Friday, July 20, 2012

Five Paragraphs of Russel

Russel D McLean

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY is the book of the moment. Love it or hate it, its there and its not going anywhere very soon. People will talk about what it means in the cultural zeitgeist and try to make more of it than it really is (its a naughty book - there have always been and will always be naughty books, and most of them will be written with the same regard for the English language as SHADES, and that's fine) and others will decry or mock it. But the fact is that people are reading it so let's have a genuine cheer for Ms James and her success. Its what we all want and its what very few of us will get, so let's feel good for those that it happens to.

No, my problem with SHADES is the inevitable bandwagon. Publishing always does this. Something becomes an unexpected phenomenon (ie, THE DA VINCI CODE or Steig Larrson in general) and publishers scarmble to find something "the same" but "different". They rejacket books with tangential similarities so that readers will be confused. They retitle books so that they sound the same (SIXTY DAYS OF YELLOW or THE SCHOPENHAUER SECRET*). They struggle to find the initial spark, but they don't realise that the books in question are lone freaks of nature. They exceptions. They are popular because they are the right book in the right place at the right time. And sure there might be a long tail for some of the imitators, but the fact is that the buying public don't really want the imitations. Sure they want "the same" so they claim, but what they really want is the same *feeling* they had when they read the book. They don't actually know the specifics of what they want. They only know the emotional connection or the feeling of surprise that they had reading that particular book and that's what they want to rediscover, even if they can only artticulate that feeling in terms of the one particular book that sparked that emotion.

Books (and yes I include ebooks here - they are now another delivery format, so get over it and shut up) and entertainment cannot be driven by markets in the same way as other products. They connect with readers on a very different level, on an individual level. The minute they are marketted according to what other books are doing, that sense of surprise and connection gets lost. Publishing is a risky business. It always has been. But its being shortchanged every time it tries to grab the maximum number of readers rather than simply the most passionate readers (which is always the smaller number).

FIFTY SHADES is an incredible success story and one worth learning lessons from. But the lesson here is not that "we should all be writing erotica". Its that "you should write book you want to write and maybe, just maybe, other people will love it, too". The more publishers who jump on the erotica badnwagon, the more of them (and consequently the more authors) are going to get burned when readers cotton onto the fact that what made them love FIFTY SHADES wasn't simply the erotica or the underlying story or even Mr Gray himself, but merely an odd and unknowable moment of connection with a work of fiction that cannot be mass replicated or reproduced by going through the same motions over and over again.** Publishing is at its finest when it is about passion and not money, and sometimes I wonder if the modern world is making us forget that, is letting us slip in the real business of books and entertainment.

*I don't know if these titles are real, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were.
**Go on, insert your own dirty joke here


Anonymous said...

No, we shouldn't all jump on the erotica bandwagon. But I have to wonder if this doesn't show that there is a demand for the books that isn't really being met. So for those inclined to write these stories anyway, there might be a good market.

Steve Weddle said...

It's an argument often heard, here at DSD and elsewhere --

If you want people to read your books, then you should write books people want to read.

Anonymous said...

Russel, I take back all the things I've been saying you behind your back. This is pretty damn smart. Especially for a wanker Scotsman who doesn't even know how to set a bomb under someone's chair.

The point is, 50 SHADES is not really a book. It's a publishing phenomenon. People are wringing their hands, asking what we can learn from it. But the fact is we as authors can learn very little. We should be thankful for it -- because, hey, people who don't usually buy books are buying them! -- and then get back to our own work.

Dan_Luft said...

I feel that the bandwagon is usually full and ready to go at any time. Whether the new thing is courtroom thrillers, vampire YA novels, or naughty bondage, the agents and publishers have slush piles full of it. Some of it is well written, some of it is poorly written but, whatever the subject, it's there and ready to be published and probably already sitting on someone's desk.