Business Musings: Writing by Committee
I had a shudder moment yesterday. While researching something else, I read a New York Times interview on leadership with Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Random House Publishing Group. (No, she’s not the head of Random House. Just a section of it.)
She mentions the importance of teamwork in the publishing industry. She’s running a huge section of a major company. Of course there needs to be a team, and of course, the team needs to work toward a common goal.
In the article, she says some of the right things about writers, like:
Authors are fascinating people, and as a publisher, your job is to make their work public
Okay, that’s simplistic, but this is an interview, and one thing about interviews is that the interview’s subject has to simplify major concepts to be clear.
But the article bothered me, not from a business perspective, or even from what’s on the page. Just based on some things bestselling writers have told me about working for Random Penguin. This paragraph bothered me in particular:
Our group is composed of a ton of stars, but they’re part of this bigger galaxy. If you want to be a solo artist, you’re probably not going to be happy in our group. If anyone doesn’t succeed here, that’s usually why.
Again, she’s talking about working inside the publishing company. When you’re dealing with that many employees and a division as large as the one she manages, having an outlier employee might be a problem. (It might also be a boon, but that’s another article.)
However, that line: If you want to be a solo artist, you’re probably not going to be happy… kept reverberating for me. Because novelists are by definition solo artists.
One of my favorite writers, who has been with Penguin Putnam for much of her career (and through many of its different corporate identities) has become such a boring and predictable storyteller that I have finally (finally!) decided to stop buying her books altogether. Realize that she’s been a major influence on my work, and I’ve read her work since the 1980s, and introduced her work to reader after reader.
For the last three years, I’d reach the middle of her latest book and be bored out of my skull. Her writing is good. Her pacing is all right. Her characters are interesting. Her plots have become so predictable that I know what’s going to happen almost from page one. (This last book, the surprise? A character supposed to be dead was still alive, which I knew from the moment his death was introduced on page 10 or so. [sigh])
I’ve had that happen with a lot of books lately. And I’m not the only reader who has had this experience. I’ve spoken to several readers who express great dissatisfaction with the books they’ve been reading the last few years. I just got a fan letter from a reader who says that she’s finding most of the books she reads lately to be predictable. (Fortunately, mine wasn’t one of them, which is what inspired her to write the letter.)
I do read bestsellers—generally, though, I started reading these writers before they became bestsellers—and many of their latest works have become frighteningly predictable.
Some are predictable in the way that writers become predictable once you’ve read a lot of their work. I was the annoying twelve-year-old who read every one of Agatha Christie’s mysteries (in a month) until I saw the pattern: the killer was always the person with the little or no motivation to commit the murder. Murder on the Orient Express was the one that made me quit because… SPOILER…
I had this thought as I read, “No one has a motive. She wouldn’t have all of them do it, would she?”
Turns out I was right.
END SPOILER (although, really, if you don’t know this one by now, you’re clearly not a mystery reader or a movie fan).
All writers have patterns, and sometimes, if you binge-read, you learn what those patterns are.
Those patterns are unique to the writer, so if you only read a few of the writer’s works, you’ll never see the pattern at all.
The patterns that have been kicking me out of so many bestsellers these days aren’t unique to the writers. The patterns aren’t even unique.
They’re storytelling patterns—familiar ones. The kind that tell me if the writer does A, then B will follow. A writer’s job isn’t to move from A to B. It’s to move from A to M, then back to E, and maybe all the way to Z before ending with L.
A lot of these authors specifically thank their “team” for help with the writing experience. Most writers have trusted readers, usually unfamiliar names to the rest of us. These unfamiliar names are friends and family, people who may not be in publishing at all.
But the writers I’m mentioning? They thank their publishing team for the help with the storytelling.
Since I started the blog on publishing six years ago, a lot of #1 New York Times bestsellers contacted me privately to talk with me about indie publishing. Many of these bestsellers had “retired” and all of them, to a person, mentioned the lack of respect at their Big 5 publishing house.
It seemed to these writers that the Big 5 publishing team thought they knew what sold better than the writer did. As one romance writer said to me, “Maybe they do know what sells well. But I became a bestseller without their help, and they have nothing to add creatively. They just want me to dumb things down.”
That romance writer retired, left her publisher, and now has left retirement to publish on her own. Her fans are happy, and so is she.
Another New York Times bestseller, who is still with a Big 5 publisher, told me that the publisher had demanded that the writer revise the ending to the writer’s most recent book. The ending the publisher wanted? The writer says the ending was a rescue of a strong heroine by stronger men. (The publisher is female, by the way.)
The writer, who values her strong heroine, refused to make the change, and upset the publisher in doing so. The writer is trying to decide whether or not to stay when the current contract ends.
A bestselling mystery writer told me that his treatment the last several years with his Big 5 publisher was so disheartening he thought he’d never write again. Again, he was told he didn’t know what sold and that he had to write the way that the company told him to, so that he could sell his books. Like the romance writer, he got angry. He’d sold a lot of books before these editor/publishers had even had a career in publishing.
So, rather than deal with that, he retired.
But he couldn’t stop writing. Also like the romance writer, he revived his career and his passion for writing by self-publishing.
I’ve run into this in the last few years as well, with my hybrid career, and rather than deal with these people who believe that novel writing is a committee activity, I’ve bought my way out of contracts and refused to work with those companies again.
Initially, I had thought this unique to the editors involved. The more letters I get (and those three are representative of the dozens I’ve received), the more I realize that the Big 5 traditional publishers have moved to this model across the board.
Do I blame them? Not really. Corporate publishing has changed the game. With the emphasis on quarterly profits, the decline in a real sales staff, and the lack of institutional memory (due to so many in-house layoffs), the folks who work in traditional publishing are trying to make a fast buck by selling sure-thing products.
The problem here isn’t just with the publishers. It’s also with the writers who acquiesce. I know how seductive it is to have someone tell you what to do with your writing.
Even strong personalities, like the writer whose work I just quit reading forever and ever, can be seduced with the right language.
Your fans expect you to have a strong romance
Your fans won’t like a graphic murder scene
Your fans read your work for comfort; this book isn’t comforting
And so on.
Writers in these situations will often say that they and their agent are partners or that they and their editor will hone the book into the best book it can be.
But they’re wrong. And that’s why the books are starting to sound the same. The suggestion that the writer who is still with the Big 5 company received from her publisher was so trite as to be the kind of cliché that movie-goers make fun of.
Big 5 publishers are patterning their business on the Hollywood model in a variety of ways. They want blockbusters, so they’re demanding that their writers produce blockbusters according to formula, even in original work. (Tie-ins are another matter; the writer is under contract to produce formula.)
In the last five years, I’ve told several editors that I had many job offers in Hollywood and I always turned them down because I did not want to write by committee. It would piss off the editor who thought she knew better than I did, but I didn’t care.
I’m a fiction writer, not a screenwriter, because I want to control my own vision.
That’s a tough road to walk in traditional publishing, and getting tougher as each day goes on. If traditional publishing were the only game in town, then I would probably be choosing to retire from writing novels as well. I’d go back to nonfiction or write only short fiction.
But the world has changed. I don’t need to go to a Big 5 publisher to get my books into bookstores or into the hands of readers all over the world. I’m selling more books and having more success than I ever did through a Big 5 publisher.
Many writers with long-term careers in traditional publishing don’t know any of that. They hear the myths, think indie publishing is too hard or too time consuming or still has the stigma that self-publishing used to have. I spoke to several unpublished writers with that attitude just this past weekend.
Last month, I spoke to a long-time bestseller who told me (like so many other bestsellers) that he doesn’t have time to deal with business or publishing his own work. He doesn’t deal with business now—his agent and his business manager do, so he can just write books.
I found myself wondering how much money his assistants helped themselves to over the years. But I’m too polite to ask questions like that in public. Usually I don’t say a lot to people when they tell me in person that they’re too busy as writers to handle things like finances. Sometimes I can’t shut up, though, as in the case last year of a writer who told me how much she adored the agency that represents her. It’s one of two that I caught embezzling from me.
I gently told her to pay attention to the accounting and to make sure that all payments she receives are split at the publisher—85% to her and 15% to the agency.
Honestly, though, the reason I’m writing about this topic now, even though I’ve known about the fingers-in-the-pie aspect of traditional publishing for years now, is because the biggest shock I had at the writers conference I attended last weekend was how many unpublished writers felt they needed “an editor” before they submitted their work to any publishing house at all.
And if those writers wanted to indie-publish, well, then they all wanted to know how to get an editor to look at their work before it hit print.
Most of these writers didn’t want a copy editor to check their spelling and punctuation. They wanted what they were called a “developmental” editor, someone to tell them if the entire manuscript worked.
I’ve gotten this in e-mail and some recent comments on older blog posts as well. Apparently if you bill yourself as a “developmental” editor, you’ll make a fortune.
Most of these writers wanted one, even though they didn’t know exactly what it was. And—here’s the kicker—they wanted one they could afford.
Not someone who had real credentials. Not someone who also wrote books.
I know a number of good editors who can help writers with special projects. These editors do occasionally work with content, mostly seeing if the book is paced correctly or if it’s consistent—or something as simple as what genre the book is in (because most writers don’t know).
All of the good editors that I’ve recommended are also good writers. If someone wants his book to hit the New York Times bestseller list, then the number of good editors I know dwindles to those I can count on one hand.
Very few editors I know have also hit the Times list with their own books. Most writers who’ve hit the Times list are still busy writing books of their own, and don’t have time to help writers, except in a structured setting like a class.
I get asked a lot if I’ll edit someone’s novel for them and, after shivering for a few minutes, I say a polite no. Life is too damn short.
What most writers need is to believe in their own work. The writers need to finish a first draft, spellcheck it, and hand it to a trusted first reader who is not a writer.
Let me repeat that. The last thing you want is a writer as your first reader.
A writer will critique. A reader will tell you if the book is a good read or not.
Will the reader be able to tell you how to fix the book? Hell, no. That’s not a reader’s job.
Generally, if the book fails, especially in areas like pacing, then the best thing the writer can do is start over. From scratch. Without looking at the previous manuscript.
Because we’re storytellers, not writers. A manuscript is the coded tool that we use to tell stories across great distances.
Think of it this way: comedians are professional storytellers. When was the last time you heard a professional comedian stop and say, “Dang, I screwed up that punch line. I’d better fix it”?
What the comedian does is practice in front of an audience. When a joke doesn’t work, the comedian tries to figure out if it’s the audience (a bunch of drunks who didn’t laugh at anything), the delivery (too fast, too slow, not enough build-up), or the joke itself. If the problem is in the delivery, the comedian doesn’t tell the same joke in the same way, with different words. The comedian works on everything from pacing to detail, telling the joke differently each time.
Musicians do the same thing. They don’t stop and repair a missed note. They continue with the entire performance. In fact, when you watch programs like The Voice in which professional musicians mentor newer musicians, the professionals often work to “get the perfect out” of the other singers.
Perfection is the death of entertainment, just like predictability is.
Once an audience figures out what’s coming next—what’s always coming next—the audience moves to other things. It’s a bad night for a comedian when the audience can say the punch line with the comedian. Humor works on surprise, just like good storytelling does.
That’s why writing by committee is so deadly to good storytelling. Some committees do work well together—a very creative writers’ room in a television series, for example—but most do not.
And no committee composed of business types can help on the creative end. That’s why the suggestions coming from the suits are usually mediocre and why suggestions based on an assumed fan/audience expectation are bad.
Audiences expect to be entertained, but the entertainment should be unique to the entertainer. That’s you, writers. I know it’s scary, but the best writers work without a net.
Many, many, many bestselling authors tell the sales force or the publisher/president to take a flying leap when the suits make suggestions that put the suits directly inside the creative process. Many of the bestsellers who “retired” did so because they didn’t want to deal with that ridiculous attitude any longer, and those bestsellers retired before indie publishing became an option.
Once it became an option, these writers embraced it. Their sales are at the same level (or better) than they were when the writers were with their traditional publishers, and the writers are making a lot more money.
Plus they have control of the work, the covers, the promotion, everything.
If you talk to writers who were traditionally published and left because of the fingers trying to reach into a personal pie, you’ll hear about joy in writing again.
At the same time, beginning writers seem to want someone to tell them what to do. It’s sad. These writers are coming into the business in a time of unlimited artistic freedom, and they spend all of their effort looking for boxes to squeeze themselves into.
Worse, they’re looking to hire someone else to make sure they stay inside those boxes.
There are a lot of editors on the internet now whose only credentials are that they edited for a bunch of writers. These “editors” have never written a book. Most of them haven’t worked in publishing either. They have no credentials at all, yet they claim they can make your book a bestseller.
These folks charge thousands of dollars to tear your manuscript apart. It’s the new scam, folks, and writers aren’t just falling for it—they’re actively seeking it out.
Here’s what you need to succeed as a writer.
You need a work ethic. You need to work as hard at your writing as you work at your day job, maybe harder (since many of you skate through your day jobs). Last weekend, when I told a panel full of writers that they had to put in at least 15 hours per week on their writing, many of them looked at me in horror. I didn’t pull that number out of my ass. I did the math for them on how many hours it would take for them to write a short story per week.
You need to practice. Every new story should be practice for a new technique. If a story fails, you don’t tweak that story. You throw out the manuscript and try again. Like comedians do, in front of a different audience, trying to tell the story in a new way. Practice, practice, practice.
You need to get paid for your practice sessions. Stand-up comedians and musicians get paid to practice. Every single session they perform in front of an audience is practice, and they get paid per session. So mail your stories and books, or put them up indie. Don’t put them in a drawer.
You need to finish what you write and put it out into the world. I think that’s clear in and of itself.
You need to keep writing new material all the time. Also clear.
You need to keep learning your craft. Read for enjoyment, take classes, practice, steal techniques. Always learn.
You need a trusted first reader who is not a writer. Just a reader. Someone who can be honest with you, and who tells you simply this: Did they like the story? Did they find it compelling? Would they have read to the end if they encountered it in an anthology or bought it off a store rack?
You need a copy editor. Not to teach you grammar. You better learn grammar and spelling and punctuation. You have to know the rules to break them. But we all have words we consistently misspell, and we sometimes skip entire paragraphs and we lose track of tiny details like whether or not the cat is in the room through the entire scene. Copy editors flag those things.
You need self-confidence—or you need to fake it well. You need to tell people who want to mess with your vision to take a flying fuck. You should probably tell them that politely, because they’re usually just trying to do their job or they might have your best interest in mind. (Generally, in traditional publishing, they have their own best interest in mind—as well as those quarterly profits.) You have to be willing to walk away from something that doesn’t work for you or wants to remake you into an artist that you do not want to be.
And that’s it. You really don’t need a “team” to tell you what your fans want. Your fans will tell you that directly—and even then, you shouldn’t write for them. You should write for you.
You are that solo artist that Gina Centrello doesn’t want to hire to work inside her publishing house. You are an individual, and your writing should reflect that.
If you’re changing your work because someone else tells you to—even if you hired that someone to “help” you “edit” your book—then you are losing your vision.
Novelists and short story writers should never write by committee. Write what you love, write what you’re passionate about, write whatever pleases you and gives you joy.
You don’t need traditional publishing any more. You don’t need to bend just because someone with a large check tells you to. You can have a career doing what you want to do—if you’re willing to put in the work, and if you’re willing to defend your vision.
Sounds simple, right?
But it’s not. It’s counterintuitive. Yes, there’s no “I” in team. But there’s no “team” in fiction writing. Kick the committee out of your office. Write your own stories. Take that risk.
Now, go. Write a lot. And have fun.
“Business Musings: Writing by Committee,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.