I’m tired of thinking about writing.
(I almost said that I’m tired of writing, but I’m not doing any, so how could that be the case?)
It seems like a few years ago all of the writing blogs I read were on the art and craft of writing. Now they all seem to be stuck on the business of writing. Not that I mind business, but enough is enough.
A lot of pixels have been spent on how much money everyone is or isn’t making, or should be making. Everyone either wants to be the next Stephen King or the next Hugh Howey. Publishing, marketing, money, money, money. Blah, blah, blah. Few talk about what goes into making the “product”.
I once heard Harlan Ellison describe a metaphor from someone else (whose name I’ve forgotten) that Hollywood was like climbing up a mountain of manure to reach a rose growing at the top. By the time you reached the summit, your nose would be too filled with the stench of shit to smell the rose.
I think that metaphor applies to more than Hollywood, and I’ve been feeling that way about the entire publishing business lately. In fact, I can’t get the publishing business out of my brain long enough to think about my own writing.
But here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: there is more than one rose. Everyone is so focused on the one at the top of the mountain of shit, that they forget about the rest of them. You may not get any credit for going and smelling one of the others. But at least you’ll still be able to smell it.
Confession: I don’t really care for the Olympics. Nevertheless, I was watching women’s figure skating the other night because I was sick, and the other channels were interrupting their programs for wall-to-wall thunderstorm coverage. According to the commentators, the Italian Carolina Kostner had a bad run at the Vancouver Olympics and had planned to give it up except for her mother telling her to continue for the love of skating. And Kostner nailed it that night. I don’t pretend to know how scoring works in figure skating, except that even people who know better think it’s rigged. She got a bronze nevertheless.
Now I know it’s not a perfect metaphor, because she’s a professional skater anyway, and would have continued skating even if she gave up competition. But the ease and grace with which she skated reminded me of the Zen archer’s koan to “be the arrow”. She appeared to be in the moment and enjoying the hell out of it rather than worrying about winning a medal.
And because everything is like writing, that’s what I want to find again. To forget about the “medals” of publishing and financial gain and accolades, and to simply do it because I want to do it. Because I love it, and because it makes me feel like a better, fuller human being.
To go and smell the roses, and leave the mountain of shit to those who still think that lonely rose is the only rose worth smelling.
That’s what I want. But it’s a hard thing to convince myself. That all this effort might be worthwhile, even if no one ever read a word.“Now, it all comes down to numbers. Now, I’m glad that I have quit. Folks these days just don’t do nothing simply for the love of it.” – Don Henley, “A Month of Sundays
Chuck Wendig wrote a post yesterday in which he basically said that self-publishers need to stop half-assing things. Then he followed up today by saying it’s not the readers’ job to be the new gatekeepers.
I read them, and had the little argument in my head like I normally do with articles that happen to trigger my bullshit detector. Normally, that’s enough, and the effort to type out a response doesn’t seem like it’s worth it. But what the hell.
To quote his own summary of his first post: “blah, blah, blah.” It’s not that there’s anything revolutionary in there, it’s that it’s such painfully bland advice that it seems hardly worth stating except to get the usual crowds to shout, “Rah! Rah! That self-published shit on Amazon needs to get its act together!”
Right. There are lots of crappy self-published books on Amazon. They should try harder. Art harder, as Wendig himself said so well. Get a good cover, learn to sling a sentence, fix the fucking typos, and stop acting like it’s goddamn amateur hour.
I hate to break it to you, Chuck, but these poor slobs think they’re playing in the majors. They think their book is pretty damn good and they love that cover they threw together in a half hour with PowerPoint.
Nobody sets out to make a shitty book. Somehow, most people manage to. Some of those people manage to get their shitty books published by The Big However-Many-Are-Left. Some of those people slap their shitty book up on Amazon like a toddler discovering that their poop makes good paint. Most people shove their shitty books in the drawer and never do anything with them.
I celebrate all the shitty books being published on Amazon. Because some of them aren’t. Maybe a few of them are good. Their authors probably can’t tell the difference–hopefully they get some input that can guide them toward writing better before they press the publish button. But let’s be honest–the books that pass through agents and editors on their way to the publishing houses often suck, too. It’s a magical and mysterious process that cannot be simplified into a formula or Hollywood movies would be better than they are. Some of those who are edited to hell and back will still not end up with a very good book, and sometimes a writer will create a classic with little to no editing.
So more is better. More self-publishing means that the crappy books will proliferate, but so will the good ones. The authors who publish crap will probably not know, and they may never get any better. Look at auditions for shows like American Idol. The poor saps who come in and think they are sirens but sound more like frogs should have had someone to tell them how bad they were before they stood before nationally broadcast cameras. But even if they’d been told they sucked, they still probably would have thought they were good. The other thing you notice in such competitions is how often the talented people cannot believe it. This is because incompetent people overrate their competence, and the highly competent underrate their own. Science!
The signal to noise ratio is terrible, but then it always has been. Hundreds of thousands of books are published a year and there are some 130 million books ever published. Most readers will never venture beyond what they are recommended by their friends and see on the bestseller lists. Those brave souls who delve into the depths of the hundreds of thousands of self- and pro- published books will have to develop thick skins. They will either laugh or weep and gnash their teeth at the dreck they find. And there will be many self-published books that will never be discovered. I have one on Amazon at the moment. I think it’s alright. But it’s not burning up any charts.
Most readers are much better “editors” than the traditional gatekeepers give them credit for. If they read the back cover and the first page or two, and don’t like it, they won’t buy it. Once or twice getting burned with giving a self-published book a try will teach them to judge them just as harshly as they would a traditionally published book. I just hope they don’t think that all self-published books are bad because of one bad experience. I hope instead they learn the proper lesson: don’t dish out your money unless you think you will like the book, or someone has recommended it to you: the same common sense judgment we apply to every other source of media.
(And I have a whole other thing about how the self-publishing argument has devolved into a discussion of money, but that’s another rant for another time.)
So yeah, I don’t exactly celebrate mediocrity or half-assing things, as the person Wendig quotes (Emily Cantore) says. If you are writing a book: Try your best. Try not to write shit. Ask other people what they think of your writing. If you have trouble with grammar or typos, get it fixed. If you think your book is good, and want it to get noticed, give it a good cover. I hope this is all self-evident. Sometimes these things aren’t. If you’ve never written much before, and this stuff sounds like Greek, study up on it before you press “publish”: Don’t be like those people who think they are more competent than they are.
But don’t wait forever, either. Because maybe it’s time. If you’ve covered all the basic steps, and you’ve researched all the stuff you need to know to put your best effort out there, then maybe you should pull the trigger.
I don’t celebrate half-assing it, but I do celebrate all of the people putting their asses out in public. Because it’s not easy for some of us, and sometimes you will get it handed back to you. I celebrate taking a chance on yourself.[Top]
Marketing your writing with a blog is like a grocer trying to sell meat by giving away fruit.
Maybe Joe likes fruit, but that’s no guarantee he’s going to like your meat. He might even be a vegetarian. Conversely, Pam may like meat, maybe she’s been coming to buy her prime cuts from you for years. Maybe she doesn’t eat much fruit, and she wonders why you’re giving away all this weird foreign fruit instead of discounting her regular meat purchase.
As you may have surmised, I love a good metaphor. I really love taking a good metaphor to its breaking point.
John Scalzi was well known for his blog before he ever became a bestselling science fiction writer. He had been giving away fruit for years. So most of his customers, at least those who weren’t vegetarians (or didn’t like sci-fi), were willing to take him up on his meat special (when his novel Old Man’s War was published). But there are those who like his novels, light military science fiction in the early Heinlein tradition, who are quickly put off by his somewhat liberal leanings and tendency to blog about them. Often, an inflammatory topic will elicit an outraged comment to the effect that “I will never buy any of your books again.”
Orson Scott Card was comfortably in my top three favorite writers in high school and college. The first couple of Ender’s Game books and Seventh Son books remain favorites. Prime cuts. But in the last decade, with the transparency offered by the internet, I’ve learned a lot more about Card’s politics, and frankly, his strange fruit has soured my taste for his literary offerings.
So if you’re a writer, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that you should blog to market your work. If your personality is perfectly in tune with your books, that might make sense. Even then, you are going to do or say something that will piss someone off and lose readers. You also could gain like-minded readers who like both your fruit and meat. My point here is that it’s likely to be a wash. Card seems to be doing fine even though he’s pissed off half the blogosphere. Ditto Scalzi.
I’m going to blog for myself and anyone who happens to stumble along and think what I type is worth their time. Basically the same way I write books and stuff.
Write what you want. What’s the point of it otherwise?
I don’t think this holds true just for writing. Most good marketing is just human beings sharing what they’re interested in and think is cool. Word of mouth is the ultimate. Trying to goose people into buying crap they don’t want is manipulative and douchebaggy. Telling people what’s cool is being a good human being. Which do you want to be?
Then be that kind of marketer.[Top]
For its sixth Breakthrough Novel Award, Amazon is ditching Penguin as its publishing partner. In the opening paragraph of the article on the Christian Science Monitor, they quote Ann Patchett as saying this past summer that “Amazon aggressively wants to kill us.”
I love Ann Patchett. She’s written some wonderful books (perhaps my favorite is The Magician’s Assistant) and she co-owns a cozy little bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books, which she opened when the two nicest bookstores in the city closed up in about the span of a year. She’s also a delightful speaker, and seems generous and friendly in person. Unfortunately, no matter how vehement her rhetoric against Amazon, I have to disagree with her.[Top]
I just discovered that Duotrope Digest is moving to a paid model after being free for some seven years (on the donation model). Duotrope is a great resource for writers, including listings of a vast number of markets and a very useful submissions tracker for keeping up with what stories have been sent where. In all the time they’ve been on the donation model, they’ve never hit their targets, which either means their targets are too high, or writers are too tight (or broke).
I’ve donated in the past. About $10/year that I’ve seriously used it. Which is two, even though it covered a timespan of four years. The new cost is going to be $5/month or $50/year. That’s a little high, but I’d be tempted to pay, for the ease of their search features and the tracker. It’s a little high because unless and until I’m publishing regularly, that’s a bit much for a hobby. Still, they have the easiest to use features as far as I know, and I spend stupid hobby money all the time.
It’s not the price that really concerns me. At least not directly. As useful as the listings and tracker is the data mined from hundreds of users inputting their submissions. There are stats for the fastest and slowest responding markets. Every market gives an estimated response time, but those can vary widely in their accuracy. Through Duotrope, you could see if a magazine said “allow 60 days” but returned most submissions in less than a week. That suggested that one’s story held for 60 days had received more consideration. Conversely, you could see the markets which were simply chronically late.
If most writers using the service decide that the price is too high, as the early feedback suggests, the amount of data on all of these markets is going to drop enormously. Considering only 10% of users have ever donated, one could expect the data input to drop by 90% (depending on how active those non-donating users were). Not to mention most users did not donate $50/year, which suggests that fewer than 10% will subscribe.
Without all of the user input of response times, the usefulness of the Duotrope database could drop exponentially over the next year, leaving them with only two valuable services, market search and submissions tracking, which can be accomplished for free through Google, Ralan, and others I’m certain and a spreadsheet.
I like Duotrope, and I don’t want them to shoot themselves in the foot. Losing all the free users may take away their most uniquely valuable asset–A wide range of market response data.
If they kept the submissions tracker and search functions free, they would preserve the data collections functions and could charge for more detail on individual markets. Because I might pay $5/month for that data, but I won’t pay that much for a spreadsheet and a search engine.[Top]
It’s been about ten months since I “indie-published” my first novel, Chrysalis.
(I don’t really like the term indie publishing, because that signifies books from the small press, rather than what most of the ebook crowd are doing, which is self-publishing. But that term is loaded, too, since for so long it was synonymous with the vanity press. I guess it’s much like using “graphic novels” instead of comics; neither term is really apt, but they’re all we’ve got.)
I was kind of curious to see what response a book would get with no promotion. Nobody knows who I am, so no one would be looking for my book. All it had going for it were the cover that I had Photoshopped together and my words inside. (Which may have been two strikes against it, but just keep those opinions to yourself…) A few weeks after I clicked the publish button, we did a little announcement on Facebook, and the first few sales trickled in. 14 in all, undoubtedly from friends and family.
Even with such a pitiful number, it was a little rush to get that tiny royalty check, barely enough to pay for the photos I’d licensed for the cover.
Then, for the next eight months, it’s been mostly silence. I published to B&N’s Nook as well, where I got another single sale, presumably from another friend, but that’s not even enough to trigger a royalty payment, so that was my donation to B&N. Randomly, in March, there was another sale on Amazon–not sure if that was a late friend & family purchase or a stranger.
Not long after that, I decided to sign up for Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library, to see if that would have any effect. The only catch, that I would have to delete the ebook from B&N, didn’t seem like much of a downside, considering the sales. But the Lending Library didn’t make any difference either. No one could find my book.
In all this time, there hasn’t been a single review either. This is the downside of self-publishing. You put your work out and there is no bang; there’s not even a whimper.
I’m not stupid. I know that some amount of promotion is necessary. But I don’t want to be the guy spamming Twitter or Amazon forums or whatever other corners of the internet saying, “Buy my book!”
The advice of several other “indie” authors is to have multiple “products” available, so that when a reader finds one book and likes it, they have something else to purchase as well. The data supports that, too–most of the big selling self-published books have been part of series. Since I don’t have another book completed, that option is out for the time being, though I am working on more.
However, my three month stint in the KDP Select (the Lending Library) was almost up, and I hadn’t used the other “perk” of the program. For five days of the three months, you can list your book as free. Doesn’t seem like much of a perk–giving something away instead of selling it. But it’s another avenue of promotion, and I figured I might as well give it a shot. This whole self-publishing venture has been a bit of an experiment anyway.
I set Chrysalis to go free for the five full days, Wednesday through Sunday. I changed the book description because the prior one (still listed in the sidebar of this blog) seemed a little bland.
Wednesday morning, I didn’t expect much. After ten months of nothing much, I expected nothing much again. To make matters worse, I woke up to an e-mail rejecting a story I’d submitted to the Writers of the Future contest. After moping around for most of the morning, I decided to check and see how my giveaway was going.
At 11am, 73 people had downloaded Chrysalis and it was listed at number 48 on the free suspense thrillers list. I almost fell out of my seat. I hadn’t tweeted about it, or announced it in any way. Who are these people who scour Amazon looking for free ebooks? (Google leads me to this website. Perhaps that’s it.)
It peaked on the chart this morning at #22, with 206 copies downloaded. At that point, my ebook was out-“selling” a James Patterson freebie. The pace has slowed considerably today, as the people who are willing to take a chance on an unreviewed book tapers off.
So what now?
It’s been a pretty cool experience to know that over 200 people have downloaded my book in two days. I know that it doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run, but it’s been a nice morale booster. My biggest hope and greatest fear is that some small percentage of those who downloaded the book will read it and review it on Amazon. I hope they like it and fear they won’t. I now know that I should have done this freebie promotion sooner, as the quickest potential way to get reviews. It is a gamble, of course, since a few negative reviews could sink the book just as well as no reviews. Except that the right kind of negative reviews could be a boon. I dunno how many Amazon reviews saying a book is “too dark and violent and has too much profanity and sex and I just didn’t like any of the characters” have made me want to read the book.
Back to work on the next thing.[Top]
Apparently, Joe Straczynski is upset.
The so-called blogosphere, comics section, has been calling out JMS on something he said on a panel at C2E2. From his FB post, he said, quote, “Did Alan Moore get a crummy contract? Yes. So has everyone at this table. Worse was Siegal and Shuster. Worse was a lot of people.” He goes on in his FB post to describe comments by Eric Stephenson, one of the heads of Image Comics, to the effect that JMS is saying that creative types should just accept that the world isn’t fair and should just accept it.
And JMS refutes that at some length, saying that what he meant was that all writers, artists, etc, have to work their way up through the business, starting out with crappy contracts (“get screwed”) and working their way up to better contracts as their clout grows (and as they prove they are better artists).
I haven’t read any of the internet kerfuffle that started this, I’ve only read JMS’ post on Facebook, so I don’t really know what anybody else is saying. With that caveat, I still think this brings up some interesting issues around Alan Moore and Watchmen.
First, going solely on JMS’ quote of himself, it didn’t sound like he was saying what he now claims he was saying. What it sounds like he is saying is, Alan Moore is a whiny baby. Frankly, it sounds like that even more now that he’s clarified his comment. He doesn’t deny that Moore got screwed in his Watchmen contract; he just claims that’s par for the course. The proper response for Moore would have been to use his new clout as the creator of Watchmen to get better terms for his next contract. Hell, DC even went to him several years ago and tried to give him better terms if he would agree to sequels and prequels, and he rejected the offer.
JMS seems to be saying that Moore needs to grow up and work within the system. After all, the comics’ publishing world is a lot fairer than in the days when Siegal and Shuster lost all their rights to Superman and were forced to work such jobs as janitor while DC made millions.
But wait… Siegal and Shuster got screwed, and then they never got a better contract. So if that’s what JMS meant, then his explanation doesn’t track.
I think it’s much more likely that JMS is upset that Alan Moore not only disapproves of the Before Watchmen prequels, but calls them “completely shameless.” It’s even possible that JMS is hurt, as he considers Moore to have written one of his favorite comic stories, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” I know I would be. If I had the opportunity to write a story in the Watchmen universe and its creator said that he only “wanted this not to happen,” I’d feel pretty shitty about it, too. And it might make me angry.
And if I was being constantly asked why I would work on Before Watchmen when Alan Moore got screwed by DC in the 80s, and I myself had been screwed multiple times by Warner Brothers (ironically, the current owner of DC) over the widely-praised TV series Babylon 5? Yeah, I can see how JMS might be fed up.
Thing is, JMS and Moore have different personalities. (Shocking, I know!) JMS seems more or less like a regular guy. Sure, he’s a sci-fi geek, but he works hard and plays within the system, and when he sees something that needs to be changed, he will fight for it, again, within the system. Alan Moore, on the other hand, is a wizard and a magician. I don’t mean that figuratively, either. When he broke with DC in the late 80s, he didn’t go across town to Marvel, instead, he started his own ill-fated publishing company.
If JMS is annoyed over the Before Watchmen blowback, Moore must be seething. An archly amused seethe, perhaps. He seems to want to put Watchmen behind him. DC never gives in to his demands until years later, and by then he doesn’t care anymore. He apparently left Swamp Thing not only over contracts, but also over the Mature Readers label. Money doesn’t seem to be much of a motivator for Moore; in fact, just the opposite–he’s refused money for any of the recent movie adaptations of his work. I think he wants respect on his own terms, and I think he hates corporate motives (for good or ill).
It comes as no surprise to me that JMS welcomes the chance to play in the Watchmen sandbox and that Moore proclaims a pox on all their houses. JMS is a craftsman and Moore is an artiste.
Funnily enough, I love them both. Watchmen is my favorite comic and Babylon 5 my favorite TV show.
And lastly, should Before Watchmen even exist?
Sure, why not? A large chunk of Alan Moore’s oeuvre is a mash-up of his prior influences. Lost Girls and A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are re-imaginings of their Victorian source material. (And if there is ever a movie that Moore should be angry about…) Watchmen itself is at heart a realist examination of typical super-hero myth. So, absolutely, other creators should take a shot at Watchmen.
But will it be good?
Only time will tell, but the first reports aren’t promising. Unfortunately, the writers and artists seem to be sticking somewhat slavishly to the source material. What’s likely to come from a fannish “expansion” of Watchmen is lukewarm, watered-down gruel. To do it justice, a new Watchmen should almost be a re-telling. A new staging of Hamlet can shed new light on the play, but I don’t think anyone is clamoring for the details on the early reign of Hamlet’s father. I suppose what I mean is that a new piece of the Watchmen myth, if it is to be worthy of the original, needs to be audacious rather than reverential.
I don’t know who is up to that task…[Top]
“In an abundance model, scarcity looks like a mistake.”
Which has really interesting things to say about the state of publishing, but also is applicable to so much more in the entertainment industry section of our so-called digital age. Why do people get so upset that they can’t get the latest episodes of a TV show, right now, when they want it, and in whatever form they want it?
Yes, people are greedy and impatient, but that’s not the totality of the issue. People are not completely pathological or they would never pay for anything ever, and shoplifting would be a bigger issue than it is. iTunes and Amazon would sell no digital content if that were the case.
“In an abundance model, scarcity looks like a mistake.” Whether in books, or TV shows, or movies, or games.[Top]
You know, the guy who only posts about how ebooks are changing the world for the better and in the future all writers will poop gold bricks.
Here are two articles I came across today that articulate the two sides of the Amazon argument better than I can (or want to):
It’s a fascinating article. Contrast the tone of the headline and the copy with the actual content. The tone is one of fear and mistrust, even though the quotes are overwhelmingly positive about Amazon and e-publishing. I would almost suspect that this was a propaganda piece by Big Publishing except that it’s from PBS, and I’ve heard very similar fear-laced concerns from other established authors.
This post on Konrath’s blog almost seems like a direct response to the above:
I am watching this paradigm shift in writing and distribution and publishing with much curiosity. I am very optimistic about the new opportunities for writers, though wary of the hyperbole, and sad to see the paper-based book trade that I’ve known my whole life disappear. (For those who say that books will never go away, I agree, but it will be more like how vinyl has never gone away–in ten years, I predict that paper books will only exist as fetish items for people like me who love the feel and smell of the “real” thing. Normal people will read their books on Kindles and iPads, and think I’m weird for paying $50 for dead trees.) So no, I haven’t drank the kool-aid, but I see the writing on the wall. And this change could be very beneficial for writers–if we can seize the moment.[Top]