Friday, April 2, 2010

Fiction Factories: The Good, The Bad, and The Indifferent Side of Publishing

A recent post by Jim Thomsen, Six Things We Can Learn From James Patterson, got me thinking about fiction factories (a relatively new phrase in publishing) and what, if any, is their value both to the reader and the writer. I have used James Patterson as an example because he is, quite simply, the biggest, and thus the best example.

A recent Times article outlines some facts about James Patterson’s writing (being the most successful of this phenomenon) which sees him churning out books by the dozen. There are many different ways to catalog Patterson’s staggering success. Here are just a few: since 2006, one out of every 17 novels bought in the United States was written by James Patterson. He is listed in the latest edition of “Guinness World Records,” published last fall, as the author with the most New York Times best sellers, 45, but that number is already out of date: he now has 51 — 35 of which went to No. 1.

The changing face of publishing explains why writers now achieve blockbuster status.

Like movie studios, publishing houses have long built their businesses on top of blockbusters. But never in the history of publishing has the blockbuster been so big. Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.

With so many readers now hooked, someone has to feed the monster. Enter the fiction factory where established authors employ a slew of writers and editors to expand upon and edit the author’s original ideas.

So, what so good, bad, or indifferent about this new kind of mass production, marketing, and consumption of books?

For me: the good means that many people who didn’t read before are now reading, albeit they may not be reading literature but more pulp fiction. No matter, they are still reading.

The bad: it’s bad for somebody and that’s the reader. The publishers and the authors score massively big bucks, but isn’t that somehow creating cannon fodder, not books.

Which takes me the indifferent and that is loss of quality. The Times article says: Each of Patterson’s series has its own fan base, but there are also plenty of people who read everything he writes. His books all share stylistic similarities. They are light on atmospherics and heavy on action, conveyed by simple, colloquial sentences. “I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.” … Patterson’s chapters are very short, which creates a lot of half-blank pages; his books are, in a very literal sense, page-turners. He avoids description, back story and scene setting whenever possible, preferring to hurl readers into the action and establish his characters with a minimum of telegraphic details.

While fiction factory authors have energy, a prolific work output, brilliant marketing ideas, the ability to work with others, a keen grasp of the target audience, and the courage to break the rules (James Patterson exhibits all these qualities in spades!), I wonder if that is what writing is all about. Certainly, every writer needs enough talent, skill, confidence, and faith to sometimes take a leap into the unknown, but many writers spend hours perfecting their craft so that readers can put down a book with a satisfied sigh. No matter how many ‘helpers’ an established author employs to widen the output, nothing (I feel) can replace that author’s unique, personal touch.

I love reading Clive Cussler but I find I tend to avoid books he has written in collaboration with other writers (including his son). Why? I don’t know. It’s a feeling, a sense that it’s not all the author that bothers me. Call me picky.

When reading articles such as those mentioned above, I also wonder if this prolific output (and corresponding financial rewards) is considered the benchmark of literary success. Why then do writers and editors bother with articles devoted to character, plot, action, ambiance, back story, descriptions etc if these elements are not as highly prized in comparison with financial success. C. Patrick Schulze offers good advice to writers in his blog post The Secret To Writing a Riveting Novel. Novelist K. M. Weiland is another writer who offers simple but effective advice to transform your writing. Her blog posts are well worth the read.

Obviously every genre and every level of writing has its fans and detractors. Success means different things to different people: it’s the same for writers. The author who lovingly works on each word in his/her book or the mega-author who has a slew of editors and writers completing his/her great ideas aim for the same goal: recognition, (financial) rewards, and success.

Jim Thomsen has a good last word on the topic: “Learn from industry professionals, but make yours the final word. It’s your time, your energy and your dreams on the line.”

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