Tuesday, March 22, 2011

If You Write it, it Will Sell

I recently received a letter from a fellow novelist bemoaning the unfairness of one novel's success over another. Or, more specifically, my novel's success over hers. She wrote to tell me of the long list of my novel's flaws and how her own was excellent and deserved the success mine had.

Let's forget the underlying issues of the whole thing for a minute and just look at the surface complaint. Her novel, in her opinion, was superior, and deserved the bestseller status and readership.

It may be entirely true that her book is more deserving, but does that necessarily matter in the world of publishing?

I can think of several authors who are geniuses, in my opinion, who don't sell the numbers they should.

It's no secret that many of the books that win awards never win a place on most consumer's shelves. 

Why is that?

The obvious answer is that many of the novels winning the awards are literary fiction and literary fiction tends to not sell that well.  Call the readership masses simple-minded if you like, but they just want to read a good story that doesn't fly over their heads. Fair? Maybe not.

So, back to the excellent author whose novel hasn't sold very many copies. She may be the next Madeleine L'Engle, but just because you think you write an excellent novel doesn't mean everyone's going to agree, and dare I state the obvious? It might not even be true.

She forgot the first lesson the rest of us learned in Writing 101-- taste is, above all, subjective. You may think certain authors who sit atop of the NY Times list to be hacks, but obviously, not everyone agrees.

Secondly, even if every critic in the world shouts from the rooftop that your novel is the best ever, doesn't mean it will find an enormous readership.

I don't know why.

It could be because you have no way of getting your book out there. You have no platform. Your publisher is a cheapskate who doesn't believe in marketing or publicity. The two hundred people who read your novel aren't word-of-mouth types.

My debut, Crossing Oceans, is doing very well, but that doesn't mean my sophomore novel will. I realize and accept this. I learned long ago that life is not fair, and not so long ago, that the publishing business really isn't. I also understand human nature well enough to suspect it's a lot easier for me to be objective when it's my novel doing well.

I had no expectations that my debut would do particularly well. I hoped it would, but I didn't expect it would. I know how unpredictable this business is and accept that.

I suspect my excellent author friend is having such a hard time because she had high expectations that were dashed. The higher the expectations in life, the higher the disappointment tends to be.

All Excellent or myself can do is write the best novel we're capable of, check our expectations at the publishing door and accept the things we cannot change. It would also be nice if we could be happy for those who gain what we dream of, remembering how fickle and subjective this crazy business is. We may be one another's competition but we novelists are also a very small clan who few on the outside understand.

Today I may be at the top. Tomorrow, Excellent may be and next year we may both be has-beens who can't land another contract. I don't know any writer who doesn't suffer from heartache in one form or another, be that from rejections, bad reviews, poor sales, or whatever. Let's cheer each other on as we hope for the best, not just for ourselves, for one another.


Aimee L Salter said...

So true! Especially "...It would also be nice if we could be happy for those who gain what we dream of..."


In fact, the ONLY thing I don't agree with is that authors are in 'competition'. Seriously? What reader only reads one author?

Just because my favorite authors don't have a book out, doesn't mean I stop reading.

We're all in this together. I hope Excellent can see that soon - and appreciate the gentility with which you've addressed this.

God bless your second novel! :)

salarsenッ said...

Very true! I think another truth in Writing 101 should be humility, gratitude, and appreciation for another's success. When exercised with a true heart, all these will return to the giver.

Good luck with your second novel.

Autore said...

This reminds me of another famous author. There was a time when Stephen King to his admission said he was turning out crap. But they sold - BIG. It wasn't so much the content as it was the consumer wanting another King book added to their collection.

I have written three books. All have been critiqued by people I respect in the industry. However I can't even get an agent to represent me.

So what? I did it and that's good enough for me.

Kimberly Stuart said...

Good gravy, Gina.

I worry about your friend. I can understand frustration in publishing, but as you so aptly expressed, the world of books is as fickle as every other industry. Thanks be to God that we get the chance to write stories and watch the beautiful ways grace trickles (or pours) in! Said grace may or may not accompany fat royalty checks.

I am thrilled for you, friend. You've worked many years for this season, so I hope you enjoy the results with unfettered joy.


p.s. Maybe consider calling another Excellent Friend when your sophomore book hits the bestseller lists. :)

Carrie L. Lewis said...

Good post, Gina.

I would like to suggest that writing isn't all there is to publishing. It's just the start.

There's a ton of work to follow in editing, revising, refining, rewriting, editing (sometimes ad infinitum) to get that masterpiece ready for publication.

Then there's all the marketing involved, whether a writer goes traditional publisher or self-publishing.

There are any number of ways to fall short of expectation in the process and any number of ways to be gravely disappointed.

I confess to often wondering why something is successful when it's clearly not the best it could be (at least in my opinion), but it's far more productive to put my time into learning from those who are successful and looking for ways to improve my own craft.

Congratulations are in order to you. God certainly gave you a great story to tell and has blessed it greatly.

Encouragement is due to Excellent. Keep after it.

Continue improving your craft. Write your heart, then polish it until it's the absolute best you can make it.

Be yielding enough to those who have been in the business longer than you have to be accepting of their comments, even when they might sting your creative sensibilities.

Listen to those around you, but stay true to your own calling.

Oh, and one other thing I often tell myself when things don't seem fair.

"Fair" is where livestock goes to win ribbons.

Ane Mulligan said...

A reality check that needs to be said. Wise words, GIna.

Michael Ehret said...

Grace-filled response. May I never have so much (or so little!) success that I can't enjoy when a friend succeeds.

Gina Holmes said...

Thanks everyone for your encouraging responses.

Sean MacKenzie said...

I think it's not only insensitive, but rude to say such things to a friend. I mean we all get low at times and think things we shouldn't. I know I do. But I wouldn't send a email or msg off to someone. Intentionally belittling their work. It's not only hurtful, but it's just poor taste to do so.

Elaine Cooper said...

I saw a similar complaint on FB awhile back where an author was complaining that her books were better than some on the NY Times Best seller's list and this wasn't fair. I have no idea if this was "Excellent" but I hope this is not a prevalent attitude amongst those who are in the writer's circle. We are ALL struggling to get it right and perhaps even be viewed as "successful" (whatever that means!). I'm just happy to have someone say, "I loved your book! Can't wait for the sequel." I would be shocked to ever make it to a best seller list.

And BTW, Congratulations, Gina! Well done!

Nicole said...

Well said and done, Gina Girl.

CLH said...

I daresay that Excellent doesn't understand that mediocre is the wide divide between success and failure. I'm in an industry that is cut-throat competitive, and if you don't let the competition drive you to compete with yourself to crawl out of the 'mediocre' margin, that's where you stay. So seems to me, Excellent should turn that focus about someone else's success into an opportunity to learn what she can do differently in her own journey to succeed. I'm not saying that just because something worked well for you, she should do exactly that too; I'm saying that if we don't take the opportunity to learn from the success of our competitors, we destine ourselves to remain in mediocrity.

Ane Mulligan said...

I was going to stay out of this but when someone like Excellent or the person on Facebook Elaine saw complain, it smacks of sour grapes.

And sour grapes don't make good whine.

The worst part is everybody but the whiner sees that.

Michael Ehret said...

Ane, what?! Sour grapes makes for the BEST whine! Maybe you'd like some geez with your whine?

Jan Christiansen said...

As a newbie fiction writer, I am both encouraged and dismayed by your post.

Dismayed to realize how difficult it is to get representation by an agent and a publishing contract these days, but encouraged to keep on writing anyway.

Each book improves my writing skills and increases my chances of eventual publication.

Thanks for the post.

Terrie Todd said...

I'm so sorry to hear those things were said to you, Gina. The writing life is already full of enough rejection and discouragement without having to take it from fellow writers. My novel is not published (yet!) but I figure God knows when both my book and I are ready. The latter is probably a lot more important than the former, and perhaps that is what this person is missing.

Lee Smith said...

You've had a lot of excellent feedback to your post. I don't think I could add much to it but my support. I probably could have written Terrie's. So maybe I should just say, "ditto."

Kathy Harris said...

I haven't read Excellent's book (or maybe I have), and it may be a fantastic read. But I know Crossing Oceans is because I read it!

Gina, I love your point about supporting each other. That's the important part.

Gina Holmes said...

Thanks for the comments everyone and encouragement. Sometimes we don't truly realize until we're on the other side of the fence. I guess that goes for me as well as Excellent.

You all are a blessing.

Dan Walsh said...


You handled a very touchy subject with deftness and grace. The pastor-side of me was majorly impressed. Wise counsel. Courageous. Bridge-building, humble-hearted, kind. Yet clear and effective.

As Christian writers, at times, we must confront our own hearts. What do we truly believe? Do we believe in luck? Is that why certain author's books do well? Is it diligence, someone works hard enough, long enough, and they finally get to reap what they've sown?

Do we believe in a Sovereign God who's paying enough attention to number the hairs on our heads, cares enough to catch our tears in His jar, yet powerful enough to create galaxies (which means He is certainly not hindered by the ups and downs in the publishing world)?

One truth, Gina, proved by your post, is that God gives grace (favor) to the humble.

Well done.

Ronie Kendig said...

Eegads! I can't believe the arrogance of that email to you. Being published has been wonderful...and extremely humbling for me.

Like Mike said--May I never have so much (or so little!) success that I can't enjoy when a friend succeeds.

I am so stoked for you, Gina!!

Gina Holmes said...

Thanks Dan. That really lifted my spirits. Ronie, you are a humble soul to begin with. One of the sweetest encouragers in the biz!