Sunday, September 30, 2012

Working With the Subconscious

The strange thing about the writing craft is that the book you planned to write is almost never the book you end up writing. It usually has the same premise and sometimes the same general shape as the original outline. Bits of action and dialogue from the original conception might show up. But the book itself will be different. Sometimes it’s a surprise and—hopefully, prayerfully—better than you expected. Sometimes it’s a disappointment, with not as much story there as you originally thought.

I can’t think of any other endeavor where plan and outcome are so tenuously linked. Imagine an architect who sketches and drafts the plans for a cathedral, only to find it turning into a shopping mall after the bulldozers start scraping the ground and the contractors start pouring concrete. And the writer doesn’t even have the excuse of incompetent and obtuse collaborators and contractors who spoiled the original conception. It’s all happening within the confines of the writer’s head,1 so what went wrong?

Starting a book, or a painting, or a symphony, is like starting a journey. You plan the route, you buy the tickets, you make reservations … and then the weather closes in, or the car breaks down, the airplane gets diverted, or the Department of Transportation shunts you off on a detour—and you end up taking another trip entirely.2 But in any creative endeavor, who or what is this active Agent X, who throws a monkey wrench into the plans?

For me, and I expect for a lot of writers and other artists, it’s the subconscious.

None of us—not even non-artists, who are simply trying to go to work, put in their eight hours, do the grocery shopping, and go home—lives entirely on the surface of our brains. This is the active part of our mind, the conscious part, which receives moment-by-moment stimuli from sight and sound, taste and touch, reacts to what’s going on around us, answers questions, makes plans and lists, arranges dental appointments, reads books and watches movies, and then chats about them afterward. But lurking under all this conscious activity is another part of our mind that absorbs, interprets, reacts silently, “noodles” about what’s going on, and tosses out its own opinion sometime later.

Although I haven’t studied the neurosciences in any detail, I believe much of this subconscious activity has to do with the way our brains process both received stimuli and conscious thoughts into memories. Dreams are apparently a spinoff of this process, if not a direct component of it. So too are those notions that occur to you, just pop into your head, and all too often serve to answer a question or provide a coda to a thought that confronted you a few hours or days ago. “Oh, I should have said …” “But the right answer really is …” “What I actually feel about that is …”

I have discovered in the workings of my own mind a kind of timing mechanism for these mental regurgitations. If I listen to a piece of music—either by choice of what I put through my earphones, or at random from an environment filled with movie music and snatches on the radio—I might hum the tune for a few minutes, and then it will quickly disappear. But sometimes it will reappear between two and four days later.3 This does not happen with every piece of music I hear, nor only with pieces that I greatly appreciated at the time. Just suddenly I’ll find myself hearing in my head, or humming, or imagining a theme (usually with full orchestration) and wonder where I’ve heard that before. And when I stop to think, I’ll usually be able to identify the earlier occurrence. To me, this lag time represents the music or theme sinking from the surface level, going down and being deposited somewhere in the neurons, where it’s spun around, reprocessed, deconstructed and reconstructed, or whatever the subconscious does, and then it floats back up to the surface. The activity is like dropping a dye marker at the end of the dock and having it eventually show up somewhere else along the shore.

What happens to music also happens to the themes, intentions, and characters which, in their complex interactions, make up the story of an intended book. However, the music I’ve heard with my ears already has the characteristics of a set melody, fixed relationship among the chords, and firm intention of an external composer. The music is more enduring, more like a hard bit of bone or shell, and survives the subconscious process almost intact. On the other hand, my own thoughts, imaginings, and story structures, being more malleable and less frozen in time, will morph and change, become something new, and aggregate other thoughts and memories during the trip down to the basement and back up to the living room.

I have always relied on this subconscious process in my writing. I do not know how—cannot even conceive how—to sit down and think out a complete story with my conscious mind. There may be some writers who can do it, and God speed to them. I imagine they must be following some sort of formula for assembling known and identified parts: take a plot structure of Forbidden Love and mix in some Mistaken Identity, as in Romeo and Juliet; add the characters of the Shy Boy and the Headstrong Girl, like those old Andy Rooney movies; set the action in London, where the author has snapshots from a recent trip and a good collection of guide books; start cranking out dialogue and description appropriate to the action. … It may work for some writers.

My method of writing—no, my method for even coming up with an outline—is a lot slower and more painful. First, I get a sudden feeling for a type of story, or a major plot twist, or a certain aspect of character. I sit down and, in a “book notes” document in a folder on the computer, try to describe the thought as completely as possible, adding anything that occurs at the point of writing it down. Then I have to go off and see if the seed germinates, if anything sprouts. Some days—or weeks, months, even years—later something will occur to me, and I’ll open the document and add it. Then I’ll repeat the additions as they occur. The book is still a swirling cloud of thoughts and impressions at this point.

Second, when my head and the notes document have enough pieces and parts adhering to this book idea, I will sit down and try to define the beginning and end points of action, applying logic and thought to bridging them, defining interactions, bits of dialogue, characters’ thoughts and reactions. This goes on, along with attempts at a few sample scenes, until the structure of the book is sixty to ninety percent in place.4 Usually the outlining process goes front to back, but sometimes there will be retrograde outlining, along the pattern of “if that is going to happen, then this, that, and the other must happen first.”

Third, once I have that outline in place and written down, I begin the actual writing—what I call “production writing.” This is when I sit down and visualize the story, hear the dialogue, watch the action unfold, and type, type, polish, correct, nudge in this or that direction, and type, type—all trying to keep up with what’s happening in my mind.5 It’s this act of production writing that either proves the soundness of the tentative outline or raises questions, hits a snag, pulls out the rug, and reveals a chasm that needs bridgework.

Where does this movie that I’m watching while I write, this visualization of action and realization of dialogue, come from? I have to believe it’s from my own subconscious, cued by what I’ve put in the outline but drawing mostly on the months or years that my brain has been what I call “noodling”—soaking, steeping, sampling, digesting, processing, considering without words—the story. Sometimes, I will write one thing in the outline, and the story upon realization will take its own time and direction to get there, or instead go somewhere new and more exciting.6 When I hit a snag or a question, it seldom works for me to try to bull through it like a snowplow charging a drift. I have to stop and give my subconscious time to work on the issues and propose its own solution.7

I’ve often said facetiously that I don’t know what I think about a subject—or even really know about it—until I sit down to write. I will have some vague and half-formed ideas. I also have a kind of internal dipstick with which to sample the well and know if I have enough vague ideas down there to make the effort of writing worthwhile. But until my subconscious has done its work, my conscious brain cannot even start to do its own work.8

Is a story that comes out of this long, involved, and largely hidden mental process superior to one that a writer assembles from a formulaic plot with previously defined characters? I think so—although I try not to judge what might work perfectly well for others. For me, the story that comes bubbling up out of the depths of the subconscious, after suitable pump priming, usually has the ring of emotional truth and logic. It feels right. More importantly, it feels alive. The other kind of stories feel like a species of wind-up toy, what you see is what you get, without any particular emotional depth.

As a clue to the soundness of the subconscious process, I’ve long known that if all my production writing does is simply articulate the idea presented in the outline fragment—if it doesn’t take off and go somewhere measurably different and better than what I thought the story would be when I first sat down—then I’m not doing it right. I’m just winding up the toy. The toy might, through interaction with the subconscious during the outlining process, be a more intricate toy than one can achieve by just following the old formulas. But it will still be inert, untouched by the spark, dead words.

When the subconscious takes over and begins driving the story, it’s like being touched by God or channeling the universe. And that is the wonder, the glory, the deepest satisfaction of being a writer.

1. We’ll exclude here the issue of marketing pressure exerted on the author’s original intent, where an agent or an acquisitions editor says, almost casually, “Yeah, that’s a good first draft, but couldn’t you make the main character a vampire or a zombie? They’re selling really well these days.”

2. Come to think of it, a lot of books and movies follow this plot structure.

3. Having become aware of this process, I’ve started to keep track of the lag time. It seems to be shorter when I’m feeling healthy and longer if I’ve been depressed or under the weather.

4. There may still be gaps. Think of that old cartoon about a physicist writing a long, long equation on a blackboard with a little cloud puff in the middle that says, “And then a miracle occurs.”

5. Usually, the first draft proceeds word by word and line by line, but the actual, detailed flow is more of a back and forth on the paragraph level: write a sentence, add another, go back and test the logic, perhaps make the second sentence a subordinate clause, write a third sentence, write a fourth sentence, test the logic, proceed or restructure, until the ground-level language and logic are solid enough to walk on. Think of the needle flying back and forth to embroider a complex pattern.
       And, as I’ve noted elsewhere, to even begin the process I need what I call a “downbeat”: a starting sense image, a word, a bit of action, or a story precedent. Without that starting point, the little word generator in my head does not begin putt-putting to produce written copy.

6. And then I may have to move quickly and re-adapt the outline to follow this new, more exciting direction. The whole process is one big, confusing—but innately satisfying—interaction between the real words as they are written down and the potential story still to be realized.

7. Sometimes I can force the issue by consciously thinking about the question or problem just before bedtime, repeat as a statement of faith that I will probably come up with the answer by morning, and go to sleep. Usually, the answer, or a nudge in the right direction, will present itself in the middle of the night. That’s why I always keep a pad and pencil on the night table.

8. This is not what others call “writer’s block”—although perhaps writers who get “blocked” do not understand how their own minds work. This is a simple process of letting a complex but hidden intellectual and emotional process reach its fulfillment. I can hurry the process along by opening the notes document at regular intervals, actively engaging my mind with what’s there, and trying to think up a few questions to submit formally to the deeper levels. But until I have that swirling cloud of ideas, no writing will take place. If I do sit down and try to force the issue by writing anyway, I will either be frozen at the keyboard, or I will generate a stream of bad, broken, illogical stuff that only has to be ripped up and mentally expunged. That’s retrograde motion—and not the good sort—although one time in a hundred it might yield a useful insight. But I don’t get superstitious about writer’s block—oh, no, sir, not at all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I’ll Survive in Rome, 475 AD1

For the past two weeks, I’ve been describing my reactions—some rueful, some furious—to a link that a friend sent me from the Los Angeles Review of Books featuring freelance journalist Joe Peschel on the current state of digital publishing. In the first blog, I likened the print publishing business to Rome just before the sack: under huge stress, with changing markets and a defunct business model, virtually at the point of collapse. In the second, I described how, in this environment, going independent and publishing your own ebooks is not a choice but a survival strategy. But you have to be persistent—shining with the madness of a Captain Ahab—to be an author and not a wannabe. Now here is my story as an author.

I’m a born writer, a force of nature, a shout in the wilderness, a dead-serious, can’t-imagine-doing-anything-else book writer.

I knew from an early age that my purpose on earth was to be a lens through which the world can be seen clearly—or, in the case of fiction, through which a new world is revealed. Every job I’ve held since graduation was either as a writer or an editor. As a technical and communications writer, I helped others make their story, their product, or their project accessible and comprehensible to their intended audience. As a fiction writer, I spin stories for entertainment, about people, places, and times that never existed but might have under other circumstances. As an editor, I help other writers become accessible and comprehensible to their readers.

I wrote my first novel when I was sixteen.2 It took me more than a year of getting up at four o’clock in the morning before school to work on it. Between that and my studies, I sacrificed a lot of social life. I wrote the first draft longhand, with a fountain pen on a writing tablet, and then typed the final manuscript, two copies, double-spaced, with carbon paper, on my grandfather’s forty-pound upright manual typewriter. The book was science fiction, about the scholarly, charismatic leader of a peasant revolt among the star systems of an interstellar empire. It was well over 60,000 words, 472 pages, and completely unpublishable. But I had the guts to see it through.

My interest in writing guided my decision to major in English literature at the university. I studied the history of the language, the development of various art forms (drama, poetry, and stories), and read constantly. In the months before I graduated, I knew I wasn’t ready to start a writing career, so instead I quickly turned and learned—with the help of two of my favorite professors3—book editing. I became a professional editor, first at the university press, then at a tradebook publisher in Berkeley which produced railroad histories and western Americana. That job led to technical editing and writing for a local engineering and construction company, which eventually morphed into public relations and communications. I’m the only English major I know who’s been continuously and profitably employed in writing and editing over a lifetime—and I’ve only had to scramble and reinvent myself about six times. But every industry where I’ve worked has become background information and grist for my imaginative mill.

I wrote my second novel after I’d been in the business world for about ten years. I didn’t bother with the carbon paper, because photocopying was now feasible. But otherwise it was the same route: up before dawn, handwritten draft, final on a typewriter. It was a novel of business fiction, á là Arthur Hailey or Gerald A. Browne, based on my experiences at the engineering company—and also completely unpublishable. But the spark was still there.

A couple of years later, I decided to get serious about this business of writing. I started writing what I thought would be a blockbuster science fiction novel about a micro black hole that falls into the center of the Earth, portending its collapse and requiring humanity to flee to the stars. I traded an old Apple II computer to a writer friend in order to get an introduction to her agent. That agent took me on, sent my outline and sample chapters (I was about a third of the way through the book at the time) to her personal friend, who was a senior editor at Analog magazine. He very kindly informed me that I got the premise all wrong, because I was using the central crisis as a springboard rather than solving the problem, and I had the timing of the event wrong to boot. With so many defects in the story, I considered dumping that book idea and trying something else—but I was being serious, remember?

So I spent a year rethinking the premise, setting up my characters to solve the black hole problem, and researching the science to understand the timing. The result was The Doomsday Effect, which was published for the minimum advance at a paperback house, Baen Books. That first novel lasted about three weeks on the bookstore shelves and disappeared with more than 50% in returns.4 If I had been with a larger publishing house, that would probably have been the end of my career. But Baen was a small house that believed in developing its authors. Founder Jim Baen was willing to try other books from me and link me up in collaborations with established senior authors who were willing to put their names on books with promising newcomers.

I published seven more novels and collaborations through Baen. Along the way, I changed agents and got—at the recommendation of the publisher—Stephen King’s former first agent, a man who was supposed to be able to “call down the lightning.” He got me in touch with the publisher at a larger, better established science fiction house. That publisher bought a novel in concept—what I hoped would be the start of a series—and then, on receiving the finished manuscript nine months later, sent me letters from three separate freelance editors essentially saying the book was indecipherable, unreadable, unknowable, and unrelated to English literature as currently practiced. My agent was not too concerned, and it took me a long time to understand that the fault wasn’t mine: the book’s premise simply wasn’t anything that publisher intended to pursue, so he wanted to make clear that the contract was void through no fault of his own.

But, being serious—and not a little mad—I took that book, rewrote it at least twice, even offered it to my first publisher and rewrote it according to his suggestions, and then, when he hemmed and hawed on receiving the final manuscript, I put it up as a free PDF on my newly created author’s website. That book became Sunflowers. Over the next couple of years, I wrote two other books of more general fiction and offered them as free PDFs: Trojan Horse and The Judge’s Daughter. Having eventually separated from my second agent—who was swamped with established authors who couldn’t make sales in the long, slow backlash to the Thor Power Tools legal decision—I tried repeatedly to attract a new agent and a new publishing career with each of these books. But the traditional market was already closing, even for authors with a track record—more likely, especially for authors with a non-stellar track record.

Robert Bausch’s story in Joe Peschel’s Los Angeles Review of Books article is nothing strange to me. The traditional publishing world doesn’t want mid-list authors. We’re not bait to become million-copy bestsellers. Random agents and editors will try to be helpful and steer us toward different, untried markets—young adult, romance, mystery—because, hey, advice is free and something might work.5

Rather than sitting in a drawer, my novels were languishing on my author’s website—which was like writing messages on the underside of stones and leaving them along a path in the forest—until the success of the Kindle ereader and the rise of digital distribution made self-publishing economically possible for me. I’ve since converted my three PDF books to epubs and put them on sale. Baen graciously reverted the rights to my four solo books published under their imprint and even helped convert them to epubs.6 I’ve recently written an eighth novel, The Children of Possibility, which appeared solely in electronic form. Now I’m at work on The Professor’s Mistress, the sequel to my general fiction novel The Judge’s Daughter.

If you’re a mid-list author, do you have the guts to follow Bausch and me down this path? Do you have the stamina to write one book after another and only get heartbreak in return? Because the traditional market does not want those of us who are less-than-stellar authors. While a scattering of readers out there might like us and even become firm fans, they face a wide and murky sea of unknown writers which hides our works from the dedicated reader’s eyes.

Publishing in the old style was like being struck by lighting. If you had talent, hit the market at just the right time, and became known to the most influential agents and the big publishing houses, you could make it big. But these days, even if you can attract an agent and a publisher, you will still have to produce your own well-edited book, lead the market with an unusual idea, do your own promotion, and experience a heap of good luck to boot. The days of being featured in the spring book list like some kind of celebrity are over.

Being with an old-style publisher was like an actor signing on with an old-time movie studio. They made you a star, you did the pictures they assigned you to (or in this case, wrote the kind of books your agent and editor suggested), and the rest was relatively easy—with a heap of good luck. But for everyone else working as an actor, the life has always been hard knocks, scrambling, and chronic unemployment. (Go watch Dustin Hoffman again as the acting teacher in the early scenes of Tootsie.)

If you’re a real author, do you have the guts to write and publish book after book, knowing that you will likely be ignored or dismissed, your voice lost in the wind? Do you have that sheer Ahab madness? Or can you imagine doing anything else?

1. For the original four entries in this series, published just about a year ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit

2. No, I lie. I wrote my very first novel when I was twelve. It was three pages long—but typewritten—with a cover made of shirt cardboard bearing a crude crayon illustration (I was never an artist). It was a mystery story set aboard a steam locomotive in the Old West that had gone through a tunnel and, somehow, everyone on board had died. Bodies were hanging out of the cab and off the running boards. (I had no way of knowing that asphyxiation was a real problem in the long tunnels and snow sheds of the Southern Pacific going through the Sierras—I only learned that at my second job, in trade publishing—but I had intuited some kind of strange, necrotic agency.) The book had a tantalizing setup but no character focus, no second or third acts, and no resolution—only three pages, remember? Still, something in me wanted to tell a story. I was just a late bloomer.

3. One of my treasured professors at Penn State, the historian Stanley Weintraub, recommended me as a promising young English major to the head of the university press. When I landed that job, another favorite professor, Phil Klass, who wrote science fiction as William Tenn, immediately took me home to his wife, Fruma, who was a freelance copy editor. She ran me through a crash course in the basics of book editing and text markup. Since then, I’ve tried to pay that debt forward by training other new editors in the basics. I’ve been very lucky in the help I’ve received in life.

4. But The Doomsday Effect did win the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Compton Crook Award for best first novel of the year—my only literary honor.

5. As I’ve noted earlier, one potential agent wanted to know what super powers my main character in Sunflowers possessed, and lost interest when all my characters were merely human. He obviously was looking for a graphic novel to sell.

6. All of my epublished science fiction is available through Baen’s ebooks service, as well as through Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s iBooks.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How to Survive in Rome, 475 AD1

Last week, I shared a link that a friend sent me from the Los Angeles Review of Books, featuring freelance journalist Joe Peschel on the current state of digital publishing. In response, I likened the print publishing business to Rome just before the sack: under huge stress, with changing markets and a defunct business model, virtually at the point of collapse. Perhaps these conditions are undetectable at the ground level, but they’re visible to those who look for the arcs of historical or business trends. In this environment, going independent and publishing your own ebooks is not a choice but a survival strategy.

In the LA Review of Books article, Peschel describes the experience of one writer, Robert Bausch, who had six traditionally published novels behind him, got caught with declining sales figures, and was unable to attract a publisher for his seventh, eighth, and ninth novels. That’s the position of many mid-list authors today—and I know because I’m a mid-list author myself. If you are a known quantity, you’re in a bad position with the major publishers. You have a track record that can be checked and compared to their expectations of your future potential sales.

Today, there is no mid list. That’s the place for authors with a defined—but not spectacular—readership, who can “work the magic” for a certain kind of reader but have not been able to attract the mass market. Today, there are only established stars, unknown quantities, and fading stars who get the see-ya-later-good-luck-with-your-next-project treatment. And for the unknown quantities, who just might make it big in the mass market, everything depends on the reach and appeal of that first novel. If your first book doesn’t take off like a rocket and beat your publisher’s expectations (which are that it will become a bestseller, despite the fact that the only person out there promoting the book is you—and ask me about “review-driven marketing” sometime), then you become a mid-list author. And that’s see-ya-later-ville.

But what are the basics driving this self-selected author-survivor into independent digital publishing?

The first and underlying reality today is that a hell of a lot of people still want to read books. I would have said they were mostly middle-aged Baby Boomers, members of my own generation brought up on fiction in The Saturday Evening Post and trained to respond to The New York Times bestseller lists—except we see a huge book market and individual phenomena among the young adult set (e.g., The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games trilogy, the Harry Potter series). Even though it’s fun to watch videos, play games, and schmooze with friends through texting and on Facebook, there’s something elemental about letting a great storyteller light up your internal theater of the imagination.

Book publishers have traditionally been feeding this book hunger with a stream of established authors in established genres. Over the past couple of decades it has become an orderly, well-defended, cartelized business, like shipping Colombian coke into the States. Except now the DEA has left town, every two-bit chemist has some homebrew methamphetamine to sell, and the market is wide open. The old-line book publishers, book sellers, and book reviewers are standing there peddling South American crystal and crying “Coca pura! Only the best! Accept no substitutes!” And yes, a lot of the homebrew stuff is contaminated, doesn’t get you high, and causes a rash. But some of the homebrew is good stuff, too.

As I’ve said before, we are in early days yet. The hunger for self-publishing has always existed among the writers who have been passed over by traditional publishers, but until recently only the very rich or the very dedicated could go the vanity press route. Ten years ago, to get your book published by an author-supported vanity press, you needed to pay about $10,000 up front to a printer and then were left trying to peddle 3,000 hardcover books out of your garage. Today, you spend $500 on a CreateSpace or other print-on-demand (POD) version, or bit less to get an ebook formatted and coded, and you market virtual copies through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Trouble is, the barriers fell too far, and digital publishing has brought the price of vanity publication down to within Everyman’s reach.

My hope is that the population of wannabes will become discouraged by the fact that, even with this virtually free publishing process, they’re not getting anywhere. Just as the dominant meme once told the average literate person that vanity press publishing was too expensive and not very smart, we need a new meme that says, while it’s financially possible to publish a first novel through POD or ebook, it’s generally a waste of any reasonable person’s time. You have to be awfully good or awfully persistent to make even a small success in self-publishing. That will get some of the homebrew crank dealers out of the market.

The second trend pushing the author-publisher forward is the business model of the old-style print book publishing empires. They only controlled the market for novels, stories, and nonfiction because they sat at the head end of a dauntingly expensive production process including high-volume printing and binding, warehousing and shipping. They had contacts with purchasing agents in specialized stores that sold just books and so gathered all the potential readers in one place. The publishers had a built-in marketing service with newspaper and magazine features designed to feed the reading hunger. More cartelized book pipeline. (Or, to match my earlier metaphor, Roman brick and marble.)

Digital publishing does away with the expensive production, replacing it with ebooks sold directly into readers’ devices. Print on demand creates extremely expensive single copies of a book but, like ebooks, it eliminates the costs of warehousing and distribution.

A third factor driving the emergence of self-publishing is the internet, which is eroding general-readership print newspapers and magazines, replacing them with a mix of online news services, like NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and blog collections like The Huffington Post, Slate, and Pajamas Media. These internet services are fragmented as to age, interest, style, and political focus: there will never be a “nation’s internet resource” in the same way The New York Times billed itself as “the nation’s newspaper.” Similarly, the interests of book readers are already fragmenting into many nonfiction categories and a multiple of fictional subgenres. It’s now possible that the category “general fiction” or “literary fiction”—and even the recognized genres like “science fiction,” “mystery,” and “romance”—will die away entirely into finer and finer specializations, leaving people with just the kinds of books they like to read.

This is a time of tremendous opportunity for writers. I remain convinced that good writers will still write books and publish them digitally. They will find online review outlets to advertise their work. And those outlets—hungry to make their own names as arbiters of taste and excellence—will find these authors and extol them. For writers who need editing help, as Robert Bausch acknowledged when he mentioned typos in his first self-published book, there will arise a population of freelance editors.2 And they will be supplemented by freelance marketers to help the author’s name and work become known.

But I know it’s going to take a while for these online resources—especially the review and connection channels—to become established and time tested. And it will take a while longer for the overflowing tide of newly unbarricaded wannabes to get discouraged with self-publishing and drop out of the marketplace.

What are the realities for the self-published author in this brave new market?

First, digital publishing is limitless and timeless. Peschel and the LA Review of Books are still geared to the paper production cycle. It takes a traditional publishing house a year to produce a book, which includes not only the preproduction, printing, and binding, but wholesale promotion and negotiations with buyers at the bookstore chains, who like to have books come out in orderly waves because they have limited store shelf space to fill. The reviewers Peschel is talking with and about all work in newspapers and magazines, which also have limited print space and production cycles. None of this will apply in the developing market for digital books. Unlike a bookstore’s shelf space, the electronic distributor’s storage and display space are virtually unlimited. Unlike a reviewer’s one or two column widths in a newspaper, an internet reviewer can assemble and correlate dozens of virtual pages. In this unbounded universe, a book’s print date is not important; it will never see a remainder table, because there are no carrying costs; and the author has years to develop readership through intimate, word-of-mouth contacts. The idea of being “this season's big book” is so … last season.

Second, and to reiterate my main point, the old publishing model is broken. The old concepts of success as reaching and saturating a huge mass market with one-size-fits-most books is kaput. The old genres will crumble and decay like medieval castles in the age of artillery. The new model is going to be small success: readers looking for writers who can light up their internal theater of the imagination; authors looking for readers who resonate with their kinds of ideas. The internet, the blogosphere, and social media are ideal for making these kinds of connections, as well as offering and finding the sort of support—editing, cover art (or, rather, “an imagination-capturing image”), HTML and epub coding, and marketing—that will help authors become better at their job. The newspaper reviewer with the undifferentiated reach of an LA Review of Books will morph to become the fan book-blogger in a particular subgenre who reads voraciously and becomes a brand name, among the cognoscenti, for appreciating and recommending a certain kind of book. Remember that word, cognoscenti, because that’s the author’s new market: the few—maybe, if you’re lucky, the more than few—who know and treasure you.

Third, to make it as an author in this environment, you have to be persistent. You have to be water. You have to come back like a wave, again and again, each time with a new book that builds your brand. You have to seep into the cracks, explore new possibilities, spread out, go around, over, or under whatever you cannot penetrate.3 You must have guts, persistence, a sheer Ahab madness to keep on with this. You have to be an author, a force of nature, a shout in the wilderness, rather than the writer of just one or two books. You must have a cast-iron, steel-plated, gold-rimmed heart that’s been broken so many times you become virtually unbreakable. If I tell you that you’ll never be a star—hell, you’ll never make even a small success at this business of writing—and you hesitate for even an instant, then consider that you may just not be crazy enough to qualify.

Becoming an author is the work of a lifetime, a holy quest, the thing you were born to do … or go take piano lessons. In just forty years’ time you might be able to play Carnegie Hall. That would be a lot easier.

1. For the original four entries in this series, published just about a year ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit

2. I am extremely fortunate in being a practicing hermaphrodite, a hybrid of both writer and editor. I had solid training in English literature. I worked for five years, all told, as a university press and trade book editor, so I understand publishing mechanics, esoterica like typography and book design, and know how to self-edit my writing. I published eight novels the old-fashioned way and got to work with different established writers in book collaborations, so I know how real authors function. I have a small, select circle of readers and fellow authors upon whom I can impose for a safety net of knowledgeable opinion about my ongoing work. With this background and support, I’m not exactly a drooling barbarian or self-publishing wannabe—at least in my own opinion.

3. Over my career I’ve written at least five books that had no immediate market. Still, some of them I had to rewrite a couple of times to get them right.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Welcome to Rome, 475 AD1

A friend of mine recently sent me a link from the Los Angeles Review of Books featuring freelance journalist Joe Peschel on the current state of digital self-publishing and why it’s not completely a shameful vanity play. I read his article with interest and recommend it as one view—not necessarily the only view2—of the current publishing market. My immediate response to reading his article was, “Welcome to Rome in 475 AD.” Let me expand …

The “eternal city” doesn’t look much different now, in 475 AD, than when the Emperor Constantine moved the imperial offices away to Constantinople about a century and a half ago. You can still see a few guys in red cloaks walking around with shields and spears. A few more people on the streets are speaking German or something like it. But the water still flows in the aqueducts. The grain harvest still arrives in port at Ostia. So what can go wrong?

The world of book publishing is in much the same state these days. The big print publishers are still doing their million-dollar book deals, though not so many as before. The New York Times still publishes its bestseller lists. Barnes & Noble is still chockablock with new hardcover titles and perennial favorites in paperback.3 So what’s wrong with this picture?

Simply put, the publishing business model is cratering around our ears; the barbarians are well inside the gates; but everything still looks the same. Joe Peschel’s article in the LA Review of Books is from the viewpoint, in Roman terms, of an old-family patrician, although no longer a senator, soaking in a cracked marble bathhouse. Everything all looks just so normal. (And tell me, print book reviewers at the Post-Dispatch or the Star Tribune, what’s your in-print newspaper circulation look like these days?)

Book publishers, and the industry of agents and book reviewers who support them, are dealing with impossible cross-currents. On the one hand, while we have more people in the country and more college graduates every year, the real level of education in terms of what-you-know and what-interests-you is sliding. On top of that, new diversions like movies and videos, computer games, internet browsing, and social media exchanges are cutting into the time that busy people used to put into reading books. Some children are growing up with a view of physical books akin to their interest in long-playing records: their parents’ thing, not theirs.

On the other hand, the economics of printing, binding, warehousing, distributing, shipping, shelf stocking, unstocking, re-shipping, re-warehousing, and ultimately pulping paper books—all subject to a tax structure hammered by the Thor Power Tools legal decision (for which see Kevin O’Donnell Jr.’s excellent article from the SFWA Bulletin)—are under attack by the ereader explosion. You just can’t compete economically with paper production when every step in ebook handling, beyond the original editing and book design process, is done quickly, seamlessly, and virtually without expense. You can tell readers that nothing feels or smells like a new book, but words are words, stories are stories. Life isn’t fair!

In this shrinking marketplace of dedicated readers—the sort of person who stacks books by the armchair, books on the night table, books in the john and reads at least one full book a week and usually has two or three going at once—everyone by now has an ereading device. And consider this fact: while the Sony Walkman, which changed how people listen to music, rode piggyback on the already existing market for cassette tapes (themselves inheritors of the eight-track experiment), the ereaders are something new in marketing. The Walkman was sold as a brand-new and stylish profit-making device into an existing media marketplace; ereaders are sold as loss-leaders, enablers of a new marketplace for a specialized and virtually cost-free medium. Sony prided itself on the Walkman’s advanced design and honed its capabilities; for Amazon, the Kindle’s design and features were practically an afterthought because it was, and still is, a vehicle for other sales, not a desirable object in itself.

With the city walls falling about their ears, are the book publishers doing the one or two things that might save them? Are they investing in finding and developing new talent, devoting editing time to making their books really superb, and marketing the hell out of them? Well, no. Authors are expected to show up at their doorstep with a finely crafted, fully edited book.4 Authors are expected to market themselves by arranging their own book signings, appearing at conventions, getting on radio interviews, and sending postcards to their 1,500 best friends, in addition to using social media contacts and thinking up new, yet-to-be-discovered marketing methods for themselves.

Publishers are not making new markets but instead are looking at what just became popular and urging their authors to try that, ignoring the mechanics of their own bookmaking lead time. “To make it big, you need to call down the lightning. I saw lightning strike over there! Why don’t you go stand over there?” Every writer, at some point, gets told to go write like J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyers or Suzanne Collins because these authors have become popular. But in a system where it takes a year or so to write the book, another year or so to sell it to a publisher, and then a further year or so for the publisher to work the magic of book production and negotiate with print reviewers and bookstore purchasing agents, it can be three years before the book appears. In that time, something else will become the hot, new thing.5

Groundbreakers have to be first out the door with a lightning idea—not the thirty-first. Big-market publishers fancy themselves the gatekeepers of the literary marketplace with some kind of stamp of quality, but they are only proving they don’t know where the market’s going or how to cultivate it. Consider that Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and J. K. Rowling—market makers all—had a difficult time selling their first books. They were “hard sells” because their books didn’t look like anything in the market at the time. They became huge successes precisely because their work was received as new, different, and exciting. Is there an element of simple luck in this? Oh, yeah! Anyone who says he can predict the market is either a charlatan or a fool.

At the same time the old business model is crumbling, publishers are trying to raise barriers to ebooks by pricing their own digital versions just a dollar or two less than their already inflated, cost-ravaged physical book prices. They think they still command the market, can dictate prices, and so drive back the sea of ebooks. And they cling to outmoded payment schemes, where they give the author a 20% royalty on an ebook—which looks like a big improvement on the 10% of the hardcover price they usually give. But 20% is really an insult compared to the 70% that Amazon or B&N gives an independent author when retailing his or her ebook. Publisher keeps 50% of an already inflated book price—boy, that will keep the authors in the stable!

At the same time, as the LA Review of Books accurately acknowledges, the barriers to entry by new and untried authors have dropped. Rome’s wall is a down. Everyone who thinks they might strike it big—might get hit by lightning—is out there flogging their book. Witless, drooling barbarians are riding all over the landscape. Book publishing as a business is in Crazy Time, End of an Era, the Fall of Rome.

Next week, I’ll offer some perspective from my own experience on how to survive in all this.

1. For the original four entries in this series on the current state of publishing, which appeared just about a year ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit

2. Peschel is, after all, a print journalist and the book reviewers he talks with and about are all in printed media. They are subject to limitations of page space and edition timing (i.e., Monday’s newspaper is not going to be around or mean much of anything on Tuesday), similar to a bookstore’s limited shelf space and necessary cycling of their printed stock through the store from the “new releases” table, to the general fiction or genre shelves, to the remainders table, and then back to the warehouse or off to the pulper. Neither print reviewers nor bookstore buyers are particularly attuned to the timeless—or rather, untimed—nature of ebooks and the internet that is used to market and distribute them.

3. However, I’ve noticed that my local B&N has given up CDs and compact disks, and now sells toys and games in that space, along with cards and calendars. Nook reading devices and their paraphernalia also constitute the big displays in the front of the store, rather than that table of deeply discounted bestsellers. The physical books are now a little further from the entrance. You can just sense the preventive diversification.

4. And gone are the days when a publisher would buy an outline and sample chapters, then work with the author to refine the idea before the book is completely written. The author must write the entire book “on spec” before he or she can even start to sell it. If the finished book happens to fit some agent’s or acquisition editor’s prior notion of a marketing success—hurrah! If not—go write something else.
        That was the position of author Robert Bausch, as described in Joe Peschel’s LA Review of Books article. With six novels behind him, a downturn in sales made Bausch’s upcoming novel unmarketable with publishers. So his agent suggested he write a second novel that might somehow retrieve the first. Bausch actually complied … Patience of a saint, I say.

5. When I was trying to attract an agent with the book that became the independently published Sunflowers, the first question one prospective agent asked was, “What superpowers does your main character have?” When I tried to explain that my characters were simply engineers and fully human, he lost interest. Today, the agent’s question would be, “Which of your characters could be a vampire or a zombie?” Yech!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

People Ain’t Stupid

One of the smartest things anyone ever told me came from a former journalist. He was an irascible little man, not all that friendly and certainly not one to suffer fools, who worked in the public relations department—colloquially called the “News Bureau”—of the public utility where I was doing employee communications. One day, commenting on one of the company’s media positions, he said, “People ain’t stupid.”

That always stuck with me. I take it as an article of faith. It’s a rock I cling to when everyone about me seems to be going mad—or simply going nowhere good.

Now, “people ain’t stupid” does not mean people are uniformly smart. They may not be insightful. They may now and then do stupid things, believe stupid things, and exhibit the peculiar madness attributed to crowds, mobs, and urban riots. But at some basic, grounded level, and averaging out the shining brilliance of an Einstein and the stumbling obtuseness of the Three Stooges, people are not stupid.

What those three words mean to me is that, in the long run, you really can’t hoodwink the public. This is in line with Lincoln’s observation about fooling some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time. If you’re telling a lie or working an angle, it might succeed once or twice. In that case, it’s best to consider yourself lucky and not try it again. But, eventually, with long practice, a lie or trick will be found out. Make a habit of playing fast and loose with the facts, underestimating the crowd’s intelligence, and pushing your own advantage with disregard for what happens to the other fellow, and sooner or later you get tripped up and brought down.

As an author, I take those three words to mean being careful about what I write and where I try to lead my readers. I’ve always tried to respect the reader’s intelligence. I take care to follow strict logic in my stories, look out for gaps and transitions that would make an intelligent reader wonder what happened and why. I try not to violate the reader’s sensibility about the nature of reality. And I never tell a checkable lie.1

Still, I write about the things that I personally find interesting and relate them at a level of logic and language that I find comfortable, trusting that my readers have the brains and intuition to follow along with pleasure.2 As I write, I try to curb my natural, hyperliterate3 tendency to use needlessly highfalutin language and triply compounded sentences. But I also know that like-minded readers want more than cookie-cutter sentence structure with a rocking horse rhythm and are not allergic to words of more than two syllables.

More than that, “people ain’t stupid” means it’s always dangerous to despise people or think you know more than they do. We see a lot of this in advertising and politics today. The providers of messages seem to take a dim and shallow view of the average intelligence of the buying public or the body politic. Being in a position to send a message and have it simply heard, let alone respected and followed, should be a privilege in the “free marketplace of ideas.” Those around you are listening with courtesy and forbearance. They will trust you to a certain extent and give you the benefit of the doubt. But they are not puppets or Pavlov’s dogs to be manipulated. Try to fool them—or fool them once too often—and they’ll slam the door on you.

Those three words are an encouragement for the rest of us to live honestly and deal plainly. While the average person might enjoy the notion of winning the lottery and getting something for nothing, that’s not the way most people want or expect to live. The old certainties with which your mother raised you still apply. You must work for what you want. You should value what you have and what you earn. You should be careful when you hear an offer too good to be true. You must read everything you sign. You must think about the things you really believe. You have to trust people, but don’t hesitate to check their facts. America, especially, wasn’t peopled with fools,4 and that kind of backwoods wisdom is still strong and fresh in this country.

There are two ways to be foolish. One is by thinking you know too much, that you have x-ray eyes to see through the other fellow, that you’re smarter than he is, and you can make him dance to your tune—and ultimately to any tune you choose to call. The other is to think everyone is out to cheat and deceive you, that no one can be trusted, that politicians and marketers always lie, that bartenders and barbers flatter for their own purposes, that anyone who is not your family or sworn friend, or who hasn’t been under your knife, is a thief and a scoundrel.

“People ain’t stupid” also means people are not wholly good or bad. Most people try to live according to some kind of code, ethic, or personal understanding of the universe’s underlying laws. Yes, there are criminals and con men among us, as there are saints and saviors—but they are a statistical minority, along with the outright geniuses and morons of this world. The rest of us are just trying to get along.

“People ain’t stupid” ultimately means that people are a lot like you. They may differ in their understanding and interpretation of what’s going on. They may come from different cultures and traditions, and so be preloaded with conceptions you might not share. They may be strengthened or damaged by their past personal experiences. But they still were born under the stars of either the Big Dipper or the Southern Cross, and they feel the same heat of the Sun and wonder at the same cold light of the Moon.

“People ain’t stupid” means: You don’t consider yourself stupid, do you? So why not give everyone else the benefit of the doubt?

1. That might sound cynical, but it’s a workable principle. I’m not a stickler for perfect accuracy or some kind of ultimate, all-weather truth. I don’t mind rounding my figures—like tossing off that the galaxy contains 100 billion stars, when the very latest astronomic survey counts two to four times as many. “Ballpark” and “order of magnitude” estimates are close enough for most rhetorical purposes. I don’t mind expressing my opinion, theory, or guess as if it were something like a fact, because this is a free country and I’m a member. But this is also the age of Google and Wikipedia, where every fact is retrievable and verifiable in a matter of seconds—although you can probably find as much opinion, error, and bad judgment in a Wikipedia entry as you find silt in a mountain lake. But I won’t tell a tale or use information which I know or suspect to be patently untrue and which any person with at least my level of smarts and suspicion would sense, if not know, to be false. And I won’t tell an untruth about an actual person or respectable institution, period. But for most everything else—well, I write fiction, after all.

2. Some writers consider this a dangerous approach. They think it proper to make an estimate of the “average” reader’s intelligence, vocabulary, and appetite for complication and then write consciously to that level. They may be aiming for some kind of mass market audience. However, I’m comfortable with the notion that the book-buying market is fragmented, that every author and every book finds its own following, and that readers will express their frustration with an author who either writes down to them or makes them work too hard by not buying his or her books and not recommending them to friends. So be it. It’s a big world out there.

3. I am one of those people who reads and writes constantly, thinks in complete and rounded sentences, mulls rhetorical structure and precise wording for the fun of it, and takes delight in plays on logic and meaning. Somewhere between learning to read as a child and living to read as an adult, I realized that “hyperliterate” is the word that best describes people like me. Language isn’t just a way of coping with the outside world, it’s a raison d’être.

4. See We Get the Smart Ones from November 28, 2010.