Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fast Fiction Equals Fast Food?

As the year winds down, I've been thinking a bit about my writing career lately, as well as the state of publishing in general.  I suppose waxing philosophical is only natural at this time of year.  In any case, it led me to reread one of the sections in my memoir in which I compare fast food with fast fiction.  I'd elaborate further, but then, I might as well just post the chapter.  So in any case, happy holidays to everyone, and here is the aforementioned chapter from Memoirs of a Starving Artist: 

Fast Fiction Equals Fast Food?

 Everything I needed to know about how to make it as an independent author I learned from the very first self-published success stories.  Authors who made it big in this new paradigm, such as million-selling paranormal writer Amanda Hocking or mystery writer John Locke, did the same things.  As I mentioned earlier, they picked a popular genre, created a recognizable brand, and cranked out books with incredible speed.  Without the same massive overhead, they were also able to undercut the traditional publishers on price.
In the years since these two writers set the publishing world on fire and marked the beginnings of an ebook revolution, many other authors have found self-publishing success of their own.  Few have achieved the blockbuster sales levels of Hocking or Locke, but numerous writers are generating comfortable six-figure annual incomes.  All of them, by and large, follow the same strategies listed above.  Some write erotica, others sci-fi, romance or mystery.  These authors tend to put out a new book every two to four months.  One such author wrote her first-ever book in 2012.  Within one year she’d written and uploaded fifteen full-length romance novels and earned more than $100,000.  That’s roughly one new novel written, edited and uploaded every three weeks without a break.  Another successful thriller writer wrote and published 27 novels in 36 months.  The pace is simply astonishing. 
All of this points to a literary landscape that is changing in numerous ways, though even before this ebook revolution, plenty of authors made their living by writing what used to be known as pulp fiction.  Back in the 1950s and 60s, these were the cheap, disposable novels of the day.  Some were erotica, others sci-fi, romance, mystery or “noir.”  They were churned out quickly without much heed to quality.  It led novelists as far back as the 1940s to grapple with some of the same issues that I struggle with today.  Italo Calvino, my favorite Italian novelist, wrote to his friend Silvio Micheli in 1946:

I know you get through tons of writing a day, that you write novels with plots, with incest-plots, crime-plots, hot novels, lukewarm novels, novels with hot and cold running water. This fills me with envy because I’m still here just wasting time.

…I’ve started a novel too: I wrote four pages in a week. Weeks go by in which I can’t even add a comma, whole days are spent wondering whether in that sentence going up is better than ascending.

Is there room for such philosophical novelists in today’s publishing environment?  The prospect of spending a year or two working on a novel of substance seems like a dwindling luxury.  If Calvino struggled with these pressures even in his day, how would he have reacted to the current environment?  In another letter, this time to Eugenio Scalfari, Calvino wrote:

All the ideas currently in my head are subject to a strange phenomenon: while I work on them and perfect them continuously from the philosophical point of view, they stay rudimentary and barely sketched on the dramatic and artistic side. In my creativity thought has the upper hand over imagination.

This concept is the exact opposite of most books on the market today, where imagination has the upper hand and philosophical thought is virtually non-existent.  After all, how much thought could really go into a book written in three weeks?  Or even in eight?  There are exceptions no doubt, but in general these are not thoughtfully considered, carefully crafted works.  This is stream-of-consciousness flung out onto the page.
These days, literary works are still the domain of the traditional publishing industry.  They simply don’t do well as self-published books.  They take too long to write, can’t be easily branded and aren’t part of a popular genre.  A self-published literary novel is likely to disappear in the flood of new content and never be noticed by anyone at all.   At the same time, as publishing houses become more risk averse, literary novelists are finding themselves in an increasingly perilous position.
A number of concrete, specific market forces are currently working in favor of genre fiction and against literary novels.  These are only in part related to ebooks.  One issue is that publishers make nearly all of their profits from a few bestsellers.  It is the J.K. Rowlings and the James Pattersons who grease the skids of the publishing industry.  Typically these bestselling mega-authors bring in the money that the publishing houses use to fund smaller projects they believe in.  Profits from the latest Dan Brown novel might go toward publishing a whole slew of literary novels that the publisher is willing to take a chance on.  With pressure on the entire publishing industry, this is becoming less common as the publishers expend more of their energy searching instead for the next big thing.  They want to find “franchises” that can guarantee an oversized return.  They are desperately searching for the next Harry Potter or Twilight or Hunger Games.  They have less time for the small literary novel that probably won’t sell anyway.
Part of the reason for this shift in dynamic is that thousands of bookstores have gone out of business in the U.S. in the last ten years.  This has two effects.  First, with fewer bookstores there are fewer bookstore clerks personally recommending their favorite new books to readers who might otherwise never find them.  Second, with fewer bookstores around, many readers buy their books at discount stores like Wal-Mart, or drugstores like CVS.  These outlets don’t want literary novels.  They’re not interested in the books themselves, like a bookseller would be.  These stores are simply trying to move product, and that means genre novels; romances, perhaps some sci-fi and fantasy, and all of the bestsellers.
Yet another reason for the downfall of literary fiction is the decline in newspapers as a source of information.  Numerous newspapers across the country are declaring bankruptcy and going out of business.  Those that survive are downsizing.  They are eliminating as many daily sections as they can to reduce costs.  One of the first sections to go in many papers is the book review section.  In the old paradigm, book publishers sent the novels they believed in to newspapers for reviews that could make or break an author.  Now the number of newspapers that are willing to publish book reviews is shrinking dramatically.  If readers can’t go to bookstores for recommendations and can’t find them in their local newspaper, where do they go?  Perhaps to the internet where new book review blogs are popping up all the time, though most of these concentrate on popular fiction.  Genre novels.
On an indie writers forum not long ago, the question was posed as to how Ernest Hemingway might have reacted if he’d come of age in our time.  I can’t help but wonder if there’d be room for him at all.  If publishers did take a chance on his stories, it would probably be for less than a living wage, with little to no promotion.  His novels don’t portend the best-seller potential most publishing houses are looking for, yet for Hemingway the indie option seems even less likely.  Ernest Hemingway churning out genre fiction?  I think he might have shot himself a whole lot sooner.
Publishers now compete with indie authors to give the reading public what it wants, and increasingly that seems to be books that provide a quick and easy escape.  In many ways, fast fiction equals fast food.  Just consider for a moment which restaurant is the most popular in the world.  Is it the best restaurant?  Is it even good at all?  I won’t answer that last one, but hands down the most popular restaurant in the world is McDonalds.  The reasons are fairly simple.  It is cheap, it is easy, and people know what to expect.  There are no bad surprises when you go to McDonalds.  You probably won’t love it, but you probably won’t hate it either.  You can be comfortable knowing what to expect.  It is unlikely to provide you with a healthy, balanced meal, but it will fill you up.
Consumers often react to books in much the same way.  They are not usually looking to take chances.  These risk-averse readers aren’t particularly interested in thought-provoking works.  They are not in the market for books that bite and sting.  As Kafka would say, most readers want books that will make them happy instead of searching for that ax to break the frozen seas within them.  They are searching for something that is familiar and that will make them feel better.
Again, branding has much to do with this equation.  Just like with McDonalds, readers want some assurance that what they are about to buy and read is something they will be comfortable with.  They also want to be in on the next big thing.  They want to be part of the public conversation and know first-hand what everyone else is talking about.  Big name authors who have generated this brand-recognition sell whatever they come out with, whether it is any good or not.  When J.K. Rowling released her latest novel, A Cuckoo’s Calling, she opted to use a pen name, to see what it would feel like to be a typical, anonymous writer without the pressure and expectations that came along with her notoriety.  The book still had a major publishing house behind it, along with a moderate marketing push.  In the ten weeks that the secret held, she managed to sell about 7,500 copies across all platforms.  Shortly before the secret was revealed, according to the online tracking website Novel Rank, the book was sitting at around 35,000th on the Amazon bestseller list.  Once the news leaked that Rowling had actually written the book, it shot up to number one overnight.  This after her previous book, The Casual Vacancy, was generally panned by readers and critics alike.  That book was a number one bestseller, too, primarily because J.K. Rowling is the most recognizable brand in fiction today.
        All of this leaves me with the question of where to take my own writing career from here.  I have a literary novel in mind but after all these years, maybe it is time to forget about changing the world for the time being.  I haven’t proven to be very good at that anyway, and besides, I need to survive.  I’ve got to do whatever it takes to get by.  One thing that I have come to accept is that I don’t have the talent for greatness.  If I did I’d have reached it by now.  I do still think that I have the ability to spin an entertaining yarn if I set my mind to it.  Maybe I’ll never win the National Book Award, but I can still aspire toward writing novels to be proud of, with well-developed characters and interesting plots.  Some writers of pulp fiction carved out relatively distinguished careers for themselves.  There was Dashiell Hammett, for instance, or Philip K. Dick.  The ranks of today’s self-published novelists are just as likely to deliver some authors of note.  At least it is something worth striving for. 
        If this sounds a little bit like rationalizing the abandonment of a dream, perhaps it is in part.  After 25 years, reality is hard to escape.  Maybe I’ve given up on changing the world but I still haven’t given up on writing.  As I wrap up this memoir, the wheels in my head are already in motion, formulating a romantic series about a group of young adults coming of age in the city.  Los Angeles?  San Francisco?  I’m not sure yet, but I will write it as quickly as I can.  If things go well, perhaps I will finally be able to support myself from my writing, not just in some inexpensive city halfway around the world, but in the city of my choosing, wherever that may be.  It is one decision I long to face.  

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