The Jeff Bezos Problem

By Daniel Spils – originally posted to Flickr as Jeff visits the Robots, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11253016

This morning I received a query from a friend of mine asking where he could buy one of my books. He didn’t want to buy from Amazon and further line the pockets of Jeff Bezos.

This widespread reaction to Bezos’ fortune and his choices of how to spend his money has reached the point where I feel obligated to fully explain why my books are marketed at Amazon and why we might need to take deep breath and cut Bezos a tiny bit of slack.

In 1994 at the age of 32, Bezos decided to establish an online bookselling enterprise. Within the next twenty years, his company Amazon had expanded to offer an enormous range of products. But his original idea was about books. By the early 2000s, Bezos had expanded his concept to allow authors to publish their own books.

Before this, authors faced two options. Traditionally, a printed submission letter with an outline of the proposed book would be submitted to a publishing house for consideration. If interested, the publisher would request the manuscript for review. With a slim chance of acceptance, the book could easily languish in these dead end processes for years before a) a publisher somewhere accepted the book or b) the author gave up in despair.

By the end of the 20th century, publishing houses increasingly refused this first layer of submission from authors. Instead, authors were directed to find an agent who, after screening the manuscript, might deign to take the book under his wing and offer various revisions and plot recommendations before then trying to market the book to a publishing house. The publishing house still could refuse the book, but if they saw any promise in the project, their editors would pick through the manuscript for yet more revisions. Again, months turned into years while authors held onto hope, usually to ultimately meet with rejection.

Literary Criticism, caricature of literary critics removing passages from books that displease them, c.1830 Charles Joseph Travis de Villiers

Or worse. Two books of mine submitted in the late 1990s through this Sisyphean process ended up published by other people. I’ve described these infuriating experiences of intellectual property theft in previous blog posts here, here, and here.

The other option for authors was to self-publish. This path was taken by my mother who paid nearly $2,000 for her family history to appear in print. A friend of mine also took this route when she paid a vanity press to print a few thousand copies of her book, which she had to store in her garage and distribute herself. But along with the internet and the engineering genius of Bezos, Amazon formed a branch known as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) where an author had total control over the publication of her/his book.

Print on demand simply means that when someone purchases a certain book, it is then printed and shipped. An author using KDP must prepare the manuscript by certain layout guidelines, but is then free to choose page size, white or cream paper, and certain other formatting options. The manuscript is uploaded at the KDP website and after proofing, the book is ready to purchase. The author can either use KDP’s cover templates to create the book’s cover or upload a cover file created entirely by the author. (I use Photoshop and thoroughly enjoy the use of color, imagery, and font choices.)

The freedom this provides an author is absolutely stunning.

A few print-on-demand enterprises co-exist with KDP, but KDP’s software is supremely user friendly and allows for maximum author flexibility. KDP also offers swift interaction with staff via email, chat, or phone if/when questions arise. KDP pricing, at least for paperbacks, means that authors gain a higher share of the sale price than is available through any other publishing outlet. Ebook pricing is not quite as competitive as a few other entities such as Smashwords, but promotional options are much wider.

My first book, Notes of a Piano Tuner, published in 1996 by a traditional small regional press, sold for $16.95. My royalty was one dollar. Through KDP, a recent book that retails for $26.95 pays me $8.70. KDP retains $7.47 for printing costs, and the rest is KDP profit. While that is a sizeable profit for KDP and its parent Amazon, I am still ahead of the 5.8% profit I received through traditional publishing. At $8.70, that’s over 32% profit.

Book market in India

Perhaps even more important for most authors is that self-pub books at KDP remain on their virtual bookshelves forever and essentially worldwide. These services are available to authors in India, China, Japan, and many other far flung locations and in their own language. KDP provides the services needed to register my ISBN number with the Library of Congress. They provide marketing tools I can use to promote my books. I don’t have to do anything for my books to be found in online searches for my subject matter.

While all this is wonderful and amazing and possibly would have occurred sooner or later without Jeff Bezos, the fact is that he was the one who made it happen.

Not to say there hasn’t been a downside to the avalanche of author-published books his brain child has created. Key to the bookselling industry have been the various filters through which a manuscript would pass—agents, editors, and ultimately reviewers who offer insight into the nature and quality of any particular book, thereby providing a prospective reader a guideline of sorts to measure whether plopping down the requisite dollars is a wise decision. But as this Indie avalanche hit mainstream reviewers like Book Review DigestBooklistBook World, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal or other traditional book review sources including Saturday Review, Observer, New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker, the welcome mat quickly rolled up.

Self-publishing authors, known as Indies (independent), suffer no such critiques either before or after publishing. Some are able to pay a few of these review entities to gain a review, but the price is steep. Kirkus, for example, wants $500 per review for the onerous task. Most turn up their noses entirely.

The reason for this bottleneck in the literary pipeline is painfully clear to anyone who reads Indie books at random. The writing can be abysmally awful, everything from misspelled words to dangling modifiers and other grammatical abominations to outright absurdity in balanced presentation or research authenticity or, in fiction, plot line or character development. Furthermore, the Indie risk of showing one’s bare behind, i.e. complete lack of literary talent, is compounded at the review stand by the sheer quantity of self-published books flooding the marketplace.  

For a few genres, most notably romance fiction, a review option of sorts has sprung up to fill the gap. Facebook pages, groups, and multiple websites have proliferated where authors can submit a romance book for review. For a modest fee, usually $50 to $100, a promoter will set up review ‘tours’ that take a book through several such entities and can, in theory, rack up a nice quantity of reviews for that particular book which are then posted to the Amazon book listing page as well as to other book promotion sites like Goodreads. A rating of 5 stars is a sure path to reader interest, and most of these reviewers won’t post a review of less than 3 stars.

The Caxton Celebration – William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen By The Graphic, June 30, 1877, p617. Retrieved from old-print.com. Printing up through the end of the 18th century was largely a product of wealthy patrons who paid for the books they wanted in print.

No such wondrous option exists for most other types of books. A few exist for science fiction, a few for historical fiction, but virtually none for nonfiction. Authors must find creative ways to let the public know about their books, which up to a few years ago could include setting up an author page on Facebook alongside a personal page. One author I know had gained nearly one thousand ‘followers’ on her Facebook author page, and each time she published a new book or wanted to promote an existing book, she simply posted an enticing bit on her author page and the majority of her followers would receive the notice on their newsfeed.

Sadly, those days ended with Facebook’s corporate rush for money. Now my friend’s author page posts are seen only by a half dozen or less of her followers. The only way she can make a bigger splash is to pay Facebook to promote her posts. Depending on her choice of audience, the number of days the post should run, and her spending limit, Facebook will promote the product. It has reached the point, however, where Facebook newsfeeds are so spammed with similar “sponsored” ads that people usually just scroll past.

Ironically, even traditional publishing has stopped most expenditures on book promotion. Publishing is less about literary accomplishment and more about profits, and the trimming has proceeded at pace. Authors whether Indie or not are expected to pay their way through book signing tours and public appearances.  

Despite these stumbling blocks in Indie publishing, the old publishing world has crumbled. Few corporate-owned publishers are willing to risk possible low returns on an investment of manpower, ink, warehousing, and distribution unless the odds are good that an adequate return is more or less guaranteed. That’s why books by celebrities and known authors crowd the shelves and why libraries, which depend on mainstream reviews to determine acquisitions, will rarely if ever shelve Indie books.

In my case, where the majority of my books are focused on local history, I can promote my books through networks of friends and in local outlets. In the case of the book my friend wants to purchase, Good Times: A History of Night Spots and Live Music in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the demand has been great enough that I have partnered with the Washington County Historical Society to serve as an outlet through which they gain a decent percentage of the sale price and which offers the interested public a local source for the book.

However, the book is still published by KDP. As the author, I pay only the printing cost and receive no royalty from the sale. Whatever margin I wish to receive is gained in the wholesale price I charge the historical society. But, simply put, that and the rest of my books likely would not exist without Bezos.

I’ll Be There!

Fall 2018, book signing event at West Fork library with the release of The West Fork Valley.

Hey, this is your engraved invitation to join me this coming Sunday Nov 10 at 2 pm. I’ll be at the Walker Community Room of the Fayetteville Public Library to read from several of my books. Refreshments will be served. I’ll have a few copies of my books to sell, if you’re so inclined.

The library regularly features local authors on their 2nd Sunday Local Authors Day, for which I’m privileged to appear this time around. But before you dismiss the idea of going, keep in mind that these presentations are also available through the library’s Livestream service. Visit the FPL Livestream page at https://livestream.com and get with the program!

It’s been a year since my last series of book signings, when I released the West Fork Valley. The library calendar link for my event Sunday says I’ll read from my collection of murder stories published in 2017, but actually I’m talking about or reading from ELEVEN books.

Those of you who know me well know I’d rather be shot than speak in public or to try to sell anything. Since you know I’ll be suffering, come on down and suffer with me. You’ll be glad you did.

Me with the infamous Denny Luke, book signing at Ozark Folkways for his biography, South County: Bunyard Road and the Personal Adventures of Denny Luke

Those Pesky Emotions

Upon waking, I had thought to visit the library in search of more books by John Banville, a particular author who inspires me with his style of writing. I am currently halfway through one of his books and have periodically laid the volume aside to hack again at a long labor of mine, alternately caressed and despised, for nearly fifty years. This memoir relates a seven-year period of my life, if it ever sees print, both gut-wrenching and pathetic, a lament, self-aggrandizing, a confessional if you must.

Banville’s style is similar to my earlier writings, what came out of me in those days before I had published anything. My technical articles had seen print, and even essays on various personal topics—dreams, remembrances, all of it boiling with emotion. But after that first book, my writing wasn’t my own. I felt watched, self-conscious, fully inadequate to create anything of merit. What did I know, anyway?

Since then I have detoured into historical accounts of one thing or another, not anything to be ashamed of but nevertheless not of any emotional import. My slim efforts at fiction, where in theory emotion must reign supreme although within the harness so eloquently described by Frost, have failed to engage me—or readers. I have been terribly disappointed in that effort, as it seems I am unable—unwilling, in fact—to express or convey emotion because I steadfastly refuse to experience emotion. This failure is, as one of my characters says in a flash of fury, a response to the reality that emotion leads to pain.

Not just any pain, but a deep intractable burn that settles in the bones and leads like a labyrinth to all the many experiences of pain that I have swallowed down in the years of my life. Why should I willingly lay myself open to examine those hopeless dead-ends and hidden mortuaries? It’s not as if a re-examination will make anything change. I can’t excise the pain like a surgeon removing a misshapen, hidden tumor. Looking at and expressing it does nothing to ease its ability to wound. And re-wound.

But yet, as a writer, I must create stories that convey the experience of pain, of sadness, loneliness, despair, and all other human torments (alongside joy and pleasure, the light part of duality, the yin-yang) in order to give readers what they want. There’s some sickness in that formula, that readers seek new sources of pain in order to exhume and then exorcise their own long-hidden suffering. Is it that we don’t know we have pain? That we must cast our eyes along the pages to learn what we’ve hidden from ourselves? Is it that in living through fictional pain, distant as we are from any personal experience of it, that we can set aside the dragging fingernails of our own grief?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. I only know I that must write, and in so doing, I become caught up in the expectation that what I write will have some meritorious impact, and in that I will gain not only self-respect but also some small congratulation even if only from a few. And so I daily strive, like today, to expand my understanding of how and why people read. I endeavor to learn more closely the peculiar ways in which successful authors manage their craft. John Banville wields words like an expert swordsman and inspires me to take a fresh look at my memoir in the belief, perhaps delusional, that if I can only find the right words, a more musical phrasing, a more authoritative approach to my efforts, I might then be able to invoke the appreciation Banville has garnered.

However, the morning nearly gone and having attended—shall we say deviated from my original intent?—to various uninspiring tasks and only just now trying again to read for inspiration, I am distracted by my plan to visit the library. I am only halfway resting in my chair, so urgent is my sense of duty to get in my car and go.

Which makes no sense because I have a half book left to read and therefore no urgent need to visit the library. I have business at the bank and mail to drop, but that’s only side dressing to my actual underlying urgency to visit the library this very moment. It’s not that I wouldn’t like a couple more Banville books in order to compare his style from one work to the next. Of course I would. The real underlying truth is, I want to escape this duty and secure a stack of romance novels to get lost in, to vacate any responsibility to learning or writing, and simply disappear into a fictional world not of my own making.

This leads me to suspect that if I was able, theoretically, to set my emotions free from their harness to run rampant across the page, I would be confronted with feelings I might not want to hear or see and be forced to start cudgeling them back like the wild beasts they are. Or, as I once understood it, I might start screaming and not be able to stop, embarrassing me, my pets, and the neighbors.

Reprieve

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Stories await the telling, scenes the description, ideas the unfolding. Terror that time will run out and the long list of magic truth will be locked away in my grave. Horror that the stories are trite, scenes familiar, ideas old compost. Of course they are, I console myself. But your telling, your words, your angle is new. Uniquely yours. Important to at least one other person. I stare at the blank page.

Revulsion boils up. I hate this. I hate the stories that wait to be finished, the stories half done, the stories not started. They taunt me from my imagination—I can never give them life. They will never be good enough, never true to the inspiration, never worthy of a reader’s scrutiny.

Just write it, I urge myself. Write and the vision will unfold. The character will speak his voice and reveal his future. Let the fingers fly over the keys. Words will form and the story will be wonderful.

But wait.

There’s laundry I should start, or I’ll have no clean underwear tomorrow. Floors long past grim, perhaps fifteen minutes with the broom. There’s a call to be made. A business matter to tend. A window framing spring drizzle, grass greening. Thank god.

The Desk

man at deskFrom the desk, orders issue forth. Bits of paper and ideas settle into orderly stacks. Drawers open to reveal white paper, envelopes, pencils and pens, erasers, rulers, paperclips, checkbooks, random rubber bands and ephemera relevant to the civilization of mind.

The top of my father’s desk curved down at the front and back in a streamlined Art Deco style going out of fashion in the mid-Forties when my mother bought it for him. She purchased the desk new at a hardware store in Rogers, Arkansas, two years before I was born. It remains in the family household seventy years later.

The image of him sitting there with his big stubby fingers busily typing away on his massive old Royal typewriter stays in fresh my memory. Curses muttered in his deep rumbling voice signaled a mistake that required laborious erasures. Sometimes the errors ran so deep that the paper would be ripped from the carriage, accompanied by a mechanical zipping sound as the cylinder spun.

How satisfying, that ripping sound. The end to it, for once and for all! A new sheet of paper! A new start! And then the keys would tap again, clickety-clack, as he pursued the project at hand. A letter to a band parent? A notice to be posted on the bandroom bulletin board?

A bold red band graced the top border of his Bi-State Music Festival paper. It came in wrapped reams redolent of printers’ ink. Documents issued forth—letters to other band directors in the region, schedules of competing bands, ensembles, and soloists. I remember the watermarks on the heavy bond paper, the matching envelopes, the anticipation permeating our house as the festival neared. This was my father’s prize project for his years at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Then there were the hours, late into the night, that he bent over pre-lined manuscript paper with his quill of India ink to join the lines into a musical staff. His practiced flourish produced treble and bass clef signs, quick jots of ink for quarter notes, and quirky flags at the top of the note stem designating its status as eighth note or sixteenth. The side of his hand brushed the heavy manila paper as quarter note rests took shape or as a long slur line arced over two measures.

His concentration palpable, his cigarettes burned down to the filter in the wide glass ashtray. There were the groans and curses when his efforts went awry, when the ink bottle spilled or the muse stopping whispering in his ear. When real life demanded his attention to wife and children, the lawn that needed mowing, the bills past due. An artist at heart, he never fully accepted his role in the world of the mundane.

Command center to the world around us or doorway to the ether of creation, desks are the place where business is done. Here I utter my own curses at the petty requirements of temporal life. Can’t you see I am far away, the whispers of characters and scent of distant meadows flowing from my fingertips? Yet the desk is not only the arena of creation but also where I organize my world, establish schedules for my time and finances, and write letters to compliment the helpful and excoriate the stupid. Here I sit to stare out the window as memories and worries rush onward, ever onward, in my unruly thoughts.

Now the world unfolds on my computer screen. Words scroll across virtual paper, easily erased and corrected. No more ripping paper from the typewriter. How much more music could my father have written with the tools of modern times? Playing a simple phrase on a digitally-connected keyboard would have produced perfectly crafted notes on a virtual page, no ink required.

Maybe the result of such ease in the mechanics of creation is that we are now drowning in a sea of mediocre art. Perhaps we were better served with pages ripped from typewriters and music penned with India ink. When the need to tease out a deeply held emotion, find words that best describe, or form scenes that best reveal, I drag out the paper. It sits expectantly on the desk, this thick pad of white paper. Sometimes even the use of a pen is too facile, and I dig up the Number 2 lead pencil. It makes a satisfying sound as my hand forces the tip over the paper.

What I write on paper with pencil is different from what appears with keystrokes on a digital keyboard. The words are more carefully chosen. The shapes of letters carry significance. The words have real weight and I use them in new ways, unexpectedly poignant.

I am at my desk with paper and pencil. I can see my father bent here, his profile etched against the dark of night in the light from his desk lamp. His quill scratches across the page.

It was the best of times, it was the worst…

People 3995Traditional publishing versus self-publishing used to be a simple question of whether an author frustrated with barriers to traditional publishing would spend a considerable amount of money to get his cherished story into print. Works published through vanity presses might subsequently gain legitimacy if reviewers found merit in the work. But the vast majority of reviews were solicited by publishers whose process in selecting which works to publish assured reviewers that whatever landed on their desks would at least have a coherent plot and few if any dangling participles.

Then along came Amazon and the proliferation of Internet outlets which allowed authors to upload a manuscript and cover image and place their cherished stories instantly on the market, kicking the estimated annual count of new books to the 300,000 mark. Within a short period of time, the avalanche of not-ready-for-primetime books became more than any erudite reviewer could withstand. “We do not accept self-published books” became emblazoned across the reviewing sky. Indies were left to grope in the dark.

Which is understandable considering the poor quality of many self-published works. Many wanna-be authors rush to publish without a grasp of proper grammar, composition, or plot. This creates a big problem for worthy self-pub authors whose work consequently goes unnoticed.

Some might claim the obvious solution for authors is to embrace the traditional process. Join writers’ groups. Enroll in writing classes and workshops. Submit short stories to literary journals in hopes of winning a prize or being published, which can then be touted as credentials. Find an agent who believes in the work (if not the author). Wade through the agent’s editing process. Wait through the agent’s marketing process. If the agent successfully finds a publisher, wade through the publisher’s editing process. After a couple of years and the best of all possible outcomes, the book hits the market complete with professionally-produced cover, solicited mainstream reviews, and a bit of marketing.

Please note that even when accepted by mainstream publishers, authors are expected to build their own ‘platform’ for getting the word out. To develop such a platform, authors must become a presence in social media, develop promotional materials, blog and host a website, and make public appearances, most if not all at the author’s expense.

All of which ensures that the hopeful author remains broke and left with little time to do the only thing he wants to do: write.

One wonders exactly what authors gain from landing a traditional publishing contract. There’s the affirmation, of course, something writers need more than air. The money can be good if the book takes off, which is what the publisher counts on to justify its interest. But once the publisher skims the lion’s share (you know, expenses) and the agent pulls out his fifteen percent, the author earns precious little for all his hard labor. There’s the argument that the traditional route produces a better quality product. But one might justifiably ask what is left of the author’s original concept once various editors have woven their interpretation into the story.

Indie authors don’t have to compromise their vision or wait two years (or centuries) to present their work to the public. In theory, Indies with authentic writing skill produce well-written, innovative stories that extend and enrich the literary frontier. In practice, many Indies may have an innovative idea behind the urge to write/publish but next to zero skills with which to accomplish this goal. It is this open door to lousy writing which has soured reviewers to Indie work.

None of this is new information. I state it as a starting point: now what? Should a writer plunge into writing short stories and spend $20 a pop entering literary contests? Join writer groups and spend days reading and critiquing other author’s works in exchange for bi-annual scrutiny of her own work? Wait perhaps forever to win a nod from the publishing industry? Self-publish in hopes of modest success with higher profit margins than traditional paths offer and then languish in anonymity?

What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?

Aside from the obvious benefits of professional editing, formatting, and cover design which come with a publishing contract, one enormous con for the Indie is the barrier to gaining reviews from mainstream reviewers like the Washington Post or the New York Times. Let’s take a moment to examine that world.

The romance market dominates book sales, Indie or not. According to one source, romance claims “16.7 percent of the U.S. consumer market in books, the single largest slice for any segment – a third larger than the inspirational book market and roughly equivalent to sci-fi and mystery sales combined, according to Valerie Peterson at About.com.” In 2012, romance sales topped $1.4 billion.

Despite strong standing in book sales, romance novels earn little respect from reviewers (or, in fact, just about anyone in the literary publishing world). One possible explanation for this is the disproportionate number of men within the ranks of reviewers. As noted in a Salon article, “Women read more books than men. Yet every year, according to counts conducted by VIDA, most major publications run more book reviews by men than by women, and review more books by men than by women. In 2013, for example, the London Review of Books had 195 male book reviewers to 43 women reviewers: a ratio of almost 4-to-1. The New York Review of Books was in the same ballpark, with 212 male reviewers to 52 female ones.” http://www.salon.com/2014/02/25/highbrow_medias_sexist_blind_spot_romance_novels/

Taking up the slack in this torrid genre, an industry of amateur, largely female reviewer/bloggers has grown to massive proportions. Many such reviewers begin in the thrill of free books and social community only to quickly sink under the same avalanche that buried traditional reviewers. Countless blog sites languish unattended with a notice “Not accepting submissions.” Requests for reviews often number in the hundreds in just one day.

Amateur reviewers aren’t a perfect solution to the review problem. Many fail to actually review the work. Instead, the reviewer falls back on secondary school experiences of writing book reports which summarize the story. Consequently, these reviews compromise the book for any potential reader. Reviews should give a brief overview of the story concept, a bit about the author, and focus on whether the story was well executed in terms of presentation, plot, character development, and writing craft. Without any certifying agency or criteria by which reviewers might be verified as adept at their work, Indies have no method by which to select worthy reviewers.

Websites exist which purport to connect books with reviewers. But like overwhelmed blogs, such sites can’t promise reviews and an author may list the book and wait. Forever. The well-trafficked Goodreads site hosts author giveaways where books are given to winners in a process that draws attention to the book. Relatively few reviews are generated in the process which costs authors not only hard copies of their books but also the expense of packaging and postage. Groups formed within Goodreads, focused on a particular genre or on read/review offers, devolve into countless posts pleading for reviews and virtually none offering them.

An ugly microcosm of this arena features authors retaliating against reviewers for unfavorable reviews and reviewers dissing authors in endless snarky commentary.

Please.

For authors of fiction works other than romance, the field of blogger/reviewers drops to near zero. In nonfiction, forgetaboutit.

Does one—gasp—pay for reviews?

Writing/publishing advisers recommend strongly against paying for reviews. Yet one of the biggest names in the publishing world, Kirkus Reviews, smoothly promotes itself to prospective customers by offering “the most authoritative book reviews” for the modest price of $425 (7-9 weeks). Or, for authors in a hurry, $575 (4-6 weeks). Into this confusion come  authors exchanging reviews in an implicit quid pro quo of ‘you give me five stars, I’ll give you five stars’ which benefits no one in the long run. Lousy works with five star ratings only discourage readers.

I know of no effort made by Kirkus or anyone else in the ‘legitimate’ publishing industry to develop a free, comprehensive vetting and review system for Indie books. Predictably, book sales slumped in 2014 and are likely to slump even further as free books undermine the industry. It’s not enough that other media and an attention-deficit population have driven book readership to record lows. Publishers aren’t exactly weeping that Indies struggle for a market share.

Aside from reviews, what are an Indie author’s options for attracting readers?

Well, there’s social media. This has become the primary avenue by which authors become acquainted with other authors as well as readers. Writers are advised to interact within this community in order to become ‘known’ and therefore, theoretically, generate more sales for their books. Facebook pages may be author pages, interest group pages (for example, domination/submission groups within the romance genre), and marketing pages which become a blur of post after post of book cover/blurbs generated by hopeful (increasingly frantic) authors trying to generate sales. Unfortunately, this is largely authors trying to sell books to other authors.

There are Facebook pages exclusively for posting notice of books that are available free or for .99, pricing strategies meant to introduce readers to an author in the expectation that once someone reads that person’s work, they’ll purchase more of it. I have no research to support my opinion that this is effective less than 5% of the time. Maybe 1%.

Amazon and other online retailers offer authors a variety of ways to promote as well. If an author grants Amazon exclusive rights to market her work for 90 days, they’ll tout the book to its list of customers who sign up for the benefits. Predictably, the benefits largely accrue to Amazon rather than the author. For example, Amazon can ‘lend’ a book to readers at no charge, theoretically benefiting the author by increasing exposure and potentially the number of reviews. The downside is that most readers don’t bother to review and instead see this Amazon service as a way to get free books. This benefits neither the author nor the industry.

There are strategies for how to categorize the book into a less heavily populated sub-genre and thereby increase the chances for a higher ranking. It’s ranking, after all, which determines which books appear first in searches. Romantic suspense is a smaller field, for example, than simply ‘romance.’ Another ploy with Amazon’s ebook platform is to use word groups in categorizing a new release, thus gaining more potential exposure in Amazon’s algorithmic toying with sales rank. The words ‘domination-submission-menage’, for example, create a narrower field than the word ‘erotic.’

Perhaps the strategy that makes most sense is to heed advice to write more books. Not only does an author continue to improve by writing more, she also gains more credibility by placing more of her work before the public. Variations on this theme would be to (a) schedule a set amount of time to build one’s platform in social media et al while reserving the bulk of available time to writing itself; (b) read the genre one is writing, but also other quality works; and (c) enter contests sponsored by literary journals and universities. Chances are you won’t win the $1000 first place prize, but your entry fee in most cases subscribes you to a year of that journal’s issues which in turn exposes you to the academic side of this seething snake pit of an industry you’re so anxious to join.

 

 

Intellectual Property Theft, Part III

kbreast

The Breast Book by Maura Spiegel and Lithe Sebesta, outrageously similar to the manuscript my agent had shopped all over New York, performed even worse with readers than the dry work of Marilyn Yalom. At present, Amazon.com finds the book out of print with nine reviews: five 5 star, one 4 star, and three 3 star. Goodreads shows one review and sixteen ratings with a 3.75 average.

One of the book’s biggest drawbacks was its format—too precious for serious readers with a four-by-six inch sideways layout and a ten-point font. The text had been edited to a barely-coherent minimum. The publisher attempted to balance cost with the relatively untried market for a book on breasts. Hardly the loving extravaganza I had in mind, the book became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Determined to gain justice, I collected my carefully outlined fifty-three points of comparison plus the hard copy of the book and visited an intellectual rights attorney. A week later he called to say that yes, there were “certain uncanny similarities” but that he wasn’t in a position to pursue the matter against the publisher. The reality was that in order to sue for copyright infringement, I’d have to hire a New York attorney because that’s where Workman Publishing offices were located.

In order to have grounds to sue, I’d have to prove ‘damages,’ i.e. show that the money produced by the book would have been mine if not for their theft. Since at that point no one knew what money the book would produce, I had to wait to see if the book became a big seller. I’d also have to figure out how to determine the book’s sales. And I would have to come up with money for that New York attorney, or convince him there would be such a large settlement in this lawsuit that he’d be happy to take it on contingency.

Not.

Was all this simply a horrible case of bad timing and “uncanny” coincidence? I’ll never know. But it taught me a lesson about publishing: it’s a very nasty bucket of snakes. Cut throat tactics run rampant in a world where lazy people with few if any original ideas of their own prey on those of us rich with ideas and short on connections. Publishing, like anything else, is full of ‘who you know’ and glad handed back biting. Perhaps a book published by a mainstream publisher enjoys legal protection against theft. But before it hits the street, there is no protection.

Copyright? Oh, it sounds good. But the burden of proof lies in the claimant. There are no copyright cops walking around checking on these things. If an author is lucky enough to discover a work has been pirated, there’s still the need for attorneys. (Read: money.)

With self-publishing, the author has an advantage in getting the book to print without anyone siphoning the manuscript or concepts, but unfortunately that hasn’t eliminated theft. Now it simply occurs after publication. Lifting an electronic file of a book isn’t exactly rocket science. Stories abound of books for sale through unauthorized channels without any royalties going to the author. Or major sections of books end up in someone else’s publication. I’ve recently heard of an author losing chunks of a manuscript to a wanna-be writer after trusting that person to read and review the work.

Overall, I’d rather take my chances and continue to self-publish than wait months even years for my idea to wind through industry channels of agent, editor, and publishing process. At least with self-pub, I can earn 70% of the sale price on an ebook and 30-50% on a paperback. With traditional publishing, I’d be paid a dollar on the sale of a $16.95 book, and the agent would get fifteen percent of that.

Stealing is a white trash thing to do, whether it’s taking someone’s package off their porch, downloading an illegal movie or song, or ripping off parts of a book. Fortunately for musicians, writers, and other artists, there’s some small solace in the pleasure we find  shaping our ideas into real-world forms. Slime bag thieves who steal our ideas may gain a few dollars for their trouble but the miserable creeps will never know the joy of the creative process.

Maybe a breast book as I envisioned it, told passionately, would have hit the market with the same dull thud as did the works of Yalom and Siegel/Sebesta. After all, breasts are magical in multiple arenas and words, even photos, cannot capture the essence of that magic. I doubt I’ll make another run at the project. I’ve discarded most of my research but haven’t let go—yet—of the manuscript. Tossing that into the trash would be akin to cutting off a breast.

Intellectual Property Theft, Part II

Cbreast

Revived in hope of still capitalizing on my fabulous notion, my new version of the breast book followed these chapter headings:

  • When Breasts Were Bare: Why Fat Breasts? The Shape is the Thing; Apples and Other Allegations; Definition of Female: To Suckle; The Breast: Site of the Soul; Clan of the Breast Queen
  • Get Those Women Out of Here: From bare breasted goddesses to shrouded wives, Sumeria to Rome. What do breasts say about falling from grace?
  • The Amazon: Women of lore who gave up a breast to fight
  • The Breasts of My Distress: Cesspools of sin, women head for cover; how did that lead to corsets and décolletage? Only witches wear their breasts loose; breasts as ornaments
  • Restless Breasts: Breasts in Revolution; A Victorian Life; Women’s Liberation; The Birth of a Fetish; A brief history of breast coverings; Pop culture and breasts
  • Glands, Ducts, and Fat (physiology)
  • Mother’s Milk (milk and human reproduction)
  • Pointedly Erotic (sexual response, arousal, pornography)

Appendices would include personal stories about breast cancer, breast augmentation, breast size. A running text along the bottom of the pages would chronicle the many slang terms for breasts. Chapters would begin with a poem.

Richard began shopping the manuscript around NYC. By January 1999, it was in the hands of four houses. He said length was the primary issue among editors he talked with, but agreed that if they had any vision for the project, they would recommend cuts and help shape the focus.

No one did. New York City froze for a while after 9/11. My idea died cleanly in early 2002 when a cutesy little book came out by Workman Publishing. Entitled ‘The Breast Book,’ it was authored by Maura Spiegel and Lithe Sebesta, two young women who worked in New York City and had connections in the publishing industry.

I bought the book and again experienced shock at the similarities between this and my second manuscript. Furious, I carefully documented the fifty-three main points where the new book paralleled my manuscript. Here are a few examples:

The poem I quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1: “There is something between us.” From “Breasts,” by Donald Hall.

The poem Spiegel and Sebesta quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1: “There is something between us.” From “Breasts,” by Donald Hall.

My first chapter, opening paragraph addresses the question of why women have fat breasts. “Why do women have them? No other animal breasts swell to such voluptuous proportion unless they are producing milk. Even for the chimpanzee, whose genetics are less than two percent variant from humans, the female chest hosts only an insignificant nipple except when feeding young.”

Their first chapter, opening paragraph: “…humans are the only mammals whose females have breasts that are permanently enlarged. While in other mammalian species the paps grow full only during lactation when the mother is suckling her young, female humans are perpetually endowed…”

Second paragraph, mine: “Is there some evolutionary basis for fat breasts?”

Their second paragraph: “Evolutionists have pondered why women developed this outstanding trait.”

Over the second and third page, I discussed various theories of breast fatness, specifically the Desmond Morris idea: that “…primate males mount their females from the rear…primate males must have been naturally stimulated by the sight of buttocks…what if milk-filled breasts reminded the males of buttocks…”

Theirs: “According to writer Desmond Morris, ‘If the female of our species was going to successfully shift the interest of the male round to the front, evolution would have to do something to make the frontal region more stimulating…’”

Next page, mine: “…fat stored in breasts helped provide food to nursing youngsters even when the rest of the tribe went hungry. The female body’s ability to store fat before and during milk production unquestionably assured survival in hard times.”

Theirs: “…[breasts] simply functioned as fat storage areas for females who evolved under nutritional stress. Ancestral humans walked long and far in search of food and they needed fat storage for years of lactation.”

And on it goes, page after page:

Mine: “Most women’s breasts are not equal in size.”

Theirs: “Many women’s breasts are unevenly matched, with one slightly larger.”

Mine (chapter on nursing): The nipple and skin of the areola darken from pink to a brownish color as a woman progresses through pregnancy and with each successive pregnancy.”

Theirs: “…the areola darkens and spreads, sometimes to a shockingly different shape and color.”

Mine (chapter on physiology): “Sometimes…a person is born with extra nipples (polythelia). Occasionally, nipples appear at such unrelated sites as the armpits, stomach, and pelvic region and, rarely, some breast tissue develops in these locations (polymastia).”

Theirs: “An estimated one percent of the human population breaks the rule with either polythelia (extra nipples) or polymastia (extra breast tissue).”

Mine: “In recent years, some women have been arrested for breastfeeding in public…”

Theirs: “In 1975, three women in a Miami park were arrested for indecent exposure while nursing their infants.”

Mine: Regarding the progression of breast coverings through Western culture, I cite Crete and present images and description of bare breasted goddesses

Theirs: same

Mine: Medieval Europe, “The old garb of plain loose chemise underneath coarse woolen robes gave way to finer fabrics and tailoring. Among the favored features of women’s dresses was the tight-laced bodice made possibly by the invention of the corset, which consisted of two layers of linen stiffened with glue.”

Theirs: Women “traded their loose tunics” and “hit upon the innovative front-lacing corset.”

Mine: “During the time of Queen Elizabeth, upper class women experimented with steel corsets which laced up the back. These were lined with thin silk and served to flatten the breasts and give an upright posture…”

Theirs: “Elizabeth I chose rigid corseting that minimized her femininity while enhancing her authority. In such tight girdling, she must indeed have walked with unbending majesty.”

Mine: Historical review of breast improvement methods including creams, exercises, and surgeries. I cited annual plastic surgeries statistics.

Theirs: Historical review of breast improvement methods including creams, exercises, and surgeries. Cited annual plastic surgeries statistics.

I discussed size, is bigger better? Their section “Is Bigger Really Better?”

I discussed augmentation surgery, including price, silicone use, “hardening around the implant” (capsular contracture) and loss of nipple. They discussed augmentation surgery including price, silicone use, “capsular contracture” and loss of nipple.

I discussed ‘falsies,’ the history of their development and advertising terms such as “lemon bosoms.” Their heading: “The truth about falsies,” including history of their development and “lemon bosoms.”

I discussed the breast as a symbol: “Basic symbols derive from the idealized breast image, a circle within a circle…” Their heading: “Magic Circle.” “A round within a round…”

I briefly discussed breast tattoos and provide one photo from a collection. Spiegel and Sebesta briefly discussed breast tattoos and USED THE SAME PHOTO.

I could go on, but I fear you, dear reader, may tire of the tirade. Suffice it to say that if I mentioned Amazons and the derivation of the word in Greek (a=without, mastos=breast), they did too. If I mentioned strip tease and the casual exposure of the breast, so did they. If I related the story of St. Agatha in my group of stories about breast mutilation, so did they, including the same image of breast-shaped baked goods served on a tray. I presented the bare-breasted image of liberty by Delacrois in conjunction with its analysis by Anne Hollander. So did they.

In my appendix of slang terms for breasts, I begin with “abbondanzas, abundance, airbags, angel cakes, apples…” And yes, they have a list of slang terms, too, beginning with “abbondanzas, abundance, angel cakes, antiaircraft guns, apples…”

Those clever girls.

What did I do about this? Check my next post, coming soon.

Intellectual Property Theft, Part I

DbreastI recently read another author’s lament that her self-published book had appeared in the marketplace under another author’s name. Soon other authors in this discussion thread added their emotional stories about finding exact sentences or entire paragraphs of their works appearing in other books. Everyone lamented these problems that seem inherent in self-publishing.

No one should assume such problems occur only in self-publishing. Here’s my story.

As often happens to me in the spring, in March 1995 a brilliant idea captured my imagination. A book on breasts! Why were there hundreds of published works on World War II, for example, and nothing out there about breasts but dry tomes on cancer or breast feeding? What about the rest of the story?

The book I had in mind would explore each aspect of this hallowed and controversial feature of the female anatomy. I jotted down a quick outline as my brainstorming progressed. I went to the library and searched the “books in print” to see if something like this had already been published. I also searched the listings of ‘forthcoming books.’ Thrilled to find nothing similar to my concept, I dove into research.

By late winter that year, I had a chapter outline and partial manuscript, enough to start sending queries to prospective publishers. I kept checking the most recent edition of ‘forthcoming books,’ haunted by the idea that someone would beat me to the punch. My chapters included the following:

  • Female Breast in Society: An overview of how the breast has been viewed in human cultures through art, religion, word derivation; the influence of the breast on women’s place in society.
  • Clothing the Breast: evolution of women’s attire; how women’s identity is influenced by methods of dress.
  • Woman Revealed: how artists since the earliest times have depicted the breast in statuary, engravings, paintings, and pottery; the use of the breast as a symbol of fertility; erotic depictions of the breast; breast in political and religious symbols; classic and modern realism; modern day entertainment and advertising.
  • Her Pappes Round and Thereto Right Pretty: A review of breasts in literature including poetry and modern erotica.
  • Glands, Ducts, and Fat: An overview of breast physiology and its functions, diseases, and treatments; history of breast cosmetic surgery, ritual mutilations, tattoos, and piercings.
  • Mother’s Milk: Review of the biological process of milk production; examination of controversy over formula versus breast milk; breast feeding and breast milk in health and psychological development of the child.
  • Pointedly Erotic: Review of the many roles breasts play in human sexuality
  • Poking Fun: Jokes, slang terms, cartoons.
  • Testimonials: Candid personal testimonials revealing views about breasts; photographs of non-glamorous breasts.

This was a working outline I fully expected to be refined as an editor provided experienced feedback. I said as much in my cover letter, which I sent along with the outline to all the major publishing houses. By early June, I had received form rejection letters from all of them. Of particular interest to my story here is the letter from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. “Thank you for your recent letter. We have discussed the manuscript which you propose, and I am very sorry to report that it is not a likely prospect for Knopf…”

I regrouped and started contacting agents. I got interested responses from three agents and went with the first one who replied—the Claudia Menza Agency (NYC). Richard, the agent who wrote me, asked for whatever manuscript I had. I sent it to him in October. He projected a read/wait time of 10-12 weeks.

In January 1997, Richard called me to say that Knopf was coming out with a book very much like mine. I couldn’t believe it! Why no mention of this in the listings of ‘forthcoming books’? Why didn’t their rejection letter tell me they already had a similar concept in the works and save me months of work? I had no choice but to wait until the book hit the market January 28. I ordered a copy and steamed through it, hardly able to believe my eyes.

Authored by Marilyn Yalom, a professor at Stanford University’s Institute for Women and Gender and with two books previously published by Knopf, the book was entitled A History of the Breast. The table of contents:

  • The Sacred Breast: Goddesses, Priestesses, Biblical Women, Saints and Madonnas
  • The Erotic Breast: Orbs of Heavenly Frame
  • The Domestic Breast: A Dutch Interlude
  • The Political Breast: Bosoms for the Nation
  • The Psychological Breast: Minding the Body
  • The Commercialized Breast: From Corsets to Cyber-Sex
  • The Medical Breast: Life Giver and Life Destroyer
  • The Liberated Breast: Politics, Poetry, and Pictures
  • The Breast in Crisis

At 279 pages, the book trudged through quotes, a few images, and a boring narrative.

To me, it seemed obvious that someone at Knopf saw my outline, thought it was a great idea, but didn’t think I had any credentials to be the author. Who was I? Not published. Not a professor. Just somebody out in the heartland with a great idea.

Richard tried to comfort me. He said things like this happen. He said it would be unusual for a big publisher like Knopf to resort to such tactics and that pulling together a book that fast would be difficult. I argued back—Knopf had my outline in March. Why no listing in the ‘forthcoming books’? What about Yalom’s stable of graduate assistants to kick up research?

Currently on Amazon.com, Yalom’s book has only ten reviews: six at 5 stars, two at 4 stars, and one each at 3 and 2 stars. On Goodreads, a deeper history of reviews shows an average 3.91 rating. One of the 29 people who wrote a review gave it one star with the following statement: “In reading this book I was hoping for something entertaining and engaging, or something that offered interesting anecdotes, historical facts, people, or situations. That is definitely NOT what this book is. It is actually more of a history of the depictions of breasts in poetry, art, and propaganda, and even then, the book is focused at least as much on a feminist analysis of these texts as it is on the presentation of historical facts/stories…”

In other words, Yalom drew largely on her previous scholarship in feminist studies. She evidently didn’t share my passion in celebrating the breast. But now the book was out there and my project was DOA.

On Richard’s advice, I rewrote. The new book, tentatively entitled simply ‘Breasts,’ would carry a less scholarly tone and take a more ‘fun’ approach to the topic. Richard and the agency liked the rewrite concept I sent two months later. That spring and early summer, I wrote the manuscript, commissioned sample photographs, and sent him the package in July. Over a period of months, we discussed various elements and tweaked the text. The following March 1998 they sent me a contract giving the agency sole right to represent my work.

Stay tuned—the next chapter of this story will be posted in my next blog.

A Journey West, Part 3/5

T.SanLorenzo

San Lorenzo River

Part of my agenda for this trip to Santa Cruz and environs had to do with a novel I’m writing. I arrived with a list of locations to scout. Thanks to Ginny and Jeb’s patient chauffeuring and on other days my daughter’s use of a borrowed car, we managed to tour neighborhoods, the campus, the business districts, and the beach. I made copious notes.

Questions arose. Why is the San Lorenzo River dry at the crossing of Highway 1 and full of water further downstream near the coast? Why is Fire Break Road shown on the map stretching from Empire Grade down to the backside of campus but doesn’t exist in the real world?

alemany

Alemany Farmers Market, Bernal Heights, San Francisco. First farmers market in California, established in 1943.

A flurry of investigation resulted in answers. The San Lorenzo is dry because of a two year drought, and the lower riverbed holds captured water because of a sand bar blocking the mouth where it drains into the Bay, creating what amounts to a long lake. No answer on the missing road.

california-san-francisco-fishermans-wharf-1

Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, on left. Courtesy http://www.planetware.com

We spent a day in San Francisco, tracking sites of my fictional events. The Alemany farmers market is surrounded by steep hillsides with rows and rows of colorful houses built literally wall to wall.

deste and me

Deste and I walk toward the point at Golden Gate

The Embarcadero  stretches along its long waterfront up to the Presidio—shops, wharfs, boats in sheltered marinas, mobs of tourists.

serpentine

Jeb and I ponder a large outcrop of serpentinite rock at the point. First pier of Golden Gate Bridge looms above. Photo courtesy Deste Campbell.

We walked along the old airplane landing strip, Crissy Field, and pondered the Civil War era red brick structures at Fort Point. Directly overhead, traffic thundered onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The narrow drive skirted a sharp embankment of crumbling pale green serpentinite that slopes down to sea level.

bunker

Standing on top of concrete bunker where guns were once mounted. Presidio, San Francisco. Photo courtesy Jeb Campbell

We drove up along the west-facing oceanfront cliffs of the Presidio where groves of redwoods shelter World War II artillery batteries. Ghosts of men in uniform seem to emerge from hovering redwood thickets. The urgent need to guard against invasion left its acrid residue in the air, in the massive concrete bunkers, along the pathways carved through the rugged terrain. What threats, real or imagined, kept these men awake at night, shivering in the cold coastal wind?

burmese

Burma Superstar, San Francisco

Lunch involved Ginny’s son Warren and his family at a hole-in-the-wall place on Clement Street serving Burmese food. After a wait on the sidewalk made friendly by a bench and hot tea, our party of eight was seated at a large round table.

How does one describe a Burmese feast? Savory catfish chowder, thick lentil/cabbage soup, lamb curry, coconut chicken rice noodle curry, tea leaf salad, crisp samusas—the large lazy susan kept turning as we sampled our way to gluttony.

Sated by our delicious meal, we said our goodbyes to Warren and his family. Our search for story settings then led south along the coast following the “Great Highway.” Densely populated streets disappeared behind us as the road merged with Highway 35. Soon our path became Skyline Boulevard as we neared Daly City. Our objective? The great and powerful magic spot at Mussel Beach, where the San Andreas Fault leaves land and enters the Pacific.

mussel rock

At Mussel Rock, looking north by northwest along the trajectory of the San Andreas Fault.

We missed the turn-off, assuming that such an important spot would be well marked. After doubling back, we found Mussel Beach disappointingly under-developed and lacking any signage that might describe the forces at work underfoot. The narrow shelf of land broke upward to the east with a steep eroding hillside and to the west down a sharp crumbling embankment to the turbulent surf below. Offshore, waves pounded the tilted outcrops of broken rock which continued the fault’s northward journey. The mostly paved ‘park’ area rolled and humped over conspicuously-disturbed ground. Multiple patches in the asphalt provided evidence of the fault line’s restless character.

houses at Mussel B

Mussel Rock shown with neighborhoods behind it. Rock outcrop from previous photo appears lower right.

Hovering above the precarious cliff faces and uneven terrain, housing developments cling to steep hillsides and beg the question of how anyone could in good conscience build houses literally on top of a major fault. The neighborhood centers on an elementary school and seems inhabited mostly by lower income residents. I took notes for my story as we rejoined Skyline Drive.

rr tracks Los Gatos copyThe drive back south along Highway 280 tracked the trajectory of the infamous fault. The miles-deep gash forms a valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west and the less dramatic hills and rolling lands of the southern Bay communities of San Mateo, Redwood City, and Santa Clara. For part of the distance, San Andreas Lake glimmers in the day’s bright sunlight. Angling west onto Highway 85, and then Highway 17, we soon crossed over the fault itself at Los Gatos. The four-lane road jagged and bumped as it crossed the extended disturbance.

Then back to Santa Cruz. It struck me at this point that highways and landmarks tell only part of the story of what it means to be here. Less specific but more important is the feeling of the place. A unique scent permeates the air—pine, salt, kelp, eucalyptus. And something else I can’t name. It lingers in my clothing, on my skin.

The light is clean, thin, sharp. Fog rolls in and drapes over the roofs, hides the tree tops, waxes and wanes along the shore so that at one moment you see the lighthouse on the point, the next moment it disappears.

The whole place sits on an edge. The edge of the sea. The edge of light. The edge of visibility.

Here is the edge of North America, not part of the land mass that comprises the bulk of the continent but a sliver of earth’s crust emerging from the sea to shove eastward and cling to its reluctant partner continent. The energy of the rebel, the upstart, the adolescent swells from this nascent ground, lending its attitude to the human settlements that occupy it. From the shore eastward for a hundred miles, this new land presses its case, shoving up mountains and sliding along the tear called the San Andreas fault. Countless other faults branch off from it, all mute testimony to the mind-boggling forces at work on our planet.

You can’t live along the California coast and not feel the energy of this subterranean collision. What better place to set a novel that deals with the frontiers of human consciousness?