GREED: The Fine Art of Sticking It To Your Readers

As a writer, there is nothing more sacred to me than the connection between the teller of tales and those he tells them to. I write because I want to be read, and read by as many people as possible. There is, of course, a practical aspect to all of this, because to make a living at this craft requires a lot of readers. But there are far easier jobs to do which are generally a lot more lucrative, and the sharing of stories and ideas is the primary currency I crave.

Not everyone shares this philosophy. Samuel Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” and to a degree that’s solid advice, especially in a time when so many folks try to wrangle writers into writing for free in order to get “exposure.” But if cash itself is a writer’s raison d’être, their muse is a whore and there’s a good chance they’re a hack.

As a reader, I’ve always despised publishing tricks that create scarcity in order to squeeze more money out of some readers while keeping material out of most readers’ hands. For example, an expensive “exclusive limited edition” of an author’s book which includes a story that’s not in the generally available edition and won’t be available anywhere else. It’s true that this rewards devoted fans willing to spring for something special, but it also punishes devoted fans who may not be able to afford the book. “If you love me and want to read everything I write, o wonderful reader, you will buy this exclusive collectible. Otherwise, screw you.”

To be clear, I have no problem with cool collectibles. I love beautiful limited editions, all autographed and bound-in-cloth (like a real goddamned hardback) and illustrated and such. It’s the exclusivity of content that I take issue with. That’s disrespectful to your fans, the most important people in the world to a writer, the people who most want to read your work. Why cheat them of the chance?

This applies to pricing, too. While “what the market will bear” is a fine principle for corporate mercenaries, it can be a harsh metric when applied to the dynamic between writer and reader. A writer I know is writing a series of adventure novels about a popular character that I would love to have on my shelf, and support this author’s work, but the publisher prices the paperbacks at $25 and the hardbacks at $40 and I just can’t afford them. Such pricing is unnecessary; Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom is fully illustrated and I published it at $12. Even allowing for licensing costs, the prices for my friend’s books err dramatically toward favoring the publisher over the reader.

The worst case of this sort of thing I have ever seen is a new book featuring a crowd of classic pulp heroes in a shared adventure, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen kind of thing. As you all know, I love pulp and I’m innately interested in this sort of thing. The book looks to be huge and extravagant and loaded with illustrations, a gorgeous artifact for any library. But the lowest price for one of these volumes is $200. And the highest price?

$15,000.

How fucking ludicrous can you get?

I don’t begrudge the writer or publishers the extravagance of their book. If they want to sell an elite edition of it for fifteen grand, and someone wants to buy it, that’s awesome. And even the version at $200 may be worth the price for collectors if the book is beautifully (and expensively) made. But publishing it without a less expensive point of entry for the vast majority of possible readers, especially the very pulp fans this was presumably written for, is unfortunate. It also limits the potential size of the author’s fanbase to a small pool of folks willing and able to fork over a lot of cash.

When he wrote this book, did the writer do it because he loved the art of telling stories, and wanted to reach readers? Or did he just see an opportunity to squeeze money from the collectibles market? Because it really looks like the latter.

Me, I want to reach all the people I can. I want to treat my readers, and potential readers, with the sort of respect I hope to receive as a reader myself. I’d rather sell two thousand books at $12 each than a thousand at $25. I’d rather be read by a thousand people than a hundred. And I’d never participate in a stunt that kept my work from being accessible to most of the folks who might want to read it.

If your favorite book is a checkbook you may disagree.

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Writers Who Kill Kittens

Don't lets the mean writer killz me...

Don’t lets the mean writer killz me…

So, I’m reading a discussion about how we should or shouldn’t let a writer’s politics affect our enjoyment of their fiction, and I see this:

“I don’t give the yuck cut of a rat for any writer’s politics. Can they tell a story that I’m going to enjoy and read over and over? Then I’ll damn well read them despite their politics. The only reason I won’t read Pournelle isn’t political, he stapled a kitten to a door. Once you start torturing cats…we’re done.”

Holy shit. Jerry Pournelle stapled a kitten to a door? That’s a horrible thing to do. What an asshole.

Oh, someone clarifies that the poor kitten was actually just in a story. Whew.

Then, the original commenter digs in: “Anyone tortures a cat in their fiction and I won’t read them again. Yeah, it was in one of Pournelle’s novels. But for it to be in one of his novels, he had to think of it.”

Good grief. I just had this argument (again) with people who think that George RR Martin is a monstrous woman-hater because terrible things happen to his female characters in books in which terrible things happen to everybody. (Never mind the fact that the women in Martin’s books are strong and fierce and smart and competent and complex…)

People, fiction is fiction. It is not real life. Depiction of terrible things is not endorsement of terrible things. Depiction of terrible things is drama. It is the fuel of fiction. The first rule of good drama is to mistreat your characters. And maybe even the occasional kitten.

Hating on a writer for what happens in their story is stupid. It’s no better than hating an actor as a person because she played a terrible person in that movie you saw and therefore must be a terrible person.

This isn’t to say that awful people don’t sometimes lace their awfulness into their work, or that they shouldn’t be taken to task over it. Some writers are racists and sexists and nazis and maybe even kitten killers. I’m not gonna defend The Turner Diaries for its very clear agenda (though I will fiercely defend its author’s right to write it any damn way he wanted to).

And if an author states vile opinions outside of their fiction which resonate with themes in their fiction, they’re inviting criticism on those terms so they’re fair game. If you want to peek inside the brains of some truly awful folks, read the blogs written by the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” groups who’ve hijacked science fiction’s Hugo Awards this year. Writers like Theodore Beale aka “Vox Day”, Tom Kratman, and John C. Wright are writers you can comfortably read knowing that they’re the very worst sort of person. Here’s some reasoned debate I saw from Kratman, on Sad Puppy Brad Torgersen’s blog, when some guy mildly disagreed with him:

Kratman

He went on like this for a while, threatening to track the guy down and hurt him. So yeah, douchebag. Sling all the brickbats.

But, in general, assuming that a writer condones terrible things because those things happen in their stories is not just simple-minded, it’s anti-art. Have some goddamned perspective, for pity’s sake. Fight the good fight, not just any possible fight. Don’t like an author’s work? That’s fine, don’t read it. But leave the poor author alone.

No kittens were harmed in the writing of this post.

Caveat Author: The Author Exploitation Business

Greedy Penguin

I’ve mentioned Penguin’s self-publishing scam before. In this blog post, novelist David Gaughran takes the publisher to task in much more detail. I’d say this is essential and important reading for any writer working in, or wanting to break into, the business these days.

And it’s not just Penguin, either. Many of the beloved traditional publishers, those stalwart protectors of lit’rature, nurturers of authors, are engaging in these practices. Go. Read. Remember.

And spread the word.

The Author Exploitation Business

This Is Why I Don’t Like You

Last night, I saw that I was going to lose another friend.

This was vexing, but not as vexing as it might have been. The friend is a friend on Facebook, a friend I have some positive feelings about, but also a friend I don’t actually know, even by the standards of social media. She’s a writer, and I’ve enjoyed her posts and had an occasional bit of casual interplay with her, but that’s about it. So, little lost, except perhaps the opportunity to actually become friends down the line through further interaction.

The reason I’m losing her as a Facebook friend? Because she’s switching from her personal account, which is limited to 5,000 friends, to a fan page, which has no such limits. By doing this, she opens up her page to many more potential readers she can talk to, and hopefully sell books to, which is completely understandable.

The thing is, the key words in that last sentence are “talk to.” She can talk to them. And when she does, they can even respond, getting into pleasant chats on her page about whatever it is she wanted to post about. Nice, right?

Fuck that.

What’s lost by doing this is the very thing that elevates Facebook to something more than solipsistic whining and self promotion: community. My writer friend is removing herself from the community of friends and acquaintances she has built so far in order to better advertise her brand. Before making this change, she could see the posts made by all her friends, and they could see hers, and many a discussion could occur. Now, community dialogue will be replaced with authorial monologue.

Her current friends will be automatically converted into fans. Facebook will add her page to the things they have “Liked” without letting them know it’s doing so, or that there has been a change. They’ll still see posts from the writer in their feeds, as if she is still their friend, but she’ll see nothing they post unless they comment on the things she posts on her page. They will be diminished from equals to advertising targets who’ve been opted in without their consent.

Me, I’ll probably un-Like her. Nothing against her, but I accepted her friendship in the first place not because I’m a fan, but because she was a peer I thought I might like and learn something from. I thought she might become an actual friend. It happens. Now, I’m forced to be a fan, and as interesting as her posts might be at times, apparently my posts, and the posts of all her other friends, are worthless to her. Frankly, I’m on Facebook for dialogue, not monologue.

I interact daily with people who found me through my writing, and with writers I’ve been reading most of my life, people who entertained me even as they taught me bit by bit via osmosis how to write. Some of them have become pretty good virtual friends, commenting frequently on my posts even as I comment on theirs. Am I interested in the latest news about their work? Yep. But that’s not the gold in them thar Facebook hills. The gold is the friendship, not the marketing.

The irony is that not only is there a better way to deal with Facebook’s lousy friends list limitation, but switching to a fan page is going to actually narrow the field of contact she’s going to achieve with her fans.

If she’s at the friends limit, all she has to do is enable Subscriptions to her account. This would allow an unlimited number of fans to subscribe and follow her posts, just as they’ll be doing on her fan page, but it would keep her current friends list as is and fully interactive. And subscribers would all see everything she wants them to see.

By switching to  a fan page, however, she makes herself subject to Facebook’s latest innovation, which is severely limiting the number of fans who actually see any post she makes and then charging her an elevated fee structure so that more of her fans will see her posts. She’s giving up her community of friends and fans to instead pay Facebook to advertise to her fans.

Have I said “fuck that” yet? Well, I ‘m saying it again.

Are Big Publishers Doing Their Jobs?

Writer Jami Gold has a provocative post on her blog about the fact that big publishers, often seen as the “gatekeepers” of literary quality, are more and more willing to allow books to appear under their auspices without proper quality control. “Who cares about quality writing anymore?” she asks, and uses as an example a current big release from Vintage Books which has been published in terrible need of a skilled editor’s guidance.

As she puts it in a comment below the post, “If publishers aren’t doing promotion or marketing, and now they aren’t doing editing and are ruining their reputation, what do they offer to writers that they can’t accomplish on their own?”

And there’s something to that.  Sloppy editing, celebrity books of hideous quality (contracted for ginormous amounts of money that could better be spent on worthy authors), ebooks released with major formatting errors, a tunnel vision mentality that leads them to release tons of the same ol’ same ol’ and not take risks…

Low or no advances. No promotional support. Lackluster editing. Fewer and fewer actual distribution channels and bookstores. And, of course, an institutionalized disdain for the authors, except those few who have become brand names.

If publishers are going to survive the Ebook Apocalypse, they really need to get their heads on straight and start thinking about what they can offer the folks who actually write their books, and how they can stay worthy of the trust that some people still have in them as gatekeepers. Because at the moment, they’re looking kinda bush league, while many capable self-publishers are looking more and more like the real deal.

How A Writer Can Easily Make His Own Book Covers

Lately I’ve been trumpeting what I call the “Ebook Apocalypse” and detailing why I think it’s great for readers, writers, even bookstores…basically everybody but big publishers (though they have it within their ability, if not mindset, to seize the day and benefit too). Indeed, as I was thrilled to announce a few days ago, I’m no longer publishing with Penguin/Putnam and will be relaunching my Doc Wilde adventure series on my own later this year.

I already have two self-published ebooks for sale (my folksy supernatural tale “Dead Folks” and my exploration of nature, civilization, and the ecological spirit “Wild Soul,” both just 99¢), and publishing them was easy. Authors can do this. They don’t need someone to do it for them. If you’re smart enough to write a book, you’re smart enough to publish it yourself. (But please, in the names of all the sweet muses, have your work properly edited. Don’t be one of those assholes who publishes sub-literate diarrhea just because you can.)

Even covers are easy (though I have seen established writers put up books with terrible covers though they should know better). Continue reading

Small Bookstores and the Ebook Apocalypse

When both the big bookstores in her community folded, author Ann Patchett stepped forward and opened her own small bookstore.

In a very charming appearance on The Colbert Report, Patchett offers proof of my argument that the apocalypse brought to the bookstore industry by ebooks and Amazon is actually favorable to small local bookstores. Where Borders fell and B&N stumbles, small stores can now take root and give good old fashioned service to their communities.

In time, they’ll incorporate infrastructure allowing them to infinitely expand their stock by selling ebooks on-site and actually printing books on demand (as with the Espresso Book Machine, which is pretty amazing).

I wrote at length about how ebooks and digital distribution are good for readers, writers, and booksellers here, and if you have any interest in the topic, please give it a read.

You can watch Patchett and Colbert here.