Originality or Marketability?

I’ve just read the Norwegian crime novel The Snowman by Jo Nesbo. It’s a gripping story of murder with many twists andThe Snowman by Jo Nesbo turns before the true identity of ‘The Snowman’ is revealed. I admit to choosing the book solely because Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (creator of Wallender) have hooked me into Scandinavian crime fiction.

The Sunday Times says of The Snowman, ‘…deserves comparison with the first volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy’ and The Independent says ‘…well placed to secure the loyalty of Stieg Larsson fans.’

When pitching to publishers and agents, would-be novelists are often advised to state where their book sits in relation to other authors, i.e. whose novels are similar to theirs. Publishers like a novel that fits neatly into a specific genre so that it can be easily marketed – hence the large number of books now marketed as ‘the next Stieg Larsson’.

So where does this leave originality and creativity?

It seems to me that a novelist (and especially a first time novelist) is risking life, limb and a publishing deal if he tries to write outside tried and tested genres. No matter how good the writing, it will be an uphill battle to get a book deal without a ready marketing hook. But someone has to be first to dip a toe in the water with a new idea – the Larsson books were something completely different when they first appeared.

What does anyone else think – is it best to bend your writing to fit a genre or is it better to follow your heart and risk alienating publishers?   

By the way – I really enjoyed The Snowman and heartily recommend it.

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  1. #1 by Helen Yendall on June 20, 2011 - 11:25 am

    Sally – interesting post and tricky question! I think the best advice I’ve had on this front recently was on that novel-writing workshop that we attended earlier in the year, in which Martin Davies advised all of us would-be novelists just to write a book that we loved and a story that we wanted to tell, without worrying too much about trying to second-guess the market or with one eye on publication. I think that was good advice. If you enjoy writing the book and love your characters, hopefully others will love them too!

  2. #2 by Jane Retallick on June 20, 2011 - 12:16 pm

    I was given The Snowman as a Christmas present. At first, I’m not sure how I got through the first part of the book as it was very graphic and gruesome (I don’t have a tough stomach for those things!). Once the mystery part got going, I was totally hooked and finished the book in a few days. Fantastic writing but not for the souls who are more sensitive in nature!

    As for the other topic, if you are totally passionate about your book idea and can inject originality and creativity into your writing in a way that makes people want to compulsively turn the pages, then I think you should go for it. Much better to write a risky book in a gripping writing style than sticking to something tame just because it’s been tried and tested. Many great authors have plunged in the deep end and it’s paid off. It might just take more time and perseverance to get published. Just don’t give up the day job if you have no other means of income in the meantime!

    • #3 by Sally Jenkins on June 20, 2011 - 12:31 pm

      Helen & Jane – I think you’re both right. In order to stay the course when writing a novel you have to be passionate about the story – not just writing what you think will be popular. After all, by the time the book is finished the public’s tastes may have moved on.

  3. #4 by Bev Morley on June 20, 2011 - 1:04 pm

    Hi Sally :o)

    Another interesting and informative post – I have to say, I have yet to dabble in anything along the lines of The Snowman, but having read your post I feel inspired to have a try!

    I have often given thought to practise of fiction writing for whichever genre is most saleable, but I’m not sure that I could produce work to a good enough standard if it is outside of my ‘comfort zone’.

    Perhaps as I gain more experience that will change, but for now I’m happy to read things I could never write, and write things I would probably never read! (other than for editing purposes!)



  4. #5 by Patsy Collins on June 20, 2011 - 4:23 pm

    I’ve seen plenty of advice about sticking to a genre and think that might make a new writer’s book (very slightly) more likely to be accepted. There are new writers who’ve broken the rules and done OK though (eg JKR)
    If we don’t want to write in a genre we’re unlikely to make a good job of it, so will probably be better off writing in whatever style/theme we feel passionate about.

  5. #6 by susanjanejones on June 20, 2011 - 4:39 pm

    Hi Sally,
    Although it makes sense to fit the mould when trying to write a novel, I have to write what I like myself, which may be why I haven’t published a novel yet. I do think passionate writing will shine on an agent’s desk, sooner or later.

    • #7 by Sally Jenkins on June 20, 2011 - 7:17 pm

      Susan, Patsy – looks like you’re in agreement here. Follow your passion rather than try and fit your work neatly into a niche for an easier sale.
      Bev – I think I’ve got down your route a little with my attempt at a My Weekly pocket novel – because I could see a market for it rather than because it’s the thing I’m truly interested in.

  6. #8 by Bev Morley on June 22, 2011 - 7:31 pm

    Hey Sally

    I’ve just read your two page article in the August edition of Writers’ Forum. As with other articles I have seen with your name on them, it proves to be a great source of information for those of us wishing to further our knowledge and experiences. I enjoy reading what you write – it always seems to make so much sense, and never fails to motivate me.

    Thank you!!


    • #9 by Sally Jenkins on June 23, 2011 - 12:05 pm

      I’m blushing at your kind words, Bev! Thank you.

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