Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels

Whenever there's a big, surprising, newsworthy event like a strange kidnapping or someone blowing the whistle on a spy agency and going on the run to a quasi-dictatorship, I often hear from aspiring authors who happen to have a novel in the drawer that just happens to align with the news. These authors want to know if they now have a leg up in the publishing process because everyone is thinking about this newsworthy event and thus they have the perfect marketing hook.

The answer: Nope. I'm sorry, guys. This is not how things work.

Here are two major reasons:

1) It takes at least a year to be traditionally published and everyone will have moved on by then.

It doesn't work to start re-querying agents just because a particular event is in the news. By the time the novel makes it through the publishing process that newsworthy event people will be on to different topics and no one will rush to buy something based on an event that happened a year ago.


2) Even if you immediately self-publish it and start promoting it, let's be honest: When was the last time you bought a novel because of a real-life event you saw in the news?

My guess: Never? Maybe once in your entire life? Probably never?

There are absolutely some serendipitous cultural moments that can happen and propel an obscure work to bestsellerdom, such as a Kardashian being spotted reading it or it appearing on some leaked White House reading list. But this happens to books that are already out there, not ones that have not yet been published.

There are also times when the zeitgeist shifts and suddenly a particular genre or subject will become popular with editors and the reading public and a new book will rocket to success. But this isn't about specific events, they're about ephemeral cultural currents.

Sorry, folks. It's sadly not enough to have serendipitously predicted real-life events. Novels will sink and swim based on their storytelling, not their prescience.

Art: Der Hochpolitiker by Ludwig Kandler


Peter Dudley said...

It would seem to me that if a real-life event captured headlines and newspapers and cable TV news for a week or two, then I've already read the novel and would have no interest in reading essentially the same story over again. But maybe that's not what you're talking about.

Tony Russo said...

What about famous folks and their memoirs or tell-all books? They seem pretty tied to the news. They're not fiction exactly, well maybe not the fiction we associate with genres and the like.

Nadine Brandes said...

I admit that news often doesn't urge me to run out and buy a book on that topic, but it truly depends on the topic. Sometimes news introduces me to something that piques my interest. I may seek out books on that subject, even fiction ones, solely to indulge.

But regarding your point about trying to publish one's book after a news story...I agree, it probably won't boost a book one iota. Hopefully, serious writers rely on other means (like writing skill, social media, etc.) to boost their sales.

Lisa Shafer said...

Funny, I just posted about this.
I think the key, Nathan, is using the news event to inspire good fiction. Charles Brockden Brown took a horrific murder and changed it into fantastically eerie novel (Wieland, if you're not up on your earliest US fiction). And don't forget that RL Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde was inspired by Deacon Brodie. But, naturally, Stevenson changed the details a great deal.
Still, while I can see what you mean to a point, here, I must respectfully disagree with you in the long run. It can work; it's just that the news must be fictionalized first.

Hannah said...

I think I ever so slightly disagree. The example that comes to mind is ROOM--I think this is a situation that is increasingly being reported upon in the news, an experience people are curious about, and an audience was developing who followed those evolving stories who would also be interested in a novel exploring the topic. Personally, I never would have picked up ROOM to read except those news stories had really developed an intense curiosity--emotions I wanted to explore through the eyes of a fictional narrator.

I'm not saying having a "timely" topic will get a novel published. And I would agree that a singular headline (i.e. a specific political sex scandal) wouldn't help a manuscript with a similar plotline get picked up by an agent or publisher. The book needs to be awesomely written. The "timeliness" is a bonus that might get a few more votes from the marketing department, because you know they're going to take advantage of that when the book is released a year or two later.

A potential example that comes to mind is the idea of sister wives. The TLC show has really brought this experience into the mainstream limelight and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see several novels forthcoming that explore this experience from bigger-named publishers, books that previously would have been bypassed, backlisted, or poorly marketed post-publication.

India Drummond said...

I do think the opposite is true, however. I had a friend who wrote a book with a domestic terrorist hero. Then 9 / 11 happened. The publishing deal he'd been negotiating vanished overnight.

Bruce Bonafede said...

I'm thinking about writing a novel about a black man being elected president. That way if one ever is, everybody will want to read my book.

Suzanne Anderson said...

Nathan, I think you've forgotten about all the novels written using 9/11 as a centerpiece

Nathan Bransford said...


Those came much, much later. 9/11 wasn't treated as newsworthy in those novels so much as it was as a historical event.

Karen Clayton said...

Bummer! I haven't turned my novel, Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers, into an ebook yet, but I had plans too.

Susie Lindau said...

A real life event creates its own "spoiler alert," unless the author digs deep and finds a new story within the story.

wendy said...

As you posted earlier, Nathan, it's not the idea that's important. A story succeeds or fails because of how well that idea is executed. This was uplifting to read as by the time I finish writing a novel-length ms, for which I seem to tap into some collective unconsciousness, most of my ideas have become a well-worn literary trail.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Yep, I kinda figured this was the case. I recall sometime after the September 11th tragedy, I attended a conference and editors were complaining that they were receiving a slew of submissions using September 11th as the cataclysmic event to their stories.

They said, "Stop!" They were not interested in seeing these stories!!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Years ago I read a short story in a very well know women’s magazine about a little girl who was physically, emotionally and sexually abused and ultimately killed by her drug addicted father. Her abused ‘Stockholm-syndromed’ mother did nothing to save the little girl’s life. The child was adopted. At the time it was obvious, though labeled ‘fiction’ it was about Lisa Steinberg’s tragic death.

The story was beyond pathetic and sad. What enraged me was that the magazine used that horrible fictionalized ‘true’ story to sell issues. Right out of the news of the day, it smacked of a publisher’s self-aggrandizement at the expense of a suffering six year old. It was dirty, plain and simple, the worst that publishing offers.

Anonymous said...

"Those came much, much later. 9/11 wasn't treated as newsworthy in those novels so much as it was as a historical event."

So true. In fact, many established writers didn't go near writing about 911 for a long time. I just used some 911 events in a recent novel as part of the plot for historical reasons.

BTW...Your title for this post is priceless :)

Lori Schafer said...

I agree absolutely. I've written some stories that were inspired by true-life events, but I've always been more concerned about having them come off as cheesy, ripped-from-the-headlines fare than original work. It's a tricky and delicate place to tread. But if it's a subject you truly want to explore further, I think the publishing time delay can actually work in your favor. Not only do you get some perspective on the story, the public has largely forgotten it and won't be judging your work on the basis of what they read in yesterday's news.

Sarah said...

Excellent points regarding timeliness and marketing.

But it's almost eerie how often something happens in the news after I've written it.

Maybe it's because I'm writing realistic fiction; but these real-life echoes help me feel like I'm getting to some kind of truth. They make me feel like I'm writing the "right" story.

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