A penny for your thoughts

Thomas Hardy

As a modern book shopper, I use Amazon, Ebay and Alibris because buying online and having something delivered to my door appeals to me in terms of time management.  Also, I do not have to drive in traffic, however light it may be that day.  While I do enjoy the periodic visit to Borders or Barnes and Noble for a cappuccino and a chance to leaf through whatever books catch my eye (and which I may end up going home and ordering online), my primary method of buying books is via the web.

This has led to sad discoveries. Books published in the past decade (or ever in fact), which I consider classics, are often found being sold for disgracefully low prices. If I hadn’t read them, I would wonder if they were any good.  After all, critical value rendered in price does apply to movies. Movies that sell for a penny usually do so for a reason: they do not really bear re-watching, at least not more than once.  People tend to keep good movies nowadays the way my mother, father and grandmother keep/kept books. Book readers hold onto books in case, at any moment, the desire to leaf through the pages should strike, and sometimes out of awe for the experience just lived.  Reading a book can be a glowing, mind-sensuous process that cannot possibly be thrust into a two-hour time slot.

To get back to sad discoveries, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is today going for ten cents, used, on Amazon.  I read Cold Mountain right after seeing the movie. It was marvelous, better than the movie. I did the same thing with The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. While the filmed version starring Ciarán Hinds is wonderful, I could linger over passages and ideas on Hardy’s pages in a way that the movie did not allow me, even with the use of a pause button.

Speaking of The Mayor of Casterbridge, it too is being sold for a penny today on Amazon, in paper, not counting the shipping charges. I find this disturbing, even though the sellers are secondhand. Do publishers print too many books? Is the market so flooded that a book should be worth no more than a penny? Are there any trees left? These are sad days for book lovers AND writers, I think, even when the flooded market makes it easier for all of us to acquire an armload of paperbacks.

Published is published in today’s world

When I began writing on a serious basis in the mid-eighties, self-publishing was known as subsidy publishing. A writer paid a subsidy press a certain amount to publish his or her book. That fee often ran into the tens of thousands of dollars. In return, the publisher agreed to print and market the author’s book. I never went that route so I can’t say for sure, but I’d be very surprised if that fee included any content or line editing. What would be the point? The odds anyone would actually read it (beyond the writer’s friends and family) were pretty slim. I would imagine the same went for the marketing promise. A few brochures and bookmarks sent out to bookstores, most of which were likely tossed directly into the trash. Subsidy publishing was the kiss of death.

My how times have changed. Today’s writers who opt to self-publish do so via local or internet printers, and the price is much less that you might think. (I will get into the specifics of that cost in an upcoming post.) The point I want to make today is that the stigma surrounding self-publishing is evaporating at a rapid pace. While there will always be writers who turn up their noses at the idea of publishing their own book, for the most part, they are the same writers who will never see their work in print. As Julia and I have discussed numerous times here on our blog, the odds of selling your book to a major publisher are astronomical. Even if you have previously published books, the odds are still weighed heavily against you placing your next book unless your previous one made oodles of money for the publisher. Selling to a small publisher is a whole other story, and that too is a post for another day.

E-books and Kindle, etc. remain options for any writer, but if Julia and my experiences count for anything, most readers do not consider electronic works “real” books. I can understand that line of thinking to a point. Given the relatively low cost involved in having a book printed today (as long as you can design your own cover and turn in a formatted PDF), readers might ask, if your book is any good why aren’t you willing to spend the money to get some copies printed? 

There’s another advantage to a physical book: it provides writers with a better tool for promotion. Imagine how many e-books are submitted to newspapers and magazines for review. If the intended recipient opts to delete the e-book, it takes only a click on the keyboard. If that reviewer gets an actual book in his or her hands, however, I’m betting they will, at the very least, page through it before tossing into the trash. And who knows? Maybe they will actually read a chapter or two, like it, and post a review.

Perhaps the most important advantage is that people will be impressed when you hand them one of your books. If you happen to mention you had it published yourself, they are likely to shrug and say, so what?  It’s a real book. They can hold it in their hands, stick in their book bag, share it with a friend. And, they met the author who kindly signed their copy! All in all, a win-win experience.

I still believe E-books are the wave of the future, but that future seems to be rolling toward shore a lot more slowly than most of us thought. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Edgar Allen Poe and the American Literary Dream

The county library of my adopted hometown of Fresno knows how to celebrate writers, even those whom they cannot claim (Of course Saroyan is the star of stars, but Connie and I, who have both adopted this city, intend to change all that, come the Day of our entombment, ash scatterings, peace-pipe smoking rain dances or what-have-you.)

Forgive our/my gothic penchant in the spirit of Halloween; this year Fresno celebrates the literary idol of my adolescence, Edgar Allen Poe. His funeral was reenacted last week and he has kindly raised himself from the dead to meet the public at various venues throughout Fresno and its outlying regions for the entire month of October and a teensy bit of November. I have half a mind to brush up on “The Raven,” long ago memorized for junior high speech class.

As I was perusing the library literature on Poe and the events to commemorate his literary voice, I paused while reading the historical tidbit that Poe was the first American writer to ever insist on living by his pen, which thereby explains his marked poverty.

What does that mean to us now, when the predictability of young teens becoming enchanted by Poe’s brooding verse or haunted tales is more reliable than a satellite clock-setting? It means what it has always meant: you cannot force people to pay for your literary work, but if it is good, it will survive you.

Truly, most good, even wonderful literary work will not gain a living for the writer when it has just been written, and it will certainly gain no more than one penny a paperback copy for anyone but the writer him or herself ten years down the road (unless you do a reprinting on your own and sell on your own), but if it strikes a significant chord that resonates in the hearts of others and continues resonating because of the attractiveness, gothic or otherwise, of its themes and style, then it will surely be remembered one, even two, hundred years later.

Connie and I are learning this lesson, and we advise our writer friends to pass it on: write what you love and enjoy writing it. Become a better writer just because you feel like it. Learn how to get your writing “out” there–for the sake of your passion. Don’t think of it as marketing, and by all means, do not imagine you will live comfortably off your writing. Only about one in a million manage, and Edgar Allen Poe, enduring literary hero of too many to count, was not able to cut it.