[Transcript]

[Maggie] You’re listening to But Is It Write? A podcast where we discuss, debunk, and debate common writing advice.

[Candice] There’s a lot of writing advice out there,. but is it right? 

[Candice] Hey everyone, I’m Candice Lee and I’m here with my co-host Maggie Derek. Maggie is an award-winning author and bisexual artist who is that one friend in the group who knows far too much about serial killers.

[Maggie] It’s true, I do. And my co-host Candice Lee is a full-time author, part-time procrastinator, and writer coach who is currently buried alive under a mountain of clutter on her desk. 

[Candice] It’s also true.

[Maggie] I’m concerned. I hope you’re okay. Let me know if you need me to send you supplies.

[Candice] I’ve got my food on my desk. I’m good. I’ve got some Corn Nuts, I got some crackers, I got some trail mix.

[Maggie] I think you found some sunflower seeds.

[Candice] Yeah.

[Maggie] Wow. Well, at least you’re like doomsday prepped. 

[Candice] I am. 

[Maggie] If the end of the world happens, you’ll be fine.

[Candice] I’m going to be okay. I can send you some of my trail mix.

[Maggie] Thanks. Anyway. Today’s topic is a piece of advice from twitter. This was tweeted last week by the user Sarah_Nicolas and they wrote “Please I beg of you, if you want to be a published author read one effin book published in the last five years, just start with one, I’m begging.” Yeah, so this this piece of advice, floated across my twitter feed last week because it generated a lot of discussion and a surprising amount of controversy. It really took me by surprise because you know this tweeter went on to talk about how they were getting harassed and they were getting piled on because of this advice. And when I read it I thought “How is this a controversial opinion?” Which made me then think if it’s a controversial opinion, it therefore probably warrants a bit of conversation on our parts because that’s what we do.

[Candice] We converse.

[Maggie] So, my response to this: I sent a tweet in response and kind of like solidarity because I truly don’t understand how this is a controversial opinion. But I have some thoughts on it as to why it might be. I think my first thought, though, in general, is that, and the reason I think that it perhaps is controversial to some people, is the fact that a lot of people tend to forget that because we’re talking about traditional publishing and were talking about at least this person who initiated the tweet was talking about publishing in I think a traditional sense. Because I think that’s their background, if I’m not mistaken. So they’re talking about this idea of what you want to be published and the problem I think the people have with the sentiment is that a lot of people tend to forget the traditional publishing is a business. I think people are still really precious and really romanticize the idea of writing and publishing and the dream that is having a published book on the shelf forgetting that that book itself is a product. As much as we hate to think of it that way inasmuch as it kind of maybe dilutes the the romantic vision, it doesn’t change the fact that traditional publishing is a business. Publishing in general. If you’re putting your writing out there to make money off of it, it’s a business. Your book is a product. And reading is truly, if absolutely nothing else, market research. If you want to, if you want to perform well in a business, that’s the thing that you have to do. I know that for a lot of people that sucks. They don’t want that. They don’t want to shatter that vision of the golden age writer in a café in Paris just bleeding their feelings onto the page and then it becomes a literary Classic. A lot of people are really precious about that idea, but it doesn’t change the way it works unfortunately.

[Candice] Yeah, so as an indie author, I had to do tons of research and it’s interesting because when I first started, I didn’t. I just thought “Here’s a great idea, I love this, if I love this, other people will love this, too.” And I published it and it tanked because nobody else was writing anything like that at the time. There was no market for it. Now turns out five years later, some author managed to hit it big with that trope and now that genre or is super hot and popular. So I spruced up my book, I gave it a new cover, gave it a new edit, released it, it did very well. But that’s because now it’s a hot trend. Now it’s a popular genre. I didn’t do my research five years ago and I didn’t know that nobody wanted what I was writing. And if I had known that, I probably wouldn’t have written the book back then, I would’ve waited to write it now and wouldn’t have wasted five years having this book just sit they are not selling.

[Maggie] And essentially having to do the work twice. Because you had to re-issue it, which meant reediting, reviewing your cover, doing the launch all over again.

[Candice] Yep. Twice the work.

[Maggie] And if you had been pitching that book 5 years ago in a traditional publishing space, it likely wouldn’t have even gotten picked up.

[Candice] No one would’ve wanted it.

[Maggie] Because that’s the thing I think either people don’t know it or they choose to gloss over it and pretend that maybe, I don’t know, maybe they’re thinking “I’m different, I’m the exception to the rule.” But when it when you’re pitching your book to both a publisher and an agent, because some publishing houses still let you pitch to them directly, in both cases they’re not just looking at your story and they’re not just looking at the quality of your writing, they’re looking at it going “Is this something I can sell? Is it marketable?” Whether we like it or not, and I know that for some people that’s a hard pill to swallow, but it doesn’t change the fact that they need to be able to make money off of that product. And if they’re looking at it going “It’s just, there’s no market for it” or “We can’t think of a way to, I don’t know, to sell it” then they’re going to a pass on it. And it doesn’t actually necessarily say anything about your quality as a writer or whether or not the story is any good. It just means the time isn’t right and maybe it will be down the line or maybe it will never be, but you would know that if you’re keeping tabs on your market. That includes the types of stories that are happening, the style, the trends. Everything kinda plays to what’s happening in the moment in publishing. Does it suck? Totally. Is there a chance that you might be that weird offshoot that kind of creates a whole new trend of what’s hot right now? Sure. And so I’m not saying don’t try, but keep in mind that those are variables that are going to affect your ability to be successful.

[Candice] And that’s not even so much that, you know, “I’m doing my research, oh nobody else is writing this, I shouldn’t write it, it’s not going to sell.” It’s more like “I’m doing my research, so I know what the market expects from what I’m writing.” You know? If you are writing a certain genre or niche or trope or about a certain topic and people are writing about that topic, there are certain conventions that readers expect with that topic and you want to make sure you’re at least following them enough to meet those reader expectations. For example, I have an urban fantasy story that I’m working on and I had the idea, like 20 years ago, but I never ended up writing it very far. I think I only got like half a book in. And I love urban fantasy, but I mostly read all of it when I was in high school or university. I haven’t read, up until a couple years ago, I hadn’t read an urban fantasy book between the ages of maybe like 23 to 27, and so I have no idea what’s going on in the genre now. Everything that I know about that is from high school. So I don’t know: What are the tropes nowadays? What kind of things to readers like to see? What they do not like to see? Is the cool awesome, you know, heroine who beats up the bad guys—that she still a cool popular character or do we want to see more like opens more sensitive characters who are little bit more in touch with their feelings? Like I don’t know. So I have to be reading widely in my genre now to see what’s going on in the genre at this moment.

[Maggie] Yeah, exactly. Just because something worked back then doesn’t mean it’s still working today. And I think people get hung up on the idea like “Well, this still is real, this title is still very pervasive in culture today, this genre is still super popular the way I recall it, so if it has that kind of staying power, why shouldn’t the book that I’ve written that emulates or is inspired by or is in the same vein as, do as well?” Forgetting the fact, that it’s what it was. Think about Harry Potter, it’s that explosiveness and the fact that it was, it is a great story, and it is wonderful. But we know now looking back at Harry Potter, that there’s a lot about it that is considered problematic. We could poke a lot of holes in it, we that we’ve had our chance to critique it and know that if it were to happen now, it probably would’ve either one, it may not have happened. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But likely wouldn’t have happened perhaps the same way. I imagine some of the choices that the editors made along the way would have manifested different books now than they did back then. And I’m going to do some quick googling here, because I don’t really remember even though I was there. What year was Harry Potter published? 1997!

[Candice] You know, it’s great. I was just at a Harry Potter pub trivia night and one of the tiebreaker questions was “What year was Harry Potter first published?” So I knew that answer before you said it.

[Maggie] That was 23 years ago!

[Candice] Yes.

[Maggie] There are people, there are a lot of people I follow on Twitter who were born at the same time the first Harry Potter book was being published. Oh, I’m having a moment right now.

[Candice] There are adult parents who read Harry Potter as children who are now reading it to their children.

[Maggie] Oh no. We are old.

[Candice] Yeah.

[Maggie] That’s mind blowing.

[Candice] But keep in mind, that book series was very long. And the last book only came out, I don’t know…

[Maggie] When was the last Harry Potter book published? 2007! 

[Candice] That was like a long span.

[Maggie] Yeah, I mean. That was 13 years ago, so it took her 10 years to get the whole series out. Which make sense, for some books that’s not super surprising. But still the last Harry Potter book came out 13 years ago.

[Candice] So if you have a book that is about a young person discovering their magical history powers background whatever, and you say “Oh, it’s just like Harry Potter.” Well, that book is 13 years old and trends have changed a lot since then.

[Maggie] Lots change. And I mean, of course it still resonates with readers today. The classics still resonate with people today. Like the Little Women remake just happened in theatres a couple months ago and you know it’s still powerful, means something to people. But you could never write like Jane Austen today and expect your book to get picked up. It just doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, not Jane Austen. I’m also thinking of Pride and Prejudice at the same time. 

[Candice] Louisa May Alcott?

[Maggie] Yeah. Jane Austen did not write Little Women. That’s very embarrassing. But still you can’t write like they did back in the day. It’s not even just about what they’re writing about, it’s the style, the tone, the tropes, the everything. It changes and that’s okay. And I think this really bleeds into conversation about comp titles. 

[Candice] Yes.

[Maggie] Comp titles. The thing that everyone loves to hate. For listeners who aren’t familiar, we’re talking about comparative titles. So when you are pitching an agent or publisher, it’s advised ,and I would say to point now even become standard, that you include comp titles with your pitch and your query. What that means is finding titles that you can compare your book to. And it doesn’t have to be, it can be story it can be theme it can be characters. And I think this is part of the conversation that the devolved from this tweet, is when people use books like Harry Potter or Twilight as their comp titles, there’s a couple of glaring issues there. One being the fact that with those, you’re aiming really high. Like to say my book is the next Harry Potter, my book is the next Twilight, is very ambitious. And it tells an agent a lot about you as a writer. One, it tells them that you’re probably not well versed in recent material, which means you’re not paying attention to trends. It tells them that you might be difficult to deal with.

[Candice] You think perhaps a bit too highly of your work.

[Maggie] Perhaps. And that might be a bit of a red flag for them. But again people who are using Twilight as their example for their comp title for their vampire young adult fiction, the last book Breaking Dawn came out 12 years ago. That’s a long time. You’re marketing a book now, your young adult book, to readers that were born at the same time as that comp title. Think about that. Roughly compare it, roughly contemporary to when the book you’re using is your comp title came out. There have definitely been vampire young adult stories in the last five years that you should probably be looking at.

[Candice] And even if it’s not exactly “Oh, I write vampires so I have to find a vampire comp title.” Again like you said, it can be like theme or the type of characters or the type of writing style. And so if you can’t find something recent that reflects something that you’ve written, it just means that maybe you aren’t writing anything that’s on trend right now. If you are writing something and you can’t find any comparisons, maybe it’s because nothing that you’re writing like this getting published.

[Maggie] And it doesn’t mean that you won’t have a chance, but it means are going to have to work a little bit harder to get your—I think it’s good I think it means your going to have to work a little bit harder to get agent or publisher or even an audience to stop and pay attention to you. And it’s something that I notice a lot on I would draw kind of a comparison to how I see Wattpad working. Not that I see a lot of Wattpad authors using comp titles, but what I do see is a lot of the same type of book. So, you see a lot of bad boys, you see a lot of billionaires, and gangsters, and that’s because it works, you know? It’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s seeing that these are the type of stories that really resonate with this particular audience. So, yeah, we’re going to keep writing those types of stories. And it’s the same idea with comparative titles for your book is understanding what is resonating with readers today. And if you do find that you want to rely on a classic or something that was written 10-20 years ago, I think what you need to do then is challenge yourself to be like “What is it about that title that is similar to what I’m writing?”

[Candice] It can’t just be for both writing vampires it has to be maybe coming of age story of a young girl who is insecure and learns to come in to her own powers… I don’t know. I’m totally forgetting what Twilight is about. Speaking of, I love Twilight. I’m not going to knock it, but it wasn’t very memorable. I read it. It was great brain candy and now I’m like “What happened?”

[Maggie] That is so interesting to me because the only reason I read Twilight was because of you. I remember coming home one summer and this was like we were in university or just had finished university, and you were like “I need you to read this book series because I need someone to talk to about it with.” And I read them and I broke your heart because I was like “I don’t like this” and you were like “No!” 

[Candice] Like, to be fair, I know why some people wouldn’t like it. I personally enjoyed the heck out of those books. They were entertaining, like I wanted to know what happened next—

[Maggie] And thousands of people did. Hundreds of thousands of people loved the heck out of those books.

[Candice] But if you are writing a vampire novel and you say “My novel is like Twilight”, what is it about Twilight that is similar? Not just vampires, there are certain tropes and themes and character types and you know…

[Maggie] Yeah, and I mean if you think about it, Twilight was pretty—it wasn’t your typical vampire book when it came out. And everyone kind of knocked her for the fact that her vampires sparkled in the sun and they were beautiful and whatever, but she definitely took the idea of a vampire and you compare hers to like Anne Rice’s vampires, and she she changed the game. So I don’t know what Stephanie Meyer used for a comp title, if she did at all, when she was pitching Twilight, but if she had said “Oh, this is similar to Anne Rice’s An Interview with the Vampire”—is it, though?

[Candice] No. Her agent would have thought “Cool, I like Anne Rice” would’ve read Twilight and been like “What? That was wrong.”

[Maggie] You’re basically misrepresenting yourself if you use the wrong comp titles.

[Candice] So I think it’s just one of those things where it kind of just shows that you know the industry. It shows that you’ve been doing your research, it shows that you’re serious about getting published, and that you know what you’re talking about. I mean, if a publisher takes you on, they’re going to want to make sure that you can talk knowledgeably about your book and about your book with how it’s positioned within the industry. There’s gonna be like a radio interview if you get popular enough, and someone is going to say “So tell me about your book: Why should somebody like it? What’s, you know, what is similar about your book? What kind of books would people like to read if they also like your book?” You have to be able to answer these questions.

[Maggie] I think about too, like I’ll finish a book that I really really love, and then suddenly think “Oh, I want more of that!” And I really like when Amazon or we’re in Canada so like you’re on indigo.ca or something, “If you like this, then you’ll probably also like this” or “For fans of blah” and I love when those recommendations are really good fits. Because sometimes they’re not but when they are I’m like “Oh, thank you for taking the guesswork out of my next read.”

[Candice] That’s one of the things I want to specifically mention is that people are probably listening and going “There’s nothing like my book, my book is totally new and original”. That’s a bad thing, you know?

[Maggie] I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. I hate that argument so much.

[Candice] That’s a bad thing. If you can’t find any book that is similar to yours, that’s not good. Because how are we gonna be able to tell people why they might like this book if it’s has nothing in common with any book ever? What are you writing?

[Maggie] And it comes back to the—you might, maybe you do have a book that has never been done before, but if that’s the case, you have a lot of work to do to sell that idea and you’re really going to have to work hard. And that’s not a bad thing, but you have to recognize it, you have to recognize that “Okay I’m really taking a chance here” and you’ve got to set yourself up for success.

[Candice] Because I think a lot of people, they think “I have to write the most original idea, nobody can ever, I can’t write anything anybody else has.” But, and  I’m going to use your example, you finish a book and you really love something about. There is no person in the history of the world who has ever read a book or watched a movie and then said “That was amazing! I never want to watch anything like that ever again!” No! You want more of that, you want more of whatever it was you loved about that piece of media. So give it to people!

[Maggie] I love that idea. I love that so much. “I never want to experience anything like it again.” I want to keep that experience pure. What a fascinating way of thinking about it. That’s funny.

[Candice] That’s the thing, that you want to be able to explain what your book is similar to because people who like those other books will then like yours.

[Maggie] Yeah, you want to fall into that. You want to be one of the suggestions when someone goes to pick a really popular book that everyone is raving about, and they’re like “Yeah, I really did love that, I’d love to read more like it.” You want to be in that little carousel. You will be part of that conversation. It’s a good thing. And again, people just need to stop being so precious about their work and what it means in the grand scheme of like “Okay, he wanted part of a literary canon.” Cool. A lot of people do. But just like in breaking a lot of hearts every time I say “It’s not this pure art form that you think it is: It’s a business.” And sure in some ways it sucks, but it always has been that way, like as long as there’s been a publishing industry, you know?

[Candice] I mean, all those classics like Sherlock Holmes was just Pulp Fiction for the masses. It wasn’t any kind of classic. His publishers paid him, I think it was either per word or per story, and so he just kept pumping them out. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually ended up hating Sherlock and he killed off his character, and his publishers said “No, this is too popular, your readers want more, bring him back.” Do you think he wanted to bring back a character he hated? No, but he wanted the money, so he did.

[Maggie] Exactly.

[Candice] You can pretend to be as, you know, I don’t know what the word is, idealistic about all of the classics as you want to be, but a lot of that stuff was just written for money.

[Maggie] Yeah, I think if you really dig into the history of some of your favorite classics, even contemporary classic novels, I think you’ll be really surprised by the story behind them. I think it might be a little like a “meet your heroes”-ish, where it dashes your heart a little bit, but maybe that’s what you need? Maybe that’s the wake-up call, if you feel like this is really, this beautiful romantic industry, maybe a wake-up call’s required to… I don’t know, I don’t want to break your heart, but… yeah.

[Candice] And that’s why it comes back to having to read widely in your genre, because you want people to know what your book is similar to within the last couple years. Because how many books have said “I’m like Twilight”? Thousands. Like I’m pretty sure if you look at lists of books similar to Twilight, there will be dozens and dozens and hundreds of books, but you want to get niche, you want to know “If you would like this specific book, you will love mine.” Because anybody can say “Oh, I’m like Twilight” “Oh, I’m like Harry Potter”. But if you can find your audience and find that niche of people who will love exactly what you’re writing, that’s how you find your success. You find your audience and you find them by, I guess it’s like following the trail: “Okay, people who would like my book would also like this book and therefore I’m going to read these books to make sure that I know what I’m talking about.”

[Maggie] Yeah, I mean publishing is also so, it’s such a rapid industry.

[Candice] Yes.

[Maggie] There are new books coming out all the time and so if you’re not, think about the readers in your life. A lot of them are fairly voracious, and they’re consuming a lot of content, and so if you’re going to be saying “Oh, I’m like Twilight”—we keep ragging on Twilight, but don’t know why it seems like the example right now.

[Candice] Because it’s super popular and everybody says “Oh, my book is like Twilight.” It’s like, yeah, not every book can be like Twilight!

[Maggie] If it’s The Hunger Games, there have been so many dystopian series and books that have happened since The Hunger Games. It’s not the only one and people who like that type of thing have sought those titles out. If dystopian post-apocalyptic teen drama is what you’re writing and those readers have read it all—the people who really want it have read it all. And so you want to really dig in there and do that work and be like “Okay, but what is it about my book that I think is similar to The Hunger Games? Well, it’s probably not exactly the same. I should hope not, otherwise you got a different problem in your hands. But is it the dystopian factor or is it the Battle Royale style like kids have to kill each other off? You know really dig in there deeper. Or is it the voice? Maybe it’s actually Suzanne Collins style of writing that you find your book sounds most like. Really, really dig into it and then look around saying what else has been happening in this… I keep thinking about, like remember the Jumanji movie with Robin Williams?

[Candice] Yes.

[Maggie] But remember that scene of like “What year is it?”

[Candice] Yes.

[Maggie] That’s what it makes me think of when I think of people who are trying to publish books and haven’t read in their in their genre in the last five years. As they stumble into the sunlight and have no idea where they are because there still stuck in something that happened 15-20 years ago, “What year is it?”

[Candice] I can just see the meme.

[Maggie] I don’t know, I don’t know why people… I mean, I can read the thread and I can see the arguments, but it truly, truly is not something that’s worth getting upset about. It’s just good sense. Which I guess brings us to this: Read a book written in your genre within the last five years… but is it right?

[Candice] Yes! Please do it.

[Maggie] This is not even, this should not be up for debate. There are no “if, ands, or buts” about it. Read in your genre and read recently. Because at the end of the day I don’t care how, I don’t care if you’re self-publishing, if you are indie publishing, if you are traditionally publishing, if you are taking your writing and you are putting it out in the world with the expectation that someone is going to read it—you’ve made a product. I don’t care if you’re giving it away for free or you’re charging for it, if you want people to read it, you need to understand who your readers are. If you don’t care, if you truly don’t care if anyone ever reads your stuff, fine. Chances are if you put the work into it and you’re putting it out there you want people to read it. A writer’s job is so much more than just putting words on the page. It’s so much more than telling a story. You’ve got to think all these elements and I know I guess for some people it sucks, but…

[Candice] Them’s the breaks.

[Maggie] Sorry. This shouldn’t be a hot take but apparently it is. No sympathy. Read. Read a book preferably one that was written in the last five years. I think we did it. I think we nailed it.

[Candice] Yeah.

[Maggie] Okay, well, thanks for listening to this week’s episode of But Is It Write? If you like what you hear, if you’re enjoying our conversing…

[Candice] Our conversating.

[Maggie] Our conversating. If you enjoy the conversation between Candice and I, don’t forget you can recommend us to your friends, we’d really like that. You can also give us a five-star rating on wherever you’re listening to us, that’d be cool, too. It would help us reach more listeners. Also, don’t forget that you can recommend advice to us to cover in a future episode by tweeting it to us on Twitter @butisitwrite or you can send it to us by email at butisitwrite@gmail.com. But just a little submission tip: We’re looking for advice, not topics, that’s kind of our gimmick. We take that popular or common or interesting advice like, you know, something your teacher told you once or something you’ve seen shared on Twitter. You just want to know more about it, you want to know our opinions on the matter—that’s were looking for. So, you know, hot tip. Until next week, that’s that. Thanks for listening!

[Both] Bye!