If I only had the time
The late writer, essayist, and journalist Christopher Hitchens is quoted as saying “Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” True or not, we cannot argue that most people never manage to get that book outside themselves and onto the page.
For those that try, well, a much-quoted statistic is that 97 per cent of those who start a book do not finish it. I cannot pin down the source or reliability of that stat., but it isn’t surprising. Writing is a slog, a largely iterative process of re-writing and checking – and still feeling you could have, should have done better.
It must be irksome for authors to hear others insist they would write a book ‘if only they had the time’. Most published authors have a ‘day job’ besides writing, nearly everyone has a family, and I am guessing a majority of authors have children. Yet they’ve made the time to start and finish that book.
Pity also the genre writer. Because there appears to be a formula in genre fiction, it’s tempting to think that anyone can follow it with success. So maybe it’s worth unpacking a few of the assumptions about writing it.
Anyone Can Do It
I met up for a coffee with a few former fellow students from a writing course recently. One had been trying her hand at writing romance for Mills and Boon. In case you haven’t heard of them, Mills and Boon is a market leading publisher in romantic fiction in the UK, across a number of sub-genres, and is known for having clear guidelines for writers to follow. My colleague had wondered if writing for them could be a handy income source. She’s a good writer. But she failed. This evidently was because romance was not what she wanted to write, or read. And she did not particularly respect that type of book.
An experienced writer switching genres may have some advantages. Like a cricketer or baseball player switching to table tennis, you probably have some advantages – you’re fit, prepared for competition, have good hand-to-eye coordination, and so on. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be that good at it, or that it’s the right move for you. For one thing, you have to respect the game, and want to play.
I write erotica and erotic romance, another genre that is often considered formulaic and therefore ‘easy’. Is it easy to write erotica? Surely that’s the same question as ‘is it easy to write a book?’ One answer is that it’s easy to do badly, erotica or not. Even having written a (modest output) of erotic writing, I don’t think I am that qualified to answer in more helpful terms. Certainly, I don’t think writing erotica is for everyone. A useful test may be whether you’re comfortable reading and writing about sex. That is, text and conversations that are frank about sexual matters.
And ‘Writing for the market’ may help sales but obviously won’t guarantee them. You never know what’s going to catch on. Jonny Geller, MD of Curtis Brown Literary Division, admitted in his (highly entertaining) Tedx talk (2016) that “publishers find original material very difficult to market”. But also said that whilst you can identify the components popular books share, it is hard to predict what will tap into the zeitgeist; best-sellers are for the reader, not the writer, to decide.
It’s Easy Money
There seems to be a perception that certain genres are an easy source of income. In the case of erotica, this is an outdated assumption – if indeed it were ever true. To say I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the publishing world is a towering understatement (indeed, if the pulse belonged to someone in Ulan Bator, my diagnostic finger would be in Tasmania). But from anything I have read and observed, literary agents and publishers are far less interested in erotica now the wave created by Fifty Shades of Grey and its clones has washed ashore. The market levelled off around 2015, as I understand it.
Romance remains the top-selling genre, and there is clearly a market for erotica, but it is also a glutted and competitive one. Type ‘erotic romance’ into the search function of Amazon.com Kindle store. How many results?
As I have written before (here), relative success may be achieved if you stick to certain tropes and themes of the genre, and work your socks off to keep publishing and gain super-fans (and hats off to those diligent folks), but I’d wager that ain’t easy. As with anything, mean income will be skewed by the occasional blockbuster writer.
It’s all rubbish anyway
I started to write something about there being ‘bad’ books in any genre or literary field. But honestly, I can’t be bothered. It’s too obvious to state.
The moral of this is simple. Not so much Raymond Carver’s advice to “write what you know” but more write what you want to write; write what you enjoy reading. That won’t guarantee you a runaway success, or any indeed any sales at all. However, writing whilst holding your nose in distaste will surely come across to the reader. Nor is it likely to be a satisfying experience to produce.
Jonny Geller, What Makes a Bestseller, Tedx Channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mD-uP2BsVy4