Creativity: Good or Bad for Books?

Imagination is a good thing, right? I believe so.

It’s good to be creative as a writer, isn’t it? No argument from me there.

So books should show originality, don’t you think? Got my vote.

Nonetheless, here comes a great big BUT!

(Those who can spell realize I’m not talking about anatomy.)

Just to be clear, I’m not going to argue against creativity. I’m in favor of it.

Consider this: Does the bookselling industry discourage certain types of creative storytelling, rather than rewarding it?

Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Suppose you write something so different that you’re breaking ground with a brand new genre. It doesn’t stand a chance of getting browse category visibility. How will readers discover it? The book is inherently disadvantaged.
  • Readers have an expectation for what to expect in terms of storyline, characterization, etc. in any given genre. The author who deviates from these expectations risks negative reviews for being creative.
  • How do romance readers react when the ending doesn’t turn out to be happy? Is there a significant readership for specific types of unhappy endings in this genre? There are some types of originality that many readers aren’t willing to support.
  • Even creativity in cover design has a significant potential downside. Many readers judge their interest in a book based on a cover. They are familiar with how the books they tend to read tend to look. If a book doesn’t look like it belongs to their genre, they might not check it out.

Do readers want to read the same types of books every time? I don’t.

First, I’m not saying that all forms of creativity pose problems. Some don’t, but others do.

If you want to write a romance, for example, there are already a variety of popular ways to go about it. First, there are subgenres, like contemporary or historical. If you choose a subgenre, there is plenty of room to follow a model while still being very creative. You don’t even necessarily need to follow a particular model. Yet there are some features that are high-risk to change – like taking away the happy ending, or giving the protagonist certain types of flaws.

The point is that while there are endless possibilities that do work, there are limits to it – i.e. there are some features that can hinder sales significantly if changed.

And something completely different is especially challenging to sell.

The problem of a new category is tough for the author or publisher to work around. But it can be done. We have genres now that we didn’t have in the past. So it is possible to breakthrough with something quite unique. Statistically, however, there have been many people with ideas for new types of books, but the ideas that actually opened the door for a new genre have been very rare in comparison.

It would be easy to solve this problem. Suppose, for example, that Amazon created a new book category called “Fresh and Exciting” or “Out of this World.” Don’t you think readers would check it out? Wouldn’t it also attract authors? It could be a very popular category. It has potential.

(Sure, there would be some not-so-good books in there. But you can find such books in all categories. When they don’t sell, they fall to the bottom, out of the way, where they aren’t harming anyone. And some of the books at the bottom are fairly good, but just not selling for whatever reason, and some readers will be happy to find them.)

Right now, the closest thing is “Other.” The name is important. It’s just not the same. “Other” suggests that the book just doesn’t belong.

But as it is, the bookselling industry seems to discourage, rather than reward, such innovation on the part of the author.

Writing a book that’s appealing to readers is important for sales. With the modern self-publishing revolution, every author has ample room to exercise creativity. However, if readers don’t respond well to the originality, the book won’t sell.

Even if many readers do appreciate the originality, some readers who don’t may inhibit sales through negative reviews.

So it’s not just the booksellers, like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It’s the readers, too. Even if the book does have significant appeal, those readers who don’t like the change can influence sales through reviews.

Then there are agents and editors, who are looking for books that are highly marketable. They may be reluctant to take a chance on too much novelty. It would seem easier for a big publisher to attract readers with something fresh; but it’s also a risk.

Shouldn’t the system encourage innovation, particularly if the book is very well done?

How about you? Do you search for highly original books? Have you read anything that’s really clever and different lately? Do you reward originality in your reviews, or criticize the author for the deviation? Do you help spread the word when you find something very creative and also enjoyable to read?

(I have: For example, Reapers, Inc. by Dave Hunter. I thought the concept was cool; even the cover seemed different in a good way.)

We read books. We are part of the readership. From our end, the best we can do is help to promote original thought and encourage it through positive reviews.

Imagine H.G. Wells writing The Invisible Man, Jonathan Swift writing Gulliver’s Travels, or Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. Or imagine trying to write realism when romanticism was popular.

We have a very healthy variety of books today. Yet what are your prospects for setting the trend with something totally new?

If you haven’t already seen it, you should check out Misha Burnett’s clever idea for a new writing software package (his irony should be obvious, but I’ll mention it, just in case):

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

2 comments on “Creativity: Good or Bad for Books?

  1. I suppose the story that I’m writing now would go under the Other category. =/

    Why I love Michael Scott’s The Immortal is simply because the protagonist are 2 teenagers instead of just one. And the characters are based on real people in history. Something really different. Yet, still very much an underdog.

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