Saturday, March 28, 2020

“The Same, But Different”

     I’d say there are plenty of writers blathering on about the Wuhan virus, our overreaction to it, and the political foofaurauw over it, wouldn’t you, Gentle Reader? So I’m going to deviate. Of course, what I’ve chosen for today’s topic might prove even less appealing, but that’s a risk you’ll simply have to take. Just remember to wash your hands frequently, drink plenty of fluids – I recommend Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry – and refrain from kissing random strangers, and you should be all right.

     First, The Warm Lands has already received a few positive reviews, though I could always use a few more, hint hint. The most striking of the official ones comes from my treasured colleague Margaret Ball:

     No Quest. No Chosen One. No adolescent discovering mysterious powers. No oracular ancient prophecies. And no magical MacGuffin... is this really a fantasy novel? Yes, and it brings a delightfully original take to a field in which too many of those elements have become virtually de rigueur. In a departure from his usual near-future science fiction works, Francis Porretto gives us strong and intriguing characters in a fantasy world with some surprising problems and even more surprising solutions. If I have any caveat, it’s only that the fascinating world of the Scholium is not always described in as much detail as I’d like. But one can always hope that future books will delve more into the Scholium and the Great Waste .

     That was very pleasant to read – and by the way, if you like genuinely original fantasy and science fiction, be sure to read Margaret’s stuff. I particularly recommend her Applied Topology, Language of the Dragon, and Harmony series. She and I share an affinity for departing from overly well-traveled paths, which made my discovery of her stuff a true delight.

     However, a statement from one other “reviewer” – my wife Beth, who was a large part of the reason I wrote the novel – has seized my attention in a rather immediate way:

“This is your best book yet.
There had better be a sequel.”

     And after some cogitation about how I could extend the ideas and conflicts without repeating myself, and a review of the various ways life with a disappointed wife could become...unpleasant, I have decided that a sequel there shall be. Probably two, in fact.

     Yeesh. So there’ll be yet another fantasy trilogy out there. Oh well. I doubt the prospect will cost Tolkien’s heirs any sleep.

     The title of this piece is one version of an editorial mantra that has tremendous force in conventional publishing houses (a.k.a. Pub World). It arises from the terrible difficulties publishers have in predicting what will sell. A business must succeed in selling its products to remain in business, and publishers know from history that most of what they put out will not “break even:” i.e., the revenues for most of their books will fail to equal (much less exceed) the aggregate costs of acquisition, production, promotion, and distribution.

     So publishers’ editors look for any indications whatsoever that a submission might sell profitably. There aren’t many such. The most reliable of all is the author’s name. If he’s well known and has a loyal following of adequate size, his latest book is a good bet. But of course, most submissions don’t come from the Stephen Kings and Tom Clancys of the world.

     The next most significant indicator is whether the submission resembles something that has sold successfully – and sufficiently so that it can be promoted to the readers of that previous success. Of course, the submission must not be identical to the successful book. However, the similarities must be marketable:

  • The same genres;
  • Comparable styles;
  • Comparable structures;
  • Perhaps some shared elements and motifs.

     ...all while maintaining sufficient differences from the predecessor to avoid being called an imitation. This is the publishing desideratum expressed by the mantra “the same, but different.”

     It’s also the reason genuine originality is more easily found among the offerings of indie writers than among those of conventional publishers.

     While I’ve harped on originality as a virtue, I must also admit that it has its downside. Most original ideas fall flat, in fiction as elsewhere. The writer determined to strike out on a completely untraveled path is taking a big chance. He might not click with any significant community of readers. So it takes a degree of daring – to say nothing of an adequate income stream from other sources – to put many weeks or months of effort into composing a tale that’s a true departure from all that’s gone before.

     For readers, too, have their expectations. That’s the reason for genre categorization. As the saying goes, some want elves, others want ray guns, and still others want trans-temporal interspecies sex. (You didn’t know that was a saying? I can’t imagine why not.) That’s a large part of the explanation for the arguments over genre hybridizations such as SF romance.

     So the fledgling writer, contemplating the architecture and key elements of his new novel, has to decide on his level of risk tolerance. He’s about to invest a lot of time and energy in something that might not produce a return. Should he “follow his passion” and boldly go where no novelist has gone before, or should he “play it safe” until he’s established himself as a reliable purveyor of entertainment worth its purchase price?

     It’s a tough call, and no mistake. I’ve certainly struggled with it. I can’t imagine that other indies have found the nut any easier to crack. There are so many of us that getting even a little attention from adventurous readers – persons willing to take a chance on an inexpensive novel from someone they’d never heard of before – is a major challenge. It’s why book giveaways, which eliminate all risk from a potential reader’s acceptance of the book, are popular promotional tools.

     But that publishers’ mantra can be of service. You want to get established before you start defying the norms with your brain-twistingly original concepts? If you find it congenial, pick a hot sub-genre and start by writing something that fits in it. Balance the chance that it will please readers who love that category against the possibilities that the category is already overcrowded, or that your book will be dismissed as “just an imitation of the great Harry Glumph.”

     Most important, resolve to stay rigidly within your chosen sub-genre. Don’t introduce cyclotrons into your medieval fantasy. No ray guns in your Regency romance. Save that for when you’re a household word.

     Publishers’ editors aren’t stupid, after all. If you desire fame and fortune, you might do well to use a little of what they already know from long and dreary experience. Not that there are any guarantees, of course!

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