Sunday, 29 June 2014

Fifty Shades of Safe - Anna Wilson

In The Guardian last weekend Matt Haig commented on the publishing industry's obsession with jumping on bandwagons. I am not going to repeat everything he said, but one phrase in particular sent a chill of recognition through me and so prompted me to write this post. He said that we are heading towards a situation where 'the once kaleidoscopic book world risks becoming fifty shades of safe'.

Those words could so easily apply to the majority of books bearing my name, I thought. After all, I am the woman who has 'churned out' (as some would see it) fourteen animal books, and my publisher now wants more of the same. Or, failing that, the Next Big Thing, which frankly is rather an Unknown Unknown, so what I am supposed to do about that?

Thing is, I am not sure I want to try and second-guess the market; a fickle thing at the best of times. I am also clear I do not want to write more of the same, just as I am not convinced that readers necessarily want to read more of the same.

I know I am not alone as a writer in feeling that the industry seems to have changed in the blink of an eye. So much has happened so fast in the way that books are sold in to retailers and sold on to the public that it was bound to affect writers and the way that publishers deal with us. However, I suppose I was not prepared for the current approach which seems very much to be along the lines of 'books as product'. I am naive, I guess. The minute that supermarkets were in on the game it was unlikely that books would be perceived to be anything other than 'product'. If you are Mr Tesco and you are looking at what books to stock, you are only interested in how the last title from a particular author performed. In other words, no matter how much blood, sweat and tears went into your new novel, no matter how good it is, how exciting, how fresh, no matter how you have performed over a number of years in the market, if your last title did not shift a respectable number of units, you will not find your name on the shelves next time around. And you will certainly not have room to develop as a writer because the market views books much as it views tins of beans - if they taste good and sell well as they are, why change them?

Except that books are not tins of beans - we all know that.

It probably sounds as though I don't understand the publishers' point of view. I do. Things have changed for them, too, obviously. Faced with the demands of the Mr Tescos of this world, 'building an author' is sadly a luxury most publishers cannot now afford, so I can hardly blame them for wanting to make money out of 'fifty shades of safe'.

However, I wanted to write this post to see how others feel. Are you expected to come up with 'the next you', i.e. more of the same, reliable writing that conveniently places you where marketing and sales people are confident of how to pitch you in their publishing plan? Or are you throwing caution to the wind and using this climate to your advantage, to write what you really want to write, oblivious to the increasingly bland demands of the marketeers, and sending it out with all fingers and toes crossed? Is this the way forward: to write what we really want and hope it gets into the hands of readers? Or is this professional suicide?

I have decided to take the risk: to write a couple of books that have been swilling around in the back of my mind for a while, but which I have not had the confidence to develop. It may all end in a damp squib of disappointment and rejection. But I cannot sit around waiting for the crystal ball of the market place to make up its mind which tin of beans is going to be the next big thing. And I certainly do not want to be stocked on the shelves with 'fifty shades of safe'.

(with apologies to Matt Haig for nicking his excellent phrase)

Anna Wilson


Stroppy Author said...

Both. I write what publishers want in the usual run of things and also what I feel like writing. I feel publishers amenable to new ideas.

To be honest, I've never been persuaded by the 'tins of beans' argument. Has anyone actually looked in a supermarket? Their stocking policies are increasingly adventurous in the so-called bean market. They sell anchovies, capers, truffle oil, 50 shades of Magnum, about 100 varieties of pasta. In the 1960s you could only get one kind of bean, but not now. Of course they don't stock as many books as a bookshop but from the customers' point of view surely it's an improvement over not stocking any books? A supermarket's strategy is not designed to help authors and there is no reason why it should be. The fault is with publishers rather than supermarkets.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I can't say it's a problem I've ever had. You have to be so successful in your area that the publishers want you to keep doing more of the same. I've always had to persade the next publisher(or the last one) that I have a great idea they will want to buy. ;-) IS there something you'd rather write about than puppies and kittens? Then do it and try another publisher for that. The kind of books you write are the kind that turn up in supermarkets, which kids will nag their parents to buy them at the checkout, right? Well, not everything is. At least there's some money to be had from safe supermarket books hie you wrk on something else. I wish publishers were nagging ME to write somethng for them! :-)

A Wilson said...

Both fair and interesting points! I am writing something else and am going to send it out further and wider, so let's see...

Clémentine Beauvais said...

I'm struck by the similarities between your concerns and mine, Anna! (see yesterday's post...). I agree with you, and I also agree that it's a good thing to try out new things and just see what happens. It's frustrating not to be able to sell a manuscript, but having written it is sometimes necessary to one's sanity of mind...

Liz Kessler said...

Anna, some interesting questions here, and as Clémentine says, it touches on some similar issues to yesterday's blog.

I am with Anne - I think it's all about finding some sort of balance. I know quite a few authors who have made their bread and butter money from the 'market friendly' books that their publishers want them to write, in order to buy them some time to write the ones that are calling from their heart to be written. That can be an option that keeps everyone happy.

Another thing, as you say, is that no one can predict the whims of the market. I know one author who wrote something especially for a publisher on the grounds that it was extremely commercial and he thought this would be the one to bring home the bacon - and, well, it didn't.

On the other hand, I wrote a book over a decade ago which was turned down by about ten publishers. It has sat in a drawer for a decade and my publisher is now bringing it out next year - largely because the market (and society more widely) is now much more open to it. So sometimes the ones you don't think will work just haven't had their day yet.

If you can afford to do so, I'd say go for it with the ones you want to write. If you chase the market and don't take the leap, you'll always have a bit of you gnawing away at you till you do. But there's no harm in keeping your publisher (and readers) happy by 'churning out' a few more animal books if you can do so without getting in the way of the new projects too much.

Good luck - sounds like it could be exciting writing times ahead!