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.

33 comments:

Beth said...

For Evanovich at least, I quit reading her books because I got bored. Same thing, only not different.

The others you mention, I got bored before I finished any of the books. ;-)

Beth

Charles Gramlich said...

After getting really burned on a Patterson book I swore off all corporate authors. Just not gonna waste my time.

cs harris said...

Beth, I have to admit that while I have read a book or two by each of these authors in the past as part of my "know the market" campaign, I also discovered they weren't to my taste. But Steve does listen to some of them in audio while he works because he says they're mindless, and he ignores me when I tell him he's a traitor to the cause.

Diane said...

My word, I had no idea. It comforts me that I only buy new books by my favorite authors, and those are authors whose product lines I follow with a lot of attention. But I wish there were some way to be sure, and I would not buy them.
I buy your books new, Candace; but most books I buy are second hand and then I donate for my library or church's book sales.
Diane

Melody said...

Are there any others that you know of other than the ones you mentioned?

cs harris said...

Charles, I remember that rant!

Diane, I, too, am very careful to support authors whose work I admire or new authors just starting out. Otherwise I hit the library booksales. At the rate things are going, new or unusual writers are simply going to disappear.

Melody, I wish I could say, but I can't. I can say that karma definitely bit the romance writer who paid her ghost so shabbily.

Essex said...

Well, I guess that I shouldn't be surprised. I used to read all of those authors you mentioned but stopped when I started noticing a marked decline in quality. I am glad that you have integrity. It makes the long wait between Sebastian books easier to bear- at least I know that you are the one who is writing it! Is it an easier path for these "associate authors " to break into the business by entering into these relationships? I would imagine so, particularly if they were talented. I am currently reading a miltiary history series that forms a trilogy- and there is about 5 or more years between each part. Although it is frustrating to wait for the third volume, I do appreciate the effort the author puts into producing a well written book. I guess that some of the mega-authors have forgotten that

orannia said...

*gobsmacked*

Evanovich, Clancy and Patterson are all franchises? Why does it not surprise me....that the publishers would do this or that the instant gratification readers would want it.

Jane said...

I had no idea that this was happening in the writing industry. Nora Roberts seems to put out a lot of books in a year. Does she have ghost writers?

I've never read Clancy or Patterson. Their style of writing doesn't appeal to me.

I did read Evanovich for a few books but got really tired of the eternal romantic triangle and a plot that never seemed to progress. It was kind of like a book version of Groundhog Day.

Pax Deux said...

I'm not surprised, as it confirms suspicions I had. I do not read any of the authors mentioned in your post, but it may indeed be the case with some authors mentioned in the comments. It also helps explain why I loved one book (and one book only) of a particular romance writer. The writing was utterly different from any other that carries her name that I have bought since. But I don't think this is new. I think the guy (gal?) who published the "Flowers in the Attic" books continued to publish long after dead. LOL.

cs harris said...

Essex, I wish I could claim the moral high ground, but the truth is I don't make enough to pay someone else to write my books! And I think I'll do a follow up post on why authors do this.

Orannia, I understand Evanovich still writes her Stephanie Plum series; her attempt at franchising with the Nasdaq series didn't work out very well.

Jane, I do not have any inside knowledge on Nora Roberts; she claims she writes all of her books, although she does have many assistants because I remember she blamed them for a badly copyedited book. Romance writers who use ghosts tend to keep it a deep, dark secret. At least most of the thriller writers acknowledge their "co-authors." (Notice I said "most.")

Pax Deux, you're right, it's not new; look at all the "Ludlum" books that have continued to be written for years.

Steve Malley said...

Or VC Andrews: how many damn manuscripts was she supposed to have left in that attic, anyway??

And just wait until the actual authors are themselves dead, but the soulless animate machine of their writing output grinds mercilessly on... *shudders*

Publishing's in trouble. Not reading. Not writing. Just publishing. Moves like these make me wonder if they're more determined than ever to dig the hole they're in deeper, or if they've seen the writing on the wall and are cynically grabbing all the money possible before their houses fall...

Tina said...

Hi Candy! I love, love, love your books and wish you had a clone so you could write double the amount of stories. Anyways, I was wondering for one of your future posts if you could do a character sketch/study of all the major characters in the St. Cyr mysteries. That would be cool.

cs harris said...

Steve, you're right, successful authors don't need to die, their heirs can just hire ghostwriters. Personally, I think publishing is killing it's own industry by constantly pushing writers who may have been good once but have simply degenerated into money-making hacks.

Tina, thank you! I wish I could clone myself, too. I'll keep your suggestion in mind.

Lynnd said...

I think the thing about the current state of publishing that bothers me even more than these "franchise" authors is the celebrity book deals. The publishing companies are paying these people huge amounts of money for books which are written by ghostwriters. In most of these cases, I doubt that the celebrity makes any contributiion to the story or writing process at all (some may, but I would bet that most don't). Big publishing has lost it's way and it may take more defections like Barry Eisler's this week to show them the error of their ways.

Emma said...

I was a bit surpised, but now asking myself "why"? I mean, everything is industrialized,, why not this? Even if it feels so wrong...

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