WAITING FOR A GOOD BOOK

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdRecently, I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird. It was re-released in July 2014 by Audible, with a new narration by Cissy Spacek. After I settled into it, I remembered why I love it. It’s a rare story in which all the pieces fit. Some call it the perfect book. It may be.

It never hits a false note. Takes its time, tells the story at a leisurely pace. It talks about justice, injustice, racism, and the legal system. It’s about family, love, relationships and coming of age. Discovering the world is both better and worse than you imagined.

My granddaughter was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school and found it boring. I don’t agree, but I understand her problem. She lives in a world so changed from the one in which “Mockingbird” takes place, she can’t relate to it.

Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more than they drove. Food grew in gardens. The world was segregated, separated by class, religion, and ethnicity. My granddaughter can’t even imagine such a world. In her world, the President is Black and her white grandma is married to a brown man.

Everything is instant. You don’t go to a library to do research. You Google it. There’s no time for slow-moving books that depict a less frantic world.

It’s no wonder the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, and so on. These books are fun. Exciting. So much of “literary fiction” is dreary. Authors seem to have forgotten that literature is also supposed to be entertaining.

I need stories that are more than a dark mirror of reality. That’s not enough. I want a good plot. I need action, stuff to happen. I don’t want to just hear what characters are thinking. I want to see them moving through their lives. I need characters who develop, grow, are changed by events. And, I need heroes. Un-ambivalent good guys for whom I can root. I welcome enlightenment and education, but I require entertainment. Lately it seems the reality-based books I’ve read have forgotten how to entertain. The people they portray are sad, depressed, trapped, miserable. Living lives so hopeless they lack even the energy of desperation.

Are our lives truly so pathetic? So grey and drab? I don’t believe so. I think it’s easier — and fashionable in current literary circles — to write that way. Easier to capture a single note than a whole range of feelings. There are plenty of sad and hopeless characters, but there are also plenty of glad and joyous ones. Winners, not just losers. Heroes and success stories.

I don’t understand current criteria for publication. I don’t get it. A high percentage of the new books I read (I read a lot of just-published books for review) are dull. Many are also poorly written. I find myself wondering why this book, whatever it is, was chosen. To me, I has no merit. I don’t even review these books. I don’t like trashing books and authors, so if it’s that bad, I just skip it.

Boring to me, is the worst sin in literature. I don’t believe Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee — would be published today. I doubt they’d get a reading.

I miss books based in reality. I bet there are great manuscripts waiting, their authors yearning to be published. I hope they get to it soon. Because kids like my granddaughter need to discover how much fun books about real people can be.

THE WITCH PROMISES GREAT BEST-SELLERS

A BOOKISH CHOICE – A literary-minded witch offers you a choice. With a flick of her wand, you can become an obscure novelist whose work will be admired and studied by a select few for decades (phooey on that!) or a popular author whose books give pleasure to millions (definitely). Which do you choose? (Is this a serious question?)


Was I ever young enough to think money doesn’t matter? If I ever said anything that silly, I apologize. To anyone to whom I may have expressed such arrant nonsense, I must have been on drugs. They warned us about the brown acid.

75-BooksHP

You can always write some (or many) good books if you have a publisher and an audience. If your books sell well, you don’t have to write drivel. There’s nothing to prevent you from being a best-selling author and a fine writer. I can think of a bunch of authors who succeed at both.

Great writing does not exclude popularity. Exceptional books will find their audience if they get a reasonable shot at it … which means, any exposure at all.

Go with the best-selling choice. It’s a win-win.


And Mr. Huberman, you need a course in spelling and grammar. I don’t wish to insult you, but please, take the time to proofread your posts before publishing. You are writing for writers. We notice.

WAITING FOR HOLLYWOOD TO CALL

Challenge of Smiles

My monthly royalty payment from Amazon just came in and I was pleased to see it was up slightly from last month.

A total of $3.89 was directly deposited into my checking account. I am not sure how many book sales this represents (three?), but I’m pleased my book sells at all.

The royalty deposits make me laugh. What should I do with all the money?

teepee book shelf

I could get a small meal from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. It isn’t enough to buy me a coffee at Starbucks. Good I don’t like Starbucks coffee, eh? I can’t think of anything else I could do with the money, but the idea amuses me. Being an author has not turned out exactly as I dreamed.

But you never know. Hollywood might yet call and my book could be the next blockbuster.

Right. Sure. Uh huh!

SEARCHING FOR A GOOD BOOK

Royalties?

Every once in a while, to my shock and amazement, Amazon informs me I’ve sold a book or three. Wow! Any personal friends who were going to buy or read my book have long since done so. Therefore whoever bought it is not someone I guilted into buying it and is a genuine reader. Cause for celebration. Woo hoo.

Don’t think I’m going to make any significant money from this. Hell no. The Kindle version of my book yields a whopping dollar something per sale (or loan) (I’m actually not sure the precise amount). Amazon has changed the rules, so almost every month I get 20 announcements of an impending direct deposit into my bank account. Then I get another set from my bank. So far, my biggest month yielded almost $12. This month, it was $3.70.

I have no idea how they calculate amounts and have stopped trying to figure it out. Overall, I figure a year of book sales might just take Garry and I to a big night at McDonald’s — if we order from the dollar menu.

cropped-jun07-tipi-043.jpg

I still get buzzed when anyone buys or reads my book and delighted when they let me know they enjoyed it, but next time, I think I’ll write about dogs.

Doing PR

I wrote it in 2007, though it didn’t “hit the market” until 2008. I did author things — television interviews on local cable, radio interviews. I got some nice local press. I arranged some book signings. None of them amounted to much, but they were fun and I met other local authors, some of whom have become friends.

75-Books and stuffNK-1

In total, I sold a few hundred books which isn’t bad for a self-published book. For a while, I got royalty checks large enough for a cheap dinner at a local fast food joint. I briefly thought Teepee would be a very minor straight to DVD movie, but financing failed to materialize. So much for Hollywood.

It’s hard to market a self-published book. When it first came out, I admit I had dreams of glory. My husband had (still has) some good media connections, though as time passes, colleagues retire and there are fewer … but 5 years ago, many more of Garry’s colleagues were working.

When you write a book largely based on your own life experiences, you know it’s not going to hit the New York Times bestseller list. Not unless you are already a celebrity and even then, memoirs are not usually big sellers. Books like this become popular only if they reveal scandalous details of things done with other celebrities, usually of a perversely sexual nature, or if someone pumps it up on national television — which didn’t happen to me and doesn’t happen for most authors.

Unless you have a recognizable, salable name, there’s no market for this genre. The ones that get published because they were written by celebrities go from a display in front of the store to the discount bargain bin faster than you can say “I didn’t know he/she wrote a book …” It’s unlikely me or you, unknowns that we are, could convince a publisher we’re worth the ink and paper for so much as a trade paperback. And don’t bother to dream of getting an advance.

Books so bad they should have a warning label

A while back, I had the honor of reading (and to some degree, judging) a bunch of fiction deemed among “the best of 2013.” I have no idea on what basis these books were determined to be the best of that year’s offering, but I’d like to meet the judges and ask “What were you thinking?” There are okay books amongst the dross, a couple of good ones plus a few that make it all the way to “better than mediocre.”

Unfortunately, there are many dreadful ones, books so bad it’s hard to imagine how they could be regarded by anybody as worth publishing at all in any form. Who did the authors have to sleep with to get that contract? There had to be sexual favors involved. Nothing else could explain it.

Most of these books are — at best — okay. Maybe someone might like them, but I find it hard to imagine who it might be. Maybe under the influence of heavy drugs? Some may simply be an acquired taste I haven’t acquired. A couple had redeeming qualities, but not enough to get me from cover to cover.

Which brings me back to my book

I will say, in advance, that it is not deathless literature, but it’s not bad — a whole lot better than most of the books deemed the best of 2013.

And my book has features that used to be traditional features in books like characters, humor, a semblance of a plot, a good-faith attempt to make a point. At the very least, you could learn how to build a tepee (perhaps more of how not to build a teepee), should you care to have one of your own … something I recommend. Tepees are strangely wonderful. You might not love my book, but I’m pretty sure whoever and wherever you are, you’d enjoy having a teepee.

These days, books that sell are mostly cops and courtrooms, whodunits, thrillers, terrorists, vampires and other creatures out of myth and fable, many things magical and mystical. Novels about people who live in the real world and do real things … work at jobs, raise children who don’t have magical powers or access to time travel and are unlikely to pop off into space to explore other universes, are becoming rare.

Do we no longer find the real world sufficiently interesting to write books about it?

How boring are we?

So here’s my question: are we really that boring? All of us? Is the reason so few good books are set in the real world because we find our lives uninteresting? Are the day-to-day battles regular people go through so dreary we can’t bear to write about them?

It is obviously more entertaining to read about things that don’t exist … things that may have happened long in the past … or about events that have or might happen in our real world, but are so far out of the ordinary experiences of regular folks that they might as well happen in an alternate universe.

Having someone buy a copy of my book today was a big deal. If thousands of people bought and presumably read “A Casual Vacancy” or “The Middlesteins,” maybe a half-dozen or so people will buy or borrow an electronic copy or a trade paperback of my book. Although unlikely, it’s possible. And the book might even resonate with some of you.

It’s about the baggage we haul through life, the baggage load on our backs when we are too young to choose … plus the rest of the boulders we pick up along the way and keep hauling until one day — with a little luck — we realize it’s okay to dump them.

So, in case you’re of a mind to buy a book … which maybe you’ll enjoy and then again, maybe you won’t … the book is about child abuse and getting over it as well as the strange ways it warps you as you plod through life . How building a tepee helped me dump the bullshit from childhood and other stuff added along the way. In advance, I ask your forbearance about typos. Without a proper proofreader and editor, I was left to my own devices. If you read me regularly, you know I’m a terrible proofreader and the queen of typos.

Being a writer and a proofreader have nothing to do with each other. Different skill sets. It is also hard to proofread your own manuscript: you tend to see what you meant to write and not what is there.

If you have any interest in acquiring the book in whatever form:

12-foot teepee Amazon

You can buy the paperback here and the Kindle edition here. If you belong to Amazon Prime, you can read it for free. I get the same royalties whether you buy it or borrow it. Go figure.

I have serious concerns about the state of publishing. I am convinced there are more good writers who can’t find a publisher than good writers who get published. With the opportunities offered by electronic publishing, I would think the potential profit has increased exponentially.

Why not publish more? E-books cost nothing but a little electronic storage space … and books like mine that are published as “print to order” cost nothing until it has already been bought and paid for. It’s risk free. It would be good for everyone.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we published more good books?

Perhaps publishers should consider taking a chance on more newcomers who don’t write in trendy genres. I love science fiction and fantasy more than most people, but I also enjoy books about the real world and people to whom I can relate in an earthly way.

I fear the best of America’s writers are being lost in the scramble to publish only best-sellers. It doesn’t work anyhow. Most books flop, just like they always have. From what I’m seeing, most acquisitions editors wouldn’t know a great book if it bit them on the nose. Or care.

It’s not that I’m such a fantastic author and couldn’t get a reading, publisher or agent. It’s that the stuff that does get published is so awful. It’s not a healthy sign for literature or the publishing industry.

Daily Prompt: Bookworms in a Bookish Home

Photographers, artists, poets: show us BOOKS. And here are books. Audio books. Hardcover books. Paperbacks. Kindles. Books for everyone in a home full of books.

The Slow Death of the American Author

See on Scoop.itBooks, Writing, and Reviews

LAST month, the Supreme Court decided to allow the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions. Until now, courts have forbidden such activity as a violation of copyright. Not only does this ruling open the gates to a surge in cheap imports, but since they will be sold in a secondary market, authors won’t get royalties.

This may sound like a minor problem; authors already contend with an enormous domestic market for secondhand books. But it is the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams. It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.

Authors practice one of the few professions directly protected in the Constitution, which instructs Congress “to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.

That culture is now at risk. The value of copyrights is being quickly depreciated, a crisis that hits hardest not best-selling authors like me, who have benefited from most of the recent changes in bookselling, but new and so-called midlist writers.

Take e-books. They are much less expensive for publishers to produce: there are no printing, warehousing or transportation costs, and unlike physical books, there is no risk that the retailer will return the book for full credit.

But instead of using the savings to be more generous to authors, the six major publishing houses — five of which were sued last year by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division for fixing e-book prices — all rigidly insist on clauses limiting e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.

Best-selling authors have the market power to negotiate a higher implicit e-book royalty in our advances, even if our publishers won’t admit it. But writers whose works sell less robustly find their earnings declining because of the new rate, a process that will accelerate as the market pivots more toward digital.

And there are many e-books on which authors and publishers, big and small, earn nothing at all. Numerous pirate sites, supported by advertising or subscription fees, have grown up offshore, offering new and old e-books free.

The pirates would be a limited menace were it not for search engines that point users to these rogue sites with no fear of legal consequence, thanks to a provision inserted into the 1998 copyright laws. A search for “Scott Turow free e-books” brought up 10 pirate sites out of the first 10 results on Yahoo, 8 of 8 on Bing and 6 of 10 on Google, with paid ads decorating the margins of all three pages.

If I stood on a corner telling people who asked where they could buy stolen goods and collected a small fee for it, I’d be on my way to jail. And yet even while search engines sail under mottos like “Don’t be evil,” they do the same thing.

Google is also at odds with many writers because in 2004 it partnered with five major libraries to scan and digitize millions of in-copyright books, without permission from authors. The Authors Guild (of which I am president) sued; years later, with a proposed settlement scuttled by the judge, the litigation goes on.

Google says this is a “fair use” of the works, an exception to copyright, because it shows only snippets of the books in response to each search. Of course, over the course of thousands of searches, Google is using the whole book and selling ads each time, while sharing none of the revenue with the author or publisher.

It got worse in 2011, when a consortium of some of Google’s partner libraries, the Hathi Trust, decided to put online some 200 books that the group had unilaterally decided were “orphans,” meaning they couldn’t locate the copyright owners. The “orphans” turned out to include books from writers like the best-selling novelist J. R. Salamanca — alive and well in Maryland — and the Pulitzer Prize winner James Gould Cozzens, whose copyrights were left to Harvard. The Authors Guild sued, and Hathi suspended the program. But that litigation also continues, even while millions of copyrighted works are stored online, one hacker away from worldwide dissemination free.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 8, 2013, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: The Slow Death of the American Author.

Scott Turow, a lawyer, is the president of the Authors Guild and the author of the forthcoming novel “Identical.”

See on www.nytimes.com

 

On Being Obsolete

I was declared obsolete about 5 years ago. I had been getting progressively less relevant for a while, but after the dot coms went down in flames, the high-tech world changed dramatically. Venture capital disappeared and with it, the exciting little start-up companies that had been my bread and butter for decades.

Tech writers were replaced by automated systems. No one cared anymore whether or not the material produced was useful. Now that tech support had been exported, the same thinking was applied to documentation. It was declared unnecessary. Need help? Just call tech support on the other side of the world. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected multiple times, and finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will provide dangerously incorrect information. Never provide a call back number so if the solution doesn’t work — and mostly, it won’t — make them go through the whole thing again. What could go wrong with this? Who needs writers?

An office.

A lot has gone wrong with this and much to my personal satisfaction, though rather late for my career, companies are discovering that people who buy expensive gear really do want documentation. They get downright irritable when their $5000 camera doesn’t have a  manual.

I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer … great novels … literature. No idea what I would write about, but I would write, that was for sure. I did write many books, but just one novel. Everything else would be information and/or instructions and highly technical at that. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra and never finished a single physics or chemistry course, I picked up a lot along the way.

I started out with high literary hopes. I was an editor at Doubleday in the mid 1970s. Those were the halcyon days of publishing. We actually read manuscripts and were given TIME to read. People belonged to book clubs. Everyone read. There was TV, but you didn’t have 1000 channels and depending on how good your antenna was, you might not get much of anything except snow.

At the beginning of 1979, I moved to Israel and set up a life in Jerusalem.

It turned out that the only kind of writing done entirely in English rather than Hebrew, was technical writing. I wanted to earn a living, so if technical writing was what was available, I would be one. I moved from typewriters to computers and did so with a song in my heart. From the first time I discovered electronic cut-and-paste, I knew I’d found my milieu. I became part of the development team for DB-1, the first relational database. DB-1 was first developed in Israel at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. IBM bought the product and proceeded to market it. It revolutionized the information world … and with the slightly later creation of data object linking, the guts of the Internet we all take so much for granted today was created.

I rode the high-tech wave until I became officially obsolete having been informed that “no one reads manuals.” Which is why I can’t figure out how to change the ISO setting on my camera. I can’t find the menu. The manual, probably produced by an automated process, doesn’t explain how to find anything and there are a frightening number of menus and layers of menus within menus, but I hope someday I will find the setting. I wouldn’t mind finding the metering control either. And a few other things.  But I digress …

Thus I designed my downfall because simultaneously with databases, I worked on “artificial intelligence” (aka “bots”) systems. They were rough but the technology evolved very fast.

The office.

AI came of age in the 1990s and replaced people in a lot of areas. The most common example and possibly the most annoying is the “telephone tech support robot” … that stupid automated voice-activated telephone system that sends you into apoplectic fits as you attempt to get past it to talk to a human. Personally, I have found that shouting “Agent, agent, agent” at every prompt and repeatedly hitting zero usually gets me there. But they are getting trickier about that. Eventually, we will never be allowed to speak to a real live human being on the telephone and if we do, he or she will be about as helpful as the robot was.

The switch from human to “bot” has been particularly pernicious in the world of publishing. I enthusiastically helped build this world in which I am now obsolete, so  the irony is not lost on me.

Modern authoring goes kind of like this: You write a book. You figure you’ve completed the hardest part and all you have to do is show it to someone who will read it. He or she will like it or not, and maybe you’ll have to show it to a bunch of people until finally, you get published.

Actually, the hard part is just beginning. You are now in a world controlled by “bots.”  Gone are human acquisitions editors who read manuscripts and might notice that a manuscript, with some effort, could be a great book.  Publishing houses do not accept manuscripts or even proposals directly from authors. You need an agent. Agents also use “bots” to search emails for key words, buzz words. If they do not find the words for which they are programmed to search, your inquiry goes to the cyber version of the circular file. If you don’t grab the interest of a piece of software in 500 words or less, you are not going to find an agent or publisher.

Max Perkins would never find a job In publishing today, Thomas Wolfe wouldn’t get a reading, much less mentoring. Would anyone publish Hemingway? William Faulkner? Or for that matter, J.R.R. Tolkien? There are far fewer publishers than there used to be, probably because there are also fewer readers. Those halcyon days really were “of yore.”

My office by window light

Fewer publishers, fewer books being published  and that means that those wonderful old brick and mortar bookstores have virtually disappeared. Here and there, one survives, but where once there were many, now they are fast becoming extinct. In another generation, I’ll bet there will be none at all. Bookstores? My town doesn’t have one. There’s a Barnes and Noble 20 miles away at a mall, but it’s not a “real” bookstore anymore. In all of New England there are probably fewer than a couple of dozen honest-to-goodness bookstores and that includes Boston.

I wrote a book. It was nothing earth-shattering. Not bad, but unlikely to rock the literary world. The point is I sent (via email) proposals, sample chapters, letters, whatever they specified. I sent these inquiries, proposals, etcetera to countless agents and publishers. It turned out marketing was the critical component to getting published.  The quality of the book never entered the equation. My book was never rejected. No editor so much as glanced at it.

I flunked marketing. When at last I was able to get an introduction to a real live agent, he died a couple of weeks later, before I had the opportunity to meet him. I took that as a Sign and self-published. At least I had the experience — and specialized software — to put together a press-ready book.

I love the Internet, but miss people. We no longer get to look one another in the eye. We can’t read each others’ faces, judge meaning by intonation or body language. We can’t hug. We don’t get to ‘pitch’ ideas. Not every person can fit their ideas into 500 words or less to be read by a robot. It’s an entirely different skill set than authoring. Ironically, I am one of those who has no knack for marketing myself, even though I wrote marketing material for others. I just can’t market my stuff. It’s different when it’s your own.

It’s a strange world. It’s no less strange than the fantasy worlds about which I read in my favorite novels. Exactly where do reality and fantasy separate? At what point do technology and magic separate?

This is the world I helped build so how dare I complain?

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