An amazing publishing story from Joseph Campbell:

When I finally wrote my Hero [With a Thousand Faces] it was refused by two publishers and it was the Bollingen [Institute Press] that picked it up. If they had not picked it up, I don’t think anyone here would have heard of Joe Campbell. I’m sure of that.

Hero With a Thousand Faces went on to inspire Star Wars and it continues to be standard reading among anyone interested in stories and narratives today. By the time Hero was rejected, Campbell had been working on it for five years. The story reminds me of the publication story for The Lord of the Rings, which hinged on a reader report from the initial publisher’s son, who was around nine or ten when his opinion was solicited.

Stories like those are some of the reasons self-publishing is so exciting. There are no gatekeepers. Getting a firm count of the number of important but unknown works that never happened because publishers  rejected them is impossible. But realizing that they’re certainly out there is important.

Campbell also describes how he kept writing productively for so many years: “You can get a lot of work done if you just stay with it and are excited and it’s play instead of work.”

How do you judiciously help someone whose work isn’t very good?

This question keeps reappearing in various guises: How do you help someone whose work isn’t very good? Simply saying “This sucks” isn’t helpful and is usually taken with offense. A sufficiently screwed up work may also be unrecoverable. But making minor changes and saying, “It’s great!” often isn’t helpful either, because the work isn’t great and false praise is a lie. Those seeking criticism should be tactful enough not to ask, “Is it good?”, but often they aren’t and it leaves critics and editors in an awkward position.

I’m a writer, so I tend to see stuff from bad writers, but the same principles apply to other people with other domains of expertise. I developed my method of commenting on bad writing years ago, when a former student and now friend asked me to read a few stories she’d written for a creative writing class. Given her age they weren’t terrible; I made some comments, fixed a couple of minor things, and suggested some books that might speak to her.*

She asked if I thought the stories were good, but fortunately she asked via email so I had a few minutes to think about my response. I replied that I’d reframe the question: if she keeps writing, reading about writing, and developing her own sense of good writing, in four or five years she’ll reread her stories and be able to decide for herself whether her work was any good. I mentioned that when I was 26 or so, I no longer thought the stuff I’d written from 18 – 22 was any good. She got the point, I think, and seemed to appreciate what I was saying without saying.

And what I told her was and is true: I don’t think much of that early work now. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without having written what I did then. In addition to being true, that sort of advice has the advantage of being tactful. I think John Irving said that every writer who seeks feedback really wants to be told, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” But of course nothing is perfect and editors exist for a reason (so do therapists; the reasons may be more closely related than we’d like to commonly assume).


* Anyone interested in writing ought to look at this list, which I still think good. I periodically re-read every book on it. In some sense no good writer ever fully stops being a beginner.

“Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”

I have read many lamentations about the evils of Amazon but have yet to see anyone effectively rebut Matt Yglesias’s points in “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers.” The section about marketing is particularly interesting, since seemingly everyone agrees:

When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it’s easy to whine that other people aren’t marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct. [. . .]

The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books.

Publishers also appear to be bad at identifying which books readers want to read and which books readers don’t want to read; we’re now going to find that out by writers writing and then releasing their books into the wild.

Incidentally, though, it’s hard for me to find good books that are either self-published or conventionally published; if you have any suggestions please email me.

See also “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz.”

Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz

In “What is the welfare cost of Amazon supply restrictions on books?” Tyler Cowen writes on whether Amazon’s much-publicized maneuvers against publishers are welfare-enhancing or welfare-destroying; most of the former answers tend to come from readers and indie publishers, while most of the latter answers tend to come from publishers and established authors. I however was compelled to comment on a separate and to my mind under-discussed issue: the lack of any sense of history in most of these discussions.

The same class of writers who five years ago were aghast at the lack of support for literary fiction among publishers now decry Amazon; they’re supporting the same publishers who were until recently the cravenly commercial forces destroying “quality” literary fiction. “The plight of literary fiction” has been an evergreen essay topic for as long as I’ve been cognizant of literary culture. Literary fiction was (or is) in plight because publishers supposedly don’t support and readers are too busy masturbating to romance fiction or science fiction tech fantasies (or whatever) to read lit fic.

Tangentially, I’m also amazed that, in rereading the preceding sentence, it seems to make sense and flow nicely without any commas. Perhaps it is the influence of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which I bought naturally from Amazon and which has me thinking about nesting and recursion more than any time since CS 102.

The link in the preceding paragraph also goes to Amazon.

The latest Amazon wrangle, and the challenge of growing new writers

I’m a bit late to this chat—”real work” keeps obnoxiously interfering with blog writing and other activities—but Charlie Stross discusses the latest publishing imbroglio in “Amazon: malignant monopoly, or just plain evil?“, but like George Packer before him he is distinctly anti-Amazon. It’s a somewhat justified point of view, but I think his followup, “A footnote about the publishing industry,” is less vituperative and consequently more interesting. As usual with these kinds of stories Stross ignores an important point: Amazon is great news for readers and writers who don’t have (or, sometimes, want) a big publisher (like yours truly) but not particularly good news for those who already have a publisher.

But there’s a more interesting and often overlooked point embedded:

But [the reading business is] still a more or less global zero sum game (competing for readers eyeball-hours). And because the rate of individual production is relatively low and the product is still produced artisanally by cottage industries, product lead time is measured in years, time to achieve net positive revenue is also measured in years, and it’s important to keep the back list on tap because it can take decades to grow an author’s career. Stephen King was an overnight success with “Carrie” after a decade of learning to write, but Terry Pratchett took about 15 years to finally break big. J. K. Rowling took 3 books to really get rolling, and she grew eye-wateringly rapidly by industry standards. And some authors are slow-burn successes: my big breakthrough book was my tenth novel in print (“Halting State”). J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was in print for a decade or more before it really took off in the 1960s. If you practice ruthless commercial Darwinism, weeding out any hopeful mutants that aren’t immediately successful, you will miss out on a lot of huge opportunities.

So reforming the publishing industry is a very non-trivial undertaking.

Which is also why Jeff Bezos picked it as his #1 target when he founded Amazon. He set out to disrupt an incumbent mature industry using the internet, and picked publishing because it was obviously the most dysfunctional. After all, if he’d gone after groceries he’d be competing with sharks like Tesco and WalMart.

It takes an incredibly long time for writers to get good, and publishers may have lost interest in that process. The process also seems especially long relative to what’s happening on the Internet, which is still in its Cambrian explosion phase. In ten years everything touched by Moore’s Law gets a thousand times better, but writers still do our thing at about the same pace. Learning the craft is long, and a lot of it still occurs in a very slow, very old-school master-apprentice fashion. It may be that self-publishing or de-factor self-publishing takes the place of the previous publishing model, and that the publishing of novels becomes more like the publishing of poetry, which the big houses haven’t been doing in earnest for at least twenty years and possibly longer.

Not everyone shares Stross’s views about the evilness of Amazon; here is James Fallows posting an anonymous e-mail from a small publisher who likes Amazon for the same reasons similar to mine (“Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options”). I’m also not real worried about Amazon-as-monopoly; if there’s a book I really want to read, it’s not hard to get it from Barnes & Noble (for now), or the various other sites that have popped up to help authors (Lulu, etc.). Amazon is fighting in a thin-margin business with highly differentiated products in which almost no product is a perfect substitute for another, with the possible exception of some specific genres (romance, thrillers).

EDIT: I forgot to add that most writers are still helped along by editors, and that the self-publishing system doesn’t really help with that. It’s possible to find sympathetic readers, but I’m not sure sympathetic readers can take the place of professional editors for most people. I don’t really foresee a good solution to this problem. MFA programs are one possible measure, but only for some people who do some kinds of writing.

Bad boy Amazon and George Packer’s latest salvo

Until five or so years ago, every time I read yet another article about the perilous state of literary fiction I’d see complaints about how publishers ignore it in favor of airport thrillers and stupid self-help and romance and Michael Crichton and on and on. On or about December 2009 everything about the book business and human nature changed. Today, I read about how publishers are priestly custodians of high culture and the Amazon barbarians are knocking at the gate. Although George Packer doesn’t quite say as much in “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?“, it fits the genre.

Packer is concerned that Amazon has too much power and that it is indifferent to quality. By contrast, the small publisher Melville House “puts out quality fiction and nonfiction,” while “Bezos announced that the price of best-sellers and new titles would be nine-ninety-nine, regardless of length or quality” and “Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter.”

Maybe all of this is true, but here’s another possibility: thanks to Amazon, people writing the most abstruse literary fiction possible don’t have to beg giant multinational megacorps for a print run of 3,000 copies. Amazon doesn’t care if you’re going to sell one million or one hundred copies; you still get a spot, and now midlist authors aren’t going to be forcibly ejected from the publishing industry by publishing houses.

Read Martha McPhee’s novel Dear Money. It verges on annoying at first but shifts to being delightful. The protagonist, Emma Chapman, is a “midlist” novelist sinking towards being a no-list novelist, and pay attention to her descriptions about “the details of how our lives really were” and how “not one of my novels had sold more than five thousand copies” and that “the awards by this point had been received long ago.” She makes money from teaching, not fiction, and her money barely adds up to rent and private schools and the rest of the New York bullshit. Under the system Packer describes, Emma is a relative success.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince Dear Money is a novel everything works out in the end, but in real life for many writers things don’t work out. Still, I would note that self-publishing as the norm has one major flaw: the absence of professional content editors, who are often key to writers’s growth can often turn a mess with potential into a great book (here’s one example of a promising self-published book that could’ve been saved; there are no doubt others).

Still, Amazon must save more books than it destroys. If you read any amount of literary criticism, journalism, or scholarly articles, you’ve read innumerable sentences like these: “[Malcolm] Cowley persuaded Viking to accept ‘On the Road’ after many publishers had turned it down. He worked to get Kerouac, who was broke, financial support.” How many Kerouacs and Nabokovs didn’t make it to publication, and are unknown to history because no Cowley persuaded a publisher to act in its own best interests? How many will now, thanks to Amazon?

Having spent half a decade banging around on various publishers’ and agents’ doors I’m not convinced that publishers are doing a great job of gatekeeping. I’d also note that it may be possible for many people to sell far fewer copies of a work and still be “successful;” a publisher apparently needs to sell at least 10,000 copies of a standard hardcover release, at $15 – $30 per hardcover and $9.99 – $14.99 for each ebook, to stay afloat. If I sell 10,000 copies of Asking Anna for $10 to $4 I’ll be doing peachy.

Amazon has done an incredible job setting up a fantastic amount of infrastructure, physical and electronic, and Packer doesn’t even mention that.

Amazon also offers referral fees to anyone with a website; most of the books linked to in this blog have my own referral tag attached. Not only does Amazon give a fee if someone buys the linked item directly, but Amazon gives out the fee for any other item that person buys the same day. So if a person buys a camera lens for $400 after clicking a link in my blog, I get a couple bucks.

It’s not a lot and I doubt anyone quits their day job to get rich on referral links, but it’s more than zero. I like to say that I’ve made tens of dollars through those fees; by now I’ve made a little more, though not so much that it’ll pay for both beer and books.

Publishing’s golden age has always just ended. In 1994, Larissa MacFarquhar could write in the introduction to Robert Gottlieb’s Paris Review interview that in the 1950s—when Gottlieb got started—”publishers were frequently willing and able to lose money publishing books they liked, and tended to foster a sense that theirs were houses with missions more lofty than profit.” Then Gottlieb is quoted directly:

It is not a happy business now [. . .] and once it was. It was smaller. The stakes were lower. It was a less sophisticated world.

Today publishers are noble keepers of a sacred flame; before December 2009 they were rapacious capitalists. Today writers can also run a million experiments in what people want to read. Had I been an editor with 50 Shades of Grey passed my desk, I would’ve rejected it. Oops.

But the Internet is very good at getting to revealed preferences. Maybe Americans say they want to read high-quality books but many want to read about the stuff they’re not getting in real life: sex with attractive people; car chases; being important; being quasi-omniscient; and so on. Some people who provide those things are going to succeed.

More than anything else, the Internet demonstrates that a lot of people really like porn (in its visual forms and its written form). People want what they want and while I not surprisingly think that a lot of people would be better off reading more and more interesting stuff, on a fundamental level everyone lives their own lives how they see fit. A lot of people would also be better off if they ran more, watched reality TV less, ate more broccoli, and the other usual stuff. The world is full of ignored messages. In the end each individual suffers or doesn’t according to the way they live their own life.

I don’t love Amazon or any company, but Amazon and the Internet more generally has enabled me to do things that wouldn’t have been possible or pragmatic in 1995. Since Amazon is ascending, however, it’s the bad guy in many narratives. Big publishers are wobbling, so they’re the good guys. We have always been at war with East Asia and will always be at war with East Asia.

Packer is a good writer, skilled with details and particularities, but he can’t translate those skills into generalities. He fits stories into political / intellectual frameworks that don’t quite fit, as happened last his Silicon Valley article (I responded: “George Packer’s Silicon Valley myopia“). Packer’s high quality makes him worth responding to. But Packer presumably ignores his critics on the uncouth Interwebs, since he occupies the high ground of the old-school New Yorker. Too bad. There are things to be learned from the Internet, even about the past.

Publishing is always changing

Guess what time period this quote describes:

Publishers had to improve the way they did business. So they tried several things: [. . . and] in general, they became less worried about literary merit and more about salability as the ultimate criterion in accepting a manuscript.

It could have be from last week’s New York Times, except with “publishers” perhaps replaced with “Amazon,” but the overall gestalt is there, complete with the carping about the lowering of standards when entrenched powers are losing their powers. But D. G. Myers wrote it in The Elephants Teach, and the quoted passage applies to the early 20th Century.

Someone out there is always lamenting the deplorable state of literary merit these days, but someone has been always been lamenting it, just like some old person is always lamenting kids these days. Don’t listen. The next big thing is probably not going to come from the old guard.

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.

Follow-up to the eBook and publishing post

See the original post here, and pay special attention to the thoughtful and informed comments (which are a pleasant change from the usual Internet fare). They also bring up some points I’d like to address:

1) I don’t think publishers will go away altogether, even if they persist in some as mere quality signals or brands. Among the millions of self-published books coursing through the Internet, making informed decisions as a reader gets even harder than it is now. In the previous post, I mentioned the problem of false negatives—books that should’ve been published but are rejected—without reiterating that most negatives are true negatives—that is, books that are rejected because they’re bad. Readers are having and will continue to have problems in this regard. As Laura Miller says in “When anyone can be a published author: How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?“:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is.

2) As a result of 1), I wouldn’t be surprised if “publishing” morphs into a much smaller, broader-based business in which editor-agent hybrids take on promising writers in a somewhat traditional manner but don’t offer advances or some of the conventional “perks.” Instead, they’ll work with writers to improve the writers’ writing, structure, and so forth, in exchange for somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 – 20% of the book’s profits.

Be very wary of writers who say they don’t need editors. Maybe Nabokov didn’t need an editor, but pretty much every other writer did and does. And editors are expensive—I know because I’ve looked into what hiring one would cost—and writers, especially young, untested writers, don’t have a lot of money. So I don’t think lump-sum upfront payments will work for most writers, particularly fiction writers. Editors might judge who is worth investment based on signals like, say, blog posts.

Laments like this one by Kristine Kathryn Rusch make me wonder about what function editors are performing now; I can’t excerpt it effectively, but it observes the extent to which junior editors at publishing houses treat her like an idiot. If the experience described in her post is routine or commonplace, I think it bodes ill for conventional publishing houses (assuming, of course, there’s not some mitigating factor she’s not describing in the post).

A lot of writers say publishers aren’t doing that much to promote their book as it is, which may be true, but they do at least send a quality signal. I wonder, though, about the cost of books—especially hardcovers, and still think this cost is going to fall. Which leads me to. . .

3) I think self-published writers are, over time, going to put pricing pressure on conventionally published books. If you’re a random mystery reader and don’t have especially high quality standards for prose quality or prose originality and consume a very large number of mysteries, self-published ones that aren’t as polished as commercially published fiction might be just as good. If you’re buying books for $2.99 on a Nook instead of $5.99 – $9.99 via Nook or mass-market paperback, then you get a lot more word for your buck. This is especially true, it seems to me, in genre publishing, where series are common and so are relatively rapid and similar books.

Being the kind of “informed” reader discussed in # 1 doesn’t stop most people from being not very discriminating.

4) Desperation is underrated as an inspiration to change. Jeff observes in a comment: “As an author just barely at the bottom of the midlist, if my choice is between self-publishing and not publishing and all, I’ll choose the former.” Me too, although, like him, I’d choose conventional publishing at this point in time, given the choice. But writers without a “choice” will increasingly lean towards self-publishing.

5) Blogs and other non-publisher signals of quality may become more important over time. If readers are debating an author’s merits, looking at their blog or other online writing may be a useful way to decide whether a writer is worth the time it takes to begin a novel. I suspect most non-established writers know or suspect this by now, but it’s worth reiterating anyway. These days, when people say things like, “I want to be a writer” to me, I ask if they have a blog. If the answer is “no,” that signals they’re probably not very serious about writing. Even if the blog only has one post a month, if that post is a substantial or interesting one I take it as a positive sign.

6) If you’re interested in how the publishing industry works now and why, despite the media portrayals, it works better than it’s sometimes depicted, take a look at Charlie Stross’s series of posts Common Misconceptions About Publishing, which were last updated in May 2010 but are still required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

7) I don’t think most of my analysis is terribly original, and you could find similar analyses elsewhere. Nonetheless, I find the changing business interesting both as a reader and writer / would-be writer.

8) I’m not sure much, if any of this, matters to readers, but it should matter a lot to writers who care at all about making some money from their work.

On "Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal"

Seemingly everyone in the book “blogosphere” has something to say about Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal, which points to Amazon’s growing presence not just in book retailing but in book publishing (“Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. [. . .] It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction”). And that’s just its big-name efforts: it now offers a platform for any moron, including this one, to upload and publish eBooks.

Naturally, as someone mulling over options, I’ve been thinking about this stuff:

1) There are a couple of problems publishers have. One big problem is simple: they offer lousy standard royalties on eBooks. Publishers apparently offer a measly 17.5%, before the agent cut. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and so forth will offer 70% (if the author is using an agent, presumably the agent gets a cut). Big-name authors can presumably get better deals, but probably not 70% deals. So an author can sell many, many fewer eBooks and still make more money.

2) Smart authors are probably thinking about whether publishers are going to be in business at all in anything like their current form five years from now. This means authors, especially younger ones, might not want to lock in their eBooks at a 17.5% royalty rate for the rest of their lives only to discover that, five or ten years from now, virtually no one is reading paper books and virtually no one is using conventional publishers in conventional ways. If you’re a writer and you have a longer-than-the-next-quarter outlook, this makes a lot of sense.

3) On a subject closer to home, publishers and agents probably have too many false negatives—that is, people who they should offer representation to but don’t. For a long time, those people simply had no real recourse: they went away or kept trying through the rejections. Lots of now-famous writers went through dozens or hundreds of rejections. If I one day become a now-famous writer, I’ll have the same rejection story. But we don’t know about the could-have-been-famous writers who had to give up for various reasons. Today, if writers are sufficiently determined, they can start selling on their own (I may fall into this category shortly) and see what happens. Chances are good that “nothing” happens, but chances are good that “nothing” happens in traditional publishing land too. But if something happens, it would be hard to imagine that writers used to taking home 70% will happily roll over and let publishers give them 17.5%.

4) Publishers more generally are facing a classic Innovator’s Dilemma-style problem: what happens when the old model is fading but the new one is less profitable in the short to medium term? You run the risk of startups and new-model companies overtaking your business, leaving you in the position of Kodak, old-school IBM, Polaroid, everyone who ever competed with Microsoft prior to about 2004, and innumerable other companies who’ve been killed by shifting markets.

5) Since the massive bloodletting at publishing companies in the 2008 – 2009 neighborhood, it seems to have gotten even harder to get the attention of publishers, which exacerbates numbers 3 and 4, and probably drives more people toward self-publishing, thus accelerating the overall dynamic.

The major publishers aren’t daft and know all this. But they are constrained and can’t do much about it. They can’t distinguish between standard slush and what I’d like to think is my own worthwhile stuff, because if they could, they wouldn’t say no to duds and pass on hits. So this may simply be the sort of thing everyone can see coming and no one can do anything about.

EDIT: This, from Jamie Byng, is worth remembering too: “Publishing is also about finding new talent, rigorous editing, championing the books you believe in, and all that doesn’t just disappear with digital books.” The essential challenge of writing remains even if the distribution changes.

EDIT 2: Literary agent Jane Dystel:

Last week while I was following up on a proposal I had out on submission to publishers, I heard back from a senior editor at one of the top six publishing houses. This person is someone who I consider to be very smart and who has great taste. I had sent him a proposal which he acknowledged was very well done and which covered a subject he was interested in. In turning it down, he sounded discouraged and demoralized as he said that the higher ups in his company were no longer allowing him to buy mid-list titles that in the past he had been able to turn into bestsellers. Rather, he said, they were only allowing him to buy “sure things,” which I took to mean books that can’t fail.

If this story is actually indicative of a general trend in publishing, the number of false negatives should be going up and, concomitantly, the number of writers willing to try new things should too.

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