Aside: A Note About Content. (2022) A few of the editorial comments by JTC during the early 2000s were political in nature. Those represent purely my own opinions stated at the time, and may not have agreed with the opinions of my esteemed team members. Explanation follows. Click for more INFO.
My Digital Decade, Part I: Author
(Writer, Editor, Publisher, Canoodler)
Publisher's Note: The personal views of the publisher, expressed here, do not necessarily mirror those of other contributors to this magazine. This is always strictly my own personal rant.
Writer I'll start with writing, this month, since that is my alpha and my omega. The point of this exercise will be to offer a few thoughts that might be relevant to other mid-Web (as opposed to midlist) authors. Specifically, what brought this on was a set of emails with a few writer friends exchanging troubled notes about the condition of both publishing and writing. I may have some contrarian thoughts to offer. Over the next few months, I'll add some thoughts about my Web career thus far as an editor, publisher, and general canoodler. First, though, a bit of history at this milestone moment as the 1996-2005 decade winds up, and my second decade online begins. Motivated by a variety of e-mails from various writers in recent days, I'm putting together a real gumbo of ideas and thoughts here, so please bear with me if you are a writer, or care about a writer, or are just plain interested.
I was a struggling, unpublished novelist in 1996 when I had a fateful conversation with a young web expert, author, and artist (Brian Callahan) at a now defunct company I won't name. Brian and I, sensing that we had literary and artistic tastes in common, started forming a bond of friendship that continues warmly today. Brian wandered into my office one day to take a tea break and chat. Our conversation touched upon submitting stories to magazines. I was already burned out on that slash & burn process, and suggested rather tartly that my guess was he'd be best off starting his own magazine, forming a nucleus of writers, and growing the enterprise from there. That's still valid advice, I think. A few moments later, as we turned to other things, a light bulb formed over my skull and I said: "Hey, Briwait a moment. What about the Web? Do you suppose a person could launch a magazine on line?"
That was just under ten years ago, in May of 1996. We were coincidentally watching the pained public birth pangs of the World Wide Web. On my bulky work station, a whole office full of people had clustered to watch the downloading of the first Web image I was to ever see: an ancient image from the Vatican Libraries, of a Byzantine document including pictures of snails and other sea creatures. The image took hours to download. Remember the movie No Way Out? The entire action climax is premised around the fact that the facial features of Kevin Costner's character would take hours to resolve with the pattern recognition software at the time. I've always defined Web Yearsas one does Dog Years or Cat Yearsin special terms: one month of real time equals one Web year because of the speed of development and the rapid obsolescence of technology. Ten realtime years ago,therefore, would be over a century of Web years.
That said, Brian and I launched our first website around Easter 1996 (Neon Blue Fiction) and our second (The Haunted Village) around the Fourth of July. NBF (still online at http://www.neonbluefiction.com/) is dedicated to suspense, noir, and thriller fiction. THV (still online at http://www.thehauntedvillage.com/) is dedicated to SFFH. We were among the first publishers online (before there was even Web commerce) and among the first to publish weekly serial chapters of novels starting in 1996 (Heartbreaker, now retitled This Shoal of Space, and Neon Blueb, both by John Argo). In 1996 we started jinning up the concept Clocktower Fiction as an umbrella website over any number of publishing websites, and in 1997 launched the venture as Clocktower Books (http://www.clocktowerbooks.com/). In 1998 I launched my own personal website, Sharpwriter.com, as a writer's resource (http://www.sharpwriter.com). I have since built almost two dozen websites for various purposes, most of them findable at this site's links page.
With very few exceptions, I think, writers have a lot of ups and downs. Thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of other historical figures, that's easy to see. Thinking of my own life and that of many of my writer friends, it's a real-time experience. Reecently I saw two of my books in bookstores up and down the California coast. One was my political thriller The Generals of October (about a plot to take over the U.S. during a Second Constitutional Convention) and a nonfiction tour guide of Rome in 150 A.D. at the height of her Golden Age under Antoninus Pius. It was a good try. Soon, both were out of print from lack of savvy marketing. Most people would be daunted by all this. As a writer, I am not. You have to take it on the chin and keep marching on.
Get MellowIt's Okay!There are a number of reasons why I feel pretty mellow. First and foremost, my hard work and heavy exposure online have given me a good measure of who I am as a writer. It's a mixed message in a way. On the one hand, I know I'm a very good writer, and many reviews and ratings bear that out. On the other hand, my writing (both in style and subject matter) doesn't appeal to everyone. That's okay with me. I think it's all a numbers game. If you're in a small digital market place online, and you sell a few thousand copies of a book, and three quarters of the hundreds of readers motivated to rate your book give you positive marks (half either excellent or good) you're doing okay. So I think, especially when I compare the rating patterns with those of a number of the greatest SFFH writers ever. When, as I believe will happen, this market explodes into a huge one, those same rating patterns will probably do a big bang expansion and turn from a few thousand into many thousands, and so will the money. Ditto for my POD exposure (Clocktower Books) at Amazon, B&N.com, etc.
Second, I have witnessed a great deal of human frailty in all areas of life. After all, I am nearly sixty years old, and have been many places and done many things, more than most people. I have come to believe that in the right hands, with the right competencies and values, a small press can be every bit as effective as the largest New York commercial publishing house. The facts bear this out. In the tide of conglomeration that has seen the industry go from 20 or 30 commercial imprints half a century ago to the Big 5 (foreign-owned cartel) today, one discerns a steady pattern of acquisition (call it hunting) by the congloms to acquire small, successful upstart publishers. Two that come to mind are Ten Speed Press and Four Walls/Eight Windows, but there are others. In that same vein, remember all the bile and hate against self-publishing? Consider first that the likes of Shakespeare, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence did it. Consider second that Random House and Barnes & Noble got on the POD bandwagon early, acquiring iUniverse, thereby becoming the world's largest vanity press. Yes, that Random House and that B&N. Consider also that for a long time, B&N had an implicit policy of never allowing any POD title on its store shelves, despite gulling authors into paying big bucks to 'get published.' That policy has been slightly mitigated, apparently, in that now B&N allows something like one in a thousand iUniverse authors (who pay a premium to be considered for the service) to get their books on the shelves. Don't get me wrongcompared to other corporations, B&N is a favorite of mine. My overall point is that if you are a good writer, and you work smart, you don't need to ever worry about being second fiddle to anyone. That includes the NY Bigs. Trust me on that. They put their pants on one leg at a time, whereas I stand on the bed, jump through the air, and land in both pant legs at the same time, and slip into my shoes before I finish sliding
Third, this is still America. I've lived in a number of countries, and there is still more opportunity here than anywhere else on earth. If writing is your chosen obsession, as it is mine (chosen is the wrong word) then I believe if you believe in yourself, persistently keep writing, reading, improving yourself, joining a writer's group, and read every book there is about writing (mainly from real writers, not from academics) then there is a good chance you'll be in print soon. In fact, you can establish your own magazine or publishing house (I've done both) and publish your own stuff. Do yourself a favor, and get professional editing help if you doI'm actually a professional editor as well as a writer and publisher (and all-around factotum including of necessity web design) and I still make the dumbest mistakes. No author can effectively edit his or her own workbut when you sit in your bedroom in Peoria, typing that masterpiece, just think of the many success stories. I know of at least one writer who came from nowhere, had nothing, and has built a very respectable niche for himself (my good friend John K. Muir, who has a fine agent and a fine publisher, and was just honored by the prestigious New York Public Library system for his accomplishments). See John's website for a flavor of how he gravitated to a subject matter he loves (media, especially older TV shows and movies in the sf/f/h genres) and carved himself a growing career that will be huge one day soon.
The success story I was also thinking about today was that of J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Google 'J. K. Rowling success story' for results including http://www.factmonster.com/spot/harrycreator1.html. Many prominent writers, including Stephen King, are self-made success stories. Writing is not a gift that wealthy families can pass along to their offspring (except maybe in the occasional gene). Writing is a gift that crops up randomly, amid the poor as well as the wealthy. It is a tough, cruel business full of charlatans and cretins and middlemen who have no talent or scruples, and you should beware to keep your wallet free and clear of pickpockets, book doctors, and other phonies.
The Infamous Lists, including an alleged dead one
Having said all that, I do have a few contrarian points to make. For one thing, is it true that the midlist is dead? I have mixed thoughts. A friend mentioned: "So and so tells me that fifteen years ago, you and I would have been big "mid-list" authors in the publishing world, and bemoans how things have changed." To which I replied, essentially: "Probably more like 25-30 years ago, and 'big' and 'midlist' donít necessarily go together. Iím ready to bemoan it all with the best of them, and the 'death of midlist' seems a truism but I wonder if itís really totally true.
A quick glossary of terms, as I understand them:
- Frontlist means a handful of cet and release millions of copies because publishers know their books sell.
- Backlistrefers to titles to which the publisher owns rights in perpetuity, and which always sell some number of copies, year in and year out. For example, Publisher X might own the rights to Book Y, which sells 20,000 copies every year, maybe to the college English majors market or whatever. The backlist is a huge part of what's valued when a publishing house is sold. The name doesn't necessarily mean that much, and today's front list author becomes a backlist star because of their durable rights.
- Midlist refers to that 95% of authors who appear and vanish over time. A few of them traditionally linger in the mid-cycle (I wouldn't mind being there) and a few, like John D. McDonald break into front list after 20 years despite their publishers' efforts to keep them there (which proves again that publishers can be, and often are, d-u-m-b).
If the midlist death thing is true, I suspect itís in the sense that publishers are taking fewer chances, but Iím not sure I buy that either. As a publisher myself, I know that every title is a gamble (unless itís by Stephen King or Dan Brown). The fact is that none of the big bookstore chains existed 30 years ago. Books were sold in drugstores and newsstandsthatís where you should really go look today to see who is making it, and thatís where the competition is cutthroat for small spacesmaybe it can really be said that almost no smallish author reaches those places anymore. However, a new author can make it into the B&am;Ns of this world, or Borders...so itís a tradeoff. In fact, Barnes & Noble in particular has a good track record (from my subjective experience) of supporting local authors. Even if you can't get your wares into all their bookshops, you have a good bet at getting in locally. They have a Small Press Division in New York, which at one time wouldn't touch a POD book, but more recently they have seen the lines blur, and some POD titles may take off. That's what being in business is all aboutrecognizing opportunities and cashing in on them.
Dead Poets In case you are still laboring under the sophomoric delusion that authors are no good unless they've been dead for 100 years and have been blessed by the academic world (which the aspiring and perspiring author often hears) I do have a degree in English and I lasted through 30 minutes of graduate school before running for the hills, and I can assure you: most of the authors on a typical English 101 syllabus were not starving in their attics, which is what the hierophants of the Lit Dept seem to demand (a cruel yet romantic view), but were in fact smashing commercial successes in their time. I offer Shakespeare (the ultimate self-publisher, since he not only did the writing, but owned the means of production from top to bottom); Dickens, who was shunned by printers ('publishers') and academics at first and had to turn to weekly news journal serialization to get his start, and became arguably the greatest novelist in the English language; D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and a whole host of others. Exceptions might be Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The list of commercially successful 'great' writers is a very long one, which should make you forget even asking about 'literary' vs. 'commercial.' It's a meaningless dichotomy; a conundrum for those who live in barrels and carry lamps about seeking verity.
Toxic Bitterness: Avoid It There is a great deal of anger and frustration in the aspiring-writer community. I brought some of it along myself, the inevitable product of years of rejection slips (although I always got lots of editor comments and encouragementand I was always too busy writing to spend much time carping). I encountered a veritable moon-tide of seething and tooth-gnashing unpublished authors who were 'breaking in' on line and despising traditional publishers and feeling better than the New York crowd and so forth. I had a few terrible run-ins early on, that made me shy far away from that crowd, and their awards to each other, and so forth. I would encourage the aspiring author, if he or she does indeed possess the talent and intelligence, to strike out on their own and avoid these hordes of generally not very interesting writers. How does one say this diplomatically? A lot of them suck, deeply and repugnantly, like one harridan I tried my best to help, and who unloaded boatloads of venom and bile on me in her profound ignorance. Just as I encourage you to grab your rear end with both hands and run when book doctors and other middlemen are smoothly and oleaginously trying to 'help you' while relieving you of your hard-earned cash, I would advise you to run at the first sound of carping or editor-bashing. Trust me, that too is from nowhere. My personal observation from years of working with hundreds, if not thousands, of writers, is that there is usually a direct correlation between the quality of person and the quality of writing. A lousy person usually is a lousy writer. You'll probably never again hear me speak in such terms, and I never have to my knowledge, but it's an anniversary moment and I am offering some insights I think are as objective as any one person's subjective experiences can fashion.
Spoilers (Not) I did think, long ago, that editors and other middlemen were the spoilers. I used to wish, as many writers do, that I could just get past all the middlemen and reach the readersthen I would be understood and accepted. I have since learned the facts of life. Yes, agents are skittish and will turn down at the drop of a hat anything that isn't fast food for the same old mill. Yes, editors have had War and Peace sent to them, and have turned novels of that caliber down with form letters. Books have been published, compendia of editors and critics saying that a youthful Mark Twain can't write a note to the milk man, or the early James Joyce was an unqualified scribbler with a dirty and evil mind (I'm making this up, but you've seen those books). Yes, a million mistakes are made. The first Harry Potter book was turned down many times, and only discovered on a whim by an agent leaving for the weekend, who needed something to read, and picked the ms which already sat on the reject table, if I recall the story. Yes, all these things are done by middlemen.
Now that I have had the opportunity to get before readers, who are actually the ultimate purse string holders, who in the end mean the bottom line for both publishers and editors, I have found that the reader is just another person like you or I. Readers are deluged by spam and information day and night. You could write a book ten times as great as Bleak House and nobody might ever read it, even if it's published in a beautiful edition, because people are simply busy. Worse yet, there is some evidence that the pool of readers is shrinking. Few people are reading booksironically, perhaps because the Internet steals so much of our time. Publishers of late have been producing geriatric editions (taller books, with more space or leading between the lines, for the tired eyeballs of an aging reader population).
My feeling is that you should never spend any time blaming others (readers, editors, publishers). If you, the author, figure out a product that real people, strangers, will jump to buy, you now have the option to reach your readers either by 'getting published' or by publishing your own workif you know what you're doing. In ten years, I have learned some valuable fundamentals. Sometimes it's right there before our eyesthe value of getting to Oprah or Larry King, but barring that, your local newspaper, an expert in your field, anyone who is willing to join the shouting about how good your book is. After studying and testing your demographics, go for endorsements. If your target audience are people who collect thimbles or build doll houses or smoke sausages or whatever, talk to such people. Get the skinny. Learn the facts. Know the basics, and build some original angle into your story, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. Be prepared to try, and try, and try, and try again. Whether you really, truly are a genuine writer is not determined by an editor, or a publisher, or a book doctor, or a teacherit is determined by the degree of your determination as well as your talents.
I once heard a guy talking about the fast food industry on radio. He said (which I found stunningly true) that people go back over and over again to the same restaurants and have the same items because itís comforting, reassuring, something steady & anchoring. Even if the food isnít particularly great, itís predictable. I heard this about 20 years ago and immediately drew connections to the publishing industry. Think McDonaldís, BurgerKing, Carlís Jr., etc., and then think Romance, SF, Fantasy, Horror, etc. Within those categories, people have their own particular niches and niche authors that they go back to. We all tend to do it. If I go to McDonaldís I always order X. If I go to B&N and to the SFFH section, I tend look for X, Y, or Z. Publishers figured this out generations ago, which is why we have categories. Within those fiction and nonfiction categories are predictable themes that people buy over and over again. There are two faces to this. (a) a guy likes action stories about war and aircraft carriers, or a woman likes a certain type of romance, and will buy ever book published in this area; (b) someone has a fixation on ancient Rome or Egypt and buys every book about that.
Rejection Got You Down? If I know you are down, my first impulse is to pound you on the back and say ďAh, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, donít mope.Ē The fact is, every rejection hurts, and we have to grieve over each one. The trick is to get the grieving over with and recognize we are not the only person having this problem. (pep talk for me, you, all of us). The question is: how to make lemonade when given lemons? Figure out what your neighbors want to read, and then write it. When that catches on, youíll sell all the rest with ease, no matter how far out by the average readerís standards. Consider that Dan Brown didn't sell that many books until he hit it big with The DaVinci Codesince then, everything he has ever written has become a bestseller.
Use Your Words, Not Theirs Not long ago, I made a mistake in a submission, and caught the brunt of a major editorial/publishing figure's personal pettiness and childishness. Among other things, this bow bow head referred to my work as "a damn piece of slush" which he trashed without reading, but made sure his assistant Belvedere let me know of his venom. I take some responsibility for my error in judgment (I had a deliberate strategy, but it backfired). My point is thoughit is amazing how abusive industry is of writers, and even more amazing that writers seem to feel it should be like this. That publisher, in my eyes, is about an inch tall. He made himself into a showpiece of pettiness (conversations with friends subsequently indicated this individual has a reputation as an asshole (their term), so best to shrug things like this off. At Clocktower Books, we make a point of never using words like slush or reject, strange as this may seem to an industry that has been a buyer's game for so long that they think writers should naturally be treated like garbage. If this had happened earlier in my life, I would have been devastated. Now I now it's just noise. Imagine the nerve to refer to a person's enormous amount of work as 'slush.' Think about it. It's another reason not to take the industry seriously, because there are too many idiots populating it. I remember years ago, after a publisher sat on a book of mine for over a year, and wasn't replying to my polite queries, I called them up. I got some 12-year-old girl at the receptionist's office, who asked me in a hushed, horrified tone: "Are you a writer, or are you anyone else?" When I replied that I was a writer, she became crisp and authoritative, informing me: "Writers are not allowed to call here. You must send us a letter." Before I could say that I had, several times without a reply, she hung up on me. Writers are like the great Afro-American performers in Las Vegas through the 1960s, who brought in huge crowds and millions of dollars, but were only allowed to come and go via the kitchen. When anyone uses offensive, disgusting prejudicial slurs like "slush" or "reject," feel free to politely inform them that if your work is garbage, then so is theirs, ten times more so, because you create books and they are simply middlemen with their hand out.
Critical Mass. The vast majority of writers remain relative or total unknowns. Start looking at this as a business. The more you learn about publishing, the more likely it is that you'll achieve some success. We have to stop being wounded authors and recognize what I see as a publisher. Nowadays, between digital and POD, anyone can publish a book practically overnight. I can publish anything I want, but it doesnít mean people will buy it. Most would-be quit in despair, but those truly meant to be writers will never give up writing. If you're like me, only death will stop youIíll probably still be heard typing away in the cemetery on some moonlit night. The question is how to work smarter. To do this, we have to be clear and hard-nosed. What is it that I can write that people will buy?
Most writers are unknowns even after publication. The numbers are staggering. Over 50,000 books are published in the U.S. each year, yet the pool of avid readers is shrinking, aging, and overwhelmed with a flood of advertising. If King or Koontz or their level publish something, millions will buy it. They have achieved critical mass. Try writing a book on a known topic, as I have, like Rome or Robinson Crusoe.
A friend of mine wrote unhappily: "With this last rejection from the New York agent, I've pretty much accepted that they [New York] are never going to let me in the door." My answer, based on having given up years ago: "I think itís a good assumption to make, because it really clears the head. No point waiting for the six top girls in a school of 3000 to accept your plea for a date, standing in line with 1500 other guys. Just move on with whatís doable. If New York happens, great. So far, I have found whatís doable are venues like Fictionwise and LightningSource. They are still tiny market opportunities, but you can call the shots and control the game. Do readings at libraries, sell at flea markets (Iím seriousa couple in San Diego have been doing this for years, and they write a lot of nonfiction like about smoking & curing meat, etc
). Put a bumper sticker for your website on your car. Get T-shirts made. Send out mailers (trying not to tick too many people off). Donít spam on line, of course...use your editing as advertising for your authoring also, if possible...figure out how to reach critical mass. Thatís when people go to bookstores asking for copies of your book, plain and simple.
Most Important Of All! This is a '2022 Renovation Note' telling what I know now that I may not have realized in the early 2000s. Namely: what sells books is BRAND, which is author name. Remember the fast food anecdote above? A friend of mine today describes the most successful popular literature as 'popcorn.' Wish I'd known all this decades ago. Not that I'd probably have written different novels. Readers don't usually look to see who the publisher is. I've played with covers, titles, and other gimmicks in hope of promoting sales. Those are all important factors. But most important is author name, which is the same as BRAND, and that is achieved by word of mouth: either the reader's friend, or a book club, or a trusted television personality (e.g., Oprah). Taken together, I call these factors Herd Of Mouth (HOM). Go for it. But good luck. Most readers are busy people with working lives, children, and other daily cares. They want to read (or today listen to audio) and relax. To do that safely, they need assurance (HOM) that your book is a safe investment of their time.
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