PONDERING: A Writer’s Life – Changes PendingSaturday, March 10, 2012 13:00
We’ve seen some seismic changes recently, but basically the market is running to stay still. I realized recently that it doesn’t matter a lot to me, or it shouldn’t. Let me explain.
When I write, I write for me. I write the stories I want to read. It’s why I wrote my first story at seven years old, and it’s why I write now. Like many authors, I started with fan fiction, only it wasn’t called that then. I did Georgette Heyer fanfic, and that forced me to evaluate what I wanted to see in the stories, and I wrote my own versions, or did a continued story. I didn’t write sex then, not at thirteen, when I started scribbling in earnest, but I did write more intimacy. More cuddling, more togetherness, more kissing. That was how I finally realized I wrote romance. I wrote about what kept the couple apart and how they came to each other.
It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t write about external events principally, but about what’s going on inside—and I don’t just mean the sex. How the couple have to evolve to come to each other and to make a success of their lives together. That takes bravery and strength. That, in a nutshell, is why I write romance. And it’s why I won’t compromise that part and why I want to try to get better and better.
I revise and edit for the reader. Ultimately, the person I get my money from is the reader. The relationship with my readers is extremely important to me. That’s why, despite not being what you might call independently wealthy from my writing, I spend a big chunk of change flying across to the RT Booklover’s Convention every year. I meet readers there, and they let me know what they want. Oh yes, and it’s huge fun.
But I don’t sell to the reader, I sell to publishers. I don’t currently have an agent, having parted company with lovely Isabel a year or so ago, and I’ve been happy building my career in the sphere I know well, the digital-first scene. Recently that has changed almost beyond recognition. It’s become a viable market in its own right, and some companies have pulled ahead in the game. Most notably, Ellora’s Cave, Samhain, Carina, and Loose-Id. I’m proud to say that I write for all of those companies, so they have liked something about what I do.
Market is becoming more and more important to digital-first publishers.
If I may digress a little (bear with me, it’s relevant, honest!), a few years ago I wanted a pair of flat-front trousers. This was when pleated front trousers were fashionable. So fashionable that, outside jeans, it wasn’t possible to find them. When I asked, I was told “there’s no call for them.” Well yes, there was. Me. I’m too short to make that look work for me. Looking around, I saw other height-challenged women who also wanted flat-front trousers. A year later, the stranglehold disappeared, much to our relief. But I stopped wearing trousers then, except for jeans, and I’ve never really gone back.
Something similar happens in writing, too.
Something becomes popular and the publisher will look for more of the same. They had to gear themselves to what they could sell. Not what the reader wants, that’s something different, and always will be. But what the majority of the market would tolerate.
This has led to publishers flooding the market with a certain type of book until the market (that’s you and me) tires of it. That’s why most historicals currently tend to be the frothy variety – low on history, high on fun and sex. The lack of history has become so pronounced that ‘historical’ has to be put in inverted commas. I give the publisher enough nous to know they are not publishing historicals anymore. If they had wanted to, they could have ensured historical veracity, but that’s not what’s selling right now. I’m currently finding myself in the flat-front trouser situation. I want something the market isn’t currently providing. I see staleness growing in the market, the readers who last year would have grabbed all of them off the shelves becoming a little disillusioned. When that happens, the core of a strong subsector remains. So, say, when sales for the frothy ‘historicals’ declines, the publishers will be ready with something else.
That means the authors of the ‘frothy’ will decline. In brutal terms, that means that, although their books are just as good as they ever were, they’ll find themselves out in the cold, without a contract. Unless they can adapt and write to their editor’s new demands. Most can and will. But if their hearts remain in the frothy category, if that’s what they really love to write, they have just started “writing to the market.” Their fans might become disillusioned or just not enjoy the books as much as they used to. They might not know why, just that either their tastes have changed or they sense the lack of spark in books they used to love.
Which leaves the writer out in the cold, writing books she doesn’t really believe in for a dwindling readership.
That’s one reason why I won’t ever “write to the market,” although I will respect my reader and try to make sure that the brand of romance that I write is as satisfying as I can make it and shows the reader respect. She deserves her happy ending, and she deserves the best I can do.
I write angsty historical romances that deal with the inner dilemmas of the people involved, and I try to keep the stories as accurate as I can to historical reality. That isn’t what the market wants right now, but I won’t force myself into a mold that doesn’t fit me. I believe that if I try, writing won’t be fun anymore and will turn into ‘just another job.’ I won’t let that happen. So I’ll continue to write what I love to read. I don’t write light-hearted “Regency James Bond,” high-concept stories, and I don’t find much enjoyment reading them, although I have nothing against the people who do. In fact, it’s lovely to know that people get enjoyment from reading, when they could be playing “Angry Birds” or watching movies.
Similarly, with the paranormals, I write the angsty, dark kind which, luckily for me, are popular right now. I want to write about adults that have come part of the way but need an extra push to get there, to their personal nirvana.
Recently I came close to pulling a book that had been edited to be something I didn’t want it to be. Never sure about the quality of my writing (seeds of doubt niggle!), I’d let myself believe that my work was deteriorating in quality. I now know that not to be true, and I believe that my work no longer fits what that editor or publisher requires. A spiral of depression didn’t help, neither did a deteriorating hard drive that wasn’t saving my work properly. But that’s my problem, not something that should concern an editor or a reader, and something I’ve since dealt with.
Thankfully, I rescued it in the edits, although the drastic changes required made me lose faith in it for a time. But I restored some of what I wanted to achieve. It’s a salutory lesson, to write something you know is “good enough,” but to have it not find a home. But I’m still happy with the book, and I know it will belong somewhere one day. There might be other things going on, but I realized that they’re not something I can do anything about, or change, so I’m best just keeping to doing what I do and being upfront about it.
It happens to a lot of writers. A publisher or editor previously enthusiastic about an author can turn lukewarm, or even not welcome their work, and it’s not always down to the author or what she is producing. So the author has to have faith in herself but not to allow that faith to turn into arrogance, a belief that everything they do is perfect. It’s a difficult line to tread, and that’s where good author friends come in.
It was a new one for me and I didn’t cope with it particularly well at the time. I’ve always tried to get better and better, and what I write never matches up to the vision in my head, but these days I have the skills, technical and artistic, so I can get closer to realizing what I want to achieve. However, years of learning and refining leads to a lack of self-confidence. Most of the writers I have ever met feel that. It makes them vulnerable, especially to the publisher who wants a commercial product and urges the writer to write to that ideal. Or, these days, to reject the book without adequate reason. Publishers are far too busy these days to nurture and encourage established talent. If a writer puts in a query that hits the market square-on, it’s easier, in the short term, to take that book and go with the new writer, rather than continue to develop the career of a more established one. Doing that maximizes profits. And it’s a sad fact that for every published, accomplished writer, there are a hundred just as accomplished but unpublished ones. Also a sad fact that publisher’s margins have shrunk, so much that their savior is the digital section, so some publishers have decided to squeeze that sector until it squeaks. They give the author a derisory amount of royalties and jack the price right up.
The only thing a writer has going for her is loyal readership. Some have so much that they can set out on their own. Some have enough to ensure continued sales. Most are encouraged to believe that they have to survive book to book, and in many cases, that is now leading to authors leaving the market entirely. It happens quietly and steadily. It always has. Occasional calls for “whatever happened to…?” appear, but on the whole, the writer slips away unnoticed.
Here’s a test. If you’re a Harlequin reader, as I am, look at the writers you’ve read and see how many of them are still writing for that line, how many have moved on to different companies, and how many have simply disappeared. Very often it’s pressure to write something they don’t want to or can’t, a change in company policy, for instance, or direction they don’t want to follow.
Why should the reader care? Well, the answer is, of course, that she shouldn’t. There’s no need for her to, unless she’s finding that she can’t get the books she enjoys anymore or that her favorite writer has disappeared. Most keep a dignified silence, choosing to leave with grace, rather than to expose private hurts and slights in public. Most realize that it happens, has always happened, and most likely will continue to happen. Or they’ll start all over again, under another name. That’s something the reader isn’t always aware of, by the way. I know at least two writers who have done that recently, started with a new name and persona, as well as a new style and even genre, and not ‘fessed up to it publicly. Which leads to another question. Where does fiction actually end in those cases? That could be an interesting topic to explore another time.
So where is Judith Ivory, and why isn’t she writing anymore?