Original Vision vs. Compromising With the Market

The_Story_Book_LACMA_40.12.40A recent discussion with a fairly new, immensely talented writer highlighted for me a dilemma that most of us will face sooner or later. What do we do when what we really want to write, when the stories that catch on fire in our imagination, do not fit into a neat marketing niche? All of us fall somewhere along the spectrum from safely, predictably commercial to unclassifiable, idiosyncratic, and therefore of no interest to traditional publishers. One highly successful genre writer confided in me that her fantastic sales numbers were the luck of the draw. “I happen to write stories that are commercial and draw a large audience,” she said. “It’s my natural authorial voice.”

I also know writers who are so original in their vision and so delightfully quirky in their execution that editors throw up their hands in frustration because although they adore this author’s work and see the author as the next great literary voice, they cannot envision a way to market it. In the best of times, such authors found a home in the midlist, and that still happens, although less frequently now than when editors had more power (and the freedom to discover and nurture new authors).

If you believe in your work, how can you be sure but this is not infatuation with your own words but that your work truly is of high quality? Every writer I know goes through spasms of self-doubt. Writing requires a bizarre combination of megalomania and crushing self-doubt. We need the confidence to follow our flights of fancy, and at the same time, we need to regard our creations with a critical eye. Trusted readers, including workshops like Clarion and Clarion West, critique groups, fearless peers, and freelance editors can give us invaluable feedback on whether our work really is as good as we think it might be. Of course, they can be wrong. It may be that what we are trying to do falls so far outside conventional parameters that only we can judge its value. It may also be that we see on the page not what is actually there but what we imagined and hoped.

Assuming that we are writing from our hearts and that the product of our creative labors is indeed extraordinary, what are we to do when faced with closed doors and regretful rejection letters? As discouraging as this situation seems, we do have choices. We writers are no longer solely dependent upon traditional publishers. We live in an era where writers can become publishers, and can produce excellent quality books, both in digital form and Print On Demand.

However, not all of us are cut out to format, publish, and market our work. All of these activities require time in which to acquire skills and time to actually perform them. That’s time we have lost for writing. While becoming your own publisher is a valid choice, it is not right for everyone. Some of us would much rather write in the next book.

Writers, being inventive and clever, sometimes come together to ease the burden of having to learn a new skill set. Book View Cafe, a pioneering cooperative of writers, offers its members the best of both worlds. By exchanging expertise, from feedback by seasoned professional writers, to formatting and cover design at the highest standards, we together are able to do what most of us could not do as individuals.

A second way forward involves shifting genre, even sub-genre, in such a way as to become more marketable. For instance, a humorous YA a novel may be rejected by publishers, but a similarly funny story aimed at middle grade readers may be welcomed with open arms. Some writers have made the transition from science fiction or fantasy to mystery or romance with great success. They find just as much satisfaction and enjoyment in writing one genre as another, so it does not feel like “selling out” but discovering a new sandbox to play in. Sometimes they even like their new digs better.

The problem arises when what is in your heart to write does not fit what the market is looking for. Desperation (“Won’t somebody please buy my book?”) makes us vulnerable and magnifies our insecurities. We consider trying to write like Big Name Author, or stories that are knock-offs or pastiches of the bestselling work of Other Big Name Author. Some writers can do that without stifling the inner muse. For others, it means creative death. A wise writer understands and respects the difference.

A third option is to simply wait. Is it preferable to “get a book out there,” only to have it flop and then not have first rights available when its time has come? Or to wait, hoping that opening will indeed come? It all depends. This may not be viable to those of us who depend upon our our writing for income, but if we have alternative sources and we are not willing to compromise or to self-publish, the best thing to do may be to outlast the current fads. As an example, right now dystopic YA science fiction is very popular, but that may not be true in five years. Epic fantasy, all but unknown to general audiences before JRR Tolkien published The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, has come and gone in popularity. So if you truly believe in your work and can afford to delay publication, consider waiting for the right time and opening. Then you’ll be in the enviable position of having a stack of novels ready to appease your new audience.

There is no one right answer for everyone, and many of us will adopt different strategies at different times or for different projects. Talking things over with other writers, particularly those who have seen a round or three of best-selling tropes come and go, can be immensely helpful. In the end, though, the decision is up to you. You are the only one who knows your tolerance for risk, your storehouse of patience, and where you fit right now in the spectrum from Big NYC Publisher to desktop publishing. Whatever you decide, stay true to your creative vision and never stop believing in yourself!

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About Deborah J. Ross

I began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight, (and the omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels), and short stories in Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy and Star Wars: Tales from Jabba's Palace. Now under my birth name, Ross, I have written an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. My collection Azkhantian Tales, includes four short stories set in that world. Book View Cafe also offers my nonfiction Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life.
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12 Responses to Original Vision vs. Compromising With the Market

  1. Foxessa says:

    The time of over for certain aspects may already be over, according to some watchers:

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/25/allegiant-young-adult-dystopian-films-box-office-flops

    • It’s well past its sell date for me.

    • Cat Kimbriel says:

      SPOILER Coming…
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      They may be grabbing the wrong message here. I am so tired of this theme, but wasn’t this the series where the heroine is killed off in the second book? I don’t see that as gutsy when the young man left does not grab the readers/viewers in the same way. It was a reasonable risk if that’s the way the story went, but I don’t remember fans responding well to the last book. Maybe not movie material without a hugely charismatic guy to pull out the last movie.

  2. I’m on a book jury this year (my turn in the barrel) and the number of horrifically unoriginal book concepts is eye-popping. If I see one more zombie apocalypse or teen dystopia involving arena combat or invasion of the US, I’ll take to drink. Thank God, the tide of Austen characters doing anachronistic things with high-caliber weaponry seems to have ebbed.

    • Yes, good riddance to that, too. And zombies, which have never appealed to me (although the TV series iZombie is tolerable — I watch it with my older daughter).

      You are a hero of the revolution for doing this!

  3. To me, the careers of Kelly Link and Jeff VanderMeer are a testament to keeping to your own vision. They both write wildly original work that doesn’t exactly fit in, and both did some publishing ventures on their own that got their work out there (and also promoted some other very find off-beat writers). Both are fortunate enough to have spouses who do a great deal that makes this possible. And both are getting respect and rave reviews all across the literary spectrum. Jeff’s even got a movie coming out. They are, of course, very fine writers.

    Sticking to your vision, even with doing some of your own publishing, will not make a paying career for every brilliant writer following their own vision. I know too many people who are overlooked to believe that it happens for all, or even for most. But Kelly and Jeff prove that it can happen.

  4. Yes, sometimes the price of sticking to your own eccentric vision is having a day job or a spouse (or collective — I come from the era when folks ganged up in communes). But that’s true as well for those writing more conventional stories. Hooray for Kelly and Jeff!!

  5. Zena says:

    But it’s usually the ones who stick to their own vision who break new creative ground which others then tread into hackneyed furrows. And it seems that the innovators often don’t reap the greatest rewards, but the ones who come directly after. And, of course, the stragglers are left holding the bag of public contempt when the path becomes too crowded and muddy.

    Then there are the Emily Dickinsons of the world who will always end up standing in their own corner of the field alone, perhaps admired in retrospect and from afar, but certainly not imitated or exalted. But happy(ish) to create on their own terms nevertheless.

    Whether something can be considered “good” – as in “well-crafted,” I suppose – has little to do with whether or not it is commercially viable. I guess, as we’ve explored in previous discussions, it all boils down to why people choose to write, regardless of the potential of public acclaim or financial rewards…

    • And even then, will people agree on what is good or well-crafted? Now that ordinary readers can share their reviews, instead of only pundits as in days of yore, one can find readers who sincerely love something that someone else considers painfully purple in prose, dead cliche in plot, with out-of-the-box characters. Who’s right and who’s wrong?

      • And here we confront the issue of time. There is big time: you can look at the best-seller list of, oh, 1931, and not recognize a single name on it. There are people who were hailed as titans of fiction who are scarcely ever read today. (Sir Walter Scott, how about.) The first Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Sully Prudhomme, “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect”. Does the name ring a bell?
        And then there is personal time. If the first SF novel you pick up is a hack retread of LOTR or Hunger Games, it will strike you as fresh and new. Not because it is, but because you are new to it.

        • sherwood says:

          This is true. And even longtime readers will hail something that someone else finds unreadable on the first page, and vice versa. Now that ordinary people can have their voices heard on blogs and Goodreads, Facebook, etc, authors can see patterns of reader reactions.

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