Monday, June 16, 2008

A-book-a-year-a-book-a-year-a-book-a-year!

by Barbara D'Amato


We’ve all heard that Stephen King and Dean Koontz, prolific writers both, were told not to write more than a book a year, and if they couldn't resist writing, write under a different name.

Her publisher told Agatha Christie not to write more than a book a year. Think of all the Christies we might have if the publisher hadn’t been so foolish.

The reasoning seems to have been that more that a book a year would:

First, diminish the value of the book. If you can write it so fast, it can’t be worth much.

Second, the public will think the second book is the first book and if they already have the book for this year, they won’t buy the new one. This comes under the heading “The Public is Stupid,” which is used as an excuse for a lot of ill-considered and paternalistic behavior.

Well, things aren’t like that any more.

Clea Simon and others have called attention to an article in the Boston Globe by David Mehegan. Mehegan notes that publishers are now urging their authors to get out at least one book a year. Not surprisingly, the issue has been a hot topic on crime and mystery writers’ listserves. The pressure to put out a book a year is apparently strongest for suspense and thrillers but strong for mystery writers as well. Sometimes a promise to write a book a year is a condition of accepting that author in the first place. Difficult? Not so good for quality? It’s good for marketing.

In the article, Patricia Cornwell is quoted as saying, “It’s no problem as long as you don’t have a life.”

Dennis Lehane said that he would not go back to doing a book a year, back to the “hamster wheel.” His novel PRAYERS FOR RAIN came out, he believes, before he really perfected it. Under pressure to get it into print, he thought too late of a way of making it much better.

There are writers who seem to have no trouble with a book or more a year. Robert B. Parker has three books out with a 2007 pub date---NOW & THEN, HIGH PROFILE, and SPARE CHANGE, which I suppose will keep him high profile. But very few people can work that way successfully. On the listserves, there has been much talk about burnout. And of course the issue of quality.

For about fifteen years I brought out a book a year. My just-finished manuscript took four years. There were family reasons, plus I was working part of the time on another project, but mostly it took longer because it’s a bigger book with more technical detail. But I, and I’m sure a lot of other writers, find this new publishing demand stress-inducing. Or as a friend said to me, “poisonous.”

The publishers say we have to keep reminding the readers that we exist.
This seems to be another form of The Public Is Stupid. The public will forget your name if they don’t se it constantly.

Opinions, anyone?

34 comments:

spyscribbler said...

There is a marked difference in my pseudonym's backlist royalties between when she has a new story in front of readers, and when she doesn't.

I agree with the rest of your post, but the final point? They do seem to forget. :-) Or, at least, the readers who will remember have already bought your old stuff.

Dana King said...

I think it's probably too author-specific to make generalizations about. Considering the length of most crime fiction, one a year doesn't seem unreasonable, IF (note the big if) you don't do anything else. How many authors can say their sole source of income is from their novels? Not a lot, I suspect. Having to hold down a full-time job (or even a structured part-time job) can make one book a year a burden, which can only affect quality adversely.

Sara Paretsky said...

An interesting book came out a few years ago called The Midnight Disease, which was Poe's term for a condition called hypergraphia. Most people who are hypergraphic--which means writing compulsively, unceasingly, are producing gibberish, which is what happened to The MIdnight Disease's author when she was felled by the condition. A handful of people with it are actually telling a story--RL Stevenson wrote 70000 words of Dr Jekyll in one week, although he had to reshape it quite a bit after. I have no idea if that's what propels King, Oates and other hyper-productive writers, but since reading the book, I have longed to suffer from the disease.

I write slowly, not because I'm agonizing over words and plots but because my internal demons are always telling me my writing is sh*t and that I might as well jump off the Randolph Street bridge.

Hypergraphia is a frontal-lobe disorder, allied to epilepsy. It can apparently be treated with some kinds of anti-seizure medication. What I'm praying for is a drug that will induce it.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, all for writing.

Spyscribbler--I agree new stuff produces sales. Still, I think mostreaders are smart enough to remember you if they've liked your book. How to tell the publishers that--?

dana king -- author-specific, yes, but for midlist authors the pressure is probably intense. You don't forget Dean Koontz all that quickly. And yes, most writers have a day job that not only takes time but tires one out.

sara paretsky -- I need to get that book. If somebody could develop some meds to induce hypergraphia, can you imagine the booth at Bouchercon selling tabs?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Book a year? Not with my day job.

Sara Paretsky said...

Legal action by publishers against goldbricking writers--as some of you know, I was badly injured in February '06 in a car accident, which damaged my neck, arms and hands and made writing difficult. My wise and compassionate publishers sent me a formal notice that they would take legal action against me if I missed a renegotiated deadline for Bleeding Kansas. When I delivered it a day early and asked for a formal recognition and dismissal of the threat of action they never responded. They didn't even acknowledge receipt of the ms. So it goes.

Barbara D'Amato said...

GOOD HEAVENS, SARA!
!@#^&*!!@#$%^!!@##!

Libby said...

Thank you so much, Barb, for raising the subject. I'm with Sara...I write slowly and hesitantly, and writing a book a year is just not good for my health.

Do readers forget you? I'm not so sure it matters even if thye do... I actually think it's kind of fun when an author comes out with a new novel and I say.. "Oh... I remember I really liked so-and-so.. I really need to catch this new one..."

The reality is that when we have new books out, it usually prompts sales of the backlist as well, so I'm not sure what the issue is as far as publishers are concerned.

I do think -- as a result of all the rapid changes in our industry -- that publishers have NO idea what to advise their authors to do, and that ignorance puts a lot of undue pressure on us.

I.J.Parker said...

Sara's story was an eye opener. I thought I had become utterly cynical about the publishing business. If this can happen to Sara Paretzky, what will they do the rest of us?
I was always ahead of the publisher because I had 4 novels written when the first two sold. Because I write a series, I was impatient to get going. Giving readers too much time between books means they forget you. A year seemed like a very long time. But frankly, I'd hate to be forced to turn out a book before its time (I'm on a nine-months schedule now). It seems to me, if there is no contract with a deadline, they cannot possibly hold a writer to a schedule. And if there is, and the writer is famous and a bestseller, why can't he or she pick up and move along to a more appreciative publisher?

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I'm a huge fan of the one book (or more) a year rule. It's hard enough for me to wait a year for the new book by the authors I like, so waiting multiple years is like torture.

This is a good year for me--two Stephen King novels, two Laura Lippman books (one novel, one short story collection), two offerings from Marcus Sakey...yes. Good year. :)

I don't forget the authors I like; I just check Amazon obsessively, waiting (semi-patiently) for their next ones to appear. Sometimes I wait a long time.

Kelly

Anonymous said...

Sorry--a Stephen King novel and a collection of his short stories.

Also, while I loved Bleeding Kansas, I can't believe your publishers were so awful. I hope you're doing better now.

Kelly

Barbara D'Amato said...

Wilfred--you are so right. Not with your day job. And most of the writers I know have a day job.

Libby--yes, publishers don't know. Many of them are quite new to the business, and young.

l.j. parker--about turning out a book before its time. I read a lot of books that I think were victims of that very thing. And it's the author who suffers.

anonymous--It's wonderful that you check for new books by authors you like. I wish there were a lot more like you in the world. Lke several millions.

Tony D'Amato said...

Barb’s post reminded me of S.J. Perelman’s diary of Patrick Foley de Grandeur. Here are a few excerpts.

Awoke feeling rather bushed this A.M.; I had stayed up past midnight dictating final 340 pages of Bustmonger, the novel I outlined yesterday. A story loosely based on the career of Hugh Hefner should do well these days that readers are withering in nostalgia….

Spooky phone call this afternoon from my agent, Winnie Kochleffel. She apparently sensed I was doing yarn on Hefner theme, though I hadn’t breathed a word to anyone, and acting on hunch, sold its paperback rights to Signet for $400,000….

Knocked out a couple of whodunits before breakfast to limber up for the day’s work. I have to chuckle when I read about Simenon’s astonishing ability to sweat out a thriller in eleven days. I could do one in as many hours if I cared to write bilge, but fortunately, I have some standards….

For years I have scratched my noggin for a subject to inspire Calliope, my muse. To rewrite Balzac’s Comedie Humaine? Harold Robbins and Irving Stonehenge have anticipated me. To retrace the endless neurotic embroideries of Proust? Jacqueline Susann has delved into the feminine soul—with a manure fork, true, but the damage is done. And then in a blinding flash the scales fell from my eyes. Shakespeare! I have taken all his high-flown rodomontade, his euphuistical bombast and sesquipedelian twaddle, and distilled them into tales comprehensible to the veriest moron, to the most benighted red neck, to even a rock fan. . . .

Catherine Mambretti said...

Barbara and commenters,

I'm published only as a short-story author and now shopping a mss. that took me seven years to write. Everything about the traditional publishing industry horrifies me. I was already convinced that publishers are a writer's worst enemies. I'm "this close ||" to self-publishing. Have you heard about "The Lace Reader" and "Daemon"? Both are self-published and now have been picked up by major publishers for 7 figures plus movie deals.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Catherine--no kidding? Wow! I will look them up.

Thank you.

Catherine Mambretti said...

Barbara and commenters,

I didn't need to be convinced that publishers are a writer's worst enemy, but reading this post came at just the right time for me. I'm a published short-story writer (you may remember me as an early Webmystress for SinC Chicagoland), and I recently began shopping a manuscript that took me seven years to complete. I was seriously considering self-publishing, and now I know it's the right thing to do. I was once a journals editor for The University of Chicago Press (my first job after graduating), so I do believe in the value of a good editor--it's not that I fear an editor's pencil on my priceless words. And I do understand that a mega corporation has far more resources for promoting a book than I ever will have. But, I know where to find freelance editors and publicists. By the way, have you heard about "The Lace Reader" and "Daemon"? Both were self-published, and major publishers have just picked up both for 7-figures plus movie deals.

Catherine Mambretti said...

Sorry for the double post. The first one was rejected by an error message, so I posted the second one. Really not my fault. Love this blog.

Maryann Mercer said...

I find myself wondering if the concept of more than one book a year doesn't come from the idea(usually wrong) that authors have a formula that works for every book they write. You know, the classic boy meets girl or gun or gorilla, boy loses or uses same, boy gets his just reward or punishment, depending on the scenario. (I've found myself wondering about James Patterson in particular when it comes to this idea).
I wonder if the publishers even know what blood sweat and tears go into formulating great action scenes, explosive dialogue, and memorable characters.
As a reader, I'd love to see two or three books from each of my favorite authors every year, but I know from my own writing that quality takes time.

Dana King said...

I think Maryann makes a good point. At the risk of tarring all editors and publishers with the same brush, I think it's preey clear many prefer a formulaic best-seller to a well crafted midlister. I review quite a few books, and production values and press kit are often inversely proportional to the quality of the book.

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