Jars

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If I had considered the question in advance, I would have known that cleaning out the barn would precipitate a crisis. Memories long stored away for some magical future moment when that child’s toy, that handsaw, would again be needed—did I keep them simply for the memory? Furniture—small tables, wooden chairs, an ottoman frame, an old piano bench well made of oak and in need of a few repairs—would I someday find time and reason to fix them and return them to my house?

Too good to throw away. Largely irrelevant to my current life.

Becoming relevant at some future point? Probably not.

Determination to survive in a world lost to chaos drove the accumulation of this minor hoard. It was 1975. We had small children who would need to eat and thrive even if the bomb fell. We labored to renew skills our grandparents knew by heart, certain that within our lifetimes we would have to hide in our house until the fallout settled then emerge to plow, plant, and harvest our food, breed our pigs, chickens, and goats for future generations of meat and milk. We gathered meat saws and grinders, steel axes and shovels, nails and wire.

Time marched on. The Cold War ended and fingers moved away from the annihilation button.  The children are no longer dependent babies who might benefit from a collection of books on history, science, math. The goats departed in the late 80s, the garden in the early 90s, and the last of the chickens about ten years ago. The children have gone off like grown children do to find their own visions of the future.

Why do I need eight hand saws, ten hammers (of various sizes), buckets of random nails, screws, washers, bolts, and nuts? Feed scoops and cheesecloth, empty egg cartons, milk pails. What possible purpose could be met by random pieces of plywood or sheetrock, insulation, screen, tile? Why do I think that at some point I’ll make use of a decrepit power saw, drill, or grinder when, for the last twenty-five years, I have not?

I have created two piles. One is for the junkman to haul away. The other is for craigslist ads and friends who operate flea market booths. I am mildly optimistic that someone might buy the old wooden toolbox, child’s desk, or the sturdy small tables, the ten gallon pickling crock or the T-post driver. Never mind that for what I’d receive in dollars, I could restore only a fraction of this hoard.

In truth, what our energy and money bought in those early days was peace of mind. With our collection of tools, books, supplies, and know-how, we’d have a chance. Our kids would have a chance.

It served its purpose. The purpose no longer exists.

Sounds good. But what I haven’t put in either pile is the pressure canner. And the jars. Dozens and dozens of canning jars—quarts, pints, jelly jars. It’s the jars that have brought me to crisis.

When my firstborn child was two, my grandmother died. My dad’s mom, Nora. Always a country girl, Nora knew how to make soap, kill a chicken with a swing and stiff pop of its neck, and would can just about anything edible. She had jars. When they started clearing her property for the auction, I went down to Cane Hill and helped clean out her cellar. I hauled back cases of canned goods.

She had declined for a decade until her death at age 86. I wouldn’t dare eat any of the food in those jars. We had hogs and chickens at the time which allowed me to make use of Grandma’s labors. Each day I’d go out to the barn and pens and open more jars. Applesauce, whole plums, peaches, pears. Grapes and elderberries. Green beans, tomatoes, cabbage, mixed vegetables. Tallow. Jelly, jam, preserves. Juice. The critters were well fed that year.

We grew a huge garden. Neighbors had pear trees. We visited orchards and vineyards. Even with all of Grandma Nora’s jars, I sometimes ran short. My mother gave me jars. I bought jars.

In those heady days, each fall I stood in the storage closet and stared at my larder. The sight of all those jars filled me with the greatest pleasure that once again, by the labor of my hands, I had set aside enough green beans, tomatoes and sauce, peas, corn, and kraut to last a year. The jars lined up in colorful rows, golden tomato seeds swimming in crimson broth, finely shredded green cabbage fermented into tangy white kraut, wild plum jelly glowing fuscia in the dark.

Producing and preserving food challenged me like nothing I’d ever done. Even with a tractor and rototiller, even with liberal applications of goat manure and mulch, plants struggled to survive against drought, bugs, and predation. How many hours did I spend hoeing weeds or picking off potato bugs? How many hours peeling and chopping, sterilizing and packing, standing over the pressure gauge to ensure the right amount of intense heat and adequate time to prevent spoilage.

There’s a sound as jars cool, the snap of the canning lid sucking down, sealing the contents safely into the future—I loved that sound. Then it was time to use the grease pencil to write on the lid—July 1981.

Now I have all these jars. The cardboard boxes have suffered over the years. Faded brown paper hangs in shreds, the sides bow and buckle. Even if I keep the jars, I have to plow through generations of dead spiders and a healthy population of live ones to retrieve the jars from box wreckage. Why would I go to the trouble to re-package all these jars knowing that twenty years from now, it would all be to do over again? Would I be any more willing to let go of them then?

My children have no interest and no place to store jars. I wouldn’t mind storing them if my kids wanted them. But there’s no longer a tractor or rototiller. The half-acre garden has grown up in saplings and pasture grass. There are no goats to produce manure. Everything is different.

But here’s the argument. Certain things haven’t changed. We have to eat. We have the ability to grow food. With jars and a pressure canner, we could store food. Isn’t that incentive enough to save the jars?

What is my responsibility? For countless generations, as far back at least as civilization, my ancestors have planted, cultivated, harvested, and stored food. These are skills we’ve learned—how to measure the right time to plant onions or corn, what seeds to soak before pressing them into the dark earth, how to dig potatoes without piercing them. We raised our kids to know these things.

Do I simply walk away?

Why not? There are books. There are others still farming, still canning—the knowledge won’t fade simply because I relinquish my jars.

Even with the best of hoards, with all the tools and seeds saved and an endless supply of jars, at the end of the day, survival in a world gone mad would be a tenuous venture. What about grain? No bread, no pasta, no crackers. What about oil, salt, soda, sugar? We’d be dependent on venison and that requires guns and ammunition. My .22 rifle won’t bring down a deer.

At some point, even the most vehement survivalist will face what I face. How many times in your life do you restock your rations and water? How much is enough ammunition? Who are you prepared to kill to protect your hard won ark?

I’m working on a compromise with myself. Today I think I will keep a few jars as mementos of my grandmother, the tall green half gallon jars and a few of the older square-shoulder quarts. I will wash them periodically and keep them up on a shelf, decoration that tugs my heartstrings when I look up from my daily tasks. I will acknowledge the hard work and dedication that touched these jars, my hands, my mother’s hands, my grandmother’s hands.

All the grandmothers. All the jars. All the tomatoes and fine plum jam will not save the world.

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

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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.