The Pressure of Annual Releases

I have recently read three very different crime novels, which left me intrigued, delighted and frustrated (in that order). They also made me wonder if the publisher’s pressure to produce a book a year forces writers to compromise on quality at times. Because I would rather wait two-three years if it means a more thoughtful, original piece of work is produced, rather than a cut and paste job with stock situations, cardboard characters and clichĂ©s ahoy.

This refers of course to the book which disappointed me, which used all the possible tricks to turn a rather ordinary, overdone story into something suspenseful: an unnecessary dual timeline solely designed to increase suspense, but feeling unnatural and irritating; withholding of vital information to create plot twists; an utterly pointless final twist with little bearing on the story; an annoying, whining main character whose behaviour is exaggerated and lacks credibility. Yet there were certain sharp observations throughout the book which made me think the author had talent, but had hurriedly scribbled down a half-baked domestic noir story to satisfy the current appetite for that sub-genre and the publisher’s demands.

The book which intrigued me was AndrĂ©e A. Michaud’s BondrĂ©e (Boundary, in English, translated by Donald Winkler). Michaud is QuĂ©bĂ©cois and this novel is very precisely set in time and place: a summer community on the US/Canadian border of Lake Boundary during the summer of 1967. Life seems idyllic: barbecues sizzling, children playing on the beach, families relaxing at weekends, even if the men have to go back to the city to work during the week. Radios are playing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and two teenage girls are flaunting their gorgeous tanned bodies and long curls to confuse and delight the male population of the little holiday enclave. Zaza Mulligan and Sissy Morgan are precocious and slightly too forward. In a year or two they would be destined to become bitches, so the gossip goes, but this is their summer of glory, with a third girl Frenchie Lamar trying to keep up with them, but not quite succeeding to emulate their charisma. Meanwhile, twelve-year old French speaker AndrĂ©e is entranced by these American teenagers, the sweets they share with her because they think she is cute. She tries to repeat the words they say ‘Littoldolle’ or ‘chiz’ or ‘foc’ (which her mother tries to avoid explaining to her by discussing seals – in French  ‘phoques’ – instead). She is the main narrator, but it is not really a child’s voice, but a scene remembered from the distant past. We also catch glimpses of the story from other points of view.

Then Zaza is found dead, her limbs torn apart in an old bear trap overgrown with vegetation. An unfortunate accident, so everyone thinks, and the holiday-makers band together to search for all remaining animal traps which a strange old hermit called Pierre Landry had set up around the area before he died. But when Sissy suffers a similar fate and her beautiful red hair is cut off, the community has to acknowledge the horrible truth:

A killer was on the loose in the shadow of our cottages, one who had made a zombie out of Bob, and etched into my father’s face lines that hadn’t been there before, outward signs of a kind of stupor, as if he’d received a blow from a baseball bat on the back of his head. And that’s exactly what had happened in the clearing, where a dozen men, along with him, had been blindsided by a mysterious weapon.

Stan Michaud is the American policeman who has to investigate the case, helped by Brian Larue, a bilingual single dad vacationing there, who helps with the translating. The story is very slow-moving, perhaps too much so for avid mystery fans, but it is also a subtle coming-of-age story and a description of an Anglo-French community on the cusp of modernity yet stuck in a primeval forest full of ghosts. I was fully caught up in the utterly believable atmosphere, full of nuances and poetic language. The translation did occasionally feel clunky, so I may well look out for this in French. It won the Prix des lecteurs (Readers’ Prize) at the Quais du polar in Lyon this year.

Finally, the book which delighted me is the follow-up to Susie Steiner’s debut, which I reviewed recently. In Persons Unknown, Manon is back in Cambridgeshire, together with her unconventional family: her adopted son Fly, her sister Ellie and her young nephew Solly. She is sidelined somewhat, working on cold cases, but she hopes it gives Fly the opportunity to grow up in a more peaceful environment, where he won’t be treated as a criminal simply because of his race.

But then a man is stabbed to death outside a park near the railway station and the identity of the victim makes it impossible for Manon to ignore the case. Things go from bad to worse and she has to prove that her nearest and dearest cannot possibly have anything to do with this horror. Or could they? This seamless blend of personal and professional is Steiner’s great strength, the way in which she makes us question all of our easy assumptions about family, motherhood and love. Each character seems well-rounded, with real depth, especially Manon, who feels like a frazzled yet slightly more energetic version of ourselves. The target audience for this is the reader who enjoyed the more realistic portrayal of women detectives such as Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series (although I like this one more) or the feisty Sarah Lancashire character in Happy Valley.

Now you may say I am contradicting myself, since Persons Unknown has followed very swiftly on the tail of Missing, Presumed. However, it feels to me like this was a single, complex story that the author had already envisaged, and which she brought out in two installments. It all fits together very well, and there are hints that the third novel also builds on this story. For the sake of letting stories breathe and develop organically, however, I would ask publishers to ease the calendar pressure and allow authors to take as long as they need to make their novels as good as they can.



34 thoughts on “The Pressure of Annual Releases”

  1. I’d echo that final sentence. I often think that’s the problem with authors’ second novels in particular. Being caught like a rabbit in the headlights of publicity isn’t conducive to creativity and careful revisions of drafts either, I imagine.

    1. I sometimes find authors whose style I really like in the first and second novel (which had been planned out or written before they started getting deadlines) and then that attention to detail and subtlety drops dramatically. So disappointing.

      1. I also think that writers are expected to do so much in the way of signings and festival appearances that it’s hard to see when they have the time for sustained concentration and writing time.

  2. I didn’t know about Persons Unknown until this post. I know that most readers liked the first book. I was in the minority of those who didn’t. The second book does sound great though. You are write about the breathing space. Sometimes the quick releases work but other times, they do ruin a sequel. I can’t imagine the pressure on authors though.

    1. I’d love to hear why you didn’t like the first book by Susie Steiner. You may find in that case that this is more of the same, and not be smitten with it. To me, it feels very real and immediate. I like the fact that no one behaves in entirely predictable ways and that loving someone doesn’t mean we can’t be blind to their needs and not properly listening to them.

      1. I think I struggled with the number of characters,alternating POVs and the details.I didn’t know at that time but turns out that I’m not a fan of characters driven novels.I like plot-driven with fast pace and a little less focus on mundane details about characters.I’ve heard great things about the book though.Most people loved it.From your comment,the book sounds great but I think I’d have the same issues.

        1. Ah, I see. I prefer less plot-driven crime novels, with more emphasis on atmosphere or characters, which is why I liked it.

  3. I think you make a really well-taken point, Marina Sofia. On the one hand, it makes sense for publishers to want a new release from an author at least every year. On the other hand, if the story isn’t a fresh, interesting story, it’s hard for readers to be drawn in. And then the books begin to get too ‘samey.’ As for the books you’ve mentioned, I’ve been hearing good things about the Michaud, so I’m glad it get your interest. And the Steiner sounds good…

    1. I suppose publishers feel that we might forget certain authors if they are not reliable like clockwork, but I often find they bring out a new book before I’ve had time to read the previous one (those of us with gigantic TBR piles know that feeling all too well!). It just stresses me out sometimes. And even with some of my very favourite authors, when it’s a long series, it shows… it begins to get a bit uneven.

  4. I do agree – having a rigid deadline isn’t necessarily the best thing for the creative process and the pressure is going to spoil the books. I’ve found with series I’ve followed in the past that the quality falls off, which is a great shame – writers need to write the books they want to, and when they want to (which of course isn’t necessarily good for anyone’s bank balance!)

    1. I can understand new writers cracking under the pressure (which is why I say publishers should go more easily on them), but those established famous authors could afford to experiment, take a break, go in a new direction… Give readers some credit! Yes, some will want ‘same old same old reliable’ but others will follow them where they go (thank you, Louise Penny).

  5. I’ll have to look for Susie Steiner.
    I’m sure the pressure does get to the authors. I know it would affect me. I wonder if some already gave written more than one by the time the first is accepted. That might explain why in some cases the second is just as good.

    1. I know for a fact that quite a few have the second already written by the time the first one has been accepted, so are perhaps under less time pressure there.

  6. I totally agree. Sometimes a second book is excellent, and I often think that may be because the author had already written most of it while going through the lengthy process of finding a publisher for book one. But as series go on, and a book comes out every year, there are very few authors who don’t begin to repeat, or who end up with a messy plot that a few more months may have allowed them to make into something great. I often think it probably backfires on sales too – while people may pick up book 2 on the back of the success of book 1, if book 2 disappoints, how many will return for book 3?

    1. I have stopped eagerly awaiting the next in some series for that very reason. Mentioning only the big names (whose sales will not be affected by my comment): Donna Leon, Val McDermid, Peter James, Lindsey Davis, even Ian Rankin. I do pick one up every now and then and sometimes see a return to form, but it’s no longer quite the ‘must read’ experience it once was.

  7. I’ve just finished reading Missing, Presumed today so I’m really pleased to hear that the follow-on Persons Unknown is also great. I can’t wait to read it.
    I agree with you that there seems to be more and more cases were an author’s first and second books are great and then the third book comes along very quickly and falls short. It’s such a shame. However much we want a new book from a favourite author I think most of us would rather wait longer and get a book that is at least as good as the previous ones.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks like that… maybe the publishers are a little bit mistaken about readers’ impatience for a new book.

  8. I totally agree – give readers some credit that they’ll remember an author they like and will buy a book even if they have to wait longer than a year. I do think you have to be strong though – for example, people are used to Donna Tartt taking a long time between novels now, but I think she was under enormous pressure for a while after the success of The Secret History.

  9. “They also made me wonder if the publisher’s pressure to produce a book a year forces writers to compromise on quality at times.” I’ve just read a post by the author Jan Carson where she mulls this, and the limiting of creativity when pressured into sticking with a genre. I’ve tweet shared it if you are interested.

  10. I’d much rather wait for a better book by an author that read a rushed book because publishers want the book finished and out on the market selling. I do get impatient waiting for a favorite writer’s next book, but so what? I can wait. There’s plenty to read out there. (Refer to humongous TBR lists in two computers.)
    I love Donna Leon’s books and I just have to wait for the next one. And, by the way, her latest Brunetti book, “Earthly Remains,” is a must-read. It’s not set in the city of Venice, but is primarily set in the Venetian laguna, canals and islands. And her descriptions of the land, water and wildlife are beautiful. This book is an appeal for preservation of the earth and everything on it — but done in Leon’s way, within a mystery. I wished it had gone on as I was so relaxed when I was reading it.
    And Brunetti was in good form, putting human relations above all.

    1. Ah, good to know, I was somewhat disappointed with one of her latest, but we can’t all be on top form all the time. I do have that on my TBR pile!
      I suppose publishers don’t think of maniacs like us who have hundreds on our TBR pile and never quite get to read them all, just keep piling more on. They are thinking more of those who only read 6-8 books a year and next year are ready for the next book by their favourite, trusted, reliable author.

  11. Well, I think publishers’ main goal is to get books to market, publicize them and sell, sell, sell. Keep the authors’ and books’ names online. in bookstores and in book reviews, all aimed to sell. It’s cutthroat out there.
    By the way, I’m starting “A Climate of Fear,” and finding it zany and eerie, but then I’m forgetting how Fred Vargas writes. I must tune in to her quirky style. And I was a fan of “The Ghosts of Ordebec,” and suffered from post-good-book slump when it was over, a malady that ails me about three times a year. A friend and I chuckled about the guy who spoke backwards and so much more for months. She is brilliant and imaginative.

    1. I liked A Climate of Fear even more than Ghost Riders of Ordebec, but yes, you have to suspend all preconceptions when you read a book by Vargas. But I was rather less enthusiastic about An Uncertain Place, although the Anglo-French relationship usually delights me.

  12. “An Uncertain Place” was even beyond the bounds of quirky. It did nearly slide into the paranormal. But a discussion at the end has Adamsberg and Danglard saying different things, Danglard promoting the objective, scientific view of what is and is not possible. I think Vargas did this to be provocative with her readers.

  13. Susie Steiner is new to me but duly noted – sounds most intriguing. What I have grown to detest in contemporary crime fiction is the insistence on the twist. Doesn’t matter if it’s completely implausible, ruins the character development created thus far, or has nothing to do with what’s preceded it in the story. No, there must be twists and the more the better. I would rather have one really good twist in a story than three sub-standard ones. It’s only a good twist if the clues have been there all along, but misdirection has prevented you from reading them in the right way. Sigh. Anyhow, I am sure that pressure from the marketing department is to blame for all these ills!

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