Whoa! Let’s All Just Take A Deep Breath…

I’m frustrated. A little angry. But most of all, opinionated (Yeah, I know.. what else is new?)

Over the past few days people have been chattering about a couple of articles dealing with authors and publishing. One is a New York Times story about best-selling authors now being told to publish more than one book a year.

The other is a breezy analysis from Forbes which basically says that anyone with a good brand can become a successful author.

At first I saw these articles as the antithesis of each other, exploring both the opportunity and the curse of the digital revolution. But then I realized they actually were the mirror image of each other. Or more accurately, cause and effect. Bottom line: the two articles reinforce an inherent paradox. A Digital Catch-22.

The New York Times article examines how best-selling authors, many of them crime fiction authors, are now being forced to double-down on product. Authors like Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline are now expected to write more than one novel a year. Whether it’s a short story (in Lee’s case) or a second novel (in Lisa’s), Big Publishing is requiring more product. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Michael Connelly has been doing this for years. Lee Goldberg, too. And, of course, Joe Konrath. More power to them. They are amazing writers. Most of us aren’t.

The Forbes article discusses how writers are increasingly interacting with readers through social marketing and working hard to create their brand. The key sentence for me was: “If someone writes well and is skillful about how to build his or her brand, incredible things can happen.“

Hold on. Not so fast.

Incredible things? Well, maybe. Financial success? Perhaps. But what about the phrase “writes well” which the Forbes article kind of tossed off? What about the quality?

That is what the New York Times article is not saying. But I will. If anyone can be a writer, why are publishers flogging some authors to produce more? It’s simple. Publishers, most of whom are in survival mode or close to it, are hoping to cut through the clutter of the “anyone can be a writer” glut with material from guaranteed sellers.

But that has created a paradox. In fact, there’s a lot of bone-headed logic in both articles.

First off, (I admit most of this is anecdotal), we keep hearing that folks who have loaded their Kindles with content are only reading about 10 percent of that content. In fact, even KDP Select, which Amazon started six months ago to give readers lower prices (ie Free) to fill up their Kindles, has slowed considerably.

So, given the sluggish pace of reading, why do we need TWO Jack Reacher books a year? Especially when most readers have only scratched the surface of their e-content? The answer is the quality of that content. When readers do dip into their stockpile of e-books, they find that a lot of it just isn’t that good.

Which brings up my beef against the Forbes article. Forbes is basically saying, if you can sell it, you’re a writer.

Well, no. You’re not.

Just because you can write doesn’t mean you should. Writers need to grow their craft. They need to understand point of view. They need to understand suspense. Develop three-dimensional characters. And they need to hone their prose. Strip out dangling participles. Eliminate TV dialogue. Deliver conflict on every page. Just because a writer has finished a manuscript doesn’t mean it’s ready. I know. I wrote four books before I was published.

Which, in a round-about way, brings me back to the NY Times article. There’s an old story in the mystery community about a woman with a full time job who, nonetheless, wrote a novel in a year. Then she decided to go part-time, thinking she could write one in six months. It still took a year. Then she quit her job altogether. It still took a year.

The point is that great novels, whether genre or literary, can take time—whether it’s research, editing, or just figuring out what the story is really about. The pressure of writing more than one book a year isn’t good for any author who cares about his/her craft. Most of the authors I know are always pushing themselves, trying new things, working to deliver fresh, dynamic stories and characters. The need to crank out more in less time threatens that drive and can lead to works of lesser quality. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle– and risk —  which no writer, especially a best-selling author, should have to face.

But they are, mainly because other e-writers are putting out an enormous amount of product. Some writers release e-books at the rate of one a month. I’m sorry, but with a few exceptions, those are not books I am going to rush out and buy. I know they’re not going to be at the same level as a new Daniel Silva or a new Mo Hayder. I don’t care how much “branding” an author does. I can tell within two or three paragraphs whether I’m going to like a book, and that depends on the writer’s mastery of craft. If it’s not there, it’s not for me.

So I’m taking a deep breath. And I hope you do too. What’s wrong with waiting till July for a new Gabriel Allon? Or Fall for a new William Kent Krueger? Even if I have to wait a year or longer, I know I’m going to get an excellent read. Not only do their novels give me hours of pleasure, but they inspire me, as an author, to keep pushing my craft higher. That’s my take.

What’s yours?

  • Tania Tirraoro

    I hear you and COMPLETELY agree

  • Emily Victorson

    I’m looking forward to the day when all this shakes out (soon I hope) and we end up with a manageable amount of well-written material to choose from and better ways to connect readers with authors.

  • From what I understand, the reasoning is simple. Publishers only want to publish authors who already have name and brand recognition, who write books that will sell. The big boys, for the most part, are not longer willing to take a chance or especially a financial risk on new or little known or unknown authors. As a result, the publishers need more product, more books. Thus the writers with marketable names have to write more books, at least two a year.

  • C. Berry

    Thank you – this was good for the soul. I just published an e-book, and feel like an ant shadowed by elephants. I can’t really envy those best-selling authors who have to keep putting out at such a high speed. It feels so much better to mull over your story to get it at its best. Write like the boss of yourself, not the flunky of popular taste.

  • Libby, you took the words right out of my mouth — but said it a lot better. 🙂 Taken to its logical conclusion, all “big name” authors are going to end up being James Pattersons — hiring a stable of writers to churn out a mediocre novel a month (or more!) under their name.

  • Excellent post! It is so refreshing to hear the voice of reason.

  • I have so many favorite writers I like to keep up with that I don’t want more than one book a year from each. I need *some* reading time left over to discover new favorites, after all. I refuse to limit myself to a couple or three writers. I want to read widely, without a steady diet of any one thing. One book a year from an author is an event. Two or three is a glut.

  • Excellent piece Libby. The phrase I keyed in on, however, was this: “Publishers, most of whom are in survival mode or close to it, are hoping to cut through the clutter of the ‘anyone can be a writer’ glut with material from guaranteed sellers.”

    You didn’t say guaranteed good writers and that is not what the publishers are looking for either – hence the infamous example by Snooki.

    One of the most interesting facts to emerge from these changing times is the relatively small number of people who do care about and choose to read good writers like you and Silva and Kreuger. The reading public has such a wide variety of tastes and people do not always choose quality. Many books that you and I might think of as awful go on to sell thousands of copies – whether they are published by traditional publishers or self-published.

    Yet, in these ultra competitive times, every book that sells in the thousands has something going for it that satisfies. It may be the writing craft or the storyteller craft or the high concept or the author’s platform. The books that do not sell at all, that sink into invisibility in the 6-figure rankings are those that have none of those things, and they are not going to overwhelm the rest of us because they are essentially out of sight.

    They used to say that the average B&N had about 200,000 books in the store. I’d say the good books on Amazon are ranked somewhere under 40,000, and discoverability can be even easier than in bookstores in some ways thanks to genre lists.

    I don’t think publishers who push their authors to tweet and post and still put out several books a year are responding to fears their product may get lost in the digital landslide (though that is the excuse they give). I think it’s simply corporate greed.

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  • Marcia wrote, “Taken to its logical conclusion, all “big name” authors are going to end up being James Pattersons — hiring a stable of writers to churn out a mediocre novel a month (or more!) under their name.” Which will turn more people off from reading. There is already enough competition for the entertainment dollar. We don’t need to be diluting and dumbing down our product to the point that we drive consumers away.

  • Reading all these comments, I finally came to Dana’s post and while I certainly agree that we don’t need to be diluting and dumbing down our product to the point that we drive customers away, that’s how WE feel about it.

    But the sad thing about that is, and publishers know it, how many times have we all started a book that we have to put down because it’s so poorly written only to read review after review on that same book that never mention a ton of errors we find in just two or three pages. The American public, thanks in good part to lower education dollars, IS dumbing down. Not all, but enough for it to make a noticeable difference. And that difference, noticed by publishers, shows up when books that are basically unedited, at least by a good editor, show up for sale. I just read one that’s highly touted by any number of bigtime author quotes, and yet in the first pages I saw an error so big that no editor could possibly missed it. And yet, the editor , if there was one, had. After that, all through the book were POV errors no good editor could have missed. And yet, if there was an editor, she/he had missed them all. It was perfectly apparent to me that the publisher had gotten all those other authors to say any old thing just get it done, and the publisher had NOT had it edited. Yet, there go those great reviews again and nobody mentioned anything I saw. It’s corporate greed again and that’s alive and well. They’re going to crank all the profit they can no matter how they get it.

  • As a traditionally published and ebook indie author, I have been in dialogue with a lot of authors about this topic. What I’m hearing from my ebook publisher and other authors making good money on Kindle is that a new type of reader has emerged. Since readers reading books on a device can’t hold a book and feel how big it is, and rarely look at the length (which is hard to do when you aren’t given page numbers), once they like an author, they just want more from him or her. Serials and short installations are in demand and selling big. These authors are now being “forced” to write 5-6 books a year, and instead of 100k word books they are writing 40k word shorter novels. Or they are writing ten 10k-word installments, or episodes. My ebook publisher is getting huge sales and convinced me to break up my YA sic-fi into two parts, released three months apart with the plan to write and release these 10k-word episodes every three weeks. These types of “books” are riding best-seller lists and selling big. So, maybe the kindle reader that is emerging is different from the traditional book reader. I am willing to give it a try and see how it goes. It may be fun to release these 99-cent episodes every month. time will tell if this trend grows.

    • CS: Thanks for your fascinating comment. It actually makes a lot of sense and it’s worth considering, going forward. Especially the 10K installments. My only concern there is that often we end up changing or revising the story and plot after we realize certain elements don’t work. If you’re publishing the installments immediately after writing them, you don’t have that flexibility. Or do you write the whole thing, revise it, then just publish the installments one at a time? If that’s the case, it really doesn’t mean you’re writing faster or writing more… just “distributing” it differently. Which I suppose, in this new world, is tantamount to the same thing.

  • Publishers are losing sales everywhere but e. A lot of their current actions are driven more by panic than by good business sense.

    Or so I believe, but that may change by this time tomorrow. Along with the rest of the publishing industry.

  • What a great post! Very informative. Thank you. In general, I couldn’t agree more, in terms of authors needing the time to “write”. It absolutely DOES take time to create those fantastic, 3-dimensional characters, as well as the quality stories readers are hungry for. Publishers, however, aren’t interested in what the author needs. Publishers tend to live in this self-absorbed bubble, wherein the only interests worth considering are their own. Never mind that without us, there IS no publishing business. That’s why they’re in panic mode now, what with the technology swing and the changing landscape of the self-publishing industry; and those are only two examples. I will say this though…some authors CAN push out more than one book a year and have them all (or most of them) be amazing. Now, I’ve never read his work, but Arthur C. Clark apparently wrote like a madman, and in his time off, he wrote some more. But he’s clearly the exception to this issue. the fact is, publishers need (and in some cases, are getting) a wake-up call. Again, great post!

  • Thank you for the breath of fresh air and sanity.

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