Friday 22 September 2017

Grumpy old writer

I was talking to somebody the other day who was telling me that they thought that the Internet had radically changed the way that books are sold. That's hardly a new thought, but the changes that the Internet has wrought on publishing are much greater than that. The Internet has dramatically changed the way that books are written.

Just lately I've been reading a bit more fiction than usual – some of it traditionally published and some of it from independent or small presses which publish only as e-books. What has struck me is the way that books seem to have changed from when I was younger.

Books have changed since the days when this was a furniture norm

Note that I'm talking about changes in books generally. I'm not picking on any particular author and these changes will have affected my work as well as those of people I know. My whole point is that the technology has changed the way that books are written, rather than that individual authors are writing better or worse books than they used to.

As is traditional when grumpy old people write about how things are changing, I don't think that many of the changes mark an improvement. Books I pick up nowadays are riddled with proofing errors, repetition, mixed metaphors and just passages of really rather awful prose. There's lots of really good stuff too and many more writers out there producing more books than ever before and that is a good thing. But there is an astonishing amount of rubbish and that is not.

Why is quality on the slide?

You know that old saying: you can have a quick, you can have it cheap, or you can have a good, but not all three? Well the way that books are sold nowadays means that, with rare exceptions, they have to be written quickly and sold cheaply. Inevitably, they aren't as well written as they might be.

If you look at fiction bestseller lists, you will see that they are dominated by books by well-known authors who write to a formula that has worked for them in the past – often as part of a series. With so many books around, people naturally turn to novels by authors they have read before. This is even more the case further down the charts. If you are waiting with bated breath (and I hope you are) for Endeavour to publish the fourth of my books about James Burke (provisionally titled Burke in the Peninsula) then you’ve probably already read at least one of the others. The best way to sell an existing book (unless you are famous or have an unrealistically generous marketing budget) is to produce a new one. Interest in a new novel should always raise sales of existing books by the same writer.

The demand for new books means that all writers find themselves under pressure to produce at speed. I produce, more or less, one book a year. (There's a bit of a hiatus at the moment because I've just changed publisher.) This is partly because I'm fundamentally lazy, but also because historical novels genuinely do take longer to write – there are so many details that you have to check if they are not be riddled with errors. A book a year, though, is now regarded as quite pathetic. Fortunately, I don't care that I don't make any money from writing (although if you all proved me wrong by buying my books, I would be quite grateful). If I did intend to generate even the minimum wage from my writing, I would really need to write a lot more quickly.

The economic imperative to put words down on paper ever faster is translating into a new approach to writing which is spawning its own self-help books and online support groups. The idea here is to simply pour words on paper ever so quickly. Don't worry about editing – just get the words down. Tidying up can come later.

There is a lot to be said for this approach. It certainly doesn't allow for precious nonsense about writers block. In fact, it puts writing on a par with any other artisanal craft. After all, if you throw pots for a living, you are expected to produce a fair number of pots. You can't – unless you are the very top of your game – say that you are only going to produce one pot this week, but it will be very, very good.

This approach can lead to great storytelling. When we are telling a story to our friends they want us to get on with the tale. There is nothing worse than the storyteller who keeps stopping and going back and changing some detail here or there. "It happened in Birmingham – no, Leeds. It was on a Tuesday – no a Wednesday." People just want the story and writing very fast can produce very good stories which can be improved by the paciness of the prose which is, in part, a product of the writing process.

What is lost, of course, is the quality of the actual writing itself. In theory, this might not even be a problem for the author. That, some will say, is what editors are for. Editors should notice the repetitions, infelicitous word choices, mixed metaphors, and all the rest of it. But, if you recall, we don't just want a quick, but we want it cheap.

Proper editing costs money and there just isn't enough of that around. Many self-published authors who do pay editors not only don't make any money out of their efforts but actually end up out of pocket. Of course, you can buy the services of a very cheap editor, but then it's unlikely they will be very good.

You'd think that editing issues would not be a problem for major publishing houses, but it seems that they are. I am generally avoiding pointing the finger at particular books but E L James has sold so many copies of 50 Shades… that I think she can cope with some criticism of her prose. This is from early in the book.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I walk over to the bank of elevators and past the two security men who are both far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut black suits.
The elevator whisks me at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I'm in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I'm confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman, this time dressed impeccably in black and white, who rises to greet me
"Miss Steele, could you wait here, please?" She points to a seating area of white leather chairs.

Leaving aside the fact that "terminal velocity" is not a synonym for "really quite fast" (and the speed is implicit in "whisks" anyway), note the overuse of "black", "white", and "sandstone". I’ve just quoted two and a half paragraphs. If I had quoted more, the same words would have come up over and over again (along with "glass" and "steel”). Ms James may have lively imagination when it comes to sexual behaviour, but her notion of what constitutes an exciting modern office building is depressingly limited. Does it matter? Arguably, it doesn't – and her sales figures would tend to support this. People are reading the book for its kinky sex not its architectural descriptions. A decent editor should have tidied this up. But in the end, it seems likely that Vintage Books (an imprint of Random House, no less) took the view that the book would sell for the smutty bits whether or not it was well written and economised on editorial input.

My limited contact with the publishing world suggests that more editorial work is now being contracted out to freelancers, who are unlikely to build up the relationships with writers that characterised great editor/author collaborations in the past. It's certainly cheaper, though.

Proofing has gone the way of editing. There will always be proofing errors that slip through, of course, but serious novels published by serious publishers seem increasingly to have spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. It's not fair to blame the authors. Everybody makes mistakes. That's why books used to go through several rounds of corrections with editors and proof-readers casting their eyes over the work independently to minimise errors. But every extra pair of eyes costs, and keeping the cost down is, for most publishers with most books, what it's all about.

An author writing for peanuts

The bottom line is that books are now absurdly cheap. Most writers want to write – nay, they have a pathological need to write. You can squeeze the amount you pay your writers until only the old and the rich can afford to write any more. But still there is pressure to get those prices down lower. The last book I bought on Amazon cost me 99p. If it has spelling mistakes and mistypes and the odd sentence that really shouldn't have got through, what did I expect?

There will always be books because there will always be stories. The need to tell stories is hardwired into the human brain. But if those stories are to be told with subtlety and wit and a nice way with words, we're going to have to accept that we will have to start paying for them. Sadly I see no evidence that this is going to happen any time soon.

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