Sunday, May 15, 2011

Literary Food for Thought

Two data points about the brave new world of publishing that caught my eye this morning:

Data Point One. The #1 bestselling book on Amazon right now is not yet in print. Titled Go the F**k to Sleep, it's billed as a children's book for adults. From its title, I'm guessing it's a twist on kids' bedtime books like Goodnight Moon but meant for parents who just want their little monsters to shut up and lie down. Sounds clever. Wish I'd thought of it.

What got my attention is that, as explained in this article, the book topped the bestseller list and has already been optioned for a movie due entirely to a PDF preview that got away from its publisher. Critics, buyers for bookstore chains, marketing people and others need to make decisions about books before they're physically printed, so publishers send them a PDF. Usually, they're held close to the vest. This one escaped into the wild. That's piracy, but it's also grassroots marketing--way better marketing than the publisher could have ever dreamed of doing on its own.

In the article, I enjoyed editor Ibrahim Ahmad wrestling with his dilemma: you don't want a million illegal free copies of your forthcoming book floating around the Internet, but at the same time those illegal free copies actually translated into pre-sales that will make both publisher and author barge-loads more money than they ever dreamed. Ahmad says he's fighting the piracy, but I don't think his heart's really in it. Understandably.

I'm not celebrating this story. In fact, it's pretty much the antithesis of how I think business, and the author-reader relationship, ought to go. "Give it away free to get exposure" is the opposite of how I'd choose to run my creative life--and yet this time, accidentally, it worked. I don't quite know what to make of it, but it got me thinking. Like I said, it's a data point.

Data Point Two. This article (originally by the Washington Post but since they currently appear to have a glitch on their website I linked to it elsewhere) features Nyree Belleville, a "thin, pretty brunette" who wrote 12 romance novels for a traditional publisher which then dropped her. Since her books had never earned her much anyway and she had nothing to lose, she reissued her first two novels as e-books.

(BTW, the article says that "her writing career was so flat line that one of her old publishers had even given her the rights to her first two novels." I bet that's not quite right. More likely, the books had gone out of print and the rights automatically reverted to Belleville under the terms of her contract. Nobody "gave" her anything.)

Those e-books made a few bucks. Then a few more. Belleville got the rights to two more of her books, wrote a new original one, dug up a few stories she'd written earlier in her career, and offered them all as e-books. In the first quarter of 2011, she sold 58,008 copies and made $116,264. Quite a comeback for a writer who a few months earlier thought her career was over.

The article also points out that such success is rare. Belleville had a big advantage being a known name with an established reputation and fan base in the print world. Far more common are the e-books that sell six copies to family and friends. Still, the economics are compelling. Notes the article, "it is possible for writers marketing a $4.99 self-published e-book to make more per copy than authors with a $24.95 hardcover." As an author with a $24.95 hardcover, that sounded about right and got my undivided attention.

Of course the most important question to me is: How does this affect me? I dunno. These are interesting times. Writers have exponentially more strategies and outlets available than ever, but consequently a greater challenge being heard above the din than ever. If there are no gatekeepers and everybody's a writer, how do you stand out from the crowd? Tell good from bad? Can a writer still lounge moodily in his garret and scritch away with a quill pen (as I am wont to do), or does the 21st Century author have to be a promoter, accountant, and computer guru, too?

Interesting times.


Mike said...

I think the do-it-all creator will always have an advantage, and it's not necessarily reflected in the quality of the "artistry" section of that job description. It really doesn't speak to income, however -- both Dickens and Bulwyer-Litton were masters of promotion, but the latter has left little impact on the literary world except for the bad-writing prize that bears his name and the footnote that he is the person who persuaded Dickens to screw up the ending of "Great Expectations," which was much better in the original.

Still, the carping about his literary skills seem beside the point if we're talking "success" -- given that he invented the phrase "the almighty dollar" and also according to whoever Wikipedia cribbed it from, "He financed his extravagant life with a varied and prolific literary output, sometimes publishing anonymously."

Now, a serious question you may or may not be able or willing to answer, but which goes to the question of the accidental release of that PDF: How many people saw "Mom's Cancer" prior to publication? I know there were some of us following its development on the web site, but was it ever a significant number? I suspect it translated into multiple sales of the book, which I have given as gifts in part because of its excellence and in part because of a sense of having been present at the birth. That latter factor, I think, is key to the success of webcomics, Jonathan Coulter and other such on-line entities.

Brian Fies said...

First, thanks for passing on "Mom's Cancer" as gifts, I truly appreciate it.

I know about how many visitors the MC webcomic got and about how many copies the print book has sold. It's safe to say that MANY times more people read the webcomic than the book (even taking into account that multiple web hits come from repeat visitors while a print book might be shared by several readers). When "Mom's Cancer" went viral, I got more than 10,000 unique vistors a day--chicken feed for modern webcomics but pretty breathtaking for me at the time. I'm sure you're right and some of those readers went on to buy the book; I have absolutely no way to estimate or even guess that overlap.

I hadn't quite thought it through, but I guess I have met the enemy and he is me: giving away my free webcomic surely sold some books. That wasn't a deliberate business strategy (nor was it for the "Go the F to Sleep" guys) and I never regarded "Mom's Cancer" as a professional job I planned to make money doing. It happened to work out, but it's no way to run a career. I'm laughing at myself while I type this, but I guess what I'm saying is that my motives were purer then and now I want to get paid, dammit (ref. Harlan Ellison).

Honestly, I look at the "Go the F to Sleep" example as a lucky one-off rather than a business model to emulate. Belleville's DIY e-book experience is much more interesting and seductive. I could see that working for me somehow, someday.

I know you read it already, Mike, but for anyone else: I wrote up some related thoughts for a blog post back in September ( Also, I may soon have another data point for "Mom's Cancer": stay tuned.

Jim O'Kane said...

It's funny reading this essay, Brian -- now that I'm working on an actual, possibly merchandisable book, I get increasingly leery of telling the story to professional people I'm interviewing for background, on the off-chance they have a better skillset for converting outlines into paperbacks. One rather famous TV reporter was fascinated with the story enough that he scared me away from asking more about his memories of certain astronauts.

One of my worries is that my thesis is a matter of public record. Anyone at my school can peruse my paper (with all its sources listed conveniently in the endnotes) and convert the thing into a pop-sci book in a few weeks. Meanwhile, I'm trudging through paragraphs and rethinking the narrative every night, all while trying to work the DayJob. Since it's nonfiction, the knowledge of history is public domain and the story is anyone's to write. All this stuff gives me agita every evening.

I used to enjoy typing out research papers, but now that there's money on the table, I think I'm quickly turning into an Intellectual Property hermit.

Brian Fies said...

Jim, I hear you. One reason I'm not saying much about Mystery Project X is that it's an idea that's just been lying around ripe for the plucking and I'm surprised it hasn't been done already. I've described it to a very small number of people, and never another writer or cartoonist who I think might have the inclination or skill to take it and run with it. A little paranoia is just good business.

However, as someone who's read your thesis, I think the passion, research and learning curve anyone else would need to assume to achieve even one-tenth your understanding of the subject makes poaching very unlikely. Try to rest a little easier in the confidence that you're the best person in the world to tell your story--or at least one of a half dozen, and those other guys are too busy doing other stuff.

If I could convince myself of the same thing, I'd rest a tad easier at night....

Jim O'Kane said...

My two biggest obstacles in completing my Great American Nonfiction Book are my overwhelming belief that I'm writing too high-brow for general audiences, and that I continue to take advice from people who've never attempted to write a book for publishing.

As to the first obstacle, I think I've found a way to overcome it - I'll have someone non-technical read a small section and see if they understand the concepts and the vocab, and also ask if the story remains interesting. Most readers seem to enjoy short anecdotes so I try to find some kind of embedded vignette with every key piece of the story.

The second obstacle is a bit more tricky: I build up a lot of self-doubt fast when I explain my book-writing process to people. My goal is 300 pages, so I've broken up the story into 10 chunks of 30 pages each. I have a list of "plugs," or details I need to explain in one chunk so that the events in the next chunk have a corresponding "socket" for each "plug" - - sort of like Chekov and the gun over the fireplace.

When I explain my method to non-writers, they roll their eyes and tell me that storytelling like that sounds mechanical and dull - - but I don't really believe people notice the mechanics of writing when reading a book (unless of course the writer stinks at narrative strategies).

Yes, I know people who don't write don't appreciate these necessary frameworks to get the job done. They probably also think movies are made without screenwriters or editors, too. It's just that, as this is my first venture into book construction, I'm easily swayed into believing I'm doing it wrong.

My antidote to this is that someday I'll have 100,000 words on paper, and a knowledgeable agent and editor will yell at me in a professional manner to resolve the shortcomings of my flippin' epic.

Brian Fies said...

Don't second-guess yourself and underestimate your audience yet. Do the book you want to do until someone whose opinion you respect more than your own (or someone with an open checkbook) says otherwise.

I think structure is especially important in non-fiction and yours sounds as good as any to me: Manageable bits, each with its own beginning and end, rise and fall and arc, with threads that tie it to the others. But once you have that structure, I suggest also allowing yourself the freedom to let the bits grow or shrink within it. Some stories and characters will cry for an extra 10 pages; others may be exhausted in two. Let them have their way. There's nothing wrong with a two-page chapter if it's the right two-page chapter. As you say, the trick/challenge is making the wires and glue invisible.

I've come to think of writing (both fiction and non-fiction) as an exercise in creating little puzzles for the reader to solve. Some are easy and offer immediate gratification; others are hard and take longer. You might hint at something on Page 2 and pay it off on Page 200 (or show the gun on Page 2 and fire it on Page 200). And one or two puzzles will be just for you. Readers like connecting the dots.

Brian Fies said...

Jim: a few follow-up thoughts the next morning. I'm pretty sure there's no topic so esoteric and high-brow that the right approach and writer can't make it interesting. Stephen Hawking writes bestsellers. And I instantly thought of the book "Longitude" from a few years ago, which sold quite well explaining how important and hard it is to determine where you are east-west on the globe. If THAT can be a successful book, yours can, too. I think the trick is communicating your enthusiasm for the mystery you're solving and the connections you're making. You're Indiana Jones following a trail of clues to the Lost Ark; if the journey is interesting, what the "Ark" is almost doesn't matter.

A second next-day thought: if you can, it may be good to talk with an agent, or someone who's already written a book sort of like yours, sooner rather than later. A cautionary tale: a friend of mine wrote a terrific detective novel that came out to, let's say, 90,000 words (I'm just making up numbers, I don't remember what they were). He showed it to agents, every one of whom told him, "no one will ever publish a detective novel longer than 60,000 words, you need to cut it by a third." That was critical information about the market it would have been good for him to know a year earlier. There may or may not be similar conventions in your niche. You don't want to kill yourself writing 300 pages only to learn that absolutely no one will even consider anything over 200 no matter how wonderful it is. (BTW, my friend edited down his book--essentially cutting out every third word--and said it gave him a much better book.)

Jim O'Kane said...

I think I'm making a new rule: that I only pay attention to folks with AAS Emme awards. :)

Good points all around. I've been sniffing through lots of recent nonfiction tech history books, and most of them seem to balance out at ~100,000 words. A piece of advice I picked up from another writer is to find a writer whose style you like, and try to emulate their style or voice (as long as it's not an unusual or unique voice such as a Hunter Thompson, etc.). Nonfiction such as Erik Larson's Devil in the White City was pretty popular a few years back, but I found his style a bit stodgy.

An author whose storytelling voice and narrative strategy I'd like to mirror is David Owen. I've read quite a few of his long-form articles from The New Yorker, and recently, he's expanded a 20-page history of the invention of the Xerox machine into a 100,000 word book called Copies in Seconds. I've written him to ask about his method for expanding 20 pages into 300, but I guess he's not a "sharer."

In the meantime, I think clacking away at a "popular" version of my little epic is probably the best strategy - - leaving the navel-gazing for later in the process. I know I'm going to have to learn more about writing book proposals and auditioning for agents, but I think my comfort zone for this stuff will be better if I have more than just a bone-dry thesis in my briefcase.

If I didn't mention it earlier - thanks for your advice and support. It's greatly appreciated.

/ Jim /