Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer's End

Summer is over. This is how I know.

I often have vivid dreams, but last night I saw myself in the chemistry lab. Now the class schedule said that the first lab would be a refresher on making and labeling solutions, so in the dream I carefully measured out 250 ml of distilled water into a volumetric flask and checked the meniscus. I added the correct amount of glucose and was about to prepare a WHMIS label when I glanced over at my lab partner.

She was pouring liquid from a flask into a large dark container and as she did so, a great gust of smoke billowed up from it, like in a Potions class at Hogwarts. When it cleared away I saw what was in the container. Somehow my lab partner had created a perfect ice sculpture of a stalking panther.

No, I had no idea how she did it. So I just stood there, holding my sad little 0.2 M solution of glucose, which was nowhere near as cool as the ice sculpture, until I woke up.

Anyway, that's how I know summer is over, when I dream about classes (which are starting a week from now).

It was a good summer, though. I completed During the Fire, the sequel to Before the Storm, and wrote 55 blog posts, none of which are here yet since I'm saving them for when the next two semesters heat up. I sent out queries for a fantasy manuscript and started another one. It was productive.

What was your summer like?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Six-year-old lands multi-book deal?

I used to work as an assistant in a school library. One day the father of a six-year-old student donated a picture book that his daughter had written.

The book was printed by a vanity press. I don't remember which one it was, because at the time I just looked at all the mistakes in spelling, grammar and punctuation. The story itself was about the girl's adventures as a mermaid princess, and of course she had illustrated it herself.

The librarian, having more experience with that kind of thing than I did, thanked him for the donation, but told me privately that the book would not be entered into the library catalog. It was placed on the shelf, but not displayed prominently, and I never saw the librarian read from it to the kids. She read them The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are and Jamela's Dress... but not the vanity-printed book.

I remembered this when I read a Writer Beware post about a six-year-old called Leo Hunter who supposedly landed a deal for 23 books after his debut title, Me and My Best Friend, was released. Even Robert Jordan didn't get a deal for that many books.

But when you read further it becomes clear. The company which signed him up is Strategic Book Publishing, a vanity press which charges nearly a thousand dollars per "joint venture contract" and whose owner is being sued by the Florida Attorney General. The front page of the website says,

SBP also offers innovative publishing partnership programs for authors that have published with other publishers, and for authors where the path to large sales numbers is not so clearly defined.

"Partnership publishing" is like "joint venture publishing", "co-investment publishing" or my personal favorite, "a meeting of the minds". All these are more palatable terms for vanity press, the kind of printing where the writer pays. You can see that right away from Strategic Book Publishing's testimonials page, where the entries are from authors - not readers - and the first one is:

I’ve noticed some detractors on the net sites but believe me, the service you have provided for the money is exceptional- I don’t know how you can do it for the money.

When writers with actual publishers discuss money, it's in terms of how much the publisher paid them, not the other way around. So Leo Hunter's family paid for his debut title, allowing him to indulge his dream of becoming more famous than J. K. Rowling. At least until bookstores decline to stock his books and librarians don't consider them on a par with The Gruffalo.

But in the meanwhile, publications on both sides of the Atlantic picked up the story and ran it without so much as a mention of vanity presses. Even a look at the book's entry on Amazon should have raised concerns - the product description doesn't match, the release date is July 2009, the sales rank is low and there are no reviews, professional or otherwise.

That wouldn't make for as gripping a headline. But it would be more honest and might prevent other writers from falling into the Strategic scam.

Image from : http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/73119158

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Narcissism Epidemic

I’ve always been fascinated by compulsive and self-destructive behavior – gambling, shopping, and so on. So I wanted to read Jean Twenge’s and Keith Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic, which seemed to focus on another type of compulsion – a fixation on self-esteem, specialness and feeling good about oneself no matter what.

Though I must admit, another reason I picked up the book was its subtitle – “Living in the Age of Entitlement”. The last word intrigued me. I wanted to see if this book would have anything to say about the sense of entitlement that’s sometimes seen in writers who get angry about negative reviews, or who believe everyone has the right to be published.

Despite the title, the book isn’t about people with narcissistic personality disorder. Instead, it’s about self-admiration, how this sabotages effort and – taken to extremes – leads to problems such as debt, antisocial behavior and an obsession with appearance. It also explores social trends, contrasting modern attitudes with those of prior decades to show how matters have changed.

The authors provide examples of everything they discuss – not just statistics and charts, but amusing facts such as “223 babies born in the 1990s in California were named Unique” – again, reinforcing the you’re special message. But how to be special with so many Uniques around? Well, some parents don’t settle for the regular spelling and instead try “Uneek, Uneque, or Uneqqee”. Good luck with pronouncing the last one.

From there it goes on to the teen years – I learned about reality shows such as My Super Sweet 16 - and to adulthood, where people can get credit cards and keep living at a standard which they believe they deserve. The book also provides solutions for narcissism, examples of good role models in the media, and suggestions for giving children different messages and different values – e.g. not handing out prizes simply for showing up and participating.

I also liked the graduate seminar where students received a lecture on how to be successful in academics. Basically, this is an arduous process requiring hard work and persistence – much like trying for commercial publication.

Many of the students, however, weren’t very pleased with the idea of a 10-year career path. They thought success should come quickly…

Sounds like a familiar story with the same ending. Low frustration tolerance often leads people to make less-than-wise decisions, whether these are to do with academics or publishing.

That being said, I wasn’t keen on the presentation of Asian cultures as models of good values. Coming from such a culture, I can confirm that it went to the opposite extreme, preserving the family/community at the expense of the individual. The authors also seem to have the past on a pedestal, tenderly describing the days when people named their kids John or Mary and lived in little houses on the prairie. Things weren't so perfect back then either, even if there was no MySpace and kids were happy with one Christmas present.

My other concern is that this book has a slightly pro-Christian slant. Not really in-your-face, but there’s a reference to Jesus being “God’s greatest gift to mankind” and a question as to why kids are encouraged to be Baby Einstein rather than Baby Mother Teresa. But other than these issues, the book was a brisk, informative read and one that I’d keep for my collection.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

CreateSpace vs. PublishAmerica

This weekend I read a great summary of a CreateSpace experience on Terri Lynn Coop’s blog Readin, Rittin and Rhetoric.

Terri did a compare-and-constrast of the product, expediency, costs, profits and customer service provided by CreateSpace with those of author mill PublishAmerica, to show that there is an economical and author-friendly alternative to even a vanity press which doesn’t levy an upfront charge. I’m unlikely to ever use CreateSpace for my fiction, but it seems very workable for niche projects and I was pleased to find this article.

I’ll be sure to recommend this to any writers who are looking for a good self-publishing service or who have just escaped from a vanity press and may not be able to try commercial publishing. Especially since PublishAmerica’s latest special offer was to have a member of their “ghostwriting team” work on an author’s already-published book for $499 (the link will take you to the offer, which is a product in their online store).

Product Description
In the Ordering Instructions box, write the title of your book. You will be contacted by your ghostwriter shortly. Benefit from our low introductory price of $499 before it increases to $699.

No, I’m not sure how this is supposed to work either.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For Love or Money

“I didn’t go into writing to get rich – in fact, I don’t care if I make any money. The most important thing is to get my book out there.”

This is a paraphrase of a comment I read recently, made by a writer who had signed a contract with a startup micropress and was warned about their paying royalties on net rather than on cover price. But it’s something I’ve read from writers printed by vanity presses as well, where they’re even less likely to recoup their initial investment.

Everyone has their own reasons for writing, and I don’t believe embarking on that with the primary goal of making money from it is a good idea. Mostly because it takes so much time and effort to produce work of a marketable standard (a commercial market, not just family and friends). But when it comes to publishing, money is more immediate and more important.

Getting the book out there

If writers only wants to make books available to the general public, they have two choices. They can either look for publishers with good distribution (in other words, not vanity presses and unlikely to be startup micropresses), or they can put the text of the book on the web. Whether they make it all available for free or go through Amazon for the Kindle, and set the price as low as possible, this is preferable to signing away rights to a press which won’t make the best use of them.

Vanity presses get paid by authors and therefore don’t need to get the books out anywhere. Micropresses or startups without distribution may want to get the books out into the marketplace, but they’re unable to do so.

Money isn’t important

Especially after a long slew of rejections, a publishing contract can be an oasis in the desert. You’re so relieved that someone loves your book and wants to publish it that fiscal considerations are the last thing on your mind. At worst, discussions of advances and royalties may be to the magic of publication what a prenup is to the honeymoon.

But there’s one reason money is important even for writers who don’t need or want it. It’s because sales are directly correlated to royalties. When the royalty statement arrives, it shows how many copies were sold and from where. We can’t count individual readers, but we can count sales.

Plus, I like getting paid for my work. Ideally, I’d rake in the Filthy Lucre hand over fist at a rate that would make John Galt weep, but in the real world I just want to get paid as much as is reasonably possible for my books. I didn’t work as a technician for free so I’m certainly not going to publish for free.

A bad impression

What are commercial publishers and literary agents likely to think if they come across such a claim from a writer? Actually, that’s not an “if”. Sample mistakes in query letters include “I’d be willing to forego an advance”.

Publishers and agents aren’t going to say, “This is an artist willing to make any sacrifice to get the book out there”. They’re more likely to see this as desperation or inexperience or both.

They’re in this business to make money, so chances are they’re looking for writers with the same goals.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How Not To Write A Novel

There are many, many informative books on what to do when it comes to writing and publication. In its own way, this is one of them – but it sets off its good advice with deliberately terrible faux-excerpts, biting sarcasm and hilarious commentaries.

How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, contains more than 200 mistakes made by writers. Each has its own little section with a title and subtitle e.g. A Novel Called It : Wherein an abusive parent exists or Assembly Instructions: In which the sex is drained of sex. It’s then followed by an Atlanta Nights-esque example to illustrate the issue and a little description of why this is a problem and how it can be corrected.

This is something of a PG-13 book and contains a few four-letter words, but if you don’t mind that, it’s blunt, accurate and hilarious. It draws on examples from Anton Chekhov to South Park, and is never dull. When I read books on writing, I tend to skip any sections on spelling and grammar, but I read this from cover to cover and tried not to laugh out loud on the subway.

There are also little sidebars such as “The Reader Will Not Like Your Hero Just Because” (he meditates, he has green eyes, his maid is an unpaid consultant in his detective business, etc). But my favorite is the pop quiz on characterization. Select the answer most likely to reflect your work:

The teenager took

A. our burger order
B. a gateway drug
C. umbrage at the teacher’s assertions about the Balkan situation
D. his turn flensing the giant.

Revealing his nefarious plot, he spoke

A. in a German accent
B. German
C. germanely
D. to his hand puppet, Popo.

You can probably tell that A and B answers are stereotypes and D answers have the opposite problem. This book would be a great addition to any writer’s library. Whenever I get stuck on a manuscript or take it all too seriously, I flip this open, read a section like “Failing the Turing Test” and feel a lot better.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ebooks vs. print

On a discussion board recently I saw a question about whether ebooks would displace print entirely, with the implication being that print = commercial, old-style publishing and electronic = new wave.

The latter is another blog post in and of itself, but I enjoyed the rest of the discussion because it highlighted the fact that although ebooks and print are very different media, the one doesn’t cancel out the other.

Pros of ebooks :

1. More books, less space : Years ago, I was stuck in a small town in India for over a month with six paperback books, all that would fit into a tiny suitcase beside my clothes. By the end of my sojourn I’d read those so many times that I never wanted to see them again (though on the plus side there were no distractions at all, so I got some writing done as well).

A Kindle would have come in so handy at that time.

2. Availability : No need to drive to the store, no need to wait for the books to be shipped to you.

3. Affordability : Provided you have an ereader (or a computer), ebooks are nearly always cheaper than the print version.

If anyone knows of any others that I’ve left out, please let me know in the comments section.

Pros of print :

1. Traditional appeal : Some readers like the feel and smell of new books. I enjoy the visual display of colorful spines of books on my shelves, arranged by genre and author. To me, a library or study is a place filled with bookcases. Those give me a warm, cosy, surrounded-by-old-friends feeling that the Kindle can't duplicate.

2. Sentimental value : One of my favorite books is a collection of cartoons called What’s so funny about Microbiology? and it was autographed by the author, Joachim Czichos. You can’t autograph an ebook.

I also have a copy of The Good Earth which my now-deceased grandmother received as a Christmas present in 1949. She wrote her name and the date in it. Ebooks can't replace books which are prized for their sentimental or collectible value.

3. Books that don’t translate well to the electronic version : I love collections of fantasy art, and those books are typically large. Many details of the art might be lost if they were shrunk down to Kindle size.

4. Affordability : What if you can’t afford an ereader? People in underdeveloped countries might find paperback books more within their budget than Nooks or Kindles. Not to mention people in correctional institutions.

5. Libraries : I like going to libraries, checking out their new releases and being able to borrow hundreds of books. No matter how affordable ebooks get, they can’t beat free.

I’m clearly more familiar with print and prefer it – I’ve only read three ebooks in my life, with my own being one of them. But I think the discussion showed that ebooks aren’t going to take the place of print copies any more than televisions have replaced movie theaters. The two media serve different needs and functions.

What are your thoughts on this? And which do you prefer – ebook or print?