Green-Eyed Monsters: Envious Authors

OVER THE YEARS THAT I’VE BEEN writing about the publishing scene, I’ve discussed many disturbing by-products of the consolidation of the industry. There is one, however, that I’ve been very reluctant to talk about because it cuts so very close to the anxieties that lurk in the darkest recesses of every author’s heart. And that is the emotion of envy. It is as nasty and corrosive a passion as can be found among the seven deadly sins, and although it’s impossible to demonstrate statistically, many editors and agents to whom I have spoken believe that it has been intensifying over the past few years. “Writers have always been a nervous lot,” one editor said to me, “but lately it seems as if the pot is always seething.” “They’re angry all the time,” another told me. “It’s beginning to interfere with my effectiveness,” an agent confided in me. He was referring to what he termed “mass hysteria among authors.”

Authors are no different from anybody else in aspiring to fame, fortune, and status, and in suffering feelings of resentment, depression, and anger when their aspirations are frustrated. Are those feelings stronger and deeper today than before? I have the sense that they are. In fact, there are signs that author rage is becoming institutionalized in the form of unprecedented pressure on agents and publishers to match or exceed each record-breaking deal. In this sense, authors are contributing to the ever-accelerating cyclone that has already blown scores of publishers out of existence in the last decade or two, and that has driven a thousand writers out of the game for each one it has enriched.

I don’t pretend to be exempt from this or the other deadly sins (I’m particularly big on gluttony), and as I’m right in the thick of things trying to secure those record-breaking deals for my own authors, I realize that I’m part of the problem. Still, I think the phenomenon of author envy is very much worth exploring, because it is so devastating to the peace of mind that authors must have in order to produce their best work, and because it creates unrealistic expectations that must, of necessity, lead to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and disillusionment.

What is envy? One dictionary defines it as ill will because of another’s possessions or advantages. The dictionary distinguishes envy from jealousy, which is defined as fear, suspicion, or resentment of rivals, but for me the two terms might be used interchangeably. Peter Breggin, M.D., a psychiatrist and author, feels that jealousy is the more positive of the two emotions, because in wanting what somebody else has, you may be creatively inspired. Whereas envy is destructive in that you don’t want somebody to have what he has. “Envy,” he explains, “is debilitating in that it leaves you helpless and impotent.” Whether or not you accept Breggin’s distinctions, they focus on the core issue: invidious comparisons. Somebody is getting more money than you, more attention, bigger ads, better covers, and so on.

What makes me say that this kind of hostility is on the rise? Well, certain contributing factors are actually quantifiable. One is the refinement of bestseller lists, which are kept up-to-the-minute by computerized recordkeeping weekly systems. Unlike the New York Times or Publishers Weekly lists, the chain lists rank books on scales extending to as many as one hundred books, and Publishers Weekly‘s annual roundups list hundreds of bestsellers in descending order of sales or copies in print. Genre publications have created their own bestseller lists in recent years, as well as review space devoted to science fiction, fantasy, horror, historicals, contemporary romance, and other category fiction. Genre fiction has begun to appear with growing frequency on the trade bestseller lists. And of course we now have e-book lists and combined print and e-book lists. Today’s authors simply have many more opportunities than ever before to eat their hearts out.

Another principal factor is the shrinking of the publishing marketplace, and this too can be proven statistically. Whereas there used to be plenty of publishers to go around, the consumption of publishing companies by other publishing companies has cut the number of viable trade markets by something on the order of 75 percent, leaving us with half a dozen major houses orbited by countless small presses and innumerable self-publishing ventures. An author surveying possible outlets for his or her work will simply find fewer than ever before. This narrowing of the funnel engenders tremendous emotional turbulence among authors, and sometimes a kind of combative competitiveness that is all but gladiatorial in nature. Norman Mailer likened bestseller rivalry to boxing rankings. He once actually compared himself to a heavyweight champion defending his title, pugnaciously challenging all comers to knock him out of the ring.

Still another factor is increased publicity for bestsellers and big deals. The big publishers have large and well-heeled publicity departments committed, as the phrase goes, to “moving books off the book page” and onto the front page or feature pages of newspapers and magazines, or into prime time television programs devoted to the world of entertainment.

The hyping of their books is certainly gratifying to authors, but there is definitely a downside. “Publishers are attempting to make midlist or genre authors into something they’re not,” a bookseller told a Publishers Weekly reporter for a year-end summary of books that had flopped that year. Another bookseller expressed alarm about the hype for big printings. “I look at the advertised 100,000 or 200,000 copies and wonder what publishers are thinking about. They are dangerously unrealistic.” The head of a publishing company added, “In a sense, we are victims of our own expectations. We are victimized by our need to promote and hype a book to get it out into a bookselling system where there are already so many titles that one has to take a very aggressive stand in order to be noticed.”

Another contributor to chronic author anxiety is increased communication among authors. Not only are the big deals being blared louder than ever before, but the means for disseminating the information are greater than ever, too. Blogs and chat rooms, plus the growth of local and regional writers groups and the establishment of active organizations of professional writers have made it possible for authors to learn one another’s business on a regular basis. Professional writers organizations have online bulletin boards enabling subscribers to network daily with one another. News of big deals and of the apotheosis of hot authors is instantly disseminated along with gossip and other chitchat and spreads like prairie fire on the tinder of insecurity that is so common a component of the emotional makeup of writers.

Organizations devoted to genre literature are particularly fertile breeding grounds for such insecurity because of the system of local, regional, and national conventions (and you can now find one every week of the year) that bring aspiring writers into contact with star authors. Conventions serve many vital functions for established and would-be authors, as well as for agents, editors, and fans. But they are also a perfect medium for the flourishing of invidious comparisons, especially because not all attendees are able to restrain the temptation to boast. Successful authors garner adulation at conventions, leaving the less recognized to brood over their neglect.

The envy phenomenon is by no means restricted to genre writers, however. “The literary cliques are hotbeds of jealousy,” an agent commented to me. “It’s subtle, though, because the literati like to think they’re too civilized to indulge in such unbecoming emotions as jealousy. But if I pull off a good deal for one client, I can tell you I’m going to hear from half a dozen others by the end of the day. Naturally, they’ll try to disguise their jealousy, the way the runner-up in a beauty contest does, but believe me, their message is loud and clear: How come you didn’t do that for me?” The professional marriage of superagents Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit precipitated a tremendous outpouring of anxiety among authors, both clients and nonclients of theirs, as the press proclaimed that only authors represented by star agents had a chance of survival in today’s marketplace. The cover story of the New York Times Magazine was dedicated to the merger of two agencies, occasioning a cartoon in Publishers Weekly suggesting that agents should now do book signings in stores instead of authors, since their deals are more newsworthy than the contents of the books they sell.

The jealousy of authors puts pressure on agents and publishers to exceed each other’s achievements. Operating on the principle that the squeaky wheel gets oiled, author demands for bigger advances, print runs, advertising guarantees, and other advantages are often granted by publishers. But their motive for doing so is as often the fear of losing the author as it is a sincere desire to reward strong sales performances on previous books. In other words, the ability to bully becomes a prized virtue in an agent. But while bullying is certainly a valid tactic for agents to apply under circumstances, its employment as a policy can be detrimental to a client in the long run, and its adoption by all agents as a defensive strategy to prevent one another from capturing each other’s authors, can be fatal to the writing and publishing professions.

It has to be faced that some books merit more commitment than others. Or that publishers feel more enthusiastic about some books on their lists than they do about others. Or that a publisher has reached its realistic price ceiling and cannot go a dime higher without damaging its profit structure. Or that it has spent all of its season’s budget on advertising and must restrain its outlay for certain titles. If agents respond to these realities by picking up their marbles and taking them elsewhere, then their clients’ interests may not always be best served. Unfortunately, the agent who counsels reason and patience in such cases is in jeopardy of losing clients to any agent who claims he can plunder publishers better than his colleagues can. “It’s like the logging industry,” one publisher observed. “You can make huge profits cutting down all the trees in the forest, but what are you doing to the environment? And where will the next generation of trees come from?”

In today’s publishing climate it is all but impossible for authors to assess the value of their work without comparing it to what others get for (what they perceive to be) the same type of work and the same circumstances. In truth, the conditions affecting every negotiation are unique, no matter how similar they may appear on the surface. I could list a hundred factors, from the very obvious, like author track record, to the very subtle, such as the weather, without exhausting the possible ingredients that go into a deal. But insecure authors don’t always appreciate such fine distinctions. Instead, they see only the realization of their worst nightmare: that somebody is better than they are. “That idea,” says agent Russell Galen, “is intolerable to most authors, and we must constantly reassure them that it is not a matter of who’s better and who’s worse.”

The agents I spoke with were unanimous in insisting that no two authors are identical when it comes to treatment by agents or publishers. “I emphasize that we are involved in a long-term process,” says Galen. “You have to think in terms of a career and not on a book-to-book basis. If you don’t get as much as the other guy today, you’ll get more than the other guy tomorrow.” Says another agent, “If you’ll just keep your nose over your typewriter and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, you’ll eventually get your turn.”

The frenzy surrounding headline-making deals, with its attendant author stampede mentality, must eventually throw our values completely out of kilter. In reaction to a New York Times Magazine article about literary agents, one hopeful author wrote, “Break-even points, bottom lines, last dollars, seven-figure sales—all of this sounds very much like the ‘only big hits’ frenzy that has resulted in the demise of Broadway theater. Fewer and fewer demographically marketed manuscripts are making more and more money for fewer and fewer people, and the creative artists be damned. After all, isn’t the joy of merely writing all the reward a writer needs?” Apparently, the answer to that question is, increasingly, no, and that is cause for the utmost distress. For when authors are distracted from the work at hand by anxieties of inferiority; when their zest for writing is spoiled by worries about status; when they invest more energy into showing up their fellow authors than they do in creating things of truth and beauty; then surely our literature must suffer.

“Where is their pride?” an older agent lamented to me. “Where is their dignity?” His words touched the essence of the matter for me. The writing profession used to stand for pride and dignity, but these seem to be succumbing to the mad warfare of mergers and takeovers, and it’s a valid cause for worry. If there are any values worth pitting against the juggernaut of the numbers game, they are the pride and dignity of the solitary author at his machine, wresting meaning from chaos, pleasure from pain, and elegance from sordid reality. They’re old-fashioned virtues, but I’d like to see them preserved.

Richard Curtis


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