Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Good Writing vs. Marketable Writing

The most common piece of advice I see on writing blogs and commentary from industry professionals is the exhortation to “write well.” The received wisdom is that good writing will get you noticed. Eventually, I mean. If you give it time. Because the advice is so prolific, it would stand to reason that the contrary is true as well; bad writing will get you rejected. And this is true.

But bad writing does not mean that a book is not marketable. I can give you two examples of this: Christopher Paolini and Dan Brown. Self-published and of admittedly pulp quality, works by both authors have become best-sellers that have been turned into movies.

The converse is also true – good writing does not mean that a book is marketable. This is kind of amusing, because the phrase “marketable” no longer really means that a book will not perform well on the marketplace. Instead, it means that an agent will not be able to place it with a publisher.

(To be honest, from the point of view of most writers – the so-called “okaysellers” – the publisher is the only market that matters. Anecdotal evidence tells us that most authors do not earn out their advance. For all intents and purposes, this means that the advance is the only source of income that these authors will receive for their work. Therefore, the agent and the publisher are the only audience that matters. Lawrence Watt-Evans recently tackled this point from the perspective of poetry and short stories.)

My point is that the concepts of marketable writing and good writing have gotten so intertwined with one another that they are perceived as nearly identical. The phrases can almost be used interchangeably – although industry insiders will always assure you that they know what they are talking about when they use the individual terms. After all, industry professionals know good writing when they see it. And they will tell you that they know marketable material when they see it.

Except that they really can’t. Granted, they can recognize material that is similar to the material that sold well the last time around. But, like most economics professors, marketing types like to think that they can predict the market. Unfortunately, they tend to forget one significant thing: markets react. And so they are consistently behind the curve, mapping their book purchases to trends that may not be there by the time the book goes to print.

But hey – it works well enough. Industry professionals are happy with the fact that the majority of their books are only slightly profitable. Because it is the larger books that make the real money. And nobody really knows when one of those books will turn up. Only the audience reaction will tell. Just ask J. K. Rowling.