Thursday, July 01, 2010

Two Novels

I recently reread my one published novel; I still like it a lot. This raises an interesting puzzle. The book was not a complete flop—I think it earned out about two-thirds of its advance—but pretty close. If it is as good as it seems to me, why didn't it sell?

It is tempting to blame its sales on the poor taste of readers or inadequate publicity by my publisher, but I think there is a more interesting answer, and one that applies to many other books as well: The book the author reads is not the same as the one other people read.

At the beginning of the novel, two strangers find themselves crossing a high mountain pass together. In the course of their conversation, one of them mentions a lady who is an important leader in her organization, the other mentions his sister. What he knows and she doesn't is that they are the same person. The reader only discovers that much later in the book, so unless he rereads it that particular element of the conversation is never going to reach him. The author, on the other hand, does know it, and can be at least mildly amused by the light it casts on the interaction between the two.

Harald is divided into five sections, labelled "book I," "Book II," and so on. The title of Book II is "Payment of Debts." Given how the protagonist has been treated in Book I, a reader is likely to interpret that as a sarcastic reference to getting revenge against the young and arrogant king responsible, at that point in the plot, for the current problems. In fact it is a reference to paying back Harald's perceived debts to his two closest friends, one of them—the king's father—now dead. That particular debt is going to be paid, over the course of Book II, by providing James—forcibly—with the education needed to do the job he has inherited, something that his father, for reasons implied but not explained in the text, was unable to do. The fact that my protagonist views matter that way—sees his objective as reforming the king not defeating him—casts an important light on his personality. But it is not a point that I can expect many readers to get.

I could go on at considerable length—having written a book it is always tempting to explain it, a project usually more interesting to the author than to his audience. But the basic point is simple. I know more about my world and my characters than even a perceptive reader can be expected to get from what I wrote, and much more than most readers will get. That knowledge colors my reading of the book, making it a richer and more enjoyable experience than anyone else's reading.

Which may explain why it did not sell nearly as well as, from my point of view, it deserved to.


Patri Friedman said...

This is called "the curse of the expert" in the book "Made To Stick" (about memetic engineering, though it doesn't describe itself that way) and is a common problem. The usual solution is feedback from non-expert test audiences, and when they are confused, resisting the temptation to put it down to insufficient cleverness on their part :). A book dense with obscure cross-references will be very entertaining to the author and those few who reread it many times, but it doesn't seem to me like a good technique for creating something with broad appeal.

ErolB1 said...

I liked it too, but it is very hard to follow who was saying what and whose POV it was at any moment. This wasn't due to any one big mistake so much as a bunch of little decisions that all pulled in the same direction. (If there was one big mistake, it was not giving the Emperor and the Imperials a different voice than the rest of the characters - one that was more verbose and formal.)

Part of it was due to you, as the author, understanding the book better than most readers, but I suspect that part of it comes from your background in oral story-telling. In oral story-telling one can distinguish characters by tone of voice and other tricks that don't exist in print.

Kim Mosley said...

I heard someone say that the artist is not the best expert on their work. I think there is some truth to that. Sure, the author understands all the obscure cross-references, but maybe not what the author revealed about himself. The depth of scholarship and understanding of Moby Dick goes far beyond Melville. As Henry James said, we know more about someone that we pass on the street than we know about ourselves who we have lived with all our lives.

Ann Houston said...

It's also the case that there is just so much information, including entertainment (novels) out there now competing for the finite amount of time available to each person. How do you get noticed in the big ocean, I guess it's why there is so much concerted effort into 'targeted' marketing now, trying to collect the niche that would be interested, if they could just find your story among all the rest. I confess I'm fascinated and sort of appalled by the incredible recent fixation in fiction about vampires. Why are these blood-sucking humanoid immortals such a hot item? I liked Dracula a lot, but just don't get the Twilight books or a bunch of the other stuff that came after.

David Friedman said...

I agree with ErolB1 about my failure to distinguish voices adequately, and in particular about the fact that the Emperor and his son and grandson did not sound sufficiently different. If I ever did a second edition--unlikely--that is one point I would try to fix.

Ideally the Emperor should have been formal part of the time, much less so when functioning as the commander of an army talking to soldiers. I mention that distinction a couple of places in the text, but I don't actually do it in terms of how people talk.

Henry said...

A few other points:

- Everyone thinks their baby is beautiful. You like your book partially because you wrote what you would like to read (which wouldn't necessarily be what others what like to read). There may also be an element of wishful thinking - you want to believe your writing is good.

- Luck. I would be really interesting in quantifying the role of luck in the success of art, but it seems impossible to come up with an experiment.

If you had taken Harry Potter and released it 10 years earlier or 10 years later, would it have been a similar success? How resilient was its success to "butterfly effects"? Perhaps Harry Potter was sufficiently strong that it would have been highly successful regardless of when it was released (but if this was predictable, why was it rejected by many publishers?)

Is luck more important in the success of "mediocre" and "good but not great" works? Consider the mediocre but highly successful books like Twilight. There are lots of similar books of similar merit - if a few things changed, might one of those be a huge hit and Twilight a flop?

Ann said...

There's a web site where, among other things, authors can upload drafts of their work in progress and get feedback from readers, their 'beta testers'. I haven't tried it (yet) and am of two minds; maybe this type of crowdsourcing editing is effective, but maybe that depends on the quality and inclinations of the people who are willing to participate as readers on such a site. Maybe it's better to find one or two editors whose language and literary abilities you trust and believe in. This web site is just adding another angle to the ever-growing social media online experience.

Jonathan said...

It's great that you still like Harald yourself; convincing yourself is like the first battle in the war. I can easily imagine writing a novel and then later rereading it with acute embarrassment.

There can be various good reasons why a book that you like yourself doesn't sell well.

Firstly, people generally decide not to buy a book without having read it. Reasons include: never heard of the author, don't like the cover, don't like that kind of book, "I read the first page and it didn't grab me". Actually, most of the people who didn't buy your book probably never became aware of its existence. Selling fiction becomes easier once you have a track record and a reputation. You have a good reputation in other fields, but not yet in fiction.

Secondly, as you say yourself, your reaction to your own book differs from that of other readers.

It's OK to put things in a book that only dedicated rereaders will spot; but then the book can't rely on those things for its appeal, because most readers will never spot them.

I read Harald four years ago; it's about time that I reread it.

Your novels are of publishable quality; but there is a knack of making a story into compulsive reading, and my subjective reaction is that you haven't perfected that knack yet. I realize how unhelpful an observation this is, but if I could explain it better I'd probably be writing novels myself!

If I'd written Harald, I'd be proud of it too; but you're way ahead of me there.

dWj said...

I don't think this kind of thing ruins a book, but it's certainly the case that it's not going to pull a reader along. I remember two films from the mid-nineties -- Shawshank Redemption and The Usual Suspects -- that had some things at the end that I didn't figure out ahead of time (and in light of which the second viewing was different from the first), but also had a number of interesting things going on to keep me interested along the way. ("The Usual Suspects" was critically panned, I believe in part because one of the things it pretended to reveal toward the end was likely to be figured out earlier by the viewer; if that "surprise" had been the only thing the movie offered, then I might agree that that didn't allow the movie to work, either.)

I haven't tried to read Harald, incidentally. This is just general commentary.

VangelV said...

Some time ago I saw a great series of lectures by an English professor who took economics classes from Ludwig von Mises as is known for his Straussian analysis of Shakespeare's plays. The lecture series, Commerce & Culture, can be downloaded at the Mises Institute (or at from iTunes) and sheds some great insights about literature, painting, theater, music, culture under totalitarianism, movies, television and even computer games.

Cantor's insights are very illuminating and very interesting and once you start listening to the lectures you would have a hard time stopping. To find the lectures you can search for Paul Cantor in the iTunes store or go to the link below.

William H Stoddard said...

The character voice was probably the book's biggest problem for me, and the one I pointed out when I reviewed it for Prometheus. I really thought there needed to be at least three different modes of speech, for the imperials, the royals, and the ungoverned people. This is something that, for example, S. M. Stirling pulled off in his early dystopian novel Under the Yoke, where the American and Draka characters have quite different dialects.

A lesson I learned many years ago from writing for amateur press associations is that if you say something, and one person misinterprets it, they have a problem; but if multiple people misinterpret it, you have a problem. It's always hard on the ego to make oneself accept this in practice, though. I suspect that this applies to fiction as much as to exposition, but it's been a long, long time since I've tried writing fiction.

Donna B. said...

I read Salamander and liked it a lot. Thus I was looking forward to reading Harald... and was very disappointed.

Maybe I will try again, but it strikes me as quite odd that you think I wouldn't get that the lady and sister are the same person, or at least might be, on a first reading. That realization (or suspicion) is what kept me reading as far as I did.

David Friedman said...

(To Donna)

I think _Salamander_ is a good deal more accessible than _Harald_--my current project is a sequel to _Salamander_, centered partly on Iolen's son, who is a much nicer person than his father, and finds himself stranded as a guest of the ruler of Forstmark, who views him as a potentially useful pawn, when his father dies.

I'm intrigued that you guessed that Lady Caralla and Niall's sister were the same person. I don't think there are any clues at that point. Was it just that the author had to have some reason to mention two off stage characters, referred to by two on stage characters?

If you had read further, I would ask you about other things that I wasn't sure if readers would get--but one of the big ones, that Caralla is Harald's daughter, is implied by what you already guessed.

Donna B. said...

"Was it just that the author had to have some reason to mention two off stage characters, referred to by two on stage characters?"

I'm quite sure it was. I don't have any special abilities as a reader.

I'm looking forward to the sequel to Salamander.

I should also mention that I don't have a reader and downloaded a file that uses Word... the rtf file, I think. That's a horrible program to use for reading and that likely had an effect on my enjoyment.

pdfs and html are much better for me and I'll probably try reading Harald again online.

Jonathan said...

P.S. I've started rereading Harald; I'm almost halfway though it. It's well written and makes pleasant reading. It's notable for the likeable characters and the careful attention to realistic period detail.

It could suit anyone who likes historical novels, particularly those with an interest in pre-gunpowder warfare. Despite the realism, it's not a gory book (combat is tersely described), so readers of a sensitive disposition needn't be frightened off. It deals with political and personal as well as military issues.

I don't find it compulsive reading—I can put it down. But I'm willing to pick it up again later.

It's a bit difficult to keep track of who is who and where is where. The map at the front is decorative old-style rather than easy-to-read modern style. A two-page guide to the characters (as in Lindsey Davis novels) might be handy.

Finally, I remember from previous reading that Harald wins and wins. He suffers some wounds and setbacks; but the feeling remains that the book doesn't offer him an opponent of his own calibre. The interest is in how he wins, not in whether he's going to win or lose.

David Friedman said...

Jonathan comments on the limitations of the map. A larger, color, version is on the book's web page:

I agree that Harald wins too easily--although there is one point, early on, where he survives only because of a lucky intervention by a force on his side.

I tried to deal with the problem in the final section by rearranging events to give a series of partial wins for the empire, followed by a final reversal, rather than the original structure of win for one side followed by win for the other followed by ..., but it wasn't entirely successful.

A Life Long Scholar said...

Your post makes me wonder if the books which are successful (in terms of sales) are also those wherein the author does a particularly good job at giving the sort of glimpses into the world as to make the reader feel as though he knows more about the world than, in fact, he does.

Jonathan said...

Finished rereading Harald. Enjoyed more second time. Book improves with rereading. Problem: terse dialogue is habit-forming.

Jonathan said...

I'm satisfied to have bought Harald. I've read it twice and I expect I'll read it more times in the future. I rather like it. But the question is why it hasn't sold enough copies.

If you want to sell a lot of books as an unknown fictioneer, I think your book has to make a big impression in the first paragraph, the first page; and not relax its grip later.

There's nothing wrong with a book that builds up slowly and gently; unless you want to sell that book to a lot of people who don't know who you are. They won't have patience with you. There are lots of other good books they could be reading.

Minor criticisms are all very well, but I don't think fixing such problems would make the book sell much better.

As a long-time reader, I'd say that what draws me in is a book that starts in a moment of high drama, with some questions to which I really must find out the answer. What's going on here? What's going to happen next?

In Harald, these unanswered questions can be said to exist at the beginning of the story. But someone new to the book may not feel an urgent need to discover the answers; and that's what he needs to feel if you want him to buy.

Verily this is my two cents' worth: I have no expertise on book selling. Just a desire to help, and a tendency to write too much...

Anonymous said...

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