Is bigger really better?

I’ve been thinking about what makes one book sell lots and lots of copies and why another book doesn’t.  I belong to a writers’ group, and I used to believe it when published authors told me, “If you write a book that’s good enough, it will sell.”  Blah!  I don’t believe it.

First of all, I’ve read plenty of wonderful manuscripts that no one will buy.  Why?  Because writing is one thing, but publishing is a BUSINESS.  And TRENDS matter.  If publishers decide that no one’s buying memoirs these days, they aren’t going to buy one–unless the person’s name alone will sell copies.  If they decide that if an author puts the name GIRL in the title, they’ll have a best seller, suddenly you’ll see LOTS of titles with that word in it.  GOODBYE GIRL, GIRL ON THE TRAIN, THE GIRL IN THE WINDOW, etc.  When they decided, a while ago, that horror was saturated, they dumped plenty of good horror writers to find someone who might be writing the next trend–whatever that was.  And by the time you figure it out, it’s probably close to over.

One of the members of our writers’ group keeps telling us that if we want to sell BIG, we need to write about characters who are bigger than life, who face problems that are so big, they seem insurmountable, and a little shock value only sweetens the deal.  He’s probably right.  It reminds me of the book Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas.  He gave similar advice.  The stakes can’t be small.  They have to be higher.  Readers turn pages when the stakes make them chew their fingernails to the quick.

I read yet another blog where a cozy writer went to a conference and a thriller writer (she didn’t give a name) sneered at her work.  First of all, that says a lot more about HIM than it does HER.  But I think it’s part of the same mentality.  Cozies take place in small towns with murders that are more personal.  The amateur detective isn’t fighting a ticking clock to stop a serial killer or to save the world.  But, does that mean thrillers are better than cozies?  Not in my opinion, regardless of the stakes.

Part of me–the sarcastic, cynical part that only creeps out when I’m aggravated–believes a whole lot of success in life can be put down to luck.  Yes, you have to be prepared for it when luck strikes, but sometimes, it takes its darn sweet time.  Or sometimes, it does a disappearing act and first you see it, then you don’t.  I’m not taking away from talent and hard work and persistence.  Without those, even if luck strikes, you can fail.  BUT, sometimes the planets align and sometimes they get cranky with each other.  And what is a trend if not a fluke when something unexpected happens and a book gets so popular that everyone else jumps on the bandwagon to have something similar because no one saw it coming?

And how do we define big and small anyway?  Is it by events or how much emotional impact a story has?  Is it by how much I care about the characters?  How strongly the story affects me?  If I wring my hands, hoping that the protagonist finds a happy ever after, is that big enough?

I wish I had answers.  I don’t.  Sometimes, I like big dramas that cover big landscapes, and sometimes I like small, intimate stories that move me or make me laugh.  So, what makes one book a bestseller and the next not so much?  Serendipity?  Where everything==plot, pacing, characters, and voice all come together in the right balance at the right time?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But whatever you’re working on at the moment, good luck!

And Happy Writing!

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3 thoughts on “Is bigger really better?

  1. Mae Clair

    It’s a tough call with trends. I remember decades ago when I submitted a paranormal romance to an agency (I didn’t even know what genre to call it then) and was told no one would ever want to read a romantic story with supernatural elements and characters. Decades later that genre exploded. I guess I should have waited 20 years submit it.

    I have never been one to write for the market, so I may never catch the big break. I remember telling my husband years ago “It isn’t about the dollars, it’s about being read.” Of course, all writers want to grab the brass ring, and I still have starry-eyed dreams of what-ifs and maybes. I’m fortunate to have achieved what success I’ve had—something I never could have done twenty years ago when I was told there was no market for supernatural romance. Heck, I’m not even writing that any more! It’s a crap shoot for sure, but I plan to grab the tail of the comet and hang on for the ride wherever it takes me 😉

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  2. Staci Troilo

    I think there’s a lot to serendipity. I’ve read plenty of good work that never gets out of the hundred thousands ranking numbers on Amazon. And I’ve bought bestsellers ranked in the top ten that are terrible. So it can’t just be one thing. It has to be a whole amalgam of factors (and luck’s got to be one of them).

    Thought-provoking, Judi.

    Liked by 1 person

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