Monthly Archives: March 2012

What Do I Need to Know?

I remember reading Hemingway’s advice to young writers, and at the time I read it I was pretty young, maybe 20 or 21.  One thing he wrote was that you must write, all the time, and you must also read, certainly “all the great books.”  I don’t have the article in front of me and I don’t remember, at this distance in time, what books Hemingway considered great.  Perhaps you and I might agree on a few, and perhaps not.  But the important point might be to establish an orientation for yourself as a writer; a sense of what those who came before you have accomplished, what the limitations and advantages of our medium (words on a page, even if the form is digital rather than paper and ink) might be.

Do I mean basic things like grammar, spelling and the construction of proper sentences and paragraphs?  Of course.  A writer has to convey meaning.  Words on a page are just the blueprint you give the reader, who constructs the images of your words in her mind.  The more carefully you employ your craft, the more precisely those images in the minds of others will match your intention.

But what else does a writer need to know?

A writer of non-fiction might simply need to know what she has experienced and nothing else.  Some great memoirs have been penned by people who never wrote extensively or professionally.  An outstanding example is that of Ulysses S. Grant.  One assumes that as a soldier Grant penned reports and field orders; relatively short pieces of prose.  The memoir Grant wrote as he was dying is immense, well-connected, with a good flow and a clarity of expression that we fiction writers may only envy.  Perhaps Grant, not requiring any invention, was free simply to tell his story as he remembered it; whereas in fiction one invents every single word from one’s own imagination.  Is this a greater or lesser effort than recall?

At least one fiction writer, Robert E. Howard, claimed that he wrote some of his stories as if they were being related to him by the character in the story.  Another writer, Robert Graves, claimed to write by the “analeptic” method.  I had assumed by that that Graves placed himself in a light trance while writing, but my OAD defines “analeptic” as a drug “tending to restore a person’s health or strength.”  The point is, perhaps, that “imagination” takes as many forms as there are people on the planet, much less writers.

So what education is necessary to writers of fiction?  Note the “OAD” or Oxford American Dictionary, mentioned above.  A dictionary is a great place to begin research.  For example, Graves being English and educated in England prior to World War One, was “analeptic” used in a different sense then?  Or, perhaps, did Graves use another word entirely, and “analeptic” was an editorial error?

Or, perhaps, I’m mistaken about the word used.  One problem with putting together a lot of knowledge over a period of years is that sometimes you know you’ve read something but remembering when and where is just not possible.

By nature I like research.  I like to dig for answers.  It isn’t the finding of answers, necessarily, but the search itself that I enjoy.  Often enough I discover answers I didn’t know I was looking for, or questions I had no idea I should ask.  That’s just me, though.  The question here is, what education is necessary?

Suppose you decide to write historical fiction.  How much research do you intend to do if, say, you plan on setting your story in Regency-era England?  Personally I’d have to start from scratch.  I know very little about that particular place and time.  But one thing you might want to do is find memoirs specific to that place and that era, to get a feel for the patterns and topics of speech if nothing else.

And of course nowadays there are websites tailor-made to the research needs of a writer.  Type in a search term and wade through the options presented, but remember, it isn’t always the question you ask that’s important, but the question that occurs to you while you research that leads you to knowledge important to your story, sometimes as if that knowledge were tailor-made just for you.

Your own knowledge can fool you, especially once you begin to consider yourself as knowledgeable.  I began a first draft of a novel, Boxcar Red Leader, set during the defense of Port Moresby, New Guinea, in May of 1942, right at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  I have a fair working knowledge of aviation history and military history, especially with regard to World War II, and I worked through the first draft with only two historical resources in hand: the pilot’s information manuals for the Bell P-39 Airacobra, flown by the novel’s protagonists, and the Martin B-26 Marauder, which one of the protagonists flies on one mission.  Why was this important?  Does it matter what the exact range of the P-39 is under certain conditions?  Sure it does!  That one thing defines much of what my characters physically could and couldn’t do in the novel.  They can go to the Japanese airbase at Lae, for example, 187 miles north of Port Moresby; but they couldn’t go much further than that, or escort bombers flying to attack the Japanese base at Rabaul, a distance of 493 miles one way.  Those distances, by the way, are accurate.  When I began rewriting I spent a lot of time on Google Earth, measuring distances, and those were two of them.

Then something else began to bother me during the production of the second draft.  As I reread the first draft I realized that I assumed the existence of a lot of infrastructure around Port Moresby that simply didn’t exist at the time of the story.  So, on rewrite, I had to go back and ask what the roads were like, did they live in  tents and grass shacks, what did they eat, what did they drink, what medical care did they have available?

All of these questions are important for a single simple reason: in an historical novel, they define the tools and experiences available to your characters.

Oddly, I discovered that my background inventing worlds for science fiction stories was just as valid when researching and describing a foreign background for historical fiction.  The questions are almost completely identical.  More, even, the contemporary reader isn’t familiar with the technology available in 1942.  This is a crucial point.  Very much more often than not one could make an error regarding a minor point that only a few readers would be knowledgeable enough to catch.  What do you do with such an error?  Correct it?  Or just leave it in, who’ll know?

My position is that a writer owes the reader as much accuracy as possible.  In some eras of history that might not place a lot of responsibility on the writer.  If you know something about sword fighting, for example, that will serve you well for stories set in periods from the Bronze Age up through the early Gunpowder Era and often to the mid-19th Century.  Unless, of course, one wants to worry about refinements, such as the different styles of fighting employed by the Vikings or the Roman gladiators.  Then you’d better go and look for a local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

But there’s an even more important point to telling the truth to as great a degree as reasonably possible, and that’s authenticity.  If you, the writer, are confident that the story is true at least in the details, then you can have that much more confidence in the story itself.

There’s an old aphorism in writing that you should write about what you know or are familiar with.  I think that means you should learn as much as you can, because you can’t predict what might be useful in a story you may not even have thought of yet.

Besides, how many writers have gotten ideas for great stories simply by stumbling across a little-known historical fact?  A friend of mine collects swords, and he showed me a Roman gladius he had purchased.  It was found by a road crew in Libya sometime in the 20th Century; my friend told me, but I don’t recall the date now.  But think about it.  That sword, lying in the sand of the Libyan desert, is an anchor in time.  It says, someone owned me, and lost me, and here I lie as a result.  Who owned the sword?  Was he part of a legion engaged in some campaign?  Did the owner lose the sword in battle or through carelessness?

These are just a few of the questions a simple artifact raises.  But asking the questions gives you a starting place for a story, perhaps more than one.

Which leads us write back to the question, how much education is necessary?  I hope you understand when I write that each story you write will impose its own requirements.  Sometimes that won’t be onerous; but sometimes writing the story will be the easy part, once you’ve earned that PhD in Etruscan Societal Norms of the pre-Roman era.

Besides, it’s fun, and gives you an excuse to surf the Internet when you’re tired of writing.

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Here is an interesting video by Brene Brown, posted by blogger Ingrid Schaffenburg (Threadbare Gypsy Soul), that I found useful and entertaining.

Ingrid Schaffenburg's Blog

In the spirit of LOVE and Spring Cleaning, I wanted to share this delightful video in which researcher Brené Brown talks about her decade-long study on vulnerability and the role it plays in our ability to connect to one another.

Brown begins by saying,

Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives… You have to be willing to let go of who you think you should be in order to connect, and accept who you are, flaws and all.

She discusses the importance of authenticity. And reveals the one factor that separates individuals with a strong sense of love and belonging with those who feel isolated and unloved.

Essentially, if we want to feel love and joy, we must be willing to let go and be vulnerable with ourselves and one another. And to accept all our imperfections and know there’s no need to…

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I Can’t Follow the “Rules of Writing”

Kristen Lamb wrote a blog on the difference between aspiring and authentic writers, and off and on I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.  I’ve always considered myself an aspiring writer because I haven’t been paid for what I write, at least not in money.  But Kristen made an interesting point: aspiring writers think about the book they’ll write, someday, when they get around to it.  Authentic writers pick up the pen and write, regardless of the struggle it involves.

And that led me to think about the nature of my own struggle with writing, why I’m not as successful as I want to be (yet, at least), and, perhaps, some of the reasons behind that.

Partly, it’s because I can’t follow all those agreed-upon rules of writing.  I really wish I could follow rules.  But I can’t even follow what I freely acknowledge to be good and sensible suggestions, even though I’ve tried.  For years I’ve wondered why and I think I finally hit upon an answer.  Not “the” answer, mind you.  Just, an answer.

Let’s start by looking at some of the rules I should be following, like outlining.  I can sort of do that, if I’m writing non-fiction, as in when I used to write legal briefs (another life and a long story) but that was different.  Constructing a legal argument for an appellate brief is, or can be, or should be, dammit, a very formalistic process.  Given that I can outline.  I know what I want to prove, I know the facts I have to work with, and I have the precedents to draw from and the counterarguments to deal with.

Note, however, the phrase “formalistic process.”  Crafting an argument of this sort is like constructing a proof in mathematics in some ways, i.e., it’s formalistic.  The meanings of words and the structure within which they are presented is tightly restricted.  Sgt. Joe Friday’s words are particularly apt in this connection: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

For me that’s relatively simple, but writing fiction was terribly, terribly hard for me.  I could start things and go along like blazes for 4-5000 words and then suddenly realize I had no idea where to take things.  And STOP IT, I know what you’re saying “If you had outlined you’d know where to go and what to do and yadayadayada.”  Well, no, I wouldn’t, because, to me, writing fiction is not a formalistic process.  It has its own logic, yes, absolutely.  But fiction isn’t an argument and the structure is not mathematical.

Therefore outlining does not help me.

Let’s continue with “character development.”  I confess, when I think up my characters most of the time I only have the vaguest idea of who they are and what they’re going to do.  And sometimes the characters that started out as minor players end up assuming a major role in what I’m writing.  “If you had properly developed your characters you wouldn’t have this problem,” I’ve been told.  Yeah, and I guess there’s a lot of truth to that.

But I don’t know who the hell these people are until I see the words on the page.  I can’t see them in my mind, really; I only have the vaguest notion, as I said, of who they are.  I have to put them on the page and let them do something more or less significant to the story.  Then, as I write, I get a feel for them.

So “character development” does not help me.

Plot development?  Look, for fifteen years I developed plot and backstory for a science fiction series I want to write.  The truth is that I just went around in circles with it.  I don’t even know how many spiral notebooks, college-ruled, 100 pages per, I filled up that way.  I knew the plot, developed generations of characters (at least by name, planet, ships commanded), I tried all that stuff, and when I said to myself, OK, enough development, let’s write the story.  That worked for about ten or twenty pages, then pffft.  Ten or twenty pages of fairly good, fairly engaging prose that ultimately led nowhere.  I told myself as I did this that I was writing, but really, to me, it felt like I was just aspiring.  Too much “thinking” and “someday” and not enough struggle, or maybe too much.

Something wasn’t coming together for me.  Something wasn’t right.

Writing out a story arc?  Tried it.  Major character likes and dislikes?  My mind goes blank.  All those tricks and rules and things of that sort, all those attempts to impose a formal structure on the fiction writing process that the mathematician in me said ought to work – did not.

And the frustrating thing was that, by observation, it so obviously does work for quite a large number of writers.

So it went until 2004, when a friend told me about National Novel Writer’s Month.  Fifty thousand words in 30 days?  So, what, about 1700 words a day for a month?  How many pages is that?  Gee, I dunno, I thought, seems like kind of a lot.  But then, nothing else was working so I gave it a try.

I was a finalist in 2004 and in every November since.  More to the point, each year I finished a first draft of a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end.  The characters had some sort of problem they solved, so the story “went somewhere and did something.”  Were the stories any good?  Well, they were first drafts, and relative merit isn’t the point.  They were, within the limits of being a first draft, complete stories.

The best part, for me, is that 50,000 words in 30 days bit.  You don’t really have time to think or judge or be critical, it’s all full throttle and maximum warp.  Just write!

All well and good but until my 2010 story, which had the working title The Sluggers and the Palookas, I never got beyond a first draft.

But here’s the backstory on that.  I decided, in October of 2010, that I would write a story I’d had in mind for at least a decade, working title The Once and Future Grail, science fiction set in the far, far future.  That’s exactly what I started to do that November 1st.  By Day 3 I was at 7000 words, well ahead of schedule, very happy with what I’d written, and something happened that had never happened on any previous NaNoWriMo.

I dried up.  I’m not just talking the words were coming at a rate of one every ten minutes, I’m talking nothing, brick wall, sterility, vacuum, blank slate.

OK, so that happens, told myself not to worry, relax, tomorrow will be better.  You know the drill, you can do this, you’re still ahead on word count and you can always catch up on the weekend.  That was the first day.  By the third day of hanging fire like that – which was seven of the thirty days the contest lasts — I was worried.  Worried bad, because I didn’t understand what was going on, it just wasn’t like me to just go blank like that, I mean, what the hell?

My identity as a writer was at stake!

On the seventh day, as I stared at that blank screen on my laptop, a question just popped into my mind.  Pretty simple question, you know the kind, “why didn’t I ask that to begin with”:  well, if you don’t want to write that story, what do you want to write?

The miraculous is also the discontinuous and the funny thing is when it happens all inside one brain, your own.  One split second you are one person; the next you are another.  No wonder people think writers are a little crazy.

But that one miraculous question was all I needed to break down whatever it was holding me back, and quite spontaneously I realized, I want to write that fighter pilot novel, you know, the one no one’s ever written about the guys flying out of Port Moresby early in 1942.  The one I labeled “someday” and made a note here and a note there about characters and possible plots and hadn’t done anything with in maybe ten years.

What I didn’t do next was almost as important as what I did do.  What I did was, well, wait, I’ve got a great opening scene for this story, right?  There’s this transport with a bunch of kid pilots aboard being flown up to the war zone.  So I sat right down and started with that.

What I didn’t do, though, was think, hey, this is a historical novel!  You don’t know all that much about the campaign, you don’t know that much about the units involved or the actual people, where’s all that stuff I collected?  In other words what I didn’t do was try to limit myself with what I didn’t know.

I just told the story about a kid fighter pilot and how he went to war at Seven-Mile Drome in May of 1942.  In twenty-one days and about 51,000 words I finished the contest as a finalist.  But much more important, far, far more important, I had a first draft of a real live novel in my hands.

A year and a half later I’m finishing the third draft of that novel, now retitled as Boxcar Red Leader.

The important question is, what finally worked?  After all those years of trying, struggling, what finally worked?

Two things, I think: “critical mass” and “passion.”  If you write enough stories from beginning to end they may not be great stories, but at least they’re stories.  I was doing what I actually wanted to do, tell stories!  Now that’s authentic!  I wasn’t worrying about what I was going to write, or what I wanted to write, I just wrote and told stories.  The term “critical mass” implies that certain preconditions – neutron flux, number of words written lifetime, whatever – have been met.  Or maybe just enough experience of authentic writing to achieve confidence in my own ability.  And passion?

Ah, passion.  I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write this story, how much this story was mine, how much I wanted to figure out who the protagonists are and what they went through, until I wrote it.  That desire has only increased as the story went through Draft 2 and it’s still there as I write Draft 3.  That passion has even carried me through all the ups and downs of editing and revision.

So maybe now I can follow the rules – but I don’t think so.  The only real rule is, find whatever works for you.  It editing and revision takes a little longer, that’s fine with me.  So why can’t I follow the “rules of writing”?  Maybe because that doesn’t feel like writing to me, and that’s just exactly the point.  If it does to you, great!

But don’t wait up for me.  I’m due back with my squadron on Seven-Mile Drome.  Lots of work still to do!

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Business Decisions and the French Revolution

I’ve never published before.  I have a novel, Boxcar Red Leader, that’s in what I call “draft 3 alpha” stage – gone through some critiquing by my writers group and trusted others for draft 2, then rewritten for, hopefully, the majority of typos, grammar errors, plot deficiencies, relevant and egregious historical inaccuracies, etc.  When I finish Draft 3 Alpha I’ll have it reviewed again and depending on comments, it will go to Draft 3 Beta to correct anything my reviewers find.  And then, with fear and trembling, off into the world it will go.

With the approach of this happy event, then, the current debate about different publishing methods has assumed increasing importance for me.  Last year, as I developed draft 2, I hadn’t really heard about indie publishing and the advantages offered by eBooks.  As I recall in the first part of that year my writers group still pretty much thought that we’d have to endure the traditional publishing paradigm.  We studied comments by various agents and others regarding good query letters, what’s hot in publishing, how to write a good pitch, plus all that other stuff that the how-to magazines sell to aspiring writers, because, well, if you’re selling regularly you don’t need any of that stuff, do you?  And then, of course, there was that one agent whose advice to writers was “don’t quit your day job, it keeps you real.” It was the middle of summer and I work construction.  The tone of that article was so patronizing and paternal that if I could have found that agent I would have made her pour concrete for a couple of hours at a humitemp of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

So when we became aware of it, digital publishing as a venue seemed like the Holy Grail found.  No need to pay agents, no need to pay a publisher; you keep the lion’s share of the sale price; no stupid query letters or synopses.  Of course, there are those niggling little problems of marketing and editing, but we figured that the quality of editing in the fiction that we read was visibly in decline (down-sizing your editorial departments will have that result) and if we got a contract with one of the Big 6 we’d end up doing most of the marketing anyway.

The point is that, with digital publishing, we could get our books out there and have a potential audience as large as everyone with an internet connection.  Maybe we could even get paid for what we’d written!  And we wouldn’t have to write a single quirky, fun or flirty query letter to do it.

Are we critical of the traditional publishers?  You bet, and how, absolutely!  And if you want to know why this debate between the indies and the trads is becoming vitriolic, polemic, and almost ideological in nature, that’s easy.  It’s because writers, especially unpublished, talented, determined writers, have been treated like dirt – no, permit me to rephrase that; have been treated like French peasants before the French Revolution.  What we are looking at in the indie vs. traditionalist “feud” bears, in my opinion, considerable resemblance to that situation, at least with regard to attitudes and motivation on the part of either side.  But here’s the thing: even in the digital age what writers have to offer hasn’t changed.  Like the peasants of France, we offer what we have always offered: the fruit of our labor.  The publishers have been able to pick and choose among those fruits, and in the process, as far as writers are concerned, they’ve built up some pretty bad karma.  Writers perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they have been poorly and even abusively treated by publishers, at least in the contractual sense.  To the publishers, though, it’s just business.  Big business, which always has been and probably always will be fairly brutal and Darwinian in the worst sense of the word.

I can understand business decisions.  I’ve been subjected to them all my life.  If the company isn’t making any money they can’t afford to pay you, anyway, so why should you kick if you get laid off?  If the company isn’t making enough profit, would you rather lose your job, or give up your benefits and take a cut in pay to keep it?  But that’s not a business decision for your employer alone, it’s a business decision you, the employee, have to make as well.  Is it in your best interest to go and seek employment elsewhere, or stay and hope things don’t get any worse?

Choosing which stories will sell, and which will not, is a marketing judgment.  It isn’t necessarily a commentary on a given writer’s skill or talent.  I once got a rejection letter for a short story that said, “This is a great story that deserves to be told.  Unfortunately, we don’t publish this kind of story anymore.”

Well…gosh.  See what I mean?  Marketing.  It sucks, but I get it.

But therein lies another question: in one sense having “the publishers” to demonize (“no one understands my work”) kept a lot of writers from having to face, directly, either the realities of the marketplace or their own deficiencies as writers.  Nowadays, though, you can publish anything you like whenever you want.  But you may have to face the reality, as a writer, that you aren’t selling because no one wants to read what you write, and that may be because you haven’t sufficiently developed your craft, or your subject has no niche, or maybe even just bad timing.  Then there’s no one to blame but yourself.  I mean, how many rejection slips are we likely to collect from Smashwords or Amazon?

Of course if you’re in the blame game maybe you should reconsider being a writer.  Blaming other people for your failures is a good way to go nowhere.

In the indie age, you can publish, and if you have the talent to tell a good story, you may even sell.  But the second you publish, you have to put on another hat, your three-piece-pinstripe-suit hat, that’s right, your business person hat.  And you will have to make business decisions, and it doesn’t get much more personal than asking, what’s best for me?

And ultimately all the debate comes down to that.  In the wicked world before the Dawn of this Golden Digital Age, publishers made all those business decisions about what would sell and what wouldn’t.  We can criticize their choices all we like; there’s plenty to criticize, after all, in a system that had 8 books fail out of 9 launches.  Also, I think the publishing industry pretty much got aristocratic in its notions.  They got a sense of entitlement; they were entitled to take the lion’s share of profit, they were entitled to treat writers as if they were peasants, they were entitled to have this system go on in perpetuity.  All of that is going to go the way the French aristocracy went, under the marketplace equivalent of the guillotine.

There were, however, French aristocrats who embraced the Revolution – such as the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought in our own revolution here in America.  And I am very curious indeed to see what those intelligent, adaptable publishing aristocrats make of this brave new digital world, because as one of my favorite writers was fond of saying, there’s nothing like a professional in any line of work.  And those folks have a lot of training and experience to bring to the table.

It will be a lot easier for such surviving traditional publishers to sign up writers and determine what stories will sell – now that those writers have become successful as independents, selling stories an earlier generation of aristocrats would have (or even did) reject out of hand, building up “brand” and “platform” and name recognition in the process, without the traditional publishers needing to spend a dime.  The business question for both sides will then become, what will the publishers offer those writers that the writers can’t get on their own?  Because the truth is that publishers need writers, and nowadays writers don’t necessarily need publishers.

However it turns out that’s in the future.  I’m not waiting for them before I publish Boxcar Red Leader.  That’s a business decision.

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The Old Boss, the New Boss and the Emperor’s New Clothes

The Old Boss, the New Boss and the Emperor’s New Clothes.

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The Old Boss, the New Boss and the Emperor’s New Clothes

When I was young and knew everything I believed with all my heart in Revolution, that radical, fundamental change that would make the world a different, better place, full of generous ideas and love.  But I have two afflictions I must live with, neither of them comfortable: I’m the sort of restless person who wants facts, and when I have them it raises new questions, so I want more facts; and, sooner or later, sometimes a lot later, I can face facts I don’t like.

 

One of those uncomfortable facts is that every generous, well-meaning revolution in world history, with the possible exception of the American Revolution, has ended in a blood bath that changed nothing except which gang of thugs was on top.  The Who even wrote a song about it titled “Won’t Get Fooled Again” bits of which some of you may recognize the title of this piece.  A long-forgotten writer by the name of Rafael Sabatini even acknowledged this principle at the climax of his novel Scaramouche, which was written, I think (don’t take my word for it, I haven’t looked it up to confirm) in the 1930s.  So it isn’t as if this realization is anything new.

 

I got out of the Revolution business for one simple reason: I didn’t see any point in shedding blood to no end.  (Might be my blood, after all.)  So I figured until I, or someone, solved the little problem of human psychology that permits good and generous principles to be drowned in death and blood – and students of history out there will realize this is not hyperbole – then there’s no point to Revolution.

 

But sometimes revolutions happen anyway.  Sometimes that opportunity for true and fundamental changes in the way things are done comes along in a manner that makes one wonder if there really is such a thing as a “force of history” that has nothing to do with deliberate human manipulation.

 

And writers, NOW is one of those times, and digital publishing, if you haven’t figured it out already – and you should have, because there’s way too much information out there for you to have any excuse for ignorance – is the means of that revolution.

 

What is at stake for writers?  After all, in one sense we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done, which is to put one word after another until we have written a story.  That’s what writers have done for centuries.  And writers have starved in garrets, too, sometimes, while others made fortunes off their work. 

 

Maybe a lot of this is the mindset that, “Well, I’m a writer, and if I wanted to be in business for myself I’d’ve gotten an MBA,” etc., etc.  Most writers I’ve ever heard about are relatively poor at the business aspect of writing – I mean, the attorneys who write those one-sided contracts for the publishers don’t write the same way I do.  Their audience isn’t you, its other attorneys, after all. 

 

And I really don’t believe anyone sets out purposely to starve themselves for the sake of their work.  I don’t necessarily believe that it’s the price of passion for the work, either.  But I will point out that an artist’s zeal for their work is the sort of passionate belief that can fuel a revolution – if that zeal translates itself into a sense of ownership.

 

By ownership I mean simply this:  This is my work.  My best effort of mind, skill, craft and imagination, not to mention the sweat of long hours, went to produce this work, and if you don’t believe it, you try it.  I’m proud of myself for doing this.  Besides — I’m capitalist enough to question why anyone has a right to make a fortune off my work if I’m not making a fortune first.

 

However, before that blessed day of ownership dawns, there is one simple logistical problem which every writer faces and from which all of the mundane, bill-paying problems of a writer flows:  it takes a long time to write a novel.  Even if you’re one of those people like Stephen King who has mastered the craft of writing a 200,000 word novel in less than a year, you still have to take that year to write in.  And no except maybe your mother or an over-indulgent spouse is going to support you while you do it.  Unless of course you’re independently wealthy.

 

The writer’s logistical problem, then, is simple to state: how do I live while I write?

 

The answer, overwhelmingly, is that “day job” we don’t like very much and only tolerate until that pie-in-the-sky day when we can live off our writing. 

 

So for now let’s put aside questions about writing as a craft, and think very seriously about where we, as writers, want to go as professionals, as business people, if you will. 

 

The key question for me as a writer in this Revolution is pretty simple: Why should we, as writers, voluntarily submit to any sort of “gatekeeping” interface between us and our readers?  In the past that might have been necessary.  If you wanted to put your story in a reader’s hands, the only practical means was to sell them a book.  That meant you had to print, bind and ship the book.  Which, of course, meant you had to have a publisher.  The publisher, naturally, wanted a piece of the pie, and given the nature of the business, a pretty hefty piece it was, too.  Then at some point publishers stopped being retailers, and the business model we writers have lived with until quite recently took over.  Retailers took the risk of buying books based on their perceived market value; publishers would only accept for publication from writers books that fitted in with that same (more or less) perception of market value.  Retailers and publishers necessarily had a very close business relationship in which the writer took part pretty much on a “take it or leave it” basis because “if you don’t take it, pal, there’s a couple of dozen others who’ll jump at the chance.”

 

The writer, in this relationship, was treated this way even though the writer was actually the only person with an original product to sell.  Everyone else in that relationship depended upon the writer as a primary producer.  Think that over for a second, and as you ponder it, think about this, too: as a writer, do you think of yourself as being someone who produces a (hopefully) marketable commodity?  You should, because you are.  In this sense you’re just like a wheat farmer, or a cattle rancher, or a professional engineer.  And if you have done your job as a professional, you have a good product to sell.  I think in the past there was a certain amount of paternalism in the profession, a tendency to pat writers on the head – after all, they were just gifted, wayward children who didn’t really understand the intricacies or the realities of the Great God of Business.  And that, my friends and fellow scriveners, was the Old Boss. 

 

What concerns me now, friends and fellow scriveners, is the very real and grave possibility that we will forget, and instead of Penguin and MacMillan, substitute “online retailers” as the “New Boss.”  There is already some rumble among the bloggers about Amazon cutting the writer’s percentage of royalties from sales – apparently for no better reason than there’s nothing to stop them from doing it.  That’s definitely the same spirit as the Old Boss!

 

But there’s also one simple fact, so simple that it makes me wonder if I’ve just plain overlooked something, and that makes me nervous.  But I’m going to spell it out anyway, because, well, I just don’t believe the Emperor is wearing any clothes.

 

Why do I say that?  Kristen Lamb put it forcefully in her post “The Modern Author – A New Breed of Writing for the Age of Digital Publishing.”  The modern author has to do it all to succeed in the marketplace.

 

Well, if we have to do it all anyway, why not do what a lot of writers (Dara Joy springs to mind along with a number of other romance writers, savvy gals from whom the rest of us could learn a lot) have already done and create our own online retail presence?

 

Oh, but you can’t sell it in Kindle or Nook format that way?  Well, can you or can’t you?  I don’t know; I’m a relative newcomer to this process.  But I do know that Baen Books has been offering free downloads to your desktop from their website for at least four years now, years before the availability of ereaders, and I’m given to understand from a friend who owns an ereader that it will handle Adobe PDF files – and Word 2007 will convert a Word document to PDF in a couple of mouse clicks. 

 

In any case, we’re talking software that someone will eventually market for retail use.  Screen appearance?  Yeah, I like the near-printed-page look of the ereaders I’ve seen, but you can get that on a tablet and if enough people wanted it as a laptop feature I bet next year’s model would have it.

 

Think of an objection, and then tell me if you’re not thinking in terms of dinosaurs because, little mammal, avoiding and/or cooperating with dinosaurs has been the key to your survival until now.  Why do we need Amazon to sell for us?  Admittedly from a lot of perspectives it might be convenient, but they, like any online outlet for books (or any other good), offer a service to readers and writers alike.  That service is the classic one of the marketplace go-between, uniting a willing buyer with a willing seller, no more and no less.  And if they charge more than the service is worth it’s time to go elsewhere with our business.  The old days are gone.  Amazon.com is NOT a Big 6 publisher and as long as any one of us can buy and sell online they never will be. 

 

Our problem as writers is that when we put on our business hats we become terribly intimidated.  Many of us accept the notion that we have to be a ferocious combination of attorney, CPA, Donald Trump and maybe just a little bit of the Incredible Hulk to make it as business people.  In the past that was because we were being hunted by dinosaurs and you needed all the help you can get.  Today the only thing hunting us is our own memory of being chased by a T.Rex – but if we’re going to do it all we still need all the help we can get. 

 

I just don’t think we need to be intimidated by someone wearing a rubber T.Rex costume making Big 6 Publisher noises, however binary they try to make themselves.  Hey, isn’t that a zipper up its back?  Or should I actually pay attention to the man behind the curtain?

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A Reasonable Price for EBooks

 

The other day I read a blog post (February 24, 2012) by the CEO of the Independent Publisher’s Group regarding what constitutes a “reasonable” cost to the reader for ebooks.  The gentleman makes some interesting arguments, but I think his conclusions are open to question, based simply on his own arguments and figures.  Permit me to explain, and I hope you aren’t afraid of a little number crunching.

First, Mr. CEO claims that for a trade paperback costing $14.95, a reasonable eBook publication cost of the same text should be $10.00.  He arrived at the $10/book figure by allowing $3.00 for printing, shipping and handling, and then asserts “A web retailer should be able to work on a narrower margin than a bricks and mortar bookstore, which could lower the price of an e-edition perhaps another $2.00.”  So there’s your $10/book figure, $14.95-$5.00 = $9.95.  Rounded up, one assumes, but OK.

Out of the original $14.95, Mr. CEO asserts that an “average” discount to retailers is “50%”.  You and I have to be careful here, because the word “discount” bears discussion.  To me, a “discount” is a reduction in the list price, i.e., the $14.95 for a physical book or the $10.00 for an ebook that you and I pay at retail.  But in this context it appears that “discount” is simply the percentage of the list price that a publisher offers the book for sale to retailers.  Big chain stores who are expected to sell a lot of units are offered more of a “discount” than small independent booksellers, so the “average” discount of “50%” might be 40%, depending on how you rank in the distribution chain.  But let’s say 50%, because that’s the figure Mr. CEO uses, and we’re using his numbers.

So 50% of the original $14.95 is $7.48.  This 50% is what Mr. CEO figures he can live with as his cost.  It pays his editorial staff, the HR people, building rent, helps buy new computers and software, all that stuff.  And, most important, provides a profit to the publisher.  The retailer now gets the list price minus the publisher’s cost, or $10.00-$7.48 = $2.52 per unit.  This isn’t actually spelled out in Mr. CEO’s blog post but it’s implicit in his numbers.

So my first question is this: why is a retailer in the classical sense necessary at all?  For a digital publication the sales and marketing department is online and nowadays writers tend to do a lot of the marketing work themselves.  And given the incredibly poor work done by sales and marketing departments in the classical sense, are they worth the money?  What if the $2.52 for a “web retailer” is simply fossilized thinking on Mr. CEO’s part?  For decades, if not for centuries, the business model has been “publishers publish, retailers retail.”  That’s not necessarily so anymore, is it?  So as professional writers we must question whether this $2.52 is a necessary cost.  Yes, you’re going to have to spend money to make money.  The question is, how much?  I think $2.52 per unit is way, way too much.  This might be something I as the writer would pay a flat fee to someone to do for me, so let’s just take it off the “reasonable cost” of an eBook while noting there’s room for argument.

Mr. CEO states that an author’s royalty on a $14.95 trade paperback is $1.12 or 7.5%.  The author’s contract for royalties is with the publisher, not the retailer, so it’s reasonable to assume that this $1.12 is part of the publisher’s costs.  This means, exclusive of the author’s percentage, that the publisher’s actual costs are $7.48 – $1.12 = $6.36 per unit.

Can we refine that cost figure a little more?  Mr. CEO asserts that the “publisher’s profit” is about the same as the author’s, so let’s go with that $1.12/unit (the author’s royalty), and we get $6.36-$1.12 = $5.24.  On a per unit basis, then, it costs $5.24 to edit and format a manuscript and make it fit for publication.

I will grant, immediately and without reservation, that a good editor can take a reasonably good manuscript, work with the writer, and polish that manuscript into a thing of even greater beauty and readability.  Almost every time I’ve read “unedited” books (usually published after the author’s demise) my verdict has been that the editor did a hell of a good job.

I’m going to note, however, that over the last five years I’ve noticed a decrease in the quality of editorial work across the board.  I hear a lot of the publishing houses have slashed editorial budgets, so maybe that explains the decline.  I’m equally sure that it’s not every publishing house.  But it raises the issue of value added.  How much of that $5.24 per unit actually adds value to the manuscript?  Because nowadays, for an epublication, you’re going to have to justify cost in terms of value added.  Can you, Mr. CEO, actually do what you say you’re doing, and add value to my manuscript by polishing my grammar, improving my characters, smoothing my plot, all beyond what I’ve done for myself?  If you can’t do that, then what benefit does your editorial staff bring to the product that justifies adding 52.4% to its cost?  And if I’ve done my work as a writer (and you wouldn’t be looking to publish me if I hadn’t!) those editorial changes will be incremental at best – important, yes, but incremental.  So again, your work is important, but is it important enough to justify taking 52.4%?

That question inspires another: the present setup implies that the publisher is essentially a middleman between the writer and the editor, and the publisher charges for that service the way any middleman would, i.e., the $1.12 per unit noted above.  But that means you believe that for simply granting me, the writer, access to your editors, you’re going to charge me the same amount I’m going to get on a per unit basis.

So I question the necessity of that $1.12 going to the publisher.  Here’s a more realistic scenario: I, the writer, go online looking for someone providing editorial services, of which there are plenty and more every day.  I negotiate a flat fee with that person, or perhaps some percentage of sales.  So wherein is the necessity for a publisher to receive $1.12 per unit?

Let’s sum up.  Mr. CEO argues that the reasonable cost of an eBook should include 52.4% of the pie for editorial purposes, and another 11.2% for his profit.  The writer gets 11.2% and the “web retailer” 25.2%.  I’ve questioned all of those figures except the 11.2% royalty for the writer.  Before I look at that let’s consider the reasonable price of an eBook based on the above.

I questioned above whether there’s a place for publishers or retailers in the conventional sense in this Brave New Digital World.  Knocking off the publisher’s $1.12 and the retailer’s $2.52 has the following result:  $10.00 -$1.12 = $8.88; $8.88 -$2.52 = $6.36.  That $6.36 includes $5.24 for editing and $1.12 for me, the writer.  On a per book basis, mind you.  So if you don’t need retailing and you’ve cut out the publisher’s profit, you’re down to a reasonable cost for an ebook of $6.36.

Is it reasonable to charge $5.24 per unit for editorial services?

Editorial services are a one-time, finite cost to the publisher.  The editorial staff gets the book ready to sell, it goes to the printer, and the editorial staff goes on to the next book.  So once the book sells enough copies to cover that one-time cost, a publisher, especially in the digital age, under Mr. CEO’s model, is receiving money for no further value added to the product.  Why else do publishers love a best-seller?  Their profit margin goes from 10-12% to what, something around 62-63% after their up-front costs are paid?  I’ll grant that’s probably oversimplified but the figures support that conclusion.  Why else would a publisher be willing to give a higher discount to a high-volume seller, if not to bring about this blessed event?

Granted, there aren’t that many best-sellers, but consider the paragraph above when you think about the publishing industry as it has been and what editorial costs are worth in the production of your book.  As writers – as professional writers – we must ask ourselves if this product is worth the 52.4% of the cost we’ll charge our readers.  Not the publisher’s readers, make no mistake about it.  Our readers.

That percentage means that, in the production of a novel, given a “reasonable cost” of $10/unit, the editorial staff is worth a little over half the list price.  Does the editorial staff do half the work?

So again we’re at the question, is the editorial product, i.e., the value a good editor adds to your work, worth the cost?  It might be, but how does one decide?  Business types will tell you that requires a cost-benefit analysis which is way beyond the scope of this blog post.  But as professional writers, I believe we must give serious consideration to exactly that type of question.  Editors are not God and their idea of what is good may not match yours – or that of the marketplace.

Here’s another way to look at editorial costs.  The writer gets $1.12.  The editorial staff gets $5.24.  So Mr. CEO believes, rightly or wrongly, that his staff’s editorial expertise is worth nearly five times (4.67, to be more exact) the value of all of the sweat, agony, inspiration and hours you, the writer, have spent writing your book.  And that, later, if your book sells enough copies, he, the publisher, is entitled to collect something like 5.7 times as much as the writer does from the proceeds of sales.

It might be worth pointing out that without writers, Mr. CEO and all his ilk would be running McDonald’s franchises.  And writers will still be writers.  So who needs who?

So we were down to $6.36 as an arguably reasonable price for eBooks.  That’s in the $4.99 ballpark, except I’d say the editorial staff makes the $1.12 and the writer makes the $5.24.  As I wrote above, I question that percentage the writer gets.  But I could simply be prejudiced because I am a writer.

However, the fact that Mr. CEO feels he’s worth that much more than me, even though his livelihood would vanish without writers to make it possible, makes me wonder how far that relative evaluation of worth goes in the present publishing industry.  Evidently it goes as far, at least, as believing that no one can do simple arithmetic.

Especially writers.

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March 9, 2012 · 3:07 pm