I'm always thinking about the connections among the different forms of "entertainment commerce" - publishing, movies, TV, music, and so on. It seems to me that in all these industries, successful people get forced into doing the same thing over and over again, with the public belittling or downright rejecting attempts to break out of the mold.
What this comes down to, in any of the media, is the idea of "one person = one identity." Thus actors are typecast; rock singers can't suddenly start singing rap; and writers must continue to write the same characters with more or less the same story.
This led to an interesting discussion in the office this past week. We wondered:
Suppose only two options are possible for writers (both quite good). The first scenario: Author writes a blockbuster, but then never again writes a hit book. We know of the famous cases (like Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockinbgird fame, and John Kennedy Toole, with his Confederacy of Dunces, which was published posthumously.) But there are plenty of much-beloved and admired mystery writers whose output was or has been far from prodigious. The late and much-missed Sarah Caudwell took a decade between books sometimes, and even one of my favorites, George Dawes Green, has had limited output. Charles Mathes, a personal favorite, gave up his novelistic career after four wonderful books that I still recommend everywhere I go. We editors can cajole, plead, and try to inspire - but it's the writer who writes the work while we sit back and wait for it.
The second scenario: Author has a cult following and writes a book a year for 20 years, never really breaking into the big time and selling just enough copies to keep the publisher interested. A tremendous number of crime writers fall into this category.
Which scenario would most writers prefer?
My guess is that most would go for #2. As a publisher, though, I'd choose #1. Blockbuster books often continue selling years and decades later, and a healthy backlist is just wonderful for the bottom line. Once the work is written, keeping it in stock is relatively little work with very nice payoff for both publisher and author. That revenue provides us with so much of what we need to continue our work: an income stream, money to take chances on new writers, attempts to keep up with the changing marketplace and all these electronic initiatives.
In contrast, #2 is a lot of work for relatively little income/profit. The truth of this statement helps explain why, in an era where profits/black ink rule the day, many publishers lose hope after the third or fourth book. The conventional wisdom (I'm not saying it's accurate, though it may be) is that if the author hasn't hit it by that point, s/he's never going to. At that point, continuing to invest resources in a cult figure becomes either fan service or simply relationship-based: author and editor have a good relationship, editor can convince various higher-ups that the small profit on Author X is better than a loss on Unknown Y.
I think it's that perpetual search for the New Blockbuster that keeps us motivated as Editors. When we've signed up someone who makes it big, we're like the proud parents of Rhodes Scholars. Our midlist authors are those reliable oldest children who have a special place in our hearts but whose limitations we realize. As for those underperforming or problematic children, who continue to require our attention or make demands that we're unwilling to meet, they are kicked out of the nest to make their way in the world.
In the meantime, I think there are some takeaway points. The first, of course, is that the way you treat your editor really does matter when it comes time to decide whether or not you get a contract for your next book. The second is one of the joys of the independent or small press. We have lower thresholds for what we consider successful, which means that a "flop" at one house might be quite a hit for a smaller house. Over the long run, this might mean more revenue from a smaller house than from a larger house; and, of course, there are plenty of well-known people who started with a smaller house and then "graduated" into the big leagues. I think independent presses have getting more attention in the last couple of years, though we still experience some prejudice. (I never tire of telling the story of an author, very active on a listserv, who wrote an enthusiastic email to our publicist, asking if he'd be willing to present to her group. As soon as she found out that our publicist works for a small press, she stopped answering emails and went from gung-ho to totally uninterested. A number of years ago now, but everyone in our office knows her name and has a good laugh over the phenomenon that we've named after her - but which I can't say here, of course.) Still, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else!