Thursday, July 23, 2009

Back to the Drawing Board

I realize that in my attempt to be straightforward about the nature of book publishing, I occasionally often come across as a prophet of doom on this blog. Knowing this, I do try to be upbeat as much as possible, offering explanations and advice on how to address some of the major stumbling blocks you as writers may encounter in your journey to publication.

This post, however, is different. I am about to actively try to dissuade you from writing a few different kinds of books because they have historically sold poorly, will continue to sell poorly, and if your book falls into one of these categories it is going to sell poorly, regardless of how awesome you think it is. Without further ado and in no particular order:

#1: Poetry. Full disclosure: I am, among many things, a poet. When I'm not at work helping to sell books or at home writing this blog, I'm writing poetry. I also write fiction, but (in my opinion) it's not very good—at least, not as good as my poetry—so I write poems more often than I write stories.

Something I know and that you need to know: poetry does not sell. Period. If you aren't Homer or Billy Collins, you haven't got a shot at decent sales, much less a deal with a major trade publisher. Earning your MFA at Iowa or winning a Pulitzer helps, but by no means guarantees you anything. I write poetry because I like doing it and I want to be recognized for my ability (i.e. through publication, often unpaid, in literary journals). I do not write it in the hopes of ever making enough money to pay my water bill, let alone to serve as a primary source of income.

#2: Short story collections. Same as poetry: people simply don't buy them. Sure, there are exceptions like Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut, but these writers are one in a million (or fewer). Again, earning your MFA at Iowa or Columbia helps, but not really. The vast, vast, vast majority of MFA candidates graduate without a book deal anywhere in sight. If you're working on a short story collection, cut it out. Write a novel instead.

#3: Christian fiction. I may get flak for this, but I'm being honest: it doesn't sell. While there are some notable exceptions, the vast majority of Christian novels simply don't move—largely because they cater to a niche audience of unusually devout Christians. (Back in late April, PW reported that next year's Christian Book Expo has been canceled, largely due to lack of attendance at the last one.)

#4: Children's/family cook books. I don't even know why people write these, but they do. Be warned: nobody can sell these, not even Rachael Ray. Remember Yum-O? Disastrous. Check the BookScan numbers, if you're so inclined.

#5: Any book catering to a vanishingly small niche audience. If you are writing a nonfiction book about the history of English doorknobs or a piece of literary fiction that requires the reader be intimately familiar with medieval Breton lays, cut it out. (That is, if you're holding out any hopes of actually selling it.) This includes most academic texts. Maybe you'll have a couple hundred copies published by a university press if you're big news in academic circles, but that's about it.

Now, I realize most of you write mainstream fiction (e.g. non-abstruse literary fiction, chick lit, mysteries, thrillers, romances, science fiction, and so on). Bravo! This sells. I just want to be sure that anyone who has any funny ideas about making a cool million with their interrelated short story collection is swiftly disabused of that notion. Not that I enjoy crushing dreams; it's just that those kinds of thoughts aren't realistic.

37 comments:

  1. Personally I appreciate your honesty about how the market works. I'd rather that people use this model more and sugar-coat less. Even if it comes across as negative it adds transparency. Thank you :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Feel free to doomsay this way anytime!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow...to the point and honest. Thank you. I thought the same after I wrote 2 childrens novels. Now I am in editing stage of two sci-fi books. Wish me luck.

    Scott C. Waring--Author of West's Time Machine & George's Pond.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Prophet of Doom? Nah. Better to prepare the dreamer authors for the worst, with information they so readily hoard as research, and allow them to guard against falling into these problems, then to let others walk in naively to these sorts of snags on success and suffer the wailing, thrashing, temper tantrum of 'why me?' when it goes south.

    word verifi was godsmsp, maybe time to reconsider the Prophet of Doom title.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm glad to read honest takes on the industry. Not that I'm all for doom and gloom, but I don't want unrealistic expectations either.

    Thanks for these informative posts (and I was very relieved to see that fantasy did NOT make your list :)

    ~Jen

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Jen--

    Not at all! Fantasy (especially YA fantasy) continues to sell particularly well.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I also like to hear how it really is in publishing. Sometimes writing isn't all about selling, but publishing is a business of making money. So it's good to know what will and what won't.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Eric,

    Like I've said multiple times before ... it's better to get the proverbial straight dope before we unpublished trying wading into the publishing waters.

    And I'm with Jen on loving that fantasy wasn't on the list. I've tried to write other genres but I just can't do it. So that's where I stay.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I appreciate your candor about the process. I think too many people sugarcoat the business process.

    Also, if some of us feel inclined to seek out ways to improve our sales, you're helping us realize where we really need to concentrate to make our numbers good for our next sales.

    So really - thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for the great post.

    I am wondering if you could explain (maybe in another post, maybe here) how the path of Literary Fiction goes.

    It seems there are some books that show up and then just disappear altogether.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I wonder if poetry––and possibly novellas––are areas where publishing your own book or chapbook is more respectable?
    (Done, in low numbers for the preservation of the art, not the money).


    I have also wondered if such writing should be sold more like fine art is.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Anon @ 12:08--

    Sure thing! I'll try and get a post up soon.

    Anon @ 12:17--

    Oftentimes this is how poets (and some fiction writers) earn an initial audience. That, or winning first-book prizes.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I was surprised about the Christan fiction. Doesn't agent blogger Rachelle Gardner specialize in Chirstian fiction? I imagine there wouldn't be agents specializing in it if it didn't sell...

    ReplyDelete
  14. Livia: I think her website states that she does not represent work that contradicts a Christian world view which isn't quite the same. A book written specifically for a Christian audience will automatically exclude many readers while a mainstream book that does not offend a Christian audience has a wider potential audience so it makes sense. And even books that were lambasted by large parts of the Christian community, like Harry Potter and DaVinci Code, were widely read by many Christian readers. Sales didn't seem to suffer, anyway. I don't imagine a confirmed atheist would see the appeal of the Amish vampire novel, though I'm certain it would be riveting.

    I was curious, though, if stores like Lifeway report to Bookscan? Eric, do you know? Or online retailers who specialize in Christian lit?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Laurel--

    Bingo. And that's not to say, Livia, that there aren't agents that specialize in purely Christian fiction, it's just that their operation is much more small-time than everyone else's.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi again Laurel--

    I imagine they do, but it's hard to know if you don't work on the account. BookScan just says that they aggregate numbers from various independent stores; they don't go into a whole lot of detail as to which stores, exactly, are reporting.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Well, thank you...but there goes my Christian cookbook series for kids written completely in rhyming poetry.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Keli took my comment but this was an interesting post. I do write short stories on the side, but mainly for my own amusement (and my family's)- I find they're a good way to practice the art of brevity.

    ReplyDelete
  19. So, how many writers are making "a cool million" with their published "mainstream" novel?

    Or, what are the chances of any given (new) writer making "a cool million" with her mainstream novel? What about the chances of being able to quit her day job?

    ReplyDelete
  20. I was going to comment, but when I read the "Amish vampire novel" I forgot what I was going to say.

    Laughing hysterically will do that to me sometimes -
    :D
    G.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hi Duluk--

    Next to none, on both counts. But that's the name of the game.

    ReplyDelete
  22. That's sort of what I figured. But you know what you just said, right? :)

    Not only should I not expect to make "a cool million with [my] interrelated short story collection;" I also shouldn't expect to make a cool million with my "non-abstruse literary fiction, chick lit, mysteries, thrillers, romances, science fiction" book(s) either. Nor should I expect to be able to quit my day job.

    Ah well. :) Poetry it is. :P

    ReplyDelete
  23. I am delighted beyond belief that you did not have chick lit as one of your top 5 "poor sellers". I've been told that the genre is a tough sell these days, but I firmly believe that the it has potential and breadth beyond Jimmy Choos and pink cocktails... indeed, I'm currently ranting on my blog about how chick lit does not deserve the bad rap it has gotten from some quarters.

    Oh, and Laurel, I'm a confirmed atheist who would TOTALLY read Amish vampire fiction! Also, Mennonite zombies.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Laurel,

    You are officially the first apostle of Amish vampire fiction--the rock on which we shall build Amishstakes.

    The rest of you, write sentences for the Amish vampire fiction contest, conveniently located at Pimp my Novel!

    ReplyDelete
  25. You can have moderate success as a Christian writer. And most people are lucky to meet success in any field of writing.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Laura:

    Oooh! A title I can put on my query letter! I guess I have been pursuing the wrong genre. CKHB, I'll get to work on my Amish vampire novel story arc right away. I forsee acceptance in the Amish community when they realize the MC can do a one day barnraising all by himself and is perfectly willing to file down his fangs daily in order to remain "plain" and not "shunt."

    PS: CKHB: Am loving your defense of chick lit!

    ReplyDelete
  27. Duluk--

    Ha, yes, you have a point. But whereas I would guess there are maybe a few hundred authors in the US supporting themselves on their writing alone (not including screenwriting, which can be far more lucrative), there are probably fewer than five poets who can say the same.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Awesome post, as usual, Eric. I was suprised to see the christian stat--it kind of seems like from some agent blogs that they get a lot of this kind of query traffic. (And they may, and it still might not sell).

    I guess the thing is, write what you're passionate about, and if it's not in the top seller category, you're just going to have resign yourself to hard luck.

    It would be hard, I would think (but I make lots and lots of unfounded generalizations based mostly on "facts" from Wikipedia--which I edited) to write outside your passion. I don't think I could do sci fi and I sure as heck know I can't do mysteries--I tried and then choked when it got to the clever bits. (Which is why I admire mystery writers so much.)

    ReplyDelete
  29. I am heartened to hear that Christian fiction doesn't sell.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Okay, this is a shout out to all you Pimp My Novel readers who have thus far eschewed Amishtakes. Perhaps you don't realize this is a serious, writerly endeavor. Some very tough gauntlets have been thrown and I must encourage you all to toss yours as well.

    Click here to enter your take on Vampires, Amish, and the occasional zombie in the world of modern literatary fiction. How do you know you won't like it if you haven't tried it? Take a walk on the dark side of the Amish way of life...

    ReplyDelete
  31. Christian fiction celebrates a mere thirty years of existence this year - it began in 1979 with the publication of Janette Oke's Love Comes Softly. From 1980 to 2000, sales of Christian fiction quadrupled from 1 billion to 4 billion. Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and Borders all cited the Christian fiction section as their fastest growing section in 2006 and 2007. I think authors like Karen Kingsbury, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, Wanda Brunstetter, Beverly Lewis, Ted Dekker, and several others who have sold multi-millions of copies of their books might disagree with the idea that Christian fiction just doesn't sell. The fact that NY Times bestselling authors are ACTIVELY SEEKING Christian publishing house homes (e.g. Debbie Macomber, Karen Young, DeeAnne Gist) also speaks to the growth of this industry. The Houston Chronicle has a great article out right now about Christian fiction (full disclosure: I'm quoted in it ;)). http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/religion/6544591.html

    I work in the Christian fiction industry full time and it's a fabulous part of fiction to be in right now - we see nothing but growth year after year in both authors acquired and books sold. You mentioned that CBE isn't being done again next year- those of us in the Christian publishing industry know that CBE was significantly impacted by a lack of publicity and marketing of the event. Consumers in the destination city didn't even know the event was occurring. The poor attendance was due to lack of awareness, not lack of consumer interest. That's why there is discussion among some trade organizations to have an event similar to CBE next year, this time with the proper amount of publicity and marketing.

    Christian fiction novels rarely proselytize these days unless that happens organically in the storyline. They're simply quality stories written by authors who also are Christians. If you'd like a list of some really good ones to try out, email me. I'm happy to recommend some good ones! rebeca@glassroadpr.com

    ReplyDelete
  32. #3. Um. Have we forgotten about The Shack so quickly? Or Karen Kingsbury, Joyce Meyer, Beverly Lewis, and Tim LaHaye? Christian books aren't selling quite as well, in aggregate, as they were four or five years ago, but they're still a large market. (Though it's a market that a writer more-or-less needs to already be in to be accepted; it's very difficult, if not impossible, for a "secular" writer to break in.)

    ReplyDelete
  33. Kids Cookbooks: I find this one curious. This past Christmas our cookbook section in the kids department (I work for Chapters--which is the B&N in Canada) was decimated early in the season, which has never happened before. I wondered if people were buying more kids cookbooks now, as a reflection of the "whole foods/home cooking" trend. I'm not saying they're ever bestsellers... just saying that I suspect they're trending up at the moment.

    Short stories: My understanding is that writing science fiction short stories for sci fi magazines is the way to break into that industry; and later those authors' stories get anthologized and probably sell alright. But that's a little different than setting out to write a collection of stories.

    Thanks for the info, as usual! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  34. Great post, and very honest.

    I was once told to write short stories and I have a couple of collections, but to be honest, as a reader I'd rarely pick them up, so why would I write them?

    I just want to add that I love the up-front, honest writing style. The doorknobs book made me laugh out loud. I can guarantee somebody somewhere has written that book.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I write poetry for picture books. It seems that a huge chunk of picture books I pick up at the library or books store have rhyme. In your opinion, are picture books the exception when it comes to writing poetry? If not, what do you think is special about the poetry picture books that are published?

    ReplyDelete
  36. I was planning to self publish a book of short stories, I am crushed, though I feel like I can be an exception with the way I plan to market and package it. I am not a novel writer. I have also appeared in an anthology of short erotic stories that was a NY Times bestseller. Is there no hope at all?

    ReplyDelete
  37. I should have commented earlier but I was lurking. I know sometimes you have a wealth of topics and sometimes you don't know what to talk about. Given that you don't openly (and repeatedly) advertise which house you work for, this really isn't an advertising blog. While you and I both respect the effort of Kristen, Nathan, et al., remember that they're selling something. Themselves. You're selling...nothing. You're just being awesome. So if you find that maintaining a 5-days-a-week schedule is difficult (which it is), you shouldn't stress about going to a less frequent schedule (M-W-F or something similar). We'd rather have you around less frequently for the long term than more frequently for the short term.

    ReplyDelete