Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Decline of Traditional Publishing

The publishing industry is hard to figure out.

For one thing, the sheer number of books published in the United States is outrageous. The last I heard it was in the neighborhood of 65,000 annually.

Good business practice? No! These publishers are competing with themselves, often publishing dozens of titles on the same hot topic. Would any other industry do such a thing?

Why does publishing do it?

It seems to me that the publishing industry's marketing strategy is a crapshoot: Flood the market with 65,000 titles. A tiny handful will takeoff, indicating great potential profit in them. Then disregard the other 64,995 titles so that you put all your promotional and book-publicity efforts into these few titles, while doing nothing to actually sell the other 98% of the books you publish.

Just tell those other authors that they must do all the marketing of their books themselves and do it at their own expense.

Obviously then, publishers feel no obligation to authors, nor any real partnership with them. The proof is in the fact that an outrageous percentage of books (more than 98%) lose money!

Result? Your book gets one short print run, and then your dream is over. You get no royalties, because the profits all go to the publisher until sales exceed initial production costs. That generally doesn't happen until the second or third print run, which never happens. Plus, you've spent your tiny advance many times over on airfare to promote the publisher's product for them.

I'd like to have someone twist that fact into anything but "vanity" publishing. Yes, that's right: is traditional publishing anything but vanity publishing in most cases?

Which is why publishers are more often concerned about your connections and ability to get yourself on TV talk shows than about the quality of your book. Indeed, the quality of your book, or its importance to the literature on that subject, is worth almost nothing anymore. Your book proposal must promise big-name endorsements, promise hundreds of book-signings all over the country at your own expense, promise a book-publicity program that will supply you to promote the publisher's product on various TV and radio talk shows throughout the nation.

I'm sorry, but that's the criteria the publishing industry's uppity "gatekeepers" are using to decide who is worthy of their giving voice to.

Hmm, why not self-publish then?

In fact, most publishers have even ditched the task of editing. That is another part of the publishing process that has been dumped on the author to have done at his or her own expense.

The result is that the publisher has minimized its loss in the 98% of projects that fail to make money - by shifting that loss to the author's bank account. The handful of blockbusters more than make up for the publisher's tiny share of the loss in publishing the rest of its books.

Indeed, this parasitize-the-author scheme works: though 98% of their projects lose money, publishers have the highest profit margins of any industry in this country, often up to around 20% (as compared with around 8% for the oil industry).

Many people mistakenly still equate traditional publishing by the big New York houses as somehow "legitimizing" and giving the author "credibility" and "authority" on the subject. But let's think twice. Just look at all the books those houses publish on the paranormal.

If you write a book in which you claim to have been abducted by aliens, Simon & Schuster publishing it doesn't make it credible. It just proves that Simon & Schuster isn't credible.

We see this most glaringly in an election year. The same publisher publishes dozens of books, by both the far left and the far right. Read a few of each to see that both cannot be true and that at least one of these authors must therefore be lying his or her head off, not even respecting truthfulness about the facts.

So, much for the legitimacy of books traditionally published by the big Manhattan houses. They publish the work of quacks and the wildest liars as if oblivious to any moral obligation not to.

This can't go on forever. People notice and stop buying books, simply because they no longer trust the information in them.

Often publishing floods a market - such as the golf or tennis market - with an avalanche of books, all of which just rehash the same old cliches and pass off rote instruction as "simplifying things." This method of instruction imbues golf with the obsession over form that characterizes the martial arts. The result is that it is no longer a game: it is an obsession with swinging "right." That (a) doesn't work, (b) actually hinders the player's progress, and (c) makes every purchase after the first golf book you bought a waste of money on a book that says nothing the first one didn't say.

Eventually golfers catch on, get sick of that, and quit buying golf books. You have ruinously exploited your market by convincing golfers that no golf book will do their game any good. Hence the industry is to blame for drying up much of its own market this way.

Quality, quality, quality - products that work and really HELP the buyer.

Another example of drying up the market is how mass-market books are sold by hooking prospective buyers' curiosity instead of legitimate interest. The problem with that is that curiosity is short-lived. Therefore, after you have had your curiosity piqued by a half-dozen celebrity tomes on politics, you stop buying that junk in the grocery-checkout line, because what do you care what Whooppi Goldberg has to say about Clinton's impeachment? She knows no more about it than you do. Her stories and ramblings are nothing to you. You have never gotten past Chapter 3 in any such book before tossing it in the circular file. Why waste more money on literary jabber?

In short, pursuit of the fast buck has borne bad fruit today in the ever-shrinking market for what book publishing sells.

All those great prices you see at online book sellers? Below cost. That's a lot of unsold copies sitting in warehouses - copies that bookstores bought and returned unsold. What other kind of store gets to return unsold merchandise? Is that any incentive to really try to sell your book?

And so these slashed prices are just the alternative to burning all those unsold copies, which cost money to warehouse.

This situation has been worsening since the price of paper skyrocketed in the 1990's and conglomerates took over – the biggest ones being foreign conglomerates partly under the control of their foreign governments.

Bertelsmann is a good example. It's a German company partly subsidized by the German government. It's a publisher of anti-American magazines of the socialist far-left in Germany, which, after France, has the most anti-American populace in all of Europe.

Pardon me for being suspicious of such interests controlling the vast majority of what we Americans get to read or see on TV. I think that's as dangerous as having Chinese companies manufacture the guidance system of our Air Force's F-22s.

Note: please don't jump to the conclusion that this is an indictment of globalization. It simply means that, for national security reasons, there are some industries that must never be outsourced or controlled by foreign companies, especially when those companies are under the thumb of their governments through either direct or indirect (manipulative) controls.



Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Resonance by Stating a Bold and Surprising Conclusion at the Top

Stating a bold, surprising conclusion at the top can lend resonance to what follows. In poetry we see an exquisite example of this in T.S. Eliot's opening to "The Wasteland."

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Then there's Dickens' memorable and ever-timely opening to A Tale of Two Cities, which he carries off like a speaker would — with a little "ice-breaking" humor.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of credulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the Lords of the state preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled forever.

In both examples above, the striking conclusion is an opening summary, like the executive summary in a business document. The tale begins after it and resonates because of it.

We see another example of a bold and surprising opening conclusion in the first sentence of A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul:

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn't think I would have it easy when I took over.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

To be a writer

Why do you want to be a writer?

The question itself is revealing. Is that what you want? "To be a writer"?

To BE a writer. To BE something. Not to DO something?

I don't think there is any field with such a vast majority of simple "wanna-bees." Writing attracts people with this desire because it is a way to get attention.

They view writing as some sort of public address system, a way to be heard. Period.

The problem is that there are a billion other wanna-bee writers with the same goal. Can you surface to the top in that attention-seeking crowd?

OK, in a small market, such as academic publishing or publishing in English outside North America, you may have the chance of the average frog in a small pond. Especially if you have friends in high places in the publishing industry. But the world shrinks by the day, and it is fast becoming as difficult to succeed in these low-competition markets as it is in the big one.

Since attention is all a wanna-bee is after, writing is all about THEM, not the reader (i.e., customer). Can you imagine the manufacturer of any other product having this attitude? No, right? That attitude would be the formula for failure in any other business.

You see indications of this misguided goal in many writers' resistance to suggestions that would improve their product. Some view it as a kind of come-down to write in plain English. They think their readers read to be impressed by their high-sounding rhetoric, long sentences, and complex constructions.

Is that not pure narcissism?

Others are preachers. They think the whole world is just dying to hear their enlightening sermon-in-print

I know that my own writing was never any good until I got serious about it and started writing to make money. Suddenly my whole attitude changed! Now it was all about the reader, not me. Now I appreciated good editing, and it never pushed my ego's buttons. Now I saw the value in plain English. Now my writing became clear, concise, sharp, and strong so that it sunk in and meant something concrete. Now people told me they appreciated the simplicity and clarity that enabled them to grasp what I was getting at with minimal effort.

As James Frey writes, writing is a service industry. It produces a product. In fiction the product is for entertainment. In non-fiction it is information.

Of course, your writing should enlighten. But people don't read to be preached at or impressed. They read for entertainment and/or information.

If providing that product is something you'd like to do and can do well, go for it, because you have a decent chance to succeed. But if all you want is "to be" a writer = someone who gets a lot of attention = think twice, because your chances of success are nil.



Sunday, April 06, 2008

Writing in Threes

Via Bertram's Blog:

To use the power of three in articles: Set up your premise, prove it, conclude it.

To use the power of three in a mystery: Give one clue to tantalize; two to suggest a direction of discovery; three to create a pattern.

To use the power of three in a story: Create tension, develop it, release it.

To use the power of three in description: Mention three attributes.

To use the power of three in devising a plot, following the storyline of The Three Bears....

Read the rest.

"3" creates a series, a sequence, a path of cause and effect - but in the most economical way. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Goldilocks finds the Three Bears' porridge too hot, too cold, or just right.



Thursday, April 03, 2008

Writer's Guides

Time is running out to save on any edition of To Write That Novel (paperback, PDF, or on CD-ROM) or Gotta Write? during the March Madness Sale, which ends on Monday.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Resonating Titles

We have just seen how a resonant title lends resonance to a story (e.g., Death in the Afternoon). Resonant chapter titles do likewise. Alternatively, some authors name the parts of a novel with resonant titles.

Such titles often use metaphors or play on a familiar opposite. For example, the title "Nothing Comes to Those Who Wait" plays on the familiar opposite saying All things come to those who wait.



Sunday, March 23, 2008

Resonance of Invoking Death

Invoking death resonates because it foreshadows. You can invoke the specter of death with imagery, a metaphor, an omen, or a premonition. If the story ends with the death of your main character, invoking death at the outset really resonates.

Shakespeare invoked death in Juliet's first words about Romeo after meeting him:

Go ask his name. If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.

Shakespeare invoked death before the outset, in the titles of his tragedies, such as The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Hemingway did likewise in Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Of course, you can invoke the specter of death literally too, as Shakespeare did in Hamlet's tremendous opening scene with the ghost and as Charles Dickens did with the last apparition that comes to Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."



Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Messed-Up, Untidy" Characters

Via Curiosities at The Millions:

Richard Russo: "My fictional Eliot [Spitzer] would be complex, would contain paradoxes. He would not be a hypocrite. My Eliot would believe with his whole heart in his crusades against the corrupt and the powerful and the privileged, even as he worked studiously to undermine his legacy. Fiction can accommodate such paradoxes, provided they're explained."

I'm sorry, fiction cannot be stranger than truth. Complex is a buzzword so overused that it has lost all meaning. A complex is a personality trait reflected backward, reversed, folded back in the opposite direction. For example, an inferiority complex(ed) comes off as a superiority act.

Therefore, what is more complex than a self-righteous hypocrite?

Ah, the "banality of evil" again. The "intellectual" take waters it down to "illicit sex" and says that Spitzer's worst crime is "cluelessness," "blowing it."

Oh, so he's just like the rest of us, right? How banal.

Yes, some people like reading the banal, but that's not where the money is in this market.

But I don't mean to jigger the facts; fictive Eliot will do exactly what the real Eliot has done, only my guy almost never imagines getting caught.

How can you say that when he signed into the hotel under the name of a well-known close friend and benefactor? He was setting up this close friend and benefactor to get framed for his (Spitzer's) own illegal activity.

First, I'd like to know how you are going to square this fact with your Spitzer never thinking about getting caught. Second, I'd like to know how you are going to characterize your Spitzer as a basically good man (no worse than rest of us) who just happens to do a shockingly vicious, despicable, stomach-turning thing like that TO A FRIEND AND BENEFACTOR!

Not banal. Not banal at all.

Real-life Eliot has few friends, we're told, the natural result of what some people like to call his arrogance, though my Eliot has never thought of it in those terms until now.

These are fellow Democrats who have had to work closely with him over the years. Like the Republicans who have had to work closely with John McCain, they are known to hate him but are very reticent to admit that to the press, let alone be quoted as to why. That MEANS something, because these are the people who know these men best. And their fear of speaking up about the "steamroller" is a red flag.

But you discount it. Again, fiction cannot be stranger than truth. Your Spitzer must be congruous with that fact. Nothing in the story that doesn't belong there, no extra pieces of the puzzle. It all must fit. This isn't religion, where you can just throw up your hands and say, "Well, it's a mystery."

And then the call girl must call in immediately afterward to let her handlers know she's OK and that he wasn't "difficult" this time. Just "illicit sex," right?

Now you know why very few people read literary fiction anymore: the banal ain't entertaining, and most people read to be entertained, not to be edified by the reduction of everything to the banal.

Make your characters make sense. To real people.

Richard Russo's fictional Eliot Spitzer - whom he himself says is a "messed-up, untidy" character - makes no sense at all. And it's remarkably like the fictional character many have made of the real Eliot Spitzer. A con artist who fooled the whole world with his crusader act.

The great Gatsby was great, for he loved greatly, purely.

But, especially considering how this foil of Gatsby recently tried to frame his friend and benefactor, the Attorney General of New York should go back and make sure he didn't steamroll innocent people into prison.

Make sure your characters make sense. Don't try to preach some doctrine, or you'll end up warping your characters into nebulous, banal messes like this.



Monday, March 17, 2008

Resonance of Authenticity

The imprimatur of an authority figure lends words credibility via resonance. As a novelist you can take advantage of this fact for greater authenticity. For, in a novel credibility is that all-important commodity known as suspension of disbelief.

You can make a character seem authentic by anointing him with the resonance of authority. Just have him expound on the ideas of an anointed authority he is a disciple of. For example, if the character is a general, you can make him a disciple of Napoleon; if she is a psychiatrist, you can make her a disciple of Sigmund Freud; if he is a tennis pro, you can make him a disciple of Vic Braden.

You can even achieve this authenticity by resonance with a fictitious authority figure. For example, in The Magician, Sol Stein invented a character who was a foreign-born psychiatrist. To lend him authenticity via resonance, he had this character espouse a fictitious theory proposed by a fictitious authority. This fictitious authority figure lent resonance to both the character and the theory. So much resonance that it fooled psychiatrists! To his surprise, some wrote Stein asking for directions to the professional literature on this theory.

Ah, the magical power of invoking authority.



Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Weekly Writing Prompt

Get a weekly writing prompt of three words every Wednesday at Three Word Wednesday.

This week's prompt is: Apartment, Began, Numb

See an example of how to play at Write from Karen: The Doctor is Human After All.


My eyes quickly skipped over the gloves and landed on the waste basket tucked into a hole under the counter top, the huge red triangle stating it was for hazardous materials only seemed to pulsate under the fluorescent lights.

Only can throw us overboard, because we will tend to parse it with the words that follow it, instead of the words that precede it.

Ever since I read Sol Stein remarking on the strange things writers claim their eyeballs do, sentences like this jump out at me. I am distracted from the story by the picture of eyeballs skipping over gloves and landing a waste basket. Your "gaze" might do that, but I'd be careful of naming body parts in sentences like this.

On the other hand, letting things act in the rest of the piece would improve it. For example "I felt a nervous bubble of laughter tickle the back of my throat..." would be sharper and stronger as "A nervous bubble of laughter tickled the back of my throat."

Doing so would also lend greater immediacy to the scene, because you aren't always filtering viewpoint through "I saw," "I heard," "I felt."

Nonetheless, that's the really good thing about this piece: with very little to go on, Karen keeps you in immediate scene. She does an excellent job of putting you in the narrator's skin.

In my experience, people either can write in immediate scene, or they just can't, no matter how much you explain or many examples you give. I think this is because you either "get" immediate scene or you don't. And I suspect that this, in turn, depends on whether you have the necessary imagination.

But you can strengthen your imagination the same way you strengthen a muscle - by working it. A weekly writing prompt like this is a good way to do that.