Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Lie: Embracing Marketability



I started this article with one intent. Instead, it took on a life of its own - moving far beyond the original plan. But it was a new type of writing for me, I don't get to do a lot of this and I honestly had a lot of fun. So the article will be presented here in a series of posts. Remember, bring your sense of humor with you, she's great company and there's no door charge!

Just as the sign says to fasten your seatbelt when you sit in the roller coaster  there is one here you have to squint to read and it warns - make sure tongue is firmly planted in cheek at all times. 

The Lie: Embracing Marketability

Traditional publishing set a benchmark for generations, and I along with many others believe that was not a good thing. “Classic authors” who defined the industry long ago, who became the foundation for fiction, were lucky they were born into the age that accepted them. They would be considered irrelevant today. Industry professionals now openly admit these celebrated authors would never be published in today’s market. Breaking in has become nearly impossible, breaking through holds the same odds as winning the lottery, and Breaking Dawn happened because of one fact - as the following industry professional will attest:

Embracing Marketability - Nothing has ever shaken my editorial self as much as this comment did. It came from an influential editor from a successful publishing company who was telling me about what to look at when considering a book. The advice had little to do with the uniqueness of the work, the style, the quality; instead it was all trends, what was in season. And then I was told to consider the appeal of the authors themselves—including their appearance.
Nina Hoeschele
June 17, 2011
The Editing Company

If you are a writer and were involved in the publishing industry before the advent of ebooks, self-publishing and the indie movement, you were very familiar with the law of submission. (No, it's not a BDSM novel but maybe it should be because it could certainly get punishing). Rules had to be followed and they were more strict than any Dom I've read about. If the rules were not obeyed, the industry was really a small world and word spread fast. Disobeying brought not the Dom with the whip but a boot out the door. Your reputation and career ended - snuffed -  finished before any of your work was ever read.

Submission, when done through networking, started with a contact hard earned through speaking with people at writers confernences. The query letter quickly drafted, addressing this editor directly, explaining who I spoke to, my qualifications, selling myself like I would applying for a job. If the publisher posted their submission rules on the newfangled thing called a website, I knew what to do. If not, I sent the query by itself, with only an SASE to keep it company and then I waited.

Hair turned gray, I grew long in the tooth. Honestly, waiting like this ages a person prematurely! This old gray mare ain't getting any younger - I certainly don't need anyone's help growing older!

When the SASE found it's way back home, the editor replying with a "Yes, I want to read your manuscript, please submit." Authors such as me, jumped for joy. "I have avoided the dreaded slush-pile!" The manuscript was bagged and tagged (me overjoyed, and not realizing it was already DOA. Unfortunately, I didn't have Ducky from NCIS to help out. I did have Gibbs slapping me on the back of the head, but that's beside the point since this was long before the show came into being.)

I followed the rules of submission, with unparallled dilligence. I waited the exact amount of time acceptible before I sent an annoyance or “bug the editor” letter, inquiring as to the status of my work, and all the while, my manuscript stangated. I was not allowed to submit it anywhere else - publisher or agent.

After the follow up letter "hey, don’t forget my manuscript buried under all the other ones on your desk" managed to spur the editor into some sort of forward movement, I usually received either a rejection, or a request for the entire manuscript (depending on the company's submission requirements – some wanted a synopsis and the first three chapters, others wanted the entire manuscript upfront.) 

Either way, they knew how to extend my agony, send positive letters telling me how much they enjoyed my work and my writing style, please send more. I jumped even higher like the trained monkey I was, basking in the tiny hint of praise for my work. I’d fire off a "thank you and here is the manuscript you requested," so fast I think I gave my poor postal carrier whiplash. I made sure to place the SAS postcard in the envelope so the overworked intern could remove and quickly slip it into the mail. That way I knew the post office didn’t send my precious work to Bangladesh just for shits and giggles. And I returned to waiting patiently while another acceptable time period crawled by and my sanity and nerves stretched tighter. Again my work remained locked in no man’s land, unable to move forward unable to submit anywhere else.

In order to maintain my sanity, I and most unpublished authors I knew, started work on the next book, preferably a sequel. Publishers love sequels and they want to know, if they do discover their next cash cow, it’s not going to be a one trick pony. Not that an unpublished author should ever expect or even hope for that kind of success. Doing this demonstrates professionalism. Mind you, none ever saw me do this. I still wonder what I was thinking? Were the editors like Sauron with an all seeing eye? I was determined to prove to Sauron if necessary that I serious about my craft. I did the work even though I never really thought of it as work, I kept writing, learning, and improving.

After another three months of no news, another letter reminding the editor that my work remained buried somewhere on their desk (it's not an insult, when I worked a desk job I rarely found my desk because it was buried so deeply in paperwork - the danger was actually digging for anything. The paper-bomb explosion, and resulting landslide risked bodily harm!)

That reminder letter, in my experience, again resulted in a rejection letter for that particular manuscript. But more often than not, they asked for yet another submission. I think they were trying at least. "Please send another manuscript," the letter said. Okay, it’s a rejection but also a request for more material. Although, in my heart I knew, if they didn't like the first story, they're not going to like the second. I wrote what I liked to read and I wanted to read something different than the typical romance genre stereotype of the leads hating each other.

Because I learned how the industry worked, I was rather pleased with myself in learning how to so artfully avoid the slush-pile, by submitting a query first and having the editor ask for my manuscript, I proudly stamped REQUESTED MATERIAL all over that huge envelope.

What I did not see then, I was in the slush-pile the entire time.

Why?

It wasn’t because my story was terrible, it wasn’t because I lacked talent. It was because my work didn’t fit their mold of marketability. Marketability, at that time, was that stereotype of the leads hating each other. The publisher knew it would sell as it had done before. My story - didn't have that, the publisher couldn't determine if my work would sell.

Traditional publishing has a formula and being a “good story” isn't a part of the equation. Stories don't have to be written well, they have to fit into the “proven” formula for marketing.

Again from the article above:

Many talented and wonderful editors have told me the same thing: Writing a good book is only half the battle. If you want to be published, you’ve got to blend good writing with marketability. It’s crucial to every project. If a book doesn’t seem likely to sell, then it won’t get made.

In the Romance genre, I started writing for publication because I was dissatisfied with what I was reading. Well, I was always taught that if a person wants change, they don't wait for someone else to do it. If I want it bad enough, I need to get up and do it. I wrote because I love writing. I started in high school and kept going. I have always loved a good story as much as I love a good romance, there were just a couple of key issues I was tired of seeing over and over. If I wearied of it, I knew other readers felt the same.

I perceived this as a market opportunity that I could work with. Unfortunately, while I saw it one way, the industry saw it another. To them, my work broke from the proven standard, it was a break from Marketability. My work didn't pass their litmus test and the litmus test would not change without extensive studies, focus groups, and more studies.

A corporate giant carries momentum and power. But most of us realize these behemoths cannot adapt to a quickly changing marketplace. Now small business and entrepreneurs do with ease. That is why you will see small business and entrepreneurs lead the way in new marketing trends. The business acumen lends itself to agility and rapid movement. David can run circles around Goliath, until he becomes Goliath. Then he just get's old and fat and doen't want to pick up his feet when you're trying to vacuum.

I wrote what I wanted to read, and provided to the publisher what I thought would fill a market need. Instead my work hit the revolving door of submission that got really frustrating, really fast - all because my books didn’t fit into the pre made cookie-cutter marketability premise.

Did they tell me this? Hell, no!

What they said, "Read what we publish." I read like I studied for the SAT's. But I refused to include a plot device, stereotypical character trait or anything like that when I dislike it. My goal was and still is, to publish and get paid But the first rule, the one my heart cannot break, is the one that makes me I write what I love.

Short of plagiarizing the books the publisher printed,  I was doing everything to fit into that Marketability mold - except what I didn't like reading, and that was killing me. Stick a fork in me, I was done. I just didn't know it.

That’s how the industry lied to me, its readers, other authors, and most of all to itself. It lied so well and so often, the industry professionals believed their own untruths. The industry locked itself into one focus and that’s why the indie surge with the market change caught Goliath with his pants down.

The industry gave lip service  they said they wanted different and original, they decried it in their requests for submission, but they didn't tell us about the Marketability litmus test. The unwritten rule that said, "Don't make it too different and original - or you fall out of Marketability."

GAH! * HEAD-DESK! * Looking back now, it's a wonder I didn't go postal! Or insane - well, I'm a wife, mom, and a writer, I lost it a long time ago. No use crying over spilled milk.

Hind-sight being blind, deaf and dumb as a post, I see now, the industry forgot one important fact. Marketability can sell an average story, or even a bad story – so what are our results?

Two pigs in a poke. Or as my dad would say, two pigs wearing lipstick. Okay, its possible one of the pigs (average story) might give a good showing at the local FFA competition or the county fair, but it’s a pig and it has lipstick on it. 

All the marketing in the world doesn’t make a bad story into a good one The pig, can wear the best lipstick in the world. Is still a pig. Good editing can help improve the story, but that’s closing the barn door after the horse is long gone and out partying with his mates. Why not take good stories and start with them? That way, Wilbur stays in his pen and gets to reminisce over the old days which Charlotte (or her 10th generation grandkids, whatever).

A good story is always marketable, it is always in demand, and readers don’t need people telling them what they like. (Even though it happens anyways.)

To be continued:


From the author: Feedback appreciated, donations accepted, will pass the collection plate shortly (I joke! Don't forget the tongue was supposed to remain in cheek! I take full responsibility for this article if I angered anyone or hurt anyone's feelings it was unintentional. This is meant to poke fun, especially at myself. If you're really pissed off, direct it at me - not the other members of the Romance Troupe - they have to put up with me just like you do. ;)


2 comments:

  1. Great articel. :) I enjoyed reading about your experience and how it mirrored so many authors. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad I'm not alone out here.
    Lynda

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Lynda! Thanks so much - it's amazing what we're willing to go through, isn't it?

    ReplyDelete

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