Conformity – Celebration or Curse?

by Janis Patterson

There is a plague spreading through my neighborhood and no, I don’t mean the recent Covid Crazies. This new assault is visible, concrete and sublimely ugly. I live in a nice, mid-century development of nice, middle-class custom homes, mostly single story and at one time all of natural brick. The different hues and shadings of the different bricks were beautiful, and one of the most appealing facets of the area. A former cotton field, this was starkly bare land when my parents first built this home, but as people moved in they planted trees and now we live in a forest of towering trees, mainly oaks and crepe myrtles, some twice as tall as the houses they shelter.

But that is changing, and not for the better. The soaring price of real estate and congruent punishing taxes has priced a lot of the old residents out of their homes, many of which have been snapped up by developers and flippers. (My thoughts on these two categories of humanoids are not suitable for public pixilation!) Sadly, the result is that our neighborhood is subject to both the denigration and degradation of conformity, and the lovely old brick is being covered by thick layers of paint with no shading, no personality and definitely no taste.

Painted almost exclusively a dead flat white or a dark, depressing grey, these once beautiful and individual homes now resemble nothing so much as the love child of Soviet brutalist architecture and a rogue box of Legos. In the setting of gracious old trees and carefully tended gardens the result is not only ugly but jarringly distressing.

One of the flippers proudly said the painted brick trend was new, modern and made a more cohesive neighborhood. He then asked me what I thought of his newly decorated grey lump, whereupon I asked him did he mean other than the fact it was hideous? Hmmm… even in this riotous real estate market the painted brick houses seem to be moving more slowly than the traditional brick. Perhaps the concept of good taste may be taking a beating, but is not yet truly dead.

So, you are doubtless thinking, has this woman lost her mind? What does this have to do with writing?

I fully believe there is such a thing as synchronicity amongst human beings. Bringing individual architecture (and remember, this is a neighborhood of custom-custom houses, each individually designed and built) into a fast (and relatively cheap) homogeneity in order to appeal to the (theoretically) vastest amount of people is a form of seeking the lowest common denominator with no thought or regard for individual tastes. The same thing happened in publishing.

Remember before the tsunami of self-publishing became practicable? Remember the pigeonholes of genre fiction? The ever-tightening pigeonholes as dictated by traditional publishing? If you didn’t write to their exact specifications you didn’t get contracted. They always wanted (and I quote) “… the same as (insert name of currently popular author here) but different…” Forget creativity. Forget individuality. Conformity at all costs. I can remember when some publishers even put out tip sheets, dictating what should happen in a manuscript almost to the exact page.

Now I understand that traditional publishers have to make a profit – that is right and natural – but don’t the readers have rights as well, mainly the right to read whatever permutation of fiction they want? If the trads dictated that Regency romance is to be super-sexy with only the barest nod of the head to history, what happens to the reader who finds written sex boring and is fanatic about historical accuracy? Or vice-versa? What about in mysteries the dictum that a dead body should appear in the first chapter, the closer to the first page the better?

Thus self-publishing was born, and thank God for it! It has freed writers to write what they want and get it before the public, and given readers to find the exact kind of book/genre they want. Sexy psychic vampire nuns on the planet Zeon, anyone?

Yet a certain conformity has crept in there, too, as more and more writers write to market. If talking cats who live in a needlework shop and solve crimes with their telekinetic powers are suddenly big, there are star-chasing writers who will writer them, often with widely varying degrees of both success and ability. At least there will always be variety, no matter if some constantly try to write to market without regard as to if the market is right for them or not.

Also the indie author is getting shafted by more and more pirates/thieves and are even getting short shrift from the sales outlets which make money from their sales. Amazon has a monthly subscription program for readers called Kindle Unlimited, which it pushes far more than books that are ‘wide’ – i.e., available from other retailers. A self-published book written by an unknown can be so far down in the algorithms that even with a search for the exact title and author you might have to go 10 or 15 pages in to find it.

For a self-published author to be in KU they must be totally exclusive to KU, and woe betide any lone outlet which has been neglected to be removed by any retailer, no matter how small, distant or obscure. The writer will have that book pulled instantly from KU and even runs the risk of having his entire account and all his books cancelled.

Nor does it stop there. Unfairly, traditional publishers can put a book into KU even while keeping the title wide. Here conformity only seems to affect the independents. There are also pricing/payment options available to the trads that are denied to self-publishers. I cannot help but wonder if the trad books on Amazon are as plagued by the buy, read, return, refund plague which afflicts self-published books – and their authors’ incomes,  but that is a rant for another day.

We have come a long way from the tastelessness of painted brick to the pitfalls and traps of self-publishing, but it is all part and parcel of the curse of conformity which seems to be infecting our land. America was founded on the right to individuality and self-responsibility, be it business, bricks or reading material. Celebrate this by supporting your courageous and dedicated self-publishers. Go buy one of their books today. You’ll enjoy it.

Writing Would Be Perfect If…

by Janis Patterson

I mean it. Writing would be so perfect if it weren’t for the readers.

I know, that is a very incendiary statement, but it’s true. We’re asked to live up to readers’ expectations without being given much of a hint as to what those expectations are. Or what they’re going to be in six months or a year, after some big unexpected blockbuster shows up and turns everything we thought we knew into a fruit salad.

Have you ever noticed how so many of those big unexpected blockbusters are usually done by people who have never published a book before? Without the need to cater to a pre-conceived notion of what readers (and publishers!) want, they write what they want. But I’ll bet there are many many more who write what they want and never get by the second reader at an agent’s or publisher’s office. It’s the one that gets through that messes everything up for us working professional mid-list writers. We’ve finally (we think!) worked out the reading habits of our demographic and adjusted our plotting/writing accordingly and some of us make a fairly decent living doing that.

Then – boom! Some off the wall writer hands in a new style of book and suddenly that’s what everyone is wanting. I’ll bet all those writers who hit the jackpot aren’t trying to make a living off their writing, that they have jobs to pay their rent and bills, but they don’t mind messing things up for the rest of us. Humph!

It has become a bad joke in the writing industry that publishers are eagerly seeking something like [insert name of current bestseller here] – something just the same, but different. I have known writers who start to growl menacingly when told this and publishers don’t seem to understand that such a statement is not really good corporate communication.

Sadly, though, it isn’t just publishers and agents. I have talked to readers about this phenomenon and am astonished at how easily the little darlings are led – of course, they are the same people who rush to buy a detergent that screams “NEW” and “DIFFERENT” when the only things new and different about the product are that the boxes are smaller and the price higher.

I have talked to readers (in both romance and mystery, as I write both) who are upset with the new fashion of genre bending. I recall one most decisive woman who hated the idea, saying “When I read a story I want this to happen, and then this, and then this.” She was not happy when I asked if she were so rigid in her reading desires why didn’t she just read the same book over and over again and save herself some money.

Her reply was fit for neither print nor pixels.

I guess you really can’t please everyone. Sigh.