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….