Here’s a thought. Is originality the biggest red herring in publishing? By which I mean: is being original really the key to success that we all assume it is? Are publishers really yearning for that brilliantly original book? Or is originality, in fact, the element most likely to kill a submission or a pitch stone dead?
Writers work themselves to the bone in the struggle to be original. They tear out their hair over the limitations of plot, tie themselves in knots to avoid repeating other authors, and suffer panic attacks if another recent book or film bears passing similarity to their own work. I must be original, we whisper, like a mantra. But must we? Maybe if we want to be artists, but if we want to make a living? Look at the evidence.
Harry Potter became an international phenomenon. Almost at once, the copycats started to appear. At one point, anything with a hint of a witch in it got hyped into bestsellerdom regardless of quality (believe me, I had to market the wretched things). Ironically, some of the better Rowling-alikes were actually Rowling forerunners, like Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson, newly marketed as being ‘like Harry Potter’ to cash in on the phenomenon. As original authors they’d already been very popular. But rebranded unfairly as being ‘just like that book you just read’, they sold more than ever.
If one book becomes a super-bestseller, then publishers charge like lemmings to copy its success with whatever they have to hand. Take The Da Vinci Code (please). But seriously: how many books in the top 20 were suddenly about codes, grails, holy plots and Knights Templar*? Kate Mosse’s book Labyrinth, which surely took longer to write than The Da Vinci Code, was even accused of copying Dan Brown’s book, as if she had dashed it off in an afternoon after noticing it in WH Smiths. It gets even more ludicrous: Sam Bourne appears to be marketed on the strength of the similarity of his name to Dan Brown.
Do readers want cosy predictability or do they want something they can’t get anywhere else? It’s not a rhetorical question – I really would like to know.
* How about a shiftwork recruitment agency called Temps Knightly? Anyone? No?