Sunday, March 20, 2011
Authors as Franchises
An ugly new trend is taking over the publishing industry: it’s called franchised authors.
Over the past several decades there has been a marked shift in the way books are distributed and sold. Almost without exception, those changes have resulted in a larger share of the market going to blockbuster or bestselling authors while the print runs of midlist authors continue to shrink. For example, 25 years ago it wasn’t uncommon for a new romance author to get a print run of 100,000; today, such an author is lucky if 20,000 copies of her first book are printed. Print runs of four figures are not unknown. And if print runs for new mystery authors were any lower, they’d be in negative numbers.
As a result, publishers look at their bottom line and say, What we need to do is publish more books by our Names and fewer books by these pesky Unknowns. The problem is, authors can only write one or two books a year. So what to do? Why, get those poor desperate underemployed midlist authors to actually write the books, then slap the bestselling Name on the cover. The book sells millions of copies. The Name makes millions. The publisher makes millions. Readers are happy. Everyone is happy except for the poor exploited sucker who actually wrote the book.
Some franchised authors such as James Patterson or Clive Cussler at least acknowledge their "co-authors" by putting the writer's name in eensy weensy letters behind the word “with” on the cover. But other authors insist on perpetuating what is essentially a lie; their ghostwriters are given no credit at all.
So how much do these bestselling authors actually contribute to the books that carry their names? It various, obviously, but the answer is often very little (and almost never as much as they claim in interviews). All parties to these agreements—agents, editors, and authors—are bound by nondisclosure agreements. But people do talk (especially after a few glasses of wine). So I can tell you that sometimes the Name will send the ghostwriter a vague plot outline (with emphasis on the word “vague”), while some Names content themselves with a final edit. And then there’s the Name who says in effect, “I want a new series with a female protagonist sorta like that guy in It Takes a Thief; remember him? Yeah. Oh, and I like horses, so put some horses in there.”
How much do these ghostwriters or “co-authors” make? While the Name pockets an advance of as much as a couple of million, holds film rights, and receives royalties, the poor sucker who actually wrote the book is lucky to get a one-time check for $50-75,000. One well-known romance author paid the man who wrote a half-dozen of her romances $4,000 a pop. That’s right: four thousand dollars per book. Ironically, those books received by far her best reviews.
Personally, I think the entire trend is so exploitative and disgusting that I will never, ever buy another book by any “author” who franchises his or her name. As far as I'm concerned, it's a matter of principle. (Yeah, I’m looking at you Cussler, Evanovich, Clancy, Patterson, Flynn, etc.) The problem is, those are the Names who at least give slight acknowledgment to the writers whose bad luck they are exploiting. But there are others who insist that their ghostwriters remain forever unseen behind a curtain. This is particularly true of romance and urban fantasy authors.
So how do you know what you’re buying? Well, if a NYT bestselling author is putting out three books a year—or even two if they’re longish books and he has a heavy promotion schedule—then the chances are he or she is not really writing all of them.
Please note that I am not saying that the specific financial or working arrangements discussed in this post refer to all of the authors specifically mentioned, only that these authors are among those who have publicly acknowledged that at least some of their books are produced with "co-authors". Some of these named authors may indeed have far more equitable financial arrangements and participate far more in the writing of "their" books than those I do know about.