The Free Speech Bargain

Every so often, a voice from the back row asks the plaintive question, “In today’s publishing climate, what am I, as an [insert identify marker or lack of one here], allowed to write about?”

Okay.  Here’s the deal, at least as far as the US of A goes*:

You’re allowed** to write about anything you damned well please.

And everybody else – your mom, your best friend, all the other people in your writers’ group, your editor, the New York Times Review of Books, and total random strangers on the internet – is allowed to say out loud and in public what they thought about it.

The thing about the deal, you see, is that it goes both ways.  And a writer who can’t handle the deal is probably better off pulling an Emily Dickinson and keeping their stuff locked up in their dresser drawer for posterity.


*The world is a large and varied place, and I make no claim to pontificate for all of it.

**With the usual narrow exceptions involving nonexistent fires in crowded theatres, and the like.

 

Why Authors Go Mad, Reason Number I’ve-Lost-Track-By-Now

Author Seanan McGuire (who is also Mira Grant and I think somebody else I’ve forgotten) has just received — on a tight deadline, of course — a beyond-the-copyedit-from-hell copyedit: The copyeditor did a global search and replace of “which” with “that.” Among other gross incompetencies.

And there isn’t time to scrap the copyedit and send the MS back out to somebody better.

People wonder why authors sometimes drink heavily. The amazing thing, actually, is that more of them don’t.

One Reason I’m Glad I Don’t Write Children’s Books

Or don’t write them any more, to be specific . . . My co-author and I started out in middle grades and YA, but moved on to writing for grownups (and for any kids tall enough to reach the bookshelves on their own, which was how we ourselves were raised – any book we could get off the shelf was acknowledged to be fair game*) a few years before the explosive growth of social media made being pecked to death by chickens inundated by critical commentary a fact of life.

It can’t be helped, I suppose. Nowhere else in publishing are there as many gatekeepers and barrier-builders between the writer and the intended audience as there are in children’s literature – and because by and large the gatekeepers, and not the intended audience, are the ones spending the money, nowhere else do the gatekeepers get listened to so intently. And the gatekeepers want a lot of sometimes mutually-exclusive things. They want the books children read to be relevant – relevant to exactly what, can change whenever the wind blows. They want the books to have diversity and inclusiveness and representation – but not necessarily too much of it, or of the wrong people. They want the books to put forth good moral values – all sorts of moral values, defined in all sorts of ways by all sorts of groups who frequently can’t stand each other. And they want books to be challenging, as if being a kid weren’t hard enough by itself without having your recreational reading turned into some kind of spiritual or mental calisthenics.

And these days, every gatekeeper – every social activist, every moral missionary, every concerned parent – has a Facebook page or a Twitter account and is primed to post. Given that saying anything – anything at all, including nothing – is capable of whipping up at least one portion of that vast crowd into a froth of wrath, it’s amazing how many writers for young people nevertheless keep on trying to get their stories into the hands of their actual intended readers.

God knows, if I had reason to feel that no matter what I wrote, somebody would want to drop the internet on my head, I wouldn’t be nearly so well-behaved and gracious as most children’s and YA writers have to be nowadays.

*It’s also the way we raised our own children, on the grounds that – in our opinion, anyhow – we turned out all right.

Link of the Day

When it comes to the most frustrating aspect of the freelance life – to wit, actually getting paid for the work – this piece in The Toast nails it.  (The comment section is full of additional spot-on commentary.)

The single most reliable and prompt payer I have ever personally dealt with was a comic-book company; they paid their freelancers every other Friday on the dot.  They also got swallowed up in the Great Doom that befell the American comics industry in the mid-nineties, so go figure.

The worst? Universities, hands down.

(These are the honest companies and institutions we’re talking about here.  Of the dishonest ones, we shall not speak, mostly because to do so would require the use of very bad words.)

“It’s a House Name,” Tom Said Frankly.

Franklin W. Dixon.  Carolyn Keene.  Victor Appleton.  Familiar names, all three, as are their literary creations:  The Hardy Boys.  Nancy Drew.  Tom Swift.  How do these authors manage to have their names on such long-running series?  (The first Hardy Boys adventure appeared in 1927; the most recent just this past February.)

The answer:  these authors are all house names.  That is to say, the name is a pseudonym that is owned not by the writer of a particular book, but by the publishing house, thus enabling the house to hire different writers at need for the series, or to have more than one writer at a time working on different books.

Frank and Joe Hardy (and Ms. Drew, and Tom Swifts Senior, Junior, and III) were creations of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and their prolific adventures were made possible in part by the detailed outlines which the syndicate provided to its authors.  You can read one such outline here; as someone who was one-half of Victor Appleton not once, but twice, I can vouch for the fact that the novels are still built on outlines just as detailed.

These days, the writers are likely to be given a brief plot synopsis from which they are expected to produce the outline in question, which then goes through several rounds of back-and-forth revision until it gets publisher approval.  But what comes out of the process at the far end looks remarkably like that early example.

Sometimes, though, things can get weird.  We – my co-author and I – once did a last-minute revision job on such a novel, for which we got the original manuscript and a copy of the cover flat (the cover of a mass-market paperback before it gets wrapped around the actual book; done as a sales tool, for handing out as publicity or showing to booksellers, it will have sales and marketing info printed on the reverse side) along with the instructions, “Fix it however you need to, just don’t contradict the back cover copy.  Also, we need it in three days.”

We did it.  In three days.  That Victor Appleton, he’s one tough writer.

Writing for Joe’s Beer Money

The idea that creators of popular fiction are writing for “Joe’s beer money”* is an often derided concept, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be.

For one thing, the fact that Joe is reading for pleasure at all should be celebrated, not sneered at.  Elitists might be surprised at what Joe sometimes picks – it isn’t just thrillers and soft-core porn.  I remember stopping for coffee for once at a truck stop that had, in addition to the usual snack foods and sundries, a wire spinner rack filled with audio book rentals for pick-up-and-drop-off .  One of the more well-worn items on the rack was an audio book of Homer’s Iliad.

For another thing, writing for Joe’s beer money is demanding work.  Joe doesn’t make so much money that he wants to finish a book feeling like he threw away some of it on a thing he didn’t enjoy.  (And let me say right here that Joe is just as capable as anyone else of acknowledging different values of enjoyment.  See Homer’s Iliad, above)  Furthermore, Joe is honest:  He’s not going to pretend he liked your book just to impress his friends and co-workers.  But if he does like it, he will read your next one, and probably the one after that.

Also – oddly enough, the cost of a mass-market paperback novel and the cost of a six-pack of ordinary beer have stayed roughly equivalent at least since the 1970’s, which is about the time when I started keeping track.  (Of paperback prices, at any rate.  I had to go to the internet for the beer data.)  Trade paperbacks are more in line with the cost of imported and craft beers; and it’s entirely possible that part of the controversy over how much an e-book should cost is also a disagreement over whether an e-book is more like a six-pack of Budweiser or a six-pack of some five-star brewpub’s signature XXX Strong Ale.

*The original quote is often attributed to science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle.

Today’s Cranky Observation

If ever I needed to present any evidence that this blog post by Matthew Yglesias was mindboggling in its sheer wrong-headedness, this quote alone would do the trick:

Transforming a writer’s words into a readable e-book product can be done with a combination of software and a minimal amount of training.

It appears that even noted bloggers on politics and economics aren’t exceptions to the widespread belief that novels aren’t so much made objects as they are the naturally-occurring fruit of the fiction tree.

There are a whole lot of things that have to happen to an author’s manuscript before the printer, or the e-book producer, ever gets hold of it, and surprise, all of these things involve the services of people who expect to get paid for their labor.  Yes, the author could do these things him-or-herself,  or could hire other people to do them for him/her – but authors generally have other things to do with their money (such as eating, or paying the internet bill), and other things to do with their time (such as writing more books.)

Maybe some things could be better for authors than, in the current scheme of things, they are . . . but improving the lot of authors by bringing down traditional publishing is a bit like improving the lot of coal miners by closing down all the mines.

A Couple of Good Things

The first is a link to an IndieGoGo fundraiser for Hadley Rille Books, a small press specializing in speculative fiction and prioritizing “new voices from women and other historically marginalized points of view” since 2005. They’re raising funds for the expansion necessary to stay competitive in today’s commercial environment.

Rewards at various levels include e-books, hardcover novels, and e-book bundles, manuscript critiques and full-manuscripts edits, tuckerization in a novel by a Hadley Rille author, and more.

The second is a link to the on-line archives of Florilegium, the journal of the Canadian Society of Medievalists/Société canadienne des médiévistes, who now have the complete run of their back issues, dating from 1979 onwards, available in digital form.  Writers of fantasy and historical fiction set in actual or pseudo-medieval societies would probably have a good time prowling through the articles available.

As usual, the internet is full of wondrous things.  Go forth and enjoy.

A term from the sf/fantasy community, referring to the inclusion of a person, or the use of the person’s name, in a novel or story, usually as a complimentary in-joke. Opportunities for tuckerization are often offered as prizes in benefit auctions and the like. The term derives from the name of sf writer Wilson Tucker, who pioneered the practice.

 

Clash of the Titans

If anybody ever wants a reason (besides brain chemistry or childhood family dynamics) for why writers can sometimes be a depressed and paranoid lot, they need only to look at the latest round of hostilities between major publisher Hachette and major online seller of damn-near everything from books to baby booties, Amazon.

The two entities are currently in the midst of negotiations over terms, and Amazon – not content with such ploys as tweaking discount policies and dragging its feet on things like delivery and restocking – has now removed the preorder button from the listings of a number of Hachette titles.

I’m not wasting my time on sympathy for Hachette; they’re big boys, and presumably knew what they were letting themselves in for when this dispute started.  Besides, they are a major publisher, which means that they’ve played plenty of hardball themselves, and presumably have built up the calluses.

No, my sympathy is all for the authors, whose books – which is to say, their livelihoods – are currently being stomped on and tossed about in this battle between two giants.  Because in the end, Amazon will continue to make money, and Hachette will continue to make money – and a whole bunch of authors will have lost potential sales (and money) that they’ll never get back.

Radio Silence from the Northland

This hasn’t been much of a week for posting stuff, for which I am sorry.

Then again, it hasn’t been much of a week for doing anything. I’ve had one of those springtime bugs that only make you feel really lousy for about a day or so, but spend about two days creeping up on you beforehand and leave you enervated for another three or four days afterward, and the next thing you know there’s a whole week gone.

Meanwhile, today’s publishing news:  Harlequin (with its assorted publishing lines) is being sold by its parent company to HarperCollins.  Harlequin’s authors, not surprisingly, are worried – changes in the publishing industry are almost never good for authors, at least in the short run.  Most of us have our survival strategies exquisitely fine-tuned to the present moment (trust us, we’d love to have them fine-tuned for the future as well, but life has unaccountably failed to provide us with working crystal balls), so any sudden alteration of the status quo has the potential to throw all our careful arrangements into disarray.