Tuesday, May 27, 2014

THE BLOODY PART OF WRITING

“Writing is easy, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
-Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

Never eat PBJ while typing
That quote by Red Smith has been attributed to a lot of people such as Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, but the earliest reference I can find is from Smith.  He probably got it from someone else.  Its a great quote, it sounds terribly witty and dry.  And its patent nonsense.
The hard part of writing isn't writing at all, for most authors - for me so far, certainly - that's the easy part, relatively speaking.  Sitting down and typing or writing down the story either flows comfortably and easily or you have a tough time and have to work at it, or take time off and think.  Its not that writing is always easy, I've had times when I wrote my self into a corner and have to try to figure out where to go next (such as Erkenbrand on the ridge, captured and watching a sacrifice).
The easy part refers to everything else you have to do as a writer.  When I say the writing is relatively easy, I mean that it just gets harder from there.  Editing and rewrites are mildly annoying, but its from that point on that its downhill.  I'm an author, its what I do, and I am not shabby at it, most of the time.  Its not good enough to just be an author.  Once those words are on the paper, you then have to get them out to other people, or you're just wasting time.  If nobody reads what you've written, what was the point of the exercise?
You have to publicize and sell your book, you have to find someone to get it out to the public and get it printed.  I'm lousy  at this, not only do I hate to sell myself out of discomfort with the idea of it, it just seems improper to run about yelling about how great you are.  It smacks of arrogance and egotism.  Yet that's part of your job as a writer.
The typical system is to find an agent, which involves writing up a clever introduction and summary of your book - selling yourself to agents who are bombarded with submissions every day - so you can get one interested in your work.  I sent out scores of these to agents over two years, and got a few responses back.  One actually said she liked my writing and wanted to see more, but didn't like that particular book (she disliked first person perspective, something I wrote about before).  The best and most successful authors started out with hundreds of rejections from agents.
Once you get past that hurdle, your agent gets a publisher, then you work with the publisher to get it in print, and you typically have to work to sell the book as well with interview, appearances, signings, and so on.  Sell, sell, sell.  And each time you write a new book, the same selling takes place.
Now days, as I've written about several times before, its foolish to go the old route.  Chances are you won't get published anyway, as both publishers and agents are super skittish about anything they can't be absolutely certain they will get a sale.  Books just aren't selling well now, so they are trying to cut their losses, you can't blame them.
So these days the best way to go about it is to put your stuff online and hope for sales.  That's the easiest system: no gatekeepers, no agents, no publishers.  Yet you still have to do the hard part, because who's going to even know your book exists?  Its true that the internet is an essentially infinite shelf; its always there and never goes away.  In a store they only have so much space and they move slow sellers off the shelf while online they just sit until the sun wipes out electronics or some massive disaster takes place.
But since the shelf is infinite, and people probably don't know your name, you have to make them aware of your book somehow.  You're one drop of water in an ocean of materials out there - its the same problem with any internet endeavor.  You can have the best website in the universe but until it gets found, it will just sit there unnoticed.  Its largely a mystery how some stuff takes off and others do not.  Youtube was just another site people had videos on but for some reason it went nuts.  Cheezburger was just some guy's funny pictures of cats until people saw it and it went crazy.  Why some things work and others don't nobody really understands, although there are plenty of theories.
So you can't just upload your book and kick back as the cash rolls in.  You probably won't sell a single copy, no matter how good it is.  You have to make that book known.  And that means the hard part: sell, sell, sell.
Now, as I noted a little while ago, the old publicity systems don't really work.  Doing interviews for non fiction is fine, because people might be interested in the subject based on the expertise of the author but fiction is different.  Unless you're an established, beloved author, nobody cares who you are.  They want the content; they care about the story, not the writer.
So hiring a publicist to sell your fiction is a waste of money.  A crowdsource fundraiser might get some interest in the people donating money but all you do is get the money together to pay a publicist and again, that won't help much for fiction.
So you hope for reviews.  And while bombarding the top reviewers on Amazon was a great trick a few months ago when people didn't know much about it, these days they get dozens of books a day and haven't time or interest to review them all.  I would still do it - its free, after all - but its not as effective as it used to be.

Newspapers don't do reviews much these days, either.  Books don't sell much, they mostly use wire services and have fewer reporters on staff these days, and its just not a big draw.  After all, they're in the business of selling newspapers, not doing anyone any favors.  And there's another problem even if they do any reviews.
You see, the newspaper guys don't know you from a hole in the ground.  And when you get email from a total stranger, what do you tend to do?  Newspapers get hundreds of unsolicited emails from people they don't know every day and almost every single one of them is junk. In fact, some probably have their spam filters set so broadly that unless its an email they recognize, it doesn't even get to them, but is instead sent to a trashcan as soon as it reaches their email program.
You need a foot in the door, and that's what publishers do for you.  They have contacts, established names, businesses that are recognized and trusted, and email addresses directly to the right people to get the right thing done.  A publicist can do this for you as well, but they charge an awful lot for having the right emails.
And even if they do know you, every Tom, Dick, and Mary is out there writing books and putting them up on Amazon Kindle these days, and they all want reviews.  So even if they do allow any emails through, the newspaper probably won't even look at your book unless they know you or you're already established as a writer - and don't need the review in the first place.
So you can't even get your book reviewed most of the time.  You can probably get a review journal to do the job, but nobody reads those except the writers and a very small group of hardcore review fanatics.  
There's another problem: I managed to get my book mentioned in the local newspaper, but they got it wrong.  The picture they put with the mention was the wrong book, and it wasn't a review at all, it was just a little one paragraph bit: local author gets published.  Every single person I've ever read, talked to, or heard of who has had any part of a news story in a paper or news show says the exact same thing, without exception: they never get it exactly right.  Never.  So even if you get a review chances are they'll mess it up somehow.
In other words: you're pretty well out of luck.  Now there are other tricks you can use, and its not impossible to get word out.  Emails, worth of mouth, mention on sites like Instapundit (although I only saw 3 sales from mine), related sites (fantasy sites if you write a fantasy novel, etc) and so on can all get you sales.  Most people online have a network of people they know who can spread the word, and you can mention your book on various websites.
What I'd do if I had plenty of money and energy (mostly the latter) is start up a business.  I would create a business whose only job is to work with authors of self-published ebooks to get them the kind of publicity that fiction requires.  Not interviews and pictures of them, but reviews, "trailers" and so on, the kind of thing that attracts readers.
Such a business could work only with well-done, professional, and properly edited books, even helping with advice on covers and titles, and hooking them up with ISBN data and contacts for printing.  This business, with the right care in picking titles and authors, could build a reputation of quality, and that gets your foot in the door.
Honestly, if I owned a big publishing house, this is what I'd do with the business.  I would de-emphasize the focus on printing books, move more toward print-on-demand, and emphasize contacts, reviews, and so on.  Offering professional editing, cover design, reviews, and publicity keyed to the type of book would bring in cash that dwindling book sales is losing them.
Instead of printing large numbers of books hoping they sell in book stores, a smart publisher could focus on printing quality copies on demand and finding the best of the online ebook writers to work with.  And the publishers should reach out to writers as well as waiting to be contacted; they should strive to find and serve the talent rather than sit about arrogantly keeping the gates with a cocked eyebrow and disapproving gaze.
The days publishers can take the bulk of the profits for printing books the talent have provided for them are coming to an end, and they have to adapt.  This seems like a good direction to go - it still gives people books that want them (and I do love a real book), and it keeps them in business working to give the talent they find publication they desire.
But instead of working on long-term exclusive contractual deals that lock in authors for years and years without recourse, they should work as contracted specialists who serve the author like any other business.