Are you First Class?

IWSGA post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group
In February 2014, one of the best known American literary agents Donald Maass published an article in Writer Unboxed. In it, he discussed the state of the publishing industry as he sees it. Read the full article here.

According to Mr. Maass, writers now are divided into three classes. The lowest class, “Freight Class,” consists of self-published writers and writers with micro-presses. Mr. Maass has nothing good to say about them. They are a “nimble army of small, warm-blooded mammals whose claws are the sharp, smart, flexible tools of electronic publishing.”
The middle class, “Coach Class,” is… well, the middle. Better than the Freight Class but not by much.

This graph of social classes from 1984 by George Orwell describes Mr. Maass’s writers’ class system perfectly. Only the labels are different.

This graph of social classes from 1984 by George Orwell describes Mr. Maass’s writers’ class system perfectly. Only the labels are different. (Image in Public Domain)

The top class, “First Class,” is where all the bestsellers published by the Big Guns are. Mr Maass sings dithyrambs to them. “…fiction is characterized by memorable characters, unique premises, story worlds instantly real, plots that grip even when slow, gorgeous writing, and themes that surprise, challenge and change us. Not only do we read every word, First Class writing makes us whistle in admiration. Characters are not only likeable and self-aware, but also follow a singular destiny. First class novels shake our way of thinking, challenging us to see the world in new ways. They confidently break rules, may transport us to unlikely cultures and times, teach us things we knew little about, and always feel utterly unique. Each novel creates its own genre.”

I belong somewhere in between Freight Class and Coach Class. I have two novels published by Champagne, a small but respectable e-publisher, and I published a book of short stories myself. Do my books sell well? No. Everything Mr. Maass said about the marketing problems writers of the two lower classes face is true. Distribution and marketing (or rather the lack of both) is killing us.
Distribution is a friend of big publishers. “Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Are all the writers in the big league really as good as Mr. Maass claims in the quote above? Do readers “whistle in admiration” at Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey? No, not everyone, not even the majority of readers. Just the opposite. Cultured and experienced readers scoff at those books. Their commercial success doesn’t mean they have outstanding literary value, or any literary value at all. Still, their authors are First Class, while I’m Freight (or maybe Coach). Does it imply my novels are worse than theirs?
I have to say No again. Sure, some of the best writers in my genre are better than me. On the other hand, some of the recent hits are dismal in terms of characters, plots, or even editing, much worse than me. I’m somewhere in the middle, I think.
Why doesn’t it cheer me up? Because all the First Class stories sell by millions, while mine don’t sell at all, and I don’t have a way to change the situation. Nobody knows about my novels, even though I ‘m trying to market them. Could I improve the quality of my writing or my stories? Sure. I’m constantly learning and improving. Does it really matter? No, it doesn’t. I don’t have a way to move into First Class. I want to, oh yes. Everyone of us wants to; Mr. Maass is right about that, but his definition of the First Class is faulty. First Class isn’t about “gorgeous writing” or “themes that surprise, challenge, and change us,” not always anyway. It’s about stories that sell.
Alas, I don’t write what sells. I write from my heart. It should make me feel smug and superior, but for some reason, it doesn’t. Perhaps for my next novel, I should forget about story arch, hero’s emotional depth, and sentence structure and concentrate instead on what is selling: a tale about a shallow girl, preferably in bikini, and a hunky vampire. There’re scores of those in bookstores, where First Class resides. Would it boost me to First Class too?

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6 Responses to Are you First Class?

  1. LG O'Connor says:

    Good post, Olga 🙂 I’m sure there are more than a few great books lost in the jungle of Amazon and the other online venues. Sales don’t necessarily equal greatness.

  2. Widdershins says:

    The thing about the ‘top of the pyramid’ is that the altitude often produces delusions of adequacy.
    I have no time for people like this who feel they must belittle the ‘other’ in order to justify their own existence.

  3. Wow, after reading your summary of it, I have no desire to read this guy’s article. In my experience- with a few exceptions- bestsellers are very far from being the best-written books out there. I think the rest of us just need to try to find the middle ground. Do your best work, while keeping in the back of your mind what makes a story marketable. The majority of self- and small press-pubbed stuff I read is very marketable- they just lack visibility. I do think it’s a mistake to write too much to the market- ie, hunky vampires- because the market keeps changing and is really difficult to track, much less predict. If your story is compelling and well-written, people will read it- how many people probably comes down to luck in the end, unfortunately for most of us!

  4. Gina Drayer says:

    The funny thing about that first class is that it usually has little to do with the quality of writing. The top (and the “break out” successes like 50 shades and Twilight) have one thing in common: MARKETING. If you look into the history of those current best sellers, you’ll find they cultivated a rabid fanbase that launched the books into the top during the first few weeks. Then “monkey see, monkey do” took over and your mom was buying 50 shades b/c it was on the best seller list.

    Does this mean we are worse writers? no. Does it mean we should strive to be better marketers? maybe.

    Write your best book. Work on marketing. But don’t make that your focus. Unfortunately, we of the long tail have success with time and volume. If you keep writing, you’ll eventually hit that point were you’ve built a fan base and your books will sell. Best sellers? Who care, as long as your pleasing your fans and making bank is my theory!

  5. Chrys Fey says:

    This was interesting. I guess I’m in the Freight Class because I’m published by a small press. Although I would love to be in First Class, I am happy where I am right now. 🙂 I write what I want to write, and I agree with L.G. that the number of sales doesn’t actually show whether or not a book is good.

  6. Well, just let it all hang out and we’ll be right there to cheer you on. So very right. You got it. This is what I call a good vent. And I couldn’t agree with you more. Maybe someday, if every I arrive at the top of the pyramid, ha ha, I’ll see things through different eyes, but for now, I’m solidly with you.

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