“If you want to be successful in this business, don’t be different. Be like someone else.”
That’s how Phil Rickman, author of the popular Merrily Watkins novels, opened his talk at the Church Stretton Arts Festival last week. And it’s a perfect reminder of how publishers (particularly those publishing fiction) want more of the same. Ideally, they want more bestsellers. (Don’t we all?)
“Publishers want something … they don’t really want something different. They want something that is guaranteed to sell.”
Now, that’s not to say we have to copy what everyone else is writing. Instead, we have to put our own stamp on the tried and tested. And there’s a lot in publishing that is tried and tested.
A few weeks ago, for example, I was chatting to an editor, and he asked me to consider cutting a novel I’d written from 125,000 words to 90,000. (Ouch!) Why? Because the 90,000-word length was the tried and tested wordlength for the genre I’m writing.
And that’s despite eBooks costing the same to produce whether they’re 90,000 words or 125,000 words. (It’s because print is not dead – and (in my opinion) never will be. Publishers know the volumes they need to shift, the costs of, and where they stand to make a profit on a 90,000-word print book. Because they’ve tried and tested it.)
And not ‘fitting in’ to the tried and tested model can have other problems too …
“So, my second publisher, Macmillan, only understood that you were a horror writer, or you weren’t. And they wanted to market me as The new King of Horror. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to be something different. But again, the industry is conditioned against that.”
Hence Rickman’s advice to “be like someone else”, because, at least that way, the publisher will know where to put you in the catalogue and on the book shelf.
For those of you who don’t know, Phil’s series character, Merrily Watkins, is the Diocesan Exorcist (or Deliverance Officer to give it its modern title) for a Church of England Diocese on the Welsh Borders. Many people therefore think these are religious books. They’re not. They’re actually crime novels with a hint of supernatural or paranormal. (They’re not horror – I don’t enjoy reading horror, but I love these.)
And it’s interesting to consider how people who haven’t read his books perceive them … because these are his new potential readers … if he can get them to look past their perceptions.
“Somehow, I have to get this over to them, that these are not religious books. They contain elements of religion. And this is my main problem. A lot of people won’t go near these books because the central character is a vicar.”
Phil also discussed how Merrily never began life as a series character, too.
”And Merrily Watkins, who became the heroine in all the books, she came out of nowhere. If I’d have known she was going to be a series I would have called her a silly name. I thought she was only going to appear once.”
Therefore, be careful how you name characters … you never know what might happen in the future!
Which just goes to show, this business of writing is not just about the writing. But if ever I manage to produce a series of book as well-written as Phil’s, I will certainly be one happy writer!