From writing, to publishing, to being read – a long journey

Books take a long time to be born, we know that. I’ve had stories published after 30 years. Two of my novels took seven years between their writing and their publication. My other books have averaged three to four years in that pipeline. That is usually par for the course if one is not writing pulp fiction. But I’ve faced another situation which I thought of writing about: where a book can take also as long as the aforementioned publishing cycle between being purchased and being read by a reader.

I have often heard, years after I signed a book at a reading for an avid reader who was ga-ga at the time, that “Oh yes, your book, hmm…it’s still in my reading pile.” Another reader wrote to me the minute she received her copy, saying she was diving straight into it that evening; when I discreetly inquired a few months later, she was still reading my book, along with a dozen others – apparently she reads books in batches, and mine was in the latest batch of 12. Yet another reader has read up to page 51 of one of my books she started in 2009; this notification is sitting for the whole world to see up on Goodreads – I’d like to think it’s because she’s forgotten she has a Goodreads account and not because my book sucks! And others buy books as gifts, collectibles, and trophies, with no intention of ever reading them.

I can understand why books are given out for free in copious quantities. It is because the traditional pipeline, where you actually purchase a copy, does not fetch enough readers, we are told. But the free channel is worse when it comes to actual readers per freebie. I went up on Wattpad two years ago and posted 12 of my already published stories on that burgeoning forum. I was pleased with the result: I have received tons of good comments, one negative comment, many followers, and 220,000 “reads” as of today. But on closer inspection, I see the “fall off” rate: 122K reads for the opening Foreword, and the balance 98K is split on a declining scale between 20K reads for the first story and 5K reads for the last story. Am I to infer from this statistic that of the 220,000 only 5,000 finished what they started? It also makes me wonder whether I am indeed writing crap…

I can also understand why people blog: under the forlorn hope that they are “instantly read and permanently remembered,” and that the dreaded long tail, i.e. from writing to publishing to being read, has been finally eliminated.  I hope that is indeed the case and not the starker one of “instantly read and instantly forgotten,” or worse yet, “flittingly seen and permanently drowned” in the deluge of content constantly washing up on our computers.

There is no solution to being read faster in a universe deluged in print matter. It is unfortunate that the last two generations have produced a disproportionately higher number of writers while they have taken out a vast number of readers due to the increasing time/life crunch. If serious writers continue to write, they must look to the future and believe that they are writing for posthumous recognition, for a time when people will be curious to learn more about our present Age of Expression (or is it the Age of Narcissism?)

And I wonder how the hierarchy of books would be re-ordered if we stopped counting “best-sellers” and counted “most-read” instead?

The rising standard of self-publishing

When the latest wave of self-publishing, assisted by print-on-demand technology, hit the streets at the dawn of the new millennium, it was quickly dismissed as low-grade soap opera. Established publishing houses shivered lest they fall victim to this new assault on their bastion. All sorts of labels were thrown at the new entrants: “vanity publishing,” “lacking in editorial integrity,” “selling to friends and relatives.” It was dismissed as a fad that would pass.

But this wave of self-publishing continued to grow and evolve. The sheer volume of books coming through the channel was daunting; even if an average of 50 copies of each self-published title were sold, that was “50 x umpteen” attempts at stealing readers away from the established order of publishing. And the old order started to groan and creak under this kamikaze attack; big publishers merged to get even bigger, mid-size publishers collapsed and went out of business, and small presses started to proliferate using low-cost business models. When Amazon, Lulu, Wattpad and other platforms facilitated self-published authors to “do it themselves,” the dam burst and writers associations around the world moved fast to legitimize this revolutionary movement and bring it into the fold, lest their own members defect and become “indies” in an industry that had moved from a cosy cartel to a free for all!

And what of the self-pubbers themselves? After the first wave of poorly constructed, badly edited, and haphazardly formatted offerings, the movement took stock. Professional editors and other middlemen from the traditional industry saw opportunity to replace income in this space as their employers, the mainstream publishers, began shedding them in order to remain competitive.  Self published books became deeper and broader (they were no longer just disguised memoirs), they were well edited, formatted and produced as technology continued to evolve. Besides, creative writing courses were proliferating in colleges and universities, and where else could all this output be absorbed? Certainly not by the traditionalists who had driven many of their authors to become teachers in those very schools because their royalties did not cover all the bills at home.

And then e-books came along and leveled the field even more; with costly paper production and distribution taken out of the mix, e-books could be offered for less than half the paperback price and still retain the same earnings for authors and publishers. The stubborn old guard of publishers has tried to defend e-book prices, saying they should be equal to that of paperbacks, but that is an argument that lacks weight as long as publishers pay authors the same remuneration for either format, and pocket the larger surplus from the e-book channel by holding its prices level with the paper channel.

“Might is right,” has played throughout history, and the former fringe dwellers who formed the “vanity” movement have now gone mainstream as the more respectable “self-published” movement. Their stories come from a more personal place; their skill as all-rounders (writer, publisher, marketer) in this game makes them all the more skilled. And yet, except for a lucky few who will catch the zeitgeist and be snatched by the mainstream, they will remain effective only at close range (selling to friends, family and a small circle of fans) rather than selling across international markets in multiple languages aided by large marketing budgets; but they will be read, and they will add diversity to the literary landscape while the traditionalists retrench to promoting only their top 10 lists (or top 5, even top 3) as competition heats up and margins come under threat.

Where will this level out? Motive will determine longevity. Few are making money in this game anymore, and hunger may drive writers in either camp to choose where they want to invest their time in future. In the traditional camp, attrition also takes place when the Big 5 toss out “dead wood” at faster and faster rates.  Short shelf-life notwithstanding, we hope that writers in both camps choose wisely and continue to invest in their writing in some fashion, because that is what determines a society’s evolution, for “man cannot live by bread alone, but by the words that come from God” – and writers would like to believe that divine inspiration has something to do with how their fingers move on the keyboard.

Self publishing is mainstream now. The question is whether the traditionalists will move to make the self publishing channel their entry point for picking up the “best of the best” authors in future, thus creating a two tier structure, or will readers place equal emphasis on both channels, so that it will be authors who determine how and where they want to place their work.

Your writer’s story – different to the one you imagined

Our times are generating many more writers than demand can bear. This is due to better education, improved health and longevity, technology, inflated egos in the age of “me first,” and due to our eternal quest for immortality. This ambition to be a writer begins in our formative years and is inspired by our favourite writers. As a teenager, I was greatly influenced by Greene, Steinbeck and Hemingway; I dreamt of sending manuscripts out into the world where they would become best-sellers and make me a reclusive millionaire. I would hide out in some remote island and submit more manuscripts and continue to dazzle the world with my brilliance until I was invited to a cold capital in Europe to accept the Nobel Prize. And I would refuse that honour, making me an enigmatic figure like Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Pasternak or J.D. Salinger. It was nice to dream!

The reality, even back then, was different. I had chosen to gloss over the private demons my literary heroes had to overcome in order to achieve their fame: dual lives, alcoholism, drug addiction, persecution, shell-shock (called PTSD today), hypertension, depression, divorce, estrangement, chronic pain, and suicide staring out of the barrel of a gun. Not forgetting the early struggles with rejection and penury that they each triumphed over. These trials gave impetus to their work and are mentioned only in discreet biographies, not on the glossy covers of their books.

My writer’s story turned out differently to my idealized dream. For instance, I didn’t imagine that after hacking away at this craft in my early twenties in a developing country where English was a second language, and after having a handful of stories published, I would pack up my authorly tools and try something easier to earn a living – Greene, Steinbeck et al, be damned! I never realized that the “other living” would come so easily, and earn such a handsome income, that I wouldn’t bother with the writing game again for another twenty years. I didn’t realize that it would be the curse of “guilt” that would bring me back to reopen the dusty toolbox and start to catch up to where the literary world had evolved in the intervening years.

Once “Take Two” started however, the stories and novels came easily, and are likely to continue into the future, health permitting. It was like a dam had burst and all that had been stored for years just gushed out. But the publishing landscape had changed, drastically. Prizes sold books now. And the prize money was cornered among the “1% of the 1%” in the literary hierarchy. There was no middle class in publishing anymore – there was a huge gulf between self-published and best-seller, and the only way to bridge the two was with a stroke of luck.

But with every closing door there were others opening. There were now many ways in which to be published, I discovered, thanks to evolving technology that had finally demolished the dominant publishing model of eons, which was: publish a large quantity of paper books on ancient printing presses until unit costs become affordable, ship them across the land in trucks into stores that can’t keep track of them, receive most of them back after awhile to be shredded, then start the cycle again, and hope like hell that grants institutions continue to support this inefficiency in the interest of promoting the arts. That was the model under which my heroes had thrived, and now it was dying, supplanted by DIY publishing, POD, electronic media, subscriptions services, free story sites, social media, and blogs like the one you are reading. And my heroes were dead too.

I enthusiastically tried all the models available, traditional and new, and discovered that they all had their pros and cons, but as their readerships’ were distinct, this lack of homogeneity helped plaster me all over the map, assuaging my guilt for having neglected “the gift.” There was also no way I could hide out in a remote island, I realized;  I had to be front and centre in the global public domain (a.k.a. the Internet, which also never existed during the time of my literary heroes) selling my wares like a shoe salesman.  I even started a small publishing house, using the new technology, and have helped bring other writers into print, ones who may have been sitting for years in the slush piles of the Big Five ( or is it Four, now – hard to keep track!). The joy of bringing others’ work into the world, to watch them stand on the podium reading from their debut novel at their book’s launch gives me immense satisfaction. I was doing my bit to restore the middle class in publishing. And I finally faced the darker side too: the rejection, the shrunken revenue streams, the even further shrunken attention spans, and the need for that other source of income to fuel this one. None of this had been part of my teenage dream.

And so I have accepted that my writer’s story is different from the one I had visualized in my youth– creative visualizers, take note: it doesn’t always turn out the way you paint it in your mind. But it can be a damn sight more interesting and surprising. Why go on a trip where every stopover is carefully laid out, predictable and boring? Where would the thrill of the unexpected lie? Isn’t that what we try to create in our work – the unexpected?

So dear Reader, what was your writer’s dream, and how did it pan out?

The Anthology Editor – a rising player

As writers struggle for a spot in the literary limelight, as traditional magazines and publishing houses discard box loads of submissions, and as supply outstrips demand at increasingly higher rates, there is a niche player ascending like a Phoenix, one who may offer relief, especially to new writers in search of a publishing credit: the anthology editor.

Anthologies have existed for a long time but they hitherto focussed on the “best of the best” work that had already been published elsewhere. The new kind of anthology that I am referring to is made up of the work of writers who (a) do not have sufficient material for a stand•alone body of work (b) have written about a narrow subject area that can only be noticed if highlighted in a collection with a similar theme (c) belong in a region or collective whose output is being showcased or (d) a combination of all of the above.

Indie publishers find this a convenient way to build a stable of writers who may go on to produce stand•alone work in future – catching them young, so to speak. The anthology’s niche theme also allows for the book to be finely targeted to interested audiences, and competition from bigger houses rarely comes into play. Also, if many of the authors in the collection are first•timers, they are likely to buy dozens of personal copies to sell or gift to their families and friends and “build their platform.”

This makes the editor of such an anthology a new power player in the publishing chain. Given the many authors who are involved in a collection of this nature, the publisher typically sets broad guidelines and offloads content selection and author negotiations on this editor who is often not from among the publishing staff but a person of influence (he may even be one of the contributing authors) within the anthology’s trading area.

Sounds good? But here are some pitfalls to be aware of, especially if you are a contributing newbie author. Check out how many authors will contribute to this anthology. “The more the merrier,” the publisher will say, for more books will be sold (or bought by the growing number of contributors) but “the more, the lesser” also comes into play, especially for the individual author. Try getting noticed in an anthology of 100 authors! And what level of writing prowess do these 100 others possess – will they drag you down or lift you up with the quality of their contributions? And how will you split royalties between 100 others? Would two cents a book satisfy you? Oh yes, on the subject of royalties, beware of the publisher who only pays the royalty to the editor who then keeps it all for himself, for after all, did this editor not have to curate the content, deal with a bunch of egotistical authors, meet deadlines etc….etc? And the authors get – well, they get the glory of having been published!

As in any commercial transaction, “Buyer, beware” applies. If you are purely contributing to get a publishing credit, then ignoring the above might be okay. However, if you are moving up the chain and are protecting your brand as well as building it, then checking out the anthology’s credentials before making a contribution would be prudent.

Giving it away for free. Why?

I am inundated by new writers offering me free e•content these days. “Download my book for free!” And this has led me to realize why the traditional world of publishing, that is, those who try to make a living out of this business, have circled the wagons on their industry.

It is almost a given these days that a new writer has to self•publish his book and give away the e•book version for free. Some say that you have to give away three free for every one sold at $0.99. That is less than 25 cents per copy. How long will that take before you amass the minimum required to receive your first royalty check from the online retailers who are notoriously lax at paying? Perhaps many fall by the way before accumulating that minimum, to the benefit of the online retailer. And why do we have to do this? Where is the value exchange? Where is the token of respect for all the hours socked away into learning the craft and then producing the book? Where is the sense of self•respect that this labourer is worthy of his hire?

Sure, I give a certain amount of content away for free – like this blog article, for example. But my value exchange here is received in the engagement by the many that read and provide feedback to me on the issues I raise – that is my compensation. But to give away a whole book, something taken years to create, to some faceless person, seems a bit excessive to me. Yes, I have given away books for free too, but again, only when the reader engages with me one•on•one and agrees to discuss the book’s pros and cons. Most of these “freebies” have paid off, for the readers have gone on to post online reviews of my book, good, bad or indifferent.

I am told that free downloads can amount to thousands of curious, “anything for free” collectors, but not many of these freeloaders actually get down to reading the book. So, all that one has achieved is to have moved the book of your own hard drive to the hard drives of many others where it sits in storage. I believe that the online retailers also count free downloads as “books sold” (I recently received a $0 invoice for a free download that I tested) so this permeates the myth that the free book is now a best seller. Of course, try telling this to a new writer and it’s like water falling on a duck’s back.

I developed a principle some time ago: I will not give away my e•books for free unless in a limited promotion (and I haven’t engaged in one yet for I am still studying the implications). My e•books (and trade books) will have market competitive prices to the faceless multitudes. And “market competitive” does not mean “free” for then there is no market for one’s work. And if my restraint ends up in fewer copies sold, well, so be it. At least that will give me an indication of my true value as a writer. J.D. Salinger was the master of this restraint principle – the more he tried to hide his work, the more the world wanted of him.

I do not know if this stubborn “last stand” of mine is going to drive me into a hole in this new publishing world. I am sure those who practice the “give three free, expect one to be bought for $0.99” approach will dismiss me (and Salinger) as a Luddite. But if the new publishing world means working for free, it sounds worse than working in the times of slavery, and I thought that we had evolved past that dark stage of our lives. And as for the guy who sends me that ubiquitous tweet, “Thanks for the follow, please download my debut novel Blah, Blah & Blah for free,” he, or she, will be coming off my “following” list pretty damn quick.

Trying to balance the year that was

The year is almost over and it’s that time again of frantic shopping and binge merriment, of meeting people you haven’t seen since, well, last Christmas; a time of false camaraderie, of debt accumulation, of non•ending festive music, of crowds in malls and elevated blood pressure levels drowned out by copious quantities of eggnog and other spirits. Amidst this madness, I try to take stock each year of where we have come as a species and where we seem to be headed.

In 2011, the world rocked for a second time on the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility, with Western Europe descending into its deepest economic crisis since WWII. Even the mighty BRIC nations are beginning to feel the slowdown in this connected world. The stock market behaved like a manic depressive. In another part of the world, the rocking was physical, when a giant earthquake/tsunami devastated Japan and reduced real estate prices near any nuclear facility in the world to a fraction of their former glory (we weren’t immune even in our small town by a lake in Canada, ringed by nuclear plants). In the Middle East, dictators fell like nine pins, ousted by a populace drunk on freedom but with no plans for ordered democracy and growth. Equally directionless, mobs stormed Wall Street and other financial centres to occupy public parks and achieve nothing but to register their protest; they left after being ingloriously ejected for causing civil disturbances, trailing broken reputations and human detritus in their wake. The workplace began to look more like a Dickensian workhouse, replete with exploited labour, Scrooge•like capitalists and hyper•specialization reducing humans to robots. Traditional news organizations wrestled with scandals over phone spying, and leaked documents from corporations and governments were being dumped on the internet for public entertainment. The traditional publishing industry cracked wide open with online retailers grabbing bigger pieces of the pie. Oh my, what upheaval!

Are we nearing the end of days, as the pessimists and evangelists constantly remind us? Have we mismanaged all iterations of human progress and dragged ourselves down into the mud from whence we came? Is the dystopian picture in my novel After the Flood coming true?

Then I tried to look on the brighter side. Africa made a comeback after decades of war, drought, pestilence, genocide and famine to clinch the top spot for growth over the next decade. The PIIGS (the second I is for Italy) of Europe realized that taxes, if paid, collected and spent wisely, do make sense and provide for a better standard of living. Citizen journalism came of age when the quality of articles continued to improve, diversify and outpace content from traditional channels (my journalist friends will disagree with me here) and social media actually led to the fall of corrupt governments. Authors reclaimed ground by embracing direct publishing models and sticking it to gatekeepers. And our troops came home for Christmas after removing themselves from that absurd theatre war in Afghanistan. Small credits to balance this ledger from its sharp tilt towards the right.

Merry Christmas everyone! Now that you have read this, do return to your Christmas busyness, it helps keep the bogeyman at bay. And please remember to raise an extra glass for global enlightenment in 2012.

I’m going shopping!