Wednesday, February 25, 2004

And more on Scott Phillips 

Steve Miller, who is a regular contributor to Mystery News (including a great piece a few months back on one of my favorite authors, Ross Thomas) writes in regarding last week's post about Scott Phillips' new novel COTTONWOOD:

I share your admiration for Scott Phillips. I was very intrigued by your comments about why he is as successful as he is, despite confusing the suits at Ballantine. May I offer one other possible reason why he has been a marketing challenge? In the four year since THE ICE HARVEST came out, he has only published two other books, rather than four or five. The man takes his time on his work and doesn't just crank them out to meet the annual expectations of his publisher. Scott is probably able to do that with the assistance of generous advances (and I think both previous books have been optioned for film), but I appreciate the fact that he marches to the rhythm of his own drummer (as does his obvious mentor, Crumley). I mention this as I have come to the conclusion that the main problem afflicting crime fiction today is way too damn many mediocre second and third books by promising new writers. I attribute most of this to the maniacal practice of publishers trying to make newbie writers more prolific than they are, coupled with writers who think 'hell, if Michael Connelly can do it, sure I can, too'. The result, as you know, is generally crap.

I think Miller's point is very well worth looking further into. In genre fiction, there's a sense that for whatever reason, fans will disappear if you don't write a book a year. But I don't believe this to be the case, as I said way back in October:

If a book is good--or perceived to be that it merits word of mouth or a massive publicity campaign--then no matter what the time lag since the last one, it's going to find an audience. Look at Dan Brown. THE DA VINCI CODE is the biggest selling book of 2003, and his previous book had come out 3 years prior and sold bupkes at the time. There's no word when his next novel will be out, but you think he's under as much pressure to produce a novel a year? Look at Dennis Lehane, who because he turned in his 4th Kenzie/Gennaro novel, GONE, BABY GONE, so late, had to "crank out" the next one (PRAYERS FOR RAIN) in a matter of months in order to keep the book-a-year deadline. Now he writes a book every two years at most and has far more success than he ever did. I worry for writers like Stephen Booth whose books get longer and more complicated with each installment, whose time is increasingly constrained by promotional obligations on both sides of the Atlantic, and are still required to crank out a book a year (in Booth's case, he just signed a contract for 3 more books in his highly acclaimed Cooper & Fry series to be released in the next 3 years.) Is this really healthy?

Obviously, there must be some balance struck, because taking an inordinate amount of time between books has its share of pitfalls as well. But I highly doubt people are going successfully convince someone like Dan Brown to start cranking 'em out every year, or Lehane (though lord knows there are always people kvetching about when his next book's out. It'll be out when it's damn good and ready, is what I say.)

But when the culture already exists, it is difficult to change. I think, in the end, whatever led to Ballantine's indifference to Phillips' new book has more to do with the perceived lack of marketability and the idea that fans wouldn't follow him from his earlier noir novels rather than the time lag between books--but I can see this being a contributing factor of some sort.

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