Friday, June 25, 2010

Well-done but already done

Patti left an interesting comment on yesterday's post:

'Craig McDonald, who read ms. for the Hammett Prize this year, commented on how many books were indiscernible from each other. ... Well-done but already done.'

Following on from Wednesday's post about the struggles of authors to become established and how the publishing industry seeks to de-risk their investment, I'm wondering to what extent agents and commissioning editors are fostering the 'well-done but already done' sense amongst readers? 

Certainly in my own attempts to land an agent and get fiction published, the feedback I have received makes it clear that publishers are looking for material that is very like existing material with some small quirk that gives it a slight edge.  There is less risk in this for publishers and agents as the market is established and known.  Anything that breaks boundaries and rules is inherently more risky and will involve more work to attract and convince readers to pick-up, purchase and spend time with a book. 

I'm aware in my own case that I wrote The Rule Book as a tactical move to produce a 'safe book', that would fit into established markets and present trends (straight-up police procedural with serial killer, although I consciously tried to find a fresh angle and challenge, in a limited way, some of the established rules of crime writing).  This was after a couple of years of receiving 'I really like this, but I not sure there's a ready market' rejection letters for Saving Siobhan (a still unpublished book). Of course, The Rule Book got 'well-done but already done' rejections and it was strongly suggested that I redraft to make it 'safer' (which I basically did, though I dug my heals in on some things)!  Sometimes you just can't win, but that's not my point.  Rather, I think the way that the publishing industry seems to be operating at the minute, always seeking to find a sure fire bet that limits risk, stifles creativity and limits the possibilities of new markets being generated.  There are always exceptions - I've reviewed some great books over the past year and, although not exclusively so, the one's I've enjoyed the most are the ones that have pushed boundaries and don't sit so easily in a straight category; they are well-done, but not already done. They aren't necessarily 'safe-bets'. 

There's a place for 'well-done but already done' (some people want more of the same), but one would like to hope that a better balance can be created, although the pressure of for-profit and market logics will be extremely difficult to re-configure.  Thank heavens there are some presses and commissioning editors willing to take risks and to think beyond the status quo (and the same re. independent film makers).  May they multiple and prosper.

4 comments:

Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Rob, that's a good point. Problem is that it also happens to most industries as well. Fortunately there is some room for start-ups and risk-takers. But most established companies are run by risk-avoiders.

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - You express that very well. Publishers, agents and the like are in business to make money. The greater the difference from what they already know "words," the greater potential there is for risk. One of the unfortunate consequences is that for books, anyway, there are a lot of "sound the same" plots...

Rob Kitchin said...

Bernadette, over at Reactions to Reading, has written a whole post as a rejoinder to this one. Pop over there to see the perspective of a 'risky reader' http://reactionstoreading.com/2010/06/25/risky-reading/

pattinase (abbott) said...

And one of the problems is that you risk putting yourself in the category of "what is this?" Not quite crime, not quite literary. If we don't have a box to put it in, we better not chance it in this climate.