Over the past few weeks, several articles relating to writing and publishing have caught my eye and my interest. Some may change the way we write and market our books in months and years to come. Let’s analyze three of them, and see what they have to offer.
Posts by Peter Grant
This week I’d like to zero in on a few items that have crossed my desk and/or screen over the past month; things that made me think about our industry (writing and publishing), where it is, and where it (and we) are going.
Let’s begin with last month’s mammoth Author Earnings report. I note that the authors of the report are now selling their data to the industry, and are therefore “graying out” a number of things for which they’d now like to be paid. I can’t blame them for that, of course, but it does make their reports less useful to the rest of us. Nevertheless, they do provide an immense amount of food for thought, for which I’m duly grateful.
I’ve recently been looking up a number of measurements for a book in progress. To my delight, I’ve learned that there are many humorous systems of measurement. Some made me laugh out loud. Others produced a quiet giggle. I thought you might enjoy learning more about them.
Most of us have heard of the (in)famous “furlongs per fortnight” as a measurement of speed. It’s actually part of the FFF System: “The length unit of the system is the furlong, the mass unit is the mass of a firkin of water, and the time unit is the fortnight. Like the SI or metre–kilogram–second systems, there are derived units for velocity, volume, mass and weight, etc.” For science fiction writers, “The speed of light may be expressed as being roughly 1.8 terafurlongs per fortnight (or megafurlongs per microfortnight)“.
I’ve been trying to understand the very negative attitudes towards self-publishing and self-starting a writing career among many so-called “professionals” in the field. (Sarah commented on the views of one such individual earlier this week.) I note, too, that very few of those “professionals” appear to have enjoyed any meaningful success, if one defines “success” as actually making a living out of their writing (as opposed to talking about writing). They may be highly acclaimed in academic circles, or even lauded for preserving the “purity” of their “literary talent”, but they’re sure as hell not earning enough from it to call themselves successful writers. Read more
I’ve noticed more and more independent authors complain about all the problems they’re facing. Blog articles, Facebook posts, e-mails and other avenues seem to be filling up with the dreaded negatives.
- “Amazon/my publisher/whoever isn’t paying enough.”
- “My books are selling fewer copies than they did since Kindle Unlimited came out.”
- “My readers keep on nagging me for the next book in a series, but my creativity well dried up.”
- “Life, the universe and everything are conspiring to take up all my time and stop me writing.”
- “I can’t seem to get my thoughts down on paper any more.”
I’m sympathetic to many of those cries of woe. I suffer from many of the same problems myself. However, I think there’s also far too much negativity floating around. It’s all too easy to talk ourselves into a decline. Therefore, I’d like to share the story of my last three years with you. They’ve been filled with a lot of pain, and a great many problems – but I’m still here, and as long as God gives me grace (those of you who don’t have any religious faith can substitute your own sentiment), I’ll keep on keeping on. I’m not writing these words to elicit sympathy, or praise, or whatever. I’m just trying to point out that things can always get worse – unless we choose to make them better.
I daresay most of you know my journey to becoming a fiction author: I covered it in these pages some years ago. Briefly, since my injury in 2004, I’ve been in pain 24/7/365. On a scale of 1 low to 10 high, it used to hover at 2-3 all the time, with episodes of more severe pain from time to time (including a regular spell every 10 days to 2 weeks where my injured nerve would “flare up”, giving me a severe pain day of 5-6 or higher).
The neurosurgeon had given me a lifetime restriction of not lifting more than 25 pounds, and the increasing pain caused by walking meant that I didn’t go very far except very slowly, with a walking stick. Exercise became almost impossible. As a result, my overall physical health began to deteriorate. I was a smoker, too, which didn’t help at all. I ended up with a heart attack in 2009, followed by a drug interaction problem between my heart medication and the drug regime used to manage my nerve pain. I put on well over 100 pounds in 8 months as a result. My metabolism was trashed, and I’ve found it very difficult to lose that weight.
As a result of all those complications and my weight gain, kidney stones became an issue. During 2015 I was hospitalized twice to deal with them, and found the increased pain from that source, on top of my existing nerve pain, to be almost unbearable. My writing came to a grinding halt until the kidney stones were dealt with. They remain an issue; I still have a stone in there, but the local urologist protests I really can’t be feeling pain from it, because it’s in a location where it can’t be passed. I have news for him! Basically, all I can do is remain well hydrated and keep going. I’m darned if I want them cutting open my kidney!
As you can imagine, the increased pain of kidney stones, on top of the ‘normal’ pain from my damaged back and sciatic nerve, made creative writing almost impossible for long periods of time. There may be some people who can write through pain without any effort, but I’m not one of them! My output was drastically diminished. I’ve managed to publish several books over the past three years (2015-2017), but fewer than I intended. Every one of them has had its price in pain, rather than just time or hard work. They’ve all taken longer to write than I wanted (usually two to three times as long as my first few), and they’ve all taken a lot more out of me. After finishing one, it’s been a real problem to make my “get up and go” actually get up (much less go) and start the next book.
I realized earlier this year that unless I did something to deal with the after-effects of my physical problems, I was going to die within the next two to three years. The choice was as simple as that. Following medical advice, which I’d been doing for years, simply wasn’t working. I had to get rid of my excess weight, regardless of my physical problems and circumstances, because obesity is as sure a killer in the long term as heart disease or anything else. I had no easy choices. If I exercised, I knew I’d face increased pain; but I couldn’t go back on the pain management regime I’d used before, because I knew it would produce a recurrence of the drug interaction and weight gain. I simply had to “bite the bullet” and tough it out.
I discarded my neurosurgeon’s advice, and with my wife’s help, began researching what might restore my “core strength” and get my metabolism moving again. She and I began strength training in July. We’ve both found it very beneficial indeed; we’re already stronger, with better endurance, and better able to cope with our respective injuries and disabilities – and this is just the beginning. After a couple of years of it, I’m sure we’ll be physically in far better shape. I’m already far past my neurosurgeon’s “lifetime limit” of how much weight I’m allowed to lift. I daresay he’d have a hernia if he saw me! (That’s a satisfying thought.)
Of course, this physical progress has come at a price in pain. I’d say my daily pain level is now hovering around 3-4 out of 10, with frequent (every day or two) increases to the 4-5 level, spiking higher in the evening after a long day; and my “bad pain days” every couple of weeks are still a factor. I’m using lower-level pain medication, both over-the-counter and prescription, to try to deal with it. This generally leaves my brain sufficiently “un-fogged” to write, unless I have a bad pain day when I have to take multiple doses; but it’s an uphill battle. I continue to find it very hard to concentrate, and get my creative juices flowing, when my body is screaming at me. Still, I’m persevering. I hope – nay, I intend – to “power through” this and come out on the other side.
I’m also tackling weight loss through so-called ‘water fasting’ and intermittent fasting, which seems to work for me (albeit slowly) where regular dieting doesn’t (my faulty metabolism gloms on to every calorie that strays within reach, and won’t let go of it). This is causing difficulties for my exercise program, because (as our coaches quite correctly point out) strength training is designed to increase one’s strength, which means increasing one’s muscle mass. To try to lose weight while putting on muscle is a contradiction in terms! Nevertheless, I have to do both at the same time. It’s a medical necessity. Therefore, I’ve deliberately scaled back my strength training to a far slower rate of progress than others at my level would normally be able to accommodate. That means I can follow my dietary restrictions, which inevitably impact my muscles as well as my adipose tissue. I’ll get stronger and fitter more slowly, but hopefully also lighter at the same time. Some coaches say it won’t work. I say, given the amount of weight I need to lose, I have no choice. We’ll see who’s right.
I’m noticing mixed effects from the increased pain on my creative writing. For a long time, it’s been a struggle to write well. I continue to find that in tackling legacy series; my military science fiction Maxwell Saga (where I’m busy with Volume 6) and Laredo Trilogy (where the third and final volume is overdue), and my Ames Archives western series (where the publisher is waiting for the third book). I also have a short story overdue, another one planned, two potential collaborative novel projects (one of which has been really chafing at me for a number of reasons not altogether related to my pain levels, and the other waiting on publisher and co-author input), and a book proposal for another publisher. The amount of work lined up is enough to keep me busy for the next couple of years… if only I could cudgel my pain-soaked brain into producing it!
In desperation, less than two weeks ago, I tried something new. Back in 2014, I was stuck on Maxwell Volume 3, “Adapt and Overcome“. I just couldn’t make it work, and my creative stream had dwindled to a trickle. In sheer frustration, I sat down one day and decided to write whatever came into my head – a stream-of-consciousness pantser effort that was completely unplanned and unforeseen. To my astonishment, thirty days later, I completed “War to the Knife“, the first volume of my Laredo Trilogy. I had no idea where it had come from (although it drew heavily on parts of my own military background). It was written out of frustration, and somehow it worked.
I decided to try the same thing again. Last week, on Monday, November 27th, I sat down and started writing with no idea at all what I wanted to say. I’d just had enough of being blocked! Well, would you believe it? Lightning can strike twice in the same place! I’m currently almost 50,000 words into what looks like it’ll be the first book in another mil-SF trilogy. It’s flowing like mad, characters and situations and events keep popping up all over my fictional landscape, and I’m haring after them shouting “Stop! Where did you come from? Who are you, and what are you doing in my story? Come back with that plot line!” I’m having a lot of fun, and for once, I’m able to write through the pain (which is no less than usual). I suspect someone up there may have decided I needed a distraction.
Despite the pain and other problems, I remain grateful for my blessings. They are many. There are many people who’ve suffered injuries similar to mine, who are now in wheelchairs or bed-bound. I’ve been spared that, and by God’s grace and hard work, I’ll stay on my feet as long as I can. I have an income, albeit currently a rather reduced one, from my writing. I have a wife whom I love, and who loves me. She has a job that brings in enough money (allied to my disability and writing income) to pay our bills, cope with emergencies, and plan to pay off our house in a decade, instead of the 15-year mortgage for which we contracted. We’re in a part of the world where the weather is generally good. We have friends for whom we’re extremely grateful, some in the same town, others within a few hours’ drive, others several days’ travel from here – but all of them are important to us. We’ve helped to build up a small support network where a number of writers help each other, creatively and otherwise.
There’s so much to be thankful for that I simply refuse to be negative. Every time I find myself hurting too much, or blocked creatively, or moping about something in my life that could be better, I remind myself that things could be a whole lot worse. There’s always something, somewhere, for which I can give thanks. I highly recommend that approach to you, if you’re struggling with life, the universe and everything. Don’t give up – give thanks. Be grateful for all the good in your life.
- If you can’t think of much good to be thankful for, start with your next meal – because right now, in large parts of the Third World, people are dying of hunger. I know they are. I’ve traveled there, and seen it for myself at first hand.
- If that’s not enough, give thanks that you’re not addicted to harmful drugs, shooting yourself up in back alleys, facing an early death through fentanyl-laced heroin or assault from another addict or pusher.
- Give thanks for positives just as much as negatives. You have friends? Be grateful for them. You have a partner or significant other? Be glad.
- Turn around the negatives. You’re not getting out of your job/marriage/writing what you expect or want? Then ask yourself, “What am I putting into my job/marriage/writing?” The Biblical injunctions, “As you sow, so shall you reap” and “By their fruits you will know them” aren’t just pious platitudes. They’re recipes for life… so, what are we sowing, much less reaping? What fruits are we producing? If they’re bad or negative, whose choice, whose fault is that, if not our own?
Don’t let the bad times, or the problems of a writing life, or the ups and downs of the world, get you down. They’re normal. They’ll be with us until we die. Instead, be their master, not their slave. Things could always be worse – so why not choose to make them better instead?
(If worse comes to worst, remember the sage advice of the old-timers in South Africa when I was growing up. “Is the bottom falling out of your world? Take a laxative – then the world will fall out of your bottom!”)
Two items of news popped up on my radar over the past couple of weeks. Both illustrate, from different perspectives, the problems mainstream publishing is having trying to make money out of authors. In one case, the publisher has essentially given up. In the other, the publisher was trying to screw the author out of every red cent of revenue they could possibly get, ethics be damned.
First, MacMillan has thrown in the towel on its Pronoun publishing venture. It bought Pronoun in 2016, clearly intending it as an entry-level tool for self-published authors that would help to “separate the wheat from the chaff“. As Pronoun CEO Jeff Brody said at the time of the acquisition:
“Authors who want or need more support will be able to join additional paid tiers for a revenue share—or may have the opportunity to transition to a traditional publishing contract.”
In other words: demonstrate to MacMillan that you can generate revenue for them, based on the quality of your writing and/or the fan base you can generate out of your own resources, and the company might – might – be willing to invest in you. However, MacMillan would not help you to generate sales for yourself. That was up to you. If you succeeded, and they thought they could piggyback on your success, they might follow up – but that initiative was in their hands, not yours as an author.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course; but more and more, that’s the way of the publishing marketplace. Publishers are effectively saying to authors, “You bring your success and your fans to the table; we’ll bring our resources. If you haven’t got the first, we won’t offer you the second.” Most aspiring authors can no longer expect to break into “traditional” publishing without first proving that they can succeed on their own. (A few fortunate ones may catch the eye of an agent, as J. K. Rowling did with Christopher Little, and that agent might spend a great deal of time, money and energy shopping their book[s] to publishers; but I think that’s going to be even more the exception to the rule than it was in the past.)
The inference from MacMillan’s abandonment of its Pronoun venture is that even with such a “sorting device”, there simply isn’t enough money to be made from independent publishing to make it worthwhile for a mainstream publisher to become actively involved. Businesses are in business to make money. If they can’t make money, they go out of business. MacMillan saw Pronoun as offering two opportunities: attracting high-selling indie authors, and gathering data to fuel its mainstream publishing empire. Neither worked out.
Of course, the heady success of some self-publishing authors in the early days of the Kindle ecosystem has been less frequently seen in recent years. If Pronoun was anticipating partnerships with “indie bestsellers” as some of the best known outliers were known (Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, Jasinda Wilder, Hugh Howey, Holly Ward, and others), it may have found that fewer of those high-earning chart-toppers were being generated in an increasingly competitive market.
Some in the industry have speculated that Pronoun’s value to Macmillan lay in data collection. Indeed, the company’s farewell note includes the line, “We believed that the power of data could be harnessed for smarter book publishing, leveling the playing field for indie authors.”
And Pronoun spokeswoman Allison Horton was quoted by Doppler last year saying an ambitious thing for a company about to be bought by a Big Five trade publisher: “Pronoun’s goal is to make indie publishing so successful that it becomes the predominant way great books are published.” That’s a vision that won’t be realized by the Pronoun platform, it turns out.
Yep. No commercial advantage = no earnings = no more Pronoun.
One can at least acknowledge MacMillan’s attempt to break into the indie market by investing in it, albeit indirectly. I think that was an honorable method. Others, adopted (one fears) by more and more operators in the publishing industry, are less honorable. As Kristine Kathryn Rusch points out, they include “rights grabs” that are right on the borderline of legal, let alone ethical.
The [draft contract] wanted my publisher’s signature as well, transferring all the money I earned on my books to the movie company. I had never seen that before (and I hope I never see it again).
And the document also asked for the copyright registration number.
. . .
You can cite an old copyright number when you apply for a new copyright on a different form of the same product. That links the two copyrights together, and might—maybe, depending—make some judge think that the new copyright (which belongs to the company) is valid because the company had the original number.
This company … is copyright squatting. And if they had gotten me to sign that horrid option, they would have more or less owned my intellectual property, and had a strong argument that I deserved nothing.
. . .
So for very little money up front, the company would have owned everything and, over the years, received money directly from my publisher, money that would initially have gone to me but which I would have stupidly signed away.
Am I appalled?
Not entirely. I expect most of this crap from Hollywood, at least on rights licensing. I’m seeing the same kind of rights licensing crap—taking everything and giving the writer nothing—from traditional publishing too, these days.
But the copyright squatting? Trying to actually steal a copyright by filing their own copyright and then disputing who owns the copyright in court?
Yeah, that appalls me.
I’m glad that I’m aware of it now. Because every time I think that major corporations can’t sink any lower, they find whole new depths to sink to.
The entire article is well worth your time to read. I suspect that such sneakily camouflaged “rights grabs” will become commonplace over the next few years.
The timely reminder from both cases – Pronoun, and the attempted “copyright squatting” – is that an author’s value to a publisher or media company lies only in the money that can be made from their works. There is and will be no loyalty or commitment offered by the latter except in return for the former – and any such loyalty or commitment will only remain valid as long as the latter keeps coming, or appears to be imminent. Once the money is no longer in prospect, authors can and will be discarded like scrap paper, torn up and tossed into the trash can.
As indie authors, we have a measure of protection from that. We may have less “security” (for what that’s worth) than traditionally published authors, but we at least know that our success (or otherwise) is totally up to us. We can’t rely on anyone else to do it for us. That clears the air.
A recent article titled “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds” examined the impact of smartphones on the intellectual activities (and abilities) of their users. I’d like to highlight several excerpts, then discuss what they mean for us as writers – and for our audience and target market.
The smartphone is unique in the annals of personal technology. We keep the gadget within reach more or less around the clock, and we use it in countless ways, consulting its apps and checking its messages and heeding its alerts scores of times a day. The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are.
. . .
Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens … Dr. Ward and his colleagues wrote that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain” that can diminish such vital mental skills as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”
Many people (including myself) read e-books using their smartphones. That would certainly involve “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity”, as the article mentions. However, that’s only one of many things for which we use those devices. Readers are frequently interrupted by incoming calls or text messages, which demand their attention visually and aurally, and in many cases require a response. Advertisements flash onto the screen, interrupting one’s concentration. If one’s relying on services such as navigation (for example, to tell one when to get off the bus or train), they, too, interrupt one’s attention on the book one’s reading. One’s attention span is attenuated and “ambushed” by multiple outside factors. Is this one reason for the complaint from some readers, at least, that they don’t seem to be able to get as much out of an e-book as they do out of a “dead tree edition”?
There’s also the reality that smartphones can demand – and be given – a dangerously high proportion of our overall concentration. Who hasn’t heard of, or witnessed, smartphone users stepping off a pavement into traffic, oblivious to the danger? How many people have been blithely sending text messages, only to crash into other pedestrians, or stumble over an obstacle and fall down? Instead of concentrating on the important things – getting safely from point A to point B – we’ve allowed our concentration to be undermined by the sheer convenience of the smartphone, thereby endangering ourselves. Somewhere, I’m sure Darwin’s laughing at us…
Finally, from our perspective as writers, there’s the impact of such devices on creativity. How many of us, striving to write our next book, have been distracted by incoming e-mails, or text messages, or phone calls? It used to be relatively easy to shut the door on the outside world and write. That’s no longer the case. The smartphone is portable and ubiquitous; and even if we leave it outside our “writing space”, there are messaging apps on our computers as well. It’s very difficult to escape these constant demands on our attention, and their distraction, without making a deliberate effort to do so. However, if we do, we’re likely to face irate questions from family and friends about why we don’t respond at once, if not sooner, to their communications.
The evidence that our phones can get inside our heads so forcefully is unsettling. It suggests that our thoughts and feelings, far from being sequestered in our skulls, can be skewed by external forces we’re not even aware of.
This highlights a dilemma for writers. Our audience, our potential market, is vulnerable to that sort of distraction. Can we write in such a way as to “cut through the noise” and hold their attention? Should we, rather, be considering ways in which our work can fit into such a crowded, externally influenced environment, and perhaps write accordingly?
It’s been demonstrated that graphic books can teach concepts more quickly than a text-only work, but they also appear to demand less from students (who have grown up in a highly technological environment, and therefore may be more intellectually disposed to such a “lighter” approach). For example, Shakespeare is being taught using such an approach, with different levels of text to match the intended audience. On the other hand, graphic novels may also present less of an intellectual challenge – and that may be dangerous in itself. Research suggests that “intellectual stimulation may directly help maintain a healthy brain“; but the corollary would suggest that the absence of intellectual stimulation (as in graphic novels versus their text equivalents) might have the opposite effect.
I suggest that the growing popularity of graphic novels (epitomized by the recent stunning crowdfunding success of the Alt*Hero project) shows that such forms of entertainment are here to stay. Are we – should we be – taking that into account in our own writing? Is there room for collaboration with graphic artists, to produce such versions of our books, perhaps using simplified language? Might such versions lead readers to tackle our longer print works in future? It’s a thought.
… even in the history of captivating media, the smartphone stands out. It is an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what Dr. Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it is part of our surroundings—which it always is. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.
This observation may highlight one reason why our creative processes seem to become more difficult. We used to be able to research a topic fairly simply (e.g. the use of poison in murders), and then apply it to our book’s plot. Nowadays, instead of reading a book on the subject, we’ll do an Internet search on it. That will lead to links, which lead to further links, which take us off down a side track to pursue an interesting concept that may (or may not) have anything to do with our original premise. Before you know it, our “research” has developed into what’s become known as a “Wikiwander“. We’ve poured hours down a rat-hole without producing any worthwhile “return on our investment” of time. The smartphone is iconic of this process of distraction, and our computers aren’t much better.
The same can apply to our readers. I recently decided to observe my own reactions to new concepts while reading a new-to-me fantasy series (Miles Cameron’s excellent Traitor Son cycle, which I highly recommend; its fifth and last book, “The Fall of Dragons“, will be published at the end of this month). He uses many concepts that are rooted in and grounded on history (e.g. early Byzantium, medieval England and France, hermetical theory and theology, etc.), which he’s adapted to the world he’s created for his books. I found myself growing frustrated if I didn’t (or couldn’t) stop reading when I came across elements of those concepts with which I wasn’t familiar. I was almost driven to open a Web browser to look up the word or subject involved, and learn more about it before resuming my reading. My mind’s become conditioned to the ability to do that – something that would not have been a factor even twenty years ago, when I could read an entire multi-volume work like this without once feeling the need to digress into research or fact-checking.
The problem is, the ability to do that may actually be interfering with our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. The article points out:
As strange as it might seem, people’s knowledge and understanding may actually dwindle as gadgets grant them easier access to online data stores … Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology. If the only thing at stake were memories of trivial facts, that might not matter. But, as the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.” Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking. No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.
Speaking as an author, this makes me think. Do I need to incorporate enough background information into my books to make it unnecessary for my readers to leave my book, look up something for themselves, then return to read further? That can be dangerous; the dreaded “infodump” lurks in the wings! (That’s not to say that infodumps can’t be done well; check out these examples, and this handy column on how to write them.) On the other hand, if I write so esoterically and/or impenetrably that my readers can’t figure out what I’m saying or where I’m going, they soon won’t be my readers any more!
The article raises this question. Do we need to – should we – take into account the platforms on which our readers will access our books, when we write them? Should we try to adapt the way we write, so that our work is more suited to a high-interruption-level, distracted sort of reading? Or should we try to write so absorbingly that our readers will resent interruptions and do their best to “stay with us”, even at the expense of ignoring other demands on their time or attention? Is that even feasible in our technological age?
I look forward to your responses in Comments.