Monday, February 05, 2007

Tuesday thoughts

A new model for writing

The following thought came to me shortly after reading the latest about the Judith Regan uproar (see below) and after reading the New Directions newsletter, giving information about poetry events in New York.

Suppose, I thought -- just suppose -- that there is someone out there who has taken a look at the modern publishing scene, and has fully acquainted herself with it. In all its hideous glory. And suppose, very sensibly, that that person has quietly decided that, thank you very much, but modern publishing, from Judith Regan to poetry events in New York, is just not for her. Thank you very much, again.

And suppose this person just settles down and gets on with the work. It might be writing novels, or short stories, or poetry; or even plays.

Suppose this person sits back, abjures all contact with, and all reading about, what the rest of the literary (or commercial) world is up to; forgets about, or rather doesn't even trouble to find out, who is flavour of the month this time around; ignores the bestseller list; ignores the small magazines, print or online, which consciously form an armed resistance to the various establishments. And instead of all that, just does the work, according to her own lights.

And suppose, further, that this person makes her work available in any one of the numerous ways which are now just a click away, my own current favourite being Our retiring writer does not even bother to set up a Lulu storefront, let alone write press releases or send out review copies, or pay to get listed on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She just posts it up. And goes on posting it up, as and when she's finished the stuff. Year after year after year. Over a whole working lifetime.

I wonder what would happen?

My guess is that, sooner or later, someone would notice. And they would delve into it. And if the work was any good, in the view of that interested party -- and even if it wasn't any good -- they would write about it. And word would spread.

You know what? I think that would be as good a way of establishing a name for yourself as any I can currently think of -- because, 99 times out of 100, all that drum-banging is in any case just empty noise. But the irony is, I suspect, that this method would only work in the case of those who, genuinely and sincerely, really don't care about getting a name for themselves anyway, one way or the other.

Short reports

In the Guardian, Joel Rickett analyses the market share of the major UK publishers (link from The big four (Hachette, Random, Penguin, HarperCollins) are doing OK: the occasional big fat hit pays for the failures and leaves a profit. At the bottom, some of the smaller firms (e.g. Faber) are clubbing together and 'growing the market'. In the middle, firms such as Pan Macmillan and Bloomsbury are feeling the pinch.

Galleycat comments on a case where a writer ill-advisedly used real names in a fictional context. You'd think people would know by now, wouldn't you? Still, there's always someone learning these things for the first time. And however careful you are, there may still be trouble. Years ago, Tom Sharpe wrote about a fictional character working for the BBC, and he gave him a really bizarre name, thinking that no one could really be called that. But behold. Out of the bowels of the Beeb came a lowly employee, blinking in the daylight; he claimed damages and won. Moral: use common names, especially for sinners and criminals. For further discussion see my post of 1 August 2005.

Further to my note last week about Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York) acting as frontwoman for a novel written by Laura van Wormer, Madame Arcati (post of 5 Feb) draws any number of parallels between the life of the Duchess and that of van Wormer.

And while you're there, you might wish to read Madame's interview (3 Feb) with Kevin Spacey's brother, author of Spacey's Brother: Out of the Closet. And, if you're a Brit, you should look at Madame's utterly scandalous piece (2 Feb) about Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret. The story that Madame relates cannot possibly be true, of course, but it just goes to show. Something or other.

Anne Weale, of Bookworm on the Net, is not too impressed by my rule of thumb about short chapters equating to a readable book, and gives chapter and verse as to why not.

Dave Goodman has found a very, very clever piece of video which says a great deal, in a short time, about the digital age. Well worth a click.

A billionaire is claiming that novelist Clive Cussler lied to him about the total sales figures for his (Cussler's) books, thus dooming (allegedly) a movie to failure. This is quite the silliest court case that I've come across in a long time, even by Hollywood standards.

Which reminds me. In the good old days of the 1940s and 50s, there was a UK publisher (I think it was Walter Harrap) who used to decorate the covers of his books with banners saying '184,000 copies sold -- nineteenth reprint', and so forth. These figures were, of course, a total invention. However, in George Greenfield's memoirs he tells us that one author, noting these figures, demanded to be paid royalties accordingly. And Harrap, it is said, paid.

The Literary Saloon provided a link to a profile of Marina Lewycka in The Age. I don't remember seeing such an interview before; I get the impression that Marina is not about to volunteer for Celebrity Big Brother. There is much of interest here, including the welcome news that Marina has a second novel due out soon. Meanwhile, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has been translated into 29 languages.

The Times online has had a makeover, which means that it's hard to find stuff. However, I did manage to trace this longish piece about Tony Visconti, whose Tony Visconti: the Autobiography is just out. A must-read for anyone interested in 1960s pop music.

Also in the Times, a French professor explains how you don't actually need to have read any books to talk convincingly about them. The Prof, it seems, never managed to finish Ulysses.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your first idea about an unknown writer who does not care for making a name but just for writing. Surely art is supposed to be created for art's sake and not to support capitalism, inc? Without such people, the world would be a duller place. And a place with even more banal, pastel coloured "chick lit" novels. Let's hope lots of budding good writers read your post and get on with it :)

A Short History of Tractors was well-written and I'm very pleased to hear that the author is writing another book. I hope she doesn't suffer from "second novel syndrome" i.e. produce a 600 page unedited tome a la Donna Tartt.

Don said...

The first part about the writer is all valid. The best thing to write is the book that you want to write since chasing trends is a loser's game: By the time you've finished and it would go through the long publishing process, the trend has probably moved on. Which, incidentally, is why your trend-chasing book won't even get so far as the publishing process: Few agents and publishers will take on a me-too book (the majority of the me-too books out there were things already in the pipeline when whatever they were copying hit it big).

But the belief that doing nothing to promote the work will result in it being found anyway is just wishful thinking.

I read a self-published work once, and I'm not going to again. The gatekeeping role that is played by agents and publishers is valuable. A book good enough to get noticed in the ocean of dreck that's the interent and self-publishing would have no problem finding an agent and a publisher.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

I struggle with how far I want to go in pursuing mainstream publication. For now, I'm putting things I want to share on a permission-only blog, just in case I ever want to jump back on the query-go-round.

I also have a fictional blog that is turning into a sort of picaresque novel in its own right. I don't have permissions, because it would need a lot of cutting and streamlining to make it suitable for querying, should I ever think it worthy of such a thing.

Fiction-blogging has been a lot of fun for me. Unlike regular writing, I can add pictures and get comments. In some ways, fictional blogs are like the serial novels of the nineteenth century. People used to love those, and they're how Dickens got his start. But how and whether to market a fiction blog is tricky.

I've read a lot of fiction blogs and found the quality varies widely from blog to blog. But the ones I like, well, if the writer went on to publish in a traditional format, I would buy whatever they wrote without hesitation. But I think anyone who is fiction-blogging is doing it because they enjoy the process. And yes, if you're doing it for the love, it might just come through in the writing and gain a following. And if not... well, that's not what it's about, is it?

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Don, I beg to differ with you in one respect. Publication is a highly subjective business. Agents only take on what they think a publisher thinks a bookseller thinks the public will want.

While there's a lot of crap writing that thankfully gets filtered out during the process, a lot of crap writing still makes it to the shelves because it's marketable and not because it's very well-written.

Likewise, some well-written manuscripts never find a home because they "aren't marketable."

The publishing biz is all about money. No matter how good your book is, if they don't think they'll turn a profit from it, they won't print it. So I disagree that a truly good book would in every case find a publisher.

Anonymous said...

Don, I'm jumping right onto the bandwagon of begging to differ with you.

Publishers filter out dreck and hence only good stuff gets published?

Two words: Plum. Sykes.

Anonymous said...

I feel I owe you about 1,000 thanks for 1,000 completely splendid recent links (give or take).

Fergie "co-writing" a rom. hist. nov? God, I could weep with glee. That woman never disappoints.

Kevin Spacey's extremely likeable brother has talent but needs a good editor very, very badly.

Lovely to know the 'Unkranian Tractors' author is as adorable as one would hope.

Yes, isn't new layout of The Times online the very devil?

Oh I could go on - just thanks!

Anonymous said...

Um, I think one need only peruse the best seller lists to debunk the suggestion that publishers screen out the "dreck." They make their fortunes on dreck.

I've read some excellent self-published works, fiction and non-fiction, including but not limited to His Grumpiness.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

There's no reason why quietly posting books on and publishing through a formal press can't proceed at the same time. At least that's what I'm doing.

At one time publishers were not only "gate-keepers" but also did edit and promote. Now that appears to be rare. Yet ordinary folk need the reassurance of a "real" publisher -- even an "academic" publisher. So my biography of Bob Scriver (a Western sculptor) is taking more than a year to wind its way through the University of Calgary Press. But while I wait, I'm putting books on Lulu about Blackfeet, pastoral care in hospitals, animal control, and so on. They are meant for defined audiences who can be contacted directly through guild publications, associations, and blogs. Those are people who number in the thousands but still cannot attract the attention of the remaining publishers in NYC. These small books are quick, dirty, vivid, and easily updated as things change. Very few "referees" or editors exist who are qualified to judge whether or not I got this stuff right.

When I was married to that cowboy sculptor, I took a formal art course. The prof said there were two ways to make a lot of money as an artist. First, follow every trend, get there early, do it more extravagantly than anyone else.

Second, follow your heart and passion, don't hide but don't make a big show, keep at it until it is the best and most unique and meaningful you can manage. The trouble is that the "big money" and rep might arrive after you die. But maybe not. That cowboy sculptor built his reputation one show, one customer, at a time.

But I am still impressed that much-respected university presses, like U of Nebraska Press, welcomes Print-on-Demand as a way of keeping in print some excellent classic books, esp. those in the Bison Books series.

And I'm delighted to be able to compose and offer something so specialized as a family history for my sixty cousins through In fact, in the process, I've found a whole new branch of the family.

One doesn't always have to be a tormented genius to enjoy writing. One doesn't always have to write novels. One DOES have to be clear, accurate, and worthy of the time of the reader.

Prairie Mary

ivan said...

Good post.
And somehow inspiring.

And I hope Don is right.
Maybe it's always been art for art's sake.


Anonymous said...

I so enjoyed your 'just suppose' post. Think, too, of all the time it would save that could be spent on writing and the rest of life. A provocative question I've posed to my favorite writing friends: if you were guaranteed no audience for your writing, would you continue? I know only one man who said Yes (and who I believed). His stuff is wonderful. In my sappy heart of hearts, I believe there would be something to ignite a reader in the work of anyone who writes because he or she just has to tell stories.

Sean Hannifin said...

"My guess is that, sooner or later, someone would notice. And they would delve into it. And if the work was any good, in the view of that interested party -- and even if it wasn't any good -- they would write about it. And word would spread."

Of course this could happen and it would really not be surprising, but I certainly believe it would be rare. If many writers lived by such a philosophy, I think most of them would live and die without being very well-known. But if that is never the writer's intention or desire anyway, who cares? What does it matter?

I don't think anybody creates art for art's sake. The fact of the matter is that the act of creation is pleasurable. It's very satisfying. Of course, so is making money, thus there is an abundant of art for money's sake. However, art for pleasure's sake seems a more accurate description of why some may not promote their work or seek financial gain than the circular reasoning inherent in the phrase "art for the sake of art."

And I am clueless as to why a famous film studio's slogan is "ars gratia artis" as they would most likely not exist if that were truly the case.

Lee said...

Check back with me in ten years or so, Michael. That's the length of a decent writing apprenticeship. Your model is exactly what I'm trying, the only difference being (1) no Lulu; (2) I let at least a few people know via email what I'm doing.

jill terry said...

Thank you, Grumpy Old Bookman, for your post on a new model for writing, which is a model I’ve personally adhered to since 2001. I learned early on that the only way I was going to achieve my personal goal and do what I love most, despite the odds, was to put on those blinders and keep plugging away!

The best bit of advice I’ve received and followed since delving into this cut-throat business…“Just do what you love to do, the rest of the world will catch up to you!”


Anonymous said...

A new model for writing

No, sorry, not convinced. With over a hundred thousand new books being published every year in the UK alone, I just don't think this model has anything going for it.

An analogy. Did you know that the Romans minted coins as small as 6.5 millimetres in diameter? Well, an archaeologist once told me that, surprising as it seemed, diggers never missed them. But how could he possibly know?

You see my point. He had invented a comfortable cliche -- because that's what it had become to him -- and, like all good cliches, it rendered thought unnecessary. No, sorry again, but there is absolutely no guarantee that valuable things will always be discovered in the end.

Don (above) would have us believe that agents and publishers alone ensure that good work always makes it. This, I'm afraid, is just another comfortable cliche. If it were true, Macmillan New Writing would not exist.

Or take a look at The Frontlist and YouWriteOn. Their best work, all of which, I would pretty well guarantee, has been rejected by the "real" publishers many many times, is brilliant.

An example from YouWriteOn. I have been in touch with Michael Alan (N.B. not the GOB, who is Michael Allen), author of The Lorelei Effect, and I know just how hard he tried to get the real publishers interested. It won't do to say, "Well, look, he's made it in the end," because the fact is that, without YouWriteOn, there is absolutely no reason to believe that he would ever have got anywhere.

Don, however, is not entirely wrong. If you look at the output of, say, Publish America or Lulu, (no moral equivalence here: Lulu is as admirable as PA is reprehensible) you will quickly learn -- if you didn't already know -- why the slush pile is so called. The great bulk of the work on offer is so poor that anyone remotely literate would reject it out of hand. The trouble is that so many books are now landing on publishers' slush piles that the baby is pretty well certain to be thrown out with the bathwater.

Yaeli (above) believes that "art is supposed to be created for art's sake". This, I'm afraid, is pious garbage. Houses are not supposed to be built for architecture's sake, nor flowers grown for horticulture's sake. Sam Johnson nailed it: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

The problem with writing to please yourself is easily identified: nobody wants other people's self-indulgence. The great thing about writing for money is that it forces authors to write for others. Of course, it leads to the publication of a lot of pretty awful stuff (in itself a value judgment which I'm not really entitled to present as fact, but what the hell) but if people will pay to read it, that's all the justification it needs.

If you think about it, there would be no way of testing the GOB's theory, would there? Which, I'm afraid, renders it pretty well meaningless. Might be true, might not. We can never know.

Those who believe that, however long and convoluted the process, good work always makes it, are really trapped inside their own circular argument: bad work is rejected, therefore rejected work is bad.

Of course, the moment that a book succeeds, its author is immediately co-opted into the ranks of the elect. He or she has made it in the end, and was always going to. The System works again! High fives all round.

No, it won't do. In conclusion, I adapt the words of Sir John Harrington: "Bad books do never prosper: what's the reason? / For if they prosper, none dare call them bad books."

Anonymous said...

Would anyone dare say Da Vinci Code is a good book ? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Isn't the point of all writing, except for some diaries and journals, to find an audience? Perhaps just a reader of one, but most writers I know want their work read.

And, to paraphrase a bad cliché, dreck is in the opinion of the reader. A lot of what others call 'good writing' appears to me to be self-conscious, self-serving, pretentious dreck.

Not all books have to measure up to just one set of criteria. Some books are meant to entertain, to just be fun to read. Others are meant to enlighten us, help us reframe, perhaps to see in new ways. To deny that books can serve more than one purpose is to deny diversity.

Publishers may be the evil ones, yet unless they are charities, they are hardly going to publish book after book that appeals to a readership of one. If outgo exceeds income, the publishers cease to exist.

Too many act as if the publishers should be paternalistic charities: here, this is what you should be reading, this is what you should like. This is good writing, dammit, read it!

Broccoli Lit. Who really wants that?

I like the widening of possibilities. Those books with smaller audiences can be put out there as ebooks. Those with wider appeal can be put out by trad publishers.

In between are small press publishers, regional publishers, specialty publishers, all putting out books for a specific readership. I get more choices. I get to choose what I want to read. I don't see a problem.

Jean Vengua said...

This "new model" is actually happening for some poets who publish their work online in blogs and/or online journals and anthologies, and who also self-publish. I think it's working for them because 1) poets (or experienced ones) already know that poetry makes NO MONEY (at least not in the U.S.) It's a given, so they stop worrying (more or less) about getting their fame and fortune from that end, and they got a job teaching, or in the corporate world, or doing landscaping or whatever. 2) They are mostly already writing because they just need to write poetry, because, yes, "creation is pleasurable" and their best hope is for a readership, if not a paycheck. 3) it costs less to publish poetry through than it does to write a book of fiction, because most poetry books are less than 100 pages. 4) for some people, being part of the community of poets/writers is very rewarding, and if they write regularly online (blog), and are responsive to other writer's works (i.e. they comment on books they've read, write reviews, discuss and argue about poetry), they soon find that: they are part of a vibrant writing and artistic online community, which may very easily be far-flung, geographically, and which may introduce them to new and interesting writers and influences; they have a readership which may be in part "friendly" and in part critical (I say this not in the negative sense, but in the positive sense of critical readers who won't b.s. them); they get published in online and print journals; they receive books and chapbooks in the (snail) mail; they send out books and chapbooks to people who actually read them; they (may or may not) end up editing anthologies; they (may or may not) get solicited for publication of their poetry based on work they have self-published, and which has been reviewed; they (may or may not) have their books adapted for some college creative writing classes; they (may or may not) end up getting teaching jobs based on books which don't get published in the mainstream press, but do get read by other writers/teachers.

True, there is a lot of self-published work that is crap,and it's almost impossible to sift through the thousands of books on or Amazon looking for the gems; you have to be actively participating in a community. And for poets, at least, there is a critical process that's happening online, and which often looks at self-published poetry, and poetry published online in blogs and journals. I've seen some poetry blogs that are truly works of art. The critical process takes place in numerous online discussion forums, in the comments sections of blogs, in online review journals, and in the review sections of online (and print) journals.

But of all these potential outcomes, in my experience, it's belonging to a supportive community that is yet capable of fostering critical thought along with a sense of growth, learning, friendship, communication and creativity that makes it all worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

What would happen, you ask--Nothing! No one would notice. The word would not spread. Why? Simply because there are too many books and not enough readers. Who has the time to read books published by POD when tens of thousands professionally edited books languish on bookshelves at any bookstore? POD titles are also in the thousands, but these are unedited, mostly fatally flawed works that, even if read by an adventurous reader once will not be read again. Finally, and most importantly, a book on a POD, like, does not stay there forever, but only for 30 days, after which it is no longer available for printing and must be re-submitted by the author.

Anonymous said...

"a book on a POD, like, does not stay there forever, but only for 30 days, after which it is no longer available for printing and must be re-submitted by the author."

I can't speak to other PODs, but I know this is not true for I've had poetry books up there for the better part of a year, one with no direct sales.