Thursday, December 28, 2006

How Bad Books Get Into Print

Three chapters into the novel you bought yesterday you find that you just can’t go on reading it. The characters are wooden, the writing is stilted, and the dialogue is unbelievable. Viewpoints shift and the action leaps through time and space without benefit of transitions.

You know you can write better than this in your sleep. How did this mess get into print? you wonder. Did someone sleep with an editor, or what?

Actually, some books are published because the author slept with an editor (or a publisher). But that's not the only reason bad books see print. Sometimes a badly written novel slips into print because an editor has a vacant spot on her list and a writer friend or relative who needs work. And it has happened that a bestselling author falters (or doesn’t care any more) and turns out a poor novel that gets into print because of the author’s reputation. And although I don't know of any instances, I'm sure that bribery has gotten a few books into print.

Some questionable novels are “contract breakers,” poorly-written tomes intended to barely fulfill the terms of a publishing contract. The hope is that the publisher will reject the manuscript and release the author from her contract. An author may do this after signing a multiple-book contract with a publisher who proves to be less than proficient in the marketplace. A contract breaker may also be used to get around a common book contract provision that gives the author’s current publisher first refusal rights on his next book.
If the author is lucky, the publisher will drop the book. But the publisher might take the book anyway, in which case another bad book is born.

Why put such a book on the market? This may be done out of spite, or because the publisher figures the author’s name will sell the book.

A tight publishing schedule can also propel a contract breaker onto bookstore shelves. If the title is already scheduled for publication and there’s nothing available to replace it, the publisher has no choice but to put it out there.

All of which may seem illogical, but the nature of book publishing is such that most publishers would rather put out a bad book than miss a publishing date. Once a book is scheduled and announced, money is spent and irreversible processes are set in motion. At the very least, a publisher faces embarrassment by not releasing an announced book. But there are worse consequences to not fulfilling the expectations of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, including but not limited to reduced orders on future titles.

Time-sensitive titles (such as movie tie-ins or books linked to news events) can also fall victim to publishing schedules. These books are often written on nearly impossible deadlines, and the quality reflects it. But agreements with studios or other entities require that the book be published by a certain date, and marketing often takes precedent over quality.

Many books are scheduled for publication before the author completes the manuscript, and it sometimes happens that what the author turns in is not what the editor expected. Still, the book is scheduled to go into production, and there’s no time to make changes. And so the disappointing manuscript becomes a disappointing book.

Then there are late manuscripts. For whatever reason, a novel isn’t ready when it’s due. So the editor puts out a call and grabs the first complete manuscript she can locate that fulfills the genre requirements of the missing work. The replacement may be of minimal quality, but the publishing slot is filled.

Finally, as you may suspect, some bad books are the result of poor judgment on the part of an editor or publisher. One or the other may be so enamored of an author's writing style that they are blind to its poor plot. Or maybe wishful thinking fools them into thinking that a really well-written book has substance that it lacks.

Obviously, just making it into print doesn’t mean a work is “good.” Remember that the next time a bad book makes you wonder if your own work is on the wrong track.
Copyright © 2006, Michael A. Banks

Monday, December 18, 2006

Collaborating with Non-Writers

Every writer hears it sooner or later: "Hey--I got a great idea for a book! You write it and we'll split the money!"

There are a couple of problems with such a proposal. First, ideas aren't difficult to come by; they occur naturally. The person proposing the collaboration usually offers nothing more than a subject or situation, and perhaps some information. Nothing the writer couldn't work up on her own.

And the non-writer has no idea of the time and effort writing a successful book requires. Otherwise he wouldn't propose "splitting" the money with the writer, who is the one who will do all the work. Doing so is like demanding half the money after pointing out to to someone else that a certain corner is a great spot for a restaurant, have them build and operate the restaurant, then demand half the money.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Writer's Digest: Down the Drain?

"Writer's Digest isn't read by professional writers, but it is written by professional writers." --Jerry Pournelle

It was a real surprise to see Writer's Digest go bi-monthly last Spring. I started reading the magazine in 1971, when an editor friend gave me some back-issues, and I wrote for it throughout the 1980s. (I got to writing for it so often that I was identified with the magazine; for two years I was paid to endorse their companion annual market directory, Writer's Market, in full-page ads.)

Back then, when someone asked me what kinds of magazines I wrote for, I would say something like, "Oh, several. Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, computer magazines, Writer's Digest ..."

"Reader's Digest, hey? Wow--lot of people read that!"

And I would explain that Writer's Digest was a magazine for writers. Eventually I stopped mentioning it--not out of embarrassment, but because talking about it was a waste of time unless the person who asked was a writer or would-be writer.

I stopped writing for WD in the 1990s, just as it began to decline, a bit after Bill Brohaugh moved from being the magazine's editor to become editor of Writer's Digest Books. Tom Clarke made an effort to keep the magazine on course, but he wasn't in the position of editor long enough. After Tom a succession of editors struggled to change the magazine's look, feel, and content--but none approached the quality of the magazine under Brohaugh, John Brady, or Kirk Polking.

When Richard Rosenthal decided to retire and sell the company that published WD (F&W Publications), the magazine reflected that change. It became less personable and more hobby-oriented.

Why? I heard that the new owners were pushing to double the company's revenue, and the magazine's design and content seemed to reflect that. It was as if they were striving find a formula or package that would push readers' "buy" buttons. (One approach was to link a book to every article ... a bit too in-your-face, folks!) The emphasis was more on using the magazine to sell books and other products than providing content that would make readers want to buy the magazine.

In the meantime, many of the company's best people left. And apparently a lot of readers decided they wanted something other than a catalog.

I won't be very surprised if WD folds, or is sold off to a private company. Then again, maybe the management will realize that the writers and would-be writers who make up WD's audience buy the magazine for its own sake, and bring back usable content.
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]

Will They Steal My Idea? Unethical Writers and Editors

Many writers and would-be writers worry about someone stealing their work, or stealing their ideas. I always encourage the writers to not worry about such things, to concentrate on their work, instead.

Still, one can't ignore the possibility of theft of intellectual property completely, and I know that many of you are curious about how this stuff happens. So I'll relate here some of my experiences with certain unethical (or simply ignorant) scum of the Earth.

Note that my brushes with these matters were not as high-profile or dramatic as those involving J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown. There wasn't near as much money involved. But they serve to illustrate not only how theft can happen, but also how to deal with it.

On to cases ... my one verifiable instance of plagiarism involved someone lifting my work in big chunks and publishing it under someone else's name. That was a fairly straightforward incident; one had only to look at certain parts of the works involved to see the plagiarism. The problem was resolved by my publisher's attorneys contacting the offending publisher, after which the latter pulped thousands of copies of the offending work.

More subtle were certain cases of someone taking an idea and running with it. Before you start wondering whether you should have kept quiet about your idea for novel that resembles a certain film now showing, let me explain what I mean by an "idea." Or, what I don't mean. By "idea," I don't mean, "I have an idea about this evil galactic empire that existed long ago and the only person who can stop the spread of evil is a young man who has no idea of his heritage, special powers, and destiny ..."

This particular idea, which you'll recognize as "Star Wars," was the foundation for scores of novels and short stories published long before George Lucas was born.

It is a plot situation, not a firm idea or story. As such, it is not copyrightable, and not protected by law. Specific works, in their content and very order of words are what copyright protects. So you are free to write a novel about an evil galactic empire whose only salvation is a dispossessed, unaware prince. Just as anyone is free to write a novel about aliens destroying the Earth's economy with matter duplicators (the plot situation in my first novel, The Odysseus Solution, written with Dean Lambe).

Doing so is no more plagiarism than Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (it's King Lear all over), West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), and Forbidden Planet (The Tempest). The same is true of Pygmalion-based tales such as My Fair Lady which in a way became Pretty Woman and bunch of novels and a television series. If plots were protectable from "theft," there would be only one locked-room mystery, only one time travel story, only one story about an African-American who commits justifiable homicide in Mississippi, and so forth.

What is protected is what you do with an idea. Thus, you can query a magazine editor about doing an article on the subject of garage bands in the Midwest, and the editor can turn you down and ask another writer to do an article on that subject--with impunity. Such action is ethically crummy and a ripoff, but there's nothing illegal about it. I've had it happen, and I'll be glad to tell you who did it--privately.

But if you write an article about garage bands in the Midwest, send it to the editor, get turned down, and then see the unique spin you gave the subject in the same magazine under someone else's name, you probably have cause for action. If your sentences or paragraphs are copied, you definitely have cause for action.

I've not had submitted articles stolen, nor short stories. Just about any magazine editor is glad to buy what you write, and credit you, so as to get more of your work. But I have had book ideas--and more--stolen.

The first time this happened, a manager at a publishing house asked me to submit a book proposal on a certain subject to a specific editor, which I did. After waiting five weeks I telephoned the editor to ask about the proposal. Yes, the editor had received the proposal, and "... I folded it in with some other proposals on the same subject to give to another writer who will be writing the book."

WHAT? Hold everything!

My stomach lurched. Invectives and vulgarities rushed to the tip of my tongue, and I bit them back with an effort.

"You can't do that!" I said instead. "I was asked to submit the proposal on the understanding that I would write the book."

"Well," came the reply, "isn't that how everybody does it? Just take the best of all the material to create the book?"

Yeah, sure, lady! And when I need some lunch money I'll just go through your pocketbook, and take your ATM card for later.

"No, that is not how everybody does it." Some of the invective spewed forth at that point; I'll leave that to your imagination. I later learned that this was the editor's first job in publishing (no surprise). I suppose the editor thought I was doing this for fun. Or maybe the publisher thought they could just steal from anyone with impunity.

I contacted the president of the company, who gave me an apology and a few hundred bucks. But never again will I submit anything to that company.

A couple of years later I was asked to submit a proposal for a book to a publisher with whom I'd worked in the past. This was an outfit I trusted. As with the incident just described, I waited a few weeks, then telephoned to inquire as to the status of the book. "Oh," said editor B, "we contracted for that book four months ago."

What madness is this? "Then why solicit a proposal from me?" I demanded. My shoulders were hunched. My right hand clenched the phone so strongly that it began to ache. "Why ask me for a proposal when you had someone signed to write the book?"

"Well, my boss said to ask you."

I called the boss, editor B, who declared that he didn't know the book had already been signed when he told editor A to solicit the proposal. A blatant lie; the other author was well into the project, and there was no way editor A could not have known about the book because he had to approve the contract. The only questions was whether both editors thought it was a good idea to "help out" the author by taking my ideas, and if the author was in on it.

I managed to raise enough fuss with management to get one of these jerks fired, and was given a tiny financial compensation. None of this made up for the loss of time and effort on my part. (Editor B doubtless went on to pull unethical stunts on other writers.) And then there were the anticipated book credit and earnings. I suppose I might have brought suit over that one, but I was too busy writing to bother. And, even though I'd won civil suits in the past, I wasn't anxious to get into another one.

Needless to say, this is another publisher I avoid and warn others away from.

So, yes: plagiarism happens, and ideas are stolen. And the best way to deal with them, short of threatening suit, is to go over the offender's head.

But when you consider that I've had so few incidents in a career that includes publishing over three dozen books and 1,000 magazine pieces, you can see that they are the exception rather than the rule.

Still, the low probability doesn't make such events any less disturbing.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]

Sunday, December 17, 2006

We're All Best-Selling Authors on this Bus!

Used to be, if a book was labeled "bestseller" or an author "bestselling" (or "best-selling"), it meant something. A true bestseller sold more copies than the average book, and made the New York Times bestseller list.

And, it followed, a bestselling author was the author of a bestseller--a book that had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, maybe even millions of copies.

Assuming that making a bestseller list is a valid endorsement (and whether that's true is a subject for another blog entry), it's natural to let potential readers know (on second and third and nth printings) that the book sold enough copies to make such a list, and therefore might be interesting.

Where a new book by a previously bestselling author is involved, it's equally natural to want readers to know that this writer has sold a lot of books, since it is assumed that knowing the author has sold a large number of at least one title will motivate readers to by her new book.

But both bestseller and bestselling lost any real meaning years ago, thanks to the terms being applied indiscriminately. I've seen books that I know didn't sell 6,000 copies labeled bestselling. Sometimes the cover on a writer's first book lauds him as a "bestselling author." What?

When I was writing cover copy 20 years ago, I refused to use either term with any book that hadn't made some sort of list. Still, quite a few books that hadn't even made a grocery list ended up with something like "a new thrilling bestseller," or "Sylvanus Spatula, bestselling author of Picking a Molecule," splashed on their covers. (Editors and publishers have the final say on such things, after all.) Observing this, I learned to disregard best-anything in book descriptions. I suspect that the typical reader has done the same, even when the writer in question really has had a bestseller.

If book cover copy is going to brag, I'd much rather see it brag appropriately. Perhaps with a line like one proposed by the late Martin Caidin (bestselling author of The Six-Million Dollar Man) for one of his novels: "Forget bestselling: this book grabs you by the balls and drags you screaming through 320 pages of terror!"
The definitely-selling author of The eBay Survival Guide, Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation, and other titles.
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks