Last week, when, in our comments section, several minor piles of waste byproduct were hurled with force at the circulating cooling device, Candy and I were emailing each other back and forth about writing, accountability, and who you blame when the stuff you read sucks a butt.
Laura Kinsale’s essay challenges some of our discussion with each other, but as we’re somewhat outsiders to the publishing industry, and as we’re Smart Bitches with endless opinions and bandwidth on which to voice them, we figured we’d share our rumination and invite discussion.
Unless you’re tired of the topic, in which case, Man-titty! Talk amongst yourselves.
Author vs. reader arguments are hard to read because it brings up all this latent stuff that exists when we discuss reviewing, bad reviews, Amazon, and royalty portions, because writing, although a solitary creative endeavor, is something of a service industry, but in service to whom?
That is a big question right there.
Is the writer in service to herself and her muse? Is she writing because she has a drive and a story and a goal to be published? Is she unable to prevent herself from writing, as some have described their experience? I’ve had that experience writing prose, where it was either “write this essay out of your brain or go nuts debating the topic in the confined space of your brain.”
Or is the writer in service to her publisher, the person who pays for her work and edits and markets it?
Or is the writer in service to her readership? Are the people who read her writing the clients of her labor? I feel often as a reader that when I pay full price for a book that sucked an ass that somebody let me down. But is the writer accountable for quality in her product?
What? You’re trying to get me to think right before lunch? Don’t think I’m not on to you and your tricks, missy!
The three options you provide aren’t mutually exclusive, though some aspects of each are in tension with each other. How each author resolves these tensions probably differs quite drastically.
I think that most authors do it because it’s a labor of love. I know exactly what you mean about the pressure to write—I can feel a physical sensation that builds up in my head and my chest when something is niggling at me, and it goes away only after I’ve set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, which doesn’t sound nearly as romantic). Makes me wonder about how pre-literate cultures deal with these sorts of pressures, or if they feel them in quite the same way people who can read and write do—I imagine that a lot of pre-literate cultures are too busy surviving and working to have the sort of leisure.
However, I don’t doubt some authors do it mostly for the money. The only service they care about is their wallet—and their egos. Perhaps they didn’t start out this way, but initial successes allowed them to work the system.
I’m not sure the writer is in service to the publisher, necessarily—the relationship here is a lot more tangled than that, I think. I’ll need to ponder on this a bit more, and get back to you later.
And I absolutely think that the author is accountable for putting out a shitty product. It’s not only the author’s fault; the publisher shoulders a good deal of the responsibility, too.
But on the flip side, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to pander too much to the audience, because let’s face it, unlike the two of us (who have FABULOUS tastes in everything), sometimes people love and demand drek. That’s perhaps where the biggest tension lies: the need for the author to create a commercially viable work while retaining her artistic integrity.
Think before lunch! Email before food? Damn right! I am a vicious taskmistress and have a big whip. Or, keyboard.
And I know exactly what you mean about the I Have to Write feeling. It never happens with fiction for me, as my fiction voice is a weak, shy thing that doesn’t know what to do with itself, but for prose, essays, etc, esp. on the online journal, there are things I have to Get Out Now and the only way to do that is keyboard in hand, ass in chair. Occasionally I grab a pen and sketch out ideas on paper, but it’s rare.
The integrity vs. profit thing is a big fish, to be sure. I know one author I spoke to had a major problem with the way RWA allows itself to be pushed around by publishers, and how the romance market, despite appearing to grow, gets ever more narrow. I was shocked when she said it, but after some thought, she’s right. There’s a lot of vampires and paranormal, but that “expansion,” which isn’t really because it’s turning into cookie cutters of the same, arrives at the expense of other genres that are being shut down.
The peculiar thing about the author/publisher relationship is that in some ways they are in service to each other, but in rapidly unbalancing ways. The author submits her work to the publisher for review and editing, and the publisher shapes it for publication, but the publisher wouldn’t have product without the author (or without the Harvard undergrad to put her name and face on the promotional materials at least). And once a writer is under contract for more than one manuscript, it gets very tangled, as you say.
Caveats up front: Have not published anything. Very likely never will. Am very much on the outside looking in. And what I say does not apply to all publishers across the board, and a lot of what I’m talking about covers what’s happened (and is still happening) to mass media in America in general, and not just romance novels.
In short, what we have in modern publishing is an oligopoly, and as has always been the case when an effective oligopoly is set up, the people running the show get to dictate terms. There are a huge number of people trying to get published, and only a few publishing houses out there—and if we take into account the big, big publishers that are responsible for over 90% of the books (especially fiction) that’s stocked in bookstores, then we’re talking about a tiny, tiny number of big names. The names that immediately occur to me are Hachette Book Group (which owns Little, Brown and Co. and Warner Publishing), Random House (which runs Ballantine, Bantam, Dell, Doubleday and Knopf), HarperCollins (imprints include Avon, Harper, Harper Perennial, Eos and William Morrow), Penguin Putnam (Berkley, Viking, Penguin, Puffin, New American Library, Signet [actually, does the Signet imprint exist any more?], G.P Putnam, Riverhead Books, Dutton), Simon & Schuster (Scribner, Simon & Schuster, MTV Books, Pocket Books, Downtown Press, Touchstone, Atria), Macmillan (St. Martin’s Press, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Pan, Picador, Tor) and, of course, Harlequin (Harlequin, Silhouette, Mira, Red Dress Ink, Luna). I may be missing a couple of names, but I think these are the big ones.
So these huge multi-national conglomerates run the show, and as several readers have noted, there’s a definite push towards treating authors as raw labor and books as some sort of a mass-produced, interchangeable product. This is something that makes me deeply uncomfortable, my snarky analogies comparing grammar to car engines notwithstanding, because books aren’t fungible, dammit, the way car parts are. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko isn’t the same thing as Savage Thunder by Cassie Edwards. Hell, Savage Thunder by Johanna Lindsey isn’t the same thing as Savage Thunder by Cassie Edwards.
(Side note: What are the freakin’ odds that there would be TWO books with such hideous titles running around. I mean, next thing I know, somebody’s going to tell me there are two different books out there entitled Eager Hot Butt. Oh, wait….)
Anyway, the “books are commodities” sort of attitude seems more prevalent in genre fiction, and seems especially evident in much of romance publishing in America. The publishers seem to abdicate much of their responsibility once their book has been printed. Plagiarism? The author’s fault. Book tanked? Well, shit, the author should’ve marketed the book more effectively. And by the way, amnesiac vampire cowboys are hot hot hot, so please write those, set in Regency England, if at all possible. What, you have a sweeping non-paranormal, non-amnesiac romance set in ancient Egypt? Well, can’t the hero have really, really sharp teeth and occasionally forget his name? And instead of pyramids and sand in 2030 BC, how about you set it in, say, Bath in 1811?
Not to say this treatment is the same across the board. Superstar authors like Stephen King could shit out a phone book sideways and someone will still publish it and market the hell out of it (actually, I’d argue that this has happened already—dude, why the fuck was Gerald’s Game ever published, and more importantly, why did I feel like I had to finish reading it?).
More often than not, I get the feeling that the publishers don’t really give a crap one way or another about ensuring that the books they release are as good as they can make it; they mostly want to get product out and on the shelves. And like Robin said somewhere on AAR (I think the post has been deleted by now), there’s little incentive for publishers to change their ways because by the time readers have realized they have some deeply flawed product on their hands, they’ve already paid for it.