Stephanie Laurens and the Next Generation of Publishing

Stephanie Laurens’s terrific keynote address from this year’s Romance Writers of America conference is really worth reading. I won’t say it contains earthshaking revelations, but it does lay out the current state of publishing and its prevailing trends in a very clear way — including some great graphics. In so doing, it makes reassuring points about the new centrality of the author.

Laurens does seem somewhat of two minds on the future of the traditional publishing industry — what she calls “offline publishing.” On the one hand, she emphasizes the herculean task that lies ahead of such publishers as they try to adapt:

offline publishers are, unsurprisingly, seeking to transition into the online industry. To successfully transition, a previously offline publisher needs to accomplish two feats — first, refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business, and second, convince authors of their worth in what is emerging as a fiercely competitive field. Those two feats form the challenge that lies squarely before offline publishers wishing to transition into the online sphere.

Two aspects of that challenge deserve special mention. First, remember how things were in the offline industry — author sells her work to publisher. In the online industry, publisher sells its services to author. That is a 180-degree turn around in relationship.

I know many authors are having difficulty getting their heads around that, and unsurprisingly offline publishers are having an even harder time grappling with the change, but to claim a position in the online industry, offline publishers must embrace and internalize this attitudinal switch. (accessed 7/27/12, my emphasis)

Pretty tough tasks, eh? Especially the one I’ve highlighted, which demands alteration of the entire publishing business model. Ouch. How many of you got to “refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business” and thought, Hot damn, is that all?!?

On the other hand, Laurens closes with the idea that authors of the future will have a variety of distribution choices:

author –> readers;

author –> retailers –> readers;

author –> publisher –> readers;

author –> publisher –> retailers –> readers.

See the word “publisher” cropping up a couple times in those options? The speech has just done an awfully good job of explaining the wrenching changes publishers will have to make to stay relevant … and yet they’ll remain a viable distribution option?

Well, maybe. Or maybe the publishers Laurens envisions participating in these future distribution chains are not the same entities that lay claim to the “publisher” title right now, and she’s just too nice and tactful to say so. Perhaps the publishers of tomorrow will be the patricide offspring of today’s struggling industry — companies that don’t have to change themselves because they’re brand new.

Mark Coker, Agency Pricing, and The Indie Surge

Check out Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s blog post on the big sales/profit advantage indie authors now enjoy (thanks to The Passive Voice for the link).

One thing Coker says raises again for me the question of whether the agency model, with its artificial inflation of traditionally published ebook prices, may actually have been a good thing for the growth of indie publishing:

If an author can earn the same or greater income selling lower cost books, yet reach significantly more readers, then, drum roll please, it means the authors who are selling higher priced books through traditional publishers are at an extreme disadvantage to indie authors in terms of long term platform building. The lower-priced books are building author brand faster.  Never mind that an indie author earns more per $2.99 unit sold ($1.80-$2.10) than a traditionally published author earns at $9.99 ($1.25-$1.75). (accessed 7/26/12)

Indies are selling a lot of units because their prices are so much lower. That means they actually account for a far bigger part of the book-selling pie than you’d realize if you quote the usual 30% share, which is based not on units sold but on sales in dollars. Selling more units = introducing more readers to your brand. Add to that benefit something Coker doesn’t mention — many indie writers are able to put books out there (i.e., grow their product line) much more quickly than they could were they publishing traditionally — and you end up with a pretty big head start over traditionally published competitors. Especially during a quasi-global recession.

So wouldn’t anything that magnifies that advantage be good for indies? And hasn’t the agency model done just that by artificially inflating the prices of traditionally published ebooks? I think the only way to believe this hasn’t happened is to think that books simply don’t compete with one another. And you know, I’d love to think that books are somehow outside the competitive marketplace, that readers don’t purchase on a budget, weighing our precious artworks thusly: Hm, I could buy this book for $12.99 or these four books for $2.99. Sure, I wish books transcended such base calculations, but I really doubt they do.

Would indie publishing have made such amazing strides over the last few years if traditionally published ebooks had been more reasonably priced, starting in 2010? Dunno, but I suspect the vast price differential has something to do with The Indie Surge, and that the agency model may have been busily putting the nails in the coffin of traditional publishing these last few years — quite the opposite of its intended effect.

There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Writing

I mean this very literally, and it’s something I tell my students all the time: there’s no such thing as “good” writing. Sometimes they’ll nod and say something like, “Yeah, it’s all subjective. Every person likes different stuff and interprets things differently.” But that’s not what I mean. Writing does have quality norms, and those norms matter. A lot. But norms are not the same as “good” and “bad” as essential labels.

Here’s what I mean. We all know what I’m talking about when I say “writing,” but it’s actually not all that practical to think of writing as a single thing. In actuality, writing is contextual, situational — it’s writings, plural. Business writing is quite different from literary writing, which is quite different from a cell-phone text, which is quite different from journalism, which is quite different from scientific writing, which is quite different from ad copy. A piece of writing that’s labeled “good” in one of these areas might be considered “bad” if it gets uprooted and plopped down in another. This specificity explains why it can be so difficult to transition from one kind of writing to another: writers internalize the norms of the kind of writing they usually do and then bring those norms with them to new situations in which they may not work so well.

Sure, you may say, the big things may differ, but the same basic mechanical rules apply across the board.

That’s reasonably (though not entirely) true, but mechanics are not the most important stuff when it comes to writerly success: if the mechanics of a piece of writing are a mess, it’s not going to be readable, but a piece of writing can be mechanically clean and still suck. In short, reasonably solid mechanics are essential for a high-quality piece of writing, but they’re not what make a piece of writing high-quality. The more global features are what do that, and global features are highly contextual.

Why does all this matter? Pragmatically speaking, it matters when you try to write in a new discipline or genre. If you import norms from your old genre, you might get burned, so make sure you analyze your target genre and pick up any important differences. Also, it means new kinds of writing come with learning curves, so you shouldn’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the swing of things. Philosophically speaking, it’s nice to recognize that talking about writing as “good” and “bad” (which we all do) is merely a shorthand for what you really mean: “good” writing is writing that satisfies or exceeds the needs or expectations of the target audience within its genre or discipline, and “bad” writing is writing that fails to do that.

So, what does it mean to be “a really good writer”? In my book, a really good writer is someone who can identify and adjust to the norms  and expectations of different kinds of writing. That means the essential characteristics of a “really good writer” are perception and flexibility.

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 2

Here’s a quickie, and it’s actually about prefixes, not words: bi- and semi-. The old way, now dying:

If you wanted to describe something that happens every other year, you’d say it’s bi-annual or biennial.

If you wanted to describe something that happens twice a year, you’d say it’s semi-annual.

Bi-annual (and other bi- words … bi-monthly, bi-weekly, etc.) is replacing semi-annual, which is too bad, since the word is also retaining its original “every other” meaning. That means we’re losing the ability to distinguish quickly and easily between two rather different temporal characteristics. Nevertheless, it is happening — c’est la vie.

But it hasn’t quite finished happening yet. Some people still follow the old ways, so think before you bi-!

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 1

Today’s topic: words that are experiencing definition drift, but aren’t yet fully unmoored from their original meaning. That means you can “misuse” them without most people realizing it, but some pedantic subset of readers/listeners will snicker up their sleeves at you.

Here are two prime offenders:

1) Nauseous. Most people think of this word as synonymous with “nauseated,” as in, “I’m feeling nauseous this morning.” What does it/did it actually mean? “Nauseating,” as in, “I passed a nauseous car accident on the way to work.” So every time someone says, “OMG, I’m so nauseous today!” the pedants might think, “with that kind of vocabulary, you sure are!”

2) Disinterested. Many people think of this word as synonymous with “uninterested,” but it actually means “unbiased.” This one isn’t as far gone as “nauseous,” so beware.

That’s all for now, but I’ll probably rinse and repeat as I think of new examples.

MM: Countable Nouns

Language changes. Distinctions that were once important fade, becoming esoteric, then vanishing. Many people don’t notice such losses. Others do notice. Complaints about the current sad state of writing or the language are no new thing. For instance, Harvard started its expository writing program in 1897 because faculty members were so distressed at their students’ abysmal writing. One of their complaints: students seemed unable to keep straight the distinction between will and shall. The faculty was trying to hold back the tide on that one: the will/shall  distinction has since been lost to American English. And a hundred years from now, the who/whom distinction will probably have gone the same way.

This post is about another fading distinction: that between adjectives appropriate for “countable” and “uncountable” nouns. Have you noticed that many supermarkets have changed the signs on their express lanes to read “10 items or fewer,” rather than “10 items or less”? That’s because the pedants were getting on their cases. You see, items are countable, and you use fewer with countable nouns. Less is for uncountable things, such as rice. (Tip: Uncountable nouns generally don’t have a separate plural form — rice, flour, sand, air, gasoline, music, advice, etc.)

So, let’s take beans as our countable noun and rice as our uncountable one:

This burrito is too big! I’d like less rice and fewer beans.

This burrito has a greater amount of rice and a greater number of beans.

I don’t have many beans or much rice. I need to go shopping!

The less/fewer distinction is the most abused, but you’ll also see amount attached to countable nouns. The linguistic trend seems to be the replacement of countable with uncountable forms. In a hundred years, fewer and number might sound precious or archaic, as shall does to modern American speakers. But for now, I think the distinction still holds. By a single, countable thread.

Can I Just Be Annoyed for a Minute?

You know, critics of indie publishing are very fond of pointing out that most indie authors don’t make much or any money. Proponents usually respond that the vast majority of traditionally published authors don’t make much money either — many traditionally published books “fail.” While that’s certainly true, I don’t think it’s the most effective response.

In judging the money-making potential of  indie authorship, the real question is this: “How many authors who could publish their books through traditional routes but who choose to publish independently end up making as much or more through self-publishing, compared to what they would’ve made if they published traditionally?”

Books that could’ve gone the traditional route are the only books that can be used in comparing indie success rates to traditional success rates. Why? Because all the other books — all those that were rejected by traditional publishers or would’ve been rejected, had they been submitted — could only ever make exactly $0.00 through traditional publishers. If those “not good enough” books, when self-published, make a single red cent, that’s 100% gravy because they never would’ve gotten the chance to make anything if indie weren’t an option. And boy have some of those “not good enough” books made a whole pile of red cents.

Given the fact that you have to remove all the foolishly-rejected-by-traditional-publishing, Mill River Recluse-type books from the scale before you weigh indie vs. traditional, it seems very likely to me that authors are more likely to make good money as self-publishers, especially if they write in the genres that tend to sell well as ebooks. But we’ll never know for sure because every book that could be traditionally published has to go one way or the other, and it’s impossible to know how it would’ve done if the author had chosen the route he or she didn’t choose.

FYI, this is the weak analysis that ticked me off. Thanks to Kindle Boards for the link.

Review: The End Is Near, by Harry Ramble

The End Is Near (2010)
By Harry Ramble
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

The End Is Near is a work of literary fiction focusing on the sad-sack character of Nathan Huffnagle — his tragic past, his weird present, and his mysterious and possibly very short future. The novel opens with Nathan in the hospital. He’s landed there following a botched attempt at suicide by shotgun. Left without the lower part of his face, Nathan has been reduced to writing down everything he wants to say. If this sounds macabre, it is, but that’s not the novel’s only mood. At turns appalling, funny, sad, and uplifting, The End Is Near is far from a one-trick pony.

Ramble’s narrative artfully weaves Nathan’s story out of three strands: his present-day interactions in the hospital with visitors, doctors, nurses, and what Nathan believes to be ghosts and Death itself; the “suicide journal” he kept leading up to his attempt; and a new document he writes at the behest of his ghosts, one in which he tries to uncover a truer account of why his life has turned out so badly. These three sources work wonderfully together: the suicide journal tells the story of Nathan’s wretched childhood — his dysfunctional family and his sadistic torment at the hands of a bully named Randy Trent. The new narrative tells the story of how Nathan took Randy and several others hostage in an auto-parts store and came to the point of suicide. The hospital interactions provide motivation and reveal Nathan’s changing states of mind and self-understanding. Ramble’s ability to bring these different strands — each with its different tone — together so clearly and productively is extremely impressive. This is novel-crafting at its best.

As Nathan’s new narrative takes shape, we get to know both him and Randy Trent much better. As expected, the situation is not as simple as the bully-and-his-victim cliché would suggest. I won’t say more, here, lest I spoil your read, except to admire Ramble’s utter refusal of easy answers and cheap redemption. His characters feel deeply real in their combination of understanding and lack thereof, in their ability and inability to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Even relatively minor figures, such as Nathan’s mother and sister, have a wonderful tangibleness — we don’t get to know them well but are left feeling as though they’re real people we glimpsed in passing. As with Ramble’s ability to construct narrative, his ability to create character it stunning. This is a book that reminds us to look for the admirable in unexpected places: in resiliency; in the halting growth of self-knowledge; in plain-spokenness; and in the ability to draw a moral line somewhere, even if it’s not in the most optimal place.

I also greatly admire Ramble’s work with setting. In writing his suicide journal, Nathan tends to visit the sites of his childhood miseries. Each of these locations is described with subtlety and realism, and they’re all set in the larger environment of a depressed post-industrial town, a hopeful Levittown gone to rot and despair. Ramble doesn’t have to overcook Nathan’s story by spelling out its questioning of the platitudes of family and community; his setting does it for him.

Ramble’s prose is excellent — clear, straightforward, and error-free. Formatting and editing are flawless. I would suggest adjusting the book’s cover for the electronic environment: the small, pale title and author name are probably fine for a paperback, but are illegible on screen.

Harry Ramble’s End Is Near is outstanding. I recommend it in the highest possible terms.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.