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.

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