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Apr 26, 2011

Penguin Says If You Can't Beat Self Publishers, Join Them

So, anyone remember back when Harlequin tried to open a self-publishing branch, Harlequin Horizons?  They were pretty much reamed for smearing their good name with a venture into Vanity Publishing. Victoria Strauss on Writer Beware reported:
Like West Bow, Harlequin Horizons wreaths self-publishing in nebulous, glowing verbiage, extolling benefits and ignoring downsides. With West Bow Press, you can Begin Your Legacy. With Harlequin Horizons, you can Reach the Stars. And just like West Bow, Harlequin Horizons cordially extends the carrot of commercial publication: "While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints."

Unlike West Bow, Harlequin Horizons bears its parent's name. And that is making some Harlequin authors quite unhappy.

On the Dear Author blog, a lively discussion of the new venture is summarized here. Authors' concerns include dilution of the house brand (if low-quality self-published books carry the Harlequin name, the overall reputation of Harlequin may suffer), a loss of prestige for non-self-published Harlequin authors (the perception that "anyone" can get published by Harlequin), new authors spending money on self-publishing in the belief that it's a path to getting noticed by Harlequin (well, of course; this is one of the new service's major marketing pitches--no surprise, since Harlequin Horizons is a money-making enterprise), and the choice of Author Solutions as a partner (given the complaints about several Author Solutions brands--one of my blog posts is referenced).

...For the record, I don't for one teeny tiny second believe that discovering new writers, or giving them a chance to "begin their legacies" or "reach the stars," plays a major part here. That's just a marketing pitch. This is about money. Now more than ever, commercial publishers need to shore up their bottom lines--and adding self-publishing divisions is an easy and profitable way to do so.

The comments alone in the post on this topic over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books were epic. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was in those self-same comments that Zoe Winters had a dust-up with Nora Roberts.

Good times. :)

Well, guess what, cookies, looks like Harlequin's claims to simply be forward thinking where actually true, at least in the sense that their example is now being followed by another big name publisher. Guess who?

Penguin.

They are calling it Book Country. But you can also call it Midlistlandia or Genre World, because that's who it targets: romance, science fiction and fantasy, mystery and thrillers. The coolest part of the whole site is definitely the Genre Map. I mean, seriously, haven't you always wanted to see Subgenres like Techno Thriller and Legal Thriller or Cyberpunk and Steampunk graphed and color coded on a 2D matrix? Me too. (But I would have made SF blue, Mystery Green and Thrillers Red. And shouldn't Romantic Suspense have been next to Mystery rather than Epic Fantasy? I'm just sayin'.)

This isn't unexpected, is it? Some aspects of the venture aren't even new. The "community" aspect is pretty standard by now:
And so we have Book Country, a site run by Penguin that offers a free way for writers of genre fiction to talk about and share their work. The site is limited to romance, thrillers, fantasy, and sci-fi so this is not the spot to upload your Mythbusters slashfic....

It’s all fairly simple: you create an account and you can, if you so wish, upload your work. To have it “read” or “critiqued” by others you must complete a series of steps including reading three other works by other writers. You can, obviously, game the system and just type in gibberish but that’s not very sporting.
Del Rey started the Online Writing Community years ago, and that's still going strong, though it's no longer part of Del Rey.
While Book Country is distinctive, it is not the only online writing community nor is it the first to be launched by a major book publisher. HarperCollins has organized the online writing community of Authonomy, and InkPop, an online community focused on teen writing. Book Country is reminiscent of iPublish, a failed online writing community and digital publishing venture launched by former Warner Books president Larry Kirshbaum in 2000. Barton acknowledged the connection and noted that she had discussions with a former iPublish editor while developing the Book Country concept. While iPublish was a pioneering venture anticipating many of the services offered by Book Country, it was a bit ahead of its time and was forced to close in late 2001 with mounting financial losses. But it’s a different time and different market for e-books and digital publishing in 2011.
You'll see some familiar names here. Former agent Colleen Lindsay is a Book Country community manager and a moderater on the boards. But the "soft" approach, the money in this is going to be made by selling self-publishing services to authors. In other words, it is a vanity press, just as Harlequin Horizons. And just like Harlequin Horizons, the cheese in this mousetrap is the hope that the best authors will be "discovered" by Penguin.
Barton, an editor for more than seven years before moving to Penguin business development, said Book Country is an effort to discover and nurture writers of sometimes hard to categorize genre fiction. Barton said that when she was an editor she often encountered writing she liked, but didn’t think she could sell. She said that Book Country will offer writers a chance to “prove us wrong when they get rejected. They can show us there’s an audience for their work.”

“When I was an editor I had a hard time saying no to authors whose work maybe didn’t quite fit on my list,” Barton said. “When I switched over to the digital publishing side, I wanted to find a way to harness the Internet in a better way to support writers.”
When Harlequin made their move, there was an uproar from authors' organizations and Harlequin had to backstep the idea. Will that happen to Book Country? Penguin has been careful to distance themselves from the start. It's an independent company, with a distinct name. But I think the biggest change is the with the publishing industry itself. Indie authors have swept up into the bestsellers list. Suddenly "vanity press" seems like a quaint term, something that doesn't automatically taint self-published authors anymore.

Furthermore, and most importantly, the competition to big publishers from small and independent presses/authors is now obvious to anyone paying attention. So if a publisher says they are starting a self-publishing branch to stay in business, hey, maybe we should take them at their word.

My favorite quote comes from Molly Barton in the PW announcement. "We created Book Country because while writing and publishing sites have proliferated in recent years, none were designed by publishing experts to create a more valuable pathway forward for new writers."

In other words, lots of people were making money on self-publishing. Authors. Amazon. Apple. Just about everyone except the people who called themselves publishers. Frankly, the thing that amazes me the most is that they didn't get skin in this game earlier.

Apr 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Email Folders

On my hard drive, I have a place I archive old mail. I have a number of folders organized by type of mail. One folder is titled, "Queries." By the whim of alphanumeric order, the folder, titled "Reviews" falls right below it.

As I was sorting mail, I accidentally clicked on the wrong folder, and opened an old letter from Queries. It began, "Thank you for sending me your mss, but I'm afraid I just didn't love it."

Oops. It was a letter from one of the many, many agents I had queried once upon a time.

I clicked the right folder, the right letter. From a reviewer. "Thank you for sending me your book. I LOVED it!"

Same book. A year later.

Life is sweet.

Apr 11, 2011

The Grad Student and the Fairy

A parable with Amazon Associate links.  ;)

One evening a grad student working on her Master's degree was studying alone in the library, nodding off over an impenetrable tome of postmodernist literary theory, probably something by Butler, when he heard a tiny voice cry out. Startled, he jerked awake. A very soft, high-pitched voice wailed, "Help me! Help me!"

He searched the stacks with increasing alarm as the tiny plea grew more desperate, then sputtered into a scream of pain.

At last he saw it...a big, ugly rat, dragging a little pixie girl by the ankle. The rat was as fat as the hardcover edition of Of Grammatology by Derrida, and the fairy as slender as a No. #2 pencil. No matter how she fluttered her translucent wings, she could not yank her leg free.

The grad student, quick of wit, grabbed  Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach off the shelf and knocked the Derrida rat smack between the eyes. The villainous varmint thus vanquished, the grad student lifted the fairy up and set her on the shelf between The Golden Bough and The Annotated Hobbit.

"Thank you, thank you!" she cried. She fluttered in the air and alighted upon The Judgment of Paris. "You have saved me and therefore I will grant you a most precious magick. I have the power to make you either the wisest man on earth, the sexiest man on earth or the richest man on earth."

The grad student thought long and hard. He was pretty tempted to go for sexy. But he was, after all, an academic.

"Please make me the wisest man on Earth," he asked the fairy.

She aimed her magic wand. Light burst everywhere and he had to close his eyes.

When he opened them, all which had been obscure to him before, he now saw clearly, without illusion and without bias.

"Damn," he said. "So I should I have gone for the money."

* * *

:)

In other words...I'll be busy with grad school this week, so I probably won't have much time to blog. Unless I choose to write blog posts to procrastinate doing my schoolwork. Like this post, for example.

Meanwhile, if you have a self-publishing emergency, try dialing this operator. When she asks you, "Which do you want more, sir? The prestige or the money?" just remember the Parable of the Grad Student and the Fairy.

Apr 9, 2011

An Agent Reflects on Ebooks and Gatekeeping

Agent Jenny Bent ruminates on the difference between being a gatekeeper vs a conduit.
An agent friend and I were e-mailing today about "reader taste" vs. "publisher taste." I think I've always had a case of "reader taste" because many of the books that I've really loved I've had a tough time selling or sold for very little money. Yet most of them have gone on to do very well indeed, many of them hitting the Times list. I would list them, but I'm not sure the authors would appreciate me telling the world that their book was hard to sell. Regardless, I loved these books, and I knew readers would love these books, but publishers often weren't so sure, probably because the books were considered "quiet,"i.e., not "high concept," or because they were aimed at readers in Middle America, or because they were quirky and hard to categorize.

Look, I don't want to be too hard on editors and publishers. We're all doing our best, after all, and publishing will always be something of a crap shoot, because we can't really afford to do market research (except for Harlequin) and rely on guesswork to make pretty major decisions about what to publish and promote. When publishers are "running numbers" to decide how much money they can afford to spend on a book, a big part of the process is comparing the book to another book that is similar, and then factoring in the sales figures of said book. Sound unscientific? You betcha.
She then adds:
I guess the reason that I can't help being a little gleeful about the democratization of the process, is that what I dislike about publishing is less the *way* we make decisions but rather the attitude that sometimes--not always--goes into those decisions, this somewhat patronizing, East Coast urban attitude of knowing better than the rest of book-reading America. And the idea that a book must appeal to a certain kind of sophisticated east coast reader to be successful.
Both the entire post and the comments are worth reading.

Apr 7, 2011

Strunk and White Revisited

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. 
- Strunk and White, p.69
For my academic course, we've been asked to revisit some of the Classics of Good Writing. Strunk and White. Bird by Bird. I've read both before, of course, but haven't re-read them in ages, and it was good to do so. I remembered endless rules for commas in Strunk and White, as it turns out an exaggeration of my memory. This time I merely skimmed the grammar rules, which I know, or know to look up if I need them. Instead, I enjoyed the essay on style. Even more than what Strunk and White said, I enjoyed how they said it, how they demonstrated in writing what they demanded of writing.


TECHNICAL NOTE: Nooksters, I do not know what the problem is with Initiate and Taboo going up on the nook. My Tech Guy uploaded them for me, but the administration page still says, "Processing." It's been over a week, clearly something is not processing correctly. Even my Tech Guy is baffled, and we may have to appeal directly to B&N to figure out what the problem is. Sorry for the delay!

Apr 5, 2011

If you shop at B&N be careful

If you shop at Barnes & Noble, be careful, it was one of many large corporations that suffered a huge theft of identities lately.

You can read more here.

Blog Under Construction

The blog looks a bit garish right now. I'm still working on it. I will find something better soon. I hope.

Addendum: I took out the extra starry background, which helps. I'm still not sure about the header. It fails, for instance, to say the name of the blog, which, one would think, might be useful.

Apr 3, 2011

Three Kinds of Reading

I posted my JBR List two posts back. It was incomplete; none of the nonficiton I read was on there. I've been thinking about how I read, and I have admit, I don't read every book the same way.

1) Fast reading.
This is also called "speed reading," like the reading you learn in "speed reading" classes. I did not learn to read this way from a class. It was my natural way of reading, and later I learned that other people did not read the same way. Basically, I skim along the sentences very fast, taking in the information visually, not by subvocalizing the words. This means I can read a novel in a few hours, but it has its downside too. I am terrible at proofreading, because my eyes simply skip along the text, and if there are missing or misspelled words, my brain simply fills them in correctly. I often don't consciously experience the words qua logos but as images, like a movie playing in my mind.

2) Data mining.
This is a technique for reading non-fiction that I learned in grad school, also reffered to as "gutting" a book. I look for the thesis, the topic sentence, the supporting arguments, and skip the decorative prose. Basically, I strip the book down to its bones, its outline. I can gut a book in about twenty minutes.

Out of curiosity, I've tried this technique on fiction, to see if it is as useful. If one is reading solely for entertainment, perhaps not; it destroys one's sense of full immersion in the story, the "movie in the mind." For a writer, however, I strongly recommend trying it. Not all the time, or you will lose your enjoyment in reading, which is deadly, though probably also a stage every writer goes through at one point. But it can also greatly enhance you love of literature to step back and x-ray the bones of the story, the armature that supports the prose.

3) Close reading.
There may be other understandings of the term "close reading," but I use it to mean when I read very slowly, sometimes subvocalizing, but definitely seeing the words for themselves, how they fit together, how they roll off the tongue, how they link up and lean forward. In non-fiction, I do this with difficult texts. I must read all Philosophy this way, or I lose track of what the author is arguing. (Sometimes I do anyway.)

For instance, a book that you would have seen on my JBR List, if I had included nonfiction, was I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See The World. Therein, you will find this paragraph:
Understanding a metaphor (like reading a book about that process, in fact) is a seemingly random walk through a deep, dark forest of associations. The path is full of unexpected twists and turns, veering wildly off into the underbrush one minute and abrubtly disapearing down a rabbit hole the next. Signposts are like weather vanes. You can't see the wood for the trees. Then, suddenly, somehow, you step into the clearing. A metaphor is both detour and destination, a digression that gets to the point.
This is a pop philosophy book, it's not too hard to understand, but still I read it slowly, or at least not quickly, in order to savor paragraphs like this. In this one paragraph the author is self-referential on multiple levels. He directly reminds the reader that this is a book about understanding metaphor, then uses an extended metaphor to describe that process of understanding. He reminds the reader of a metaphorical cliche and at the same time expands the cliche into something new and original. He also manages to slip in a literary hat tip to Alice in Wonderland.

Obviously, close reading can be used for fiction too.

Addendum: A sign of the times on a closing Boarders.

Apr 2, 2011

Last Chance To Get Taboo at $.99

The price of Taboo is going up to its regular price of $4.95. Reviewers, don't hesitate to email me if you haven't received your free copy yet.

Apr 1, 2011

My JBR List

I've made more time to read fiction this year. (Some New Year's resolutions do happen.)

As a child, I devoured fiction, which, unsurprisingly, is where I learned to write, and more importantly, learned to yearn to write. After a while, my non-fiction reading took over, leaving me few hours for novels. I decided to make a conscious effort to make time for fiction. Fortunately, thanks to my Kindle, it's easier to find odd moments for fun reading, when I wouldn't be able to do school-related reading anyway.

Here's the JBR list -- "just been read" -- books I've read so far this year (since Jan. 1):
Faefever
Bloodfever

Save My Soul

My Sister Writes Porn

Soulless

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Enemies and Allies

Slave

The Crown Conspiracy
Avempartha
Nephron Rising
The Emerald Storm
Wintertide

A Discovery of Witches

House of Skin

Firelight

I also have a long TBR List. I'll list those books as they are converted to my my JBR List.  :)