One of the Joys of Indie Publishing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We are well into the second decade of the self-publishing (now more preferably termed indie-publishing) movement. The flame wars of the early years (“Death to traditional publishing!” “Oh yeah? Self publish and you’ll ruin your career!”) have been replaced by the calm ruminations of business-minded “authorpreneurs.”

And while reports of the death of traditional publishing have been greatly exaggerated, the industry’s dependence on A-list stars has left a void in what used to be called the “midlist.”

It is a vacuum productive writers abhor. So they have filled the void with indie product.

Of course, most of the product is, shall we say, not good (see Sturgeon’s Law). Nor is all of it legit. Perhaps you’ve been following yet another plagiarism scandal that recently broke out, this time in that part of the book kingdom where romance flowers. A USA Today bestselling writer apparently hired a ghostwriter from, of all places, Fiverr. That’s a site that has all sorts of freelancers who’ll work on the cheap—five bucks is the baseline. This author was hiring said labor to put together “books” in the romance genre so she could be slapping them up on Amazon at a heart-pounding (notice my genre-specific adjective!) pace. Problem: the freelancer was snatching passages from published works to fill out the pages.

Kris Rusch wrote about this, and has these wise words:

The smartest thing…is to write your books at your pace, and stop flooding the market with mediocre books, written by people who don’t care about your worlds or your characters as much as you do.

If you got into this business because you love writing, then write for heaven’s sake. And if you’re worried about maintaining your income, then the real key is to cut expenses, not add to them. If you can’t survive without gaming the system, then maybe consider a part-time job until you have enough money put away to augment your writing income in the lean months. Then live on a percentage of what your writing earns, not on the entire amount.

Indie writers (who are true writers) want to feed the system. Indie scammers (who are not true writers) want to game the system. You have to live with yourself. Unfortunately, with the death of shame in our culture, cheaters are often able to look in the mirror with a satisfied smile. But know this for certain: they will never experience the true joy that only comes from honest applied effort.

I’ve been a happy indie since 2011. Coming from the traditional world, however, I am appreciative of the “grinder” my books were put through, meaning the editorial process. I worked with some great editors who helped me get better. As an indie, I seek similar feedback on every book I write.

And when a book is ready, it’s published in ten minutes. Boy, do I love that!

Here’s another joy—getting to publish something written by my late father.

Art Bell, Lawyer

Back in 1972 my big brother, Bob, was having thoughts about becoming a lawyer like our dad. Bob was, at the time, a teacher at an elementary school in northern California. So he wrote Dad a letter—a real letter, on paper, with an envelope and a stamp!—asking for Dad’s counsel.

And Dad, never one to do things (like represent a client) half way, wrote a long letter in response.

Dad thought his modest epistle might be something other lawyers would find of value. So he paid to have it published in installments in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the city’s legal newspaper.

It was a huge hit. The demand for copies proved so great that Dad had the whole thing printed up and paid for it to be included as an insert in a later edition of the Journal.

It hit me recently that Compendium Press, my indie publishing company, ought to publish the letter once again, this time permanently in digital form. But I couldn’t locate any copies in my dad’s files.

So I asked my brother if he had a copy. He did, and sent it to me as a PDF file. I then sent it to a scanning service, and now it’s up permanently as A Lawyer’s Letter to a Son.

Why publish it again? It’s not because I think it will make a lot of money; it won’t. It’s because I believe its message is relevant today for anyone considering going into law—or maybe who went into the profession for the dough and are starting to wonder if that was the right reason. The letter represents a view of the law that is rare today: as an honorable profession, not just a way to gain money or power. (And no lawyer jokes, please!)

My dad was a great L.A. lawyer, highly respected by his peers, and a colorful character in his own right. He loved a good fight in court, a good cigar in his leisure, and a sporty bow tie with his suits. I love hearing his voice again in this letter.

If you know any law students, or wannabe law students, or even young lawyers, maybe you can recommend this little letter, which I’m making FREE for the next several days.

Now to you, TKZers. What brings you joy in your writing?

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Your Writing Sweet Spot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Things were tough at the moment. I hadn’t worked in a studio for a long time. So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week. Only I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is, they didn’t sell.” – Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard

Ah, poor Joe. We can feel his pain (not really, since he’s narrating this as a corpse floating in a swimming pool. But I digress). Still, I love how screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett captured the writer’s dilemma—what should I write that has a decent chance to sell?

For writers still operating in the world of traditional publishing, that question is more important than ever. Publishing companies are being squeezed and must concentrate on big hits to survive. This makes it harder for a newbie to break in or, if they manage to get ushered through the gates of the Forbidden City, to receive what used to be called a “decent advance” and marketing support.

Indie writers must be market conscious, too, as the crush of content and reading choices grow ever larger. If you want to make decent scratch you have to provide products (plural) that a good number of people will want to buy.

The danger, of course, is the temptation to jump on a trend, or try to replicate what’s already been done. But demanding readers don’t want something that feels same-old. They want to be delighted, surprised, swept up. So do acquisitions editors.

They all want originality.

Just not so much that they can’t figure out what ride they’re on.

Which reminds me of the famous quip by Samuel Johnson who had been asked to review a manuscript. He wrote, “Sir, your book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”

Um, ouch.

(As long as we’re on the subject of literary snubs, I can’t help but quote what is reputed to be the shortest book review ever, attributed to Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”)

So how could we have helped Joe Gillis? Where is the sweet spot for the writer who needs to sell in order to get his car out of hock?

As I assert in Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, the sweet spot is where you find the most joy. Way back in 1919, a professor of writing at Columbia University, Clayton Meeker Hamilton, said this:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction.)

I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in the writing, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

“Let her go!” says Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write. “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate!”

You liked to play those things when you were a kid, right?

So play! Here are three ways to do it:

  1. Go to risky places. Bungee jump off the Bridge of Banal. The cord of a solid concept will keep you from crashing into the gorge.
  2. Have fun with minor characters. Make them spicy, not mere walk-ons. Never underestimate the power of comedy relief in a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock did it in almost every film (e.g., Thelma Ritter in Rear Window; Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt).
  3. Make things harder on the main character. You thought that setback was bad? Make it worse. (This form of joy is not veiled sadism; it’s plot happiness! Readers will love you for it.)

So what about you? Where do you find your writing sweet spot?

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