Top writers feel heat from publishers' presses

Some resist call for a book each year

Boston author Dennis Lehane said he'll never return to the book-a-year 'hamster wheel' pace. Boston author Dennis Lehane said he'll never return to the book-a-year "hamster wheel" pace. (G.P. Putnam/Associated press/File)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / June 9, 2008

In an age when reading for pleasure is declining, book publishers increasingly are counting on their biggest moneymaking writers to crank out books at a rate of at least one a year, right on schedule, and sometimes faster than that.

Many top-selling writers, such as John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark, have turned out at least one book annually for years. Now some writers are beginning to grumble about the pressure, and some are refusing to comply.

Not that writers are being explicitly harassed, but costly advance marketing plans are increasingly tied into the expectation that the most profitable authors will have a new book out at roughly the same time each year. In today's intensely competitive marketplace, readers will turn to another author if a writer fails to come through at the usual time, which could cost a publisher big bucks.

Many writers below the top tier are also being urged to pick up the pace. In some cases, publishers have made a book-per-year promise an explicit condition of taking on a new author.

"It's no problem, as long as you don't have a life," said Patricia Cornwell, the Massachusetts-based author of the enormously successful Kay Scarpetta crime thrillers. "The Scarpetta [manuscript] that's due out Oct. 7 is due in a few weeks, because they have to reserve the storefront real estate and pay for it. If I don't get the book turned in on time, they'll be freaking out. If I miss my deadline, I miss the entire year. Sometimes there's an overwhelming feeling of panic. It's like a rock 'n' roll concert, and what if I don't show up?"

Cornwell isn't the only one. There are signs of a growing resistance among suspense authors to becoming factory producers, even if it costs them sales and readers.

"There's pressure to treat authors like Coca-Cola," said California thriller writer Brad Meltzer, who was asked to publish once a year but refused. "Every time you get a bunch of writers together, this is all they complain about. The trend is, 'How many books can you put out?' From building your reputation to get on the best-seller list, it's gone to trying to get to the tippy-top of the list. It's not worth it to me."

No one is forced to sign a book-a-year contract, of course, but in the thriller and suspense genres, which make the biggest profits and dominate best-seller lists, publishers are desperate for writers to be as predictable as the seasons. "There's enormous pressure on writers to repeat at least annually, and some can do it more frequently," said Meg Ruley, a New York literary agent. "The rapid publishing sequence is a reality of the retail marketplace. In commercial fiction, it's crucial. This is what we have come to."

It's all part of an ever-fiercer competition for a dwindling number of book buyers in the age of mass electronic entertainment. The huge success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels has tended to obscure the underlying stagnation of book publishing. Book Industry Study Group, a research organization composed of publishers and printers, projects a 0.9 percent increase in trade book sales (that is, apart from text- and professional books) for 2008, and a measly 1.4 percent increase between 2009 and 2012. Retailers are also in a funk. First-quarter sales slumped by a combined 0.3 percent at Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-A-Million, the nation's biggest booksellers. One result is more pressure on authors to gin up bigger and more frequent blockbusters.

Publishers insist they are not asking the impossible. "There's no one rule that fits all," said Lisa Gallagher, senior vice president and publisher of William Morrow. "We want the best book an author can write. It doesn't make sense to force them to deliver on a schedule that will make them suffer." Yet she acknowledges that "every book has a deadline," and those who crank out a new novel per year enable the publisher to bring out last year's book in paperback around the same time, doubling the opportunity to promote the brand.

In the various suspense genres - serial killers, international conspiracy, romance suspense, and traditional detective fiction - the public's memory can be short. "If you don't write a book a year, it might not be devastating, but it helps to keep your face out there," said thriller writer David Baldacci, who says he doesn't mind the pace.

Michael Palmer of Swampscott, author of medical thrillers including "The First Patient," wrote a book every two or three years with his previous publisher, but his sales began to decline. "My reviews were uniformly good," Palmer said. "I had to assume the reason was that I wasn't getting a book out frequently enough."

Then Palmer's agent pitched him to Matthew Shear, publisher of St. Martin's Press. "I told him, 'I'm a big fan, but in this competitive market, I need a book a year. If you do that, I can increase your sales,' " Shear said. Palmer agreed, with trepidation, and has made his deadlines for the first two books in a three-book contract. Like Cornwell, he has sweated bullets over the deadlines. Even so, he acknowledged, "I've gotten tons more mail and attention."

Some writers contend the time pressure corrodes their work.

Boston's Dennis Lehane tried the book-a-year pace once, to his regret. He had written a second book by the time his first novel, "A Drink Before the War," was published in 1994. He wrote a third book, he said, "blazing fast, a real fluke." His fourth took 2 1/2 years.

"Then they asked me to turn a book around in a year," he said. "I did it ["Prayers for Rain" in 1999], but the week it was published I realized what would have made it a really good book. The anger of that realization haunted me. I said I would never go back on that hamster wheel. It's what led me to write 'Mystic River.' " He took two years, published it in 2001, and it was his biggest book. The 2003 movie won two Academy Awards.

Not everyone minds a breakneck writing schedule. Allison Brennan of Sacramento, Calif., has published eight suspense/romance novels in the past 2 1/2 years. She writes while her five children are in school or asleep. "I would be so bored to write a book a year," she said.

Boston's Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser detective series, publishes four books a year in several different series. "I don't know that I have an imagination that would allow me to write better than I do now, even if I had all the time in the world," Parker said. "Elmore Leonard said, 'If it takes you more than six months to write a book, you're not working.' "

David Mehegan can be reached at

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