I frankly don’t know who Shawn Coyne is, other than he’s pissed me off. I hope he isn’t terribly powerful with connections that could forever keep me unsuccessful. (I have a feeling I can take care of that myself, thankyouverymuch.) But I think he’s doing a disservice to literature and I need to say something about it.
I came across an old interview with him where he was talking with Amy Brozio-Andrews of AbsoluteWrite about his publishing company, Rugged Land. He explains this so-called dirty little secret of the publishing world:
“3 out of 5 books published by the big companies lose money. So you have 40% of the list paying off the debt of the other 60% and, on top of that, holding up the companies overall profitability. Not exactly a great business enterprise to jump on.”
Coyne’s solution to this is that his house puts out only 6 paperback and 6 hardback books per year, and aims to have nearly 100% of his books be profitable. He thinks that’s a better model.
Well, perhaps it’s a better model for business, if making money is the single biggest thing you care about. But if you have an interest in supporting literature as art, expanding people’s minds, leading the edge of creativity, or being a tastemaker, perhaps the 40/60 model of the big guys is a worthwhile endeavor.
What really got my blood boiling was this piece of “advice” Coyne tossed to all the AbsoluteWrite readers: “Figure out who will buy the book. If you can’t figure out who will, then stop writing.”
Stop writing. Amazing, sir. The model you promote is to identify pre-existing audiences and then write for them. Identify a large group of people who already like something and all like the same thing, and then write something like they like so they’ll like it.
I call this the “recursive self-homogenization” of literature. Instead of writing the great new breakout novel, you’re only supposed to write something just like previous breakouts. Let someone else create the audience, and you just piggyback on top of that. If you’re successful too, then someone else will figure out what your book had in common with the breakout, and repeat it. Then someone else will repeat it again. The same audiences keep reading the same books, so the same books keep getting published. The stories become copies of copies of copies, each less vibrant than the previous until you they’re barely anything at all. All the YA fantasy that followed Harry Potter. All the paranormal romance that followed Twilight. All the dystopian fiction that will follow the Hunger Games. But at some point, the quality gets so low, audiences are forced to turn to something new.
Coyne says don’t write it if you can’t sell it. The converse is, if you can sell it, write it.
I say, write what moves your soul and worry about the markets later. Don’t be a copy of a copy of a copy. Don’t perpetuate the homogenization. Your audience is out there. It’s just that they’re not all hanging out together. They’re waiting to be found—by you.
What do you think? Do you write to be successful in the markets? Or is your measure of success something different?