Reading, ‘Riting and Rings

- by Patricia McLinn

The Olympics ended last night, and my ring withdrawal is already painful.

Two-plus weeks of great stories, live (sometimes) and in color right there in your living room. Michael Phelps? Absolutely. Screaming and yelling at Jason Lezak’s comeback in the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay? You bet. And gymnastics and diving and volleyball (beach and traditional.) Also water polo and kayaking and BMX and everything else I could find.

Sure, I cheered for U.S. athletes, and sang the anthem whenever it played (despite that being one of the hardest versions to sing to ever.) I also cheered the open water swimmer from the Netherlands who won gold after recovering from leukemia, the Canadian equestrian who won gold after battling back from substance abuse (then pointed to his horse as the true winner), the Australian pole-vaulter who’d almost quit the sport. I applauded the South African swimmer who after having much of her leg amputated after a car hit her not only made her Olympic team, but carried her nation’s flag. And for unknown reasons I became attached to the Croatian men’s handball team. (Though once they lost in the semifinals I pulled hard for Iceland, which took the silver.) Admit it, you’re going to miss them, too.

The Games

But what does this have to do with writing or reading, you ask? Lots. Because where I usually go when I feel the desire for great stories — especially in the average 102 weeks between Olympic Games — is to novels, and I bet you do the same. Yet you and I will be hard-pressed to feed our Olympics and fiction-reading addictions simultaneously. Hard-pressed as in squashed to the size of a Wheat Thin.

That’s because the conventional wisdom in publishing is that readers won’t buy books about the Olympics. Or sports in general. Or athletes.

I’ve never understood that. Okay, I’m prejudiced. I’ve always loved sports, and my first journalism job was as a sportswriter in Rockford, Illinois. But prejudice aside, sports have built-in drama. They have core elements of fiction plotting — goals, motivation, conflict — in abundance. They have characters of every shading imaginable.

Yet editors are extremely wary of books that involve sports or athletes. Rejections I’ve received over the years on sports-themed novels prove that this is not because editors as a category don’t like sports. In fact, my favorite rejection ever (yes, some masochistic writers rank our rejections) was one that called my sports-themed novel “irresistible” . . . and then resisted it. However, the most common theme of those rejections could be summed up as each editor saying: I loved this book, but I don’t think our readers will.

Editors don’t decide such things arbitrarily. Sales results for previous books with a similar theme, setting, plot-type, character-occupation, etc., etc., strongly influence how any author’s new submission is viewed. That’s an understandable approach for publishers trying to predict which books will succeed (although that method has not produced impressively accurate predictions.)

And maybe that’s fine with you, because you don’t like sports, because you had no idea the Olympics were going on and wouldn’t have cared if you had, because what you like is ballet.

Well, guess what? That’s another occupation that’s been a “tough sell,” along with musician, actor, gallery owner, many blue-collar workers. Settings aren’t immune, either: Middle East, Far East, Europe outside of Great Britain, South America, and I suspect, though I haven’t personally tried it, Antarctica. What about time periods for historicals? Little before the 1760s or after the 1890s.

At times during my 20-ish years of paying attention, publishing’s conventional wisdom also has said: No American westerns, no romantic suspense, no paranormals, no humor, no small towns, no angst, no mysteries, no historicals, no contemporaries.

The bad news is that no genre of fiction appears to be immune to conventional wisdom. The good news is that if you go back and look at the previous paragraph, you’ll recognize that trends come and go. What’s a “no” now, can become a “yes” . . . and then turn back to a “no” if sales stop growing.

So, what can you and I as readers do to keep the topics/characters/settings that we enjoy in the marketplace?

I bet you saw this coming a mile off – Buy books with those topics/characters/settings, and buy them new, because that is the only way the sales show up on a publisher’s bottom line. We can also request that our local public library buy them; those sales help, too.

Yet, I have to admit that even then, there’s a chance that a publisher looking at the sales results will come to the conclusion that Book Z sold well, not because it was a compelling story with a Bulgarian weightlifter as a lead character, but because it had a puce cover.

We can write letters to the publisher, of course. That might set them straight on the puce cover issue and does help them know we care. But while editors fully understand the power of words, they report to people who understand the power of the bottom line.

[[Moderately blatant promotion alert!]]

While we wait for a.) conventional wisdom to get wise to the power of sports and b.) the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 (Figure skating! Downhill skiing! Speed skating! Aerials! Luge!) my fellow Olympics lovers can get their fix through my novel THE GAMES.

Yes! After the my “irresistible” and other rejections, I found a publisher who believes in the story and wasn’t deterred that it follows three women – a former figure skating champion turned coach, a downhill skiing gold medal hopeful, and a biathlete – during their Winter Games. Hmm. I wonder if that could be because Fran Baker, publisher of Delphi Books, is also an author — she’s a fellow Ninc member.

[[Blatant promotion alert!]]

Check out the quotes about THE GAMES from a New York Times best-selling author, a USA Today columnist and – ta-da! – a U.S. Olympic figure skater. Receiving each of those quotes was a thrill. You can read an excerpt of the book, along with lots of fun Olympic facts at www.PatriciaMcLinn.com. From my home webpage click on the cover of THE GAMES and you’ll find another whole section.

[[End blatant promotion alert!]]

Which reminds me, it’s time to start pulling information together about the Vancouver Games, which start Feb. 12, 2010. . . . such a long, long time away.

7 comments

  1. Great blog, Pat! I too love the Olympics for the reasons you described. Where can you find such heroic characters, inspiring goals, and both heartbreak and triumph, all live! If we could only capture that drama in every book, we’d all have monster bestsellers.

  2. Coincidentally, I just finished reading a novel set on Antarctica. It’s called ZERO HOUR and it’s by Ninc’s own Benjamin Miller. I read it while basking on a Cape Cod beach, but by the end of the novel I was shivering and checking my extremities for frostbite.

    So yes, even novels set in Antarctica get published sometimes. Viva variety!

  3. I enjoy novels about sports.

  4. “If we could only capture that drama in every book, we’d all have monster bestsellers.”

    Absolutely, Phoebe. And it strikes me that using the Olympics as a background gives a headstart

  5. Antarctica, Barbara — how cool ()

    And ZERO HOUR sounds compelling — any book that can make you feel like you’re there so convincingly. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to do the same with THE GAMES.

  6. “I enjoy novels about sports.”

    Yeah, Estelle! I love hearing that. My first published book is called HOOPS, takes place during a men’s college basketball season when the coach and the team’s academic adviser clash.

  7. Books about sports figures are always interesting. Of course I have my favorite sports and will gravitate toward those, but occasionally I step out of that comfort zone and learn something new.

    Good luck and many, many sales so that publishers will start publishing “great” books regardless of “conventional wisdom.”

    Fester