Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Having Fun as an Author

In the fear that perhaps my last post was seen as a negative posting, or discouraging, I thought I would muse for a moment on why it is “fun” to be an author.

One temptation is to say something like “you can set your own hours.”  Well, yeah, you can, but the caveat to that is “make sure there is some creative writing every day, for five days a week.”

First, a distinction between “writing” and being an “author.” I personally feel this distinction is huge and important (hmm, hugely important?). Jeb, in my last post made some good points that it is easy to make a career writing (or surrounding the concept of writing) and included Copy Editing, editing other people’s work, and even PowerPoint presentations.

This broad classification covers, in my opinion, 100% of all white collar jobs in the U.S.! I want to discuss creative writing using the same definitions that creative writing programs use.

Fundamentally, I am talking about the author as an artist.

You are creating works of art. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Think about it every single day.

The “fun” in being an author is the passion. Taking an idea an expressing it in such a way that it moves someone, even if that someone is yourself. I have written scenes or short stories that were fiction, but moved me to tears, or at least a voice crack when reading out loud.

From all observations, those same stories didn’t move anyone in the same way.

It didn’t matter.

The fun was in creating something that stirred my passions. Of choosing the right words that I responded to. It felt right—to me.

Do I want to move someone else? Of course. We all want to touch someone else. But, first we have to be in touch with ourselves. This is the fun of writing. Most authors can talk about the rush, the high, when the words come tumbling out and the you can’t type (or write on your pad of paper) fast enough to capture it. That is fun.

Creative.The key word in an MFA in Creative Writing. To bring into being. Playing God.

The creative writer is the only role I can think of where you get to fully play God. I use the capital on god, because it is you. Alone. (For now, let’s ignore collaborative efforts). The CEO of a company does not have as much control as an author does over her/his universe. There are no limits, other than your imagination. That is fun. Don’t ignore it.

As a god, or The God, of the universe you are creating (I almost said on paper. We need a new metaphor in the digital age.), you then have to ask yourself “why I am creating this?” What are my goals? Usually, those include influencing another universe. The one you live in. To do that, you no longer can do anything. You are subject to their thinking. This forces the rewrite and the edit. It was fun wildly creating your own universe, but now you are expanding your horizons to include influencing other universes. Which ones will you touch? What effect will you have on them?

The philosophical question may be does it matter, shouldn’t you be true to yourself? Isn’t that what art is about? Sure, but powerful art is different.Now the fun is not the initial creation, but the power rush of knowing you touched at least one other person.

So, forget the money! Be a god!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How Much does a Novelist Really Make?

Before really delving into this, one needs to think about why you would write a novel in the first place.

Do you horseback ride? How much do you get paid for that? Do you ride a bike? How much do you get paid for that? Play an instrument? Read? Go to restaurants?

You get the idea. You should not be in this primarily, or secondarily, for the money. Sure you might get lucky and get paid to read books, or write restaurant reviews. But, what are the odds? You really won’t get paid to write.

It has been said, ad nauseam, that writing novels (or fiction in general) is a labor of love, not economics. You get it, you say. You still want to know how much the average novelist makes.

Very, very, little. No benefits and other costs add up.  Your average “midlist” novelist, who has not been picked up by a large publisher makes $4,000 per book—before expenses!  Note I said midlist also. Midlist means you have some name recognition. Per book can be spread out over multiple years. You will make in the hundreds with your first book at a tiny press. If you are lucky. It may only be in the tens or twenties. With the economies of books these days double digits is not all bad.

Your first book is both a labor of love and a learning experience. Second books are applying the learning and proving you really love the work. Third book you are telling the world you are serious about this. If you are serious about making this into a career, remember the 10,000 hour rule. The corollary for career in writing is don’t get excited until you sold your first 10,000 books—in one year.

You will see some other averages out there, such as U.S. department of statistics on authors. That includes ALL authors, including salaried authors (e.g. full time employees of Time Magazine). That average is $10,000 per year. Remember, this is the average that includes authors who get paychecks and includes the Stephen Kings of the world! Those making a comfortable living are rare and they put out multiple books per year, for tens of years.

So you want to be a writer? Tell me why—and don’t quit your day job!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Should the “free market” determine publishing?

This thinking “out loud” on the nature and future of book publishing vis-à-vis the free market may drag into two blog entries, as the subject is complex. I apologize ahead of time to both of my readers.

Salon recently had a blog entry calling for government intervention in publishing under the aegis of protecting culture, by Scott Timberg. Scott has some very valid points and, as is my wont, I feel compelled to comment. It is, after all, a subject near and dear to writers and independent publishers.

The United States has a fanatical religious belief in the free market system, despite the fact that we have no real free markets and the financial crisis of 2008 was in no small part created by freer markets. I know many of my libertarian friends cringe at the thought of the government being involved in anything other than defense and infrastructure. However, even Alan Greenspan, one of the most powerful disciples of Ayn Rand, the icon of libertarianism admits he was wrong in thinking that the invisible hand would work. As a side, snarky, note I would mention that Ayn Rand in her later/last years signed up for Social Security and Medicare.She was also a vocal homophobe, called Arabs savages, and felt there was no moral issue with taking the land from Native Americans. But, I digress.

A truly free market would have no protections against monopolies and monopolistic actions. It was a Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt, who put in place most of the Trust Busting legislation and created the Department of Commerce and Labor. Under his leadership, 44 suits were filed against monopolies.

Rural electricity, telephone service, and paved roads are all due to government regulation. Not only that, they exist due to redistribution. Generally speaking, for every dollar of taxes collected in a rural area, that area receives 1.5 dollars in benefits. No free market there, yet we accept the need for these sorts of redistributions.

Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina also reminds us that redistribution of funds are important for the nation as a whole.

Anyone with a credit card,if they think about it, enjoys the protection of government regulation.

But, what about culture? Does that require special protections? Who can forget the Big Bird debate in the presidential debates? Does publishing fall under the same area? Should we let the “free market” determine what is published, how many publishers exist, and which authors get published? Where does culture fit in the free market religion of the United States?

If you are a sports fan, you accept government protections. Baseball and football have special protections as monopolies, they generally receive public funding, huge public funding in fact. A pure libertarian would argue against it, but most supposedly free market Americans either put up with it, or embrace it. There is sometimes an argument that this makes economic sense, but that has been disproved time and time again. It is also, to be honest, a pure government “picking winners and losers” to pull from the presidential debates again. We, as a society, pick winners and losers with the government every single day and don’t object to it (remember the earlier comment on rural power, telephone, Internet service, roads, etc.).

Sports are part of our culture. What about books? Scott Timberg correctly points to the technology of book publishing as one of the major factors pushing the remaining publishers to merge. The other is Amazon, which I have commented on in the past. Doesn’t easy, cheap, publishing by anyone open up the free market? Don’t we all believe in the free market as the best way to do something?

In a word, No. I already gave a number of examples where the free market is ignored and we embrace it. Is patent protection free market, or interference? When does that protection stop making sense? Should “one click checkout” be patent protected, as Amazon claimed years ago?

Is it good for every single author on the planet to be published? Should every single person who wants to sell food be allowed to, without health inspections? Seems like interference in the free market. Let people die of food poisoning and the free market will shut the person down (until they open a new shop, under a new name). Yes, I know, that is over the top. That is talking about health, not culture. Culture has nothing to do with health.

Does it?

Stealing directly from Timberg’s article:

These developments all come just a few months after the Department of Justice decision that ruled in favor of Amazon and against five publishers and Apple, whom it accused of colluding to fix prices for e-books. On the surface, this ruling keeps prices lower. But as media watcher David Carr wrote in the New York Times after the April ruling, there’s a high cost paid for the low prices. The DoJ, he argues, went after the wrong monopoly, since Amazon controls somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the e-book market (and controlled roughly 90 percent in 2010). “That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil,” he wrote, “but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead.”

Blocking the publishers from setting prices seems, at first, like a victory for the customer.

“But pull back a few thousand feet,” Carr writes, “and take a broader look at the interests of consumers. From the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate. It leaned on the Independent Publishers Group in recent months for better terms and when those negotiations didn’t work out, Amazon simply removed the company’s almost 5,000 e-books from its virtual shelves. The Seattle Times just published a series with examples of how Amazon uses its scale not only to keep its prices low, but also to keep its competitors at bay.”

Free market does not always mean good things for the consumer.

But, one woman’s culture is another ones garbage. Who picks culture?

Publishers do, sort of. Seven out of ten books lose money. Publishers are saying this SHOULD be good. This SHOULD be popular. Amazon (and other self publishing organizations) says, “I don’t care if this makes money, for the author, if I aggregate it with a million more, I make money. If this is all I present to the consumer they have to accept it.” Really, ironically, hyper-competition reduces quality innovation. Really good books, well edited, well screened, will end up costing more, not less.  Think about this like a startup. Startups have a good idea and pitch the concept. The concept gets angel investing. Angel investors know that 9 out of 10 of their investments will fail, but take a chance on the hope of big pay offs on the 1.  Venture capitalists step in and pick “winners” out of those that already made the angel investment round. Venture capitalists also have a rather hit or miss record on choosing winners. Bain Capital and Mitt Romney, for instance, had a much worse record in choosing successful companies than the U.S. government, despite the rhetoric in the debates on this.

With less and less publishers surviving, this is like less and less venture capitalists. It is a free for all at the lowest levels. Amazon is a marketplace. It makes it easy to participate in the market place, but it is nothing more than a marketplace. It makes money on transactions, fundamentally. Why should Amazon care if the book is good, or bad? (Actually, it should and it is starting too, but that is part of a long, long, term strategy, more on that another day).

Small publishers are more like angel investors. We know that 9 out of 10 of our titles will not make it big, but we are willing to risk time/money making all ten of them better and hoping the public agrees with one out of the ten.

Back to funding culture. To steal again from Timberg:

This could all lead to a silver lining for some parties: Lean, mean presses with focused missions – Graywolf, Seven Stories, Milkweed, New Directions – could do OK as publishing shrinks and six majors becomes three. “Poetry, translation, literary,” Silverberg says of the kind of boutique presses that could thrive. “They know their audiences better than they ever have.”

As wonderful as these presses are, they tend to give very small or nonexistent advances. Much of their funds come from philanthropy, the NEA and state or local arts agencies, and that money rises or falls with political leadership, tax codes and other variables.

Small focused presses get some trickle of money from federal, state, and local arts agencies. Not much and only a few of  them (the presses) get even that little. And, there is no protection, for example, on prices, or access to markets.Not really. Amazon could say, overnight, all publishers of more than 10 books must pay an access fee. Boom.

Europe does much to protect culture and Germany, in particular, does much to protect the book business as a whole, creating more diversity that actually makes a living.

Unfortunately, in the U.S, I tend to agree with Ira Silverberg, a veteran editor and agent now serving as director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts.“I think we’re beyond cultural policy at this point, because capitalism trumped it. There’s not even a battle to be fought there.”

He later goes on to say, “It’s five or 10 years until we’ll know what the industry is going to be.”

I actually think it may be as little as 2 to 5 years.

If funding culture in the U.S. is a non-starter, I do wonder how much Europe and China will begin to influence the culture here. After all, if well edited, carefully chosen books all come out of Europe, than than maybe it is no surprise that Harry Potter and 50 Shades and Dragon Tattoo didn’t originate here, in the U.S. I don’t know if this is bad, or good, but I know I will miss the quality of diversity in culture, if the trend continues. By quality, I don’t mean the quality of writers, I mean the quality of books, which is a different thing—no matter what the format (eBook, print, audio).

Most of the quotes in this blog were taken from the fore mentioned Timberg/Salon article and it is well worth reading that in its entirety.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Amazon’s Disruption–Some Cracks, but Going Strong

This week started with two eminent sources discussing books and the book business.

The New York Times had a two (digital) page article on  Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption (published Sunday, Nov 4) and Charlie Rose, on public television, had a 30 minute discussion entitled  A discussion about the history and future of books, which also aired November 4. It’s a vast conspiracy theory (two major articles in one day)! No, but people are noticing the disruption more and more.

Both, not surprisingly, discussed how much of a player and disruptor Amazon is. I know, old news, right?

Sort of.

Technology and technology adoption moves fairly quickly, especially as one enters the handle of the hockey stick of adoption curves. The hockey stick for technology adoption is simple to visualize, Units on the Y-axis, Time on the X-axis. The total units goes up very slowly for a period of time and then shoots upward, making a line graph, or area graph, look like a hockey stick.

We are on the hockey stick “handle” of the graph for eBooks and the technology adoption over all (think tablets). But, we are still near the base of that handle. Things are changing every month, so it is worthwhile visit the topic monthly.

The head of rare books at Yale (if you have not been in the rare book library at Yale, it is very interesting building, with no windows, but thin sheets of marble that let in filtered light) notes that the vocabulary by many at the birth of print and type concerning “the death of books” (referring to those written by hand) and the worry at that time on how books could be “widely available” and put out by almost anyone is virtually the same angst as we hear now about eBooks, Wikipedia, and similar technologies. We all resist change, it is in our nature. Things haven’t changed there. I like that even the very first edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published by his friends, had in the first pages, do whatever you want with this book, but first, Buy it. Below is a snip from the Charlie Rose show and the Shakespeare book.


In other words, we know that authors and publishers and Amazon are trying to make money. Even if sometimes that money is very small.

There is some celebration that Amazon published books are not accepted and do not become best sellers. It is sort of like celebrating, when you get older, that you lived another year. Worth some celebration, but death is still there. Waiting.

Amazon is nothing, if not stupid. Since its inception, it has always taken a “patience” as long as we grow attitude. They are still growing. (Not, by the way, at a rate that justifies their price, but that story is covered other places). Still, the small publishers around the world have just a tiny bit of schadenfreude (I just like that word, the only thing close in English was also stolen: epichairekakia, which doesn’t quite role off the tongue). We like that the authors who deserted other publishers and went to Amazon thinking this was their ticket are, well, not doing quite as well as they might have expected. Shadenfreude. Yup, I admit it. As the New York Times article said (emphasis added).

Crown, a division of Random House, took on Mr. Ferriss in 2007, after more than two dozen publishers said no to him. “Crown put in a lot of effort to promote those books,” Mr. Petrocelli said. “He decided to walk away. That’s his decision to make but I can’t say I applaud it. I think writers should be supportive of publishers that are supportive of them.”

Obviously, to a point. Not blind loyalty, but a certain partnership.

I tend to agree with Jane Friedman’s statement on Charlie Rose that books represent civilization, but they have to be both convenient to consume and affordable. The format for that does not matter per se. However, I do agree that the greater good that the act of buying and selling books once provided does matter with format. There was a bit of the Italian/French “salon” effect with your local bookstore and even at Barnes and Noble. Browsing. Talking. Sitting down and thinking. That may be replaced by something else, but certainly the act of buying and selling an eBook does not include that. Of course this was fading prior to eBooks. The salon effect of buying a book at Wal-Mart or Target is rather minimal. It is all part of that hockey stick.

What the panel on Charlie Rose did discuss that I will also, no doubt, return to again is whether enhanced books (e.g. embedded video) will displace the traditional book—for the eBook is a traditional book right now. It is simply another format.

Returning to the current lack of success by authors going through Amazon’s publishing imprints. Things are changing and these early “big name” authors that are partnering with Amazon are speeding up the change. It would be foolish to imagine that Amazon won’t adopt (any bets on small brick-and-mortar Amazons that allow returns and pickups?). Until then, small publishers and independent booksellers (which now include Barnes and Noble) can gloat with a little bit of malice. Shadenfreude and independent booksellers and publishers live on, for another year, but watch out, we are on the hockey stick handle!

Friday, November 2, 2012

When Elephants, or 800lb Gorillas Move, Things Get Crushed.

There is an interesting article out on Amazon’s response to “sock puppet” reviews (Amazon Freaks Out). I have ranted in the past that there is no great system for book reviews that includes small publishers, self-publishers, and in particular eBook only publishing. One of those issues was “sock puppet” reviews, but as the article notes, that is a relatively small part of the problem. My bigger problem is, as I have stated before, that the reviewers as a whole are a mixed bag. They are not professional reviewers. Yeah, you have the whole “top NNN reviewer” tag, but that does not tell you anything, not really.

The article delves into the large number of “real” reviews that were “accidently” deleted as part of Amazon’s new automated system to prevent sock puppet reviews. Even some of their “top reviewers” were deleted.

That soapbox on the general value of Amazon reviews is one I will no doubt return to. My thought when reading the Freak Out article was more along the lines that “hey, this matches my blog tag line.”

Amazon is simply getting too big. When I was there a scant few years ago, there was already grumbling amongst the employees that it was getting too big and changing. At the time it was déjà vu from my early days at Microsoft in the early 1990s. The employees realized the company was too big.  How long before customers realize it? Customers who care, I should say. Many customers won’t care. They don’t care along the same lines as the majority who do give up various freedoms and rights don’t care in the name of security. As Franklin said, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”  Those who give up quality and personal service for quantity and low price deserve neither. Yeah, I know, a weak analogy and a poor metaphor. It just popped into my head. Blogs are about stream of consciousness. (I wonder how Kerouac would do in the 21st Century).

Amazon is a retail company that sometimes masquerades as a technology company. They are constantly looking for ways to shave off milliseconds on the web experience, automate the catalogs, and in general avoid ever dealing with a person face to face, voice to voice, or directly email to email. Let’s be honest, they have to with the volumes they do. They will do so more and more, to achieve the volumes they are aiming for. And, make no mistake about it. They will do this in publishing and book selling as much as any other part of their business.

And most of the world won’t care.

So, the article on Amazon does miss the point. When it asks “Is this really what Amazon and these authors want -- people less willing to review books they read?” The response is Amazon and the customers who buy books really don’t care. They should, but they don’t.

Amazon is becoming Google in that respect. We stopped dealing with Google for books long ago. The system was terrible for selling ebooks (they failed three times) and you never, ever, could get ahold of a real person as an author, or publisher. Amazon has not figured out that it has a LOT of different customers. Authors, publishers, sellers on their system, users of their cloud services, on demand printing, Audible, audio and video content owners, games and programs, and on and on. In the end Amazon will focus on volume and sacrifice some customers for others, in order to grow and get a tiny bit more revenue per transaction. Because, they are still a retailer. Their margins are still in the mid-single digits. It’s all about volume.

So, where does this rant lead? Same old soapbox. Watch out when dancing with the Elephant, whether you are a author, a publisher, a reviewer, or a customer. Elephants cause damage when they stumble. Authors get crushed. But, nobody really seems to care, as long as the price of that next book is 50 cents to a dollar lower.  Hey, with about five to ten books you could buy a latte on those savings. You know that latte that provides you with many hours of satisfaction….

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Another small restaurant opened—another one closed

And what the hell does that have to do with writing and publishing?

I tend to make strange connections in both my writing and in business, which is one of the reasons I like Freakonomics.  My observation is that there is a similarity between my observation of how many small restaurants open for business and then go belly up and writing (and publishing).

A huge number of really smart and often successful people try and open a restaurant. Have you noticed the number of celebrities who open up restaurants? New immigrants? “Retired” business men and women? Others? It’s the low barrier to entry. You really don’t need any special skills to open a restaurant, nor do you need huge amounts of capital (some, but not huge).

You do work your ass off. If you are a great chef, your odds of a favorable review go up and this increases your odds of success, but neither guarantee success.

Yeah, you’re smart. You are starting to see the analogy (imperfect though it may be). In a down economy I actually see more restaurants starting up, not less.  And more of them fold. The competition heats up. Randomness, like location, or some gimmick help determine success.

What makes for a great restaurant? (You figure out the application to authors, I trust your intelligence).

There are inspired chefs, who never had training and are still just incredible and there are those who go to culinary school and are technically really good, but something is missing and there are those who have both the training and inspiration to some degree. The little restaurant in the neighborhood I used to live in was run by an Czech woman who had 1 item on the lunch menu each day, 1 soup, and a choice of pastries.  She made them all herself. Very nice, food. Seating for 4 total. ToGo available. You were never going to find French food there. The food was plain, simple, but Czech (similar to German or Austrian). The restaurant folded, but fortunately because her pastries were doing so well she concentrated on those and sold them at farmers markets (this is all in Seattle).

She found her niche and she stuck to it. She concentrated on her strength and never got formal training. She is never going to get rich, but she makes a living.

What all these successful restaurateurs have in common is that they work hard, they are professional, and they either perfect their niche, or they are constantly experimenting. New fusion of old ideas.  After all, food has been around forever, how many new ideas can there be? Yeah, same thing with stories and novels.

What strikes me is that in a down economy, there is less of a market for restaurants – less people eating out – yet more restaurants than ever are opening. And closing. The restaurants that are successful in a down economy are not exactly the same as those in an up economy. Cheap is good. Simple. Comfort food. Value. The smart restaurateur will adapt. Some will open up another restaurant, with a different theme. You might not even know they were owned by the same person. Many, seven out of eight, will go bankrupt. Many owners will try again.

Colonel Sanders, as many know, didn’t get successful (really successful) until he was almost 50 and he started out serving food out of his gas station. Ironically, his path to success really started in the great depression. It wasn’t until he was 65 that he, due to failure, managed to get franchises going.

So, in this down economy, be aware that there will be more, not less competition, and what you serve may need to change over time, but you can still be successful.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Reason 100 why editors/agents don’t bother with personal rejections

The other month I gave a detailed explanation as to what I thought might be wrong with a manuscript and why we were rejecting it. This included typos, repetitive sentences, and some flawed research on the first five pages. Yet, at the kernel was a good idea.

My thought in writing the personal rejection, that included pointing out these issues, was that perhaps this writer had never submitted before, had never had a personalized rejection, and indeed may not have researched how to submit. I was trying to be encouraging.

I failed miserably. 

The reaction from the author was fast and vitriolic. Why couldn’t I just say “no,” he asked. I didn’t have to, as he said, “write a novel rejecting me.” The swear words were liberally sprinkled in the response.

Now, we deal almost exclusively with email. This tends to be a rapid response medium, with often no thinking before hitting send. I have been as guilty as anyone of this. I will assume that some of this came from the author reacting and not thinking.

That said, no editor is going to feel any reward from this sort of response and the reaction will be “the more I get these, the less personal my responses will be.”

Really, this is a long winded way of saying, take any detail in a response from an editor as something valuable. If ten minutes went into that response, plus the time it took to read the query and the first pages, then you are getting something of value. Thank the agent, or editor, for their time.  Don’t demand more of their time. Don’t get angry at the rejection.

Detail means something moved the agent or editor to actually pause and write! Take it and use it! Don't take it out on the person trying to help.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Genre Labels

Some MFA programs divide their students into Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry and label those as the genres they teach in.  To most of us genre is more granular and usually in the fiction domain.

Genres can be useful, but in postmodern literature (a label, perhaps a genre) they can simultaneously be misleading. Yet, many publishers and agents demand a genre label and even consider a good query letter one where the author understands their genre.

This really points more to the desperation of both agents and publishers to make marketing easy. OK, not so much easy, but easier and streamlined, and to some extent self-fulfilling.

As I go through the submissions each week, I try and avoid putting any manuscript into a firm genre category.  Yet, even as I avoid the traditional genre labels, I consciously have started to sort manuscripts by internal labels. Maybe they are “New Libri Genres.” This internal sorting matches up new manuscripts with our existing set of books. I am looking for patterns. Why? Because we have limited bandwidth, limited resources, and accepting manuscripts that have something in common with the READER of our existing manuscripts helps. Readers include reviewers. If I send a book to a reviewer who reviewed five our books, she will probably review the sixth one expecting it to have some commonality.

Yet, one of my favorite diatribes is the label science fiction, or fantasy. Why isn’t Never Let Me Go labeled a “science fiction?” Because Kazuo Ishiguro hates that label. He and his publisher know that the label will turn off prior readers of Remains of the Day. Despite staying away from the label the book was short listed for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Simultaneously, would Time Magazine have picked it as the best book of 2005 if it had been marketed at Science Fiction? Probably not.

Sure, the label “Science Fiction” has gained considerable credibility over the years, but it is still generally considered a literary smear.

In the Fantasy realm, the literary cop out is to label it Magical Realism. Gene Wolfe--considered by many to be one of America’s best writers (though far from the most popular even within Fantasy/Science Fiction)—famously said Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish.

Yet, the label is useful.  If you hear magical realism, you probably won’t be picking up Twilight! The label is a short cut. It is useful if it is understood. The problem is with those books that you miss out on because you rely on the shortcut. “You” includes the agent, the publisher and the reader. Or, if you pick something up just because of the label. For instance the excellent book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, has some interesting reviews on Amazon.  A significant number of people gave it one star. If you dig into those reviews, they hated the ending. If you dig into this some more you wonder if they read the descriptions and the labels.  It is a retelling of Hamlet and a good number of the critical reviewers hated that everyone died at the end (time to read Hamlet people). But, I think additionally, the label Magical Realism should have been applied. The other readers who hated it seemed to gravitate to the technique that David Wroblewski uses of magic, visions, ghosts, and potions. These were in Hamlet and fit in the Magical Realism sub-genre. The magic is just there. It is not brooded over. Readers might then have accepted it. Of course the issue was that the book also had one additional label: Oprah.  Oprah highlighted this book.

She also highlighted The Road. A post apocalypse novel, McCarthy certainly did not embrace the term “science fiction.” I would venture that many Oprah fans were also surprised at how dark the book was and the label as an Oprah book mislead them.

So, don’t ignore labels, but supplement them. The best way to supplement labels for books is to read a lot of them.  Then you can use the comparison label: This book is a magical realist permutation on Hamlet, with the feel of of Gene Wolf and Cormac McCarthy. A tragedy with characters that will haunt you for days. Now that will get me to read a few pages at least!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stealing a headline: Can Publishing Really Be Replaced by a Button?

This headline came from Book Business in a “blurb” to promote a virtual publishing business conference. It is the topic Rory O’Connor will speak on at his keynote address.

I suppose I am a broken record on this (yes, the anachronism of “record” is intentional). The answer is “yes” if you feel publishing is simply making your writing available to random people.  Of course that was true when the first web page was put up, 21 years ago. Yeah, e-readers have changed things, but the concept isn’t all that much different, just the scale of adoption.

The question isn’t really “can it” but “should it” and “will it.”

I have been pretty blunt on the “should it” in past postings. It shouldn’t: for quality reasons, for author bandwidth reasons, for filtering reasons, and for editorial reasons. Market forces may ignore all those reasons. The market doesn’t give a damn about critics. It really doesn’t give a damn about whether authors (or publishers) make money or not. In the end, it may not even care whether Amazon exists or not.

Hell, Google (or Bing) could simply put out a standard that anyone with a webpage can post a compliant ePub and links to a payment system and Google (Bing) would have a special search (say “<genre>” or “<author>”) and all books show up in the search, with their cover and price and a way to buy it. No Amazon. No B&N. No publisher.

Note to patent trolls. This idea is now “public.”

Think of this as the Amazon model in extreme. Amazon already deals with spam books (same book published over and over with different names, a few paragraphs changed etc.) There is already no quality control on CONTENT (forget the formatting, that is easy).

What will happen, if we go this route (and it is certainly possible), is that publishing will actually become a marketing agency for the very successful authors.

This is an extension of the “minor league” theory thrown out in yesterday’s blog. The new “marketing publisher” will simply troll the eco-system and see what is selling above a certain level. No real regard to quality. No need to publish “risky” books at all. No wasted advances. Focus only on what is already selling and promote the hell out of it. University presses may still put out a few as budget permits, ensuring some quality for specialized niches.

What’s the difference between that model and the current model, you may say. The current model allows publishers to subsidize many new authors and take a chance on them. The current model also allows small publishers to focus on their passions and grow their niche. The new model encourages authors to self publish and this eliminates the need and the opportunity for a publisher. The consumer may not really care, if current trends hold true. The average author may not care either. Writing is usually a passion, not a method of making a lot of money. Under this model a lot of authors will make a little money, more authors will make almost a living, and mega authors will continue to exist, but will be a more volatile group (i.e. the members of the group will change more frequently than currently). I can’t say this is bad per se, but I feel that the quality by yesterday’s standards will decrease as a statistical average (certainly produced, but also consumed).

So, yes, it can be replaced by a button. I hope it doesn’t, but if I have learned anything in 22 years in technology, hope has little to do with things. Neither does the best “technology.” The market will move in its own direction. Along the way, I hope we can publish (as a publisher!) a few good books and maybe as time permits I can write a few too! If you are an author: Enjoy The Ride, I expect turbulence ahead.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Response to “Publishing is Broken” blog.

I read an excellent blog/article today on

Publishing Is Broken, We're Drowning In Indie Books - And That's A Good Thing

This is a (great) six page discussion on indie/self publishing and it hits on a recurring theme of mine, which is we need more reviewers (filters) that are trusted sources for independently published books (which category I include micro-publishers such as New Libri). Before going to that theme (reviews), I would like to digress to another point David Vinjamuri raises: “Mainstream authors …  are inclined to believe that publishing is a meritocracy where the best work by the most diligent writers gets represented, acquired, published and sold.”

First, any mainstream authors who stumble on this blog and vehemently disagree—save your breath, I know that not ALL mainstream authors feel this way. Vinjamuri gives quotable examples. This attitude pervades even MFA programs. It simply is not true. History is littered with authors who were diligent and good and only come to light after their death. Independent publishers (micro and self) provide an outlet for excellent books. They may not sell, but I think that is partially due to the prime subject of this blog. How to get noticed (with reviews) in a vast sea of … mediocrity.

The short answer is “I don’t know” and no one does.

Vinjamuri alludes to another theme I often bring up. Publishing (writing) is NOT the same as the music industry, despite everyone seeing eBooks as similar to MP3s and the industry shaking up in similar ways.  When was the last time you went to a bar to listen to an independent author read?  Vinjamuri notes that: “You don’t hear Christina Aguilera or Adam Levine knocking indie bands. Instead they joined a show called “The Voice” which aims to capitalize on the credibility of indie artists by finding journeyman artists and giving them a shot at major label contracts. Indie filmmakers are revered, not reviled, partly because they eschew the studio system and its constraints on artistic expression.”

Vinjamuri suggests a Rotten Tomatoes for books. Maybe. Goodreads comes close, in some ways. Even Amazon with its super reviewers comes close.  The difference (which Vinjamuri does not really discuss) is that even a Rotten Tomatoes can handle, say, a thousand movies a year. Could it handle 200,000?  There are a lot of self published books out there. The entire set of books for sale is now the “slush pile.”

Price is not a real criteria. Many indie books are overpriced, many mainstream publisher books are now becoming reasonably priced (especially mid-sized publishers).

Everyone points to “social media” as the solution. Pahleeze! Most really good fiction authors are similar to really good software programmers, they suck at social anything (I know there are exceptions, but as a tech geek and writer, I certainly fit the bill myself). This makes Vinjamuri’s prediction that “Mainstream Publishers Will Use Indie Publishing as a Minor League … And Find a New Profit Model” a bit scary. Because, he admits the criteria of picking a book out of that minor league is how well the author plays the social media game. I hope he is wrong. What I hope is that the tiny micro presses (not self publishing) act as the minor leagues.  If an author passes the bar with the micro press, who has skin in the game, then the author should be worth a second look. Somehow the big publisher should find a way to subsidize the small publisher for this work. Authors—persistent authors—will stay with the micro press because just like a baseball minor league player, they love the game and will play no matter what. In this respect I hope Vinjamuri is right, that the minor league exists, but I hope it is not a social media contest!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What do you get out of an MFA in Creative Writing?

Given the increased scrutiny on the value of some degrees, the question of the value of an MFA in particular arises from time to time.

Certainly it will come as no surprise to any serious writer that a strict monetary return-on-investment (ROI) cannot be used. If it were, we would all get—momentarily—depressed. A serious writer will ask what is the qualitative ROI for pursuing an MFA? Good writing programs, such as the low residency Rainier Writing Workshop (RWW), ask the same question. “What are you getting out of the program?” is something Stan Rubin or Judith Kitchen (both who run the program, if a writing program can be said to be run. Herding a group of writers makes cat herding look easy) ask the students all the time.

The question Stan and Judith ask is one of the qualitative benefits of an MFA. A good MFA supports the growth of the writers as its focus, not the growth of its reputation. The latter usually follows, but that reputation will be one of fostering the growth of the students, the writers and their craft. Not their career, not their reputation, but their craft. This requires both the students and the instructors to, as Doonesbury once said, “check your egos at the door.”

With that focus on craft, how do I answer the question of “what do you get out of your MFA?” As with many things, I look for patterns and one that occurs to me is my circling back to needing 10,000 hours to become really good (even great) in anything.

With finite lifespans and the need for a means to survive in 21st century America, many of us have not had the time to focus 10,000 hours on creative writing. I believe that an MFA helps focus the number of hours you devote to creative writing and makes that focus more effective. Could you learn everything at an MFA on your own? Certainly. Could you learn it in 2 to 3 years, without stops and starts and dead ends? Maybe: if you’re lucky, driven, and more focused than I am.

I have no scientific analysis to back me up, but I feel a good MFA shaves 2,000 to 3,000 hours off of the time you need to spend getting really good. It shaves that off in an elapsed time of 2 to 3 years, rather than the 5 years it would take many of us who have a “day job.”  Combined with the actual time you spend on the MFA, which is about 2-3,000 hours, you are about half way to the goal of 10,000 hours.  For some who enter an MFA program, they have those 5,000 hours already under their belt. For others, this means there is plenty of work left. For everyone graduating an MFA it is a reminder that even with your 10,000 hours, if you stop practicing, the clock runs backwards.

Many RWW students have well in excess of 10,000 hours of writing, but they want to shift their focus in their writing. The concert pianist who has 10,000 hours of classical piano playing will not become a jazz pianist overnight.

This is why the last residency of RWW has multiple reminders on what a writing life is all about. Continuing your writing.

To answer Stan’s question as to “What are you getting out of the program?” the answer is “a lot, but only as much as I put into it—but when I do, it gets multiplied at RWW, so its all worth it.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beauty of Brevity

I am back from vacation (we have a cabin in the Methow Valley—a beautiful spot).

For some reason, I have been thinking of Hemingway today and how brevity can carry a certain beauty that long winded prose cannot.

I wish that publishers had the luxury of doing more short stories, but we really don’t for economic reasons.  If readers were willing to buy more of them, realizing that a well crafted short story can make you think more than a novel, then publishers would publish more.

Hemingway led me to the apocryphal story that he once won a bet writing a short story in six words: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Used.”

He probably didn’t, but I like to think he did. It was probably written by deGroot for his play “Papa,” which was about Hemingway in Cuba.

Wired had a contest, some years ago for other authors to write a six word story. My favorite is Margaret Atwood’s: “Long for him. Got him. Shit.”

Still, the Hemingway story wins by managing to have such imagining of what the story was. It poses the question that the reader wants to know the details. It feels sad.

Can you imagine a book of short stories like that? One story per page?

Now imagine the outrage of the buying public, even for 99 cents on an eBook. Just like our food servings, we want LARGE. Supersize it! Give me a fantasy book that is 400,000 words!

For 99 cents!





No. I prefer well crafted to volume. Sure we all love to stuff ourselves sometimes, but lets sometimes consume a little bit less of something that is special.


- Harry Harrison

Friday, July 13, 2012

The SEO is dead. Long Live the CDO.

It is rare that I agree with almost everything that someone writes (or says). It often gets me in trouble as I argue a small point, or even play devil’s advocate. But a recent article by J.S. McDougall on Content Discovery Optimization is one of those rare cases where I just plain agree.

To put my own spin on his words (give him credit where the idea is good, blame me if it is screwy, because it is probably my spin on it that makes it screwy).

Human users and the tools they use (e.g. Google) have evolved. The ability to discern a gamed website, or blog, or other post has been steadily getting better. The SEO (the Search Engine Optimization) expert was focusing on gaming the system. Not really focused on content. The user and by extension Google, Bing, and others (e.g. users on Facebook) are focused on content.

Content, over time, is king. Wikipedia shows up in searches more often than it used to because the content is winning over SEO. Conversely, Amazon is slowly showing up less in the top ten search results when I am investigating how to, for instance, repair something, not buy it. Amazon was great at gaming the system so that you would click on them for anything resembling a product. They are still good at it (the free content we all add in the reviews helps Amazon in the Content wars), but the SEO aspect has faded slightly.

What does this mean for authors, publishers, and others?

McDougall (@jsmcdougall and asks five questions that everyone EVER posting on the Internet for anyone other than themselves needs to ask:

1) Will Anyone Care?

This is the question. Really, if you can’t say yes to this, ignore the other five and don’t post it! I like his rephrasing: Is there more content than marketing? We can all smell the marketing. If it is all marketing, we skip it. We scan quickly and decide if it is marketing. We do this especially when searching via search engines, knowing that people try and game the system. This leads to McDougall’s 5th question, but my second.

2) Does it Pass The Scan Test?

Let’s face it. We, the digital public, have attention spans of gnats. Most digital content, including this blog, never get read. People scan looking for tidbits. Make your content EASY to scan. So much digital content is hard to scan.  The beauty of the Google interface (and Bing is getting there) is that it is SIMPLE and EASY TO SCAN. This is why Yahoo faded. Too cluttered. To hard to scan. 

To be honest, it is why Google is so terrible at other things, they don’t follow this philosophy in other things they do (the now defunct Google Books was one example. Impossible to use because it did not scan well for the user trying to use it: publisher, author, bookstore owner, and customer). But, I digress.

3) Does the content lead back to the source?

If the goal of the free content is to get them asking for more, you better make sure that it is easy to trace this back to the source (you). Images should have a link/website on the image itself. This is not being anti-open source, or sharing, this is making sure that if someone likes it, they can get more if they want.

Similar with a book excerpt. Make it clear in the excerpt where this came from, where they can get more, where to find you and the content. Good people will also quote their sources (see how I mentioned McDougall and his company). So make sure it is easy for good people to quote you and list you as a source.

4) Will my title grab anyone’s attention?

This point and number 5 below are fuzzy. It assumes you know your audience to some extent. Did my title grab attention? A lot of authors have no clue about SEO as an acronym. However, authors may get the allusion to “The King is Dead. Long Live the King.” Thus, even if this does not grab anyone’s attention, it was intended to. I thought about it. That is the main point. Think about it. Even if you get it wrong, the effort is worth it.

5) Is this appropriate for my audience?

The content of McDougall’s text is a bit different from the question. Really, by appropriate, he means don’t abuse your audience. He focuses on mailing lists as his example, but the same is true even of a blog, or Facebook post for an author. Don’t go off on wild ass tangents with your content. I do it all the time (Guilty, Guilty, Guilty as the old Doonesbury cartoon caption goes). This blog is on writing, publishing, and to a lesser extent marketing your writing (since small publishers can’t do too much marketing for you). It is a broad brush set of topics, so I get to go on tangents a lot. But, I hope I make it scan-able, so you can skip any individual blog easily!

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Heat is On

Within the oppressive heat around the nation the Northwest, where I reside, was an island of coolness. Yet, the heat was still on in many other ways.

The writing life is under constant barrage from so many directions that it is a wonder that any author finds time to finish anything. Summer is the season of distractions. If the weather is not beating you down, then it is begging you to get outside and play. You are a writer, you tell yourself. One of the perks of being a writer is setting your own hours and being able to enjoy a beautiful summer day. Right? RIGHT?! PLEASE?

Every successful author I have ever read about, or had the good fortune to talk to, will tell you that daily discipline is crucial. The 10,000 hours of practice I cited in an earlier blog need to be fairly contiguous. Not random, spread over 20 years. This means on a beautiful summer day you still need to be writing.

But, let’s be reasonable about it. Write five pages, of anything, even the same sentence over and over. Do that early in the morning. Get it done, NOW. Then, go out and play.

Because there is another important aspect to being a writer and that is keeping your brain sharp. To do that requires good health and exercise. You won’t get that sitting in front of a monitor eating junk food. So, write and then play.

After all, the other aspect of being a writer is for most of us the pay is such that your entertainment needs to be cheap. Nothing is cheaper than a nice summer day.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Women Writers–Where are they?

I suppose the title is a bit misleading. There are plenty of women writers and plenty of successful women writers. The richest woman in the world is a woman writer.

However, I hear and see some conflicting data when looking at “the big picture.”

For a long time, 80% of readers of fiction were women. From what I gather, this is still true. For non-fiction the reverse was true (80% of non-fiction readers are male). There are trends away from this, as more women become the primary bread winners and their reading is more and more focused on business and technical books. Yet, women still find time to read a good novel once in a while, while men drift over to the TV, or magazine, or video game. Yeah, I am stereotyping a bit, but the general statistics for fiction, my passion, remain heavily in women do the reading.

Yet, the number of women writers, as a percentage of all writers, remains significantly below men. Is this trend changing? I think so, but I have no firm data. It is all anecdotal. The number of women in MFA programs seems to be reflecting college degree seekers as a whole.  Women are now the majority. Yet, for published books (by publishers) the data from 2010 shows that by and large women are published less than men. This does not delve into submissions, but rather published books (by 13 publishers see: A Literary Glass Ceiling?).

A totally inaccurate look at our own submissions at New Libri Press shows that out of the past 25 submissions, only 4 were from women. This seems to mesh pretty well with the actual accepted and published rate cited in A Literary Glass Ceiling?  So, what gives?

I really don’t know. When I look at “Independent Authors Guild” forums, it seems (in a completely unscientific way) that there are more women authors on the forum then men. When one looks at the success of self-published authors, the success is dominated by women.

My guess is that the answer to “what gives?” is a complex one. Is is possible that women are discouraged and go straight to self publishing.  Certainly, a similar phenomena exists for small business owners. Small business owners are dominated by women, but (at least historically) it was because of barriers in corporate America.

It is also possible that women tend to strive for perfections in their writing more and not feel it is worth submitting until it is “perfect.” I don’t know if that is true, it is a weird extrapolation on my part of self image stereotypes.

(Above picture found here.)

Men may simply submit more, no matter how crappy, less polished <grin>.

I do know that of the number of manuscripts we have accepted over the past 18 months, the majority are by women and the two primary editors (us founders) are men. So, I lean toward the second theory.

I have heard, from a published author (male) that the average advance for a woman is higher than for a man and that the publicity a large press puts behind a new author is higher for women than men. I suspect, IF TRUE, this supports my theory that submissions by women are generally lower volume. Publishers WANT to find more women authors.

Given my unscientific data (more submissions are from men by a 4:1 margin) I would love to hear what WOMEN authors think. Or, if you don’t want to comment, then start submitting manuscripts to those publishers!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Editing is Subjective

Recently we were editing a piece and the author was “surprised” that we didn’t catch a number of errors that a friend of his caught. However, when asked what those errors were, none of them were grammar, or spelling, but all were subjective. Word order. Word choice. We (my co-editor and I) laughed a bit at this. We didn’t catch it because both of us liked it the way it was.

Editing is subjective, especially meta editing, but even line editing. Some editors hate point of view changes within a chapter, others don’t mind if it is done right. Some will harp on lack of detail in areas where another will think too much detail slows down the manuscript.

An editor provides a subjective critique of your work. It is up to you to decide if that subjective critique is good. Agreeing with it, or not, is not the best criteria. Rather, if after a few days of stewing over editorial comments you find yourself saying “I can’t believe that he thinks that, but I really want to make it clear to him without changing my tone too much,” then your editor has probably done his job.

Even line editing is subjective. When do you break the rules? Does it work in this case? Was there a joke I missed in principal versus principle in this short story?

In general, and this is my subjective criteria, if you find yourself listening to 40% of what your editor tells you, then you editor is doing a good job. Listening does not mean doing exactly what he suggests. Listening means you act on the suggestion in some way.

An editor will not make terrible writing good, no matter how great the plot is. An editor is not a co-author.

With a publisher, it is very hard to tell where the hand of the editor touched the manuscript. In general, with a publisher, look at any books (even if it is a small publisher with only a couple of books) and if you like the book, than there is a chance the editor did his job.

For independent editors, many will offer a free analysis of 5 pages. This is a weak sample, but better than nothing. For a full length novel, the meta edit may take reading 50 pages to form an opinion. If they are established, the job is easier by examining the finished work of cited clients. However, many good editors are not well known. Just like an unknown author, it takes a bit of time to break in. BookBaby has a decent article on independent editing. Of course that is my subjective opinion.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gaiman on a Career in Arts


I have been a Neil Gaiman fan for years. He recently gave an address to the University of the Arts graduating class. While nothing he said is stunningly new, it is still fun to hear Gaiman’s version of thoughts that have been around for a long time. My paraphrasing of some of Gaiman’s thoughts is no doubt inaccurate, but I will do it regardless. Using the first rule below, I am safe.

Make mistakes. We know this, but it bears repeating that the most successful of artists, of writers, make mistakes all the time. The point is, don’t sweat it. Mistakes are good. Make lots of them. If you make a lot of mistakes, you are doing your art. Remember the 10,000 hour rule.

Bottles in the ocean. I like this one. Write even if your audience is only a potential one person on the other side of the ocean. Send out bottle after bottle after bottle. Someone, somewhere, may find it. The more bottles you send out, the more will be found. (Hmm, sounds like more of those 10,000 hours.)

Write for yourself, not for money. Yeah, trite and cliché, but the anecdote that Gaiman gave was ultimately, when he wrote for money and it fell through he felt bad about it. If you write for yourself, if the money falls through, you still have something.

When things get tough: make good art. This is not so much write about those tough times, it is don’t let those tough times slow you down. Tough times should be when you make good art.

Your vision. Not someone else’s. This is also old and related to write for yourself, not money. Even when writing for yourself, make sure it is your vision. Not someone else’s. Not your editor’s (but listen to your editor and s/he may help you find your vision).

People get hired. However you get work. You KEEP working by doing good work. A bit of an acknowledgment that FINDING work is hard. Keeping work is easier. Do good work. Do it on time. Be nice to work with. If you do two out of three really well, you will probably continue working. I like that, as I can only handle two out of the three at any given time. I wonder if he meant I can switch which two I concentrate on all the time?  Hmmm.

Luck is good. This is a whole separate blog someday. Luck is important. It is not something to ignore, it is important. Take advantage of it.

Things are changing: no one knows what is going to happen two years from now. There are no rules. The good news, bad news scenario. Bottom line, don’t focus on the rules, because they are changing. He was talking about distribution systems and payment. Don’t get too wrapped up in it, or you will get paralyzed.

Enjoy it. When things go well, big or small, ENJOY IT. It is actually hard to do sometimes, but do it!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Perfect Query Letter

The obvious answer to “What goes into the perfect query letter?” is there is no such beast.

While this is a natural follow up to the discussion of why getting rejected quickly is not all bad news, this is also spurred on by the perception that an email query does not need as much attention as a printed query.

Au contraire! The email query needs as much care, if not more, than a print query. The reader of an email query is used to moving quickly, making decisions quickly, and if your email query is obviously some mass emailing blast, or hugely terse, such as “Attached is my manuscript” and nothing else, you can bet that the reaction will be hugely negative and the ability to hit delete is even easier than crumpling a piece of paper and tossing it in the circular filing cabinet on the floor.

A few startups will read a bit of every manuscript sent in. We do this on the off chance there is a gem in there. But, we also read the ones that have an appealing query first!

The reason there is no such thing as a perfect query is related to the fast rejections discussion. There will be times that no matter how well crafted the query, the editor simply knows this is not for him/her.  But, if the query is well crafted, at least the rejection will be for the right reasons. I great query will often generate, at a minimum, a real response rather than a generic rejection.

So, if not perfect, what should a good query include?

The obvious: It should include everything that any posted submission guidelines ask for. Really, how tough can this be? Yet, a surprising number of queries do not meet this first bar. Almost every agency and publisher in existence today has a website (your should be nervous if they don’t!) and will have those guidelines posted there.

Beyond that, consider the following:

A short, pungent description of what the book is about

Identify the audience your book is aimed at (even if you think it is obvious).

Be able to tell the editor what makes this novel different from others in the genre. Even if you don’t include novels that are similar, be well informed as to what the competition is and how well it did. Be aware of market saturation and be prepared to explain how this will not be mixed in with a bunch books that are trying to follow the market.

Credentials. Yeah, I hear many of you cry out, I don’t have any. Sure you do. Credentials include not just writing, but marketing. Or if you are an artist it may include the ability to illustrate the piece, or create a line of merchandise on your own that you will tie to the novel. For marketing, don’t just say “I am savvy with Facebook and will help market it there.” Yeah, you and 900 million others. Credentials need to be different. But, no matter what, the credentials need to show enthusiasm for writing. The truth is any publisher/agent/editor wants someone who will write more than one novel and has the writing discipline.

That is the content, but don’t forget that the query letter is a window to your writing skill. That includes Grammar. It includes “show don’t tell” in a microcosm. It includes avoiding any number of silly mistakes. I have seen queries that had the protagonist reading Latin and the Latin phrase used was wrong. Or a historical novel where the piece of history noted in the query was wrong.

Your base query letter should take several days to get right. Edit it as if you were submitting it for a short story prize. Edit it as if you were spending a hundred dollars on each letter. You don’t want to waste it.

Write a lot of them for practice. Each should be different. Set them aside for a couple of weeks and then read them and pick out the best. Have someone who has not read your novel read the query, or queries.

Finally, don’t wait for answers to your queries. Get back to writing the next novel.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Fast Reject: It’s not all bad, but that Query is important

Writer’s Digest had a recent tutorial on why agents and editors reject a manuscript and how devastating it can be when it occurs very quickly. Writer’s Digest has some good stuff, but most of it is paid only and this particular one had sound quality that was so appalling, the for that reason alone I cannot recommend it.

The topic was a good one.  I have blogged on reasons for rejections in the past, but not this angle. The truth is that almost everything in life is easier to define in the negative. It is easier to describe why something doesn’t work, or why you don’t like it. It is harder when you aren’t sure, or when you think something is great but – this is the key – you are not sure if others will like it and if it will SELL.

Even small presses are focused on SELLING. The quantities are different (yes, smaller most of the time), but the goal is the same. Will it sell enough to justify our work. I love my mother’s artwork. She has 75 years of it. Beautiful stuff, some which I post on my Facebook page. None of it sells. In her lifetime she has made about $10,000 from art sales. She has painted thousands of paintings.

The point is that editors and agents have two very simple criteria.

1) Do I like this?

2) Will it sell?

That’s it!  Well, largely it. All other criteria are connected to these two.

Agents and Editors are not in this for the money. There are vastly easier ways to make money. We are in it for the passion and enjoyment of the art of writing. We do need to survive. As part of the survival, we combine our passion with a modicum of business acumen.

Small publishers tend to concentrate. Focus. Niche. The niche may change and evolve. It may be indistinct to the outside world, but the editors know what they like and what they can get passionate about and what their brand is evolving into. Thus, the ability to say “NO” quickly is often really saying “This is a really great romance story, I think, but I hate romance and it takes place in XYZ and I hate XYZ and the protagonist travels back in time to the Middle Ages and I hate the Middle Ages. But, I am not going to say all that to this author, so I will politely say no right away.”

The fast “No” can occur at any stage of the review process. Query letter. Partial Manuscript. Full Manuscript. Editor/agent meeting.

At any stage, don’t be put off by a fast “No.” It simply means that for the two reasons mentioned, one or more decision makers said No to the two criteria.

The query letter (email or print) is a very important part of this. There is a tendency to treat email as more casual and less important. This is a mistake. Editors and agents catch the same mistakes in email as they do in a print letter. Worse, they pass it around more. At the back of the mind is the thought that we all fat finger emails, but egregious mistakes are still noted.

One of these days I will put out a blog on my own impression on how to do an email query letter, which won’t differ radically from the hundreds of “How To” advice pieces that cover the topic, but I think with eBooks, social media, and self-publishing that email queries are subtly different.

For now, the point is the query should indicate somehow a positive answer as to “Will it Sell?” and the answer is not “with massive marketing effort on the publishers part this will sell.”

A lot of people note that agents and editors have often gotten the “will it sell” question wrong. Harry Potter was famously rejected by countless publishers and agents. Does this mean that the agent and editor’s touting their years of experience are wrong.

NO! (That was a Fast No.)

Experience comes back to the blog on 10,000 hours. If you believe you become a better writer by exercising your writing muscle then you need to believe agents and editors become better at making picks over time. Some are better than others. Some learn faster than others. But, just as not every book that Jennifer Egan or John Updike, or John Irving put out is a masterpiece, neither is every decision by an agent or editor correct. It is simply better over time. More right than wrong.

If you are getting your immediate rejections at the query level, consider putting in some of those 10,000 hours of writing in query letter practice.

If you are getting rejected later in the process, consider this. Will it sell is really, will it turn a profit? If your idea is great. The plot is great, but the execution looks like many hundreds of hours of editorial work, it won’t turn a profit. Most large publishers simply won’t budget any editorial time for an unknown.  A small publisher will, but the small publisher will look at current load. Only an editor who truly believes in a project is going to spend the extra editorial time. This is criterion one: Do I Like This?

If you do get accepted. Be prepared to start building 10,000 hours of marketing practice too!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Editor is like a Good Executive

I was perusing The Artful Edit the other day (not the website, but the book) and it struck me how intrinsically a good editor is like a good senior executive.

A number of years ago (too many, it seems) I was an Executive Vice President at a mid-sized company. I am sure I had a lot of flaws, but who wants to talk about those?! My skill was with other executives, or with program managers, software architects, or product managers, in listening, and asking questions that led them to come up with new, interesting, creative answers. I rarely had the “right” answer myself, but had something of the skill of talking, suggesting directions, and asking questions that spurred smart executives, managers, and creative senior people to suddenly think in a new direction and come up with cool solutions.

This skill, just as an editor’s, is hard to quantify and when you look at the end result you do not see the “hand” of the editor (or executive) directly in the result. Yet, the group’s results improve. Are mistakes made? Sure. Is it perfect? Never. Is it better than it was before and does it on that wonderful occasion break new ground? Yes!

The reason this works in some companies, with good executives, managers, and software architects (who are creative, often nearing the “art” world) is when the person being “managed” or edited is mature enough to understand that s/he does not need to follow the suggestions exactly, or at all. In fact, often the suggestions are contradictory. The mature person lets the suggestions trigger the thought process and in the end the changes are sometimes better and sometimes worse, but they add up to a better end product.

A good editor and executive does not micro manage,

A good editor and executive at a certain point says “if you think this is good enough, go with it.”

A good editor and executive also embraces that the end product may not be what anyone originally intended!

There needs to be maturity on the executive/editor’s side also. If the author (or manager) seems to ignore your suggestions, then make sure they are ignoring them with understanding and purpose and then, let them ignore it. My rule of thumb is if an author, or when I was managing people my “partner” would listen to 40% of my suggestions in some form or another. As long as I felt there was an understanding and a listening.  Then back away and let the creative person do their work. My hand should not be visible, but my team should shine in the end.

Obviously, the analogy is not perfect, but I am often struck by how similar processes are in many fields. As writers and creators of books we like to think that business is not like the creative process of writing. The truth is, it is. There is still something of a profit motive when dealing with an editor and creativity takes many forms.

The next time an editor makes a suggestion, realize that it is just that, a suggestion, but listen and do something surprising with the suggestion.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Beyond 10,000 Hours of Writing


Not long ago I espoused the value of writing, writing, writing as a path toward becoming a good writer. Blind practice, however, is not the full story.

Two books that provide insights are Better by Mistake by Alina Tugend and Art & fear : observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking / David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art and Fear was widely quoted a few years ago. Both Bayles and Orland are photographers. Many photographers have embraced digital photography for one big reason—it is now cheaper to make mistakes. Before a photographer would spend thousands of dollars on rolls of film to get one photo that was incredible. Now, a photographer can take even more photos and the incremental cost is close to zero.

Writing has always been one of those arts where the materials cost is low. Time cost is a different matter, but for now I’ll ignore that.

The story quoted in Art and Fear that many find so compelling is the ceramics teacher who divides the class into two. Group A is going to be graded on one submission and its quality. Group B is graded on shear mass. They have to be competed pots, but other than that, the criteria was numbers. In the end the best looking piece was not the single submission, but one from the pile of pots.

The base lesson is obvious, but there are a few other lessons. The quantity group was concentrating, loosely, on one thing: pots.  Not any object. Not random pots, ashtrays, plates, vases, etc. The writer should do the same thing. A fiction writer should put 10,000 hours into fiction. For now, I will avoid a discussion of sub-specializing (e.g. popular fiction, or sub-genres in popular fiction).

From Better by Mistake, we learn to both make mistakes and how to think about them. Tugend, in her original NYT column mentions the famous Edison Quote: famous quote, often inscribed in schools and children’s museums: “I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” Edison’s point is that he was focusing and he was trying to achieve something. It was not blind experimentation. Neither should the writer’s 10,000 hours be blind, or you will not improve. The violinist could practice the same note for 10,000 hours, but that will not make her a great violinist.

When you write and you and your critique group expose the flaws, the opportunity is for practice. A rewrite. Be bold and risk more mistakes on the rewrite. Don’t line edit. Rewrite. This is, in some ways, the difference between two types of editors. One tells you the flaws and suggests ways of practicing. One focuses on minor flaws and makes the bad piece as good as it can be, but still bad.

The goal in rewriting is to make intelligent mistakes, not unintelligent failures. It would be trite to believe that there are no stupid mistakes. As Tugend notes, the mistakes that lead to death, wheelchair, or prison are probably stupid mistakes in life.

Writing pornography and submitting it to a children’s magazine is stupid. Switching from third person past to first person present is potentially a mistake, but it will be a learning one and it may end up being a brilliant solution.

Rewriting should avoid another mistake that Einstein articulated: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Editing and rewriting has to intentionally shake it up a bit.

Just as the violinist does not play the same piece over and over, the writer does need to move on to a new work sooner or later. And then start practicing that one.

I’ve made enough mistakes for one blog. I’ll wait until the next one to practice blogging.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Celebrating SPAM

OK, the title is largely to get your attention. Today is the anniversary of Hormel’s registering of the Trademark “SPAM” for a food product. However, SPAM has taken on a whole new meaning since 1937. 

What got me thinking of SPAM is that so much of book marketing today seems to depend on “social media.”  And, so much of social media is, let’s face it, the SPAM of interesting blurbs.

We’ve all been warned not to burn the follower bridges by producing too much garbage, or if not garbage, an unappealing blob of non-nutritious information.

Sometimes the reason we do, is we believe in social media and hear the success stories, but the truth is social media is not a panacea and it is NOT where you SELL your book. Brian Jud puts out a blog that has some good advice (although, like way to many marketing advice for authors, he focuses on advice that often is obviously for non-fiction books, while in general the hurdles are greater for fiction (strategically)). His recent two entries were 50 Tips to promoting your book parts I and II. 

Note tip

31. Implement a social commerce campaign. Use Facebook, Twitter and the other social media to spread the word about your book, but not for book sales.

The last clause is important. You are NOT selling your book on social media. You are spreading the word and generating interest. The interest is appropriate for the audience. If you are trying to get librarians interested in your book, they need to understand why their patrons will be interested. Their goal is subtly different than a bookstore, which is subtly different than a radio talk show.

Jumping back to earlier tips of Jud’s:

  • Stop selling your books. Sell what the content in your book does for the readers—what are the benefits to them?
  • People do not care about your book. Retailers display products to increase store profits. Media hosts want a good show for their audiences. Librarians want to help their patrons. Appeal to the right motive and you will sell more books.

Note that what he is trying to tell you is don’t SPAM the audience. Don’t SELL … inform. Connect. Make it pertinent to THEM. Otherwise it is an uninteresting blob of non-nutritious information byproducts.

Keep the SPAM at Hormel and of course, Monty Python.

Monday, May 7, 2012

10,000 hours writing?

A Recent Book Baby blog: Have you written for 10,000 hours? got me thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s book and working on the writing craft. Delving into his book and the chapter on 10,000 hours, Gladwell states (emphasis added):

"The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world- class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

This ties well to the discussion earlier concerning the pros and cons between concentrating on marketing and concentrating on writing. Unless you have been writing 8 hours a day, for five years, you can probably stand to exercise that writing muscle.

If you have 10,000 hours under your belt, then you probably know that, like any master, the expertise fades with lack of use. It comes back faster, but still fades.

There are countless books on writing out there, by everyone from Stephen King to Forrester. All state the value of sitting down every day and writing, even if you throw that day’s writing away. The reasons are obvious with studies such as those cited by Gladwell. Not only does the writing muscle need exercise, it needs a lot of it.

Given the ease of self-publishing, this is one of the remaining reasons to still use a publisher. Time. Time to write.

Get to it!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Where did the title Dancing with Elephants come from?

The expression comes from WWII and the guerilla fighters in the Philippines and is used as the title of a new book. It goes something like “When elephants dance the chickens are not safe.”  With a lot of permutations. Similarly the Africans used an expression that “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that loses.”

However, it has been used in business a long time. The elephants are the big players. The rest of us are chickens (or the grass).

We used it a lot at a small company were I was CTO (Unimax) as we partnered with Philips and other very large companies. The expression of an elephant learning to dance was used by financial publications for some time. Most famously, I recall it was used for IBM as it almost went bankrupt and reinvented itself (e.g. elephants can learn to dance).

With publishing the elephants are the big 5 or 6 publishers, with Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple all joining the dance. In fact both the dance and fight metaphors work.

Exciting times, but you have to keep dancing and moving or you will get trampled!

Self-Publishing leads to Traditional Publishing. NOT.

PBS Media Shift has an interesting article entitled Self-Published Authors Still Rarely Make the Jump to Publishing Houses. The topic has been a point of discussion for some time at New Libri and I suspect at a lot of writing programs. It really touches on the heart of the “to self-publish or not” question that authors ask themselves.

The article mentions the “hybrid” author. There is another hybrid author out there, the small press author with an emphasis on eBooks. This hybrid author is still on the hook for a lot of things, but may have a few advantages over the self-published author and resemble the Media Shift’s hybrid author in many ways.

1) The reputable small press author has passed one quality assurance filter, which is really what the Media Shift article is talking about. Large publishers do indeed want to make money, but their filter is also how does this fit my brand? How does this author fit in the (albeit changing) traditional publishing world? Ironically, for the large publisher it is all about sales, but also sales that fit Pornography sells, but not everyone wants to sell pornography. The self-published universe is now so large, that the traditional publisher realistically has no way to filter through the authors there. They will still depend on agents for some time and to a lesser extent the author’s success in the traditional publishing world: small medium large.

2) Some authors want to make money first, write second. Some authors want to write first, make money second. If an author is in the second category, then small publishers are still a valuable step in a long term career. They shoulder the editing, layout, and business aspect, but admittedly still force a significant portion of marketing and publicity on the author. This is why the very small press author is a hybrid also.

3) As an author at a small press proves their viability in multiple books, growing their audience, and marketing, than they attract attention and move up the author food chain. However, the small press itself will watch these authors and often begin to devote precious marketing and publicity dollars to that author. Everybody wins and it is another form of a hybrid model.

4) Similar to the hybrid author mentioned in the article, the small press author has access to the knowledge base of the editors and business acumen of the small press. This allows for a sounding board of ideas that is filtered. The self-published author has access to a huge number of resources and other authors, but most of those authors are not from the publisher world. They are valuable, but hard to filter the good from the bad. With a small press, you get a different perspective. It may not lead to more sales, but it may lead to more credibility and moving up the publisher food chain.

With the enormous pressures that large publishers are under and the entry of Amazon as a traditional publisher in multiple genres now, the term Hybrid Author is apropos to many different kinds of hybrid and will become more and more common.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Are Book Signings a thing of the Past (for unknown authors)?

Marketing research has been a big part of April and I discovered I am out of date on book signings. They are .. so pre-eBook, pre-2008 economic crash, pre-social media. Sort of.

First let me congratulate Acacia Awai on a SUCCESSFUL book signing. She sold out the Barnes and Noble in Hawaii!

This is a good segue to my findings:

  1. Book signings are on the decline—big time.
  2. The number of books sold at a book signing is concurrently down big time. The average “successful” signing is something like 15 books (again, kudos to Acacia!) for an unknown, or new, author.
  3. Often publishers (and authors) LOSE MONEY because of a signing, because of the number of books returned to the publisher.
  4. Virtual tours are becoming as successful as book signings in the past.
  5. It used to be that some of the independents (e.g. anything other than B&N these days) would accept a wholesale discount of 35% or even 30% for a book signing, or some would let you bring your own and pay a consignment fee. This is no longer true! ALL independents I have talked to or investigated now require a 40% discount and will only buy from a wholesaler and only accept books that are returnable. No exception. Due to the overhead that Ingram and Baker and Taylor charge a publisher has to discount the book at 55% (this is the standard large publisher discount). Ingram and B&T both charge 15% no matter what to all independents. To break even at 55% your book has to have a suggested retail of about 17.00. (If you include fees other than pure print fees).

This certainly shows why small publishers are not big fans of book signings. What about authors? The old feeling was that this was the way to market your book, at least locally. Book signings are big part of marketing, right?

No, not really. They are a shrinking component that has value for the well known and somewhat known author, but less so for unknown authors.That doesn’t mean they have no value, certainly they do, but not for book sales per se, or even stand alone marketing. It is the peripheral marketing where book signings add value.The add on marketing. If you get a book signing at multiple stores you MIGHT get a mention in a local newspaper, or community newspaper. If there is a surprise at the event, or you do enough of them, you may get noticed by other local media, and this could snowball a bit.

But, you—the author—need to pave the way, every step of the way. You need to get the signings lined up. You need to then notify all the local media outlets that cover this sort of thing. You need to consider doing advertising for the event (which is free advertising for the bookstore..hmm seems unfair) and certainly do social media announcements and on and on.  You get the idea.

But, if the bookstores make it so hard to do, consider doing the same at a coffee shop, or another venue. Figure out other marketing that will attract media attention.

Or consider a Virtual Tour.

Book signings still have their place. But, consider the latest phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey and the author E.L. James. If the publicity and going viral had depended on her at book signings the book would have sold one copy. She is shy. She would never read the fun parts of the book in public. She hates public speaking (although obviously is learning now).  Will she do signings NOW, sure.  Did she to get known? No.

The point really is book signings are not what they used to be – be honest how many have you gone to that were not someone you knew? They are part of an ALREADY successful marketing effort.

The unknown author should certainly try to leverage local book signings, but for the first novel or two, the focus should be marketing in general and writing! Get the next book out. Get fan base just large enough to make a book signing worthwhile and for book three you can start the snowball downhill, but generally you need to form the snowball through other means.

Of course there isn’t much snow in Hawaii, so my metaphor falls apart there and thus Acacia went out showed us that new authors can still make a book signing work.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Yet another take on the Microsoft–Barnes and Noble get together

I suppose I have a biased view, having worked for Microsoft in its heyday of the early 1990s. Exciting times.

$300 million is not a lot for Microsoft. But, it can be a life saver for a good company in trouble. Most seem to have forgotten that the most valuable company in the U.S. (market cap.) – Apple, was saved by a cash infusion of about $400 million in the mid-1990s. In this industry, things change quickly. Microsoft only does these things out of enlightened self interest, but there is some irony that it has been the white knight (a saint of circumstance) for Apple, Yahoo (although Yahoo rebuffed their original efforts), and now Barnes and Noble.

I and investors welcome this news, but for different reasons.As a small publisher, I welcome the increased competition and viability against Amazon (yeah, I used to work there too). As an author and publisher, I welcome the increased support to the ePub standard this will bring. ePub is an open standard and significantly more flexible than the Kindle-Mobi standard (despite some embracing of HTML 5 for the Kindle Fire device). The truth is, no matter the bashing by a laundry list of people, Microsoft understands software development. It understands Software Development Kits (SDKs – again I am biased I was in charge of the Far East SDKs way back when) and it understands working with the development community. It understands getting easy kits out there, the phenomenal success of Visual Basic for many years is one example. All this will help Barnes and Noble, small publishers, and even authors.

Amazon understands customers. Period. End customers. It does not understand merchants well, it does not understand publishers well, and it does not really understand publishing/authors well. It understands VOLUME. It is, as a company, as an organism, geared toward growth. Growth at almost any cost. It is really, really, smart at growth and keeping the customer happy, but just as a dictator in a South American country may keep most of the people happy, most of the time, through cheap gas and subsidies, it may not understand the end game past growth for growth sake. What happens when the oil wells run dry? (OK, I am stretching metaphors).

Back to the B&N and Microsoft deal. Don’t expect big bangs here. The Nook will still be the Nook. It will probably still run on a version of the Android OS.  But, there will be a convergence of some technologies on Windows 8 tablets and phones and what the Nook does. The app marketplace will become robust on the Nook +.  And, there will be some confidence that Microsoft won’t pull the plug on this, because it can’t. It is an investor, but not a controller. This is all good.

I believe that not only will this speed up the adoption of ePub 3.0 on devices, but also robust interactive “books” will accelerate much faster. Microsoft often is accused of not being innovative, perhaps, but it has often HELPED other companies be innovative through investments and developer flocking.

eBooks are here to stay and for the time being, so is Barnes and Noble in one form or another. I for one, say Yay!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ruminations on Marketing versus Writing

Unless you are in the top five percent of authors, represented by a large publisher, you will face the quandary of where to devote your time after your first publication: Writing, or marketing?

I don’t have the answer(s), thus the title “ruminations.” The answer is individualistic.

First, let me narrow the thinking to fiction. Non-fiction writers often have the opportunity to tie their marketing with their career. A doctor writing about health may simultaneously be increasing his practice and his larger career. E.g. Dr. Oz writing a book is cross promoting all the time. Of course he is already in the top 5 percent, but you get the idea.

Fiction writers have a harder balancing act. Do you write one book and spend a year promoting it, or do you keep writing, and writing, and writing?

I believe the latter is the better choice if you are serious about being a writer. If you have more than one book in you, you need to keep writing. Concentrate on writing.

If you have only one book in you and that book is published, then concentrate on marketing.

Concentrate on writing does not mean “ignore” other things. I can’t make the recommendation as to how to split your time, but serious writing means serious time. If you have a “day job” then realistically, your time split is probably: 1st) your day job 2nd) your writing 3rd) marketing. Of course if you have a family, then it gets messy.

Amanda Hocking is the self-published poster child for this. She wrote 17 novels in her “spare time.” Yes, she was a killer queen at marketing through social media, but she has said countless times that part of her promotional technique was to get the next book out there.

We don’t all have 17 novels waiting to come out in the space of a few years. One can also question the quality of each of those 17 novels. But, by putting out this much she was building an audience not just by marketing one book, but by diversifying and improving her writing by writing. Writing is a muscle. The more you write, the better it gets.

Even Amanda did not sell her million books with the first book, it took time. As you market your first book, you should be marketing your second book by writing about it, talking about it, Facebooking it, and so on. As you write your third book, you tie it to the other two, talk about the other two while writing. Make the writing symbiotic with the marketing, but don’t stop writing.

Unless you have only one book in you.

If you have only one book in you, then make it count and don’t rush to publication. Polish it. Make it great. Then you can switch gears and become a marketer.

Most writers I know hate marketing. You can’t do well at something you hate. Go back to writing and market the best you can, but know that each book you put out is part of your marketing, part of your portfolio, and make sure each book you put out is better, or at the very least broadens you audience base, and that will be a fine start to marketing. Both good writing and a career at writing take time. We try and warn all of our authors at New Libri that they need to be in this for the long haul and that we are not going to be panaceas for marketing. A small press is just a stepping stone away from self-publishing. We like to think it is a significant step, but we don’t kid ourselves or our authors. If you are part of a small press, know that part of the marketing that is implicit is that you benefit not just from each new book you add to the press’s portfolio, but benefit from each new book the other authors add to the press’s portfolio.

It is long haul.