Write Byte

The Creativity & Business of Writing

(November 17, 2000)

Linda Hurst: Geralyn, we have had a lot of discussion on-line about the "business" of writing lately and I think many readers are curious how it influences the creative process. Can you enlighten us a little on how the demands of the marketplace influence your choices of time, place and characters.

Geralyn Dawson: First of all, let me say I can only speak for myself and you'll find as many different opinions and experiences about this issue as there are writers. It's true that some time periods and settings sell better than others and a writer must be aware of that. However, awareness and influence are two different things. I'm a firm believer in being true to your writer's voice and writing what you love. A great story can overcome an unpopular setting and find an audience. However, the reality of the market means if a writer can tell that same story in a popular setting, chances are the book will be more successful. It's a case of the-muse-meets-the-mortgage and when they agree, it's good for everyone.

When I began writing ten years ago, I wrote historicals set in Texas because the mythology of Texas history and Texas heros has always appealed to me. I kept writing that setting, but I moved my stories around the state and to different decades not because of any market dictates, but because of story requirements. My ideas always grew from a tidbit of history that dictated where and when the story was set. My two most recent books, Simmer All Night and Sizzle All Day grew from a newspaper article I read about the missing copies of the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Texas. The settings - Victorian England and Scotland - came from both the dictates of the story and my muse which was encouraging me to stretch my writing wings and try something different and new after eight Texas-set stories. Of course I was aware of the current popularity of British-set historicals in comparison to American-set stories, but for me, personally, the switch in settings was due to my muse, not any market trend considerations.


Linda: How much input does your editor have on these choices?

Geralyn: Since she buys the stories, she has all the input in the world. However, I've been extremely lucky to work with editors who wanted me to write what I wanted to write.


Linda: Which comes first the chicken or the egg? Do they tell you they would like a "mystical, western cowboy book" or do you approach them with the idea for such a book.

Geralyn: I approach the editor with ideas. The only limitations I've been given have been with the two novellas I've done where I needed to connect my story to the theme of the anthology. Even then all I was told was to use a beach theme for Under the Boardwalk and to set it in Scotland for A Season in the Highlands.


Linda: Have you or others you are aware of had to change their plot or book idea to fit an editor's profile?

Geralyn: I don't think this happens as much in historicals as in category. However, yes - I've heard of it happening, although it's never happened to me.


Linda: What forces do you feel guide the publishers and editors in the type of books they are asking for?

Geralyn: This question is probably better asked of an editor than me, because I'm on the outside looking in. My take is that this depends upon the publisher. Every house has its own philosophy and different editors their individual tastes. I think every house is looking for the next Harry Potter. Every editor wants the writer who will become the next NYT bestseller. It only makes sense that if romantic suspense is flying off bookshelves, the editor is going to be looking for romantic suspense. However, that doesn't mean if she reads a pirate historical that she thinks is superior to every manuscript she's read all year, she won't buy it. She just probably won't announce at RWA that she's looking for pirate books.

Yes, market forces influence decisions. Publishing is a business and like every other business, the bottom line is important. Call me Pollyanna, but I still believe that risky books will always be published simply because they speak to an editor's heart.


Linda: Could you tell us a little about the author's input in the final product as far as cover, backblurb and title? I think most of the on-line readers are savvy to the fact that the author is often unpleasantly surprised when she sees her book's cover, but not sure exactly what the author has provided to the publisher and artist to guide them.

Geralyn: This, too, depends upon the publisher. At Pocket, I have chosen all my titles, helped with back cover copy (which is very, very difficult to write - I can edit it, but don't make me write it!) and offered suggestions about cover art. The art department's vision is not always my vision, but I do believe everyone tries to give a book the best cover art possible. Sometimes, I don't have a vision of a cover to suggest. In the past, my suggestions have been used almost to the letter (the step-back art for Simmer All Night) or not at all (The Wedding Ransom) but usually it's somewhere in between like Sizzle All Day where I asked for a castle and a cover that indicated a Scottish setting. I know some houses ask authors to send in detailed art fact sheets. Other houses don't ask for the author's input on cover art much at all.

I've loved some of my covers, been ambivalent about others, and not cared for one or two. Tastes are different, and I try to be open-minded about covers. What attracts the eye of one reader, will be overlooked by the next. Truly great covers that everyone agrees is wonderful are rare. I think my The Bad Luck Wedding Dress is probably the best cover I've had and it's a clench cover, which is a whole other debate.


Linda: Numbers seem to be very important to the publishers. How do they arrive at those figures and do you think that the emphasis on them is denying readers a larger variety of sub-genres within romance to choose from?

Geralyn: In the book business, numbers are sales figures. One of the more important numbers is "sell through" which is the percentage of books sold out of how many were shipped. (If they ship ten books and five sell, the sell through is 50%.) The higher the sell through the better.

Certainly numbers are important to publishers. Like every business, publishing is profit driven. While an editor might take a chance on that marvelous pirate book, she's not going to take a chance every month and we - readers and writers - shouldn't expect her to. She's liable to lose her job if she does. Now if that pirate book becomes a runaway bestseller, then she'll be more likely to take more chances. For a sub-genre to grow, it must be supported by readers with sales. When I first joined RWA, I remember a speaker - an editor - saying romantic suspense sales are soft. A writer couldn't sell a romantic suspense. Now, the bookshelves are filled with them and readers are demanding more.

Now, if someone would tell me what the next trend is going to be, I'd be grateful. Of course, my muse probably wouldn't want to write one of those anyway. . . .

Geralyn's Single-Title Backlist:

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Link to all our Geralyn Dawson reviews following this dual DIK/AAR Review of The Kissing Stars