Fiction in 2013: The Ugly Truth (and a call for patience)

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So I was going to write a post about the sorry state of fiction publishing during this transition period, as we watch the established presses, gatekeeper agents, chain booksellers and respectable book review outlets grind through the death throes of their former heyday — those days soon gone forever when they got to decide what books we should read.

I was going to detail a few of the horrors that one former “mid-list writer” (me) witnessed as she set off on her lonely road to self-publication, and witnesses still as she trudges down the even more harrowing and thorny trail of self-published-book promotion. Several of the appalling sights I’ve seen have contributed to a precipitous decline in my faith in my fellow human beings, such as:

  • New lows for the publishing industry. Traditional publishers have “evolved” from basing their guesses about what books they should publish next year on last year’s bestseller lists, to basing them on the lists of top-selling self-published novels — whose authors they then race to sign. How ironic is that?
  • Sticking fingers in the dam as the ship goes down. Almost all traditional book review outlets, booksellers, awards competitions and funding agencies continue to refuse to review, sell or reward self-published books on principle, no matter what the track record of the author or the quality of the self-published book (why? Because they might have to THINK if they were to become more open? How much easier it must be to simply proceed as they always have done, by accepting only those books published by traditional presses?). This makes book promotion for former mid-list writers very difficult, but it also means that readers who are wise enough not to participate in on-line review forums never hear about self-published books with any literary merit;
  • The Crap. Oh, the Crap. I draw your attention here to the hundreds of thousands of works of so-called fiction that have been released into the marketplace in the past few years by self-published writers who are incompetent, inexperienced, badly edited, and/or merely ignorant or boring, many of whom grow apoplectic and even threatening if anyone suggests that they don’t know how to punctuate, much less how to write (This enormous garbage heap is offered as justification by publishers, booksellers, review outlets, awards organizers and granting agencies for continuing to proceed as they do, and I do not argue that it is a major issue. However, a bit of diligence on the part of these institutions could sort the wheat from the chaff – sorting is not THAT difficult – but who has time to be diligent when your house is crumbling around you?) ;
  • False Positive Reviews. Then we have the proliferation of ridiculously positive, 5-star reviews of the aforementioned Crap now posted to Amazon.com, Goodreads, book-review blogs, and other book-related sites. Most of these patently fluffy reviews have been written by the authors’ well-meaning but inexperienced, uninformed and not widely read friends and relatives. One book-review blogger favourably compared an utterly talentless writer to one with the world-class stature of, let us say, a Jane Austen – a comparison that was then, of course, gleefully quoted by the writer in subsequent promotion. Now, if you were an unaware book buyer and a fan of Jane Austen, would you know to proceed with caution? I don’t think so. (Yep. It’s a zoo out there. Be careful where you step);
  • Books that sell on reputation and gossip rather than content. These are the Honey Boo-Boos of the current literary world. Take, for example, the Fifty Shades series, which has sold an astounding, gut-wrenching, nauseating 68 million copies so far. (Lest anyone accuse me of sour grapes, I have no qualms admitting that I am fifty shades of green over E.L. James’s book sales, but I would never, ever want to be associated with such bad writing, even in exchange for a lot of money. Thank you anyway, Mephistopheles.) As far as I can tell, this phenomenon MUST be due to the lack of literary reviews of the book, for why would anyone spend good money on a totally unerotic, misogynistic, implausible piece of shit? The only possible explanation is that  is that 67.32 million of those 68 million purchasers bought the book by mistake. I’m telling anyone who hasn’t yet made the error: I bought the first book in the series. I read as much as I could stand. I threw it in the garbage. Don’t waste your money. Read Anaïs Nin or someone else who can actually write erotic fiction instead);
  • Review Police: Then we have the packs of on-line sleuths, most of whom hide behind pseudonyms, who apparently have an intense dislike of writers in general and suspect us all of being guilty of the most nefarious crimes, particularly ones pertaining to reviews. (I have personally been the victim of their sordid and senseless attacks when I stupidly ventured onto their forums to point out the errors in their thinking. Like two-year olds, their arguments are not constrained in any way by the need to use logic, and they will therefore win all arguments). Among other things, such individuals believe to the very cores of their Neanderthalean little hearts that if you have received a free copy of a book rather than purchased it, you are incapable of writing an objective review of it. This opinion of course invalidates every review that has ever been published in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail , the London Review of Books, or any other respected review publication: since the beginning of (literate) time, reviewers have not paid for books they have reviewed; they have received the free review copies that have been sent to the publications by the publishers. The “review police” seem to have very little to do with their lives aside from hunting down authors they can report to the Amazon gods for having engineered positive reviews for their own books – or, better yet, of having written such reviews themselves, using false names. Such witch hunts commonly occur on the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum (which is not exclusively about books, but also talks about reviews of toilet plungers and whatnot; here is, however, a charming recent thread that reveals the biases of many of the habitues of the forum) and The Kindle Forum;
  • Overkill Response by Amazon: Last fall, Amazon responded to accusations by these sleuths by deleting thousands of reviews by writers, inflammatory or not. Here are the details, as set out in the New York Times and The Telegraph;
  • Last but not least, it doesn’t help that at least one traditionally published author has admitted to actually doing what we are all being accused of doing: not only has R.J. Ellory written reviews of his own books and posted them under pseudonyms, he has also used fake personae to slag his fellow authors.

So, yeah. It’s a pretty disgusting time to be a fiction fan – as I am, both as a writer and a reader. I remember a bookseller once telling me (about 30 years ago) that she didn’t bother to take ID from book purchasers when they wrote cheques because they were all so honest. The nature of the beast seems to have changed, and I am very sorry to be seeing it.

What I was going to do was to just advise everyone to stay away from fiction–even mine!–until this all shakes down. If you can’t trust what is being published to be good, and you can’t trust the reviews to be honest, much less representative, then what’s the point?

But then I reminded myself that this IS just a transition stage. I reminded myself how far we’ve come in the past four years. I remembered how I’ve noticed that several of the newly published writers I didn’t feel were very good seem to have given up on their dreams to become millionaires from writing the next knock-off Twilight, and stopped plugging their books everywhere. It seems likely that many others who are not “real writers” will follow because this is (as it always has been) a hell of a lot of thankless work.

I thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and reminded myself that I’ve been at this fiction-writing stuff – working at improving my writing – for more than thirty years now. I reminded myself that I finished my (first) half marathon back in the 1990s , and lost 30 lbs last autumn, by keeping on and keeping on–no matter what. Giving up on writing, even for a few months or years, is not an option anyway: I love to write. A writer is who I am.

I told myself that within another few years, there will be a new and much better system, in which the readers will find the good books for themselves from among all the self- and traditionally published books that are released, and then will tell the rest of us about them on book blogs that we will come to trust to point us in the best direction for our own personal reading interests. Within a few years, really good editors will offer to put their imprints on self-published books they’ve edited and liked. There will be awards programs that are open to both kinds of fiction publications. Writers who have established presses and agents will stop dumping and ignoring on principle those of us who are not dragging around similar litters of dependents. (See, for example, this.) We will have book review outlets we can trust to cover ALL good fiction writing, no matter where it comes from, and booksellers who will recognize their new roles as community gathering places for book lovers rather than as gatekeepers.

It will take a few more years for the evolution to shake down properly, but it will happen. And I am optimistic, despite my dismay and discouragement right now, that the world is going to be a better, more open and less expensive place for writers and for readers. And that we will once again be seen as a group as honourable people who are kind and supportive of one another.

So I decided not to write that depressing, bleak, discouraging blog post I had been thinking about after all.

Alison deLuca: Steampunk, Dieselpunk and a Bolt of Flash Fiction

Alison deLuca, steampunking

One of the pleasures I have enjoyed in participating in the on-line writing community in the past few years has been meeting dozens of writers from all over the world through the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) forum, on authonomy, and in other venues. Many of them have launched their literary careers in an era when self-publishing was a viable option, which it was not for most established writers when they first started out. The new-writer experience is very different today than it was 30 years ago when I began, and that has both its drawbacks and its advantages, I think.

My own entry into self-publishing has been greatly enriched by this community: we’ve learned the ropes together. I decided it would be fun to profile a couple of these promising and industrious emerging writers on my blog so that you could read about the lessons they have learned, and the great progress they have made, in their still relatively new careers as authors. In discussing this blog idea in one of the FaceBook groups I belong to, the thought came to us that having one of these newer (and definitely younger) writers than I interview another might be the way to go. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I present for your reading pleasure a series of incisive and intriguing questions posed by Jeffrey Getzin of Alison DeLuca – and her equally fascinating responses.

Alison’s bio (from her very thorough press kit: kudos on that Alison. I’m going to use it as a model for my own!) tells me that she is the author of several steampunk and urban fantasy books. She was born in Arizona and has also lived in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain. Currently, she says, she “wrestles words and laundry” in New Jersey. You can connect with Alison on her author page on FaceBook here, and read her Fresh Pot of Tea blog here.

Jeffrey Getzin, whose first novel – a fantasy – is entitled Prince of Bryanae, has a website here. Next time, he will be interviewed by Alison. Stay tuned….

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JG: Tell us about your first book The Night Watchman Express. What’s it about? What inspired you to write it?

Alison: First, thanks so much for the opportunity, Mary, and for the amazing interview questions, Jeff.

Nightwatchman is a steampunk novel set in Edwardian England. It’s the story of a young orphan named Miriam. Her guardians want to control her wealth, and their son, Simon, clashes at once with her. When some real villains enter the picture, Miriam and Simon have to find a way to forge an alliance. Along the way they encounter a quantum typewriter, a mysterious governess, and loads of adventures.

I was inspired by the music of Angelique Kidjo, a wonderful singer from Benin in Africa. Her songs helped me to picture the character of Mana, a governess from the islands.

It was difficult to write the scenes where Mana was confronted by the attitudes of Edwardian society. I had to make those interactions realistic but never demeaning. In fact, I couldn’t have done it without Mana’s inner strength, intelligence, and inherent poise. A lot of that came from Kidjo’s lyrics and the singer’s own beautiful personality.

JG: The Night Watchman Express has gone through several iterations. Why all the different versions, and why is it so hard to find now?

Alison: When the book was first published, I was very naïve. It was only after I wrote the second and third books in my trilogy that I realized I needed to go through several rounds of beta reads as well as several professional edits. It’s a good thing that publishing has become more fluid with the growing popularity of ebooks and Indie authors, and thus I have a second chance to present my work.

I grew more and more unsatisfied with TNWE, so I decided to do a complete structural and line edit on the book. It, along with books two and three in the series (Devil’s Kitchen and The Lamplighter’s Special) will be available again this summer.

JG: Rumor has it that The Night Watchman Express is part of a planned trilogy. Can you confirm this? If so, what kind of story arc do you have in mind?

Alison: It is actually the first of four books called The Crown Phoenix Series. The first three are written, and I am in the middle of the fourth, The South Sea Bubble.

The relationship between Miriam and Simon is the Bosun Higgs particle that connects the books, as well as the struggle between Mana and Barbara, my beautiful villainess. Those women are both strong characters, and their confrontations cause a lot more adventures for Miriam and Simon.

JG: Do you have any other projects planned?

Alison: I do! I’m also in the middle of a dieselpunk book. Steampunk’s tech is driven by steam, so dieselpunk has working engines and more advanced engineering. It was a great deal of fun doing research for that; I got to dig out my father-in-law’s old engineering and mechanics manuals.

The title is The Gramophone Society, and it is about a modern girl who finds one day that the steps to her attic lead downstairs, not up. She descends and is drawn into the world of WWII, when children were sent out of London to the country to get away from the Blitz. Of course, lots of adventure ensues. Yes, I’m an adventure freak.

JG: How long have you been writing? If you could go back in time and visit yourself when you had just started writing, what advice would you give yourself?

Alison: “Hey, you! Thirteen-year-old self! Do you really have to keep writing a love story about yourself and Donny Osmond?”

Writing is a journey, a very special voyage filled with moments of despair, frustration, and also brilliant happiness. I spent one summer on a very long fantasy novel. Now I see that what I wrote is absolute tripe, but it did teach me that I could sit down and complete a book.

JG: What do you do for fun other than writing?

Alison: As well as being a mother and a wife, I’m a hopeless reading addict, and I love to cook and garden. Blogging has become a passion, and at times I like to get my Xtreme on and go skiing.

JG: Do you have a “day job”? If you could write for a living, would you?

Alison: My day job is being a Stay At Home Mom. I’m incredibly lucky that my husband supports my writing career. The house suffers as a result, but my man is gallant enough to put up with it. At least, he doesn’t complain too bitterly.

I’d love to write and edit for a living. As my daughter becomes more self-sufficient, I hope to do exactly that. The changing nature of publishing gives people like me opportunities I couldn’t have dreamed I could access in the past, so I am very blessed to be able to do what I love every day.

As an example, I never knew how much I loved to edit. I’ve discovered that I adore to assist in the process of a novel’s birth. Some of my edits have been for writers who have incredibly original voices, such as Shaun Allan. It’s been my good fortune to work with works like Sin and see those pieces evolve.

JG: Many authors say that in order to be a good writer, you must first be a good reader. What have you been reading recently? What’s next on your list?

Alison: How did I never discover Nick Harkaway before? I just read Angelmaker, and of course with all the clockworks in the plot it has me hooked. I finished the luminous Losing Beauty last week, and The Last Guardian is next on my Kindle. I’m the kind of person who has an upstairs and a downstairs book, and if I start to read a good book I’m deaf to all that is going on around me.

JG: Flash Fiction Challenge: Write a very short story involving: a lighthouse, a telegraph, and a beach ball.

Alison: This will be fun, especially since I’ve just researched telegraphs for The South Sea Bubble. Here goes:

Conditioned Response*

We crouched by the screen door. There it was again, a flash from the direction of the Barnegat Light.

“It’s not the lighthouse.” My brother raised a cracked pair of opera glasses to his eyes to check.

“Optical telegraph,” I said.

The last time we had seen it, five years earlier, our stepfather was at the top of the stairs. That blink from his old Maglite meant we had to climb up and be quick about it. The severity of the punishments were directly related to the amount of time it took us to climb to the top.

“It’s not him, at least.” He bit off the words with a long cough that was rich with phlegm.

“We don’t have to do anything about it. We can just stay here.” Even as I spoke I knew we would go to the lighthouse. We were dogs that salivated over the ring of a bell. Both of us had been schooled to come when the Maglite appeared.

I stood and walked to my old bike. My brother hopped in the basket. “You’re a lot heavier now,” I complained. “Jesus!”

“Just shut up and pedal.”

The house was at the tail end of the beach. If we turned and went in the opposite direction, we would pass millionaires’ houses, complete with pool boys and marinas. Our own home was an abandoned motel that had shuttered its doors at the end of the seventies.

My heart pounded as I stood on the bike to get us up to Barnegat. My brother took out a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Don’t even think about it,” I said.

Two flashes. Each one saw a rusty bike draw closer to the lighthouse. Centuries earlier they would have spurred an answering response from another lighthouse, and so on down the coast – a system of communication called the optical telegraph.

I kicked the stand down. My brother climbed out of the basket and stretched. “Remember the pick?” he asked.

I shuddered. Our stepfather used to illustrate what could happen to us with a beach ball and an icepick. I hated my brother for remembering and for making me remember.

“No guards on duty. Weird.” I felt for the handle, even though I knew the local historical society would have locked the door.

The knob turned easily in my hand. My brother coughed again and spat. “It can’t be him.” It was impossible for our stepfather to be at the top of those steps. Nobody knew that better than we did.

“Why did we come?” I asked. I pictured the red coast hidden inside our skulls. The light we had seen had its answer, and we were helpless against that message.

“Wait.” He put a hand out. I could see how his fingers trembled in the dark entrails of the lighthouse.

Thump. Thump. Thump. It was a muffled sound that grew louder.

The fear in my throat tasted like spoiled hamburger. “What!” I screamed. “What!”

Something appeared at the bottom of the steps. A beach ball.

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* © Alison DeLuca

Selling your novel: Genre vs. mainstream fiction

I have recently read that, unless their names are well known, writers in future are going to have a lot more trouble selling genre fiction than mainstream fiction, because readers will buy another, cheaper novel in the same genre (which today often means that they will go for a free novel in an ebook giveaway) before they will pay for a novel by an author they haven’t heard of before.

On the other hand, more readers are likely to be looking for genre fiction than mainstream fiction, so you’re at least going to have them checking out your book.

Your thoughts?

A Book-Promotion Experiment: The Book as Soap Sample

My first novel, THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, is a story about a young woman who must go home and confront her past when she learns that her mother — to whom she has not spoken in several years — is dying. It won the Writers Guild of Alberta award for excellence in Writing, Novel Category waaay back in 1988.

As a promotion of the impending release of the Kindle version of THE WHOLE CLOVE DIET, The Woman Upstairs is downloadable on Kindle at no charge for four days only (March 25 to 28, 2012).

In other words, I’m using my first novel as a free sample for a few days, like a little box of soap flakes, to promote my new novel.

Last year I rereleased The Woman Upstairs (NeWest Press, 1987), which had been out of print for two decades, as a POD and an e-book through CreateSpace. It only cost me a couple of hundred dollars to have it scanned in. Plus I had a new cover made because I didn’t own the rights to the visual. I have done nothing to promote it aside from posting links here and there: I just figured that it was available and maybe some day, when I published another book, it might sell a few copies.  I wanted it to be available in case.
As most readers here know, I am self-publishing my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet (it’s available now as paperback). I decided that, in anticipation of the release of the Kindle version of The Whole Clove Diet, I would test out the Kindle Direct Publishing “Free Promotion” option with The Woman Upstairs. This allows ebooks priced at $2.99 or more (which is the price point for accruing 70% royalties; anything less and you are down to 30%) to be given away for up to five days. (Of course, no royalties accrue on these books. Nothing times 70% is the same as nothing x 30%.)</div

So I started the sale Sunday morning, and I did not notice where the ranking was at that point, but I would guess The Woman Upstairs was probably a millionth or so on the best-seller list, like the paperback is. It was at about #4000 in the Kindle Free Store when I first started watching a few hours later.
I have been promoting it as much as I can on the social media, but that does not explain what has happened to it — there must be a lot of people who are finding it on some “free books” list somewhere from which they download everything in sight. In the past day it has moved up to #11 in Kindle Literary Fiction and #17 in Kindle Contemporary Fiction. But what really blows me away is that 1200 people have downloaded it. That’s almost more than the first print run, I think.
Who knows how many people who have downloaded it will ever get around to reading it, and better yet like it enough to pay for the new book (which is my master plan), but it’s been an interesting process. Here’s the link if you’re interested in watching what happens.
At the end of Wednesday, it will go back to $2.99, at which point I expect it to fall off the face of the earth again. But it’s the long term impact I’m interested, and I guess I may never know exactly what that is.

If you had told me five years ago (or even two) that I’d be giving my first novel away – even as an e-book and even only for four days – as a promotional device, as though it were a sample package of soap, I would not have believed you. But these are interesting time, and they call for creative approaches.

This is (one of) mine….

I’ll report back at some point on how this and other strategies for book promotion re: The Whole Clove Diet have worked out.

By the way, I have started yet another blog (my 10th, I think) for items related to The Whole Clove Diet, and diets in general.

And again, here’s the link to the free Kindle version of The Woman Upstairs.

(On March 29, it will go back to its usual astronomical ;) price of $2.99.)

Looking for Beta readers for The Whole Clove Diet

Update Jan 4/11: Thanks for your responses! I have now got ten beta readers. Watch for the next posts on The Militant Writer: How to promote your independently published book — an interview with an author whose books are selling like hotcakes!

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My third novel (fifth book) is currently being typeset and will be published in about two months. I am looking for ten people who are interested in reading the final version of it in manuscript form and then writing a one-paragraph (or so) review for Amazon once the book is published. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not — you are welcome to be honest. I just want some reviews up there as soon as the book comes out.

In exchange, once the book is published I will sign a copy of the print version (it will also be available as an e-book. It’s is going to have a beautiful cover! I’m so excited!) and mail it to you, all at no cost to you.

If you are interested, please write me at mary @ marywwalters dot com or contact me via this blog.

Here’s info about the book:

As she breaks 200 pounds, and not in a good way, Rita (29) finds herself married to a self-focused widower with two difficult kids and a mother who almost makes Rita’s own mother look like a role model—which is really saying something. Graham’s first wife, being dead, just keeps getting better and better in everyone’s memories while Rita just gets fatter and more aggravated. She’s tried every diet in the book, but it’s not until a family crisis forces her out the door that she figures out that the easiest way to thin is to get rid of the baggage on the inside. Funny and insightful, The Whole Clove Diet is sure to make readers of all shapes and sizes feel better about themselves—and ultimately maybe even about Rita.

Thanks!