Does stupid sell?

As dylanmcpreviously noted, both Julia and I have newly completed manuscripts we are attempting to market the old fashioned way, that being the agent and conventional publisher route. We have saleable books in every respect of the word. Well written, with interesting characters and plots that tie in with popular culture. Julia’s in a form of ghost hunting story with light humor. Mine is a kid shooter book that explores what these horrendous deeds do to the people who are often forgotten after the fact: the friends and family members of the victims. It honestly amazes me that neither of us has received more than a mere blink of interest from agents, which once again begs the age old question: what do today’s agents want?

Since I am sort of a TV addict, I’m going to use a current television series to tie into the title of this post. The show is Hostages, currently airing on CBS. The show has an interesting premise at first glance: a doctor who was scheduled to operate on the president is forced to pledge she will kill said president in order to save herself and her family, all of whom are being held hostage by a rouge FBI agent. The problem is, this show is being stretched over a series of 15 episodes when it should have been, at best, a 90 minute made-for-TV film. Each week something more ridiculous happens to keep said hostages from escaping the clutches of the evil FBI guy. Last week’s gem gave viewers (the few who are left) the reason why this seemingly competent, decorated FBI agent has gone ballistic. For those unfamiliar with the show, which probably includes most of you reading this, the explanation was that his wife is dying of cancer but her cancer is curable if she gets a bone marrow transplant. Alas, there is only one match in the entire world: her estranged father, who—Are you ready?—just happens to be the president. To quote the infamous Forest Gump, stupid is as stupid does. So, after that “shocking” revelation, the doctor becomes sympathetic to her hostage holder and begs him to give her some time to find another suitable bone marrow donor.

So now for the question on all of your minds: why in the world am I still watching this loony show? Pure curiosity. I want to see how many more stupid plot twists (a generous description, I realize) this group of writers (again, a generous description) were capable of coming up with. I can’t help but wonder how much longer it will be before FBI man and Killer Doc wind up in bed together. That, in turn, could lead to a plot to kill Doc’s husband, who, for the most part, is the only sane character in the entire show. Even the actors, including the handsome and talented Dylan McDermott, seem anxious for this thing to just end.

And finally, to answer my own question, yes, I guess stupid does sell, as long as you know how to wrap it in a fancy package and top it off with a pretty red bow.

Another Seismic Shift in Publishing Land: How Will it Affect Writers and Agents?

If the merger between Random House and Penguin really goes through, let me tell you how that is going to narrow authors’ chances at getting agents, and agents’ chances of having a title accepted: a lot. From my own experience with a very good agent who had/has made a name for herself, an agent can only submit to one editor of a house, even if that editor is one of twenty editors in one of twenty publishing houses that are under the umbrella of a big name like, uh let’s see. . . . Random House, the largest publishing house in the world.

Penguin Group is owned by Pearson. I am familiar with this company because the Pearson representative for textbooks in my part of Central California can be communicated with by email only and will send out the requested exam copy that teachers express an interest in. However, Bedford-St. Martins, A U.S. company specializing in Humanities textbooks for colleges, is owned by the Bedford, Freeman and Worth Publishing Group owned by the Stuttgart, Germany-based George Von Holtzbrink Publishing Group.

The Bedford-St. Martins local book rep is someone I consider a friend, who meets me for coffee to discuss the new batch of books for next semester’s classes along with any other teachers I can get to come along. Then we discuss the book publishing industry at large. Being number two definitely makes The Bedford representative work harder! I doubt she takes a breath during the first ten weeks of any semester, when teachers and departments are considering books, because she seems to be in ten places at once.

But I drift from my topic, which is how the merger of two giants is going to change things. If the practice of only one submission per editor per house per megalithic publishing company holds as standard practice, agents already in the business will be relying even more (like they don’t already) on the 20% income from paychecks of writers who have already made it in the business,  New agents will. . . .

You fill in the blank. It is a changing industry. As long as people want to write, and people want to read, there have got to be ways that new writers come to the notice of readers. I honestly do not know where that will leave agents.

Johnny Depp a new publisher?

It was hard enough competing with actors and socialites who write books. An unknown writer has to be ten times more fascinating than a celebrity to get a glance from an agent or publisher. Now, Johnny Depp uses the royal “we” to acknowledge his illustrious foot in the publishing door.

“I pledge, on behalf of Infinitum Nihil that we will do our best to deliver publications worthy of people’s time, of people’s concern, publications that might ordinarily never have breached the parapet,” Depp said in a statement released by HarperCollins. “For this dream realized, we would like to salute HarperCollins for their faith in us and look forward to a long and fruitful relationship together.”

How, we ask, will the royal Depp “they” (him, himself and he) help the little person get a boost over the dike? Ahem, the parapet?

Why, by publishing what celebrities like Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie have to say about the trials of the common person.

What happened to the good ole days when celebrities sold salad dressing and cologne?

— Thanks, Dennis Abrams, for the nifty news.

Maybe people really do want sensationalism

If there’s one sure-fire way to break through as an author, it’s to sell a book about a recent tragedy. And if that tragedy involves a celebrity or politician, all the better. Most of these tell-all books manage to arrive in stores within weeks. No one worries about how well written they are, or how fact driven. Only that they are about some media crazed event that’s been hogging the nightly news. I used to think publishers were to blame for this trend; after all, they’re the ones who buy the books. But, to be fair, if the general public didn’t buy them, publishers would stop rushing them to market. Maybe instead of the upcoming ten to twenty titles that will be centered on the media’s latest fascination, Casey Anthony, we’d have only one or two. And maybe those two would actually be worth the price of admission.

I didn’t follow Casey Anthony’s case very closely.  I knew the basics from what I saw on the news or read in the paper, but I didn’t spend countless hours in front of CNN or MSNBC or FOX, hanging on every little detail. Naturally I felt bad for the family. The death of a child is a terrible thing, and if little Caylee was murdered, that makes it all so much worse. Yet from what I gathered by news accounts, prosecutors were never able to prove how Caylee died let alone that she was murdered—by her mother or anyone else. The cause of death remains unknown.

I’m not sure what it was about this case that caused such a media frenzy. (Could it really be as simple as Casey’s tattoo?) Awful as it is, children die every day, some from illness, others by freak accidents. A smaller number fall victim to foul play. But how many of those children wind up at the center of the 24-hour news cycle? Thankfully for their families, not many. I couldn’t imagine how awful it would be to hear about my child’s demise day after day after day. Countless strangers giving their opinions on TV. Media-hungry attorneys (and I use the “attorney” term loosely here) popping up on every possible venue giving their expert opinions. If there is a lawyer more reprehensible than Nancy Grace, I hope I never see his or her face.

Obviously the media is absolutely stunned by the jury’s speedy verdict in Anthony’s trial, but is it really stunning? As a juror, your duty is to find a defendant innocent unless there is concrete evidence to the contrary. Maybe Casey is guilty, but the prosecution couldn’t prove it, and so the jury did their job, unpleasant as it might be. For now, the members of that jury remain anonymous. But it’s only a matter of time before they surface. Some by choice, others because the media will find out who they are. Some will break down and cash in on the offers of fame and fortune that are sure to follow. Some won’t. But all will be judged in the media, just as Casey Anthony was judged. How could they allow a murderess to go free? A woman who killed her own child? How will they be able to live with themselves?

To be sure, the media will keep this case alive for months, debating among themselves as to whether justice was done. Nancy Grace will keep on it until some newer, even more sensational case comes to light. That’s how she makes her living. But, as disgusted as that makes me feel, I also know that if people just stopped watching and listening to her, she would have to find something else to do. Just as publishers would have to find other books to publish.

When to Self Publish Electronically

Almost anyone who can read and follow the directions for formatting on Amazon Kindle or Smashwords can publish nowadays, if online publishing serves a writer’s purpose.

When is publishing one’s own work a good idea?

In many cases, self publishing, especially electronic (which is free) can be a good idea. It is a good idea when an author has written a good book that he or she would like to make available for purchase or distribution (there are cases in which electronic publication can result in free distribution, as during certain promotions undertaken by Amazon) .  Making a work available through an electronic publisher like Amazon is beneficial to an author working to consolidate a platform because that work will appear during  searches on the author’s name or on certain tags.

The work will be findable should the author suddenly die.

If  a writer’s work has been undertaken for more than just money, that latter point can be  important.  However, it does not matter how findable any work is that is not also good.

Good means readable, enjoyable, or interesting.  It means that there are people on earth who, should they start reading said work, will like it.

Last week I uploaded my play,  The Jinni in the Clock, to Amazon. I wrote it  when my eldest son was about 12 and his little brother, Omar, was 4. I wrote it because we lived in Saudi Arabia and the chances of my children  ever participating in a school play were nil.  I invited the children of my American and British friends (ladies married to Saudi husbands) to come over and rehearse. The kids had a blast, their mothers were the best directors /set and costume designers/stagehands imaginable, and all  involved retain a fondness in their hearts for the tale of the genie-infested clock that passed from owner to owner  in long ago Moorish Spain.

Now both the play and my collection of stories are available on Amazon Kindle.  However, I do not intend to sell all my work this way. My first four books were published by a U.S. publisher and later by a Gulf Arab publisher. I made less money but earned credibility by publishing traditionally.

Every serious writer must endeavor to earn and  hold onto credibility–not always easy to do. (Writers have been known to write a “bad” book after a “good” one.)

The reading public counts on the editors at publishing houses or magazines to sort out the readable from the unreadable.  Electronic publishing is not going to change this process.  The serious writer must attempt to establish credibility by submission to editors, such as our friend Ron Samul at Miranda (see blogroll) who is currently seeking high quality novellas for his online magazine. When an editor with a background in literature feels a work is good enough to be displayed to the world, readers are encouraged to give that work a few minutes–or hours–of their time.

Foggy at fifty

Do readers want to read the type of stories I write? I must confess I’ve begun to wonder. Nearly every sale by new authors seems to be about strange, incredibly dark worlds that none of us mere mortals will ever visit let alone reside in. Personally I find that reassuring given how I’m not very fond of vampires, werewolves, or heretics. Ditto for serial killers, kidnappers, and rapists. Yet it is these very subjects that rule the day where publishers are concerned. The latest to come along is “Wither: The Chemical Garden Trilogy, Book One” by newcomer Lauren DeStefano.

To be fair, I haven’t read DeStefano’s book. But the lengthy review in this Sunday’s Fresno Bee makes me pretty confident I wouldn’t enjoy it. The basic plot centers around a 16-year old girl abducted by a “gatherer,” whose purpose is to kidnap all girls as soon as they become old enough to reproduce. Those girls deemed “undesirable” by said gatherer are killed or sold into prostitution. The others are used for breeding.

“Wither” is being pushed as a young adult novel by Simon & Schuster. Do tell. I can only conclude that I must come from an entirely different world, as I just can’t imagine how or why publishers would present young girls with a book like this. I don’t care if it somehow has a happy ending or whatever moral runs through its misguided plot. What good can be found in telling a story about girls kidnapped and forced to have sex? To quote the Bee’s reviewer, “Rhine is kidnapped from her Manhattan home and forced to live in a sprawling Florida mansion with two other teenage girls, all of whom are dressed in bridal gowns while sedated and married off to the same man, Linden.” Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this reviewer loved the book.

If this is the kind of story I have to write in order to place a book with a major publisher, I’m ready to call it a day.

Self publishing: it’s cheaper than you think

When Borders filed for bankruptcy last week, I was pretty shocked. That place has been my favorite browsing bookstore for many years. But as I paused to remember the last purchase I made there, I had to go back to Christmas 2009. And therein lies the problem of course. Stores like Borders can’t compete with Amazon and other online retailers. Maintaining an actual walk-in store is simply too expensive. It’s all a matter of dollars and sense (yes, I mean the logical sense). Borders’ troubles might be linked to the upswing in e-books, but I doubt it. All of my and Julia’s efforts over the past 18 months, most of it chronicled on this blog, prove that people still prefer actual books they can hold in their hands to those that must be viewed on e-readers or computers.

So, where does that leave us, the struggling writers? Those of us who have published books the old fashioned way know it can be done if, and it’s a big if, we are willing to work basically for free. I spent three plus years writing Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon and the American Dream. All told, my co-author and I each collected around a thousand dollars in royalties. Yes, really. For three years’ work. Go figure. Hoop Lore is on a similar track. My publisher for those titles, McFarland, isn’t some little rinky-dink operation run out of the back of a trailer; they are a respected midlist house that publishes some 350 title per year. And they pay the standard 10% royalty.

Let’s crunch some real time numbers. When I decided to do a reprint of the Elvis/Nixon title in printed book form (standard softcover, 6 X 9 inches), it cost me about $600 to have 75 copies delivered to my door. Rather than collect 10% of the sale price in royalties, I am receiving the full retail price of the book, which I have set at $20. My cost for each book is about $7, leaving me with a profit of $13 per book. That means I would only have to sell a hundred books to clear $1300. To compare, my royalties for a hundred sales of Hoop Lore (via McFarland) total $350.

So okay, yes there is a certain sense of prestige if your book is put out by a real publisher. But the time has come when authors need to ask themselves if those bragging rights are worth the cost. Let’s face it, very few of us are going to write a bestseller. Or even a book that sells, say, ten thousand copies. Publishers no longer promote authors, which means when they take on a book they have already decided it can sell in excess of 50,000 copies. If you believe 50,000 people will buy your book with no promotion, then you should certainly keep trying to sell it to a conventional publisher.

Each of us believes our books are special—and they are. It’s convincing other people who don’t know and love us that’s the problem. Julia and I have decided the best way for us is to get out within our own community and plug our work. If you are thinking along similar lines, we highly recommend you check out Diggypod ( They produce very quality books at an affordable price. And the customer service is great.