March 09, 2011
Popcorn and the Single Writer
Kevin J. Anderson uses a popcorn analogy to illustrate two methods that beginning writers can use to break into print.
One of them consists of writing a single novel and polishing it and perfecting it until it is the absolute best it can be. He compares this to putting a single grain in a pot with just the right amount of oil, at the right temperature and waiting till it pops to produce the perfect single kernel of popcorn.
While this can work, if the kernel you put in is a dud, or if the one novel you concentrate all your work on is unpublishable, for reasons having nothing to do with how well crafted it is (theme, market, events in the world that make your premiss untenable) you're going to fail.
Then there's the other method that I - and a lot of other people used - you throw some oil in a pot at as close to a perfect temperature as you can make it, and you heat it. A whole bunch of them are going to pop, even if you get a few duds. (This doesn't mean by the way that we care less about each individual kernel... er... novel. And it doesn't mean that in the middle of the "okay" kernels there won't be one or two perfect ones. Possibly not the ones we expect.)
This approach, of course, takes its toll on the writer, but it has the opportunity for bringing the greater rewards.
What Kevin didn't say is that for at least the last ten years and probably more, publishers have taken this approach to writers themselves. It used to be they carefully selected a writer and often invested considerable time and effort in helping him or her perfect the craft and improve. Perhaps there are still editors out there that do that. One or two of mine have been very good, but often work with limited time, because these days their job is not to help the writer progress, improve or even become more commercial. At best, if they're interested in you, they give you a call and make suggestions. My friend Rebecca Lickiss, for instance, at one time got asked to write a "bigger" novel. But that was all the guidance she got.
Gone are the days of legendary editors shaping a house to their vision and keeping writers for years as long as they were paying their own way, trying to help that writer develop a following.
These days, and I think since publishers have been able to control every process of distribution and exposure a writer can get/have so that they could "comfortably manufacture bestsellers" at will, they have used the popcorn theory with authors.
Well, not quite, because they do have favorites. In the center of the pot, they would clear a little space and drop one or two little favored kernels they shepherded to the popping into bestsellerdom. The rest of the kernels were thrown in haphazardly, around the edges, where it might be too hot or too cold. And if they didn't pop they got thrown away and other kernels thrown in.
This total absence of response to market signals - in fact, inability to get market signals - since what the system was rigged for was GIGO, that is to give you back what you put in, didn't bother anyone, because those perfect kernels that popped meant great profits for the houses. Also, the smart ones were aware that the house giveth and the house taketh away and they would toe the line. The dumb ones... well, there were always replacements for those.
But now in the brave new world of electronic publishing, which will only grow faster as paper books grow more expensive - and for our friends across the pond, this is guaranteed as our price of energy is skyrocketing, thereby skyrocketing manufacturing and transport as well - anyone with a name, no matter how acquired has a great incentive to publish him or herself. As Dave Freer detailed in his Monday post, over at Mad Genius Club there is no real reason for bestsellers to go with mainstream publishers anymore, and sooner or later they'll all realize it.
This means the popcorn theory of publishing is dead. Heaven alone knows how many publishing houses it will take with it.
To me this seems amazingly obvious, as it seems amazingly obvious that the only way for a publishing house to stay afloat and prosper is to establish a brand - a taste if you will. The only way for a publishing house to stay afloat is to return to the days of legendary editors, say a Hugo Gernsback or a John W. Campbell, who take authors in whom they find a glimmer of something that could be great and mold and shape them and help them find their audience.
The big ones will still escape - unless you really make sure your brand is a value added (and you might. I know people who read everything Baen publishes, for instance, just for the brand) - but by the time they escape they'll have been writing for you for years and getting incrementally better. And those who aren't total SOBs might even write for you, on the side, for years after they start a solo-publishing career, because they're grateful for the help you gave them.
Why aren't any of the businessmen in publishing houses seeing this? Have I made some huge mess in my reasoning? Because this has gone beyond "obvious" to "plain as the nose on your face." I don't understand how anyone can miss it, much less people whose livelihood depends on the current, soon to become toxic, model.
posted by Sarah on 03.09.11 at 02:18 AM
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