I Wanna Be a Paperback Writer

Think of this post as what’s been falling out of the holes in my head lately.  I’m working on a story with a deadline.  Late last week I figured out why it had stalled and how to fix it; I’ve gotten a few thousand words done over the last couple of days.  I figure I’m about half done unless the thing goes in an unexpected direction (again).

But that means I’m not getting as much reading done as I usually do.  Lately my habit has been to read one novel in print form (usually a review copy) while reading something else on the phone’s ereader app (usually when I have time on my hands and am not at home), plus assorted nonfiction as I can fit it in.  I’m not making much progress on the current paper novel.

renegade or kregenI’m enjoying it quite a bit, but it’s rather thick.  So I’ve been thinking a lot lately, in odd moments here and there, about how things have changed since I was a kid.  (It’s a requirement for me to earn my Geezer Merit Badge.)  As a teenager, there were paperback books all over the place, for sale in a variety of venues.  Most of them were around 200 pages in length, if not slightly less.  I could finish one of them in a day or two.  They had bright, eye-catching covers and (although I hadn’t yet encountered the term) were full of all kinds of pulpy goodness.  (I’m looking at you, DAW books.)  Swords, monsters, NSGs.

And it wasn’t just science fiction  and fantasy, either.  There were plenty of mystery and thriller titles around (Fawcett Gold Key, anyone?), although I really didn’t get into those until I was an adult fully grown.


The waistline of the average American isn’t the only thing that’s thickened in recent decades.

The point to all of this rambling is that things have changed quite a bit in the last 30-something years.  Books are a greater investment of time.  This wouldn’t be a problem except that now I have less time, both in hours left in my life to read as well as free hours in the day.  Yes, I understand there are a variety of reasons for this thickening of books, including larger print (something my aging eyes appreciate).  But I don’t have a long attention span when it comes to reading long books unless I can devote longer than average blocks of time to them.  (This is a result of early imprinting in middle school when I usually finished a book every other day or so, resulting in a strange kind of attention deficit.)  There are too many other things out there I want to read, and sometimes I get – Squirrel!

See what I mean.

That’s why I’m glad we’ve had the “Indie Revolution” (or whatever you want to call it) in publishing.  Shorter works, novella to short novel length, are commercially viable again.

Which brings me to the other part of what I’ve been thinking in terms of paperbacks.

There was a day in the not too distant past when series proliferated.  (I’m defining series here to be books that have a continuing set of characters, at least in most volumes.  I’m not sure how category romance meets that definition since most romances that are published as genre romances have to have a fairly happy ending, making a continuing story a bit of a trick.  At least that’s my understanding, since I don’t read romance.  I could well be wrong.)

rogue angel swordsman's legacyNow some of you are thinking, “Yeah, so? There are still plenty of series around.”

That’s true as far as it goes.  Westerns seem to be the genre where series as I’m considering them are still somewhat prominent.  There are a few in the science fiction and fantasy fields, such as the Rogue Angel books, which are published every other month.  Detective fiction has always been series-centric.  The difference these days is that publishers usually publish one installment per year, at most, in a series.  The Rogue Angel series and one or two others are an exception.  They’re also published by a subsidiary of Harlequin, which has always published multiple titles a month in an imprint.Dumarest of Terra # 18 Incident on Ath

What I’m thinking about are series like the John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, or E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra, or the Dray Prescott planetary adventures.  Or even (shudder) John Norman’s Gor.  Some of these, like the Prescott, had story arcs that carried over for a number of titles.  The Dumarest books concerned a man’s desire to find the location of a mythical planet called Earth but had self-contained stories that might advance that quest.  The Travis McGee books were stand-alones.  On top of that, there were series in a similar vein that had a definite endpoint, such as Brain Stableford’s Hooded Swan books, or Jack Vance’s Demon Princes or Planet of Adventure.  (Note to self: finish the Planet of Adventure series.)

There was always something fun around to read, entertainment where story was not subsumed in message.  I’m not saying there wasn’t message or philosophy in some of these series.  Try giving John D. MacDonald a read and see if he doesn’t have plenty to say about the society of his day.

girl in the plain brown wrapperBut the main point is that they were lean, fast-paced, and fun.  The authors wrote them to pay the rent and buy groceries, not make a sociopolitical statement, and that often meant the novels had to be turned out fast.  The result was that there were plenty of them.

That’s not what I’m seeing in a lot of the contemporary stuff.  I’m not saying contemporary novels aren’t enjoyable.  Many of them are.  But more and more, reading them feels like a marriage, not a date.  (You there in the back, yeah, you. I heard that crack about one night stands.)

Again, this is where indie comes in.  It’s possible to put out multiple titles a year, even multiple series in multiple genres.  K. W. Jeter has a series of thrillers about a woman named Kim Oh that looks interesting.  (I haven’t tried it yet.)  I’m not aware of anyone who is doing something similar with fantasy or science fiction, although I suspect there probably is.  There’s at least one publisher in Australia who is putting out books in serial form before releasing the whole volume in a single ebook, but that’s a little different than what I’m talking about.

I’ve got some ideas I’m starting to kick around.  I’d like to try my hand at some type of pulp adventure series, where the focus is on action, adventure, maybe a dash of romance, and a whole lot of fun.  And I’m talking novels, here, not short fiction.  I’m not sure what genre (or blend of genres) I’ll try.  There are several ways this could go.  I’m going to keep thinking on it.  Maybe by the end of the year, I’ll have a series with a new title every six to nine months.  That would be fun to try.

Anyway, these are some of the things that I’ve been kicking around in my head lately.

22 thoughts on “I Wanna Be a Paperback Writer

  1. Richard Tongue

    As you say, one thing about the new wave of independent publishing is that a lot more of those series are emerging than ever before; minor self-plug, I write one myself, seventeen books strong with bi-monthly publication, and intend to start a second one in the near future. They’re tremendous fun to write, getting to evolve characters, settings and stories over a longer period, and the established wisdom – with a lot of evidence to support it – is that series sell, and well; better than individual novels. Quite why the bigger publishers have chosen to eschew them is a mystery to me. I’ve still got a lot of the older runs on my bookshelves; there’s the Perry Rhodan series, thousands of books strong and counting (a record there that I suspect never will be broken) Dumarest, the Bertram Chandler ‘John Grimes’ books published in essentially these formats, even the Conan pastiches. I know that in science-fiction at least, certainly in the indie field, short-novel series are making a comeback. My own theory on this – based on my own habits when I used to work in an office – is that they are great commuter reads. Easy to get through in rides back and forth and lunch breaks, with chapters at the sort of length to allow the reader to break away easily when they wish. Given that these days you see Kindles and e-readers everywhere on train and bus…you can see why they catch on.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Great points, Richard. I think maybe one reason why the mainstream publishers have stopped pushing series is that they aren’t keeping them in print. If I come across Volume X in a long-running series, but the early volumes aren’t available, then I probably pass on the series. With brick and mortar stores returning books after a few weeks or months, it’s hard to find complete or even semi-complete series on the shelves these days.

      Folks, if like Mil-SF, Richard’s series might be something you give a try. Here’s the link to his Amazon page with links to all the books. I’ve bought the first one, although I’m not sure when I will fit it in.

  2. PJ

    I’m a big fan of Sanderson, but he’s an investment, like you describe.

    Sometimes I need the novel equivalent of Pacific Rim. (Pacific Rim was a really, really dumb summer blockbuster about giant robots doing wrestling moves on giant monsters. It’s in my top 5.)

  3. Paul McNamee

    “the main point is that they were lean, fast-paced, and fun”


    I guess everyone wanted to be Tolkien and the fantasy bloat started. Or, maybe with rising costs publishers wanted to give readers their money’s worth and wanted to justify the cost of setting up a large print run. I don’t really know – these are just thoughts.

    I agree. We could read all kinds of books when we were kids. Variety and speed. I always spot lag & padding now. Even if it’s tolerable, I find myself saying, “Trim this and this would be one damn tight asskicking novella!”

    I still say that Glen Cook did more with his Ten Taken in the original Black Company trilogy, than Robert Jordan did with his Thirteen Forsaken in all those door stoppers. (Yeah, yeah, I know the Black Company continued on through some thick novels itself eventually.)

    I’ve been thinking, too. Mostly about getting my first novel finished. I think 75,000 is gonna be my cap. I have two ideas I think could work at that length. Maybe I could even get both done this year because they are shorter. Mostly, I want to get one under my belt because that’s what I need to do and then get back to short story ideas crawling around my head.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I think your point about publishers wanting to give readers the perception of their money’s worth is a valid one. I’ve heard it expressed before.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the early Black Company books and need to finish the series. I never tried Jordan because of the length. That’s true of several other big names these days.

      I’ve got a science fiction detective novel and a fantasy murder mystery finished that needed to be cleaned up. They’re both part of larger universes. I’ve also got a hard-science sword and planet novel mostly done with some bits and pieces of the second novel written. That might the series I start with. I need to do some more work on it, though, before it’s ready.

  4. Woelf Dietrich

    Amen! Apart from Burroughs and Howard et al, I also read adventure books from L’Amour, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley, and these guys wrote straightforward adventures where the men where men and honor and courage still had traditional meanings. I loved those stories. They were about 60k words and you could read them quickly. So I say go for it. I’ll read it.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks, man. I’ve gotten enough of a positive response that I’ll try to have something out by the end of the summer at the latest.

      I almost put L’Amour in my list. I didn’t read him until about 10 years ago. My brother was a bg L’Amour fan, I naturally avoided whatever he liked. I’ve heard of Innes, but I don’t think I’ve heard of Bagley. I’ll put them on my list.

      1. Woelf Dietrich

        Damn, made an error there (where vs were). Anyway, Yeah, my dad introduced me to L’Amour’s westerns and I loved it. I read most of his other stuff, too, but Innes and Bagley introduced me to straight and simple adventure. My first Bagley book was The Golden Keel and I was sold from thereon out.


  5. Fletcher Vredenburgh

    Great piece, but then I agree with all your points 😉 I have so rarely been satisfied with the investment in time and money in any thick volume series. The e-book revolution has put so many novella and short novel length books into my hands. It’s made me very happy (but, my TBR stack too big).

    In light of what Howard Andrew Jones wrote the other day, I wonder if kids (boys especially) would read more if they were given short, sharp, plot- and action-heavy novels?

    Good luck settling on a subject for your own books. I’m looking forward to see what you come up with.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks for the encouraging words, Fletcher. And I hear you about the TBR pile being too high.

      I saw Howard’s post. You make a good point about boys wanting short plot and action novels. You’ll notice in the trend to not label books as “boy’s books” or “girl’s books” the emphasis has been (form what I can tell) less on action and adventure and more on feelings and relationships. And while grown men might read that sort of thing and enjoy it, I don’t see boys going for that. Certainly not my son, and certainly not me when I was a preteen or teenager.

      1. Richard Tongue

        I’ve found that so tempting so many times…it’s one of those things that I keep re-reading and thinking about, but never manage to get around to trying. I’ve read a lot of accounts of the old pulp writers, their techniques, and the output they managed to sustain on a constant basis is astonishing, especially considering the advantages we have today.

        1. Keith West Post author

          I have gotten so spoiled with typing at a computer. I can backspace, cut and paste, insert, change font, etc. The thought of going back to a typewriter, especially a manual typewriter, makes me want to curl up into a ball and whimper.

  6. Carrington Dixon

    Of course, most of the current stf series have an on-going story arc; so, you really do have to start at the beginning to understand everything. This was not always the case. The old hero-pulps of the 1930s and 40s certainly expected the new readers to hit the ground running with whatever was the current issue. Notice that the Doc Savage novels and those of The Shadow have been reprinted in what amounts to random order without posing any problems from new readers.

    Lots of these old series could be summed up as hero encounters new planet/lost city/new menace and has adventures dealing with same, rinse and repeat. Haggard, Howard and Bradley wrote their series books with no regard to internal chronology. Burroughs’ stories were written pretty much in chronological order, and David Weber makes a point of doing same.

    Sometimes the story arc is not that obvious, I can recall reading one of the early Dumarest novels without even recognizing that it was part of a series. A lot depends on what kind of series you want to create.

    1. Keith West Post author

      You’re absolutely correct. There are a variety of ways to write a series. I like both a story arc and stand alones. There don’t seem to be many of the latter these days. The nice thing about the pulps and many of the early paperback series is that there is no need to go back and read thirteen books (to pick a random number) if you see one that looks interesting.

      One of my main gripes is that it takes so long in many cases these days for the next book in the series to come out. I’m referring more to publishing schedules than anything with this statement. This has two negative effects. First, the author has poor sales because potential readers can’t find the previous work in the series and don’t want to jump right in. The other is that I’ve forgotten enough of the prior book(s), especially if the storyline is complicated, that I’m lost when I pickup the next one. So I might not even bother with the current book, or if I do, I don’t enjoy it that much. As a result, I may not read any subsequent books. Either way, the author loses sales.

      Of course, there were a lot of the pulp crime novelists who didn’t write series but wrote one or two types of books at a consistent level. So there were plenty of good titles to choose from. John D. MacDonald’s non-Travis McGee novels come to mind.

      1. Richard Tongue

        From the writing standpoint, this is actually a major issue, and something I’ve been wrestling with myself a lot lately. I’ve attempted to build in new entry points deeper into my major series, though I must confess the results haven’t been as I’ve hoped; there is a natural instinct to start with ‘Book 1’, and when the series is into double-digits, I can understand the reticence. (Though at least these days you don’t need to worry about something being out of print. The number of series I left on the shelf because the bookshop didn’t have the first of the run in stock…)

        While you can try to make the books stand-alone – and that’s almost always my aim (I’ve occasionally done a two-parter) – I think the general perception remains, and naturally a certain amount of carry-over is always unavoidable. In terms of the publishing schedule – again, one of the benefits of working for yourself is that you can set the schedule that you can live with, and the books can be available as soon as they are finished. I’ve managed a 60-day schedule for a couple of years, and moved it to a 56-day schedule a few months ago; it’s quite sustainable at the short novel level, and it keeps the series visible on the lists.

        1. Keith West Post author

          The paradox about long running series is that after a while readers get tired if things don’t change because the books become (or at least can be perceived as becoming) interchangeable. OTOH, if they do change, you risk losing readers who don’t like the changes. Keeping enough things the same so that readers are comfortable entering your world without a lot of infodumps while changing enough that things seem fresh is a tough balancing act.

          Then there’s the natural desire of an author to try something different. Some of this is the result of the author’s growth both as a person and as a writer. Some authors can do this. Others, like Arthur Conan Doyle, find that they can’t even kill their characters off. And that’s just the artistic side of things. Writers eat and pay the mortgage, just like everyone else. The question “Do I do something different and risk low sales or write the next installment in my series and know I can pay for Junior’s braces?” raises its head.

          Putting out a new book every 60 days is an impressive feat. I hope one day I can pull that off.


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