Forum: Should Writers Write For The Market?



Trotter did it

In film industry terms the summer’s over, and it was another year of disappointments in Hollywood. Only one studio did well; Disney had four of the five biggest hits. What’s noticeable is how super-safe everything became this year. The top five films were ‘The Jungle Book’ (remake of cartoon), ‘Finding Dory’ (kiddie sequel), ‘Zootopia’ (cartoon), ‘Jurassic World’ (kid-friendly remake) and ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (comic).

UnknownAutumn should mean tougher fare but this year the latest schedules show heart-warmers, unchallenging dramas, sentimental romances and a few films to chase awards. The only surprises to be found are at the edges of the release schedule In the UK world cinema (which usually offers more adult fare) is in the doldrums. It has become an upper-income-bracket experience to see a foreign film theatrically, and the choice in the UK has drastically narrowed.

Why is entertainment entrenching? Unsettled times are usually blamed. Hollywood is now inches from losing its biggest market. China has learned from (and copied) the Hollywood system in record time, opening its own major studios. And in all of this, what hasn’t happened is the feeding to TV and film from literary sources. The BBC seems allergic to anything less than 30 years old.

UnknownFor writers, film sales are the canary in the mine. A major part of our income once came from selling options; no more – although simplistic beach-reads like ‘The Girl on the Train’ still get an obligatory cinema version, usually a fail.

Books rarely sell as you’d hoped. Personally, I wanted to sell ‘Nyctophobia’ in Spain, where it’s set – but Spanish publishing is in trouble. I thought I might sell an option, but no luck there either. Entertainment, by and large, has such a safety catch on it now. Unless your book is very populist you won’t even get it into WH Smith, let alone sell film and TV options.

This leads to a bigger question for anyone in the arts. Should we simplify our work for bigger markets? Agatha Christie’s foreign rights sales are what keep her figures soaring. She used a much small vocabulary – about a third fewer words – than most crime authors.

‘The Mousetrap’, a truly terrible play that makes no logical sense at all, runs all around the world. It’s very easy to follow. After 64 years the revelation of the murderer’s identity is blindingly obvious. Whether its simplicity was conscious we don’t know, but her books are easy to translate. They’re hardly ever locked to a location (with a few exceptions like ‘Death On The Nile’) and are filled with forward-actions. Characters don’t speculate but act. Nobody ponders too much. Even the detective investigates rather than analyses.


I’m currently reading Brigid Trophy’s marvellous ‘Prancing Novelist’, a 600 page study of Ronald Firbank, but also a meditation on the novel itself. Its language is dense, allusive and entirely revelatory. This is not the way anyone writes now. We keep things much simpler. We need to cut to the chase.

Our population is multi-cultural, and there are no figures about how many new arrivals read or become book buyers. Males no longer read if they’re in the workforce because they now work on trains.

All of the above throws up a slew of questions, so let’s forum this.

What do readers want to read?

How and when do they read?

Should writers simplify prose to appeal?

Does simpler writing have to mean dumbing down?

Should books go back to being shorter?

Thoughts  welcomed – nay, demanded.

11 comments on “Forum: Should Writers Write For The Market?”

  1. Ness says:

    *Readers want what they don’t know they want, otherwise we are just reading the same books over again with slightly different names or covers. People who read popular ‘blockbuster’, trendy department store bulky buys want to be seen to be on trend. The rest of us want to be surprised, intrigued, challenged and rewarded.

    *A real reader reads almost every day and life doesn’t get in the way. I read before bedtime when I should be sleeping and on weekends when I should be doing many other useful things. I will be in London next week and have made the bold decision not to take any books with me, dead tree or otherwise. I don’t like reading on eReaders and can’t afford excess baggage fees so I’m going cold turkey for 6 weeks. When I start reading the posters on the Tube in detail I’ll know I’m in trouble.

    *I have read Agatha Christie’s works and enjoyed them. My friends with English as a second language found them a good gateway into reading in English. I’d say she is an exception to the rule though and nostalgia and cliche also play important parts in the popularity of her books. Generally I appreciate the wonders of the English language and don’t want to read books with simple words and simple plots. I love Jasper Fforde and Douglas Adams who played with language, science and history to produce something brilliant. I just finished Joanne Harris’ “A different class” which challenged my basic Latin. Having a colonial education and only touching upon Latin as part of my archaeology degree meant that I had to do a bit of guessing and looking up the untranslated quotes. In the age of the Latin dictionary this was doable. In the age of google it’s not a challenge. If you are interested you will look up what you don’t know. I have a wide vocabulary through voracious reading and the watching of much television.

    *Simpler writing doesn’t always mean dumbing down but it usually does. I’ve read books with a first person child narrator which uses simple language but explores difficult concepts. “The Boy With the Striped Pajamas is a perfect example.

    *Many books should be shorter with better editing. Elizabeth George, I’m looking at you. Having grown up pre-internet I still have an attention span longer than 10 seconds but I don’t need pages and pages of description about what you are wearing (there are chat sites for that) or how the sun shone through the marmalade jar as you tapped on your iPad and bought your designer clothing online. I will never make it through War and Peace or anything by Proust and I’m ok with that. I have thoroughly enjoyed books by Connie Willis which have woken me up when they fell on the floor and nearly dented the foundations. She needs all the words to construct her universe and it’s a pleasure to immerse myself in it. Refer to the 3 bears – books should really be the right length for the story they have to tell in the language they need.

    *Well, you asked…

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Agatha Christie is the Enid Blyton of crime writing; you have a fair idea of what you’re getting before you open the book – its the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket with cocoa.

    Simpler writing doesn’t mean dumbing down – look at Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett to see how simple language can be used and nuanced. Ellmore Leonard does the same thing; his prose is so tight that readers view it like a movie, which is why many of his books ended up as top grossing movies.

    Short books / long books? Delacorta wrote Diva, Nana and Lola, all remarkably short books but full of plot and action. Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell write long books that are, nevertheless, tautly plotted and engrossing in their ability to get into the mind of the protagonist. Dickens couldn’t write a short book to save his life, yet he wrote some brilliant short stories.I used to quite like the old Saint books which sometimes comprised 2 or 3 ‘novelettes’ in one volume.Geoffrey Archer writes some quite long things that he calls books and lots of people buy them.

    At one time movies lasting more than 1hr 45mins were thought daringly long, now audiences are happy to go up to 3 hours without complaining. So length (like time) is relative.

    The biggest question is ‘What do readers want to read?’ and the answer is; ‘They don’t know until they have read it’.

  3. Ian Schofield says:

    An excellent post Admin.

    I think the short answer to your question is: no, but we need to remind ourselves of the role that publishers play in all of this. Faced with the uncertainty and cost of championing new authors or ‘unfamiliar’ genres too many publishers default to ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ and deliver more of the same on the basis that if it sold well in the past it will do so in the future and must be what the public wants. I think this is the reason that we see so many variations on the same themes: the DI Dreary and DS Dull crime series that read like novelisations of 70s and 80s midweek police shows; the lantern jawed ex-military/SAS/special forces/black-ops loner; the serial killer (“he watches, he waits and then he kills…”), the protagonist with a sexual fetish (BDSM, chicken sexing) etc.

    The latest mainstream trend is an endless run of domestic noir, probably following on from the major seller ‘Gone Girl’ (which I quite enjoyed) through ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ (a one-trick plot) to the latest mega-seller ‘The Girl On The Train’ which I found unremarkable in the extreme. If TGOTT is the best available to us in the genre today (based on sales) it says much about the lack of ambition and depth among crime/thriller publishers, who seem content to reheat winning franchises from the past as easy sellers. Hence the Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond ‘new’ novels. I recently tried David Lagercrantz’s ‘Lisbeth Salander’ reheat and bailed out at about 80 pages. As a crime writer he makes an excellent football biographer.

    There are many excellent authors currently writing who don’t seem to get a look-in as far as marketing and promotion efforts go and this is why I find myself looking more often at digital books and independent authors online. The cost is generally lower (less risk if it’s a dud) but the challenge is finding them in the mass of digital publications now available.

    I hope you will continue your Invisible Ink column here because you have, rightly, championed some overlooked authors from the past: Margery Allingham and Edmund Crispin to name but two.

    In books, as in film, it really is déjà vu all over again!

  4. Vivienne says:

    I suppose publishers must have some grasp of what readers want as they know what has already sold well, but there is always the possibility that an as-yet-untried type of book may have an unforeseen, untapped market. I imagine a lot of readers have a type of book they like though.

    Since people one sees on trains seem always to be scrutinising their phones, I’m not sure when people read. I used to love long books for winter commuting journeys – the more words the better. I have read Proust and War and Peace, Dickens, Dostoeyevsky , Trollope, etc. Still have lots of classics to keep me busy forever. An avid reader reads anywhere and everywhere. My eldest son (an early reader) wouldn’t sit in a pushchair unless I thrust a book in his hand first.

    I am always reading one thriller or crime book but increasingly look to older stuff for most satisfaction. Today’s books do seem thinned down. Recently read Neville Shute’s first Marazan, and it was full of well-drawn characters, complicated plot, aviation and sailing intricacies, but was simply written and rattled along at a pace. In contrast Susan Hill’s Various Haunts of Men was quite disappointing: there were things simply overlooked, the way the police worked was clearly not what they would do and the characterisation was somewhat simplistic. Some time ago I read a Patricia Wentworth and, although she is not always great, the heroine, in a believably dangerous situation, really tried to think things out and all the complications were addressed, which makes for a more positive read.

    Another trend seems to be that the ‘modern novel’ has vanished. Where are writers like Orwell, Jean Rhys, Graham Greene or Waugh writing about contemporary life? So many books these days seem to be semi-historical. If not actually in the past, the plot seems to hinge on family secrets dating from a wartime or colonial past. It’s as if in this hectic, constantly on-line existence, there is no chance for character and complicated relationships to develop any more.

  5. John Howard says:

    OK, I agree with Ness and the first answer… I didn’t know I wanted Bryant & May until one day I was wandering through Waterstones, browsing and picked this book up with a pair of guys with tis amusing pair of names which reminded me of the matches of my youth and lo and behold I now have quite a lot of admin’s output but have also found a blog that I can enjoy, and occasionally take part in.
    BUT, I am a reader and once found will devour series or the output of authors I like.
    I don’t drive so use public transport quite a bit so have chunks of time to fill and I like nothing more that escaping into this other world. So i now can’t travel without reading. I find that even a non fiction read is delving into another world.
    I don’t think that simplifying prose is necessary to make the reader want to read. In my experience you are either a reader or you aren’t.
    Simpler writing most definitely doesn’t mean a dumbing down it is the quality that matters. I realise that in writing that sentence that I have absolutely no way of describing what I mean by that. Sorry. If writing flows naturally and is intelligently done then it is a good read be it short brusque sentences or longer fluid sentences with a greater vocabulary. I suppose I think of Lee Child as the first type with Raymond Chandler the second.
    As a youth I read a lot of the Georgette Heyer books that were on the family books shelves and quite a lot of those were on the short side along with quite a lot of P.G.Wodehouse’s output. Not exactly door stoppers.
    I have been a voracious reader for the majority of my life and find the difference between my children, all around 30 and me quite interesting. They had all the access to books that I had, in fact I suspect I had considerably more on my shelves when they were young than my parents did for me. They have had the same encouragement to read but yet they don’t read like I do. What they do have is a multitude of platforms for communication media and plain old reading seems to be low on the list. Although they still have the ability to shock from time to time. On of them said he was reading this great book by Chris Brookmyre and had I heard of him. I just pointed to the number of his books on the shelf that had been there for quite a while..
    Great blog, sorry for the ramble…

  6. Jan says:

    Simpler writing does n’t necessarily mean dumbing down.
    Sometimes it just means not showing off.
    We may have,strayed back into ‘burdon’ territory here – something never to be forgiven by my friend the library book commentator!

  7. admin says:

    Well I did ask…so starting at the top –
    Ness it’s a bold move to travel for 6 weeks with no books. I’m guessing with London bookshops at your fingertips you won’t be without one for long. As for Joanne’s use of Latin, she and I share a background wherein we were all taught Latin for the whole of our school lives.
    Peter – writers from Waugh to Ballard wrote short and packed their novels with ideas, but publishers like to charge according to weight now!
    Ian, the domestic suspense genre is big partly I think because too many weak authors find it an easy option, but actually it’s brilliant in the right hands – plus it appeals to a female-skewed readership.
    Vivienne, I couldn’t agree more about the vanishing of the modern novel – everything is set in the past (although I love Lissa Evans’ books). I sometimes think I’m the only person setting a series in contemporary London.
    John, I agree that Lee Child is a perfect example of simple not being dumb. Chris Brookmyre (and Charles Higson, before he switched to kids’ books) was another good example.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    When do I read? When I can – while travelling, while waiting, instead of doing household chores
    What do I read? I read for ideas, wonder, plots, wit and prose, in multiple combinations. Good prose can hold the attention irrespective of plot (John Crowley would be my example there – a pleasure to read and I don’t care where the book is going), but outside such examples all I need is transparent prose that doesn’t clunk. Wonder is the ideal, but hard to achieve. A sense of place helps. I like to read fiction set in places I visit as a way of knowing them better. Plot need not be complex or mysterious but there has to be one. Robert Parker’s later works barely had plots at all, but remained readable because of his wit (though it helped to turn two or three pages if the narrator started cooking anything). Examples of books I enjoy (leaving out obvious classics):
    Way Station by Clifford Simak
    Angel Hunt by Mike Ripley
    The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith
    The Curious Eat Themselves by John Straley
    When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes by Laurence Block
    Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson
    Zendegi by Greg Egan
    I realise that I left out characterisation – this may be a personality thing. I find real people hard enough to read at the best of times and don’t require more transparency from fictional people.

  9. Steve says:

    I think Agatha Christie is easy to underrate, but I wont get into that discussion now!
    Vivienne is right, that writers who engage with and challenge the modern world seem to not exist, even in the sense of sayan Eric Ambler never mind Greene. But maybe you need hindsight to recognise them?
    I think any professional writer obviously has to reach an audience and I think needs to have their readership in mind as they write. But that should not mean for a writer such as you (Chris), write “for the market.” Write what you love and care about, I mean it worked so far!
    Going back to ‘simple’ writing it definitely isnt nevessarily dumbing down. Put otherwise, complex writing is just complex, not clever! The rhythm of the prose should speak to the subconscious, not need to be admired. Ovid already did that better anyway. The reader -wants- to be challenged, to have to occasiknally reach fot the dictionary, but not every sentence. Just enough to make the totality of the book an enjoyable and also enriching experience. Charles Palliser’s Quincunx is very well pitched at that level, for example.

  10. Steve says:

    Just saw Ken’s comment, agree completely on almost all you say, especially Crowley, paragraphs from Aegypt are constantly in my mind.
    About characterisation though – when a character in a book does something that suprises you 100%, then you realise that it’s 100% right for the character, that’s something that makes a book memorable. Why do I love Hamlet? Because the play attends mercilessly to the character’s weaknesses.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I used to think I knew what I liked in a book but am learning that I don’t really know my own mind. I enjoy historical fiction but have learned to check anything that doesn’t fit with what I’ve previously learned.
    Mysteries are fascinating, but I rarely do much about trying to solve them, just follow the path. I read all of Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa series and found it wonderfully interesting. He stopped it when his character reached an age when he’d have to retire and that was good. I’m in the third of Ruth Downie’s Dr. Ruso series and am comparing them to Mr. Saylor’s. It took a reasonable length of time to finish Saylor while MS Downie’s are really quick reads. I have a feeling that she writes the way Agatha Christie did. There is nothing difficult or complex about the sentences nor the vocabulary but it’s not simplistic either. I’m going to have to think about that whole thing. Is it the motivating ideas that are more complex?
    Chic lit is even fun in small doses. I’ve discovered that even war stories can be aimed too accurately at a feminine audience for my resident expert to enjoy. I’m not sure how that works.
    Modern literature often puts me completely off by analyzing motivation and character too much.
    So what do I enjoy? It must have something to do with the writing. Either that or I’m a sucker for the written word. I know I enjoy Admin’s and they come it at the Saylor end of things. (O contain yourselves, I’m not going to rewrite it.)

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