Thursday, 31 July 2014

Week Fourteen: Four-Point Commercial Checklist

"Murder will out," they say, and many in publishing still claim to believe the same of good books. "Great writing will always find a market," we are told as writers, along with that golden oldie, "All good authors will be published eventually."

This sop to our vanity is no longer true, if it ever was. Or it can be true if we are prepared to self-publish.

Not every writer will get their books into the shops. And the journey to get them there - and keep them there - is more complicated and fiendish than anyone outside commercial fiction would ever believe.

Commercial publishing is shrinking, and author lists are shrinking with it. More rapidly than ever. There is every possibility that you will write a good book this year or next, perhaps even a great book, yet be unable to place it with a reputable publisher. Or you may have talent and a reasonable track record, yet fail to attract a publisher willing to go to contract on the strength of a proposal alone. Meanwhile the bills have to be paid ...

It's tempting to assume that every book taken on is now a major risk for publishers, except new work by the very top names - or complete unknowns. Yes, dear new writers with good books, you are not in too bad a position in terms of attracting publishing deals. New writers have not yet 'failed', so you will always be more attractive to the money people whom editors have to convince when they decide to acquire a book. But woe betide if your debut sells less well than expected. Because it's all about sales these days. And I can perfectly understand why publishing is fast becoming a closed shop. In this culture of fear, risk-taking is akin to professional suicide. Far better to give a flat no - or offer the most meagre terms possible - than lose money on a book deal and face the firing squad yourself.

So what's the answer to this narrowing of the publishing arteries?

As I see it, there are several courses open to writers in this position. You can resign yourself to diminishing advances and precarious contracts, and maybe even shift into self-publishing, or you can change what you're writing to become even more commercial, in the hope that this will save you from the graveyard of good writers that has become mid-list publishing.

Literary writers will, quite rightly, reject that last idea. Literary fiction has always been a precarious medium - and anyway, out there on the razor's edge is the best place for experimental fiction to thrive. If you expect no money, and are happier with a small publisher who understands what you're trying to do and will support you with that, you will not miss earning your living by words alone.

"I'm not compromising my creative spirit to churn out a blockbuster. I love this garret."

Mid-list authors keen to explore the freedom and adventure of self-publishing may shrug off traditional publishing at this point and find a new path through these dangerous waters, and good luck to them. I have paddled there myself and know it can be very liberating to self-publish, not to mention lucrative.

For truly commercial writers who do not wish to self-publish, however, adapting to the demands of this brave new marketplace is the only viable response. Nobody wants to drag themselves to the desk every morning feeling like a dinosaur, reading their sales figures with a heart sinking as rapidly as the numbers.

But what does it mean, to write more commercially?

The answers change in specifics according to each publisher and genre, but in general you need to ensure this simple Four-Point Commercial Checklist applies to your manuscript, at least to some degree:

Strong or high-concept story, preferably strikingly original in some elements, but not so original that it won't fit into current book categories. Check it can be described in a simple phrase - or better still in the title itself.

High stakes action. Start with life and death, then work upwards. The more people potentially affected by your story, the higher the stakes.

Accessible, cleanly written prose. Your book can be as complicated plot-wise as you like, but it must be written for as broad a readership as possible. Keep sentences uncluttered, say what you mean, be elegant if you wish - but save your deathless prose for your literary alter-ego.

Larger-than-life characters that keep a reader turning the pages. (You may think you write these anyway, but it's a fair bet you don't. Think larger. No, even larger than that. You need characters a reader will never forget.)

As you can see from that list, writing more commercially is nothing to do with writing in a popular genre or following trends or writing longer or shorter books. It's about making your books memorable without becoming melodramatic, and simple without becoming simplistic.

It comes down to being a great storyteller. And above all this, you also have to believe in your story and not write in in a cynical, 'this will get me published' way.

Tough, huh?

"Jim knew he only had thirty seconds to save the entire universe ..." Are your stakes high enough?

If you knuckle down and do all those things, and still can't get a publisher to take your book, let's face it, you're screwed. But don't worry. There's always self-publishing. More on that in another post.

Oh, and my latest novel WITCHRISE is published today!

QUESTION: What do you think makes a book commercial these days? And would you ever change the way you write just to keep being published?


  1. Trying to apply those four points to my books...Um.... Sensible advice, as always.

  2. What a challenge!
    1. Yes. I was rather chuffed when told by a fellow thriller writer that my Roma Nova books were high-concept. Not sure about strictly fitting the genre, but that's alternate history for you!

    2. Life and death works for me.

    3. I'm simple, so is my prose.

    4. Characters seem to please the readers, especially the protagonist...

    But the key to a successful story, however published? A cracking good story.

  3. Great post as always Victoria

  4. Poised on the brink, me. None of us can afford to ignore these truths. Thanks!

    Su Bristow

  5. Thanks for taking the time to help those of use that are still floundering. I need to go back to week 1.

  6. Thanks all! And Nena, I tell myself that every time I open my laptop!

  7. Oh dear. Shall I simply give up?

  8. That's one option, Julia, and I ask myself that most days. It's certainly not easy to keep going, though as I've said above some people will be in a better position than others right now. And I'm sorry if my unvarnished view of the situation has depressed you. If it's any consolation, not everyone agrees with me.

    But when I feel like giving up, I remember brave writers like Irina Ratushinskaya, who defied death in a Siberian labour camp to write her poems of protest on tiny strips of cigarette paper and smuggle them out to her readers. So if we give up under lesser circumstances ...

    Just a thought.


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