August 17, 2011
I recently wrote a post (on my very occasional blog) about the way theme gives depth to one’s reading experience regardless of how a novel is otherwise categorized. There are themes inherent in each category, of course, but in the better books there is something more, something that lends resonance.
Let’s take for example Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. On one level, like all thrillers, this is the story of individuals overcoming great odds. On another level, however, lies the theme of the dangers of genetic engineering. The expected theme, when executed with some degree of originality, keeps us rooting for the protagonist. The greater theme engages us more deeply in the material by asking ourselves how we may be complicit in the real-life underpinnings of these fictional events.
Such are the considerations I give to my work when I’m wearing my author’s hat. But, interestingly, theme also plays a part when making publishing decisions.
For Verbitrage’s first product, I had to decide between two novels that I’d already written. The first, Cadaver Blues, had the advantage of having been exposed serially to tens of thousands of people on The Nervous Breakdown. The second, Primacy, had been read only by my agent and a handful of (rejecting) editors.
I thought of potential book publicity, which essentially breaks down into two kinds of coverage: reviews and non-reviews. There are more reviews in the blogosphere than ever before, but fewer in mainstream media. Reviews are nice, but it’s the other stuff — the feature stories and their ilk — that are most likely to break out a book.
To analyze the prospects, I had to divorce myself from what I liked (or didn’t like) about each novel and dig into the threads that ran through them.
Cadaver Blues is a relatively conventional mystery. Beyond the search-for-truth aspect of all mysteries, it had a couple of themes. One was the theme of prejudice, which I discussed briefly in the aforementioned blog post. The other (which I didn’t mention in the blog) was the theme of debt settlement, people losing their houses to the bank, etc.
These themes seem au courant in some ways, but the former wasn’t going to sell books. And who would be most attracted to the latter? Well, forgive me, but I concluded that it was folks who would be least likely to have the disposable income to buy my book right now.
When I analyzed Primacy, however, I saw a different story. Here was a thriller with an off-the-book-page hook: animal rights — something about which there is a passionate following. Animal rights people have a point of view that they’d like to have heard by the broader world or, at least, confirmed by others. In support of that point of view, they belong to groups and they express their interest in myriad other ways. In short, they provide a potentially vast, vocal and well-off crossover audience for the novel.
Just this month two non-book events may have inadvertently helped me prime this pump. First was the release of the new Planet of the Apes movie, which shot to No. 1 at the box office. Second, just last week an op-ed in the New York Times revealed that there are coming hearings in Congress on potential legislation to ban laboratory testing of great apes.
The odds that anyone will draw a line directly from these events to my novel are, of course, slim. But they raise awareness in the ether, and that’s something that I might benefit from when my publicists pitch to journalists and bloggers or when I run ads on the internet promoting the work with an animal-rights-related tease.
Of course, despite having thought this through with great care, my roll of the dice could come up snake eyes. The early trade reviews, however, have been encouraging.
Kirkus, with its usual cynicism, threw in a snide remark about “overwrought philosophical dialogues,” but that was almost a parenthesis in a sentence that directly touched upon the novel’s theme. (Full sentence: “Depending on where the reader falls regarding the novel’s overwrought philosophical dialogues on the nature of sentience, a talking chimp could seem like either a novelty act or the most profound challenge to human supremacy and self-regard ever.”) Furthermore, the review goes on to praise my writing (“deft, fluent”) and to call the book “good, boisterous fun” and an “entertaining thriller that’s more fun than a barrel of overgrown monkeys.”
The point is that the reviewer saw the overarching theme, and so did Publishers Weekly, which hit the thematic nail on its head when it concluded: “Those with an interest in animal rights will be particularly enthralled.”
Find me an animal lover. I already did the rest.
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 23: Editing and Its Discontents
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Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time.