Meeting Don McQuinn and the sound of indie publishing

Don McQuinn

Don McQuinn

Author Don McQuinn is a perfect example of a sci-fi and fantasy writer who made it into the big time and then took control of his own destiny. Don and I met earlier this month at a Greek restaurant in suburban Seattle, not far from his home and mine. The vigorous former Marine and octogenarian has been a published writer since 1980, and he found fame with his Moondark Saga (Warrior, Wanderer, Witch) and his Captain Lannat series (With Full Honors, The Prisoner Within). But the world of books is cruel, and after a few bestsellers, his work fell out of print, and income dried up. A heart attack in 1998 took its toll, as well as other family-related health crises.

Once a writer, always a writer, and Don applied a Marine’s “gung ho” attitude to the emerging opportunities of digital media. With the help of supportive family, Don dived into electronic publishing, acquiring the rights from his former publisher and issuing ebook versions of his Moondark Saga, including a repackaging of the books into bundles. He’s also written well-regarded women’s fiction focused on post-traumatic stress disorder. Though he describes the income from these efforts as modest, he’s living proof of an established author’s ability to rescue himself/herself from midlist hell and out-of-print perdition through independent publishing. Continue reading

Should you hire a sensitivity reader to scrutinize your novel?

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When you write about things outside your experience, do you know what you’re talking about?

You’ve just finished a novel certain to win a Pulitzer Prize, and you’re particularly proud of one character, an individual not of your race, sexual orientation, and gender. You’ve struck a blow for diversity in literature, one of your core values. Blogger and consultant Mikki Kendall has a suggestion: If you think you’ve done a good job, get a second opinion. Hire a “sensitivity reader.”

Her idea is timely, given the national debate over transgender issues, racism in the justice system, and the possibility of a woman getting elected as president. And publishers want fiction with non-traditional characters, judging by literary agents’ Twitter postings with the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag.

A self-described “diversity consultant for fiction,” Kendall is a black woman in Chicago who identifies with the gender she was born with, that is, “cisgender.” In her post, she thunders against writers who perpetuate gender, racial, and other stereotypes and refuse to recognize what she believes is the harm they do to individuals and communities represented in those characters. “Art” is not an excuse to hurt people, deliberately or accidentally, “[b]ecause your bigoted depiction of them is a key component of the kind of gatekeeping that locks marginalized communities out.”

Kendall does not cite examples, but the point is on target: Writers, like all humans, have blind spots, and even well-intentioned writers can screw things up for people they may be trying to help. To mitigate the danger, she advises hiring or at least showing the work to someone from the community you attempt to portray to ensure you haven’t encouraged the thing you’re combating.

On the surface, it’s a fine idea, but on reflection, I find it troubling.

Full disclosure: I’m a white, middle-aged male from lower middle-class background living in a privileged, rich, two-thirds-white city. I fit the stereotype of The Man pretty well. While I have libertarian sensibilities, I also vote almost exclusively Democratic, caucused for Bernie Sanders, and I’ve served on two non-profit boards, one of them as president. Maybe I don’t fit the stereotype as well as I thought.

Kendall’s first advice is Fiction 101: Do your research. If you don’t come from a perspective you hope to portray, or at least have significant experience with it, then read, talk, learn. Failure to conduct due diligence is simply lazy. However, a writer doesn’t have to hire a diversity specialist to check their work. In the modern publishing world, writers, particularly new writers, should hire a trained, experienced editor before self-publishing or submitting the work to agents or legacy publishers. I’m always amazed at the crap my editor finds, beyond stereotyped, one-dimensional, hackneyed characters, though you can’t assume an editor is automatically sensitive to these things. Again, due diligence is the key.

More important, however, is your motivation for hiring or recruiting a reader sensitive to portrayals of non-traditional characters. Are you doing it because you care about accuracy and moving society into a more tolerant future? Or are you afraid of defending your choices as a writer, and hope a reader can scrub your text of offense? Or perhaps you are crass enough to seek out an editor to squash text bugs because they might hurt sales?

Success at handling characters with backgrounds alien to your own starts with your inner voice. Is your choice for this character essential to the narrative? If I make this man Hispanic, or this individual trans-gender, what difference does it make in their lives and their relationships? If you do it just because you think its smart or popular, you’re pandering to the market. If you do it because it’s necessary to your ultimate storytelling goals, then go for it.

It’s too easy, I think, for writers to chase publishing trends or the issue of the day, instead of trusting their instincts about what they want to say. Employing a sensitivity reader might result in wise perspective, but it may be a reflection of a writer’s lack of self-confidence, or a fear that readers might reject controversial ideas, or trepidation at the prospect of swimming against the cultural tide. A writer should accept that he or she WILL offend somebody sometime. It’s the world you’ve chosen.

Poll: What genre does my current novel project belong in?

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Genres? Genres? We don’t need no stinkin’ genres!

Writers of a certain stripe hate fiction genres. Committed writers focus on character and plot, and the fact that a story takes place in space or another historical era is secondary. Writers can live with basic genres, such as science fiction or mystery, but when things get fine-grained, such as paranormal romance (the Twilight series, for example), they have a tendency to go ape-shit. The labels are too constraining, too arbitrary, they complain. And when you bring up the newest sub-genres, such as “solarpunk” or “climate fiction,” you get strange looks or outright hostility, pure and simple.

I once thought I wrote science fiction, but my editor on Carbon Run convinced me that it’s a dystopian thriller, more in line with Hunger Games than Star Trek. In truth, only booksellers care about genre, apart from the readers they’ve trained. Genres are simply conveniences that writers have to live with. Put another way, genres are the old solution to the discoverability problem: How do writers find readers and vice versa? You want sci-fi, you look on the sci-fi shelf, or enter “sci-fi” in the Amazon search box. Continue reading

The new emerging hierarchy of publishing legitimacy

Unexpected still

A still from Kris Swanberg’s film Unexpected. Has she reached the top of a legitimacy pyramid?

A new hierarchy of legitimacy is emerging among independent writers and authors. It’s a direct consequence of the self-publishing revolution, and the growing realization that the most they can expect is satisfaction with seeing their dream in print without riches or fame. A similar hierarchy has already emerged among filmmakers, and I’d bet musicians as well. The facts crystallized for me in an interview of independent filmmaker Kris Swanberg, who premiered her film Unexpected at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

I made the movie to be seen in a theater. I would love for that to happen. It’s important to me. And I think it legitimizes the film, and I also think that it — it finds a new — a theater-going audience that doesn’t necessarily buy things on [video-on-demand].

In other words, the hierarchy for Swanberg is theaters in general, perhaps art houses in particular, followed by video-on-demand, e.g, Netflix or Amazon Prime, and then direct to DVD, which still exists. If given a choice between a traditional distribution deal and self-distribution via video-on-demand, Swanberg would pick the former, because it conveys the status and artistic validation that VOD cannot.

I’m hearing more and more writers–and I think I’m in this camp–that view traditional or legacy publishing, especially by the Big Five, as the top of a pyramid of legitimacy. This attitude is in part a function of how difficult it is to get a publishing contract. Agents and editors are pickier than ever as a 300-year-old business model is squeezed harder and the process of finding high-quality books that sell grows more difficult. In contrast, the ease of publishing a book on Amazon or Smashwords carries no long-lasting sense of accomplishment, that is, the feeling that you have arrived somewhere after a painful rite of passage. In traditional publishing, you find a world inhabited by Hemingway or Austen. In independent publishing, you enter a world populated by a million shmoes who’ve strung 90,000 words together into a Word document.

The truth is not quite so black and white. Many indie authors–among them Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe–have achieved artistic immortality, and failed authors published by the trads are legion. Neither am I making a moral or value judgment on either legacy or independent (self) publishing. Writers write for a variety of reasons, and for many, the main reason is public acceptance and recognition of their artistic vision. Traditional publishing offers this, while self-publishing does not, by and large.

In economic terms, the scarcity of traditional publishers and the limited distribution network (bookstores) increases of the social value of what they offer, certainly to writers and possibly to readers. Rational authors would choose self-publishing first because of the far higher royalty rates. Instead, they mail boxes of paper manuscripts to agents and editors on the 1% chance of avoiding the slush pile. As the traditional publishing industry shrinks (the Big Five was the Big Six not long ago), their value as artistic gatekeepers rises. Amazon, Smashwords, and a dozen other platforms are to Simon and Schuster or Penguin Random House as Wal-Mart is to Nieman-Marcus. In the best of all possible worlds, where would you rather your product be sold?

Why Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech was misguided and wrong.

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin was given a lifetime achievement award, and she said some naive things.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s November 19 speech at the National Book Awards in New York struck a nerve. My nerve. In six minutes, after accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the grande dame of American science fiction and fantasy lambasted her own publishers who charge libraries “six or seven times the price for books they charge their customers,” “profiteers” (read: Amazon) who tried to punish a publisher (read: Hachette) for “disobedience,” and fellow writers whom she says have buckled under the imperative for profit. “We need writers who know the difference between the production of a commodity and the practice of an art,” she said.

Bravo.

Le Guin spoke many truths, but her speech left me cold. Was it envy? I wondered how one as intelligent and honest could so easily scold an industry which has brought her fame and riches. I find it hard to accept that a publisher took risks on her early work purely because it wanted to support art and not as an interesting, if head-scratching addition to its catalog that might earn a few dollars over the long term. It is genre fiction, after all.

Perhaps I was skeptical of her rant because it resembles so many other laments for a tight-knit, rapidly disappearing world, that of a select group of “serious” publishers and “serious” editors who work with “serious” writers. These tastemakers have had a stranglehold on literature for three hundred years. Having seen first-hand the disruptive power of digital technology while I was at RealNetworks in the 1990s, I understand how frightening and painful transformation can be. I wonder if the ancient Greek poets of the oral tradition castigated merchants in the agora for selling those awful printed versions of epic poems. People just aren’t hiring singers of oral art anymore! It’s those damned scribblers disrupting the market!

Below Le Guin’s analysis lies a hidden assumption: If a book is published by a major house, it must be good. A cursory examination of recent bestsellers shows this to be false. Critics and discerning readers found Fifty Shades of Grey to be laughably bad. My daughters warned me that the sequels to Twilight and Hunger Games were sub-par. The fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, A Dance With Dragons, was a sorry mess. The tastemakers aren’t always on target. In fact, they publish crap when they know it’s crap. Why? Pandering earns revenue that subsidizes the few brilliant writers, including Le Guin. Gotta love capitalism.

Le Guin calls herself a friend to self-published authors, even as she decries Amazon. This is naive at least, because if it weren’t for Amazon’s scale, which reduces the cost of production and provides access to a large market, self-publishing would’ve remained the realm of rich dilettantes. Let’s be honest: Amazon behaved like a bully in its recent dealings with Hachette. Despite its business practices (or because of them), the company, along with competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, is enabling a renaissance of written expression. It’s most recent project, Kindle Scout, is pushing aside the tastemakers by crowdsourcing publishing decisions, democratizing the filter process by offering readers a chance to weigh in on what is worthy of publication. Devolving decision-making to the masses always frightens the entrenched powers.

Amazon is in business to make a profit. Who knew? That’s been the case among booksellers since Gutenberg. If the German printer hadn’t made a profit with his bibles, he would’ve tossed his press onto the dung heap. Singling out Amazon (though I always agree that the powerful be held to account), strikes me as paranoiac. Amazon isn’t a demon; it’s showing signs of creaking under its own weight. In reality, the book universe is moving toward a new mix of traditionally published and independently published content distributed on a variety of platforms. The resurgence of the independent bookstore, once thought dead, is the best proof of this trend.

The printed book still sells strong as a teaching tool, keepsake, gift, or status symbol. The ebook is valued for its convenience and low price. Smart indie writers employ free-lance editors and cover designers. Readers ask for a voice in the publishing process, while trusting that some tastemakers have it right. Le Guin ought to revel in this emerging creative anarchy, instead of wishing all the people who don’t fit her worldview would go away.

Disclosure: My books have been published traditionally, on Amazon KDP, on Smashwords, and by CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary.

Hachette may have won the battle, but Amazon will win the war

Medieval joust

Hachette may have unhorsed Amazon, but the game is far from done.

Amazon and Hachette kissed, made up, and walked into the sunset hand-in-hand after their ten-month dispute over ebook pricing. That’s what the spin doctors want you to think when you read the statements issued by each company yesterday and the followup press reports, but it’s impossible to believe that the fires of resentment and future conflict aren’t seething in the c-suites of both companies. Hachette may have won the engagement, but the war is far from over.

Here’s the issue: Amazon wanted to set ebook prices on its website; Hachette wanted to set them itself. In a version of single combat worthy of Game of Thrones, Amazon landed the first blows when it pulled features such as overnight delivery of Hachette books. Not for the first time, Amazon used its market power to pressure a supplier to sell on best terms. Hachette took the rare step of publicly crying foul, and pursued a boxing-like jab-jab-jab strategy to wear down its opponent. Meanwhile, it egged on a loud chorus of ringside authors in an attempt to shame the champion into lowering its guard, leaving it open to a knock-him-on-his-arse blow. Continue reading

I am an author, and Authors United does not speak for me.

Godzilla Mothra art

Amazon vs Hachette = Godzilla vs Mothra. Image courtesy MonsterMovieMusic.

Authors United has pulled a boner. The group of writers who’ve published through Hachette, which is in an ongoing contract dispute with Amazon, sent a letter this week to Amazon’s board of directors demanding it “put an end to the sanctioning of books.” In this case, “sanction” is meant as “discipline” in the way an overlord disciplines a minion. The writers are angry at Amazon’s tactic of slowing sales and delivery of Hachette books as a means to pressure Hachette on the core issue, the price of ebooks. Amazon wants to price ’em low. Hachette wants to price ’em high. Authors United says the tactic has driven down sales “by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent.” A drop in sales means a drop in income for Hachette authors, the group says.

My instinct is to support authors. In the book world, writers are the makers. Publishing could not exist without them. A whole ecosystem of editors, graphic artists, sales and marketing experts, and the bookstore itself (including Amazon), depends on authors sharing their dreams and nightmares. But Authors United has twisted this world into a fantasy. In its letter to Amazon’s board, it casts books as “the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual” and publishers as providers of “venture capital for ideas.” Authors United romanticizes an industry that has ignored orders of magnitude more writers than it will ever publish. The industry has inflicted far more financial and emotional pain on writers in the past 200 years than Amazon will in the next 200 years. One has only to compare legacy publishers’ pitiful royalty rates to Amazon’s generous rates to see how authors figure in each camp’s mind. Continue reading

10 omens that auger self-publishing for your novel

Crystal ball

Look into my crystal ball and learn if self-publishing is for you.

Authors new and established face a question unthinkable a few years ago: Should I publish my book myself? Some writers finish a novel and go right to self-publishing. Others go the traditional route to see if an agent or publisher will take a chance on their work. For the latter group, here’s 10 omens that auger self-publishing your novel.

  • The volume of rejection emails from publishers and agents forces your email provider to suspend your account.
  • The pile of hard-copy unpublished manuscripts on your desk falls over and crushes your cat.
  • On your 54th birthday, your mother asks you if you’re ever going to make something of that masters in English you got in 1983.
  • You’re the only person in your writing group who hasn’t had his/her third novel published. Or second. Or first.
  • You measure success by the ratio of actual rejections by agents and publishers to no-response whatsoever.
  • Your royalty checks fail to cover your checking account’s overdraft fees.
  • You realize that three of your unpublished novels have the same ideas as A Time to Kill, Wool, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
  • The rejected manuscript the UPS guy delivered was typed on the IBM Selectric you owned before you bought the 1999 iMac you use now.
  • Your collection of rejection letters would paper the outside walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum combined.
  • A museum curator asks to use your early rejection letter for an exhibit on obsolete publishing models.

What signs and portents foretell self-publishing for you?