Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Once-a-Year Problem

By Steve Weddle

OK. Over at the DSD Book Club, we're reading THE LAST KIND WORDS. Grab your Tom Piccirilli and  head on over. We'll start posting discussion topics there, probably next week.


The InBox here at DSD HQ has been flooded with articles and links about this here "One Book A Year" Thing.

According to the NYT, Lee Child and John Grisham are being asked to write more than a book a year.

Which makes sense.

Publishers say that a carefully released short story, timed six to eight weeks before a big hardcover comes out, can entice new readers who might be willing to pay 99 cents for a story but reluctant to spend $14 for a new e-book or $26 for a hardcover. That can translate into higher preorder sales for the novel and even a lift in sales of older books by the author, which are easily accessible as e-book impulse purchases for consumers with Nooks or Kindles.

So, publishers are asking writers for smaller, promotional pieces? OK. And publishers are asking writers for more than one novel a year? OK. Publishers want to make money. Writers want to make money. Selling more of a thing means more money. And one thing can lead into another. OK.

I remember when The Office was a popular television show. They'd have "webisodes" you could watch online. I never did. But they were supposedly these 10-minute clips you could watch between shows, between seasons, to get your fix.

Spring training and winter ball are good examples for baseball. Fall league. Rookie ball. These are all ways to keep interested in The Sport of Baseball while the main show is on hiatus, I guess.

What seems odd is the various responses of writers. Some look at the new opportunities and delve into something different. Grisham, as that NYT piece says, writes young adult between his thrillers. Others write prequels or alternate universe pieces for their main series.

But some writers seem to see the new opportunity as a burden. Seems they feel like Lucy and Ethel working on the line at the candy factory. Traditionally, writers with a series -- thriller, mystery, etc. -- would put out a book a year, often in the same month. The bookstores would know that August is Johnny Author's month and would plan accordingly. Stock. Signings. Then every October is the newest dog training mystery from Jane Deplumme. There was a schedule, damn it. Now it's all screwed up. Now full-time writers are being pressured to write more than a book a year.

Some folks seem to think that this is the fault of self-published writers. See, they bust onto the scene with four or five trunk novels and now Johnny Author's publisher wants Johnny to do the same.

Other folks, who have done the math, have pointed out that if a full-time author writes 1,000 words a day, then the full-time author (FTA) will have 365,000 words each year -- four or five novels.

The FTAs have countered, saying that you have to figure in research time and travel time and convention time and editing time and promotion time.

Others have pointed out that if you have a Grisham book on Jan. 1 and then a Grisham novella on June 1 and then a Grisham novel on Sept. 1, then the people who read Jo Blo because they were told "she's like a midwestern Grisham" might never have discovered her, because there's no Down Time for Grisham publications.

Our own Joelle Charbonneau has 17 books coming out in the next two years. Friend of the blog Chris F. Holm has two "Collector" books coming out this year. Many authors -- maybe you -- have more than one book a year coming out. Heck, I know writers with non-author day jobs who do a book a year.

Obvious point that must be made: Everyone writes at a different pace.

I'm not sure, as some have said, that this is the fault of self-published authors flooding the marketplace with three books a year each.

Self-pubbed books -- or indie books, or whatever it is this week -- might take less time to "produce."

If I'm a big seller of vegetables, I might get vegetables from farmers all over the planet. They produce and then send in to my warehouses. I have to have those little stickers printed. I have to work with the grocery stores. I have to work with advertising agencies. I have to argue for eye-level shelf placement. I have all sorts of things I have to do. I have committees set up for this. This takes a great deal of work, a good amount of overhead, as it were.

Meanwhile, there's a man down the street who pulls his cukes out of the ground (updated below) on Friday morning, rinses them, drops them into bushel buckets in the back of his truck, and carries them down to the farmers' market.

Are the farmers' market cukes better? Maybe. Maybe not. But have they been "vetted" by the corporate committees looking to make a profit? No. Have they been through all the steps that the corporate cucumbers go through? No. Might there be spots on them that aren't on the corporate cukes? Maybe. But I've had my share of corporate cukes that were bland or blotchy.

But the farmers' market is able to get things into your hands much faster, once the cuke comes out of the ground.

When the grocery stores and food corporations lose market share to the farmers' markets, they're going to lower costs, to increase their revenue, to work on the bottom line.

More cukes at a better price? Yes, please. It's what the cuke eaters of the world want. And it's what the corporations of the world want.

Readers want more to read. And they want it quicker. The corporations that have signed FTAs to multi-book deals want more to sell. Of course they do. Why wouldn't they? And if a 10,000-word Jack Reacher story between novels helps to promote the upcoming novel, that's a win for the corporation that owns the book and the reader who enjoys the book and the author who wrote the book.

The old adage still works: Write the best book you can. Just, you know, write more of them. Because if the grocery store runs out of cucumbers, there's a market open downtown that has some. And folks love them some good cukes. Is that the fault of the farmers' market?

UPDATE: I've been informed that my cavalier reference to pulling cukes from the ground is incorrect. Cukes actually grow from the sky.


Dana King said...

The cucumber analogy is flawed. The locally grown cukes will almost certainly taste better, because they're fresher. Getting a book to market quicker doesn't make it a better book.

Another other weak spot is, no one is asking cucumbers to grow faster. If the demand for cucumbers goes up, more acreage is devoted to cucumbers; nature still has to take its course.

Also, if i can't find cucumbers, I'll eat an apple or an orange or a tomato. Eating them doesn't mean I'll spurn future cucumbers. I'll only do that if some process to turn the cucumbers around quicker makes them less tasty.

If self-published authors have done anything to alter the reading landscape, it is to create an environment where there are more potentially readable books than anyone can keep up with. Adding to that crush isn't likely to help anyone.

Steve Weddle said...

Good points. I don't expect the farmers' market = self-publishing is a perfect analogy by any means.

BUT ->

>>If self-published authors have done anything to alter the reading landscape, it is to create an environment where there are more potentially readable books than anyone can keep up with.<<

That happened for me ages ago. Heck, I think I could devote my waking hours to one publisher and never read all their books. I could probably devote my life to one IMPRINT and never read all their books.

John McFetridge said...

"And if a 10,000-word Jack Reacher story between novels helps to promote the upcoming novel, that's a win for the corporation that owns the book and the reader who enjoys the book and the author who wrote the book."

Actually, there's no reason for Lee Child to write the short story, it just has to be a Reacher story - he could simply approve it the way James Patterson does.

These short stories could be like rookie ball, a place for up and coming players to get a try-out with the big team and make a little money.

Steve Weddle said...

You're a genius.

Jamie Freveletti just wrote a cool Bourne book, but you usually have to wait for an author to die for that.

Douglas Adams. Ian Fleming. Etc.

These could use the JACK REACHER brand, and be approved by Mr Child and a committee.

Like existing in the STAR WARS universe. You don't break These Rules, but you can do These Things.

Keeps readers interested and engaged. The Lee Child author would get a cut, meaning maybe he can do a Big Book of Reacher every 18 months.

pattinase (abbott) said...

IMHO, even a book a year affects quality. Only genre writers seems to be expected to produce at this pace. Eugenides is certainly too slow but I have seen several examples lately of writers writing too quickly--and each book is less well done than the last.
A friend spent ten years on his first novel and it was terrific. He had a tw-o book deal and had to turn in the second within a year. It was very bad and that was the end of an agent, a publisher, his writing career.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

I'm lucky to produce one book a decade.

Hey, if Joyce could devote 17 YEARS to Finnegans Wake, what's the rush?

Who's going to remember Lee Child 50 years from now?

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Um...if I have 17 novels coming out in the next two years I am seriously behind! But point taken.

The truth is that every writer has to learn their limit. Some need extra time to outline, rework and rewrite in order for the book to be strong. Others don't need as much time-not because their writing is less thoughtful, but because their process is different. I for one am learning what my limit is. Two books in a year is totally doable for me. Four books in a year - well, I'm going to see how well I manage that next year. The one thing I am very aware of is that I am fortunate to have people paying me to write. So, if I plan on taking full advantage of that, which means if I have to write an extra short story prequel (which I did for THE TESTING) or jump through a couple of hoops to make my books succeed - so be it!

Nick said...

I dont understand the problem. I read the Times piece and saw that people say more than one book makes quality suffer.
If that is the case then dont write more than one book a year.
A publisher buys a book you write. How can they force you to write another one if you dont want to?

Anonymous said...

Quality takes time. That is the lesson writers need to learn.
Not pumping out shit like you're a sewer hose just so you can make money.

Jay Stringer said...

The internet needs things to argue about. It'll be pricing or gatekeepers again next week.

Some folks are happy having a full-time job and writing a novel in free time, putting one out as and when it's ready and not until they're sure.

Others want to write full (or even part) time and depend on the words they put on a page to put food on the table.

The former can pretty much write as many or as few books a year as they want. The latter need to diversify, try and lot of different avenues and find ways to keep things fresh both for themselves and readers.

Personally, I have three books coming out in (probably) around 18 months. With the benefit being that one of them was written a couple of years ago, and one is pretty much good to go. So really I'm having it both ways- a book is coming out every six months (probably, again) but I've been writing them at the pace of one a year.

If I was a full time writer I'm confident I could put out two novels a year, or a novel and two/three novellas. Being part time, I think it would be over ambitious for me to keep up the pave of one every six months indefinitely without the lead time that i've had so far.

But it's not a thing. The net'll find something else to get worried about.

Laura Benedict said...

Sure, an indie writer can get a book up in a fraction of the time, but packaging and promoting the thing is a huge part of the deal. There's much to be said for even the lamest promo efforts of a corporate publisher. Not to mention the front-end stuff like decent art, copywriting (ok they suck at that), editing, press-releases, setting up radio interviews, etc.

If you've got a team behind you, you can have the writing of #2, #3...whatever, underway while all that stuff goes on.

It takes real time to produce a quality product. My wishlist? To have one book indie, one book traditional each year. We'll see...Provocative post. Thanks.