Henry Ford is one of the most well-known American innovators. He’s the guy who brought mass production to the “horseless carriages”–that is, cars–we zoom around in today.
So what does Ford have to do with writing?
There’s a famous quote that, while having an unclear origin, largely is attributed to Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.” The basic idea behind the quote is that, while customer input might be important, real innovation often means ignoring them, realizing a concept, and then seeing what the reaction of the public is.
Let’s think about this quote in relation to the traditional publishing industry. Generally speaking, publishers accept new books based on what they predict will sell well. But those predictions largely are based on past sales. So if, for instance, a publisher sees that they sold 5 percent more romances this year than last year, then they’ll assume readers want romances and buy more romance manuscripts.
But what if readers would go gaga for mysteries–or any other type of book–and they just don’t know it? What if they just need a chance, after eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for a year, to take a bite of ham and cheese?
The readers might think the ham and cheese is pretty da-n delicious, that’s what.
This, to me, is one of the main flaws within the traditional publishing industry. The assumption is that readers want only more of what they’ve been exposed to, and that’s not necessarily true. In fact, most readers I know are huge advocates of all kinds of stories. They are willing to give just about anything a shot, so long as it is engaging.
As writers, it’s important to recognize this flaw because, if you write the ham and cheese of the book world, you’re gonna have a bunch of people point to all the jars of peanut butter and jelly and tell you you’re nuts. And then it’s very easy to lose heart and stop querying your story in the mistaken belief that nobody would read it, let alone adore or recommend it to someone else.
The world doesn’t need more peanut butter and jelly to gag on. The world needs something to bring some zing. To get us out of the rut and help us discover who we are.
Will writers who follow a script about what’s selling make money? Maybe. The numbers publishers throw out aren’t made up, after all. But unless they innovate like Ford and deliver books the people didn’t even know they wanted, they’re not going to be remembered for being very original. And if I had to choose between being rich and being understood as having my own voice, I’ll take the latter every time.