Calling all publishing professionals and authors
June 21, 2007 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Should I follow in the footsteps of Douglas Adams?

I'm writing my first novel. I have a strong idea that's similar to Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently series—comedy sci-fi/fantasy (but mainly humor). I'm concerned that this might not be a commercially sound idea for a novel. Put simply, is my novel likely to appeal to mainstream publishers? Or will the sci-fi/fantasy tag turn them off? Will the novel be classed as children's fiction and, if so, is this a bad thing? I'm in the UK and will approach UK agents/publishers. I know there are publishing professionals and even authors here on MeFi. I'm hoping to tap into some commercial publishing nous. Thanks!
posted by humblepigeon to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Terry Pratchett has done ok out of "comedy sci-fi/fantasy"...
posted by gene_machine at 5:14 AM on June 21, 2007

1. Keep writing the novel. I imagine you didn't start writing simply in order to publish - you are wrting because you enjoy writing and you have a great story you want to tell. So don't stop writing because you don't think it will sell. There is no better practice for writing than writing, and finishing a book (even if it is never published) is an incredibly valuable experience. It means that when you start another, you know that you can finish it. If you've finished one book, you can finish any book, and the fear of the blank page diminishes noticeably. The first book I wrote has never been published, and probably never will be. it was still a very valuable experience, and is informing my work on my present book.

2. Yes, sci-fi/fantasy is considered to be hard to sell compared with other genres. Nothing can be done about this. It's hard to get published in almost any genre, though, so that difference shouldn't alter what you do about it. If a publisher wants to publish it as "children's", which can mean young adult, then unless they want you to wreck the text, I wouldn't worry about it - it's still your book, and they have chosen the market it will sell best in. A lot of books seem to cross over from Children's to adult fiction nowadays anyway - Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett spring to mind.

3. Have you considered blogging it somehow? A agent and publisher both became interested in my work via a blog I wrote. The agent is now helping me out with the book I should be writing while I'm writing this AskMe answer. Humour works well on blogs, and publishing folk do read them.

In summary: selling sci-fi/fantasy can be hard, I hear, but please don't stop!
posted by WPW at 5:24 AM on June 21, 2007

there's always a market for that kind of stuff. as with any writing project, you need to find an agent, editor, and publisher who specialize in it, and who knows how to market it. follow thy dream.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:24 AM on June 21, 2007

IANAAuthor/Publisher/etc., but my understanding is that there are publishing houses that specifically deal in alot of SF/F, and the large ones have divisions that do so. There are still plenty of these types of novels being put onto shelves (across the US though, so YKMV, I suppose), so as long as it's of quality though, I would excpect there are still places for it to publish. For an idea of who to talk to (and I bet if you called one of these publishing houses up and played real nice-like, they might even give you some insight) try what all of the musicians back in the day did: buy (or just look in) SF/F books from authors you respect, and copy down the contact information for their publishing house. A good place to start would be to find Adams's own publisher, I imagine.

As for the pidgeonholing into the 'Childrens' lit,' I wouldn't worry about it either way. It most likey won't be originally marketed as such, and if it seems to be a hit among the kids, thann so be it. You've found your audience. Continue writing exactly as you have been. Don't write kids' books, write your books, and they may just appeal to kids. (This, actually, is a problem with alot of 'Kids' books: the idea that you have to change the way you write, or simplify concept to appeal to them. As someone who read Animal farm at 11 or 12 and almost entirely caught the allusion, believe me. You don't.)

on preview, what WPW said.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 5:30 AM on June 21, 2007

A writer's advice: Write your strong idea, and write it the best you can -- that is, so that it pleases you. Writing speculatively 'for a market' is often a mistake (especially if you change what you actually wanted to do in order to fit such a market). Also, trust me, the first novel you write isn't always the first novel you sell. Worry about your craft, about writing the thing, making it real. Once it's done, then worry about selling it. (And start writing another one to keep self from going crazy.)
posted by tomboko at 5:51 AM on June 21, 2007

Seconding tomboko. How are you ever going to be confident that it's your voice you're writing in if you are constantly filtering and self-censoring in anticipation of the imagined approval of unknown parties? If you carry on like that and then AREN'T met with approval, how will that impact the way you feel about the choices you made?
posted by hermitosis at 5:57 AM on June 21, 2007

having worked at a book store, i can tell you that genre fiction sells like crazy, usually outselling "literature" in the short term and also in the long term for the greats. a sci-fi fantasy tag will not hurt your chances of being published.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:25 AM on June 21, 2007

Two words: Jasper Fforde. The Dirk-Gently-esque novel is still alive and kicking. And I think selling pretty well.
posted by GuyZero at 7:06 AM on June 21, 2007

Look up some interviews with Jim Butcher. He wrote a book about a detective that is also a wizard, and spent years trying to get it published, but he's been able to turn it into a series and quit his day job.
posted by andrewzipp at 7:09 AM on June 21, 2007

There are great successes like Fforde--there are always people who like the oddball stuff (thank God!). It IS a hard sell--but when you find the right person, it will be the right person, if you know what I'm mean.

I'm currently peddling a similar sounding novel and the negative response I've gotten is not to the fantasy elements but to the comedy. And that doesn't mean agents/editors don't think it's funny--on the contrary. But they think that comedy is hard to sell. (This makes me think they are clearly a bad choice for me, since they are second guessing "the market" rather than trusting their own reaction).

I queried one of the agents who sold the very successful (comic) "The Pirates!" by Gideon Defoe. Agent wrote back, complimenting my ms and moaned that selling one comic novel was hard enough and he couldn't imagine going through that again!

So, no advice here, but some commiseration perhaps. Good luck!
posted by largecorp at 7:27 AM on June 21, 2007

Worry about this stuff after you're done writing the book.

If your book is really good, the genre won't matter. It will matter in terms of how it gets published, but not whether. Sure, if it's unusual enough, then there are some publishers who will reject on those grounds. But if you wrote a not-funny fantasy book or a not-fantasy comedy book, maybe they'd reject it because it's not funny enough or not fantasy enough.

To put it another way: you're unlikely to get your book published no matter what genre you're writing. Just write what's in you to write, make it the best book you can, and submit it in a professional manner. There really is a place for every type of book. There just isn't a place for every single book. Does this make any sense? Trends will change at least ten times before you're even ready to start sending it out, let alone before it actually gets published. Just write well.

As for your other question. Is your main character a child? If not, then rest assured your book is not a children's book.

If so, it might be, but it depends much more on the telling than the subject matter. I'm reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell right now. The main character is 13, but it's definitely for adults. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a book about a high schooler, and it is so not a young adult book. The protagonist of The Book Theif by Markus Zusack is 9, but the book is borderline YA/adult. These are generally exceptions to the rules. I've rejected a lot of manuscripts because the age of the characters, the tone of the manuscript, and the intended audience just don't match up at all. Still, I'd be more worried if you think you're writing a kids' book and it's really for adults than the other way around. If that makes any sense at all.
posted by lampoil at 8:49 AM on June 21, 2007

Oh! I forgot to answer your "is this a bad thing?" part of your question about whether it's a children's book. The answer is:

No! It's awesome. Children's rules, adult sucks.

(I may be a bit biased).
posted by lampoil at 8:54 AM on June 21, 2007

SF/Fantasy is not hard to sell. As es_de-bah notes, it generally outsells the vast majority of "literature" by leaps and bounds, and thus, there is a thriving market for it. Humourous SF/Fantasy IS -- however, it is not nearly as hard to sell in the UK. Unless you are writing in a slightly simplified style (not necessarily a less complicated plot, but the way that you construct sentences) with a child or teen protagonist, no, your book will certainly not be classified as a children's book.

As many have already said: worry about this when you are done writing the book. And revising it. And revising it again. And possibly scrapping it as "practice" and writing your next book.
posted by tigerbelly at 9:56 AM on June 21, 2007

Thanks for the answers.

There's a couple of things I'd like to add at the end.

Firstly, one of the awards Douglas Adams won early on for the Hitchhiker radio show was "Best Programme for Young People", from the Society of Authors/Pye Awards for Radio. I also note that Terry Pratchett is published in the US by HarperTeen.

So there's an assumption being made (rightly or wrongly) that these are books for younger people. Quite right, really. I can't imagine my pensioner parents enjoying Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Fans online are definitely at the younger end of the spectrum.

Douglas Adams himself wasn't against giving out advice on how to get started. His advice was to write for radio, which he said was relatively non-competitive because it pays badly. He really means writing for BBC Radio 4, although BBC Radio 2 sometimes have plays. More info here.

With any luck, a publisher might pick-up the idea, as happened with him (although his literary agent was that of his Monty Python friends; it must have been inevitable that Adams' work with the Python team opened a door or two for him).

I'm investigating pitching the idea of a radio series. This doesn't negate a novel later on but might be a good way to take the characters and plot out for a stroll before committing a year or two to writing a novel.
posted by humblepigeon at 11:39 AM on June 21, 2007

Not all of Pratchett's books are pubbed by HarperTeen. I'm not all that familiar with his work, but a quick surf through Amazon and seems to reveal that the ones HarperTeen publishes have teen (or younger) protagonists, and there are others that have more of an adult slant that are published by HarperTorch or other publishers. I don't know much about radio shows, so I can't really speak to that. But I can assure you that middle grade and young adult novels almost never have adult protagonists (as in, older than 21, though 18's a stretch even for YA).

There's always a lot of crossover in fantasy, and you're certainly likely to have a young audience with this kind of book, but children's book publishers are only interested in publishing children's books. Especially from first time authors.
posted by lampoil at 12:32 PM on June 21, 2007

Check out the blog Making Light, written by two prominent science fiction editors. They (unsystematically, but often enough) mention/link to good advice about naive mistakes first-time authors should avoid. Here are a few random examples, if it seems useful you can dig around to find more: finding an agent and other topics -- she links to this extremely informative piece, with links to other resources and her own past posts, at Neil Gaiman's blog, which she wrote; about novels in progress; cover letters.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:58 PM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

(Er, meant to say: if you don't know much about publishing, this would be useful to check out, to be sure you don't get scammed. Not exactly an answer to the question, but still possibly useful)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:59 PM on June 21, 2007

*works in publishing*

Before I started with the company I'm at now, I spent the better part of a year reading slush for Tor; now I'm an editor, which means that I still read an awful lot of slush.

First, worth noting is that Terry Prachett's YA novels are published by HarperTeen. His adult novels are published by HarperCollins.

Second, stop worrying about selling your novel. Write it first, and then worry about selling it. Scifi/fantasy isn't any harder to sell than any other sort of genre writing, and, I would argue, is easier than a lot of things, since there are a fair few houses who publish loads of sf/f and welcome unsolicited submissions. Yes, really -- off the top of my head, both Tor/Forge and Edge/Tesseract in the US welcome unsolicited and unagented submissions.

Before you worry about if comedy will sell, worry about writing it. Worry about your plot making sense and getting resolved and your characters being likable and realistic. Worry about writing synopses and cover letters. Submit things. Worry about postage and paying your rent. Then start writing your next novel.

Once you've submitted, it's out of your hands. If you write comedy and get someone who hates comedy, that house will reject you. If you write creative names and dream sequences and you get a reader who hates creative names and anything about soul mates (that would be me), that house will reject you. If you get someone who's just read three poorly written humorous science fiction novels, they may roll their eyes at your synopsis and not even read your manuscript. It happens.

What's more likely, though, is that someone will pick up your manuscript and look over the first few pages. Either they'll be immediately engrossed or they won't be, and that's what's going to get publishers interested. I've read literally hundreds of novels from slush piles, and the vast majority of them I put down within the first, say, three to five pages. If you can keep someone reading longer than that, the chances of your book getting published go up dramatically. Your goal is to get one person enthusiastic about your work, to get one person to send a letter to someone else that says 'so I started reading this last night, and then all of a sudden it was four a.m. and I couldn't go to sleep until I read the last three chapters so I gave up and made some coffee and figured that I'd have a nap this afternoon'.

If you can get to this point, from here on, someone else worries about if it's commercially viable or not, and that depends on all sorts of random things. Has that house published something similar recently? Do they have something similar coming up? Has there been a big comedic book lately? Is there some sort of element in this that might draw in people from other genres? Some years it's comedy, some years it's near-future dystopias. Some years it's tap dancing robots -- who knows?

What I'm trying to say, I guess (other than that it is very late and I am tired), is that ultimately, it's going to be the quality of your writing that gets you a contract, not your genre. If the writing is good enough, I think that anything is ultimately commercially viable. You may not get huge advances, you may not be mentioned in book reviews or the local paper, but -- if you're lucky -- you just might get published.
posted by meghanmiller at 8:22 PM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

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