Genre. Market. Audience.
The literary industry seems to live and die by these words. “What is your Genre?” “Who is your audience?” “What is your market?” And when I went to conferences I would hear a steady stream of this from agents and editors. Books I would read – depending on who wrote them – would reinforce this. As a result, I spent a decade following these rules they laid down. My thriller, YA, and science fiction novels remained unpublished.
Now, I spent the bulk of that ten years not doing a lot of outside reading. I did some, but many of the books I would start were just not that good. And I was totally devoted to writing even though the industry professionals kept telling me that if I wanted to get published, I needed to read, read, read. Frankly, between the J.O.B., being a dad to three awesome sons, a husband to the world’s greatest wife, and writing, I just didn’t have the time to read. And writing kept me sane.
And then, out of the blue, electronic publishing became possible. And not just possible, it became possible to make money doing it. I decided to try that route since feedback from readers on my books was way too good (and way too consistent) to ignore. “Favorite new author” and “best book ever” are words I’ve had applied to me and my work. Now I know that these are subjective phrases, even coming from strangers. My oldest son has seen dozens of the best-movie-he’s-ever-seen. So while there is undoubtedly some emotional exaggeration going on at the time, the data is still meaningful: my work was connecting with people. Just not with agents and editors.
So where is Brewer going with this? Well, this is a blog with multiple threads and I’m about to bring them together.
I’m indie-published now which means I’m also indie-marketing (blog, twitter, Facebook, etc.) My kids are older and I have a LOT more time on my hands. I have access to books that the gatekeepers were saying “No” to. So, I’m maintaining a blog that includes reviews, I have time to read outside fiction, and I can get books that haven’t been vetted by the industry. The confluence of these threads has led me to an astonishing discovery. All those literary rules about genre, audience, structure, market, character development, showing vs telling, etc., don’t mean a damn thing.
Let me explain. I’ve been reading a lot more lately, and the indie books absolutely blow the traditionally published stuff out of the water. Which is not to say every indie book is good and every traditionally published book is bad. I’m choosing these books based on good reviews. What I’m seeing though, is the indie stuff has classic structure, avoids cliche, delves deeply into character, and emotionally connects me with the writing. On the other hand, by and large, traditionally published stuff uses every trope out there, lacks any real character development, and is very weak structurally, all leading to a very tepid emotional experience.
So what is going on? We’ve got all these agents and editors out there espousing all these literary principles yet the stuff they ultimately acquire doesn’t even follow their own rules. I can’t speak as to what is motivating the agents and editors. What I can say however, is that I, and apparently many other indie authors, have been working very hard to adhere to these time-tested literary principles. Pacing, plot, structure, character development, and other features have been important since Aristotle laid them down in Ancient Greece. But for whatever reason the traditional industry is rejecting traditional writing. And now that we suddenly have a distribution system that is even better than theirs, the market is flooded with really good stuff from indie authors. Again, don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of crap out there. The indie market is also flooded with crap. But if you pay attention to average reviews – not the occasional nut case – there is some great stuff out there on the indie market. Better than the traditionally published stuff, in fact. Now there are those who will excoriate me and give examples of excellent, traditionally published books. And yes, they are out there. But the volume of crap on the shelves of B&N is staggering, as is the amount of excellent indie work that has been passed over for all the wrong reasons.
And here in lies the crux of the matter. The literary industry will tell you that to get published you have to read, read, read. Well if you read, read, read their stuff, you are eventually going to write, write, write their stuff. So they were right about that. You do have to read to get published, but only insofar as it molds your writing into something they understand. Which is exactly the opposite the direction the industry should be taking. They remind me of the US auto industry which continually becomes inward focused and every few decades has to be bailed out as their product quality goes to utter dung.
So to all you writers out there who are getting wrapped around the axle trying to meet some editors or agents requirements as to market, audience, structure, or whatever, stop wasting your time. You’re not going to get picked because you followed all their guidelines. However, if you write the story that you want to write, there’s a chance that your passion will come through and you will find an audience in the indie world. It may not be the six-figure advance you’re dreaming of, but let’s face it, that’s just a dream. At that level the statistics are about on par with a lottery.
It all brings to mind something that one of the founders at Pixar said at a screenwriter’s conference I attended a few years ago. Andrew Stanton was there talking about Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and the other movie’s they had made up to that time. Someone asked him in the Q&A session what market and audience they thought about when they wrote their screenplays. He responded that they don’t consider market at all. They make a movie that they would want to see. This is probably an over simplification and he probably knew it, but I believe he was sincere in the spirit of this statement and I believe it is this: you must be passionate in what you are trying to say and be unhindered by the preconceived notions of others. If you are, and you do it well, everything else will follow. He ended by saying, “Just make good movies.” We can translate this to, Just write good stories.