Writers seek validation. There’s no way to get around that. And no matter how humble you want to be, you’re going to have to brag about achievements. That’s easy for some of us, especially in a social media-based society where we’re used to telling everyone alive about our day, our mood, and the color of our poop (mine was light brown, just in case you’re curious).
But the plain truth is, nobody likes social media. Sure, we claim to love Facebook and Twitter, but that’s because they’re new toys. They’ll likely be eclipsed by something that’s easier to use, faster, cleaner. Your online presence is nearly impossible to erase, which is something the younger generations will figure out when they go job hunting and have to explain that picture of themselves at a keg party with a strap-on attached to their foreheads.
But more to the point, for the writer it presents both a blessing and a problem. Never before has access to publication come so easily. I can write something and post it, and in a matter of minutes it’s accessible to everyone with a web browser. Writers have tools we’ve never had before, tools that not only express our passion but build our market. It comes with a price though.
We’ve gotten used to instant replies. It’s ingrained in our culture now, and there’s no avoiding it. The older generation of writers could get by answering snail-mail and hiring publicists to handle their online presence. For the rest of us, the world expects Facebook, Twitter, blogs – expects near instant replies to e-mail. Writers of the future won’t have it easy.
Culture change is never easy, but it’s coming, and it’s unavoidable. In the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about the shift the publication industry is facing, and the (potentially) frightening impact it’ll have on the future of the written word. The novel was born in the 17th century. Will it die in the 21st? Only time will tell.
I’ve had more than a few people ask why I haven’t embraced digital publishing and started uploading books to Amazon. While the idea is certainly enticing, I don’t think it’s the quick road to international readership Amazon wants it to be. Not yet. I think I’d have more success standing naked on a street corner waiving a sign to encourage people to buy my book. The sign wouldn’t exactly work, but the local news story of the crazy naked guy would grab reader’s attentions.
Self-publishing and e-publishing will always have a remarkably high signal-to-noise ratio. E-publishing has made it so painfully easy that Amazon is filled with everything from Twilight ripoffs to books like “Ten women I’d like to pork”. I have yet to read a great self-published book. Some are good, sure, but great? No – not yet. And the reason for that is the “George Lucas Syndrome.”
George Lucas was a visionary, and the original Star Wars film remains a cinematic masterpiece. But what about those prequels? They’re kind of like cinematic supermodels. Pretty to look at, but vapid and boring. Sure they sold plenty of tickets and DVD’s. I think you could film a Jedi opening cans of tuna for two hours with a light saber and still make millions. Fans love Star Wars. But the stories in the new prequels were beyond terrible. They made very little sense. Stilted dialogue from actors we know can act, cheesy lines, retarded comic relief tropes no other film would ever be able to get away with. How the hell did this happen?
All three original Star Wars movies had producers. In movie terms, a producer is a lot like a good editor. The producers job isn’t to make the movie, it’s to make sure the movie gets made well. Producers help shape the story, construct scenes that flow together, and build a coherent film people will want to watch. With the new prequel, George acted as the sole editor. He funded the movies himself, skipping the big studios altogether. There was nobody to tell him “Hey, George, why does the trade federation want to blockade a planet? Wouldn’t that stop trade?” Or “I know you want to sell toys, but do we really need a twenty minute pod-racing scene?” In the end, the Star Wars prequels have become effects-laden soulless films. And the truly sad reality is that there is a good story in there, buried under all the crap. A story desperately in need of an editor. You could argue that my point is invalid since the prequels made a lot of money. But consider this: if George made the prequels first – if “Phantom Menace” came out in 1977, the series would’ve ended there.
Self publishing authors become mini-George Lucases. Lucasi… whatever. Without good editing, you’re writing in a vacuum. Stories just don’t work that way. It’s great if you’re writing just for yourself, but then why are you putting your work on Amazon? We write to be read, and that means writing the kinds of things people want to read. And not just friends and families and your great aunt Gertrude who sends you Tonka trucks every Christmas even though you’re no longer five. Some e-pub authors actually do hire editors, and as a result their work has less grammatical problems and tends to stand out. But few for-hire editors help a writer shape their story. Telling your clients their 400-page opus about elf-torture set in a dungeon is unreadable crap? That’s not a very good business model.
Not everything in the e-publishing world suffers from George Lucas syndrome. There are plenty of folks who can write well and don’t need much (if any) editing. What happens to those books? That brings me to my second point. When you self publish, not only are you the editor, you’re also the marketer and publicist. You need to actually go out and sell your book. That means blogging, tweeting, posting on forums, and if you’re really willing to spend some dough, buying ads. Doing all of those things requires a lot of time. Time you’d be better off spending writing and polishing your story. Most writers aren’t independently wealthy. We have day jobs, which means at best 2-3 hours a night writing with a few nights off every week so you can pet your kitty and save your marriage. If you’re spending most of that time self-promoting, how much are you actually writing? What about editing? There are plenty of anecdotal stories about authors who churned out a book in a couple of weeks only to have it become a bestseller.
First, that’s extremely rare and it’s usually significantly impacted by luck. When the Amazon e-publishing platform was young, there was less crap to churn through, so a few decent novels managed to grab significant sales. I’m willing to bet those novels wouldn’t have made it if published today under the sheer volume of titles clogging up the digital bookstore. Secondly, some of those books only made it because they latched on to a gimmick: teenage vampire drama right when vampires were a hot item and the market didn’t have enough. Or badly written lusty sex books because, let’s face it, we giggle when someone says penis.
Amazon isn’t a nonprofit. Providing infrastructure to electronic self-publishing is a brilliant business model because it costs them so little and brings in so much revenue. The Kindle is finally cheap enough to have a wide install base (and consequently, I’m convinced that’s why Fifty Shades is so popular – nobody has to be seen with the book open, but if it’s on a Kindle, then nobody knows what you’re reading unless you tell them). Amazon isn’t going to promote you, which means you’ve got to do it. Self-promoting is damn hard work, and you see very little return on it. Ewan Morrison wrote a really good article on pitfalls of relying on social media to sell. In short, social media sells social media. When was the last time you got a tweet or read a facebook post about something, then immediately ran out to get it? Worse, unless you’re a star blogger, you probably have a limited circle of social contacts. You can try asking friends of friends to go buy your book, but frankly that comes off as a mild step above door-to-door Amway sales.
Frankly, I’d rather spend my time writing. If I get desperate, I’ll stand on the corner, naked with my sign: Buy my e-book about vampire elf-torture!
Unless you’re living under a rock (or a Luddite like my wife) you’ve probably heard something about SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA. SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act, while PIPA represents the Protect Intellectual Property Act – lawmakers just love their acronyms. Personally, I think they should’ve called it the Destruction Of Online Foul Unacceptable Stuff (DOOFUS), or maybe Protect Online Files from Internet Technology (PROFIT) – at least it would’ve hinted at what the bill really aims to protect, or even Semi-Legal American Persecution of Online Foreign Fraudulence (SLAPOFF).
At their heart, both SOPA and PIPA aim to address the same problem: there’s an overabundance of online piracy. Big media companies are convinced they’re losing billions, and they’ve convinced lawmakers that the US economy, democracy, and the lives of kittens everywhere hinges on the ability to protect intellectual property by throwing away more than 220 years of due process. The Bill of Rights ensures the accused are innocent until proven guilty; SOPA and PIPA ignore that and put the burden on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and content owners (e.g. people who put stuff on the intarwebs – from youtube and wikipedia to sites like mine and even people who post in Internet forums).
Pretty much anything Congress or the Senate puts together reads like it was carved in bark by a three-year-old in native Swahili, then translated to Occitan before being translated into English. While SOPA is a tad too complicated to sum up, I’ll do my best: these two bills allow Intellectual Property holders (movie studios, recording studios, etc.) the ability to accuse web sites of piracy. It’s not the accusation that’s the problem – it’s the power said accusation levies against the accused. Under SOPA, service providers would be required to block access to accused sites, search engines like Google must de-list accused sites, billing services and credit-card companies must block any payments, domain ownership transfers to the accusers, and a hundred fluffy kittens must be killed, all without a court order. OK – I made part of that up. They’ve actually dropped the domain ownership issue.
If you dig into it, there’s a lot of good content on SOPA/PIPA from both sides (mostly from the truthful open-internet supporters, rather than the communist pig dogs promoting SOPA/PIPA). What troubles me, particularly from an author’s standpoint, is that Big Media not only had a key hand in writing these bills, but worked very hard to push them through the process before anyone could complain. It’s easy to sit back (particularly several days after Dark Wednesday when most lawmakers have rescinded support for SOPA/PIPA) and talk about how much the process works, how the people’s voices have been heard, how the little guy has won and we shouldn’t ever worry about becoming some warped, dystopian society run by corporations. Nobody sane supports piracy save pirates and people who think it’s their right to have free stuff, and most would agree the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is far from perfect. Big Media doesn’t exactly have a good track record of fairness – Warner Brothers even admitted last year to submitting DMCA takedown notices for files they didn’t even have the rights to.
The issue is far from over, regardless of where these bills end up in the coming months. The evolution of technology is forcing content owners and big media to adapt or die. Survival by litigation is nothing new, but it provokes the kind of innovation-stifling idea-killing future where everyone will end up eating Soylent Green.
I sat down with a work associate after hours and the discussion drifted to non-work subjects (as it often will when alcohol is involved). We were talking about literature and his idea for a sci-fi Sherlock Holmes book he wanted to write (pass me the phaser, Watson, the game is afoot). I happened to mention that I write, and my associate’s face melted into the kind of scowl teachers give when homework is turned in with gum stuck to it. “Well then I shouldn’t talk to you about anything,” he said, “because I don’t want you stealing my ideas.” To make his point, he quickly shifted the conversation to sports. My knowlede of sports is equal to my knowledge of zero-g neurosurgery and the study of Amazon river basin silt.
I’ve managed to uncover what is, in my mind, the great truth about ideas: they are worthless. No matter who you are, how brilliant you think your idea is, it’s still has less value than a chipped commemorative Elvis dinner plate showcasing his fat years. Ideas are not a kind of social currency to buy admiration and respect, and the concept of a brilliant idea-generator who does nothing but think of things is a myth.
Execution is everything. Any idea, no matter how brilliant, is absolutely worthless without execution. It seems like the amateurs who lack the ability to execute are the ones who covet ideas the most, guarding them like impressionable children. Writing is lonely enough already, isolating yourself and segmenting your idea is a great way to kill it. Good writing is a result of good critiquing, discussing, and sharing, which can’t happen if ideas are precious, fragile treasures never to be shared until final release.
Beyond this, consider that stories which hinge entirely on concept and idea usually fail to be engaging and entertaining to the reader. Characters are the reader’s gateway into the story, and good characters are what make ideas memorable. Think about your favorite story, and you’re likely to picture a character first, idea and concept second.
It’s never been easier for author’s to get their work out. With the rise of e-books and Amazon’s Kindle, publication is only a few clicks away! Amazon is even targeting authors, establishing contracts for direct publishing that cut out editors and agents. They’re offering Neilson Book Scan Sales data for free, something most publishing houses only include with royalty statements. Amazon does this, because they love you.
Except that they don’t.
Amazon is a retailer first, and cares less about your writing career than the publishers and agents who currently ignore you. They care about sales. Signing authors to contracts is simply a way for Amazon to cut out the publishing industry that’s keeping them from higher profits. The Kindle is, and always will be, about chaining the customer to a retail ecosystem Amazon controls – just as iPhones and iPads are chained to iTunes. This gives Amazon far too much power in my mind, and makes possible one-click censorship generated in a board room when somebody’s e-published book about abortion or religion or politics or some other touchy subject draws bad press Amazon doesn’t want. That hasn’t happened yet, but the absence of an event doesn’t define reality. Nobody’s stolen my supply of prized bacon-flavored ice-cream, but I’m still keeping my doors locked. When profit and art clash, art loses, and Amazon has already shown their willingness to yank content when it suits them.
Also worth considering is the signal-to-noise ratio. Self-publishing an e-book is so mind-numbingly easy my cat can do it. Far too much crap gets dumped on Amazon as it is, and while it’s up to the author to generate interest, drawing attention to your brilliant (and grammatically correct) book becomes no easier than shouting for attention at a rock concert. The unwashed masses prefer the ease of bestseller lists which no e-book has yet to achieve. I’m sure there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but there’s just as much anecdotal evidence that bacon-flavored ice-cream is the best thing in the world, and I still can’t get my wife to try it.
Don’t get me wrong, you can have my Kindle when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. With the upcoming Kindle Touch and Kindle Fire, Amazon has hit a great price point for user adoption, and the more Kindle’s they sell the bigger the audience for published work. I’m a big fan of e-publishing and the future for writers is full of possibilities. I’m just not quite convinced we need to let Amazon run the show.