Cranking Them Out

One of the questions I most frequently get asked at book signings, at cocktail parties, even at my local coffee shop, is: “Are you working on another book?” The answer, of course, is always yes. There’s never a day when I’m not working on the next one. And that sometimes inspires the follow-up comment, “Boy, you really crank them out, don’t you?”

I know they don’t mean to be denigrating, but come on, folks. I don’t operate a simple assembly line. Writing books is sometimes an agonizing process for me. I obsess over every one, and there are days when I really, really get tired of the book-a-year schedule. I dream of taking a year off from writing and spending it laboring at some archaeological dig in Egypt. Yes, there are days when even digging under the hot sun sounds like a lot more fun than sitting at my desk, struggling with the next scene.

So why don’t I take the year off? Why do so many authors feel compelled to write a book every year?

Well, to start off with, there’s that thing called a publishing contract. My contracts specify delivery dates, and they work out to — guess what? — a book a year. For the past nine books, I have been a “summer” author; come the end of August, my readers can expect a new Tess Gerritsen book will be in stores. Meeting their expectations — and my publisher’s — is a big part of hitting bestsellerdom. Mary Higgins Clark is always published around Mother’s Day, and that was a well-thought-out strategy planned by her publisher. That reliability and consistency is part of her huge success.

I don’t know if this is a true story, but I’ve heard that when John Grisham was touring with his first book, he asked a book buyer what he could do to ensure his success. The answer: “Write a book a year.” Grisham certainly has.

If an author drops out for a year, it can cause lasting damage to her career. Yes, even one year without a book can cause readers to forget you. Drop out of sight too long, and you may never be able to regain your momentum in the marketplace. And when you become a “name”, your publisher won’t LET you drop out because you become what’s called a “payroll author” — one whose book sales are a large part of your publisher’s income that year. They’ve paid you a huge advance; they need to recoup that money, and if you take two years to deliver the manuscript, that’s two years of investment they’re not getting a return on. Of course they’ll be unhappy.

Which leads to the phenomenon of publishers not really caring how good the book is — they just want it. Now. Because it’s already on the release schedule and they need to make back the big advance they paid you.

Despite this killing pace, some authors can continue to write great books year after year. But some authors find their creativity stretched thin, and just can’t keep up the quality. When you see a formerly great author start to write skimpy, poorly written stories, it may simply be that she’s burned out, but just can’t get off the treadmill because her publisher and her agent won’t let her.

And the reason they won’t let her is, of course, money.

If the author doesn’t turn in a book that year, the agent doesn’t get her commission, and the publisher doesn’t get those book sales. The author may be having a nervous breakdown, but who cares? Snap that whip! Keep that pony trotting!

You can see why, sometimes, this writing gig isn’t a lot of fun.

You may ask, “Why not take the time to write a better book? It will sell more copies and make more money than a hurried novel, won’t it?”

Maybe. But look at the dollars and cents here. Unless that “better” book sells TWICE as many copies as your last one, you’re still better off writing two books than taking two years to write one big book.

In the not-too-distant past, the philsophy was that an author should be LIMITED to one book a year, because to write more than that was to saturate the marketplace. It’s why the ever-prolific Stephen King, who was writing more than a book a year, had to take the pseudonym Richard Bachman for some of his books.

Times have certainly changed. Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and a whole host of romance authors have proved that the market is ready to absorb ANYTHING by their favorite authors. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to how many books Nora can release in a year; they’ll all hit the bestseller lists.

The inevitable result: publishers now want their authors to write MORE than a book a year. Can this get any more insane? It makes me think of that “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy’s working in a candy factory. The faster Lucy works, the faster the factory cranks the assembly line, until Lucy can’t keep up.

When authors can’t keep up, they have one other strategy they can turn to: the co-writer. Some authors, such as James Patterson and Tom Clancy, are gracious enough to allow their co-writers to share billing. But others have arrangements with ghost writers whose names never, ever appear on the book cover. Frustrating for the “ghost” and, in my opinion, utterly dishonest on the part of the “author.”

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