I was reading “Manage the Media: Don’t Let it Manage You,” a book for CEOs. One of the hardest things about public relations–and a reason it’s hard to get CEOs to buy in–is that it can’t be qualified. No one can produce hard fact and statistics saying that something will work. A PR campaign can look great and still flop with the people its trying to sell, too. Writing a novel, in many respects, is like that.
Consider: How many articles have you read that state, “The ten things you need to do to get published”? When I open one of those to see what those might be, “eliminate adverbs” is usually at the top of the list. Anyone could go down that list and follow it to the letter. Then they ship the manuscript off, following all the guidelines, and get a rejection letter.
Likewise, I ran into a someone who was convinced that the publisher simply hadn’t done the right marketing tests to figure out how to sell novels and what be a best seller. He kept sniffing around for the silver bullet, trying analyze what would likely cause readers to turn away from the book and what would get them to buy the book. This is something that drives people crazy. They slave over their books, do everything they perceive as right, and then they see a book that they think is inferior that got published. And maybe turned into a best seller!
But a novel is like art. People are not buying it because they have a need–they’re buying it because there’s something in it that they would like to read. How many artworks have you seen that left you scratching your head wondering what the artist was thinking? Yet, there was someone out there who might spend six figures for the same piece of art.
If we need a product like dishwasher soap, that can be measured. We have a need for that particular product, and it’s a need on a regular basis. So then it becomes a matter of testing to see what can be done to make the product appeal more to customers to make pick up particular brand. But with a novel, we start out not needing it. If we don’t buy one today, the worst that will happen is that we won’t have anything to read, not that the dirty dishes won’t get washed. Then, when we pick up a book, there are a million reasons to do so. Some might be because it’s an author you’ve read before, or an author you haven’t read before. Or a specific genre. Or the cover. Or you read the back and had to get it. Of course, you could read the back and go “Meh,” too. And there’s no logical reason why if X is an action-adventure novel about finding a lost island, and Y is an action adventure-novel about finding a lost island that a reader would automatically pick up both. That can’t be measured because there isn’t a pattern to it.
You can do everything “right” the writing books say and still not be able to sell the book. There’s more to it than hard facts, and it’s something that can’t be defined.