Hemming in the Tension
When I tweeted up the author Anne R. Allen for writing that “Word count guidelines have been trending down in the last decade,” I found our colleague Hugh Howey checking in from a galaxy far, far away to say, “Slaughterhouse Five, Frankenstein, and Fahrenheit 451 are three of my favorite sci-fi works of all-time, and each is around 50K. The problem part of most novels is the boring middle bit. Best to just leave that part out.”
The desired price of the hardback began to determine the length of the manuscript, which is a weird way to do art. Personally, I'd read more fantasy novels if they came in smaller size but more often. Waiting 7 years for a 1,500 page tome is no bueno.— Hugh Howey (@hughhowey) March 21, 2018
He’s right, of course, as is Anne Allen, and we went on to discuss (briefly!) the problem some big-name authors run into in this regard, too. I call it the Clancy effect. Once they’re established as a publishing house’s majors, the editorial touch gets lighter, often more pixie dust than anything else. Typos are caught, we have to hope, but developmental work (“structural” edits to your British neighbors) goes out the window.
That can go to anybody’s head, and many of us can name an icon whose work got leggier and sadly shapeless as the big career flabbed on.
I've seen this personally when I edit anthologies. The bigger the name, the more umbrage the author takes with any suggestion. I think writing can get worse over a career because of the unwillingness to be edited (and laziness from the publisher).— Hugh Howey (@hughhowey) March 21, 2018
Too Much Entertainment
At London Book Fair last week, another element of this issue came into sharper focus as I moderated a panel for the Byte the Book organization, which looks at the industry from the digital vantage point.
While the session was titled “Publishers Go Prospecting: Finding Hidden Treasure in Your Content,” I’d worked out with our four fine panelists (from the BBC, Penguin Random House, Vodafone, and Hodder Education) an approach that would take us past the obvious issues of spelunking for good backlist titles. (Bring Up the Bodies, as Hilary Mantel might say.)
We looked at today’s mushrooming level of competition for reading time from really fine television and film. After all, you may have felt the first really deep tremor of storytelling’s new cinematic leadership in February when Amazon Publishing created its Topple Books imprint in direct collaboration with Amazon Studios and the activist-filmmaker Jill Soloway (Transparent, I Love Dick, Six Feet Under).
As the futurist and corporate strategist Tom Goodwin told me, “Book publishing is not in the ‘text industry.’ It’s not in the ‘reading industry.’ It’s in the ‘what do people want to spend their time doing? industry.’”
And that’s where the rubber is going to increasingly meet the shortest road possible.