Just Cranking them out (for the money) . . . Not!

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today writing as Kathy.

rebel2You know how that one bad review sticks with you far longer than a dozen good ones? You tell yourself it’s just one person’s opinion, even if that one person is a reviewer for a major national review journal. You try not to be hurt by what seems like a personal attack. You wonder how anyone can possibly claim to know your motivation for writing a particular book. And, somehow, you never quite get over being ticked off about what amounts to an attack on your personal integrity as well as your ability as a writer.

rhpaper (186x300)So, almost fourteen years later, I’m finally going to address the issues raised by a particularly upsetting review of one of my mystery novels. It ran on July 8, 2001 in Publishers Weekly and to add insult to injury, the anonymous reviewer didn’t even get the title right, calling it Face Down Beneath the Rebel Hooves when it is actually Face Down Before Rebel Hooves.

In the body of the review, this reviewer states that “what starts as clever plot-counterplot and an unmasking of conspirators ends up in such confusion that one doubts whether the author herself can unravel the tangled web of deceit.”

Uh, sorry Anonymous—I wasn’t confused at all and neither was my editor and neither were numerous other people who reviewed this mystery novel and signed their names to their reviews.

Anonymous continues: “Emerson fails to evoke either Susanna’s devotion to Elizabeth or the religious fervor that fires the conspirators.”

FaceDownInTheMarrow-BonePieCover (197x300)Well, that was sort of the point. Susanna is not radical in her thinking, either about politics or religion, and has never been all that fond of Queen Elizabeth. Although she’s far from being a traitor to England, she does have some sympathy for both sides of the issue and a great deal of sympathy for one of the conspirators, a woman she ultimately helps to escape to Scotland. She didn’t agree to go undercover as a spy to foil a treasonous plot so much as to unravel the more personal mystery posed by the fatal accident that befell the wife of an old and dear friend. As for the religious fervor of the conspirators, my take on the situation was that the rebellion was prompted far more by their political ambitions than by their Catholicism and this is backed up by various studies of the real rebellion upon which the novel is based.

Anonymous saved his or her snarky best for the “Forecast” at the end of the review: “The thinness of the last two or three books of what started as a solid historical series suggests that the author has lost interest and is just churning them out.”

True, the words “for the money” aren’t there in print after “churning them out,” but they’re certainly implied.

one scene in Rebel Hooves takes place in the shadow of this ancient stone "arrow"

one scene in Rebel Hooves takes place in the shadow of this ancient stone “arrow”

At that point in my career, even though there had been five previous books in the series, I wrote each book on spec, not submitting it until it was written and not receiving an advance until it was accepted for publication by St. Martin’s Minotaur line. In the case of Rebel Hooves, which was based on the Northern Rebellion of 1569, I started research and plotting in April 1999. What fascinated me about the event was the fact that the leading lights were two women, the countess of Northumberland and the countess of Westmorland. I brought my sleuth, Susanna, Lady Appleton, into the action by having her recruited to help an old friend whose wife (Rosamond’s mother) had been helping the rebels. Writing the first draft took four months, from August 19, 1999 until December 22, 1999. Between early January and the end of May of 2000, I did four further drafts before sending the book to my agent. At that point, and only at that point, was I offered an advance of $7500 against future royalties, which I accepted. Incidentally, I never received an advance higher than $8000 for any book in the series. The print run for this one was 5500 copies in hardcover. Translated, that means that even if every single copy sold, my maximum earnings would still be less than $12,000 for a project I worked on for over a year. Since sell-through is never that good, even for bestselling authors, I made back the advance plus a few hundred dollars, so even if I only count the four months that I spent writing the first draft and figure that I only spent four hours a day, seven days a week . . . well, you do the math. Add in the hours involved in research, revising, etc., etc., and I think I can guarantee that I was working for less than the minimum wage.

Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe cover (192x300)Churning them out, for the money or for some other reason? I don’t think so. And if I’d lost interest, I certainly wouldn’t have spent that much time on the project. I’d have been hunting for something else to write, preferably something that would earn me a bigger advance.

I can laugh about this now. Sort of. But obviously it took me a long time to get that criticism out of my head. I wrote one more book in this series for St. Martin’s and three more for Perseverance Press, as well as numerous short stories using the characters. I’m still writing about that world because I still haven’t lost interest. My new series, starting with Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, features Rosamond Jaffrey, Lady Appleton’s late unlamented husband’s illegitimate daughter by Eleanor Pendennis—the old friend’s wife being impersonated by Susanna in Face Down Before Rebel Hooves. The second book is just through line edits and has a great cover.

Murder in the Merchant's Hall (192x300)

I’m working on number three.

Lost interest? No way!

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8 Responses to Just Cranking them out (for the money) . . . Not!

  1. MCWriTers says:

    I’ve pretty much stopped reading reviews, there is way too much pain, way too many of those reviewers who don’t get it, and recently, especially in PW, a tendency for the reviewer to give away major plot points. It’s beyond unprofessional. I have seen the toughest writers I know reduced to tears by something unnecessarily snarky after a year or more of dedicated labor put into a very good book.

    Yup. Takes the hide of an alligator to be in this business, however much we love writing and however good we are at our craft.

    Thanks for writing about this, Kathy.


  2. Lea Wait says:

    Yup. We’ve all gotten them. My worst, I think, was also a PW — in which the reviewer said I’d gotten a point of history wrong. I hadn’t, and I was really embarrassed thinking readers (and my editor) would think I’d made a mistake. . And, of course, there are the Amazon and Goodreads reviews — most of which are wonderful, but sometimes … Thanks for sharing, Kathy!

  3. Ken Buckley says:

    Few writers respect reviewers, especially those writing bad reviews. On the other hand, a theater manager once told me: “Don’t care what you say about the movie, as long as you say something.” Another was infuriated when I criticized a movie, and happily, I was relieved of my job. It was horrible. I hated it, even though I loved movies. That is until I stopped enjoying them and began criticizing them. Of late, an e-book of mine got an overall liking, which ended by having a dagger stuck in its heart, with the reviewer saying it should have been edited. Enough to make you jump off the dock, especially after paying a professional editor to do what the reviewer claimed hadn’t been done. Glancing through a stack of reviews on the Amazon site, the same reviewer choked the life out of the the rest of the books, ending each postmortem with his or her favorite kicker: “Not edited.” Generally, that is the attack pattern of many reviewers. You name a few pluses and then chop the legs off the author with one big negative swipe.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    Oh, Kathy, I can see how that would stick in your craw. People, even people who should know better, like say, a PW reviewer, are profoundly ignorant about the economics of book writing (and publishing and selling). Which is fine, not everybody has to know everything, but don’t go blathering on about that which you know nothing.

    Based on this post and the comments, I am going to stop being annoyed that my books are never reviewed by the “majors.”

  5. JT NICHOLS says:

    Good one! One of my plays, Cult, though sold out every night, got a mindlessly evil review from the guy who showed up with his fiancee (we only had one ticket available); he was so mad that he had to pay for his fiancee that the review, after stating that it was the worst play he’d ever seen (and that the music was so good that it made it even worse! huh?), spent the rest of his column denigrating cab drivers in general (I was driving for ABC cab at the time..) and ABC cab in particular! The last line of his “review” stated that “–the last time I saw an ABC cab, it was parked in front of Video Expo (a porn shop)—but I suppose the driver COULD have been in Joe’s Smoke Shop (across the street)!”
    He got blasted in the letter section in the next week’s Casco Bay Weekly…

  6. Loving these comments. One of the best things about the writing community is knowing you’re not the only one to have experienced something, bad or good. It makes the bad much easier to endure and the good much more enjoyable.


  7. Kathy,
    I have read your work for years, and as a reader, I have never lost interest in your writing. I now am experiencing first hand the aggravation of reviewer snark. Kate is right, you need the hide of an alligator to keep going in this business. It’s tough and when I get comments that prick I have to remind myself that that is only one person’s opinion in a world of people.

  8. My forthcoming book recently suffered similar–including the giveaway of THE twist, so I would ask all the Maine Crime Writers and their readers, whom I greatly respect, to turn eyes away.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how smart, bookish people can get writing and writers’ motivations so plain out wrong some of the time.

    Not all the time. There are tons of really spot on reviewers, professional, bloggers, readers. But when they’re not spot on, it can really sting.

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