Thursday, November 27, 2008

Don't you have anything better to do?

So, first, happy Thanksgiving everyone! We're celebrating here, of course; turkey (all they had was a fifteen-pound behemoth, so we've got plenty of turkey, oh yes), mashed potatoes, cornbread, green bean casserole, rolls, corn, cranberry sauce, and of course, homemade pumpkin pie. Ahhh. With fresh whipped cream. (We can't get Cool Whip here, and call me a philistine, but I love Cool Whip and don't care that it's made of inorganic substances. It's not like we eat the stuff every day.)

And of course, we're watching the news and keeping an eye on the terrible tragedy in Mumbai. And we're horrified, and distressed by it.

But you know what? We're still having Thanksgiving. I'm still blogging (and doing line edits for Unholy Ghosts, yay!) We're still going to watch Jaws and L.A. Confidential later--our traditional Thanksgiving movies--along with Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

And I refuse to feel bad about that.

Just like I refuse to feel bad about getting caught up in whatever the internet scandal du jour is when the economy is having problems and there's a war on or whatever. Just like I refuse to feel bad about doing Christmas shopping when there was a tsunami. Or about taking my girls to the park or the play center when...well, insert-very-serious-issue-here.

I'm sure you've seen this, too. A little conversation starts on some blog or something about, say, Michelle Obama's election-night dress. Or Britney Spears. Or any one of thousands of inane and silly--but fun and diverting--discussions. And there's always got to be some grumpyass, more-intellectual-than-thou person who comes along and chides everyone for "wasting [our] time" talking about clothing or recipes or whatever, when "the economy is in the toilet/there's a war going on/people are dying/seals are being clubbed/whatever."

And oooh, does that ever piss me off.

You know what? I'm perfectly aware that there's a lot of misery in the world. I'm perfectly aware that thousands of people go to bed hungry, or that right at this moment someone could be dying, or losing everything they own, or someone could be measuring themselves for a pretty white seal-sin jacket. And yes, it bothers me. I hate it. Of course I worry about those things, of course they upset me.

But I cannot spend my entire life focusing only on Serious Issues. And neither can you, or anyone else. We're human; there's only so much we can take, you know?

Not to mention, even those topics cannot possibly take up entire days and weeks of conversation. You cannot spend your every waking hour writing, talking, or thinking about those topics because they are simply not complex enough to require it.

And what would be the point, anyway? I don't make government policy and neither do you (well, maybe you do; I know I have some readers in the DC area. *waves*) So we can spend our every waking moment involved in serious discussions about rainforests and ice caps and indigenous peoples, and it won't make a damn bit of difference--oh, except, apparently, to make us feel superior to others and prove how intellectual and above-it-all we are.

Because really, that's what's behind those comments. I love it when people inform me that my interests are silly and my conversations a waste of time--taking time out from their busy schedule of Judging Others and Improving Their Minds, it seems, to drop in and educate the Little Stupid People on what we should really be concerned about. Um, hey, if you have so many Serious Issues on your mind, why are you dropping by here anyway? Did you think perhaps over at the TalkAboutBooksandClothes blog (which I just made up) conversation has suddenly turned to terrorism and its root causes, and your input is sorely needed? Don't you have anything better to do, like maybe setting up a soup kitchen in your backyard and learning how to weave fabric so you can sew fresh clothing for everyone who needs it? Or maybe you'd prefer to make yourself some clothing--a t-shirt that says something like "I am superior to you in every way, as I only think of serious issues and am very, very smart. This makes me a total boor, but I don't care because I'm above all that too." I mean, that is the message you're trying to get across to us all, right? That you're better than we are because you're smarter and more serious, whereas we're a bunch of flighty idiots? And how dare we have discussions that don't meet your criteria, or interests that don't coincide exactly with yours?

I am a human being, and so--I presume--are all of you reading this. And you know what? I have a very wide range of interests and opinions, and I imagine you do as well. I think we ALL do. And while some topics may be more serious than others, I don't see any reason at all why we should all force ourselves to sit gloomily around, staring at each other and occasionally talking about unemployment.

We NEED diversions. We NEED things to remind us that life goes on. That the world is more than just a vale of tears and misery. There's good things, too, like high heels and french fries and great books and silver nail polish and action movies where the good guys always win and comedies where you laugh so hard tears roll down your cheeks and music and beer and fast cars and...any one of thousands of other things. That things might be bad now, but that doesn't mean they're never going to get better--and that maybe they're not as bad as we think. We need to remember that even in the midst of tragedy, one of the amazing things about being human is our ability to feel complex emotions; we can laugh through tears, or wear a bittersweet smile. We are perfectly capable of discussing many things, of feeling and thinking many things, all at once.

We're not one-note beings. And there is nothing in the world wrong with that, just like there is nothing in the world wrong with visiting Go Fug Yourself for some diversion from the misery we see on the news. Just like there is nothing wrong with trading gossip with friends because it's fun and we need a little break; something to take our mind off our problems.

Just like there is absolutely nothing wrong with being thankful today, even as we spare a thought for the victims in Mubai and their families. And there is nothing wrong with sitting down to a big feast today. There is nothing wrong with planning to go shopping tomorrow to take advantage of all those sales.

Because we need the break. We need the relaxation. We need the comfort of having our families and friends close to us. We need a laugh. We need to remember that in the midst of the bad, there is good, and that we can still laugh and talk and smile; our hearts can still lift, our heads can still clear, and above all, there is still hope in the world.

Because life goes on. And quite frankly, if you don't know that...maybe you're not as clever as you think.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Are bad books good for us?

Funnily enough, I started planning this post on Saturday, and yesterday I wandered over to Smart Bitches and saw they were wondering the same thing--as, apparently, was a writer at The Guardian.

I'm not sure I agree, though.

See, I read a bad book this weekend. A bad book (and no, I am not going to tell you what it was, so don't even ask). A book I found almost no--no, make that no, period--redeeming features about. It was badly written and clunky. It was all tell, no show. There was some awful sex in it; really, really bad, complete with orgasms that sounded more like epileptic fits and terrible, unsexy word choices. I was informed characters were smart, when in fact the book showed them to be insipid ninnies; I'm surprised they were able to figure out how to work a faucet. The hero was an asshole, of the self-pitying crybaby type; the heroine was a hateful, childish moron.

Bad characters are one thing, but bad writing is insulting. And this was badly written, oh yes. I cringed. I gave so many snorts of incredulous laughter the hubs asked if I was coming down with a cold.

Now according to the Guardian writer, and the fabulous Bitches, this should be a positive experience, and make me better able to appreciate the really good books I've read. And I suppose to some degree that's true.

But reading that dreck made me think. It made me think about a review I saw once on Amazon, in which the reviewer complained that a character's backstory was not explained in the beginning of the book--in other words, she was upset there hadn't been an infodump.

And it got me thinking. What sort of books did that reviewer normally read, that she expected the main character's entire backstory to be explained right up front? You don't generally find those as much in popular fiction (and by "popular" I mean NY-published books with large readerships.) Oh, sure, you see them on occasion, but I think most professional editors see infodumps for the marks of amateurism they are, and don't buy novels with that sort of thing in them.

Which tells me that in large part, that reader was probably reading largely Bad Books.

I could be wrong, of course. It could simply be that she doesn't read much (or he; I don't remember the name of the reviewer or anything else about them.) Or it could be he or she does read good books and dislikes all of them for the same reason.

But I'm always amazed when I see books I've read and thought were just terrible on a technical level get great reviews. I don't mean books where the writing wasn't stellar but was serviceable, and the plot was good enough to keep me involved. I'm talking about really, truly awful books. The kind we've all read; the kind where, for example, historical characters use modern verbiage, or every other sentence ends with an exclamation point, or entire sentences fail to make any kind of sense despite several readings. (Here's an example of what I mean, that I just made up:

She held a hat in her hands and walked along the river, before it falls and blew away into the night sky with the water flying everywhere and tears hit her shoes.

See what I mean?)

So I see those positive reviews, and I can only assume one of two things. Either the reviewer hasn't actually read the book, or the reviewer is simply so well attuned to terrible prose that they don't notice it anymore, in the same manner as someone living near a dump wll eventually no longer smell the garbage.

Now, I'm not claiming my own writing is so great, either. This isn't about me being better than anyone else. Who knows, maybe the book I read this weekend is actually great, and I'm the dipshit who isn't smart enough to get it (although the reviews of it I've seen elsewhere agree with me.)

But whether or not it's a skill I truly possess, good writing is important to me. Words that snap and flow, images and metaphors that are poetic and clear. Characters who practically climb off the page, but not in a creepy The Ring kind of way. Plots that make sense, and fall neatly into place.

These things are important. Good writing should be both easy and difficult to read; it should resonate while challenging us. It should feel strange and familiar at once.

But once you grow accustomed to reading books where that challenge, that strangeness, that unique voice, isn't present...perhaps good writing becomes harder to see? Harder to recognize? Isn't it possible that, much as a person who only ever eats potato chips may have a hard time eating something more complex--indeed, may begin to hate something more complex, as it forces them to experience something new and different--reading nothing but bad prose may make good writing seem too hard? Too much of a challenge. Instead of wanting to watch a story unfold we begin to want everything up front; we don't want to get to know the characters, we don't want to spend time in the world. We don't want to have to pay attention to what's on the page, in other words.

I'm not saying every book we read has to be incredibly high quality, not at all. And again, I'm not saying I'm such a great writer, either.

I'm just wondering if perhaps bad writing, instead of teaching us to appreciate good writing, only breeds more bad writing. When a writer reads published books as part of their learning process, and those published books are lazy, lousy, and unclear...what does that say to them? What level of work will they shoot for, if they think the terrible book they've just read is where they need to be?

What do you guys think?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A little more about self-publishing, and a little more other stuff too

In a funny coincidence, on Monday or Tuesday evening I received an Author Questionnaire in my email, from the wonderful folks at Del Rey. And, well, wow.

They are THOROUGH. There's a lot of stuff on there. While I don't actually have answers for some of it--since nobody wants to give me awards and I never went to college, and am a big old loser who doesn't belong to any professional associations or anything, which is actually quite depressing--it's a clear sign that there is a nice, big publicity dept. at Del Rey, and they're waiting to do whatever they can to promote me and my book.

You're not going to get that from a self-publisher. Not at all. Not one bit. You'll be on your own, floundering around in a very confusing world.

See, the thing is, the writing world is all about competition. Not directly--well, sort of, but I'm getting there in a minute--because all books are different. But yes, directly, because there has to be a reason for a reader to pick up your book instead of someone else's.

A professionally published book has a lot of competition. And while a publisher can and will do whatever they can to sell your book (remember, we talked about that "Publishers don't do any promo" myth a week or two ago), they can't make anyone read it. All they can do is get it into stores, send it to review publications and websites, and set up whatever signings or tours or events or whatever they can. They can get the word out, and put the book in front of readers who may be interested in it. Promoting Unholy Ghosts to, for example, elderly ladies who spend their time playing tennis and gardening is probably not the best use of promotional dollars; those ladies are not likely to be interested in a book about drugs, ghosts, and ghettos.

And my publisher knows that, which is why they will probably not be advertising the book in the AARP newsletter (I mean no disrespect here, of course, to AARP members or kick-ass grandmas who love urban fantasy; I'm sure there are some out there. I'm just saying the market is very small.)

But for that market, my book is in direct competition with books those ladies would like better. Danielle Steele or Maeve Binchy novels, for example (and I loves me some Maeve, foreals). Books about how to perfect your backswing by repotting ivy. Women's fiction with older female characters. Family sagas. Reams of non-fiction and memoirs. All of that stuff is likely to attract those grandmas before they start looking for books about junkie witches set in punk-rock ghettos. So if we decided to go for that audience, we'd have a hard slog convincing them to give me a go, with all that other stuff out there attracting their attention.

Worse than that, all the other stuff out there is right under their noses, at the bookstore or the grocery store or Wal-Mart or Sam's Club or wherever they buy their books. In bookstores I'm on an equal footing with them, because my book is there too. But if they buy their books exclusively at Publix? There's a good chance I won't be there.

And therein lies the main problem with self-publishing fiction. You cannot get into bookstores. When the rep from my publisher and/or the rep from the distributer talks to the bookstore, they talk about my book, because that's what they're paid to do. When you're self-published, you're not even going to get a meeting. You might--might--be able to get into your local bookstore, if you talk to the manager. But nationwide? Forget it. There's a very, very slim chance it will happen, but it probably won't.


Because readers aren't stupid.

This is not a reflection on you or your ability, it really isn't. You may be a wonderful writer who simply has no interest in "going corporate". As I said on onday, it's a feeling I sympathize with and understand.

But readers don't. Readers, real readers, know about books. They know what good writing is. They know who their favorite authors are, and they can probably name at least two or three of the big publishers, if not more. They know when they're looking at a book not published with one of those houses. They know, when they open the book, if it's badly written. Quite frankly, if they don't know that? They're probably not big readers to begin with, and so are even less likely to be looking for something new to read, and grabbing your book or ordering it online. (I see countless self-published or vanity-published writers out there who admit they don't read and/or don't like to read; yet they expect people to buy and read their books. Why? I don't like playing video games, so I wouldn't expect anyone to enjoy playing a game I came up with. If I don't like to do it, why do I think other people would waste their time with me?)

I know you're thinking, "But they don't have to be real readers. I want the people who only buy a couple of books a year! That's all I need." To which I say, with some sadness, "Good luck." Because those people? Are even less likely to be trolling the internet looking for new novels. They're less likely to buy a novel by someone whose name they don't recognize. We're talking about people who buy ten copies of the latest NY bestseller to give as Christmas gifts, and never walk into a bookstore the rest of the year.

Nor do most review sites want to review self-published books, for the very reason of their not having been through a "vetting" process. Good as yours might be, you have to bear the weight of all those terrible ones out there; yours will be lumped in with them. Not to mention that, while we do have issues on occasion with professionally-published writers who throw internet tantrums over poor or lukewarm or simply not stellar reviews, the incidence appeares to be much higher with self-published books; these are people who don't understand that reviews are written for readers, not as cheap or free promo for authors.

The simple fact is, in self-publishing fiction you are competing against every other novel out there. Novels published by companies the public trusts. Novels in bookstores. Novels with reviews in magazines and on websites. Novels in other stores. Novels their friends and family are talking about. Novels that people have turned into TV shows or films. It's a tough world even for writers published by the major houses; imagine if you didn't have any of that backing at all.

As a self publisher you're not just a writer. You have dozens of jobs, including sales. As a professionally-published writer, you have one. Writing. Yes, it takes a lot of hard work and time to get there. But it's so worth it. And really, if you're self-publishing because you don't want to do the work and/or the wait to get a NY contract, do you really think you'll have the time, patience, and persistence you need to do all those extra jobs too?

Anyway. In other news. As I mentioned early at the League, I have started a new Yahoo group. My old group was shamefully dead; I never did much with it at all. It was also a December group, whereas the new one is for Stacia's UF. So. Head on over to the new Stacia Kane Newsgroup and sign up. I really am going to do stuff with it, I promise. Excerpts, teasers, actual news--I even plan to do a semi-quarterly newsletter--all those good things. So I hope to see you there. Especially as there should be some interesting news soon, and it will go there first.

Monday, November 17, 2008

When self-publishing can work

Oh, I'm back, for the most part. I'm still knee-deep in edits and about to get back to serious writing work. And I forgot today was Monday because I was hanging out at Murder One in London on Saturday, and we went shopping in Bristol on Sunday (Xmas gifts for the kiddies--we think we're actually about done with the girls already as far as buying presents, which is great), so yesterday felt like Saturday and I'm all confused.

But, I did say I would do a post on this, so here it is!

I used to be a little punk girl. I guess in a way I still am, even though I don't actively keep up with the scene or go to shows anymore because, y'know, that whole I-have-two-young-children thing. And really, at 35, I don't necessarily want to be the oldest person in the room. But it never really goes away. I still listen to the bands I used to listen to; every band I mention in the Downside books is a band I listen to and like.

So the word "indie" is one I'm familiar with, and one whose meaning I know well--which is to say, I know it well enough to know that a band released by a major label is not an indie band, no matter how they might want to pretend they are.

And I admit, it feels kind of weird to be such an advocate of Big Publishing, when I spent so much of my late teens and early 20s hugely involved in the indie world. My ex ran a very small record label, which I used to help him with. I remember being told by a certain member of a certain band that they were about to sign a major-label contract and being fairly horrified. I didn't say anything, but the words "SELL OUT! SELL OUT!" appeared shreiking red in my brain. And I still think of them that way.

But there's a big difference between the punk music world and publishing. Music is a very different medium; there is an entire subculture--with its own subcultures--devoted to certain types of music, whose members eat, sleep, and breathe that music. There's magazines like Maximum RocknRoll ("MRR"), or smaller personal zines, who do reviews and interviews, and whose tour dates are listed. You can go see a band play and buy their CDs and t-shirts; the only record stores I went into for years were small indie stores.

And everybody knows everybody else in the punk world. We used to have bands stay at our house; they'd have friends who were in other bands with them. You got to know which labels produced the kinds of bands you liked. It's very easy to grow in that world, if you're any good.

Publishing does not have this kind of supportive underground. It just doesn't. Hordes of kids don't gather to hear a writer read from their indie novel. I think this is largely because it's not as much fun to drink beer and leap around and listen to somebody read out loud as it is to drink beer, leap around, and shout along to music. You can't jump up onstage and start reading along, like you can at a punk show. Not to mention how much more subjective reading tastes are than musical tastes.

So while an indie band stands a good chance at some sort of success (even if it's simply not having to spend any of their own money to tour), an indie book has a much, much harder slog. There are no big shows where people get together and talk about books and share copies of books. There is no MRR to review indie books (although MRR used to do some book reviews on occasion.) There just isn't this thriving group of dedicated people.

Which is why self-publishing for fiction is so difficult.

Non-fiction has it a bit easier. For example, say you are a model train enthusiast, and you've written a book about a particular aspect of model trains. A major publisher would probably not be that interested, because the audience isn't likely to be more than a couple of thousand. But you could self-publish that, and your friends and fellow model train enthusiasts would probably be eager to buy it. You could earn yourself a tidy little sum with that book; you could have a lot of readers. You could take it to model train conventions. You could set up a model train website and sell copies; you could be interviewed in model train magazines. In other words, although you yourself do not have a platform, your subject already does.

Or perhaps you're a teacher or professor, and you've written a book about your topic. You could sell it to your students and do well. Same if you're an inspirational speaker or regularly give talks on a subject; maybe you give tips on public speaking, and do seminars on it. Your little book of public-speaking tips could be sold at your engagements, and bring in an extra few hundred bucks at all of your speeches. Or maybe you're an ex-pilot who's written a book for people afraid to fly. Or you make historical costumes and have put together a book of tips, which can be sold at vintage clothing stores and/or websites, of which there are hundreds. Or you've written about Barbie collecting (though of course you'd need to be careful in that case about copyright and trademarks). Or knitting socks. Anything that ties in with something else can be a nice little platform for self-published non-fiction.

Or for another example, there's my summer series on sex scenes. I still haven't decided fully what to do with it, but in addition to other thoughts, I've considered simply turning it into a PDF and offering it as a free download on Lulu, even giving the option to have it as a print book (the reader would have to pay for the book itself, but I would probably either not charge anything over the printing cost or it would be a dollar for charity or something.) I don't have a huge platform but I do have one, by way of the blog and my published books. So I anticipate if I did that it would sell fairly well. A lot of writers do this sort of thing; I know Holly Lisle offers a lot of writing-guide downloads etc. on her website and she's probably far from the only one.

But in those cases there is already a platform, and that is so important for self-publishing. And they're both non-fiction. For fiction...

Well, for fiction you're going to have a very hard time.

I'm always amazed when I see authors's websites which do not have any excerpts or anything. This happens often with, say, PA authors, and it confuses the hell out of me. Why would you not show the readers what they're getting? In what world do you expect people to buy a book without knowing anything about it? Your website is supposed to help sell your books; nobody cares about your cats or your husband, they want to see your book. And if your book isn't in stores, you need to work harder to suck them in. You need to build the platform you do not otherwise have, basically.

This is why I don't normally think self-publishing is a good idea for fiction. How are readers going to find you? They might find your non-fic book because they're looking for model trains, but what will they be looking for to find your novel? What is going to draw them to it? Why would they buy it instead of a book in stores?

Because contrary to what some scam publishers may try and tell their victims "authors", most people buy books from bookstores. Oh yes, some buy at WalMart or Target or the grocery store, but most novels are sold in bookstores. (Those statistics about the huge percentage of books not sold in bookstores include vanity-press books, textbooks, technical pamphlets and guidebooks, self-published books, etc. etc. etc.) It's difficult to impossible to get self-published books into bookstores, or any stores, and that's why if you're writing fiction it's best to go with the biggest publisher you can. And if you keep getting rejected? You write a better book until one of them makes it.

I know it's not what people necessarily want to hear. And I know it kind of sucks. And I think on Thursday I'm going to talk about this some more, because I have more to say.

But the bottom line is, self-publishing is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's not necessarily a sign that your work isn't good enough to interest a major house or even a smaller one. It can work. Specialized non-fiction can do very well self-published.

But fiction's another story, and I'll talk about it a bit on Thusday.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Caitlin's going to put pictures up tomorrow, but I'm going to beat her to the punch a little on this one, heh.

Tintagel is cool. What is not cool is trying to figure out where the damned castle actually IS.

We parked. We walked in the general direction indicated by the sign. And walked. And walked.

It was rainy and extremely foggy. Great for atmosphere ("ooh, the land of the Celts and maaaagick,") but not so great when you're trying to find your way around, while simultaneously hoping the turn you're about to make isn't going to take you right off the edge of a cliff and down to the rocks below. Because, seriously? I wouldn't even have seen it until I was five feet out into thin air, ala Wyle E Coyote.

Anyway. We saw a sign for the Castle View, and a handicapped symbol, so figured we'd head that way, and ended up at the Castle Hotel. Now, there would indeed have been a lovely view from there, had we been able to see it, but we weren't. And it clearly was not the way to the castle anyway. So we decided to go inside and ask the clerk, because at that point we'd been wandering around in the fog for a good half hour (and hadn't gone back in time or anything once, what a gyp) and our time was limited.

The desk clerk, a very sweet-looking lady with a Norswedstrianfinerlandnordicmark accent, warned (when--this is important--we asked how to get to the castle) us that the path was steep and it's very misty, but we should go down the path marked "Coast Walk."

Um, no. The "Coast Walk" was almost as bad as those one-lane hedged roads we ended up wandering on Tuesday; practically a 90% angle, and wet, and muddy. But we braved it, and were fairly cheerful, even, until my right foot slipped and I FELL ON MY ASS IN THE MUD. SMELLY MUD.

I was not happy. And poor Caitlin thought for a minute I was dead or something, apparently, and envisioned herself trying to figure out how to get home from THE END OF THE WORLD.

But of course I was not dead, only mightily pissed off, and getting more pissed by the minute when we realized that our friendly hotel desk clerk either A) Had a sick sense of humor; B) Hated either all Americans, or just us; or C) was confused, when we asked--in Tintagel--where the castle was, and thought we meant this other ruin on the other side of the hill. Taking that coast path would have eventually gotten us to Tintagel Castle, after wandering over cliffs and bushes for a few miles. But seriously, when someone asks you--in Tintagel, where everything is named after King Arthur or Merlin, and you work in a hotel called "The Castle", and you have a big sign advertising the beautiful views of the castle--by which they mean Tintagel--all over your workplace, how they can get to the castle...well, you'd think directing them to Tintagel Castle would be kind of the first thing you'd think to do, right?

No. We made our angry and overheated way back up the hill--did I mention how incredibly fucking steep it was?--and back into town, ready to give up and go get a beer or something, when we finally saw a sign for the castle, previously hidden by mist.

And that was a fuck of a steep walk too, but we made it. And Caitlin has pictures--it's freaking gorgeous, that place--but here's a fuzzy one of me, complete with rain-curled hair and odd expression. I don't think it really looks like me--and jeez, the size and expanse of that forehead!--but it will do (and hey, it may not look like me, but at least I do look thin, and not like I have ten chins or something).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Professionalism and You!

Yes, today's post and Thursday's post will probably be short, as I do have a houseguest, and I am currently editing two novels. So, sorry everyone, don't expect much from me--although I am hoping that Thursday I might be able to do my "Projects self-publishing is good for" post. (If I don't get to it, I will do it next week. Thursday we're going to Tintagel so I think it will probably be next week, when I will be all by my lonesome again.)

Anyway. So here are some random thoughts about professional behavior and YOU. (Like one of those filmstrips they showed you in elementary school.)

There's been a bit of discussion around online about whether publishers should censor authors or tell them what they should and should not be saying online. And in the main this is ridiculous. My publishers are not my employers; and even if they were, why in the world would we have them censor me outside work?

It strikes me as intensely amusing that the same people who want publishers to tell their authors to shut up online, tend to be the same people who go crazy when, for example, bloggers are fired for keeping a blog. How is that not the exact same thing? And we rightly recognize that firing people for keeping blogs outside of work hours--blogs in which they criticize an employer or indistry, usually, but sometimes it's just innocuous writing--is shameful and wrongheaded, and a violation of rights.

But we want publishers to drop authors for saying or doing things online that we don't like? No. That is not right, any more than firing anyone else for what they do in their free time.

At the same time, though, there is a line that can be crossed. It can be very difficult to keep author and publisher separate in the ebook world, and when an author is just a flat-out shithead (no, I'm not thinking of anyone in particular, just in general) it can be difficult to remember that there's every chance the publisher is cringing behind the computer screen, same as we are.

And really...being a shithead doesn't mean someone is a bad writer. Being a shithead doesn't mean they don't deserve to have a job.

But it does--or rather, it can--place a rather unfair burden on the other authors with that publisher, or on the publishers themselves. They have a choice. They can ignore the issue. They can show up to apologize and make clear that Crazy McShitheady does not speak for them. Or they can indulge in their own shady obfuscation.

My favorite Unprofessional Publisher Behavior--gee, I've been seeing a lot of this lately--is to turn up in the message board thread or blog comment thread to defend one's own company by claiming the publisher is being flamed, or that the other people commenting are jealous because their work was rejected (that one is popular; apparently several companies to which I have never submitted are now claiming they rejected me, and that is why I'm engaging in such vicious and nasty "flaming" behavior as pointing out that epublishing is a different industry from print publishing, or informing people that the "You have to give back your advance" lie is exactly that--A LIE.)

Asking questions--like "You've claimed X; can you provide details?" is not flaming. A professional publishing house should welcome the opportunity to announce their successes, not run away when asked to provide details. Just like the only agents you see online who refuse to list their sales or clients tend to be agents who have no reputable sales and no clients published with non-vanity/subsidy/PublishAmerica houses. (If you see an agent who refuses to diculge this information, do not submit to them.)

A professional publishing house should answer those questions. A professional publishing house should not call people names. A professional publishing house should not tell its authors that the people who are asking questions about it are "bitter rejected failures"--especially not when the people asking the questions have easily-findable professional credits; hell, even when they don't, going for the "She's just jealous because she was rejected" is disgusting, an easy way for the publisher to smear others and downplay the criticisms levied at them without actually having to provide any facts.

Funnily enough, all of this behavior makes me think I would prefer to not be connected with such publishing houses, far more than one crazy author. A crazy author is nothing; one could argue we're all a little crazy. But how it's handled makes a huge difference. A publisher who laughs it off, sets the record straight, and answers questions openly and honestly has my vote, no matter what demented, pretentious twits their authors might be.

A house who insists they're being "harrassed" and "flamed", a house who says they'll answer all questions and then refuses to do so or simply never shows back up to answer them, a house who avoids the issue when asked simple questions or when told that someone claiming to represent them said X, and it was a terrible thing to say, and is it true?...

All of these are warning signs, plain and simple.

My publishers don't tell me what to do or say, and I'm glad. There are some subjects I choose to remain silent on for my own reasons. There are some subjects I would never touch, or things I would never say, simply because my own internal censor cringes at the very thought ("My book is so much better than the plotless shit those other houses put out" would be one such statement, and yes, I've seen comments just like that before [for the record, I would never even think such a thing about my work, much less say it].)

And there are some subjects I avoid because they were told me in confidence. I would never, for example, publicly repeat private conversations with my agent or editor. I don't discuss the submissions process much, until there's something to tell. I don't discuss the editing process, save generalities; I'm doing edits, I'm having fun with edits, that sort of thing. Those things are private; in the same way I don't discuss my sex life or arguments with my husband, I keep those to myself.

But my publisher shouldn't tell me what to say; quite frankly, as long as they behave professionally, I doubt I'm much of a threat to them. It's when both writer and publisher seem to be riding the CrazyInternetLoon Bus that my eyebrows go up and my opinion goes down.

How about you? What do you see as "red flag" behavior?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Don't believe everything you hear Pt. 2

Sorry this is so late, everyone. I have been swanning around Devon with Miss Caitlin Kittredge, doing awesome things like taking pictures of gravestones and eating chips by the river. Yes, we rock.

Okay. On Monday we talked about the Big Myth--usually spread and perpetuated by vanity presses who are trying to convince you either that there's no difference between vanity publishing houses and major NY houses or legitimate small presses, or sometimes even that vanity publishing is SUPERIOR to those (often along with the other bullshit they'll throw in some crap about how NY editors will change your Golden Words and not give you a say, which is also Not True)--that you have to give back a NY advance if the book doesn't earn out. This is a lie.

Today's lie is even more widespread and insidious; I see it everywhere. Even people who should know better spread this one, and it is:

That a major house will do nothing to promote you unless you're a bestseller anyway. First-time or midlist authors are left to twist in the wind.

The reason this one is so widespread and insidious is there is some truth to it. No, first-time or midlist authors don't get the same kind of ad push that Stephen King gets, of course not. Stephen King gets full-page ads in People or Entertainment Weekly; most new or midlist authors don't get that.

But you know why? It's because in the main those ads do not work. It might help get a writer's and book's name in front of readers, but if it's a writer they've never heard of they don't really care or pay much attention. Magazine ads are effective to readers for whom King is an auto-buy, and it's a good way to let them know a new book is coming. But in general, ads for books don't really work for new authors. People don't buy books because the ad is neat; they but it because their friends liked it, or they read an interesting review, or because it attracted their interest in a book store and they flipped through it and liked it.

And that is where a publisher comes in.

The idea that a publisher publishes a book and then leaves it to languish is just silly, if you think about it. WHY? Why on earth would they publish a book and then let it sit around doing nothing? You do realize that by the time a book goes to press the publisher has already spent thousands of dollars on it, right? Between the advance, and the editing, and the cover design? (We'll get to ARCs in a minute.)

The only chance a publisher has to recoup that money is to sell the books to readers. That's it. So on what planet would a company produce a product and then stick it in a warehouse and forget about it? Is that a sound business plan?

Publishers need to sell their books to readers. The way they do this is to get the book in stores. That doesn't happen by chance. There's no guarantee every book printed will be in stores, far from it. This is where the publisher's sales team comes in. They sell the book to stores. They push the book; they talk it up. They arrange end-cap or front-table shelving (and pay for it; well, not the sales staff personally, but you know what I mean.)

So. Your publisher isn't paying to send you on a multi-city tour? Okay. But is your book in stores? If it is, then you have already received promotion--far more promotion than author-cheating scamsters PublishAmerica or any other vanity/subsidy press can provide. Their books do not get shelves in stores; they do not have a sales staff that will tell the bookstore buyers that your book is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The only way a vanity press like PublishAmerica gets books in stores at all is if their authors personally visit the stores and beg the managers to carry the books (I say "beg" because most bookstore managers know that PA books do not have standard discounts and return policies, so a lot of the time they refuse to shelve it or make the author provide copies to sell on consignment.)

If your book is in stores, you have received promotion.

Publishers--real ones--produce ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) of books to send to various reviewers (and you as the author get copies free, too; how many is usually specified in your contract). These are free books; nobody pays the publisher for them. ARCs are sent out at least three months before publication, because publishers know reviews sell books. They do. Nothing else sells books like reviews and recommendations, nothing.

Did you get ARCs? Did your book get pre-release or release-day reviews?

If so, you have received promotion.

Yes, of course in this day and age writers are expected to do a lot of promo themselves. It might not be a contractual obligation, but frankly, both publishers and readers expect you to have some sort of online presence, even if it's just a basic website. They want to be able to find you. If they see a review of your book they want to be able to learn more about it. If they find your blog and like it they want to read blurbs and excerpts. And what's wrong with that? Nothing.

But the difference between the promo you do for a professional house, and the promo you do for a vanity press, is huge. With a professional house you do what you enjoy. Don't like blogging? Don't blog. Personally I love blogging. You might not. You might love doing loop chats instead. So you do those. That's fine. You're just getting your name out there a bit.

With a vanity press? YOU have to convince managers to put your book on the shelves. YOU have to work 2-3 times as hard to try and get signings because nobody wants a signed vanity-press book. You have no one helping you; big publishers have PR people who work with authors to set up events, and on other forms of promo. A vanity press will not offer you this.

To put it another way, a novel published by a major house gets promotion. It gets in stores, it gets reviews, and you get respect.

With a vanity press, all you get is your book, and you have to do even more work to attempt to make people read it.

That's not to say all vanity presses are scame or that vanity or self-publishing is always a bad idea; there are some markets, and some people, for whom it can work very well (maybe I'll talk about those next week.)

But anyone who tells you a major house is going to print your book and then not lift a finger to sell it is lying. Publishers HAVE to sell books; that is their business. It's the only way they make money. Why in the world would they not want to do that?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Okay, yay!

WILL YOU ALL SHUT UP NOW (by you, I mean the media, the candidates, the pollsters, and everyone who turned every discussion into a political one)? CAN WE FINALLY STOP TALKING AND THINKING ABOUT THE ELECTION?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My election-day statement on voting

Don't vote.

Seriously. Who cares? I don't. If you want to not vote, that's a-okay by me.

Every election year I dread the rush of cheerful reminders to vote, vote, vote. You know, I know it's election day. I know I have the right to vote. And it's not that I don't think voting is a good thing; I absolutely do.

But I also think if the general populace has its head so far up its ass that it has to be constantly reminded and pushed into voting, much the same way my children need to be told five or six times to pick up their toys before they actually get around to it... Then man, I'd rather they not do it.

I am not a child. I don't need to be henpecked into voting. All this "Go vote! Get out and vote!" stuff makes me feel like a little kid whose Mommy pinned a note to my coat reminding me not to forget my mittens.

Seriously. If you want to vote, that's great. If you don't? That's fine with me too. And you know what else? If you don't vote, you still have every right in the world to bitch and complain, because whether you vote or not you're still an American and you have the right to bitch and complain. Nobody has the right to tell you you can't bitch and complain about who's in the White House or the Senate or whatever, just because you didn't vote--voting is a right, not an obligation. What if the candidate you would have voted for lost in a landslide, and your vote wouldn't have made a difference at all?

Participate in election day, or don't. I'm not bothered either way. And if you hate both candidates and decide you want no part of either of them, good for you. I can never figure out why people insist you participate in a process when you don't want to. Or don't care. The simple truth is, there is a large portion of the population whose lives change not one bit no matter who the President is. There are some people who are genuinely undecided, and what's wrong with that? Why should they be forced to make a choice, when they're equally happy or unhappy with either?

Nobody should be insisting you vote for a candidate in whom you don't believe, simply so you can get your sticker or whatever and not be given dirty judgemental looks by strangers--strangers for whom it's none of their goddamn business if you voted or not, or what that vote was.

So there you go. That's my election-day statement. Vote or don't; I'm certainly not going to tell you what to do. You're welcome here either way.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Don't believe everything you hear

So, I've seen this a lot lately, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. I had no idea people actually still BELIEVED this one, but in the last week or two I've seen it mentioned by several people, so I'm going to talk about it here.

Of course, Victoria Strauss has already discussed it at the Writer Beware blog, but hey, the more the merrier, right?

Here's the big myth:

If your book doesn't sell enough copies to earn out the advance, the author has to give the advance back.

This is NOT TRUE. It is, in fact, 100% FALSE.

For whatever reason, as well, the numerous people I've seen making this claim, are all saying it was "a Random House author" they know who had to give back the money. I found this particularly interesting considering RH is now my publisher.

Let me tell you all something. When my lovely agentman was negotiating my contract, the ONLY things discussed about the advance were A)How much; B)When; and C)Joint accounting (I'm not saying whether or not I'm subject to joint accounting, mind, just that the subject came up). Not once, not ever, did the suggestion that if the book doesn't earn out I should give back the advance come up. It never occurred to any of us that this would be the case; in fact, I'm sure that if I'd asked Chris about it I would have been met with a long, puzzled silence, followed by a "No...why on earth would you think you'd have to pay it back?"

Of course, my denials--and the denials of far more knowledgeable folks than me, people like Cathy Clamp and Victoria Strauss--are brushed aside with the excuse that "Everybody's contract is different."

Well, yes, to some extent they are. Advances are different. Royalty rates may be different; grant of rights may be different. There's any number of little things that could change. But making the author give back the advance? Do you seriously, honestly believe that there are contract out there with major houses that require that?

Do you really think there are some authors out there who'd have to pay back their advance, and we've never heard about it? That such behavior wouldn't cause a stir, that nobody in the legitimate publishing world would have heard of it?

Really. Think about it. When Del Rey offered me an advance, what they were in essence doing was saying, "We think this book is good enough that it will sell X number of copies, which will equate to X amount in royalties. So we'll give her that amount now."

Why in the world would they even offer me an advance if they were going to make me return the money if they didn't earn it back? Why not simply offer me publication in and of itself?

For that matter, why wouldn't they have given me a much, much bigger advance? I'm not complaining, trust me, but seriously. If they knew whatever they didn't earn back, they'd get back, why not give everybody a million dollars? Why not give everybody only a thousand dollars? Why bother, in other words, with P&L statements or calculations?

Why be so choosy in what they accept for publication, if there's no risk? They get their money back either way, so why not? (Of course, there IS a publishing model that works this way--it's called vanity or subsidy publishing.)

And can you imagine the accounting nightmare if returning advance money was a standard practice, or even an occasional one? Advances aren't paid all at once, as everyone knows; usually you get a chunk on signing, a chunk on delivery of the edited ms, and a chunk on publication. Sometimes it's just signing and delivery, sometimes just signing and publication, but it really doesn't matter. Just imagine, for a minute, the complicated calculations and enormous staff publishing houses would have to do and have; Okay, we've paid Author B X amount of dollars, and we still owe her X, but before that check goes out we'll see what she owes us here...

Let's not even get into the thought of when that money would come due. Okay, Author B, we paid you 10k as an advance, and your book has been out 3 months and only earned 7k, but of course it could still sell for another two years, and then there's returns, and...

Seriously. You'd need a byzantine legal agreement and a huge team of accountants and lawyers in order to figure that one out.

It's silliness. Just plain silliness. There is no way in hell an arrangement like that would work, and if any of these people seriously thought about it for more than two minutes they'd see that.

Trust me. If Unholy Ghosts never sells a single copy (ohpleaseletitsellmoreohpleaseohpleaseletpeoplebuymybookpleeeeease) I still keep my advance. Every penny of it (save my agent's cut, of course, and the stupid taxes). I can spend it on whatever I want; it's MINE.

The other thing that interests me, though, about this rumor, is how many people claim they heard it from a real author who did a book or an article or gave a seminar. Why is this so interesting?

Because--and this is something we've dicussed on this blog before--any dipshit can call themselves an author, and claim to be an expert, and write article and seminars. Anyone.

Recently on Absolute Write we had a man who'd paid a vanity press to publish his books. The Amazon ranking for those books--yes, I know it's not a really reliable indicator but still--hovered in the millions. And yet, this man gave "publishing seminars" and charged a lot of money for his advice. I know one of the lies he told pieces of misinformation he gave out at his seminars was this same "You have to give back the advance" crap.

It never fails to amaze me how many people out there, who have no experience in real publishing, claim to be Published Authors (always capitalized) and to be able to help and advise others on the business of publishing.

And lots of them look impressive. They'll have fliers or posters that list them as "multi-published authors" or "bestselling authors". Never mind that they're multi-published with a vanity house, or that they're bestsellers in their particular genre at that publishing house, where they compete against two other books and hit bestseller status by selling five copies in a month. (Seriously; remember in the Publishing series when I talked about the girl with the starup ehouse who was excited about being a bestseller there, only to discover at royalty time that she sold three copies? That did actually happen.)

Anybody can claim to be anything on the internet, don't forget. Anyone can charge you money to listen to their useless and misleading and bad advice, don't forget that too. Just because Bob Bobbs (not his real name) charges you $800 for his advice, doesn't mean his advice is any good.

Just as with checking out publishers, just as with everything else, be careful who you listen to and give your money to. Check the credentials they present; do they call themselves best-sellers but you've never heard of them? Google them, what do you find--is it other people talking about them, or is it them talking about themselves? (If you goggle me, you get a lot of me, but a lot of other people talking about me, too, and I'm not particularly big or important. Someone whose only online presence is one they've made themselves, or among one very small group of people, is obviously not that big.) What is their Amazon ranking (yes, not too important, but it's something you can check)? How many reviews do their books have on Amazon, and are those reviews well-wrriten or do they sound like somebody's aunt cobbled something together ("This is an amazing book event! I couldnt put it down it was beautiful. Every one shuld read it. Bob Bobbs is a much better writer than Steven Kings or JK Rawlins. This book take the reader on a magical trip to world you never thought you would ever see." That sort of thing.)

Who are their publishers? What other books do those publishers put out? Check them out the same way we checked out publishers in the Publishing series; are they a vanity press? Quite frankly, unless you are claiming to be an expert in self-publishing, your credentials should be with real presses. A "publishing expert" who has never actually dealt with a major house is no expert. (I did my series on epublishers, yes, but I had/have a lot of experience with those. I wasn't claiming to know a lot about publishing in general, just about epublishing.)

Seriously. Do NOT believe everything you're told, especially not by people who don't know what they're talking about. Authors DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT have to pay back advances if their books don't earn out.

Trust me on that one; or better yet, trust every other published writer in the world along with me.

Thursday I'm going to talk about promotion and marketing myths and lies, because that's another big one I've seen recently.