Monday, January 21, 2013

The ghosts of the future

Wilbur Smith is eighty this year but even so he's just signed a £15 million contract for six more books.  That's quite an undertaking at his age – only of course he won't be writing any of them.  He'd just going to think of a few ideas, outline them to other people who will actually do the blood and sweat writing bit, take on a bit of supervision and, of course, agree to it going out under his name.  What you might call 'authorising' perhaps?  (Sorry!)

It's not a new idea.  Tom Clancy and James Patterson got there ahead of him and more and more popular authors are following suit.  Well, you would, wouldn't you?  Free to go off and spend all these millions at a Caribbean beach instead of sweating over a hot laptop – no brainer.  And with a few principled exceptions like Pan Macmillan, publishers love it.  They can package the series and sell it the way you sell an established brand of soap powder.

Mills and Boon have already achieved the Holy Grail of publishing: total editorial control.  Every book conforms to the rules they have laid down.  The hero and the heroine, for instance, must meet by the end of chapter one.  No, not chapter two, chapter one.  The author becomes a sort of ghost writer for the publisher.

What distresses me most is that readers, apparently, are delighted to buy the story with the brand name, even if – as in the case of Smith, Clancy and Patterson and the rest – it doesn't have the quality of writing that got them hooked in the first place.  If you write genre fiction, which includes crime, you can accept that readers buy it because it's the kind of book they like, but you want to believe that it's your own unique style that makes them choose your book and not someone else’s.

And  genre writing is one thing; formula writing is another.  Anne Perry said that she has to submit her ideas for vetting to a publishing committee in the form of a 40,000 word synopsis; they then go through it making sure it conforms to the style of her previous books and once its final shape is agreed she can't deviate from it as she writes the book.  Anne's own personal writing character is still what carries it but it’s not exactly creative freedom.  Is this the shape of things to come?

I'd like to think that if I were successful enough to warrant a ghost writer I would have the integrity to turn it down.  And since I'm never going to be put to the test, I shall have to settle for basking in my moral superiority instead of the sun on a Caribbean beach.


Vicki Delany said...

I'll bask with you, Aline. I'd be interested to know what big authors turned down those sort of deals.

Rick Blechta said...

This is the sort of thing Harlequin has been doing for years: give authors a “bible” for the particular line they’re writing for and off they go. It, too, is amazingly strict and you cannot deviate or the book will not be accepted. And readers just gobble them up like candy – which, of course, they sort of are. Even the explicit sex scenes in their racier lines are carefully choreographed.

If that’s what writing would be in the brave new world, I’ll pass, thank you!

Charlotte Hinger said...

This post made me sad. I've never found these combo books (name+ghost) to be as appealing as the original author's work.

However, as to the restrictive formulas, some talented writers have the ability to be amazingly creative. I'm thinking of LaVyrle Spencer. I usually don't read romances, but I read Morning Glory to see what all the fuss was about. Wow! Talk about voice.

LD Masterson said...

I love the JD Robb "In Death" series but often wonder how much help JD Robb/Nora Roberts uses turning out her multiple titles a year. There was a scene in one "In Death" story where the characters acted so out of character, I couldn't believe Robb had written it - or even read it.

Aline Templeton said...

I'm sure there are talented writters doing the formula stuff, some of them with good books to their credit under their own names, since it does pay well. I remember long ago when I was very broke I considered it and got some out of the library to try but the sentences were so short I couldn't read them - made me feel I was pitching on my nose every few words - so decided just to stay broke instead!

Hannah Dennison said...

Berkley Prime Crime have writers for hire. They also get a "bible" and they have to follow it to the letter. My plots always take me in a different and unexpected direction so I could never be held hostage to such a thing.
Combo books are like being offered a designer coat that you are led to believe is made in America (or similar) only to discover it was manufactured in China.

Thomas Curran said...

I had been aware that some very popular genre authors farm out their books to wordsmiths-for-hire, and it's depressing to read about it. It all reminds me of Roald Dahl's biting short story. "The Great Automatic Grammatizator"; the following is from Wikipedia:

From the collection, "Someone Like You": A mechanically-minded man reasons that the rules of grammar are fixed by certain, almost mathematical principles. By exploiting this idea, he is able to create a mammoth machine that can write a prize-winning novel in roughly fifteen minutes. The story ends on a fearful note, as more and more of the world's writers are forced into licensing their names-and all hope of human creativity-to the machine."

Truly depressing...