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Day in the Life of an Idiot

The Journal of Lyda Morehouse


August 28th, 2007

On Failure (a mini-rant) @ 11:04 am


I was going to post this over at Wyrdsmiths, but I noticed Kelly was in the queue and decided to let him go first.  

 

I just found out that a friend of mine got dropped by her publisher.  She was in the middle of a series and, “due to lackluster sales” they pulled the plug on her W.I.P. 

 

I’ve been there.  It hurts.  The worst part of it is that, in the current publishing climate, this sort of thing happens more often than we’d like to think about.  As I said in my post over at SF Novelists about pseudonyms, while many authors are ready to point out bestsellers that don’t “deserve” their success (just think back to the flack around Bridges of Madison County,) even though they should know better, they’re often more than willing to believe that books die due to quality alone.  The unspoken implication is that if you’d written a better book, it’d still be in print.

 

This is a lie.  It’s also a very hurtful one, because the nature of writing (and its life of rejections) is already full of self-doubt.  It’s often easy for a writer to believe they sucked themselves out of a book contract.  And stop writing.

 

Maybe you think I’m crying sour grapes.  After all, my books tanked.  When my second book was remaindered I was looking for other professional writers to talk to about it – commiserate, talk shop.  I cast around and someone who’d been through this sort of thing was recommended to me.  I sent her an email.  This writer, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, later told me she’d read my book, “just to make sure” before talking to me.  Make sure, she didn’t have to say, that I didn’t actually deserve my fate… and that the books were actually “good.” After determining that, she felt free to give me career advice.

 

It was hard to listen to any advice this author dispensed because I knew (even though it had happened to her!) that part of her bought into the publishers’ big lie: that good books do well and bad books die.

 

As much as we like to gripe about how the other guy is merely a hack, truly bad books don’t make it over the transom.  An entire team of people, including the bean counters, approve a book before an editor makes an offer to a writer (or, rather a writer’s agent, who also had faith in the book enough to try to sell it).  Also keep in mind that “lackluster sales” for a mass-market book often count in the tens of thousands.  Books that are critical successes – not only loved by reviewers, but also by award committees – still tank.  (Think about Megan Lindholm). 

 

Also, there are a lot of factors that completely fall outside of anyone’s control (even the publishers’), like readers’ trends.  It’s absolutely true that a cover sells a book, but it’s still a big question as to what it *is* about a cover that gets readers to pick it up.  There are lots of theories:  one of the reasons you often see people’s faces on the cover of books is that it’s generally believed that readers’ respond positively to an image of a person on the book.  Apparently, they like it even better when that person is looking directly at them.  Of course, books aren’t normally shelved with their covers’ facing outward, so the book has to do even more than catch your eye to people to pick it up.  What that is is anyone’s guess – publishers have admitted that a lot of this stuff is completely baffling to them as well (see NY Times article).

 

Books fail.  It’s just the hard cold truth of today’s publishing industry.  It’s nobody’s fault.  The only thing a writer can do is keep writing. 

 
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:49 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I actually suspect things are worse in the recording industry.
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From:epi_lj
Date:August 28th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
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From the reader's perspective, I find the prospect of connecting with a good book to be frustrating, and the smoke signals by which it's mediated (cover art, etc.) to be just as baffling in the other direction. I read virtually no science fiction and fantasy save for a couple of known authors between late elementary school and when I attended Wiscon this year simply because I would go into a book store, go to the science fiction and fantasy section and be left dumbfounded by the huge array of books to choose from. There seemed to be little to no way to tell which ones were going to be good or bad and it was surprising how often the cover art and such cues confused the matter even more. Looking at the summary on the back sometimes helped, sometimes didn't, sometimes didn't exist, but when you're confronted with walls of books stretching off into infinity, the concept of scrutinizing them all for interesting-sounding but possibly misleading copy turned me off. I eventually would just give up and wander over to the "Fiction" or "Literature" sections, where not only did I know more authors, but where I found cues like cover art and so on to be a lot more reliable and readable. But the phenomenon that you're talking about always bothered me: I knew that (no matter what section I was in) there were probably great books in there to be found, but I just had no idea how to go about finding them.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, you know, that's one of things I didn't even mention. One of the things that actually works in favor of new authors, also works against us once the books are on the shelf... the sheer number of books published in our genre every year. It's very difficult to rise up and be noticed... at least to the extent that publishers (or rather the bean counters) want you to.
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From:holy_toledo
Date:August 29th, 2007 02:10 am (UTC)
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Actually, I've learned after years of being an AVID reader (I frightened my English teachers. Seriously), that you start to "code" certain books. That is to say, a science fiction or fantasy cover looks a LOT different from a mystery cover, or a "fiction" cover (reserving long diatribe on deep hatred for "fiction" for private thoughts) or a romance cover. I've spent so much time in the science fiction and fantasy section of bookstores and libraries that I can differentiate, without fail, the high fantasy from the juvenile fantasy from the cyberpunk from the urban fantasy, etc. etc. without ever reading the back. It seems a bit overwhelming to begin with, but if you stand there a while, it's not quite so scary, and you can, for the most part, tell from the cover art whether or not this book is up your alley (high fantasy for me) or something you'd generally drop like a hot potato (SF spsce opera for me).

I am as lost in the "fiction" section as you are in the SF and Fantasy section. It's not so much that I don't know the authors. I don't quite understand what the covers are trying to sell me. I invariably pick up terrible books.

-Mel
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From:lyda222
Date:August 29th, 2007 02:33 pm (UTC)
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You'd make a great subject for market research... if the publishing industry ever did much of that. I read somewhere, maybe in one of those NY Times articles, that publishers don't spend a lot of money figuring out how to sell to their target audience. OH, actually the article was in Publisher's Weekly.... because they mentioned that a lot of what they *do* know they've gotten from RWA (Romance Writers of America)... which might help explain why romance sells 10x better than any other genre (that may be a bit of exaggeration, but romance does sell a lot better than most genres.)
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From:holy_toledo
Date:August 29th, 2007 05:24 pm (UTC)
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In editing class, the figure they threw at us was 7 times better, actually (keeping in mind this was three and a half years ago). I didn't know they got their info mostly from RWA.

I personally base a lot of my initial assessment on cover. Yeah, I'm THAT scary reader. I know you're not supposed to, but I do it all the time.

-Mel

PS: Chick-lit (of any bent) usually means bright (often neon pastel, but definitely bright) colors and semi-cartoon-ish sketching. Unless you're doing dark, dark vampire (Hamilton, Kenyon), which generally yields a lot of blacks and reds. ;) Seriously, walk through Barnes and Noble, it's a fun little game, guessing what genre the book is before you pick it up.
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From:hutch0
Date:August 28th, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC)
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It is a hell of a thing to happen, isn't it? My first publishers did young-adult titles, and though I wasn't actually writing for that market they did take me on and put up with me for quite a while, for which I'll always be grateful. But after four books they decided I'd be better off with an adult publisher and we parted company. Which was fine and it all happened on good terms, but it did feel a little like being cast out from a nice cosy house into a howling snowy wilderness.

I don't think any of my stuff ever got as far as being remaindered; I think it just dropped straight down out of existence. Much of it is probably in the Great Cosmic Void.

Books do fail. But dammit, it's often the wrong ones...

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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:48 pm (UTC)
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"Books do fail. But dammit, it's often the wrong ones..."

Hear, hear!

*sigh*
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From:wyrdpainter
Date:August 28th, 2007 05:28 pm (UTC)
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Oh it happens to artists too. I'd signed a multi-product licensing deal, and when I noticed that artists who signed months after me had products available and I still didn't they "released me from my contract" so I could take my art and go. So I got dropped before they even tried to do anything with my work, but my images were under contract to them for nine months so I couldn't send my portfolio to other manufacturers.

I have heard many, many horror stories from other artists who signed licensing contracts and are being cheated out of their royalties, or knockoff products are being made in China without regard to copyrights.

Artists are starving for a reason folks, really they are, and it's not due to any lack in talent. If talent paid the bills we'd have a nice starter mansion all paid for with a maid and everything. Same goes for Lyda, you rock in the talent department!
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)
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That's the thing. We all know talented people (in whatever artistic endeavor) who can't sell. Luck is so much a part of this business, it's frustrating.

Plus the publishing (or maybe I should say "entertainment") business KNOWS that there are a million of us who want to be artists at any cost. This is why so many of us get paid so badly and end up starving. It doesn't help that the Romantics made that lifestyle acceptable or even desirable (the whole "misunderstood artist never appreciated in his/her lifetime" load.) Bah.
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From:kellymccullough
Date:August 28th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
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Lyda,

You should post this over at Wyrdsmiths later. I agree with a lot of what you're saying, particularly that many good books don't do as well as they deserve–yours for example. On the other hand, I'd have to know exactly what you mean by "bad" when you say "truly bad books don't make it over the transom," before I'd agree to that part. I think any number of genuinely awful books make it into print (for several values of awful)–I thrown a number of them across the room. Likewise, as someone who teaches and mentors any number of writers (just as you do) I've seen some damn fine work that no one is willing to buy. Anyway, I think this could make for a lovely debate.
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From:auriaephiala
Date:August 28th, 2007 06:20 pm (UTC)
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I think any number of genuinely awful books make it into print (for several values of awful)–I thrown a number of them across the room.

Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City), for example. Perfect example of al glitz, no substance.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:40 pm (UTC)
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"On the other hand, I'd have to know exactly what you mean by "bad" when you say 'truly bad books don't make it over the transom,'"

There are, of course, lots of books I don't _like_. There are even more books that fall in the catagory of "Ugh, how did *she* get published! (or make a bigger advance than me), etc." There may even be books that fall under that catagory of "made some technical writing errors I can't stand."

Certainly not every writer is to everyone's taste. There's an extremely popular writer who just finished a major series that everyone is talking about that I can't stand because I think her early command of the craft writing is sloppy and difficult to read. It didn't stop her from making a million dollars.

Also every book has its flaws. I'm not saying that my friend (or myself, for that matter) couldn't have written a better book. We all could.

BUT, publishers don't pay money for books they don't think will sell. Any book published by a major house has been well scruitinized before it makes its way on to the shelves. No publisher, at least not one in their right minds, looks at a book and says, "Wow, this thing is horrible. I think I'll offer the author a million dollars for it JUST so it can tank!!!"

Do publishers always make the choices I would? No, of course not. But I also don't think they're intentionally stupid.

That's what I mean when I say "truly bad books don't make it over the transom."
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From:kellymccullough
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:54 pm (UTC)
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Okay, so for this conversation, bad = not-believed-to-be-commercial by a major house. For that value of bad, I have to mostly agree with you. Nobody publishes a book they think will fail, though I've heard any number of editors say that they don't know why one book is successful and another is not-so, while they may believe a book won't fail, they're often making an educated guess as to which ones will succeed.

Also that definition only works as long as the word "believe" remains in the equation. If a book's actual rather than perceived commercial potential is the measure of its quality, then many bad books are published and it's a measurable quantity. BTW, this is not the way I would measure good or bad, and neither is perceived commercial potential. Likewise for any number of other values of bad that might be less measurable, say a book's moral fiber, the quality of its prose, or its artistic merits, a lot of bad books are published.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 09:13 pm (UTC)
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Writing (and the reading of it) is subjective. I may love a book you hate. I may even write a book with bad sentence structure that manages to transcend my lack of craft which is universally received as a "good" book. I might write a book that is absolutly perfect in form but that simply doesn't connect with you (or maybe its subject matter deeply offends you) and gets catagorized "bad."

I think we could debate what makes a good book or a bad book forever. That's why I think that, generally, it should be taken out of the discussion when talking about why books fail.

I also think that getting into this is playing into the lie that exists about career success -- which is that its all down to the author. Yes, we need to write the best book we can. But after that it's out of our hands.
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From:kellymccullough
Date:August 28th, 2007 09:32 pm (UTC)
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Hey Lyda,

I ported my first comment over to the Wyrdsmiths version of this discussion. Do you want to port your response and I'll port mine to that one, etc.? Or should I just bring it all over myself? Or do you want to put a link back in? Any of those work for me.

As for what is or is not a good or bad book and whether there's a relationship between that and a successful one, I generally agree with you that the two are largely unrelated factors. I wouldn't have mentioned it at all if you hadn't made the comment about no bad books making it over the transom-but that really made me wonder what you meant. Now that you've clarified, I'll happily drop it.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 29th, 2007 02:35 pm (UTC)
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Shallow is good. I have to also admit that I'm just being stubborn. It took me a long time to read Stephen King because I have this insane quirk to avoid anything that's "popular." Turns out that Stephen King is an awesome writer and I should never have dissed him. Eventually, I'm sure I'll say the same thing about The Certain Writer.
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From:holy_toledo
Date:August 29th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
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I had the misfortune of having Salem's Lot being the first and only book of his I've ever read. S-U-C-K-E-D.

Now, let me tell you why. ;) Because everyone always yells at me when I say it sucked.

Character development. I didn't see any. In the whole, big, damned, long, book.

-Mel
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From:hutch0
Date:August 29th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
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I rather liked Salem's Lot. *not shouting, honestly* He's done worse.
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From:holy_toledo
Date:August 30th, 2007 07:41 pm (UTC)
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I shudder to think.

-Mel
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From:oneminutemonkey
Date:August 28th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)
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I'm honestly curious as to who your friend is, and what series she's in the middle of. Mainly to expand my own understanding of how these things go, and partially in fear that it'll turn out to be someone who I've been reading and enjoying. (And so I can pick up some of her books in silent support if not).
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:42 pm (UTC)
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Alas, I don't feel like I should say in case she's embarrassed about it. But I'll give you a very easy hint. Google my name and look for a female author I've blurbed who writes science fiction.
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From:auriaephiala
Date:August 28th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
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Dunno if this will make you feel better, but I found your first Archangel book by browsing, bought it, loved it, and bought the other three in the series new.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:43 pm (UTC)
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I don't feel bad at all. I think my books are great. :-)

Seriously, I'm glad you think so too. Thanks!!
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From:bb_kristopher
Date:August 28th, 2007 07:33 pm (UTC)
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You've just hit on one of my big fears as a new author. That I'll get that first book contract, and no one will buy the thing. Either because I get a bad cover, or because the publisher doesn't push the title, or for any of a dozen other reasons.

Scares me silly, because then I have to pick a new pen name and start all over again.

Of course, that does seem to work out for some people, but it doesn't sound like a fun thing.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 28th, 2007 08:47 pm (UTC)
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No, it isn't. But -- and not that this is going to make you feel any better -- this happens in miniture every time you finish a book, too. There's really no guarentee that once you've found a publisher that they'll continue to take your books indefinitely. Authors get orphaned (editors who loved them leave the business). Your next book idea is for urban fantasy, but your publisher thinks urban fantasy has run its course and passes...

Not every moment like this necessitates a name change. I even know authors who have successfully kept their name when they jumped genre.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 29th, 2007 02:40 pm (UTC)

Re: the money question

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So far LUCK has kept me from being too bitter -- which is to say, I've managed to continue my writing career. (And I have no doubt that it's LUCK not talent. A fortunate series of events kept me from being completely dropped by Penguin, like what happened to my friend.)

Plus, one of the reasons I wanted to put this post out in public is that I believe the more young writers know that these things JUST HAPPEN the less likely they are to have unreasonable expectations (and thus get the writing crushed out of them when bad things happen to their books.) I was fortunate to have been a member of the National Writers Union before I sold significant amounts of fiction. If you want to hear horror stories, join the union. At any rate, I think that early exposure made me at least partially ready for what happened to me. I didn't like it any better, but at least I was beyond being shamed into thinking I was the only one it had ever happened to.
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From:lyda222
Date:August 29th, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
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That's an excellent point.

A large part of the issue is simple economics. Publishers have to stay in business, too, and businesses make decisions that are heartless to stay afloat. As much as the people in the positions of power might like to keep every employee, they can't. You're absolutely right that this is happening in publishing as often as it happens in the "real world."
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From:lyda222
Date:August 29th, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, B.C.!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 6th, 2010 02:49 am (UTC)
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I'm new to this writer business too I hope to make it far. One thing to count
on is not to expect the most out of it. I understand that now by reading other comments. I've read the twilight saga and harry potter and thought it
would be an okay job. After all that work the chance of being rejected makes
me want to cry. I know I haven't finished it yet but I love it. I know the
cover matters alot to people because they'd just pass it by otherwise. I'm
sorry your books didn't make it but its more the're loss than yours. I'm not
sure of the chapters yet but I know the title. It will be "The dream vacation" -K

Day in the Life of an Idiot

The Journal of Lyda Morehouse