The Popularity of "More of the Same"

The fact that I was once an economic market research analyst still plagues me, because it’s become clear that I ask questions about writing that probably are better left unasked, at least in public forums. But then, when I was an economic analyst I also asked those questions, and they were part of the reason why I didn’t remain an employed analyst. As the most junior economist in the company, you don’t question the vice-president of marketing’s brand-new and very expensive product, no matter how bad an idea it is, or express doubt about fancy economic models, not if you want to keep your job, no matter how correct posterity proves you — because if you do, you won’t be working at most companies long enough to experience that posterity. I wasn’t the first economic type to learn this first hand, and I was far from the last. More than a few analysts and economists did in fact question the long-term effects of derivatives, and most of those who questioned were not exactly rewarded. A few were fortunate enough to be ignored; the rest fared worse.

With that as background, I’m going to observe that the vast majority of the very most commercially successful authors write “more of the same.” By this I mean, for example, that while the events in subsequent books may change, the feel and structure of each “new” book tends to mirror closely the feel of previous books. I’m not saying that all authors do this by any means, just that a large percentage of those who sell millions of copies of their books. This practice, from what I can tell, emerged first in the mystery/thriller field, followed closely in what I’d call the “high glamour” type novel by writers such as Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, and others, but now it seems to be everywhere.

Some authors [or their agents] are so sensitive to the commercial aspects of the “more of the same” that the author uses a different pen name when writing something even slightly different, so that Nora Roberts also writes as J.D. Robb, and by noting that she is writing as J.D. Robb, she gets to cash in on her fame as Nora Roberts while announcing to readers that the J.D. Robb books are a different “more of the same.” In F&SF, Dave Wolverton became David Farland to write fantasy, and perhaps to also make clear that he wasn’t writing Star Wars books about Princess Leia, Jedi apprentices, and the like.

Who knows? Maybe I should have adopted a pen name, say Exton Land, for all my fantasies when I started writing them and saved the L.E. Modesitt, Jr., moniker for my science fiction. But then, which name would I have used for the “Ghosts of Columbia” books? And The Hammer of Darkness really isn’t either. By strict logic, then, to maximize commercial success, I shouldn’t have written any of those… or even The Lord-Protector’s Daughter, because it has a “different” feel.

And in some ways, I may be in the worst of both worlds, because the Recluce books have enough of a similar feel that I’m often criticized for being formulaic there, but I’m clearly not formulaic enough to replicate the success of Harry Potter or The Wheel of Time, etc.

At the same time, when I do something different, such as in Archform:Beauty or Haze, those readers who were expecting a faster book, such as Flash or The Parafaith War, feel that I haven’t met their expectations.

Then again, at least I’m not totally captive to “more of the same.” That would be almost as bad as having been successful as an industrial economist.