“payroll author” — real or imagined?

Among the comments about my last post, M.J. makes a very good point:

“If the writer believes this, he or she has misunderstood the situation.  Which sounds like the agent has not been doing his/her work. Or – The author is suffering from real and serious issues and needs outside psychological help to resolve her conflicts.”

M.J. brings up a very good question: are these pressures the author feels real or merely perceived?  Is she making herself crazier than she needs to by inflating her own importance to the publishing house?

I do think the term “payroll author” is a valid one.  I’ve certainly been hearing it a lot lately — from various sources referring to various authors.  The prime example of a payroll author is J.K. Rowling, who singlehandedly changed the fortunes of Scholastic.  The other name I’ve heard associated with that term is Dan Brown, whose publisher is breathlessly awaiting his next book, and no doubt counting on that book to wash away their red ink.  I’m certain that quite a few other names also qualify as payroll authors.  Although publishing houses make money on backlist sales, many of those backlist sales are driven by frontlist sales.  Every time Grisham comes out with a new book, sales of his backlist also spike.  If an author stops producing, his backlist sales will gradually wither away and die.  But payroll authors are a very select group indeed, and agents and publishers want to hold onto those writers and keep them working hard.

Sometimes, though, they work those authors way too hard.  And then they risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Authors are an insecure bunch to begin with, and when an agent or editor tells them that slowing down or taking a year off will kill their careers, they absolutely believe it.  Because there’s a certain amount of truth to that statement.  A writer doesn’t want to go unpublished for too long, because once you’ve stepped out of the yearly publishing cycle, readers forget you. Booksellers forget you.  If you stay away too long, you may never be able to jump back in.  We writers are advised to write at least a book a year, just to stay in the game.  We’re terrified of backsliding.  No matter how successful we may be, we feel entirely dispensable because there are a thousand other writers ready and willing to take our publishing slot.  So we write book after book, year after year, and some of us manage it with no problem.

But for others the stress piles up, and eventually you’re like that author who throws up every morning.  She’s lost sight of what it means to have a life.  A real life.

Some writers muster up the backbone to call a halt to the madness.  I remember when Sue Grafton, about halfway into her alphabet series, announced that she was exhausted and she planned to take a year off.  I remember the noise that generated within the publishing industry, and all the speculation that it would hurt her mystery series and permanently damage her career.  She did it anyway.  And when she came back, she was bigger and better than ever.  In a recent interview with Romantic Times, Grafton marked a milestone — the release of her 20th novel in 25 years.  (Which makes me think she must have taken off more than just that one year.)  Her latest title, T IS FOR TRESPASS, earned her some of the best reviews of her life.  And her sales don’t seem to have suffered one whit from the sabbaticals she’s taken.

In fact, I would guess that her career has been helped by taking that time off.  It gave her time to rest and recover.  It gave her time to re-charge her creativity.

Our stories have to come from somewhere.  We can’t just pull them out of barren soil.  We need to keep feeding our imaginations with fresh information, fresh experiences.  I couldn’t write the books I write if I weren’t pursuing my interests in other fields.  The book I’m writing now is inspired by my interest in Egyptology and my two trips to Egypt.  (Yes, it’s a Rizzoli story.)  My visit to the catacombs of Paris inspired BODY DOUBLE’s early chapters.  My fascination with Biblical archaeology was what inspired THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  Had I not traveled so much, had I not devoted so many hours to my rather obscure hobbies, I could not have written those books.  I might be reduced to writing variations on the same old serial killer stories again and again.   And yes, they would probably sell fine.  But how many years can you re-write the same book before the spark goes out of your writing?

I think any editor or agent who pushes an exhausted writer to keep writing is being shortsighted.  They are killing the gift that made that writer special to begin with.  And any writer who allows herself to be forced into a killer schedule is going to end up sick or completely tapped out.  That helps no one.  That ruins the books, disappoints the readers, and wrecks writers’ lives. 

We should all strive to be as sane and sensible as Sue Grafton.  We should pay attention to our own bodies, our own anxiety meters.  We should recognize when it’s time to say, “That’s enough, I need a break.”

We should.  But too often, we’re afraid to.


18 replies
  1. Christine
    Christine says:

    Hi Tess

    When I read your first post about this, I did think of Sue Grafton. You know I believe you can set your own agenda, and Grafton has shown that. I await even more eagerly her new titles now that they don’t come so quickly. Sometimes absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Don’t fear those bastards that tell you ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

  2. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    It’s the same old story, but would the last three Harry Potter books have sold in such mind-blowing numbers had she kept to the book a year schedule? I don’t think so…

    Too bad we can’t have a Fiction Writers’ Strike! Imagine what the publishing industry would do if all of its major players put down their pens? They’d flip, that’s what they’d do!

  3. JDK
    JDK says:

    I can think of one popular author who should definitely NOT write one book a year (but she does). Her writing is sloppy, her research is worse, and her books could easily be cut by one-third if she had a decent editor.

    Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, and Elizabeth Berg take breathers between books which leaves their fans panting in anticipation. And their books end up being well-done.

    I think it is sad that these “payroll authors” are so pressured….or feel that they are. Creativity is something that cannot be forced — and if it is, it shows in the final product.

  4. therese
    therese says:

    Tess, you’ve presented us with clarity regarding both sides of the issue, the insecurity of an author wanting to stay connected with readers and having a life that nurtures the creative spirit. Which will generate something wonderful for the reader.

    The focus on the ‘business of publishing’ that wouldn’t exist without writers, does stress that ‘write faster’ concept yet I bet there are lots of authors who did’t stick to the book-a-year schedule and still have loyal readers.

    Your lifestyle makes sense, an author needs to not only nurture the interests that enhance the writing (and the soul) but also have time to read and connect with readers. It’s a pretty unique industry and yet it is still up to the individual to determine what makes live worth living.

    Fear creates weeds in the garden of bliss.

  5. IServeTheCat
    IServeTheCat says:

    Nora Roberts comes to mind for me here…. I can’t imagine the kind of stress that woman has to deal with to put out a book almost every month.

    Often enough, the “bestselling” authors are ridiculously prolific. This isn’t always a good thing.

    Also, I want to say, I am looking forward to your new book with even greater enthusiasm after this post! I *love* Egyptology and Jane Rizzoli. 😀

  6. M.J.
    M.J. says:

    Tess, great post.

    I do think the whole book a year thing is overblown mostly from the agents who want their money – they are the ones – not the publishers who really could suffer.

    What I’d love to know of is one terrific author (terrific not just average author who pushed them out) but a good author who suffered from doing a book every eighteen months or taking a year off every few. I’ve never actually heard of one – only of the others – who take off the time and do better.

    And as far as I know regarding the Nora Roberts comment above – her schedule is her wishes. The publishing industry never wanted her to publish so much so often. She proved she knew what she was doing but her productivity is her choice.

  7. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    It might help professional writers to think of the millions of blue collar workers out here who are only as good as their last day on the job: no back-lists, no sabbaticals, but the same bills coming due. 🙂

  8. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    Tess-respecting your request to be nice to other authors i will omit names or very specific references,but i can think of two thriller/crime authors whose earlier works i enjoyed a great deal and who i haven’t read for years-they both started writing screenplays disguised as novels-this not a good thing-some novels can be adapted easily to the screen,all well and good-but that shouldn’t be a writer’s motive-the novel/short/story/novelette is a stand alone format and obviously preceded film by millenia-to name an author about whom i have no reservations-Cormac McCarthy,one of his novels -No Country For Old Men adapted to the screen very nicely in the hands of the Coen Bros.,but i don’t think anyone could adapt some of his other novels-Outer Dark,Suttree,or Blood Meridian because the heart of those books is in the dense language which can’t be recreated on screen-sometimes a book is just that-it can’t be a film or a play also-did they have any Lagavulin at the whiskey tasting?it’s a love it or hate it kind of drink

  9. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    I think each and every author will benefit from taking some time off. If authors like Nora Roberts enjoy pushing out book after book, more powwer to them. This way the continuity of the relationship between writer and reader is still there. If an author wants to take some time off and gets some flap from their publishing company, then, as Shakespeare said, “There’s the rub.” Making money is one thing. Becoming exhausted to the point where the writer cannot enjoy it is another.
    As for Sue Grafton, I think her last book should be ” Z is for ZZZZZZZZ” Translated: Oh, God, am I exhausted!
    Being a prolific writer is one thing. Dying for the cause sure ain’t worth it. More power to you, Tess. Keep up the great pace.
    Looking forward to your next book on Egyptology. I just know that this book will not “Sphinx” at all!

  10. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Just to clarify, I wasn’t bashing Jo Rowling at all. I’m a huge HP fan and adore and admire her courage to tell her publishers NO when she was really feeling the stress. It was the best decision she ever made to take three years off to write book 5, and two years each for books 6 and 7. It really built up the anticipation for each book… almost to a frenzy, I think you’d agree!

    Not even as a writer, but as a worker, I’ve always thought it was ridiculous for people to be afraid of talking to their bosses about a problem they’re having. I guess the situation you’re describing it a little different than the everyday woes of a 9-5er. But, if it’s a matter of mental and physical health being in jeopardy, she really ought to bring it up at some point. It won’t be in anyone’s interest if she has a breakdown and can’t produce at all.

  11. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    One thing that’s for sure is to avoid burnout like the plague. Each person needs to know when to take a break, and to have the courage to say so. No one is any help to publishers, readers, agents or family if they get burned out.

    That said, it seems to me that writers who struggle to produce their work may not be sufficiently aware of their craft. How is it possible for a writer to produce four, five and six novels a year without getting burned out? My guess is that the writer knows consciously how to lay out the story for twelve, thirteen, twenty or twenty-five chapters, to name the more popular ones. If you know what you’re doing, it should energize you to write. But if you don’t know the underlying craft, if you’re trying to write by inspiration alone, then this leads to burnout. The writer will write until there’s nothing left in the tank each day. But knowing the craft allows for a nice steady reasonable pace, I would argue.

    Anyway, what a problem to have! “I’m only publishing four a year instead of five! Oh me, oh my!” 😉

  12. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    I’m really not seeing a downside here.

    Pressure to succeed, however it is imposed, is part of the biz.

    I’d rather be rich and under pressure than poor and under pressure, since I’m going to be a wreck no matter where I’m at in my career.

  13. struggler
    struggler says:

    One author who always seems to have bucked the trend is Thomas Harris, who despite being (I assume) one of the most successful writers of fiction across the past generation has actually only published 5 novels in 33 years. His most recent effort got slated and although I haven’t read it myself I would guess that it sold millions.

    ‘Normal’ people have to work over 50 hours a week (including commuting) and for nearly 50 weeks a year; if they slacked off they could lose their job. Why should a writer be any different?

  14. JDK
    JDK says:

    Struggler wrote:
    ‘Normal’ people have to work over 50 hours a week (including commuting) and for nearly 50 weeks a year; if they slacked off they could lose their job. Why should a writer be any different?
    Having worked on both the “normal” and the creative sides, it is just not possible to “create” upon demand. How I wish that could happen!

  15. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    There is a real difference between the general day to day work that we “normal” people do as opposed to a writer. We “norms” get to see results of what we do from the minute we start work, the time that a writer see’s results is when the book is published and the money starts to come in.

    Would you work for a small fee for a year in the hope that the project youre doing will pay off in the next year? DO you have that much faith in your own work to leave getting paid until the next year, having to survive on the money you earned from previous projects and praying that the sales figures keep your head above water?

    Whilst authors like Tess may (and I say this again, MAY) get a reasonable retainer its really very little compared to what she could earn as a doctor. Tess writes because she loves it, we the fans support an author who spends time and carefully grafts away to create a book that we can sit down and devour. The recreation market is a difficult one to crack and there are very few authors who can make a serious living at it.

    Plus as you say some of us work 50 hour weeks. Other work more, Ive known an author who sat down at 9 in the morning and was still working at times until 3AM which was when he went to bed. He died a couple of years ago after a quadruple heart bypass, I miss him and his wit. But add the working hours of that up and you could have an author working 80+ hours a week.

    And as to your two week holiday, an author never rests, theyve always got idea’s mulling around thier heads, making notes and whilst they should be enjoying the holiday little things niggle and can force them to write so they dont get time off.

    As to ol TH, he’s written 6 books however what youve not taken into account is that he is also a screenwriter which yet again is a job that is relying on someone picking up the work at the end of the day. Yes you get paid when it is picked up.

  16. struggler
    struggler says:

    JDK, I have in fact worked on both sides of the great divide, having had creative works published here in the UK and in Japan when I lived there. I know only too well the pressures of meeting deadlines. But creativity (in the context of this thread) should not be confined to mainstream literature; there are countless people who have to regularly create something new, be they employed in the advertising, music, marketing, pharmaceutical, media, automotive, cosmetic surgery, architectural or audio-visual industries (among many others). And although writers tend to be regarded as different in that their efforts are more uniquely individual, few could come up with the goods without widespread research as well as the inspiration of other people’s real-life experiences.

    I don’t agree that we should feel sorry for writers – after all, it’s a chosen profession and nobody makes them do it. We make our beds, we lie in them.

    Meanwhile I’m curious as to the title of Thomas Harris’ sixth novel – even he doesn’t seem to know, as he mentions only five on his own website.

  17. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    Tess, I am exactly at this point. I love working hard, but it’s now interfering with my home life and my sleep patterns. I have on deadline to meet, but the next one is where I push for a bit more time or a break for a few weeks. The only reason for this client’s strict deadlines is so the company can make more and more money with the final products I’m producing. This company’s already making good money, so if I take time off, they’ll just make a little less.

    I don’t doubt one bit the company doesn’t place enough value on the talent they’ve hired. When I asked for an extension last month due to their own foot-dragging on research questions, I was told, “Oh, just keep writing. You’ll get there.”

    When a writer doesn’t feel heard, she doesn’t feel valued.

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