This is the blog for “novelists of a certain age.” Its purpose is to provide the resources and support you need to help you become a successful late-blooming novelist.
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This is the blog for “novelists of a certain age.” Its purpose is to provide the resources and support you need to help you become a successful late-blooming novelist.
You’ve found a friendly online destination. Jump in!
For the past year or so, I’ve written about different aspects of the “new publishing paradigm” on this blog. I’ve opined about the evolution of traditional publishing into something else — and also mused about the impact of the transformation on late-blooming novelists.
In fact, the chief reason why I felt confident talking the talk — commenting on eBooks and Print on Demand technology — was that Janet and I were also walking the walk. We launched an eBook-centric publishing company early in 2011. Most of my pontifications were based on our hard-won experience and the lessons (some painful) we’d learned about publishing in the second decade of the 21st century.
We intended Greenbrier Book Company, LLC, to be a “micropublisher” that would re-publish out-of-print novels written by well-established, multi-published authors. Our publishing strategy focused on quality:
Much to our surprise, Greenbrier rapidly outgrew its “micropublisher” label: Because we’ll have nearly 40 titles “in print” by the end of 2011, we now classify as a “small publisher.”
Three of those titles are “debut novels,” from first-time novelists, that we’ll simultaneously publish as paper books and eBooks (we even produced paper Advance Reader Copies — ARCs — to provide to major reviewers, three months ahead of the publication date).
Visit the Greenbrier Books website and check out the list of titles: www.greenbrierbooks.com
Speaking of paper… Greenbrier has published more paper books that we initially thought we would. We’ll probably produce a third of our novels in both eBook and paper formats.
Another surprise was that three well-respected literary agents brought their clients’ out-of-print work to us. It seems that Greenbrier provides an interesting alternative to authors who prefer not to re-publish their own out-of-print novels.
We reached the same conclusion about our own novels. We didn’t intend to re-publish them through Greenbrier, but changed our mind after we began to receive positive comments about the eBooks we produced.
The only way we’ve been able to afford to publish so many eBooks and POD books this year was to do most of the work ourselves. Therein lies the chief reason why Janet has rarely participated in this blog. During most of 2011, she’s been Greenbrier’s industrial-strength acquisitions editor, copyeditor, proofreader, and author-relations manager. She works seven days a week getting books ready to produce.
That’s when I take over. I use InDesign desktop-publishing software to “hand-craft” our eBooks and POD volumes. Many publishers — even some traditional houses — use “conversion software” (the programs used by self-publishers) to create eBooks from Word docs or PDF files. I prefer to build our titles a chapter-by-chapter. It’s time consuming work, but I’m convinced that the professional look and feel of our published books — both eBook and paper — justifies the additional effort.
I also wear Greenbrier’s financial management hat; it’s one of my jobs to create the royalty statements we send to our authors. This is not especially easy in the age of eBooks. You’ve probably seen posts on blogs and loops decrying the failure of some major publishers to send accurate accountings of eBook sales to their authors. Frankly, I’ve begun to sympathize with the major houses. Sales reports issued by different eBook vendors are in different formats — and involve different discount rates — making it a heavy-duty struggle to figure out combined sales for each title.
Our work at Greenbrier Books has kept us too busy to do other things — and has delayed our writing of two more cozy mysteries. Consequently, the time has come when we have to switch gears.
In truth, we’ve probably written about as much as can be said on the topic of late-blooming novelists. That’s why we won’t add any new posts to Fiction After 50. But, our “marketing blogging” will go on:
The Benrey Blog (a brand-new blog) will present musings about mystery fiction — from us and other novelists — and occasional posts about publishing. It’s intended for both readers and writers. The URL is: blog.benrey.com
The Greenbrier Patch (the new Greenbrier blog) will present reflections about storytelling written by Greenbrier Book’s different storytellers. It’s also meant for both readers and writers. The URL is: greenbrierpatch.com
We want to thank the many novelists who read Fiction After 50 and added comments; we hope you’ll read our new blogs.
For those of you who have novels in progress, we wish you great success with your late-blooming fiction!
Ron and Janet Benrey
Those of us who began writing fiction 20 years ago didn’t get lots of advice on how to do it. Back in the early 1990s, Janet and I…
We thought about taking a fiction-writing course at a local college, but never did, mostly because I was skeptical that one can learn the craft of fiction in a classroom. I wasn’t alone in my opinion. Conventional wisdom in those olden days held that you taught yourself to write fiction by… writing fiction. You sat down at your computer (or typewriter) and pounded the keys until your words became good enough to sell.
One purveyor of writing advice we dearly wanted but didn’t have was an experienced fiction editor. Two decades ago, most editors worked for publishers — which created a Catch-22-like situation. An unedited manuscript didn’t get edited until after a publisher bought it, even though some judicious pre-submission editing might have helped to sell the novel to a publisher.
I found myself musing about writing advice the other day when a church friend asked me for “some writing tips” he could pass on to his daughter, who is about to graduate with an English degree and wants to be a novelist.
I managed to resist the urge to say, Intervene — before she develops a tragic compulsion. After hemming a hawing a moment, I took the easy way out and suggested that she buy the classic book “Self Editing For Fiction Writers” (by Browne & King) and attend a writers’ conference that offers a comprehensive fiction track.
I defy anyone to come up with a better off-the-cuff recommendation, given the torrent of advice available to novelists today. How do you pick and choose among the…
The purveyors of writing advice (I’m sure I left out several) seem to outweigh the interested novelists-in-waiting who might want to receive it.
And my list is only for writing advice. There are parallel streams of guidance about self-publishing, creating eBooks, and implementing sure-fire book promotion.
With so much “wisdom” floating around, it stands to reason that many (most?) of the tips are unworkable, contradictory, and simply wrong.
Frankly, I’ve never been bothered by dumb writing advice. (Most of us can sort the wheat from the chaff.) What really annoys me off are those absolute commandments issued by advice-givers with great credentials: Do things my way or you will fail.
One tip I came across a few years ago was the edict — promulgated during a presentation by a respected novel guru — to move every detail of “backstory” to the back of a novel (at least beyond page 30). He insisted that opening chapters must contain nothing but compelling action and dialog that draws the reader into the story.
While it makes good sense not to clutter Chapter One with non-essentials, a blanket “no details” prohibition can’t possibly apply to all stories, of all genres, told by all novelists.
Unhappily, several fellow late bloomers in the audience took the advice as gospel and — with very little pondering — decided to rewrite the front ends of their works in progress.
IMO, late-blooming novelists are especially vulnerable to “thrashing” — repeatedly changing course in response to new guidance. We recognize the value of learning from other’s mistakes, because we know that we don’t have time to make all the mistakes ourselves. And so, we consume writing advice voraciously, hoping that the secret to writing a bestseller is lurking in the next how-to book — or will be revealed in the next workshop.
I confess that I pay close attention to gurus, too, even though (as a long-time giver of writing advice in workshops, writing classes, blogs, and books) I know the fundamental limitation of most writing tips. The vast majority are descriptive rather than prescriptive. They tell you the characteristics of compelling fiction but not how to write it. Wouldn’t it be grand, for example, if someone published the recipe for the gripping first pages we’re endlessly advised to create?
Until that happens, the best way to learn to write fiction is to read novels and pound your keyboard. That’s my writing tip for today.
Transcript of a recent dumb discussion:
Whippersnapper: Do you want to know the real problem with late-blooming novelists, as you call them?
Me: Do you have a specific problem in mind?
Whippersnapper: You bet… (Smug simper.) You’re all on ego trips. That’s why you insist on producing paper books to give to friends and relatives. And why you still crave to do book signings. And why you print bookmarks (that nobody uses any more) and tacky business cards that proclaim your title as: “Author.”
Me: [Not quite sure how to respond] Umm… well…
Naturally, all kinds of appropriate answers (and accompanying gestures) popped into my mind later.
Had I been as sharp as I used to be “in the olden days,” I would have pointed out that most of those “prideful sins” are committed in the hope of promoting sales, not to increase the author’s sense of self-importance. (Well, that’s true most of the time.)
More decisively, I would have also noted that a healthy ego — a well-balanced sense of self-esteem — is an essential piece of creative equipment for every fiction writer.
When Norman Mailer died in 2007, The New York Times titled his obituary: “Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Dies at 84.”
An especially relevant passage from the piece: “Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match.”
I agree that writing a novel is a “heroic enterprise.” I say this even though many of the heroic novelists I know are shy introverts — personality traits that lead some people (including themselves) to conclude they have small egos.
Not so! How can anyone with low self-esteem accomplish the daunting job of assembling upwards of 100,000 well-chosen words to create a publishable manuscript?
Because the odds of writing even a moderate best seller are miniscule, few novelists earn minimum wage for the many hours they’ve invested in writing their manuscripts. The authors who finish novel-length manuscripts need more than commitment and writing skill. They also need a big helping of self-confidence that keeps saying, “You can write something worth reading — and beat the lousy odds.”
And there’s another factor I see as particularly significant to late-blooming novelists. We’re late bloomers either because…
IMO, both of these explanations for delay have their roots in the way we were brought up. We learned from our parents and teachers that books were special — and by implication, that the authors of books were equally special. That being so, sitting down to write a novel is inherently an act of high self esteem for a late-bloomer.
Of course, there are bound to be periods of doubt. Here’s another relevant passage from the Mailer obituary: Mr. Mailer later said of [his first novel, The Naked and the Dead]: “Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace. On the other hand I also thought, ‘I don’t know anything about writing. I’m virtually an impostor.’”
My point is that even Norman Mailer did not have complete self-confidence in his abilities. But unless an author’s self-regard significantly outweighs his/her inappropriate modesty, he or she will never actually finish a novel.
I won’t deny that ego gratification is one of the rewards for finishing — and publishing — a novel. The burst of excitement produced by receiving a box of newly printed books from a publisher (or seeing your eBook on sale in the Kindle Store) doesn’t last long for most authors, but it’s a nifty feeling while it does.
We’re entitled to a moment of joy — given all the hours we spent writing the darn thing.
I’ll also admit that some late-blooming authors seem a tad “egotistical.” (A few minutes spent browsing randomly through novelist websites will prove the point.) However, I doubt that a true egomaniac (a person suffering from truly obsessive self-centeredness) could write a compelling novel because of his/her lack of empathy with others — along with the inability to follow-through and finish something as demanding as a novel.
On balance then, a robust ego is a fine thing for any novelist to have — even if it does occasionally annoy people in the immediate vicinity.
Well… I’ve been in another noisy argument about whether or not to apply Digital Rights Management (DRM) to our eBooks. Actually, it was more than a mere argument; I recently took part in the sort of passionate debate that used to be the province of theological battles and political squabbles.
New proverb: don’t discuss religion, politics, or DRM at a party.
DRM is applied to an eBook file to protect it from different forms of “piracy” — making (and distributing) multiple copies of an eBook is the most obvious kind of theft. There are several DRM schemes out there; most involve content encryption and an additional “wrapper” of coding that’s added to the eBook file.
DRM-ing an eBook typically creates an “island of compatibility.” An eBook with DRM protection can only be read on the specific eReader devices — of one particular flavor — that you’ve registered with the eBook distribution platform (e.g. Kindle, Nook, Apple iBook).
Choosing whether or not to DRM an eBook is ultimately the publisher’s (or self-publisher’s) decision. There’s a box to check — or uncheck — when you upload the appropriate source file to your eBook distribution platform(s).
Given the intense advocacy for and against DRM-ing, the decision isn’t an easy one.
For starters, let me say that my recent debate opponent was not a late-blooming novelist. In my experience, it’s hard to get mature authors riled up over DRM.
On the one hand, most late bloomers share an almost visceral commitment to protect the intellectual property they create. (We seem to get more annoyed off than any other category of authors when/if we discover that our novels have been pirated.)
On the other hand, many late bloomers are pragmatists who intentionally forgo DRM because they…
Having “mixed emotions” about protecting their eBooks probably explains why late blooming novelists tend to choose one route or the other without becoming vocal advocates of either path.
For the record, let me say that I favor DRM protection. All our eBooks are DRM-ed. I’ll explain why in the paragraphs that follow, but I won’t try to prove that I’m right. I especially don’t want to trigger a serious debate here — although I’d love to see lots of replies that present different viewpoints.
My decision was based on a simple observation. Few owners of eReader devices seem to know — or care — about DRM. (We’ve never received a single complaint.) The days are long over when DRM caused usability issues and eReader crashes, so there’s really no reason for a customer to reject DRM unless s/he has “untoward designs” on an eBook file.
Bottom line: DRM is essentially transparent to a law-abiding consumer.
The claim that customers automatically reject DRM-protected books might have been true five years ago, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s true today. I also find it hard to believe that applying or not applying DRM will have any impact on the “buzz” that creates a best-selling novel. Consider: virtually every eBook sold by a traditional publisher is DRM-ed, including lots of blockbusters.
One well-publicized exception is O’Reilly, a leading publisher of books about technology. They don’t DRM — and have done well. But so have lots of publishers who do DRM.
I admit that I can’t prove that DRM-ing our books didn’t cost us sales. But neither can the anti-DRM folks prove that leaving an eBook unprotected will increase sales. The evidence to support this “strategy” is anecdotal at best, and boils down to personal opinion.
I opted to DRM our novels even though I know that DRM is fairly easy to defeat. A technically savvy person can quickly find (on the Internet) “hacking” software to remove DRM.
I decided that although DRM is useless against a determined intellectual property pirate, it will prevent “good-intentioned” thievery by “well-meaning” people who see nothing wrong with providing free copies of eBooks to their friends, their students, or the members of their book club. (I’m skeptical that “honor system” statements — e.g. please be a good person and don’t copy this book — can stop this kind of pilfering.)
The one anti-DRM claim that did get me thinking was the notion that eBook piracy is a good thing. The idea is that stealing an eBook is just another form of sampling and/or lending — free book promotion that should be encouraged, because it helps to build a novelist’s readership base.
In the end, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. We’ll try to prevent piracy and use traditional book promotion techniques to build our readership base.
And so, we do DRM. Do you?
When Hurricane Irene paid coastal North Carolina a visit, a particularly strong wind band hovered over New Bern, NC, and dropped a tall pine tree on our roof — doing mostly cosmetic damage that we were able to get fixed quickly.
The lead-up to the storm (including the hourly forecasts of impending doom)… the storm itself… and the aftermath (the period until our house was back to normal) lasted a solid twelve days for us. My fiction-writing productivity plummeted during that period. I discovered that I couldn’t string words together efficiently with “more important” things on my mind.
I wasn’t suffering from writer’s block (if such a thing exists), but rather, as Hercule Poirot might say, an “overwhelming of the little grey cells.”
This seems a frequent stumbling block for late-blooming writers. We have plenty to time to write, but our minds get focused elsewhere on things that are obviously more important.
I first noted the phenomenon a decade ago when a number of writers in our critique group stopped making progress on their novels for several months after the 9/11 attack. One complained that an overdose of reality had “de-focused his mind on fiction.”
Because I love to collect lists, I began one called “De-Focusing Factors.” Whenever a fellow novelist complained about his/her low productivity, I listened for the reason. I eventually cataloged a diverse inventory of disruptive factors. Here IMO are the strongest:
Well-meaning friends and relatives who recognize the writer’s quandary usually offer one of three suggestions:
Alas, none of these sure-fire re-focusing remedies actually work for many (most?) afflicted authors. Certainly they don’t work for me.
Given that late-blooming novelists can run into several de-focusing factors each year — some at the same time — it’s a wonder that any of us manage to finish our novels. After all, who can be creative when depressed by horrific catastrophes… or panicked about money … or frightened by health issues … or burdened with a prodigal child?
As you may have guessed, that’s a rhetorical question for which I have a ready answer: “Lots of novelists who have tight deadlines to meet write like the dickens despite what else is on their minds.”
An impossible deadline can be a destructive distraction, but a merely stringent due-date can help get those little grey cells unclogged.
Writers with deadlines often work through pain … think around problems on the horizon … and do find ways to compartmentalize the grim thoughts echoing through their minds.
In fact, I believe the most valuable aspect of receiving a publishing agreement from a traditional publisher is the delivery date that the contract assigns. A deadline concentrates the mind — almost as wonderfully as the proverbial thought of being hanged in a fortnight.
Another group of writers who have to produce words no matter what are those professionals who survive on their writing income. Here, I’m thinking about the legion of freelance writers who work for magazines, corporations, and marketing communications agencies. Most don’t have the luxury to stop writing and start brooding.
It doesn’t explain their productivity in the face of extreme agitation to claim that they aren’t doing the difficult work of “creative writing.” During my two decades as a freelancer, it wasn’t the comparative “easiness” of the writing that kept me sitting in front of my word processor. (To the contrary, writing speeches is at least as creatively challenging as writing fiction.) The butt glue that held me in my swivel chair was the simple knowledge that if I wanted to make the next mortgage payment I had to keep my promises and deliver the required number of well-written words on time to my client.
Money (chiefly lack thereof) seems to be an excellent refocusing agent for many multi-published fiction writers, too. Janet and I know several novelists who depend on their advances and periodic royalties. They’ll write good words while the floodwaters are rising.
Even though the oft-told story about Anthony Burgess is a myth — that he wrote A Clockwork Orange and two other novels while dying from a brain tumor, to build a nest egg for his family — it strikes most people as perfectly plausible.
Why are many late-blooming novelists — including me — easily de-focused? I think it’s because although we want to write fiction, we don’t absolutely, positively have to finish a novel. We can change our self-imposed deadlines without any real penalty because we aren’t counting on a specific payment or honoring a delivery schedule that someone else considers important.
This absence of necessity leads to the vague feeling of inconsequentiality I hear many late bloomers express: “It doesn’t make any difference if I finish my novel next year rather than next month.”
So … where does a late-bloomer without a contract get a “real” deadline. Some authors report success with:
I got my own head back into gear after Irene by the simple expedient of following the practical advice given by Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Don’t sit down to write a book; instead, create short, disconnected chunks of copy, confident that you’ll eventually link them together like “Christmas tree ornaments” to decorate your novel.
The same strategy works when you need to write a blog post. Like this one.
I wish I had a proverbial dollar for every time I’ve heard a late-blooming novelist say: “I want to spend my time writing fiction. I don’t want to publish novels, I don’t want to promote novels. My only job is to write them!”
Well … Janet and I used to say the same things, but life didn’t work out that way for us. We’ve become part of the vast group of new-publishing-paradigm novelists who now have to worry about getting our books “out there” and putting them in front of the right readership audience.
Looking backwards a decade or so, we should have focused more on book promotion when a traditional publishing house published our first novel. We didn’t, because we knew that marketing was the publisher’s responsibility. Alas, they didn’t do as good a promotion job we assumed they would. And so now, our earlier books are “brand-new novels” for a large audience of mystery readers.
To reach them, we’ve had to become “renaissance writers” who wear a rackful of different hats, including:
Publishing bigwig. Someone has to be responsible for getting ISBN numbers, working with cover designers, registering a copyright when necessary, setting the right price for our novels, and doing all the planning and financial management that the “management elves” used to do. These days, that someone is us.
Copy editor. We’ve taken on the job of eliminating minor typos… inconsistent punctuation… spelling and grammar mistakes… and those inevitable scanning glitches.
Book production guru. We also get to worry about such arcane details as eliminating the extra spaces between eBook paragraphs… getting eBook chapters to begin on new pages… and outputting different flavors of eBooks.
Book promoter. We now have the never-ending responsibility of getting reviews, blogging like crazy, doing as much social networking as we can stand — all aimed at making our novels better known.
Novelist. We’ve revised our novels to eliminate anachronisms. And we’re writing new ones (in our spare time).
Developing those additional skills is challenging work. Everywhere you look there’s a fresh learning curve — along with the stress of first-time-around failures.
Consequently, many of us new-paradigmers end up buying services from the thousands of freelance vendors who’ve sprung up to support novelists.
On the one hand, it’s nice to know that everything we need can be bought. On the other hand, the services are expensive — and even if you have the money, it can be tough to find good service provider (there are lots of mediocre vendors to avoid). And you still must invest lots of time getting a freelancer going in the right direction, and even more time watching over his/her work.
Speaking of time …
Janet and I fondly remember those storied days when introverted novelists could spend weeks at our keyboards without interacting with anyone else. The age of authorial isolation is over. Today, writers invariably run into many other writers — on eMail loops, affinity groups, and Facebook — who are in the same situation (or should it be, predicament).
A curious fact of the brave-new publishing world is that an unprecedented number of novelists work together — for example, to plan blog tours, to cross-post Amazon reviews, and to support each other’s social-networking efforts. A truly amiable author can join what I call a “writers cooperative” — a group of novelists who pool their different skills and talents.
When you consider the hassle and workload of self-publishing, maybe it’s not so surprising that Amanda Hocking was willing to settle for lower eBook royalties. And perhaps, given the same choice, many other novelists will opt to stay with “real publishers,” as those houses get their ePublishing and POD processes in order.
Less work (albeit for considerably lower royalties) sounds enticing until you remember that the most difficult responsibility — book promotion that connects a novel with its readers — continues to remain the author’s responsibility. No matter who publishes a novel, the author has to do the lion’s share of marketing.
The rest of “publishing” is time consuming, but surprisingly easy to master over the long run. It’s doable (if painful at times) to become a jack-of-all-trades renaissance writer. Our numbers will increase!
Welcome fellow polymaths.
If I may be excused for making a generalization about late bloomers, I believe that most of us think of novels as enduring creations that stay the same over the centuries.
The first novel I read was the “Bobbsey Twins” (or “Merry Days Indoors and Out”), Volume One of the Bobbsey Twins series. I received a hardcover copy (bound in green cloth) roughly 45 years after the first edition was published in 1904.
Despite this considerable time span, I’m confident that the words in my book were those written by “Laura Lee Hope” (a pseudonym for Edward Stratemeyer, the syndicator who created the series and authored Volume One himself.)
Like you, I later read dozens of novels written in the 19th century, including Dickens’s “David Copperfield” (1850), Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (1862) and Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice” (1813). Some titles in the curriculum were even older: e.g., Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).
It didn’t make any difference how these novels were bound, or where or when they were printed. I assumed — along with my teachers — that the words on the pages of different copies were identical. Simply put, my copy of “Huckleberry Finn,” my friend Alan Gordon’s copy, and Mrs. Raskin’s copy were the same, no matter who did the publishing — or when the particular books were printed.
When I began to think of myself as a writer of books, I initially saw this “rigidity” as an economic necessity. Once type for a book was set … it was, well, set! There were significant costs involved in resetting and proofing changes. But over the years I came to understand that the most important driver was the pervasive expectation that a finished novel is more or less permanent — a collection of words on paper that one could rely on to remain unchanged.
No one told me that “novels are forever,” but most every reader I knew took it as a given.
Things have always been different for non-fiction books. Periodic editorial “revision” of non-fiction works — to keep them up to date — is such a usual happenstance that it typically receives a provision in the Publishing Agreement. One or more clauses stipulate the author’s responsibility to prepare revised editions and define what will happen if the original author is not available to do the job.
The new publishing paradigm — especially POD and eBook technology — has brought easy revision to the world of fiction. It’s become commonplace for authors to update out-of-print novels before ePublishing them on Kindle and Nook. Many novelists are taking advantage of the opportunity to revise. Including Janet and me. If you are so inclined, it’s possible to “improve” a novel every day.
While not going that far, Janet and I cheerfully joined the ranks of authors who try to change their novels for the better by eliminating details that turn a “current day” novel into an historical. For example, references to …
And … as long as we’re eliminating anachronisms, why not fix the awkward bits we wish we hadn’t written, and the occasional ambiguous phrase, and those few examples of clunky dialogue?
No reason at all!
This raises an obvious question: Is something lost when a novel is revised?
One can argue the answer is yes for “classics” — the kind of literary novels that are “taught” in English Literature classes. On three recent occasions, I’ve heard opponents to fiction revision offer the cliché that making changes to a classic novel is akin to painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
Perhaps — but is any real damage done to our cultural heritage if a romance author revises several obsolete slang phrases or a mystery novelist gets rid of a confusing passage or two? Your answer may depend on how you answer another question: When is a novel finished?
Legend has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald rewrote 30 percent of “The Great Gatsby” when he received the galley proofs. Presumably he reluctantly stopped rewriting only when the presses started to turn. Also presumably, he’d make a new round of major changes to Gatsby today, were he able to do so.
Even people who argue against revising fiction seem less opposed to removing epithets and curse words that have now become racist, sexist, or religious fighting words. It’s a safe bet that if Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, and Joseph Conrad were writing today they’d make less generous use of the “N word.” So why not revise their old novels accordingly? This is a lively debate today in many public school districts.
Getting back to the “commercial fiction” that most late bloomers write … Does there come a point when no more changes should be allowed? Not with our novels, thank you very much. We reserve the right to keep bringing them up to date for current readers.
However, I type these words with slightly forked fingers.
I recently reread that first Bobbsey Twins novel on a long flight — and came away astonished at the racism and sexism that permeated kids fiction at the start of the 20th century. I know that the books in the Bobbsey Twins series (all of which classify as commercial fiction) have been updated, but frankly I’m not interested in the revised versions. I don’t want to read about Freddie and Flossie Bobbsey visiting the Eiffel Tower with their Au pair and I don’t want to imagine Burt and Nan Bobbsey on an expedition to save the whales.
For some reason, it’s become trendy for novelists who haven’t written a bestseller to describe themselves as “midlist eBook authors.” This is apparently supposed to mean that the novelists’ eBook sales chug along at a modest rate.
That’s how two late-bloomers I know explain their relatively poor (multi-digit) Amazon sales ranking: “We’re classic midlisters.”
I begrudgingly go along with this definition of “midlist”—mostly because it’s so widespread these days. I ache a bit, though, when I hear the term used this way, for two reasons:
Back then, I learned that the concept of “midlist” grew out of the quarterly or semiannual “booklists” issued by publishers and sent to buyers at bookstores. The in-house marketing people at each publisher determined where and how new novels would be announced in these catalogs.
Novels believed to become instant bestsellers were typically heralded by full-page display “ads” in the front of the list. One the other hand, new novels that were merely expected to break-even were announced with smaller ads in the middle of the list. The marketing folks referred to these iffy titles as “midlist books.”
Lastly, the publisher’s in-print titles that were introduced by previous lists were itemized toward the back of the catalog. They constituted the publisher’s “backlist.”
An important point here is that a novel (or author) was labeled “midlist” only once — when the catalog that launched his/her book was published. After that booklist was replaced, the novel became part of the backlist.
You might ask, “Why would a publisher intentionally publish books destined to merely break-even?”
Most “midlist books” were first novels written by debut authors and new titles written by relatively unknown novelists. In the good old days…
This kind of midlist is truly dead; today, large publishers mostly bet on sure things. It’s inconceivable that a major house would give an unsuccessful author eight bites at the sales apple. The very few debut novelists published in 2011 will get two, possibly three, chances to start selling well.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that midlist has been recycled to mean a book (or author) that will probably never achieve bestseller status.
As I noted above, one problem with the new definition is that it can mean almost anything. Back in the glory days of traditional publishing paradigm, it cost money to keep a book in print. There were …
These continuing costs meant that there came a point when it became impractical to keep a poor-performing backlist book in print. It made more sense for the publisher to sell the warehoused inventory to a “remainder house” and get out from under the slow-selling novel.
The new publishing paradigm — eBook-centric publishing and POD paper book production — has a dramatically changed the economics of publishing. The Kindle Store catalog includes many novels that sell only a handful of copies each year. Many observers see this a plus for readers, who now have unprecedented access to (let’s be kind) novels that satisfy limited audiences.
My friends’ novels fall into this category, although they prefer the euphemistic label of “lower midlist” novels. Because keeping a Kindle eBook “in print” doesn’t involve any on-going costs, they seem willing to leave the books “up” indefinitely. But is that a good idea?
I think not, because even though Amazon doesn’t reveal sales numbers for individual titles to readers, the company does publish Amazon Bestsellers Rank.
No one has “broken the code” of the Amazon sales-ranking algorithm. Moreover, it sometimes produces seemingly goofy results. (A publisher recently told me that one of his titles has a significantly better Amazon ranking than another title—yet sells only half-as many copies each month.)
But … and this is a big but, there seem a few handy rules of thumb:
Rankings over 200,000 represent minuscule sales — 50 books per year, at most.
Five digit rankings — 99,999 to 10,000 — are modestly performing eBooks — that sell between two or three books per day and a few dozen copies per month.
Four digit rankings — 9,999 to 1,000 — are good-selling eBooks — with sales ranging from 2,000 books per year all the way up to 20,000 copies per year.
Three digit rankings (999-100) reflect near-best-seller sales (20,000 to 50,000 copies per year). Two-digit rankings (below 100) point to novels that sell more than 100,000 copies per year.
Interestingly, a small increase in sales can cause a quick plummet from six- to five-digit ranking. A few more sales can send the number into the much more comfortable four-digit neighborhood — at least for a couple of days. (More than one novelist has been tempted to pay proxies to buy a few eBooks and thus prime the Kindle pump, so to speak. I have no idea whether this strategy works.)
My point is that it’s easy for the world to get a rough (but useful) estimate of Kindle eBook sales. That being so, keeping a low-selling eBook “in print” on Kindle announces to potential readers that hardly anyone else wants to read the book. A persistent six-digit Amazon sales rank serves as kind of pragmatic book review that potential customers apparently take note of.
Calling oneself a “midlist novelist” doesn’t solve the problem — but it seems to happen lots these days.
It was Patrick Henry who said that jealousy is the vice that gives no pleasure. Another oft-quoted definition was coined by the late Fulton J. Sheen, a bishop who gained prominence as a writer and broadcaster: Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.
I began thinking about jealousy a week or two ago when I noted a spurt in the number of “BSP” labels (or should it be warnings) on writing loops I read. Many of the posts passed beyond the realm of blatant self-promotion into the nastier neighborhood of self-congratulatory bragging. They trumpeted fast-growing Amazon sales… recent award wins… new contracts… even an impressive number of blog page “hits.” When one or two of the posts tickled my jealousy bone (I guess I do have at least one jealous bone in my body), I thought about a project I’d tackled back in 2006.
The director of a writers’ conference had asked me to develop a workshop about the “dark side” of writing fiction. He told me that a handful of recent conferees had complained (on their evaluation forms) that different aspects of the conference — in the words of the loudest complainer — “encouraged jealousy by making a fuss over a few participants at the expense of many.” This person singled out the “writing contest that seems to have arbitrary criteria” and “faculty members who clearly pick favorites.”
The director believed that jealousy is a common plague among aspiring novelists, although most are reluctant to talk about it. “We need a workshop that squarely addresses the problem.”
I quietly polled several experienced novelists I knew and asked a simple question: “Have you been “seriously jealous” of another author?
I offered the following definition: “Jealousy has been described as envy plus ill will. Envy merely ‘wants’ what someone else has. Jealousy combines “want” with the hope that the other person loses what they’ve achieved.” I didn’t explain what I meant by “serious,” but most folks immediately understood what I meant.
The novelists hemmed and hawed a bit — probably because it’s embarrassing to admit being simultaneously envious and resentful of another writer’s accomplishments — but I learned (anecdotally, but not surprisingly) that jealousy can:
Novelists of all age can become jealous, but we late-bloomers may have a stronger propensity. Here are three tentative explanations I ran across:
One fascinating aspect of my unscientific study is that the group of authors who fessed up about their pangs of jealousy includes successful novelists who’ve achieved significant prominence. This raises an obvious question: Why would writers who’ve “made it” ever feel jealous?
Robert Heinlein, a successful author himself, had an unhappy answer: “A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity.”
Whew! I don’t know much about psychology, but I think that Bob ignored a reality that I heard expressed again and again by the respondents of my little survey: Comparison drives jealousy.
Comparison has long been rampant in the novel writing game. The inhabitants of the traditional publishing paradigm — agents, editors, reviewers, booksellers, contest judges, and readers — all held yardsticks up against novels and their authors.
The new publishing paradigm has actually increased the opportunities for an author to compare him- or herself with fellow novelists. These days we have new measures of success (e.g. Amazon Ranking), fully empowered reader-reviewers, and powerful new communications media (e.g. social media sites, reader/writer loops, and blogs).
IMO, novelists stand on a metaphorical ladder. There’s always someone on a higher rung: someone who’s a better writer, someone who wrote more books, someone who received better reviews, someone who have won more and better awards (so many organizations give awards these days that not to have one or two must mean something), someone with more Kindle sales, someone who benefited from an Amazon special promotion, someone whose latest book is being turned into a movie, someone who sprays BSP with a fire hose, ultimately someone who earns lots more money — even though his/her novels belong several rungs down.
It’s no surprise to me that well-adjusted novelists at all stages of their career occasionally become jealous.
One of the truly unpleasant things about the new publishing paradigm for most late bloomers is that self-published novelists are required to praise their own novels — on Amazon book pages, in blog posts, on websites, in email signatures, and wherever else a potential reader’s eyes may fall.
In the good old days (last year and before), extravagant promotional writing was done by professional marketing and PR people who got paid big bucks for describing fiction as “compelling,” “riveting,” “stunning,” “dazzling,” and “astonishing.”
This was a fine old tradition spanning a hundred years. Publishers created hopelessly flattering “blurbs” for the novels they published — we authors modestly fluttered our eyelashes and tried to act humble amidst the flood of puffery that was clearly not of our making.
I recently discovered that a fictitious woman named Miss Belinda Blurb lent her name to those overblown tributes on the backs of novels (now found in the description blocks on Kindle book pages). Her pivotal role in publishing was the invention (in 1907) of Gelett Burgess, a San Francisco-based humorist, art critic, poet (of nonsense verse), and author. Burgess put a picture (copied from a dental advertisement) of “Miss Belinda Blurb” on the cover of a satiric book titled “Are You a Bromide,” ran a paragraph of gushy praise for the book below the image, and added the taglines, “Miss Belinda Blurb … In The Act of Blurbing.”
The word “blurb” as both verb and noun caught on immediately. Burgess further clarified the meaning in 1914, in “Burgess Unabridged: a new dictionary of words you have always needed.” He defined blurb as “Praise from one’s self, inspired laudation.” And: “Blurb, n. 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial… Blurb, v. 1. To flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself.”
And therein lies the rub. Late-blooming novelists as a group have great difficulty writing blurbs that compliment their own fiction, lavishly praise their authorial skills, and “flatter from interested motives.”
Why is blatant blurbing such a challenge for us? I’ve often hear the same five excuses when I press mature writers on the point:
Rather than argue with specific excuses, I try to point out that effective blurbing is an essential aspect of book promotion. When readers see a blurb, they typically don’t know who wrote the blasted thing. Rather, they may react positively to a good blurb… but they’ll probably ignore a novel cursed with a dull blurb.
If we don’t write persuasive blurbs when we self-publish a novel… who will?
At this point, I’m likely to hear a deep sigh and see a sad headshake. “I can’t do it. I’ve never been able to praise my own writing.”
I think I know why so many late bloomers feel this way. The single most important barrier to writing fulsome blurbs is that we’ve been taught that humility is good and prideful behavior is bad.
Let me conduct a little experiment. Consider the following statement:
I recently read a book on the importance of being humble. Consequently, I know vastly more about humility than you do.
This is supposed to make folks chuckle — but I’m astonished at the number of late-bloomers who think I’m being serious when they hear such a claim. Simply put, humility is not a laughing matter for many of us.
If you feel uncomfortable praising your own novels, all I can say is, Get over it! And be proud that you did.