Write that novel or not, but treat readers right

So, this article over on Salon.com, prompted some thoughts: Better yet, DONT write that novel. The rant is a response to the annual write-a-thon, National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWrMo, as it’s known around the Interwebs, encourages writers and would-be writers to bang out a first draft in a month in an effort to just get it written.

I do take issue with Laura Miller’s tone in the Salon article. Let me paraphrase: “Hey, amateur writer, anything you produce during NaNoWrMo is going to be dreck, so why even bother?” Here’s why. Every person should feel free and encouraged to express themselves creatively in whatever medium works best for them, whether that’s writing, art, music, crocheting, cooking, ice sculpture, I don’t care what. It’s good for the soul, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re awful or not. Creative expression is something we all need to do more of, and I think it’s patronizing that Laura Miller feels like she has to tell NaNoWrMo participants not to bother their little heads with trying to write a novel.

But she doesn’t want to see that dreck foisted on the world, and I have to agree with that. Still, that’s why we have literary agents and publishers, isn’t it? They’re supposed to be our editorial gatekeepers. That’s why it’s so damn hard to get published. There’s a lot of competition, most of it is awful, and only the best of the best probably eke their way through. The flip side of that is that if you’re a choosy reader, you have a good chance of finding a more-than-decent novel to read on each trip to the bookstore.

Miller also makes an impassioned case for nurturing readers. As a reader myself, I’m on board. But I think the fault lies not with the legions of amateur writers out there, but with the publishers, who I think have gotten sloppy in recent years. It’s not that they’re publishing bad books; on the contrary, I’ve been reading a lot of great new books. But even hardbound literary fiction seems to be riddled with typos and other careless mistakes, which really distract a careful reader from the pleasure of reading. I don’t consider this the writer’s fault, although a writer who can’t grasp the basics of grammar and spelling probably shouldn’t make it far as a professional. Instead, I suspect that publishers are skimping on that lowly, often freelance, most definitely underpaid necessity: the copyeditor. And any publisher who can’t be bothered to pay someone a few bucks an hour to copyedit their books shouldn’t be in the business, in my opinion.

I’m not even going to get into the whole issue of e-books and gouging readers while not even letting them truly own the digital books they publish. I’ll only purchase an e-reader when there are no paper books left to read. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that any book I shell out my hard-earned money for be free of errors. These are professional editors, after all.

But amateur writers, please keep writing your hearts out. I wrote a novel once that’s completely unpublishable, but at least I wrote a novel. I get it. It’s about the feeling of accomplishing a goal, of creating something. It’s not about making Laura Miller read another bad book.

Better yet, don’t write that novel (Salon)
National Novel Writing Month

Thoughts on publishing & the digital age…

I have been following all of the conversations about the future of publishing, particularly with regard to e-books, going on over the past few months with interest. I thought I’d share some of the more interesting conversations I’ve found, as well as some of my still-nascent thoughts on the whole kerfuffle.

I have a bit of an inside view of publishing — 10 years out of date, but it’s not an industry that changes very quickly — and it’s not a positive one. I love books and writers, but publishing, as it exists today, seems like a necessary evil. It is too big, too cumbersome, too costly and too reluctant to change. Their business practices, which didn’t make any sense years ago, seem woefully out of date, wasteful and expensive today. The industry is ready for upstarts with new ideas to come in and turn things upside down.

When the world is changing around you, you either adapt or die. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know someone will come up with it. And that’s likely who we’ll be buying books from in the future.

Please to read more on this:

James Patterson Inc.

I don’t think I have read a James Patterson book since Kiss the Girls (which was a long time ago, but I remember thinking “meh”). Now that he floods front-of-store displays and bestseller lists, I actively avoid them. I don’t like the mass-produced book, designed for broadest appeal and, therefore, lowest common denominator. But even though I don’t read Patterson, this profile of him in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is a really interesting look into how he built his bestseller empire and how he churns out all those books.

The article makes the point that Patterson is a huge reason behind his publisher Little Brown‘s success. With less money to spend and more reliance on the known blockbuster, such as what Patterson produces, the big-name publishers will probably continue to expend less time and effort discovering and promoting new writers or “small” books, says the article. Well, then I say it’s a good niche for small and independent publishers to fill. With on-demand publishing and e-books now coming into their own as technologies, production costs should be going down, which should mean that small publishers can hope to turn a reasonable profit even from modestly selling books. Discriminating readers should do all we can to support these efforts.P.S. I found it amusing that Patterson expressed a not-insignificant jealousy of Stephen King in the profile. Perhaps it was because King is a consistent bestseller who has also been recognized by critics for transcending his genre and pushing its boundaries? Just sayin’.

Yet another reason why publishing is in trouble…

Ok, time for another rant. I was in the bookstore the other day–I won’t say which bookstore, only that I was buying a coffee, not a book–and I happened to notice something that precisely illustrates what I happen to think is one of the fundamental things wrong with big, conglomerate publishers. Which  is that they are so trendy and so droolingly insane to capitalize on any fad, that if any book is in the least bit popular, a week won’t have gone by before the bookstore is packed with shelf upon shelf of spin-offs and knock-offs.

The example I will use to prove my point is The Dangerous Book for Boys. I saw this pretty much everywhere last Christmastime, and I thought it was fairly cute. Not purchase-worthy, but cute and retro and eye-catching.

Well, it must have been pretty damn popular because this year there is a dangerous book for everything. The Dangerous Book for Girls, The Dangerous Book for Dogs, The Dangerous Book for Ferrets, The Dangerous Book for Grannies… you name it, there’s danger attached to it. And the boys themselves have now got a pocket dangerous book, a dangerous board game and a desk calendar (how is a desk calendar in any way dangerous?).

And that’s just in the same franchise. Then every publisher has to have their own line of similar books. There’s How to Be the Best at Everything (The Boys’ Book). 211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do. The American Boys’ Handy Book. The Pocket Guide to Mischief. And ad nauseum, all of them sporting similar funky retro-style covers. Even Scholastic has jumped on this bandwagon, with the horrendously gender-biased The Girls’ Book of Glamour and The Boys’ Book of Survival (which the blog Strollerderby excoriates).

Seriously, this is why I hate big-business publishing. If a book sells moderately well, it has to be franchised and series’ed until any modicum of originality or wit is stomped out of it. And all the other publishers have to have their own line of unreadable copycat titles cluttering the shelves. Then someone will turn it into a movie.

It’s no wonder publishers are having such a hard time. Those of us who love good writing turn our noses up at fads like these. And there just aren’t enough suckers out there to buy all of this crap.

By the way, when I was in my local independent bookstore, I didn’t see all of these knock-offs littering the shelves. Valuable shelf space was taken up by real books, which can be enjoyed by both boys and girls. Score another point for the independents.

Online slush pile…

Authonomy is a Harper-Collins site that has just recently opened to the public. Apparently, it gives unpublished authors a place to share their work and allows readers to promote their favorite writers, perhaps all the way to a book deal. I haven’t played around with it yet, so I’m not sure how exactly it works, but this seems like a new way for publishers to tap online communities to find new talent. According to the site, they are looking to uncover writing talents and editorial/critical talent. (via Boing Boing)

My year spent trying to come up with a book idea to make me some money…

I have to rant about something now. I’m really sick of all of these “I spent a year of my life doing something crazy or out of the mainstream or stupid and now here’s my book about it.” This seems like the latest trend in publishing to give pseudo-writers something to sell and foist more dumb books on an unsuspecting readership.

I will admit to having read a couple of these. I read Julie and Julia, in which the author spent a year of cooking recipes from Julia Child‘s Mastering French Cooking, and found it entertaining but frivolous. I also read Judith Levine‘s Not Buying It, in which she spends a year not buying anything that isn’t “necessary” and found it a waste of money. I would like to read Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food Life, but then, she is a “real” writer.

Here is a small sampling of other “year” books from Amazon:

I think Nickel and Dimed started it all, which I haven’t read but was probably an important book. But come on, haven’t we had enough? This morning, I read in the paper about someone posting fake ads on Craigslist in order to get material for a book about a year spent posting fake ads on Craigslist. Is that really what we want to spend our time reading about?

Once again, I feel like the publishing industry thinks we’re stupid and will buy just about any trendy crap they shovel out. But I don’t think these books are really aimed at discriminating readers. Rather, they’re marketed toward those people who only read one book a year or only buy one book a year, or some such depressing statistic.

Meanwhile, it gets even harder to find the good writing buried under all the schlock. And I imagine it gets harder for the good writers to get something truly innovative published. As an aspiring writer, I take one look at the whole world of publishing — which I once was a part of and grew rapidly disillusioned with — and wonder why I should even bother.

We have to figure out a way out from under the gigantic publishers and the chain bookstores, and get back to writing, publishing and reading meaningful books. Why does everything in our culture have to be about making as much money as quickly as possible?