Sunday, February 22, 2004

The plight of the synopsis 

I didn't include Robert McCrum's column in the Observer in my weekend roundup because I wanted to focus more closely on what he had to say. He starts off by commenting on the recent axing of HarperCollins' Flamingo imprint and the merging of Random House UK's Harvill and Secker & Warburg sections into Harvill Secker. Not surprisingly, both pieces of news has caused great alarm in the publishing industry--what would this mean for diversity, and at least in the former case, what the hell is up with HarperCollins that they are cancelling an apparently successful imprint? McCrum feels that such merging and axing is symptomatic of a greater issue in the industry, which is overproduction (what with ~120 000 titles released per annum in UK publishing alone) and how books are actually acquired nowadays.

Not all that long ago, an author signed a contract on the basis of what he or she produced; that is, an entire manuscript, or at least substantial portions, had to be completed before the book was slated for publication. (I'm only talking fiction as non-fiction has, to the best of my knowledge, been a proposal-driven sub-industry.) Now, there's been a shift in how publishers do business. Once an author was established, he or she was often left alone to write the book as he or she saw fit. The contract may have been signed ages ago but there was a sense of trust that something would be delivered. Now, the tide has turned. Authors don't have to have a full manuscript completed upon signing a contract; rather, they can submit a synopsis alone, or at the very least, 50 pages of the new book and a synopsis for the rest. Even aspiring novelists can play this game; Cecelia Ahern got her million-dollar contract on the basis of a synopsis-based proposal, as did Lauren Weisberger. Of course, putting all your eggs in a short synopsis can lead to other problems, as McCrum points out:

The synopsis, however, has become an end in itself to an absurd degree. One talented, unpublished young writer of my acquaintance is suffering not from writer's block but from synopsis block. He says he simply cannot start work on his typescript until he has completed (and sold) his cherished outline.

I've heard this from other authors as well; not that novel-writing is easy--far from it--but there's a special talent in boiling down 100,000 words of typescript into perhaps 5,000 to describe the entire work. It's bloody hard; such distilliation is why few authors even attempt to write their own jacket or back-cover copy. So one has to ask, as the Literary Saloon did earlier today, whether the proposal culture is a negative one, or "irresponsible"?

I see it from a number of vantage points. For an established author on a one-book a year schedule, the publisher requires, nay, demands that at least a smattering of information be made available to all facets of the company--acquisitions, sales reps, promotion and publicity, so on and so forth--in order to produce the book to the best of their abilities. Unless you're Thomas Harris or someone equally reclusive and bestselling, it just doesn't cut it to keep your publishers in the dark about what you're working on. A year may seem like a long time to some, but in publishing it can be too little time to get everything together. There are a lot of hands that must talk to each other and communicate smoothly, so the author has to at least indulge that--at least a little bit.

Also, submitting a proposal is a quicker way--at least in theory--of ascertaining whether a book will actually sell. Let's say author X writes a mystery series that's sold increasingly well with each successive installment. Now he wants to write a standalone, but chooses a topic that has, at best, extremely limited appeal. Will this topic gain him new fans, alienate the old ones? So it's a waste of everyone's time if he goes ahead and writes the book anyway if no one wants it after all. If the proposal's rejected in a timely fashion, at least he can go back to the drawing board and come up with a new, more workable idea, but one that's still stretching his literary wings.

But the flip side is when a proposal goes awry. Let's say the author in question submits a workable proposal that is approved, and he goes ahead and writes the thing. What happens when the book veers completely away from what he intended? The contract is still in place, and now there can be greater headaches. I wonder if this is what happened with the now-infamous cancellation of the McLaughlin/Kraus contract for CITIZEN GIRL; that the original proposal promised one thing, they delivered something that "wasn't it," stamped their feet for a while, gambled and lost. Could this debacle have been avoided had they simply limited their "proposal" to a few words and submitted several chapters at a time along the way? Hard to say, of course.

And related to that is that many authors simply can't write to an outline. They submit one that's a placeholder--if that--with the implicit understanding that they can do whatever they please. Are people like Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke, two authors well-known for not outlining, not going to be published because they didn't submit a synopsis (or at least, a synopsis they stick to?) I can't really imagine any idea they come up with at this point in their careers would be rejected at the publisher's gate.

McCrum brings up a lot of points I do agree with, but one that I'm less inclined to concur with is that debut authors can get contracts based on proposal alone. Sure, Ahern and Weisberger did, but they are almost exceptions that prove the rule--and the reviews certainly have not been kind to them. But elsewhere, considering that first fiction has to be of high enough quality that any rough errors cannot be in evidence, then it's fairly unlikely that they are published on proposal. Rather, authors slave and slave for years on a manuscript, work with an agent on improving it for publication, work with others--and only then do editors accept the work (only to work on it some more.) If anything, debut fiction is still very much a manuscript-driven business. The books thereafter are, perhaps, another story altogether.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?