This past Saturday I drove to Chicago to be at the “Love Is Murder” Conference for the announcement of the Hugh Holton Scholarship by the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. I learned this was the inaugural year for the award, so I am its first recipient. Hugh Holton was a Chicago policeman who became a writer later in life, publishing 7 mystery novels before he passed away. His will included a gift to the Midwest MWA, and they decided the best way to honor Mr. Holton was to set up this scholarship, as he was always interested in supporting new writers.
After the presentation, I was invited to stay on for dinner and to listen to the keynote speaker, David Morrell. Mr. Morrell published his first book, First Blood, 40 years ago and has published two dozen books since them.
Seven years earlier, he’d given a keynote that had had a remarkable affect, talking about the changes in the publishing and the growing place of marketing in the industry. He’d mentioned how acquisition committees at publishers had started checking first with bookseller purchasers on whether a book the publisher was considering sounded like one they would buy.
This night he issued a corrective, because that attitude had pushed writers from writing really good books into focusing on really good marketing. There can be a tendency to chase the market – to look at what is currently a bestseller and try to write a book like what is selling now. (As an example, he gave the current focus on vampire fiction.) There are two problems with chasing the market though: one, it takes two years for a book to come out; and two, the market can change in a snap.
Mr. Morrell’s advice was “Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another writer,” a literary version of a quote attributed to Judy Garland. A literary career on average lasts 15 years, because writers can get into the rut of doing the same thing over and over again. After 15 years, the audience finally says, “I get it.”
The answer is to write the book that you want to write, the one that you were meant to write. If you chase fame, you will be unhappy. Remember the enthusiasm you had when you first sat down to write. That’s a goal that will give you satisfaction.
He went down a list of changes that have happened in the publishing industry, each of which has been accompanied by a forecast of doom and destruction. But to him, the new world of publishing with ebooks and direct sales make this one of the best times to be a writer. Agents have adapted to this new world pretty well, and publishers are figuring it out as well. What writers need to concentrate on supplying are good books that are worth selling.