Well, I have to thank the readership of Mysterious Matters for making me feel as though I have arrived as a blogger. I'm late with this most recent blog, and a few readers have written to ask me if I'm doing OK. Doing fine (thanks for asking); I just tend to write when the spirit moves me as opposed to on any specific schedule. And a few things have come up....
A couple of weeks ago I talked a bit about blurbing. I forgot about what may be the most massive case of over-blurbing I have ever encountered. Check out the hardcover of Celia Fremlin's Possession, published in 1969 by Gollancz. By the way, I should go on record as saying that I think Fremlin is simply a superb writer, one whom I go back to annually just to sharpen myself on her prose.
Now, several things come to mind about this cover:
1. Have you ever seen the front cover of a hardback, by such a respected and established writer, so overdone? What I find most odd is that the blurbs do not even mention the titles of Fremlin's previous books, which the public is more likely to recognize than the names "Pat Wallace" and "E.D. O'Brien." Certainly such praise is worthy of the back cover...but all of this on the front cover, instead of an interesting image or type treatment? (Hey, at least the author got her name in red.)
2. Check out the names on the back cover. Some of these names have survived the intervening 40 years and remain in circulation. The late Dell Shannon still has a following, as does Emma Lathen. Michael Innes and Hillary Waugh are also in the "firmly established, if less read" league. But what became of Judson Philips, Edmund McGirr, V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, Lynton Lamb, and Jean Potts? If any readers have had experience with these writers, please click on the COMMENTS button below and tell us about them. I admit I've not heard of any of them, and I wonder what I have been missing. The greater question is, of course: Does this list represent a microcosm of the mystery-publishing world, where some gain fame and readership, while others quietly fade away or are consigned to the dustbin of history? And, most importantly, does quality have anything to do with it?
3. The above thoughts are relevant to this week's internal dialogue because it's occurred to me recently that today's mystery authors are working harder than I've ever seen to establish themselves. The crop out there right now is fairly desperate to achieve a level of familiarity, sales, and royalties that will provide them with continued contracts and livable income. The word "desperate" may have a pejorative connotation, but I don't mean it that way. What I mean is that so many writers want so badly to be best-sellers, or at least good-sellers; more so than at any time in my career.
And I think I know why this is the case, and I think it has to do with the economy. Let's face it, life in the working world has become pretty complicated and annoying in the last decade. There's no longer the concept of "corporate loyalty" as jobs go overseas and workforces are shredded. Meanwhile, we continue to get other bad economic news. This has been going on for a while, so can anyone blame people who want to chuck it all? The dream of being able to stay at home, sit at your keyboard and tell stories, and have people scoop them up as soon as they're published, is a powerful one. What an idyllic life it would be, all the more so because it would pay the bills and avoid the hassles of commuting and/or an idiotic boss. Yes, there would be those pesky editors imposing their deadlines and forcing covers on you that you don't like, but all in all, it would be a pretty darn lovely lifestyle--the antithesis of what most people go through to make a living in this day and age.
Of course, it isn't realistic, for all the reasons discussed not only on Mysterious Matters but also all over the Web. As we all know, everyone loves a free book and does everything in their power NOT to buy new ones. Reviewers think nothing of selling books they've received but haven't reviewed. Advances are getting smaller (and rightfully so), with something like 85% of first-timers not even earning out their advance. The dream of a large royalty check will remain a dream for most people, which is why we see so many "older" writers submitting manuscripts. With their golden parachute or with the aid of a spouse who supports them, they can take the time to "write," but more than that they can afford to jump through the really ridiculous set of hoops that they have to in order to get published. And then what happens? The books disappear, like those of Jean Potts and Helen McCloy, never to be seen again. This is why I have said in the past, and I will say again, that writing fiction should never be considered anything beyond a hobby--especially if you have a family to support.
I realize this sounds a bit downbeat; and honestly I curse the Internet for its ability to endlessly resell books, which have deprived publishers and authors of reasonable revenue and income. That said, I do think we'll be around for at least a while longer. I myself could not afford to do this job if I were a younger man attempting to pay a mortgage and feed my children.