“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The General Reading Public: Morons?

I got a pretty depressing email yesterday, from a guy who is a terrific writer (names not mentioned, for courtesy’s sake), the gist of which ranneth thusly:
“I have pretty much decided to treat fiction writing the way I did before I started making a living at it (appropriate, since I no longer am), which is to just do it for my own amusement, if it gets published and I get a little check once in a while so much the better.”
  Which followed hard on the heels of a very similar email from another terrific writer, who’s pretty down in the dumps about his latest book, which is marvellous, but which he reckons might well be his last, because he’s a grown man with real responsibilities and who the hell can waste time writing brilliant novels when there’s kids to be fed and roofs to be kept over little heads …?
  Meanwhile, the publishing world is agog with rumours that there’s record printings of Dan Brown’s latest waste of a rain forest.
  There’s something not quite right, folks. Either the general reading public are morons, which I very much doubt, being one of said public, or the people running the industry are the morons.
  But I have to say, while writing novels ‘just for my own amusement’ is the best reason in the world to do it, writing novels for fun because no one wants to buy them, while the likes of Dan Brown, that plank Grisham and Waistoid Patterson sell by the barrow-load … Actually, hold on – scratch the paragraph above. The general reading public are morons.
  This blog will self-destruct in 10 seconds. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5 …

12 comments:

bookwitch said...

Some readers are morons. (Not me obviously. I'm lovely. And intelligent.) But at least they are reading morons.

It's the decision takers at the publishers who are m***ns. Far too many really good books aren't published, which is never OK. But it could almost be acceptable if there weren't so many really bad books published.

Please keep writing! Please... If you give up now, then there will be no writers available when publishers see the light.

Joe said...

It's not the readers - it's the publishers.
The economics of the industry just aren't set up to allow writers time. Writers get such a pittance that unless we churn out a book every six months it's impossible to make a living, and even then it's very, very hard. But I can't see how it's possible to create, develop and write to your potential while also trying to work so quickly, or while trying hold down a job that pays the rent (though of course I know that some writers have been able to do this).
Being on a 15% royalty (and most writers are on less) might be reasonable if the publisher is investing its share of the take in editing, nurturing, promoting, publicising, marketing and everything else they should be doing, but the reality is that they no longer do those things. They print books. And for the majority of titles that's basically it.
If the standard royalty for the writer were, say, 30%, the publishers would have to invest their (smaller) share in all of that so that they could compensate for their smaller percentage with larger volume of sales. Meanwhile the writers would be able to make a living, and would probably also feel a little more valued in the industry.
But of course, the only way to achieve such a major change would be for every novelist to go on strike. I can't see that happening.

Sandra Ruttan said...

It's unreasonable to think that one group alone is responsible for this situation. In reality, it's a combination.

Are financial pressures driving publishers to look for sure things that pay off quickly? Yes, that's a factor.

But not every style, every genre or subgenre, or story is commercial. Quality of writing has to, on some level, be separated from public interest, and it doesn't mean readers are morons if they're more interested in escapist fiction about mason conspiracies to rule the world than, say, reading about criminals. More people are going to watch CSI than The Shield just by nature of content, and that doesn't make them lazy, stupid or inferior, and that principle extends to books.

The reality is, with all the pressures on people these days, it's harder and harder to find time to read. People therefore often want to know what to expect when they sit down with a book, and people know what they're getting when they buy a Dan Brown or James Patterson book. It's easier for them to lose themselves in it. I'm not going to say it isn't a bit disheartening, but I understand that takes a lot less brain power for me to sit down and watch an episode of CSI, and even The Shield, than it does to watch The Wire. I'll always hail The Wire as the superior product, by miles, but there are times after a long day with the kids that I'd rather watch Survivor.

Ray said...

There will always be popular crap, because it'll appeal to the lowest intelligence and the broadest audience. So let's just take that as a given, shall we?

Moving on:

"There’s something not quite right, folks."

Then it hasn't been right for at least 100 years. This idea of making a living from books is, I think, a relatively new one, and the reason why agents and editors still tell new authors to hang onto their day jobs for dear life.

Honestly, what's the worst that'll happen? They go back to a day job and have to find time to write? So they'll be in the same circumstances they were when they started, only much more able to write a marketable sentence. Or perhaps they're of an age that finding a day job is difficult - well, then they can join the rest of us working stiffs who've suffered redundancy over the last two years. And while I'm aware that the "it ain't digging ditches" argument isn't very comforting, perhaps us authors should face up to the fact that we're not quite the beautiful and unique snowflakes our egos tell us we are.

I would much rather be as I am - writing what I want and have the security of a day job. What's sad about the whole thing is that there will be authors out there writing shite for what they think is the market, simply because they want to hang on to their "career", when in fact they're probably damaging it.

Donna said...

Thank you Dec - that's the nicest thing you've ever called me :o) As a moron who buys a sh*tload (technical term)of books it distresses me when authors whose books I love, who are excellent writer, who deserve to be far better known, and who write books that do my soul good are struggling - to get published, to earn a decent crust from their writing, and to juggle a day job and family as well as the writing.

Personally, I would write just to please myself, but pleasing others is a wonderful feeling. I know that I'm never going to make money writing - I love doing it and it's a wonderful diversion from my day job. When I get my royalty check for £45 for 6 months' book sales, I think "Wow, look at that, isn't that brilliant - people are actually PAYING to read it? If they'd let me know I would have given them a copy."

But what I want for the rest of you, who've given me so much pleasure through your words, is that you can have the freedom to write more of them. Lots of them. and that includes you, Dec.

I'm not sure that it hasn't always been a little like this though - it's always been a few big name writers whose books get pushed and advertised. I think we just hear the stories from those who struggle a lot more now, what with the internet and stuff :o) There will always be readers who want to read the biography of a Big Brother z-lister, just as there will always be people who want to watch Big Brother. I'm happy that I can switch Big Brother off and read a new to me writer whose books have been recommended here, or Eurocrime, or 4MA.

Publishers seem to be looking for the Next Big Thing...or, probably more likely the Last Big Thing Because We Hope The Bandwagon's Going To Continue Rolling. It's easier, and cheaper, and there's a ready made audience clamouring for them.

Ummm...what was the question again? Oh yes - am I a moron? Guilty as charged :o)

The Unquiet Man said...

It comes down to the old chestnut: give people only hamburgers and they'll eat only hamburgers; give people only steak and they'll eat only steak.

Crap books are 'popular' because people like to be told what to read, watch, listen to, think. The argument being that their lives and jobs are too hectic to scratch the surface for quality (a reason I think is tosh).

I think the recession could be the perfect opportunity for every publisher, movie producer, music mogul, tv executive to clear the decks.

No one is buying anything anyway, so it's a perfect opportunity to weed out the shit and flood the market with quality when the economy starts to turn around.

Bill Crider said...

Boy, do I know the feeling. It's discouraging, but I'm an Old Guy, and I had a good run. I can't complain.

Dana King said...

I agree with Sandra: it's both. I'm harder on the publishers than I am on the readers, though. People read for entertainment. It's not their life's work, or their passion, or their calling, as those in publishing like to say about themselves when they're pontificating on the state of theindustry and why they can't do any editing or marketing AND pay the author an exorbitant 15%. What really frosts me is when the self-proclaimed "experts" go on at such length, then admit no one really knows what will sell, and what won't. 90% of the experts are either tossing coins, or playing Follow the Leader with the latest best seller.

FINN said...

tough times indeed. but maybe a new business model's emerging, as in the music industry, where success = connecting directly with your fanbase. maybe you receive micropayments by chapter; maybe you collaborate with your readers; maybe you blog/twitter/FacebookConnect, and you evolve.

or maybe you get lucky and the Newark Free Library in delaware features your book in an aisle endcap. i hope you don't stop writing because The Big O was a fab ride.

Declan Burke said...

Ms Witch - I appreciate the concern, but the post was about the two writers, not me ... I got to that point a few months ago, I'm writing for fun now ... But then, the guys I'm writing about are the real deal, proper writers, not the likes of me ... I'm angry and frustrated and bitter on their behalf, not mine. Because if all the good, interesting, thoughtful, articulate writers get squeezed out because they're not marketable for the lumpen proles (or what the publishing industry considers the lumpen proles), then who do I read? Grisham? Patterson? I'd rather poke my eyes out ...

Joe - Up the workers, brother. The only problem with writers going on strike is that most of the people I know love to write; getting published is just another aspect of the writing. A necessary evil, almost, to make the wasted hours worthwhile. But yeah, if publishers put even a tenth of the time and creativity into promoting a book that the writer spent writing it (and not just chucking advertising spend at it - or not, as the case generally is), then there'd be a hell of a lot more interesting books out there.

Sandra? You're way too reasonable, ma'am ... and a good novel doesn't have to be grittily realistic to be good, or well written ... All I'm asking for is stories and characters I haven't read (or not read) about a thousand times before. I don't think it's too much to ask for.

Ray - I'm totally, utterly cool with fitting the writing around a day job ... It's what I've always done, and it's what the guys I'm talking about are doing too ... I'm not asking for favours, silver spoons or silk cushions ... All I'm asking is that interesting writers (cf you and Sandra Ruttan, and Donna, as it happens) get an even break ...

Donna - I've officially insulted you now, haven't I? So you've no excuse not to break out the boots and whips ... Crikey, I knew this blog would pay off sooner or later.

Unquiet Man -
"No one is buying anything anyway, so it's a perfect opportunity to weed out the shit and flood the market with quality when the economy starts to turn around."

You're either an idiot savant or a genius, sir ... I salute you.

Bill? You're the model, squire ... perseverance, excellence, generosity of spirit. Man, if I had your kind of run, I think I'd wind up happy ... and you're not really that old. Are you?

Dana - I'm with you, buddy ... as William Goldman said about Hollywood, no one knows anything. So why not toss a few more coins in the air ...?

Finn - Kind words, sir, and much appreciated ... I'll keep plugging on regardless. And I think you're right about the model changing, about the micro-engagement with the reader ... That was the original reason I set up this blog, although it's not the reason I maintain it now ... It's always great to get feedback, for good or ill.

Cheers one and all, Dec

bookwitch said...

I knew it wasn't about you! I was addressing your unknown correspondents, and everybody else out there who has doubts.

Adrian said...

I agree with you re: the proliferation of authors like Patterson and Grisham. I spend over 3 hours a day commuting by train to Dublin 3 days a week and I see people reading the same crap day-in and day-out.

I find Patterson to be particularly troublesome. He "co-authors" a lot of his books and is a one-man publishing industry. I read "Kiss the Girls" many years ago and thought it was awful.

John Connolly seems to be fairly popular amongst my fellow travellers (and deservedly so). However, the majority of the people who seem to be reading novels are women and the majority of them are reading the latest Celia Ahern or Cathy Kelly.