A comment came in yesterday on last week’s post about not writing to trends. It wasn’t the first comment to doubt my veracity, but it had the most zing, so I wanted to jump back in and talk a bit more about it. Let’s dive in and see me get thrashed, shall we?
“So stop worrying about trends. Write the books you need to write. Authenticity and enthusiasm are priceless.”
This is absurd.
First, one agent’s trendy knockoff is another’s authentic innovation. There is no consistency or objectivity in this area.
Meyer’s vampire books were (in my opinion) directly inspired by season two of Buffy… but that fact is quite lost on her audience, most of which never watched Buffy.
Second, literary agents aren’t literary and they aren’t agents. They are salesmen, and they want what all salesmen want: something that’s easy to sell.
This being the case, forget incest-filled Gothic novels. Instead, give any “literary agent” a whiff of a memoir to be ghostwritten for Sarah Palin six months from now.
I predict it will get snapped up in a blue blur, never mind the fact that not a word of it exists yet and therefore its merit can’t possibly be judged. What matters is the certain, easy, and lucrative sale.
Agents who encourage new writers to “be authentic” or “write the books you need to write” are just wasting everybody’s time.
Jason makes some completely fair points. Yes, literary agents are salespeople. And we work on commission so do we want things that are easy to sell? Absolutely. But what I find a bit dispiriting about this comment is the notion that we’re only in it to make a buck. Trust me, if I wanted to be rolling in piles of cash, I probably could have found a more direct route than going into book publishing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we do this because we love it. While there are people out there who do sell things just as cash grabs, I sincerely believe that more often than not, agents mostly work on material they legitimately feel passionate about, and not just for its financial potential. Naïve? Stupidly optimistic? Perhaps. But it’s something I see borne out in the agents I know, and not just the ones here.
What has come up a few times is the feeling that I’m completely wrong about not writing to a market. And hey, I’m totally fine with people disagreeing with me. But since I very much agree with myself, I thought I’d talk a little more about this. Yes, we can look at people who saw things selling and jumped into the fray and made a buck. A thriller writer who tried their hand at young adult, a romance writer who made a quick buck back in the day with chick-lit—these examples are out there. “I tried so hard to sell what I wanted to write and couldn’t do it. Then I sold something else.” Well…okay. But how sustainable is that long-term? And how satisfying is a career writing books you don’t love? At some point, won’t the reader catch on? Won’t the books become rather lifeless if you’re writing them only to grab a buck?
Here’s the thing—maybe Stephenie Meyer’s book was derivative of the second season of Buffy. I don’t know—I never watched it. Even if that’s the case, there’s a giant difference between derivative and calculated. If there’s one thing I never doubt about Meyer, it’s her own enthusiasm for her books and her characters. I don’t want to suggest that one should never experiment in their writing. Maybe someone has been doing adult novels for a long time, sees the success of the current young adult market, and wants to give it a go. Wonderful! They have to do it because they’re excited about it, though. I maintain that readers are savvy enough to see through blatant attempts to cash in.
An awareness of the market is necessary, but the most successful books aren’t ones that follow trends. They’re the ones that create them. Go ahead, write to a trend. Get a nice deal. Or go out on a limb, write a great book, and aim for personal and creative satisfaction and the better chance that you’ll break out in a real way. Your call.