Category Archives: WRITING

Information vs Infodumps

No two authors are alike, and no author is alike over time. This is excellent, as the audience isn’t a monolithic block either, and wants different things, too. And… then there’s infodumps.

All stories require a certain amount of information to be conveyed, and context for the story. In stage plays, there was once a convention to open the story with two characters, often the maid and butler, gossiping and giving us the backstory. Which led to the “Maid and Butler” dialogue, also called “As you know, Bob.” (Link is to TV tropes.)

There’s also the prologue, wherein the information is presented as “So far in this series…” or “This story is set on a world with the following pronunciations, tribes, history, or deadly dangers not known on earth…” (Very popular in the 80’s)

Times and tastes change, and now the general standard is to work this information into the story instead of presenting it in a chunk of front. Otherwise know as, you can’t get the people to learn about the story unless they care about the characters.

Working in, though, has a range between Heinleining and Infodump. On the one end, Heinlein was famous for working the worldbuilding into small details and conversation. How do you know you’re on a space station in the future? Well, “the door dilated” instead of the door opening. On the other end is putting the information into huge chunks between dialogue or action. This can be done very well, though if you get known for it, you too may end up parodied by your fans, like “How David Weber Orders A Pizza.”

Most authors are usually somewhere inbetween. I personally don’t like infodumps; they make my eyes glaze over. Jim Curtis, over there leaning against the back wall, is laughing his head off because I beta-read for him… and he’s well-used to seeing anything over a line or two marked on the side of his draft as “infodump; skimmed this”, or “got bored here.” Fortunately, he 1.) doesn’t take it personally, and 2.) knows that most readers are not like me!

(And if you want a neat little story about dealing with an alien invasion while you’re trying to set up a contraband still, check out Rimworld: Stranded. He’s getting close to releasing the follow-up novel, so you won’t have to wait long for more great stories in that galaxy!)

When I put out my first story, I almost went with no infodumps at all. (There are a few worked in, because beta readers got confused.) And it shows: there are two running themes in the reviews. Some readers say that they liked how there were no infodumps, and that you got to have the world unfold as you read… and the other readers say that they got confused on a couple points, and would have had a better time if that info had been dumped in up front!

Clearly, this means you want to sneak information in earlier and better than I did. Where do you tend to end up on the imparting information scale? How do you prefer to do impart yours: dialogue, exposition, scene building, prologue, or bits of narrative summary?

73 Comments

Filed under FYNBOSSPRESS, WRITING: CRAFT

Watch where you step

Yesterday, I went browsing through sites like Publishers Weekly and The Passive Voice, looking for inspiration for today’s post. I’m not too proud to admit my brain is still in that post-publication funk, a funk aided by the fact my work computer (a really nice Asus ROG less than 7 months old) had to be sent back to ASUS for warranty work. That’s meant making sure all files were backed up,the laptop reset to factory settings and then setting up the secondary laptop as the current work machine. So, with all that going on, I felt sure I’d read the article wrong when I saw something about Cory Doctorow setting up a “store” to sell e-books traditionally published.

Okay, that sentence was a bit awkward, so let me try again.

Cory Doctorow, long a supporter of Creative Commons, is setting up an online bookstore to see e-books that were traditionally published.

I’ll give you a moment to consider that statement.

From the start, it is clear Doctorow has fallen victim to the Amazon Derangement Syndrome.

Buying an e-book from a website and sideloading it onto your Kindle will never be as easy as buying it from the Kindle store (though if the world’s governments would take the eminently sensible step of legalizing jailbreaking, someone could develop a product that let Kindles easily access third-party stores on the obvious grounds that if you buy a Kindle, you still have the right to decide whose books you’ll read on it, otherwise you don’t really own that Kindle).

Hmm, so he has an issue with Kindles because you can’t buy directly from other stores. Guess he hasn’t tried using e-readers from other stores or had to deal with some of the problems i-Pad owners have had in the past when Apple decided you couldn’t buy from in-app or you had to sideload. Or let’s not forget about the issues Nook owners have faced either. But Amazon is the big evil. And what do you mean “you don’t really own that Kindle”? Just because a tablet might not do what you want it to, it doesn’t follow that you don’t own it. His logic fails him.

As an author, being my own e-book retailer gets me a lot. It gets me money: once I take the normal 30 percent retail share off the top, and the customary 25 percent royalty from my publisher on the back-end, my royalty is effectively doubled. It gives me a simple, fair way to cut all the other parts of the value-chain in on my success: because this is a regular retail sale, my publishers get their regular share, likewise my agents. And, it gets me up-to-the-second data about who’s buying my books and where.

He’s right here but this is also where his reasoning hits me as being “off”. Yes, if he owns his own bookstore, he gets all this. But he also gets the headaches of operating it, the costs of operating it, etc. Now, I hear you saying he’s been doing this for years already. Yes, but that’s been for his indie books. Now he is talking about selling for trad publishers. That means he is giving them money and doing for them what they should be doing for him.

Remember, writers, the money is supposed to flow to you and not the other way around.

Ah, then you read on a bit further and remember the political diatribe he went on at the beginning of the article and realize that’s what is behind it. Politics. He hates Trump. He wants to reach out to markets ignored by Amazon and others.

Whatever.

The Digital Reader has an excellent post about Doctorow’s announcement. “I want to point out Doctorow’s blind spot: the unwarranted assumption that authors need or even should be doing business with publishers. . . But like many pioneers, Doctorow advanced only so far. He never managed to shed his original assumptions and keep up with the times.”

That last statement hit home with me. One of the things I, as well as the rest of us here at MGC, strive to do on an almost daily basis is see what is going on with the industry, both trad and indie. We are constantly looking for new ways to promote our work, newer and easier ways to put our books together and make them more appealing in look and content. Some of us have been doing this long enough to remember hand-coding the html for e-books. At least one of us has had to show traditional publishers how to make text in an e-book look more like what you get in a printed book (effects, etc.). In other words, we haven’t sat back and rested on what we first learned while the indie industry passed us by.

So, what is it Doctorow wants us to do? He wants us to act as shills for traditional publishers. You know, those folks who, before they sign an author to a contract want us to do our own marketing, have a blog, be active on social media and already have a platform and built-on audience. And, before you say anything, unless you are King or Patterson or the “new big thing”, any marketing the publisher is going to do for you is basically nil beyond getting your book into the catalog sent to booksellers. So, you have to do the job of marketing your book, something they used to do.

Now Doctorow wants us to add to that by selling e-books for traditional publishers, accept and handle all payments (and that will include returns and making sure all tax laws are followed and tax reporting done) and then remit money to the publisher.

My only comment is “WTF?!?”

The Passive Voice says it best, “PG delayed posting about Doctorow’s plan because he was waiting for someone to propose a theory about why an intelligent trad-pubbed author would try to sell books directly from some strange organization for side-loading onto a Kindle. What kind of service is that for an author’s readers? Who do those readers call for tech support when the ebook file won’t load?”

Above and beyond the fact that selling e-books on your site for publishers (when they should be the ones selling your books) makes my head hurt, there’s something else Doctorow didn’t take into account. As I write this, my 85-year-old mother sits across the room from me reading on her Kindle Fire. She gets her Kindle. She gets the books downloaded directly there after I buy them either from the Amazon site or through the app on my tablet. If she had to sideload a book, she wouldn’t do it. For one, it is a hassle. For another, she isn’t anywhere near geeky enough to understand the process.

Then there are those who don’t have computers. Yes, yes, there really are folks like that. Some are older, like my mom. Others spent their working lives dealing with computers and never want to see another ever again. They might compromise with a smart phone but that’s about it. So, Mr. Docotorow, how are they supposed to sideload?

Doctorow has clearly fallen victim to Amazon Derangement Syndrome and forgot to look where he stepped.

***

Now for my bit of marketing.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

Plots form, betrayals are planned and war nears.

Cait Hawkener has come to accept she might never remember her life before that terrible morning almost two years ago when she woke in the slavers’ camp. That life is now behind her, thanks to Fallon Mevarel and the Order of Arelion. Now a member of the Order, Cait has pledged her life to making sure no one else falls victim as she did.

But danger once more grows, not only for Cait but to those she calls friends. Evil no longer hides in the shadows and conspirators grow bold as they move against the Order and those who look to it for protection. When Cait accepts the call to go to the aid of one of the Order’s allies, she does not know she is walking into the middle of conspiracy and betrayal, the roots of which might help answer some of the questions about her own past.

81 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Adjusting headspace

Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers. Especially not for authors — be they trad pub, or indie — who are balancing their writing against other commitments. Could be going back to school, or marriage and family, perhaps church and community, or the job (non-writing) that pays the mortgage? It doesn’t matter. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re very probably running into problems with delegation, time management, prioritization, crisis resolution, and finding enough hours in your schedule for decompression.

The latter can be especially tricky, if you’re like me, and you have a difficult time compartmentalizing. One thing bleeds into the others, and vice versa, thus it becomes increasingly difficult (over time) to just back off, and step away.

All on my own, I struggle when it comes to adjusting headspace.

As I commented to Sarah A. Hoyt recently, sometimes it’s as simple as my wife tugging me out of the house, putting us both into the car, then driving us to get some food, after which we find a quiet spot to park, eat, and talk. Maybe, for hours? Not at home, where there are a hundred different chores that demand attention. Just . . . off on the side. A stolen moment of time. To unload. Work something out. Maybe have that overdue (but potentially contentious) straight talk session, that you can’t really do in front of the kids? The business of taking care of business, so to speak.

Almost never does it involve anything to do with writing. But that’s part of the adjustment. The action of having your mind and your heart dragged away from the keyboard, and the manuscript, long enough to get your gears whirring along a different track entirely. So that when you eventually return to the project(s) at hand, you discover you’re staring at the pages with fresh eyes.

Now, in my experience, this kind of thing isn’t always romance novel material. A good, proper headspace adjustment can occasionally come with four-lettered words — both ways — and no small amount of gesticulating. But at the end of it all, common understanding has been achieved. New agreements forged, or old agreements renewed.

And when you get back to your desk, or your kitchen table, or your favorite couch — laptop propped on your knee — everything about your writing looks and feels just a bit different. Your plans for your writing will look and feel a bit different too. Almost always in positive ways. Because your mental and emotional picture is now much bigger than it was before.

I count these experiences as being distinctly different from down time, because down time is about unwinding the spring. Adjusting headspace can often involve winding the spring even tighter, before it suddenly unwinds itself very quickly, and in a fashion you (ubiquitous) did not plan, nor expect. It’s not relaxation, though you may feel very much more relaxed once you’re walking back through your front door, or in from the garage. It’s a form of necessary exertion, during which you grapple with your life — the other sectors of the “pie” — in ways that demand a great deal of energy and effort. But if you’ve managed to make good use of the minutes, you can return to reality with an expanded set of options, and a reinvigorated outlook.

Granted, my experience above is just that: my experience. I know too many writers who do not have the greatest relationships in the world, and for whom an event like this (described above) would spiral into destructive chaos. I also know some single authors who simply don’t have that Very Important Person in their lives, who will not only serve as a sympathetic ear, but also challenges these authors on a gut level — and in ways that won’t always be comfortable. In these instances, headspace adjustment may come in the form of a weekend backpacking trip into the mountains, or running a half marathon, perhaps even working on that classic car which has been up on chocks for years? You will know it when you experience it, because after said activit(ies) are over, you come back to the ordinary world with a different set of eyes. Eyes capable of seeing ways around obstacles that were blocking you before? Or spying new business avenues to take, where old avenues were frustrating you before?

The point is, everybody needs this, once in awhile.

Not constantly — because chronically adjusting headspace, or feeling like you need to do it constantly — is probably a sign that something genuinely and deeply wrong is happening in your life, or in your relationship. That’s when you want to look for some professional guidance. A therapist or counselor who can clinically adjust your headspace for you. Because you’re too deep in the shit to figure it out on your own. And that’s not a bad thing. Nobody gives any of us an owner’s manual for this life. The majority of us just kind of bungle our way through it. Some better than others. But even the seemingly well-adjusted, may not be so. And it’s not a sin to admit you need a pro to help you out.

Just be open to those instances when you — or you and your spouse — need to jump in that car, and bug out for a little while.

Even if the timing seems horrible, and it’s the last thing in the world you want to be doing.

Trust me, those are the moments when you may need it the most!

28 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: LIFE

Keeping Track

One of the difficulties writers face, especially when they have several series of books going at one time, is keeping track of everything. Some writers manage to keep everything straight in their heads. Others have complex story bibles that have almost as much information in them as their novels do. Still others have handwritten notes scattered around their work area — and who knows where else. Then there are those who stop writing when they get to something they can’t remember and go looking for the answer in earlier works. As with the writing process, there is no one true way to keep track of your characters, different plot points, etc. The key is finding one that works for you.

And that is something I’ve been trying to find for the last couple of years. I’ve looked at examples of story bibles and, I’ll be honest, most of them take more work than I want to do. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve seen character sheets that have more than 100 questions you are supposed to answer about every major and important character in your book. Sorry, but nope. If I have to do that, I’m not going to do it. Or, if I do, I’m going to be too tired of the character to write them.

I’ve had friends tell me I need to just work out an Excel spreadsheet and fill in the blanks. Well, the first problem with that is I don’t like Excel. I can use it but I don’t want to have to unless I’m figuring out my budget or my expenses.  Besides, it also means coming up with a format that I not only like but that is easy to navigate. Using it with my writing is, well, too much like work. So, nope, not gonna happen.

Other suggestions have been to find a fan who would be willing to go through my books and build the “bible” for me. I’ve done that before — waves at Sarah — and there’s a problem. The author has to be able to tell the volunteer the format she wants or it isn’t going to work. After all, what seems totally reasonable and logical to one person won’t necessarily appear that way to another. Also, the information I might think important to be included might not seem so obvious to the person doing the compilation for me.

So, when a writer friend of mine, Mackay Chandler, posted on his FB wall last week that he was looking for recommendations for programs to build his story bible, I sat up and took note. For one, I figure Mackay wouldn’t want to spend any more time than I would learning a program. For another, I respect Mac as a writer and was curious to see what he wound up selecting.

Several f0lks recommended he do a wiki. I’ll admit, my reaction to that was skepticism. I wanted a program that I could host on my laptop, not on someone else’s online servers. I didn’t want to have to rely on being online to access the bible. Nor did I want to trust anyone else’s hardware to host my work. Still, a wiki did intrigue me but not as long as it was online only.

Someone, and it might have been O’Mike, recommended Zim Desktop Wiki. Based on some very preliminary thoughts on the program Mac had, I went ahead and downloaded it for myself. I spent most of Monday playing around with it and, much to my surprise, I not only like it but have found it easy to set up so it makes sense to me.

The first series I’m using it with is Nocturnal Lives. The decision was sort of a no-brainer since Nocturnal Rebellion is the current work-in-progress. The series consists of four novels and a novella and, I’ll be honest, I don’t remember all the character names and descriptions. So I needed something to keep me from having a manuscript filled with [ ] which is my shorthand to go look something up.

The first thing I needed to do is decide what my basic setup for the wiki would be. After some trial and error, I came up with a pretty basic setup. There is a homepage, a section for the novels, a section for the novella, one for characters and one for special terms.

Here’s a shot of the homepage. Note, all images can be clicked on and they will open up in larger format.

As you can see, there are live links on the page that will carry me to the pages. The navigation pane at the left of the page can be opened up as well and used to go to any of the pages or sub-pages.

For the novels, I set up a section that lists each of the novels. They, in turn, have their own page and sub-pages. When they are finished, the main page for the novels will include the cover image and blurb, along with order links, publication date and other related data. Here’s what I have so far.

For Nocturnal Origins, here is the preliminary page. You’ll note I have links to two sub-pages. The first is locations. This will open to another page that will then link to individual pages where I describe the different locations in this book, importance to the story, etc. The second is “manuscript”. After some thought, I decided I wanted the actual text of the book included in the wiki so I could check back and forth as needed. So, under manuscript, each chapter has its own subpage.

Here is an example of one of the location pages. It describes the basics of Mac’s house (up to Chapt. 10 where I stopped for the day yesterday).

Then here is an example of a character sub-page, again, not complete. You will see some links are present and there are others that need to be put in. I’ll go back and do that over the next few days as I finish setting up the wiki.

Finally, here’s a picture of the first page of the book. The links will take me either to a character page or location page.

This program is extremely simple to use, fairly intuitive. The manual is decent but there are some good videos on youtube as well as third-party sites with how-to’s on them. I’ve spent more time trying to determine how I want the wiki set up than anything else. You can export the wiki, or notebook, as an html file, so you have multi-platform use if you want to play with it that way. You can also then upload to your own site if that’s important to you.

Is this the file for you? I don’t know. That’s a question only you can answer. But, for me and for what I need, it works.

Oh, yeah, the other thing I need to do is a bit of promo. Yeah, yeah, I know. You didn’t come expecting an ad. I can’t help it. I’ve got a book coming out tomorrow — and it is available for pre-order now.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

Plots form, betrayals are planned and war nears.

Cait Hawkener has come to accept she might never remember her life before that terrible morning almost two years ago when she woke in the slavers’ camp. That life is now behind her, thanks to Fallon Mevarel and the Order of Arelion. Now a member of the Order, Cait has pledged her life to making sure no one else falls victim as she did.

But danger once more grows, not only for Cait but to those she calls friends. Evil no longer hides in the shadows and conspirators grow bold as they move against the Order and those who look to it for protection. When Cait accepts the call to go to the aid of one of the Order’s allies, she does not know she is walking into the middle of conspiracy and betrayal, the roots of which might help answer some of the questions about her own past.

46 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, WRITING

Indie does not mean Alone

I was talking with my mother the other day about writing and publishing. Mom is a good writer, and has nonfiction articles published, but not yet her fiction. I’m looking forward to her fiction being complete, and it’s not just that I’m biased toward my mom. But the conversation, and another comment I’d seen on social media, got me thinking. I’ve chosen an independent career, but that does not mean I operate alone.

As I am preparing a book for publication, it has already been read, commented on, edited, and not just by one or two other people. For this book I had an unusually high number of alpha readers. It had three, my First Reader, and two others I could trust not to blow smoke in my *ahem* but to tell me if they saw real problems. Most books don’t need that many – may not need any at all – but for this one where I was struggling with my confidence and inability to distance myself from the story, they are the only reason I finished it.

Once the book was finished in rough draft, I sent it off the beta readers. The comment I’d seen another author make, about only ever using two to three readers, always the same ones, and ones who wouldn’t steal the manuscript, rather boggled me. One, that height of paranoia bordering on arrogance… The manuscript is worth stealing, really?! And further, stealing when there is an easy record of who sent it to whom and when? But besides that pathology, there is a pitfall to using that few beta readers, and never changing them up. If life happens, and it will, you the author are left with even less feedback. And two to three readers is insufficient. Sarah Hoyt taught me years ago that you don’t make significant changes to a manuscript unless three people independently tell you of an issue. And you aren’t going to get that with a tiny reader pool. Also, solicit opinions outside your usual readers. If you can get someone who has never read your stuff before, that’s great! They are less likely to suffer from confirmation bias towards your work and can objectively assess it. I’m not saying send your book to all and sundry. But I am forever grateful to my beta reading pool, who have helped my writing more than they can ever know.

But it doesn’t stop there. From a cover artist, to editors, the Indie Author team is often made up of hired professionals, networked and bartered services, or some combination of those. But rarely does the author work completely alone, and when they do, it handicaps their work. If none but them see the book, they are going to be blindsided by bad reviews.

James Young, a great mil SF author and occasional guest post here, put out a terrific post on cover art, but the process he outlines for working with an artist, from price settings to contracts, is good stuff for working with any professional. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, as author and artist. Let me tell you, it’s not fun to shell out money you can’t really spare for work that never gets done. What he says about the PayPal friends payment, and no recourse? Ever wonder why I wound up becoming a cover artist? I didn’t have a choice – that money was gone, and I needed a cover, but couldn’t afford it at the time. It was a great lesson and led to good stuff for me, but it hurt. I’d rather you learn from my mistakes than repeat them. On the flip side, as an artist, I’ve done work, not collected a deposit, and been out money for supplies and a bunch of time when the author suddenly backed out. Lesson learned: don’t work with certain people and always collect a non-refundable deposit before starting work.

It’s a collaborative effort all the way, what we do. From writing groups to, well, the Mad Genius Club, the great thing about Indie Publishing is that you’re never alone. That’s why I don’t say I’m self-published. I may be pressing the button, but I have a team at my back. Sometimes I am part of that team behind an author. I get silly proud when I see my covers on great books hoping them sell well. I will always be there when someone who is struggling with their confidence about being a writer wants an ear to listen. I have friends who put up with me moaning about how this book is horrible, terrible, no good and will never be finished. In the past I’ve had writing groups and critique groups where I was anonymous (great for developing thick skin towards criticism) and prompt groups… All those people are a part of my path to publication. I’m not alone, and neither are you.

 

30 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Time to Change

Last week, a number of companies released their financial reports for the last quarter of 2016. Among those doing so was Barnes & Noble. The bookseller, that has seen a revolving door in the CEO’s office over the last few years. Leonard Riggio is now back in charge, at least temporarily, and he addressed his stockholders after the release of the figures.

The good news is that B&N did post a profit of 96 cents (per share, I assume). The bad news is that the forecast profit was $1.13. The worse news was that same store sales fell 8.3% (as compared to the same period the previous year). This was the worst performance for the chain in the “holiday quarter” since 2005. The result saw stock dropping 9.1% (intraday drop). That comes on the heels of an 11% drop for the year.

The Nook and its related products, including content, completely failed to deliver. According to Bloomberg, linked above, sales “of Nook content, devices and accessories fell 26 percent.”

Another indicator that the publishing/book industry has become one that relies too much on “trend” buying and not in building a solid customer core by expanding their mid-list offerings, etc., is that BN knew the quarter would be weak “in part because sales of coloring books and other art supplies have slumped. That category had helped prop up results the previous year.” We’ve seen this sort of thing in YA sales when the Twilight series ended. In adult fiction sales when the 50 Shades trilogy ended and now, this past year, with coloring books no longer being the rage. Were publishers ready with something to take their places? No. Because they were still trying to push the trend with pale versions of what had been “hot”. Again, when publishers pared out most of their mid-list, those authors whose books they could always count on selling, they hurt themselves as well as bookstores.

Several things hit me as I read various articles about the earnings report. The first was that BN has been rudderless for so long, because of the turnover in the CEO’s office but also in its failure to adapt to the changing demands of its customers, that it might not be long for the retail world. If written before about how it needs to lessen its retail footprint. The overhead of running the hugs “superstores” is no longer justified in most instances. Before leases are up, it needs to be making the hard decisions about what stores should be closed due to under-performance and what stores should be moved to smaller real estate footprints. Doing this would serve several purposes, all of which are positive. First, it would lessen the financial hit the company takes in leases and related expenses. Second, with less space to fill, it could then sit down and do a serious look at what BN is going to be going forward.

It is easier to be a bookseller if you aren’t trying to pay the rent, utilities, etc., for a building you can no longer afford to stock with just books. We see this with the resurgence of indie bookstores. They are moving into small storefronts — sort of like what they did before they were driven out of business by the big box bookstores like BN and Borders. If BN truly wants to continue being a bookseller, it needs to take a hard look at where its money is going and how wisely — or foolishly — it is being spent.

It also needs to understand that e-book fans are not the enemy. We buy books too. But we also, or at least a lot of us, buy print books and magazines. Give us a reason to come into your stores again. Let us actually see books when we walk in instead of non-book related items. Give us employees who are knowledgeable about your stock and enthused about books. I miss the days when I could walk into a BN, be greeted by name and have someone take me over to the shelves and shown a new book they think I might like.

Put comfortable chairs back into the stores and even the small reading areas. Sure, some folks came in and spent hours reading without ever buying anything. Guess what? That’s okay. It builds up goodwill with them as customers and they will come in later to buy something. Even if they aren’t buying a book, they are buying coffee and food at the cafe. They are talking to their friends and families about what they read, how nicely they were treated, etc.

Now, the problem doesn’t just rest with BN. What is happening with BN is indicative of what is happening with the publishing industry. Major publishers are still trying to convince themselves that the reading public wants things they way they did 20 years ago. Publishers price e-books so high, their sales suffer. Then they point out how their digital sales dropped. You can see the glee in their eyes because, to them, it means people really want print books.

Sorry, but no. It means people are finding other ways to get that e-book they want to read. They check it out from the library. Don’t ever forget that most libraries have the capability of checking out e-books and audio books. It also means people are turning to smaller presses and indie authors to feed their reading habit. E-books, like it or not, are here to stay and readers are smart enough to know that an e-book, especially when publishers say you don’t actually own it, should not cost the same as a print version.

Then there is the attempt to survive by going from trend to trend. There aren’t enough words to explain how foolish this is. Yes, publishing has always been an industry where editors have been in competition to try to figure out what will be the next best seller. However, in the past, they also knew they needed a backbone of mid-listers who basically supported the publishing house. These mid-listers might never sell as many books per title as a best seller. However, those mid-listers had a fan group that could be counted on buy pretty much anything and everything their favorite authors put out. That, my friends, was guaranteed income and it was what the publishers used to keep their houses profitable and successful over the years.

Unfortunately, a few years ago, publishers decided they needed to clean house to decrease their expenses. Not only did we see a number of editors and other employees being let go – resulting in more work being outsourced – we saw a number of mid-listers being cut loose. When that happened, guaranteed income was lost. Now publishers and, because they are tied to closely to publishers, bookstores, rely upon trends to keep them afloat. Because of this, we see things like entire lines of books being recalled or delayed so the publisher can “rebrand” them to look like 50 Shade of Grey. Go talk to some of the authors involved in that debacle. How many saw sales go down the tubes because their books were delayed or because their book looked like every other one on the shelf and readers couldn’t tell if they’d read it or not.

Because there was nothing on the cover or in the blurb that made it stand out from every other book.

This lack of foresight, this lack of originality, is what is hurting the industry. Add in the fact that, for whatever reason, publishing doesn’t seem able to adapt to changing customer demands, and I find myself wondering how long it will be before we see the major publishers shrinking in number again. They can continue to blame Amazon for their problems but the real problem is they refuse to take an honest, deep look into their own practices. They need to allow store managers to order stock — and arrange displays — to appeal to local customers.

A store in El Paso, TX shouldn’t look like the store in Times Square or Seattle. Employees should be required to know the stock. Hell, if you work in a bookstore, you should be able to talk books with the customer.

Right now, BN is suffering from an identity crisis. Partly because of its leadership failing to adapt to changing times and partly because of problems in the publishing industry. Mr. Riggio and others need to understand that people aren’t staying home because they are watching TV. We are staying home because you aren’t offering us the shopping experience we used to get when we went to your stores. We want bookstores to be, well, bookstores. We want to be able to browse and sit and read and have a cup of coffee. We want to see books when we enter and not Nooks and toys and who knows what else. We want books.

 

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Sawdust, chocolate cake, and New Coke

Regarding this item which crossed my desk over drill weekend, it’s typical of the attitude one finds among deck chair rearrangers — the men and women who think the answer to flagging trad pub sales, is to scold the genre for poor marketing while simultaneously scolding the audience for bad taste.

Because the field has evolved, yo. We’ve moved on from Star Trek. Nevermind that Star Trek spawned half a dozen television shows, as well as over a dozen big screen films, hundreds of tie-in novels, numerous kinds of video and paper-and-dice games, merchandising for light-years, and so forth. Star Trek is done, okay? Time for you to update your settings. We, the rearrangers, are here to notify you that the stuff you loved from the old days, is over.

A sales pitch which works wonders — on people who read things out of a sense of political duty.

The rest of us? We’re just looking for a good time. Not a mindless time. A good time. The sort of read which leaves us with a feeling of satisfaction. Because our hours were well spent. The author has properly rewarded our investment.

What constitutes a “good time” is definitely one of those de gustibus questions. Populists and taste-makers have both existed, since the first campfire storytellers regaled us over the flames — dating back to prehistory. Which stories are “worthy” and which stories are not? Can such a judgment be imposed, from the top down? Or will it invariably manifest itself organically, from the bottom up?

My personal belief is that it’s purely organic. Even when there are strong forces working to make this decision for us.

Taste-makers may secure for themselves the levers of academic or institutional power — pressing a kind or style of fiction on largely captive crowds. But nobody likes to be force-fed a handful of sawdust, while being told that the sawdust is in fact a rich, delicious piece of chocolate cake. A few people, wishing to join the taste-making set, may embrace the sawdust. Swearing up and down that the sawdust is, quite simply, the greatest treat (s)he has ever had. (S)he will gobble further handfuls of sawdust, to prove that (s)he has adopted the acceptable and correct values.

But in the end, it’s still sawdust.

Which is why a Hugo or a Nebula short list — in 2017 — isn’t indicative of organic enjoyment. The Hugo and Nebula short lists are created by, and for, the sawdust set.

If I am talking to a prospective audience member who skips over SF/F as a general rule, I know precisely why (s)he feels this way. She’s had too many bites of the sawdust, which masquerades as chocolate cake. It’s the Nutty Nuggets rule. You can’t keep altering the contents, while leaving the packaging more or less unchanged, without running the risk of alienating your readers. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the old contents are wrong, or bad, or outdated, or silly, or need to be revised simply to suit an arbitrary and purely internal sentiment. Remember how New Coke went over? Most of the people who want SF/F to “evolve” and “move on” probably aren’t old enough to remember New Coke — and how it brought a soda manufacturing giant to its knees.

The lesson of New Coke is, nobody asked for New Coke. The Coca-Cola folks were trying to figure out why their sales were slipping against Pepsi, so they cooked up this idea to reformulate Coca-Cola, and it bombed badly with consumers. Only the rapid and dramatic reintroduction of Coca-Cola classic restored consumer confidence. New Coke went down as one of the all-time great marketing and business blunders.

Now, speaking from memory, I didn’t think New Coke was fantastically different from Coke Classic. At that particular time, I was actually more of a Royal Crown consumer, with occasional Coke or Pepsi dalliances on the side. Especially Cherry Coke, which I still like very much.

But the point is: rattle your audience’s faith in your product, at your peril.

For the better part of two decades, SF/F’s rearrangers have been embarked upon their own version of New Coke. The sawdust-gobblers decided that we’d had just about enough of the blockbuster “old way” of doing things, even though the 1970s and 1980s invented the SF/F bestseller. It was time to move on.

And yet, the audience has not followed. In dribs and drabs, the audience has gone elsewhere. Trad pub numbers for SF/F continue to struggle, in comparison to a quarter of a century ago.

Some of this can be blamed on a media-diverse digital entertainment spectrum. Now that people can literally carry movies and television series and video games in their pockets, to watch or play at any time, the era of the paperback — as the single most convenient form of sit-down pass time — is over. Electronic books have also revolutionized the buying landscape, allowing consumers to get their books directly from the author, or from a clearinghouse seller.

But a lot of it — I believe very much — comes down to fans of SF/F Classic feeling burned, by New SF/F.

It’s not that New SF/F is measurably inferior — though some would argue it is. It’s just that the crowds from the high years of the genre’s print popularity, aren’t satisfied with what they’re getting anymore. New SF/F is “off” from SF/F Classic. Could you metric this on a chart? Not really, to the same degree that taste tests with Classic and New Coke yielded uncertain metrics. More, it’s the fact that print SF/F’s manufacturers have — since at least the year 2000 — decided they’re going to mix things up, even though there weren’t a lot of people from the old audience who had demanded such a mix-up.

SF/F Classic was deemed not good enough. So then came New SF/F.

And the trad pub numbers began their familiar decline.

Some of the 21st century’s strident SF/F activist-authors like to misstate the problem — accusing SF/F Classic fans of wanting to dial the genre all the way back to when actual coca leaf extract was in the formula, and it was administered as a pharmacological tonic.

I’m not sure what ground is gained via this line of reasoning, other than to further push SF/F Classic fans away from the very manufacturers who claim to want those fans’ business.

My own fear is that the zealots of New SF/F will so successfully alienate the audience, that SF/F et al will become an academic interest only. Ergo, the major trad publishers will jettison the brand, leaving it for the small presses and for a tiny reader base which is interested in SF/F purely as a political and sociological plaything.

We’re halfway there already.

Though, it must be noted, plenty of indie authors are trying desperately to ensure that SF/F Classic does not depart the digital publishing shelves. And there is also Baen, perhaps the lone holdout among all trad publishers, keeping SF/F Classic alive — with the flag proudly flown high. For these Classic SF/F parties, the taste of the original high-period audience (of print SF/F) is not in need of revision. Rather, it’s that very high-period taste which provides a solid market base.

Sawdust-gobbling be damned.

Which will not, of course, prevent the sawdust set from pushing New SF/F into ever more esoteric and obscure territory. Believing (vainly) that making New SF/F into a political cause, substitutes for returning SF/F to its natural state, as a popular cause.

In fact, there’s every indication that the zealots of New SF/F believe the political is popular, and vice versa.

But then, this is how zealots throughout history have always thought — theirs being the straight-line ramp of destiny.

I’m fairly certain the market disagrees. And it’s the market which always wins, too. It was the market which made SF/F Classic into a money-rich hit in the first place.

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Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART, WRITING: CRAFT