Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

Entries in career (10)


The Sobering Reality of the Childhood Dream

I’ve been reading quite a lot about writing and publishing and getting an agent and all the ins and outs of the business for quite some time now, and let me tell you, it’s sobering to learn about the industry. Any romantic notions you have of writing your book, getting accepted, and then you quit your day job and write for a living die a swift and messy death as soon as you start learning about the industry.

You think the work ends after you’ve written the book, suffered through revision after endless revision and are ready to send it off?

Nope. Then you start the work of finding an agent*, which requires a lot of research. The information about agents and the querying process takes a not insignificant amount of time and effort. You’re (understandably) expected to do your research to learn not just the industry, but the vagaries of the particular part of the industry you’re hoping to be published in (especially true in genre writing). But finally, you’ve compiled a nice list of potential agents. The rest is pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Nope. Once you find agents (and verified that they represent the type of book you’ve written), you then need to find out whether they’re accepting unsolicited submissions and whether they’re currently accepting submissions. Then you need to make very careful note of each agent’s submission guidelines, because they’re all different and making a mistake can mean the difference between getting your query read and getting it summarily binned. Some want query letters only, some request queries with the first five pages of your story, some the first chapter, some the first fifty pages. Some request a synopsis, which itself can vary in length and style. You submit to agent after agent, carefully following each individual submission guideline, hoping to find one to accept you. And miracle of miracles, an agent offers to represent you! They work with you on yet more revisions, and then they start shopping you around. Whew! It was a lot of work to get this far, but now you’ve got an agent so you can relax and focus on writing your next book, right?

Nope. They submit to publishers over and over and if you’re lucky, an editor agrees to take a chance on you. After having pitched it to their editorial session, of course, and hopefully not gotten shot down in the meeting. Then yet more revisions and drafts. *(Unless you’re submitting to a house that accepts unagented submissions, in which case you do that work while you’re trying to find an agent, but the steps are all the same.) You might spend months working on revisions, and in the meantime, getting lost in the shuffle of the publishing list for that year or the next. But hopefully at some point, you’re nearing the end of final edits and work begins on cover art, marketing plan, etc. You have no say in the cover art, book size/layout/type, and depending on the publishing house you’re contracted with, little to no say in marketing. If they’ve devoted any budget to marketing. Most books aren’t allotted any (again, depending on publishing house…smaller houses give more marketing push because they can’t afford to have as many “flops”, but that also means they can offer less and can take less). But at least now you’re done, right?

Nope, just getting started. You’re expected to self-market, and cross-market, and any other kind of marketing you can do to promote your book. You may be the only one doing marketing for your book (see above). You should have a blog and a website now — and really, should’ve had one when you were shopping agents — but you’ll want to be careful, because you can’t step on the toes of your publisher’s marketing. Which you may not be told what they’re doing. It’s hard to get anyone on the phone, and the marketing people don’t take authors’ calls. And any marketing you do is on your own dime, including attending conventions and symposiums. Which you’re encouraged to do, to increase your chances of success. (Of course, if you’re shy and introverted — most writers are — this can present something of a problem.) But surely, by this point, with all your hard work, you’re done, right? You’ve at least made some money, right?

Nope aaaaand nope. You’re expected to keep producing, because most publishing houses aren’t going to invest in a one-shot deal. So you should have something already going by the time they accept that first work, and somewhere in the midst of all that other work up there — and your day job, more on that in a minute — you’re supposed to be writing, writing writing. You need to be able to demonstrate that you’re a producer.

Yeah, and don’t quit your day job. Even a moderately successful book won’t pay enough to cover your bills and of course you still need insurance. And obviously to actually do your day job, you have to, you know, be there. So any writing-related activities have to be done in your spare time, just as the first book you wrote was, except then you were only writing a book, not writing a book and promoting another one. So, you know.

Pretty sobering post here about what you can realistically expect to make on a book. He comes up with a figure of about $13,000 paid out over 8 years, if all goes well, and that seems to match everything I’ve read on this subject. I was already prepared for that number, so it didn’t depress me as much as the timeline did. Eight years. I’ve been reading lots of author, editor, and agent blogs, so I’ve seen timelines of a couple of years, too. But ballpark, I’d say 4 to 5 years is probably normative.

The reality is that if I’m ever able to quit my job to write full-time, it’ll only be because we’ve pared down our expenses to an absolutely minimum and The Prince makes enough to support both of us. Despite grandiose ideas of bestsellers and movie rights, I will probably never make enough money on my writing to live on it.

I say this not out of depression or discouragement, but just to say this is what it is. If I’m ever lucky enough to be published, that in itself is going to be the big accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not going to go beyond that. In all likelihood, any subsequent books I write won’t be published. I’ll still write them, and I’ll still share them. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m shooting for my one chance and if nothing else comes of it, at least I did it once.

[I originally wrote and shared this post in a different forum a few years ago. The Neil Gaiman quote got me thinking about it again, so I thought I’d share it here. It has been slightly edited from the original.]


Don't quit your day job

Life intruded, and has meant a longer spell away from updates than intended. It’s meant a backlog of interesting articles I’ve wanted to link, and snippety writing sorts of things to post, and blogging on My Thoughts On Matters Of Writerly Import.

“Life”, in this case, being largely my day job. It’s a good job, but a demanding one, and leaves precious little time for everything else I might want or need to do. And writing, like other artistic careers, means it’s likely to be your second job*, which means it takes a backseat to the demands of your primary job. Hence the dearth of posting….

All writers struggle with that balance, of course. Encouragingly, even many of the greats still had day jobs that kept the power on and food on the table. From the aforementioned backlog:

Vonnegut Sold Saabs: 11 Author Day Jobs

(One thing about being a writer: even your day job can be rich fodder for a story, often in surprising ways. Even though I write epic fantasy, my own jobs have provided plenty. Frequently in the form of despicable characters that can be killed off in satisfyingly gruesome ways. Kidding! I kid. No, seriously.)


*Not just for financial reasons — many writers who earn enough to live off of keep their day jobs so they’ll have insurance, especially if they have children. But you know, universal health care = socialism ooga booga, and so we’ll continue with the worst-of-all-worlds system we currently have.

Never mind that we live in a society that prizes wealth and the making of it so highly that even those who are obscenely wealthy through no skill or talent of their own other than simply their accident of birth are lauded and emulated instead of derided as the shiftless layabouts they are. Meanwhile, teachers pay for school supplies with their own money while working in schools that are crumbling down around them, libraries are considered an unnecessary luxury, and the schmoes who actually do the vast majority of the work in society are asked to work ever harder lest they lose what little security they have.

So I guess it shouldn’t surprise me in the least that artistic expression — that spark of divinity, of immortality, of the potential to transcend into something far more than this mass of cells and fluids and atoms and electric impulses — is something we’re told should be a hobby, at best. It’s not practical, produces nothing of use, contributes nothing of real value.

In my imaginary world, schools are castles, teaching is one of the most prestigous careers you can aspire to, libraries are considered as fundamental to modern society as electricity, and artists don’t have to choose between their need to create and their need to eat.

Thus concludes my Unsolicited Rant For The Day.


Making a literary life

my writing tools: laptop, headphones (off frame), inspirational space, awesome new Night Owl mug from my husband full to the brim with expensive hot chocolate, and my story journal with notes for Books 1 & 2Writing is a mostly solitary pursuit. It suits me well in that way, but there’s a part of me that craves interaction with other writers, a writer’s circle, people who know and understand what it’s like to wrestle with plot and character, to beat your head against the wall during revision after revision, to lose yourself in the high of a writing groove and know how precious those times are. It’s an aspect of literary life I want for my own.

Tonight was the first step in that direction. For a birthday gift this year, my husband bought me a spot in Prompt, the 10 week writers’ workshop hosted by Write Around Portland. I’ve never participated in a writers’ workshop before so I didn’t know what to expect.

A corner room high up in Powell’s, reached through a secret door up two extra staircases no one but employees ever see. Two walls of tall mullioned windows with an invigorating view of the city. An oval table with mismatched chairs. Twelve strangers, a notebook, a pen. Terrifying. Exciting. Full of possibility.

a new journal bought just for this purpose, with the expensive pen that was a gift from my thoughtful brother-in-law and sister-in-law a few years agoWe didn’t go around the table and introduce ourselves or talk about why we were there or what we do for a living or what kind of books we read. Our facilitator, Robyn, introduced herself and talked a little about philosophy behind the workshop. On a large sheet of paper taped to one of those tall windows, she wrote the rules we decided on as a group: “Listen.” “Give constructive feedback.” “Turn off cell phones.” “Read your words with the conviction that you have a right to write.” “What’s read here, stays here.” A few more.

We did four exercises tonight. We introduced ourselves through our writing in ways that going around the table and giving superficial answers to icebreaker questions can never do. We were entertained and amused and moved and intrigued and blown away. It will be a couple more weeks before we know each other’s names without asking.

We started forming a writer’s circle.


The myth of balance

I have to agree with Kameron Hurley about the realities of finding balance as a writer:

“I spend my time like a person who knows there isn’t a whole lot of it, I suppose. I enjoy what I can, when I can, and carve out pieces for one to give to the other when necessary. Maybe there’s some cosmic overall life balance to be had, but if that’s so, it’s something only other people will be able to see when they look at the long, crazy arc of my life, long after I’m all gone to dust.”

True not just for writers, really. Anyone who spends their days juggling multiple responsibilities — most of us, I suspect — knows it’s a delicate act that depends on a combination of sacrifice, timing, organization, and no little amount of luck. It’s so delicate, in fact, that there are days when the slightest disruption can send the whole chaotic affair crashing down on our heads.

In a typical day, I spend 10 to 14 hours at my day job, which almost always includes at least a meeting or teleconference (often two, three, four, or more), receiving at least several dozen emails and replying to all but a few of them, overseeing two departments, and meeting at least two daily deadlines. None of that includes my actual work, that’s just the typical topography of my day. I fit what work I can in the valleys between the mountains and hills of that topography. I eat my lunch at my desk most of the time and my two work-from-home days are reserved for focusing on as much work as I can get done without the interruptions of being in the office. Although it doesn’t always work out that way; there are often teleconferences on those days, as well, and the email barrage can sometimes be as bad or worse. I’m fortunate to enjoy a great deal of flexibility and autonomy in my job, but its demands nonetheless make it a pretty rigid aspect of my life.

I get home between 6:30 and 9:00 unless I have an outside commitment or obligation thatcuts my day shorter. Dinner is generally dependent on how late I get home. If I can manage to get home by 7:30 or earlier, I will make some attempt at making a meal that requires some form of cooking. The later it gets, the simpler my meal plans become: a single pan entree, something I made ahead and stocked in the freezer, a sandwich, leftovers, cheese and crackers and veggies…toast. I feed the cats, eat, and put together my lunch for the next day. Since I also post on my website about my lunches, I write up the post about it during this time so that all I’ll have to do the next day is snap a pic of my lunch, insert it in the post, and publish it to the site.

After that, I try to do at least some nominal housekeeping chore. Dishes, usually, since not having a dishwasher means they pile up quickly. Some (most?) days, nothing gets done and we just have to live with a messy house until the weekend. Other days, the tottering piles of dishes are a safety hazard and must be bumped up the priority list. The housekeeping is dependent on how late it is, how tired I am, how behind it is, and how motivated I am to be doing something else. Which I generally am.

Then it’s writing time, which includes not just the actual act of writing, but revisions, noting story ideas, story research, industry research, etc. If I’m not in the mood and feel like pushing myself is going to be detrimental instead of helpful, I try to spend at least some time doing something creative or otherwise creatively rejuvenating — working in my art journal, reading for pleasure, or watching a favorite show or movie while I catch up online.

How long I do that is somewhat dependent on when the Prince is headed home. He gets home anywhere between 9 PM and 1 AM, depending on what subject his class is covering that day and whether or not he rode his bike to work. I stop what I’m doing to spend time with him and give the poor kitties some undivided attention.

Somewhere in there, I try to catch up on my various social accounts — LJ, twitter, Tumblr, DreamWidth — some number of the ridiculous number of blogs I follow, comments, and email replies. (This part of my day is important for two reasons: 1) to keep up with people I care about, as much as I can; and 2) as part of the increasing requirement that writers who wish to be published must have an established online presence in all these forms and others.) This is also the time when I try to post to any of those sites or this one if I have something to post about. These things may be bumped up the priority list if I’ve neglected them for a few days or they may take a backseat when I just can’t fit everything in and need to drop something from my task list.

This is also when I get ready for the next day to minimize how much time it takes to get ready in the morning (and thus, allowing me to sleep later): laying out my clothes, taking a bath (since we don’t have a shower), packing my work bag, preparing lists for any errands I need to run during lunch or on the way home. And Eru bless the miracle of online shopping, automatic bill pays, and grocery delivery because this is the only time of our day that we can fit any of these tasks in.

Oh, and if I need to do any work for my website clients (about four to seven evenings every month), then pretty much everything except the basic functions are put on hold until that’s done.

The Prince works a similarly long day (or longer!) on a schedule shifted from mine, which means that we only see each other for a few hours (at most) in the evening, and very briefly in the morning before I leave for work. I stay up late so we can maximize our time together on weekdays, which means going to bed between 1:30 AM and 2 AM and getting up at 7 AM. If I’ve really hit a writing groove, the Prince goes to bed without me and I stay up until I can’t keep my eyes open so I don’t waste that opportunity to make progress on the story.

Most people are doing a similar juggling act, whether it’s trying to incorporate a similar artistic pursuit into their daily life or something equally demanding like raising kids or starting a new business. Sometimes, we benefit from the help and support of people who love us*, but one way or another, we find a way to fit in the things that are most important. That includes being willing to redefine “most important” every day, and living with the fact it will only rarely all be in balance. Rarely, if ever.


*I am incredibly fortunate in this department. The Prince does as much or more than I do to keep the household functioning and still manages to fit in the occasional thoughtful things that can make all the difference on a challenging day. Like the morning I’m running late for work, remember just as I’m starting the car that the needle was well past ‘E’ when I coasted to a stop the night before, and realize that he somehow found time to fill the gas tank. I have no interest in diamonds — things like this are a billion times more priceless.


Random Friday

I have links! Of writerly sorts of topics!

  • April Henry posted earlier this week about a really fun and fascinating project called The Novel Live! in which 36 NW authors take turns writing an entire novel in six days, a kind of marathon-relay-writing adventure. It’s wrapping up tomorrow, but you can still catch the live stream of the project in action. Like, actually watch the writer in action AND simultaneously see the words s/he is writing appear on the screen AND chat with the writer to offer suggestions, comments, etc. (LIVING IN THE FUTURE OMG STILL THE BESTEST). This has to be one of the cleverest things I’ve seen in awhile, and it’s a fundraiser for a good cause, as well.
  • How Can One Afford To Be A Writer? (Spoiler: You can’t. Do it anyway.)
  • Okay, this one isn’t really writerly, but I just love it so much I’m posting it everywhere like a crazy person. The God of Cake, from one of my favorite blogs, Hyperbole and a Half. Just…go, click and read it. I promise, you will love me for making you.

How an author reads Amazon.com reviews

Hee! Can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure (pain?) of reading reader reviews of my own work on Amazon, but I can completely sympathize with the agony of it, the constant refreshing and the internal struggle not to hunker over the keyboard all “SOMEONE IS BEING WRONG ON THE INTERNET” and type out a crazed reply to that horrible unfair review from someone who clearly didn’t understand your genius and whose very literacy is questionable.

Not that I’d do that. I’m way more mature.

But I still lol’d at this:


Another step in the right direction

Progress! My Writerly Pursuits week is underway, and I actually am making some sort of progress on writing-related tasks.

On my agenda for this week, as previously mentioned, are tackling my query letter and synopsis. The former is a single page introduction letter to a potential agent, in which a writer has one or two paragraphs (three at the very most!) to distill the essence of the story and convince the agent to read further (i.e., either the attached synopsis, if they take them in submission, or to request a synopsis or a partial or full manuscript). The query letter is much like the blurb on the back cover a book meant to excite a potential reader into wanting to read the book itself.

It is very intimidating.

So I decided today to help myself get into the groove by instead tackling the synopsis. My idea here is that immersing myself in the story and getting into the mode of distilling it down for a synopsis will help me drill down on the way to sell the story in an even shorter format. Familiarity with the material and alla that. (I mean, obviously I’m familiar with the material since I wrote it, and have read and reread it approximately fifty gajillion times, but you know how it is when you get on a roll working on something, and you you hit that sweet spot of everything just flowing right along…that’s what I’m after.)

The synopsis is, depending on where you look and who you trust, anywhere from a 1 page to a 25 page summary of the main story and characters, including main plot twists and the ending. Kind of a big range, there. (There’s all kinds of contradictory information out there as to how long it should be, in the absence of an express definition in a submission guideline. And submission guidelines vary widely from agent to agent. So.) I’m going to go ahead and write mine up and then edit it down, with a goal of hitting somewhere between 5 and 7 pages. For almost 500 pages of manuscript, that ought to be quite a trick….

But work has begun, and I’m already onto page 3 and feeling quite chuffed with myself. So, as I say, progress is being had. In the course of working today, I wanted to look up a couple of things I remembered saving about synopsis tips in my handy bookmarked “Writing Stuff” folder. Over the last couple of years, I’ve accumulated quite a collection of links on all facets of publishing and writing and whatnot. And I’m pathologically organizational by nature, but as I’ve accumulated more and more links, the initial structure I’d set up and later modified has gotten less and less manageable for all of those links. Finding those tips I wanted took far longer than it should’ve, and I thought to myself, as I have many times in the last few months, that I really need to go through and reorganize the folders I’d set up for them to better reflect the way I’m using that folder now. A bit of a project that I just haven’t had time for, even as I keep adding links and terrific information gets buried under the sheer multitude of what I’ve accumulated. And then I thought “AHA!” Because, after all, that is exactly what this week is all about — taking the time I need to focus strictly on doing things for my writerly pursuits. (No I’m not avoiding that scary query letter. Am not. Am not. Shut up.)

Two hours later, and my pathologically organized self is quite content with my newly restructured “Writing Stuff” folder, with renamed folders and rearranged subfolders and newly-added folders and subfolders and all the inevitable dead links weeded out. Oh, it’s enough to make my little OCD heart to go pitter pat.

Since I know that there are those among you who share either my writing passion or my OCD tendencies (or both!), I thought I’d share the end result. (Note that there are some duplications here, which were intentional, and that this doesn’t constitute everything in my writing universe; there are many blogs/sites that I follow with Bloglines or whatever, and so don’t need to keep bookmarked. And some that I do follow with those other methods that I also have bookmarked, because that’s just how I roll.)

Behold, for I am awesome!*  


*And for those of you asking yourselves, “Um…why didn’t she just share these via delicious/Google Bookmarks/etc.? Does she not realize this is soooooo Web 1.0**??” Well, boys and girls, doing so would require more than just a simple upload, would in fact require some sort of organizing or cleaning or whatever before and/or after doing so in order to make some sense of the wealth of information contained therein, and as I am currently doing my best to stay on task***, I am indeed opting for a less elegant, more brute force method.

**Also, when did Firefox start adding hidden gobbledygook code to their export bookmarks file? Because holy extraneous code, Batman!

***We will ignore the amount of time I already wasted doing both of those things before giving up realizing that it was going to take way more time than I wanted to spend. In other news, tagging is a great organizational method, but there is still something to be said for the tree system of organizing information. I AM LOOKING AT YOU DELICIOUS.


Amazon vs. Macmillan

Since I made this decision to pursue publishing a couple of years ago in the midst of writing my book, I’ve been adding all kinds of industry blogs to my daily reading to learn all I can about every aspect — I read blogs and journals by authors, agents, editors, writers’ guilds, and power readers. I follow publisher and writers’ guild sites. I try to stay up on the latest trends and controversies in the publishing world. I spend almost as much time reading about the industry as I do writing. Oftentimes more.

*Power readers is my term for readers who have popular blogs about books, and thus have Important Thoughts Worth Knowing, as an author understanding the reading public. My two favorite sites for this purpose are Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author, both of which focus on romance. Not a genre I’m interested in, but their astute observations and insight have been invaluable in helping me understand my ultimate audience: the reader. (And I’ve certainly gained a better understanding of — and respect for — the romance genre as an unanticipated side benefit.)

Some of the biggest topics in the last couple of years: the GLBT Amazonfail, RaceFail ‘09, the Google Book Settlement, the dying publishing model, the Hanchette affair, the Harlequin vanity press, CoverFail, copyright evolution vs. Creative Commons, and the George Orwell Kindle deletion. But hands down the biggest conversation happening in the industry involves ebooks. I’ve read more about ebooks and the various related topics than I have about any other aspect of the industry. What ebook pricing should be, whether or not DRM should be used, book piracy, the changing publisher model, the pros and cons of every ereading device on the market, the pros and cons of striking out as an independent author online and/or offering your books for free. Ebooks have been a part of every one of the controversies in that list above, and there’s not a single person involved in the industry who doesn’t have an opinion on it, or a stake in the outcome.

Well yesterday, the bomb dropped.

In response to a dispute with Macmillan — whose imprints include Tor Books, St. Martin’s Press, and many others, including many international imprints — about the pricing model for ebooks, Amazon has pulled the “Buy it Now” link from every Macmillan-related book on its site. Not just the link for ebooks, but for print books as well. That means that you currently cannot purchase a book like Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, one of the most popular epic fantasy books ever, in any form from Amazon. (You can still purchase from second-hand sellers via their site.)

[Macmillan’s statement here. Amazon’s statement here.]

Needless to say, the internet has exploded in the past day and a half. I’ve spent the better part of last night and this morning reading up on it. Two of the best explanations I’ve read about what’s going on here are from Jane of Dear Author and Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing. (Others worth reading on this subject: John Scalzi, Charlie Stross, and especially Tobias Buckell, who takes the time to explain where the costs of publishing come from and how that impacts ebook pricing.)

There is no “right” party in this current dispute, just a less wrong one, and which one that is depends on a couple of factors and how important they are to the particular person discussing it. But Jane and Cory both make the point — and I think pretty much all of us on the sidelines agree — that the victims here are the authors and the readers. And though most of you aren’t authors, I know most of you are avid readers, which is why I’m taking the time to bring this whole thing to your attention even though others have analyzed it far better and far longer than I’ll be able to do here, in a single post.

You would think that it goes without saying that the publishers’ customer is you, the reader. But it’s important to understand that in actuality, you the reader are entirely irrelevant to publishers. This is probably the hardest thing to understand, and something that I don’t think even the publishers quite realize. But once you accept that fact, then the rest makes a lot more sense, inasfar as it makes sense to understand why this fucked up industry is so fucked up.

So if you aren’t the publishers’ customer, who is?

Wholesalers and retailers. There are lots of reasons why this is so, and there’s a whole historical setup for how this came about that I could bore you with but won’t. (And you obviously don’t have to take my word for it, there’s plenty of reading out there for you. I just won’t spending time proving that point here, since that’s not really the reason for this post.) The point is, the fact that you purchase the publishers’ product is largely irrelevant. I mean, that’s not quite accurate, since what you purchase drives the sales of those retailers and wholesalers, and thus you do have an impact on the publishers in an indirect and ultimate way. But unlike most other free market enterprises, where the consumer’s choices and preferences and demands have an immediate impact on the manufacturer/supplier, the demand in the publishing world doesn’t come from the consumer, it comes from, in effect, the reseller.

In the past, that’s been the big and small bookstores. Amazon is a slightly different animal, since it acts as both wholesaler and retailer, which is why they can offer such big discounts to you, their customers. They purchase directly from the manufacturer/supplier (publishers), getting the wholesale price, and sell directly to you, passing along some of the savings. (Warehousing price clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, and Price Club, and large retailers like Walmart do something similar.)

Another thing worth understanding is the practice of returns. This is, as far as I can tell, a practice entirely unique to the publishing industry, and it is, in my opinion, one of the main culprits for the industry’s decline. Again, I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of returns per se, but to simplify it for our purposes here: when a bookseller purchases an order of books, they have a guarantee that any books left unsold after a certain period can be returned to the publisher for a refund of that portion of what they outlaid on the initial order. This is why, if you’ve ever worked in a bookstore, part of your job is to tear off the covers and throw away the now coverless book. The covers are sent back as proof that the book didn’t sell, and the bookseller gets a refund for it. This is also why it’s illegal to sell or even give away those books. Yes, I know, it’s a goddamn shameful waste, I’m just saying, that’s why. No other industry does this, and it’s completely cracktastic. Welcome to the world of publishing.

(Oh, and just to add an extra degree of wtf: those returns are also counted against an author’s ultimate sales. There’s an entire art of negotiations devoted to whether or not to take an advance and how much it should be, for this reason. While an author doesn’t have to pay the publisher back for those copies that didn’t sell, they are counted against the author’s “earn out” balance. Which means that if, after all the pluses and minuses are added up, the author failed to make back the amount expended on their book and their advance, then they “failed to earn out”. Not earning out is discouragingly common, and depending on the size of the advance and marketing campaign invested, can have a severely negative impact on whether or not the publisher will contract for a future book from that author. It’s complicated.)

Note, however, that Amazon doesn’t participate in the returns system. Their entire business model is centered around warehousing, so there’s no problem for them to store books indefinitely (as there is with others, which is why the returns system started in the first place) because the chances are very, very good that eventually, they’ll sell those books no matter how old they are. (Hello, wonders of the internet.) This sets Amazon on entirely different terms with publishers, because from Amazon’s perspective, it’s a straight across transaction of the sale of widgets. Books are largely the same no matter what, as far as Amazon is concerned, whereas from everyone else’s perspective (publisher, author, and reader), books are decidely not the same. As Jane of Dear Author points out:

Of course, books are a unique product in that each book is its own tiny monopoly. No one else can produce and publish a Stephen King book. There are other mystery books and other horror books but there is no other Stephen King.

Which isn’t to say that books can’t generally be treated the same from a business perspective in a broad sense — indeed, they have been for decades — but merely to point out that there’s good reason from the publishers’ side of treating books somewhat differently, i.e., to have some flexibilty in pricing. It does not, mind you, justify the truly insane* pricing models that some/most engage in for ebooks (which I’ll get to in a second), but there’s a perfectly sound and legitimate reason to have a pricing scale that slides downward over time. (Hence the higher price paid when a book first comes out, regardless of whether it comes out as a trade paperback or hardcover, then a reduction in pricing, then the release of the mass market paperback at a lower price still, then a reduction in pricing again as more time has passed. This practice is called “windowing”.) And this is, in a very simplistic summary, what Macmillen was proposing to Amazon with ebook pricing that caused Amazon to flip their proverbial shit.

*[Publishers’ cracktastical idea that ebooks should cost the same as, or only slightly less than (or in some cases more than!), print books is truly crazy and illogical. After the intial cost of getting the book published (pay the author, editors, artists, layout designers, copyeditors, marketers) and processed into the fifty gajillion formats you want to make available to your reader (because you are a smart publisher and recognize that you should make it as easy as possible for your readers to buy what you’re selling), you have no other costs.  (caveat: website, bandwidth, yada yada) Which isn’t to say it means ebooks only cost pennies, especially when you can only count on selling a few thousand copies AT MOST for the vast, vast majority of books. But ebooks are inherently more profitable if/when they achieve parity with print books, simply because there is no incremental cost associated with them.]

From Amazon’s perspective, a single price for ebooks (the widgets in question) makes a lot of sense. So much sense that they’re currently selling most ebooks at a loss — they’re a big enough company that they can absorb it — in order to drive sales to their site by selling for less than everyone else. But the key here to understand is why. There’s only one good reason to take a loss on a product you sell, and it’s to move some other product that makes you money and/or to increase other or future sales. This is the infamous “loss leader”, a practice used to spectacularly devastating effect by Walmart.

Well, it’s no mystery what product their ebook loss leader is meant to sell more of: the Kindle, of course. They won’t release numbers, but the general consensus seems to be that they’ve sold a few million Kindles since they came out, which means that Amazon dominates the ereader market already and they’re well-positioned to expand that advantage as more people convert to ereading. More than that, though, they set the terms, since the Kindle has a proprietary platform, DRM restrictions, and an unfair licensing setup. You don’t own the ebooks you buy for the Kindle (to the surprise of several Kindle owners not too long ago when their purchased copies of 1984 vanished from their devices overnight), nor can you move them to other devices to read if you decide to switch to a different device (iPad, anyone?). You can’t sell your copy of a Kindle ebook to a used book store, or share it with a friend, or donate it to the local library.

Note that these problems are not unique to the Kindle, and aren’t only driven by Amazon. DRM in particular is a problem largely created and perpetuated by the publishers, since they can’t seem to understand that their fear of piracy that’s driving them to embrace draconian technology like DRM does nothing to actually prevent or stop piracy. In fact, the only real effect DRM has is to harm their consumers, the reader, since it punishes the reader for buying a legitimate copy, assumes that they’ll do something criminal with it, and throws up unnecessary obstacles for the reader to buy the publisher’s product. (And the actual, you know, pirates wouldn’t have legitimately bought the book anyway.) But remember what I said before that the publisher’s customer isn’t you, the reader. So I won’t get into all the whys and wherefores that DRM is not only evil and unfair, it’s a stupid business practice. At least, not today.

ANYWAY, from Amazon’s POV, having prices dictated to them by the publisher is decidedly Not Cool. And from a free market POV, it usually isn’t, either. But as with anything you learn in Econ101, assuming the simplicity of a free market is a fool’s errand because the free market always assumes rational actors operating in a purely free market, and that’s never the case. (You can always tell a person whose understanding of economics is built on what they learned in Econ101, because they’re generally the ones who believe the free market solves all ills. The first thing you learn in the second year of Econ is that everything you learned in the first year was false.) Charlie, Jane, and Cory already laid out better analysis of the pricing aspect of the dispute than I could, so read them instead.

In the time it’s taken me to write all of this, Amazon has now caved to Macmillan, pretty much exactly when and how John Scalzi (and others) predicted they would. And in the time you’ve been reading this, you probably forgot what I was originally writing about in the first place, huh? ;)

My point — and I do have one — is that the implications of this throwdown are undoubtedly going to have some serious repercussions for publishing in the not-too-distant future. Even if you don’t read books electronically and don’t ever plan to, how ebooks are handled in the coming years are going to determine the viability of most of the large publishers (and thus, the majority of authors, at least in the short term). Done well and fairly, consumers become the focus of book selling (as they should be) and they have access to a HUGE list of ebooks at a reasonable price with no restrictions on what device they can use or what format it’s in. Publishers are decoupled from the returns system and the dinosaur business model that’s been dragging them down for years, break away from their addiction to blockbusters and subsidized publishing, and maintain a healthy business structure with a rational profit expectation. Sellers (including Amazon), are able to set their prices as they wish without dictating prices up the chain to publishers, expand their share of the ereader market, and continue to make record profits. And of course authors have a new potential revenue stream that enables them to do what they do for a living, expand their audience, try different approaches to their career, and build their success.

As I said, done right, all of those things are possible. But then, I’ve always been pathologically optimistic.

In the meantime, however, I think I’ll just keep buying my books from Powell’s, online or off, and hope to god that this stuff gets sorted out by the time I (hopefully) get published.


Writer's block, sort of

Still waiting for that kindling to catch fire. It’s not really writer’s block, but almost completely due a horrible stretch of months in which I’ve had absolutely no motivation to write. That it so completely foreign to me that it’s just as bad as the things I’ve been trying to deal with and process.

Writing is my outlet, it’s my refuge. Whether I’m writing on a current project or am inspired to start a new one, or even just writing in my journal, I honestly cannot remember a time since college that I wasn’t actively writing (college being a time when I had no time to eat, let alone anything else). I won’t say that I write every single day, because of course life happens. But writing — and this story that I hope to publish in particular — has been a part of my life every. single. day. Whether it’s working out plot or character issues while I’m driving (an excellent time to do brainstorming) or doing research or revising already-written chapters, or actually, you know, writing, I devote at least two hours every day to one or all of those tasks (what I collectively call writing). It’s not something I even have to make myself do, I just…do it. I can’t imagine not doing it.

Well now I can, of course. And not having that in my life as regularly and dependably as the rise and fall of the sun has only amplified the unsettling disconnectedness of this period I’ve been working my way through. I know I can’t force it, that for whatever reason, I have to go through this right now, in the way that it’s happening. But wow, do I feel like unequipped without that outlet as a copiing mechanism.

It’ll come back, I know. I don’t even have anxiety that it won’t, despite that brief panic mentioned int eh previous post. I think that knowledge is probably the only thing sustaining me through this strange period, otherwise…well, I hate to contemplate the alternative.

But in the meantime, I feel like the clock is ticking. The clock is one of my own making, of course, but it’s there. I have things I want to be doing, things I’d planned to be doing by now. I should be further along by now, should be querying at the very least, and have a nice solid start on the second book. I should have my synopsis finished, and…

…but I can’t continue that list or I really will freak out. Something, something is telling me to trust this feeling and let the rest come when it comes, to ignore that impatient tapping of the foot and the paranoid worry that all eyes are on me wondering, “when are you going to get moving on this already?”.

In good time, in good time. Trust in that.


The Inevitable Inaugural Post

And so anyway. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But it was always a dream-but-not-really sort of thing. Something I just did, not something I tried to make a go of. A writer, as in someone who writes decently enough, and hears from people — friends, family, coworkers — “you’re really good at this, you should be a writer”, and laughs at the sheer implausibility of such a thing. Not a Writer, as in someone who actually, you know, does it for a living. Or tries to.

It’s that “tries to” part that’s always been the thing. I’m not the starving artist type. Don’t have the constitution for it. As much as I’d love to call myself an artist, the sort who agonizes over every single word and sells their record collection to buy lovely handmade journals in which to write The Great American Novel, and maybe suffers from some terribly dramatic disease like turbuculosis, I am not that person. I’m far too bourgeois. I like the stability of a regular paycheck, the occassional weekend at the coast, and small luxuries like music and books and movies. Oh, and I like to eat. Not like a lot or anything, but you know, the standard three squares a day is kind of nice, and I’m used to it, and I’m just weak like that. Plus, I just really don’t go in for all that melodrama and suicidal tendency stuff. It’s too much work.

In other words: Sylvia Plath I am not.

Where were we? Oh right, writing versus Writing.

Well anyway, I was fairly content with my lowercase-writing way of doing things. I wrote short stories when the mood grabbed me, and silly little one-offs I call Snippets, the occassional email rant, blog/journal posts on all sorts of topics, and scribbled down story ideas in a journal I carried with me. I even started writing a book, a project that I’d been knocking around in my head for awhile. So it went, until about three years ago.

It was that damn book, you see. The thing simply would not die. Not even with a level of neglect that had it been a child or a dog, would’ve seen me carted off by the relevant authorities. I’ll talk more about this period, and the evolution of that story, in coming posts, but the point here is that the book forced itself to the forefront and demanded my full attention. And I finally just gave in.

Fast forward to earlier this year when, after two and a half years, I finally finished it. It was one of the single greatest things I’ve ever done. I’m still rather gobsmacked that I did it, to be honest. But what’s funny is that in the course of writing it, not only did I learn a whole lot about the story itself, and my own skills, but I realized something I didn’t know:

I really, really want to do this for a living.

Or try to. And I guess it took me fighting with this story every day like a deranged Mexican wrestler to overcome my aversion to the uncertainties of trying to build a writing career. To realize I wanted a writing career enough to fight for it, and make the sacrifices. I suppose that’s like anything else — we love most fiercely that which we have to fight the hardest for.

So the book’s done, and I’ve revised the hell out of it in the 8 months since, and I’m about to embark on the next phase: getting published. We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I figured I ought to plant my little flag in the virtual ground as a Writer. It’s highly likely that I won’t ever be published, and this space will never be viewed by more than my family and friends and the angry neighbor* down the street who thinks I stole his ugly-ass flamingoes. ::waves at angry neighbor:: And you know what? That’s okay. I’m willing to take the chance.

Because nobody ever became a Writer without taking the chance.

*(said neighbor may possibly be a figment of my imagination)