Why don't you just write a 50 Shades?

It's my own fault. January and July (crucial tax months for us self-employed souls) see me complaining about my endless lack of funds even more than usual. So I can't be surprised if I've been asked this last fortnight, more times that I care to count, 'why don't you just write a 50 Shades?' Why indeed. It seems plenty of others are doing it - Simon and Schuster are launching a four-part series beginning '80 Days Yellow', following up with '80 Days Red' etc etc. (yes, really - pick a colour, pick a number, find something that rhymes vaguely with 'shades' and ta-da!), and someone's hotting up Jane Eyre's sex life (imagine the series for that one - a whole load of repressed Victorian heroines getting their kicks at last. Or just getting kicked). Can't be that difficult then, can it?

Behind the question, though, is something more serious and slightly troubling. There's an assumption there that commercial writing of this calibre, because it's so bad, must  also be easy. An assumption that anyone can just toss off (see, I'm getting that '50 Shades' vibe already) a little chick-lit or a generic crime or a bodice-ripping historical romance novel in their lunch-time, done and dusted, that's it. And when I look at the prose style and feeble plots of some commercial titles, I can't be too surprised it's generally thought to be easy. I was an editor for a few years for a literary consultancy in England and successful rubbishy novels just made my job even harder - how to tell aspiring authors that their clunky prose, weak plotting and one-dimensional characters needed serious work, when all they had to do was look around them and see tons of already published clunky prose, weak plotting and one-dimensional characters? Why did they have to make improvements if nobody else was doing it?

Why indeed. But bad novels have always existed - probably the majority of novels published are bad ones (I have no statistics to base this on, just a comment from Mary-Beth Lacey once in an episode of Cagney and Lacey. And I stand by that research). A few of them will make it to the big time and serious money. But only a few.

More importantly, those very successful commercial writers tend to do the best they can. They work hard. I interviewed the phenomenally successful Jane Green many years ago. I found her novel as vapid as anything, but I was impressed by her sincerity, her work ethic. She wasn't just tossing off (sorry, again) silly novels in her lunch break - she was working hard, doing the very best she could do. Dan Brown notoriously believes he's a good, literary writer. And is probably perplexed he's not winning any major literary awards.

So it's patronising to assume you can do the same, just because what they're doing looks bad. On the other hand, literary fiction writers shouldn't necessarily turn their backs on commercial possibilities. John Banville writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. Joyce Carol Oates writes more commercial thrillers as Rosamond Smith. Even populist authors like Agatha Christie dipped into other, very commercial genres - Christie liked writing romances, and my personal favourite, Jean Plaidy, wrote romances too.

I'd be lying if I said I've never toyed with the idea of doing something more obviously commercial. But what? Well, I'm in agonies every time I see another pile of Tudor romances in the book cupboard of the one of the newspapers I write for. I spent every waking moment from the age of eleven to about thirteen guzzling every Jean Plaidy historical novel I could find. Think you 'discovered' that Elizabeth I had been sexually abused by Tom Seymour, Prof David Starkey? I think not - Plaidy was on to that, years ago! Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, Suzannah Dunn, and the latest addition, Elizabeth Loupas, are all raking it in. Not to mention classy Hilary Mantel making literary historical crossover hugely prize-winning...

So if I couldn't do a '50 Shades', then why don't I do a Plaidy? Publishers seem to be crying out for as many Tudor romances as they can get - it's a great, juicy age for women, the Tudor era. Lots of beautiful, vengeful, tragic queens and wives and mistresses, from Anne Boleyn to Lady Jane Grey to Mary Queen of Scots. I just need to find one that hasn't been written about quite so much. Less The Other Boleyn Girl than Another Boleyn Girl You Haven't Heard Of Yet. There's bound to be one, isn't there? Isn't there?

Comments

  1. Interesting dilemma, Lesley. I don't think there's any point in trying to 2nd-guess the traditional tree book market. No one saw Harry Potter, Twilight or 50 Shades coming. Publishers lag behind the trends, then there's an undignified scramble to clone someone's success. Now with the fast-moving indy market, they're even slower to catch up.

    I think there's every point in writing commercial genre fiction for the indy market - the readers are out there in their multitudes - but I don't know why you'd go via a trad publisher for commercial fiction. They'll struggle to get your pb into bookshops & supermarkets. If they fail (and it's their failure not yours) you won't get another book deal and you'll be told your sales were "disappointing" - as if sales figures were unrelated to the amount of time & money publishers are prepared to put into promoting books.

    If you think you have a commercial book in you, why not market directly to readers as an indy? When I was dumped by my publisher (I had steady but "disappointing" sales) I thought I ought to write something commercial to secure a new book contract. While writing a paranormal romance, I put my backlist and 2 much-rejected mixed-genre novels on Kindle. To my astonishment these books have sold and are now earning me a living.

    When I finished the paranormal I asked my agent to try to sell it. After 2 months I changed my mind and asked her to withdraw the ms. I just couldn't see what any publisher had to offer me, particularly as my agent had started to sell translation rights to the indy ebooks. So I put THE GLASS GUARDIAN on Kindle where it's selling along with all my other ebooks.

    Genre is no longer an issue for me because I've managed to do what John Locke recommended in his HOW I SOLD A MILLION EBOOKS, which is build up a loyal following who will buy any book I publish. It's possible to do this quite quickly with indy ebooks. Readers don't want to keep trying new authors, they haven't got time. They want to discover someone they love, then keep buying. (Series & trilogies like 50 SHADES clean up for this reason.)

    But perhaps the most convincing argument is this: if you have a great book you want to sell, it will be 3-6 months - possibly longer - before you hear back from an editor. (And the answer will probably be no.) In that time you could e-publish and be banking the proceeds.

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  2. I can certainly see the point of e-publishing, especially if you're a very commercial writer who brings out about 3-4 books a year, you can move really fast on them (although, given that 50 Shades got rejected by trad editors and was first self-published as an e-book, maybe it means we have the e-book publishing industry to blame for inflicting it on us!!). My desire to still go down the trad publishing route is that I still want an experienced editor to help improve my book, as I had with the wonderful Juliet Grames (formerly of Overlook Press, now with Soho Press); I still want a great publicist with the kinds of contacts I just don't have, as I had with Vida Engstrad who got me into the NY Times amongst others; and I still want a decent advance. Not one to pay all the bills, fair enough, but enough to help me whilst I carry out my research.

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  3. Obviously if you've had a brilliant experience with your publisher you'll want to repeat that, but you're actually the only non-indy author I know who's happy with their lot.

    But as an indy you could employ an editor to edit your ms or work with a critique group. You can network with other authors and publicists and find new & effective ways of promoting your book. I've joined the Alliance of Independent Authors who are pooling information and expertise, as are The League of Extraordinary Authors. (I'm blogging here about building up a following & visibility in the marketplace. http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/guest-post-independent-authors-and-visibility-by-linda-gillard/)

    As for the decent advance, that's all you'll ever get barring miracles and once published you'll have 1-3 months to make it because publishers don't acknowledge the possibility of good word-of-mouth making a book a slow success. (This is how it is with fiction. Non-fiction might be less arbitrary.)

    As I'm sure you're aware advances have been cut right back. Even big names have had to take a cut. Some rookie authors are being offered share of profits only (which means there will be none.) So I'm not sure a "decent advance" is a realistic goal for an author of fiction, though of course it happens occasionally.

    But I can see your difficulty if you need to fund research. I hope you find a publisher who'll make you a good offer and then follow through with enthuisastic marketing support. Good luck!

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  4. I agree, Linda, that those things I want, and have had before, seem to be diminishing. Time to take to do the research and the writing, whether of fiction or non-fiction, is huge; adding time out to market your book (never mind promote it, which you have to do now anyway, no matter who you're with), and the cost of employing a freelance editor as well - and all out of the day job. I'm shocked I'm the only one with a good past experience of trad publishing whom you know - that's a shame, and a terrible statistic. I had a great experience. I don't want to believe that's not possible again, I guess!

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  5. I do think you're in something of a minority with your experience of traditional publishing, Lesley. My experience mirrors Linda's much more closely. And yes, it's sad. But also perhaps explains why we've become both proactive and a little angry! I don't know a single trad published writer who has had anything like a decent advance and a good publicity budget over the past few years - with the exception, of course, of the handful of big hitters. I got £1500 to write God's Islanders, in two payments. That meant I researched and wrote most of it for £750 - and it was a big piece of work. I managed to get an Arts Council bursary to do some of the research, and then a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowship which mercifully allowed me to spend part of each week on the writing, but without these, I don't think it would have been possible. And I think I got both of them because of my own track record. I know a number of good writers who - recently - have had no advance at all and have still thought themselves lucky to be published. And I've never had much of a publicity budget allocated to anything I've written - as became all too clear around publication time. The question now tends to be 'what are you going to do to promote your book?' I've had truly wonderful editors and not so good editors (one who changed large chunks of my ms without using track changes), but - once again - I now know some traditionally published writers who have been briefly copy edited by an intern, but that's it. Things are sliding - and perhaps you can't blame publishers, because they can't afford these things. In a year of indie publishing, I've begun to earn real money - and I don't consider myself to be a particularly commercial writer. More of a 'literary end of the mid-list' writer! My advantage - and this probably goes for Linda too - is that I had a lot of experience and a lot of material almost ready to go - some of it ready-edited. Suddenly, what had been utterly frustrating for the past few years turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise! But I would agree that it's a difficult decision and sometimes expectations may exceed the realities of self publishing. And clearly there ARE still good publishers out there who will make a decent offer for the right book. Hope all goes well!

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  6. Hi Catherine - when I signed in 2008, I got $15000 for Between the Sheets, and because Overlook is a US publisher they paid in halves, which was great for me while I was working on it, it really helped with costs. I agree that yes, advances have slipped since then and I'd be very lucky to get anything like that again perhaps. And of course, some publishers will get behind a book more than for others, which also alters the experience for many. I can also see the appeal of full control of every aspect of what you're doing, especially if you've felt frustrated by inadequate editors or publicists. But at the same time, I know some amazing publicists who work really hard and wise and experienced editors. I want them still to have a job! Perhaps I'm not confident enough in myself yet to go the whole way on my own - maybe in a couple of years' time I'll feel the same way you do. It is a huge problem - most of us are 'midlist' and unlikely to earn back even modest advances. But publishers need to have faith in writers that enhance their lists, too.

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