Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Last Few Weeks in Books 11/30/12

Um. November went where? I'm filing a missing person's report.

And speaking of which: Last day of NaNoWriMo!! How did you guys do?!

Now then! Lots of links! It was a hectic month and I missed a lot so as always, please be sure and fill in what I missed in the comment section.

Machines can already beat us at chess. Could they ever write a novel?

Meanwhile, NO COINCIDENCE AT ALL, the University of Cambridge is forming a unit to assess whether developments in artificial intelligence pose a threat to humanity. (Disclosure: Link is to CNET, I work there).

So yeah. It's been a month since Hurricane Sandy, and even aside from the fact that it proves that Mother Nature has turned psychotic, many people remarked on how social media changed the experience of going through the storm. It certainly felt that way for me - I kept tabs on friends here and heard from lots of people wondering how I was doing (I was fine). New York Magazine had what I thought was the best take on that phenomenon.

Speaking of hurricanes, (and let me get the disclaimer out of the way first: I work for CNET, which is owned by CBS, which owns Simon & Schuster. All opinions expressed on this blog are my own, I don't have knowledge of S&S's publishing operations, and linking to outside blogs doesn't necessarily mean I endorse the opinions espoused therein), Simon & Schuster has entered into a relationship with controversial publishing operation Author Solutions. Friend-of-the-blog David Gaughran launched a broadside against the arrangement.

Ken Liu's short story 'Paper Managerie' has won pretty much every award ever, and you can read it over at io9.

A new app called Litragger has launched, which aggregates all kinds of literary journals in once place. Pretty cool.

After previously removing e-books from libraries, Penguin has embarked on a new pilot e-book lending program in a few libraries (link is to CNET, you know the drill).

I found this very interesting: In June, Kindle devices (e.g. Kindles, Kindle Fire, etc.) represented 55% of e-book reading, while the iPad clocked in at 12%.

My former client Jennifer Hubbard wrote an awesome post on good and bad uses of supporting casts in a novel.

The last few weeks in the Forums: writerly things to do in New York, why do you want to get published anyway?, where have all the review blogs gone?, what to do when you're desperate for inspiration, and what's your editing style?

And finally, I seriously have no idea how this photographer pulled off this time-lapse of the leaves changing in Central Park, but it's utterly spectacular:

Fall from jamie scott on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Will You Ever Buy Mostly E-Books? The Results!

Well well well.

Do we have ourselves a leveling off in e-book sentiment that may mirror overall trends in the book business? For the first time, the numbers did not budge.

Incorporating Monday's poll, and once again with the caveat that this poll is unscientific, people who said you'd have to pry paper books out of their cold dead hands:

2007: 49%
2008: 45%
2009: 37%
2010: 30%
2011: 25%
2012: 25%

The people who welcome their coming e-book overlords also held steady:

2007: 7% (!)
2008: 11%
2009: 19%
2010: 32%
2011: 47%
2012: 47%

Have people become entrenched in their habits? Could we be seeing a slowdown in the growth of e-books? Or is this an outlier?

What say you?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Will You Ever Buy Mostly E-books?

It's official: We're all getting old!

It's time for the SIXTH ANNUAL poll on our e-book future, which I have asked every year since 2007 when the original Kindle was barely a newborn.

Yes, caveat: I'm aware this is an unscientific poll. Entertainment purposes only.

Here are the past polls:

2008 (technically beginning of '09)

Here is 2012.

Do you think there will come a time when you buy mostly e-books? Do you already? 

Click through for the poll if you're reading via e-mail or in a feed reader:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope it's a great one wherever you are.

I'm not in New York for this Thanksgiving, but one of these days I'll watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade. ...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What People Talk About When They Talk About Bad Writing

One thing about my Fifty Shades of Grey  post that inspired some mild controversy was my insistence that it's not that badly written.

What's interesting about talking about "good" writing and "bad" writing is that when people use those terms, different people often mean different things.

When I talk about "good" writing and "bad" writing, I mean the prose. Is it readable on a sentence-to-sentence level? Is there a flow? Is there a voice? Do I get tripped up by a lack of specificity in description or are the details evocative? Is the hand of the author too apparent or am I able to lose myself in the world of the book?

This is all mainly accomplished on the sentence level. It's not about character or plot or plausibility or whether the book is compelling or not and not at all about whether I like the book, it's whether the author can write a paragraph.

I would posit (with partial confidence) that the way I mean "good" or "bad" writing is more common within the publishing industry and with literary-minded folk.

Outside of publishing, when people talk about "good" writing or "bad" writing they aren't talking about sentences, they usually mean a broader look at the book as a whole. Whether the plot is plausible or not, whether characters are compelling, whether relationships are believable, whether the book as a whole is engrossing.

This, I do believe, is how we end up with Goodreads reviews where people call The Great Gatsby  "garbage," which has little to do with style and everything to do with whether the book was enjoyable for that particular person to read.

I can't imagine anyone in the book business or literary aficionados calling anything like The Great Gatsby garbage in any context.

I, for instance, might say about a well-written book I didn't like, "It was beautifully written and I hated the crap out of it," but I separate the writing from my enjoyment. That's because, I believe, when it comes to prose there's less subjectivity than there is with personal taste (though I realize Fifty Shades presents a bit more of an ambiguous case - you might not like the prose either).

I'm not making a value judgement here, everyone means different things with their descriptions. But for me, when it comes to prose: Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing. I might dislike a well-written book and love one that's badly written. Personal taste doesn't enter into it.

What do you make of this delineation?

Art: At the Tax Collector by Jan Matsys

Monday, November 19, 2012

Separate vs. Joint Accounting

Whether you have an agent or not, one of the most important things to look out for in any contract for a multi-book deal is whether they are separately or jointly accounted.

What does this mean?

Joint accounting means that your books are accounted together as one big advance. If you have a $100,000 two book deal (ha - do those still exist?), your books have to earn $100,000 in royalties before you see any additional money.

Separate accounting means that your books are accounted separately. If you have a $100,000 two book deal, those two books are accounted as $50,000 each or $60,000/$40,000, or whatever is specified in the contract. If it's split evenly, one or both books has to earn out more than $50,000 for you to see additional money.

Practically speaking, you're more likely to see royalties and see them sooner if your books are separately accounted. If that first book takes off it's easier to earn out $50,000 than $100,000 across two books.

Now, whether you can actually get separate accounting is another story. This is something your agent can try to negotiate for you, but different houses have different policies, and it may not be possible to secure. So if your agent can't get it for you it doesn't necessarily mean they weren't doing their jobs. It might just not be possible to get.

But separate accounting is always worth trying for. And if you're writing a series and the publisher wants to extend your contract, find out how those additional books will be accounted.

There you have it!

Art: The Payment of Dues by Georges de la Tour

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Facebook Pages vs. Profiles for Authors

Over at The Facebook there are now many different options for authors who wish to have a presence there.

Should you have a public Facebook profile? Should you create a dedicated author page? Should you create a dedicated page for your books too? Should you throw up your hands until Mark Zuckerberg gives you some personal guidance?

First, some definitions. A profile is a personal profile, e.g. what your friends became Facebook friends with, uh, on Facebook. It's the thing you had all along.

If you are going to use a profile to promote your book stuff, you should turn on subscriptions, which allow people to subscribe to your public posts. This way you don't have to accept friend requests from people you don't know -- they can just subscribe to your updates.

Your profile can be almost completely private or almost completely public depending on how you post. Just be sure and be careful about whether you're posting publicly, just to friends, or to a smaller group.

A page is a public page that people can Like. You can create a page as a public figure, and you can create pages for your individual books. When people like your page they receive updates from that page in their News Feed.

So. You're an author. What should you do? Profile with subscriptions or page? Well, it depends.

Here are the pros of having a profile with subscriptions turned on:

  • You only have to maintain one presence on Facebook rather than both a profile and a page
  • If you befriended thousands of people you didn't know before Facebook had pages, you can unfriend these people and they stay subscribed to your updates
  • Also, if someone sends you a friend request and you don't accept it, they also stay subscribed to your updates.
  • Thus, utilizing a public profile can help you take back a crowded Facebook profile and manage it a bit more carefully.
Here are the pros of having a public author page:
  • It allows you to maintain separate presences. If you want to avoid spamming your friends with all your book stuff or your blog, it can be helpful to have a place that's just book stuff and save your other personal posts for your personal profile.
  • Like buttons are easier to stick on your website than Subscribe buttons.
  • Pages have access to analytics that profiles don't.
  • If your Facebook presence is going to be maintained by more than one person, pages are way easier to manage that.
Whatever you decide, I highly recommend creating Facebook pages for your books. These will show up in people's profiles when they like them. Just make sure they're categorized properly.

I have a profile with subscriptions turned on, and if you'd like to subscribe to receive my blog updates and other posts in your news feeds, just click this button!

(Note: You probably can't see it via e-mail or an RSS reader. Click through!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why You Think Fifty Shades of Grey is So Popular

There were lots of great comments about Fifty Shades of Grey yesterday! I thought it would be cool to round some of them up into a separate post to show what you, the people think of the book that is more popular than pretty much anything ever.

First, about that helicopter, which I alleged was rather dorkily named:

Diane writes:
I didn't manage to read past the first 2 chapters which were offered as a the free preview on my Kobo... But as my father was a pilot, your mention of the helicopter name makes absolute sense to me. Charlie Tango is the radio call signal so the helicopter would be CT followed by a number. My father's plane was Charlie Whiskey Foxtrot. Unlike ships and boats, flying beasts don't often get called romantic names.
Okay, fair enough. I still maintain that using the words "Charlie Tango" outside of the singular and solely utilitarian purpose of communicating with air traffic control is grounds for laughter.

Josin L. McQuein weighed on on how the book didn't exactly come out of nowhere:
It didn't come out of nowhere. It didn't come out of close to nowhere. 
The original fanfictions were so popular and had so many fans that they organized their own fan event and flew her from the UK to the US to attend. When the books went on sale, that fanbase responded in droves. The sudden spike by someone who had never had a novel for sale before caught the attention of Amazon's algorithms. The original fans shared the book with their friends who snapped up every hard copy they could find and happily downloaded the e-version for clandestine reading. They got to feel like they were doing something "naughty" (oh, how I hate that word when applied to adults in a serious manner...) 
ELJames has basically the same story as every other success with a built-in fanbase. She gave those who already knew her what they expected and wanted, and in turn those people supported the writer they enjoy. They spread the word to people who likely had never heard of fanfiction, or might have hated Twilight, but might enjoy 50SoG.
As popular as fanfiction may be... I still maintain that is basically out of nowhere. It's certainly not out of a framework that could have propelled an all-but-self-published novel to massive bestsellerdom even five years ago.

Lots of people mentioned how iconic and important the cover is, which I totally agree with. Anne R. Allen sums it up:
I don't think we should ignore the brilliance of the cover design, which has changed the covers of erotica books forever. That understated symbol of male power, the simple necktie--in subtle shades of gray instead of screaming pink flesh tones--made the book LOOK respectable. It also appealed to what really turns women on, which is power, not little Magic Mike outfits. This cover made it clear this was erotica for women that understood women's fantasies.
Two Flights Down has a long but totally-worth-reading comparison to another book that was edgy for its time, Pamela, which was published in 1740:
Maybe I'm way off, but I am seeing a huge correlation between Samuel Richardson's Pamela or Virtue Rewarded and Fifty Shades of Gray . Pamela was written in 1740 and some credit it as being the first English novel. It started as a sort of sermon about young women becoming too bold and the importance of innocence. Richardson was looking for a unique way to reach young people, and thus Pamela is born.
Take a look at Richardson's title: Pamela or Virtue Rewarded . With the view, by some, that fiction was just lies, and therefore not a good read for intellectuals, the title serves to do two things: 1. There's a story, and 2. There's a lesson to be learned. The lesson gives the story its purpose. 
Fifty Shades of Gray does this, as well. As others have pointed out (and so I won't go into more detail), the title and cover give the impression that there is something more behind these characters than dirty sex. There's a lesson to be learned here. It justifies us in indulging in "mommy porn," as some call it. 
In Pamela, the heroine is an innocent young woman who follows the rules and faithfully fulfills her roles. She is a maidservant. Mr. B is the rich man with power who becomes taken by Pamela. As he learns more about her, he falls for her because of her innocence. However, she resists him because she represents all that is moral and good. Mr. B kidnaps her, tries to seduce her, tries to rape her, etc. In the end, her virtue wins out, they fall in love, and he marries her. 
I know Fifty Shades doesn't follow this plot exactly, but there is a correlation here, I think, between what these plots are trying to tell us. The idea that a "pure" young lady can change the rich and powerful (not to mention, sex-hungry) man, seemingly gives the female power over the male. It gives young women a sense of control, and also unity when they discuss the book together. 
Both books have scandalous scenes (though neither, the dirtiest of their time), but our indulgence in wild and violent sex is validated by the fact that there is a moral in the end. Because these women have avoided the advances of past men, they must somehow be above the "fallen" women. The men who star in these novels see them as different and desirable because they, themselves, don't want to be seen in that way.  
I think it a good point to note, too, that Richardson changed Pamela's writings in later editions of the book, because her speech was too low-class. In order to make the union between her and Mr. B more acceptable to society, she had to appear more intelligent.
I think we see the same thing with Fifty Shades. In order to make it more compatible with current views on feminism, the woman can't simply conform to purity and innocence. She has to be independent, career-oriented, and intelligent.  
So, we have some dirty, violent sex scenes in both books that would be viewed as extremely anti-woman, except that the ideal woman who is intelligent and doesn't succumb to pressures of society is the one engaging in these acts. Suddenly, the sex isn't so taboo. We can happily read these books by the pool because our desires to indulge in violent sex and be persuaded with mental abuse--our desire to be overpowered--is validated by a woman we can look up to with pride (one that is intelligent and thinks for herself). 
The danger I see here, is that both stories are unrealistic. No way in 1740 would a man as powerful as Mr. B marry someone of Pamela's status--no matter how innocent she was. As others have pointed out, how likely is it that a deep and fulfilling relationship could develop out out someone trying to change the other person? How likely is it that a young woman, even with all her intelligence, could change a powerful, rich man of his ways?  
I also think that both books present the problem of perpetuating the idea that woman want to be overpowered. Even the intelligent ones.
Anonymous speaks to the randomness factor:
My answer is d) Bestsellers are largely random. 
Everyone I know who has read it has done so because "everyone is reading it." None of my friends have admitted to liking it, but they all sought it out in the first place because of the peer pressure. There's a social component to bestsellerdom: once a book reaches the tipping point, everyone else reads it to see what the others are talking about. I saw this happen with The Da Vinci Code, too. 
How does a book build to that tipping point in the first place? I'm not sure anyone really knows. Whatever 50 Shades has in terms of romantic and erotic elements, there are other books that have it too, but never sell as widely. Perhaps the fan base that others mentioned was critical in building the initial buzz.

I don't think it's anything new to publishing to have these huge sensations, to have a book that's The It Book. But because that can't be forced, and that kind of success can't be manufactured, writers and publishers just keep working at it, chasing the dream and hoping that the lightning strikes.
A lot of people questioned whether selling a lot of copies means quite the same thing as popular. Karen Cantwell writes:
I venture a guess that this is a case of people purchasing the book because of the hype, but not necessarily finding it to be their cup of tea. Harry Potter has 5951 customer reviews on Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.7 out of 5, while Fifty Shades has 13,840 reviews with an overall rating of 3.2. My quick analysis of those statistics tell me that people are obviously snatching it up left and right, not necessarily enjoying it. I've talked to many people who have bought/read the book and I have yet to meet one who thought it was a decent story and many didn't get past the first few chapters. So - POPULAR? I'd say a better word is notorious. I believe people are buying the book to see what the fuss is about and why people like us keep talking about it.
And over on Facebook, Lee Prewitt had a succinct reaction:
People like McDonalds

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why Fifty Shades of Grey is Popular

Yep. I read it.

I have a series of reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey:

1) This book is popular. 

I mean, really, really popular. It is bigger than Harry Potter popular in the UK, it was responsible for 20% of all book sales in the spring, it sold 25 million copies in 4 months; by contrast, it took the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy four years to sell 20 million copies.

Pop. U. Lar.

2) I called it. (Well, sort of.)

I've long maintained that although the e-book era favors people with existing audiences, freakish unexpected hits would come out of nowhere, including from authors without a major platform at all. Much like viral videos.

And make no mistake: This book came out of nowhere. It started as Twilight fanfiction, then was released as an e-book and POD paperback by Writers' Coffee Shop in Australia. From there it managed to attract so much word-of-mouth attention and sales it was acquired for a rumored near-million dollars by Vintage Books, part of Random House, and has gone on to aforementioned further massive success.

The publishing industry did not see this one coming. I think it's safe to say that virtually no one did. Even five years ago it's hard to see how this book would have rocketed to such success so quickly, if it would have found its way to publication at all (I'm guessing it wouldn't have).

But note that Fifty Shades of Grey needed a publisher to get truly big. Publishers may not have seen it coming, but they caught up to it very quickly. I wouldn't use this as an opportunity to sneer at publishers. The industry's role as gatekeeper is changing quickly, it's likely evidence that they were missing books like this in the past and cared too much about writing quality, but they're still making money on this hand over fist.

3) It's not as bad people say it is

Given the howls have accompanied this book's success and the snarky takedowns, I was really expecting drivel.

It's not drivel. It's not Shakespeare, but from a prose perspective I would call it competently written.

Yes, there are writerly tics, yes there are elements that are implausible, yes yes OMG a helicopter called Charlie Tango, more on all that in a minute. But the end of the world for books this is not.

I've read worse.

4) That said...

I'm not exactly an expert, but I can see why some people have wondered aloud if this is one step back for feminism. Much of the book hinges on very confused 21-year-old virginal Anastasia, seemingly plucked straight out of the 1950s, wondering whether this 27-year-old experienced, troubled-but-heart-of-gold self-made billionaire industrialist likes her no I mean really likes her no I mean really really really likes her.

Their times apart consist mainly of Anastasia confusedly spurning the advances of other men who are interested in her, talking herself out of the notion that Christian Grey no I mean really likes her, and finding new reasons to feel jealous about his past, aided and impeded by both her subconscious and inner goddess (separate voices!), who alternately scold her and high five her for her adventurousness. Anastasia has few thoughts, feelings, emotions, or ambitions regarding anything other than how much Christian Grey actually truly no I mean really likes her and whether she can abide by the terms of the written contract and tortured legalese (in more ways than one) that governs their relationship.

Christian Grey is the type of person who will scare Anastasia to death then introduce her to his mom, leave her bruised and then soulfully play the piano, all the while being so stricken by his attraction for Anastasia (including, it can't be said enough times, the way she bites her lower lip) that he is willing to break all sorts of previously unbendable rules, such as being affectionate and sleeping in the same bed as her until, spoiler, whiting this part out, select it with your cursor if you want to read this: she concludes after a savage spanking that much as the great Meat Loaf sang, she would do anything for love but she won't do that. 

Well. At least pending the sequels.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the very most popular books of all time.

5) So, um, why is it so popular?

Needless to say, I am not exactly the target audience for this book.

But even I can see how Fifty Shades of Grey fits neatly into a very old archetype that continues to resonate in our culture. The aloof, successful, mysterious, wildly attractive rogue who shows interest in a woman despite her initial resistance and even after that man warns the woman about himself: It's not a new story. You can trace that archetype from Jane Eyre to Pride and Prejudice to Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey and countless other iterations. It's a new spin on a very old trope: romantic entanglement with a Byronic hero.

I also don't think it's only women who are prone to stories of an ardent and attractive suitor arriving to shake up their life, as the manic pixie dream girl movie genre can attest. Many heterosexual guys seemingly want a hot girl to come along and take care of everything as well, preferably when she's played by Natalie Portman or Zooey Deschanel.

Fifty Shades of Grey may not break new ground, but surely it benefited from being released in the Kindle/iPad era (where onlookers can't easily see/judge what you're reading), it gave an urbane veneer to a romance genre that very often skews rural/suburban, and if you'll excuse the metaphor, Twilight may well have primed the pump for a book that maintains the same archetypal romantic dynamic while allowing its protagonists to consummate their relationship.

Why now? Maybe as we sprint toward chartering new gender and relationship dynamics with more sensitive guys and greater equality there's some appetite to escape into a story with a less complicated and familiar throwback to a dominant man and submissive woman. Maybe we've become such a sexually open society people were ready for the needle of mainstream edginess to be moved a little farther over. Maybe Christian Grey and his dorkily named helicopter are just that hot.

Maybe, at the end of the day, bestsellers are largely random.

What do you think? What has made Fifty Shades of Grey such a phenomenon?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Writers and Suicide

We all know about famous writers who took their own life, including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, and David Foster Wallace.

So it was a little chilling to read that a recent study found that writers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.

When I wrote a few weeks ago about some of the cathartic effects of writing through a tough time, there were a few people who took that to mean that I thought that writing alone is therapy. That's not what I believe.

Writing is not therapy. Therapy is therapy.

Writing can help organize your thoughts and expel some of your feelings, but it's not going to bring you back above water if you're drowning. The writing and publication process is frustrating in the very best of worlds, and while writing can help give meaning, it is a very volatile place to be placing all of your hopes.

If you feel yourself struggling, please, find the help you need.

Art: Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

10 Marketing Techniques That Annoy Potential Readers

This is a guest post by Jon Gibbs, which was promoted from the Forums. More info on Forum promotion here.

1: ‘What a terrible tragedy in the news today. I had a similar situation take place in the book what I wrote. Here’s a link to the purchase page, in case anyone's interested.’

You don't see this one often, but when you do, it leaves a particularly bad taste.

2: ‘Buy my book and help save an orphaned kitten!’

I'm not talking about donating stories for charity anthologies, donating books; time; merchandise for auction, or any number of generous things writers do to help a worthy cause. Those are simply good deeds and not marketing techniques at all.

I'm talking specifically about when an author announces a special offer eg: 'For every book he/she sells this week, the author pledges to donate some money to [INSERT: name of worthy charity here*]. If you're doing it as part of a larger community effort, or to help out a local church, school etc. or if your personal story (or the one in your book) is somehow related to the cause in question, no reasonable person could have a problem.

However - and this is where I think writers need to take care - there's an invisible line between using your work to help a good cause, and using a good cause to sell more books. If you cross that line, or give the impression you crossed it, folks will notice, and not in a good way.

3: ‘Don’t mind me. You just carry on with your presentation while I give out my promotional info and/or pass this copy of my book around to folks in the audience.’

I know, I was surprised too, but I’ve see this happen five times this year alone.

4: ‘Welcome to this writing presentation/panel/workshop, during which I’ll plug my books at every opportunity while ostensibly talking on the writing-related subject referred to in the title of this talk.’

It doesn’t happen often, but some presenters feel obliged to continually quote from, refer to, or otherwise promote their work during a writerly talk or panel. As an audience member, this never fails to disappoint (unless the presentation is called ‘All About Me and My Work’ or something similar, in which case, I withdraw my objection).

5: ‘In case you missed the other twelve I posted this morning, here’s another [insert relevant social media post] telling you where to buy my book.’

I imagine most folks have differing ideas about how much is too much, but some folks cross everyone's line.

6: ‘What a delightful writing group. I thoroughly enjoyed my first meeting. Why yes, I did leave those promo postcards on every chair before we started.’

If the only reason you attend a writing group is to promote your own work, do everyone there a favor, and stay home.

7: ‘I’m trying to get myself better known, so I thought I’d add you to this Facebook group without bothering to ask you if you’d be interested. Oh, and you can also buy my book if you like.’

This one works, in the sense that it will get you better known, but not in the positive way you thought – at least insofar as the people who don’t like to be taken for granted are concerned.

8: ‘Dear friend (who isn’t worth the effort of preparing a separate, personalized, email so I’ve included you on this hidden mailing list of every address I’ve ever heard of, plus a few I’ve scavenged from other people’s lists), let me tell you about my new book.’

If you want to tell someone you know about your book in an email, make it a personal one (hiding the address list doesn’t count).

9: ‘Just thought I’d send this automated reply to thank you for following me back on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or whatever it was. Now buy my book.’

Whether or not it’s the intention, I’m always left with the feeling that the only reason the person ‘friended’ me was so he/she could get a (not too subtle) plug in for his/her book.

10: ____________________________________

I left #10 blank. What would you add to the list?

Born in England, Jon Gibbs now lives in New Jersey, where he’s ‘Author in Residence’ at Lakehurst Elementary School. A member of several writing groups, including SCBWI, he’s the founder of the New Jersey Authors Network and His blog, An Englishman in New Jersey, is read in over thirty countries.

Jon’s debut novel, Fur-Face (Echelon Press) a middle grade fantasy about a shy teenager who meets a talking cat only he can hear, was nominated for a Crystal Kite Award. Watch out for the sequel, Barnum’s Revenge, coming in February, 2013.

When he’s not chasing around after his children, Jon can usually be found hunched over the computer in his basement office. One day he hopes to figure out how to switch it on.

Art: Advertisement card for Philip Conway, Jr., Practical Shirt Maker by G.M. Hayes

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Affiliate Links

You may have noticed the appearance of "Buy this book" widgets that appear when you hover over links to books on the blog.

Like this:

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow

Full disclosure: If you buy the books through these links I will receive a commission. I am not doing this with the expectation that it will lead to untold riches and they will in no way influence what I decide to post on the site. But I appreciate the ability to encourage people to buy books from multiple vendors, and whatever resulting money I receive will go to offsetting some of the costs associated with maintaing this blog and the forums, which are ad-free.

These widgets are intended to be mildly but not catastrophically disruptive. Please holler if you have any strenuous objections. If you'd like to add these widgets to your own site, you can find the code here.

 Art: Art dealer, France by Anonymousa

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Publishing Industry Is Not Deserving of Special Protection

It's rare that I disagree with or don't defer to the experience and wisdom of publishing industry sage Mike Shatzkin, who has been prescient about the transition to e-books and adept at explaining its effects and future effects on the industry.

But in a recent post, he expressed frustration at the failure of recognition on the part of legal experts about the special circumstances of the publishing industry and the potential effects of low e-book pricing:
But I’m afraid my major takeaway was, once again, that the legal experts applying their antitrust theories to the industry don’t understand what they’re monkeying with or what the consequences will be of what they see as their progressive thinking. Steamrollering those luddite denizens of legacy publishing, who just provoke eye-rolling disdain by suggesting there is anything “special” about the ecosystem they’re part of and are trying to preserve, is just part of a clear-eyed understanding of the transitions caused by technology.
The thing is, and I say this as someone who has a great deal of respect for publishers and agents and as a traditionally published author: There isn't anything special about the publishing industry. It is not deserving of special treatment, and we shouldn't fear its disruption by new technology.

Books occupy a very central and foundational part of our culture, and any society that stops producing them deserves to get sacked by the Visgoths. Publishers and bookstores have packaged and distributed books to us for several hundred years, and they have been great at their jobs.

But, again, I say this as someone who has tremendous respect for these institutions: They are a means to an end. They are a way of getting quality books to customers, just as stagecoaches transported people across the country before railroad before cars before airlines. Publishers and bookstores are a delivery system.

In order to call for special protection for the traditional publishing ecosystem, you would have to make the case that without that precise ecosystem, books would fail to be produced in the same quality and quantity as they were before. This is Mike Shatzkin's fear:
My argument and fear is that a restructured ecosystem will deny us books like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography or Ron Chernow’s George Washington. Books that take years to write and require hundreds of thousands of dollars of financing to be written will never see the light of day if publishers can’t earn a profit by investing in their creation.
I simply don't share this fear.

People will still write books even with uncertain prospects for financial success (NaNoWriMo anyone??). There will still be tremendous competition, which will create pressure to make those books as good as possible. Those books will still be delivered to readers, only more cheaply and more efficiently than before. They will still be edited and some will still be great. And better yet, in case I didn't mention it twenty times before, they will be cheaper, which means customers will be able to buy more of them.

All of the mechanisms and expertise of traditional publishing, other than paper book distribution, are now available to any author. Want professional editors? Tons of great freelance editors are standing by. Need cover design? A graphic designer will be happy to help. Need money in advance to pay for all this? Take a gander at Kickstarter, or at the universities and nonprofits who currently support the publication of literary fiction and academia.

I mean, if Walter Isaacson came to me and said, "Nathan, I have secured exclusive access to Steve Jobs to write his bio, I just need $500,000 to write it in exchange for a share the profits," I would say, "I don't have $500,000." But I'm confident Isaacson would be able to find a member of the 1% willing to take the bet.

What are publishers fighting for? They're fighting for the ability to charge a premium for their products. To make customers pay more money for books.

It's a bit galling that the publishing industry would argue that books are more than just commodities, and their ecosystem therefore deserving of special protection, when they are increasingly treating books and authors as, well, commodities. When literary fiction is getting kicked to the curb, when millions of dollars chase the latest celebrity scandal as mid list authors get dumped, and when they're pulling e-books from libraries.

We have plenty to fear from an Amazonian monopoly, were that to ever come to pass. But there is competition in the marketplace already and there is also tremendous opportunity for upstarts to continue to shake up the landscape.

I have tons of sympathy for all of the great people who will get caught in the negative effects of the disruption. I don't think publishers will go away, but they will certainly be leaner, which means job losses. I also don't blame publishers for their actions or even think they're necessary misguided. They are all very intelligent and well-meaning people who are usually making rational decisions to protect their business in a rapidly shifting landscape.

But when you boil everything down and remove all the noise, the precise fear of publishers is that books will be cheaper. That's it.

Books. Cheaper.

Tell me again why we should fight that?

Art: 1628 version of Haarlem printing press from 1440 by Jan Van de Velde

Friday, November 2, 2012

Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited

So you've already decided that you want to write in third person instead of first person. Good work! That's half the battle.

Did you know there's another battle ahead? That is when you decide whether you're going to write in third person omniscient or third person limited.

This decision comes down to whether you want to head-jump.

Third person limited is, well, limited. The perspective is exclusively grounded to one character, unless you cheat a little. This means that you have all of the constraints of first person (all the reader sees is what the protagonist sees), but with just a tad more freedom. The reader will wonder a bit more precisely what that character is thinking and there's a bit more of an objective sensibility.

One of the classic third person limited narratives is the Harry Potter series, and Rowling strays from Harry's perspective in only a tiny few rare instances. She therefore had to bend over backwards to filter everything the reader needed to know about that world through Harry's view. If Harry can't see it? It doesn't happen for the reader.

I would wager my sorting hat that things like the invisibility cloak and the pensieve were extremely inventive ways around the narrative challenges posed by third person limited. There is no "offstage" for the reader to witness something that Harry can't see, so instead he has to be present to see he shouldn't  (invisibility cloak) and witnessing historical events for himself (pensieve).

Third person omniscient is, ostensibly, a bit more freeing, because you aren't limited to a single character's perspective. However, it's also very difficult because for a reader it's very disorienting to head-jump. If you're inside one character's head and then jump to the next character's head and then another, it's very difficult for the reader to place themselves in a scene. They just have whiplash.

There are two main approaches to third person omniscient to get around this. (I'm sure they have names, but I don't know them. Learned ignorance!)

The first approach is to have the narrator be a fully developed character or character-esque presence of their own. This is the From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler approach. There is a defined character who is narrating the action. And while the narrative may show a bit of what the characters are feeling, the narrative never truly jumps to far insider character's heads to show precisely what they're feeling.

The other third person omniscient approach is a limited head jump. This is what I did with Jacob Wonderbar. For the most part the narrative is told from Jacob's perspective, but when the kids are split up there are also scenes that are told from Sarah's and Dexter's perspectives.

There are even a few very (I hope) limited and seamless head jumps within scenes. In order to pull these off without the reader growing annoyed, I think of it kind of like a camera staying in place. There's a moment when Jacob goes inside to warm up some corndogs (natch), and the narrative stays with the kids outside. Since the perspective stays in place and the reader feels like they just didn't go inside with Jacob, hopefully it feels relatively seamless.

That's the key: Whatever perspective you choose, it has to be grounded. The reader has to know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.

(Thanks to Brian Wood for the question that inspired this post.)

Art: Six Tuscan Poets by Giorgio Vasari

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