Why you no buy books? Part 1-Is it symptomatic of good intent gone wrong?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the drop in readers nationwide. Perhaps the drop in people purchasing books is a more accurate way to describe my concern – I think there are plenty of readers. Smarter people than me have also been musing about this topic.

Sara Megibow expressed it perfectly in 140 characters. She said…

It struck a nerve with me, so I responded – and used the word THAT when I should have said THIS. See, once you make a grammar mistake online, it haunts you forever.

I want to dig in to this problem, but to be honest, I’m a bit leery. In fact, digging into this in the past began the slow and painful death of an previous novel, NORTH. My MG fantasy that was overanalyzed until it turned into a bizarre amalgamation of every profitable MG fantasy novel out there, thus removing ME from the process. I’m NOT doing that again.

I’m going to do a few of these “what’s up with book buyers these days” posts and I thought I’d start by giving up some battle wounds in hopes of soothing my writer soul a bit.

I’m going to oversimplify this to the point of sounding obtuse, but here it goes. Remember the “this is my blog rules” – which state ‘this is my blog – my opinions – my take on things – which probably makes them malarkey, but if you disagree – it’s up to you to correct them. Please comment below :)’.

Please Be Kind and Rewind 10 year: the dark ages before the mass consumption eBooks.

My guess (my hope really) is that the big 6 saw this coming. They looked at data and noticed trends that told them, before any of us, that people were not buying books. I’m also hoping that during that time the big 6 looked at the few books that were really doing well, and established guidelines based on those books in hopes of influencing a better book selling future. Those guidelines made it through to the acquisition editors, who passed it on to agents, who passed it along to their clients, who spilled the secret to the unpublished masses (like me).

Now, in its own right, this is a good process. People familiar with the business and art of making books can interoperate this information in a valuable manner. Editors, agents and published (or contracted) authors have access to a very smart network. They can evaluate these suggestions on a per book (per page) basis and decide as a group where it makes sense to employ these guidelines and where to leave them out.

The unpublished do not share this luxury.

Here’s what I fear the result has landed. These assumptions on how to make a book that sells, have become dogma, and perhaps contributed to an overall downgrade in debut novel submissions to agents/editors, thus limiting their options at truly unique offerings from their most important resource – writers.

I’m basing this off a few things 1) my experience in seeing this happen in the games world first hand, 2) my personal experience of trying to interpret this ‘how to write a book that sells’ information and incorporate it into my own work, 3) the constant reminder from agents at the outlandish percentages of ill-prepared books in their collective slush pile (perhaps collectively it’s slush planet. Slush galaxy?) and 4) the suggestions and critique given to me from other writers often mimic advice I’ve learned through this channel. Not a bad thing, but the advice has become dogmatic. Sorry – gotta call it like it is.

I began writing NORTH over 2 years ago. The first draft happened verbally. A story spun for my children that centered around the myth of Santa Clause and an explanation of how he stopped time to be able to run around the globe in one night. It was full of peppermint, memories, children testing their belief system, and family.

My audience (my very bias decedents) was captivated. They hung on every word and encouraged me to add another installment nightly until the story was resolved. I thought about it during the day, just so I could delight them before bedtime with the continued adventures of Josie, Kesuk, and a young giant named Brun. It was one of the most important experiences of my life.

Two years later, I had turned that soulful experience into something entirely different – not horrible, but different. I’d removed the Santa myth all together and placed the emphasis on the children’s journey instead. I’d also removed a critical character because he was an adult and children don’t want to read about adults – right? I rushed to the story, pushing conflict and action to the first page, reducing the time spent getting to know the characters for the sake of moving into the inciting incident. I changed the pace from a comforting fairytale to an adventurous adrenaline rush with everything from crocodiles to legends of a lost  city hidden behind the Aurora Borealis. I had plans for extending it to a three book series. A branding and marketing plan was in place. I lost writing time to building a platform. (How did that sneak in there? That’s another blog post.)

And you know, in the end, I wasn’t ashamed of NORTH. I’m still not. It’s actually okay. I even sent it around to some much respected people for response, which is something I don’t take lightly, but it wasn’t MY book. And for those of you that know the pub industry, you can see that while my intentions were correct, I didn’t necessarily implement the right things. I over worked this cream filling out of this thing,  and all that was left was yellow cake.

I know I’m not alone here. I’m positive that other writers have made, and are currently making the same formulaic changes to their work. I know a ton of these people will send out submissions and a percentage of them will get a chance. They’ll find the right hook and their writing will be good enough.

Their yellow cake will be better than mine, but it still begs the question, have we given up on the cream filling?

Has the average PUBLISHED book, those that have the chance to influence the market, dropped in quality and originality?

If you agree – and if you’re a writer/agent/editor – you’d have to agree THIS is something we can fix. It will not be easy, but I’m personally not worried about taking a bit of the blame and doing whatever it takes to raise the bar.

So, what do you think? Do you think this could be a contributing factor in the drop of book sales? I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts.