Welcome to Writing Wednesday, where I hopefully have something interesting to say about... well, about writing. Or publishing. Or agents. Or chocolate overload during a Supernatural marathon. Or anything to do with this crazy business.*
I'm in the middle of writing a short story, which is unusual for me -- I've written I think five... no, make that six... six novel manuscripts in a row, and only three shorts in that time, two of them in the last six weeks.
And one sad thing about getting published -- about deciding to do this mad thing called writing for a career -- is that I no longer have the time to write stuff I don't think I can sell. That means I'm always writing to a market, whether it's an established line at a single house, a collection of prospective houses or even just a genre, with all its conventions and no-nos.
So if I'm writing these shorts, they're for a specific market. You think agented writers and published authors don't have to do market research? Bzzt! Lose five points or your pants. It's even more important, because a story with no market is useless to us. A waste of our time. And time, sadly, is money.**
So, market research. That's to say: reading, right? Lots and lots of it. What's selling well in a particular line? What are the really popular big-time authors doing, and how can I do it too?
Wrong. You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye.
DON'T read the big-time authors in your chosen line/imprint. No no no no no. Don't.
Well... what I mean is, hell yes, read the big-time popular authors, because they're awesome! Just don't read them for research.
Because what they're doing, they've earned the right to do, with book after book, years of consistent sales, a profitable backlist. If their books go out on a limb, it's because the publisher trusted them to pull it off.***
I, on the other hand (and probably you, too) am a relatively new author, with only a short track record with a single publisher. Sure, I hand in manuscripts on time and do my edits without complaint and tidy up before the copy-editor. But the bestseller lists don't know me from a bar of soap. No house in their right mind is going to trust me to do jack shit.
So whom should I look to for research? The debut authors, of course. They're the ones who are selling from the slush pile, rather than on track record and a three-line pitch to the editor-in-chief from their agent. They're the ones who are dropping jaws at the editorial assistant's desk, lighting up the imprint editor's eyes and eliciting grins at acquisitions meetings.
They're the ones, in fact, who are writing what's selling, without the benefit of track record, RIGHT NOW. Not fifteen years ago when your favourite big-time author was a chicken.
Of course, in print publishing, RIGHT NOW is relative. It means probably twelve to eighteen months ago, minimum. But it's the best indication you'll get. And no one's saying the big-time authors aren't writing good books -- but bestsellers can generally write riskier books than newer authors, especially in category lines like Harlequin Whoever. If you're reading along and wondering how the hell the author gets away with first person present tense and Flashback Hell when the sub guides say third person past only and no flashbacks or we'll come around to your place and kill you -- chances are you're reading a more experienced author.
So read the new authors to find out what's selling last week. Read the big-time authors to find out what you can get away with, in a year or two when you've got credentials.
Then again, what the hell? Maybe your wacky idea will sell gazillions. If you don't try, you'll never know :)
* Yes, of course watching Supernatural for hours at a stretch is part of the writing business. You can't work ALL the time... anyway, did you and I have that little chat about Sam? Yeah, well. I meant it. Hands off.
** Well, yeah. That's not to say it's very much money. If I worked out how much I get per hour, I'd give up and work at Starbucks. Just don't do those sums, people. They aren't worth it.
*** The book, that is. Not the limb. Mixed metaphors 'R' us.