Bloggers are killing literature? Um, no.

Bit of a head-scratcher in the twitterverse today as I discovered a link to a well-known literary critic (in those circles at least) who complained that book bloggers are causing problems for literature. Huh? You can read what Mr. Stothard had to say here: http://ht.ly/dZy8V. His premise is basically this: the proliferation of non-professional book critics via blogging is going to drown out the voices of serious, literary critics making it more difficult for readers to discover great works of literature.

Yes, I know. You can quit your snorts of laughter now. I’ll be the first to say that the vast majority of book bloggers do not provide critical analysis of literary fiction. A few do, I’m sure, and if you are actually looking to find them, I’ll bet it’s not too hard to find. The fact is, if you are looking for great, literary fiction, it’s not hard to find sources that discuss/critique those stories. There are bloggers out there who are not professionally paid literary critics, but have the background, interest, and where-with-all to tackle literary fiction. Most readers, however, are not. The general reading public reads for entertainment mostly. Do these stories require deep, critical analysis? Probably not. They do require thoughtful opinion though, and that is within the purview of most readers.

Book bloggers offer their opinions on books because of one thing, they love books. They want people to know about them. Let’s face it, there are way more good stories out there for you to read than you’ll ever be able to get to. Finding good ones can be difficult.  Are you going to find them among the literary critics? No. Popular fiction isn’t something they examine, which is fine. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if they look down on popular fiction or have the pretentious attitude that they aren’t worth reading. We all know they are. Literary works are too. Some books are works of art when it comes to language and/or expressing the human condition. Literary critics can continue to work in those circles. It’s worthwhile and useful. Will they be drowned out by the rest of the book blogosphere? No.

The thing is, people talk about books. A lot. People who read popular fiction also read literary fiction. Word gets passed around. Bloggers are interconnected. If anything , a proliferation of book bloggers will only enhance the ability for an artful piece of fiction to get notice. It will also get more good popular fiction noticed.  To those literary critics out there pretentious enough to think so, readers read more than one type of story. We read romances, mysteries, biographies, fantasies, and hey, even literary fiction. Why? probably because a trusted blogger resource heard from another blogger who heard from a blogger who read some lit critics analysis and decided to give the book a shot and then spread the word.  It happens.

So, lit critics, get off your high horse, if you’re currently on one. Not every book out there is or needs to be worthy of the Booker Prize or  Pulitzer. Nor are we immune or ignorant of your analysis and critique of said books. We hear about them. Word gets around. Just because your pond has become an ocean, doesn’t mean we don’t know where to go looking for the beautiful fish.

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Paying for Reviews Robs the Reader

Haven’t had much to post about of late, but this week an interesting article popped up in the NY Times about the fact that some authors have used review services to bolster their sales. It’s caused a bit of a stir, mostly falling on the side of annoyance or downright anger. It’s basically a function of gaming Amazon’s review system to push sales and rank of ebooks. Sounds rather sketchy (and it is).

The primary example used was that of best-selling author, John Locke, a thriller writer who has made a name for himself in self-publishing selling $1 ebooks and doing rather well for himself by it. He’s managed to get a traditional publishing deal out of it as well. In that regard, good for him. He took what was given to him and made it work and found success. However, I think this speaks more to a faulty system than any mean-spirited trickery on the author’s part.

If you sell on the Kindle, your major route to success lies in hitting the top of various lists. Getting noticed in the sea of books is a self-published author’s goal. You have to get on people’s radar in order to get bought. It doesn’t matter how good your story is. If nobody sees it, the quality is rather irrelevant. The way Amazon works, spiking sales numbers will stick your smiling mug up on the top or near the top of any number of lists. There are a plethora of categories (more so than I would’ve thought possible, and allocated to books in sometimes odd and mysterious ways) that one can get noticed on. Mainly though, one wants to hit the more general lists. The less specific, the broader your reach to readers. A certain number of sales may garner you on the epic fantasy list. A few more and you hit general fantasy. Do really good and you make it on to more general overall rankings.

What John Locke did, and many I’m sure have tried to duplicate and perhaps have, is to pay people to get his book off of Amazon, read it and post a review. There are some fairly obvious problems with this model. The main one is that you get a book with tons of reviews with no actual validity. You have no idea if the person actually read the book. Getting paid to review, incurs a potential obligation or expectation to say something good about a story you may not have liked. You get sales rankings that are basically fake. These are not sales based on interest, word of mouth, or anything at all related to how good the story may or may not be. It’s akin to corporations playing musical chairs with their accounting to make themselves look like they’re doing better than they actually are.

There’s nothing illegal or against the rules about any of this.  It is deceptive. It’s not an entirely honest method for garnering readership. I can’t really fault Locke for doing this. If I had five grand to toss out there and pay 500 people $10 to buy my $1 book and hopefully read it and then post a review for me, I might be tempted. Because the thing with books is that sales beget sales. As a reader, I might see this book I’ve never seen before, suddenly at #3 on the thriller list that I’ve never heard of before. I’ll check a few reviews and see that they’re almost all positive. For a buck? Hell, I’ll check it out. I might even like the book. Is anyone the worse for it? If you’re duped into trying something you like, is there a problem with that?

You could say it’s just another form of what publishers have practiced for years. Let’s face it, reviewers generally review because they love books and love to talk about them.  If you get in with a publisher and get free books form them to review on a regular basis, that kind of rocks. Will they keep sending them to you if you dis on them all the time? Well, no. It’s kind of a “be nice to us and we’ll be nice to you” sort of arrangement. Again, not a strictly dishonest approach, but it’s also rather deceptive. Works for the author, the publisher, and the reviewer, but it fails the reader.

As a reader, I don’ take kindly to being tricked, duped or deceived. I want only one thing in a review, and that’s honesty. Thoughtful honesty. Read the book and give an honest, informed opinion of the experience.  If you tell me you can get paid or get kickbacks or whatever (from a pub or author), and not have your opinion subtly shifted in the direction of a more favorable response, I’ll cry “bullshit.” Psychology of the brain doesn’t work that way. Your objectivity is skewed automatically by entering into such a relationship. There is no switching off that influence.

For me personally, I don’t pay much attention to reviews of books (other than my own of course). There’s no trust in a system that lacks any sort of transparency about where the opinion is coming from or why. When significant stories like this crop up, it only reinforces that opinion. I’d like to know reviews are honest, but I can’t. It really can’t behoove the industry to have general, public opinion about reviews be that they are pointless because people are being paid to give good ones. We authors rely to some degree on having reviews help us with discoverability. When someone doctor’s the books in order to gain advantage, it’s disappointing. Don’t game the system simply because you can. It’s not cool.

I don’t know that I would’ve ever bought any of Locke’s books, but knowing he used these methods to influence his success, he goes on the list of never buy or recommend that author. And on that note, Amazon? Fix your damn review system. There has to be a way to minimize the impact of this kind of behavior. Don’t let the joke of one of our major avenues to discovery continue. It’s embarrassing. And that goes for anyone else who solicits opinion in a manner that skews objectivity. Is honesty of process really that damn difficult to deal with?

Would You Pay to Proof Someone’s Book?

Came across an interesting post about a debate that occurred at a conference recently, between a self-published author, named Stephen Leather and a couple of other publishing people. Apparently, it got a little heated, as these things tend to do,  around the notion of the $.99 ebook. This isn’t about that argument. The guy makes money selling books for a dollar. What other folks have to say about it to him likely isn’t going to have much of an effect. More power to him. I have my own opinion on dollar books which is beside the point of money, but I’ve discussed that before. It was something else he said that really got under my skin.

When the issue of editors, proofers, and such came up, and the obvious need for them, his stated (I didn’t hear him personally, so I can only go by what was stated in the post) opinion was that with a large fan base, some authors, who don’t need much more than light proofing, can rely on their readers to proof their books.

Yes, you heard me right. Readers can proof their books. While I don’t doubt that there are plenty of readers out there who are smart enough to be excellent proof readers, it isn’t their job to proof books. This is an absurd expectation, and frankly, disrespectful of the reader. It’s one thing to openly crowd-source a book, where you invite feedback on an unfinished story. Note the important word here: unfinished. This is a very different tack to take in producing a story (an interesting one to, mind you, and maybe for another post), but when you are putting out a book to the audience to read, the expectation and assumption is that it’s a finished product.

Why would I buy a book with this expectation? I have no desire to feel obligated to report back to the author about errors that need correction. If I’m paying you money for a story, my expectation is simple. This story is as good as you can make it. It is as error free as you are able to do. Now, the fact is, most authors, 99% even, do not have the skill set to proof their own work. Your brain is so wrapped up in the process and product that it’s just too easy to miss things. This is what good editors, copy-editors and proofers do. We pay them for their services to make our stories as good as the possibly can be. If we’re going to sell our product, it is the minimum we should be doing as writers. To lay any of this at the feet of the reader is having them pay a dollar and invest their time in catching errors that they shouldn’t have to be seeing in the first place.

I’ve stated it before, and it will always bear repeating. If you aren’t willing to invest in the appropriate services to make your book the best possible story it can be before you put it out there to readers, DON”T PUBLISH IT!

Nuff said. Happy reading/writing everyone.

Cloud Publishing-It’s Big Potential

Interesting post here by Mike Shatzkin (very smart publishing guy) on his blog related to a topic there’s going to be a conference on at the end of this month. It’s publishing in the cloud. For those of you who might be wondering, this is not a reference to the puffy masses of water vapor floating in the sky, but to the notion of having content centralized and accessible to all parties involved. For a book, this would mean my manuscript is located on a server somewhere outside of the publisher, and anyone involved in the process of putting the book together would then have access to it.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could be turned into a great thing for the future of publishing. For one, the ms never has to be moved. It’s always in one place, and anyone involved, from the editor to the publicist can tap into it at any time. Comments, questions, and feedback would be located in one spot. No more emailing around to various people to get needed information. It would streamline the production process ( how much I don’t know, but it would). This in turn would save time and money.

While great for publishing, I’m more excited by the prospects this would offer the writer. How fabulous would it be to have access to the workings of the book in progress? We could offer our own invaluable feedback through all aspects of the publishing process. Now, while it doesn’t mean our feedback would be used, the notion that we could be included in all of this and see the how/what/why of things getting done would be incredible. It could truly make the book a collaborative project. It almost makes me giddy to think about the potential.

Working in the cloud is an exploding industry right now. It offers huge benefits across the board for all kinds of work. Publishing tends to be slow to evolve with new tech, but I sincerely hope they are on the ball with this one. Even in self-publishing, I can see how this might become advantageous. A cloud-based freelance publishing network where a writer pays a fee to be hosted and then an editor, proofer, cover-artist, and formatter are signed on to work on it, taking their percentage of the fee. The author is there in the middle of it for the entire process, and the book ideally becomes a group project.

It’s going to happen, and it’s probably not too far down the road either. I’m looking forward to seeing how this all develops. Exciting stuff!

Maps and Story

Below is a map of Harbortown, the fictional town of my side project currently going by the same name. I enjoy drawing maps, but wanted to see if I could find some place that approached what I was thinking of, and low and behold, I found it.

One of the coolest things about maps or any images you gather, is that they help to inspire the story. When I began this story, it started with crime that I thought would be cool, then developed more and changed focus when I created the main character, and finally morphed into a type of story when I figured out where I wanted to place things.

I wanted a foggy, seaside kind of place that would lend itself to a noir type setting. I scanned up and down the west coast with Google Maps until I discovered a town of about the right size and met the current, sparse needs of the story. I began to create places in this town, bad guys, good guys, neighborhoods, and so on. When you do this, you’re always wondering just how the main character fits into this place. If she grew up here, what would life have been like? What would have inspired her to become a Detective in a place ruled by crime? The more I began to flesh out the town, the more her life actually came to life. It inspired thoughts and story directions I hadn’t considered or thought of before. In short, maps are a great development device.

Sometimes setting is just that, a backdrop to contain the plot and characters, but when it feeds into the characters and helps drive the plot, it becomes a character all its own. Harbortown is becoming like that for me, filled with quirky, strange, and badass people. It’s going to be fun writing a story in this town and watch my characters interact with it. From Old Man Smoothie, the ice cream shop owner to Casper Winegarten, the coroner, who totes around a Scooby-Doo sippy cup full of $100 wine, the town is an inspiration and I hope to make the most of it.

So, if you are stuck on a project and unsure where to go or what to do, flesh out the setting where your characters live, bring it to life, and see what can happen. You’ll be surprised.

HARBORTOWN

 

If You’re Going To Pay Me 6%, Then It Better Be 6%

There was a very interesting post put up yesterday by Ann Peterson on J.A. Konrath’s blog about why she left Harlequin Publishing. You can read it here: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/harlequin-fail.html. She highlights some very unsettling information with regard to royatlies, and there’s even more worthy info in the comments section from other Harlequin authors. It’s definitely worth the read.

The post is about why she has decided to go to self-publishing, and the gist of her argument is that she just can’t afford not too. A breakdown on her royalty numbers for one of her books indicated that she was getting a mere 2.4% royalty per copy. Harelquin’s stated royalty rate on category books, of which this book was one, is 6%.   So, how does this kind of discrepancy occur? One of the main reasons is a little known method through which the books get sold. Harlequin licenses out the book to by sold by a third party, and they take a fair chunk of the change from the book. The problem? Harlequin owns this company. So they get to keep their fair share while the author gets less than theirs.  Is it any wonder that the comments in Ann’s post are from a number of other authors who have decided to leave Harlequin to pursue self-publishing?

Now, to be fair, I don’t know all the ins and outs of how and why the publisher functions this way. I imagine there are financial reasons for it that make it more beneficial to them. Is it purposeful with regard to short-changing authors? Probably not, but that is the end result. Frankly, 6% should be 6%, regardless of all the financial wrangling the publisher does to maximize and sell its product. Using Ann’s example, she sold app. 180,000 copies of the book since 2002.  She made $20,000. She should have made $45,000 (these are approximate figures).  Whatever the publisher reasoning, good or bad, this is a problem.

There is a growing tide of traditionally published authors that are moving to doing it on their own. Ann is fortunate to have a fan base already and I expect will do rather well for herself on her own.  If you look through the comments on her post, you will see from some other authors how lopsided the results can be. It’s the difference between making a living and not making a living with your writing.

One particularly disturbing quote I read from someone who was at an RWA conference (romance writer’s association) who asked a Harlequin editor panel about this issue, was told rather bluntly that Harlequin doesn’t expect you to make a living from this. Don’t quit your day job. This is a hobby. Category authors write roughly 3-4 books a year. The time and resource investment necessary to do that does not make writing a hobby. That makes it a full time job and should be compensated as such. I should also point out that there are Harlequin authors who do make a living at this. I know one who was making close to six figures a year. They put out about 5 books a year. This still boggles my mind. That is a LOT of work.

The problem here is, you can’t expect professional, full-time work for hobbyist wages.  One of the major issues that the rise in digital publishing has brought up is the problematic publisher-author relationship. It’s not working.  If you are selling a product and the producers of the product are not happy with the relationship, it threatens your business. Publishing is an odd business however. Historically, writers have done and will do just about anything to get published. It’s the dream, and on a certain level, crappy terms and payments don’t matter. But now there is another avenue, one that is equally as challenging from an author standpoint, but one that is at least inherently fair. With the option given, who wouldn’t take a fair challenge over an unfair one?

Now, I do understand publishers have much to offer over doing it yourself. It’s a rather large service package you get as a trade-off for lower payment. You’re paying for editing, copy-editing, cover art, distribution, potential foreign sales, potential film/tv options, some marketing/promo. These services cost money. On your own they would cost a lot of money too. It has always been a take it or leave it ballgame, but not any more. Writing to publish with the intent to earn money is not a hobby, and authors should not be treated as though it were. It’s disrespectful to the art and the writer.

As an author, this is an important issue for me. Authors deserve fair and reasonable compensation. I don’t expect publishers to be finagling their methods to short-change me on that aspect. If we agree to 6% of the cover price as royalty, then it better damn well be 6% on my royalty statement. This is not an unreasonable expectation. Personally I want publishers to succeed. I like what they offer. I’m all for the full-service package so I can write stories and not worry about how and when I’m going to invest in all of the other elements of publishing.  I don’t want to have to do that.  It’s a lot of work just to produce a good story in the first place, and I would love nothing more than make a reasonable living doing so. Publishers, this is not too much to ask. Figure it out, please.

Giveaway: Deadworld Series and Harlequin Romance!

Some of you may know and many likely don’t that I live in a two writer household. My wife, author Tracy Madison (you can follower her on twitter at @tracymadison) writes light paranormal and contemporary romance. She is a wonderful writer and currently writes for Harlequin’s Special Edition line. Her debut with them, Miracle Under the Mistletoe won the Reviewers Choice Award at RT this year for best in the category for 2011. So, in celebration of that recent award and the release of The Lingering Dead, I’m going to giveaway signed copies of all three Deadworld books and a couple of hers as well.  Five book giveaway!

To enter, comment below. I’m not going to make you answer any particular questions this time, but if you have a question about writing in a two author household, feel free to ask, and I’ll be happy to answer. I’ll leave this open for a week through May 16th and announce the winner on the 17th (U.S./Can address only, please). Happy reading/writing everyone!