Tuesday, February 27, 2018

I go my own way

By R.J. Harlick

Is it better to be original or to give ‘em what they want? And, would you do it for free? 

I hate to be so prosaic but the answer is all about dollar and cents. Most publishers, particularly the larger ones, have a fairly good idea on the types of crime fiction that will make money for them, so naturally they seek them out. Rarely do they take a chance on a purely original work of crime fiction that doesn’t fit within their definition of marketability. But most of us when we start out are only intent on writing the kind of book we want to write. It is only after failure to either get the book published or to earn a decent income, that we begin to start writing the kind of book publishers want. I know many a writer who switched in order to earn a better income.

The cozy mystery publishers have set guidelines for what should and should not be included in a cozy. Things like no overt sex or violence, no swearing, must have a pet, preferably a cat, have a fictitious, preferably American, small town setting, a straightforward plot with no contentious social issues and so on and so forth. If a writer doesn’t stay within these guidelines, they don’t get published. It’s as simple as that. But if a writer does choose to follow the guidelines, they can expect to make a reasonable amount of money. I have several friends who gave up writing more original crime fiction to go this route and are doing very nicely, thank you very much.

At some point the international publishing world decreed Canadian settings boring and unmarketable, so mystery writers in Canada are frequently prompted to change their settings to American ones at the bequest of agents and publishers. I know many writers who have done this and are doing very well with their American-based books. As with most things, there are exceptions, but I can only think of one, possibly two Canadian crime writers that have been able to make it into the lucrative American market with their Canadian settings and have done well enough to continue to be published.

After my second Meg Harris mystery was published, I realized that I was never going to make more than a modest income with a Canadian publisher. If I wanted to make more money, I would have to find an American one and, as several agents pointed out, I would have to give up on Meg and write a completely new series with a non-Canadian setting. In the end, the decision was a ‘no-brainer’.  I was having too much fun with Meg, besides I wanted to tell Canadian stories set in Canadian settings. Fortunately for me, I have a very good Canadian publisher who lets me do this and I thank them for it.

Though I am content to earn a modest income, I wouldn’t write a book or short story without any expectation of remuneration, not like I did when I was first starting out. I wrote the first two books with only a hope and a prayer that I would eventually sell them to a publisher.  Now I only write a book if I have a contract.

That's it. Enjoy your day.


Terry said...

Interesting post, Robin, on an interesting topic. I think it's not entirely true that publishers are rigid about what they publish. I just read an amazing Canadian book, Ragged Lake, published in Toronto.

Years ago I was told by a honcho at a big publishing house that books set in Texas would never sell. At that time, it may have been true, but subsequent years have shown a shift. It's only a matter of time before Canada is "in."

Unknown said...

Sometimes I worry my series crosses between subgenres, which makes it hard to market (along with being set in Canada). With some effort I could have conformed my fiction to the optimal guidelines, but then I'd have lost interest and stopped writing. I'm just grateful that my publisher --and yours -- has taken a chance on my series, which is maybe a little offbeat to start with.

BUT I think Canadian crime is getting more respect these days, so hopefully more writers will hang onto our setting and help it grow.

Unknown said...

Just read your comment, Terry. That's heartening :)

RJ Harlick said...

I wish it were the case, Terry. We'd all hoped that Louise Penny's tremendous success would open doors to Canadian settings, but sadly it hasn't. I will have to check out Ragged Lake. Take care. And Rachel, I agree, but this respect doesn't seem to go too far beyond our borders.

Unknown said...

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Danny Gardner said...

Loved every character of this post. So very true.