Writing Nowadays: Zombie Authors

Steven Harper PiziksI wandered past a book display at a big-box “we sell everything” store yesterday. Check out what was on the shelf:

Quick–what do all these books have in common?
A.  They all have spectacularly awful covers.
B.  Those little price stickers will leave a nasty reside when you try to peel them off.
C.  None of them were written by the celebrity “author” whose name appears in huge type over the teeny name of the person who really wrote the book.
D.  All of the–oh, you know the answer by now.

Yeah.  These eight books, faced cover-out, made up over half of the display, but not one of them was actually written by the big-print author.  All of these “authors” are either celebrities who can’t actually write, or novelists who date back to the Jurassic and can’t write anymore.

Look at the above.  James Patterson makes no secret of the fact that he does little more than create a plot synopsis, which he hands over to a shlub.  (How anyone could think he “writes” five best-sellers a year is beyond me.)  Mary Higgins Clark is basically retired, and someone else does the heavy lifting.  Tom Clancy is DEAD, but he somehow manages to write novels with Mark Greany.  (And you’ll notice the cover doesn’t actually say the novel was written by him–they just put his name on the cover, as if he accidentally wandered in for a cup of tea.)  Bill O’Reilly and Brian Kilmeade can’t write their way out of a dead metaphor, and anyway, both of them work more than full time as talking heads for Fox. They have no time to do their Christmas cards, let alone write books.  But their names are sure prominent on those covers, leaving poor Martin and Don in the shade.  Ben Carson can barely speak, let alone write, and the publisher carefully hides the fact that Candy Carson wrote his latest political screed call to action.

What’s going on here?

In every single one of these cases, the publisher said, “Hey, how about a book by _____?  That would sell a lot of copies.  Readers love _______.  If you put ________’s name on it, people will buy it and we’ll get lots of money.”

And then an assistant or other flunky says, “Well, that would be nice, but _______ can’t write books.  He’s a news commenter.”  Or the flunky says, “_______ is getting on in years and has a hard time writing a shopping list, let alone a novel.”  Or the flunky says, “Uh, sir?  ______ is dead.”

At which point, the publisher says, “So?  Get some young shlub to fill in.  We’ll put _____’s name on the cover in huge font and hide the shlub’s name in tiny font.  No one will notice, or if they do, they’ll think the shlub is an assistant who checked the commas.  Who’ll know?”

And lo, it happens.  The publisher waves a handful of money at a younger, unknown writer, way more than the writer would get for his or her original work, and makes an offer.  “We’ll give you a bare-bones synopsis, you write the book.  The big name author will do all the interviews and stuff.  You just write and keep your damn mouth shut.”

The unknown writer looks at the electric bill, the one with PAST DUE stamped on it, and says, “Yeah, sure.”

The big name author gets the lion’s share of the royalties for an outline and also gets all the credit in the media.  The publisher gets another best-seller and all the cash that comes with it.  And the shlub who actually wrote the book crouches under the table and begs for a small piece of the pie.

Why is this bad?  I mean, the unknown author gets more exposure–and more income–than s/he would have had otherwise, right?

The trouble is that the publishers are refusing to go with new authors.  Tom Clancy is DEAD, but the publisher, afraid the public won’t read a new writer, refuses to do something new.

Terry Pratchett’s daughter stated quite firmly in the wake of her father’s death that there would be no more Discworld books.  No ghostwriters, no “by TERRY PRATCHETT and Jenny Smith” nonsense.  And the publishers somehow survived.

Look, authors grow old and die.  Let them go.  TV personalities can’t write books.  Let’s let some actual writers write books–and get credit for them.

–Steven Harper Piziks

DANNY on sale now at Book View Cafe.

Danny Large



Writing Nowadays: Zombie Authors — 5 Comments

  1. Is this not allied to the deplorable practice of grinding out pointless sequels to movies that really didn’t call for a sequel? Independence Day comes to mind. Or the transferring of TV shows to stage or big screen, like Addams Family. Once a brand exists, it is easier to just keep on sucking on the brand, rather than take a slight risk on something new.

  2. At least Alafair Burke is a real writer, and so is her dad! But she’s no where near the seller James Lee Burke is. She’ll probably take over all of her fathers’ franchise series when he leaves. But so far as I know, as advanced in age as he is, he still writes all his own books. Still, considering his protags have aged with him one wonders how they can still be so capable of taking physical punishment, yea, almost unto death, still in book after book.

  3. There’s an amusing story in the current issue of Uncanny Magazine (Issue 7), “A Call to Arms for Deceased Authors’ Rights,” by Karin Tidbeck, on this very subject. Ghostwriting has been around a long time, of course; but this business of using a dead author’s name and, especially, continuing characters is obnoxious. I don’t buy ’em and I can’t imagine that anyone with any critical faculties reads them.

  4. And this shades over into fanfic and its cousin, the unauthorized follow-on novel. The number of sequels and re-dos of Sherlock Holmes would fill their own library. And there must be thousands of sequels to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE now, ranging from zombies to X-rated shenanigans starring the randier of the Bennett girls. I think that if you must write a zombie novel starring Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennett you should put your own name on it, and not drag poor Miss Austen in.