Today the New York Times published an article entitled “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking.” I read this article with interest. As an author who writes fairly quickly, I’m always looking for new ways to get my books out into the world faster. But it’s not as easy, nor as inevitable, as Julie Bosman’s article makes it sound.
Ever since I began publishing, the fantasy of releasing “a book a year” has dangled over my head, partly as a creative challenge and partly as a measure of ultimate success in publishing. A big part of my adult reading life has been spent eagerly awaiting the release of my favorite authors’ next books. Even though some of these authors (the ones who publish most frequently) are considered “popular” and not “literary,” those distinctions don’t matter to me when I’m looking forward to a good read. When I hear the names James Patterson or Lee Child (both referred to in the Times article), I admittedly get stars in my eyes. I think, “Household name.” I think: “Big money.” And even as a literary author I fantasize about following in their footsteps and scaling the bestseller list with some future blockbuster, and being slated for a book a year for the next ten years. I can’t help dreaming about how amazing that level of job security would be. So, to be told in a prominent news headline that my dream, my ultimate goal, is unworthy of today’s market….it was immediately demoralizing.
But upon reading, I quickly realized that this article is not talking about me, or most of my author friends. The assumptions made in the piece are upsetting on a number of levels:
First, the piece seems to take the attitude that all writers are bestsellers, whose publishers are desperately clawing after us for the next (invariably pristine) manuscript. The reality is, there are only a handful of authors who can publish at this insane rate within the current system. You have to be a REALLY big name–and probably also a series writer–for a publisher to do more than one book a year. For most of us, achieving the rate of “a book a year” is still great!
Second, there is no mention at all of the concept of an editorial process. The implication being that we writers churn away at our desks, hand some pages in and wash our hands of it, rapidly moving on to the next book. The further implication being that the only thing restricting the flow of an author’s books into the marketplace is how fast he or she can actually write them. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly for literary writers. I can’t imagine that even the biggest, most popular bestsellers get away without at least some editorial input. (Otherwise, I’d guess they wouldn’t stay bestsellers for long.) Not to mention the energy that must be spent on cover design, page layout, proofreading, production of advance copies, etc. within the publishing house.
Third, and perhaps most upsetting of all, is how frankly TRUE it seems. Books by big name authors are becoming more frequent, and they appear to be receiving almost all of the press attention from the major houses. Case in point: you can’t walk into a bookstore without tripping over a James Patterson novel, or six. As a former Patterson fan, I have long since lost track of the Alex Cross series. I’ve fallen too far behind because the books keep coming out so fast. I’ve stopped buying them. GASP! This is exactly what publishers were afraid would happen, years ago, when they settled on the one-book-a-year model. Do they not realize that most people read books by more than one author?
Fourth, the article begs the question: what does this climate of insatiable readership mean for the rest of us? What does it mean for the debut novelists who have yet to really prove themselves to an audience, not to mention the majority of authors, who once felt solid in our relative success with a few publications under our belts, the non-bestsellers who still manage to make a living (or part of a living) writing books? Where do we fit into this picture? When there is always a fresh offering from the likes of James Patterson, when will his most loyal readers ever find the time to branch out to something new?
There’s definitely pressure to produce for authors at all levels, but when such unrealistic expectations are being set by the most bestselling authors, doesn’t that A) steal publications “slots” from newer writers and B) condition our readers to expect something that few of us can follow through on? Why aren’t more publishers looking for ways to market new or unknown writers in relation to bestsellers (“If you like Lee Child, check out So-and-So”) to cross-promote? James Patterson makes a nod toward this by acknowledging his co-writers on the front of his books. At least in that scenario, publishers can make the money off his name, while still getting other authors into the game. And, it acknowledges a deeper truth of the matter–Patterson publishes more per year than is humanly possible for a single man!
It is extraordinarily short-sighted of publishers to hang their hats (and their operating budgets) on just a few names. None of today’s bestselling authors will be publishing books forever, and there is going to have to be new blood coming up to take their places. And if traditional publishers shut them out, then the ebook revolution is ultimately going to shut publishers out as the next generation of bestselling authors takes publication into their own hands. Not because they want to, but because they don’t really have a choice.
For people who are really big readers, the anticipation of your favorite authors’ books coming out once a year used to be enjoyable. It made the actual reading of those books more special. And during those interminable months of waiting, you didn’t just sit around and twiddle your thumbs. You went to the bookstore or the library, browsing around for something with which to fill your time. And, guess what? You found other great books to read!