Sunday, February 13, 2011

The perils of writing an 'issue' book

When I set out to write The Birth Machine, was my chief aim to address the issue of hi-tech childbirth and to set the profession of Obstetrics to rights? Of course not. The Birth Machine was simply the next in a series of stories I wanted to tell simply because once they'd hatched in my brain they moved and obsessed me enough to want to explore them and get them down on paper. (Previously all my pieces had been short stories). My main impulse always is to explore and convey the feeling and ideas that any situation and story suggest to me.

But then of course certain situations inevitably carry with them specific issues, and in this particular case the issue - hi-tech childbirth - has been highly politicised. And naturally, in exploring the situation, while my chief concerns were the wider issues (and my constant themes) of power and language and story-telling, the novel was bound to make comment on the more specific issue. And personally, I did feel that there were issues about hi-tech childbirth that needed to be addressed, and that was bound to find expression in the novel. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, yes, I'd have liked it if Obstetricians had read the book and it made them think...  But it's those wider issues, and in particular the mode of telling, that were my chief concern, and while the book's first publisher (The Women's Press) was certainly political (and indeed edited the book for political purposes) they nevertheless pushed the book not simply as a polemic but as a literary work - for the writing.

Still, actually, nowadays you'd be crazy, wouldn't you, to ignore the marketing possibilities of an issue - the fact that an issue can widen your market beyond the usual literary one? So when the book was reissued recently, I and my publisher Salt set about contacting birth groups (which didn't in fact exist, even, when the book was first published) and, lo and behold, we had a fantastic interested response.

But. Today on Goodreads I discovered that a member involved in natural childbirth and drawn to the book for its 'issue', and whose usual fiction tastes clearly run to very different kinds of books such as Harry Potter, says that while she's sympathetic to the book's ideas, she found the story too chaotic and 'undone' to make any sense, and gives it one star only (which means 'I didn't like it') and says roundly that she will not be recommending it to her students (I presume they are childbirth students, but a casual glancer might assume otherwise). Clearly, the book was never meant for this reader and vice versa. But now that one star is out there to influence others (and it's also on Google!). Hm.

Would we have been better in our marketing to stick to a more 'literary' constituency, do you think?

5 comments:

womagwriter said...

That's a difficult question. Your book is certainly 'literary', and that will doubtless put some people off. But then again, if you'd pushed it only at the literati they might have looked down their noses at it for being an 'issue' book. Sometimes you just can't win...

I think if a book is written only to carry an issue then it will come across as preachy. But if it has more layers, is a good story and well-written and just happens to also say something important about an issue, then why not use that to market it? The more people you reach, the more sales you make, the better, surely?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I'm sure you're right, actually...

adele said...

This is a lose-lose situation, Elizabeth and nothing you could have done would have been any better than any other, if you see what I mean. I personally think you did the right thing to draw it to interested parties' attention and this woman is clearly just not a fan. She'd have surfaced, or someone like her would have surfaced, to give you the one star she thought you deserved. It always astonishes me to see how many people there are out there willing to spend time telling everyone how very much they didn't like a book!! DOH!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, Adele, I guess my thoughts are that she probably wouldn't have read it at all and then surfaced to do that (and potentially put others off) if we hadn't drawn attention to the book to issue-interested parties. However, I'm sure that Womagwriter's right, and that it was worth doing anyway for the other issue-interested parties who would happen not to have the same reaction...

adele said...

Yes, certainly! You HAVE to draw a book to the attention of anyone who might be interested. I think that's the first rule of advertising, isn't it? Get the folk who are already inclined to be supportive, or interested or whatever.