There are three issues outstanding:
Issue 3 – Is the Party Over?
Issue 4 – What Counts as Writing Success?
Issue 5 – Can Fiction Writing Be Taught?
Last week I upheld the view that this is the best time on Earth to be a writer. Lest you think I only mean because writers can now self-publish and make real dough, here’s some news that rippled outward from the traditional side of things: Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi inked a $3.4 million deal with Tor Books. That’s for thirteen books over a ten-year period. I’d say that counts as good times. Mr. Scalzi explains his thought process here.
Ah, but is the party over? Or about to be? Has there been a “tonal shift” in what Porter calls the “palaver” from the indie writer sector of the publishing world?
I do sense a shift, but not a negative one. It is, rather, the natural maturation of a revolution. During the Early Konrathian period of indie publishing, the talk was all about waking people up and stirring them to action (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”). There was an exuberance. There were fight songs around the campfire. Free beer.
It was Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry time. Yes, there was plenty of vitriol, too, which is always part of an uprising. What the American colonists said about the tea tax was not intended for polite society. Nor were the words of indies when reacting to representatives of the Authors Guild.
Now, it seems, the tone has changed from revolution to constitution. From muskets to quills. Giddiness has been replaced by plans and purpose and increasing success.
But just what is success? This is Issue #4.
One type is, certainly, traditional, bestselling, A-list status. Another type is having the freedom to publish what you want, when you want, and making steadily growing income. When you read surveys of traditional authors and how frustrated they can be with their publishers, this type of success might even be all the more attractive.
For some writers the “validation” of traditional success is the most important thing. Others find more satisfaction going directly to readers…and to the bank.
We are all free to define success for ourselves, and should. What does it mean specifically to you? Talk about it in the comments.
Finally, Issue #5. The title of Porter’s post was The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?
The question implies that a negative answer might be possible. Or, worse, that there is a possibility the whole enterprise of teaching fiction is little more than a racket. That’s what brought me and a couple of my teaching colleagues—Donald Maass and David Corbett—into the comments with some admonishments.
Porter, I’m happy to say, qualified this impression, kindly mentioning my name and my two fellows (and others) as exceptions. But he added this in a comment:
It’s been interesting to see some of these folks I’ve mentioned struggle with this piece. On the surface, of course, that looks natural in that no one wants to be painted with too broad a brush. But you note that I mentioned none of them, nor would I — they’re not the kind of problematic how-to players I’m talking about. And yet, to some degree, they seem unsettled by even the discussion of the problem.
This makes me think (I’m speculating here, they have not told me this) that the problem of “the toadstools” — who are NOT these writer/teachers — is much on their minds.
I can’t answer for my colleagues, but I’m happy to clear up any confusion on my part. No, “the toadstools” were not on my mind at all. What set me off was even entertaining the notion that writing can’t be taught. In point of fact, virtually all writers have been taught how to write in some form or fashion. It’s just that not many talk about it. As good old Ernest Hemingway once said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
Writing is taught in many ways.
It is taught by editors who know what they’re doing.
It is taught by teachers who know what they’re doing.
It is taught by books by people who know what they’re doing and how to teach others to do the same.
It is taught by critique partners and beta readers.
It can be self-taught by reading novels and analyzing what other authors do. That’s fine. What I do when I teach, however, is save writers years of trial and error by showing them right away what successful authors do, and how they can do it themselves.
The proof of all this, I add as a former trial lawyer, is in the testimony of credible witnesses. The successful writers who themselves give credit to writing instruction.
Let me offer just one example. This from critically acclaimed author Sarah Pekkanen, who gave an interview to NPR about getting published:
I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.
So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer [Stephen King]; one, by a top New York agent [Donald Maass]; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us [some joker named Bell].
The full interview is here. That was six years ago. It’s nice to see how Sarah’s career has prospered since. I’d say she’s offered credible testimony that writing fiction can indeed be taught.
Whew! That’s three full posts all sparked by the incendiary flying fingers of one Porter Anderson, provocateur and good sport. If you bump into him at a conference, don’t dislodge his keyboard…buy him a Campari instead.
Now I’m done. Next week we return to our regularly scheduled program!
Last week I began a discussion sparked by a provocative post by Mr. Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed. The first part of my response is here. We had a robust debate in the comments, but I’ll try to summarize the first issue I’ve addressed, which is the plethora of teaching and “author services” appearing, in Porter’s words, like “toadstools” all over the internet. My view, in agreement with Porter, is that many of these are not worth the money and some are downright scams.
Porter would like me, and other “legitimate” teachers (I thank him for carving out an exception for me and colleagues like Donald Maass and David Corbett) to cry foul and go after charlatans publicly. But that is not my job or responsibility. Others have taken that on. My solution is the old but still valid rule: Let the buyer beware.
And yes, that is enough. I’m not a nanny.
Now, on to Issue #2: Is it the best or worst time to be a writer?
Here we come to a piece quoted by Porter, written by an anonymous literary agent in the UK. Calling him/her self “Agent Orange,” he/she wrote a post for The Bookseller which opens:
On the face of it, it is paradoxical that while it’s never been easier for authors to get their books into print, there has never been a worse time to be an author. Author earnings are down and the number of writers able to make a living out of their work is at an all-time low.
While this was mainly a jumping off point for Orange to complain about writing courses and teachers, I can’t let this sentiment go unchallenged.
I’ve been expressing exactly the opposite view since 2009. I give my reasons here. To save time, I’ll just refer you to that post, which I stand by. Further, both Porter and I have cited the amazing work being done by Hugh Howey and Data Guy and their quarterly Author Earnings reports.
Bottom line: in terms of making actual money, and even an actual living from writing fiction, it is beyond all question, doubt, cavil, or dispute that this is the best time on Earth to be a writer.
As the old political rejoinder goes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.
Now, to be fair to Agent Orange, I do think there’s a bit of context we have to understand. I haven’t spent a lot of time studying this out, but there seems to be a more entrenched traditional book publishing culture in the UK, and it is those authors who are seeing their incomes go down significantly. It’s happening here in the U.S., too, of course. But across the pond there’s a greater concern over the survival of the “writer as artist” ideal.
To which I respond: This is nothing new. It’s always been difficult for any artist to cobble a living from their art. And by art I mean singular vision as opposed to commercial production.
How many artists in history have ever been able to support themselves by doing, for want of a better phrase, “their own thing”? How many Jackson Pollock wannabes have tried to out Jackson Jackson, only to be completely and utterly ignored? (And there are those who think the original Jackson should have been ignored, but that’s another discussion entirely.)
How many structure-hating novelists have poured their souls onto the page, only to be rejected fully and finally? Or, if managing to get a small press to take a flyer, seen ten book sales and no publicity, not even from their local paper?
If you want to pursue the life of a solitary genius, that’s never been a road to riches. If you expect to be treated with a velvet backscratcher, and have the literary elite fete and fawn over you, then yes, times are not great. But they have never been great for this kind of artist.
I believe this is the “writerly culture” that Agent Orange sees as doomed.
But consider: writers who love to tell stories, who entertain, who work at their craft, who are productive, who keep striving to get better, who don’t see plot as a four-letter word (irony intended)—these writers now have a better chance to realize a return on their work than at any time in the history of storytelling. From Og the cave dweller, who told the first story (you know, the one about killing the mastodon) to Geoffrey Chaucer and Jonathan Swift and James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack London and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Sayers and Erle Stanley Gardner and Herman Wouk and Nora Roberts and Stephen King and John Grisham and Michael Connelly and J. K. Rowling and James Patterson…
…to all of the new (or formerly midlist) writers who are now earning five, six and sometimes seven figures a year because of the disruption called digital self-publishing, I say without any qualm – and eschewing dew eyes, Kleenex, and exclamation points – that it is indeed the best time on Earth to be a writer.
Is there still room for the solitary, literary genius? Yes, and even more room than before. If the artist is not insistent on a traditional print run and New Yorker reviews, he or she has a good chance at finding readers via self-publishing. Or by partnering with a digital company that knows what it’s doing. (Unless your goal is to win the National Book Award. Then all I can say is, good luck to you, because that’s always been a matter of “writerly culture” roulette. Lightning may strike. But be prepared to have some stamina, and a day job. I refer you to Mark Z. Danielewski, whose 27 volume, 22,680 page experimental epic is only now leaving the starting gate.)
So to all writers I say, jump into the indie pool. Even if you’re trad published, establish some sort of indie footprint with short-form work. Talk to your agent and editor about a plan going forward.
And tell them the water’s fine. We’re even serving margaritas at poolside.
So which is it – the best of times or the worst of times to be a writer?
by Allan Leverone @Allan Leverone
When I was very generously invited by Jodie Renner to share a post at The Kill Zone, my intention was to talk about career options for Indie writers. I was going to highlight my new novel, THE OMEGA CONNECTION, which had just been released by Kindle Press after being selected through the Kindle Scout program, and use it as an example of authors giving new opportunities a chance.
Well, the initial releases by Kindle Press have been delayed a couple of months, presumably because Amazon recognized the intense scrutiny those first Kindle Press releases will face, and they want to be certain each book is as polished and reader-ready as it can be.
I’m one hundred percent in favor of this.
However, that decision did leave a gigantic hole in my Kill Zone plans. So, instead of talking about options available to those who have already dedicated themselves to a writing career, I’ve decided to direct my post toward aspiring authors, and the whole “things are wonderful/things suck” debate that seems to be raging among Indies at the moment.
There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
It must be true, because more people than ever own e-readers.
It must be true, because reading as a pastime has been making a comeback over the past few years.
It must be true, because now, anyone with a story to tell and the self-discipline to pound it out on a keyboard can get that story out to the public, no agent or publisher necessary.
There’s never been a worse time to be a writer.
It must be true, because e-book sales have flattened out over the last year or so.
It must be true, because the glut of available material has made it increasingly difficult for new writers—traditionally published or Indie—to get their work noticed.
It must be true, because anyone with a story to tell and the self-discipline to pound it out on a keyboard can get that story out to the public, no ability or talent necessary.
So, which is it?
Is this the best of times or is this the worst of times? There are plenty of people on each side of the debate more than willing to hit you over the head with fact and opinion until you commit to their camp.
Here’s my take: it depends.
If you’re looking to throw some half-assed crap together, poorly written, unedited and formatted badly, stick a homemade cover on top of the whole mess and then wait for the cash to come rolling in, well, it might just be the worst of times for you.
There might have been a period when that was possible, way back in the prehistoric early days of the e-book/self-publishing phenomenon. But that train left the station a while ago, and hopefully it ran over you while it was pulling out. Readers are savvy, not stupid. They know what to look for and they’re not falling for amateurish junk cluttering up their e-reader.
Have all the charlatans disappeared? Of course not, and they never will. They spring up like poisonous mushrooms in every fast-growing industry, hucksters who think they’ve found a way to make a quick buck by circumventing hard work and offering an inferior product to a gullible public. These are the people who give Indie writers a bad name.
On the other hand, if you have some talent and a strong work ethic, if you approach writing as a craft as well as a job, if you’re willing to listen and learn and respond in a positive way to constructive criticism, this just might be the best of times.
I place myself firmly in the second camp. Am I making millions of dollars with my fiction? Hell, no. I’m nobody’s idea of an overnight success. But I am making money.
More importantly, I’m doing what I love and building an audience. With nine novels to my name and two more coming by April, I’m paying my dues, laying down a career foundation.
There’s nothing quick or easy about it.
But it’s extremely gratifying, and everything I was working toward when I was sending out dozens and dozens of agent queries over the course of several years. To no avail. Everything I was working toward when I attended Thrillerfest back in 2008 just so I could put myself through the torture chamber/learning opportunity that is Agentfest. Also to no avail.
For the record, I was never able to snag an agent, either through the query process or through the Agentfest meat market, or any other way.
But something happened along the way. I stopped actively seeking an agent years ago and now, as far as I’m concerned, the shoe is on the other foot. Any potential agent wishing to represent me would have to convince me of the value he or she could add to my career, not the other way around.
If you look at writing as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, one where you can rake in lots of cash quickly, you’re probably considering the wrong profession, especially now. Not that it doesn’t happen, but it’s such a rare occurrence you can be virtually certain it isn’t going to happen for you.
You’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning. Twice.
On the other hand, if you start to feel a little…twitchy…when you go more than a day or two without writing, if you have the ability to tell stories and phrase things in interesting ways, if you are confident in that ability without being unrealistic in your expectations, if you recognize the value of hard work and you’re willing to take a chance on yourself while understanding there are no guarantees in this world, then by my estimation, there’s never been a better time to be a writer.
So as far as that debate over whether things are good or bad for writers is concerned, I suppose the real answer is: who cares? Worrying about it isn’t going to advance your career. Get writing.
Allan Leverone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of nine novels, including MR. MIDNIGHT, named by Suspense Magazine as one of the “Best Books of 2013.” Allan lives in Londonderry, NH with his wife of more than thirty years, three grown children and one beautiful granddaughter. Connect at AllanLeverone.com, on Facebook or Allan Leverone (@AllanLeverone) | Twitter.
Recently the concept of a ‘gatekeeper’ seems to have become a pejorative term for the agents, editors and other players in the traditional publishing world. With the advent of ‘indie’ publishing we’ve seen a lot of negativity surrounding the concept of ‘gatekeeper’ and for some, I think, the concept itself seemed outdated and irrelevant.
I’ve come across two recent posts, however, defending the ‘gatekeeper’ – one by author Chris Pavone (see In Praise of Editors, Agents and every other Gatekeeper in Publishing) and the other by book editor Daniel Menaker (see The Gatekeeper. In praise of publishers who move readers and units) and they raise some interesting points in praise of the profession. I do believe that my own books benefited from the rigour imposed by this ‘gatekeeper’ model (both in terms of books acquired and not acquired:)). Along the way I always felt my writing improved from each round of revision and feedback. That of course, doesn’t have to happen within a traditional model – there are many fine independent editors who can apply just the same level of rigour to an author’s work (I just haven’t used them so I can’t really speak to this experience).
I thought it would be interesting to get your take on both these ‘defences’ of the gatekeeper model and to see how TKZers felt the current state of the industry helps or hinders authors in terms of both curating the best work possible and getting readers to connect with writers (and books) that they might enjoy. There’s no doubt in my mind that the book world is now an incredible crowded one – one that I personally find hard to navigate as both a reader and a writer.
So what do you think?
Is there still a place for the traditional gatekeeper model?
The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it. In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since July when Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited… Some authors are considering quitting. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either. When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on. Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all….
[E]very year there will be more and more books for readers to choose from. Unless the number of readers and the number of books read by readers grows faster than the number of titles released and ever-present, there will be fewer eyeballs split across more books. This means the average number of book sales for each new release will decline over time unless readership dramatically increases, or unless we see an accelerating pace of transition from print reading to screen reading.
[I]f you’ve got a better method of describing the big picture dynamic, please share. I’m open to suggestions. If ebook readership (both a function of the number of ebook readers and the number of ebooks read by readers) is spread thinner across an ever-growing, ever-accessible number of books, and the growth in ebook supply exceeds the growth in consumption, then what happens? Very simple question. Does the average new release get more readers or fewer?
Having just come from the Novelists, Inc. (Ninc) conference, my brain is fried with all the important information I learned. You can see photos on my Facebook Page under the Ninc Album and read my blogs of each workshop on my personal blog site.
As an overview, here are some of the important points I took away from this event.
If you indie publish, offer your book at as many retailers as possible. These would include Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple, Smashwords and Google Play. Google is growing.
Indie bookstores will survive the digital age, especially if they offer curating, personal service and community events.
Publishers may cry that they’re hurting but their profits are rising.
The global marketplace is not to be overlooked. There’s a huge market for English language books, plus the translation market is out there. Agents can still have a role with managing our subsidiary rights.
In the future, authors may sell directly to readers. Be prepared for new technologies and to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
The real threat is the decline of recreational reading. There’s too much competition from video games, TV and movies, and other entertainment pursuits. We need to increase kids’ passion for reading.
Target your readers. Analyze your data. View your results and modify your business plan accordingly. Make sure you write the best book that you can and present the product in a professional manner.
Series sell better than standalones. Even if you aren’t writing a series, try to link your books with a common theme. Have cover art that ties them together.
Back material is important. Your e-book is a living document. Include links to your other titles and to your newsletter.
The rest is on my personal blog. Coming next there is BookBub, ACX, legalities for authors and more. Be sure to scroll down to see my previous posts.
For more information on Novelists, Inc., go Here.
I often get contacted for editing by authors who have previously published a few novels, either on their own or through a small publisher with limited resources for editing. Their earlier works, while promising, were prematurely released and sales are slow, with few or mostly negative reviews.
These authors were often unaware at the time of any weaknesses in their books and just wanted to get them out there, perhaps on time for Christmas sales or for some other self-imposed time deadline. Many of these early works really needed an edit on some level: a major developmental edit for help with premise, plot, & structure; a content edit to address plot holes, inconsistencies, character motivations, point of view, etc.; a stylistic edit to address slow pacing, convoluted phrasing, too many author intrusions (backstory, info dumps, too much neutral description, telling instead of showing); or just a good clean-up of grammar and flow.
If those authors are serious about building a career as a respected novelist, leaving those books out there in the shape they’re in will only harm their reputation. And if they’re just out as eBooks on Amazon, it’s pretty easy to take them down and upload a revised, more polished version. I’ve done it several times with both of my books – quick and painless, really. Amazon doesn’t seem to care how many times I revise and re-upload the same title – I love the freedom! If you know basic formatting (here’s a how-to article on formatting your manuscript), you can make the changes pretty quickly and get the e-book back up.
Here’s an example of an email, typical of many I’ve received:
“Jodie, I have now read both of your books and your articles on point of view. Fantastic material. All of your comments and recommendations now make sense. With that foundation, I realize what an amateur job my first novel was. Maybe someday we can revisit and do major surgery or a lobotomy on [title of book].”
James Scott Bell has spoken here on TKZ about the need for “a long tail” – a backlist of other attractive titles by you that readers can choose from if they happen on one of your books for the first time and enjoy it. That’s the way to keep the royalties rolling in over the long term.
But of course this means all your titles need to be strong, of high quality. What if your earlier books are nowhere near the quality of recent ones? What if your worst, most amateurish production is the first one of your books someone reads? Do you think they’ll look for any more by you? Worse, they could write a nasty review saying they won’t waste their time with any more of your books. So you could also think of the “long tail” as a chain connecting readers to you. You don’t want any weak links to break that chain!
I’ve confidentially advised some authors, either my clients or not, to get one or more of their backlist titles cleaned up. Some agree and are grateful for the feedback, and others don’t seem to care, or even respond negatively. I don’t get that. If they’re getting bad reviews on Amazon for an early work and a professional editor suggests it would be a good idea to get it edited, why would they leave it up as it is? (And I’m not soliciting editing work here – I get way more requests for editing than I can handle.)
Some indie authors tell me they can’t afford to get their early books edited. I say you can’t afford not to, as those books are or could start dragging your reputation down and significantly reduce potential income. At the very least, If you’ve already (or since then) honed your fiction-writing skills by reading some great craft-of-writing books and/or attending writers’ workshops, here are three resources I recommend specifically for tips on revising fiction: James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-Editing, Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover, Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, and my Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power. All have very useful, concrete tips, with examples, for taking your fiction up a level or two and making your story more compelling. And if you’re struggling with making your first page zing, check out some of the great first-page critiques here on TKZ (links on side column). Then, after you’ve used the advice to revise your early book(s) yourself, be sure to follow it up with a low-cost or free final proofread for typos, grammar, and punctuation.
If the process of going back and revising a whole book feels overwhelming, here’s a great step-by-step plan of action for revision and self-editing. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do that right now, consider pulling any prematurely published early books out of circulation and resubmitting them later when you’ve had time to get them cleaned up or do it yourself. Don’t leave amateurish books out there where they can start collecting critical reviews and tarnish your name as a talented author. Or, if your muse just took a vacation on your WIP, take a break and use the time to revise an earlier novel.
Here’s what A.D. Starrling said in a recent comment (Oct. 22) here on TKZ:
“I have done a revised edition of Book 1 while simultaneously writing Book 3 (I know, one should really STOP rewriting once the darn thing is published, but the feedback for Book 2 was so good, I just had to bring Book 1 up to that level!).”
So my advice, as a freelance professional in the business of helping authors turn good stories into stellar ones that garner great reviews, is to take the time to make sure that at least the weakest links in the chain of your backlist are brought up to your current standards. Of course, I’m mainly talking about eBooks and self-published books here, which are so much easier to revise and republish.
Writers – what do you think? What if one of your early titles received a bunch of negative reviews on Amazon? Would you consider taking it down and revising it, then getting it edited by a professional, then republishing? Then you could always consider changing the title so you can lose the old, negative reviews.
What do the rest of you think of this?
See James Scott Bell’s excellent related post here on TKZ yesterday: Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.