Fitting the Mold

 Just recently, a comparatively young British author, with several highly-praised and decent-selling fantasy novels, announced that she was leaving her full-time writing to become a chemistry teacher.  Her reason for doing so?  The pressure to write at least a book a year and to promote each book endlessly and enthusiastically.

More than a few other aspiring authors will doubtless shake their heads, perhaps even mutter under their breath  that the author in question is acting “spoiled.”  After all, aren’t authors in the business to write and sell books?  And writing and selling books requires producing regularly and selling.  Those are the conditions required by the profession today. Certainly, in other professions, such as medicine, law, dentistry, I’ve know those who left a profession because of the conditions exacted by the profession itself. Writing on a professional level isn’t any different… or shouldn’t be.

At the same time… writers come in all flavors, predispositions, with wide ranges of ability.  Some can easily write a good book a year, if not more, and others may labor for years to produce a good book.  Still others may labor for years to produce a barely publishable novel.  Unfortunately, as massive conglomerates have taken over the publishing business, and as tele-media hype has invaded the printed fiction market, the pressures on publishers, editors, and writers to produce more books – and preferably more of whatever sold a lot last time – has continued to increase.

On top of that, as the British author noted, writers are supposed to become one-person non-stop marketing machines to build their celebrity, despite the fact that the traits that make one a good writer are usually not the ones that make one a “good” celebrity. The problem with the current system is that it presses all writers toward being the same, creating similar, disposable, and soon forgotten entertainment.  By doing so, it makes it harder and harder for writers who don’t fit the mold to be successful financially, and that means that unique writers and books are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the market.

Frankly, I’m one of the fortunate authors, because I was able to build readership gradually, literally over more than a decade, in a way that is, from what I’m now observing, close to impossible for most newer authors.  These newer, and usually younger, authors face two sets of distinctly different pressures – first, to create something that sells well and that is distinctive, but not too distinctive or different and, second, to continue with the same “franchise” without losing the novelty that distinguished them in the beginning.  This is virtually impossible for any length of time.

To date, I’ve written four fantasy series, all in different “universes,” all with distinctly different magic systems and cultures, and all with more than one set of main characters and with individual books telling stories in different time periods. And, along the way, I’ve also continued to write and successfully sell stand-alone SF novels. Twenty years ago, that sort of approach was rare, but I certainly was far from the only author who did so.  Today, offhand, I can’t think of a single other younger author who does so, suggesting to me, at least, that such an approach has become even rarer, although there must be some who still do.  That there are so few doesn’t surprise me, not with the emphasis of marketing and hype, because, unless an author is well-known, trying to sell a new and different series or novel becomes more and more difficult, especially a second series.  It also doesn’t lend itself to media tie-ins of the sort such as A Game of Thrones. In the fantasy field, in particular, there are almost no huge best-selling stand-alone novels, and I can only think of a single writer who has had top-fifteen best-sellers in different fantasy series [although he didn’t create one of the best-selling series].

The problem with this market-driven approach to publishing is that it tends to reward “more of the same and faster please” rather than “better and different.”  And that’s a pity, especially when it leads talented authors to walk away from the field because they don’t fit “the marketing mold.”  It also rewards disproportionately those authors who are able to spin out one series endlessly and, to a much lesser degree, those who’ve been able to establish themselves as a “brand” apart from any specific work. 

And that’s why, unless matters change, especially in fantasy, we’re likely to keep seeing most authors tied to a single massive series.

7 thoughts on “Fitting the Mold”

  1. Joe McTee says:

    Agreed that cross-genre is not extremely common, but one author attempting this is Richard K. Morgan. After five successful sci-fi books, his latest is a fantasy.

    Also, there are many short story authors who cross genres. Tim Pratt, Heather Shaw, and Greg Van Eekhout come to mind.

    It impresses me that you and the authors mentioned above (and others!) are so prolific when coming up with story ideas.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    I’ve usually found that I follow the author and/or series, regardless of genre, and it is only if the story does not grab me that I drop new works. An example of this is David Weber – several series, a few one-shots and athologies, mixed Fantasy and SF. 50ish books and there is one series I couldn’t get into. Still look forward to new works even if not in an established series, and similarly – when browsing my local bookstore I look for compelling reads, then if I am suitably impressed I look into that author’s other works.

  3. Mike G. says:

    > a single other younger author…

    Brandon Sanderson, maybe?

    But yes, everything you said makes sense…

    1. He’s the one I had in mind.

  4. Kathryn says:

    The authors you speak of, who write in different genres, seem to be of a generation that is coming towards the end of its lifespan (I mean no offence by that, by the way), or will only have about ten or twenty years left at maximum.

    Elizabeth Moon, yourself, David Weber, Eric Flint and a number of other authors all came into the game at roughly the same time. There’s also Anne McCaffrey, who likely influenced a lot of your generation of writers, although she’s writing with her son now and I would guess he’ll carry on after her. Baen have, in my opinion, helped a lot with allowing authors such as David Weber to write in two different genres, and I believe a number of their authors do write in the different genre types.

    I don’t think it’s gone just yet, though. Daniel Abraham is currently writing in two genres, although his science fiction work is co-authored with another author under a pen name (James S.A. Corey, I think). Even Stephen King is a multi-genre writer, having written a little sci-fi and some fantasy alongside his horror books.

    The more current trend is to blend the genres rather than write in two different ones. A number of authors will write fantasy with some sci-fi elements and vice versa, and sometimes it works well.

    As for the author in question, I’ve heard a lot of different responses. Some people have expressed the opinion that she’s effectively turned her back on the publisher and shirked her responsibility. She signed a contract to write X number of books, and some feel she should be held to that. I, personally, think she’s made a bad decision. She’s complained about the stress of what could arguably be a potentially relaxed career (Or at least less stressful than others), and has chosen to go into a field which is highly competitive (More so than writing), where she will be working to tighter deadlines and be surrounded by younger people. She said the ‘internet was poison’ due to the comments of a few people – So imagine what it’ll be like in a school. There’s no guarantee she’ll get a job, whereas she’s just had one, and even then it could be that she either isn’t capable of coping with it or some other factor will hinder her.

    I think, overall, she’s made the wrong choice. Many authors are fighting to get that book contract, to get into publishing, and she’s broken a contract and caused damage. Gollancz, her publisher, has come out and said that these deadlines are not solid, they’re not enforced by the publisher, but are the expectations of the booksellers. I fail to see why a renegotiation to one book every 18 or 24 months would be a problem.

    Those are just my thoughts, anyway. Sorry if they’re badly written as I’ve been up less than an hour.

  5. S.A. Rule says:

    This is an interesting and considered description of the state of the publishing industry as it is, and the effect it has on writers and good writing.

    I don’t think the dysfunctional approach to producing, distributing and selling stories that dominates at the moment is the shape of the future. Writers no longer need to be in thrall to huge commercial interests. Publishing books is a simple and cheap process. Writing them isn’t. Time we all got our value systems straightened out.

  6. Mage says:

    Another author who writes SF & Fantasy is Charles Stross. His “Laundry” novels are of course fantasy. Gene Wolf for a number of years has written SF-fantasy mixes as did Jack Vance. I first encountered the blended SF-fantasy model reading Alice Mary North’s works in the ’60’s. So I don’t see the blend being as new as some have suggested.

    Perhaps Swainston could have obtained extensions for her books. The question though would be whether or not that would have made her enough money to live on. I see many authors every year that drop out of the writing game after several books. Usually there is no explanation for why they did. She has just said why she did it. I don’t see any problems with that or her decision.

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