Whose opinion matters more? The writer? The critique partner/beta? The reader? The agent/publisher?
These questions have been swirling through my head lately. At first blush, the answer is “the readers”. I mean, they’re the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not to buy a book, whether they connect with the character, and whether they want more. But the more I learn about the world of publishing, the more I’m finding that’s not the case. A reader may love a story, but agents and publishers may hate it. I recently read how Harry Potter came to be, and almost never was. If you don’t know the story, I’ll elucidate for you. You see, the manuscript for “The Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected pretty much across the board and finally landed on the desk of a publisher, the last publisher. All other avenues had been exhausted. This publisher took the an excerpt home to “read” and ended up giving it to his young daughter. (At this point in the story, I have images of the Grinch giving Little Cindy Lou Who a drink of water, patting her on the head, and sending her to bed). She read it and absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to get more, to find out what happened next. The publisher had hated it and was going to turn it down. Fortunately for everyone (especially J.K. Rowling), he decided to listen to his daughter and accept the manuscript.
So, unless the reader happens to be a publisher’s daughter, they don’t seem to have much of a say. I’m certain books are passed on all the time that readers would love. It’s not the agent or publisher’s fault. They pass on books for all sorts of reasons. Their client list is too full, they already have something similar, it’s not their cup of tea, they don’t believe enough in the project. They have to use their judgment as to what will sell and what won’t. Sometimes they get it wrong. For example, sixty agents passed on “The Help” by Katherine Stockett. Sixty. Stockett tried for three years to get it published. No one thought it would work or that audiences would like it, but people loved it. So, again, it goes back to the reader’s opinion.
I recently became part of a wonderful sort of experiment: an online critique group. It’s a forum with a small number of people, a max of ten, who post their stuff a chapter at a time for critiques from the other members. No, this doesn’t count as publishing, as only registered members can read the works and everything is password protected. Unlike some of the other writer’s forums I frequent where you can only post a chapter or excerpt here and there for help, you can post as much as you want. I’m also a member of a flesh and blood critique group that works the same way. We meet once a month and read a chapter or two and get feedback. The only problem is if you work faster than that pace, which is the purpose of the online group.
So I joined and posted the first couple chapters of my new work in progress. And they hated it. More accurately, they hated my main character. They found her shallow and self-absorbed. However, they loved my plot, and that kept them reading. I was a little miffed, to be honest, because I thought she was a typical teenage girl worried about prom and the boy she likes. I will caveat and say my fellow critiquers said they were not normal teenage girls and that’s probably why they couldn’t relate/didn’t like my main character. Nevertheless, I’ve found myself in a quandary. I don’t want to have a completely unlikeable main character, but I need her to be a little unreasonable at the beginning so there’s room for growth.
My answer: I co-lead a small group of youth at my church. All teenage girls from ages fourteen to eighteen. So, I offered to let one of them read my first two chapters (and ended up with several of them reading it, but that’s the way it goes). Their initial impressions were that they loved the character. This only deepens the quandary, leaving me feeling stuck in the middle. I have a character adults dislike, but teenagers like, in a book written for teenagers. Yes, I know my adults come from one group of people who may be biased, but I have to wonder: will other adults feel the same way? And if they do, will they be turned off and not want to read it? Unfortunately, no matter how much the teenagers may like it, it’s adults I have to impress.
It seems a bit counter-intuitive though, doesn’t it? I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing it right. But then again, I don’t know how else it could be done. I guess if an agent/publisher were interested in a book but weren’t sure how it would sell, they could do a test audience. That takes time and money though, and what’s the point if the test audience doesn’t like it? Ultimately, I don’t know any way it could be done differently. So I’m going to do the only thing I can at this stage of the game: plug on and see how the book turns out, if it’s good enough, query it and see what responses I get. Then, if the adults in the publishing world dislike her, I can reconsider a revamp, or hope I get lucky and someone’s teenage daughter reads it and convinces her publisher father that it’s good. I won’t hold my breath for that one though.