Thursday, October 18, 2012

In Between

My friends who are business people consider me an intellectual.

My intellectual friends consider me a businessman.

My conservative friends think I’m a liberal.

My liberal friends think I’m a conservative.

My Brooklyn friends find my writing commercial.

My Hollywood friends may find my writing literary.

My shy friends think that I’m outgoing.

My outgoing friends think that I’m shy.

I’m none of these things. I’m all of these things.

I read the description of the artistic personality type, abbreviated as ISFP (Introverted Sensing Feeling Perceiving), and I find myself in half of it. Not so much the other half.

On a Caribbean vacation a few years ago, I was playing in a pickup tennis game when the guy across the net asked, “What do you do? You some kind of writer?”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Shouting Muse

My recent move to a new office prompted a non-writing friend of mine to ask whether the place had a good creative vibe, the implication being that an office with a bad vibe would render me unproductive.

This kind of question gets my gander up, because by implication it trivializes the creative process, feeding into the myth that creativity is something that finds you rather than the other way around.

If you feel compelled to tell stories — as I do — the place where you sit down to do so should be mostly beside the point. I say “mostly” because, of course, some basic requirements do apply. The place needs to be heated in winter, for example, or you may freeze to death. It needs electricity, either for lighting or for your computer, depending upon how you write. It needs to be accessible — not up a tree somewhere three counties away. And it needs to be quiet.

Actually, I withdraw that last one — quiet is a luxury, not a necessity. Writing requires being solitary — not having people bugging you all the time — but it shouldn’t require absolute quiet all around you. The honking horn or the voices rumbling through the wall are obstacles that can be overcome with determination.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

More Genres Explained

The king died in a mutiny, and then the queen walked the plank is Sea Adventure.

The king died, and then the queen overcame great odds to live is a Thriller.

The king pretended to die, and then the queen went mad is a Psychological Thriller.

The king died, and then the queen was a witness for the defense is a Legal Thriller.

The king died at the cutting edge, and then the queen outsmarted the mad scientist is a Technothriller.

The king almost died at the hands of an evil nurse, and then the queen found the cure is a Medical Thriller.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Genres Explained

"'The king died, and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.'” —E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

The king died in the brothel, and then the queen went to the sheriff is a Western.

The king died while fleeing through the jungle, and then the queen triumphed with her saber is Action/Adventure.

The king died in battle, and then the queen got the castle is an Historical.

The king died, and then the king’s son died, and then the king’s grandson died, and then the king’s great great granddaughter became queen is Family Saga.

Friday, September 7, 2012

That Sock Puppet Won't Hunt

Times are hard, especially for a man who aspires to make his living by words.

You begin at the bottom of the editorial heap — fair enough, most people do in this trade. But it rarely gets better. To make ends meet, sometimes you teach school, sometimes you write and edit. Your professional successes are rare — and those you have rarely last long.

Yet you are determined to leave your mark on the world, as a writer of any kind, but primarily as a poet. You have things to say — things that the world must hear.

At the age of thirty-one you begin writing your masterwork, and five long years later you have it finished. Publishing is in disarray  part free-for-all, part insider’s game. You decide to self-publish your book of poems.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why We Read Fiction

This past weekend, we adopted a dog from the SPCA of Delaware. The dog has a beautiful lab head but a narrow body, possibly greyhound. When we viewed her in the pen at the shelter, we saw that she had a problem with her right rear leg. She was also suffering hair loss from a flea allergy. She’d been picked up in the city of Wilmington as a stray.

We were told not to call a dog by its shelter name (Sallie, in this case), which may have bad associations for the animal, so we renamed her Cue — short for Rescue. What exactly we rescued her from we’ll never know, but it wasn’t good.

At some point this dog seems to have had a normal life. While exuberant, she obeys basic commands, is properly house trained, and aims to please. But at some later point, it all went to hell for her.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (7)

7. Agents still matter, sort of.
What we’re talking about when we talk about digital publishing vs mainstream publishing is that loaded word of the internet age: disintermediation.
In the old system, of which many remnants remain, everyone has a hand in the novelist’s pocket. Let us count the ways: agent, subrights agents, publisher, printer, wholesaler, bookseller. Six intermediaries at least. Directly or indirectly, each of these takes a piece of the cover price before that check finally reaches the author.
In the digital system, the fixed costs of editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover design remain. They must be paid upfront, but their providers do not get between the buyer and the author on every sale, as they do in a mainstream publishing deal. If one digitally self-publishes, the only one who's still interposed between novelist and reader/customer is the bookseller. If one uses an indie publisher as distributor, as I'm inclined to do, that distributor also takes a cut, of course, so there may be two entities between author and reader/customer. But that's a far cry from six or so under the old model.
What of the agent?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Face in a Trailer

I have declared myself skeptical about the marketing value of book trailers, but I do confess to getting a thrill when the filmmaker decided to shoe-horn my face into this one. Photo courtesy of my lovely daughter, who managed to hold the camera steady during all my bossing.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (6)

6. Book bloggers replace book pages.
There’s another group to whom the publisher still seems to matter, and that’s print and television journalists and book reviewers who need a way to decide what to report on. The imprint of a major publisher can be one shortcut to deciding whether a book is worthy of their review or coverage.
There’s no question that a news or feature story in a major national newspaper or a large local paper can (though won’t necessarily) spike book sales. For nonfiction writers in particular this may be a good argument for going with an established publisher. But novelists rarely receive what we used to call “off the book page publicity,” and when they do it’s usually because their novel is already selling in stratospheric numbers or they’re a living legend like Stephen King.
The poet Philip Levine once commented that when you’re an unknown writer and can’t afford to pay your rent, nobody gives you anything, but when you’re already established and no longer need the money, you start to win awards and stipends. Mainstream media coverage is a little like that for novelists. Usually you already have to be famous or unusually successful to get it. These unspoken rules apply as much to Simon & Schuster as they do to a self-published author.
The real action these days, it seems, is on the internet, whether it’s via social media or bloggers. Indeed, as the number of newspaper pages devoted to book reviews has fallen through the floor, the number of book reviewers online has exploded. But it turns out that these people don’t have quite the same biases as mainstream journalists do. In fact, they might respond to the list of self-published authors I provided below by saying, “I knew that.”
Dilemma: When you’re not already a famous novelist and book bloggers overwhelm mainstream media reviewers in numbers and impact, does it matter very much whether your publisher can open doors at the New York Times?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Let Me Be Clear

Today I happened to read two unrelated opinion pieces, one by Paul Krugman of the New York Times and the other by Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast, that use a similar phrase. As a rhetorical pivot, they write, respectively, "Just to be clear..." and “Let me be clear…”

It seems to me that this kind of construct has become increasingly common, and I have the sense that Krugman employs it a lot. The strange thing is that Krugman usually writes pretty clearly, in my view, at least in relation to his rather complex subject of macroeconomics and certainly with respect to his erudition. (Ph.D. and Nobel in economics and all that.) When he falls back on a phrase such as “just to be clear,” then, it’s not so much a cover for his lack of prior clarity as it is a sign that he may lack faith in the intelligence of his audience. Or maybe he’s just being defensive. Krugman, after all, has become a favorite whipping boy of conservatives.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (5)

5. From shopworn to non-perishable products.
The other thing that’s different about digital books is that—presuming the content is not time-dependent—the book itself is no longer perishable.
In the old days (also known as two years ago), books, which were still mostly print, were perishable for two reasons. First, because the longer they sat on a bookstore shelf, the more they were handled and the less "new" they became. If they didn’t sell pretty quickly, they got shopworn, diminishing their value.
Second, due to limited shelf space, the selling cycle was relatively short—often for hardcover fiction only a few months.
But in the digital world shelf space is infinite and a book may look as fresh today as it did last year. Every day is a new chance for that product to sell, yet publishers, with limited resources, cannot aggressively promote a book forever. Well, maybe they could with a different business model, but they’re certainly not in the habit of doing so.
When bookstores were the main means of distributing fiction, access to that limited shelf space was a sine qua non for success. Thus established publishers could leverage their relationships with bookstores into market power. I was at Doubleday (though not personally involved, in this case) when that house put John Grisham on the map with a huge coordinated push into chains and independents. In those days, publishers could select a couple of books from their list and really get behind them. The strategies they used didn’t always succeed, but the odds of success were quite high for awhile.
Now publishers are stuck in a love-hate relationship with the biggest ebook distributor (Amazon, of course), while the second biggest (B&N) pants to catch up. Big publishers still have power in bookstores, but bookstores are a shrinking part of the equation for fiction. And they still have some power to get a book on the front page of the big bookselling websites, but for how much longer?
Dilemma: When digital shelf space is limitless and digital books are non-perishable, will mainstream publishers adjust their attention spans for promoting novelists long termor will authors have to do that themselves? If the author is in the marketing game for nine innings and the publisher is in it for one, does it make sense to be sharing revenue with that publisher for all nine innings?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Seven Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (4)

4. Incremental costs approaching zero.
An empty ebook reader makes a very poor doorstop. Filled with content, it’s invaluable. 
Content, as the saying goes, is king. It’s king because readers are seeking not an object but an experience — the experience of reading (duh).
That’s why, despite well publicized challenges to their business models, publishers with big fiction backlists are still making pretty good money.
In the modern world of intellectual property, the cost of producing one more copy approaches zero. This is why Microsoft (whose intellectual property is software) has gross margins that players in other industries can only envy.
The difference between Microsoft and, say, Random House, however, is that Microsoft created—and therefore owns—its intellectual property. Most big publishers have licensed theirs from authors. Yet these publishers, adding some value (see previous posts) but not as much as they used to, are still taking a majority of the revenue from sales of each incremental copy. Sales that—once fixed costs are recouped—cost them essentially zero. What's a poor novelist to do?
Dilemma: Is the validation that derives from having the name of an established imprint on your book worth the outsized cut that a big publisher takes of the proceeds?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

This Guy Knows What He's Doing

I can’t give testament to the writing of Amazon bestseller Aaron Patterson, whose new novel, Michael, launches today. I simply haven’t read it yet.
But I’ll tell you this: For a year now I’ve been watching Aaron Patterson reinvent book publishing from his perch in Boise, Idaho. (Insert all the potato farmer jokes you want here, have your laugh, and now pay attention.) I have watched him make No. 1 Kindle bestsellers of former Big-Six-published mid-list authors and newcomers alike, including himself. This guy is smart. If he writes anything like he thinks about the world, watch out!
Curious? Go check out Aaron’s new novel today, Book Two in his young adult Airel Saga. The book is available at a special promotional price with a chance to win a free Kindle. Free is good, too. The only thing better than a Kindle is a free Kindle.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Seven Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (3)

3. Where does credibility lie?
As I was writing this post, an email blast arrived from bestselling author, blogger, internet marketing guru (and my old friend) Seth Godin. Under the heading “Self published” he listed thirteen well-known authors who had self-published, stated that “The question isn’t whether or not you should wait to be picked, the question is whether you care enough to pick yourself,” and included a link to a blog post on the “Information as Material” website entitled “Do or DIY.” You can read that blog yourself, but the site is down at the moment, so I haven't linked to it. Nevertheless it seems worth listing all the once-self-published authors, because the sheer number of important ones speaks loudly. In alphabetical order:
Kathy Acker, Jane Austen, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kate Chopin, Tristan Corbiere, Stephen Crane, Nancy Cunard, Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Benjamin Franklin, Nikki Giovanni, Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol, Ian Hamilton-Finlay, Nathaniel Hawthorne, A.E. Housman, Charles Ives, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Martin Luther, Herman Melville, George Meredith, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Irma Rombauer, Raymond Roussel, Carl Sandburg, Edith Sitwell, Gertrude Stein, Laurence Sterne, Italo Svevo, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Henry David Thoreau, Derek Walcott, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Please Join Me

I’m not a big joiner. Oh, I can be social if need be — can talk my head off at a cocktail party with a glass of wine (or two) in my hand. But even when I’m at the dance I feel like the guy looking in the window. (See Mann, Thomas.) It’s the novelist’s plight, perhaps, to be more inclined to observe than to participate.
So a few years ago, when my old friend Jane Dystel (to whom I’d sold my literary agency in 2000), recommended that I join International Thriller Writers, I fretted and resisted. Last year, however, I took the plunge, and although my participation in the organization has been gentle rather than gung-ho, I have found it rewarding.
At the ITW conference in New York, I sat in on some lectures in craft, picking up a thing or two. I spoke on a panel, reacquainted myself with some old colleagues and started some new relationships. The overarching theme of ITW is that times are tough (and changing) in a difficult profession. If we authors stick together, we can help one another, better satisfy readers, and grow the genre.
One of the things that makes ITW unique is that it doesn’t charge dues to its members. It only charges for its conference and it sells ads on its website. And one of the biggest ways it raises funds is by selling an annual collection of short stories.
I’m here today to plug that collection, Love is Murder, edited by Sandra Brown.
Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review.
Booklist called it "wonderfully diverse and exciting."

If you need to watch television to get inspired to buy it (something I don’t really understand, dinosaur that I am), visit the trailer through Facebook.
There are some big names in this collection, but it’s largely about assisting the rest of us, the ones still striving to “make it.” By buying this book, you’re not only helping authors in a popular genre. You’re helping authors get better at what they do.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Seven Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (2)

2. Who’s adding value when distribution shifts?
Established publishers will say, not incorrectly, that a big part of publishing isn't about making stuff. Rather it’s about getting that stuff in front of people: distribution. But with the rise of digital books, distribution also changes markedly. So far, distribution of ebooks has proven to be a natural monopoly — or at least an oligopoly.
No one wants to go all over the Internet searching for a book to buy. And — at least as long as ebook formats (locked with digital rights management) are mostly tied to a particular brand of reader — once you have the reader you’re stuck with a single vendor. (Technically that’s not necessarily true, but it is as a practical matter.)
As a result, Amazon currently owns more than sixty percent of the ebook market, while Barnes & Noble has thirty percent. As ebooks continue to displace print books — especially in the fiction category — the effort required to achieve near-one-hundred-percent market penetration diminishes. Instead of shipping thousands of books to thousands of stores, you're sending an electronic file to three or four, and inexpensive services have already arisen to facilitate this distribution.
Dilemma: When ninety percent of the market is available to authors at the click of a button, what value is a traditional publisher adding?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Seven Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (1)

I just completed another novel, my third in three years, and now I have to figure out how to publish it.
Not long ago, all a novelist had to worry about was pleasing his reader. Getting published was a part of reaching that reader, of course, but presumably those who occupied the middle — agents, editors, bookstore buyers — were only super readers, people who stood in for the eventual customer.
Pleasing the reader meant facing up to certain dilemmas inherent in storytelling, matters of characterization, pacing, voice, etc. None of these is easy to master, but they’re the kinds of issues that authors enjoy resolving. Having to reinvent the book publishing industry, on the other hand, is a chore we’d rather avoid.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Story of E?

For many years my father, who was the managing partner of a small accounting firm, had an impressive executive secretary. She was a refined old New York type who spoke in a cultured voice that came across with great assurance, especially over the telephone. She was also a large woman, built like an opera singer and with the refinements of one, a person whose physical qualities and classy manners led you to assume, without knowing for sure, that she was a serious consumer of art and literature. In support of that assumption, she was a voracious reader and spent her entire lunch hour immersed in mass market paperback books.
What was she reading? I couldn’t know, not exactly, because the covers remained hidden beneath a fabric sleeve with a fringe bookmark that she transferred from volume to volume like a talisman. When I inquired after what she was reading she invariably blushed and refused to tell me. They turned out — yes, I peeked — to be conventional romances.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Anatomy of a Writer's Rant

This morning I read a blog rant from an acquaintance named Aaron Patterson, an author and the publisher of StoneHouse Ink. I met Aaron last summer at the International Thriller Writers conference. His enthusiasm and his business savvy impressed me.
Last month Aaron sold nearly 20,000 copies of his ebooks. In some respects, he is running circles around much bigger publishers, and he’s only been in the business for three years. In his rant, he compares most authors to casino goers: “Authors from everywhere are all on the plane whooping it up, drinking and full of visions of the money filled pools of their future. But on the airplane ride back, sad faces and hung over looks cover the silent air like a wet dream crushing blanket.”
Now, this is a sentence that began with great promise and then devolved into an awkward mixed metaphor. If you’re turned off by the writing of his post (which clearly was just spit out, typos and all, in a fit of frustration bordering on rage), you might be inclined to dismiss Aaron. In that case, you’d be the poorer, because he’s right. Hope is not a strategy. The business point of being published (self or otherwise) is not to acquire a lottery ticket but to build a brand of some kind.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Narrative Friction

I recently learned (maybe I’m the last to know) that Ben Zimmer of The Boston Globe has been tracking anachronistic language in the PBS hit show Downton Abbey for a project called Visual Thesaurus. The anachronisms are also the subject of a YouTube video.

The examples (“I couldn’t care less”) have not struck me while I watched the series, so I can’t claim they took this viewer out of the fiction. It could be that I’m just a sucker for an English accent, lapsing into instant credulousness at the first seemingly erudite syllable. Then again, some of these “mistakes” seem like a great deal of hairsplitting. For instance, the word “floozy” — which Zimmerman flags — is said only to have begun in American (not British) slang in the earlier part of the decade in which Downton takes place. I don’t know — I’m not a linguist — but the first written citation in the Dictionary of American Slang dates to 1902. Wouldn’t the oral slang precede the written? Doesn’t at least sixteen years seem like enough time for that usage to have crossed the pond, especially with a world war on? And isn’t it possible that the character who speaks this word was at least exposed to an American in England who introduced her to the usage?

Well, never mind the pilpul; it’s all in good fun. But this exercise does bring to my mind the issue of narrative voice in fiction.