I've been following several online discussions lately, and more than ever I see a disconnect between the business that we (publishers) are in and the business that writers think we are in (or want us to be in).
This is an opportunity for endless cultural criticism, but I'm not going to go down that route. We can bewail the fact that Patterson and Evanovich sell millions of books while, essentially, writing the same book over and over again; and all the while, fine books by new writers come out, get ignored, and find their way onto the remainder tables and catalogs.
If you're employed at one of the big publishers - and even if you're employed by a smaller one - make no mistake: We need to fund our operations. There's only one way to do that: through book sales. On the nonfiction side of the business, there are plenty of ways to make money: through library and institutional sales, the education market, direct sales, and so on.
But in fiction, there are only two ways: Through book sales, and possibly, just possibly, by getting Hollywood interested.
So, at the end of the day, we're not in the book-publishing business. We are in the ENTERTAINMENT business. Evanovich and Patterson both know this. When asked why she doesn't vary her formula, Janet always replies, "Because my readers don't want that." Patterson has found a formula that sells; and it can be effective, with its bite-sized chapters for the harried, time-pressed reader. The readers of Patterson don't demand fine characterization, plot subtleties, and lovely writing. So why should he (and his minions) bother with any of that? Patterson knows he's in the entertainment biz; so does Evanovich.
Believe me, I struggle with this every day - and so do a lot of other editors. I have a solid ego, as do most other editors I've known (and level of ego is not necessarily in direct proportion to level of editorial talent or acumen), and we want our own tastes validated through public acceptance of the books we publish. "See," we are saying each time we publish a book, "I found this great manuscript. I devoted the company's resources to publishing it. I know what the people of America want to read. I know what they should be reading and what they should like." It's our egos that get most first-timers published: We've got relationships with agents whose lives revolve around psychoanalyzing and charming us.
I have been watching these listservs as writers who've not sold anything while in print proudly announce that their books are "now available for Kindle" and at the great price of only "99 cents for a limited time." As if these old, unsuccessful books can now enjoy a renaissance now that self-publishing has made their availability possible again. I'm sure they end up selling a few dozen copies among friends and coworkers, but what's at their core is this idea: "I am a writer. Here is my book. You should buy it, read it, like it, and say nice things about it." They don't see themselves as in the entertainment business; they see themselves as writers. That's the difference between an inner-directed, egocentric approach to selling books and a market-centric, business approach to selling books.
Do I like saying this? No. Do I like that this is the way it is? No. In my own acquisitions, I try to find the balance. As an editor I do want to make my mark on the reading world by nurturing talent and bringing fresh voices to the public's attention. But I have to keep the money coming in. This is why I'm so frustrated by all the self-publishing and self-promotion that surrounds it. I don't know any reader who has the time to read everything that he or she wants to. So, by definition, any time you're reading someone else's books, you're not reading mine. And if you ever want to see the truth of that last statement in action, just go to a convention and watch writers simmer with frustration as you purchase somebody else's books. For those mid-list authors desperate to hold onto their contracts, every day is a stressful adventure. These people want nothing more than to write for a living, to support themselves on the writing of fiction. They cling to the hope that a breakout book, or constant presence on the circuit (including FB, Twitter, DorothyL, etc.), will get them to that place.
Ultimately, I divide writers into two categories: the businesspeople and the Ponzi schemers. The businesspeople write to formula, jump through hoops to get the "right" agent, and then do as they're told until they bring in so much money that they can do whatever they want. Note that the businesspeople may not have money as their chief motivation. The key motivator, for example, might be getting published by Knopf, getting reviewed in the New York Times, or having a short story collection published even though the odds of it selling more than 100 copies are nil. There are ways to accomplish each of these goals - search the Web for tips and you'll find much better advice than you'll find here at Mysterious Matters. The Ponzi schemers think they'll achieve popular success through self-publishing and self-promotion; "you buy and compliment my book, and I'll do the same for you."
I think we know the category into which Evanovich and Patterson fall...