Mark Tavani is a Senior Editor with Ballantine Books. He edits both fiction and nonfiction and works with a range of authors, including Katherine Neville, Steve Berry, Charlie Huston, Barry Eisler, Justin Cronin, David Corbett, Jenny Siler, and Mike Greenberg. He graciously agreed to answer some questions.
Q. Why are so many books published that don't seem to be terribly well written? Is this just a purely subjective thing (i.e., a matter of taste)?
A. Sure, part of it is subjective. I can think of books that I couldn't stand—literally, books I couldn't finish—that a colleague swore by. And of course I've acquired novels that colleagues of mine have read and loathed. On a larger scale, I'm often shocked that reviewers and readers dislike certain books that I or the editor believed in, and I'm just as surprised when I see a book praised that I thought was obviously flawed. It's certainly been rare, but I can say there have been times that I have disappointed by a book but unable to get the author to go any further in addressing what I see as its flaws and have published the book—only to find that a great number of readers and reviewers love it just as it is. So yes, it's highly subjective.
Beyond that, though, there's no skirting the issue that publishers—sometimes in an earnest attempt to keep the lights on, and sometimes in a far more cynical fashion—publish books they know to be bad but which they calculate readers will buy in big numbers. And when it comes to books that are first and foremost entertainment—like action thrillers—I think the argument holds up. Most publishers these days publish a mix of entertainments and books that are, in some fashion, important. Well, sad to say, but the important ones rarely pay the rent. In the current state of business, it would be easy for a publisher to argue that not publishing some very commercial (if terribly written) books would be irresponsible.
Q. Has the Hollywood mentality (the big opening weekend, the big hook, the big name, etc.) taken over publishing? Is it still possible to have a successful, lasting career as a fiction writer -- the kind that provides a decent middle-class income -- if you're not a bestseller (and likely never will be)?
A. Yes, the Hollywood mentality has found its counterpart in publishing: instead of the big opening weekend, it's the first two weeks on sale. But it comes down to the same thing.
It is possible for a writer to have a successful, lasting, what we call "mid-list" career, but it's increasingly rare. And even in the cases of many writers who accomplish that, the writer, the publisher, or both might actually be trying desperately to reach a new level of popularity. So even when it does happen, I wouldn't think people are sitting around thinking, "Yay, we've managed the exact same number of sales six books in a row! Way to go, team!"
There are many high-level reasons why this has come to be, and a lot of them are based in the big-time corporate approach to business that now defines most publishers, but the end result is that yes, we have gone much more in this direction.
Q. How hard is it in today's marketplace to break out a new author? Is it even harder for someone on the midlist?
A. Incredibly hard. For one thing, it feels exceptionally difficult to grab the attention of a wide number of people for the purposes of pushing a book. There are just so many other things to waste your eye-power on, like email, and blogs, and online newspapers, and YouTube, and CNN, and movies about super heroes. It can be done, of course, as it happens at least a handful of times each year, but most cases of authors breaking out are perfect storms—so even when it happens it's hard to pinpoint how a publisher did it.
In some cases, a book is big from the moment it's bought, and that carries straight through until it hits the list. A good example would be The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. In some cases, a book is acquired optimistically but it begins to become a breakout when the accounts like it and buy it in a great quantity. No better example of that than The Da Vinci Code. And there are books that find their way because of great reviews, and there are books that find their way because an author does incredible events all over the place, and there are books that find their way because of some freak bit of publicity. As to that last one, legend has it the The Hunt for Red October was off to a fine start when the sitting US President happened to be mention he was reading it and loving it—and suddenly you had a sensation.
Of course it is more difficult to break out someone who has been on the midlist. If the author has been steadily and smartly building their brand (a great website, good contact with fans, contact with booksellers, attendance at book events, blah blah blah) that can be something of an advantage. But even so, there comes that moment where a publisher has to convince the accounts that the time has come to take a big step forward on orders for this particular author. The publisher's sales rep makes her or his case, the account’s buyer looks at what the author has sold in the past, and the game begins.
Q. I keep hearing that fiction is harder to sell than ever before. Is that true? What segment of the fiction market is doing the best?
A. There's truth here, but I think it's hard to say that it's exactly as it sounds. I think that even today, in most years, the very biggest selling books are fiction. Harry Potter, James Patterson, Dan Brown, John Grisham. But I do think it's true that it has gotten much harder to position fiction that doesn't have obvious breakout potential. Whereas with fiction you’re often stuck trying to find new ways to say, “I love it and I think you will, too!”, with a nonfiction project it can be a great deal easier to pinpoint the appeal and the audience. It can be easier to document. It can be easier to quantify. So, yes, nonfiction is easier to sell. But I still think at the end of the year that many of the biggest successes are novels and plenty of the disappointments are on the nonfiction shelf.
Q. What's the one thing you'd like all authors to know when they sign their first publishing contract?
A. One thing? Hmm. Where their book truly might fit in the marketplace. Meaning, I think it's crucial that an author have healthy but realistic expectations. If the author thinks his book is The Stand and his publisher thinks it's a fun little horror novel, problems will result.
Q. Do you like it when your authors blog, are active on social networking site, etc., or would you rather they spent that time writing?
A. In a perfect world, my authors spend all of their time writing, reading, traveling, eating startlingly good food, and holding long and fruitful conversations with fascinating people; they're always being productive and always coming up with new ideas. In that same perfect world, blogs don't exist and social networking sites are scoffed at. But hey, that just ain't how it is. The realities of business and promotion intrude daily on an author's life, and I fully support the efforts each author can make towards expanding their presence, reach, and brand.
Given how things work these days, readers demand to be in touch with their favorite writers. They expect some kind of return for their loyalty, and blogs and social networking sites give authors some kind of realistic way to accomplish that. When I was young, I remember many times reading and re-reading author bios upon completing a book I loved. I was often fascinated at the thought: that person created this book. It seemed like a magic trick. How could that dad-looking dude have created this sprawling fantasy novel? How could that librarian-looking woman have penned this achingly beautiful story about an abandoned child? My favorite book when I was young was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and her bio was one of my favorites: at the age of sixteen, this girl had written one of the most incisive and memorable novels about teenage boys ever written. I never understood how she got it so right; I admired her in all kinds of ways. All of that said, it never even crossed my mind that I could write to her, or meet her. Nowadays, I think a lot of readers not only think that, but they expect it. Some demand it. And it's unrealistic for an author to ignore that.
Q. What's the most important thing an author can do to help his/her career, other than write a great book?
A. The most important qualities for an author to have are energy, creativity, and flexibility. Which is how I'd like to answer the question. But that's not what you're asking. I guess the most important thing an author can do is, in the beginning of the process, to have a few very frank conversations with your agent and your editor. From those conversations, amass all of the realistic information you can, read between the lines, develop accurate expectations, ask for what you think you can get, let the rest go, and move forward full speed ahead.