APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur — Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

ape_cover_KawasakiFor decades, books got published something like this: you, the writer, wrote and polished your book; you submitted a query letter and perhaps sample chapters to literary agents; an agent read the full manuscript; an agent took you on; the agent pitched your book to large publishing houses in New York; the editor, or ideally more than one editor, made an offer; the agent negotiated; and you got a book deal. This system worked kind of okay, and there wasn’t a better way to do it, but a lot of writers, including me, got hung up in the “an agent took you on” step.

Now, self-publishing has a realistic chance of success—defined as getting your work to readers and getting some amount of money from those readers—which offers opportunities and headaches. Big publishers know change is coming. The opportunities are obvious, and the headaches stem from having to learn a lot of stuff that publishers used to do, like cover design, knowing what a “widow” is, and figuring out how to hire a copy editor. APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur wants to explain the new world, and it’s a book for a very specific group: people who are, for whatever reason, deeply interested in the publishing industry, and people who want to write a book, have written a book, or want to publish the book they’ve written. If you’re sure you don’t fall into those categories and aren’t likely to, stop reading. You’re probably wasting your time. If you want to know, keep going.

A few months ago I noted this, from Tim Parks’s “Does Money Make Us Write Better?“, in a links post:

When they are starting out writers rarely make anything at all for what they do. I wrote seven novels over a period of six years before one was accepted for publication. Rejected by some twenty publishers that seventh eventually earned me an advance of £1,000 for world rights. Evidently, I wasn’t working for money. What then? Pleasure? I don’t think so; I remember I was on the point of giving up when that book was accepted. I’d had enough. However much I enjoyed trying to get the world into words, the rejections were disheartening; and the writing habit was keeping me from a “proper” career elsewhere.

These kinds of stories infect writer interviews, as do tales of heroic perseverance. John Barth and William Goldman almost quit writing too. But more interesting still are the dark matter writers, the ones we don’t hear about because they gave up and aren’t being interviewed or writing introductions to reprints of their older books. I don’t want to be one of them. And I bet I can make more than £1,000, though I don’t know how long ago Parks began writing: adjusted for inflation, £1,000 might be a lot of money.

Kawasaki and Welch explain how to avoid being a dark matter writer. They say, “Will your book add value to people’s lives? This is a severe test, but if your answer is affirmative, there’s no doubt that you should write a book.” Still, people write books for all sorts of reasons, though I suspect the major reasons are related and twofold: the book they’d like to read doesn’t already exist, and they have something to say. Answers like “to add value to people’s lives” are good reasons to write a book, and good reasons to do many things. There is still some doubt. Writing a book can consume all your mental energy. It might add value to, say, two people’s lives, which might not justify the costs. Not everyone has the impetus towards book writing; to get through the difficulties of writing a book, I think that writing itself has to be fun, or fun at times (more on that later).

But the number of people who could write books and aren’t, in part because of the daunting publishing process, is much larger than the number who do write books. And that pool is getting larger. One challenge is that writers are going to have to think more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to think more like entrepreneurs. APE is about these transformations, and it takes its place near J.A. Konrath and Jack Kilborn’s The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (Everything A Writer Needs To Know) and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Surviving the Transition: How Writers Can Thrive in the New World of Publishing (one thing writers evidently do, once they spend the painful time learning to self-publish, is write guides so that others can learn the same).

How useful APE will be to you depends on how much other reading you’ve done in the how-to-be-a-writer genre. I have trouble resisting it, and so sections of APE are less useful; some, like chapters 6, were fun but already well-known to me. The later ones, on the finer point of Kindle, Nook, and iBooks publishing, were exceedingly useful. I follow digital publishing closely, because I’m going to do it, but I still learned things: for example, I didn’t realize that Google Play exists. Google Play might not matter for me, or for you, but uploading to it requires little time beyond the effort necessary for iBooks and Barnes and Noble’s Nook.

Kawasaki and Welch also have overly strong views on tools (which may make sense given Kawasaki’s background: “For four years I evangelized Macintosh to software and hardware developers and led the charge against world-wide domination by IBM;” the word “evangelized” is key here, implying religious fervor that’s been transferred from God to Mac). I’ve learned some about photography in the last two years, perhaps a reaction against the extreme amount of reading and writing I’ve done, and in cameras, there’s a continual debate between the people who want the newest, coolest gear and who argue that the latest gear enables them to get shots they couldn’t have gotten before. Their intellectual adversaries argue that the most important tool is between the photographer’s ears and that composition, subject matter, and skill with what you have matters more than the newest cameras and the best lenses.

I’ve read impassioned pleas from both sides, and agreed fully with one side, then read the opposite, and agreed fully with them. There isn’t a right answer. One cliche in the photography community holds that every image you’ve admired was captured with worse gear than what you’ve got. Yet there’s also no reason to ignore the tools you’re using and the potential that new tools may unlock.

Kawasaki and Welch write, “In our book (again, pun intended), you should use a Macintosh. No computer makes you more creative and productive, because a Macintosh becomes part of you whereas you need to overcome other operating systems.” I don’t think it matters that much, which is somewhat funny because I’m writing this on an iMac. But pretty much any computer made in the last ten years will due, because, the most important parts of the writing process are a) a word processor and b) there is no b.

There are some nifty tools I use extensively, like Devonthink Pro, and some nifty tools that I’ve used less extensively but still helpfully at times, like Scrivener. Nonetheless, 95% of the real “work” of writing still happens on the level of the sentence and paragraph (though Kawasaki and Welch say of Scrivener, “I pride myself in having an organized mind, but my mind isn’t this organized”)*. A Mac is not going to give you great sentences. Neither is Windows or Linux or the tea you drink or the cafe you write at or the hot literary groupie offering you head or the pen you use. Great sentences, like change, come from within.

They also say, “We have never met anyone who regretted buying a Macintosh.” I have—like those who need perfect Exchange synchronization, or people who are seduced by the Mac’s cool factor, only to realize that the paying-the-rent factor is even more important. These are quibbles. Still, in one chapter the writers quote Zoe Winters, and I would repurpose her advice to apply to technology: “There is no shortcut to awesome.” Writing well is always a longcut, not a shortcut, and self-publishing arguably makes the road longer. There’s no real alternative, through software, hardware, or anything else.

The road may be long, but one can find comfort and encouragement along the way. Kawasaki and Welch write, “If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland [. . .] changed my life by empowering me to write even though I didn’t consider myself a writer.” This is a common feeling, but it’s also one that’s long puzzled me: I spend very little, if any, time considering whether or not I’m “a writer.” I just do it. I didn’t need permission to be a writer, and neither do you. Alternately, if you do need permission, let me bestow it on you: a random stranger on the Internet has now dubbed thee a writer. Feel better?

You should. You should also realize that writing may be lonely in the moment, but it’s a way of bringing people together over time. This tension is implied in moments like these:: “Authors who write to impress people have difficulty remaining true to themselves. A better path is to write what pleases you and pray that there are others like you.” I would also add that few people are likely to be impressed anyway, and those who might be impressed will be more impressed if your book is written, at least some of the time, because you’re having fun and seeing where things go. Think about your favorite sexual experiences: few of them probably arose because you were putting a lot of pressure on yourself or your partners to have a Great Sexual Experience. Most of them probably arose because you and your partner(s) were relaxed and ready to have a good time by seeing where things go. So too with writing, and many other activities.

Sometimes writing will be painful, as Kawasaki and Welch note. I won’t deny it. But parts should be fun, and the fun will show in the final product.

In a few places, I’d like to see better writing in a book about writing. One chapter begins, “This section explains how to take a manuscript and turn it into a book. We assume that you have a rock-solid draft of your book.” “Rock-solid” turns up 74 million hits on Google. It’s a cliche. A book about writing should itself be impeccably written. This one is close—very close. Perhaps the next update will fix that.

Elsewhere, the writers say, “For example, The Schmoe Way by Joe Schmoe from Schmoe Press doesn’t cut it.” And “Pure text posts don’t cut it in the highly visual world of social media.” And “While printed books may never die (an ebook of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs won’t cut it) [. . . .]” What does “cut it,” and what is being cut? All of these could be improved: for example, “an ebook of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs is as useful as sheet music for someone who wants to hear Beethoven’s Fifth.” Maybe that’s a little clunky too, but it’s still an improvement because the metaphor is fresh. One could say, “Pure text posts in the highly visual world of social media make more sense than a pure text movie, but both are improved by images.”

Some words are wasted. The last sentence in this paragraph:

Undaunted, [Amanda] Hocking decided to self-publish her novels with Kindle Direct Publishing to pay for the $300 trip. She started with My Blood Approves, and by October 2010, she made over $20,000. Over the next twenty months, she made $2.5 million. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

could be removed. I can only think of two similar nonfiction books that had no wasted words: Rework (the 37signals book, and one of the few books I’ve read that should be expanded) and Derek Sivers’ Anything You Want (where Sivers even talks about brevity and clarity in “You should feel pain when unclear“—”Writing that email to all customers would take me all day, carefully eliminating every unnecessary word, and reshaping every sentence to make sure it could not be misunderstood”). The best writing advice I’ve ever received is “omit unnecessary words.” Almost everyone is guilty of this crime at times, including me, in this post, in this blog, and in my other writing.

Their advice on serial commas is askew; Kawasaki and Welch favor serial commas (“A serial comma (or Oxford comma, as they say across the pond) prevents confusion when you are listing several items”), but serial commas can also create ambiguity.

These are minor issues, but I bring them up because nonfiction should aspire to be art. Kawasaki and Welch agree—they say, “Metaphors and similes beat the crap out of adjectives and adverbs, so use them when you can. For example, rather than saying, ‘Hockey is very violent,’ you could say, ‘Hockey is war on ice.'” Perhaps I’m overly fastidious about the War Against Cliche. Others who are highly attuned to language will notice too.

Some sections of APE linger in the mind long after they’re read, like this:

There are two kinds of people: eaters and bakers. Eaters think the world is a zero-sum game: what someone else eats, they cannot eat. Bakers do not believe that the world is a zero-sum game because they can bake more and bigger pies. Everyone can eat more. People trust bakers and not eaters.

It expresses a sentiment I’ve discussed in many contexts, but in a way I hadn’t conceived. My closest approximation came in “How to think about science and becoming a scientist:”

while society needs a certain number of lawyers to function well, too many lawyers leads to diminishing returns as lawyers waste time ginning up work by suing each other over trivialities or chasing ambulances.

By contrast, an excess of scientists and engineers means more people who will build the stuff that lawyers then litigate over. Scientists and engineers expand the size of the economic pie; lawyers mostly work to divide it up differently. Whenever possible, work to be a person who creates things, instead of a person who tries to take stuff created by someone else.

Kawasaki and Welch are bakers. They’re creators. They want to help you be one too. Still, according to them, you have to be the kind of writer who wants to “take control of their fate and embrace the ideas here in order to maximize their success.” A fair number of writers don’t appear to care about being able to “maximize their success” as measured by sales and finances, and in some literary circles cachet comes from not marketing one’s book, or appearing not to market it; sometimes not marketing becomes marketing, as examples like J. D. Salinger and Cormac McCarthy show.

This underlying model of success can seem claustrophobic, and, just I gave you permission to be be a writer above, I give you permission to be selective with social networks here: plans for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, e-mail, Google+, and more would leave me with less writing time. I want to do things that really interest me, and that’s mostly long-form writing. Facebook and Twitter aren’t interesting, and I want the mental space they would otherwise occupy to be occupied by better things. I’m also reluctant to trust Facebook and Google+ because that gives those companies so much control over what I do and who I talk to. There was a recent kerfuffle when Facebook “turned down the volume” of businesses that had Facebook pages. That’s good for Facebook’s users but terrible for anyone who spent time and money encouraging people to interact on Facebook.

Facebook is, of course, where the people are. Using it is good advice, but it might also be useful to ask what you can say no to. In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers has a chapter called “No more yes. It’s either HELL YEAH! or no,” where he says that your reaction to most propositions should be one of those two extremes. To me, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are in the lukewarm middle. Kawasaki and Welch “recommend using Google+ as a blogging platform.” Does it allow one to export nicely-formatted XML that will allow you to easily switch, if necessary? That’s a prerequisite, at least to me.

Kawasaki and Welch might be overly enamored of social media, and me underly enamored, but unless you want a Salinger-like existence you probably need to do something. There are few alternative to social media, e-mail, and other promotional efforts, and those efforts are a boon to outsiders. The authors say, “I’ve never come across an author who was happy with the marketing efforts of his publisher.” That might be because publishers have one thing that can’t be replicated by outsiders: distribution. Publishers are set up for a world where they control distribution. That advantage is eroding over time.

The chapters about social networking show you how to make sure you have access to new advantages.

The downside is that learning the business consumes time like space shuttles consume jet fuel. At the moment, however, APE is a relatively easy, comprehensible way of learning about all the steps that one should take to move from “guy with a story” or “guy with a long document” to “writes books that other people value and read.”


* I’ve only used Scrivener for one novel, called THE HOOK, that has different, named narrators at different times, like Tom Perrotta’s Election, Anita Shreve’s Testimony, or William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Scrivener was an ideal tool for this task because it made rearranging sections easy, and it made reading each speaker’s full narrative, in order, easy. I can also see it being very useful for non-narrative nonfiction and or dissertations / academic books (James Fallows is a convert). For most fiction, I think the bigger problem is making the story cohere, not rearranging it.

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