Is There Room In Publishing For Original Stories?

I saw this video on Facebook. It’s amazing, so watch it.

If you scrolled without watching, allow me to summarize: many popular songs were written using the same four-chord progression. These guys crammed thirty-six (or so, I lost count) song snippets into five minutes without changing the four-chord structure. The transitions are seamless. They cross genres, including the Canadian national anthem and opera, among many pop hits. And there’s a kazoo.

Seriously. You should watch it. Because funny.

Anyway, it got me thinking about book writing and publishing. I’m not sure why but here we are. Maybe I’ll break out a kazoo for consistency.

The heart of the video is originality, or rather the lack of it. The singers/comedians suggest that if you want to write a hit song, all you have to do is follow a formula. Give the people what they think they want, even if it’s the same as all the other things out there. Guaranteed hit.

Now, there might not be anything wrong with this, per se. When I write my books, I follow a narrative structure that has shown to keep reader engagement high throughout the course of the novel. It has worked in many wildly famous works, including The Help and The Hunger Games.

But there’s more to it than that. Any writer who has written a query letter or pitched to an agent is familiar with the term comp titles. These are books that are “like yours,” and their purpose is for the agent to know where your book would be categorized. Knowing that gives them an idea of how easy it will be for them to sell to a publisher and later to customers. This involves doing homework, and if what you’ve written strays outside the standard literary boxes, it can be tricky.

I don’t know about you guys, but I read a lot, and I still suck at compiling comp titles. Back when I was figuring out what to do with The Fourth Descendant, I asked a group of betas if it reminded them of any other books they’d read. Most said no. One person said the courthouse basement scene reminded her of National Treasure (not a great melville quotecomp. Also, not a book). So I was a little stuck.

Here’s the depressing part: If you spend much time researching comps, you start to get a sense that maybe the industry doesn’t want original ideas. You’ll be hard pressed to sell your book without comps (because it won’t fit in a tidy box), yet some trends are hard sells anyway because certain elements (I’m guessing teenage vampire stories, for example) have been overdone.

So be like the others, but not too much.

Does that mean that in literature, like the comedians demonstrated with music in the video, there is little room for originality?

I’ll address how I would answer that question in future posts, but I want to pose it to you first. What do you think?

31 thoughts on “Is There Room In Publishing For Original Stories?

  1. Pingback: What Did You Like? 2016 In Review | Allison Maruska

  2. It’s the curse. But I suppose this is why e publishing is slowly creating a new paradigm. Through distributors like Amazon and the like and print on demand self publication services it is now easier for authors to actually be original.

    I can’t blame the publishers. They are the ones who pay the editors, the typesetters, the artists, the proofreaders, the marketers, the printers, the butchers, the bakers and the I-pad makers. What? Don’t look at me like that. When was the last time you met a candlestick maker?

    Anyway, they take a big financial risk on publishing so of course they want some assurance that there will be a return on their investment. There’s never anything comprable until something new is done.

    So my take on it, If you are really sure of your originality and your skill. Self-publish. It’s an uphill battle but if it works, you’ll have given other authors something to put in their Comp list and given publishers a new hole for their pigeons.. If it doesn’t: wash, refine, repeat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally get what you’re saying about the publishers needing assurance and agree completely about self-pubbing creating a new paradigm. I’ve read many great books that wouldn’t exist if not for self-pubbing. It’s a viable path for many authors but perhaps not for every book – we indies must allow our work to be scrutinized by others – CPs and editors, for example. Sometimes the book won’t stand in the market. I have a couple that will never see the light of day. LOL.

      Btw, I apologize for my late reply. I was out of the country/reliable internet service. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • My pleasure and as someone working on my own novellas , short stories and books. I get ya. Personally my idea is to use traditional publishing as a proving ground of sorts. If you can catch their attention and get a deal with them , you have what it takes to go indie. if you don’t well use TP’s as your yardstick The problem with Self Publishing makes Traditional publishing all the more vital. It saturates the marketplace with many new and unkown names giving consumers a bit of apprehension.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well I’ve always know my book probably won’t be the easiest to market or fit into a genre but i wouldn’t write anything else just so it sells. So I plough through and try to be as authentic to myself as I can be. Originality should sell!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember when blogging began everyone was unique. There were no niches. But then some marketing people got hold of the collective blogging psyche and *bam!* we were told we must do things a certain way. Originality took a nose dive. All of a sudden bloggers began to have “sponsor affiliations” and limit their writing to ways that “engaged their audience.”

    To me it was a sad shift in priorities, but I do think that in our capitalistic society that is the entertainment model. Homogenize the produce, then sell it to a bigger audience that doesn’t care about originality, preferring to associate with that which they are told is popular. It’s depressing, but I do think that is how things go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s interesting to hear the bloggers’ perspective. I don’t use ads or sponsors, mostly because they are everywhere and I want this to be a quiet place, if you will. But I suppose that means I get to keep my freedom to write what I want. 🙂

      I get a little antsy when I hear about using what sells, but there is truth to it. I use graphics when I make ads for Twitter and Facebook because they’ve been shown to work. I think the challenge is to be creative within what people expect and what has been shown to get attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like to think there’s room for original stories in trad publishing. But then again, how original can we be with the thousands of books and short stories out there? If there is no room for originality in publishing, that would be depressing. I don’t want the same thing each and every time. I don’t like the same chords in all my favorite music either. I prefer something catchy, whether in music or written word.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think when books have been written as long as they have, we’re putting our own original spins on popular tropes. I’m sure stories about war, even the Napoleonic wars, have been done, but my favorite involved an air force of dragons.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I have received many a “glowing rejection” where I’m told that publisher loved my story, they just can’t place it because it’s so different. It’s frustrating, but I compare it to music. A lot of smart bands have that 1 catchy tune that gets people hooked, and then the rest of their songs have more depth. That’s the way to do it I guess. haha

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Just had a thought…room for originality?…how about Lucy (PorterGirl)…3 book deal on the back of her truly original and highly entertaining blog…not to mention her comments! Seriously though she is reaping the reward of hard work, perseverance, talent and ever so slightly quirky British humour…for which I love her to bits!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. The answer is a resounding YES – depending.

    CONTEMPT WARNING

    Too, too, too many books and movie and film shorts have been made about agents for actors in the movie business. They are either shown as complete slime or insanely diehard-loyal. I’m sure some are slime. I’m sure some are insanely loyal. And, unfortunately, most are too lackluster to be either.

    That’s the bell shaped curve. Most fall in the mushy middle, not super great; not really slimeball nasty. Just meh.

    It’s the same with most occupations. The number of great, inspiring teachers I had in my life were few and far between. Most were meh. The number of amazing managers I’ve worked for I can count on one hand with plenty of fingers left over.

    Managers tended to have a high slimeball quotient, however…

    Realtors. Most don’t last 3 years in that biz. Very few make it a career.

    Okay, so what?

    Well, Is There Room In Publishing For Original Stories? No. Most book agents (that mushy, fat part of the bell shaped curve) want to fill a spot for a publish that’s already popular. Most publishers want to fill a slot at Barnes and Noble that’s selling.

    What’s popular and selling? Got any more of that? Easy. Simplistic. And if you go trad, that’s what you get a lot. Use movies for the example. Rocky VII. The ridiculous prequels to Star Wars. And before you attempt to lash out, I preemptively nuke you with: NOBODY wanted Jar Jar Binks. They sure don’t want another one.

    Now, if you go indie, you can taste any color of the rainbow. It’s all out there because there are very few barriers to entry. It’s artistry and originality on a scale unmatched since the Renaissance, and it’s really coming into its own.

    However…

    There are a lot of people who wrote books because they could, not because the books were well written or interesting. So there’s that. (Few barriers to entry will do that. Turns out, not every color of the rainbow tastes good.)

    Now, all that means is the really TALENTED movie agents are worth their weight in gold. They find the unique stuff to bring to market, they push for it, and they are rewarded for their vision.

    They’re also rare. The movie biz likes safety. Nobody likes to lose money.

    As it turns out, neither does the book biz. The players act the same way in both businesses. Book agents who want to discover original works are rare. The overwhelming majority of agents want to fill a slot at B&N so they can keep receiving a paycheck, and they will never see the brilliance on the page. THESE are the people who live lives of quiet desperation, wishing they could find original works and realizing the business isn’t set up that way for them right now. But pendulums tend to swing, so who knows. Trad publishing might decide the old ways are dying and, like newspapers and magazines, die a slow painful death – or wake up and embrace the new reality. We’ll see.

    So one realm is overwhelmingly set up to keep doing what’s been done.

    The other isn’t.

    And just like the musicians can see patterns, there are only 88 keys on a piano. Maybe that lends itself to a few patterns faster than words would. There are more than a million words in the English language – and we’re making more all the time! (Blog, anyone? That didn’t exist when you were in diapers.) Kinda hard to invent new musical notes.

    So while you can insult people’s intelligence and say there are no original stories left, all you are really doing is pulling back to a view that finally finds commonality. Is the Rosa Parks story like Eve’s? Sure – they were both women. Or, something bad happened to both of them. They had to overcome it.

    Geez.

    We can see similarities or we can see differences – aka, originality or sameness. Hey, these books are similar because they’re BOTH WRITTEN IN ENGLISH! How unoriginal. I’m writing mine in a new sanscrit I created kinda like Tolkien did when he invented languages for the Hobbit. (THAT was original! Oh, wait – Edgar Rice Burroughs did it first when he invented a language (ape) in Tarzan. See?)

    Write what your heart demands. Wanna redo The Taming Of The Shrew with a modern theme because the classics deserve to be retold so they can live on and introduce readers to a digestible version of Shakespeare and great storytelling? Go for it!

    Wanna write the most original piece of fiction ever? Do that, too.

    That’s the beauty of the rainbow. Any color can exist, even ones that aren’t visible to the human eye. What you do with your story is up to you, but popular themes exist because we love, Love, LOVE them! So give us what we want.

    And on occasion, give us something new.

    The mix of old to new depends on the person. Do you always eat at new restaurants or do you have a favorite? See? There’s room for both.

    When I read some stories, I can see exactly where they are headed. When I write a story, I usually want to make it so that the reader doesn’t know – as in, not predictable. Even if I tell them there’s a happy ending, they aren’t 100% sure how the heck it’s going to get there.

    But they sure enjoy the ride.

    Yes, Virginia/Allison there is a Santa Clause – and originality in writing – as long as want there to be.

    And to answer your question, if it’s good, there’s always room.

    Liked by 5 people

    • No one’s gonna argue with you about Jar Jar. LOL.

      We share the same goal – writing stories that aren’t predictable. That’s the challenge. We’ll likely write to popular themes bc readers want that, but we need to do it with a fresh approach.

      It’ll be interesting to see how publishing evolves over the next couple of decades. I’m a little amazed at how many middle men there still are.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m going to the 3 day London Book Fair in April and on the last day there is a 2 hour session where writers get a chance to do brief pitches in public to a panel of agents. If I can get close enough to hear (these sessions always packed) I’ll see what if any gems of originality emerge. Mind you the lucky pitchers have already been whittled down from no end of applicants!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. In my effort to get my “literary” stories published, I’ve learned that the world of publishing is arbitrary. It may be that your story is absolutely perfect, but this editor wants to publish stories by MFA grads from a particular Writing Program or that editor wants stories with a strong female protagonist, or They want stories that “push the boundaries of language!” It goes on and on.

    The video on “four chords” is absolutely right. In writing there are only so many plots. Boy meets girl, for instance. How many times has that been done? Gatsby being one example. I know, deep down, that I’m writing a story that’s been written before, a story of love or a story of deception, or a story of war. It’s all been done. And I also know that “formula” is important. You need a hook! If your story doesn’t start off with something like: “I told Daddy last night to leave the gun at home, but he never listens to me.” then that twenty-something editor is going to smack the reject button before getting past the first page.

    What to do? I think it’s best to take William Wordsworth’s advice:

    Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
    And hermits are contented with their cells.

    I don’t know how else to approach this issue. Originality blossoms within the limits of the material itself. Understanding that certain “formulas” work, I operate from another standpoint: Make the reader LIKE the protagonist–the way I like Silas Marner in Eliot’s classic novel or Lily, the young girl in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees or Alice, in The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu. All of these novels follow a pattern, a formula, but for me, they have that one thing that I want: a likeable and interesting protagonist.

    I believe originality is still important, of course it is, but we are caught up, so to speak, in a web of genres. A spider’s web looks, generally speaking, like all other spider webs, but there are differences, but the spider is always the focus. And that is where originality becomes an absolute must.

    I believe if one creates an immensely likeable, interesting, and endurable character(s) then editors/agents/publishers will “find” a place for your work.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for the fantastic comment! I read somewhere that if your protag is compelling, readers will follow you anywhere. I know I’ve read stories that when summarized sound downright bizarre, but in light of the protag and plot the tale is unforgettable.

      I’ve seen how arbitrary editors’ decisions can be as well. That could be the hardest thing for new writers – it’s not personal, it’s business. And the rules change constantly. Today the shocking hook is a must, but tomorrow it may be something else. Though I’m indie and don’t have to worry so much about getting my work past the right eyes, I still need to follow those kinds of trends or readers will balk. Our originality has to shine within the ever-changing expectations of the readers.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. There is always room for work that is brilliant. It’s getting someone to see the brilliance that demands the boring repetitive bleep. I don’t know how to work it out myself. That’s part of the reason I self published, because there was no easy box for my book. Rather than meet the demands of an agent or publisher who would have wanted to change things so it fit in an easy box, I chose obscurity. shrug. When you have an answer let me know.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I like how you said that – there’s always room for brilliance. Did you know The Great Gatsby was harshly criticized when it came out and didn’t become popular until decades later? Sometimes these things take time.

      I would argue that choosing to go indie =\= choosing obscurity (see my above comment about these things taking time). Many trads find themselves lost in the abyss; it’s not a reality exclusive to indies. Neither is “making it” exclusive to trads. The gatekeepers are often wrong.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Lots of great works were panned by the powers that be. To Kill A Mockingbird was turned down by everybody. The original Rocky movie was, too.

        One chose to let her piece stand the test of time, the other chose to whore his work into a sickening series of ever-lamer sequels. Money versus status, I guess. But I’ll say each chose what was right for them.

        Liked by 1 person

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