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I'm Not Happy to Serve You: Authors and the New Publishing by Consensus

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Perhaps I'm typical in that I became a writer because I don't feel like dealing with you. I certainly don't feel like doing what you say. Well, not you, but You. You know what I mean, don't You?

Am I alone in my sense that writing for a living is partly about enjoying the act of writing, and partly about an inability (unwillingness?) to tether your efforts to the larger efforts of larger interests -- The Agency, The Firm, the Glossy Magazine -- for which you will not get credit? Unless you get a byline. In which case, you do it for the clip. But you do so grudgingly, if you are like most people who write; we (I hate to presume, but in this case I can) tend to play best alone.

Sure, there are other writers and editors, and your agent and your publicist who are, thankfully, "people people." And I think I speak for a lot of people who write when I say, nothing personal, but that's enough.

And so a recent article in the New Yorker about Alloy Entertainment nearly made me choke on my Skittles. These people are ruining the lives of extremely-non-bestselling authors everywhere -- by doing it all backwards. Instead of a writer deciding, "I'll spend the next three years writing about this topic that may compel millions, or may compel them to ignore me and buy the new Dean Koontz novel," then selling her agent and a publisher on the idea, Alloy dispenses with the quirky writerly obsessions all together. And the writers.

They do this by figuring out what their audience wants to read, and then delivering it. Alloy -- which "packages about thirty books a year for publishers, and also generates television shows ... and ideas for feature films" -- starts with loads of market research about their audience (teen girls). Armed with that understanding, they have pitch sessions for books that are described as "a swine-flu-meets-Lord of the Flies scenario thing" and "a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants version of Marley and Me" and "a reverse Taken and a dark, grounded Nancy Drew." Once a book that combines the best of Marley and Me and swine flu is approved for "production," the executives and underlings sketch out a detailed "treatment." Finally, those pesky details: they hire a writer to whip something up on spec. The writer is not a big idea person; the writer is not someone with a passionate desire to tell a story. The writer isn't even a craftsman. The writer is the content provider. Well, a content provider.

It's not for me to say that this particular model is good for the publishing industry, or the way of the future, or Satan's spawn. All I can say is that it makes me want to throw up. Because I didn't become a writer so that I could be a market researcher who tailors my thinking and writing to the interests of the people who made fun of me in high school. I became a writer so I could try to bend people to my will -- Wow, this topic is so interesting! -- or at the very least work on something that I cared about enough to finish, to promote, and believe in sufficiently to spend my days talking to readers and potential readers about it.

Meanwhile, I have sold something like 43 books while 18 of Alloy's 28 titles from last year became best sellers. So perhaps we should all try this writing by consensus thing, and maybe then J.K. Rowling and that woman who wrote Twilight will teach us the secret handshake and say, "Aren't you glad you came over to this side?" "Yesssss," my husband will shout with an arm pump. "Now I can be a househusband!"

Oh, you're thinking, What's the big deal? Is the Alloy method so different from everyone sitting around at a woman's magazine meeting pitching features while the EIC shoots some down and farms some out and dreams of mega circulation? Or from the author who doesn't want to write a tenth book that nobody reads asking her agent, "Do you think X is a topic that might get some attention?"

Maybe Alloy's formulaic approach is nothing new. And maybe it's against all logic and all realities of the current market that I want so badly to retain my admittedly romantic concept of book writing: that it is an undertaking in which the writer serves not exactly what she thinks others want, but also what she wants to write about. And she and her idea and the reader manage to find each other -- against the odds, online and in bookstores and thanks to the meddling of friends and siblings and mothers and book groups and rabbis -- because they are meant to. I imagine this coming together as the torrid affair that turns into the passionate and committed love of a lifetime, to Alloy's cunningly arranged and cynical marriages. But then, I'm a writer.