‘Mass Marketed’ IS NOT ‘Mass Produced’: How the myth of the hyper-productive author hid the existence of plagiarising book-mills.
When Courtney Milan broke the news that Cristiane Serruya had plagiarised her work, I read her well-thought-out blog post and was struck by the fact I was upset on her behalf but not surprised. Then news came out that other well-known and respected authors had experienced the same thing and, nope, still no surprise. But oddly, I was feeling a whole lot of relief. So this was what was going on. It explained so much! But how had Serruya and her fellow plagiarists and book-millers largely flown under the radar for so long?
In recent years, authors have gotten used to hearing that the best way to get sales is to release as many books as possible in quick succession. In the past, authors were given the advice that ‘the best thing you can do after finishing a book is to start the next one’, and this always made sense to me, but somewhere during the past five or so years, that has transformed into ‘you must write and release as many books as possible, as quickly as possible if you want to make a living and game the Amazon algorithm’. In short, according to this new mentality, the only way any contemporary author can succeed is by mass producing books.
I’m sure authors have tried to increase their output since the first clay tablet was invented, but as someone who has written full-time for years and who works damn hard at reaching what I consider to be tough writing goals despite whatever chaos is going down in my life — and anyone who knows me will tell you that my life is the antithesis of uneventful — I couldn’t understand how so many authors were suddenly able to achieve such a high output. Discounting the Nora Robertses out there who are naturally prolific, I figured that people had discovered some course or some productivity secret that I and my writing friends hadn’t.
When pressed, any person who writes for a living will tell you that this is a damn hard and lonely business. Real writing is far from the romanticised idea of the author being able to write for an hour a day while reclining on a chaise-longue and patting a poodle (although that would be nice!). Being an author means doing the fucking work, getting the words down no matter what’s going on in your life, and then taking care of business, marketing…and let’s not forget the day job many of us need in order to survive financially. Oh, and then we’ve actually got to live so we’ve got material to put into new books. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Far from it.
I’ve known authors who have written amazing fiction while going through cancer treatment, divorce, spousal abuse, depression, infertility, death of loved ones and while surviving war and oppressive regimes. And let’s not forget the everyday, mundane aspects of life like looking after kids and grandkids, maintaining family relationships, friendships and just making sure there’s food in the refrigerator.
As creatives, we’re usually never completely switched off (if there’s anyone out there who has achieved this great feat, please let me know how!). The well we pull from to get those words on the page comes from inside us and we’re feeling whatever we’re writing. Ask anyone who’s written a scene with character being sad or dying and ask if they were crying when they wrote it. I guarantee you a significant number of people will say yes. Our job is hard emotional work that we largely do on our own, or in small collaborations, and then send it out into the world to be consumed and judged. And that’s hard and awesome in equal measures.
Writing emotional romantic comedy as I do, I’ve come to see that genre fiction — any genre fiction — comes with a particular set of challenges. Genre fiction writers have to go through all the hardship life throws at them — in addition to making room for the good stuff too — and then channel all that into a satisfying read that leaves their readers feeling good at the end.
To write the emotional roller-coaster that with comes with writing good genre fiction, we authors have to be on that roller coaster with our characters, and I frequently wondered how this new breed of super-prolific author was managing to take this ride so many times in a year without collapsing into a burnt out pile of cinders.
And then with the news of the copy paste scandal I realised they weren’t on the roller coaster at all, and may not even be aware of its existence. These people running book-mills are just gaming a system set up to be gamed. They’re paying ridiculously low amounts to people to produce books that they don’t have any emotional ties with. Bad reviews critiquing their characters, settings or plot wouldn’t really touch them — they didn’t write the work. The bad sales of a book wouldn’t make them feel like the time, energy and emotion they channelled into that book were for nothing, it’d just be a glitch in the business, maybe a signal that that particular ghost writer wasn’t a good money-spinner.
Suddenly I felt the exact same “aha!” moment I’d felt in the early 00s when I found out about photoshopping and botox after years of trying to find a cream to make the wrinkles in my forehead go away because I looked ten years older than the actresses on TV. Here was a missing element! The system was being gamed, but why hadn’t we worked it out sooner? How had real, work-their-asses-off authors come to believe we were doing it wrong in not having the capacity to produce an almost super-human output?
A conversation with my husband and co-writing partner helped me unravel how this happened. Somewhere in the past decade we’ve brought into the idea that mass-marketed should mean mass-produced. The two concepts have become convoluted and they need to become detached from each other again before we all collapse from burn-out.
Before ebooks were even a thing, the public became acclimatised to the idea that genre fiction is mass produced, especially romance, due to the way the books have been marketed under series lines. Every month Harlequin — for example — would put out their releases in each line and all the readers saw was a large number of books each month ready for their consumption. What they may have not realised is that, while they were seeing a large number of releases for each series line, there was an army of authors maintaining that throughput, putting the hard work into each of the novels they produced. Pre e-publishing, this wasn’t such a big issue because fans still understood that the individual series authors they loved would only produce so many books a year, and they got used to waiting for them.
Then suddenly e-publishing became a thing.
Like all new technology, e-publishing disrupted an existing industry and along with the good has come ripple effects. One in particular is the illusion that quality books are produced a lot faster than they actually are.
As a general rule, traditional publishing is slow. Outside of writing for a series line, authors may only have one book release a year with a big publisher, while they may be writing many more than that. This meant that there was a backlog of books on many authors’ hard drives, ready to be put out in one go when indie publishing came on the scene. The result of this was the reading public seeing a bunch more novels from their favourite authors all at once; a number that didn’t represent that author’s actual yearly output. It created an illusion of mass-productivity.
I experienced this myself. In the first three years of being traditionally published with Penguin Random House, I wrote ten additional uncontracted novels and novellas. When I started indie publishing under the name Evie Snow with my husband, we were able to release six titles in quick succession only to have fellow author friends asking how I’d managed to write six novels in eight months! I hadn’t, but the illusion that I had was there.
This idea that books could suddenly be mass-produced was also unintentionally exacerbated by well-established authors getting the rights back for their backlists and slamming down impressive, high quality back-catalogues in e-stores. Then publishers caught on, releasing their big name authors in e-book too. Not only were existing fans overjoyed that they could binge on their favourite authors, but then there’s the excitement of new fans discovering Beverly Jenkins’s back-catalogue or getting their teeth into Lisa Kleypas’s novels for the first time. I rediscovered Susan Elizabeth Phillips that way and still remember the thrill of realising that the author who’d written that book about the bombshell blonde and the football player that I’d obsessively re-read as a teen in the nineties had released a bunch of other books and I could get them all now!
But the flood of quality books onto e-book markets came with it an increased reader expectation that they could get lots of books from their favourite authors NOW. It was an illusion of mass-production caused by the adaptation of a new technology. That illusion hid from readers the amount of hard work that went into every one of the books they were consuming like the delicious brain candy and emotional crack they were. I certainly know that as a reader I’ve been spoiled. Over the past decade I’ve caught myself feeling almost sulky at the end of reading an author’s catalogue wondering why the hell they couldn’t magic me up another book to read so I could get one more fix. And I know how much work goes into creating good fiction!
So now we have increased reader expectations under the illusion that quality fiction can be produced at a fast pace. This makes it very hard for new authors to get started, to get their brand up and running, to make a living, never mind maintaining sanity in a super tough industry. It’s no wonder real authors — including myself — were buying into the ‘if I just produce more books I’ll sell more and make more money’ idea. When you’re madly paddling to keep your head above water, you don’t have time to analyse what’s causing the waves.
And with all this happening, it isn’t surprising that there were sharks and parasites out there gaming the system, using the bookstore’s algorithms while hiding behind (and feeding into) a bunch of myths about author productivity that readers and real authors had brought into.
What to do about this?
Firstly, it sounds like Nora Roberts, Courtney Milan and the other authors that were plagiarised by Cristiane Serruya are kicking ass. Book farmers that plagiarise need to know that the shit they’re pulling is illegal and they will be penalised. The ones who aren’t plagiarising need to start acknowledging the people that write for them and paying them a decent amount of money for their work. The only way this is going to happen is through naming and shaming so readers hear about this stuff and stop buying it.
As for how to dissipate the illusion of mass produced fiction … I’m still trying to get my head around a solution for that.
There is one thing that comes to mind, however. It was advice given to me by a Texan roughneck one day in Saudi Arabia after I was upset about the social injustices going on only miles away from the compound I was living in. I asked him how he reconciled his presence in the Kingdom and he said ‘Sometimes just being around and telling your story in a friendly way to anyone that asks or is willing to listen, changes things.’ Sure, he was talking about being an influence for positive change in one of the world’s most conservative countries, but I think the advice is relevant here.
If we authors are open and engaged with our readers about the level of work that goes into writing quality fiction, they’ll begin to respect the effort that goes into the books they read. We need to start being honest with ourselves about how much we can realistically accomplish and accept that if we’re working at our own personal creative pace, that’s enough. Eventually readers will come to accept, once again, that their favourite authors will release books at the pace they’re capable of. Genre fiction readers are some of the best, most generous readers out there and I think it’s worth not underestimating their awesomeness.
Whatever solution we come up with, however this resolves itself, it’s going to become obvious to our readers in the next decade that authors who write quality fiction are not book factories. The creative process has to be respected. Genre fiction books may be mass marketed but individual authors putting their everything into writing them are not mass producers and we should never fall for the ideology that we should be.