Saturday, February 15, 2020

Too Many Books, Too Little Time--writers want to write, not do marketing

A friend’s book is being published this year, so I’ve been learning from her about all the work expected of a debut author. It isn’t enough to have written the book. No, one must also be active on social media, do blog tours, notify contacts, seek out opportunities to do book talks, and I-forget-what-all-else.

But writers just want to write! Most of us don’t want to do marketing. We’d rather spend the time holed up in our cubbies with our laptops, lost in imaginary worlds, coming up with new books.

The problem? Basically, there are lots and lots of new books out there. There are lots and lots of readers as well, but readers all want to read the “best” books, books that are a guaranteed good read. Readers have easy access now to books from all over the English-speaking world, so they can pick just the books that they’ve heard are really good, and these tend to be the same books that other readers have also heard are very good. So a small number of  books get read by lots of readers, and the rest of the new books (including some that are also very good) tend to go unread.

It’s a depressing situation if one of those new books is yours. Thus the need to market your book.

Shouldn’t the publisher do the marketing? Certainly they want your book to sell. But whether they sell a total umpteen copies of a wide variety of books or umpteen copies of the same book, they’ll still make money. It might be more efficient for them to focus their efforts on a few books, in that case. At any rate, that’s how it is. Unless they’re expecting great things, they probably won’t do that much.

Is there any way around this? The problem seems to be with our filtering system. There are several levels to it. First, the author writes the book. Agents filter out a lot of the books that are written, though some books are self-published and skip that filter. Then publishers filter the books presented by agents, accepting only some of them. Then the books go out into the world, where…

I think that’s where it turns into a combination of luck and money. Luck in who happens to pick the book up and how much influence they have with other readers. Money, because people are more likely to pick up a book if they’ve heard of it or seen it, and advertising can do that. Obviously the quality of the book also matters. If the people who read it don’t like it, they won’t recommend it to others. But a good book that never gets read won’t get recommended either.

So now I’m fantasizing about a system where new books enter a database and are assigned to readers to evaluate. Every book gets a chance, regardless of its author’s ability to generate interest on Twitter or lack thereof. Readers aren’t deluged with attempts to pique their interest, attempts that lead to their becoming more and more overwhelmed by the demands on their attention, and their having less and less time to actually read books.

The problem with this idea is that readers want to choose their books, not be assigned them as though they were in school. Some might volunteer to be assigned books, hoping for a serendipitous discovery, but more likely they’d rather browse the shelves and try only books that look appealing to them.

So that’s not promising. Well, who has the most reason to want such a system to work? Probably the writers themselves. So instead of assigning new books to random readers, assign them to other authors. Maybe their book gets as many reads as the number of others’ books they are willing to be assigned. This would provide a preliminary filter and ensure that at least a few people sample their books—and maybe go on to recommend them to friends.

Some further rules would be necessary. First, no reciprocal reading. If I am an author and I want fifteen people to read my book, I do not get assigned books by any of the fifteen who are reading mine. Nor do I get assigned any books by people I know. There can’t be any pressure to like the book.

Second, these aren’t book reviews. The only thing the reader has to do is respond, “I like it and would probably read another book like this,” or “I don’t like it and wouldn’t choose to read a book like this.” No discussion of merits, no details, no reasons why.

Third, given that people occasionally cheat (shock! gasp!), there would probably need to be some factual question that the reader has to answer to prove that they actually read the book. The author of the book could provide one. Otherwise, unscrupulous people could get their books read without reading anyone else’s in return.

Fourth, complete confidentiality. You don’t want to meet another author and have them know that you didn’t like their book—or the other way around. Too awkward. Again, there can’t be any pressure to like the book.

Given that there is nothing new under the sun, and especially no new ideas that aren’t already on the internet, there is probably something wrong with this imaginary system. Maybe it wouldn’t be of any use, or maybe not enough authors would participate, or maybe people would try to game the system by reading lots of competing books and saying they dislike all of them, in the hope of making their own book look better.

Or maybe it would work and is already in use somewhere on the web. There are lots of book-related organizations out there that I don’t know about, and maybe there are genre-specific groups that do this. If so, I hope I find out some day.

I hope I have reason to.

Till next post.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Athelas, Lembas, and Butterbeer--impossible delights in fiction

For February’s project, I’m working on a second draft of the cozy mystery I wrote in November for NaNoWriMo, currently titled Warnings at the Waterfront. In this story, I describe an award-winning lemon éclair as being 

“a pastry oblong about five inches long, glazed with a streak of chocolate and dotted with yellow icing flowers… She took a bite and gooey lemony custard squeezed out the sides. It was sharp, sweet, and creamy all at once…”


But could a lemon éclair be that good? It’s one thing to describe an item so that it sounds appealing to our sense of taste, smell, or sight. It’s quite another for such an item to exist, or even be possible. Lemon and chocolate is a tricky combination, and I’ve been experimenting with combinations of lemon curd and vanilla custard in an attempt to come up with an actual lemon éclair. So far, it falls significantly short of its fictional version.

Homemade lemon eclair with chocolate glaze
An attempt at a lemon eclair

There are plenty of wonderful things in books; things that I would like to exist, but which don’t. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I was much impressed with athelas, aka kingsfoil, and its fragrance when crushed in the king’s hands and cast into water. Its fragrance is described as follows:

“and then he crushed them, and straightaway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy. And then he cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”  (The Return of the King, p.173)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an herb so deliciously fragrant that it could banish the Black Breath? Or, in our world, depression?

What would such an herb smell like? In my mind, athelas was a sort of combination of parsley (crisp and fresh) and peppermint (cool and sharp), without being either. I guess peppermint comes closest, at least for me, but I’d still like an athelas plant of my own.

There were plenty of other non-existent entities to long for in The Lord of the Rings. Lembas, the elves’ waybread, are described as  “very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream.” Not only do lembas taste better than the best of honeycakes, but 

“the cakes will keep sweet for many, many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings, as we have brought them. One will keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour, even if he be one of the tall Men of Minas Tirith.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 478-479)

 Maybe someone could come up with something that resembles lembas in flavor and texture, but they are unlikely to duplicate its nourishing qualities and long shelf-life. 

A more modern example of a fictional delight is butterbeer. A mug of hot butterbeer on a cold day sounds like a great treat, but how would it actually taste? The name itself calls up the taste of butterscotch and root beer. I haven’t had the butterbeer that was created for Harry Potter fans, but I gather that butterscotch is one of the flavors involved. I suspect that if their version had turned out to be as good as the fictional version, it would be more widely available by now. And while I like butterscotch, it seems like a very strong, very sweet flavor for something you’re going to drink an entire mugful of. (Then again, perhaps I would have said the same of root beer, if I’d only ever had it in the form of candy.)

But back to my fictional lemon éclair. It just may not be a genuine possibility. One solution is to change the pastry in the book to something that could be genuinely wonderful (and so be able to include a recipe for it, should the book ever get that far.) That’s probably the best solution.

But that isn’t always the solution. Some books, especially fantasy, are better with a few impossibly wonderful things in them. We just have to accept that description outpaces possibility. Not every longing we have can be satisfied.

At least I’ve got peppermint.

Till next post.

P.S. Page numbers are from the 1965 paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings.