The Hold of Jehovah’s Witnesses

 

PP Cover.4483770.inddIn my exploration of self-published titles, I have come upon a gem: Inside/Outside. This memoir, by Jenny Hayworth, tells the tale of a woman who comes from a long line of sexually abused children in a family/religious community that refuses to acknowledge sins among men (heads of household). No doubt there are exceptions, but her life story demonstrates the pressure that is brought to bear upon victims in the Jehovah’s Witness society in which she was raised. She left the cult and was dis-fellowshipped, which means everyone who meant anything in her life, her friends and family, mother and father, was forced to ignore her existence as if she was dead. This castigation brought on seriously health-destabilizing stress issues for herself and her children. I highly recommend this book. It is gripping, informative and helpful in drawing parallels. Hayworth is a good writer and she knows how to deliver her story.

If you have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock at your door, this book may bring a little light. They are a society like any other, and among the more rigid.

Yet contrary to what the reader might expect, Inside/Outside is by no means a condemnation of religion, but rather of human ego and intolerance. It is an insightful reflection into one woman’s experience of the chaotic pain wreaked by unreasoning control that is enforced in the name of any kind of dogmatic system. Hayworth’s subsequent acknowledgment of kindness from followers of all types of spiritual systems demonstrates her keen powers of rationality. She has been through much and her story, though dark and powerful, has light at the end. It is a commentary on the human situation and the struggle for the guise of superiority, no matter what banner society flouts. I cannot say enough good things about it.It is available on Amazon.

 

 

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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.

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.

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 (http://www.diggypod.com). They produce very quality books at an affordable price. And the customer service is great.

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.

Here comes the (writing) judge

When people learn I serve as a judge for an annual self publishing contest sponsored by a national writing magazine, they always want to know what it’s like.  My first response is that it’s a lot of work for very little pay. On average, I review 50 entries; the time involved probably works out to about $5.00 per hour. Each book must be evaluated in numerous categories: structure, plot, characterization, grammar, and book design. After those grades are calculated, I must write a couple hundred words on what the author did well and what needs improvement.

Grammar is the easiest category to stamp a grade on; either the writer knows the basics or she doesn’t. You’d be surprised how many people go through the time and expense of having a book self published without checking it for typos and grammatical errors. The most common mistakes I see are with punctuation:  no commas or too many commas, overuse of exclamation points, semi-colons where colons belong. Then there are those who overuse italic and/or bold print (often the same ones who abuse exclamation points). To me, these are gimmicks that signal a lack of faith in one’s ability. One of the most important rules writers must follow is to trust our readers. If we write in an intelligent, engaging manner, our readers will get it—no gimmicks necessary.

Characterization is pretty straightforward. Either dialogue is fresh and believable or stale and stilted. The protagonist is likable and/or interesting or plastic and forgettable. Secondary characters help move the plot forward or take up space.

Structure and plot are more difficult to assess, but when either or both is lacking, everything else about the book becomes pretty irrelevant. The most common mistakes in this area appear in non-fiction entries. A book on ice fishing that spends half the narrative talking about the author’s childhood in Maine (cold winters!). A memoir that devotes countless pages to everyday events (lunch, a favorite dress or toy, a mundane conversation). A marketing seminar masquerading as a self-improvement book. In fiction, a structural problem is usually related to overwriting—explaining every line of dialogue with a line of introspection, going into back story for pages on end, repeating the same event through different characters’ points of view, dwelling on too many sensory details. All of these methods do little but serve to slow the story. And guess what? When the story slows, readers lose interest—and fast.

Grading a book’s design is somewhat a matter of personal taste (What’s gaudy to some might be gorgeous to others). What’s important for the purpose of review is that the chosen cover art fits the book’s subject matter and the space on the back cover is utilized as a promotional tool—blurbs by other writers praising the book, a teaser or short synopsis (never give away the ending!), an author bio. What doesn’t belong in that space is a series of blurbs by the author himself, praising his own work (and yes, this is a common error, especially by professionals with PhDs and/or Masters.) Inside, the text itself must be sharp and easy to read. Fancy fonts don’t cut it. And size matters. If the text is too large, say 14 point and up, I get the feeling the author is trying to make the book appear as if it has more content than it does. If the font is less than 9, I’m guessing the author knows her book is too long and probably in need of a major edit.

By now you’ll probably agree with my initial assessment that judging is a lot of work for $5 an hour. So why do it? Because despite the majority of books that are filled with some, and often times many, of the errors noted above, I always come across a couple of gems. Books that deserve to be picked up by a conventional publisher so they can be enjoyed by a mainstream audience. If my recommendation (which is passed on to a finalist judge) helps even one of these authors fulfill his or her dream, I consider my effort time well spent.

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.