At the Back Fence Issue #309

July 7, 2008

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Are Authors Being Pushed To Write too Much?

Part One – The Readers

If you ask readers, the answer is often “Yes, definitely.” A recent Boston Globe article Top Writers Feel Heat from Publishers’ Pressesaddressed the issue of top suspense and thriller authors who asked their publishers to cut them some slack. Many of them, such as Dennis Lehane, found that forcing themselves to publish a book a year affected the quality of their work. Other authors, such as Elmore Leonard and romantic suspense author Allison Brennan, saw no problem with a faster schedule.

Most romance authors publish more than a book a year – often two or more books a year. Romance is a competitive field. Romance authors, particularly new and midlist authors, have to publish a number of books to keep their names in front of readers. And if they write series romance, the need for quantity increases.

But is this affecting quality? Many readers think so. Sissy became frustrated by a recent book in a series of connected books. One book seemed different from the other books in that series – the style was different, and the plot seemed disjointed. “I could guess that the author probably had a deadline and wasn’t prepared. It was like the author asked a few friends to write a paragraph or two and she just put the pages together and mailed them off.” While Sissy loves connected books, she doesn’t want the books in them to come at the expense of the authors putting out less than their best. Cyl can certainly wait longer than 6-8 months between books when it means she’ll get a good book to read as a result. She thinks publishers are pushing authors to write more out of fear that the readers will lose interest in the authors if they “don’t get that ‘instant gratification’. Also, when the publisher has a proven moneymaker, they want the cash cow to produce. Cynical, much?” While she understands that authors need a paycheck, she wonders, “Won’t their paycheck be better if they produce a quality product? If that means taking longer to produce the final book, won’t they be better served by taking that extra time?

When I was younger, I never gave much thoughts to authors and contracts. To me, contracts were something Judge Wopner talked about on People’s Court. Yet instinctively, from my reading, I learned that something can happen to authors I once liked. My first experience with this was through the Father Koesler mysteries by William X. Kienzle. I adored the first book in the series, The Rosary Murders. Although published as a mystery, this was a serial killer thriller written before most people knew the term. The main character is Father Koesler, a Detroit priest who becomes embroiled in a strange murder case. Someone is killing priests and nuns in the city. The victims don’t seem connected, but there is a pattern. When the killer confesses to him later in the story, we learn of his motive, and for a mystery published in the 1970s, it’s a stunner. Suspense rises because Koesler can’t tell the cops what he knows. So is it any wonder I bought the next Father Koesler mystery, Death Wears a Red Hat, as soon as I could? That one also had a pattern of multiple murders that had to be solved, but it was nowhere near as stunning as The Rosary Murders. The next book was a disappointment because it was more of mystery, so I was ready to give up on the series. Then along came book four, Assault with Intent. In that one, Kienzle ramped up the humor — the major suspects were a group of bumbling criminals. So my hopes were raised again, only to be dashed shortly in the next book, which was more travelogue than mystery. I still followed the series for a little while but eventually gave up. Kienzle wrote some intriguing books, often breaking the rules, but that wasn’t enough. I missed the series, but I had to say good-bye to Father Koesler and his friends. From that experience, I realized some authors can’t keep up the quality from book to book. I wonder if the books might have been better if Kienzle had published fewer of them.

I’m not the only reader who has gotten frustrated with prolific authors. For years, AAR’s Annual Poll has included the category “Author You Gave Up On,” and the authors listed read like a who’s-who of some of the most popular authors – ranging from Nora Roberts and Julia Quinn to Sherrilyn Kenyon and J. R. Ward. Nancy says that while she likes it when authors publish more than one book a year, “no more than two books per year should be published by that same author. Even then, split those books to be at least 6-8 months apart.” Otherwise, she believes that the writing suffers. She likes the little details authors add, and she doesn’t think authors can write a rich book in less than six months. As an example of an author who has disappointed her, she mentions J.R. Ward books. She loved the first four books of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series but thought that by book five, the series was suffering, and she hoped the release of book six could be delayed. “Ward is one of several authors whose work I have seen decline when they have to churn out more than two books per year. Once they hit the decline, I find it hard to get back into the series, and sometimes I forgo the author altogether.”

I can’t speak to whether J. R. Ward’s books have declined because I’m “only” on the fourth book. While Zsadist’s story is my favorite so far, my interest in the series hasn’t flagged. Ironically, I often lose my interest in authors when they start writing fewer books. When I started out reading romance, authors such as Johanna Lindsey, Jo Deveraux, and Mary Jo Putney often put out two books a year, and MJP also wrote quite a few anthology pieces. When Lindsey started putting out only one book a year, my interest flagged – not because there were fewer books but because I didn’t like them as much. It’s as if by writing fewer books, some authors lose their spark. Maggie B has seen something similar with her favorite authors, especially when there is a large break between books. For her, this happened with Megan McKinney, once a favorite author and now sadly dropped from her list” While a year to write a book makes sense, three year waits often result in books that just don’t read as well. Maybe because the author had to really struggle to get the work done to begin with?”

On the other hand, when authors don’t keep up with the demands of readers, we get frustrated as well. Look at the number of authors mentioned in the Where Are They Now? ATBF. So sometimes it seems that authors are damned f they do, damned if they don’t. In today’s publishing, if authors don’t keep writing, and publishing, then their names will end up on a “Where Are They Now?” list. Some writers must take years between books. In many cases, such as Laura Kinsale, it’s worth the wait. Other times, not so much. Thriller writer Thomas Harris takes years between books. While I loved Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, I was disappointed by Hannibal and even more so by Hannibal Rising. Harris took less time than usual to write Hannibal Rising, but it read as if it were influenced by the movie being made at the same time. In that case, I wish he had taken his time. Maybe he really had to tell that story, or maybe he wrote it to keep up with demands from fans or his publishers.

Tinabelle agrees that readers are responsible for the new demands on writers, and she admits to being as guilty as anyone. When voracious readers get into a series, many look for the sequels be published as soon as possible, bemoaning the months between volumes and clamoring for secondary characters to get their own series. She also agrees that if the author doesn’t keep up with such reader needs, it can reflect badly on the author. “I wonder, too, that with so many romance books being written, if publishers feel that people will just move on to other authors if too much time lapses between books.”

But rushing books can also pose a problem. In the Boston Globe article, Allison Brennan relished in the schedule. and said that she would be bored if forced to write only a book a year. But Maggie B thinks the speedy publishing schedule may have affected the quality. She had just finished Brennan’s Killing Fear and thought that “the rush she wrote in most assuredly affected the quality of writing.” In an earlier Allison Brennan novel, Maggie found some of the plot errors to border on the ridiculous. She thinks those mistakes should have been caught by an editor, and major errors cause her to wonder if publishers are rushing books into print without proper editing. For her, the problem isn’t just that the authors are being pushed to write faster, but also, that editors are being forced to rush the work as well. The result is a sloppy product. “I think the balance is to take the emphasis off the money and allow everyone to write at his or her own pace while helping new authors join the market but I know that is just a pipe dream.”

On the other hand, there are many authors who consistently publish great books. Nora Roberts (and her alter ego J. D. Robb) sends a yearly refrigerator magnet that helps fans keep track of her yearly output, but in general, people still love her books. Laurie, who has read all of the Robb books and a few dozen of Nora Roberts’ books is constantly astonished by the quality of the work. Only a handful of the 60+ books she’s read by Roberts/Robb earned grades lower than a B-, which she finds a phenenomal accomplishment. As for me, I bought Lynn Viehl’s latest Darkyn novel, Twilight Fall (her second Darkyn book this year) last month because the first chapter grabbed me in the middle of the Wal-Mart and said “Buy me!”. Quantity does not necessarily mean lack of quality.

But Varina dislikes the way publishers expect all writers to keep up the same fervent pace. “So one size fits all? Aren’t people different, even in the same profession? Some writers can put out several books a year and maintain quality. I don’t know how, but they can, and good for them. Others really do need more time.” She objects to the point of view that writers who don’t keep up this pace are lazy or less of a writer. To Varina, this is as unreasonable as telling writers that if they don’t outline their whole plot, they’re doing it wrong.

Next week, we’ll learn what writers think about these deadline pressures, and it might shock you. A surprising number of authors live up to the Elmore Leonard quote in the Boston Globe article -“‘If it takes you more than six months to write a book, you’re not working.”

Until then, here are some questions to consider:

Have you ever given up on an author because you thought their books were being rushed?

On the other hand, are you more frustrated with writers who have a lag between books? Have you ever found that the quality can suffer if authors spend too long to write books, or is the reverse generally true?

Do you find that some authors are better at keeping up the space while some authors can’t write as well under deadline pressures?

Have you given up on any writers because they simply weren’t writing often enough? Or are you more likely to give up on authors because their books just aren’t as good as they used to be, no matter how long it takes to write them?

So, Calvin Trillin may not be the handsome prince of a young woman’s romantic fantasies, but he fulfills the most important: He loved his wife unabashedly and well. That’s romance enough for me.

 Anne Marble