Among the comments about my last post, M.J. makes a very good point:
“If the writer believes this, he or she has misunderstood the situation.Â Which sounds like the agent has not been doing his/her work. Or – The author is suffering from real and serious issues and needs outside psychological help to resolve her conflicts.”
M.J. brings up a very good question: are these pressures the author feels real or merely perceived?Â Is she making herself crazier than she needs toÂ by inflating her own importanceÂ to the publishing house?
I do think the term “payroll author” is a valid one.Â I’ve certainly been hearing it a lot lately — from various sources referring to various authors.Â The prime example of aÂ payroll author is J.K. Rowling, who singlehandedly changed the fortunes of Scholastic.Â The other name I’ve heardÂ associated with that term is Dan Brown, whoseÂ publisher is breathlessly awaiting his next book, and no doubt counting onÂ that book toÂ wash awayÂ their red ink.Â Â I’m certain that quite a few other names alsoÂ qualify as payroll authors.Â Although publishing houses make money on backlist sales, many of those backlist sales are driven by frontlist sales.Â Every time Grisham comes out with a new book, sales of his backlist also spike.Â If an author stops producing, his backlist sales will gradually wither away and die.Â But payroll authors are a very select group indeed, and agents and publishers want toÂ hold onto those writersÂ and keep them working hard.
Sometimes, though, they work those authors way too hard.Â And then they risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Authors are an insecure bunch to begin with,Â and when an agent or editor tells them that slowing down or taking a year off will kill their careers, theyÂ absolutely believe it.Â Because there’s a certain amount of truth to that statement.Â A writer doesn’t want to go unpublished for too long, because once you’ve stepped out of the yearly publishing cycle, readers forget you. Booksellers forget you.Â Â If you stay away too long, you may never be able to jump back in.Â Â We writers are advised to write at least a book a year, just to stay in the game.Â We’re terrified of backsliding.Â No matter how successful we may be, we feel entirely dispensable because there are a thousand other writers ready and willingÂ to take our publishing slot.Â So we write book after book, year after year, and some of us manage it with no problem.
But for others the stress piles up, and eventuallyÂ you’re like thatÂ author whoÂ throws up every morning.Â She’s lost sight of what it means to have a life.Â A real life.
Some writers muster up the backbone to call a halt to the madness.Â I remember when Sue Grafton, about halfway into her alphabet series, announced that she was exhausted and she plannedÂ to take a year off.Â I remember the noise that generated within the publishing industry, and all the speculation that it would hurt her mystery series and permanently damage her career.Â She did it anyway.Â And when she came back, she was bigger and better than ever.Â In a recent interview with Romantic Times, Grafton marked a milestone — the release of her 20th novel in 25 years.Â (Which makes me think she must have taken off more than just that one year.)Â Â Her latest title, T IS FOR TRESPASS,Â earned her some of the best reviews of her life.Â And her sales don’t seem to have suffered one whit from the sabbaticals she’s taken.
In fact, I would guess that her career has been helped by taking that time off.Â It gave her time to rest and recover.Â It gave her time to re-charge her creativity.
Our stories have to come from somewhere.Â We can’t just pull them out of barren soil.Â We need to keep feeding our imaginations with fresh information, fresh experiences.Â I couldn’t write the books I write if I weren’t pursuing my interests in other fields.Â The book I’m writing now is inspired by my interest in Egyptology and my two trips to Egypt.Â (Yes, it’s a Rizzoli story.)Â My visit to the catacombs of Paris inspired BODY DOUBLE’s early chapters.Â MyÂ fascination with Biblical archaeology wasÂ what inspiredÂ THE MEPHISTO CLUB.Â Had I not traveled so much, had I not devoted so many hours to my rather obscure hobbies, I could not have written those books.Â I might be reduced to writingÂ variations on the same old serial killer stories again and again.Â Â And yes, they would probably sellÂ fine.Â But how many years can youÂ re-write the same book before theÂ spark goes out of your writing?
I think any editor or agent who pushes an exhausted writer to keep writing is being shortsighted.Â They are killing the gift that made that writer special to begin with.Â And any writer who allows herself to be forced intoÂ a killer scheduleÂ is going to end up sick or completely tapped out.Â That helps no one.Â That ruins the books, disappoints the readers, and wrecks writers’ lives.Â
We should all strive to be as sane and sensible as Sue Grafton.Â We should pay attention to our own bodies, our own anxiety meters.Â We should recognize when it’s time to say, “That’s enough,Â I need a break.”
We should.Â But too often, we’re afraid to.