How to avoid the pitfall of writing mediocrity

One of the fastest ways to turn writing mediocre is to write by committee.

Writing fuel!
Writing fuel!

It’s how a lot of the studios work, which is a fairly complete explanation for the unintentional dumbness of some movies. I still recall Mad magazine lampooning the whole ‘corporate committee movie’ process, years ago – the writers, under pressure from ‘good ideas’ delivered by studio bosses, ended up making Cinderella.

That’s also true of books. It’s perhaps surprising but true – the book you see on the shop shelves from commercial publishers may not be quite the vision of the author on the cover.

Here’s how it works.

Sometimes, during the acceptance process, the publisher suggests changes that actually improve the vision the author has. That’s fine.

But sometimes the publisher also suggests changes that dilute that vision. On my experience this is usually a marketing matter – the bottom line for commercial publishing – because some aspect of content is thought necessary in order to make the book reach the target market.

This target market may not be the one the author had in mind, but it has to be accepted in order to get the contract to have the book published at all.

I’ve had that happen to me twice – both times in studies I did of colonial-age settler society where the publishers insisted that there had to be an introductory chapter on Maori history.

The other way the vision can be diluted is, again, through the marketing side of the publishing process. Authors typically sign away any right to control the title or appearance of their book. And while they are consulted about titles, on my experience, often the marketing department has final say.

In my non-fiction – again, more than once – that’s involved either accepting a title that doesn’t really describe the vision of the book; or a subtitle that promises something the book was never written to meet.

The problem is that, certainly in New Zealand, history is a quite viciously guarded territory – with the predictable result, which I’ve again had happen multiple times, that some academic stranger erupts in public, angrily declaring I am so worthless and incompetent I can’t even write content to match the title, and it’s my fault for being useless and stupid and it proves I shouldn’t be writing in their territory, ha ha ha ha. Sigh.

The thing is that marketing departments are usually right – if an author is to engage an audience, the book has to be able to match what the market demands. That stands at odds with the fact that for writing to feel authentic, it has to match the author’s passion.

In over thirty years and more than 50 books, I haven’t yet found a proper answer to that.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


7 thoughts on “How to avoid the pitfall of writing mediocrity

  1. Knowing your market is knowing to always include zombies. Of course, that’s this decade. Last decade it was vampires. We did have a brief fling with werewolves, but they didn’t stick. A Brief History of Zombies in New Zealand. Cook, Zombies, and Mapping the New Zealand Coastline. See how that works? Okay, I’m NaNoWriMo slap happy.

    1. Someone actually did this! There’s a small SF publisher here in Wellington who issued a book mashing up (and I’m not joking) Katherine Mansfield’s short stories and zombies…

    1. I certainly could explain it, but that wouldn’t achieve anything because the people doing it know this fact perfectly well – their purpose isn’t to be fair or honest, but to find anything at all they can twist into ways of damaging my repute and sales in a field where I work on merit and they are employed on a salary that I pay for through my taxes. If it wasn’t this it would be something else – but the publisher-imposed title or other content added around an integrated argument is the standard ‘soft target’ for their shots. I have tried engaging them a couple of times and the results have been (a) the Professor in question (literally) ran away from me when I mentioned his conduct, face to face at a book launch, which I regard as personally gutless of him; (b) I get ignored; or (c) it provokes even more viciously hostile ‘revenge attack’ on my next book.

      On the one occasion when I finally raised the relentless behaviour of one of these people with his employer, I got told I had no right to impugn the professionalism of the person doing it, because he was a professional. What this behaviour adds up to is strangers attacking my good name in public, then blaming me for the attack, cowering when confronted with their conduct, and invalidating my reasonable right of reply – all of which leads me to wonder why I am paying for it all through my taxes…

      1. If someone is going to start hurling “shade”, as the kids are calling it these days, then they should at least have the guts to back their opinions up. And the weirdest thing here is that these people aren’t even hiding behind anonymity — they’re making these statements as themselves, and then they’re surprised or turn hostile when confronted. To once again quote the youths of today, “Talk s**t, get hit”. Except you’re too much of a gentleman to start throwing punches, thank goodness.

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