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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Publish or perish?

Many bestselling authors, especially in the mystery and romance genres, seem to publish a new book about once a year, often timed to come out late in the year (for Christmas and holiday sales) or late spring (to read on vacation). Recently, there was an article in the New York Times about how many authors are under increasing pressure from their publishers to write not one, but two (or more!) books a year. Why the increased pressure? Say the publishers, audiences are increasingly used to the immediate gratification of being able to download an e-book, a movie, a game on demand, and if an author can't keep her name in the public eye, she's likely to be forgotten in the crush of options available to the online world.

Uh-huh. My read? Print publishers are increasingly afraid that their relevance is on the brink of extinction. I mean, suppose you just enjoyed a book from a new author (new to you, anyway), and then found out that omigod, she doesn't have a backlist of another twenty books you can read right now! So instead you're going to quit reading books altogether and stream the last season of Royal Pains, right?

To my mind, this sort of demand is reminiscent of hack writing, a term first used in the late 1800's to describe those who were paid to write low-quality articles or books to order on a short deadline. In the context of fiction, the term was used to describe writers who were paid to churn out sensational fiction such as true crime novels or "bodice rippers." (In the context of nonfiction, this brings to mind the slew of political books that are rushed to market in an election season. Do not EVEN get me started on those.)

The whole argument reminds me of "publish or perish," the phrase coined in the university world which relates the continual pressure to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further one's career. And while it's true that some authors can actually produce a book a year, they are generally authors who have an established series, such as those of a couple of my favorite crime fiction writers, Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch/Mickey Haller), and John Sandford (Prey). But literary fiction? Not often. And to my mind, nor should it be. Was it a career-buster for Khaled Hosseini that his second book didn't come out for four whole years after his incredible debut book The Kite Runner? No. The reading world's supposed micro-attention span managed to remember him long enough to make a bestseller out of A Thousand Splendid Suns. And chances are, whenever Hosseini publishes something else, we'll happily grab a copy in whatever form appeals. No, the push from the publishing houses is because THEY need to have a lot of product to keep you coming back--immediately!--for more.

My belief is that the immediacy of the Internet and mobile world, with all its apps, streaming videos, downloads, and 24/7 information allows a reader to stay more connected with an author, rather than less, regardless of how fast they publish. Now you can find an author online, learn about him, follow his blog if he has one, be the first on your block to know when his next book is due, and even pre-order it and have it delivered on the first day of publication.

I'm not among the writers who can quit their day job to write full time. And my day job is about 180 degrees different from the solitary life of writing: for the last ten years, we've owned and run a bed and breakfast called A Butler's Manor in the Hamptons, a popular resort destination. I was asked recently by one of our B&B guests how long it had taken me to write A Butler's Life. The short answer is that once I sold it to my original publisher (on proposal, as non-fiction is commonly sold), I completed the final manuscript in six months. But the real answer is more complicated. One, I had the outline and first two chapters and the introduction already written (and rewritten, probably fifty times), which was part of the proposal package I sent out to prospective publishers. Two, I was writing a memoir, not creating a story with characters and plot I needed to invent whole cloth. Three, I was so very green to publishing that I believed that, contract or no, the publishers would lose their enthusiam for the book if I didn't get the full manuscript into their hands as fast as possible. Four, nothing galvanizes you more than a deadline. And finally, at the time I sold A Butler's Life, I had the luxury of writing full time.

Novels, though, are a whole different story. Blood Exposure, and Net Stalker (not yet published) probably took five years apiece to write, when you factor in multiple drafts before it is polished enough to send out to my trusted beta-readers...waiting for their feedback...letting that feedback percolate in the brain for awhile before attempting the next draft...more honing, etc. And unlike nonfiction, you sell a novel in its complete, uber-edited, fifteen-drafts-is-not-too-many perfect form, until you're established as a bestseller, anyway. Also, both Blood Exposure and Net Stalker run about 400 pages or so...almost twice as long as A Butler's Life.

Not since our first year in business have I been able to commit to a regular writing schedule. That was back in 2002, and at the time, I was finishing my first draft of Net Stalker. I had set myself a goal to finish the draft before our summer season began on Memorial Day, and I achieved that goal. But since then, any sort of regular writing schedule has gone to hell in a handbag. Generally, what I try to do is complete a draft in the winter and early spring and send it out for comment and/or market it to agents during the summer and fall. You can imagine this makes for some long delays between books. On the upside, it does allow me the necessary time and space to see the story with fresh eyes, which makes editing more productive.

So even were I to write full time, no way no how could I crank out a book in one year, every year. Probably not even if I were writing a series, where the major work of developing the characters has been started. And I feel more than a little inadequate about this, because I have read scads of anecdotes about writers who labor deep into each night or wake up at 4:00 AM to write for a couple of hours before they wake the spouse and kids, get them off to work or school, then dress and go off to their own full time day job.  Last year, I spoke with Julie Otsuka, who told me that it took her five years to write both The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine, so I don't feel so alone.  And one of the writers I most admire, Barbara Kingsolver, has said that a novel will percolate in her for months or years as she "earns the authority to write it." That's really what it's about: finding the arc of the story and the passion behind it, which often develops as I write, rather than before I begin. And there shouldn't be a time limit on that.

But I admit, the perfectionist in me still feels inadequate about literary output. And that will probably never change.

Quality over quantity? Does it depend on the genre? What do you think?

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