12 January 2013

Dirty Little Secrets

Sometimes it isn't about the writing. 
No really.  One of the dirty little secrets about this business is, of all the things that can torpedo a writer's career, very few of them are under a writer's control.
For example, in the tight publishing market of the past ten years, the trajectory of a traditionally published writer's career depends entirely on their sales.  Each book must sell more than the last or the contracts dry up faster than a mist in the Mohave. 
The problem is outside events can divert any trajectory, even in an expanding market.  Take the romance market of the late Nineties.  Publishers couldn't push the books out fast enough.  Then Princess Diana died, and for the last three months of 1997, you were hard put to give a romance novel away.  The Eighties' fairy tale royal romance had flamed out in a Paris tunnel.  Who could believe the manufactured version?  Who wanted to?
Were the books published in the last quarter of 1997 in any way inferior to those published in the months before Diana's death?  No, but their writers' numbers suffered just the same.
Fast forward a decade and you have the death of Borders, the nation's flagship bookstore chain.  In the days before its demise, pundits estimated it accounted for roughly 20 percent of the hard copy book market.  In the wake of its disappearance, genre fiction sales figures have dropped roughly 50 percent, largely to the detriment of new and mid-list authors. 
Bestsellers still sell.  Any book designated for supermarkets, drug stores and big box stores are guaranteed to sell well, in large part because they may be the only books people can find.  But what if a publisher doesn't see a book as a potential bestseller?  It won't be printed or distributed to sell in any volume, and the book that follows will see even smaller print runs until the writer's contracts are cancelled altogether.
The indie publishing market created by Amazon and other e-tailers has partially offset the sales lost to the shrinking bookstore market.  It's also been a boon for folks like Amanda Hocking, who racked up impressive sales by dint of hard work and, yes, good luck.
It takes luck to get noticed in a market where anyone can publish a story.  It takes even more luck for the right people to notice and spread the word in such a way to create a market tipping point.  But marketing is always a crapshoot, even for the big guys.  Otherwise, all their books would meet their sales expectations instead of littering remainder tables.
And now Amazon, the eight hundred-pound gorilla of the ebook market, has decided that since a few--a very very few--authors have resorted to underhanded tactics to get the requisite number of reviews needed for a place in Amazon's banner displays, all writers must be punished.  Henceforth, all writers are to be considered competitors and banned from reviewing each other's work.
Sure, writers support each other.  We have to given the obstacles we face--and the ones I've cited are just the tip of a Titannic-sized iceberg.  I didn't even get down dirty and personal about bad agents, preditory publishers or jealous family members.
But very, very few of us engage in wholesale fraudulent reviews.  Frankly, none of the professional writers of my acquaintance (and they number in the hundreds--I'm a journalist, after all) has the time for that kind of nonsense.  Sure, most of our reviews are positive; we aren't about to waste our precious writing minutes on something we don't like.  Even a bad review is free publicity.  Why give that to a book you hate?
On those occasions where we try to help a friend, our intent isn't to deceive, but to draw attention to a worthy work which might otherwise be overlooked.  More than most, we know our opinion of a book is just that, an opinion.  Even if a book leaves us conflicted, there's a reader out there for whom it is exactly the right story at exactly the right time.
We know this, because writers are readers, too, complete with a taste for brain candy, junk food and other guilty pleasures.  Scratch any writer--professional or aspiring--and I guarantee they got into the business because a) they fell in love with a book, or b) a book got them so angry they had to respond.  As readers, don't we deserve to have our opinions heard?
But that's a blog for another day.  More important, is how can we rise to challenges the publishing business throws our way.
There, too, it isn't always about the writing.  When I entered government service, I was told that cream rose to the top, but s*it floats, and sometimes those floaters do a number on the cream.  The trick to surviving was to remain creative and adapt. 
Creative in the government--who knew, right?
But who knew it wouldn't always be about the writing?

Jean Marie Ward
PS, The evening after I put this post to bed, up pops this entirely appropriate blog by Diana Pharoah Francis on bookstores, order and what a writer can and cannot do.  Enjoy!
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