The iPad’s negative effect on writers

Today we learned more details about Apple’s latest gadget, the iPad. If you’re a writer, take note that the iPad features yet another new electronic reading device. I’m not talking about the iPad’s supposed ability to transform (yet again) the way magazines and newspapers and video are delivered on the web. Frankly, I don’t care about any of that. I prefer to watch my video and read my newspapers on my desktop computer’s 22 inch widescreen monitor. But maybe that’s just me. The point to focus on, my fellow writers, is the agreement Apple has made with several large publishers (among them: HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and MacMillan) to provide “exclusive” electronic books with prices ranging from $12.99 to $14.99. That’s quite a bit more than Kindle’s average price of $9.99, but let’s peer a little deeper into the ramifications for us, the authors.

If you’re selling a book on Kindle, you know Amazon takes 65% of the sale, leaving you with 35%. I’m not sure what the authors’ percentage will be for these new Apple titles, but I’d be surprised if it’s more than the standard 10% royalty they pay for books printed the old-fashioned way. Ten percent of $15 is a buck and a half. If you have an agent, you can subtract another 20% of that, leaving you with a grand total of $1.20 per book. And that’s for the “high end” price. Publishers, on the other hand, rake in $13.50 per sale. They will surely argue they don’t make nearly that much after deducting layout, design, and marketing costs. But the truth is, they do very little of any of that. Most POD companies offer those services at a very nominal fee; publishers who do their own in-house pay even less. So what does it all mean? I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: any writer who denies the future of our business is quickly moving away from paper books to electronic-only files isn’t living in the real world. The question is, are we going to drag our feet while publishers move forward or will we lead the charge by taking charge?

Why my hair is short

I used to have long, thick hair (a foot or more below my shoulders) that was the envy of every woman in the room. Straight, but not too straight, full of body and shine. Wavy without being frizzy. It was usually the first thing guys noticed about me, and the most common topic for hit lines: “Hey, can I touch your hair?”

Well, suffice it to say that was more than a few years ago—during my high school and college years to be exact. I’ll let you do the math.

The first time I considered cutting it was during a sitting for my high school graduation photos. I mentioned to the photographer that perhaps I should wait, come back after I’d gotten a haircut. He stared at me as if I’d slapped him. “Haircut? Are you crazy? Why in the world would you want to cut such beautiful hair?”

I let him take the photos that day. And I changed my mind about the haircut. Why eliminate one of my best assets as I headed into my senior year?

That asset snared me an impressive boyfriend for most of that year (I’ll call him Jerry). Jerry was a member of the cool crowd, a handsome, charming fellow with a reputation for fun. And, best of all, he was an older guy—already graduated and working full time. Jerry didn’t suit my personality very well, at the least the personality I’d had for most of my high school years (i.e. shy, quiet, studious). But what the hell. Just knowing I was dating Jerry caused my classmates to totally reevaluate their opinions of me. Suddenly I was complimented on my clothes every day by cheerleaders who had never spoken to me. I was encouraged to attend after school events I had previously avoided like the plague. And, most amazing of all, I was invited to go with the extremely cool crowd to a Rolling Stones concert (their “farewell tour” at the time, ha ha). I was very flattered of course. But I ended up turning down the invite because, as fate would have it, it happened to be on the same night that I had a ticket to see Elvis in concert.

What is the point of my topic today? What could it possibly have to do with writing?

Well, here’s the thing: Last week I went to my hairdresser, Judy, for a cut. Due to the holidays and my daughter’s wedding, two months had elapsed since my last visit. My hair was shaggy, too long, and the ends were flipping up and out—a look I totally despise. (I loved the old Mary Tyler Moore show, but oh dear Lord, that awful flip!) The first thing Judy mentioned was how well she thought my hair had grown out. In other words, she liked the longer hairstyle.

I respect Judy and her opinion. She’s very good at what she does. But in this instance, I made it clear I disagreed. I came home with my hair as short as it’s been since last summer, and I am once again a happy camper. Now I can get up in the morning, shower, run a comb through my hair, blow dry for five minutes, and get on with my day. That routine will hold for the next six weeks, after which I’ll return to Judy for another cut.

As writers, we all are pressed for time. My hair, pretty as others seem to think it is, is a 40-minute job to dry and style when it’s below shoulder length. And if I don’t do it every day, it looks like I spent the previous night on the street. Writing is about making choices, establishing priorities. Short hair is just one of the choices I have embraced in order to free up more time to write. I could list another dozen or so, but you get the point. At least I hope you do.

Definition: What is a Writer?

The number of people who think of themselves as writers is far greater than the number who are writers.  A writer is someone who writes.  I wish to argue this using definition.

Shades of gray: If I drive stunt cars once a year, then I am a once-a-year stunt car hobbyist. If I do it once a year for enough money to live on, then I am a professional stunt car driver and can keep my mouth shut about how often I do it. If I do it every day without being paid, or once a month (think regularly, okay?)  pretty much without fail, then I am an amateur stunt car driver.

The word “amateur” is applied to activities that not everyone does. If everyone does it, then there is no question of being an amateur or professional. You just do it.  You have to do it, just as you and I have to breathe. I breathe for a living. And so do you. Does that mean we are professional breathers? We all know it pays to breathe.

What about this: everyone writes. Everyone I know, anyway.  Unlike breathing, not everyone I know who can write does.

Let’s compare it to eating. Everyone eats, too. But if you stop eating, you are considered to be starving, which will have the opposite effect of eating. Technically, you are no longer an eater. You were once. Were you a good eater? That depends on whether the goal of eating—health and life—was adequately attained. If, given a dutifully functioning body, your activity of eating resulted in health, then you performed eating well and correctly. You may have been (or still are) better than an amateur eater; you were professional.

Hold on; I just established “amateur” as applying to activities that not everyone does. So breathing and eating do not work in terms of being broken down into amateur and professional, do they? What if I could give a definition of eating being both amateur and professional (a means of making a living)?

Professional eating usually results from study. One kind of professional eater is a nutritionist; the other is a food critic, often writing about restaurants.  A more outdated professional eater is the royal food taster who eats in order to determine whether food has been poisoned. (Voila, a case of a “professional” eater who does not need study.)

I contend a writer is a person who not only writes, but who feels compelled to do so. It has nothing to do with whether a writer is any good in the eyes of a wide general public, dead or alive, nor indeed to a captured audience of kindred souls interested in whatever topic the writer writes about and in whatever style.

Think of the writer who is very good, like Emily Dickenson who wrote for no one but herself.  Now think of the writer who is very bad, stylistically, in the opinion of at least ten thousand people with literary degrees, yet which person runs a blog and has a captured audience of three who enjoy what the writer is writing in his or her bad style.

There are people who enjoy dreaming of themselves as writers, fantasizing what it would be like to write the book of their dreams.  Are they writers? No. They are dreamers. Nothing wrong with that.  However, they are not actually dreaming of being writers, but of having written something.

Sidestep to sculpting. It would be lovely if I could say, “How do you like this wondrous statue of President Obama I have just done in my garden?”  For that statue to be good enough for reporters to want to interview me and take a picture of my work, I would have to spend time learning to sculpt well.  If my statue of President Obama could be mistaken for Hilary Clinton, I doubt I would achieve what I want from the dream—the fame, admiration, and money.

If it matters not to me whether my sculpture looks like Obama, Clinton or my husband, then it is the act of sculpting that defines me, and you will find me doing it in my garden, for the pleasure of the activity and what I learn to appreciate from it.