Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Publishing's Perplexing Pickle Problem

Tom Vanderbilt, in the June issue of Smithsonian magazine, opens his article on the science of taste with a fascinating tale of Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist whom Vlassic once tapped to solve the mystery of the Perfect Pickle. The ensuing taste test yielded surprisingly tongue-twisting results:

People primarily picked pickles that packed a more powerful punch than predicted.

Now THAT's a spicy pickle!
When Vlassic applied its research and rolled out a "zesty" pickle, their sales skyrocketed.

"That people in the pickle business should not know what pickle consumers prefer is a reminder of just how difficult it is to tease out the vagaries of why we like what we like," Vanderbilt writes -- a statement as applicable to publishing as it is to pickles.

A friend once worked as a sub-agent for a respected boutique literary agency. She has a good eye for what makes a great story (I'm not just saying that because she loves my stuff), and can critique a blue streak. Her job as sub-agent was to mine the slush pile, searching for the gold nuggets in a cesspool of dross.

While at the agency, she discovered three manuscripts with writing she loved. Two of them told stories she loved as well. The story of the third was darker and at odds with her personal beliefs, though there was no denying the author's skill.

She took her three recommendations to the agency owner, who rejected the two favorites for all the reasons the newbie sub-agent was crazy for them. The third, however, the agency owner adored. Everything in the story that my friend disliked, the agency owner raved about. The difference of opinion was so great that when the agency made an offer of representation, my friend left because she couldn't in good conscience build a career promoting that book.

The coda to the story? The manuscript in question went on to be a huge hit. But the two writers whose work resonated with the then-sub-agent remain unpublished. My friend follows their social media personas, hoping they stick things out till they have publishing success.

This seems like a good place to wait for the bus.
Does the agent know her stuff? Obviously. But who's to say that the differently spiced manuscripts wouldn't also have found a readership?

Not long ago, a writer friend shared with me a rejection she received from a publisher of genre fiction. Though full of raves about her voice, her story, and her style, it's devastating because it's still a "NO." It's such a close no that it's the publishing equivalent of being left at the altar.

The rejection (which was very kind, as far as soul-crushing "no's" go) detailed a list of "shoulds" for any book the publisher acquired.
  • The protagonist should have this experience by page 10...
  • By page 25, this plot point should occur...
  • The protagonist and antagonist should explore their different philosophies in this manner...
And so on.

Now, don't get me wrong: the publisher knows its audience. And the publisher will only stay in business as long as it provides what the audience wants.

I wonder, however, how many "taste tests" are conducted to ascertain that what publishers think should happen must happen in order for a book to be palatable to the public.  

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- people would be willing to try something different, but are served a steady diet of same old, same old.

See, I've read the draft of the rejected manuscript and while not a fan of this particular genre of fiction, I've read enough of it to be familiar with the "rules." The manuscript in question bends the rules a bit, but doesn't mangle them beyond recognition. I found it refreshing, enjoying it far more than the fare that adheres slavishly to What Should Be. Is it not possible that such books might attract a whole new legion of fans to the genre? But since printing *any* book by a new author is risky business, few publishers have the luxury of adding to their risk by taking extra chances. Far safer to eschew Zesty for Tried and True.

A dark flip side also colors the prickly pickle of publishing. It is this: writers fortunate enough to have their books attract a dedicated readership are sometimes held hostage by their own success. Fans tend to clamor for "more of the same" with such ferocity that many writers have traded quality for quantity. It's the industry's version of tenure.

A writer's first book has to be *AWESOME* in order to just get some poor schlub to pluck it from the pile o' slush. The sixth book, however, rarely measures up to the first book's kneecaps, let alone raising the bar to a new level.

I recently read Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club, a warm and charming ode to great family relationships as well as to great books. At one point, Schwalbe, a long-time editor for major publishing houses, and his mother discuss what titles to jointly read next:
"Did you know this author has a new book? What do you think?" Mom might ask.
"I didn't love his last four or five," I might answer.
"Well then, why did you keep reading him?"
"I edited them."
You see the briny problem?

In order to break in to the well-barricaded world of traditional publishing, one must write something so wonderful that someone forgets to say "no" to it.

But then there comes a time when all the zesty bits that first sold people on one's writing have had the flavor wrung from them. Words that once cracked and popped, igniting the reader's literary palate, now swim limp and vinegary on the page. If a writer is not encouraged to take chances, to branch out, to bend rules, or to try tasty new combinations, soon the creative stream is dammed to clear the way for cash flow.

The pickle people were once surprised to discover their customers were not only willing to try something new, but were also eager to make it a bestseller. Imagine how similar daring could re-zestify the books we read!


Alyson Peterson said...

Who is your source? YOu should pop that chick in the nose! Totally kidding, but publishing is one of those damned if you do and damned if you don't industries. There is no winning situation. Which is frustrating for both Agents/editors and the writers themselves.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Silly wabbit. You know my source. And you know I gave anonymity for her career longevity. I'll ask her, though, if she'd prefer me to use her real name...

No nose popping necessary. She was true to her convictions.

Publishing is like teaching, in some respects. I can think of no other professions that preach "If you promise to keep doing exactly the same thing, we'll grant you tenure."

I would love to see a version of the "blind taste test" where established authors pitted their stuff against promising newbies, all without bylines attached -- an anthology of short stories, perhaps, with a list of contributing writers, but no indication of who wrote what until, say, the reader went to a website to learn each piece's author. Might both open doors for new writers, exposing them to potential new readers, AND challenge established writers to try something new while still bringing their A game...

Heck, *I'd* buy something like that.

Sharon Wachsler said...

OMG. Love the blind taste test idea.

Jefferey Deaver was the editor for a couple of "compilation" novels (proceeds went to a literacy charity) where different authors each wrote a chapter (with Deaver writing the first and last chapters). Their names *were* attached to their chapters. Still, it was fascinating to read such different styles as part of one story, and it did introduce me to new writers, some of whom I thought, "Ooh, they're good. Must look them up," and others of whom I found cringe-worthy and wondered, "HOW is this person selling books, let alone as a writing superstar?"

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for commenting. I remember those compilation novels.

I believe there are many ways to encourage writers at all stages of their careers to both explore new things and see how their work stacks up with other writers in the same genre. Such a dicey business, trying to figure out what the public wants in order to be able to give it to them...

I like to think there is room for, and potential readers for, a wide variety of writers -- from bread & butter to Extra Zesty. :)

Anonymous said...

I've noticed the same about writers' later works flagging in quality a little bit. They're not bad, per se... just not as good.

I wonder if writers would feel any more zest coming on if they tried branching out into different genres-- or sub-genres? In a way, it's learning to write all over again, and that can definitely inspire you to start moving in different directions.

SC Author said...

This is an awesome, AWESOME post. I for one would love a new pickle!

Ami Hendrickson said...

Jwtroemner & SC Author, thanks so much for commenting!

I believe writers who branch out do so to challenge their muse and keep their writing fresh. I wonder how many as-yet-unmasked "Robert Galbraith's" there are: still safely shrouded in secrecy, able to write for the love of writing, rather than cater to the clamoring crowd...