Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 8: Prophets of profit


Clearly, our crisis is an artifact of the profit motive, even though so many writers do what they do as a labor of love. On the corporate level, where the high priests and priestesses decide what we get to read, there’s nothing as important as what kind of money any given title will bring in. Even when an editor “falls in love” with a book — as they all claim they have to in order to sell it successfully — the promotion and sales staff determine what kind of push the title will get in the marketplace, and if there’s any doubt they’ll cut their losses and abandon it. Maybe you’ve heard, as I have, that it takes seven mentions of a book in the media, whether in print ads, radio, television, or reviews, to trigger the average reader to buy. That’s a lot of exposure, and most books don’t get it. The books that do are the ones that already have the highest chance of succeeding, either because their authors are well-known or the publishers have committed hefty promotional resources to it. Obviously, getting noticed is an almost impossible goal for a first novelist who doesn’t already have a marketing support system in place.

It used to be the case, or so I was told by my agent years ago, that publishers didn’t expect new writers to achieve robust sales until their fourth or fifth books. They had the philosophy that it was their job to build up a writer, patiently, laying the groundwork with the early books for the ones that would hit the bestseller lists later. After all, writers are evolving creatures, always developing, always learning, so it stands to reason that they will become better writers as they mature. Now, instead of that pretty reasonable (and apparently old-fashioned) approach, publishers demand that writers hit home runs in their first at-bat.

Not very many pull it off.

If the profit motive continues to dominate — or maybe I should say the short-term profit motive — we can expect publishing to resemble a huge, smoke-belching factory that takes writers in the front hopper, chews them up, and spits them out the back end into a smoldering heap. Soylent Green is writers!

And one reason this is feasible for them is that there is an enormous pool of talent out there. Probably more than ever before in the history of letters, a large segment of the population consider themselves writers, and plenty of them have enough talent to succeed. If one novelist won’t play the game the right way, there are thousands in line behind her to step up and take a shot. No doubt, agents and editors don’t see it quite this way, since it seems to them that everything in the slush pile is substandard. Most of what they “love” comes from referrals and so-called discoveries who are really insiders, or relatives of insiders. Nepotism is a natural impulse. It’s just easier that way.

(New York is overrepresented too. Brooklyn, anyway. Even if a writer grew up in Omaha, you can bet that the jacket copy shouts out that he now lives in Brooklyn. There are probably enough talented novelists in Brooklyn alone to sustain the book business for the next twenty years, if the execs are cynical enough to try pulling it off.)


© 2016 by Kevin Brennan

10 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 8: Prophets of profit

  1. kingmidget
    January 20, 2016

    How many actors and performers get their books published because of who they are rather than whether their book is any good? How many thousands of people read those books because of who the author is rather than whether the book is any good?

    As I read your thoughts on this, I just keep coming back to Stephen King, who I think is immensely talented but sold his soul to the devil to keep the money flowing. And it’s a shame. I wonder what he might have written if he had decided to write fewer stories that follow the same path with the same group of characters to the same ending. His short stories show he had it in him.

    When I tried to find an agent/small publisher for Weed Therapy, I got one agent who asked for a sample. I sent her the first 10 pages. The response: Sorry, didn’t speak to me the way I hoped it would. In 10 pages. There are those who are already successful in publishing and those of us for whom it is a complete and total crap shoot.

    Another interesting thought that just came to me. When I was trying to write a blurb for One Night in Bridgeport, I posted it at Toasted Cheese and one of the comments I got was something along the lines of “This is a story that’s been told over and over again, you have to tell us what is different, better about your version.” So, now I’m confused — are we supposed to write to the formula, or write something different. 😉

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 20, 2016

      These are the frustrations of trying to sell our work, for sure. You’re dealing with people who have about ten seconds to give to your book or story, and if they don’t “fall in love” with it on p. 1, it’s toast. One of my several agents was shopping a book around for me one time and got a note back from an editor saying, “If this were about Starbucks workers, using the same method, I might be interested.” WTF?

      Anyway, “To thine own self be true,” I guess.

      • kingmidget
        January 20, 2016

        Yes, because everybody wants to read a book about Starbucks workers. ???

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 20, 2016

        Maybe he thought I was pitching a sit-com…

  2. John W. Howell
    January 20, 2016

    I finally had to give up the agent and publisher quest. I don’t think I will live long enough to see anything productive from them.

  3. 1WriteWay
    January 21, 2016

    “publishers demand that writers hit home runs in their first at-bat”: and the sad thing about that is, can the 2nd book measure up? In this business, apparently you can’t fail … ever. Your 2nd book has to be better than your 1st, your 3rd better than your 2nd. Nothing about seeing an author grow. I guess that’s just the old English major in me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 21, 2016

      Good point. If the sales force loses faith in you, it’s curtains.

      • 1WriteWay
        January 21, 2016

        Which is probably why they are so reliant on “celebrity” authors. The content of the book doesn’t matter. It’s the name of the author that sells.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 21, 2016

        I confess I liked Keith Richards’s “Life,” though… 😉

      • 1WriteWay
        January 21, 2016

        Oh, that’s fine. I was using the word celebrity loosely.

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This entry was posted on January 20, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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