Tag Archives: Writing

Writing “Tech”: Science Fiction

Science fiction is my first love.  The very first book I ever bought for myself was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Ultrasonic Cycloplane.  The first “serious” hardback I ever bought – in 5th grade – was Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel.  If I needed any other impetus to begin the affair, I don’t remember it.

A few days before writing this I got the notion to reread Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.  I was sure I had a copy around the house – certain I’d bought one recently at a used book sale – alas, no go.  Ended up borrowing a copy from the local library, and read it overnight.  It’s probably been thirty years, at least, since I read it last.

When I finished, I looked at the original publication date: 1956.

If you’ve never read The Door Into Summer it’s well worth it, even if it’s a little dated in some ways.  The funny thing is that in others, we still haven’t quite got there.  The action of the story takes place in 1970 and 1971 – years I remember all too well – and 2000 and 2001, years also stored in my memory.   The protagonist, Daniel B. Davis, is a mechanical engineer and inventor who decides it’s his mission in life to create true labor-saving gadgets for the automated house.

I’m sure at least some of you have seen the “Roomba,” a robotic vacuum-cleaner.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the website:

http://store.irobot.com/home/index.jsp

Interesting that they call it “irobot,” eh?  You don’t get the reference, other than the movie with Will Smith?  So google “Isaac Asimov.”

I remember the first time I saw a Roomba the first thing that popped into my mind was “Wow!  Hired Girl!”  That was the name of the floor-cleaning robot that was Dan Davis’ first invention in The Door Into Summer.

Some of you may remember when computers took up whole rooms and were called “mainframes”; you may even remember that a lot of their commands and programming were stored on magnetic tape.  Heinlein, in designing his “future tech” mentions “tapes” and something he calls a “Thorssen memory tube.”  A “tape” in this context refers to what we, today, would call “software” and a “Thorssen memory tube” is pretty obviously a hard drive – or even a thumb drive.  For the rest of Hired Girl, Heinlein uses “off the shelf components”: “…a floor polisher used in army hospitals, a soft-drink dispenser, and those ‘hands’ they use in atomics plants to handle anything ‘hot.’”  Otherwise, “the whole thing could be built with standard parts ordered out of Sweet’s Catalogue…”

I googled “Sweet’s Catalogue.”  There really is such a thing, which began in 1906 with architectural materials and expanded to 38 volumes, including parts for mechanical and electrical engineering.

I mention this simply to show Heinlein’s intriguing attention to detail.  Yet the point is less the detail of existing “engineering art” but how Heinlein artfully weaves together “what is” to show “what may be” in just a few more steps.

There are several other ideas for inventions mentioned in The Door Into Summer that are noteworthy: Drafting Dan; dictation software; and the “hydraulic bed.”

We would call Drafting Dan by the name of AutoCAD and it wouldn’t be a typewriter-like machine as Heinlein describes it, but software you load onto your computer.  Nonetheless, the idea of automated design is the same.  It would be interesting to know if the software engineers who wrote the original code for AutoCAD were inspired by Drafting Dan, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were not.  Inspiration for that idea would be as simple as noticing that it’s pretty easy to make a straight line, or a series of straight lines, appear on a screen; now, hmm, let’s see, what if you could make a perpendicular to the line, and, ah, yeah, maybe some curves?  That’s really all there is to the basic idea, the 1% inspiration that Thomas Edison spoke about, and all those endless hours of writing and refining code belong to the 99% perspiration part.

Dictation software is alluded to by Heinlein, a “secretary” machine, so to speak.  I’ve used several versions of software of this sort and read or heard reviews by others.  Maybe it’s my Southern accent, y’all, or maybe they’s a few bugs to be worked out.  Nonetheless, the basic idea is there, and is more or less practical, even if to me the execution still leaves something to be worked out.

The idea of the “hydraulic bed” is mentioned briefly in The Door Into Summer and somewhat more extensively in what is arguably Heinlein’s most famous work, Stranger In a Strange Land.  This might be one of those urban legends, but I heard that Heinlein held the patent for a hydraulic bed – we know them as “water beds.”

One point I must make before continuing.  I don’t want to leave the impression that accurate prediction is a requisite of hard science fiction.  What we think of as “hard science” today may or may not still be around in another hundred years – or it may be considered as laughably antiquated as the notion that the world is flat and borne through the Cosmos on the back of a giant turtle.  My favorite hope and cherished dream in this direction is that contemporary science will be proven wrong about the possibility of superluminal travel, despite the almost-universal chorus of “IMPOSSIBLE” from the last three generations of physicists.

Accurate prediction could be considered in a different sense, however.  What if one interprets the phrase as meaning accurate in the sense that it can be used to predict social behavior in some sense or another, in response to some fictional invention or discovery?

In another Heinlein book, Space Cadet, Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to describe Hohmann orbits, their uses in space travel, and some of the various methods to achieve them.  Accurate, yes, but what’s the point?  Isn’t this a little much?

Maybe.  Here’s a question for you: do you know why they’re called “Hohmann” orbits?  As one might guess, a mathematician named Walther Hohmann described them in his book titled The Accessibility of Celestial Bodies – which was written in 1925.  The technical definition of a Hohmann orbit is, according to Wikipedia (see “Hohmann Transfer Orbit”), “an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes in the same plane.”  In effect, it’s the most fuel-efficient means for a reaction-driven space vessel to travel from one planet’s orbit to another.  Therefore reaction driven space vessels are likely to use them – have done so, in fact.

Heinlein wrote that, for a passage in Space Cadets, he spent two weeks with his wife Virginia, reputedly a much better mathematician than the Master himself, working calculations and graphs to be sure that the astrogation particulars he described would actually work in real life.  Well, at least, would if such vessels existed.

Now of course we know that such vessels exist; the Apollo Program put astronauts on the Moon and NASA, along with other space agencies, has sent dozens of probes to Mars and the outer planets, using either Hohmann orbits or other astrogational techniques pioneered by Hohmann.

Note again the date of Hohmann’s work: 1925.

It’s worth noting here that the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, began his pioneering work in astronautics – including the need for and descriptions of such esoteric as space suits and air locks – prior to 1900.

The important point to grasp is that Heinlein is describing human behavior – i.e., how space ship crews will get from one planet to another – using scientific discoveries that were, at the time he wrote, about thirty years old.  The only “fictional” aspect of his work was the space ship itself.

But maybe the real piece de resistance of accurate technical detail – as accurate as it may be possible to get in fiction — is an obscure story by the great Dr. Werner von Braun, titled Project Mars: A Technical Tale.  This book is half science-fiction story and half technical manual and anyone who knows anything about the early history of the Apollo program and what Dr. von Braun tried to do – establish a permanent manned space station in orbit to serve as a way station not only for the Lunar flight but as a stepping stone to the other planets – will see at once that it was first outlined in this book.  Essentially, the technology of Dr. von Braun’s book, in a form only slightly more developed, took us to the Moon and back.

Here’s the kicker: Project Mars: A Technical Tale was not published when it was originally written, but the Author’s Preface was written sometime in 1950.

I remember people reacting to the entire notion of space flight and astronauts as if it were something new, something part of the post-World-War-II Jet Age – but the basic ideas of space flight were in development a full half-century before the first Moon landing, and science fiction writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were exploring them in fiction and making them real to a generation of new dreamers, who went on to be the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built the Space Shuttle and sent Pioneer, Voyager and Viking, among others, on their way.

This leads me to my point: “hard” science fiction in the sense of “technically accurate” is not merely the stuff that dreams are made of, but brings one to the very edge of the reality of dreams.  That question demands a corollary inquiry: if the fiction were not technically accurate, would it be as effective?

Here we may intrude upon matters of taste.  In purely historical fiction my answer to that question would be “No” and I believe I could defend it pretty well.  In fact I’m working on a post to that effect.

But science fiction might, arguably, be different.  The reason for that might be contained in Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that science, sufficiently advanced with respect to the percipient, is indistinguishable from magic.  I would argue that “sufficiently advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between 1900 and 2000.  In the 1930s my grandfather was an electrician for Georgia Power Company.  He told me that one of his favorite things was to string a power line from the main feeder up some little hollow to a farm house where they still used horses to draw plows.  When he installed electricity and a light fixture the last thing he’d do would be to turn on the light, and leave the farm family staring at the brilliant bulb as darkness fell outside.  Just a simple little thing like that, something we today take as a given of our existence, and yet so short a time ago it was, if not magic, then magical.

But that illustrates the principle upon which Clarke’s maxim works, and some of its subtlety.  If my grandfather, an electrician, appeared at the very least as a sorcerer’s apprentice to these families, then how might a contemporary, say the quantum physicist Neils Bohr – or the mathematician Walter Hohmann – appear to my grandfather?

Ray Bradbury is arguably one of the great science fiction story tellers, and it was enough for him that rockets existed, that you could fly through space in them, and go to strange places like the Mars of his The Martian Chronicles.  He could probably have cared less about the technical details.

It could be, then, that art, sufficiently advanced, like science, can appear magical.  Since there’s evidently a place for each let’s leave it at that.

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Filed under science fiction, technology in fiction, Tom Learns His Craft, Writing

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

I started writing this post about a week ago.  I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to say but as I wrote I realized the old symptoms – my ideas were evolving as I wrote.  Something about writing, actually putting words on a page (digital or print, either way I see them appear, letter by letter, in front of me), catalyzes my thought processes.

Maybe it’s that additional sense of reality seeing words on a page gives to thoughts.

At any rate I realized my post had now become two separate ideas, and this post is one of them.

Some years ago I read an anthology by Richard Bach consisting of articles he’d written for Flying magazine, among others.  I don’t remember the title of the anthology now, and a quick search of my bookshelves didn’t turn it up, either.  There was, however, one article in there that brought me endless hours of pleasure.  The article was titled “The Pleasure of Their Company.”

Without Bach’s article I never would have read some of the best prose ever written about aviation, nor been introduced to several of my favorite writers.  Hemingway once wrote that a writer, early in his career, should read “all the great books.”  He didn’t specify any titles under that heading, and as writers and as readers the subject is one that might be debated endlessly, passionately and without satisfactory resolution.  Regardless of that, many of the books Bach recommended became my “great books.”

In passing I would reiterate that Bach’s article did not appear in a literary journal or any other venue more likely to be dedicated to an appreciation of literature.  For those who don’t know, except for the odd article like Bach’s, Flying is generally dedicated to technical and how-to types of articles: new devices for instrument flying or radio communication, new air traffic control procedures, weather flying, descriptions of airports or fly-ins, etc.  There used to be a great column in back titled “I Learned About Flying From That” wherein people would describe something that happened to them in an airplane that taught them about that territory wherein angels fear to tread, much less mortal pilots with physical wings.

But Flying is definitely not a literary journal, however well-written and interesting its content.

I read Bach’s article in 1977, not long after I graduated from college, and in the next two years I managed to track down and read every book on his list with one or two exceptions, like Sir Frances Chichester’s A Rabbit In the Air, and those exceptions were simply because I couldn’t find them, either at the local chain bookstore or in the various used bookstores I haunted in those days.  The books I did read included Ernest K. Gann’s Fate Is the Hunter; Nevil Shute’s Round the Bend, The Rainbow and the Rose, and Pastoral ; Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince; and Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising.  There were others but those come most readily to mind.

If you haven’t read them you won’t know that, with the exception of the three books by Nevil Shute (better known for his excellent if depressing On the Beach), those books are all non-fiction.  In fact, out of the shelves and shelves of books I own on aviation and aviation-related subjects, a quick glance assures me that non-fiction is disproportionately represented in that field.  Whether or not this is more generally true in that world beyond my bookshelves I can’t answer.

It would be easy, and possibly even true, to say that there’s no need to invent stories about aviation when non-fiction is just as plentiful and besides, well, factual.  Pilots, especially the various professional pilots (military, airline, charter, etc.) as a class would rather read technical manuals or factual accounts that might be of some use to them than fiction.  Most pilots, in addition, are hypercritical of mistakes made in fiction by fiction writers.  There’s probably a good reason for that: professional pilots who make mistakes end up killing themselves and their passengers.  Most pilots, therefore, tend to approach information from a skeptical point of view.  Think of it like this:  Oh yeah?  Well, tell me this: is that guy going to be in the cockpit with me when I’ve got to do what he recommends, or is he going to be sitting somewhere nice and safe, with his feet propped up, thinking about lunch?

Other than Nevil Shute I can only think of five authors who wrote respected fiction about flying:  Richard Newhafer, James Salter, Stephen Coonts, Mark Berent and Tom Wilson.

Newhafer is an interesting writer.  He was a Navy pilot who flew Hellcats during World War II, and wrote one of my favorite novels about Navy flying during that war, titled The Last Tallyho.  Newhafer was an ace and participated in some of the battles he writes about.  When he got out of the Navy in the 1950s he not only wrote novels but got into screenwriting.  If you can track down any of his books they’re worth a read.

James Salter wrote maybe one of the best novels about combat flying I’ve ever read, titled The Hunters.   It’s set in the Korean war, where the protagonist, Cleve Connell, flies F-86 Sabres against the Communist MiG-15s.  To me, the interesting thing about this story is the climactic dogfight scene where Connell shoots down “Casey Jones,” the MiG pilot who has claimed many of Cleve’s squadron mates.  The Hunters was made into a film starring Robert Mitchum which, despite some really good aerial scenes, almost universally elicits groans from pilots because of a scene that was tacked on by Hollywood.  Connell (played by Mitchum), after shooting down Casey Jones, ejects to save his wingman who’s just been shot down himself.  Why?  Because Connell’s in love – platonically – with the guy’s wife.  I imagine the thought process in the mind of most fighter pilots, in rejecting this scene, might go something like this: Let me be sure I’ve got this straight.  Connell, a good stick who’s just waxed some Commie badass, loses his wingman because the dumb bastard can’t be bothered to watch his tail.  Big surprise, the loser gets his ass shot off, whereupon he punches out and has to make a run for it through the boonies.  Too damned bad but that’s Darwin in action at 25,000 feet and Mach 0.9.  Connell then does what?  He punches out, ejects from a perfectly good airplane, in a day where you were lucky if the ejection didn’t kill you?  To save his loser wingman?  Just because Connell wants to get in the guy’s wife’s drawers?  And THIS is the story you want me to believe?  Jesus H. Christ, only in Hollywood, pal.  That’s why they call it the Land of Dreams.

If you’ve heard of Stephen Coonts it’s probably because of his book, Flight of the Intruder.  Most of the Navy pilots I’ve talked to will actually grant that book the ultimate accolade, a grudging admission that, yeah, that’s pretty much the way it was.  Not too surprising, since Coonts was an A-6A Intruder pilot during the Vietnam war.

Mark Berent and Tom Wilson both flew in Vietnam, in the USAF.  Berent begins with a book titled Rolling Thunder, where his protagonist flies F-100 Super Sabres on ground-support missions.  Throughout the series Berent writes with the same characters, introduced for the most part in Rolling Thunder.  Berent’s  focus is a little broader than just the air war, since one of the main characters, Wolf  Lochert, is a Special Forces officer, while the rest of the characters, including the protagonist, Court Bannister, are Air Force.  Tom Wilson, in a trilogy beginning with Termite Hill, writes largely about the war of the F-105s flying out of bases in Thailand against targets in North Vietnam.  OK, Wilson is kind of a favorite of mine, partly because I think the F-105 is one of the absolutely coolest-looking airplanes ever built, and some of the ballsiest pilots who ever lived flew those missions against North Vietnam in F-105s.  Wilson also writes about the pilots and EWOs – aka “Bears” – who flew the F-105G “Wild Weasel” against North Vietnamese SAM sites.  There’s an old adage among fighter pilots that you never duel with the antiaircraft types on the ground, but the Weasels did just that, and took corresponding losses.

So there’s all sorts of good aviation fiction, but with the exception of Coonts, I don’t recall that any of these writers are either well-known or even remembered.

What makes for a good aviation story?

First, something that’s hard for outsiders to grasp, is that aviation, for pilots, is more like a love affair than anything else.  Less charitable writers might with reason liken the love of flying to addiction, obsession or disease; indeed, aviation shares with malaria the trait that while it might go into remission, once you’ve got it, it never really leaves you.  Maybe this is why grafted-on love stories in movies, like the one in the film version of The Hunters, seldom if ever ring true.  Bob Stevens once did a great cartoon of how different people see an airplane; the wife’s view of the husband-pilot’s airplane was of a sexy, curvaceous mistress.  No writer who doesn’t understand this can understand the aviation story.

Second, the usual source of conflict, “good guy vs. bad guy,” is almost never present, even in stories about military aviation.  The enemy isn’t necessarily a bad or evil person just because he wants to kill you.  In Duncan Grinnell-Milne’s Wind In the Wires, written about flying in World War I, Grinnell-Milne is forced down behind German lines by engine trouble and captured.  He is taken to a German aerodrome where the pilots go out to look at the wreck of his machine and commiserate with him on his bad luck.  Indeed, Nevil Shute, perhaps one of the best writers I know of, doesn’t  rely on this sort of conflict; man against nature, or against some relatively insoluble problem, is his theme.  Read any of his books, not just those about aviation.   Even in Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, the Japanese ace the protagonist fights at the climax of the novel isn’t presented as an evil man, simply as a patriot serving his country to the best of his ability.

Third, there is that interaction between man and the machine that takes him into an otherwise inaccessible environment that, oddly and perhaps even paradoxically, sparks something deeply spiritual inside the pilot.  Edwards Park flew with the 35th FG in New Guinea in World War II, and wrote of this in Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, his account of flying at that time and place:

“…I had, momentarily, become part of Nanette – one and indivisible – and the two of us, in our ecstasy, had come very close to dying. … No plane is a person; no person a plane.  No person is anything but a person – a single entity, in charge of his own mind and body and to some extent his destiny.  But there are times when the interplay between [the] two is so intense and absorbing that they do indeed seem fused into one.  And I think one of the two can be a machine. … I knew, flying onto the strip that marvelous day, that I had touched something strange and secret.  And I also knew that somehow it all had to end now for us.  I was – we were – exploring something incredibly dangerous.”

In almost every flying school or aviation museum or pilot’s study or den you will find, prominently displayed or tucked away in a corner, the poem “High Flight.”  The poem was written by John G. Magee, Jr., a young American in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed in training at the age of 19 – but not before he wrote the most famous and revered poem about flying yet penned.  I remember hearing that poem when I was very young and allowed to stay up late, until the TV stations shut down for the night, and the poem was read over the air as an F-104 Starfighter performed aerobatics on screen.

So in the end perhaps the aviation story is about something deeply and personally spiritual, something that most pilots, who generally see themselves as the morst material of people, will usually deny.  Charles Lindbergh himself wondered whether or not flying was too “godlike” and whether that might be behind some of the airplane crashes he knew of.

Nowadays flying has become mundane and prosaic.  There’s even talk, which will probably come true, that pilots will be replaced by computers.  I think that’s beyond sad, and I can tell you why.

I’m the merest neophyte as a pilot; if I cobbled all of my logbooks together and was generous with rounding the minutes I could probably boast 50 hours of total flying time.  But about twenty of that is in sailplanes, and the last flight I took in a sailplane – over thirty years ago – found me cast off from the tow plane at 3000 feet above the ground, between two clouds that were catching the rays of the setting sun at just the right angle to produce a subtle change of luminosity and reflection as I turned slowly between them, completely unaware of flying the aircraft, and so flying without effort.  Then I turned west into the setting sun, and heard something over the sighing of the wind over the wings and the canopy.  I can only describe it as a choir, singing a single sustained note.  I held the sailplane there, just above stall speed, with my eyes on the red ball of the sun and my ears alive to that faint summons; and I believe I could have flown on like that forever, if I hadn’t chanced to look at my altimeter, which told me I barely had the altitude to trade for the airspeed with which to get back to my airfield.

But even so I turned for home with that song in my heart, where it sings still.

Perhaps someday I can write a story worthy of it.  I just don’t believe a computer ever will.

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Filed under Aviation, aviation fiction, Writing

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

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

Writing, Dreaming, Living, Aspiring

A title says what the post is about and the one above is no exception.  I’ve been doing all of those for a long time.

Since this is my first post I’ll keep it brief.

I started writing when I was 14 and I’m still at it.  Mostly what this blog will be about are what I’ve learned over the years about those four words in the title.

And after all that time I’m about to finish a novel titled Boxcar Red Leader.  I hope to have that in shape to publish as an ebook early this summer.  So that’s one aspiration!

As I learn things about publishing I’ll put them in this blog.  I believe that, due to the advent of digital publishing, we are in the midst of a revolution unlike anything since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and possibly even more far-reaching than that.

As I learn things about people and other writers with useful ideas they’ll be in this blog too.  Just be warned, sometimes I’ll think people have “useful ideas” just because I think they sound good.  Need I warn you to think for yourself?  If I have to, would you?

Regardless, keep writing, keep dreaming!

Tom

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