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A Few Things About the Realities of Publishing

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Okay, I’ve looked at the comments, and I think there are a few things I need to straighten out here.

First, for those of you who wandered in here not because you already read my books, I already have a book contract with a major New York publishing house, St. Martin’s Press.  They also publish  the Stephanie Plum books, and they’re very nice people, and I love them.  They put out the Gregor Demarkian books.

The problem with getting a classic mystery published is the definition of classic mystery.  It’s not just that Christie or Sayers are “fair play,” but that they’re thoroughly and uncompromisingly genre and nothing else.  There’s not a load of character development–in fact, in some of them, there isn’t any–and there’s no reference to social or political issues.

A standard Christie is 90,000 to 120,000 words long, and it consists of the puzzle, period.   There are no side plots, no complicated ironies, nothing but pretty much stock characters and the Great Detective.  Murder, investigation, solution, over.

Mysteries published these days–and I’m talking about detective novels, not “crime” fiction, but it suits that, too–are expected to be much more like “real” novels.  Character development is key, side plots are endemic.

Every  Gregor  Demarkian mystery contains not only the mystery, but usually at least one or two side plots centering on the suspects and another centering on the continuing story of Gregor and Bennis and Cavanaugh Street.  Any random Poirot or Marple contains the mystery, and neither detective is developed at all except to get older and frailer as the books go on.

It’s this second thing that publishers don’t want now–if they’re going to publish a novel, they want to publish a novel.  Standards are higher for the genre as a whole in areas like plot development, character development, and complexity of theme.

I can read a Christie in two hours flat, assuming I’ve got the two hours to sit and do it.  I can’t read a Dennis Lehane even in three times that time, and a  P.D. James or a Ruth  Rendell can take me days.  There’s just a lot more there, a lot more I have to pay attention to.

There is no question in my mind that P.D. James is a better writer than Agatha Chrstie, on every level.  But grilled Dover sole is a better food than cotton candy on every level, and yet there are times when I want cotton candy. 

There are books published these days that do in fact have the sort of skeletal construction of a  Christie, but almost all of them are “cozies.”  In spite of her  rep, Agatha  Christie never wrote cozies.  A cozy is first and foremost cutsey–people have weird names, and everything is jokey, and there are big arguments over things like Cutest Christmas Tree  Constests and Possum Pie Bakeoffs.

Cozies drive me crazy, and I can’t read them at all.  And they can often rack up decent sales, so major publishers publish them.  I don’t know if classic detective novels could do that at this point–rack up the sales, I mean–but even if they could, the simple fact is that editors and publishers now demand books that are far more sophisticated. 

Beyond that, there is the issues of print on demand (POD) and small publishers.  The world is changing, of course, but it remains the case that you do not want to release anything POD if you want a career.  Oh, I suppose if you’re Stephen King you can do what you want and nothing much will hurt you, but the tag of “self published” is the kiss of death for most ordinary writers.  It tends to make people important to us–reviewers at the major print organs, for instance, and book buyers for the major bookstore chains–think that we aren’t “real” writers at all. 

A book published POD, like any other self published book, is not eligible for any of the prizes given out for writing–no, not even the Edgar.  It isn’t considered a qualifying publication to gain entry to any of the professional writers organizations.  

Self publishing is a little like, um, cooties.

Small presses are fine, of course, or at least some of them are–companies have reps of their own–but I’ve had experience with those on and off over my life, and what I’ve found is not only that they don’t pay very well, but that they often don’t actually send the money when the time comes.  Of course, major publishers do a fair amount of that last thing, too, but the major publishers actually have the money they’re not giving you, and small publishers sometimes don’t.  

This brings me to the format problem–UI had thought that what I would do with a book I published online was a) make it printer friendly so that you could run it off and read it like that if you  wanted and b) make it available both chapter by chapter and, when the chapters were done, in total in one fell swoop.

That seemed to me to cover all the bases, except, of course, that a book you printed out would be on big annoying paper instead of a small format like a paperback.

Anyway, I have no idea why  I’ve started to think about this now.  I’ve got enough to do, and more keeps coming in every day, and I’ve got a book to finish that is definitely going to be late.  And there are lawyers coming.

But, still.  I think it’s an interesting idea.   And I want more Christie to read.   There gets to be a point where reading the books over and over and over again doesn’t quite do it.

Written by janeh

March 6th, 2009 at 7:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'A Few Things About the Realities of Publishing'

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  1. Ah. I’d known about the antipathy to subsidy publishers, of course, but I ddin’t know (a) that it extended to POD and (b) that it brought the writer into disrepute. Obviously my bubblejet and I will have to live with the situation. Perhaps the local Kinko’s can velobind. Two points:

    First, no question many mystery novels more closely resemble “straight” novels–I blame Sayers, though she meant well–but I am unconvinced that they are better mysteries thereby. A chapter of social or economic history would make them better textbooks, but it would not make them better mysteries. As you say, the nutritional value of cotton candy is not the point. Sayers played the game straight, but few of her successors adhere to the Detection Club Oath, and in some cases character development seems to detract from the story. Slipping briefly from mystery to crime, does anyone really want an aging Spenser and an old Mike Hammer? Both have appeared lately. Better to go on like Archie and Nero, as tough, active and alert in the Carter administration as they were in the waning days of Prohibition. The brownstone on West 35th is real to me and Cavanaugh Street–sorry!–has never been.

    Second point: The whole large press/small press/POD fuss seems to be confined to current fiction. More of my book money goes into small press/POD than Publisher’s Row will ever see, and the distinction between the two is blurred. My non-fiction is pretty well all POD/small (tiny, actually) press except for the odd polemicist or military historian. My most recent Rafael Sabatinis are a Norton trade paper of THE SEA HAWK, and a Bibliobazaar hardcover of MISTRESS WILDING, while I’m upgading my Georgette Heyers courtesy of Sourcebooks. Norton is a respectable publisher while I believe Sourcebooks is small press and Bibliobazaar is POD–but it makes absolutely no difference to me or the nice people at Amazon who keep me provided with books. If the big boys want me to pay attention to their prejudices, they’re going to have to start paying attention to my tastes.

    Doesn’t seem likely.


    6 Mar 09 at 7:08 pm

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