“I stand at the end of no tradition. I stand, perhaps, at the beginning of one”. These immortal words were uttered by Howard Roark, hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Like Howard Roark, Ayn Rand stood at the end of no tradition. Her books were wholly original, and have sold over 25 million copies to date.
As writers, we are continually given the same advice: if you want to sell, write a twist on something pre-existing. Writer Lawrence Block sums up his view of what makes a book sellable in four words: “the same only different”. It must have a twist or a new outlook, but primarily it must be similar to something already in print.
The main argument for this claim is that editors and publishers don’t know what to do with genuinely original material. Editors don’t know where it fits in the marketplace. Publishers don’t know how to market a story unlike anything they’ve ever seen. Thus, if you want a career as a writer, you must write something that is “the same only different” from the rest of the market. That at least is the myth.
But the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Rather than original writers, it is those writers of derivative work who are plagued by a mediocre reputation and lackluster sales. I won’t name names, but I’ve read several books that have very little new to contribute. One I read two months ago comes to mind: it was a cheap take-off of Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”. It was 300 pages of an old story, just retold. The ideas were tired, the characters had been written before. The only thing it had to offer in the way of originality was a new author’s name on the byline.
Those stories do not sell well. I know; I’ve met a few of their creators. Their advances are typically under $10,000, and their sell-through is a little over 50%. Not great numbers.
According to agent and writer Donald Maass, when there’s a recession, derivative works are the first things on the chopping block. No-one wants to shell out hard-earned money for a book they’ve essentially read before by a different author, particularly when money’s hard to come by. As a result, in recessions, sales dwindle. Editors, responding the law of supply and demand, quit buying derivative works. And even in bear economies, unoriginal works don’t sell particularly well.
If you decide to write “the same only different”, you run another risk as well: constrainment of ideas. Rather than plumb the wondrous depths of your mind for ideas, you are asked to write only what has been written before. You are told that the story you had about vampires in space is unviable, not because it’s not intriguing, but because it’s too original. As someone who got into this business to give my mind free reign, I find this sort of control at times stifling.
By contrast, if you write original work, if you stand “at the end of no tradition”, than you can fully utilize the rich realm of ideas that is your mind. You can write about vampires in space (or sentient buildings, or what have you), not in spite of those ideas’ originality but because of it.
You will also do better financially. Ayn Rand, as mentioned above, copied no other writers. Indeed, she wrote her stories largely because of the lack of similar fiction. Today, she’s sold 25 million copies, and she’s a household name. Philip K Dick essentially invented the genre of drug-focused science fiction, and today one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction is the Philip K Dick Award. Stephen King created the modern horror story, and today he makes $45million a year.
My point is this: if you want to have an ordinary career as a midlist novelist, than by all means write derivative fiction. Write “the same only different”. Your career may not blaze, but you will at least be a professional writer (possibly). But, if you want your career to blaze; if you want to sell millions of copies; if you don’t want to water down your ideas for a pre-existing market; if you want to see other writers imitating you instead of the other way around; than I suggest you try to write something original. Be the next Ayn Rand. Do for your genre what Philip K Dick did for science fiction.
You may not succeed. Certainly, for every Stephen King out there, there are hundreds of failures. But even if you failed, you can go down knowing that you shot for the stars.
Blurb: So what happens when those promises turn out NOT to deliver? Such is the case with the protagonist in Julian Adorney’s “Deals,” a new literary short story available today from Untreed Reads. In “Deals,” James is determined to provide a comfortable life for his family, but when his college degree fails to provide the goods he finds himself making deals he hadn’t ever imagined.
Now available from Untreed Reads
Also check out Julian's story Murder in The Cynic online magazine.
Author Bio: Julian Adorney has