of us in publishing and those trying to get in, Philip, are perfectly well aware of the changes in publishing.

    With respect, go back and read some of the threads here on AW and you'll find that very little happening in publishing does not get discussed here, and at length.

    Sometimes at tiresome length.

    IMO, the "problem" with newspapers isn't that they're losing their book sections, it's that most of them are going digital and publishing online rather than paper. Which seems to be a trend and is quite possibly the future.

    Hard to justify killing so many trees when one can save paper and publish online.

    Which is also the future facing publishing, at least to some extent. I don't believe paper books will vanish, but there is clearly a shift taking place in publishing and we have yet to see the end of it.



    But good stories, be they commercial or literary, will be in demand as long as readers are hungry for such stories. And since that hunger is virtually stamped in our genes, I don't imagine we're going to evolve away from it anytime soon.

    Just my opinion, as always.

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  16. #16
    Now serving Table for 300 shokadh's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by NeuroFizz View Post
    Can you please provide the names or websites of the agents who openly display this attitude--serious writers who frequent this site need to know so we can avoid them at all costs.
    My apologies for any apparent hand-wringing or doom and gloom prophesies. If I thought all was lost, I wouldn't be here and wouldn't continue to write. I also would not feel it appropriate to discredit any agency out there in the industry for anything they wish or do not wish to see. It was my own (subjective) personal observation and would have to be qualified as merely my opinion. It would always be advised for you to do your own research on individual agencies.

    Again, I had no intention to offend anyone.

  17. #17
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    I don't think anyone here will dispute that a smart agent will take a book that's shelf-ready and targeted to an already known buyer over one that they might struggle to sell. That's just good business.

    But every agent I know (and I know quite a few, in a variety of genres) IS looking for an amazing read---something that's the next "Twilight" in their chosen genre. I mean, who would have anticipated that "The Kite Runner" would be such a hit? A debut author (and foreign to boot) about boys from Afghanistan? But terrific is terrific, and it deserved what it got.

    The trick is that it's not really up to the agents, nor the editors. It's up to US--the reading public. We're the ones who set the pace. Some weird thing sparks our interest and we want more of that, like having one potato chip/crisp and reaching for another. Seldom do you find a reader who likes the taste of a potato chip/crisp, and it giving him/her a craving for baked potatoes, even if it would be better for their health. They're the same, but different. Such are books, too, and it shows on the shelf. Readers drive the market. They always have and always will.

    Don't lament what the agents are requesting. They're only seeking what the publishers are looking for, who are looking for the next thing the READERS are looking for. It's a crap shoot, every single time. All editors can do is throw seeds into the wind and hope something sprouts and thrives 12-24 months later.

    If you want to see more European books on the shelf, buy the ones already there. Encourage your friends to buy them too. Blog wide and loud. Write reviews. Post on MySpace and everywhere else you can think of. It's only through word of mouth that sales happen and it's only sales that guarantee there will be more editors taking more risks tomorrow.
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  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW SarahMacManus's Avatar
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    It's a bit like the music industry - in fact, it's a LOT like the music industry. The Britney Spears help cover the cost of the Amanda Palmers. And lets face it, not everyone is interested in literary fiction or capable of deriving the benefits thereof.

    And like the music industry, a lot of writers are taking their work to the net, self-publishing (at least we can do that for free via Lulu and ebooks), networking with readers and writers and giving stuff away in the hopes of finding an audience and making sales in the future.

    And like the music industry, it takes a lot of hard work and self-promotion and during the current economic downturn, even the Britney Spears are having a hard time justifying themselves and their expenses.

    There are as many different types of agents and publishers as there are band managers and record labels, and there are just a many different types of writers and readers and all are valid. I read literary fiction and I enjoy it immensely. I also read harmless romps through fantasy and sci-fi. I like both. (I like to think I can write both, or even a combination of the two.) But I don't think we need to discourage either high or low brow fiction or those that produce or package it.

    The amount of literary fiction that's being purchased by publishers is usually based on the demand for it. When times are tough, people want escape and entertainment.

  19. #19
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    Haven't people been saying this exact thing for the last fifty years?

    I just can't accept that the majority are so absolutely idiotic that they would rather read a "blog" than a book.

    It's not true. The people who obsess over crap like blogs and youtube nonsense have always existed. Only their means of rotting their brains has changed.

    I'm no industry expert, but it seems to me that the closing of imprints or whatever is just the same adjustment that is happening in all other areas of work. The salad days are over, they were unrealistic and unsustainable, and that they are normalizing does not signify a spiral towards extinction for novels or condoms or potted cacti or whatever anyone happens to be selling.

  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW SarahMacManus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Philip64 View Post
    Myself, I think this is actually how readers and editors want writers to think. They don’t need any more accountants, or salesmen. The have plenty of those already.
    Does anyone share this perspective?
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    Yes, I do - that's what agents are for. Failure is subjective.

  21. #21
    The grad students did it NeuroFizz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shokadh View Post
    My apologies for any apparent hand-wringing or doom and gloom prophesies. If I thought all was lost, I wouldn't be here and wouldn't continue to write. I also would not feel it appropriate to discredit any agency out there in the industry for anything they wish or do not wish to see. It was my own (subjective) personal observation and would have to be qualified as merely my opinion. It would always be advised for you to do your own research on individual agencies.

    Again, I had no intention to offend anyone.
    No offense was taken. If an agent has something like this on his/her website, however, there is nothing wrong with pointing to it. We discuss agents in detail at AW, and point out when they have specific acceptance quirks. We all want what's best for each other--we stick up for each other.

    And I thank everyone here for this good discussion. I am well aware of the recent changes taking place in the publishing industry. But I don't see the same end results in terms of writing quality. There are a few very notable examples of moderate quality stories that are big sellers of late, but on balance, quality work is still finding it's way to the bookshelves. The publishing industry doesn't survive on these few biggies alone.

    Agents and editors still have to guess about what will make it and what won't. And this becomes a critical variable when the overall number of titles being published goes down. Some of the cutback in published titles may just be a stock market-type adjustment that may have been necessary for ensuring the survival of the industry in the next few years (perhaps too many titles may have been published in recent years), but aside from some immediate reaction to the economic climate, I'm confidant publishers will eventually realize that quality stories are what will keep the industry alive.

    The important thing is how we react to it. As of right now, I feel we should do as we always have--write the best damn stories we can. Be as creative as we have always been. And continue to work to improve in our craft.
    Last edited by NeuroFizz; 04-05-2009 at 05:46 AM.
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  22. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by GregB View Post
    I think, as with film and music, you're really better off separating art and entertainment. Ultimately, the public dictates the kind of entertainment they're willing to pay for -- everyone else (writers, agents, publishers/producers, etc.) just tries to figure out what they want and give it to them.

    You're not going to sustain a movie industry on art-house films. The vast majority of the movie-going public doesn't like them and won't pay for them. That said, I don't want art houses going away. I just think you have to approach them as a cultural institution (and fund them that way) rather than part of the entertainment industry.

    None of this, in my opinion, is anything new.
    Thanks Greg. You said this better than I could have.

    I do have to say this-one man's mediocre is another man's gold.

    Who decides what's mediocre and what's not? And just because a book is 'literary' or an 'import' doesn't automatically qualify it as brilliant, nor does a book that is not literary or not imported qualify it as mediocre.

    I also take offense to the idea that everything that's not eclectic or imported is 'mediocre.' There are well-written and well-told stories in every genre and classification of fiction, including those that appeal to the more mainstream public.

    Yes, the publishing business is suffering but ultimately people have been enjoying fiction/stories for the entire recorded human history (and most likely before as well). One recession is not going to change this need. The business will change, yes. Things are going to change and are in the process of changing. But I don't think that means that the publishers are only going to buy 'mediocre' or poorly written stories from now on. They are going to continue to buy stories that will resonate with the public.

    So write a story that you are passionate about. Write the type of story that you yourself would like to read. If you write a story where you feel like you're pandering to a dumbed down public, the readers will pick up on your disdain and it won't resonate with anyone and will fail.
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  23. #23
    Quote Originally Posted by dreamsofnever View Post
    If you write a story where you feel like you're pandering to a dumbed down public, the readers will pick up on your disdain and it won't resonate with anyone and will fail.
    QFT. It does no good to look down on readers since they're the ones whose support we need. If we (general we) have such contempt for readers, then why bother writing?

  24. #24
    Stand in the Place Where You Live KTC's Avatar
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    Do not ever ask WHAT SELLS. Write what you want to write.
    **My 6th novel, PRIDE MUST BE A PLACE, releases February 6th, 2018! (LGBTQ Young Adult)
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  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW
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    Quote Originally Posted by KTC View Post
    Do not ever ask WHAT SELLS. Write what you want to write.
    Advice most commonly passed on to others by those who write what sells.

    caw

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