Monday, August 25, 2014

The Chosen and the Wannabes

I’ve recently read three books by bestselling mystery authors. If I had written any one of them, they would not have been published by a big five publisher. Sour grapes? I don’t think so; I think it reflects the reality of the hoops a wannabe author has to go through today to be published by the Big Five.

One of the bestsellers started with a bang and then proceeded to give not one, not two, not three, but four solid pages of backstory. In order for me to win a Big Five publishing contract, I first need to have an agent agree to represent me. I can (almost) guarantee that no agent would ask for the full manuscript if I presented them with a terrific page and a half followed by four pages of backstory.

Anyone disagree?

Oh, by the way, it was a decent story once we finally got to it. However, the only reason I could see for forcing the backstory down my throat in one huge chunk was laziness. It would have taken more time and effort to break it into smaller chunks and provide it as/when needed. I kept reading because I was committed to reading the book and taking notes on what this author did well (and there were a number of things).

The second bestseller drove me crazy with mid-scene POV shifts. No white space between character A’s POV and character B’s POV. One paragraph it was A, the next it was B. Most were clearly intentional, illustrating a style I find often in literary works, but less frequently in the mystery genre.

Okay, I thought, when you’re rich and famous, you can push the envelope. I’m good with that—until I came to several POV hops: a quick intraparagraph POV shift from A to B to A. If intentional, I wondered why. If not, I wondered where the editors were.

And yet, those POV switches didn’t faze Jan a bit when she read the book, which she liked. When I pointed out the “errors,” she acknowledged she had read through them because she was into the story. Fair enough, I thought. I’m too critical because I write to avoid those types of POV shifts, and so they jar me when I do read them.

However, I do think agents would pitch my submission into the reject pile as illustrative of poor writing technique.

Number three had me going from page one. It continued strong through the middle and kept me reading one night much later than I had intended. Really good stuff. The ending was a total disappointment. It felt as though the author hit his word count target, added one final chapter so there was some conclusion, and wrote THE END.

The beginning sure sold the story. The ending convinced me not to read the next one, which I doubt was either the author’s or publisher’s intention. I am of the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” camp. There are too many good stories to waste time if I can afford it, so this author is off my preferred list.

Which is what agents say as they go through their submission piles. I’ve come to the conclusion that wannabes must write well. Bestselling authors must write quickly. The best of the best can do both.

I was at the Mystery One bookstore in Milwaukee earlier this year speaking with the owner, who said something to the effect that, “The best writing today is being done by midlist authors.” To which I might add, and some of the wannabes.

~ Jim

[First published 8/24/14 on Writers Who Kill]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Understanding Differing Author Views on Publishing

Here is my claim: anyone who purports their views to be totally independent either (1) has no skin in the game, (2) is honest, but fooling themselves, (3) is dishonest and trying to fool you.

Harsh, I know, but I do believe it to be true and a useful guide for reading anyone’s opinion.

Your immediate question should be, so Jim, in this blog are you representing (1), (2) or (3). Unfortunately, my earnings as an author qualify me as having almost no skin in the game. However, I do have a worldview that causes me to want to convince you to look behind rhetoric to understand what drives the presentation of stated facts. I guess that means you’ll need to decide if I am fooling myself with my purported independence or fooling you by cherry-picking facts.

The Amazon/Hachette business dispute is acting as a lightning rod for authors. Amazon and Hachette are negotiating over contract terms; and as part of their attempt at economic leverage, Amazon had been giving Hachette titles poor treatment as compared to books from other large publishers. Two competing forays by authors into the public discussion of the Amazon/Hachette negotiations are the letter paid for and signed by 900 authors, and a petition on asking authors and readers to back Amazon’s position (8.400 signatures). Let’s take a peek at each.

What 900 Authors Want You to Know

Here is the full text of the “Authors United” letter published in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. The biggest complaints (all true from what I can tell) from authors revolved around four issues. 
  • Amazon has chosen not to list all pre-order books from Hachette in their online bookstore
  • Amazon has chosen not to stock some Hachette books at normal levels, leading to longer than normal delivery dates
  • Amazon is not discounting Hachette books as much as they normally do (and are still doing for other publishers)
  • Amazon is suggesting alternative, less expensive books on some pages for Hachette books.

The signatories include Hachette authors, who naturally have an economic interest in hoping Hachette prevails. To the extent they are losing sales by Amazon’s tactics, and some clearly are, they are being economically disadvantaged in the dispute. Publicity for this letter has made hay over the fact that Hachette does not publish most of the signing authors. The trumpeting would have you believe those authors are signing in solidarity.

However, those authors at other large publishing houses have almost as large a stake in the outcome of the Hachette negotiations as do Hachette authors. Their publishers will shortly have to deal with Amazon on the same contract issues, and they presume Amazon will continue to use the same negotiating tactics. After all, Amazon is using them on others, such as the recently reported dispute with Disney. (Blu-ray titles are experiencing the same issues)

Their letter goes on to state that, “we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.” Yet there has been no equivalent angst by this group toward Barnes and Noble and many independent booksellers for refusing to carry Amazon Publishing titles. Why? Because that is not an economic issue for authors published by big publishers.

They suggest they are not “taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon” and then go on to ask Amazon to give up its bargaining advantages, as if that request is not taking Hachette’s side.

One last point on the Authors United letter: they close by requesting readers to tell Jeff Bezos what they think and provide his email address. Bezos can tell what readers actually think by looking at Amazon sales – emails aren’t going to cut it.

8,400 sign petition

Now, let’s look at the petition to Hachette on to “Stop fighting low prices and fair wages” created by Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey and others and signed by 8,400 people to date.

A key line is “Amazon, in contrast [to big publishers who purportedly control what you can read], trusts you to decide what to read, and they strive to keep the price you pay low. They allow all writers to publish on their platform, and they pay authors between 35% and 70% of the list price of the book.”

The interesting thing is that the dispute is between Hachette (the publisher) and Amazon (the retailer, not Amazon the publisher). There is no doubt that many people are published today because Amazon has let anyone inexpensively self-publish and market their book. To the promoters of this petition, that “freedom” means we should give Amazon a free pass on the rest of its operations. Amazon is good, other publishers are bad. Therefore, support Amazon as it fights against the other publishers.

Authors and readers alike would do well to separate Amazon the publisher from Amazon the retailer. It is Amazon the retailer who is battling Hachette for profit margin.

The petition itself regards a proposal made by Amazon to create a fund jointly funded by Amazon and Hachette to keep authors whole. How generous of Amazon. While they continue to try to cripple Hachette sales they cause Hachette more pain by making them pay for the decreased sales! A small price for Amazon to pay to help solidify its bargaining position.

The petition is short; the “explanation” is almost 2,500 words. It is a full-out apology for Amazon. So why are these authors so enamored with Amazon? Because their livelihoods depend on it. Self-published authors make most of their sales as ebooks and Amazon sells the most ebooks, by far. If people stop using Amazon and turn to independent bookstores (very few ebook sales) or Barnes and Noble (either brick and mortar or electronic), their sales will plummet. Of course they are in Amazon’s corner.

The 900 might have done better to simply notify the public that because of Amazon taking a hardball approach to the protracted negotiations, readers might find it difficult to buy certain authors’ books from Amazon. While this is no different than what big stores do to their merchants, it is affecting authors. Readers need not be inconvenienced; they can find the books elsewhere. Including QR Codes to Barnes and Noble and a few favorite Indy Bookstores (who might have helped foot the bill) in the notice would help readers easily buy from the alternative stores. If Jeff Bezos saw a decrease in sales, he might reconsider whether his negotiation tactics were working.

The 8,400 should try to take advantage of Amazon’s making it difficult to buy some books by running promotions of their own books.

And we readers should realize that Hachette is looking out for Hachette, Amazon is looking out for Amazon, and we can any book we want even if Amazon isn’t carrying it.

~ Jim

Monday, August 11, 2014

Driving Lessons

Beastette & Little Red
We’ve just had our family from Minnesota for a visit: two parents, two kids (almost 10 and almost 13) and dog (2+). One advantage of living deep in the woods is that kids and dogs are permitted a level of freedom unavailable at home. A great deal of learning comes from that freedom. The dog ditches her lead for the duration, roams the woods, drinks from mud puddles, swims in the lake and barks at critters without being yelled at (too much).

Children enjoy many of the same loosening of rules: they too can roam the woods, swim in the lake (under supervision), make lots of noise, sleep on the screened porch or out in a tent, and they can learn to drive years before the socially accepted, legally enforced standards.

First it starts with ATVs—all terrain vehicles. We have two: Beastette (a powerful yellow Polaris; at the time of its purchase I owned “Beastie,” a Ford Expedition) and Little Red (a slightly lower horse-powered red Honda). A sticker on Beastette indicates no one under age 16 should operate it. Another indicates you should not ride double. Both of these are important considerations if you operate an ATV off road or on slopes where an ATV can tip over. (When clearing our house site of trees, I managed to back Beastette into a hole and tip it over on myself. It hurt.)

When the kids are small we plop them in front of us and take them on ATV rides. They have to wear their bike helmets (the better to dent my chin with) and we never go superfast. The kids like bumps, so I make a point to run over all the rocks in the road. Starting around age 8, I let them do the driving, with me sitting behind them and early on with hands also on the steering bars—it takes some muscles to turn an ATV, and in case of danger I can knock a thumb from the throttle and squeeze the brakes.

They learn to steer; they learn to anticipate places where they need to go slower. I even teach them how to use hand signal turns. And once the older one was strong enough (roughly age 12) I allowed her to drive the ATV on her own, but only on “decent” trails, and I’m right there with the other ATV. They learn to drive responsibly. In a couple more years, I’ll let her go off on her own—as long as we have an agreed route and expected time of return.

Red Rover
This summer we tackled driving the car. The older is almost 13 and taller than her grandmother. There is no physical reason she can’t handle a car. She’s reasonably mature, and I’m in the passenger seat to coach, praise and if necessary throw the car out of gear and apply the emergency brake, since unlike a driver’s ed car there is no dual set of brakes. Our roads are dirt, not smooth, which inhibits going too fast—helpful when driver reactions are not yet honed.

I have been driving for almost fifty years. Much of driving becomes habit or muscle memory, both of which form from practice. I don’t have a how-to driving manual I can pull out to teach my grandkids, and the lessons I gave my younger son at camp are almost fifteen years old. And some things are entirely new.

When you first get into a car, what do you do? If you are like me you adjust the seat and then check the mirrors, first rearview mirror and then side mirrors. When I taught my son, the only seat adjustment was forward and back. Maybe you needed to adjust the tilt of the seatback if someone really tall had been in the car and cranked the seat backwards to make up for long legs. Now, in addition to those two adjustments, my car seat has up and down, tilt of the front of the seat, lumbar support – and everything is power. What used to take one minute of explanation and experimentation, this time required me to crouch next to the open driver’s door and guide her fingers to the right places to push various buttons to provide the correct seating for her.

Because of driving ATVs, we could foreshorten training about which way to turn the ignition key, but I forgot until the third time out to tell her to use the same foot for accelerator and brake – and interestingly when she converted to the right foot only approach, her braking became smoother.

When you first start to drive there are so many things to learn and many tasks must be done sequentially or simultaneously: accelerate smoothly, brake smoothly, learn where the right and left sides of the car are, learn where the tires are, signal turns, make turns without over- or under-steering, how to execute a k-turn, how to adjust windshield wipers, turn on/off lights (radio is forbidden during driving lessons).

We used rocks in roads to learn about where the tires are (try to run over that rock with your left tires), where the front bumper is (try to stop just before that rock), where the middle of the car is (drive so the rock will be in the center of the car), the space of the side mirrors (drive so the mirror just touches the evergreen).

My kids did a lot of backing up. I discovered with a rearview camera, backing up became much easier for children of the video game era, and we didn’t need to spend proportionally as much time as I had with a previous generation.

An hour a day seemed to work well. With plenty of skills to practice, we could keep it interesting and fun given I really didn’t want to go too far off my property given the illegality of the activity.

Mama Blue
The capstone activity for year one was moving from an automatic to manual transmission. I’ve always preferred manual transmissions (except in rush hour traffic), but I taught my children how to drive with automatics because it was one less thing to worry about. However, I insisted they learn to drive standard transmissions because that knowledge might save a life in case of emergency.

So for the last day out, we switch from my car to Jan’s, a basic Subaru Forester with manual transmission. I start the lesson by demonstrating all the things she will do wrong. As I’m explaining, I purposefully stall the car. It startles her and I laugh and explain what happened. I next do the airplane takeoff routine: applying lots of accelerator while keeping the clutch engaged. “Whoa!” she says. We discuss how to fix that problem. Lastly I get the car to do the herky-jerky when it’s in too high a gear with too little speed.

I explain what the clutch is doing in terms of her multiple-speed bicycle. I don’t know why I never thought of that analogy before, but she catches on quickly to what happens in a stall, airplane takeoff and the herky-jerky. Then it’s her turn. We switch seats and after she adjusts the seat and belts herself in, she figures out how to adjust Jan’s mirrors. Next we go through the gear box shifting up and shifting down, and I describe differences she might find—in that case of emergency—like some cars require you to push down to get into reverse.

She’s ready and goes to start the car, but has forgotten that she needs to depress the clutch before the ignition will work. A lesson reinforced is a lesson learned. We’ve talked about the “friction point” of every clutch: that the secret is to find that point and then you can start the car without using the accelerator. That is what we practice: clutch only starts, braking to a stop without stalling, starting again. I have 3/8ths mile of road before reaching my property line. Along the way are some hills, so we learn that starting on hills we have to involve the accelerator. This allows her to experience her own airplane revving moment and one short stretch of herky-jerky before stalling. We start and stop and occasionally stall our way to the end where we need to use reverse to turn around.

Bless her: she remembers to signal the left hand turn from which she’ll back out.

No more backup camera. She learns to loop her arm over the back seat and that reverse is a bit higher gear than first and with the wheels turned she’ll need a bit of gas. The turn made, we start and stop ourselves back to the driveway, turn around and switch drivers so I can demonstrate shifting. First I do several upshifts for her, describing the process, the timing of gas pedal release, clutch, shift, gas pedal and clutch. Then downshifting with a very quick history lesson about synchromesh should she happen to meet a car that requires a full stop to engage first gear.

She’s back to driving and now she has to accelerate fast enough to allow second gear. The first time she operates the pedals and I shift. Next she operates pedals and puts her hands on mine when I shift. Next her hands are on the gearshift, mine on top. Last she’s on her own. We make it to second gear several times before reaching our turnaround. A couple of times she didn’t engage the gear and the airplane returned. Once we met the herky-jerky man. On the way back we repeat: start, second gear, stop; start, second gear, stop.

I decide she’s ready.

“This time,” I say, “we’re going to get into third gear and you are going to have to go fast enough to do it.” She nods, wary, a bit worried, I think, but I know she can do it. I point to a spot by which I want her to be in second gear. We’re off and she accelerates smoothly, shifts into second gear and eases off the accelerator. “More gas,” I tell her and she responds. I allow her to stay in second around a bit of a curve with a threatening boulder on the left side. “Now,” I say, “accelerate and shift to third halfway down the hill.” She does, and I see the creep of a smile, but again she doesn’t continue with sufficient gas after the shift and we’re starting to climb the hill.

“Okay,” I coach, “now a downshift.” She complies, chugs up the hill, around another curve and I have her accelerate, shift to third, apply the brake, downshift to second. She remembers on her own to signal her left turn, making the turn she comes to a smooth halt.

She sits back in her seat. “That,” she says, “was overwhelming.”

I give her a big smile. “Oh no, my dear, you did it all! So, it wasn’t overwhelming. But, I’ll give you that it was whelming!”

She drives home, obtaining and staying in third, downshifts before the left turn into the driveway and comes to a perfect stop before the house. School starts in a couple of weeks and she’s earned her bragging rights for the start of eighth grade: “I drove a stick shift!”

“Yes you did,” I say. “Yes you did.”

~ Jim

[This blog originally posted on Writers Who Kill 8/10/14]