May 25, 2011

Thinking Like a Publisher

This post over at Karen Jones' blog got me thinking about the way I regard my writing.

I was about twelve when I first realised I wanted to be a writer. My first ideas where, naturally, quite simple and immature. As I grew older my attitudes on the kinds of stories I wanted to write changed. I started to see that there needed to be a certain amount of marketability to what I wrote. It took many more years, through my time in college, to learn that there was more to getting published than having original ideas. I realised it was better to learn how to tell a story that many people would enjoy hearing than to worry about originality.

But what I also learned, without noticing, was that my ideas were not necessarily going to appeal to everyone. Ideas would have to be changed, shaped into something that would appeal to enough people to make my work worth publishing. I came to this realisation through studying other stories. I read the kind of books I wanted to write. I turned the examination of narrative structure into an instinct. Now, it's second nature for me to watch a movie or read a book and see all the tropes and techniques in motion behind the images and words. It has hugely increased my enjoyment, as well. I don't become disappointed by predictable plots. Instead I watch to see how a particular writer or director has chosen to tell their story.

The biggest challenge for any writer, even bigger than hanging in there, trying to get published, is the inevitable moment when they find out that yes, their book is publishable, but no, it can't be published as it currently is. Our egoes are funny things. We can be beat down by rejection letters, feeling like we have no talent, but we can also become very protective of our little babies, these words on pages we've created. We can fall prey to the assumption that something shouldn't be changed, that it can't work if it's changed.

You know what? It can work if it's changed. In fact, it may even work better. Agents and publishers know the industry better than any first-time author can. They know the trends, the right timing for release, the right way to frame that closing chapter, or to name your protagonist's love interest. And because they're looking at it from the outside, they can see the things that don't work better than we can. If you've named your hero John and him nemesis James, they can suggest a different name, to avoid similar-sounding names cropping up and confusing your reader. If you talked about that antique winchester over the bar in your hero's favourite hang-out, they can tell you that it'll create a great sense of completion and satisfaction if your hero has to grab that rifle to defend themself in the climax. They can help you keep your reader satisfied and still hungry for more.

But writers should not simply bow to pressure. Certainly they should explain why they want something a certain way and are reluctant to change it. Then you can open a dialogue with your agent or publisher and come to an agreement, together, on the best way to keep the things you want and still make it appealing to the reader. Building that relationship is essential.

The best way to make sure you're ready to build that relationship is to get started early. Start thinking like a publisher. The fact is, if you want to be a professional writer, you have to make compromises. You have to look at your story as a product. If it's going to sell, you need to learn what will make it sell. Read the popular books in your chosen genre. If you want to write children's fiction, read Harry Potter. Urban Fantasy, read The Dresden Files. Paranormal Romance, read True Blood. Study the work of successful authors, taking note of your favourite moments and the elements that keep you coming back for more. Ask yourself "What is it about this that made me want to keep reading, and how can I bring that to my own writing?"


  1. Great post! A writer who wants to be published can't be too precious about their work - they need to learn to listen to others yet stand up for the things they really believe in at the same time. It's a funny combo.

  2. Yeah. It's a strange kind of relationship, and one that will vary depending on each paring of author and editor. That's why I think it's worth learning as much as possible about the commercial side of writing, so at the very least you can see publication from your publisher's perspective as well as your own.