The name beneath the name

When the woman who shelves the scifi section at my bookstore slid the new Orson Scott Card book to me last week I saw something disturbing on the cover.

Aaron Johnston.

Who was this guy? Was Card headed down the James Patterson path, using a helper to write his stories? I was concerned. Card has published book one in the Young Adult series Pathfinder and an adult scifi series The Mithermages in the past two years. He is working on book two in both series, the YA book, Ruins, comes out this October and the Adult Scifi book, The Gate Thief, is currently set to be published in mid-March 2013. That’s a lot of books.

His newest book, Earth Unaware, is the story of the first Bugger invasion. It takes place before Ender’s Game. Unlike Shadows in Flight, the new book is a full-length novel. I know the Ender saga is a big money maker for Card. It’s certainly my favorite and I love that he is expanding the story to include what happened before Ender came along in addition to all his books on the aftermath of what became viewed as a horrible xenocide. I wasn’t loving that he called in help.

Help in novel writing seems to be catching on. While Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler both use secondary authors, whose names appear in a smaller font at the bottom of the dust jacket, James Patterson is the man who seems to use co-authors the most. A quick Wikipedia search shows that of his 105 published and soon to be published works, 60 were written with someone else. That’s a lot of help. And it’s not the same co-authors helping out with the same series. The Women’s Murder Club has two different co-authors, first Andrew Gross then Maxine Paetro. His Daniel X series has seen four different co-authors for five different books.

While some of these helpers go on to create works on their own and most of the interviews they give speak glowingly of working with “Jim”, I wonder how much work they are doing so his name can appear as the headliner. I was disappointed to see my favorite author slipping into the same “publish as much as possible” mode.

Earlier this year the New York Times ran a story about authors, especially those in the mystery and romance genres, beginning to publish more than once a year. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/business/in-e-reader-age-of-writers-cramp-a-book-a-year-is-slacking.html?pagewanted=all) It used to be the norm for your favorite genre author to come out with a new book about the same time every year. I know I looked forward to the newest Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum mystery every June. Now one book a year isn’t enough. Publishers want short stories to whet the readers’ appetite between books, they want high ebook sales, and bigger bibliographies to post on Wikipedia. To do this, sometimes writers need help. I understand keeping up with Patterson is hard work. But there should be a better way. Can’t readers just expand their author list and be patient?

The article goes on to state that literary novelists can still put out one book a decade and call it good enough. But not everyone in the book world is lucky enough to be considered literary. And most people read mysteries and romances, meaning those books get published more, even if it’s only a handful of authors and their new assistants.

I’m not sure why the idea of having a co-author irks me so much. Stephen King cowrote two of my favorite books, The Talisman and Black House, with fellow horror author Peter Straub. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman teamed up for Good Omens, a book I had trouble putting down. But these authors were peers. I feel like Patterson and his cronies are abusing their power, giving outlines and edits to someone else who is doing all the real work.

I looked up Aaron Johnston. I was afraid he would be some nobody who would ruin my favorite book series, seeing co-writing with Card as a step up in his own career. I was afraid that Card had found a lackey to write his books for him and the quality of those books would decrease. Johnston is a playwright, he writes screenplays, and graphic novels. Almost everything has to do with Orson Scott Card.

It turns out the two men have known each other for some time. Earth Unaware is not the first book they’ve written together. In 2007 they published Invasive Procedures, a novel based on a screenplay written by Johnston, which was based on a short story written by Card. In Posing as People Johnston and two other writers write plays based on other Card short stories. Card directed those plays himself. Johnston contributed an essay to The Authorized Ender Companion and wrote half of the Ender graphic novels. He seemed dedicated.

Although I might not classify the two men as peers; Straub, King, Pratchett, and Gaiman were all well known in their genre before teaming up; I don’t think either man is using the other. I do wonder if I’ll be able to tell that this book wasn’t written by Card alone. I also wonder how often Aaron Johnston’s name will grace the cover of Card’s books in the future and if it will ever get any bigger. That may be the sign of true collaboration, when you let the coauthor put his name first.

Kelly Hannon works in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at www.letterstopeopleihate.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

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