Friday, June 7, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin' (Part Two)

(Quotations are taken from links provided in my last post, directly under this one.)

"I was rejected for years, and then I published a bit and then was rejected again and didn’t publish for a long while and then I published again and I might or might not ever publish another book.  That’s the writer’s life." -- Lauren Davis

No, that's not "the writer's life", that's Lauren Davis' life. Every writer's experience is different. In fact, in today's traditional model, newbies actually have an advantage over established mid-listers in that their slate is clean. They don't have black marks with the standard tailing off of sales book-to-book, necessitating either a new pen name or a new career. The reason this happens is due to marketing agreements that traditional publishers negotiate with sophisticated data miners. The big book chains only order, at maximum for their run, the amount of books from an established author's new release which correspond to their last effort. Hard to "build a career" in that model with a built-in ceiling. The publishers note the declining sales, and all talk about "quality" writing is beside the point when sales graphs go the way of the Hindenburg.

  Nothing to do with Davis' vague school-of-hard-knocks one-size-fits-all. Self-pubbers, on the other hand, can write whatever they feel like, publish whenever they want (maybe some do wait till they get it right -- who's to say everyone's "rushing"?), and avoid the reams of rejections, the non-responses, and, if finally accepted, avoid the inevitable one or two year lag time till their novels are traditionally published.

"I think Philip Roth had it right when he told a young writer, “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.” Although, as I’ve said elsewhere, [sic] he had me a [sic] ‘torture’." -- Lauren Davis

Curious author to use as an example of failing out of the gate. Philip Roth's first work, the novelette Goodbye Columbus, a terrific book, was immediately lauded, earning him the National Book Award for fiction. Roth's admonition is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, as even the source Davis quotes from acknowledges. But whereas Roth revels in the "torture", Davis is quite capable of using hyperbole in a more serious tone.

It's an off-topic and conflicted diversion, in any event. Whether a newbie novelist is "tortured", mildly annoyed, or overjoyed is beside the point. If one is inclined towards depression, procrastination, low self-esteem, or any number of other personal issues, whatever publishing route is taken isn't going to alleviate any of that in a meaningful way. Davis is conflating happiness with the best means for getting your work out to the reading public, and the best means for eventually becoming recognized. In some cases it means going with a traditional big, in others it means going with a small press, and increasingly it means self-publishing. But Davis either has little knowledge of the many valid avenues each author uses to come to a conclusion as to the best method, or has taken a few personal examples from her students or friends, happy that they fit her confirmation bias. I'd speculate that both are in play.

"There are no short cuts, I’m afraid.  I’m grateful I didn’t publish any of my early work.  It was, frankly, pretty terrible, and people with excellent judgment told me so, although I didn’t much like it at the time.  Only the space of years and what I’ve learned about writing since has taught me to look at the work objectively and see how dreadful it was. Had self-publishing been an option, however, I probably would have done it, filled with hubris and the desperation to publish as I was." -- Lauren Davis

Once again, in Davis' world, her personal path is all anyone needs to know to form an iron-clad opinion on the matter. It's narcissistic, arrogant, and displays an amazingly complacent and proud assertion of her ignorance on the complex and ever-changing developments with authors, both new and established, getting their work out to the reading public. "No short cuts". Maybe not. But some authors are precocious. Some of the greatest have flared early, then flamed out. Bottom line -- if you've written what you think is a damn fine book, you get it out there as fast as possible. Some authors begrudge others' early success, though, if it goes against their own career trajectory. "People with excellent judgement told me so." A subtle post hoc fallacy. And, again, one that doesn't prove anything since it's limited to one author's experiences out of hundreds of thousands. Many editors and agents are terrible. That's a significant problem for traditional publishers, and for the authors who write under their umbrella. This isn't breaking news. We've all seen many examples of it. So the only thing a new author can do is take every suggestion seriously, reflect on it, get the opinions of others, especially if they contradict the first editor, and come to a conclusion yourself. Many times, of course, the editor is correct. But what irritates me here again is the assumption that the new author should take Davis' words as an unthinking given 'cuz, you know, she's a self-promoting award-winning author writing for HarperCollins legit-side imprint. The appeal to authority is seductive for many, unfortunately.

"I would have sent my brilliant darlings out into the world, where they doubtless would have been smashed beneath the heel of an uncaring public and, broken-hearted, I doubt I would have kept on." -- Lauren Davis

This kind of melodrama could work as a long-form send-up. I don't detect much winking in the tone, though. Actually, no one is going to smash the book beneath a heel. A contradiction anyway, no? If a reader purchases the book, reads all or part of it, and then smashes it, they aren't "uncaring". They care very much, even if that care takes the form of anger. It seems I'm picking on her wording a bit too much. But she's a writer. Emotional perspective matters. If no one cared about her efforts in an earlier hypothetical self-published universe, they would have read a few pages, yawned, and resumed their game of solitaire. The author's name would have been forgotten immediately.

"Oh, I might have kept writing in my journals, might even have started a wee blog, but I do not think I would have stuck my face back in the publishing fan." -- Lauren Davis

This completely contradicts what she said above about the torture of writing, and about her own long and uneven apprenticeship with her traditionally published career. And if any author is going to quit after meager  sales of their first book, self- or traditionally published, the writing life is obviously not for them, anyway

"Even with the support of good publishers and objective (by which I mean not-paid-by-me and therefore willing to be brutally honest) editors, publishing is a rough business.  To go into the coliseum as an untried, unarmored youth, carrying a sword made of twigs rather than tempered steel, is suicide." -- Lauren Davis

Whoa! Some actual content in the above. Threw me for a loop, initially.

Traditional publishers, once it gets to the stage of careful editing, are already using their person-power resources on the newbie's book. Yes, many (though certainly far from all) editors are going to be harder on an author's words if the book is going to one of the big houses. Same thing with many small presses. But they're running a business. In the "everything is shit when you're starting out" uniform world that Davis lives in, a new author, therefore, would be taking up an inordinate amount of time (= $), and in many cases corners would have to be cut, not out of "friendliness" or laziness, but from time constraints alone. They care about the book, but no one will care about it more than the author. When a self-pubber hires an editor or editors, however, the standard contract or agreement usually includes payment by words worked. If that same newbie author causes the editor to have to transform whole patches of the first chapter, the latter is not getting nearly as much as she should for her money. Good editors, then, won't come knocking. This puts the onus on the author to know what the hell they're doing at a surface level, but since editing matters, if an author isn't competent enough to produce decent self-edited copy to his or her editor, and so has to go for a crappy editor, or worse, no editor, or even no reading group, the novel's shortcomings will indeed be apparent and the book won't sell, or if it does (Dan Brown), does so for extraliterary reasons. I don't see much difference here between the two options. We've all read scores of poorly edited traditionally published novels. Novels, even, with rampant typos, formatting blunders, and typographical quirks (tiny print; funky punctuation). With self-pubbed novels, at Amazon at least, the prospective buyer can read 10% of the book's beginning for free by clicking on the cover.. Same idea as browsing at a bookstore. Annoying and time-consuming, often, for the reader. But the result is the same on-line or in shop: no sale.

"How many writers with the talent necessary to write fine books will publish too soon, before they’re ready, and be crushed or utterly ignored, which is much like being crushed?" -- Lauren Davis

What's with all the crushing and smashing? Are new authors young anorexics thrown into their first National Football League game as starting running backs? The hysteria never made it as satire. Now it's just annoying. Here's the thing. In traditional publishing, a new author's book (if very lucky) is given a bit of promotion, and picked up (often) by bookstores where it will sit, usually spine out, for a month or two (increasingly shrinking time) at which time it will be sold back to the publisher at a reduced rate. The "life cycle" of the book is effectively over. Any meaningful promotion has ended. Now the book isn't even available except (possibly) at a few second-hand bookshops, as well as the library. Word of mouth has to happen fast in this model. With self-publishing, however, the book is there forever. Now, most books, digitally, are still unknown and largely unsold. But here's the difference. In Davis' world, that first book is increasingly becoming more crucial in a publishing operation with fewer resources to spend on unproven authors. Even after getting by that initial hump, mid-listers are getting screwed with shitty contract terms and visibility. But if one has talent, and has been a victim of the lack of opportunity in the old paradigm, self-publishing has the promise of rewarding talent eventually. How so? By the author continuing even when sales are minimal. If it takes till book six for an author to find an audience, it means readers will be open to peruse that author's backlist. It's never out of print.

It seems that Davis has taken the long view -- talent will out, persistence pays off, and the like. Well, if those are the terms, it seems that opportunities are often better for new writers in self-publishing than they are in the declining conglomerate-brick-paper model. (Davis frequently leaves out any context for her words. Most digital sales come from genre novels. But literary novels will be increasingly more attractive for newbies and those who originally published traditionally, too, for reasons already mentioned, for others I'll cover in a wrap-up, and for still others for which I don't have time to go into in these two posts.)

"But the companies making money on the desperation of unpublished writers will go on making money" -- Lauren Davis

You mean like HarperCollins dirty little secret vanity press, and others of the expensive office set? Savvy self-pubbers laugh at those. Most aren't the dewy-eyed naive hopefuls that (perhaps) show up to Davis' writing classes. Confirmation bias, again.

"while small literary presses, which are the life blood of emerging writers, may very well go under" -- Lauren Davis

Some might, perhaps many.. But it has nothing to do with new authors abandoning them and everything to do with shrinking funding sources and amounts. Fascinating the publisher-centric view in Davis' wording here, too. I'd say that emerging writers are the life blood of small literary presses, but then I'm just an old time romantic who thinks that everything stems from content providers. Without someone saying something original or entertaining, nothing happens. Publishers, agents, editors, salespeople, production designers, bookstore owners (the ones that actually sell books, that is), marketers, accountants, organizers, literary reviewers and critics, and teachers -- all would be without jobs, whether volunteering or paid. Curious that this wording comes from an author, but maybe not, as she seems to be heavily involved in teaching, and at speaking at conferences.

Full disclosure: I've never submitted a novel to a traditional publisher, nor have I self-published anything. Traditionally published novels will always have a place, hopefully, in my world, and in the larger world GOING FORWARD. (Ha! That's the stupidest catchphrase in the history of catchphrases. I had to use it at least once.) But they've got to get their act together. Whatever the complaints, the digital world is where most books will be sold by 2016 or 2017. Self-publishers make up about 16% of all books sold now. In three or four years, it'll be about 38%. You don't need an advanced degree in mathematical extrapolation to see where we're going, and going in a hurry. I don't own a kindle or a kobo (or whatever they're called in Canada). Yet. I will, though, even as I was the last one on my block to own a CD player (how quaint even that seems now.) I just find it interesting that an author who professes to focus on the long view can be so short-sighted and misinformed.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin'

No, it's not a post about Bobby Zimmerman, but another chestnut could be scattered by a hard wind a-blowin' through the volatile book biz.

The smug put-downs, the arrogant and idiotic assumptions, the defensive and prideful hold-the-fort advisories from various authors and agents, both in and out of Canada, regarding authors self-publishing their work have increased in volume and emotion with a corresponding volume and excitement from the belittled works (and their authors) themselves. This is, of course, to be expected. Anyone reading this piece already knows more than a little about the quakes currently shaking the foundations of publishing houses in Toronto and New York and London. But Lauren Davis, apparently, hasn't been keeping up, thinking instead that the tremors are underground shifts, rumbling and bothersome, but nothing to be too concerned about. She doesn't understand that the emergence of self-publishing has come about for easy-to-trace reasons, having little to do with trendiness or vanity.

I'm rattling this off, it's late (or early), so I'll just post some of her thoughts (from the above links), then respond to them.

"Jonathan Bennett has written an interesting blog on the subject. In it he says, “self-publishing deletes an essential component in the writing of important literary work: time. If no one shelves a rejected novel anymore (indeed, if there no longer is such a thing as a rejected novel), if small presses all die because the do-it-yourself-craze makes them redundant, the world will have fewer great, even half-decent, works of literature. And we already have so few.”

I agree with Jonathan." -- Lauren Davis

Talk about your slippery slope, your faulty correlation, your hyperbole-for-status quo, and your incorrect blanket assumptions all rolled into one (Bennett's words).

First off, many self-published novels haven't been previously rejected by traditional publishers. For various reasons, some of which I'll no doubt touch upon later, today's author has bypassed the standard route altogether and plunked it on the various e-bookstores instead. Rejection, in this sense, then, isn't an issue. Secondly, traditonal publishers have an abysmal track record, in the aggregate, when it comes to smoking out talent and quality. No need to make a list here. But whatever the genre, there are countless examples of authors who have been rejected in no uncertain terms right out of the hopper, who have then re-submitted the work in question to another publisher (with perhaps further edits), and who have, through sheer persistence, anger, desperation, and back-breaking work, continued the merry-go-round, at last and fortunately to have another publisher (frequently of the small-press variety) see something in it and take a chance on putting it through the paces. So why is shelving a work after an initial thumbs-down verdict an automatically accepted judgement on its worth, or rather, lack thereof?

Secondly, small presses won't die because one hundred thousand crappy novels are self-published every year. I don't get the link here. If people are buying those "crappy" novels, they won't be for very long after they've been burned a few times. But since the percentage of novels sold digitally (among all novels sold, traditionally or otherwise) has increased year-by-year, it's safe to say that not all those novels are garbage. It's not just the traditionally published efforts, set to a digital version,  that readers are scooping up on their Kindles and Nooks. In fact, there are some fascinating stats coming out now that suggest the heavy-hitting authors will themselves be taking much of the near-future sales hit, one reason being that readers are fed up paying $15 dollars plus when the distribution, storage, production, and promotional costs have nosedived. Unless you're Stephen King, guess who's raking in the huge margin while keeping prices high? Why, it just may be the publishing conglomerate (among a few others) that employs Davis. (More on that in a bit.)

Bennett's last statement is hilarious in its insecurity and historical cluelessness. I'll cover that, too, in a bit, but the argument as it is assumes, then leaps out of its skin. The world will have fewer works of great literature, according to Bennett,  because a bunch of authors -- many of whom have transferred from traditional publishing (oops, they didn't note that, either) -- tossed their genre novels on to a platform in which the titles will most likely (a) be buried forever, or (b) be read by a few, then quickly forgotten, or (c) pick up steam slowly, as lone wolves emerge from the pack due to widespread word-of-mouth. In other words, the few successes, and all of the failures, will come about in the same ways, and for the same reasons, as they always have, no matter the transmission and technology. Bennett also claims that we have far too few great works of literature as it is. I don't know how he scours for quality, but I do just fine relying for the most part on former critics and reviewers who've made excellent judgements (again, in the aggregate) so that I don't have to sift through mountains of text -- digital- or pulp-based. Crap is rampant whatever road you take.

"And I know some people will say this is easy for me to say, publishing as I do with a large publishing house, getting nominated for awards and being a best-seller and all." -- Lauren Davis

Well, no harm in a little self-promotion, is there, especially as her book is just out. Speaking of promotion, that used to be the job of the publisher, so the writer could do what she was supposedly good at, writing, the job that Davis herself says, a bit later on, is what should take up the author's time instead. But even the big publishers are increasingly farming out their promotional department to the authors themselves. That's great if you like to travel, and read your work (hope you have a whack of grants or creative coverage on expenses), but not so great in reality for most authors, judging from the loud grumblings which ensue from the entire idea of public readings from novelists of their own latest works. There's also the increasing insistence from agents that authors create and maintain links with prospective readers through facebook/twitter/personal blogs. Apparently, the promotional responsibility transferred to authors is now so large -- due mainly to publishers' shrinking piece of the book pie -- that those pre-existing links the author brings with her or him is part of what factors in to whether or not many deals are cut in the first place. So much for Davis' vaunted insistence on quality of writing.

The firm that's published at least three of Davis' works is HarperCollins. That outfit has joined the ranks of the other too-big-to-fail conglomerates in providing a "leg up" to aspiring authors. The owner of HarperCollins also ministers West Bow Press, an offshoot which "helps" the beleaguered neophyte by separating him or her from copious greenbacks in return for getting the work out there. Oh, wait. That would be called a vanity press. Same as Author Solutions, the brainchild of Penguin (now apparently Penguin Random House -- it's hard to keep up, is it 2008 again?). At least self-publishers aren't forking over their money to these scams. But it must be nice being the supportive voice for one's employer, though the hypocrisy is just as shocking as the despicable terms from those players. Author Solutions: 30% of your profit raked from each book, in perpetuity, for their mechanical swipe in formatting and uploading them. Total person-hours -- less than one. (By the way, a few of those "too few great" writers started their careers with vanity presses, still others self-published. I'll let Davis and Bennett do some further research on it.)

OK, the birds are singing. More soon.


In other news, apologies to Mark Sampson and others. Day job and  various writing commitments have taken any time away from making  more commentary on James Joyce's Ulysses. Sorry about that. Too many bites, not enough chews, and all that.