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 Essentials: Knowing the Lifecycle of a Book

(The remains of writers who never did understand the lifecycle of a book. Photo by the highly recommended Jeremy Tolbert.)

In this first week at Booklifenow, it’s important to provide a breakdown of the lifecycle of a book. While this information might appear basic, very few first-time authors seem to receive it prior to publication. As a result, many writers are unable to take advantage of possible opportunities. Even worse, not knowing what happens when results in the following unfortunate scenarios: writers asking for things at the wrong time, writers not understanding their role during a given part of the process, writers being really irritable about quick turn-arounds on tasks like approving edits, and editors wasting time answering questions that could be forestalled with some simple documentation.

If there’s one way that agents and editors could help their writers it would be by not assuming any prior knowledge of this lifecycle—although it is true that the process can change from publisher to publisher. (The lack of internal documentation of process at most publishers is a bit of a crime.)

The process set out below the cut constitutes a general breakdown of events and timing issues that occur during the lifecycle of a book. A week-by-week breakdown would be too long for a blog post. (I recommend supplementing the information I give you below with Colleen Lindsay’s excellent post on working with publicists.)

However, the traditional lifecycle doesn’t approach the “book” as a mutable object that can take many different forms in the modern era. If you boil the process down, stripping off the detail and making a “book” a more fluid creature, the lifecycle roughly becomes:

• Creation and perfection of content.
• Acquisition of a platform (or format) for the content.
• Creation and perfection of the “skin” (aesthetic) and context for the content.
• Accessibility to the content.
• Visibility for the content.

In creating your plans for your book, always keep this simplified version of the lifecycle in mind. It helps focus your efforts by reminding you of what’s important.

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