In Which I Think the Unthinkable

September, 2021

For the past five years I have been besieging the bastions of the publishing industry. In that time something of a consensus has emerged in the responses I have received from agents and editors. They think I write very well, but they would like me to write differently. They think I tell a good story, but they would like me to tell a different one.

Of course they also say, in the immortal words of every kind rejection letter ever, publishing is a subjective business and another agent/editor may feel differently. Not so much, it turns out. All the ones I have talked to, including the one that briefly agreed to represent me, and the one that briefly agreed to publish me, says the same thing. Great stuff, but please make it different.

Not better, I hasten to say, but different. Five years ago, the issue was still the need to make it better. It is not that I am now perfect. But my imperfections do not seem to be the barrier anymore. Every book is imperfect. A book does not have to be perfect to give pleasure and sell copies. It just needs to pass a certain threshold of storytelling skill. It is not a terribly high threshold, honestly, if you are writing the right things in the right way. But the industry is no longer telling me I need to be better; it is telling me I need to be different.

But while I always want to be better, I don’t want to be different. I want to write the stories I am moved to write and tell them the way I am moved to tell them. Otherwise my heart would not be in it, and if my heart was not in it, the quality would not be there either. And it is not simply about personal preference or style either. I have some pretty deep-seated beliefs about what the role of literature should be in a society, and the type of stories that should be told, and the way they should be told. And that is what has me thinking the unthinkable.

Let me say this straight out: I hate self publishing. I have criticised it and mocked it online and in real life. I have offended people and probably made enemies over it. And in principle I haven’t changed my mind about it. Books that are worth publishing should be published by real publishers. Books that are not worth publishing should not be published at all. That self-publishing exists, in any form, is a sign either of rampant vanity or of a flaw in the system.

There is, of course, rampant vanity in the world. There are also flaws in the system. There are flaws in every system. Systems are made by humans. Flaws abound, like vanity.

One of the flaws in the system is that it is hideously slow. I received a rejection from an agent query last month that came in eleven months after I sent the query. You can make an entire human being in nine months, but it takes eleven months to tell an aspiring author to push off. And even if they don’t tell you to push off, the chances are that a child conceived on the day the query was sent will be in kindergarten by the time the book is published, even if everyone along the line says yes. And I am not getting any younger. So I am thinking the unthinkable.

Still, people will say, you just have to be patient and keep trying. Famous author X was rejected Y times before book Z became a bestseller. I have said it myself. To myself. And to other people as well. And it is a valid piece of advice. But it is not like finding an agent or a publisher is merely a matter of luck or perseverance. Mere perseverance will not get you anywhere if your stuff is not good enough. And mere perseverance is unlikely to get you anywhere if your stuff is too different from what the industry thinks the reading public wants at the moment.

It is not a monolithic market, of course. Beyond the big mainstream publishers, there are small presses with their own high ambitions and agendas. If you persist long enough, you may find one that likes the stories you tell and the way you tell them. One who only asks you to make it better, not different. Indeed, one small press has asked to read the full manuscript of my Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. I’m waiting in hope to hear from them. If they want it, it could change everything. And yet, I am thinking the unthinkable.

But the real flaw in the system is that the industry is not simply trying to figure out what the reading public wants. They are actually really bad at that, and always have been. At this point they have moved beyond that. They are trying to shape what the public wants.

Commercially, this is a reasonable tactic. If you can shape what the public wants, you can supply it more reliably and thus have less waste in your production process. The music industry has been doing this for a while. Pop music is getting simpler all the time, focussing on those elements of a song that are most addictive. It has got to the point where most hit pop songs are written by a handful of people you have never heard of.

The food industry does it too. They have worked out exactly what makes foods addictive. They create the foods that are going to make you come back for more of the same, week after week after week. In doing so, they narrow the palet and create a steady demand for very specific foods that are cheap to produce and distribute. It is bad for the waistline, but good for the bottom line.

Increasingly, the publishing industry is doing the same for books. Take, for instance, the writing contest recently announced by a hot new publishing company in the UK. First prize is a five-book contract, which, on the face of it, sounds like a big deal. But dig into the rules of the contest and you will find that to win that contract, you have to write 10,000 words of the first book of a series based on one of six concepts specified by the publisher. And are these concepts fresh and amazing? No they are not. Are they hackneyed and familiar? You bet they are. They are:

  • Jane Austen, detective.

  • Young man raises through the ranks of the RAF in WWII. Each book ends with a major battle.

  • Young man raises through the ranks in Nelson’s Navy. Each book ends with a major battle.

  • Young man raises through the ranks of the Roman Army. Each book ends with a major battle.

  • Young woman becomes a maid to each of the wives of Henry VIII. (No raising through the ranks for her apparently.)

  • Young couple become detectives in the time of the Borgias and Medicis. Naughty popes and cunning politicians will be confounded in every book.

This is the sugar, salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates of literature. The millenial whoop of storytelling. It is no doubt good for commerce. It is terrible for culture.

Of course, there are reactions against these attempts to shape our taste into bland and addictive channels. The music from the major labels may be reduced to an addictive thumping wail, but independent musicians are doing interesting things on YouTube. The food in supermarkets and chain restaurants may be pablum with extra salt and sugar on it, but the food in independent restaurants, brew pubs, and cafes is more interesting than it has ever been.

There are many in the self publishing space that would claim that it is doing for literature exactly what the independent musicians and restaurants are doing for music and food. I’m not convinced, honestly. Most of the self published stuff I have seen is rattling along drunkenly in the tire tracks of the traditional presses. It imitates where it should reject; follows where it should rebel. There may be something genuinely original and excellent out there, but it does not pop up the way interesting music pops up when you surf YouTube.

And yet I am thinking the unthinkable.

There is a new trend too in what is coming to be called “the creator economy”. Rather than trying to make a small amount of money off each person in a big audience (the 10% royalty on a paperback book that a traditionally published author makes), you aim to make more money per unit off a smaller audience. The theory is called 1000 true fans. It proposes that if you can make $100 a year selling to 1000 people who will buy anything you produce, you will make a $100,000 a year. That’s a good living. It’s not orthodontist money, but it’s more of a living than most traditionally published authors make.

The downside of 1000 true fans for a writer, of course, is that we all want to be widely read. Yes, we want to make money too. But being read as widely as possible is the real aim. On the other hand, for someone who refuses to write differently or tell a different story in order to serve the audience that the publishing industry is constructing for itself, going for 1000 people who like their prose and their stories the way I do, might be just the ticket. And besides, if you can get yourself 1000 true fans, they are going to tell people about your books and some of those people are going to buy them even if they don’t become a “true fan” in this sense. 1000 true fans would be a great base to start from. And it would get traditional publishers interested as well. And so I am thinking the unthinkable.

The key to 1000 true fans is establishing and maintaining an ongoing connection with them. The heart of this, for most people, is a newsletter. Like the one you are reading now. And so, an increasing number of people are thinking — people like Elle Griffin, for example — why not use a newsletter to deliver your novel to your audience and build towards your 1000 true fans? Elle Griffin is serializing her novel on substack. The prolog was released last Friday. I liked it. And I am thinking the unthinkable.