Monday, November 28, 2011

NaNoWriMo: An Exercise in Beginnings

Okay, so the Office of Letters and Light doesn't have a countdown clock for the rest of National Novel Writing Month. At least, not on the index page of the website. That's good because NaNo isn't about deadlines, in my opinion (like you're here for somebody else's?).

I hate guilt. Not finishing a goal induces it. So, NaNo can be a guilt-inducing exercise. Therefore, I think of NaNo as something else. It is an invitation to wander. Which I did. Not by 50K words, but by 10K, and, by God, I'm happy with the outcome. I'm 1/3 into a novella, if in fact I end up writing a novella. I'm definitely on the road to a prequel. Did I have more than a chapter written before the month started? Heck no. I have now a solid beginning, and I feel fine (because it's not the end of the world as we know it). I'm excited, not wallowing in pity that I won't have a full novel done by midnight on Wednesday.

Writing novels is hard enough to let myself go THERE -- the dark side -- the side every writer knows so intimately s/he begin to look like that nasty little ring keeper in the LOTR series (sorry, don't know the name of that character, although Gollum sounds familiar).

For anyone who finishes 50K this week, it's just the beginning. The novel will take on a new shape every time the writer sits down to tweak it. Again and again and again. It may sit for weeks, months, until it is fine and all the details are worked out in the mind and then on the paper. What you have now, you winners of NaNo, is piece of clay. Now the pounding begins.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The eBook Buzz from BookBaby's View

This post evolves from my curiosity about ebook self-publishing and how the trend can help or hurt the unsigned, unpublished author.

Very organically, meaning by a natural outgrowth, the ebook self-publishing business has gained legitimacy with writers who feel the need to take their work to the streets themselves in an increasingly dismal marketplace. Writers are faced with many options and some tough decisions nowadays. Slug out the traditional route, clawing for an ever-shrinking publishing hole, or hold your breath and jump with two feet into self-publishing?

I do believe the stigma associated with self-publishing is as distasteful as you want to make it. If you take yourself seriously as a writer, you logically will also take a serious look at your publishing options. For me, it's been an evolution. First and foremost, there is the act of writing. There's the self-education to get better. Then, there's the coming to terms with feedback and criticism. Somewhere along the way, there is commitment. The last hurdle is the push for publication. For many writers, traditional publication basically means that their work is worthy. They've made it. The writing is obviously good. We think getting a book accepted by an agent or a publisher will validate our talent. I'm not so sure anymore about that last statement.
Brian Felsen, BookBaby President

My doubt increased after I spoke to Brian Felsen, the president of an e-publishing startup called BookBaby. Felsen let me hang out with him recently at the Portland, Ore., headquarters of BookBaby, CDBaby and HostBaby and unequivocally made the case for what he calls self-release. (Of course, we want release, in more ways than one!). In terms of economics and marketing, he sees self-publishing as the hands-down winner.

Granted, this is the nice man with the gun who suggested the bus to Cartagena. Disclosure statement: I took no gifts or gratuities to speak with him or to publish this post and the transcript of our interview. I'll still have to pay the $99 to e-publish my book via BookBaby, if in fact I choose to do so. I simply went on a fact-finding trip, and he was nice enough to cooperate. Laid-back, no question. A man not afraid to use the word poopy in an interview. Sure, he's running a multi-million dollar company that is breaking into a competitive market, but he was still a nice guy.

BookBaby is new among the electronic book publishers, competing with the likes of Smashwords and CreateSpace. It has released only about 4,000 titles in the last year of doing business. Its competitors have somewhat different models, though I won't outline the pros and cons here. At BookBaby, you pay an upfront fee, a real person processes your manuscript by hand, and it gets distributed to all the major retailers. The writer keeps 100 percent of the profits after the retailers take their cut. BookBaby has the benefit of being a spinoff of the highly successful CDBaby, a 13-year-old company that is the largest distributor of independent music.

Felsen is an artist and businessman. He writes poetry (no kidding), composes music and used to play rock 'n' roll. The way he sees it, self-publishing cuts out a lot of headaches.

"It doesn’t hurt you if you release your work now by e," he said. "Either you can get it pulled down and then get traditional distribution later or still give up the e-rights to it later, if you want to. Or, it’s the calling card for you to get future works noticed, but you shouldn’t put your career on hold and spend tons of money trying to go traditional with a work that’s completed and drive yourself crazy if it’s not imminently happening."

For e-rights, he says it's silly to let a publisher take them from you, especially when so little of the revenue from ebooks goes back to the writer. "There’s no warehousing or distribution, there’s really nothing. It’s not rocket science. There’s nothing to it. The sort-of dirty little secret of publishing is that publishers don’t add a ton of value in terms of marketing your work to the readers. They market your work to book sellers. But so many famous authors still have to go to book conventions themselves. They still have to manage their social networking presence themselves, have a website and Twitter accounts and reach out to fans and have contests and do all this stuff that they do, but you’d have to that as an independent author anyway, so you might as well keep the money."

His logic is this: The publishers and agents are already looking for plug-n-play writers. Why play their game? Do it yourself.

"Now, will traditional publishers look at you different? Well, traditional publishers are going to tell you they’re going to look at you differently because you are out there eating their lunch. So, you know, I talk to people, to traditional publishers, many of whom I’ve interviewed on camera for the BookBaby blog, and they would, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, there’s a stigma to self-publishing.’ Well, of course, ‘cause they’re taking an unreasonable cut with unreasonable overhead, and they’re going out of business, so of course they’re going to say that. But if you’re self-released, and you’re one of the top sellers, or if you win awards, they’re gonna want to sign you so badly and so fast, they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s just writing, a family memoirist.’ No, not at all."

I still believe publishers are looking for high quality. But I also agree that their model of selling to book sellers is dying. They already know that. Where does that leave us whimpering newbies? The outlook, according to Felsen, isn't all that rosy in traditional publishing.

"As bookstores are going away, as the publishing houses are consolidating, the mid-tail author is becoming more and more abandoned. It’s like the shrinking middle class. The mid-tier author is not getting the advances that they were. They’re not getting the publicity that they were; there’s not the outlets that there used to be; advances that are doled out are doled out over three years in quarterly installments, and it’s still not really—the pot at the end of the rainbow is a very small one nowadays, and it’s not for everybody."

The interview with Felsen is more indepth and worth a read. For every new author (and some of the old ones), every option is on the table. It may mean I'll need an attitude adjustment to worry less about how my work ends up with readers and to focus more on the real goal: satisfied readers. And those readers will let me know whether or not they're satisfied, regardless of how I publish.  

Friday, November 11, 2011

NaNoWriMo is Different This Time

A year ago, I started this blog as a way to keep track of my progress on my first novel. I completed the ending, about 12,000 words, in the first 12 days of NaNoWriMo. It was a thrill to finish a manuscript. Much has happened with it since then, and I continue to refine it. But I approached the idea of participating in NaNo this year with a completely different outlook. You might find this odd, but my idea was: it just doesn't matter what or how much I write.

Now, I will say I am working on a new novel, complete with an outline, and I am most definitely writing something that I intend to see published, but I am not pressuring myself in any way to get 'er done in a month. I think that is a grand idea, but I also know now: 1) what my process is like for getting a book finished; 2) what my process is for revising; 3) who I want to read it; and 4) what I will do with it once it's read.

In short, I'm feeling much more confident about who I am as a writer, which is not to say that I am totally convinced that my book will ever be published in the traditional way. It may not. I accept that. But I also know that what I've written has worth. It's a pretty cool story, and many people will end up reading it and enjoying it.

How it gets to the reader, well, that's another matter far afield from the actual writing. This month, I am loose to write again and worry about the rest later. And just like last time, it feels great.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Scary (or Different) Future for Writers

Young or old, give thanks to the gentle reader. Writers must earn the attention of each and every one.

Recently, I heard the statistic that a person reads the equivalent of Moby Dick each week through digital bits such as email, Facebook posts and tweets. Can you imagine reading Moby Dick in a few days? (Actually, I'm simply trying to read it, but that's another blog post.)

Readers are a precious commodity. We are fighting to be worthy of their short attention spans and pocketbook demands. (Will you get to the bottom of this post without checking your bank balance online, ahem?) Writers are now asked to indulge readers online, inviting them into our lives via blogs, websites, tweets and Facebook pages. They want to participate in the story, not just read it.

But novelists may be going the way of the storyteller. Before printing presses, stories were handed down by oral historians, the storytellers, and although the art form isn't dead, it is not a crucial part of our culture anymore. Novelists may experience a similar shift because readers' habits are changing. Social and digital media, the very tools we use to connect with readers, are shaping our audience's expectations. We might begin to see Moby Dick introduced to high school students in 200-word posts online.

What does this mean for the novel and the novelist? The speculation is that we will write shorter books. Instead of 50,000-80,000 words, readers will turn increasingly to the novella, 25,000-40,000 words. Or, a reader will download a book chapter by chapter and once she loses interest, then she'll forego buying the rest. Will this mean we'll need to do better at cliff-hanging? Maybe, or it could mean we'll write alternative endings for every book we start. Click here for happy ending. Click here for more sex. Click here for explosion.

Our work will be increasingly dictated by the reader, which is worrisome to some extent because the generation growing up on apps and YouTube rather than long-form fiction won't go for long rides anymore. What to do? I think it is a good time to experiment. Try writing a story in 5 to 10 chapters. I know writers composing Facebook novels, in short chunks, for anyone to contribute in progress. Try recording your first chapter with your phone camera and posting it. Then, wait and see what evolves. We're just as vulnerable to evolution as the manual typewriter.

Thanks for getting to the end without an ebill pay!

This post was first published Oct. 31, 2011, on Nocturnal Nights.