Monday, July 03, 2006

Where have all the authors gone?

How many of us thought `If I could just publish one novel, my career would be on its way’? Sadly, as many of us have learned, that is not the case.
I recently browsed through my 2000 membership directory for my local romance writers’ chapter and discovered of the 23 authors listed as published in 2000, more than half of them have not received a publishing contract in at least three years. Most of those authors have not had a new book out in many years.
Why? This is a perplexing problem. Because I’m not a close friend to several of them, I don’t know the answers.
For many, though, the line they wrote for folded and they have not been able to transition into another type of book. Think about it. They lost their editor, lost the line for which their writing "voice" was suited, and have to compete against established authors at other lines. In addition to all of this, they have lost their power to attract agents.
For others, writing was a hobby they sandwiched around professional careers and never intended their books to be the focus of their lives.
A few of the authors in my group were forced to push their writing aside because of personal crises.
I suspect many of the authors were dumped by their publisher for a variety of reasons ranging from weak sales to incompatibility with their editor. Another reason for an author losing her publishing home is the perennial "cutting back" that occurs at publishing houses.
Just like the recording industry’s "One Hit Wonders," we have those in publishing, too. And just as mystifying as in the music biz, we don’t know why that author – often award-winning – can’t repeat her former success.
But I can’t explain why some authors’ once-strong careers fizzle. The closing of the door on Harlequin’s Temptation line has seemingly stifled the career of one of the most solid, professional writers I know. This author (formerly of my local chapter) published about 40 books for Harlequin and was a three-time RITA finalist. Why in the heck is she no longer publishing?
Granted, there are hugely popular authors like Loretta Chase and Laura Kinsale who take a hiatus from their highly successful careers.
But what – to me as a writer – is really scary is taking a look at the list of past RITA winners at the Romance Writers of America website ( and see how many of those names are no longer in publishing.
Hopefully of few of those supremely talented ladies were forced by publishers (because of low sales numbers) to take a pseudonym. That actually happened to the now-New York Times best-selling author Sabrina Jeffreys, who will no longer use her real name in any of her publishing information – even on writers’ loops.
We have two PASIC members (Bonnie Edwards and Gerry Bartlett) who went five years between publishing contracts and just this year reinvented themselves in hot new genres where their publishing careers look very bright.
But for every Bonnie and Gerry, there are many more who will never be able to publish a romance again. This is very disheartening.


Sandra K. Moore said...

Very interesting post, Cheryl.

I started pursuing a publishing career in the hopes of being able to make a living, and while I can laugh uproariously at my naivete now, at the time it was a bit of an adjustment.... And to think about my fledgling career being hamstrung by the closing of a line or the loss of an editor just doesn't bear thinking about.

It ultimately goes back to that delicate balance between writing as something I love and publishing as something I want or need to do. There seems to be a natural tension between those two things -- if I want to keep publishing, I have to find ways of approaching each story in a marketable way that also allows me to remain true to my voice, style, and literary sensibility.

I'd like to be able to say that if I ever stop publishing, it will have been my choice. Of course, that may not be the case, but I can at least hope the feeling between my publishing house and me is mutual.... said...

The situation you've cited is true of all publishing, Cheryl, just as it's true of all the arts. There is no easy answer, no one-size-fits-all reason for the disappearance of formerly published authors. Some authors only HAVE one or two books in them. Some authors simply burn out. Some lose heart because the business is so competitive and draining. Some simply can't keep up with the changing times and find it impossible to reinvent themselves. And still others have changes in their personal lives that take all their energy, so they have to put their careers on hold (or are forced to by circumstances). And overall, the reading public has shrunk, so each book is competing for a smaller share of the audience. Because of this, publishers are looking at the bottom line even more than they did in the past. The author you cited who sold more than 40 books to Harlequin but hasn't sold since the Temptation line closed told me privately that she'd simply lost the "fire." Her former editor has encouraged her to write for other lines, to try that single title she'd talked about writing for years (you'll be happy to know she's finally doing it!), but she was tired and wasn't sure she had the energy to reenter the ring. For, yes, it's a constant fight to remain viable and marketable in this business. And it IS a business, just like any other. Market forces drive it, not excellence in writing and not awards. One of the finest writers I know, an author who has won three RITAs over the years, has fairly dismal sales and struggles to keep selling. Too few readers identify with her work although other writers admire it greatly. I've sold 46 books to five different publishers, but I can't tell you the number of times I've wanted to just chuck it all and find myself a job that didn't continually batter my self esteem and carried a regular paycheck and benefits. :) I guess the bottom line is, it takes a combination of skill, perseverance, stubborn determination, extremely hard work, a very tough hide, and lots of luck to maintain a career in this business.

JoAnn Ross said...

Again, I ditto what Pat Kay. I've always professed that writing isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. As someone who's had to earn a living by writing from year one, I've tried not to get distracted overly much by changing markets and/or other writers' work or careers, and just keep on keeping on. Because it'd just be too scary if I stopped to think about how many writers -- and editors -- have disappeared from the publishing landscape since I sold my first book in the fall of 1982. Also, having been out of the real world workplace for 24 years, I'm no longer qualified to do anything else. LOL