Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Some Unfinished Business

It's the last day of January, which is why I thought today would be a fitting day to close up shop. I've said all that I've got to say about the publishing industry as a whole over the course of the last four months and other projects are starting to demand my attention.

I'd like to say that I am hopeful for the future of publishing, but the truth is that I can't even convince a GS-15 to send a four line email properly and he's just one person. In many ways, writers are worse than government employees - the phrase "herding cats" comes to mind.

I don't know that I have personally solved any of the many lingering problems that plague the industry, but I like to believe that there are a few more writers in the world who are putting some serious thought into what they are doing with their novels. Perhaps they are thinking differently, perhaps they are thinking constructively. Perhaps they are just thinking. In any case, I have a difficult time seeing new information as a bad thing and, in the end, that's all I have provided - new information. What the individual readers choose to do with that information is entirely up to them.

If you are looking for new bloggers to read in my absence, I would like to suggest Leo Stableford and the Grumpy Old Bookman, both of whom are far more prolific than I will ever be.

Attentive readers will note that there is still one thing left on my agenda that I have not quite completed: the reviews of the books that were submitted to me at the end of November. I have already emailed the various authors and explained the situation - at some point in the indeterminate future, I will be back to talk about these hopeful and patient men (and they are all men, curiously).

Until that happens, keep the faith and don't let the bastards get you down. But remember: if you want to be successful, you will have to do it yourself. That's the way the world has always worked. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Greater Utility

There is an old joke about a man who tries to fly a balloon around the world. At some point, the balloon crashes, leaving the man lying on his back in the middle of a field. Unwilling to move, he lies there until a woman walking her dog wanders past.

"Where am I?" he asks the woman.

"You're lying on your back in the middle of a field," she says.

"You must be an accountant," he says. (In some versions, she is an engineer.)

"How can you tell?"

"The information you provided was entirely accurate, but completely useless."

I mention this joke because it is the perfect metaphor for the kind of feedback that you can expect from the publishing industry, should you choose to submit your work. You will probably be told that your work is unmarketable, but that does not tell you if your work is good; the two terms are far from synonymous.

It is important to remember that submitting to the slush piles of the publishing world is an entirely voluntary process. There is no obligation to do so beyond basic tradition. But if you are going to follow tradition, it is important to think about the utility that is to be gained from obeisance.

In short, what does the individual writer gain from submission? The satisfaction of knowing that he has stoked the engines of the industry? A handful of lottery tickets? Honest feedback about how to make his work better?

A better question might be: What does the writer need? Followed closely by: How can that be achieved?

Without exception, every author needs a trusted feedback mechanism - someone to provide specific examples of where his work is not up to snuff and how that can be fixed. The kind of thinking that pretends that this kind of ongoing external critique is not needed leads directly to the likes of Anne Rice and George Lucas.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that many authors take criticism of their work far too personally. This makes a sort of perverse sense - writing a novel can take years of intense, solitary effort. For someone to step in at the end and point out that most of that effort was wasted can be a difficult blow to recoil from.

More, it is very common to use the creation to attack the creator, mostly because it is a very easy thing to do. Personally, I find this to be a lazy approach. It is far easier to wait until the author does something stupid and use that instead. Why attack David Eddings through his writing when you can just point out that the man burned down his office by lighting a pool of gasoline on fire to see if it would burn?

But just because I am able to separate the work from the worker does not mean that every critic is equally capable. That's why it is important to find a trusted source to provide feedback. Someone who knows your work, but is willing and able to tell you the truth.

Of course, this kind of active feedback requires the author's participation. All the criticism in the world means nothing if the writer is unwilling to accept it. It takes a determined man to ignore the opinions of everyone around him when he thinks he's right. It takes an even more determined man to listen carefully and do everything in his power to make his product the best it can be. I'll leave it to the reader to make the final decision about which is the wiser course of action.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

(Not Quite) The Final Word

When I started this blog, it was ostensibly for the purpose of making publishing better. Even the most optimistic individuals can see that publishing is in sad shape right now and it needs all the suggestions it can use, even half-assed ones from the likes of me. More importantly, like every other casually interested bystander, I had an opinion and I wanted to make sure it got heard.

Let me be the first to point out that my suggestions are heavily predicated on my viewpoint on the situation: I am a disgruntled writer, with my face pressed against the glass, looking in on a buyer’s market. As far as I’m concerned, there are rotting, diseased portions of the industry that are only surviving through sheer bloody-mindedness. Same as it ever was.

More pragmatically, it is increasingly obvious that there are major changes coming to the publishing industry and a large portion of the major players are completely unprepared – often to the point of denial. The source of change is not going to be the ongoing debate over self-publishing, nor is it going to be the creeping death of independent bookstores. The source of change is something far more insidious: indifference.

To illustrate my point, here's an article (one of many) about librarians and their increasing inability to convince young readers that books are worth reading. Think about that: librarians cannot give away their material for free. It is utterly depressing, but it is entirely believable; the internet has trained most readers to absorb their information in smaller, easier-to-digest doses. Books – sustained written narratives – are becoming an alien concept to all but a fringe group. If you read a book last year that wasn’t the Bible or the Koran, you are in the minority.

It is this inability to recognize the obvious that has hobbled the publishing industry as they continue to argue about how many science fiction movements can dance on the head of a ballpoint pen. In the meantime, a lot of the people producing the material that feeds the selective-but-continually-voracious engine are chasing the same dream that they’ve always chased: professional acceptance (which is really just a fancy way of saying “rich and famous”). Some are even so deluded as to believe that they can find it through other means: holes in the fence formed by cheap printing and even cheaper distribution.

Everyone’s chasing the same dream, but very few take the time to notice that the other people where they work don’t seem to be reading much. Readers tend to associate with other readers; more, readers tend to have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea of people who don’t read. It’s like a mental blind spot. But even as part of a fringe culture, it’s comforting to know that there are a lot of us. Walking into a Border’s is like walking into a safe place – a fragment of mainstream Western culture that still acknowledges the importance of books.

Even more comforting is the knowledge that books will never go away. It may be a fringe culture, but it’s a resilient one. Consider: the basic format of the book has endured for half a millennium. A bound tome is still the easiest way to read, store and transport written content above a certain size. Nobody reads books on the internet because it’s simply too difficult to read long passages of narrative on a monitor.

(Don’t believe me? Go to Project Gutenberg and resist the urge to hit print.)

At the same time, it will always be easier and more efficient to browse through books in person – which means that bookstores will always exist in one form or another. I’m waiting for the day that ten or twelve small publishers get together, buy an Espresso machine, rent a small storefront and print out their entire back catalogs. Any time someone buys a book, a new one gets printed and is put back on the shelf.

It’s a new twist on an old concept, but that’s what change brings. In fact, that’s the whole point of change: it does what it says on the tin. Of course, the worst part about change is that nobody really knows what happens after it arrives. That’s why people fear change – it is in our nature to fear that which we do not know. It’s a primal thing.

The people who fear change the most tend to be the ones with the most to lose. Institutions are usually right at the top of this list and, in our present purview, there is no institution within the industry larger than the massive publishing houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster. Intriguingly, those who should fear change the least are those with nothing to lose. In our idiom, these tend to be disenfranchised writers – those creative individuals who have been rejected, ignored or excised from the established order.

So the product will always exist and so will the marketplace. But will the market endure? Probably – as long as there are compulsive readers like me. It won’t look the way it does now, but that’s okay. As long as there are buyers and products, the internet will always find a way to bring them together. There will undoubtedly be relics of the current infrastructure scattered throughout the process, legacy structures that were too stubborn or valuable to disintegrate completely, but they may not have the same prominence they once held.

As with the current system, the most important part of the process will be the writer: the fuel that drives the rest of the supply chain. For all intents and purposes, the individual writer is the publishing industry. Lately, he has been conditioned to believe that he isn’t, but the facts are the facts. Publishing is simply the decision to bring a book to print. From that perspective, you can remove any individual from the publishing process and still get a book, except one. You cannot remove the writer and still have a book.

Someone will inevitably point out that the printer is pretty darned important, too, and I would agree. But publishing is not printing. Printing is printing. If publishing was printing, it would be called printing. That’s the way verbs work. More precisely, publishing is the decision to print. But you can very easily have a published work that is not printed, just as you can have works that are not marketed, edited or sold.

Publishers may offer marketing, editing and sales as benefits, but that does not make them integral parts of the decision to print. Ultimately, the decision to print comes from the individual writer, which is why I argue that writers are the publishing industry – or, at least, the only part that matters.

But as long as writers continue to follow the same well-worn path as the rest of the industry, they will always seek publication (or, failing consensus, publish themselves) for the same basic reasons. But fame and fortune are not merely a weak motivation for creating a final version of your work – they have become barely obtainable rewards.

And that’s where I came in. My goal was to offer the insights that I learned from my forays into publishing. The most important being the fact that I gave up on the dream of earning the same salary as a floor maintenance technician at Wal-Mart and now make over $50,000 a year as a government contractor. It was a largely pragmatic decision: I grew to enjoy having a roof over my head and the ability to eat when I got hungry.

But that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped writing – far from it. In fact, one of the reasons I’m wrapping things up here is that I have other projects demanding my attention. My drive to produce new material has not diminished, but my motivations have undergone a major sea change. I simply write because I have no choice. The final product is variable (because I am a capricious man), but selling it is less important than making sure that I am happy with the result.
It’s a pie-in-the-sky message for the writers who are engaged in the arduous process of justifying their decision to self-publish their first novels, but I don’t really care. Something about my words were compelling enough to contain the prolonged attention of some of you, which means that I struck a nerve somewhere.

And, in the end, that’s all that matters. The writers among you have been provoked. You have been warned, threatened, ridiculed and dismissed. Now you should go forth and find your own path. Change is afoot and, if you are creative enough, you might be able to come out ahead. Just what that means depends on who you are – the age of cookie cutter solutions to writers is passing (if, indeed, it ever really existed in the first place).

Be a unique and delicate snowflake, even if that means you should be prepared to melt away at a moment’s notice. Just remember that lots of snowflakes together tend to effect change, whether they want to or not.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I Wish I'd Thought of That

Here are some things that I have run across recently that really make me wish I'd said them first.

I disagree with much of what Zadie Smith says in this essay, but I believe that she makes a good point: chances are very good that you will fail at whatever literary endeavor you put your mind to. The important part about that failure is the admonition to fail better. Strive to overcome your limitations and do not be dismayed about your inevitable lack of success.

If you are not reading the Grumpy Old Bookman, then you are missing out on some choice commentary. He recently went through Lulu's publishing process with one of his mid-length works, just to see how it all worked. His conclusion is that self-publishing your novel in this way is not likely to set the world on fire. However, this is a good way to produce a calling-card book. Or even just a book that you can hold in your hands.

He also points out that it is possible to use the self-publishing model to get incrementally better at writing and promotion. Publish one book, see how it does, then refine your technique. After all, you have nothing to lose by doing so.

Finally, Simon & Schuster are using to host a writing competition that uses the existing community to rate the quality of the books that have been submitted. It's not a new idea, by any stretch of the imagination. The Frontlist, for example, already does something similar. Still, as ideas go, it's time has definitely come.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Leaving the Dream

Most of us have heard the Beatles single Paperback Writer, even if only as a Muzak cover while shopping for chinos in Target. The lyrics to this song are, in my opinion, the quintessential depiction of the myth of the paperback writer.

Paper back writer (paperback writer)
Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It's based on a novel by a man named Lear
And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

It's the dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn't understand.
His son is working for the Daily Mail,
It's a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

Paperback writer (paperback writer)

It's a thousand pages, give or take a few,
I'll be writing more in a week or two.
I can make it longer if you like the style,
I can change it round but I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer.

Paperback writer (paperback writer)

Paperback writer - paperback writer
Paperback writer - paperback writer

Sounds like every query letter parody you’ve ever read, doesn’t it? It has all the elements: give me a break, I worked really hard on this, I can change it if you like, it could make you a million, let me please quit my job.

What I love about this is that it shows how widespread the myth of the paperback writer really is. It is so pervasive that a songwriter was able to write a pop song about the process that rose to number one and that was forty years ago. People still identify with it today. They can relate to this kind of dream.

And no wonder. If you think about it, this is a universal concept. At some point, everyone looks towards the horizon and thinks “just you wait.” We all want to believe that we have some secret (or not so secret) thing that makes us better than the people around us. We are all the secret god-kings of our own private universes and if you think I’m just talking about writers, then you have no idea how close to the surface absolute desperation lurks in the average man on the street.

But we are writers. We’ve read about quiet desperation and we know that we have the means to overcome it, not just in ourselves, but in those around us. That’s what the best kinds of art accomplish, after all – it transforms the mundane and mediocre and make them magically other. All we need is that chance, that opportunity, that lucky break.

You see how easy it is to buy into the myth? A couple of pretty sentences, the orchestra swells and suddenly you are the authorial equivalent of Luke Skywalker watching the twin suns of Tatooine set while life goes on somewhere else – someplace that you are not. It’s enough to make you sigh and want to move to Cozumel.

The truth is, however, that writing is just like every other job. If you are exceedingly lucky, you can find yourself in a decent situation that you (sort of) like, but doesn’t pay the rent. Or you can find yourself in a shitty situation that still doesn’t really pay the rent. Or you could find yourself in a position that doesn’t pay for much of anything at all.

Because you have chosen to follow the dream of the paperback writer, though, chances are that you will find yourself wrapped up in a newer, more adult, more neurotic version of the “get me out of here, I’m dying” dream that you had when you were in high school. The difference is that there is no graduation date built into life. You pretty much have to take things into your own hands and learn to stop complaining because you haven’t done anything but nobody has bothered to recognize your genius yet.

The important part about the myth of the paperback writer is recognizing it before it sets in. You are a writer. That means that you are expected to be self-conscious about your surroundings. You are practically instructed to be observant and to pay attention. And if you do not have the presence of mind to comprehend your situation as you lapse into an unintentionally ironic version of the mythic journey, there’s not a lot of hope for you.

But eventually, you will realize that following the myth of the paperback writer is the authorial equivalent of bukkake, with you as the victim. And you really have to ask: Why would you put yourself in that position?

So what is the alternative? The alternative is to work hard at your writing and get good. Don’t worry about the validation of the professionals. Put your work in the hands of the only people that matter – the readers. If you cannot do that directly, figure out a way to do that. Be creative and, if you cannot be sufficiently creative, then take the hint and pack it in.

If you cannot be part of the solution, then you are worse than just another part of the problem - you are a stereotype. And nobody wants to be a stereotype. More importantly, nobody wants to buy a book from someone who is indistinguishable from a poorly drawn version of a stereotype.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I Told You There Would Be a Quiz

Pop quiz, hotshot. A literary agent calls you up and tells you that you have been offered an absurdly high advance of $11,000 for your first novel. What is your response? Yes or no?

Well, what is your alternative? Sleeping soundly at night, confident in the knowledge that you were once offered five figures for a work of your fiction? Going on to self-publish your own work on your terms, never earning quite that amount of money over the course of fifteen years? Something in between? None of the above?

The truth is that it could go in a lot of different directions. And, while it is important to look at the what-ifs for a negative response, it is just as important to look at what happens when you say “yes.”

So you are paid $11,000. First, your agent gets 15%. She’s the one that sealed the deal, she gets her cut. Standard business practice.

Second, hold on to the rest of that money. It’s going to have to last you for a while. Investing in something practical, like credit card debt, would probably be a good thing right about now.

You probably have no audience or prior sales figures, so the advance you earned was pretty much just a guess. It was based on some thumbnail comparisons – looking at which books yours is like and figuring out how many copies of those books sold. So it was an educated guess, but still… well, a guess.

The truth is that nobody in the publishing house or literary agency really knows for sure how many of your books will sell. The market is simply too idiosyncratic to gauge effectively. Marketing research is done, if you mean “checking to see which books sold last year and comparing the numbers of copies sold over time.”

(Yes, industry professionals are aware that this method of market research is akin to imputing Viet Cong casualties from complex formulas that include number of bombs dropped, time of day and estimated traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. No, actual readers are rarely surveyed directly. That would be so… conventional.)

But anyway. Your novel. Someone guessed and figured that you would just about hit the over/under at 13,000 copies sold. And because the average return rate is about 40%, the initial print run of your novel will be say 20,000 copies. Maybe 18,000. No, 20,000 is a nicer, rounder number. 20,000 copies of your novel are printed.

Somebody didn’t do the math right. It’s okay – they’re still learning. Your agent assures you that you will be fine as long as you earn out your advance. You only need to sell 11,000 copies of your novel. To an audience that doesn’t know who you are. Your name may be on the cover of your book, but that doesn't save you from anonymity.

To be honest, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how to get out of that situation with your publishing career intact. But you can take consolation in two things: 1. you were a real writer – professionally published and everything 2. that guy who made the mathematical mistake? He’ll learn from that and go on to have a thriving career. Don’t worry about him because he certainly won’t be worried about you.

So it’s pop quiz time, hotshot. Do you take that $11,000 check and gamble that the industry professionals know what they’re doing?

What do you do?

What do you do?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Unpublished Novel is Not Worth Reading

In the past week and a half, the following things happened: I got a raise, I almost got a four day weekend, I had to deal with a security breach on my day off, I had an anniversary dinner with my wife and I was instructed to revamp a process that involves nine sub-contractors and an annual throughput of several million dollars. I’m not sure that you care about any of this, but it’s the only explanation that I have for my absence.

I had an entire essay written out, but I decided not to share it with you. One of the things that I pointed out was that promoting your own work by denigrating the work of others usually reveals your own insecurities far better than it highlights the weaknesses of your target.

Taking my own advice was an easy decision to make. After all, it is not necessary to publish everything.

Nobody ever listens to that advice when it’s given: don’t publish everything. It’s an easy mistake to make and a lot of writers (especially young ones) take what they consider to be the path of least resistance. They don’t know that friction is a good thing because it forces them to figure out solutions to problems that they didn’t consider.

The lack of shame can be liberating, but we are the harshest critics towards ourselves – especially in retrospect. The rule of thumb is that the first novel is always terrible. There is simply no way around this, so it’s best to simply accept the fait accompli and move on. Write another one, and another. If you are dedicated to your writing, you will continue to learn from your mistakes and get good.

Eventually, you will go back to your early novels and you will cringe. This is a good thing. As soon as you are embarrassed by your first novel, you are ready to start thinking about publishing one of your better ones.

If you are skilled enough to create an audience for your work, you may actually get requests for your early work. This is unlikely, but it could happen. Only then should you think about publishing it. You don’t have to, though – part of the fun of being a writer lies in having an apocrypha.