Thursday, August 7, 2014

THE SIMPLEST IDEA

Something that comes up in writer's groups and discussions of writing quite often is wondering whether an idea is any good.  People will pitch their concept for a book or idea for a story and ask "is that any good, can it work?"

My answer always will be the same: if you write it well then yes.  Write an interesting story with a compelling plot, create memorable characters and develop them well, write effective dialog and imagination-capturing description and craft a professional and engaging story and you've got a winner.

Its not the idea that is the key here.  Any idea can be a good story, or a bad one.  Look back at the greatest books of all time and their basic storyline, pared down to its minimum:
  • Romeo and Juliet: two people whose parents hate each other fall in love. 
  • A Tale of Two Cities: trying to survive a change in government. 
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: a boy growing up in the south 
  • The Lord of the Rings: A quest to destroy a powerful item 
  • Moby Dick: a man seeks revenge on a whale
  • The Grapes of Wrath: A family flees drought to California
  • 1984: A man falls afoul of the government
And so on. 

The basic ideas are incredibly simple. They've been used a million times. Even silly but entertaining stuff like Die Hard seem complex until you strip away the story and the characters to the raw plot: a cop stops a robbery. Its what you write and how, its how you develop the characters and what the other subplots you weave in, its how you tell the story that matters. Any idea can work if you are a capable writer who delivers your ideas creatively and compellingly.

Zis one vill be great, trust me!
On the other hand, any idea can be awful if you can't write it well.  Watch any Uwe Boll movie for how a good idea with capable actors and a big budget can be painfully awful.  The idea in and of its self is nothing more than an idea.  Its not even a plot, its a sketch that you build a plot around.  Its not a story, its the thing that basically happens when you tell your story.

So no, there are no bad ideas.  Just ideas handled badly.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

THE GREAT HACHETTE WAR OF 2014

There's a battle going on in publishing right now that unless you're an author or an Amazon.com stock junkie you might not know anything about.  Amazon.com and a publishing house with the name of Hachette are struggling for dominance and in the court room.
Basically it breaks down to this: Hatchette wants to control pricing on e-books and keep them high.  Amazon wants to control pricing on e-books and keep them low.  Hachette represents big publishing, its one of the big 5 publishers in the world and has the backing of the other four in this fight.  Amazon represents... its self, really.
Now, at first blush this seems like an easy fight to choose between.  As a consumer, cheaper e-books is good for you, so Amazon is the horse to back.  But there's more to this than just the prices.  Essentially, this is a battle between old publishing and new, trying to determine who controls the industry.  If Amazon wins, they will control publishing for the foreseeable future.  If Hachette wins, the publishing houses keep their hold for the time being.
It comes down to this: Amazon wants big publishers to charge less for their e-books; they have a cap on how expensive a new ebook should cost.  Big publishers want to charge more for their e-books.  The general price they want is around $15.00 US, which is where most of their new e-books come out.  Amazon insists it be lower, at $9.99 at most.
Now, there's a lot of stuff being written on either side of this debate, arguing one way or another.   Laura Miller, for example, argues on Salon.com that if Amazon wins, then small independent publishers will suffer:
There are already more thrillers being cranked out by traditional presses than most people have time to read, and if those titles were all the same price as their self-published brethren, there would be much less incentive to try out the offerings from self-publishers. Self-published authors would feel pressure to reduce their prices even further.

As irksome as it may be for self-published authors to acknowledge, it’s in their best interests that traditional publishers like Hachette be allowed keep the prices of their e-books high.
Except her argument is poor.  She's assuming that big publishers would sell their books for anything under the maximum allowable price, while few if any independent publishers sell their stuff for more than $5.00.  That's a five dollar difference between the Amazon cap and the independent book price, so there's no pressure to lower prices whatsoever for independents.
To understand how this plays out, its useful to consider how the system has worked up to this point.  Publishing houses take someone's work and do minor editing, create a cover, do minimal publicity, and bind it to publish.  For this effort, as long as the contract lasts, they get a significant chunk of the cover price, the retailers get another big chunk, and the writer whose efforts make the entire product exist gets about 20%.  From that, they have to pay their agent, so in the end, they get closer to 15% of any book they sell.  In other words, for each dollar a book sells for, the author gets 10 cents and the publisher about 30.
This is how its worked for about 300 years now, and publishers are understandably keen on keeping that system going.  Further, as they've been suffering serious losses of sales and declining revenues, publishing houses are very eager to get more money coming in.  They see a great opportunity in e-books since they're virtually free to publish.
E-book authors get royalties for each sale, just like real book sales.  Through a publisher, an author gets about 35% of the cover price (with the publisher getting about 35% as well).  That means for each 15 dollar e-book, the author earns about $5.25 - minus the $2.25 or so the agent gets.  When you publish an actual book, there are significant costs such as printing, distribution, and the cost of unsold books which are returned to publishers by retailers (although more are going to a print-on-demand model).
So those e-books mean a lot more profit for the publishing company. If they can get over 5 bucks per book with virtually zero expenses, then that's sweet fat profit.  They want that profit to be as big as possible, to make the most money they can.  How else can they afford the Manhattan penthouses and six to seven figure incomes for the top bosses in the companies?