Saturday, June 14, 2008

Today's After-School Special: Sales Peer Pressure

My friends and I have noticed (and frequently complained about) the way that some authors' books seem to degenerate over their career-Rowling and Pullman leap to mind... Anne McCaffrey seemed to have a bit of this problem too, back in the day. Do editors just stop editing them because they're guaranteed cash cows? Or is it a problem with authorial hubris? On the other hand, Rick Riordan's latest book still seemed pretty tight. And Terry Pratchett has improved over time.... So... is a lack of editing for popular authors an editorial or authorial decision? Or is it the whole "secret ending can't have too many eyes" problem?
In my experience, it's mostly commonly a combination of authorial hubris and publisher gutlessness.

It is a fact of life that authors, who may spend a great deal of time lovingly reading fanmail and googling themselves, end up with a warped opinion of their own talent. This is how a charming author who once knew her own mind but valued others' informed opinions becomes someone who doesn't just think her editor doesn't understand her, but doesn't see why she should bother trying to explain herself. She is brilliant! She is an artist! No wonder we don't get what she's trying to do--she is operating at a whole different level! (...of egomania.)

Now combine that with a medium-high level of career success. The editor who looks at the newest manuscript from this person wants to send it back and say, "I love your writing, but there's no character development or plot arc in this. You can do better." But the editor knows that (a) if the manuscript was published as-is, people would still buy it. A lot of people. And (b) if the editor says no to this, there's a fair chance the author would just turn around and sell it to some other publisher. Then that other publisher would have the mediocre book and the pile of money, and the original editor's Sales and Marketing people would be Highly Displeased that those sales were not theirs. Highly. Displeased.

Who has the guts to say no to money? The truth is, not a lot of people, especially in a business that's low-profit for pretty much everybody involved. And, more's the pity, those of us who want to Just Say No are under some serious pressure to say yes. You can get kicked out of school for not taking these drugs.


Mommy C said...

It is unfortunate that so many authors seem to slide down hill. There are actually a few publishers that will pass on the money, in favour of their integrity, though. As an example, Rick Wilks turned down "Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch. It happens to be the top selling children's book (last time I checked), but he had the guts to pass on it.
On another note, I think it is next to impossible to stay grounded when you make the big, big, really big time. Many writers who have been able to do this, have done so because of a long standing relationship with an editor they deeply respect and trust. Mordecai Richler's last book "Barney's Version" was arguably his greatest. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that he had integrity as a writer, but even more to do with the editorial voice of his wife.
Maybe more writers should take a minute to realize that the quick paycheck and unbruised ego just aren't worth having your name attatched to crap long after you're gone.

Andy J Smith illustration said...

I'll remember this when I'm a big-shot author. As I'm still a peon, editing's welcome, needed, and unavoidable. Very interesting insight to the pressure editors face, though!

Carly said...

Yes, it's unfortunate that so many authors slide downhill, but it's even more unfortunate that so many editors simply can't say no to those projects for fear of losing their jobs or being punished in some other way. I mean, does anybody seriously want to be the editor of Meghan McCain's picture book? Does anybody really even want to publish it, in their heart of hearts, if they truly care about publishing great writing for children?

Maybe what editors really need is to form a union that will allow them to Just Say No to badly written (celebrity and otherwise) books.

Liana Brooks said...

Poor editors! I've read the slightly edited "bad" books. I can only imagine how hideous they were when Big Name Author started.

Anonymous said...

I've absolutely noticed this, and with some of my favorite authors, too; and I'm very much hoping it doesn't happen to me, should I miraculously hit the big numbers. But let's say an author gets big sales but still manages to retain a grip on reality, remains aware of the value of an editor's input, and expresses this to the editor.

I can still see a scenario where the editor will be second-guessing herself, pulling punches, not really writing the editorial letter that's needed, for the very reasons you mentioned; and it frankly terrifies me. How, as an author, can I possibly know the editor is failing to edit as she should? I'm way too close to the manuscript to see it objectively. We depend on your vision and clarity, and we depend on your honesty. We can do the work, once certain truths are pointed out, but it's tough to see the truth on our own... unless we let the book sit for a year or three on the shelf, and come back to it with a fresh eye. And doubling or tripling the time it takes to get a book out probably wouldn't please the publisher, either.

Do you have suggestions for the author in this position?

SAVanVleck said...

I have also read authors that never seem to live up to their first book and who some times, since they have a "name" seem to just turn out crap for more money; knowing it will sell on their name alone. First to my mind was the top selling Mystery writer who put out a series of flimsy paper back books, for young adults, about children who had been bred with wings. Honest, I cannot remember his name.

Do editors have any say when they have a big name author? Can they send it back with a: "We need something like a plot here?" or are they afraid of losing the author?

I always thought, though, that there were two factors involved in this issue.

Fist, the writer may take two to three years to get his first book just right. Without editing and revising of every sentence, you are just not going to place it. It has to be polished to perfection, your best. This can take several years.

Are they allowed the time to do that on the next book and the next? Or, are they being pushed to get those books out while they are "hot?"

The same problem for the editor. Is he just pushed to get the book out by a certain deadline and consequently says, "good enough?"

Ebony McKenna. said...

I am really enjoying your blog, it's giving me lots of insight and inspiration.
Thanks very much.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:26 is absolutely right.

"We can do the work, once certain truths are pointed out..."

And if an editor is afraid to edit a Big Name Author, they aren't doing their job. I honestly believe this is less about an author's big ego than about editors suddenly becoming shy and bashful about a writer whose work has become a cash cow for the publisher.

Every writer needs that second set of eyes, saying, "this section doesn't make sense, this ending needs reworked, or this dialouge should be cut," etc...

Better at the editing stage than getting ripped apart in book reviews later. Many writers don't have those extended supportive critique groups or dedicated proof-readers -- they depend on an editor that isn't afraid to edit.

Anonymous said...

I think SherylAdairVv hit the nail on the head with this: that first book frequently has a longer, more critical gestation period than the follow-ups. I think the classic "sophomore slump" can be attributed more to this factor than any other, especially if the first book was a success.

It isn't, by the way, just author ego. It's also publishers' short-sightedness: getting something - anything - with a successful name onto shelves as quickly as possible after the initial breakout. I get that this is good business in the short term, but if it's done without regard to an author's long-term viability, it's not going to do that author much good.

This is no problem for the publisher, of course, who has an infinite well of new writers to draw on: two or three catalogues a year, dozens of books... there's always a new name to cultivate.

For the individual writers, of course, being dropped by the wayside is a little more of a problem.

I've had my own experience in this regard. It's just as difficult for an emerging author to say 'it's not ready' to an overeager publisher as it is for the publisher to say the same thing to an overeager author.

If anything, it's harder for an author to put the brakes on, since we know all too well how fickle the attention we're recieving can be: by the time we're satisfied with that follow-up project, there's no one left in the marketing department who even knows our name.

The solution, for authors at least, is planning ahead. I remember reading of some very successful first-time author (can't remember who at the moment) who had finished her first novel more or less as an exercise, and put it into a drawer. God bless her, she had the strength of will not to send it to anyone. The book that hit was her second attempt at the form.

Planning ahead also includes having an answer to the question "What else are you working on?" There should always be a number of pots on the stove... the response on the writer's side to the publisher's mantra "We don't publish books, we publish authors."

Be an author and not just a book. The more stuff that gets created without the contamination of publisher's excessive deference or excessive pressure to produce, the better.

This subject is near and dear to me at the moment. The last year or so, I've pulled back from the work I was doing to put time into a picture book that I'm developing in my time frame, rather than my publisher's. For the first time in ages, I feel like I'm working on something that will have a chance to be good.

And that's the excitement that made me want to do this work to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it feels like a whole industry-wide conspiracy- I'm in it just as a reader. Sometimes a second book by a newly successful author comes out, and not only does it seriously need a LOT more editing, and possibly also suck to whatever degree with or without that editing, but the book reviews also praise it to the heavens. It seems that once a name has made it, everyone is afraid to politely tell the emperor s/he has no clothes. And that's sad, because there are probably a lot of fine undiscovered folks with better writing who get ignored because of this because they don't have the name.

Anonymous said...

Also, good writing is HARD. By the time you've made it, you probably don't have quite the same cocktail of fear, ambition, and need in front of you that you did when you were trying to break in. It must be a fight to keep good enough from starting to seem good enough.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Working Illustrator, for your candid comments. And a big congrats to you for following your own timeline! I hope great things come to you for doing so!

Everyone makes really good points! Certainly adding to this too (and I'm a nobody and I find this affects the quality of my work, which no one is necessarily rushing to the shelves) is the whole "can you get back to us in mere hours?" production schedules.

Anonymous said...

Here are a few thoughts from another anonymous editor. I think we're talking about two different situations. One is a project by a celebrity, a big author, or someone who seems likely to become a big author that is being shopped around to the various houses, and an editor who says no is potentially missing out on something big. The other is an author that the editor or house has presumably worked with before and currently has under contract, and that author has suddenly become hot stuff.

Nearly every editor has been in the first situation and then has to decide how to balance her own editorial integrity against the potential success of the project, and what that will mean for her company, and for herself as editor of said project.

I've often turned down books or authors that I knew would go on to be successful elsewhere, because I just did not think they were good enough. Then again, I'm lucky enough to work at a smaller house that prides itself on its literary reputation, so I'm not facing the kind of pressure to have Rowling-sized hits that editors at some other houses face.

Working with a big-name author is a different story. It can be very intimidating to try to edit an author who is at this level, and certainly there are some authors who don't want to hear what an editor has to say. But if the editor feels that the manuscript needs work, I think it is her responsibility to try to get the author to make some changes. Her integrity as an editor is on the line here, or at least that's the way I see it when I'm in this situation. If I try to edit a book and the author refuses, so be it. On the other hand, the author might be thrilled to have this kind of honest input so that she can turn out a book that she's proud of, not just one that will make her some money.

Anonymous said...

What about those authors who have great success with their first book, and then just go on to write basically the same book over and over again? Do their editors encourage that sort of thing, or are they afraid to suggest they try something different?

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:26 here, and thanks, anon 2:17, for weighing in. You said:

"It can be very intimidating to try to edit an author who is at this level." Would you be willing to elaborate on the nature of this intimidation? And what would you recommend said big-name author say or do to try to circumvent this?

Also. I don't take every recommendation that my editor makes. Most of the time I can see how the suggested changes will make for a better book, and I revise. But there are times that, in my judgement, she's off base, and then I explain my thinking and see what she says. Sometimes she comes back with another argument, sometimes she sees my point.

What scares me is the "If I try to edit a book and the author refuses, so be it" comment. If I come back to the editor with my opinion on why a suggested change isn't in the interests of the book, and she wants to take another stab at convincing me but instead decides to be quiet, we've lost something.

Anonymous said...

Rowling's books "degenerate"? This is news to me. Provided, 5 was a few pages too long, but 7 rocked all over the place. I think of Stephen King, who should have left The Dark Tower unfinished.

Then again, isn't it editors' jobs to say something? I mean, yeah, money's bottom line etc., but shouldn't one of an editors' qualifications be the ability to professionally talk Jo Rowling out of 30,000 words? Kinda like one of the old definitions of charm is the ability to tell people to go to hell but make them believe they'll enjoy the ride.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:17 here, replying to anon 1:26. I was referring to a situation where the editor has never worked with that author before. It’s always a little intimidating to have to prove yourself to someone new, don’t you think? Especially when that person is a very successful and well-known author. After all, the author has already proven himself to the editor, and to the world in general. The editor has yet to prove herself to this author, and those first conversations and letters are where she has to do it. So it can be hard for an editor to get up the courage to point out things in the manuscript that she thinks need work. Just as with a first-time author, where the editor is the proven one and the author is new, it can be hard for the author to get up the courage to voice her thoughts if she disagrees with the editor about something.

The best thing either an author or an editor can do to make the other feel comfortable is to be friendly and respectful, and to be as clear and up front as possible about how he or she prefers to work. That way each person is entering into the relationship with a sense of goodwill, and with her or his expectations and needs as clear as possible.

Don't worry, I did not for a minute mean “so be it” in the way that you’ve interpreted it. If an author disagrees with a suggestion of mine, I expect him to explain why, just as I’ve explained to him why I made that suggestion in the first place. I’m always happy to let something stand if the author convinces me to see his point. On the other hand, if I still feel very strongly about my suggestion I’ll come back with another argument to support my stance, and try to convince the author to see things my way. And we’ll go back and forth like this until we reach a point where we’re both happy with the decision. This is the same way that you and your editor work together, it seems.

When I said “if an author refuses,” I meant that if, after many rounds of arguing a point that I feel very strongly about, the author still does not see things my way and refuses to make the change, then there’s nothing I can do. I may go to my grave swearing that the book would have been better had the author made that change, but I cannot force the author to agree with me. So if, after I’ve done everything I can to convince him, he still doesn’t agree with me, so be it. But up until that point, Will Entrekin is exactly right: my job is to say something.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:17/6:42-- thank you so much, this is clear now and I very much appreciate your explanation.

Happy editing, and may all your authors have manageable egos!
Anon 1:26

stephen matlock said...

Ah. This is very helpful. I know this is an old topic, but I've asked these questions about some of my favorite authors, and your explanation from the publishing side helps me understand.