Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part One]

Hi everyone! I want to thank Jeff at BookLife for inviting me to take the reins this week at his wonderful, must-read blog. There are few things I love more than blogging about and for writers and writing, so it’s an honor to do so at one of the smartest writing blogs out there.

Anticipating the content of my posts this week has been rather challenging: there’s so much to write about! But it came to me on Saturday as I realized my interest in the Olympics was beginning to wane. 

I’d seen all I needed to see of curling, short track speed skating, downhill, bobsled, snowcross and the like. But the Olympics always linger in my mind long after the network has packed up its cameras and talking heads and returned to regularly scheduled programming. 

Witnessing (live or on TV) the prowess of the world’s athletes is always inspiring to me. I grew up in a sports household (baseball, basketball, track and field, gymnastics, soccer, football, softball, volleyball, tennis have all been played with regularity by at least one member of my immediate family), so I’m already in the practice of appreciating the work that goes into excelling at sports. 

But the world’s finest athletes perform with a caliber and grace that takes human experience beyond what it means to be fit or a sound competitor. These are the titans of the modern day, and like the titans of the past, the masses can’t help but idolize them as the demi-gods they truly are. 

This week, I offer the series, “Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics” in three parts. As writers, we have cobbled together our own hopes and dreams for becoming the future titans of the literary world. We have much to learn from athletes, and this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll give examples that show how writers can learn from the trials of Olympians.

Today I’ll talk about discipline and perseverance.  Continue reading

Happiness as a By-Product: An Interview with Jessa Crispin, Founder of Bookslut.com

Back in August of 2009, Jessa Crispin, the founder of Bookslut.com (I wrote a comics column for them for a year) posted a short essay on The Smart Set about writing and the writing life that referenced Booklife, largely in a negative sense. This caused me quite a bit of anguish, to be honest. It’s one thing to get a negative review on a novel; it’s quite another to think, even for a second, that you might have written something actively harmful to people.

I intended Booklife as a helpful guide that combined advice on how to navigate your way through the myriad of potentially distracting and useless tools and opportunities provided by the internet with modern advice on a host of more personal issues related to writing and being a writer, based on 25 years of experience. Crispin saw it at least in part as potentially manipulative or cynical, and placed it in the context of the many new “get-rich-quick” books that detail how to do internet marketing and the like.

After a more careful examination of her essay, however, I came to the conclusion that a difference in defining terms like “contact” might be part of the problem–that, in fact, whether you were to call someone a “contact” or an “ally,” the same points applied: in all of your dealings with other people, whether about your work or generally, be a sincere human being.

Of course, there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers. Nor do I think Booklife is perfect–part of the point of the book is to continually test it, to not only use it but to also define yourself as a writer by what you disagree with in the text.

That said, I decided it would be interesting to interview Crispin about issues related to the modern writer’s life and Booklife. The results are great—rock-solid advice and insight.

At least one of her answers deserves special emphasis, since I think it’s becoming a major problem in the largely hierarchy-blind world of the internet: “I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.”

There’s also nothing in her answers that I would disagree with; indeed, there’s nothing in Booklife that would intentionally contradict the idea of focusing on the craft and art of fiction over the need to promote your work. Does that mean I won’t be making some changes in the second edition? Not at all, and one of those changes will be to add an introduction to the Public Booklife section that references Crispin’s Smart Set essay, and makes doubly or triply clear the context in which I am providing that information.

So, without further preamble, an interview with Jessa Crispin—with sincere thanks to her for doing the interview.

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E-Books and Issues of Entitlement

By now, it’s unlikely you haven’t heard of the dispute between Amazon and Macmillan. That dispute and its resolution is important, but a larger issue has come to light: namely the sense of entitlement some readers have with regard to getting e-books dirt-cheap. Part and parcel of this attitude is a basic misunderstanding of the breakdown of costs associated with publishing a book.

For example, one of the biggest faux bits of logic I’ve been seeing is that “If the mass market paperback is $7.99, why can’t I get the e-book version from the get-go at that price?” Well, the fact is $7.99 for mass market paperbacks only works if you’re printing tons of books. It’s also important to note that many authors never get their books published in mass market format because the publishers rightly have estimated that based on hardcover and trade paperback sales, that particular book won’t sell enough copies in mass market. So they don’t reach the $7.99-a-book threshold, which includes the print-a-crapload-of-copies threshold.

Other examples show a basic misunderstanding of distribution, or of the fact that the actual physical printing of a book is a fraction of the cost of producing a book.

But what I find most inexplicable is the level of venom directed by some readers at publishers, and by extension writers, like some kind of scam is being perpetrated upon them. It’s especially ironic given that the book industry is usually dealing in unit sales of an individual book of under 20,000 copies, whereas other forms of entertainment like movies and music are dealing in unit sales of over 100,000 copies. In other words, there’s not much room for price discounts.

What’s led to this sense of entitlement? Here are some possible factors, beyond the basic fact of there being lots of free content on the internet.

—The proliferation of free book downloads offered by publishers and writers.

—The constant attacks on copyright, and thus the overall idea of “ownership”, on highprofile blogging platforms and websites.

—General attacks on software limiting a user’s ability to copy an e-book, especially attacks that don’t do so in the context of respect for the creator’s wishes or need to make money from their work.

—Deep discount pricing of e-books by entities like Amazon to encourage the sale of e-books.

—Google’s book scanning project, which, under the guise of “fair use”, has made significant portions of hundreds of thousands of books available online with no regard for the rights of the writers of those books.

Have these factors led to this sense of entitlement? I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about. It’s also worth noting that we often cause problems for ourselves as authors by thoughtlessly adopting whatever hot new media idea pops up on the internet. In some cases, I think we begin to contribute to our own disenfranchisement in doing so.

If this sense of reader entitlement proves to be pervasive or becomes the norm, then writers will be in a tough position, and the only way to make money on e-books will be to retain the rights yourself and self-publish–meaning you will also have to become your own editor, your own typesetter, your own distributor, etc.

Although you can self-publish more easily today than in the past, it’s not going to help you that much unless you are a celebrity like Wil Wheaton, someone with an existing high-profile platform like John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, someone who is already a bestselling author, or unless you are prepared to basically become your own publishing house (involving a series of skillsets that most people don’t have).

In such a scenario, if e-books do eventually dominate the marketplace and physical books have only a fraction of their current market share, it’s entirely possible that unless this situation resolves itself into a compromise whereby readers actually show respect for the creators of the stories they love that we will see one of the largest mass extinctions of published writers in the history of literature. They’ll still be writing–but they’ll be largely invisible, and also unable to even dream of writing full-time.

My feeling is that it won’t get that bad, but we as writers have to do our best to make sure it doesn’t–by educating readers and doing our part as writers to make sure that our actions don’t contribute to the problem.

(For the best series of posts on the subject, including the Amazon-Macmillan fracas, visit Jay Lake’s livejournal.)

Booklife Guest David J. Williams, with “Viral Marketing Case Study: Or, How I Built Fake Websites to Sell My Real Books”

Today, a great guest post by author David J. Williams , whose futuristic military thrillers I quite enjoy–tightly written, intelligent, and exciting. This is being posted on Tuesday rather than the regular Wednesday due to a WordPress issue. – JeffV

er, hey, is this thing live? Well, first of all, thanks a ton to Jeff for inviting me to say a word or two about how I’ve been marketing my Autumn Rain trilogy (consisting of the books THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, THE BURNING SKIES, and the forthcoming THE MACHINERY OF LIGHT). I’ll also say a bit about Lessons Learnt and all that…

First, let me reveal the Actual Strategy, and then I’ll break it down a little from there. “Viral marketing” has more definitions than you can shake a stick at; it seems to me that the essence of the best campaigns is that they’re not transparently related to the author, but instead help to generate a buzz by virtue of their being a little mysterious.

The core of my campaign was the following site:

http://www.greateramericanews.com/breakingnews

“TERRORIST STRIKE DESTROYS SPACE ELEVATOR”

“AUTUMN RAIN CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY”

That dastardly terrorist group Autumn Rain! Who the #$# are they? I.e., we’re dropped straight into the world, with a faux news site with CNN-like look-and-feel, reporting on the aftermath of the catastrophic event that opens the first book. There’s plenty of “apparent” content and even (if you click on the graphic at the top) an actual video, in which a doomed reporter broadcasts his final hapless transmission. Of course, if you try clicking on the other links, you rapidly realize that there’s really not much to this website: it’s just a shell, intended to convey the emotional impact of Something Really Huge Going On, creating the illusion of verisimilitude…an illusion that’s carried still further by the page that virtually every link takes one to:

http://www.greateramericanews.com/restricted.html

The world of 2110 is one where the government has the Internet in “lock-down”, so it ties in thematically…but the point is that this website is like a cat that arches its back and makes all its hair stand on end to appear larger than it actually is. (I apologize for that somewhat-forced analogy, but as I write this, my feline friend Captain Zoom is sitting on my lap and intruding upon my cognitive processes, in addition to making it that much harder to type).

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