Thursday, August 16, 2012

And in conclusion...

Janet...people...people...Janet. You've been introduced.

What could traditional publishing learn from the Indies? And how about the other way around?

In my opinion, big publishing houses got into trouble in the late 1970s with the advent of the “megabook”:  sales of books from established authors for millions of dollars per book, which starved the midlist, where good writers could previously earn a living wage while developing.  Publishers would bet so much money on so few books, that the incubator of talent (books from 20-70K) was destroyed.  From this came the “instant books” and the scandal books, all following this model of a very few expensive books surrounded by “filler” cheapie books, and the wholesale dumbing down of publishing really took hold.  That, plus changes in the tax laws which meant that warehousing books became a debit, really hurt traditional models.  The big publishing houses treated their non-megabook writers increasingly badly, and so the option of the indie publisher became more attractive:  writers who wouldn’t get a lot of money or promotion in any case were attracted to anyplace that would treat them with respect.  With the advent of e-books, the landscape became even more confused.

Chris and I left big publishing in the early nineties to do nonfiction work for the government.  We were lured back to publishing by the advent of the e-book and the indie publishers:  although we had commanded upper midlist advances in the old days, we were unhappy with the way our books were handled and wanted to try indie publishing.  Since we’d had a number of titles pirated as crude, poorly produced e-books on multiple pirate sites over a long period of time, we reasoned that if we produced high quality e-books, people might buy them.  We wanted better covers, better proofreading, better production values than we’d had in the old days, and we didn’t want to give up our e-rights as part of a traditional publishing deal.  At the time we explored this “keep the e-rights” issue, my agent said that unless we were willing to sell the e-rights, we couldn’t get a good conventional publishing deal.  So we became indies.  I think more and more writers will do this, out of a mix of frustration and self-preservation.

As to what indies can learn from the big firms:  improvement in professionalism in all areas of publishing, including front matter, copyediting, proofreading, and all phases of book presentation; establishment of safe and reliable print and e-book distribution networks; acceptance by authors’ organizations as trusted, respectable publishers; development of effective promotional strategies.  Agents and other entities are establishing “concierge” services for authors, but the situation for indie and e-publishers is fluxing.  This is the Wild West of e-commerce:  some will adapt and survive, some will fail.

As for the remaining big publishers, to compete with the indies they must offer better deals to authors, not worse; and raise, not lower, their literary standards:  expanding the midlist would be a start.  With a huge number of homemade books available and vast quantities of quality books available free, from classics to books from brand-new authors, the print publishers must find a way to adapt and attract writers by offering better royalty deals and additional incentives.  Otherwise, those who publish mega-bestsellers will find their catalogues continuing to shrink.  Big publishers and libraries are already at odds over how many copies of an e-book a library may freely lend before having to buy the e-book again.  In this case, I think the publishers are right:  like any other software product, an e-book purchase should allow a certain number of people to use the book, not an infinite number; that number should be the average number of uses that the library expects from a printed book.

And then of course there is piracy:  the attitude that piracy must be accepted and ignored must change, or e-commerce not only of books, but of software, will join other facets of the entertainment industry such as movies and music, that have been so tremendously damaged by theft.  Entertainment is a major U.S. export, and our whole economy is being harmed by ignoring these thefts.  We do not in any way believe that piracy helps sales, since sales figures don’t included piracy figures, and authors don’t get increases in standings, or royalties, based on books stolen, only on books sold.  And this is the crux of the matter:  the author isn’t getting paid for a book that is pirated.  Since I doubt that anyone in any other industry would accept not getting paid for their work, the author should not be forced to work for free.  I want to be paid my royalty on every book sold, even if it is purchased by a library, and then I want libraries to buy a new copy when the average life-span of a physical book would require a repurchase (such as after twenty-five uses).  The big publishers COULD offer more shelter from piracy than can the indies, but are not seriously pursuing pirates because it will cost them money to do so.

A topical variant of this is the Google Books debacle, wherein Google takes up to eighty (!) pages of titles it wants and puts them online free.  In some of my books and anthologies where I have contributed, eighty pages means that my entire contribution (such as a short story) may be available on Google Books for nothing.  At least thirty-three of my titles showed up on Google books after a cursory search.  In this case, the Author’s Guild is mounting a class action suit, but this is still a good example of places where the establishment publishers could lead the way by acting in the interest of writers.

The writing community can be its own worst enemy at times. What are some of the issues you see cropping up in the Indie world? Solutions?

I have touched on piracy, above.  We would like to see extreme enforcement measures taken against pirates in the US as well as abroad, which would require a government enforcement arm allowed to destroy on identification:  send the pirates underground.

Indie publishers need to improve the quality of their editions, and the way they treat their writers, as well.  Indies could be the home of the great writers of tomorrow and many fine writers already writing, if indies took the quality issues seriously.  Because anyone can now publish a book, the numbers of books available are very high and the quality varies dramatically.  Indies must find a way to bring attention to their publications and convince writers that having a quality indie house publish their works is better than the writers doing the work themselves.  Perseid Publishing, our fledgling indie, offers better editing and better proofing than most houses, traditional or indie.  We have had a series of books brought to us because the proprietors thought they would get better treatment from us in areas where we care deeply, such as content, quality, covers and book production values.  Internet-based promotion is becoming a bigger and bigger issue:  no one yet knows what is useful, what is not.  Indies who can bring books to the attention of readers will prosper, assuming the books are readable.

The social media is…

The social media is something I do not understand.  I use it experimentally on book pages and blog pages and entities such as Twitter, to see if it will increase awareness of books, but we cannot tell if it helps or is simply a way for people to tell others what they had for dinner the night before.  Social media takes a great deal of time, and many people who might otherwise be reading are typing quips of 150 characters or less.  We have successfully created a “secret” working group on a big social media site for our shared universe “Heroes in Hell,” and that has been very useful:  people can share works in progress, ideas, discuss story lines, share characters.  We establish story arcs, keep each other informed of how stories are coming.  Chris and I and our “Muse of Hell, Sarah Hulcy, assign characters and approve story segments and approve synopses or help people integrate their work on a per volume basis:  a book like “Lawyers in Hell” or its follow-on, “Rogues in Hell,” would not have been anywhere near as cohesive before the advent of social media fora.

What is one question you are sick of being asked—not in interviews, but by individuals who know you write?

The questions we are asked range from “What kind of car do you drive?” “How much do you earn?” to “Where do you get your ideas?”  “How do you get an agent?” and now “What do you think of self-publishing?  “Is the novel dead?” remains a perennial favorite.  Often we are asked if we will read someone’s pet project.  Infrequently are we asked questions relevant to the books themselves.

There is a better questioner, who wants to know things such as “How do you get started writing a particular story?” or “How do you find a character?”  I deal with those people more seriously, since the sort of help they need is the sort I can provide.

How do you deal with negative reviews?

My first book, “High Couch of Silistra” (which we haven’t reissued yet, but will) was published by Bantam and talked about sexuality, genetic bases of behavior, power and emotion, in times when such subjects were only emerging as acceptable topics in science fiction or fantasy.  The Silistra Quartet is about a smart, strong, female in a culture where reproduction and power are accounted differently than on Earth.  Its first cover started the sword-wielding brass-bra craze and mothered generations of imitators.  “High Couch of Silistra” was first reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, which meant the genre press couldn’t ignore it.  A.J. Budrys was commissioned by “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction” and by “Omni” to review it, and gave the book two diametrically opposed reviews within the same month:  one positive, the other saying, “[...]dirty as hell.”  Today, “the universe’s most erotic courtesan,” in Fred Pohl’s words, seems relatively tame, but at the time Silistra ignited a furor.  I saw Budrys at a convention soon after and asked, “How could you do that – two opposite reviews of the same book?”  He said, “For money.”  Thereafter, for many years, I refused to read reviews, and told my publishers not to send them to me, even though Silistra was much praised by tastemakers such as John Clute.

Most print reviews in the heyday of 20th century publishing were determined by whether the publisher bought an expensive lunch for the reviewer to present the book personally, or simply sent it along.  There was a symbiosis between big publishers and big review organizations that, if the reviewer was not in New York, provided other ways for the publisher to indicate to the review organ which books it thought important (such as buying big ads in the trades).  Sometimes, with books such as “High Couch of Silistra” (which had multiple printings of its first edition, multiple foreign language sales, and was part of a four-book series that saw over 4M copies in print as the fourth volume was being published), a book can break out of category and surprise everyone.  Then the question was, will the reviewers help, or try to hinder a book that they didn’t recognize as one that might succeed?  And will the publisher support a book that sells outside the genre to which it was targeted?  We had this problem with the Baen hardcover, The 40-Minute War, which got a wonderful “Publishers’ Weekly” review (out of genre) that infuriated Simon and Schuster, which complained to Baen that he wasn’t supposed to be publishing anything but science-fiction or fantasy.  In the ensuing political battle between the imprint and the publishing giant, the book was greatly harmed – because of positive reviews that were out of genre.

These days, secondary source reviews are important in places like Wikipedia pages.  In general, with the object lesson of two divergent reviews from the same ‘credentialed reviewer’ in mind, I came to feel that if you believe the good reviews, you must also believe the bad ones, so I chose to look at reviews as individual opinion.  When the reviewer is so ignorant as to use “it’s” where “its” is proper, or to misuse grammar in the review, I ignore it altogether, even if it is positive.  Now, with an entire new set of “reader reviewers” and “blog reviewers,” who review many books very fast, I look for indications that the person who is reviewing the book actually read it, rather than skimmed it.  If I see a review complaining that a book has a political stance that doesn’t agree with the reviewer’s – or talking about a stylistic quirk rather than the story, I ignore that – since often this sort of review is perfunctory.

When I get bad reviews (which isn’t often), it tends to be for one of two reasons:  the reader has a political bone to pick, and we’re not politically correct; or the reader hasn’t the vocabulary to read the book or the time to spend to read the book:  you can’t speed-read our work.  Usually such reviewers write so poorly that they unmask themselves early on, so I pay them little attention.

The qualified reviewers stand out, and they know what kind of books they like, and what kind of books they don’t like.  Aside from the reader-reviewers who are merely trying to get large numbers of reviews under their by-line, with so many books available, independent reviewers try to review either something they’ll like or something they’ll hate, depending on what kind of review they prefer to write.  The hate reviewers leave a trail, and such people have always been there.  Readers soon learn who they are, and pay them little mind.

Today having many good “reader reviews” is thought to help a book, and I welcome those whenever I read them.  Like any other occupation, reviewers vary in quality and good ones – who will read the book and who can give the reader an idea of what the book is, and is not – are hard to find but very helpful.  So I pay most attention to the reader-reviewers, the blog reviewers, and the independent reviewers – although in that group there are admittedly people as unqualified as in any other.

How much reading do you get in, and can a writer excel at his or her craft if they do not read?

A writer MUST read.  A writer should be literate.  Writers learn best from reading writers who are better than they are, such as the writers of the Western literary canon.  Variations in style, tricks and flights of fancy, and the proper use of punctuation are learned by reading better writers.  Writers who want a bestseller and who read only derivative, poorly-crafted works by current bestselling writers are not reading anything that can truly help them.  Today, financial success and artistic success are often confused and conflated.  Bestsellerdom is two parts politics, one part caprice, and one part timing; talent has little to do with success in one’s lifetime:  the market moves faster than a copycat can imitate.  I read all the time.  Because when I am writing fiction, I read nonfiction and vice versa, what I read will vary depending on when I am asked.  I also read submissions (which can be troubling, due to lack of skill on the part of those submitting), and I read ancient works, sometimes many times, or read the same work from different translators.  I reread books I read long ago; I find that today my ability to appreciate Shakespeare and Chaucer and Milton and Byron and Dante and Roman and Greek writers and even Henry James and Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse and Marguerite Yourcenar is much greater than when I was younger.

As for writers who are not literate:  they will not be able to please me; I spend little time on writers who are not in some way unique in voice – and that requires assimilation of the great literature of the past.  I have little patience for people who haven’t read the basics important to our art and seminal to our craft, and this lack of understanding shows in everything they do, from how they construct sentences to how they use plot drivers.

Right now, I am reading, “Early Riders,” Lattimore’s “Iliad, “ Bloom’s “Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited” and banging around in Ovid and Sophocles.  Chris and I just finished rereading  “Paradise Lost,” Milton’s best, aloud, and are going on to more of him and Marlowe this fall.  When I have a bit more time, I’m intending to do the whole of Diodorus Siculus.

When does self-promotion cross the line and become a nuisance?

I am the wrong person for this question.  I am very uncomfortable with self-promotion.  I have read all the discussions about being accessible, and I have been trying to do that through Facebook.  I have a blog, and another one, and I do a bit on twitter.  I haven’t yet found respondents on any of these who want to engage in literary discussion or more than pleasant chitchat.  But this time is time I could be using to write.  When I am writing draft, I want as little external input as possible, and so then my time on the web dwindles.

This introspective nature may be a debit, with everyone else screaming at the top of their lungs how great they are, but it is common among more serious writers. We do acknowledge the necessity of self-promotion and our complete unfitness for it.  Nevertheless, on FB we are attempting to make people aware of books we’ve published and will be publishing.

What projects are you currently working on?

Our current projects include “Dreamers in Hell,” the follow-on to “Rogues in Hell,” and a new Sacred Band novel, untitled.  We are working on developing some sort of web activity that will help talented people in a creative webinar format – people who have real ability but need aid sorting out what are useful guidelines for writers and how to create an organic work; and once that is done, how to take the work forward toward the best book that person can write.  We’re known as tough but good editors, and we hope we can find a way to transfer some of what we know to more than one person at a time.

What is one thing about you that would surprise the readers who do not know you personally?

Let’s see:  I am very shy.  I hate public appearances, especially in minimally structured environments.  When I’m doing TV or other interviews, I have no idea what I’m going to say:  some Muse in my brain takes over and uses my mouth.  I have learned when to trust that I will be ready, or that if I am not ready, it’s too late to fix it.

 It is no secret that I am a huge fan, what writers are you a fan of, and who makes you feel starstruck?

I love Homer, first of all.  Homer is always new for me.  I love Marcus Aurelius and wish I’d read him in my twenties.  I admire Roger Penrose, have followed his career for years, and am very happy he has repudiated the quantum popularizers with whom he worked for a time  I love Shakespeare, Milton, MarloweI love Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I love Robert E. Howard.  I love Henry James.  I love Xenophon.  Most of all, if you’ve read my work, you know I love Herakleitos of Ephesos, Thales, and the pre-Socratics in general.  And I am very fond of Ancient Near Eastern texts, from Gilgamesh and Kikkuli onward.  I love Plato and Aristotle (though for a time I blamed all the world’s ills on Aristotle).   I love so many writers... moderns such as Yourcenar, Renault, Kipling, Eisenhower and Churchill.  And I have a taste for Sun Tzu, Confucius, Clauswitz, Disraeli.  I love the modern poets and the classical poets and even the Victorian poets, up to a point, and that point is Byron and Shelley.  I like Jefferson, Einstein, Kafka.  I enjoy brilliant critics and pundits such as Russell Baker and Bloom.  Zola said art is life seen through a temperament, and if the writer brings that to his work, I tend to enjoy his work tremendously.

Is there anyone you’d like to give a mention?

I absolutely want to mention Chris Morris’ contribution.  Although people think of me as a consistent force who has worked in several collaborations, Chris Morris has always been and continues to be both my co-writer and editor.  Sometimes he titles books or stories or defines and clarifies ideas; sometimes he rewords or suggests deletions or expansions.  Always he and I agree on what will be covered in the next day’s draft; when that draft is done he reads every draft sentence aloud and we argue out changes.  When we attribute a story to one of us or the other , that attribution comes from who had the original idea.  We have grown into a two-headed monster of a sort:  if pressed, on some passages I cannot say what he wrote and what I wrote.  In the early days, writing fiction was more my bailiwick and writing lyrics, his.  But no longer. And the books are better for it.

What is in your “to be read” pile right now?

“Measure for Measure” and “Troilus and Cressida,” by Shakespeare.  “Tamburlaine the Great,” by Marlowe.  Three novel manuscripts, including one from Douglas McKittrick, a new writer we’re excited about.  Many stories for “Dreamers in Hell.” Diodorus Siculus, “Bibliotheca historica.”  Final revision of Michael A. Armstrong’s “Bridge Over Hell.”  Harold Bloom’s “Genius.”  “How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics,” by Calvert Watkins. 

Thanks so much to Janet Morris for a very detailed interview. I appreciate all the time. Now, all you who have enjoyed meeting her, go check out a book or five.

A last look at the links:

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