Recently I attended a writers’ conference in the Lower 48. Nearly every writer I encountered pitched their books the same way, following a script recommended in a workshop. I‘d hear “paranormal” and then my mind would drift. I like paranormal fiction, but the books all seemed the same. If I asked questions, I often found out that these seemingly dull books had brilliant ideas hidden behind the expert-recommended sameness.
The advice given in presentations compounded the stultifying monotony. Writers asked questions such as, “Is it okay to use first person in paranormal romance?” Entire presentations were devoted to standardized plots. Advice on marketing included shoving book brochures at every person encountered. I also heard advice on how to monetize podcasts by selling advertising. This seems to be a sideline and a distraction. For a writer, a podcast should be driving customers to the books, not to other businesses. Such a writer would expend time and effort as a podcaster, not as an author.
Traditional publishers can be wonderful for some authors because publishers have resources necessary for marketing and distribution. They may know what sort of cover will work best. They have contacts and so can get endorsement blurbs and reviews. Most importantly, they have the money necessary to get quantities of book copies into stores. I’ve been told that a reader who picks up a book in a store is more likely to buy it than is a reader who encounters a book online.
However, publishers try to reduce risk by selecting manuscripts which they know will sell. They make such determinations based on books which previously sold well. It’s likely that this risk-aversion drives books to be increasingly similar to books already on the market. Agents feed the pipeline with books which are similar, and experts give advice to meet the requirement of sameness put in place by the publishers. The selection of manuscripts becomes increasingly restrictive, until an author breaks out with a new idea which then sets a new standard which is then followed to the point of monotonous sameness.
Buying books is often like shopping for hair care products. In the grocery store, I face fifty different types of shampoo differentiated only by scent and packaging. This is an illusion of diversity. I observe a similar phenomenon in book marketing. In some genres, nearly identical plots and characters are differentiated only by superficial changes in setting. It’s as if the publisher has bottles of artificial flavoring which are added to the same low-cost ingredients. The best cooks use fresh, natural ingredients and enhance the flavor without the addition of artificial flavors and colors. Lemon- meringue-pie-flavored jelly beans are worlds away from lemon meringue pie made with actual lemons and eggs.
To avoid numbing sameness, I believe writers should ignore common advice. Commonality of advice is a good indicator of the direction of the herd. As writers we’re better off leaving the herd to focus on whatever it is which makes our writing different. This distinctiveness is a writer’s pearl of great price. The presentation of a gem should enhance rather than detract from its beauty. Advice designed for other people gems becomes a distraction and, if taken too far, destroys the gem itself.
I sell books without the support of a publisher by carrying a shoulder bag with copies of my book. I sell more copies out of my shoulder bag than I do through Amazon. Fortunately, we also have independent book stores who are willing to host events and to sell books on consignment. Fireside Books in Palmer is wonderful, so is UAA Bookstore. They both sell my book. There’s also River City Books in Soldotna. Soon a new independent bookstore will be opening in Spenard. Writer’s Block, scheduled to open in 2016, will have a full service restaurant and will sell new books, some of them on consignment. I’m ecstatic. It’s important to support these businesses so that writers have a venue for sharing their new ideas. Independent bookstores may be the best means we have for busting out of sameness to reach a diverse audience.
Lizzie Newell is an author, illustrator, book designer, and artist living in Anchorage, Alaska. She has written six books and twelve short stories set on the planet Fenria, a world which greatly resembles Alaska. She crafts related jewelry, costumes, and sculpture and received both a BA in arts and humanities from CSU in Colorado and a BFA in fine art from UAA. Newell’s first book, Sappho’s Agency, is available at UAA Bookstore and at Fireside Books in Palmer and as an e-book.