An Embarrassment Of Riches

This is a continuing take on Kris Rusch’s article this week, which, as I said, contained four or five (possibly more) ideas that could be spun out into articles of their own.

The thrust of the article, as a whole, was an article in the Wall Street Journal, claiming we’ll lament the big publishers when they leave because it will leave us having to wade through a mire of muck to find the single diamond hidden there.

In this just so story, the New York houses, selflessly and gallantly throw themselves before the river of muck flowing from so many illiterate and unaware writers to deluge the innocent. Shield of “good taste” in hand they plunge in, and holding the One Book Of True Worth hold back the invasion, and present the public with the jewel they discovered.

This is, undoubtedly, how most publishers see themselves. (Most, because having talked to my publisher at Baen, including at dead dog parties when she’s tired and out of it, I’ve never heard her say that her job is to educate the public or to mold the public taste or any such rot. The only thing she’s said about choosing books is that she tries to choose books the fans will like. For which, might I add, the fans are vocally grateful.) Look, I can’t even fault the editors. First of all most of them are humanities graduates. As one such, I know what we got about “good literature” and “bad literature” and how the popular taste is almost always wrong. (I won’t say that they don’t tell us that Shakespeare was popular in his day, I’ll just say they usually search for mitigating circumstances, such as “Well, the plays were put on with buckets of blood” or in some sad cases, they try to down-rate Shakespeare because he was popular. They place a lot more emphasis in the fact that Walt Whitman self-published or Emily Dickenson [whose every poem can be sung to the tune of yellow rose of Texas. Somehow they never tell you that] kept her writing a secret. Their preferred narrative is the lone genius writer, recognized only by the literatti.) So all the editors have to brandish as “expertise” is their ability to tell good from “popular.” Second, these editors start out as assistant editors with no power and even less money. (My son Robert, who is a wicked person, has long since created the imaginary Ms. Thistlewhile, second assistant under editor from the right in the leftward sub-basement of a generic publishing house. When we speak of editors, she always comes up in conversation. He keeps threatening to write Slush, the Musical! If you ask him nicely, maybe he will.) Third, even the most powerless of these under editors if they manage to make it to a con are fawned upon and courted by writers, particularly unpublished writers dying to break into a system designed to keep them at bay (more on that in a later article.)

That singular combination of powerlessness and fawning would go to anyone’s head, and editors are human. Couple it with their training in “taste” and suddenly you have someone who thinks he/she is in charge of determining not what will sell or what the fans will like, but what the fans SHOULD like. Again, this is a whole other topic, upon which I will have a whole article.

For now I’ll concede that yes, sure, if the goal were to make sure the books that make it to the top are the ones that appeal to the self-appointed oligoi, then yes, indeed, we’d need editors with masters in literature to sift through it all.

Fortunately – for us – the name of the game is not that. The name of the game for us, as readers, is to pick books we will enjoy.

I’ll take a short detour here and say that, yes, indeed, there is such thing as an embarrassment of choices, sometimes. I have found myself completely puzzled in front of the Crest toothpaste/gel isle for instance. I will say, though, that this is not because I don’t know what I like – something that will serve to clean my teeth – but because nine times out of ten the one flavor/texture the kids like has stopped being made to be replaced by NEW, DAZZLING flavors, and I have no idea which one they’ll like. This is in other words, more akin to what the editors should be doing (but mostly aren’t) than to what I, as a reader, would be doing.

If I were shopping for myself alone, instead of for teenagers, my winnowing process would go something like this: Toothpaste. Need some. Oh, look. Ten brands. Let’s see, I usually like Crest. Okay, maybe another is just as good, but my husband used Crest when I first came to the States, I’ve used it since, I’m used to it. I don’t feel adventurous. Good Lord. Ten thousand flavors/textures of Crest. Oh, let me see, I like gel. It’s easier to rinse off your teeth after brushing. Flavor … um… cinnamon, vanilla, citrus…. I’m in a cinnamon mood today. Plaque, what? Eh. Considering the tons of coffee I drink, I should probably get that.

The whole process takes less than a few seconds.

Can the same be done with books, when I’m faced with no brand, no specific shelving but a bewildering mess of books suggested on Amazon.

The same is done with books. Look, at this point in time, when shopping electronically (not the same thing when shopping on paper, as POD books tend to either be more expensive or look shoddy, which does influence choice.) I don’t even look at who the publisher is. I don’t see if it has a stamp of approval.

So, how do I shop? As I do for toothpaste. “Oh, look… books. I need books. Finished the last batch. What do I feel like reading today?” Here I’ll point out that though I read Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and – lately – Romance and then various (but not all) subgenres of those, I don’t read them all interspersed. No. I go through phases. I’ll spend six months reading nothing but science fiction, then three months in Mystery. Then two months in Romance. Then I’ll feel like non-fiction. So, depending on how I feel at the moment – which often has to do with how hard I’m willing to work on my entertainment. For instance cozy mysteries and Regency Romances I call bubblegum books because you can read them with only a part of your mind while doing something else, like laying on the beach. This doesn’t mean they’re less “worthy” it means they fulfill what I need when I’m relaxing – I know what genre I’m looking for. Say, I’m looking for Romance, where, mostly, I read regencies so far. I’ll first do a search for the half dozen names I remember in Romance. (There are a lot more for other genres.) Let’s suppose none of them have a new book out. (They’re fast, romance writers. I am finding three and four books a year from each, but even they can’t write as fast as I read.) Time to try a new author.

Do I then at that moment go “Oh, let me look for x imprint?” No. I suppose, in romance particularly certain readers do. But I haven’t formed that sort of taste. So, what I do – have done – is look for a word that appears in Regency Romance titles, like, say, Rake. (Yes, it also appears in gardening manuals, but I can usually tell the two apart.) A few books will come up. At which point, strangely, I don’t clutch at my hair and go “Save me, editor, save me.” No, what I do is read the descriptions and the reader opinions (And btw, not always just to see if they’re good. Sometimes the bad reviews say something is bad for a reason that seems bizarre to me and piques my interest in the book.) Or at least skim them. I also look at the “readers who viewed this book also bought” which leads me usually to other regency romances. If none of the ones that came up interest me, sometimes one of the “alsos” will.

More usually – I did this a lot while in Portugal – I come away with six or seven “possibles.” Then I download the samples. You know, it’s amazing how neither the description, the publisher status NOR the author’s name tells me I’m going to like the book.

Long ago, when I was a YOUNG writer, I told Kris Rusch that my “unevenness” bothered me. Some of my stories/books were so much better than others. She looked at me like I was nuts and told me that everyone was uneven. What she didn’t tell me, and I’ve come to realize over time, is that it’s not necessarily an unevenness of quality, but an unevenness of focus. Something someone else – Alma Alexander? – said at World Fantasy last year (in the con suite, where all good talk happens) made me realize what that unevenness actually is. She said that any book you write will be someone’s favorite and someone’s least favorite of your work. I’ve seen this happen with my own work (usually because of the reader’s own preferences and nothing I could have done, but write the same book again and again) and I KNOW it happens with my favorite authors. Even Pratchett whom I love, wrote the Rincewind books which fail to excite me and the Death books which I read only reluctantly. At the same time, my husband and son love the Death books, which goes to show you.

So, if you can’t depend on the creator of the work to ALWAYS turn out something you like, how can you depend on a gatekeeper.

So, do I hate wading through six samples, to get maybe one book I want to buy? No. You see, I’m not judging the “worthiness” of the book. I’m ONLY judging if I want to read it. And that’s easy. Usually I know two paragraphs in. If it doesn’t grab my attention by then, I’m not buying the book. I might revisit it at some later date – probably not knowing I looked at it before – and find it okay, but at that moment it’s not the flavor of toothpaste I want.

The whole selection process takes me maybe half an hour, which is less than browsing books in a single section of a single bookstore used to take me. And I’ve found a lot more authors – in all genres – to know and love this way than I have in the ten years since.

Because, you see, what the publishers have been doing lately is FAR MORE akin to what Crest does (are they being managed by the same people?) You go to the store wanting more of that toothpaste you just finished, and it’s gone, or at least the label is different. Instead of Tingly Cinnamon, it will be new and improved Ultra Cinamonny and the packaging will be different. Because of their obsession with selling books by computer numbers without context like laydown, covers, etc, publishers have been either stopping publishing authors after two books, or making the author take a pen name. So even if you loved Mary Jones’ cat mysteries, and even if Mary is still writing mysteries –now dog mysteries – you won’t find her because she’s now Mary Smith and shelved in a completely different area, with no reference to her former name.

(Yes, I intend to still use pen names for my different “brands” but I also think I’ll put somewhere in the description “this is Sarah Hoyt writing as” and a list of all my other books in the back. That way the fans will know “uh. vampire sex. Not spacemen” but will still be able to find my other stuff.)

Anyway, none of this should be or is a surprise to me, because about twelve years ago, while my husband was traveling, and having hit a point in my then non-career where I was afraid I’d never be published, I succumbed to the allure of reading – and writing – fan fiction. It was Jane Austen (mostly Pride and Prejudice) fan fiction over at Derbyshire Writers Guild. (Yes, I still have some of my stuff up there for free, most of it unfinished.)

DWG – we call ourselves Dwiggies, and yes, I’m still one of them, even though for the last few years I’ve had very little time to visit – is an “unedited” site. No one decides if you deserve to be up there, unlike other fan sites I could name. I don’t know how busy it is now – see the thing about not much time – but around 2000 when I spent almost every afternoon there, there often were ten new stories or episodes of series posted a day.

So, did I read all ten? Didn’t it overwhelm me to read all those unedited stories? Well, no. To begin with, I will only read contemporaries if they’re by an author I’ve liked in the “historical” fan fiction before. So, yeah, my first scan was for “author I know and like” and second for “Story I’ve been following.” What did I do failing those? I read the one paragraph description. Anything set in present day – say half of them, usually more – was out the window.

Then I looked more closely, for stuff that triggered my “like” button. I’m very fond for instance of situation reversal stories (where Darcy is poorer than Lizzy, say.) And then for “dislike” button (I hate overly preachy stories, for instance.) This usually narrowed the selection down to one or two stories I read, and again, took seconds.

An interesting thing to note is that in the sub-genre I read (historical) the stories I liked were usually the most popular. Of course, so were the stories I hated with a burning passion because (sorry, I did say I’m a reluctant snob – and btw The Reluctant Snob is a great title for a romance) they were too melodramatic, too purple, too illogical. Which proves… nothing. That I set certain minimum levels of quality with which other people seem to agree, I guess. But that beyond that I’m prey to my prejudices as is any other reader and/or editor. And that my prejudices often do not accord with other people’s tastes.

The Wall Street Journal article reminded me of when my mom visited and, faced with the same toothpaste isle, said “Too many choices. They shouldn’t allow these many brands on the market. How do I know which one is good.”

And I say what I told her then, “You don’t. You can’t. You can only know which one you’ll like, based on what you’re looking for.”

As for me, I like it. I like to choose my own toothpaste. And my own reading material.

9 thoughts on “An Embarrassment Of Riches

  1. I frequently mull over the fact that the most popular, famous and beloved characters in English literature are, to put it bluntly, written by hacks. Sherlock Holmes — nobody would hold Conan Doyle up as a superb stylist. Tarzan – please, if you’ve read Burroughs you know what I mean. Harry Potter? May well not achieve the immortality of the first two, but in all honestly Rowling’s writing isn’t especially good even within the YA subgenre; I expect any of us could cite off the top of the head at least three superior YA writers — and not just three “I like better” but three objectively better writers.

    But “superior writing” ain’t why we buy books, is it? Some authors have the ability to grab you by the hand and take you on the wildest roller coaster ride ever and leave you gasping for more. Other writers, competent wordsmiths able to write sentences of grace and style, are read until the book gets put down, never to be picked up again.

    We could discuss why this is so, but unless we acknowledge the premise that “writing ability” and “writing success” have no necessary connection.

    1. RES,
      Actually I’ve discussed this some posts back — and really I need to start using tags on these! — I agree with you to an extent, but only to an extent. You’re doing what many people do which is identify “story telling prowess” with word slinging. They’re not the same. In fact, they rarely track. I should know, because I never have to give much thought to the word slinging. It’s a blessing, because when I started out I had NO idea what I was doing with the story telling, so I needed to give THAT all my attention. So I studied books that “grabbed” and figured out what they were doing. Rowling is actually a superb story teller. Which is why the books sell so well. (So is Laurell K. Hamilton, whose word sense could fit in a thimble, and whose first books were so poorly edited that her characters changed height, hair color and description three times per book.) Part of what keeps you reading Harry Potter is the hook of the lost waif, treated in a way that takes it over the top. Think Jane Eyre. (Actually the beginning reminded me of it.) She also has what I call a “rolling plot”. Yeah, most plots have a “big problem” but that’s too hard to keep track of from the beginning of the book to the end. Somewhere halfway through the book, your brain goes, “Oh, this dragon is never going to be killed. They still have to cross the plains of death, and the desert of despair and nothing interesting is happening on the way.” And then you put the book down and don’t pick it up again. So, good story tellers have little problems throughout the book in addition to the two or three major plots/subplots. Those problems might be the horse that dies in the planes of death and the character who gets blisters in the desert of despair, or whatever, but they have to be there. For bonus points, they should relate to one of the major plots. BUT the important thing that good story tellers to and that I — being inversely gifted — only noticed with Rowling, is that they never solve one of those minor problems without introducing a bigger one. For bonus points a bigger one that is caused by trying to solve the last one. This keeps the reader reading and “couldn’t put it down.” In Rowling’s case, for instance, Diana Wynne Jones is a much better writer in the sense of word smithing and even to an extent of giving us interesting characters. She — rest in peace — lacked only one thing to be an extraordinary story teller: pacing. This is a failing I empathize with, because it’s something I struggle with myself, in every book. Jones’ pacing slacked a bit here and there. Oh, not insanely. I still read her and looked for all her other books. But I didn’t read three of her books in a day stopping only to eat when I had to, as I did with Rowling.
      Anyway, far be it for me to say talent and success are linked (look at my post today!) but when a lot of people really insanely like something, when kids who read nothing else will read THIS book, there is usually a connection to storyteller ability, even if the word sense makes you cringe and hide. Heck, I read some fan fic authors who write as though English were their third language, but who have great story teller sense, because I like the STORY. In fact, fan fiction boards is a great place to identify and study story telling ability, because most people plain don’t care about the wordsmithing. (Though there are exceptions, particularly among the writers.)

      1. Ummm … actually, I was (apparently less well than I imagined) referring to the ability to create memorable characters — which is probably a subset of story-telling prowess (can we call that “story-smithing”?) and wholly separate from word-smithing. Subset because making the reader “care” what happens to the characters is a critical element of story-smithing but does not itself constitute telling the story.

        One element in the creation of immortal characters is the Lowest Common Denominator factor: that which is accessible to a large number of people generally sacrifices certain refinements. This is an observation, not a criticism; the world is as it is. But it is also no criticism to observe that things often succeed for largely extrinsic reasons. Harry Potter’s success is in large part a factor of timing: it came out of the oven just as the world was recognizing a hunger for that sort of fare. A decade sooner or later and the market response might have (surely would have) been wholly different.

        Critical to all of this is an important principle I’ve learned over the years: it is important to understand what a job actually IS. As a bliblioholic I firmly believe a publisher’s (and therefore an editor’s) job is to provide books people WANT to read; whether these are also books people SHOULD read is a wholly different issue and not part of the publisher’s portfolio. Thanks to the interwebs readers are much freer to find books they WANT to read rather than accepting publishers’ (and humanities degreed editors’ and booksellers’) prescription of books that we OUGHT to read. Because we all read for different purposes and who is to say which purposes are superior?

        1. I completely agree on the providing books that readers want to read. I’ll note my book that to date has done best and defying all expecations DOES pay a nice royalty every reporting period (not lavish, but nice) is the one I only wrote so I’d be allowed to write another one, and — because I didn’t want to write it — crammed through in three days. Okay, those were three days without real sleep, and yeah, the book got proofed and edited (by a writer who couldn’t see straight) before going in, BUT I retained so much memory of it that I had NO idea weather I’d followed my planned outline and divided it into sections (No, not DST, the sections there were Toni’s idea and after the fact, though the sequel came with “sections” in the concept. And Toni was right. Well, had to be or I wouldn’t have done it. The book I’m not speaking of is not under my own name, is the only one under that name, and is not sf/f or mystery. It’s not hard to ferret out given that, but I’m not going to say the name straight out) or not, until I opened a copy the other day while signing and realized I DO indeed have the sections in it. Now, for all I know the words between the setion breaks are in sanscrit, that’s how much memory I have of it. I wouldn’t call it my finest work. (Though I’ll note, research and plotting took about a month, it was just the writing that happened in three white-hot days.) And the book has sold, by itself, more than the accumulation of all my other books. Maybe I should write more books in three days. (Actually it might be worth it, as an experiment, though I’d give myself a week, because three days was BRUTAL. It’s entirely possible my “learning” about literature is interfering with natural story-telling instincts.)

  2. At *this* end of what I’m hoping might turn out to be a career, it’s impossible for me to say how any of this is going to pan out. I’m in good shape in one respect, I think – I tend to do reasonably well at quick-striking hooks, particularly in the silly stories. That may serve me well in the new marketplace, where that first page (or a fraction thereof) is all many readers will see if it doesn’t grab them and pull htem in.

    I appreciate your branding, but *gods yes!!* add the cross-referenced backlist! (please?) The person who actually OWNS the Nook likes strong plots and characters who happen to indulge in occasional bouts of vampire sex, while I’ve told you about my problems with same … she may someday read DST, but won’t devour it like I did, and will probably never bother with “Death of a Musketeer” … but between us, we probably like very nearly every “brand” you write.

    Oh, and Thing Two loves the idea of “Slush! The Musical”. I smell a collaboration …

    1. Stephen,
      between you and me and very in secret, I’ve long lived in dread of #1 son and Thing 2 meeting. I suspect they’d get along like a house on fire, and other people would run SCREAMING.

      1. Sounds like a LOT of fun … something to unleash on some poor, defenseless Con … 🙂

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