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.