Everyone’s a writer

The last thing I want to do is discourage people from following their passion, especially if that passion is to become a published writer. The emergence of e-Books, especially Kindle, has no doubt helped many writers reach their dream of seeing their stories in print. There is a major downside to this anyone-can-do-it formula, however: suddenly, every single person on earth thinks they can become an “author” by simply writing down words on a page, formatting them into book form, and posting them on Kindle (and/or any number of other e-Book publishers).  

So what’s the harm, you say? It’s not as if anyone is forced to buy a book they don’t want. Well, that’s true of course, but think about this: The more titles available on sites like Kindle, the harder it becomes to make your book get noticed. I had no idea how many titles were actually available until my daughter gave me a Kindle for Christmas. It would take literally days to browse every title in the catalog if you clicked on each entry to get a synopsis. (And if you don’t do that, how will you determine whether it’s a book you want to read?)

It used to be, if you chose the self-publishing format to have your work printed, it would cost a literal fortune—$50,000 and up. I know because several of those places approached me when I first began soliciting agents back in the late 1980s. They sent out form letters claiming they heard about my book from such-and-such literary agency, and would be honored to “publish” me. They were great at hiding the fact they were vanity presses in disguise. I was never desperate enough to bite on those offers, but other writers must have been as vanity (later known as subsidy) houses flourished for decades.

Thankfully most of these “presses” have vanished into the wind, and we have to assume that’s because of the emergence of e-Book publishing. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the ease of getting a book up and running brings with it an onslaught of authors who have no idea writing is a craft that requires a skill set like any other occupation. I wish I could say I expect the problem to fix itself with time; alas, it’s much more likely the exact opposite will come to pass.

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How far will digital technology for writers evolve?

Despite maintaining this blog with Julia, I’m far from tech savvy when it comes to marketing myself in this digital age. As writers, we have a constantly expanding social universe to explore: Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, phone texting, business-related internet groups such as LinkedIn. If I put in the time, I could probably have a decent presence on all of these sites; trouble is, I wouldn’t have any time left to actually write.

I’m hoping that in the future we will be able to prepare one site (such as our blog) that we can upload to all of these other sites with the push of a button and all of our info will automatically be put into the right slots. Maybe that will happen sooner than I think. When I compare the growing trend in E-books and digital publishing, I’m reminded of the transformation in the music business that has been taking place since the early 1990s. People held back on embracing the MP3 format for a long time, even though the technology was available. I can remember offering to get both our girls MP3 players for Christmas one year, to which they rolled their eyes and snorted. They wanted new Walkman’s, like all the other kids had.

Today I purchased my first MP3 album from Amazon, something I have been resisting for years. I’m from the old school of 45 singles and LP records. I eventually embraced CDs because they are durable, portable, and a space saver compared to those large 12-inch LPs. And, a bit like records, many come with color booklets reminiscent of the old album inserts. (I might need a magnifying glass to read them, but still.) And, best of all, I can hold the CD and case in my hand.

An MP3 “album” is nothing more than a downloaded file. There is nothing to “hold on to.” It arrived on my computer in a matter of minutes. I can see its little icon on my desktop. If I want to listen to the songs, I open Media player and click on the title. Fine, as long as I’m sitting at my computer, but what if I want to listen in my car? Or outside while I’m gardening? Well, then I pop in the just created CD that I burned from that download. Or, I copy the whole song list to my I-Touch and listen on that. A digital download gives you multiple formats, including the all-important “I can hold it in my hand” CD. There’s no fancy label, no color insert—but I can make those myself with software and a printer if I really want them. Best of all, the MP3 versions often come with extra songs not found on the retail CD. And they cost less.

Another plus for music sold this way is that buyers can purchase a single song, a few songs, or the entire album. Most songs can be “previewed” for a 15-20 second listen so you can pick only the songs you want. A dollar a song on Amazon. It’s hard to imagine that working for E-books—the dollar a song bit, I mean. Free chapters, or at least excerpts, are offered on Kindle and most other E-book sites, but we can’t very well sell our books chapter-by-chapter, now can we?

Then again, who knows what the future holds. I continue to be amazed on a daily basis insofar as what my Smartphone can do: internet, GPS, email, texting, photos, games. I play Words with Friends, a Scrabble type game with my daughter Katie, who lives in San Diego. I take a Father’s Day photo of her dad sleeping on the couch with our dogs and send it to her under the header “Dad napping with his boys.” My other daughter, Carrie, sends me a picture of an Elvis painting I did years ago which remains on display at Graceland (“Taking the tour with Mike. Look what we found, Mom!”). Everything is incredibly instant, that’s the thing that seems hardest for me to adjust to. But I’m getting there, a day—or should I say an hour—at a time.

The e-book experiment: tentative results

As I mentioned in my post last week, the Grassroots’ Writers Guild is nearing its one year anniversary. As such, we feel it’s important to update readers on the concepts we initially put forth on this blog. Today’s topic is marketing via e-books. Does it work? The early answer is, yes and no. While Julia and I have sold some books that way, both via downloads and CDs, the numbers (for me, anyway) haven’t been high enough to grade it a success. On the other hand, it hasn’t been a failure either, so the fair thing to say is that the jury remains out. Our guess is once we get out into the writing community, doing some talks at bookstores and writers’ events around town, sales will pick up. But as with all experiments, we won’t know until we try. Meanwhile, we have opted to add some old-fashioned actual printed books to our repertoire prior to scheduling those appearances. That will be the best way to gauge peoples’ reaction. If they are willing to pay $12 to $20 for a printed book (price determined by length) versus $5 for a CD (book length inconsequental), that will give us a definitive answer. (A review of the printer we chose will appear on this blog in the near future.)

The point is, marketing remains the key to success as a writer. If readers don’t know who we are, they aren’t likely to buy our book(s). Given the number of books currently available via electronic format, that makes sense from a reader’s point of view. Readers can go onto Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Apple, and probably a dozen other sites, and browse through literally hundreds of thousands of titles, be they self-published or electronic versions of current best sellers. What are their criteria for picking a certain book? Do they search via subject, key words, author name, previously published works? Probably all of those and many others I haven’t thought about. Basically, it’s a crap shoot. About the only foolproof method to make a sale would be for a reader to go onto the site with an author’s name and book title already in hand. How do we make that happen? By getting our names out there, any and every way we can think of. Creativity must be the name of our game.

I will be updating my personal page and my Elvis section this week, so please stop by again and check it out. As always, we welcome your comments. Have a good and productive week!

Lack of prep work equals not ready for primetime writers

By now our regular readers understand what this blog is about. We’re here to encourage all writers, from beginners to journeymen, to make use of every venue available to promote themselves. Several of our recent posts have dealt with the emergence of e-books, a platform we strongly believe will become the norm in the near future. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, it’s important to point out that regardless of what publication method you choose, you must present a quality product to your reader.

That, of course, has been the focus of the negativity regarding self publishing for years—that anyone can self-publish a book. It’s a valid argument. As a judge for a national self-publishing contest, I’ve seen hundreds of books that will never be read by more than a handful of people. Not because they aren’t good ideas or stories, but because they are poorly written.

Think of writing as you would any other task. You have to do the prep work. When I painted my bathroom last month, I had to scrape off a lot of the old paint, after which I found numerous cracks in the plaster that also needed repairing. A big chunk on the ceiling just broke away. So I gathered the tools I would need for the job (paint scraper, flat sander, joint compound, primer, and moisture resistant paint) and set about fixing the problem. It took a lot more time than I had originally anticipated, but the end result looks pretty darn good.

With writing, our prep work entails honing our craft. And make no mistake, writing is a craft. We must understand and be able to implement the basic concepts of storytelling: scene, structure, dialogue, theme, point-of-view. All of these elements must work together to move our stories forward in a smooth, non-intrusive fashion. In non-fiction, knowledge of your subject is key. I spent three years researching basketball for Hoop Lore, and I was already quite informed on the topic, having followed the NBA for most of my life. After gathering literally thousands of pages of information, I had to organize it all into a storyline that other fans would enjoy reading. The same was true for Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon and the American Dream. We can’t just throw a bunch of information together and call it a book. Not if we expect anyone else to read it.

So learn your craft and hone your skills. Share your story with other writers (not family members or friends!) and ask for their honest opinion. Edit accordingly. Rewrite and rewrite again. Make sure your book is the best it can possibly be before you present it to potential readers. You’ll be glad you did, and so will your readers.

Will ebooks make it?

There is some important data about ebooks presented in a recent article posted on The New Yorker magazine website. Among the figures and reflections readers/writers should mull over is the allegation that ebooks, at present, only claim an estimated “three to five percent of the market.”  On a positive note, that percentage represents an increase of a “hundred and seventy-seven percent increase in 2009 [alone]” of all books sold.   Moreover, “it was projected,” writes Ken Auletta, that ebooks will eventually account for between twenty-five and fifty percent of all books sold.”

This makes perfect sense to me. As a writing teacher, I see, at modest estimate, a quarter of my students with laptops or some other device with which they can surf the web, read online articles and books, and IM each other (naturally, while in class).   Some students speak of Kindles their grandparents have bought them.

When mandating a book report, I give them the choice of hard copies from the library (three minutes away on foot) or ebooks/burned CD books.

There are other interesting reflections in this New Yorker article, including Steve Jobs’ claim–which he is certainly not the first to make– that “people don’t read anymore.” He said this right after noting that it really doesn’t matter how good or bad the product (book reader device or book?) is anymore.  Hmmmm.  “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year,” he added.

Aw, gee, break my heart.  So 40% of 309 million people read one book or less.   That leaves, what, over 180 million people who do read?

As a teacher, I hear this all the time–“people do not read anymore.”   My students, who are after associate degrees at the very least,  tell me they don’t read while they are buying the ebooks they opt for because the campus library is so far away (three minutes, remember?).    We have great conversations about those books in class.  If these students do not see themselves as readers, who cares?  Just so long as they keep reading–and I will use every trick in the book/ebook to make sure they do.

Writers and the technology trap

There’s something about modern technology that sends writers running for cover. If we were characters in LOST, we’d know exactly why we wanted to get back to the island—as long as the timeframe we landed in was the 1970s. Like Sawyer and Juliet, most of us would embrace the simpler lifestyle those days provided (less the weird Dharma Initiative folks, of course). Alas, the world keeps changing, pushing us forward. Writing a book is no longer the end of our journey, it’s merely a step along the ever-lengthening path. A path where new obstacles seem to appear every day.

Back in the 90s, when MP3 players were first coming onto the scene, I asked both of my daughters if they’d like one for Christmas. Each carried her CD Walkman with her most where ever she went. Given how CDs required a bigger or extra carry case and were easily stolen or lost, I thought the idea of having a tiny device that held more music without the hassle of CDs would be a huge hit. Instead, they rolled their eyes and told me MP3 players were stupid, and no one wanted one.

Now of course, both girls have numerous devices that make MP3 players seem like dinosaurs. CDs will ultimately go the way of vinyl and cassettes, leaving us with the digital only format for music. Regular DVDs are being replaced by higher quality Blu-ray discs, which in turn will eventually give way to digital downloads. Analog TV is out, high-def digital is in. Next up, 3-D TV, complete with those silly 3-D glasses (only they won’t be so silly at $500 a pop).

As much as we might wish it were so, the publishing world is not immune to technology. Many well-known newspapers have folded in the past five years. Those that have survived supplement their hardcopies with on-line versions. Most publishers have added e-books to their printed catalogues, and new e-book readers to compete with Kindle arrive every few months. As Spock from the old Star Trek series might say, logic would dictate it’s only a matter of time before those printed catalogues disappear entirely in favor of digital books.

There are tons of writers and readers out there who will scoff at that prediction. I used to be one of them. And some days, I still am. After all, I did use a notepad and pen to jot down notes for this article over breakfast this morning. Old habits die hard, don’t they?