Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011
My editor is “concerned” that I’m playing it too safe in my books. He says I need to get edgier and take more risks. But if I take more risks, then don’t I also raise the odds of getting rejected? Aren’t editors taking fewer risks now in this tight market?
It’s time to get blunt. When you take higher risks, yes, you do increase your odds of rejection because the editor must also take risks and he must convince the publishing house to take risks. The publisher then must convince the distributors and wholesalers and booksellers to take the risk of carrying and shelving your book. And the individual booksellers (particularly the independents) then must risk recommending your book to readers. So, yes, when an author takes elevated risks, that risk factor escalates to everyone else all the way down the chain to the reader.
But does that mean you shouldn’t do it? Heavens, no. If no risks were taken, then we wouldn’t have new genres, new sub-genres, new anything. There would be no groundbreaking novel, like Harry Potter, that infuses an entire genre (fantasy) with excitement and nothing to inspire nonreaders to read.
Risks are inherent, essential to growth. As I’ve said often, we want continued growth industry-wide. Because to not grow is to become stagnant. History proves to us that stagnant industries die. So, we must take risks.
But taking risks for risk’s sake is unworthy of an author’s time. Your time is your life. Remember that. Perhaps it will help to take on several different scenarios.
1. You are aching to write a novel that requires substantial risks. It breaks the existing genre boundaries in some form or fashion. But breaking those boundaries is essential to the integrity of the novel.
Do you take the risks, or not?
I’d take them. Stretching the boundaries of an existing genre is a good thing. I did this with the Seascape novels and again with the military romantic suspense novels. It helps to open the genre and form new boundaries.
The key here is that “breaking those boundaries is essential to the integrity of the story.” You don’t break boundaries just to be doing it. You do it for a reason. Think of it as going to the doctor, getting a prescription, and on it, the doc writing “Medically Necessary.”
Translated, that code means: “Hey, the generic (staying within the genre boundary confines) won’t work here. This patient (or book) must have the real thing (the breach taking it beyond the norm).
So in this situation, make sure your risks are “medically necessary” to the book.
2. Now, you aren’t feeling that drive to breach the bounds but your editor is, and that’s a different situation. It could be a matter of writing what you’re comfortable writing and what you have experienced good luck in selling. It could be you like the stories in this zone and have no desire to venture outside.
If either of those things is true, you have a problem. Because odds are high this editor is warning you that you need to move outside your current zone to keep selling. If this is the case, I’d strongly recommend you read books written by others which are selling to your chosen market.
A hint: Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. com and run a search on your book. You’ll see “People who bought this book, also bought” and then there will be a listing. Review it. Now, some will clearly be totally different, but some will be similar. Read some of these similar books and see what else your readers are reading.
This will give you insight on your market. You’ll then be able to judge how your books, as you currently write them, fit in. It may also spark some ideas on new things you’d like to explore in future books.
Risks don’t have to be great or outlandish or extreme. They can be subtle and small, and calculated. Combine a small risk with several other small risks and you don’t have a huge risk that takes you way out on a limb. You have a cluster of small risks that work together to make a significant difference in the overall novel.
Calculated risks are ones where you can more easily measure or gauge your odds of success. For an example, look to what I did with the military romantic suspense novels.
What I wanted to write had a major suspense element, and minor mystery and romance elements. But I could change the emphasis between the major and minor. So I took a look at the market.
Romantic suspense was a well established genre, but military romance novels were an unknown at the time.
Military suspense novels were well established. They were also all written by men, and the readers of them like it that way. (Don’t waste energy getting ticked because “women don’t write stories like that” or if you’re told “men won’t read that kind of book if it’s written by a woman.” People are fickle–all of us–and we like what we like, and dislike what we dislike. That’s our world.
Having a background of paranormal romance novels further pushed me into taking the military novels to romantic suspense.
The final push came strictly from the business side of the brain. I was taking a huge risk–women reading military novels wasn’t an easy sell back then; none had been written in single title or women’s fiction at all, and only a few had been written in category–but I could minimize the risk by writing within a genre that captures the greatest share of the market in sales.
That greatest share of the market allows editors to be more open to taking risks. The appetite for their works is so great that it creates a voracious demand. That demand insists on fresh and new and original thought–it depends on risk-takers. Otherwise, sales decline.
So while there were risks in writing this type novel as military romantic suspense, they were calculated risks. I’m hoping from the example, you can see how you can apply the same methods to your work.
My suggestion is to realize that your editor has sent you a message that you need to hear and listen to if you want to continue writing for that editor. Nothing says you must, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But if you do, then you must venture outside the existing bounds of your work. Do your homework, analyze the risks you’re inclined to take–you MUST stay true to yourself so that your writing is honest–and then do what you can to minimize the risks and elevate your odds of success. Then, write the book.
One last tidbit to share on this that I think is worth noting: I’ve taken huge risks over the years, but never ones I didn’t want to take. At first, the risks came from a self-indulgent streak to write exactly what I wanted to write. Then, they came because I was determined to write only books I felt driven to write. Early on, I did write books that didn’t take risks. Ones that fit neatly into existing markets.
The interesting point is, the risky books are the ones I’ve sold. The safe books are sitting in the back of my closet. Now, not every risky book has sold. But they hold a huge percentage when compared to the safe books.
Now, there is another pattern of risk-taking we should discuss. I want to stress that I’m simply discussing the topic, not encouraging (or discouraging) you to take any specific action. That choice is one you–and only you–should make.
But let’s say that you’re quite content with your books, your sales are strong, sell-throughs are good, and you don’t want to write risky books or more edgy books. Let’s also say that you’ve studied the other works being published in your market and your book nestles in there just fine. Then it would appear that the challenge is not with the work, but with the preferences of your editor.
That means it’s decision time. You can decide to do nothing or to have a frank discussion with your editor and attempt to resolve the difference of opinion on the content of the work. If you have the discussion and it resolves the situation, great. If not, then it’s again decision time. Do you write what he wants, or shop for a new editor?
What few authors realize at this point–and this is the reason I’m including it–is that either response carries risks.
If you say nothing and stay with the existing editor, you risk him never being content with your work. Odds are, you won’t be content with it either, because you’ll always feel it falls short of what he would like it to be.
If you have the discussion, verbally agree, and that works, great. If you have the discussion and verbally agree, but then the editor’s true nature still opposes, then he’s never going to be content with your work. That carries the risks of selling future works to him, of having him invest in your work, through marketing and list placement and in thousands of other ways, including gathering in-house support for advancement.
If you move to a new house, you’re probably going to have a severe disruption in your publication schedule. You risk losing your reader base. You risk not be compatible with the new editor. You must earn trust and prove yourself and your work again. This can mean delays and disruptions and learning the way things work at this new house.
So both responses carry risks. Now you can minimize them, of course, but you can’t make the risks disappear. So you need to think carefully about any decision you make and make it with your eyes wide open. Clarity and reasonable expectations are key.
As I said, only you can decide what next step is right for you. But I hope I’ve covered enough possibilities to aid you in making a decision that proves wise for you and your work. But regardless of what you decide–even if it is to make no decision–you’re taking risks. The key is to be informed and to do what you reasonably can to protect your interests and the integrity of your work in your own eyes.
Keshavan Nair perhaps said it best. “With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity.”*