One of many things I’ve learned in over forty years as a published science fiction and fantasy writer is that while readers span a great range of interests, backgrounds, and enthusiasm for the printed word, and some of those readers enjoy varying types of work, a great many readers have a fairly narrow comfort zone. Years ago, when I wrote The Towers of the Sunset, my editor, the venerable David Hartwell, asked, “Could you write this book in the third person past tense?”
“Why?” I asked. “It’s a better book in the third person present tense. It wouldn’t work as well in the past tense.”
“Because most readers are more comfortable reading books written in the third person past tense, and you’ll lose readers if this book is published as you wrote it.”
I persisted; David accepted the novel as written in the third person present tense, except he did want an expansion of the last part, and he was definitely right about that. He was also right about a number of readers not liking the use of present tense, especially when the book was first published, but those who liked the use of the present tense really liked it, and, as a result, I’ve gotten the impression, over the more than twenty years since Towers was published, that it has tended to be a reader’s most favorite or least favorite book in the entire Saga of Recluce, despite the fact that, since then, I’ve written other Recluce novels in present tense as well.
Then a number of years later, I wrote another book – Archform:Beauty – in which I told the story from the viewpoints of five different characters – in first person past tense. It got great reviews… and sold only moderately well. At times, a differing approach upsets both readers and reviewers, as was the case with Empress of Eternity, where the interweaving three narrative lines set in vastly different future time periods is based on an actual theory of time [not mine] suggested by Einstein’s work.
Readers also have expectations of a writer, and this was made very clear by the five books of the Spellsong Cycle and by Arms-Commander, the sixteenth book of the Recluce Saga, all of which were told from the female perspective, and all of which sold at lower levels than comparable books of mine told from the male point of view. I actually got comments and emails from male readers saying that they just couldn’t identify with a female point of view, that they weren’t comfortable with it.
Over the years, I’ve done a number of books that have incorporated, shall we say, departures from standard third person, past tense, straight line narrative, and there’s a definite bottom-line cost to continuing to write such books.
In general, the greater the degree of separation from “standard narrative,” the lower the comparative sales numbers were. For those of you who bemoan the “sameness” of so many books, you might bear in mind that professional writers do need to make a living, and when innovation reduces the publisher’s income, and correspondingly, the writer’s income, both tend to become more conservative. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but not, generally, among writers whose works support them. In fact, I’m probably one of a very few self-supporting full-time writers who produces a relatively divergent range of books, under the same name. I know a few other writers who try to avoid the sales drop-off and market to distinct classes of readers by using different pen names for different kinds of books, but I guess I’m just a bit old-fashioned, because, to me, that’s catering a bit too much to readers’ comfort zones.
In the end, I not only want to entertain and hopefully enthrall my readers, but also at least edge them out of their comfort zone to some degree, if not more, to get them to consider anything from a slight to a far different perspective, and like all writers, I doubtless have mixed success. But it’s still worth trying.