Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Bad ideas in publishing (contd.)


The publishing business

When I read this article in the Times, I couldn’t decide whether to shit my pants or pluck all the hair off my entire body. Or, indeed, both.

The synopsis: A young-adult imprint called Swoon Reads is letting readers select the books it publishes. “By bringing a reality-television-style talent competition to its digital slush pile, the publisher is hoping to find potential best sellers that reflect not editors’ tastes but the collective wisdom and whims of the crowd.”

I can’t bear to go into the details. Read the article for yourself and decide whether you think it’s a good idea for publishers to turn editorial decision-making over to a subgroup of readers who are obsessive enough to pore over hundreds of samples and vote for their favorites.

Listen to Swoon’s publisher:

“The fans and the readers are more in touch with what can sell,” said Jean Feiwel, senior vice president of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and publisher of Swoon Reads, who came up with the concept in 2012. “They’re more at the pulse of these things than any of us can be.”

Some smarty-pantses out there might say, Well, they market-test everything from movies to toothpaste — why not novels?

I’m sorry. Ms. Feiwel might think she’s making the intellectual equivalent of toothpaste (or my favored metaphor: Chips Ahoy), but, in theory at least, novels are supposed to be art. They’re not cobbled together by committee. They’re not made on an assembly line. They’re the product of a single person’s imagination, and the minute that person starts reining in her imagination to cater to what the public blob seems to want is when art gets hijacked and held hostage.

Creative terrorism? You be the judge.

This is not unlike the hideous concept I told you about a while back, wherein outfits like Oyster provide data to publishers and writers about how far readers are getting into books so that writers can avoid the plot and style points that apparently cause mass flight. Highlights and comments can come into play too, in effect providing focus-group reaction that can be used in future “product.” Arrrggghhh.

I once had a reader tell me she didn’t like Parts Unknown because the protagonist was a bad man and she couldn’t relate to bad men. Never mind that she seemed to have missed the nuances in his persona, but if I had had to use her comment to help direct my writing I think I would have taken up humorous origami instead. She didn’t get the redemption theme, which meant that she didn’t get the book. But she’s just the kind of reader who will be calling the shots in the Swoon model.

It’s not easy to write novels. It’s hard to produce something that stands up to your own creative standards but also satisfies readers without making them feel like they’re being talked up, or down, to.

It’s even harder to pretend that morphing art into merely “something that can sell” is what this is all about, but maybe that’s just me.


27 comments on “Bad ideas in publishing (contd.)

  1. Green Embers
    August 13, 2014

    “outfits like Oyster provide data to publishers and writers about how far readers are getting into books so that writers can avoid the plot and style points that apparently cause mass flight. Highlights and comments can come into play too, in effect providing focus-group reaction that can be used in future “product.”’

    I like that idea actually. As a writer I would want to to know if readers are finishing my book and if not, why. Finding out if several people stopped in certain spot (say after the first chapter). Then it tells me that I have self improvement to become a better writer. It’s not the audience dictating what you ‘should’ write — more that what you wrote was bad enough to make them stop reading. A good idea in a good presentation is always better than a good idea presented poorly.

    It’s kind of like drawing and painting. It is always good to start out learning the basics of form, perspective, color theory, and composition. Once you have a good foundation then you can add your style, your flair and make it your art.

    Sorry I got side tracked. But I do agree the people voting for what books to publish isn’t a very good idea. Mostly because whatever author has the most pull with the Internets will win. It will be a popularity contest rather than a focus on quality.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      I hear you, but I don’ t know what I’d do if readers were bailing out at a point where I’m doing something I think is critical to the book. Say it’s something as fundamental as introducing a new point of view. If they’re too impatient to go with my flow to see what I’m up to, maybe they aren’t the right audience for the book. Tricky stuff!

      And your last point is interesting because we’ve learned that all is not as it seems on the Nets, eh? Why would we trust the data that comes to us that way?

      • Green Embers
        August 13, 2014

        Yeah it really comes down to the numbers. If you see a high % stopping before a certain point, then yeah, there might be a problem with your flow and it might need to be reworked. If only half are impacted, then most likely, yeah, it just wasn’t the book for them.

        As to things that are critical, my response would be find the non critical things to modify or remove.

        Yay for the Internets! It is the place where all the hot women want me! 😆

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 13, 2014


        The Internets: Where Fiction Is Reality!

  2. Pamela Beckford
    August 13, 2014

    I can see both sides of this. As a poet, I want to be able to produce the collection I want. As a reader, I want to read the types of books I like. If the publisher doesn’t like the books I want, they can be self-published. How is this different from a publisher just deciding what to publish without the input of the buying public?

    On the other side, the competitiveness rubs me the wrong way.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      This is what publishers have traditionally been for: selecting what the public gets to read. I think more and more they’ve been trying to guess what the public wants instead of guiding the public. But if making money really is the be all and end all, then this makes economic sense, I suppose.

      I’m a cockeyed idealist in the end… What a sap!

  3. sknicholls
    August 13, 2014

    I heard write what you like to read.But that’s not what I wrote. I wrote a story that was in me and needed to come out. I read and enjoy crime fiction. I am now writing a crime series and I, myself, wonder if it is even going to be up to standard. I’m nervous about it. Am I selling out to the masses?

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      I always say, If you love writing crime fiction, then write crime fiction. It’s not a sell out. But if you want to be Toni Morrison and you still write crime fiction, something’s not jiving there.

      There’s always the idea of a pseudonym for one kind of book and your real name for another…

      • sknicholls
        August 13, 2014

        I am so very new at this novelist thing I’m not sure I know what I want to write. I like reading all sorts of books, really I do. Trying to figure what I’m best writing is another thing.

  4. tpolen
    August 13, 2014

    It scares me a little to think about letting readers choose which books are published. Look at all the reality shows on TV – seems like more are on every day, so someone must be watching them. Who’s to say they’re not the same people choosing the books?

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      I know! What if the people who watch “Big Brother” get to pick the books! Aaaaiiiieeeee!

  5. francisguenette
    August 13, 2014

    I think you hit the mark in your comment that only a select number and type of reader will ever participate in such a scheme – all the other readers are using the spare time they have for reading! So, the whole thing is skewed from the get go. by the way, the opening line to this blog is bloody brilliant.

  6. John W. Howell
    August 13, 2014

    I read the same article and thought it was a joke. Seriously, why doesn’t the audience just write their own crap and leave us the hell alone. I loved the idea of crapping pants and pulling out body hair.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      There’s also the veiled suggestion that publishers aren’t already giving readers what they want. What else explains all the vampire/zombie crap?!

  7. 1WriteWay
    August 13, 2014

    I haven’t read the article (I’m at work, g-damn-it!), but they lost me at “collective wisdom and whims of the crowd.” Can you have both collective wisdom and whims? Who knew?

    Given that I already hate the reality-TV format, I know I won’t like this reality-publishing format.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      Yeah, I get nervous whenever I hear the term “collective wisdom.” Also known as “mob rule.”

      • 1WriteWay
        August 13, 2014

        yup … lowest common denominator …

  8. ericjbaker
    August 13, 2014

    I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of New Coke. Coke changed their flavor to taste more like Pepsi after Pepsi smoked them in a taste test. Problem is, the taste test only included one sip of each. It turns out that if people drink a whole can, they like Coke better. Oops.

    Same deal here. Flashy samples that can’t be sustained over an entire novel will beat out less flashy samples of books that are well-written, sustainable concepts.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      That’s a great point. I have plenty of personal examples of rejecting a book on the basis of the first few pages, or even flipping through it, but when I go ahead and read it years later I find it terrific.

      Usually the full and desired effect of a book comes when — get this — you’ve finished reading it!

      • ericjbaker
        August 13, 2014

        Maybe all mysteries should tell you who the killer is in the blurb so you can see if it’s going to be the kind of reveal you find satisfying.

  9. kingmidget
    August 13, 2014

    I’m not sure I have a problem with having a sampling of the reading public participate in the decision regarding what to publish. Isn’t that better than having one person serving as an agent or an editor or a publisher being able to cut a writer off at the knees. The biggest problem I have with the traditional publishing business is that there are for too many gatekeepers who individually have far too much power based on their own personal likes and dislikes. A decision where there is more input from an array of individuals, some of whom aren’t actually in the business, sounds like a better way.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 13, 2014

      Well, I guess I disagree in principle, but maybe I’m looking at this from a different angle than you are. I see a focus-group-oriented selection process as even more restrictive than the single-editor system if only because the readers select themselves for this duty and they choose on the basis of samples. It comes down to: “Cool, this sounds like something I’d like to read.” There can’t be any real vetting of full manuscripts.

      But, I’ll add that I don’t think this method has much of a future. It strikes me as a gimmick that Swoon is trying as a PR thing.

      • kingmidget
        August 14, 2014

        I agree that it doesn’t have much of a future. Too cumbersome and time consuming.

  10. rossmurray1
    August 14, 2014

    Well, we’ve turned book criticism over to the amateurs (i.e. Goodreads), why not the publishing?

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 14, 2014

      So true. Maybe readers should just write and review their own books… Or is that already happening?!

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This entry was posted on August 13, 2014 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , .
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