Continuing on the subject of easy self publishing

When I go looking for a book, oh, let’s say I’m looking for a good Heroic Fantasy (I like heroic fantasy but good stuff–meaning stuff I enjoy about people I’d like if I met them in real life where the challenges are enough to keep me rapt but not so great as to set off my rather idiosyncratic “squick” factors and so on–can be hard to find). There might be a half dozen or so on the shelves that I’m not already familiar with and pulling that out of a shelf full of science fiction and fantasy is enough of a challenge. But how many manuscripts get submitted for every one that turns up on those shelves? If a significant percentage of those go the self-publishing route then my problem in finding that “good Heroic Fantasy” for this week has become a hundred times harder. Yes, the publishers “miss” good work in their selection process and let some utter dreck through but, as a former slush reader, I can assure you that the ratio of “good” to “dreck” that makes the publishing cut is at least two orders of magnitude better than the ratio coming in via the slushpile.

Up until now, publishers have performed two services: making books accessible, and acting as a filter to at least weed out the worst of what gets submitted. With POD, self-publishing, and especially e-publishing the first function has become largely superfluous but that also means that their ability in the latter function (far from perfect even in the best of times, and some of their business models in that vein have been nuts from my perspective) is greatly reduced. That doesn’t reduce the need for that second function to be provided by someone, even if not by the publishers. Who that someone might be, I think, is still an open question.

Like most people (I presume) I don’t really pay any attention to who publishes the particular books I buy.   I do buy a lot of Baen books, but a large part of that is that they make it easy to buy lots of books, cheaply, that I could put on my old PDA or on my iPod Touch now–I like the idea of being able to carry a large chunk of my library anywhere I go. Still, the fact that the book was on the shelves meant that it had been professionally published and that the worst 90% had been screened out before it was published.  Another 9% or so was also screened out but that may or may not have been “worse” than what was actually published.

I do think somebody needs to perform that “screening function” (I believe the “term of art” is “Gatekeeper”). I, as a reader, need help to get through that thousand Eye of Argon’s to get to the one “The Oathbound”. Maybe reviewers can serve that function but at present I don’t see reviewers going through enough books to make a dent in that pile and I don’t see a business model to pay them to do it. (Yes, reviewers often want to be paid.  Rude of them, I know, but that’s how things work.)

I’m not disagreeing in the long run with self-publishing and e-publishing as being “the wave of the future” but I also foresee some pretty serious teething problems in the transition. The simple fact is that “Well Known Writer” as the byline is going to draw a lot more people than “David L. Burkhead” (Who?). To start “word of mouth” somebody has to read the book in order to tell someone else. And a book by Well Known Writer is going to have a lot more initial vectors to start that word of mouth than will David L. Burkhead (Who?). And since not everybody who reads the book will enjoy it, and since not everyone who reads the book and enjoys it will take the time to tell others, and since not everybody who is told how great it is will buy it themselves, the more initial vectors one has the better chance of a word of mouth that doesn’t fizzle into nothing for reasons that have nothing to do with how good the book itself is.

Whew, this is getting long (getting?). Let me be clear about one thing. Although I used myself as an example above I’m not complaining “it’s not fair!” I’m an unrepentant capitalist. But the idea that good product will always find its market in a “free market” is a myth. Good product has better chances, all other things being equal (but when are all other things equal?) but there are no guarantees. I am simply pointing out that a business model that can be attractive for people who do have a following, who have people who will at least give the work a look because of the author’s name on the cover, or who have the resources (which need not necessarily be financial) to provide the “push” that publishers can do for favored authors, can be more . . . intimidating to folk who aren’t in that position. But then again if it were easy everybody could play.

;)

But, like I said before, no answers, just questions.

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Self Publishing and the Writer

A number of writers have been talking about self publishing and e-publishing of late, particularly as a way around some of the flaws of traditional publishing.  This is often combined with a belief that traditional publishing is either on the way out or is going to have to radically change.

Perhaps.  Some of these folk know a lot more about the field than me.  However I have some concerns about looking at easy self publishing and e-publishing as a solution to the problems they see.

One of the problems with the “you too can publish” situation is that, as a reader, you too can read slush*. How does one sort out the simply literate (never mind “quality”) from the vast majority of stuff that crosses a typical first reader’s desk. (I worked as one for a while and let me tell you….)?
With epublishing still in its relative infancy the problem is perhaps small now but it will grow as more people “discover” it. How do we prevent the Kindle store (for instance) looking like my first reader inbox? How does the average reader sort out what they want to read from the deluge of slush.
It may be different for authors who already have published works in the double digits, who are “known” names with an established readership, but for a beginner who only has the words on the page/screen to differentiate him or her from the flood of others who have different arrangements of words on their pages/screens–some barely literate (if that), some entertaining reads, and a precious few that are “wow”?
No answers here, just questions.

*”Slush” is a term for unsolicited submissions sent to publishers and agents.  Most editors of my acquaintance say that it is almost universally bad and a lot of time is spent trying to find the handful of publishable stories in the lot.  This matches my own short experience as a slush reader.

I love it when things just "click".

This morning, on the drive into work (my day job) I had an idea for a story spring “full blown” in my head (like Athena from the head of Zeus).

On getting home and 1200 words later it’s time to call it quits for the day.  I’ve got a good setup.  Some of the stylistic points (doing some things I’ve never done before) are coming along nicely.  And I’ve got a good idea where the story is going from here.

I expect the final result to be in the 3-5 thousand word range.  Not a major money maker even if it sells (and that’s never guaranteed) but something to definitely keep my hand in and stretch my writerly muscles.

My first sales

On to my first sales.  In 1990 I moved to being a “full time writer” which, frankly, was another way of saying that I was unemployed. (Various reasons for that, none of them particularly germane to this blog.) At that point I started writing a lot.  Most of my stories were still fairly derivative but one was something a bit different, a near-future piece written in an epistolary format (that is, in the form of various letters back and forth).  It was this story, titled “The Future is Now” that garnered my first personal response from an editor:  Stanley Schmidt of Analog:

“This story has good microwriting, that is writing at the sentence and paragraph level but the essence of story is conflict.” And my story didn’t really have that.  So I went back, added a rival corporation and some challenges along the way.  That came back with the criticism that the conflict all happened “off stage” (letters about conflicts that were resolved). Stan suggested breaking out of the epistolary formatting and going to straight third person narrative for the key scenes.  I didn’t like that thinking it would jar with the rest of the story being written as it is.  So I came up with a compromise.  I wrote one of the key scenes as “minutes” of a board meeting and the other as transcript of a launch and rescue operation.  This gave the in-story immediacy that it needed and the next round Stan bought.

Shortly after that I got a contract back from a story I had submitted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  The story was a very short humorous (at least so intended) piece “Jilka and the Evil Wizard.”  Although this story was sold after The Future is Now it was actually published first. (More on that in a bit.)

Finally, while this was going on I was sending out queries for non-fiction articles.  I got a response from one from a magazine “High Technology Careers” asking that I write a 1500-1800 word article on the topic of The Economics of Lunar Mining at 17.5 cents a word.  This article was accepted as written and appeared about the same time as the other two stories.

Back to Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  The turnaround between Ms. Bradley accepting the story and it appearing in the magazine was awfully short.  In that issue, Ms. Bradley’s editorial expressed some ire at people who simultaneously submit and then withdraw accepted stories leaving the editor to scramble to fill a hole.  I’ve always assumed, given those two facts, that she bought my story because it was a “not impossible” of the right size to fill a hole she was scrambling to fill.  That may not actually be the case but I’ve always thought it likely.

A kind of sad point of looking back at these first sales is that two of the three magazines are no longer in business.  When Ms. Bradley passed away, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine went with her.  And High Technology Careers ceased publication some years after my article’s publication.

There were several lessons I learned through all this:

1) “The essence of story is conflict.” That really comes down to the heart of things.  You cannot be nice to your characters.  If there’s no conflict you may have a narrative but you do not have a story.
2) The reader/editor is never wrong about their experience of the story but they may be wrong about how to fix problems they see.
3) Luck matters.  Sometimes the timing of when a story arrives can make the difference between selling to that market or not.
4) Persistence pays.  I sent out a lot of queries before I got the assignment to write the article.

Getting started in writing

Getting started writing isn’t rocket science.  The late Marion Zimmer Bradley defined it quite succinctly: “Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the typewriter chair and stay there until you get results.”  There’s really not much more than that.

Well, there’s not much more to it than that unless you want to write stories that sell.  Even here, it’s hard to determine any hard and fast rules.  It seems that for any rule one might name there’s somebody out there breaking it successfully.  Still, there are some things that can help.

1) If you want to write, you have to be a reader.  Read voraciously.  If you want to write in a particular genre–science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, westerns, romance, whatever–then read that genre.  But don’t read only that genre.  Stretch your horizons.  Read classics.  Read non-fiction.  Want to write Science Fiction?  Read Romance.  Want to write Romance?  Read Westerns.   Now, in addition to the reading, think about what you’ve read.  What did you like about it?  What did you dislike?  If you liked some parts and disliked others, try to figure out why.  What was different?

What you’re doing here is learning what goes into a successful story, what works for you and what doesn’t.  You can read reviews to get an idea of what worked and didn’t work for others, and that can be valuable, but in the end it comes down to what works for you and no one else.

2) Get out and meet people.  Watch them.  Talk to them.  Take notes, if only mental ones.  In the end, stories are about people.  All these interactions with people in the real world–good, bad, or indifferent–are ingredients that will go into your characters in stories.  If your only source for characters comes from reading other people’s stories your characters will seem derivative and shallow.  They will seem that way because they are derivative and shallow.  So bring some real people into the mix.

I’m not a big fan of basing individual characters on individual real people but taking a bit from here and a bit from there and one can build interesting characters that will seem real to the readers.  And that’s the goal.  They don’t have to be real.  They have to seem real.

3) Above all, write.  Write character sketches, story ideas, complete stories.  Write write write.  Then take what you’ve learned from the reading and look at it again.  What does and doesn’t work in what you’re writing?  Something not working?  Can you fix it?  If so, try that.  If not, set it aside (after all, there may be something you can mine out of that later) and try something else.

A “truism” in writing is that one has to write about a million words worth of crap in simply learning the craft.  Now, there are some exceptions to that rule (you know who you are; yes you do) but that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.  While there is a “talent” aspect to writing and storytelling they are also crafts that can be learned.  But here’s the thing, you can’t just write any crap.  You have to be trying your absolute best, writing the best crap you know how to write.

I started writing sometime in grade school.  I was, at that time, a big reader mostly of science fiction.  I was a big “space buff” and was writing mainly to get more stuff to read.  During those years I wrote a lot of story beginnings but very few if any complete stories.

Then came 1977 and That Movie.  I loved the movie.  It inspired me to write a screenplay of my own.  It inspired me to finish a screenplay of my own.  Now, my screenplay was a cheap ripoff of Star Wars.  It was a bad cheap ripoff of Star Wars.  I mean this thing was seriously bad.  I live in fear that somebody, somewhere, might turn up the only copy of the manuscript (written by hand on notebook paper) and threaten to release it to the world if I don’t pay blackmail money.  Bad.  But, it was nevertheless an important turning point.  It was the first piece of any length that I had finished.  I could finish a story.

And so my next big story was a novel written in study hall at school.  It too, was very bad.  Hackneyed, cliched, and implausible.  Oh, and the main character was a complete Mary Sue (Marty Stu?).  But, again, I demonstrated that I could complete a work of significant length.

Shortly after that I joined the Air Force and played around with writing a bit more.  I had discovered SF magazines and realized that people paid money for short work, including short work from new authors.  And so I began writing short fiction in earnest.  Most of my work in this period was still quite derivative I wasn’t having any success.  Writing was still an occasional thing with me but I’d write stories on my computer (Apple IIe), take the printed copy (9 pin dot matrix) over to the library to retype for submission, and send them out to collect rejection letters.

This was a very frustrating period but, without realizing it, I was learning the basics of the craft and the stories were getting better.  It was in 1991 when I made my first sales. (More on that another time.)