Author Archives: Peter Grant

Making money – authors versus publishers

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.

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Technology, intellect, and the future of reading

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 readingThe 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.

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It’s time to face facts: online lending and streaming media is, increasingly, the future of books.

(If you’re thinking deja vu, yes, this post was scheduled to appear on Friday, and accidentally came out on Thursday for a while before being rescheduled. Apologies for the confusion!)

I’ve written before about the threat that streaming media poses to traditional book sales.  I’ve had a certain amount of pushback about that, particularly from those who don’t like the thought of their income from writing declining to such an extent.  Some have even refused to make their books available on streaming services such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.  Now, however, the signs are clear.  We have to face up to the reality of streaming media in our future – or be swept aside.

Those signs are most clear in other areas of the entertainment industry.  Let’s not forget, that is our industry, too.  We’re not selling books.  We’re selling entertainment, and our products (books and stories) are competing with every other avenue of entertainment out there – movies, TV series, music, games, the lot.  If we don’t offer sufficient entertainment for consumers’ dollars, they’re going to spend them on another form of entertainment – and we’re going to starve.

The recent release of Taylor Swift’s new album brought some very sobering figures with it.

… in the three years since Ms. Swift’s last album, the music industry has changed so drastically that much of the old playbook no longer applies … what counts as a hit when all the traditional goal posts keep moving?

In 2014, when Ms. Swift released her last album, “1989,” streaming accounted for only 23 percent of music consumption in the United States, according to Nielsen, and it was still seen as unproven format. Ms. Swift snubbed Spotify as a “grand experiment” with unappealing economics, and “1989” sold 1,287,000 copies in its first week, better than any album in the previous 12 years.

Now, streaming is 63 percent of the market, and the success of subscription platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have turned the fortunes of the entire industry around. Last week, shares of the French media conglomerate Vivendi rose after Goldman Sachs valued Universal Music, a Vivendi division, at $23 billion, almost triple the size of a takeover bid four years ago.

But with streaming on the rise, sales of CDs and downloads — the most lucrative formats — are plunging fast. So far in 2017, the market for single-track downloads is down almost half of what it was three years ago. The question lingering over the industry is whether Ms. Swift can match her last sales number, and how.

“For the right artist, there is gigantic demand out there,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen. “But in order to reach that same level of success, there are different levers today to push and pull than there were the last time.”

There’s more at the link.  Interesting reading for all entertainers (like ourselves).

The changed market for music (which, the Financial Times claims, has saved the music industry) is mirrored in the changed market for movies.  Consider these headlines over the past year:

I might add that movie theaters are in no doubt as to their competition:

“Our competition is not Netflix. It’s not the internet. It is sporting events, it is bowling, it is nightclubs,” Tim Richards, CEO of leading U.K. movie theater chain Vue Cinemas, told CNBC last week.

That quote was from 2016.  Just look what’s happened to the 2017 box office.  There were other factors in play, but I think Mr. Richards was right.  Competition from other sources of entertainment meant that when Hollywood didn’t deliver a sufficiently entertaining product, its consumers simply spent their dollars elsewhere.  We, as writers, face the same dilemma.

Since we’re part of the entertainment industry, and also subject to the vagaries of that market, writers are going to have to get used to making much less money per copy of their work than they’re used to.  I’ve been analyzing my own sales since I started releasing my books in 2013.  There’s a very clear decline in the sales of each book, both older titles and new, as Kindle Unlimited ‘borrows’ ramp up.  Combining the numbers, I’m moving a similar number of copies, but earning much less for each.  Today, I’d guesstimate that I’m going to make between one-third and one-half as much per book, in total, as I did back in 2013, and that figure is continuing to decline.

There’s another important factor, and that is the level of competition we face.  When I started publishing my own books in 2013, Amazon.com’s Kindle Store had just over two million titles available, both paid and free.  Today, as I write these words, Amazon.com reports that there are 5,533,182 publications available in the Kindle Store.  The number is increasing by 50,000 to 100,000 per month – I’ve checked it over the course of this year.

Do the math for yourself.  There are more and more titles chasing approximately the same number of consumers – and those consumers have probably got fewer entertainment dollars to spend today than they had four or five years ago.  The economy hasn’t improved.  Ergo, each title we offer has to be that much more attractive to consumers than the multitude of competing titles out there, if we’re going to make a living from our writing.

If we add that increased competition to the reduction in “pure” sales caused by the rise of services such as Kindle Unlimited, we face a real problem.  The Amazon.com sales ranks achieved by my independently published books rival, and frequently exceed, those achieved by my work published commercially by Castalia House and, most recently, Baen.  However, that’s cold comfort when I have to work harder for every sale, and I make less money per sale or ‘borrow’.  That’s reality.

This means that we, as writers, are going to have to do more to promote and sell our books.  I know we’ve hashed out the implications of an Internet presence, mailing lists, etc. ad nauseam.  I won’t repeat all that again.  Nevertheless, if we’re going to make less per book, we’re going to have to sell a lot more copies – in the face of greatly increased competition – in order to make a living at the writing game.  That means we’re going to have to look into new methods of promoting and advertising our work.

Mike Shatzkin points out that cooperative marketing and support has the potential to be a much more important factor for authors.

One expectation I’ve had that has never become manifest is a “United Artists” for authors. Although the original vision didn’t last long, UA was formed in 1919 by the biggest movie stars then alive: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Another example of artists joining to manage their own business, and one that has lasted a lot longer with its original vision, is Magnum Photos, formed in Paris by Cartier-Bresson and several other photographers.

Since the digital age began, I have been expecting a handful of major authors to form a publishing house. It has never happened. A few, notably Stephen King, did some experimentation (remember “Riding the Bullet”?) but true commercial use of independent publishing has not tempted the authors who have been working with established publishers to strike out on their own.

But Trelstad made clear that authors are talking to each other about marketing and organizing themselves to help each other. With modern digital tools, this is easy. It is also very hard to track. There is one effort that has gotten some notoriety called the Tall Poppies, a collection of writers organized and spearheaded by author Ann Garvin. Their mission statement explains that “Tall Poppy Writers is a community of writing professionals committed to growing relationships, promoting the work of its members, and connecting authors with each other and with readers. By sharing information and supporting one another’s work, we strive to stand out in the literary marketplace and to help our members do the same.”

According to Trelstad (who is herself a “Tall Poppy member”), this kind of collaboration among authors is becoming increasingly common under the radar, like with her “masterminds” groups. It makes sense. The Trump and Sanders supporters didn’t need the party apparatus to get themselves together in common cause. Using the same tools and techniques, authors can also unite in their own interest without needing a publisher or agent to facilitate it for them. And apparently they are.

Again, there’s more at the link.

In one sense, I suppose those of us who write here at Mad Genius Club are an “author collaboration”, but it’s not primarily marketing-oriented.  Similarly, a number of authors living in close proximity, including yours truly, have formed a small cooperative in north Texas.  At present, we promote each others’ books on our blogs and social media accounts, but it’s relatively informal.  I suspect we may get to the point, over time, where we invest money together in joint advertising and promotion activities.  It’s certainly something I’m considering.

That’s just one potential approach.  There are others, such as producing more work – perhaps in shorter formats – in order to appeal to more readers.  I’m also trying my hand at different genres, in the hope of broadening my market.  So far, I’ve written science fiction and Western novels, as well as a volume of memoirs.  I’ve just launched my first fantasy novel, with a couple more planned in that genre, to test the market.

a67c1-kings2bchampion2b-2bblog2bsidebar

If I can gain a profitable foothold in the fantasy genre, I’ll continue to write such novels.  If I can’t make enough money in that genre, I’m going to have to make a cold-blooded business decision to write where the money is.  It’s as simple as that.

There are many other potential approaches.  We’ve explored some of them here in the past, and I’m sure we’ll explore more in future articles.  The main thing is, we’re faced with market reality.  We have to respond within that reality . . . or be shut out of it. What do you plan to do about it?  Please let us know in Comments, so we can all benefit from the discussion.

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The best education for a writer?

I’ve seen the growth of specifically writing-oriented university courses and qualifications (e.g. a Bachelor or Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing or Creative Writing, offered by a number of institutions).  I can’t help but think that these courses and degrees are putting the cart before the horse.  They may be able to teach you to write, or write better – but they can’t give you a broad-based foundation on which to ground your writing, and on which to build.  They can give you training, but not education… and there’s a BIG difference between the two.  (If you doubt that, ask yourself:  would you prefer your pre-pubescent daughter to attend sex EDUCATION or sex TRAINING classes in school?  I think that illustrates the difference right away!)

I was inspired to think about this by an article titled ‘Majoring in History to Become a Writer‘.  Here are a couple of salient paragraphs.

If you want to write you’re going to need experience writing and a history degree, even at the undergraduate level, is nothing if not rigorous when it comes to writing. My freshman western civ class required a fifteen page paper on the Roman Civil War. Frankly, I didn’t do that much writing again until grad school where we were expected to produce twenty to thirty page papers every semester. The heart of history is writing, and writing in a clear style.

. . .

Second, you’ll learn to do research. That’s important because as a writer of fiction you’ll have to acquaint yourself with things you’re not necessarily knowledgeable about. In fact here at Uprising we often talk about research and how you can write what you know, by learning what you don’t know then writing about it. You can educate yourself on other cultures, places, geography and so forth. Whether you want to write historical fiction, genre fiction such as sci-fi, or steamy romance, you’ll have to learn about things you’re not really familiar with.

There’s much more at the link.  Recommended reading.

I understand the author’s reasoning;  but I don’t think he goes far enough in his analysis.  I was raised in the British academic tradition, if I may use that phrase, by parents who each obtained a Doctorate in their respective fields (my father in Economics, my mother in Sociology) in the 1950’s.  Each went on to command respect in their fields in South Africa, where they’d settled.  However, for both of them, their post-graduate ‘specialist’ degrees were built upon a ‘generalist’ Bachelor of Arts degree.  They regarded the latter as ‘education’, and the former as ‘training’ after becoming ‘educated’.  Their professors (in the immediately post-World-War-II generation) taught that approach, and recommended it.

My parents, in turn, influenced me.  I began by tackling a generalist BA degree as well.  Given the ongoing external wars and internal civil unrest in South Africa, it took me ten years of part-time study to complete it, but I managed it in the end.  I did a dual major in English and History, with sub-majors in Economic History and Philosophy.  I followed that with a post-graduate diploma in Management, plus a Masters degree in the same field;  then the good Lord decided to change my career path, and I started all over again by studying Theology to become a pastor.  I ended up with four university degrees, and a very broad spectrum of courses.

That turned out to be a blessing for my writing career, along with some very varied and extensive life experiences.  I had enough background to be able to tackle almost anything that came up;  and, more importantly, I knew how to research areas about which I understood nothing at all, because I’d had to do so many times before in my secular education and career.  I don’t think I could possibly have learned as much, or experienced as much, by tackling a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.

Another very important aspect of my education was that it was all part-time.  I never had the funds to be able to afford full-time study.  All my degrees were obtained by correspondence, studying in the evening after working during the day.  It meant that my progress was slower than it might have been… but there were no academic ivory towers involved.  I was rooted in and grounded upon the reality of earning a living, staying alive in a sometimes very heated combat zone, and not getting airy-fairy, artsy-fartsy, idealistic ideas about how the world should be.  I was too busy ducking and running from what it was!

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I think that educational background has served me far better, as a writer, than the more specialized, limited education offered by today’s universities in the field of creative writing.  I daresay many of the authors who contribute here would say the same.  To cite just one example, Dave Freer is very highly qualified in ichthyology, an intensely practical science, and has also experienced military service, farming, emigrating to another continent, and what have you.  I’m sure his writing would not be nearly so interesting without all he’s learned from those different backgrounds.

What say you, dear reader?  How have your life experiences and education affected your writing?  Have they helped, or hindered it?  Please let us know in Comments, with as many details as seem appropriate.

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Sorry!

I’ve been so swamped finishing my fantasy novel that it completely slipped my mind that I had to post an article this morning.

I’m working on it, and I’ll put one up in an hour or so.  Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here’s the magnificent cover Cedar Sanderson designed for my new book.

 

Kings champion - blog size

 

It’ll be published in ten days or so.  I hope you enjoy it!

Peter

 

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So… why do we write, and who is our audience?

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time, following the Hugo Awards brouhaha in recent years, and the growing debate over ‘message fiction’ in various genres.  I thought I’d put some ideas out there, and let you, dear readers, continue the discussion in Comments below.

The Hugo Awards imbroglio (see here for one side of the issue, and here for the other) demonstrates what happens when (to use battle imagery) a clique captures a strongpoint and won’t let go.  They fortify it against all comers, and refuse to yield ground even when their continued occupation becomes meaningless, because the battle has moved onward from the position to which they cling so fiercely.  To them, the message they espouse and proclaim is the genre – or, rather, they’re going to make sure that the genre continues to proclaim it, and nothing else.  The genre serves the message, rather than the other way around.  In other words, the genre is nothing more than a tool to be exploited in a wider ideological battle.  As one commentator noted recently about the Hugo affair:

The Marxists infiltrated at almost every level except the one that really mattered. That was the readers. The big problem was that, unlike countries where Marxism was the rule, the infiltrators, some of whom didn’t understand that they were supposed to be Marxists in the first place and went right into creating the same old propaganda that and stuff that nobody wanted to read. The stuff might [be] PC, but it’s also mind blowingly dull, filled with porn in the idea that the sex might replace actual story telling.

He’s right, in my opinion.  Overwhelmingly, ‘politically correct’ science fiction (of the sort embraced and celebrated by the Hugo Awards in recent decades) sells very poorly indeed.  As a result, the genre is increasingly dominated by independent, non-politically-correct authors, publishing their own work through outlets like Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct program.  The mainstream publishers in the SF field (with the notable exceptions of Baen Books, which dominates military science fiction in particular, and more recently the fast-growing Castalia House) are increasingly being ignored by SF readers (presumably because the message they preach in their preferred fiction is unpalatable to many).  Author Earnings pointed this out recently.

Author Earnings - science fiction sales 2016.png

Author Earnings - fantasy sales 2016.png

The numbers say it all.  Independent, self-published authors are increasingly dominant in the SF and fantasy genres. If their sales growth continues, they will shortly occupy the largest part of the market.  Traditional publishers, particularly those who hew to the ‘politically correct’ line, are steadily losing ground.

The question then becomes:  if traditional science fiction and fantasy publishers are concentrating on their message (to the detriment of their actual product), what are independent authors doing?  Are we writing to a ‘message’, or are we writing to and for our market?  Are we even consciously aware of this dilemma when we write?  I suspect many of us aren’t.  Let’s consider a few possible approaches.

First up is the artistic approach;  those who write because they feel driven to it as a means of artistic or personal expression.  To them, writing is a labor of love, an expression of themselves, a creative art.  They may not take their potential readership into consideration at first;  they’ll regard themselves as successful if they put out a book that expresses what they want to convey, even if readers don’t like it very much.  It’s like an artist who puts his heart and soul into a painting.  To him, it’s part of his very being, and a lack of public appreciation for his painting (much less criticism of it) amounts to rejection of himself.  (The well-known saga of the novel ‘Empress Theresa‘, and its author’s reaction to criticism [do, please, follow those last three links for details of truly extraordinary authorial hubris], is an extreme example of this attitude in the literary world.  The currently available reviews of the book are a tiny fraction of the hundreds, even thousands, that greeted its initial publication.)

Then there’s the combination of a message-oriented, but market-driven approach.  This requires that one’s message be tailored to what the market will accept and/or tolerate.  I’ve heard it described as the ‘camel’s nose’ approach.  If one sneaks in just enough of one’s message to get one’s audience accustomed to it in broad outline, one can (hopefully) add more of it to subsequent books, just as a little of a new and unfamiliar seasoning in a meal can lead to more being used later, as diners become accustomed to it.  I know a number of authors with personal religious beliefs have used this approach to mention God and faith in passing, knowing that many readers have no interest in the topic, but hoping that such innocuous references may make them think about the subject.  Opinions are divided as to whether or not it can achieve success.

There’s the more specifically market-driven approach.  This is one I’m forced to follow myself, as those who’ve read the tale of why and how I became a fiction author will understand.  I have to earn a living.  Most traditional avenues of doing so were closed to me by a disabling injury.  Therefore, I’m going to write what I think readers want to buy, because my livelihood depends on it.  Sure, I’m going to write in genres I enjoy, and where my background gives me ‘writing fodder’;  but at all times, I have to keep in mind that I can’t afford (literally) to go off on an artsy-fartsy tangent.  I have to write to the market, because I can’t survive without it!  That may seem appallingly mercenary to some authors and readers, but for me, it’s the exact and literal truth.  The food on my table is only there because readers buy my books.  That’s a heck of a motivation, believe me!  It’s why I’ve (so far) written, or am writing, in no less than four genres;  science fiction (specifically the military sub-genre), fantasy, Westerns and memoir.  If I can find others where I think I have something to bring to the table, and which readers will enjoy enough to buy, I’ll write in and for those genres, too.

There are plenty of other reasons to write, and motivations for authors.  I can’t possibly go into all of them in a short article like this.  Nevertheless, it behooves us as writers to be aware of why we write, because that directly and immediately affects what and how we write.  It also affects who will buy our output – a not unimportant consideration!

So, dear readers:  why do you write?  In the same light, why do you read?  To what extent are you consciously aware of your motivation, and how does that motivation affect your book writing and/or purchasing decisions?  (That’s not as simple as it might sound.  You might buy a book because you know the author, even if you don’t particularly like it, because you want to show your support;  or you might buy it because everyone’s talking about it, and even if you don’t enjoy it, you want to be able to take part in the discussions.)

Let us know your reactions in Comments.  This could be fun!

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Lessons from Harry Potter

This month marks twenty years since the publication of the first book in the Harry Potter series, which by some yardsticks is probably the most successful young adult series in literary history.

Cover image - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

All kudos and congratulations to J. K. Rowling for her success, and for her determination to persevere in the face of what must have seemed, at first, like overwhelming indifference from publishers.  That’s our first lesson.  If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying.  If your book is worthwhile, it may well find its readership sooner or later.  Today, when you can publish it yourself rather than have to fight with the ‘gatekeepers’ (a.k.a. publishers) for access to an audience, that’s both easier and more difficult than ever.  It’s easier, in that anyone can do it, but also more difficult, in that standing out amongst the flood of author-published books, so that potential readers can find one’s work, is more and more difficult.  One wonders whether Ms. Rowling would have taken that route, had she appeared on the scene a little later?

For all that literary agents are often demonized by their disappointed clients, Ms. Rowling seems to have been fortunate in hers.

It’s hard to imagine a world in which the books (and films, and video games, and personality quizzes) might not have been published. But, according to J.K. Rowling’s first agent Christopher Little, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was not an easy sell.

. . .

“When I received the submission from Joanne (as she was known at the time) Rowling, it just came in as an unsolicited submission (of the first three chapters) and was picked up by our then office manager who was looking through the slush pile,” he said. “She liked it and bought it to my attention. Once I read it, I had no reservations whatsoever and in fact felt very excited about it.

“It was clearly presented as a fully realized world […] I don’t think I recall reading anything so immersive since The Lord of the Rings many years earlier. We quickly wrote back to Jo asking to see the rest of the manuscript as soon as I had finished those initial chapters.”

. . .

“Over a period of nigh on a year, the book was turned down by more or less every major publishing house in the U.K. Various reasons were given including the story being too long, the fact that a story set in a children’s boarding school might feel too ‘exclusive’ to many readers, etc.”

There’s more at the link.

To me, one of the more amusing features of the Harry Potter series has been the life lessons people have drawn from it – lessons that I’m sure were not intended to be taken as such by Ms. Rowling.  For example, Niklas Goeke suggests that Professor Lupin’s anti-boggart spell is also a useful lesson in productivity when facing daunting tasks.  (His analogy reminds me of an old African proverb:  “How do you eat an elephant?  Mouthful by mouthful!”)

To celebrate the anniversary of the first Potter publication, Huffington Post is bringing out a series of articles all this month about Potter-related subjects.  Some are dire, but others are fun reads.  I think they’ll repay browsing from time to time as more are published.  (For example, you might be relieved to know that “True ‘Harry Potter’ Fans Will Never, Ever Drink Unicorn Frappuccinos“.)

For myself, raised as I was on a diet of many classic children’s and young adult book series, even though I read Potter as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m glad to see that the art of writing for that audience is alive and well, despite everything political correctness can do to homogenize it.

Among the series I remember from my youth with great pleasure are:

What series do you remember from your childhood and younger adulthood?  Which inspired and shaped and formed your reading preferences?  Let us know in Comments, so that, if so inclined, we can look them up and sample them for ourselves.  Even in later life, I still thoroughly enjoy a well-crafted book for younger readers, and I’m sure many of you do the same.

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