Friday, December 21, 2007

Why bad books get published

In a post about agents and editors, Peter L. Winkler asks, "[W]hy is is that with so many 'dedicated, professional' gatekeepers, so many bad books get published?"

I love this question. It's not that I have the answer, because I don't. Nobody does. It's because there are so many different answers, and they're all correct part of the time.

Bad books get published because...

1. There's no arguing with taste. Your dreck is another man's page-turner.

2. A comedian once said, "If you were talking with Einstein, and an alien ray zapped him from the sky and suddenly made him twice as smart, would you be able to tell?" He went on to talk about how you don't need to be incredibly smart to come off as smart. You just need to be a little smarter than the guy you're talking to. In the same way, a book doesn't have to be brilliant to come off as good. It just has to be a little better than the reader's ability to tell good books from bad. Most readers have less developed literary sensibilities than the average critic or writer, so a larger body of books look perfectly good to them. Editors are willing to publish these mediocre books because...

3. A little bit of badness is a good thing. Think about the writing style of the average pop hit. Crap, yes? Simple, full of cliches. Tinkertoys writing. But people love these books because they're easy to read--people don't want to work at their entertainment.

In some genres, badness is also good because it encourages active fandoms. Readers love books with plot holes and shoddy characterization because it makes the book more of a blank slate for them to draw their own ideas on. When they feel they can play in the book's world freely, they get together to swap ideas, play together, etc., and *poof*--instant fandom, a free grassroots promotional engine. Nowadays this is more true of TV and movies than of books, but occasionally a Harry Potter or Eragon comes along.

4. Publishing slots are time-sensitive. If an editor needs six slots filled by the end of April and she has only five good manuscripts, she'll grab the best of the rejects because it's better to put out crap than to leave an empty slot. The problem's inevitable in magazine publishing, but I don't know why book publishing works that way. The likely answer is that production and distribution departments are set up to handle a certain number of slots per month, and leaving a slot empty wastes money.

5. You never know what will sell. Every so often a piece of garbage hits it big, and even the less explosive books often turn a small profit. May as well use that empty slot to take a gamble.

#2 and 3 could be improved, though not fixed, with extensive education. If we're going to strap the masses into desk chairs and shove some learning down their throats, though, literature shouldn't be high on our list of priorities. Food for the soul, highest effusions of the human heart, yeah yeah whatever--can we teach them how to find Canada on a map first, please? And maybe give them some basic medical knowledge? And phonics? As much as I love books, they're not that important compared to the gaping holes in most people's educations.

Besides, a love of trash is human. Ever since printing presses started mass-producing books we've been swamped with garbage. And why not? Garbage is an easy read, and sensationalistic writing is fun. Do you really want to be stuck in a world where the only reading material is Proust and Joyce? Even if we reformed literature until every week brought a new flood of brilliant, subtle writing about the deepest reaches of the human heart, we'd still have a solid bedrock of vampire romances and space operas.

In the end, the reason we see a lot of bad books is because people read them. Always have, always will. If the big publishers stop printing lowest-common-denominator books, small publishers will slide in and fill that niche--which, let's admit it, is the niche where the big money is. On top of that, there's no accounting for taste, and the gatekeepers know it. Plenty of books that have been rejected as garbage have turned out to be bestsellers, so who's to say that this latest piece of filler won't?

Besides, if you had to read slush, you'd start thinking crap was gold, too. It's all in the comparison.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Independent bookstores, and what they're not

"Last I checked, an "independent" bookstore was run independently and not as part of a chain."

--That's a convenient definition that many people use but that I think is bunk. If you, a bookstore, are getting and carrying books from mostly traditional distribution systems, from mostly big publishers, from mostly the same-damn widely lauded and published writers, you're not really an independent bookstore. On that essay I linked to, as I implied, independent bookstores should also be venues for INDEPENDENT WRITERS primarily, not for commercial writers primarily, not for well-known-and-now-connected literary writers primarily.

First, you don't get to make up your own special definitions and then castigate other people for not following them. An independent bookstore is a non-chain bookstore.

Second, independent bookstores don't follow your very special definition because it's a recipe for a quick financial death. Most people want the stuff on the bestseller lists. Even at specialty stores, mainstream books are the backbone of the operation. Booksellers bemoan this and do everything they can to draw attention to offbeat books--even the Borders store near me has a staff picks section, and it's full of wonderful and quirky stuff--but the truth is that bookstores must stock mainstream books because mainstream books are what sell.

If you want to see more self-published books selling, there are a couple of things you can try:

1. Open your own bookstore. You can even do it online for the cost of a domain name. Create an independent bookstore to your own recipe, and see how you do.

2. Review and promote more self-published books. You say over and over that the self-published work you read is almost as good as the traditionally published work, and sometimes better--so tell us what these gems are! People wouldn't be so averse to self-published books if they could find some good titles. If you're not willing to share what you know, the rest of us are going to keep thinking that self-published books (including yours) all look like this.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A few tips on getting and keeping readers

  1. Get your ass out there.

    Impersonal advertising works only for celebrities. If you're an ordinary schmoe, the only good way to get readers is to go out into communities you like, participate, and meet people. Don't participate just long enough to advertise your work; people recognize that kind of spamming. Show up and be a real member. Over time, people will get to know and like you, read your stuff, and tell other people about it.

  2. Give more than you get.

    Be generous with your time and support. People will notice, and once they trust you, they'll give back far more than you gave them. That includes attention. And who knows, you may find yourself--gasp--enjoying helping others!

    But remember: Complaining that you give and give and nobody gives back will wipe out months' worth of giving. People don't like feeling like you're keeping tally on them. People will give freely if they don't feel obligated to give; if giving back to you is an obligation, then it no longer feels like a gift, it feels like forced labor. They'll even start rejecting your help so they don't fall into debt with you.

    Which leads to the next point...

  3. Don't whine.

    Too many complaints about how badly other people have treated you, and your listeners will start to suspect the other people had a point. The world is already full of bad writers whining that no one appreciates their talent and no one will listen to them. Don't be one of them.

  4. Don't expect special treatment.

    You're a writer. So what? The world doesn't owe you anything because of your choice of hobby.

  5. Patience.

    It takes time to get attention and see word-of-mouth start to spread. Give it space, let it happen. If you start demanding that things move more quickly, that you get more attention and more comments and more sales or you're going to throw it in, people are going to feel pressured and leave.

  6. Listen.

    If you get the same criticisms over and over again, you're doing something wrong. Either figure out what's wrong and fix it, or resign yourself to getting the exact same criticisms for the rest of your life.

    And no, bitching about how you keep getting the same criticisms won't help.

    Neither will claiming that people say those things about you because your work is too trendy/too old-fashioned/too ethnic/too mainstream/too edgy or because you're female/male/black/white/poor/rich/vegan/vegetarian/carnivorous/a pet owner/short/tall/young/old/pretty. You're a bad writer and your personality is grating. Fix it.

  7. If all else fails, controversy attracts attention.

    It drives up hits, inspires people to comment, and gets you a small audience as people drive by to see the trainwreck. But manage it carefully, or you'll wind up a laughingstock. The last thing you want is a silent audience of people waiting for you to flip out again.

    And finally...

  8. HAVE FUN.

    Writing is hard and nonlucrative, and hundreds of far better authors have already soaked up all the available prestige. If you're in writing for money, for status, or for the validation of fame, you're in the wrong business. Write for fun, find readers who think your work is fun, and let the rest drop to the side.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writerly Misconceptions: Writing for posterity

"I don't write for the popular press," the writer says. "I write for posterity!"

(And then strikes a pose, hand on heart, black beret cocked at a rakish angle to highlight her artistic features.)

I never figured out how this one was supposed to work. Though unread in her time, the writer's works would magically manifest in the canon a hundred years hence, blipped there by... time travelers? literary-minded aliens? antiquarians who found her complete oeuvre on an ancient data stick?

And yet this idea seems perfectly reasonable to anyone who's completed a high school English course. The stuff in the canon, the stuff that's supposed to be the Glories of the Ages, is nothing like what we enjoy reading now. Shakespeare had a fine way with words if you can read Elizabethan English, but his plots are crap. Austen had a fine way with plots, but her style is dry. Dickens is purple. Poe is purpler. Gilgamesh is just plain boring. The entirety of the English canon contains fewer than a score of books that would be walloping good reads to the average reader of today. The point is that although these books are written in outmoded styles, some element of their stories, writing, or historical significance makes them worth reading past their sell-by date; but it's an easy point to miss. People can be forgiven for thinking that one of the defining elements of a Good Book is that it's written unlike anything they'd want to spend an airplane trip with.

And yet all of the Good Books were popular in their day. Dracula and Frankenstein were cheap trash. Pride and Prejudice was a good light read. Dickens was the first modern literary superstar, not in spite of but because his early novels were sentimental garbage. Shakespeare's works were The Sopranos; Chaucer's were Desperate Housewives. Even the Good Books that weren't popular successes were literary successes. These works were passed down to later generations because people liked them. Ordinary people, the Waldenbooks shoppers, the library-reading-group-goers, and the airline travelers of their day.

So if you want your works to live on for the ages, you have to write for those same people. (And they are the same people. Folks is folks throughout the ages; there has never been a Golden Age of Literary Audiences.) You don't have to write lowest-common-denominator trash. You do have to write books that contain what current audiences are looking for--sharply defined characters, fresh takes on the world, and it never hurts to be witty--as well as containing all the weightier stuff you're trying to impart to Future Generations. You have a hundred genres and styles to choose from, so you're not penned into the Deep Literary Mode or the Sentimental Romance Mode or the Action-Packed Thriller Mode or whatever else you think the world is herding you toward; but you are penned into writing a book that modern audiences will want to read.

Good luck. Writing a book that will last through the ages means writing not only a popular book, but the most popular of the popular books. You're trying to win the ultimate literary popularity contest. It's a grand goal and a hard one; so take my well-wishes and all the good advice you've ever been given, and go into it knowing what you're really trying to do.