A 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!