Thursday, February 23, 2012


Rags and Riches

Yesterday on Type M for Murder, I blogged about drawing a line in the sand. How much does an author compromise his story to appease the marketplace, or more specifically the marketing department of the publishing house considering his book? And by this, I don’t mean adding plot twists when the editor suggests that 300 pages of tea-party conversation are not gripping enough. Nor do I mean adding three dimensions to that cardboard John Wayne look-alike you have created. These are both legitimate editorial improvements. Any editor worth his salt will propose improvements to the story, and any writer serious about honing her craft will give his proposals due consideration.

No, when I talk about compromise for the sake of market success, I mean substantial modifications to the story you want to tell, for the sake of appeasing the marketing gurus who will decide whether or not the publishing house should buy your book. These modifications will have little to do with improving the actual quality of the story and everything to do with sales figures. The marketing gurus claim to have their eye on the latest trends, on demographic preferences and on the book’s ability to capture media attention. If you are asked to change your middle-aged, widowed sleuth into a thirty-something vampire, or to change your setting from Chatham, Ontario to Long Island, New York, that’s the money man talking.

As authors, we hate marketing gurus. We have a story we want to tell, characters we have lived with for years, a unique saga that took years of tears to commit to the page. Most authors I know are compelled to write. We have stories spinning in our heads, demanding to be told. Personal stories in which we invest our souls - poignant, funny, angry or inspiring. Writing is not a choice, it is a creative imperative. If we can earn a living at it, so much the better. But if we merely wanted to earn a living, we would choose brain surgery or engineering or drywall installation instead.

But publishing is a business. Fundamentally, publishers (and agents) have different goals from writers. As much as they may love books, publishers’ and agents’ first goal is to make money from them. As much money as they can. Nothing wrong with that. If they don’t make money, they go bankrupt, as many have in recent years, and then there are even fewer avenues through which a writer can reach his audience. Sometimes making money is the author’s primary goal too, in which case they happily work with the marketing gurus in the hope of creating a blockbuster which rides the cutting edge of all the trends. There is nothing wrong with that either, but it’s not what most of us authors dream of when we first set pen to paper.

Most writers start off just wanting to do the best damn job we can with the story in our head. We may dream about others enjoying it, we may even daydream about the movie deal or bestseller list, and those dreams may shape our choices, but we are really writing to please ourselves. The challenges arise when the quest for an agent or publisher begins. We may feel they don’t “get” our work, that they don’t appreciate the beauty of our story, that they are slaves to their marketing departments, that they are cowards pandering to mass market tastes, and that may all the true. But the truth may be that, based on their experience, they think there is no money in it. They could well be wrong, but it’s their call.

That harsh truth leaves us a few choices. Change our story to satisfy the agent or publisher, keep shopping for one who loves our story as it is, or self-publish. Luckily, all those options are still open to us, depending on how determined, uncompromising – and broke – we are.

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which havewon back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched last May.


  1. As a career marketer, I always feel pulled in two directions. The writer in my wants my story to stand untouched. The marketer knows a bigger market exists if I 'conform'. Thanks for this post, Barbara.

  2. Well said, Barbara. It is a delicate balance we writers have to tread and a key decision we have to make, particularly if we want to be published by an American publisher. I only know of a couple of Canadian crime writers that have made it big in the American market with their Canadian settings. But that's fine with me. I made my decision long ago that I wanted to write the stories of my own country.