Making Myself Clear


photo: analogicus on Pixabay

Loving this long lithub article by Francine Prose about the need to write clearly. There’s nothing like absenting yourself from a manuscript draft for a couple of months to reveal all the unintentionally vague, poorly expressed thoughts. Short stories can turn up murky, but a novel—with its larger number of theme, characters, plot strands, and ultimately, purposes—can be downright impenetrable. And getting the words right, making the text clear, as Prose says, “is harder than it looks.”

In some novels, every word seems exactly right, in exactly the right place, like bells change-ringing. It’s something to strive for. In rereading my own work, I come across sentences that are like an impenetrable hedge around a thought (if there is one). I have to stop myself and ask, “what are you saying here?” If there is some kernel in there, it is so masked by syntax and verbiage that even I, who should know what is intended, can barely find it.

Prose excerpts letters from Chekhov to the young Maxim Gorky in which he suggests (advice frequently resurrected now 120 years later) that Gorky dispense with excessive modifiers. “The brain can’t grasp all of this at once,” Chekhov says, “and the art of fiction ought to be immediately, instantaneously graspable.” Simplification was one key to finding my way out of brambly sentences too. And if a whack through the brush and can’t find the kernel, well, that’s why I have a delete key.

The noted editor Harold Evans provides “ten shortcuts to making yourself clear” in his entertaining and helpful book on “why writing well matters.” His book in its entirety is about giving writers the tools to unravel knotty prose.

Prose advises writers to ask themselves, “Would I say this?” She clarifies that she doesn’t mean they should write exactly the way they would speak (listen to conversations on the train and you’ll see why), but that “they avoid, in their writing, anything they would not say out loud to another human being.” In her brand new book, What to Read and Why, she discusses some of her favorite writers and what makes their work enduring, along with an essay specifically “On Clarity.”

Time and a balky memory give me distance from the words I’ve so carefully and at times inartfully put on paper. Assessing whether a sentence or passage is clear requires reading it as if the writer were a stranger to it, Prose believes. As writers, we’re on a quest. She says, “Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.”

Simplicity is not the only cure for confusion. Prose cites long and grammatically complex sentences of Virginia Woolf’s that, though they require an attentive reader, are nevertheless clear. Inviting and assuring the reader’s attention means making the subject and the characters interesting, providing sufficient motivation for readers to fix their attention on them. A subject for another time!

Change and Emotion Spark Your Novel, and Voice Carries It

Greg Beaubien

Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author

Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.

To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.

What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.

The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.

Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”

Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.

A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.

Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.

More about target word length?

These helpful articles from Writer’s Digest and the Manuscript Appraisal Agency delve into great detail about length targets for different book genres.

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short: Part 2

red pencil, grammar, comma

photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license

Authors of crime/thriller/mystery novel have to keep track of a lot. They must develop those pesky clues, forge a logic chain with no missing links, and avoid too-convenient coincidences. They must convey everything readers need to know without actually giving the punch line away or making it irritatingly obvious information is being withheld. No wonder early drafts of a book can be full of problems!

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the common plot and character pitfalls (the “thinking” pitfalls) I find in the dozens of crime/thriller/mystery novels  I review each year. This post concentrates on typical problems found in the actual writing.

Writing Pitfalls (the Biggest Ones)

  • Clichés in language and gesture – at least five chapters in a recently-read thriller ended with a character setting his/her mouth/jaw in a firm line. Using a cliché to express a thought is a writer’s shortcut. While certain characters may speak in clichés, if that’s their thing, narratives should struggle for freshness. That helps characters and settings feel unique, not like cardboard cutouts.
  • Unartful explanations—Readers often need background information—about politics, finance, weapons, a character’s training, whatever—but indigestible chunks of it that read like a resume or briefing paper feel amateurish. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Smith,” is hardly better.
  • Over-explaining – Example: A Chinese scientist who’s volunteered to become a CIA source explains to an agent how his country’s government has hurt “many people who deserve better,” including his father. The agent immediately thinks, “His motivation appeared to be revenge for his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese government.” Duh. Then, in case the reader doesn’t get it yet, the author continues with what is actually a very good way of underscoring the point (good because it adds new information, the agent’s judgment): “He’d take revenge as a motivator any day” and explains why. This would have been just fine if that clunky over-explanation were edited out.
  • Mixed or inept metaphors – Example: “Trying to learn the ropes had XX feeling like a fish out of water.” I can’t picture that at all. Can you? Here’s a simple, effective one: “Out of [his police] uniform he just looked like an impatient kid waiting for his father.” I see this clearly.
  • Ending each chapter with a cheesy cliffhanger. Example: “My God! XX thought. The Americans will never know what hit them.” Actually, in this book, they will. Here’s a better one: “She closes her book and shuts her eyes to look up at the sun, unaware of her two observers.” Menacing, not manipulative.
  • General sloppiness – I’ve said enough about typos in my book reviews. They suggest a lack of care. Here is other evidence of it: homonym problems (hoard instead of horde, rein instead of reign, desert instead of dessert, and on and on); changing the name of a person or place, but not catching all the uses of the original name (“find and replace,” please); and of course, distracting factual errors.
  • Lack of support matter – OK, maybe I’m crazy, but I believe quite a few thrillers would be improved by the inclusion of tailored supporting material. For example, maps that show the principal places mentioned in the novel (I admit to a pro-map bias here), lists of acronyms and abbreviations, especially for novels involving multiple international agencies, lists of characters and how they fit into the story, and so on. The goal should be to bring readers in to the circle of cognoscenti, not shut them out.

Working out the plot of a story and developing the characters involved are completely different tasks than effectively writing the whole thing down, and rushing into print rarely serves the material—or the reader—well. I hate to see a good plot ruined by weak presentation!

On the CriFi Horizon

June Lorraine Roberts

June Lorraine Roberts

Vicki asked me to comment on where the crime fiction (CriFi) genre is headed. I’ve enjoyed her diverse and timely blog for a while now. Certainly, her request has caused much reflection on my part.

Let me start with an online definition of crime fiction. Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct.

I quite like the term indistinct. It indicates the versatility and flexibility available to the genre. Two posts I did earlier this year were on the blend of science fiction and steam punk with crime fiction. For me it’s one way to broaden reading horizons and generate ideas on how to move CriFi forward.

Several books have done well examining marriage and family relationships within crime fiction since Gone Girl appeared on shelves. The word ‘Girl’ still appears in book titles, but not for much longer I suspect.

What’s next? If we could predict the next big trend we’d be hard at writing it now. However, there are authors who are using an inventive edge.

Currently, I’m halfway through Fickle by Peter Manus. Written as blog posts on two different websites, followers speculate and ask questions of the bloggers. The storyline is easy to follow, no talking over one another. And it’s well done. I have no idea how the book will wrap up, but it’s sharp and clever and I’m enjoying its modern, noir atmosphere.

Is it the next big thing? Probably not. But it makes the point that, when talent isn’t enough, a different way of looking at things can boost the likelihood of being published. One of the many challenges for writers today is beating the numbers and getting your book noticed. First by an agent, then by a publisher, and then by readers. Every year thousands of CriFi books are released worldwide by publishing houses. Imagine how many more are self-published!

A number of recent books run dual storylines: past and present. While not new, this construct is very effective at moving along a storyline, giving readers the backstory for the main character in a concise fashion. (I just reviewed one exactly like this—What Remains of Me—for—ed.)

In other storylines, we have narratives written from the perspective of two or more characters. Add to that blog posts from two websites, and location changes for protagonists–all this shows a duality of nature that is as common as villain vs. hero. Perhaps there is opportunity here to leverage our creativity and reader interest. Or at least to have us think about storylines from a different slant.

It’s the openness to new ideas and the willingness to try an atypical approach that marks today’s crime fiction. It speaks to our society and the cultural mores of this place in time. Much has changed in the past 15 years. What we need to do, as authors, is harness the change and let it generate new ideas, and, as readers, be willing to experiment.

The thing about a book is that it is both tangible and intangible. You can hold a book in your hands and take it many places. But the story, the story is what you carry inside you, and it can take you to places you never expected.

Guest poster June Lorraine Roberts is a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in Tengri Magazine and Aware Magazine. Her first CriFi flash fiction story was picked-up by the Flash Fiction Press earlier this year, and she continues to work at plotting devious story lines. Check out her website:


Jude Law, GeniusDirector Michael Grandage’s movie Genius (trailer) about the relationship between legendary Scribners & Sons editor Maxwell Perkins and flamboyant author Thomas Wolfe had received generally tepid reviews. (while I’m delighted an editor is finally receiving screen time!).

Wolfe was an author whose moods, enthusiasms, and output were not easily corralled, even by someone with Perkins’s experience. After all, he had already brought works to the public from other writers with outsized personalities and personal difficulties–notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s easy to imagine the slammed doors that would greet an author today who showed up with a 5000-page manuscript as Wolfe did with his second book, Of Time and the River. The challenging task of turning this behemoth into a publishable manuscript epitomizes the editor’s dilemma: “Are we really making books better,” Perkins says, “or just making them different?” Getting 5000 pages down to a still-hefty 900 made Wolfe’s work different, for sure. And better, at least in the sense of more likely to be read.

Colin Firth, as Perkins, keeps his hat on during almost the entirety of the movie, symbolic perhaps of how his character tries to keep a lid on his difficult author. Jude Law as Wolfe is by turns outrageous, contrite, drunk, hostile, and sentimental. Pretty much like the novels, actually. His performance is consistently inconsistent and always interesting. He shows Wolfe as a man with a lot of words bottled up inside him who can’t always control the way they pour out.

It’s odd to see a mostly British and Australian cast playing so many titans of American literary history, including Perkins and Wolfe, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Hemingway. (The Hemingway scene required an ending credit for “marlin fabricator.”) The women in the lives of the protagonists are Laura Linney as Mrs Perkins, perfect as always, and Nicole Kidman, who believably portrays the obsessed Mrs. Bernstein. She’s left her husband to cultivate and promote the much younger Wolfe and has her own flair for the dramatic. The performances make the movie worth seeing.

The National Book Award-winning Perkins biography by A. Scott Berg was transformed into a screenplay by John Logan. New Yorker critic Richard Brody dings the script for its departures from the detailed and more richly peopled original, including the book’s fuller explanation for the rupture between Wolfe and Scribners. Brody says a lawsuit and Wolfe’s unsavory political views played a part, and leaving them out does seem a mistake.

Portraying in cinema an intrinsically intellectual and abstract enterprise is difficult (The Man Who Knew Infinity struggles with the same challenge). Like me, reviewer Glenn Kenny at Roger apparently had not read the book, so did not have Brody’s reservations. Kenny found “the exchanges between editor and author exhilarating. Logan’s script . . . is invested in the craft of words like few other movies nowadays, even those ostensibly about writers.”

Wolfe blasted onto the American literary scene like a runaway train and departed before he could accomplish a judicious application of the brakes. Yet, he eventually realized who’d kept him on course, as his moving deathbed letter attests.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 48%; audiences: 56%.

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

Billie Holiday

Click photo for “Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

When I read a vivid description of a particular disease or condition, I confess I start feeling a slight pain in the target spot, an itch, a touch of malaise, a sink of nausea. (All the while being perfectly healthy.) Face it, lots of us suffer from–to put a positive spin on it–this kind of excessive empathy.

That tendency seems remote kin to the feeling I have when I read “advice for writers.” No matter how awful the writing habit is, “I do that!” “My writing is full of it!” But when I ran across fiction editor Beth Hill’s terrific essay, this time, I really, really think she’s diagnosed something important to me. Her brilliant Editor’s Blog essay is “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” Let me explain.

Hill says the problem of overexplaining comes up repeatedly in fiction manuscripts. Fundamentally, her common sense advice requires us, as authors, to trust our readers to understand what we’re writing about, without banging them over the head with a 2×4 of explanation. Hill says:

  • Inherent in our characters and the events they experience are (or should be) the reasons they respond to situations as they do. If responses aren’t clear, fix the set-up or the characterizations, don’t take the easy way out and just tell the reader why they responded as they did.
  • Sometimes we do a good job of showing a character’s response, then wimp out, feeling the need to reiterate why the character responded as he did–showing AND telling. No, no, no. Trust the reader.
  • Whenever we explain, there we are (voice of God), elbowing our way into the story. When we do that, Hill says, we are “using real-world explanations for fictional-world events.” That destroys the story’s fictional reality. As John Gardner would say, it jolts the reader awake from “the fictional dream.”
  • Unnecessary explanations need not be page-length, paragraph-length, or even sentence-length. They can be one or two insidious words. Hill’s examples include “Timothy hollered in pain.” Unless the point-of-view character is Timothy or unless she has ESP, she doesn’t know that Timothy hollered in pain. We can just say a character hollered or frowned or wept and trust the reader to figure out why, given the circumstances. (No “Angela wept as if the tragedy of the situation just settled on her” either. That’s still point-of-view character speculation.)

The second part of this summary will appear Monday, June 27.

Who Writes the Best Crime Novels: Men or Women?

unmade bed

photo: Peter Lee, creative commons license

In the current issue of The Atlantic, author Terrence Rafferty has an intriguing piece titled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” (in the “Culture” column, no less). Hmm. For real cultural insights, skim the article and read the comments.

Rafferty attributes women authors’ strength in this genre to the growing popularity of “domestic thrillers,” the kind where your enemy sleeps next to you. Gone Girl catapulted this resurgent genre to public attention. Theirs “is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized,” Rafferty says. His characters’ motives were more basic (sex and greed) and their methods more direct. “Take that, you punk!” bang, bang.

Rafferty thinks Chandler’s lone detective genre is almost as dead as the corpse in the dining room, though plenty of popular books are clear heirs to that tradition. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, the Tess Monaghan series by Laura Lippman, and the Strike/Ellacott books of J.K. Rawlings (writing as Robert Galbraith) feature investigators working outside official channels. Their investigations are a bit hard to pull off in these technology-reliant days, but they can usually find a friendly cop to snag certain kinds of information for them. Cell phone logs and whatnot.

As a person who reads a large number of books in the crime/mystery/thriller genre—reviewing 46 in the past year for—I can tell you there are some really tired tropes out there—heroes with arcane martial arts skills, who know thirty-two ways to kill a person in two seconds flat, who get beat up but bounce back in record time, and who never met a woman they couldn’t bed. A few of them also have a sense of humor.

The “girl” novels discard all that. Instead, they rely on astonishing levels of manipulation and the workings of the characters’ minds, which Rafferty says often dwell on unresolved adolescent angst. A few years hence, those features will likely seem just as tiresome and overworked as the boy wonders. I laughed out loud reading this from one of the commenters on Rafferty’s article: “I think that after a certain number of introspective life years, the Self as object d’art is too debunked to stand much further scrutiny.”

Rafferty cites a bunch of female authors he admires, including Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Tana French. Their type of storytelling, he says, doesn’t depend so strongly on heroes, making it “perhaps a better fit for these cynical times.” Less gunplay, more emotional violence. I’d add to his list Becky Masterson, Meghan Tifft, and Cecilia Ekbäck.

But here’s where his argument gets tricky. By conflating crime fiction, mystery, and thriller genres, he makes his argument a bit difficult to follow, because they have different foundational premises and conventions, and their readers have greatly different expectations. There isn’t a lot of overlap between the audiences for John Sanford and Agatha Christie.

Yet he says today’s women writers have “come a long way from the golden age, from Christie and Sayers, from the least-likely-suspect sort of mystery in which, proverbially, the butler did it” (emphasis added). In today’s psychological thrillers, authors “know better. The girl did it, and she had her reasons.”

Reviewing my own reading of some 60 books in the broad crime/mystery/thriller category over the past 18 months, I find that whether a book is interesting, well-written, genre-stretching, and good entertainment does not depend on the author’s gender. Women and men were equally likely to write a book I liked. Great books are simply great books.

9 Keys to a Successful Reading

road sign, rough road

(copyright Elvis Kennedy, creative commons license)

Reading your own work aloud—even without an audience—is a helpful exercise for any writer. The sentences that seem to flow so smoothly across the page will reveal themselves to be scarred with rough patches, poor word choices like potholes, and cracks in logic.

Members of my writing group do a public reading twice a year. Not only does preparation for the reading improve the writing, the audience feedback is strongly energizing (since so often, submissions to agents and publishers evoke no feedback at all).

An audience isn’t necessary for diagnostic work; you can read a draft aloud at any stage it’s in. But if you have the chance to do a public reading, the route to success is simple: practice! The more run-throughs you do, the greater your confidence and the smoother your performance.

Key hints are:

  1. Lighting: If you’re over 40, you may need extra light. Maybe you’re thinking, I’ll use my laptop, no problem. Consider whether the laptop screen not only casts an unflatteringly cold light on you, but also sets up a perceived barrier between you and your audience. You may decide old-school is better.
  2. If you use paper, print your manuscript in a BIG font. The less light you have, the bigger your font should be. I generally print mine in 20-point BOLD, after an embarrassing episode when I couldn’t see what I was reading.
  3. Be sure you understand time constraints, and when you practice, time yourself. If you consistently bump up against your time limit, cut something. You don’t want to notice the clock and start rushing.
  4. Stand up when you practice. Even if you’re offered a chair at your reading, you’re better off on your feet. Your voice will carry farther and your breathing will improve.
  5. Plant your feet firmly, a little apart to prevent weaving (you don’t want your audience to get seasick), and use natural hand gestures. Practice them, too.
  6. Whenever you stumble over a word, circle it, so you know it’s coming and can anticipate it. If a word or phrase is too much of a tongue-twister, or you consistently read it wrong, consider changing it.
  7. Mark up your copy to indicate variations in intonation, speed, emphasis. If your piece has dialog, differentiate the voices.
  8. On performance day, have a small bottle of water handy.
  9. Smile and make eye contact!

If you’re like me and tend to yawn while reading aloud, you may need more oxygen. You probably won’t have the problem if you read standing up. I don’t. And you might also want to take a few deep breaths before you start!

Tomorrow: Polishing Your Instrument–Your Voice for a public reading.

My Jake Epping Experience

James Franco

James Franco as Jake Epping in 11.22.63 from Hulu

I’m excited about Hulu’s eight-part production (trailer) of Stephen King’s complex 2011 time-travel thriller, 11/22/63, which will premiere on President’s Day. I listened to the book several years ago and found it both gripping and fascinating. You may recall that, in King’s novel, high school English teacher Jake Epping goes back in time to try to thwart the assassination of JFK. Unfortunately, everything he does has rippling consequences he cannot foresee. It turns out that “history doesn’t want to change,” and to try to get it right, he has to reenter the past more than once.

There’s a mysterious character—the Yellow Card Man—who Jake finally learns is in charge of tracking the revisions in history he’s made and making sure all those events play out in their own new way. If someone’s life is saved, for example, they need a future, for better or ill—one they wouldn’t have had without Jake—and one that has its own infinite repercussions. I’ll let you see the series or read the book to get the full flavor of how tiny and profound those changes can be.

So here’s my Jake Epping experience. Consultation with the editor on my Rome-based novel led to agreement that several of the characters need to be expanded. Alas, the book was already straining publishers’ preferences at 98,000 words. Adding means subtracting.

Now I’m working on a draft that will eliminate several characters. Like Jake, I’m taking them out of the story and revising the world I have envisioned. (If you’re a writer, too, you know how much time you spend in that alternative universe, filling it with people and objects and snatches of conversation!) All that has to be reimagined. While the roles of these late-lamented were more that of facilitating action, rather than major players, it’s still challenging.

Not only do I have to find plausible ways to get done the things these characters did (e.g., provide my main character with a place to stay; introduce her to the police detective who takes her case). It isn’t just a matter of changing names. In the way that you don’t talk to you best friend from high school the same way to talk to your boss (at least most of us don’t), the dynamics of the remaining characters’ interactions have to be adjusted.

Sometimes the whole point-of-view from which a scene is written must change. For example, a conversation in a cathedral is very different when seen from a priest’s point of view than from a criminal’s. Different speakers have different goals, different gestures and ways of speaking, and notice different things around them.

This isn’t a complaint. This process is energizing. You might say that the characters being eliminated were extra furniture, and I’m cleaning house. It’s sharpening my focus, too. Like Jake, I’m trying to understand a world made new. Though a few darlings have been killed in the process, I’m confident my book will be better for it!

What’s NOT a Business Plan

Dr. Seuss

(photo: US Army Garrison, Red Cloud, creative commons license)

Harvard Business Review recently added its voice to the clamor for changes in the $28 billion U.S. publishing industry. The article, by writer Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist based at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is headlined “Harper Lee and Dr. Seuss Won’t Save Publishing.”

By relying not only on those obvious one-offs and other “successful retreads,” but also emphasizing authors who have what publishers call a pre-existing platform—which means either past books, a painstakingly built social media presence, speaker popularity, or high visibility in other media (movie stars, television commentators, high-profile journalists)—publishers are missing partnerships with less prominent authors. Such relationships used to be cultivated over the long term, giving publishers a deep bench.

Publishers don’t treat authors the way a venture capitalist or angel investor might, notes Suw Charman-Anderson in Forbes. Some of the authors on that bench were future stars and others solid mid-list performers. The whole timid approach is reminiscent of Hollywood’s love affair with sequels, prequels, and copycat films.

Authors today have a choice; if publishers aren’t willing to invest in them, they can look elsewhere, to smaller presses or self-publishing. In the past, the major publishers could offer authors their expertise in distribution, design, editing, proofreading, and marketing. Distribution has had a tectonic change with the advent of e-books and print-on-demand; increasingly sophisticated design, editing, and proofreading services are available for authors to contract with directly; and only the most highly successful (or happily delusional) author expects the publisher to take sole charge of their book’s marketing any more.

Clark recommends the following strategies to reinvigorate their relationships with authors:

  • Become full partners with authors, looking to the long term; think of them as the seed-corn necessary to harvest future profits.
  • Be more transparent with data (in late October I’ll be receiving my royalty statement from a textbook publisher that will provide up-to-the-minute-as-of-last-April sales information); no way can authors help with promotion when they’re working with arcane, six-month-old data. What’s more, as best-selling author Ken Follett says, “(Royalty) statements are carefully designed to prevent the author knowing what is really happening to his book.” (Clark says Penguin Random House has a new author portal that tracks weekly sales. This is a first.)
  • Build their own brand and audience. With all the industry consolidations that have occurred in recent years, if readers had an impression of a particular publisher, that entity may no longer exist, at least not independently.
  • Connect authors to one another for “cross-pollination” of marketing and literary ideas.
  • Double down on quality. Readers of books from all sources, including big publishers, lament the typographical and factual errors and negligent editing they encounter, even in books they’ve paid top-dollar for.

Such strategies could assure publishers’ profitability for years to come, because, as Clark said, “hoping to find another lost manuscript is not a business plan.”

Further Thoughts

Industry-watcher Michael Shatzkin says changes in publishing are, maybe, inevitable?