Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lemming Writing

I got an e-mail from an yet-to-be-pubbed writer who asked me an interesting question (and gave me permission to post it on the blog): "So if all anyone wants to read is mommy porn, shouldn't I be writing it to better my chances at publishing?"

I (correctly) deduced the phrase mommy porn to mean the particular fanfic-based erotica that has sold so briskly of late, and thought for a while about how to respond. After nearly 15 years in the biz I've seen a lot of trends come and go: romantic suspense, fashion chicklit, vampire romance, vampire brotherhoods, vampire bromances, YA written for adults, and now the mommy porn thing. Likewise I've watched countless writers rush up that cliff of popularity and dive off because they saw a lot of other writers take the jump and thought, "Hey, maybe that will work." In the biz we call it jumping on the bandwagon; I think of it more as lemming writing.

Taking advantage of a publishing trend can absolutely open some doors for you. A couple of weeks ago one of my biz associates mentioned to me that editors were so hot for BDSM erotica that if I wanted it I could probably get a contract within a week. Recently my agent made a similar comment. It took me almost three years of traditional submission to sell my latest series; it would be nice to sell something else in a week. Very nice, in fact. If I could land an offer and bulk up my numbers with a fast seller, it would likely do great things for my other works.

Unfortunately it won't, as I seriously doubt I'll ever write BDSM erotica, mommy porn or whatever you want to call it. I'm not a snob; I like well-written books of any variety regardless of genre. I can write just about anything, too. But I won't be making like a lemming for the same reason I don't publish Westerns, Christian chicklit or political thrillers:  I have zero interest in writing it.

Publishing certainly likes fiction that is riding a wave of popularity, but you need to watch it closely and decide when its trends are most advantageous to you and what you want most to write. For example, I originally pitched my Darkyn novels back in the late 90's, and all I got was a resounding rejection. It was what I wanted to write, but vampire fiction didn't sell much back then, so the bounce was simply a good business decision (not only for the publisher but for me, too; I doubt at the time the series would have lasted past book three.) I shelved the idea and moved on. When the vampire fic trend kicked off six years later, I tried submitting my proposal again and landed a three-book contract in a couple weeks.  By timing this right I also had time to establish my series before the genre became glutted.

This doesn't mean I haven't eyed a few cliffs myself. From time to time I've been tempted by certain trends because some of them were vaguely interesting, and I knew if I researched and focused I could do a decent job of it. It's hard to resist a situation that practically guarantees you'll get an offer in order to find that that one editor among hundreds who wants to buy exactly what you want to write. The way the economy is going I don't blame anyone for going for the easier sell; you do what you have to in order to pay your bills and take care of your family.

Trend-driven writing's major downside has to do with how whatever you publish brands you.  If all you've ever sold is mommy porn, publishers are going to focus on that as your niche, and it will be very difficult to persuade them that you can publish anything else successfully.  It's much tougher for a pubbed writer to sell something different from what they've been publishing than it is for a unpubbed writer.  Also, if your mommy porn doesn't do especially well on the market, those low numbers will make you look even less appealing to a publisher than an unpublished writer; booksellers use those numbers to decide how much they want to order of your new venture (aka not much.)  If you're bright/shiny/new with no sales track record, the buyers can only judge you on the strength of the work.  If you're pubbed, you'll be judged on your numbers.  

You pros out there won't escape this, either.  Involuntarily branding yourself can happen at any time during your career.  The reason it took me three years to sell my latest series is because it's new, fresh, and not like anything I've ever written.  Although I'm an established multi-genre writer, the books I've sold in the highest numbers are all vampire fiction, which is also what I'm best known for writing.  I probably could have sold a new paranormal series any time over the last three years; a half-dozen editors who rejected my proposal actually wrapped up their bounces by asking me to send them a paranormal sub instead. 

If you want to write this mommy porn because it's all you've ever wanted to write, happy days -- this is definitely your time. You're not going to be jumping off a cliff; you'll be pursuing what interests you and possibly what you were meant to write. But if the desire and the interest isn't there, I believe it will show through in the work. A few writers have copy-catted their way to success, but most get swallowed up in the glut at the base of the cliff . . . at least until the latest bandwagon comes along to cart them off to the next one.

9 comments:

  1. I write what I do because I love it. I can't see myself hopping the steampunk fic trend, (as much as I love it), because I don't see myself able to write it. I think once the "mommyporn" trend fades off, there's going to be a remaining market for hotter works, but yeah, trend hopping? Not for me. I write what I love. ( and what I've done seems to be getting some happy readers in return so I'm down with that. Oddly the guys love the erotica novella as much as the women. I didn't expect that!)

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  2. As somebody who was writing ''mommyporn" (I started out writing erotic romance for Ellora's Cave...way before the current trend came along) let me add this:

    Snort. If you think writing hot sex is THAT easy, have at it. Writing hot, and writing a solid story is harder than one might think.

    Yes, the books dominating the chart right now are getting a lot of notice but that's because, IMO, mainstream finally realized those books are there. But they are nothing new.

    Sylvia Day, for example, is not a new writer. She's been writing a long time, and writing hot.


    Publishers have realized writers like us will sell to mainstream...and romance readers have been reading this way a long time.

    If your heart is in a hot, racy story, awesome.

    But don't think just because it's popular that means it is easy.

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  3. The thing about trends is that by the time the "lemmings" know about it, it's already on its way out. In the case of "mommy porn," the reason it was so popular is that it seemed fresh and new. Though erotica has been around for centuries, and the amateur variety boomed a decade ago with the Internet, the infamy of the Fifty Shades series gave people who had always turned their noses up at porn "permission" to read it. Now the novelty is already beginning to wear off; the three comments highlighted for the first book on Amazon are:

    "Please, don't waste your time, money and brain reading this book." (2,584 reviewers made a similar statement)
    "The books are not well written, incredibly repetitive, there is little character development, and the sex scenes are, well, vanilla." (2,900 reviewers made a similar statement)
    "Every time I read one of these lines, I just wanted to put the book down." (1,426 reviewers made a similar statement)

    If you think this gives other writers room to edge in and show the masses how it's done, think again. People will assume whatever you write is the same stuff and quality--that you're only copycatting out of greed. And by the time you sell the book, go through the editing process, and see it in print a year later, the ship will have already sailed.

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  4. Great blog except for one little thing. The belief that lemmings will hurl themselves off a cliff is a myth started by Disney many years ago when they made White Wilderness in 1958. Check this article out:
    http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2004/04/27/1081903.htm

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  5. Anonymous2:27 PM

    "Lemming writing"...that is completely awesome lol.

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  6. I would think that given the length of time it takes for a book to get written, sold, produced and actually put on a shelf, by the time you decide a trend is "hot" enough to pursue, you may be on the downward slope of the hill. Unless you have an in in the industry or are very very good at spotting trends before they become the next Big Thing, trying to jump on these fast moving trains seems impossible. I think a better bet is to write what you love, then if it doesn't sell due to market trends, shelve it and hope for a return to that theme in the future the way Lynn managed to do with the Darkyn series. All that said, when I read something current and fall in love with it, I can't help but be influenced in my writing life. When I discovered Suzanne Brockmann and the world of military romance, all I wanted to write about were soldiers and SEALs. Unfortunately, while I was learning to write and practicing and trying to get good enough to sell, that trend seems to have peaked. I may have to wait until the pendulum swings back in my direction and by that time, hopefully, I'll be ready for it.

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  7. I write late Regency/Early Victorian werewolves and time traveling warriors because that's where my heart lies. Because it is, I'm going to try that much harder to turn out a great story that's well edited. I could write the 'mommyporn,' but have no interest in it and I'm still working on my craft. Why do I want to write something I have little interest in and something that probably wouldn't be my best work because of that, just to get noticed? Sooner or later, the "ride the wave and get it to the publisher" is going to bite you in the arse. And what you'll pay for your 15 minutes in the long run, just isn't worth it.

    So, I'll stick to what I love to write about and sooner or later, some agent out there will fall in love with my story and that will be the right time to sell. In the meantime, I'll just keep plugging away.

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  8. I think that the key element here is motivation.

    I write (granted I am new to the joys of saying in company "I am a writer") because I enjoy it.

    I love it. It's something that I actively pursue as a pass time.

    What I don't do is write because I think I can make a huge wad of currency from it.

    Now, before people get all uppity: I'm not getting all altruistic I'm not trying to play the part of a purist. From my perspective I tell a great story, but am aware that I am a far cry from the likes of Amis et al.

    But I do write, and when I do, it is generally the story that has been rattling about in my head. NOT the story that I think will garner the most attention and therefore monetary return on time invested.

    I have a relative who is/was a respected photographer. His advice to me, many years before I chose to actually put together a coherent 60,000 word story, was this:

    "If you take on any artistic enterprise with the express desire for fame or money, the project is already doomed."

    Great advice, and something I remember every time I sit at my little writing machine, steaming cup of tea at hand.

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  9. Ren Benton7:16 AM

    For five years, I wrote to be "publishable." And everything I wrote during those five years was published, and for all five years, I made enough money from writing alone to support a family, which most people would consider to be a successful writing career.

    I sat down at the computer one morning to put in my time on another story I was writing for no reason other than knowing it would sell, and I said out loud to the empty room, "I hate writing." I fulfilled my existing contractual obligations, and I quit.

    It took a year and a half of crushing depression to understand I don't hate writing. Writing is fun. Writing is therapeutic. Writing is one of few things I'm good at that not everybody else can do. Writing is the most important non-person thing in my life.

    What I hate is writing crap for which I have nothing but contempt because "there's no market" for what I want to write. What I hate is being told I'm so talented, I should have no problem copying what another writer has done. What I hate is... well, publishing, basically.

    If your goal is merely to be published, you already know immitation is the sincerest form of getting a contract. There is no shortage of people with the temperament to surf every trend and abandon and reinvent identities as necessary to stay in the game, and that is a valid means of keeping groceries in the fridge.

    If, however, you have any sense that your writing is your legacy or that writing is a piece of who you are or any such emotional investment in your craft, DO NOT do it. It is bad for your soul, and having a bunch of publishing credits for work you're embarrassed to be associated with is not going to help your career in the least when you want to do something that matters to you.

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