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.

As writers, we need to get a life

There was a time in my life, say from the late 1980s to mid-90s, when I spent every free second I had working on my writing. It never came before my family, but there were some close calls mixed in. I felt I had to write at least 7-8 hours a day, including weekends, if I were to have a chance to reach my ultimate goal of being a published author. In retrospect, that slightly obsessed attitude probably contributed to the publication of Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in late 1999. The book wasn’t a national bestseller, but it was published by a respectable house and sold out its print run. By the time Hoop Lore hit the market in 2007, I had come to the realization that being published wasn’t nearly as rewarding of an experience as I had expected. Now, if my books had sold tens of thousands of copies, it’s likely I wouldn’t be writing this post today—but the fact is, most authors who sell a book don’t become rich or famous. In fact, their lives go on pretty much the same as before.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind for writers of all ages, published or not. Writing isn’t glamorous, and most of the time it isn’t even fun. We are writers, so we have to write. Speaking of which, I am about to begin sending out queries for a new fiction manuscript. My expectations are realistic: it’s unlikely I will find an agent who wants to take on my book. The publishing world is changing so rapidly, agents are even less likely than they were five years ago to take on new clients. They only accept books they are absolutely certain will sell and sell very well. And really, who can blame them? They make a living from commission. No commission, no income. So I am stating upfront that I will have no hard feelings toward any agent who rejects my work. The last part of that sentence is key, by the way: when an agent says no thanks, he or she is declining to represent our work, not us. It isn’t personal. I know it’s hard to look at it that way, but we must.

And that brings me to the point of this post. Writers must have a life away from writing. We must have outside interests, friends, and hobbies. My circle of friends is small but supportive and caring. (Yours should be the same, or they aren’t worthy of your friendship; don’t waste time with negative people, it will drain your creativity.)  I spend the majority of my mornings outside taking care of my gardens, which in itself feels like a full time job in Fresno. Last but certainly not least, I have an abundance of animal companions who never fail to brighten my day. We recently lost our beloved boxer, Kook, who finally succumbed to heart disease at the age of 12. We adopted him when he was two, and he quickly became our “Director of Enthusiasm” with his upbeat, funny personality and his obvious love for life.  (I will be writing a full post about him soon, so if you are a fellow animal lover, stayed tuned and have plenty of Kleenex handy.)

Your outside interests might be completely different than mine. What matters is that you have interests other than writing, and that you engage in them every single day. Chances are doing so will enhance rather than distract from your ability to become published.

Salon agrees with Grassroots Writers on the Disturbed Publishing World

It took almost two weeks, but Salon is on board with our assessment of the book publishing arena posted October 27th, concerning the merger of Random House and Penguin. The ever edgy and astute online Salon magazine titled the bad news this weekend: “Book publishing crisis: Capitalism kills culture.”

Scott Timberg provides a lucid assessment, most of which you could figure out yourself, but his admission of a few logical details, sanctified by mere association with a big name like Salon, should help everyone who is trying to sell a book understand why life is not as it was twenty years ago: “[A]uthor advances . . . now stand, by some estimates, at about half of what they were just four years ago.” This, Timberg explains, is due to “[t]he digital revolution [which] has effectively marginalized traditional publishers.”

Some authors who got a two million dollar advance five years ago probably helped cripple their publishers who didn’t see the change coming.  On the other hand, publishers, like movie producers, count on unexpected sales to make up for the massive advances given to books that don’t pull in the expected $$.

Another truth which I have long felt in my gut is articulated by Timberg, and I take my hat off to him since I didn’t have the gumption to say it yet in a post: Amazon is the new dictator.

How many struggling authors have put their books up on Amazon? Each percentage earned by Amazon, even on those books that are so bad readers try to philosophically cut their losses–nothing worse than a Venti purchased at Starbucks, right?–is  money in the pocket of a growing giant. We are both grateful and afraid.

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.

The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby

I love Victorian period dramas.  As I was sliding off a high induced by the Encore miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White, based on the 2002 novel by Michel Faber (which I am dying to read),  I chanced upon The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby. Published in 2012 by Penguin, this is the debut novel of a young woman who teaches writing in England as I do in California, but that is not why I fell in love with her book.

The Whores’ Asylum is aptly titled, with a pretty cover, and in fact has a couple of engaging, colorful whores in it, yet it does not fit genre expectations.  It is an intelligent study of the human heart rather than the narrative of a clever whore who raises herself up and escapes from misery in Victorian England. (By no means am I trivializing the referred-to miniseries. I only mean The Whores’ Asylum is a labyrinthine sanctuary where the reader must get lost to find meaning, and it is a delightful book to get lost in.)

Darby gives the amiable narrator’s voice to one Dr. Edward Fraser, whose affinities and friendships set the entire tone of the novel.  At the outset, young Fraser has not determined whether to follow his proclivities for righteousness or his fascination for the classical past. It is significant that he has already achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Theology from Cambridge with first class honors and is now pursuing a Master’s in Philosophy at Oxford. Fraser is no simpleton.  This character, far more layered than Holmes’ Watson and definitely more significant to the plot, tells of his great friendship for Stephen Chapman, a young man studying medicine. Chapman is good for Fraser and vice versa. They room together in Oxford, sharing their lives, dreams and aspirations with each other. Since the novel is told in hindsight, Fraser wants to explain why Chapman died in such hideous manner, and make amends for his failings, if he can, by so doing.

One of Darby’s delightful ploys is to play a trick on readers who judge. Since making judgments is human, chances are most readers will comply. One may, for instance, judge Fraser as a prude. We are, after all, of the 21st century and do not see things as British society did back in Victorian times.  There are other judgments the reader may make which I do not feel inclined to give away.  At the very least, the reader will be likely to find young Fraser too judgmental in his view of the young woman with whom Chapman has fallen in love. Still, there is no doubt that Fraser’s friendship is sincere and he tries to do right by Chapman. The reader is free to disagree with Fraser’s point of view on any number of topics or plot twists, and that disagreement is, I believe, something Darby engineers with skill.

The characters in The Whores’ Asylum develop as they are supposed to in serious, prize-winning literature. More than anyone else, the layers of Diana/Anna and Fraser are peeled back over and over, until the person finally seated on the couch beside the reader—they are that alive—is not the one the reader had an opinion about at the beginning or even halfway through the novel. (I blushed next to Edward Fraser, hoping he would forgive me for my earlier criticism.) Through the metamorphoses, the plot keeps us hooked and the changes are all believable.

Photo of Darby by Jon Cartwright

I can see why Darby titled this novel The Unpierced’ Heart in its first incarnation, for the overall story is about judgments and choices made around, for and about love. The Whores’ Asylum is set against a background of rich Gothic trappings and told in a strong, literary Victorian voice. I cannot wait to see what Darby writes next.

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.

Book Publishing around the World

Jarir Bookstore in Saudi Arabia

As a writer who lived almost two decades in Saudi Arabia, I read certain articles in Publishing Perspectives and on  literary blog spots with, if not a smirk, a grain of salt.  I have found praise heaped on allegedly “smart” blogs paying a lot of attention to readers and writers in third world countries.  My experience in the Middle East has taught me the extent to which people actually read new fiction and nonfiction books in their native tongues.  It would take me more than the normal length of this blog space to indicate the humble status of “new” books in Saudi Arabia and other spots in the Arab Peninsula.  Such books are bought mainly by people who–how shall I say this–not only have college degrees but generally speak, read and write in more than one language.  Cosmopolitan people.

In the Muslim world, those who gain their degrees in their native language (learning no other language well enough to read in) do not tend to buy books once they have graduated with the desired college degree. The books from their courses are kept in their home offices, behind glass doors.   In North Africa, while the books are of cheaper quality, they are more widely dispersed to readers, probably because most North Africans learn to speak two to three languages.

Of all Arabic countries, the Lebanese are best known for their high degree of literary fervor. But the Lebanese are almost always trilingual.

Muslim fundamentalists tend to feel guilty–even those who speak two languages– if they read anything except religious literature. (Come to think of it, wasn’t that the attitude of Christian fundamentalists in the 18th and early 19th centuries?)

Any country that has a despotic, corrupt, totalitarian or rigged government is going to  do its best to make sure books that stimulate critical thinking or imagination are not easily available, or if they are, that such objects should somehow not be favored.   Anyone who has traveled begins to pick that up. Since it is really hard for intelligent writers not to make wry or dangerous political commentary, they have a hard time finding local publishers in such countries or even a safe place to sleep.

Here is an interesting fact: non English language nations tend to be jealous of English language writers, or at least, that was what a Swiss German writer once told me. He said that German language authors look with green envy upon our English language commercial world, for only in the English language can an author make the massive coup. The European language author dreams of his or her book doing well and THEN being translated into English.

Russian authors post their work for free on the internet until they may see the happy day of fame and possibly be translated into English, thereby making a few bucks.

I speak only of what I know or glean and invite comments on the reading and publishing going on in other parts of the world, particularly Spanish-speaking.  However, it seems to me that some literary blogs may be spending a bit too much time pondering publishing in Pakistan or China.  Reading is about freedom, one of the main reasons people come to the West.  English has become the main language of communication in the West and therefore dominates all media.

E-books: Are we there yet?

To hear Amazon tell it, yep, we’re there and getting closer to ridding ourselves of those awful, cumbersome creatures called printed books. As Julia notes in her post below, Amazon claims its Kindle sales topped paperback books for the first time. I don’t doubt Amazon’s figures, but I think it’s important to note that not everyone buys their books from Amazon, or, for that matter, other online sources. There are still a heck of a lot of folks who like to go to physical stores and browse through the many titles offered on the shelves. Maybe they grab a cup of coffee and a muffin while they’re at it, sit down, and chat with other customers. Maybe they discuss the latest bestseller, or some new cookbook they picked up on for next to nothing on the clearance table.

One can “browse” through Amazon’s titles in similar fashion (less the face-to-face contact), but really, are any of us ready to say it’s the same as going to an actual store and holding a book in our hands, paging through it, reading not only the first page but whatever page(s) we might like? This may just be my own personal taste, but I haven’t purchased a book I’ve read all the way through in quite some time. The linear notes on the back cover are interesting, the first few pages are well written (sometimes the first few chapters), and yet, by the middle of the story I’ve lost interest because the characters and or plot falls flat.

But, as is often the case, I digress. The purpose of my post today is to pass along what Julia and I have learned in our year-plus of blogging here on WordPress. E-books remain a tough sell. Readers email us asking if we have printed books to sell. And so, after giving the matter considerable thought, we researched some print on demand places, settled on one, and took the plunge. I started with 75 copies of a reprinted version of my Elvis/Nixon book. Julia has kindly been using it as a study course in some of her classes, thus I have sold out that first printing and ordered another. I have resisted putting the printed version up on this blog for sale, but that is changing as of today. When given the opportunity to purchase an e-book or PDF on CD as an alternative to buying the printed book, every single one of Julia’s students has gone with the printed version.

That doesn’t mean we’re giving up on e-books. We still believe it is the wave of the future. But, and it’s a BIG but . . . our own experiences out in the field, so to speak, tell us we simply aren’t there yet.

Within the next few days I will follow up on this post with a detailed discussion centering on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing your work in printed format, so stay tuned.

Even Stephen King Does It, Now

Stephen King

Birds and bees may not know how to “do” it ( “it” not being cough-cough, but the fine act of self publishing) yet esteemed writers who once might have breezily dismissed the mere notion with the wave of a hand are now on board with much smaller names, all of us gratified and leaning back with a satisfied smile on our pillows; woops, I mean laurels.

Laurels would probably be about the only real thing that distinguishes self publication from vanity publishing. (Vanity publishers were those companies that ran magazine advertisements like “Want to be a children’s writer?” If you did and no one else was encouraging, you paid the vanity publisher to print your book.)  Laurels can be awards, earlier publication, or simply enough well-read friends heartily clapping and encouraging to give a writer courage.

That bring up foolhardiness, commonly confused for courage. Foolhardiness is definitely going to be a toxic drug in this mix and I am still waiting to see how sullied the waters of internet publication become by the lure of throwing one’s work up (yuck) for sale on ereader sites.

When I was a book reviewer for the English language newspapers in Saudi Arabia, I sometimes received self published books, and if there was no indication of credibility (laurels), I did not read more than a paragraph. A paragraph is enough to demonstrate the skill and ability of any writer. I was amazed at the horrible content that people thought worthy of printing, paid out of their own pockets. Until now, that has been the main reason the reading world counts on big publishers: to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Most readers rightly presume that agents and editors will comb through the offerings and only what is best will rise to the top. In theory, that is true.

The trick for any writer is to establish credibility. You are a writer so long as you write; you need, however, some way to prove you are a good writer.  Signing with a publisher is one way of doing that although I imagine those contracts are going to change (in duration if not in percentages) to tempt writers on board.  Winning contests is another, although contests are, again, extremely subjective and it does not mean you are lousy if you lose one.

I cannot help but think of Stephen King’s basic message in his book On Writing: if you are good, you will be published. We could revise that to say, today, if you are good, you will be read.

Writing doesn’t have to be a lonely affair

I’d like to begin this post by thanking my friend and writing partner Julia for watching my back the past couple of weeks. She wrote three good posts in a row to keep our blog current (a must for bloggers who want to attract and hold readers!) while I worked on recovering from a severe case of tendonitis in my shoulders. I’m not rid of the gunk yet, but it’s getting better. Better enough, anyway, to write this short post today.

As writers, our lot is a lonely one. While we may mingle with other writers via classes, critique groups, or book clubs, we do the majority of our writing alone at the computer. That’s why it’s so imperative to seek out other writers as friends and get together with them on a face-to-face basis as often as possible. Writing friends understand how difficult it is to be a writer. The rest of our friends either think we are very cool and thus live an exotic life of luxury, or consider our writing a silly waste of time (there’s rarely an in-between). A good writing friend is like the perfect cup of coffee on a cold winter morning—ready to perk you up and get you going.

We all need that shot of encouragement now and then to keep from becoming despondent (well, unless we have achieved success along the lines of Stephen King). What we do is hard. It’s really, really hard. We work for years to perfect a project which has little to no chance of getting sold to a major house. We try to prepare ourselves for the ultimate rejections that will come back in waves during our agent search.  We flinch at the idea of a zero advance if we are lucky enough to connect with a midlist publisher who is willing to spend $50,000 and upwards to get our book into print. Through it all, we are expected to hold our heads high, smile and assure our family that none of these things bother us in the least. We are writers after all. What did we expect?

I’m so grateful to have Julia in my life. I can grumble about things to her and she understands exactly what I’m talking about because she is or has experienced the exact same things numerous times over. Bottom line, we have each other’s backs. I encourage each and every one of you to keep searching for that special writing friend who will have yours.