How do you feel about formulas in publishing?

One of my favourite bookish blogs is the online home of a present-day publisher who, needing to keep their real identity a secret for obvious reasons, goes by the name Agatho. Because Agatho is dealing in real life with the chaotic and changing world of modern publishing with its format wars, retailing behemoths and ever-fickle public the blog’s posts are generally ones I save for reading when I’ve got some time and are often ones I ponder for many days. This week’s post concerns itself with the role of formula in publishing and it’s a fine example of the sort of issues that the blog raises, namely that we readers can be damned hard to please.

Agatho describes formula’s role succinctly

Primarily, Formula serves two functions: It gives readers an easy entry into the story and it keeps the story going until the end.

Formula does NOT do a few things. It does NOT challenge readers. It does NOT lead to an unhappy (or even an unresolved) ending. It does NOT ask readers to think subtly. It does NOT offer gradations of emotion. While good Formula is well written, it does not have any aspirations for its language other than to tell a good story and entertain the reader.

Ultimately, Formula comes down to a single idea: “This is what readers want and expect. I’m going to give it to them.”

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of my very favourite books – the ones I love and force upon gently recommend to friends – tend not to follow conventional formulas, or at least not totally. Looking at my list of favourite reads of last year for example there are a couple of unresolved endings, a couple more unhappy ones, quite a few challenges (I defy anyone to get through Caroline Overington’s SISTERS OF MERCY without some serious thinking about your views on disability care) and more than enough beautiful writing and subtlety to be going on with.

But it would be dishonest of me to say that all my reading falls into this category. I will still happily read (or re read) a Dick Francis book and the man essentially wrote the exact same novel forty-odd times. I count Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, Chris Grabenstein’s Ceepak and Boyle tales and Sulari Gentill’s Rowly Sinclair novels among my most looked forward to releases and all of these follow their own formulas.

I think, for me it largely comes down to my mood. If things are going swimmingly in my non bookish life (which, let’s face it is most of the time) I like to be challenged and have my thoughts provoked by my reading. But when I am stressed or over tired or dealing with the hell that is Christmas there is nothing quite so comforting as a well written novel that does almost exactly what I expect it to do.

And I can certainly see why authors – and publishers – are wary of taking a risk with a novel that breaks all the rules. For all my professed love of novels which don’t follow a formula there are plenty of rule-breakers I’ve utterly hated (including my new worst book ever finished which I read earlier this year). I suspect we all have rules we can deal with being broken and others which we can’t and they’re probably all different so what’s a poor publisher to do?

What about you? Does your reading have room for for formulaic and non formulaic novels? Or perhaps you don’t notice? Are there some broken rules you find it easier to deal with than others?

And if you’re even vaguely interested in things publishing do follow Mysterious Matters. It’s a treat.

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13 Responses to How do you feel about formulas in publishing?

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – That’s such an interesting question. I don’t have just one answer to it either. As a reader, I like to be challenged, and that means not always reading formulaic novels. But that’s ‘in general.’ I do like certain series (and in Greenwood, Grabenstein and Francis you’ve given great examples) where there is a pattern and I find that comforting. I feel that way about some of the classic detective novels I read too.

    As a writer, I truly respect authors who can write gripping novels that everyone loves but that are not formulaic. It’s not easy to do. It stretches one as a writer to try something different and as the post shows, it’s risky on a lot of levels. If I wore a hat, it would be off to writers who break formula successfully.


  2. MarinaSofia says:

    There is a certain comfort in formulaic novels (or films): it’s like semolina pudding – fills you up but is a little bland and unadventurous unless you mix in some jam or fruit. I have to admit I read such books when I have a headache or am feeling poorly, or after I have had too many ‘challenging’ reads in quick succession.


  3. Mrs P. says:

    I’m in the same category as you and others that have commented – the mood has to fit the type of crime novel that I’m reading. I do greatly enjoy a well-written formula novel, but the ones that really get me buzzing are those that try to pull off something new and do so successfully. Crime fiction is often slammed for being too formulaic, but I’m constantly amazed at how innovative the genre can be (and how in the process the genre is bent / developed / stretched into interesting new shapes). Above all though – whether formula or not, the crime fiction I love has to be well written and credible. A really interesting post – thanks 🙂


  4. Hello Bernadette

    A very thought provoking post… thank you. My husband and I have been discussing it all morning.

    I do wonder if it’s possible to write a series without being formulaic to some extent. The things that make our characters and stories different in the first book often set the threads of its sequels. I’m struggling to think of a book which is part of a long series which doesn’t fall loosely into the category of formulaic in that sense.

    I’m not sure that I agree completely with Agatho’s description of what a formulaic novel is NOT. I think it’s possible to do all of those things within a novel which is also familiar in its rhythm and tone. Challenging readers’ ideas through a novel which stays true to some familiar threads, or through characters they already know, is possibly just a more gentle process, not necessarily realised or recognised the moment the book is closed. But of course that may be my bias towards formulaic novels speaking. 🙂

    Anyway, I so glad my formula works for you. Thank you for this post and for alerting me to Agatho’s excellent blog.




    • I think you’re right Sulari that it is possible to challenge readers within a formula – perhaps not force them to re-think their entire world view but possibly to view an idea or a type of character or a period in history differently from how they have done before

      In the end for me it is all about the writing and the author’s intent – some authors who follow a formula seem to do so because it’s easy and quick and it makes them money. Others, like your good self, seem to continue putting as much effort into each novel as they did their first – mixing things up and keeping the quality high. That definitely works for me


  5. Kathy D. says:

    Interesting, always ideas to ponder here. I tend to prefer non-formulaic books, as you know because I like Fred Vargas’ quite creative and quirky books. I’d also put Norwegian by Night and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter in this category as well as a slew of global mysteries, as Arnaldur Indridason’s books. I want to be challenged in my reading usually and taken to new plots, characters, ideas.
    However, I have limits and don’t like fantasy or science fiction or impossible situations in my reading.
    But there are times when I want to curl up with an old friend like V.I. Warshawski or Guido Brunetti, even Kinsey Millhone or Corinna Chapman. Now I’m reading the 6th Precious Ramotswe book; I find these books so relaxing and they bring contentment and distraction, even if they may follow a certain formula.
    But formulaic books for me exclude a lot of violence, misogyny, racism, homophobia, backward cops, non-stop action. I need character development and thinking, and not boring books. Good plots are necessary and good dialogue.
    Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano’s stories can be formulaic but they’re interesting and funny.


    • It definitely seems to be that certain formulas work for certain people Kathy – I have a soft spot for Millhone, Chapan and Montalbano but am less enamoured with Ramotswe (I loved the first book, just never had any desire whatsoever to read any more).


  6. Patti Abbott says:

    There a few formulaic series that I read or have read in the past. Certainly more then than now. I don’t think I really thought about it 20-30 years ago since most books seemed to be in that mode. But now, I usually prefer writers who change from book to book. I think Tana French’s system of passing it on works well. If the writing is good enough, if the characters evolve from book to book, I will keep reading. But I doubt I could go back to reading Christie or writers whose protagonist remained the same in book after book. I don’t care that much about who did it–the puzzle of it.
    I think it comes down to what you want from the book. If you want a whodunnit, many of the more traditional series do offer that up pretty nicely. If you are more interested in the people who commit or solve the crime, those books don’t usually satisfy me as much.


    • It is interesting how your reading tastes change over time isn’t it. I used to love Christie but now I’m more of an occasional listener – David Suchet has narrated some of her books and I’ve enjoyed those as accompaniment on my walk to work but I don’t think I could just sit and read a print version of any of her books now


  7. Sue says:

    What an interesting post. Is writing a series incompatible with formula breaking or innovation? I’m trying to think of exceptions and I can only think of major characters being written out of a series (Elizabeth George/Dana Stabenow) and that’s not really an example. I don’t think there is much leeway to be innovative within a series because what readers expect is continuity and consistency. Doesn’t mean it is less interesting – I agree with earlier comments about the comfort of reading a well written series.


    • Perhaps Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels would come close to a series which breaks formula both within the genre and within itself. I haven’t read them all but of those I’ve read they certainly don’t follow any traditional formula and they’re quire different from each other


  8. Both your post and Agatho’s are very interesting and thought-provoking. As most have said, I think there can be a really basic form of formula writing which is too obvious, too easy, and I don’t enjoy that. But there are others which may not be the height of literary perfection, but are comforting, a pleasant read when you don’t fancy something too demanding. I like to have my expectations turned over now and again, and it’s nice if you’re NOT ruling out X as villain, because he’s obviously going to end up as A’s partner. Or alternately: it must be one of X or Y, because they are both eligible young men, and A has to end up with one of them.


  9. TracyK says:

    I saw your topic here and realized I had read that post at Mysterious Matters a couple of days ago. I don’t read that blog regularly but I should.

    That post and yours are very interesting. It horrifies me that the economics of publishing have decreed that publishers stick with the same things that were successful before. I was interested in the comment at Mysterious Matters that formula is the reason that there are so many books about protagonists with dead spouses or problems with children. It isn’t that I don’t want to read about those things, but often they just seem to be there because they tick a box someone is looking for. And they were only fresh the first few times you read that type of plot. (Of course, anything cam be good with the right author. Well, almost anything.)

    I can go either way, formula or originality, but I do like to have a choice.


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