Monday, July 06, 2009

The Meaning of Different

Let’s pretend for a minute that you’re an ice cream maker. Your job is to create delicious, interesting and unique flavors for the Yummy Ice Cream ice cream company. Of course the goal is to come up with something different, but it is also to keep your job, and that means to come up with a flavor that makes your company money, lots and lots of money.

The possibilities are endless. What about Roasted Eggplant ice cream or Beef Stew? Those are really, really different. Or you could try something like Black Raspberry Chocolate Cheesecake or maybe Strawberry Marscapone with Chunks of Sugar Cookie. Those are different, haven’t been done (or done much), but yet fall along the same lines as what is already popular in the ice cream world.

Writing a book, no, publishing a book, is not much different from making ice cream. It’s a business. I hear authors complain all the time that agents say we’re looking for something different when really we aren’t. We’re just looking for the same old thing. Well, folks. Here in the year of no complaints my response to you is boo-hoo. Blame the agents all you want, but the truth is we can only sell to publishers what readers want to buy, and let’s be honest, I doubt there’s anyone out there with a craving for Beef Stew Ice Cream.

We are looking for something different, and I truly believe that each book I sell is different. The voice is remarkable, the idea is unique, fun, interesting and saleable and the execution is wonderful. The question is how different is different. Different means you still have to appeal to readers. A book that the author labels as a mystery, romance, science fiction is not different, it’s ridiculous. In the same way Beef Stew Ice Cream is ridiculous. Who is going to read that? Where in the bookstore is that going to be placed? Who exactly is your audience? And who would ever crave beef stew ice cream? How would you order it? With hot fudge?

The other problem with different is that different to you is not necessarily different to me. I’m amazed sometimes by how truly under-read some of those who claim to be authors are. I think that as a publishing professional I will always feel under-read because there’s always more to read, but if you are making the decision to write books you need to know your competition and know how to make your book different from others. Your competition is not every single other book in the bookstore. It’s every single other book in the genre or section you’re writing in. Often I’m accused of not really wanting anything different, when the truth is that I don’t feel the book pitched to me was really all that different.

Different still has to make sense and it still has to make money. To make money you have to find an audience. We all do truly want different, but even different has to have its limitations.



Richard Mabry said...

Hard words, but true. Unfortunately, many writers (and I'm as guilty as the next person) don't consider these factors before touching fingers to keys and starting to write. It's crass, it's counter to our "artistic" leanings, but it's a fact of life. Agents and publishers want something that will sell, although not necessarily what's "hot" at the moment.
To borrow a quote from Anna and the King of Siam: 'Tis a puzzlement.

MeganRebekah said...

I love this analogy! Unfortunately the people it would benefit the most probably are reading this post.

CKHB said...

It's like Top Chef. Once in a great, GREAT while, the chefs [authors] will produce something that sounds insane and misguided (I seem to recall a wasabi-and-white-chocolate concoction) but that really DOES work. And if you're that good, kudos to you. Someone will, in all likelihood, make the effort to help you sell it to the public, whether it's through creative marketing or getting the audience to trust you based on a different "first" dish [book] or whatever else.

And from that perspective, ANYTHING GOES in writing. If it works, it works.

But... how many of us ARE that good? I'm not just talking publishable-good, here, I'm talking Nobel Prize in Literature-good. Most of us should keep the wasabi out of our desserts, and keep the white chocolate away from the sushi, and focus on something a little more classically palatable.

Mark Terry said...

Different is really hard. Really, really hard. But it's not like you need to come up with, say, a PI who also happens to be a T. Rex (been done already, sorry). I was one of the judges for this year's Thriller Award and I can tell you, that even among bestselling and very successful novelists, different apparently is a very tough trick.

Now, french toast ice cream?

Anonymous said...

It is hard to take you seriously when you say it's a business and "boo-hoo" to those frustrated writers, and then look for different "voices" etc (which hints that you might be interested in art, rather than formula). The truth is, most highly successful writers were rejected by 99% of the agents out there. Once they are "in," as anyone reading their books can attest, the name sells as much or more than the product. Writers have good reason to be frustrated. Of course, likely 99% of submissions are total crap. But to the 1%, hundreds of talented writers with good stories who get form rejection after rejection, the system is clearly broken.

As for different, nothing is new under the sun. The point is, does the book engage the reader, or will it likely engage enough readers to make some money. In the end, this is what publishers care about, or they're soon out of business.

Rick Daley said...

Beef Stew Ice Cream would be topped with hot gravy. Try it in a potato split, savory and delicious.

WORD VERIFICATION: reads. Are you stacking the deck?

Anonymous said...

Hey, Heston Blumenthal has had massive success with his bacon and egg ice cream.

You just never know what is going to taste great.

SM Blooding said...

*chuckle* A potato split. Oh, good grief. That sounds...gross...and oddly appealing. Whew! Rick, that was...that was really witty.

I've actually been thinking about this quite a bit lately, so this post is perfectly timed for me. I understand exactly what you're saying and I've given myself the "boo-hoo" speech--'course, it sounds different coming from someone other than myself--but it's sometimes difficult to draw that line.

In looking at my YA and my paranormal series, I have to ask myself two questions. Are they different? Could they trend?

Question 1: Well, there are no vampires, werewolves or fairy rings. But there's still teenage agst, romance--kind of--and wit (thank you, Dexx, for the wit). So...check.

Question 2: Well, the YA would be a difficult one to trend, I think. Great story. Love it. It's awesome. I think many others will love it. Will others want to write something similar? Don't know. The paranormal thriller? Oh, heck yes!! It's going to freakin rock!

*thinking* So...I think I'm good. Now I just have to sell the ideas to agents. *wink, wink* But I'll get there. Diligence and sparkly paper with perfume--which really sucks because you can't email sparkles. What's up with that?

Anonymous said...

This is very useful advice, in terms that are much more accessible to those of us currently outside the publishing industry. I can't help thinking, though, that you're in the wrong business--I mean, Black Raspberry Chocolate Cheesecake? I'd buy it!

Laurel said...

Anon 9:22

"You never know what is going to taste great."

You are so right! But you know it when you taste it...

The fascination with different is interesting to me because I'd rather have good characters than a completely new genre populated with people I don't get. Obviously something has to be different or your book is boring but too far off the reservation is just weird. Like beef stew ice cream.

Anonymous said...

To me, the central word is "underread". Yes, I'm seriously underread. And I'm reading loads, and in different genres. Unfortunately, the list of books to read never gets any shorter. It gets longer instead.

Also, I'm suspicious of the creative process. If an idea comes easy to me, I can be pretty sure, somebody has already had it (and published it). I'm still tickled pink and proud as can be, but then, a few days after I put it down, I inevitably find out that I came in second - or third.

I've made it a habit not to start work when inspiration strikes first, but after I got five or ten different takes on the topic.

That, and reading.

Mira said...

I enjoyed this post, I especially liked the 'boo-hoo' part. Lol.

I honestly don't know how I feel about this, though. It does occur to me: do we really control what we write? Really?

Maybe other people's muse works differently, (highly likely) but my muse has a mind of it's own.

I can tell it: okay, today we sit down and write a clever mystery, following all the classic forumlas with a twist. Then it tells me: okay, today we sit down and write total nonsense that might, in 10 months, resolve into something that is somewhat legible, but it ain't ever going to be a mystery, kiddo.

Guess who wins?

But in terms of the 'different' argument, well, I think if you write something that is different, you should do a couple of things. First, pat yourself on the back a trillion times. That's an amazing accomplishment. Second, know that this is going to be a hard sell. People like comfortable. So, different can and should have a voice, but it's usually a quieter voice - at least at first. Of course, it may pick up speed and take off. But sometimes the world isn't ready for it. That's frustrating but true. Look at how many authors become famous after death, when the world become ready.

I say, let your muse out, and the rest will take care of itself.

But to blame agents for looking for something that will sell - well, selling really is their job.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 8:57's quote: "...The truth is, most highly successful writers were rejected by 99% of the agents out there. Once they are "in," as anyone reading their books can attest, the name sells as much or more than the product..."

Okay, THIS made me laugh. So true. Otherwise, how can anyone explain the success of James Patterson (who only outlines his books while a co-writer "writes" them)?

Name recognition sells. And that has zero to do with a book being good/different, or even being readable.

Generally, an agents or editor's taste is no better or worse than a writer whose work is considered too original/not original enough.

If agents knew so much, they'd sell every client's book, not just "some" of them. And editor's wouldn't take on a book they "love" only to see it dead by the roadside without sales a month after its release.

It's a crap shoot any way you look at it. Pretending otherwise? Not buying it. :)

Robena Grant said...

The novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, came highly recommended to me and I ordered it along with several other books. When I recieved it and flipped through and found it was a collection of correspondence only, letter after letter, I shuddered. How on earth could this make for a coherent story? It did. It was different and absolutely amazing.

Anonymous said...

I could not disagree more with this post. When I go into an ice cream store I want my flavor, not something new and different. Give me great Cookies'n'Cream and I'm happy.

When I go into a bookstore, I want the same thing--my favorite. Not something new and different. When I finish reading a great book I want to read it again, and to read anything else by that writer. I don't go searching for some new writer who writes a completely different kind of story.

I ask the bookstore clerk, "What can you recommend that is like 'The Eagles Has Landed' or 'Eye of the Needle.'" I never ask, "What do you have that's new and different."

I believe this post exemplifies why agents and publishers are so out of touch with what readers want and why publishing is in such dire straits. Agents and publishers are so tired of reading the same thing everyday that they search for something radically different. But give readers what they like, not something new and different. Argh.

Mira said...

Anon 10:16, um, forgive me, but I think you misunderstood the post.

Stephanie said...

I think the ice cream comparison is really really great!! Thank your for that...and explaining "different" so simply.

Beef stew ice cream may be thinking outside the box...but will it sell??? Maybe to a select few. Writing is an art, publishing is a business......bottom line...if it won't's a waste of time. Writing may be an expression, a creative release for the writer, and that's perfectly fine. But if they want to make money by selling their writing, it has to be something poeple actually want to read.

And as much as authors bash agents and publishers...they do know what sells and they know how to make money. If you're a writer who wants to sell your writing, you have to trust their opinions. If you truly truly think your book is amazing even though it's been rejected countless times, then don't give up on it. But you need to accept the fact that it's not perfect and take the steps necessary to improve it, make it something that will get a "yes".

Katie Salidas said...

I absolutely love the ice cream analogy here! Great way to put it into some tasty perspective.

Bill Greer said...

Different is like obscenity, you know it when you see it. I don't know how many books I read that were hailed as something different, but really weren't. Just because the protagonist has a quirk - something like a diabetic, obsessive compulsive, three-eyed eunuch - doesn't necessarily make a book different. If it still follows the same formulas as the rest of the genre, all plot twists are predictable and the protagonist acts like every other protagonist in the genre, then it's just the same old, same old.

Different has become such a hackneyed phrase that it doesn't mean much anymore.

Livia Blackburne said...

Thanks for this post. It fits nicely with a blog post I'm currently writing, so I think I'll link to you.

Kathleen said...

Nice post. Lately I've had little patience for people who whine about the requirements of agents without taking into account the fact that agents can only sell what publishers will buy.

Unfortunately, I agree with MeganRebekah. The people most likely to benefit from this post will likely never read it. They're the same people who don't bother to research genres before they write of the publishing industry before they start sending their manuscript out the door.

Vivi Anna said...

Great post Jessica.

And so very true.

Spy Scribbler said...

It is very difficult to come up with something new if you don't know what's already there. And if you don't know the readers and what they are accustomed to and what they want to get out of the genre emotionally, how can you twist upon their expectations and fulfill them?

Barbara Martin said...

All stories in the world are basicially the same. A writer has to come up with a story with a different slant that grabs the reader and takes them for an adventure. If the writer can grab the agent, then the story will grab the reading public.

I tend to be an eclectic reader ranging from different genres and non-fiction topics. To do so keeps my mind open to new ideas that might fit in future manuscripts. To keep with the going trend in the genres I write in I read as many different authors as I can, partly for the story content, but also to see how they put their manuscript together.

Robena Grant said...

Oops! flying fingers. I left off the pie part:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. : 0

Loved this post, Jessica.

Michael Bracken said...

"A book that the author labels as a mystery, romance, science fiction is not different, it’s ridiculous."

It's not ridiculous, it's just poor labeling. Call it a near-future police procedural with a romantic sub-plot. Or a paranormal romance about a police officer who goes back in time to catch a killer. Or, well, you should get the idea by now...

Becke Davis said...

Roberta - Like you, I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, partly because it reminded me of Helene Hanff's wonderful book, 84 Charing Cross Road. There's something about reading other people's correspondence (real or fictional) that appeals to me.

I'm always amazed at the number of people who write but don't read. Some say this keeps their work original, because they aren't subconsciously stealing someone else's ideas. Maybe there is an element of truth to that, but I still think it's important to know what's out there.

More to the point, how can we expect others to read what we write, if we don't do other authors the same courtesy?

Becke Davis said...

And I copied and pasted the title from Roberta's post, so I left out the "Pie" part, too! :)

Peg Leg O'Sullivan said...

Lavender ice cream is all the rage. I think it tastes like soap, so I won't order it.

Doesn't matter that I hate the flavor, as the chefs continue to churn out lavender ice cream. Someone's buying it, albeit in ever shrinking numbers, so it's on the menu.

Eventually sales will be so low that someone in management will realize that the flavor's a failure and a new business model is needed. Maybe then my whiskey punch ice cream will find a home.

Dara said...

Instead of worrying about whether or not my book is a genre that's selling or not, I just focus on writing it. If for some reason it's too different for the market at that time, then so be it. :) I'll just have to practice patience and wait.

If that doesn't work, there's always self publishing--even though I'd like to avoid that path if possible. :)

Rachael said...

Are you sure Strawberry Marscapone with sugar cookie chunks ice cream doesn't exist? Because I want it now...

Laurel said...


Re: "People who write but don't read"

I have seen passing references to this on blogs. Is this phenomenon real? And HOW? I don't get it. I can't imagine being a composer without listening to music...

Anonymous said...

Personally, I like mysteries, but I prefer soft-boiled, fun mysteries with clues and interesting plots (not traditional cozies). Like the TV shows Psych, Castle or Monk... But it seems the trend is towards dark, hard-boiled thrillers w/ lots of violence. I want something in-between--so that's what I've written and hope to sell. Is that different enough?

MitMoi said...

Annon 10:16 At one point, "cookies -n-cream" was NEW. And you tried it.

So don't be goin' around saying you don't want something different.

If you LOGICALLY want to win that argument you better chose vanilla or chocolate as your flavor.

Mira said...

You know, I think it's good to discuss things, but it's also good to withhold judgement.

For example, one of the women in my writing group does not read much. She has ADD and just can not focus on the written page.

She is, however, able to focus on her own writing, which is incredible. Her talent is...well, it's amazing. She was born with talent, she was born to write, and it doesn't matter how much she reads. She will be published and sell well, I'd lay money on it.

Sometimes, I think people get caught up in whether there's a trick to this. If I read enough, if I predict the market enough, if I smooze enough agents, etc. etc.

If the talent is there, it's there. If it's not, work on developing it. And yes, I think talent can be developed.

That's my philosophy, anyway. We can respect that an agent's job is to sell. But we have a different job. That is to write. Focus on that.

Elana Johnson said...

This is so true, and so needed! Thanks Ms. Faust!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Good analogy. It reminds me of something I once heard in a literature course, that when you boil down all stories to a sentence or two, there are really only six or seven (all labeled something like "The Quest", etc.). When it comes to writing, it's hard to come up with new stories that are completely original; what you have to do is take elements that haven't been combined before and find a new way to join them together.

I’m amazed sometimes by how truly under-read some of those who claim to be authors are.
While I'm sure there are some authors who truly are underread and know nothing about their genre, I find it a constant challenge to stay up-to-date. I read to exhaustion and try to be aware of what else is out there, whether it's on my TBR list of just for my general knowledge, but the number of books keeps growing! Then there's the whole backfile of older books to get to as well as the new releases. Another reason I'm glad to read industry blogs. I learn a lot more about what's out there than I would otherwise, especially if all I could do was browse the shelves at the bookstore.

Rain Likely said...

"when you boil down all stories to a sentence or two, there are really only six or seven"

Some say there are only two storylines:

1. Somebody goes on a journey/quest

2. A stranger comes to town

legul said...

And yet bacon ice cream is a cult hit. Thanks for reminding me so frequently why I don't read your blog anymore.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:16, I agree with you totally. It's why series do well, it's why people buy the next book by the author even if it gets poor reviews.

I also think it's why I don't buy SF mags anymore, they are all trying to get "new" stuff instead of good stuff. That has to be a big problem for them. Can you keep your reader with the same old stuff? What is the balance between old stuff and new stuff.

Kate Douglas said...

Love your analogy, except I haven't had breakfast and I'm suddenly craving chocolate fudge with caramel bits ice cream...but I remember the frustration of hearing editors tell me to write my own book and make it fresh, etc., which is what I thought I was doing--until I actually did it. Then I realized just how hard it was to describe what they were asking for.

However, when I wrote those first chapters of Wolf Tales, I KNEW it was fresh and I also knew darned good and well it was different. I just didn't know who would buy it. That's where luck and timing had to come together, and in my case, they did. So, once again, I will say that you can't quit, you can't give up, and you have to keep improving your craft, but if you're stubborn enough and keep at it long enough, at some point it all comes together. Sooner for some, later for others (like me) but you have to keep at it.

And just a suggestion: Think out of the box, but remember to keep the box in the room.

Jessie said...

legul - and yet you just did. Read her blog.

Sort of weakens your argument, wouldn't you say?

Martha Flynn said...

Can I ditto horserider please?

If Strawberry Marscapone with Chunks of Sugar Cookie exists I have to know.

Anonymous said...

Mit Moi,

Yes, just as chocolate was a new flavor at some time. But the point is, once we the ice cream taster (or the book reader) find what we like, we stick to that.

Like most readers, I know what I like and buy those type of books. Agents and publishers complain that book sales are historically the lowest they've ever been; well, there's a a reason for that.

Agents and publishers combine to freeze out the books people would buy because they're a known quality and are exactly what readers are looking for, yet folks in publishing keep pushing onto readers books we simply don't want to read.

It's like when Hollywood decides an actor should be the next big star and keeps making failed movie after failed movie with that actor, never taking a step back to understand that the movie-going public simply does not like that actor.

Or how Corporate American keeps trying to shove soccer down our throats; we're Americans, we don't like soccer so stop trying to make us like it. And we're the book buying public; stop trying to force us to read "edgy" new fiction when what we want are our familiar favorites that will continue to sell if you'd simply publish those type of books. I'm tired of futile trips to the bookstore looking for something good yet only finding teen vampire tripe or zombies amongst Jane Austen characters.

I continue to re-read 5 and 6 times the books I like because the publishing world is so intent on being different and edgy that they're not publishing anything worth reading. If publishers wanted to spur sales, they'd publish books we want to read.

Adrienne said...

"I continue to re-read 5 and 6 times the books I like because the publishing world is so intent on being different and edgy that they're not publishing anything worth reading. If publishers wanted to spur sales, they'd publish books we want to read."

This is just such an odd statement to me and you must tell me what genres you read, because from my vantage point all I see are the same old same old - vampire stories, urban fantasy, and romance TONS of romance. I see celebrities being published and making bestseller lists writing about fictional versions of their lives, thriller writers writing the same story over and over again, and children's book series that never end.

Now none of the above are judgment calls, there is excellent writing and terrible writing in all said categories, but seriously? All publishers are publishing are edgy different books?? The complaint is usually rather the opposite.

I have to find it very amusing that publishers can never win. Most authors complain that publishers aren't interested in anything new and exciting (be it new different styles, or new authors), and yet here we have people complaining about too much originality?

The world is a strange strange place.

(For the record, I think this post is very apt, and the ice cream analogy perfect.)

SM Blooding said...

I like new things. I mean, I'll re-read my favorites 20+ times...or once a year just for the heck of it. But I hate stagnant water. It smells gross. It tastes gross. And, frankly, it'll make you sick. So why stagnate the mind?

To my fellow writers, I need something fresh and new. To the agents out there, thank you for searching for something that's a little outside of the norm.

Heidi Willis said...

Excellent analogy. I was thinking about this topic watching America's Got Talent, too.

The acts have to be more unique than the average song and dance, same-ole thing; but if someone says, "Everyone tells me they've never seen anything like it," you know it's going to be hideous. Like Beef Stew Ice Cream!

I blogged today about the book Q&A (Slumdog Millionaire), which tells a great story in a very unique way. The format of the book is what makes it fantastic. But it's not so out there you can't follow.

Anonymous said...

"Blame the agents all you want, but the truth is we can only sell to publishers what readers want to buy,"

I couldn't disagree with this statement more. The most common complaint I hear from book groups and friends who are avid readers is there is seldom anything new or exciting. Everything, they lament, is a variation of the same old same old. And I don't just mean vampires - gack.

I honestly believe the publishing industry has completely failed to grasp the old business adage, Change or Die. Their fear of the new, including the avalanche that e-publishing is poised to become, places them in a position to become the GM of tomorrow. And I believe that tomorrow is a lot closer than they think.

With GM and Chrysler's business models as their touchstone, it should be obvious that what agents and publishers should fear most is the status quo. It's a shame for readers that writers seem to be the only visionaries in the morass we refer to as the publishing industry.

Y'all need to ditch the myopia begotten of your fear of failure and start thinking at least half as creatively as writers, give the readers something they can really sink their teeth in, get excited about.

I long to feel the electricity in the air when someone mentions a novel that is so unique, so exciting, that everyone at a social function has either read it or is on a waiting list to read it. Sure there have been a few of those, but not nearly as many as there were 20 years ago. And the majority of new and exciting books were unagented novels and either self-published or published by small presses, books that subsequently caught fire through word of mouth because readers were excited.

I'm telling you: change or go the way of the dodo. The end is closer than you think.

Anonymous said...

Good grief. There's "hard facts of publishing," and then there's ranting analogies into the ground. The only thing worse than the thinly veiled contempt (for those who call themselves authors) is the sycophantic responses from those who call themselves authors. Oh, but perhaps she didn't mean you?

Jeanne Ryan said...

In Rehoboth Beach we have an interesting ice cream store. It sells, and I am not making this up, bacon ice cream (both plain and covered in chocolate). It's novelty gets people to try it, but then they warn their friends about it. We try to torture people who come to visit by convincing them to get it.

My husband tried play doh ice cream. It is bright yellow, tastes like play doh and has play doh chunks in it.

I had nice lavender ice cream, with real lavender petals in it.

Mira said...

Anon 2:43, you posted that anonymously, so how does that make you any better?

You know what bugs me? People who give Jessica a hard time, even to the point of insults, and do so anonymously.


You have an opinion, put your name on it.

Anonymous said...

What?! You're telling me my book-in-progress about a love-sick vampire who travels back in time to steal all the recipes for Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is not different and unique?

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Wow, this is really getting folks worked up! I think this post is well-written and thought-provoking, and at the core is pointing to the fact that we, as writers, need to explore our own voices and improve our craft.

Writing a good story that's worth reading is, was, and always will be the key to success. Concentrate on that, rather than whether your work is "different" enough, and everything else will fall into place.

Kim Lionetti said...

:) I'm having fun reading the comments today.

Just goes to show it's impossible to please everybody! That goes for the blog and the publishing industry.


Cold Stone had Wasabi ice cream once. Yep. You see how well that was received.

Love the analogy, but now I'm hungry. Gee, thanks, Jessica.

Anonymous said...

GREAT post all around!

And it's funny you should point out how under-read many people are. I don't get the opportunity to read quite as much as I'd like, but I average two middle-grade novels a week (and I write MG novels).

I come in contact with newbie children's writers regularly, and many haven't even bothered to read the Newbery Award and Honor books. That's the first place to start, people! One newbie writer recently commented that she was writing a novel about a kid with ties to Alcatraz, which "had never been done before. There are no historical fiction novels for kids about Alcatraz." I had to point at that "Al Capone Does My Shirts" by Gennifer Choldenko is about just that... and won a Newbery Honor!

At the very least, writers should use Amazon and Google as a tool for discovering what books out there are similar to their own.

Anonymous said...

Don't color too far outside the lines, kids.

Laurel said...

For fiction consumerism I am exactly what Jessica describes. I like bestsellers most of the time. I read critically acclaimed work and some of it bowls me over but the books of the modern era that I read over and over are vanilla, chocolate, and occasional strawberry. I'm just as guilty as the posters above who confess to looking for "more of the same" at the bookstore.

I hope this does not cause a collective apoplexy but for the edgier, less consumer oriented writing that is getting produced but not published epub promises to blow the lid off. It won't take long (younger consumers are not hesitant about this type of product or technology) before there will be some epub or another that does for writers what Sundance did for independent films. It will be avant garde, cool, a resume builder instead of "that doesn't really count." It won't be nearly as risky because there won't be money tied up in printed books or fear of heavy book returns.

For all you artsy souls who can't bring yourself to write something that would appeal to us, the unwashed masses buying the books you hate, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It's likely coming from the train that is about to hit traditional publishing.

Alan Payne said...

Different and good v. different and bad. Different itself is pretty easy. Different and good is very hard.

Silke said...

Interesting and enlightening post. I read a lot, usually in the genre I write, but I pick up books in other genres as well.
You never know what you can cross-pollinate. :)
But I do stick to rough rules within my genre (and subgenre) and one of the first is to ask myself "Would I pick it up and buy it?"
If the answer is maybe, then I look at the story again, with a view to make myself pick it up at the bookstore -- and take it home.
There is different, and there is different. I want a good read, well written, with great characters I can root for. I want the sex to be hot, but believable. I want to lose myself in the story, basically.
All of that applies to *any* book. It's not different.
The approach is what makes a book different, not the mixing of flavors.
Maybe I like my icecream just the way it is, but if you offer me a variation on the theme... well. I might just jump on it. And once I get a taste, I might want more.

At least that's how I interpret it. :)

Laurel Amberdine said...

Great analogy.

I have had beef tongue ice cream, and it was... ah... different.

Dawn Maria said...

Great discussion going on here today!

I feel like I'm on the fence because I like new and I like the same old, same old as well. It depends on my mood. I'm not upset or offended by Jessica's analogy. I think it's all about her post on July 3, about being true to yourself. I have no idea what kind of career I'll end up with, but I know I need to try and create one.

Iko of the Shadows said...

[i]"A book that the author labels as a mystery, romance, science fiction is not different, it’s ridiculous"[/i]

Okay. You just described the 'In Death...' series by Nora Roberts.

Laura Martone said...

I completely agree with you, Mira. I notice that, on a lot of writing blogs, the folks who are the most opposed to the post at hand express their vitriol anonymously.

Although I appreciate the "ice cream" analogy, I don't fully agree with it. I can even see both sides of the publishing argument... the need for similar titles to appeal to a built-in audience and the desire of some readers for "new and different" stories.

Still, I have a lot more respect for people who sign their comments. It feels like the vicious "anonymous" commenter wants it both ways: to scorn the blogger's point of view and yet keep the door open for a future agent-writer association.

Anonymous said...

Though I don't think I'm guilty of spreading manure all over anyone's publishing blog, I am an Anon commentor.

I comment as Anon because I don't have a blog to promote and so have no blogger account.

I also never use my real name because my name is common. If I used it, it wouldn't really let anyone "know" who I was, anyway. And fifteen other people with that name would then say, "Hey, why is that girl using my name?"

If Jessica or anyone is offended by Anon comments, they can always set their blog to print only those with blogger accounts (Janet Reid does this, as do others). Maybe that is the solution. Although it isn't your blog so it's not your right (or mine) to say.

Mira said...

Anon 8:40, personally, I have no problem with people who prefer to post anonymously for various reasons.

But there are two or three people who tend to do it here specifically - it may only be one - and they hide behind the anonymous label while they are vitriolic (good word, Laura), mean-spirited, condescending and insulting.

It's one thing to post anonymously because you need to say something and are scared it will rebound. It's another thing to just be picking on someone as a target because you don't like the system, or you don't like that person.

Then I feel like it's just cowardly. It's not fighting fair. It's hiding in an alley and sniping rather than facing someone directly.

So, my feeling is: cut it out. And whenever I see it going on here, I'll say something - unless the moderators prefer I don't.

Mira said...

Oh good god. I wasn't calling everyone who posted anonymously a coward!!!

Oh, please don't misunderstand.

I was talking to some specific posters here.

Becke Davis said...

Jessica - Maybe you mentioned this in a previous blog and, if so, I apologize for asking about something you've already addressed. Recently an editor from one of the big NY publishing companies spoke at my local RWA chapter meeting.

She said that when she meets authors in pitch sessions, one of the first things she asks is "What author's books most closely resemble yours?" or "What book that you've read recently is similar to yours?"

I was surprised, because I thought the whole point was NOT to be like everyone else. But she said one reason she asked the question was to get an idea for the author's "feel" for the market, and also to find out what (if any) books they had read.

As an agent, what's your take on this? Is it a good idea for an author to mention books/authors whose style resembles theirs, when pitching or querying? It doesn't seem right to me, but I can understand the editor's reasons for asking.

Anonymous said...

Kim by your tone you seem to hate authors.
I love to read all kinds of books I just want a well written interesting story, unfortunately that so hard to find. I think book sales are down because there's so little that's good out there. Publisher's have become like Walmart they just want to make big bucks on crap books.

Becke Davis said...

Anonymous - Maybe you're reading the wrong genres? I'm not saying this to be sarcastic, I mean it seriously.

I don't have high-brow tastes, but I love to read. Mystery, romance, paranormal, urban fantasy, women's fiction or books that are labeled "literature" -- I read them all.

I read about a book a day and at least one or two a week become "keepers." There are lots of great books out there -- I sure don't have any problems finding good ones! (Or maybe I'm just easily pleased.)

Josie said...

I agree with your post--up to a point. But often I come out of my local B&N empty-handed because so many books seem too predictable to me--I can recite the plot without even reading the novel. I guess that's why I gravitate to quirky fiction and nonfiction (not necessarily literary--just a book that doesn't make me yawn...and that promises to give me something "different." And yes, sometimes this means mixing up genres a bit).

Anonymous said...

Please explain why this post doesn't completely contradict the last one.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's the problem--not the genre, but the predictability of the plot.

The last book I read was such a downer that I doubt I'll read that author's next book.
Who needs more doom & gloom?

ps/ Why would anyone say Kim hates authors based on her comment? Makes sense to me...

Anonymous said...

Boo-hoo, some poor agent doesn't want to think outside the box.

I'm going to have to disagree with this post. Readers DO NOT buy 'the same only different' they also buy things that are totally different and unique.

At one time Harry Potter was new and Twilight was new. Now they are a dime a dozen.

Every trend started out as something new and later became mainstream and that is ignoring the success of books like House of Leaves and The Raw Shark Texts that are totally outside the mainstream and yet are both critical and financial successes.

What I see here is an agent who sees that publishers are buying lots of YA books and lots of Vampire books (and even YA vampire books) and doesn't want to put in the effort to look for those one or two unique projects that might come across her desk that could make both her and the author very wealthy.

Keep looking at 'the same only different' and you will miss the next Harry Potter or the next Twilight (or even the next House of Leaves) and it will be some other agent who gets rich off of 'The Next Big Thing'.

Heather Massey said...

Different means you still have to appeal to readers. A book that the author labels as a mystery, romance, science fiction is not different, it’s ridiculous.

I can understand how a “mystery-romance-science fiction” marketing label, even if it accurately describes the content, isn’t conducive to the brick and mortar business model of selling books (digital publishing and ecommerce, with its reliance on search engine technology, might be a different story).

I can understand how using multiple genre terms to pitch or sell a book can be convoluted as well as an ill-advised strategy for authors (which is what I think you mean by the above statement. Otherwise, it seems as though you are saying that books involving multiple genres are ridiculous).

But there are so many cross-genre books in existence, and when I describe a book I’ve read to a friend, I’ll often remark on the cross-genre elements contained therein since those are the books I enjoy reading. I don’t stick to the marketing label on the spine.

And I happen to love books that contain mystery, romance, and science fiction. I don’t think my reading tastes are ridiculous.

There is an audience for Beef Stew Ice Cream—even if only someone like Willy Wonka could pull it off—but the manufacturer wouldn’t necessarily call it that. What a book actually is and how a publisher markets it can sometimes be two totally different things.

Wasn’t paranormal romance its own Beef Stew Ice Cream at one time? It went from a dead market to having its own shelving in bookstores. The authors found their audience, albeit the audience grew in large part by reader-driven endeavors such as magazines (LoveLetter), and online communities (PNR).

Anonymous said...

Don't forget. At one time people thought pistachio ice cream was horrible and disguisting. What you think of today as different and unsalable is what may become the mainstream tomorrow.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

A+! Love the ice cream comparison, and the comment about writers who don't read. Is there a worse moment than talking to a writer who has re-written a book that is already out there and finding out they don't know it?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 11:55:

Actually Harry Potter and Twilight are perfect examples of exactly what I am talking about. They are the same, but different. They are, to a certain degree, traditional stories with a new and unique twist and done in such a way that they captivated the audience that was already there.

Sometimes it's difficult to explain myself unless you can truly spend time in my query inbox. However, I do think that those of you who get it do get it and yes, as Heather said, I certainly agree in cross-genres. If you take a quick glance at my list you'll see I've been doing those books for quite sometime and it's because of the cross-genres that I've become more and more interested in fantasy. However, it's the author who tries hard to make a book a little bit of everything to please everyone rather then focusing on one thing and making it different that has the most trouble.


Catherine said...

I was gonna say the same thing about HP. I mean, how many boarding school stories were there before HP? How many stories about a boarding school which taught magic? HP just added its own spin, its own elements - its own flavour.

Kim Lionetti said...

"Kim by your tone you seem to hate authors."

Okay, I have no idea how you got that from my comment. If that were the case, I'd sure be in the wrong business, wouldn't I?

My point is this: Everybody has their own tastes and their own opinions on what should be in bookstores. One commenter wants more of the same, another wants stuff that's dramatically different. But the publishing industry's best reference guide to what the book-buying public wants is sales records. And that dictates what editors are looking for and hence what agents are going to send their way. Any one of us could shout from the rooftops "We want something different!", but our shouts just aren't going to be as loud as those sales numbers, because publishing is, after all, a business. We'd just sound like a vocal minority.

Anonymous said...

My point is that, numbers don't lie. Book sales are down and there is a reason for it. We all may have our theories, but mine is that sales are down because agents and publishers are looking for "new and different" instead of tried and true quality. Publishing should look for the type books it was producing when sales were higher, not continue to produce books from a period when sales are low.

I will never, ever buy a zombie book about Jane Austen characters nor a book about teen vampires. I buy what I like to read and when there is nothing good out there to read then I buy nothing. I am an example why book sales are down. Sure, there are some who will buy those books, but obviously the number of people buying those books is lower than the number of people buying the tried and true books of the past; this fact is confirmed by the declining sales figures. You can squawk all you want that the best sellers are these new kind of books, but some book has to be a best-seller, no matter who many actual sales there are.

Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth is a perfect example. Because of exposure on Oprah's Book Club more potential readers found out about it and rocketed it to best-seller status again. That's a 15-year-old book written the way books should be written. If more of those type books were published today, teen vampire books and zombie classics would not sell because readers would have a far superior product to purchase. Enough said!

Melissa Alexander said...

Oh, ridiculous, Anon 10:57.

If Oprah told people to read the Yellow Pages, it would skyrocket to the top of the Best Seller list. People don't read books she recommends because they crave quality. They read them because they adore her.

People buy teen vampire books and zombie classics because they are being entertained by them, because their friends are reading and recommending them.

Your argument that if more "of quality" like Pillars of the Earth were published, then people would gravitate toward that instead of the pop culture, mind candy books is simply nonsense! There is always quality being published, and there's always mind candy, and people read what they want to read. More people want to read the mind candy -- and always have!

You may not like it, but that's the audience. It would be a foolish publisher who ignored that.

Kim Lionetti said...

Book sales have been down in recent years because of two things: 1) younger generations were watching more television, spending a lot of time on the computer, and reading less 2) the economy sucks.

Now, for the first time in a very, very long time young adult sales are up. What are they reading? A lot of paranormal. It's my hope that this means reading is back in vogue and will lead to better sales for many, many types of books as this generation grows up. It's certainly an encouraging trend. Those "zombie books" that you refuse to buy may very well be revitalizing the entire book market.

I, for one, don't buy the argument that book sales are down because there aren't any good books to buy. But if you want to try and prove it, go and self-publish, sell millions of copies and then come back and convince me.

Dawn Maria said...

As a huge Jane Austen fan, I was at first put off by the zombie connection. But the idea has grown on me and my online book club is going to read the book. It's sort of like the Oprah thing. I bought the book because I love P&P, not for the zombies.

It might be fun. Remember fun? Isn't that what all of this is supposed to be about? I know it's a business, but if you can't have some level of fun, why bother?

green_knight said...

Ok. So I wander into an ice cream parlour. And I'll have a scoop of something I know I'll love at the bottom of the cone, because I know I'll love it, and a scoop of roasted eggplant because that's so weird I just have to try it. And if that isn't there, I'd have a scoop of Beef Stew because I really cannot imagine that I would like it, but it's so weird, I need to find out how anyone thought it would work. (I've bought drinks and crisps and - gasp - icecream like that. Just because it's there. And Heston Blumenthal's restaurants do a roaring trade, and he's far weirder.)

But give me an icecrem shop full of chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and I'll walk past. Tried them, don't particularly mind them, but I've eaten them often enough that I'll hold out for the next shop that hopefully will have something different. Offer me Black Raspberry Chocolate Cheesecake and Strawberry Marscapone with Chunks of Sugar Cookie and I'll look at it: cheese? Why do these people keep putting cheese into everything? I hate cheese. I want to buy cheese-free icecream! And I want to buy a nice, solid flavour, not fruit-with-something-with-sugar amalgamations that sound as if they'll taste mainly of sweet and artificial flavouring. And I'll walk straight out of the icrecream shop if those flavours are too prominent, and I won't come back.

This analogy is very, very apt indeed. In the last couple of weeks I spent five hours browsing high street bookstores and come out with zero books, because they're full of (well, actually, not very full right now, the shelves looked stripped) of books that all sound the same and all don't sound like something I want to read. So I, a certified readaholic, read what's on my shelves and visit second-hand bookstores and borrow from friends and order on the internet through personal recommendation, because I can't get the style of books I like at all on the highstreet.

And now, I *really* want that roasted eggplant icecream, because roasted eggplant has that sweetish undertaste that might actually work. Probably not on par with the chocolate-with-chilli icecream that was to die for...

Anonymous said...


I will never, ever buy a zombie book about Jane Austen characters nor a book about teen vampires.

You might not buy a book about zombie Jane Austen characters, but millions of other people have and that IS another example of why this Agent is so wrong -- someone took a chance and put that Beef Stew ice cream on the shelf with a fancy looking cone and it was a smash success.

The book itself is complete trash. The writing is piss poor and the idea falls flat on its literary face before you can even enjoy the face munching zombie goodness, but that didn't keep millions of people from taking a taste.

It was the impossible mix of flavors that no one thought anyone wanted and it turned out that everyone did.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Actually Anon 6:24:

"this agent" thinks that Pride and Prejudice with Zombies is exactly what I was talking about, but not as beef stew ice cream. That book is the absolute perfect example of Strawberry Marscapone with Chunks of Sugar Cookie. It's just the perfect blend of different. It's not trying to reinvent the wheel in any way, but taking what has already worked and worked very well and creating your own unique version.


Judith said...

I'm with green_knight. I'd definitely try the weird ice creams. I'm one of those people that goes to restaurants and orders the thing on the menu I've never heard of and can't pronounce.

I've heard of raspberry blue cheese ice cream, but must admit I never ate it. I'm not a raspberry fan.

My all time favorite dessert to date is an heirloom tomato tart with basil gelato and basil syrup. The tart was sweet, like berries. The waiter said he had a hard time getting people to try it, but everyone who did thought it was the most amazing thing they'd ever eaten.

I like to broaden my horizens in my reading too.

~Jamie said...

I have to say... I order the same thing at restaurants, I buy clothes from stores I know make good quality stuff, and I see movies from the same directors... why?

Because I don't want to waste my cash- I work hard for that stuff- I want to be pleased when I spend it.

I am not saying I want to read the same book again and again... but I want to read things that are familiar in tone and feeling.

It's our job as writers not just to write what we want, but to write what we think the public wants to read... and if we know kids are reading the paranormal- rather it be vampire, warewolf, or superhero- then we should write that.

Kids love trends... do you think it was a GOOD idea to tight roll your jeans, or did Misty's cousin's roommate from college tell you to do it-so you did?

The want to follow things-they want catch phrases and styles, they want characters they can relate to, but not so much it bores them.

I think a lot of the authors out there are trying to stretch the envelope for the sake of telling people they stretched it, and they have every right to... but will an agent take on your book? Uh-no. An agent is in the business of making money off books and cultivating best selling authors, not making sure you get to see your memoirs of a tube sock in print.

green_knight said...

I want value-for-money, too, but one of the non-negotiable qualities in books is that I want to be intrigued. I have experience enough as a reader and writer to be able to predict far too many tropes and plots, and I am bored with them. I want to read books I could not have thought up, which means a wider range of characters and lifestyles and worlds than we often see.

It's our job as writers not just to write what we want, but to write what we think the public wants to read...


It is my job as a writer to stay true to the story. It is also my job not to stand between the reader and the story - which means honing my craft so my words deliver exactly what I want them to say, which means not making the reader work to compensate for my lack of skills, which means finding the right level of diction, style, pacing, level of details, viewpoint etc etc for the story, which means not abusing the reader's trust for my own amusement.

I also owe it to readers not to patronise them by deciding what they want or don't want to read.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who once opened an ice cream store.

The first week, the delivery driver left ten gallons each of vanilla, chocolate, raspberry, strawberry and tequila-jalapeno ice cream.

The next week, the driver returned and saw that all the flavors, except tequila-jalapeno, had sold out. Still, his instructions were to leave ten gallons of each flavor, each week.

After about two months, my friend was beside herself. She usually sold out of chocolate by Friday evening, subsequently losing customers, and she was beginning to have storage space problems with the build up of tequila-jalapeno.

Still, when the driver showed up each week, he insisted on leaving ten gallons of each flavor.

"But you only sold ten gallons of chocolate last week," he'd tell my friend. "Why do you want more?"

After much cajoling, she finally elicited from him a promise 'to look into it'.

So, what DID he do? Two things. First, he decided to spend a whole bunch of money marketing tequila-jalapeno ice cream, because clearly it wasn't that it was just crappy ice cream; he LOVED it, and was sure everybody else would, too! People just needed to be convinced to buy it. Second, he told my friend to reduce the size of her chocolate scoops -- without, of course, lowering the price -- because the supplier had diverted chocolate production capacity to tequila-jalapeno in anticipation of the marketing campaign's success.

His first step was to put up a big poster, showing a delicious, glistening scoop of tequila-jalapeno under the heading "Our #1 Bestselling Flavor"*. His second step was to reduce deliveries of every other flavor, making tequila-jalapeno the only thing in the cooler by the time the weekend rolled around.

By definition, buyers can only buy what's for sale, and sales of tequila-jalapeno at first skyrocketed. But soon, people just stopped coming to my friend's store. Eventually, she convinced the supplier to renew her supplies of chocolate, vanilla, raspberry and strawberry. When the truck showed up, the new delivery driver threw in ten gallons of broccoli-cumin. He just LOVED it, and was sure it would be the next big thing.


Mira said...

Broccoli-cumin? Come on, you made that whole thing up.

It was, however, a really funny and clever story that made some good points.

Nice job. Two thumbs up.

Anonymous said...

""this agent" thinks that Pride and Prejudice with Zombies is exactly what I was talking about, but not as beef stew ice cream. That book is the absolute perfect example of Strawberry Marscapone with Chunks of Sugar Cookie."

Have you read it??? While it is a financial success, the book itself is complete crap. Are you saying that what you are looking for as an agent is poorly written trash with a quirky topic?

Again, that would be the Beef Stew ice cream you started out saying you didn't want and not the Strawberry Cookies that you can tell right from the description will be a big hit.

Not to get stuck in a discussion of one book...

I still see an essential problem with your initial post. You are saying you want 'The Same Only Different' because as an Agent you know that 'The Same Only Different' is what you can sell to publishers and I'm sure you do a credit to your clients by picking clients who are writing books you know you can sell.

The problem is (as other people have mentioned) that book sales are down. The public isn't buying 'The Same Only Different' in the kind of numbers they were two years ago and that is why you need to be keeping your eye open for the Bacon Flavored Ice Cream that everyone wants, but doesn't know they want yet.

~Jamie said...

Why wouldn't an agent want what they can sell? I don't understand anyone thinking that isn't what an agent wants.

Publishers don't want to make books that can't sell- so they aren't going to pick them up from agents. It's an agents job to guess which books a publisher will buy and go from there.

That's that.

Anonymous said...

Ho, ho ho, Chi Minh . . .

Readers don't know what they like until some hype burglar tells them so; or until they read it -- not necessarily in that order.

And neither do you!

Tinuke said...

Well, I am a reader not writer or agent. Sadly the books I read are cross genre so I must like Beef Stew ice-cream which actually sounds revolting! A bit of a downer to be told my reading habits are ridiculous.! Luckily there are agents out there who do cater for what might appear to be my specialist taste. The post feels like too ideas conflated into one. Or maybe the Beef Stew remark was meant to get people thinking in which case I think it was a very successful post.
I certainly hope that books don't go to ebook format completely so the question of what an agent can sell as book going on to a bookshelf has to be an important issue. As an artist from a different genre, (singer) yes I definitely think that just being an 'artist' is not enough. For a start it's the perfect way to get reamed. So with regard to that portion of the blog doing your homework as a writer seems apt in whatever way you can. Interesting blog!