Not Every Book Has to Be a Bestseller
When I first started submitting seriously to publishers, I believed that I was going
to be a bestseller. Other authors might not be good enough to make it to the top,
but I was confident enough that I would. I was going to work harder, longer hours,
writing more pages, and being easy to work with so that I would help along my
career as much as I could. And of course, I believed that every story idea I had was
a potential bestseller. I was going to make enough money to support my family on
my own. I was going to be a household name. More than that, I was going to be
one of those authors who make money and are critically acclaimed, who become
staples of the field, taught in colleges as examples of good writing and good
Ha! I shake my head a little bit over this now.
While I still believe in working hard, putting in your time to learn your craft, and
keeping at it despite rejection, I no longer believe that trying to write a bestseller
with every book is the best strategy for a writer. Yes, there are times when you can
use an existing story idea, tweak it a little, and make it more appealing to a wider
audience. Yes, your publishers may encourage you as a writer to make such
changes. Yes, they will like you more if your book actually performs better
commercially (though if it doesn't, they'll still blame you, not their own bad
advice, for the result).
But these days, I tend to ask more questions of my book than if it will be a
bestseller. Is this a book that expresses my heart and soul as deeply as I can? Does
this book tell a story that is uniquely mine? Will I be embarrassed by this story in
ten years' time? Am I following a trend just for the sake of it? Did I change
something purely because my editor insisted on it and I didn't feel like I could
argue? Is this book the very best I can do right now? Is this a book that shows
compassion and a diverse worldview? Is this a book that will be read and reread?
Those are the marks of success, and anything after that doesn't matter. If I know I
have written something I am proud of myself, then reviews aren't going to hurt
me. Neither will low sales figures. It might disappoint my publisher, but I will
remain confident that at some point, the book will catch on and sales will pick up.
Or I shrug and let it go. The only thing I really have control over is doing my best.
There are some books that I love with a deep and holy passion that were never any
success in terms of book sales. Yet the world would be a poorer place for me if
those books were not in it. Examples? The brilliant Elizabeth Wein, before she
wrote Code Name Verity, wrote a series retelling the King Arthur stories
beginning with The Winter Prince. This is one of my favorite fantasy series of all
time, starring Arthur's half-brother who is half-black, in his own kingdom in
Africa. Yet it sold so badly that I think Wein wondered for years if she would
make a book deal again. My Real Children by Jo Walton is another brilliant book
by an always brilliant author who has been reviewed well in the sff community,
but hasn't necessarily been a bestseller. But this book changed absolutely the way
that I think of myself as a mother and a writer. And then there is The Year We
Disappeared by Cylin Busby and her father John Busby, a real-life story about
when a cop was shot by a local mobster and survived (barely). This expanded my
view of what YA could be as a genre, and made me want to do more and be more
as a writer and a person. I don't know how many people will ever hear of it,
though. And it doesn't matter, because those books mean everything to me.
From the other end, as an author, I think that putting the pressure on myself to be a
bestseller, or even to think about how many copies X book will sell, is a bad thing.
A very bad thing. Why? Isn't writing a novel entertainment? Isn't the way we
measure how good something is purely by numbers? Well, it sure is if you work
for Amazon. Or most publishers these days. But as a writer, you actually don't. Or
you shouldn't. You don't even work for your readers, though it is their interest in
your work that pays your bills. But I believe that you should always work
primarily for yourself. Reviewers may make or break your career, but they don't
actually matter if you have done what you wanted to do with your book. Readers
may hate the ending to your book and may send you angry letters, but that isn't
actually the way that you judge whether or not your book was successful.
Focusing outside of yourself as a writer for recognition is a very dangerous thing.
Every writer who has published knows this. The thrill of receiving a great review
or a nice email from a reader can lead you down the primrose path of believing
that this is why you write. You don't even realize how it is changing you until you
wake up one morning and are destroyed by a nasty trade review. Or a particularly
bad takedown on Goodreads and you find that you can't write. For weeks. Or
months. Or when you start to change a brilliant book into a merely good one
because you want to please more people. You are scared to use this word or that
one because it might offend someone. You decide to take out this scene because it
might be too racy. Or too controversial.
I am not saying that you should never change your book. Believe me, I think that
editors are necessary and are actually a way of helping us as authors to see more
clearly what we mean to say and what we aren't properly saying in an earlier draft.
Editors help us pace our stories better. They help us see what is going to do better
service to the story we want to tell. They show scenes that should be taken out and
scenes that should be added. But don't ever edit purely for your editor. Don't
make a checklist and try purely to make your editor happy. Your editor's notes are
a way into a deeper version of the book you want to write, but they are not the be-all and end-all of revision. You are in charge of your book and you cannot
abdicate that responsibility, even if you want to.
I've heard too many writers (particularly those who turn to self-publishing) say
that editors want to "change" your book into something it isn't and you have to
self-publish to maintain integrity. Well, sometimes editors do have an agenda, but
usually that agenda is to make a better book. If editors really had a formula that
would automatically guarantee a bestselling book if only you would follow it,
believe me I would have heard about it by now. They would trot it out every time.
But they don't know. They may make guesses about what would or would not
offend readers, but you are the ultimate arbiter. And not offending people probably
shouldn't be your top priority, mainly because it's like a dog chasing its tail --
never-ending. As a writer, you need to tell your best story all the time regardless of
where that leads you. And if that sounds weirdly mystical, well, sometimes it is.
There is nothing wrong with writing a bestseller. Nothing wrong, either, with
hoping your book does well. There is nothing wrong with trying to make a living
from your writing. But putting too much pressure on yourself or on any one book
to perform in a particular way is crippling artistically. Believe me, I know. I spent
far too long running in circles, trying to write the next bigger, better YA fantasy.
Until I let myself write whatever the hell I wanted and came up with The Bishop's
Wife. It isn't a bestseller, either, by the way. But I'm supremely happy with it,
When you hear authors say you should write "the book of your heart" or you
should write the book you think you're not ready to write, what they're really
saying is that artistically, you are going to do better by taking the chains off -- and
those chains are financial expectation. Writing for other people means looking
over your shoulder constantly and second-guessing yourself. It means giving up
on ideas you love because you don't think they'll sell. It means letting other
people be in charge of your career instead of you, becoming a real "hack" writer
by selling your skills to the highest bidder.
I'm not saying you never choose between ideas. Of course you do. Most authors
have far too many ideas to ever write them all. But don't choose only ideas you
think are most commercial. First of all, you are probably wrong. I read
exhaustively in the fields I write in, but I can't predict trends. No one can. Writing
what you are passionate about is more likely to create a trend than anything else.
But here is another reason not to write for other people: at the end of the day, are
you going to regret it? Are you going to sit around with the books you didn't write
for the rest of your life, wishing you had more courage? How will that affect you
as a writer? I don't think it ever does anything good. You'll start to think of your
work as product rather than expression and art, which is what it really is. If that
sounds fatuous to you, well, all I can do is sigh. It probably would have sounded
that way to me when I started out, too. Like giving up and settling for something
smaller since I couldn't get what I really wanted.
I see authors who keep on writing sequels or prequels or anything related to the
one book that was successful that they wrote, and it makes me a little sad. They are
doing what their readers and their publishers want -- or think they do. But what
books are we as a public missing out on because they're doing what they think we
want? What chances aren't they taking that they should take? What revolutionary
things might they try that they didn't? What controversial ideas might they make
people understand but won't?
I don't have to make money at my writing career, and perhaps that is why I have
this perspective rather than another one. Maybe I'm just too Ivory Tower because
of my privilege here. But I think being a writer isn't at all like making a better
widget. Don't sell yourself short by trying to sell yourself high. Write and invent
on a new level. Maybe readers will get it and maybe they won't. But you will
unfold a new level of creativity within yourself if you do this, and I don't think
you will ever regret that.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison