April 16th, 2004


same difference (or something like that)

In response to my comment: "Selling something non-traditional and different isn't impossible. It's just tougher."

llygoden said:

I found this interesting. Last year I was at a writing workshop lead by a published British fantasy writer and her comment on my WIP at the time was that it was too similar to a lot of already published novels or novels in the slushpile. I thought her comments valid, so started work on something completely different, i.e. a comic fantasy.

So is it a case of author and agent finding that delicate balance between too samey and too different?

So, I attempted a quick response (which I buried in comments and am burying a little less here):

Both are good points. And thanks for bringing it up. It boils down to this (and I'm oversimplifying, but it's Friday and I'm supposed to be working) -- if you're too much like everything else, how will you get noticed; if you're too different from everything else, how will you get sold.

Okay....not enough; shalt ramble a bit more. If I get 10 fantasy proposals in one day and they all have a boy in them who finds a magic sword, defeats the dragon (gotta have a dragon on the cover if at all possible) and gets the girl (tongue planted firmly in cheek during this, er, summary), how do I choose which *one* I publish (or represent) *this* year (see above for previous notes on how many first novels editors acquired recently). I look for that indefinable thing called "voice" (oh, a dissertation on that would make this more than just a ramble); suffice to say, something that makes it stand out some from all the rest. But you don't necessarily want it *too* different. Because....

....if I, as an agent, know that certain editors are seeking a new epic fantasy (this was in fact put to me a couple years ago, and I set out to find exactly that) which fits certain genre conventions - but all I get are quirky manuscripts that don't really fit any of them squarely...the risk for me, the risk for the author, the risk for potential sale - is plainly greater.

Again, we are back to the balance between art and commerce. Readers (and ergo, editors and agents, who are really just readers in the endgame) have certain expectations. They may want another book in a long series of favorites; they may want something that's a challenge to their intellect; they may want not just the same-old Tolkien look-alike -- ultimately, though, they want an enjoyable read. The bean-counters, though, what do they want? They want something that will guarantee a certain number of unit sales so they can look at the profit and loss statement for that book and see more of the former and not so much of the latter. To do that they need to be able to pitch the book to the sales force, who turns around and pitches the book to the buyers for the bookstores and other chains (like Walmart or some such). In that case, they're competing for spots too -- so they have to get it in there. A lot easier to do when one can point to verifiable selling points (e.g. it's got a dragon on the cover) than the artistic value of the story. Sad, but too often, true.

This contributes to why there are bad books that sometimes get published and too many good books that are overlooked. A circumstance that often leaves me fuming. Grr. Argh. Another long essay that I shouldn't take time off from work for.... (Go ahead, someone else rant about this one.)

As an aside -- I'm not, in any way, advocating sacrificing art to commerce. My own reading for pleasure indicates that I appreciate a wide range of stuff - not all on the paths most or least traveled by (the stack of recent books I've read but not reviewed for the site I share with mcurry includes the following authors: M. John Harrison, Alexander C. Irvine, Joanne Dobson, Ken MacLeod, Kristine Smith, and Jacqueline Carey.... hmm, guess I'd better get busy on those).

To whit -- I'm often asked at conferences the overly-general question: "So, what are you looking for?" This usually occurs on Q&A style panels about agents, editors, or a combination thereof. My answer (because narrowing it down any further limits my options too much) -- something I really like *and* something I *believe* I can sell. A necessary dichotomy. Oh -- and never forget that all of this judgement of fiction is highly subjective. Anyone who pretends otherwise is trying to sell you something.
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