"Uhhhh…yeah, Dusty, we’re gonna need that rewrite by Monday, not next month. And if you could make the hero a Canadian Mountie with a talking cat, that would be great."
by J.D. Rhoades
Not long ago, I was having a discussion with another writer about hardbacks vs. paperback originals. My friend was of the opinion that unless you were first publishing in hardback, eventually readers would start to think of you as a "smaller" writer. They’d start wondering why their favorite writer wasn’t getting that shiny new hardback on the front table of the bookstore.
I had a different take on it. I told my friend that I really don’t think readers care very much if their favorite author’s new one was in paperback original or hardcover, and to the extent they do, they’d most likely prefer the cheaper format. However, I went on to say, reviewers care, and editors care, and they, in a sense, are our customers too.
Which led me to ponder a larger question: who are we actually working for? Those of us lucky enough to be writing full time refer to themselves as "self-employed." But is anyone, really? Don’t we all have someone we have to answer to to get our paychecks? In this profession of writing for pay, who really are our clients, or, to be more crass about it, who are our customers? Is it the publishers? The booksellers? The readers?
I recall when I was studying mass media back in college, a rather pompous professor asked the class, "when it comes to television, who are the consumers, and what is the product?" The answer seemed obvious to most of us. The product, we answered, was the programming, and the customer was the audience.
No, he informed us with a smirk. The customer, he asserted, is the advertiser. The audience is the product. The programming is merely a means to deliver the human product to the corporate customer. If that delivery fails, if the audience of consumers isn’t "shipped" to the advertisers in sufficient numbers, the advertisers look to another network, station, or what have you.
I thought at the time that was a pretty cynical and condescending way to look at the audience, but then I worked in local TV for a while and heard the higher ups talking about "delivering eyeballs" (yes, some of them did talk that way, at least in the 80’s) and I began to see that that really was the mindset.
This also may explain why I don’t watch a lot of TV.
But I wonder sometimes. Is that the way publishers see our role? In their eyes, are we there to deliver the product–the reader–to them? Are we working for them, or for the reader?
I’ve read some book-centric blogs in which the posters and commenters take the attitude that the writer is working for them. This is fine with me, because I really love readers. Hell, I AM a reader. But some of these bloggers, quite frankly, act as if writers are "the help," and woe betide the poor ink-stained wretch who acts a little uppity. On the whole, though, I’m comfortable with the idea that the reader is our true customer.
On the other hand, we first have to get the book published, and our editors are the first people we have to please. And sometimes our ideas of what the reader wants can be different. I’ve been lucky enough to have editors with whom the editorial process is a discussion, a give and take:
"We want you to try this,"
"Ah, no, that doesn’t work. But how about this?"
But I’ve also heard horror stories about editors whose attitude was "my way or the highway," much to the chagrin of the author, who has the stomach-knotting choice between giving in or trying to face down someone who can and will get the book canned.
And then there’s the question of marketing. I think it was Joe Konrath who explained that part of the point of one of his grueling self-funded book tours was that it impressed the publisher with how hard he was willing to work, so they put more of their own resources behind him.
So maybe we’re working for the publishers?
The problem with both of these answers–working for the reader to working for the publisher–is that it leads to endless second guessing. Will this scene work for the little old lady from Pasadena who doesn’t like it when characters, even bad guys, use the ‘F-Word"? How about my buddies who like the noir stuff? Will my editor like this one? What’s the marketing department going to do? And first, I’ve got to get my agent on board! Will he/she like it!? OMFG!
Keep that up for long, and you can end up like the centipede in the old poem, who, asked how she managed all those legs, started thinking so much about the process she could no longer move. After a while, having that imaginary crowd looking over your shoulder as you’re trying to write can drive you nuts. Or worse, it can make for bad, stilted writing.
So the only thing I can do is follow the age-old advice "write the book you’d like to read." In other words, as Rick Nelson once sang, "you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself."
So who’s YOUR boss?
(And since I mentioned paperbacks, this may be a good time to mention that the third Jack Keller novel, SAFE AND SOUND, came out in mass market paperback yesterday. If you haven’t gotten it yet, now’s a good time! Check http://www. booksense. com/ for an independent bookseller near you…
Or it’s at Barnes and Noble, Borders or Amazon.)