How Current Publishing Models Undermine Quality

by Mike Duran · 13 comments

A father enrolled his son in a private Christian school, but soon became frustrated. He approached the schoolmaster and queried him regarding the child’s lack of immediate spiritual growth. “Oaks require decades to reach maturity,” said the schoolmaster. “Cabbages, only months.”

The same is true about good writing — it takes time. Unlike cabbages, most of the great books (the ones that endure time, critical review, and make a lasting impression) weren’t rushed through the mill. They spent time on the drawing board, in the lab, and on the anvil, curing under the artist’s gaze. Tolkien spent his whole life crafting Middle Earth. Is it any wonder his epic is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of all time? Of course, time is no guarantee of quality. Nevertheless, if there is a reasonably reliable formula for good art, it is this — the more time spent on a project, the better it gets.

But in today’s publishing world, time is often the commodity in least abundance.

A writer friend phoned me several years back to announce their new two-book contract. They had spent years hammering out that story, polishing and perfecting it. So it was no surprise when a publisher finally snatched it up. Recently, however, I received an email from that author requesting prayer. Why? Their second book wasn’t going so well and their deadline was fast approaching.

From what I understand, this is typical of many new authors. Their first book is not written under deadline, and it shows. They’ve had more time to marinate in its themes and fine tune its ingredients. Once they are contracted, however, the game changes. They no longer have the luxury of leisurely analysis; something must be written, even if what is written is before its time.

Thus, the main difference between an author’s first book and their second book is often simply… a deadline.

So should publishers not have deadlines? Well, if you left it up to flighty artists to produce something whenever, I doubt anyone — artist or publisher — could stay in business. Nevertheless, assembly lines are not necessarily conducive to creative genius. And, to some extent, publishers must be assembly lines. How can they stay in business if they aren’t? However, if artists are about “art” and publishers are about “numbers,” causalities are inevitable.

Which is how quality becomes one of the causalities of the arts industry.

Several years ago, L.A. Times film critic Patrick Goldstein, wrote about Disney’s “formula” for success. It is quite different from the traditional studios’. In Mouse House Tops Studio Report Card Goldstein wrote:

Of the 11 movies [Disney] released in 2007, eight were Disney label movies, allowing the company to remain relentlessly focused on its brand. By releasing so few films, Disney was able to make more high-quality films by putting extra time into solving script, production and marketing issues than competitors like Sony and Warner Bros., who roll out more than 20 a year.

“We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are. If you only make 11 movies a year, you’re not putting your movies through a meat grinder; you can be very specific about quality.” (emphasis mine)

Watch any recent Disney / Pixar movie and it’s hard to argue about the meticulous detail that goes into their animated films. But as with any quality product, perfection takes time. And this is exactly what differentiates Disney from its competitors. “We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” said Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are.” Unlike other studios, most of whom are cranking out twice as many films a year, Disney has valued quality over quantity.

And it is precisely this “value” that goes against industry norms.

I can’t help but relate this to the arts in general, and the industries that handle them. The film industry, like the book industry, like the music industry, is admittedly about making money. This is what Mr. Cook calls “the meat grinder.” Again, this is not to suggest that money alone motivates publishers, as if they have no concern for quality. In fact, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, making money may be a sign that a publisher is doing something right. However, it’s the model that forces artists into “the meat grinder” that I take objection to. For no sooner is the “goose” discovered than we are demanding more “golden eggs.” Forget the fact that it took five years to write the script for your indie hit — you’ve got 12 months for the follow-up. Welcome to “the meat grinder.”

Perhaps more publishers and producers should reconsider Disney’s approach. “[I]t’s not how many you do but how good they are.” Maybe, in the scheme of things, less movies, books and bands are a good thing. After all, the discount racks are full of “cabbages.” Oaks, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as disposable.

Brenda Jackson October 3, 2010 at 6:59 PM

And you’ve just hit on the reason why, despite my many writer friends’ admonishments to get my first completed manuscript out there and query, query, query, I am unwilling. It took me 6 years to write (and I still don’t feel it’s at its best but have reached the point where I realize in order to make it better I need to go on and write another book first).

While I do honestly believe it won’t take me 6 years to write the next one, it still will take a long time. I’ll still have to squish writing in between the day job and other responsibilities, and no, I can’t live on 2 hours of sleep a night.

Besides which, I have always wondered if that rushed publishing schedule is the reason so few broad, sweeping epics are out there (and yes, I know it’s also due to the fact that publishers make more money releasing 2-3 books instead of one big one and that a bigger book costs more money to print). Or put another way, I think this mad rush is the reason so many books sound the same to me.

But then I’m a very slow writer. Some people can write very quickly. I once met a guy who could write a 50-60,000 word novel in 3 weeks. That’s nice if you can do it, but that sure doesn’t apply to me.

R. L. Copple October 3, 2010 at 8:07 PM

To provide an alternate view, there are many writers, very successful writers, who write a story within a month.

I happen to write that way. All my rough draft novels have been written within a month. I’m still tinkering with many of them, but some have been published. One is coming out Dec. 1st that I wrote in November 2008. I guess if I could do this full time instead of on the side, I would be able to get out more than one novel a year. But I have several in production, and I’ll add another novel to the list in November, as I usually write my novels for National Novel Writing Month.

I think there is some truth to what you say in that some folks rush a story, sometimes out of necessity, and don’t have time to fully develop it. I’ve been lucky in that regard, working with small presses, they are usually not as ready as I am to get a novel out because they can’t put out many at at time.

A lot depends on the novel you’re writing. What level of research, world-building, and other factors, as well as how much time you have to devote to the project every day or week. But the creative process can go very fast. While Tolkien did take a long time, what I don’t know is how much of every day or month he spent working on it. Did he do three or four hours a month, or hours nearly every day?

Other classics could be cited that were done very quickly. Depending on the project, there is a point where if you don’t take enough time, the project will suffer in scope and depth. But it is also I think a mistake that to write a good novel requires taking years, or even months. Sometimes it needs to. Other times, a real quality novel can be written in a month or two.

Last November I wrote 102K words for NaNo. One of the novels that came out of that is what I feel the best novel I’ve written to date.

I guess if you’re making a living off of writing, which obviously Tolkien didn’t, at least when he was writing it, you have to write so many a year to keep the income stream at a level you can live on. So a lot depends on whether you’re going to write commercially, and live on it, or just do it as a side hobby, so you can devote a few minutes a day, or an hour or two here and there, until you finish it.

But another interesting point of view is Dean Wesley Smith, who says that new writers shouldn’t do extensive edits, because what often happens is they don’t know enough about how to edit, and they end up editing their unique voice right out of their work.

His view is it is better for them to write the story, clean it up for typos, grammar, maybe fix some big plot holes, send it out and get onto the next. If it only gets rejects, chalk it up to learning the craft and practice, since most writers don’t really get the full hang of writing until they reach, in general, around a million words of writing.

But, yes, sometimes authors do get rushed, and I think a new author whose skills are not yet up to the task of meeting a deadline and producing a really good story in the process, will falter when the publisher has in their contract with you that the second novel will be out by a certain date. Because they haven’t written a million words yet, and they don’t feel confident they can write without glaring plot problems in that short of a time.

That’s when its time to maybe try out NaNo. If nothing else, you’ll get in more words toward that million mark. Last I checked, I’m over half a million.

Mike Duran October 4, 2010 at 5:20 AM

R.L., I agree that the author’s career context is huge in this regard. Working a 40 hour a week job on top of writing novels — especially ones under contract — can strangle the ill-prepared newbie. These are the authors I mostly associate with, so my perspective may be skewed in this regard. The same, however, can happen to the full-time (or wannabe full-time) author. Chip MacGregor in a post entitled Making a Living as a Writer, cites some pretty daunting demands for the aspiring full-time writer such as needing to have 4-6 books earning you royalties and 2 years of contracts. Chip writes:

“Many novelists take eight months to write a book. But at that rate, even a healthy $16,000 advance (which is pretty good for any novelist) means you’re getting by on $2000 a month. AND if you take that part-time job to make ends meet, you now find you have LESS time to work on your novel, so it takes you a year to complete. You don’t want to hurry it up, since then you won’t write as good of a novel, and writing a lousy book is sure to kill your career.

This is why I’m always reminding authors how tough it is to make a living at writing. “

These are sound words and illustrate the dilemma of art and business.

But I must take exception to one of your points. You said, “…it is also I think a mistake that to write a good novel requires taking years, or even months. Sometimes it needs to. Other times, a real quality novel can be written in a month or two.” Perhaps it is due to my station in life, my preferences in books, or the way I personally write, but I seriously doubt that a “quality novel” can be written in 30 to 60 days. I don’t doubt a novel can be written in 30 days. However, I’d be highly suspicious about its “quality.”

Hey, thanks for your comments Mr. Copple!

R. L. Copple October 4, 2010 at 7:13 AM

Thanks, Mike, for the additional context. Most of what I’ve heard from professional writers who do make a living is they put out around four books a year. In Dean’s case, he has a 90+ backlist that earns him some additional royalties as well. He’s been at it since the 80s. But I’ve heard other writers make the same case.

It would be interesting if we could conduct a poll, or research if it can be found, exactly how long some of the best selling novelist take to write their first draft, and how long they take to edit it. The answers might be surprising. But I’ve been told most authors want to at least give the illusion that they’ve spent months on a manuscript whether they have or not, simply because so many believe it takes years to write a good novel. But the fact of the matter is those who make a living at it, as you point out, have to get out enough books a year. Some of them still put out high quality fiction.

Myself, working at a full time job, it may take me a month to write the rough draft, but so far the editing process takes a few months, as it seems to date the best I can do is one a year. But I can’t write the rough draft with the inner editor in the way. It’s hard to see anything becoming better quality in my rough draft if I were to slow it down. I’m not sure what I would do to slow it down, to tell you the truth. The story’s in there, and it wants to get out. I can’t see it would get better by going slower. At best it would be the same story, at worst, I would let the editor in too much and shift away from the creative side of my brain, and lose whatever voice I have in it.

Note, I should also say that I do a little novel planning on the plot before I start the rough draft, so I have an idea where its going. Not all the details, but the major plot points.

Kevin Lucia October 4, 2010 at 12:09 AM

I’m completely with you on this, Mike…especially being the glacially slow writer that I am, when it comes to the novel. And the model you’re talking about is certainly out there, and some of these publishers are known to tell their writers – even the bestsellers – the following when they bring up this deadline/quality arrangement:

“Fine. There are twenty authors out there just like you who are hungry, desperate, and willing. We’ll drop your contract, let you suffer for your art, and go sign them.”

The most nefarious of these WAS Leisure Fiction, formerly the largest independent paperback publishing company in America that still accepted unsolicited manuscripts. On one hand, they were responsible for unearthing fantastic new, unagented authors, and some authors – like Brian Keene – made it work.

Other authors struggled. Leisure would operate EXACTLY as you just mentioned: they’d sign a writer for his first novel, and this novel would be GREAT (as review editor at Shroud, I got all their ARCS, so I know from firsthand experience). Then they’d sign them to TWO BOOKS a year. The quality for most their writers dropped sharply after that, but Leisure kept churning them right out.

When Gary Braunbeck – five time Bram Stoker Award winner, receiver of critical acclaim (and fabulous writer, BTW) recently haggled with them about the length of his novel, they basically said, “Well, fine. Look how many other folks can take your place?” Gary walked, joined a slightly smaller publisher who’d let him write it they way he wanted, and sure enough: the following year Leisure had replaced him pretty quickly.

Leisure, however, has been caught in its own game. They recently scrapped their paperback line for trade paperbacks and ebooks because of falling sales, and I’m sure that has to do with the economy, but one also has to wonder about they quality of the product they were pushing. Now, to be fair – about half their authors were still great writers. Just the other half stunk. BUT NOW, almost all those good authors have pulled their works because of the format change. Caught in their own grinder, maybe…? We’ll see.

Tim George October 4, 2010 at 6:42 AM

We as writers sometimes find ourselves under the same constraints as publishers. Get more books published – make more money. I would like to sound all altruistic and spiritual and say money doesn’t matter but that would be as much fiction as the novels I write. Even so, there is a lot to be said about the time we spend on our craft.

Athol Dickson writes one novel a year and every novel he has written in the last six years has been nominated for a Christy award with three winning. For him, time equals quality. And if you don’t believe so read River Rising or Lost Mission. CLICHE ALERT The proof is in the pudding. At the same time, some genres are quicker to write by their nature. Historical novels and tightly plotted suspense require more time other genres.

For now, I look forward to be thrown into the quandary of writing with quality while meeting deadlines. You here that all you publishers who have my agent’s email or letter languishing in a slush pile somewhere.

Tim George October 4, 2010 at 7:35 AM

The point in this conversation may be writers are all different. Dean Koontz edits every page and sometime every sentence as he goes. He also writes 12-14 hours a day with very few breaks, avoids Facebook, seldom blogs, and has a style all his own. We are all different and that is what makes writers such an interesting bunch.

Brenda Jackson October 4, 2010 at 7:44 AM

That’s why we writers who spend so much time gleaning info from these industry blogs, articles, etc. (and I have learned TONS that way) need to examine advice given in light of our own goals, not the goals someone wants to thrust upon us just because “it’s what writers do.”

I for sure could not produce more than one novel a year and I know deep in my heart, even producing ONE a year is out of the question at this early point in my writing life. But I’m surrounded by people who keep telling me “get it out there, get it out there.” What’s my hurry? I’d like to get 2-3 manuscripts under my belt before I subject myself to the grinder.

Jessica Thomas October 4, 2010 at 9:06 AM

I once spent over an hour on three sentences describing my main character’s kitchen. How many times has a kitchen been described? How do you make a description of a kitchen interesting, unique? As much as I’d like to swipe the brush quickly and say what first comes to mind, I just can’t do it. Call it OCD.

I know some writers can do this and are comfortable with “the first thing that comes to mind”. I tend to distrust the first, second, and third as being too easy. Why is it easy? Because somebody else already said it or it’s cliche.

It depends on what the writer’s after. If the writer is primarily a story teller, they can tell many a good story without having to stew over three sentence descriptions. Some readers are fine with that. They don’t expect anything new or exciting in the prose. They just want the story.

I’m not that kind of reader though. I want the prose to be interesting too. I want to be wowed by the way the author describes even the mundane. (I want to read it and think “I wish I’d thought of that.”)

Writer’s who can write with quick brush strokes, tell a good story quickly = more likely to make a living at writing.

Writer’s like me, who plod, stew, erase and rewrite = might make a living from writing as their body of work grows under the condition that the novels are timeless enough (and good enough) to stay in print.

Melissa Marsh October 5, 2010 at 7:13 AM

Fascinating discussion. I’d also like to add that it depends on the story you’re working on. Some stories come to me fully formed (like the novel I’m working on now) and it’s a pleasure to write them, and the words seem to flow quite well. Other stories are like plodding through the mud. Now I love these story ideas just as much as the other, full-formed ideas, but for some reason, they take a lot more work to write and to finish. That’s been my experience, at any rate.

Love the discussion on this blog – putting you on my blogroll!

Nicole October 5, 2010 at 7:28 PM

Interesting approaches, styles, and thoughts. It would make far more sense to take Brenda’s approach and have multiple novels under one’s desk before pitching any of them. Even if the publisher is only interested in one of them, the benefit of having written more than one novel is invaluable.

Readers and professionals continually dispute what constitutes quality, and there are writers who can do amazing things with words and plots in short periods of time. Sometimes it depends on the sought after audience. Sometimes it depends on the writer’s ego or OCD tendencies.

Writing to a deadline inspires some and freezes others. The more experience one has in constructing novels hopefully will aid the author in agreeing to a mutually satisfactory deadline.

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