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 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.

Indies and Reviews

Yosemite-Sam-warner-brothers-animation-30976315-800-766As an indie author, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with five-star ratings for books that suffer egregious errors in grammar, structure, and other basic elements of writing. I make no claim of perfection. Improvement is an ongoing process for any writer.

Back in the day, agents and publishers’ editors served as a crucial line of defense against not only incorrect spelling, but also horrific word choice, lousy sentence structure, and overall failures in form. But those defenses have been stripped away with self-publishing. In a perfect world, authors would be able to monitor their own works for possible shortcomings, but I’ll be the first to admit that this is a very difficult task.

The first thing that went out the window with the proliferation of unfiltered self-publishing was mainstream reviewers. And who wouldn’t run for the hills to escape this tidal wave of works containing every possible flaw? How could one ever know which book was worthy of price and time in a sea of astonishingly awful wordcraft?

Into this vacuum comes a growing thicket of independent bloggers and homespun reviewers. In most cases, the relative importance and authority of any given blogger/reviewer is judged solely by how many “likes” they have generated on their Facebook page. There is not, to my knowledge, any kind of accreditation. This is the Wild West of indie publishing and reviewing, and there’s no sheriff in town.

I confess I’ve also jumped on this boat out of the need to utilize whatever means are available to promote my works. I routinely “like” authors and books I’ve never read. I participate in contests that offer prizes in exchange for “likes.” This is so wrong! But to award more ethical “likes,” I’d spend all my time and money reading.

Before readers lose faith in self-published works, indie authors would be well served by any effort to upgrade not only the quality of writing, but also the integrity of reviews.

For example, here are a few common errors which should automatically disqualify a work from receiving a five-star rating:

  1. Point of view. Switching from one character to the next in hearing their thoughts or conversation is called “head jumping” and it’s highly unsettling and disruptive to the story. At the least, a character’s point of view should continue uninterrupted by another point of view until the end of a section designated by a mark of some kind.
  2. Modifiers should appear as close as possible to the word or phrase they are modifying. A common misuse of modifier placement is an opening phrase such as “As though rising from the sea, Margie saw Lance moving up from his bed…” Lance is the one rising from the sea. His name should immediately follow the phrase. A correct usage would be “As though rising from the sea, Lance’s form moved up from his bed…”
  3. Incorrect verb tense: “…she don’t want to date and don’t want to fall for no one else…” If a writer doesn’t have better command of language than this, they absolutely must not self-publish without spending money for a good editor.
  4. Incorrect punctuation. “It is” abbreviates to it’s. Designating an object possessed by “It” abbreviates to “Its.” But this is an anomaly within the use of an apostrophe, which is generally used to show possession. A dog belonging to Anne is Anne’s dog.

And I could go on. These mistakes and many more occur on page after page of self-published works. Yet these same works often sport five-star ratings because the blogger/reviewer became enamored of a character, or liked the suspense, or found the BDSM premise titillating. Unfortunately, many blogger/reviewers are not up to speed on the technical rules of language.

Correct language and story presentation is no secret. Countless webpages, books, and blogs recount the many ways a writer can go wrong. But learning is hard, especially for writers who blew though school without paying attention and doubly hard for those who grew up in households where improper language was the norm. Reading well-written prose is a good first step toward improvement.

Self-publishing holds such exciting promise—the author is finally able to present his/her creation directly to the reader without the “approval” of an agent or publisher. It’s thrilling to read stories from writers who never before might have been able to offer their ideas for public consumption. This new landscape nourishes literacy and intellectual questing, a much needed change in a culture too long slouching toward passive viewing.

Which makes it even more critical to do everything possible to ensure the success of self-publishing. Why not insist on the formation of an accrediting body which would establish fundamental guidelines for reviewers? A grading method could spell out specifics. No matter how great the story or charming the character, if there is rampant head-jumping and incessant incorrect grammar, the rating would be three stars at best.

Why not publicize accredited reviewers as the ones readers can trust for opinions about which books meet basic standards?

It’s time to hire a sheriff.