Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Spastic Internet

The utility of the Internet seems to be declining swiftly. It is paralyzed with ads, and these shoulder their way onto your screen whether or not you are reading paywall or free publications. They sometimes paralyze my screen, locking up my computer until I figure out how to back away or shut down. It is no longer possible to click on some story of interest and have it come up swiftly; we must suffer a lengthy ad, sometimes more than one. This is true not only of news sources but also entertainment sources such as YouTube.

A few sites, such as Wiki, still allow a reader to glean information without being bullied, but by and large I am drifting away from the Internet entirely. It is no longer an attractive or useful option. Except for PBS (which is eroding as well) TV doesn't do much better, with a third of each hour devoted to marketing. I am reading more, perhaps because advertisers haven't figured out how to invade my books, or at least ones I might buy. Maybe that is a reason why books will survive during the electronic era. I've gone back to using my computer primarily for word processing.

I don't suppose there is much to be done about it; no protests or boycotts will slow down the promotional takeover of the medium. And in any case, there are those who like the ads; they are the sorts who watch the shoppers' channels on cable TV for some ungodly reason. But books are relatively free of invasive content, except for front and back matter. This may be the golden age of TV, but content is declining steadily, especially during political campaigns, when I would guess that less than half of airtime is given to content, the rest going to promotions. Print newspapers have ads, but we can elect to read them or not, at our leisure, which is a good reason to subscribe for home delivery.

The promotional effort doesn't stop with those media. Even though I am on the federal do-not-call list I am frequently targeted by commercial entities who call to sell me something, mainly because the government does not even try to enforce the law.

The only benefit from the deafening din of commerce is that we grow numb to it; the more noise, the less we hear, and all those Internet, newspaper, phone, and TV ads sell nothing. No one hears anything in the Tower of Babel.

We should rename the country the Republic of Huckster.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Out of the Grave

If you, like so many people I know, have a few self-published titles resting in Amazon's Swamp, the grave of many tens of thousands of self-published novels, maybe you should give some attention to ways to promote a title and resurrect it from the dead. If it stays where it is, untouched, it's going to rot there forever. But electronic publishing gives you a chance to revamp everything.

One of the first decisions made by publicists with traditional print publishers was whether to sell the title or the author. Their instinct was to sell the title; that's their product, and they wanted to move it off the shelves. In some instances, they got it wrong. An entertaining author might garner more notice than the title itself.

Authors can be fascinating, and may be a roundabout route to selling a title. Put simply, do you sell Norman Mailer, or sell his titles? In my case, there was nothing of interest about me to sell. I came from a sheltered bourgeois family, lost in a sea of politeness, so the publishers didn't have a bad boy to promote. But selling the author doesn't mean the author has to be a bad boy. The author may have an interesting background. Something startling or unique. Something that evokes curiosity. And that is when the publicists might prefer to push the author rather than four hundred pages of type.

If you decide you want to push yourself as a novelist, you may need to overcome innate modesty and talk boldly about your life and goals and how the book fits into them. You can open your Amazon set-up and redo your whole approach. You have nothing to lose. Your books are lying in their graves, and you can bring them to life if you come up with some imaginative promotion. Maybe sympathy will do it. Or empathy. Or shock. Only remember you're competing with hundreds of thousands of self-published titles, and you need to focus on whatever makes you or your material stand out.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Selling the Novel

I worked for years as a book editor for several small midwestern publishers. It was up to the editor of a title to provide catalog and sales copy, simply because the editor was the only person in the house totally familiar with the title.

I often spent more time creating promotional copy for a title than I spent editing the book. Sales were the lifeblood of the company. I had to come up with material that would entice buyers to buy, readers to read, reviewers to review, wholesalers and retailers to stock and promote the book. Unless I succeeded, those small publishers would fail.

Sometimes that task was maddening, as when publishers asked for revisions ten, twenty, and more times, never satisfied that I had gotten what could be gotten out of the book. And in the process I developed skills, common enough in most print publishing houses to this day, that have served me well.

As I began putting my reverted titles into electronic editions as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, it became my task to write the descriptive copy that would sell the book. Only now I was my own boss, and it was up to me to reject anything that didn't work. One good thing about electronic publishing is that one can return, over and over, to the title, revamp the material, even put a new cover in place, at minimal cost or effort.

I learned to use sentence fragments, things to catch the busy browser. Sometimes my descriptions were successful, sometimes not. I am still working on the ones that don't sell books. But here is an example of a successful description that is earning me money every month. It describes my novel, Second Lives.

Gilded Age Denver. Five people try to rebuild their broken lives. Some succeed. Others are changed forever.

In 1880s Denver, fabulous fortunes are won and lost overnight. Some win and live high; others have their hopes dashed and dreams shattered.

One is Lorenzo Carthage, a man who has won and lost several bonanzas, and never quits looking for the next one. Another is Dixie Ball, who has been everything from the mining queen of Telluride to a chambermaid. Another is Yves Poulenc, a tubercular poet planning to die as gracefully as John Keats. And Cornelia Kimbrough, trapped in a loveless and miserable marriage to a financier she can't escape, but seeking a new life anyhow. And Homer Peabody, Esq., a lawyer who never succeeded at law and now wonders why he is alive-- and whether he can still find a worthwhile life doing something else.

And drawing these and many other people is the magnetic city itself, Gilded Age Denver, lording over plain and mountain, and inspiring people to make their dreams come true. A few find the courage and grace to rebuild their lives, and overcome their disasters. But only a few.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Resting in Peace

I imagine most of my readers have a few self-published titles resting serenely in the Amazon Swamp, unnoticed, slumbering on their way to eternity. Indeed, Amazon's swamp is a sort of mortuary; the author's latest effort is embalmed and buried, with a decent headstone marking the spot. If the author gets a few dollars in royalties from the title, he'll be lucky.

But maybe a few of those titles can be revived. One way is to resell them to one of the new publishers exemplified by Open Road, which employs the social media, print-on-demand, and electronic publishing to move books. But these companies are as selective as the old print publishers which are  so despised by the ideologues of independent publishing, so you may have trouble getting on board.

Another way to bring these titles to life is to examine the headstones you have put on them. The print publishers have generations of experience promoting their works, and usually spend an extraordinary amount of time on their catalogs and sales efforts. They must sell their product not only to the reading public, but also wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and reviewers. Yes, reviewers. Much effort is spent persuading reviewers to review their books.

It would be well worth the effort for modern novelists, who have eagerly put their self-published stories into the Swamp, to have a look at how traditional publishers do it. What do they say? What do they emphasize? What do they avoid? How do they got buyers to lay out cash? Most of the traditional publishers have on-line catalogs with vivid descriptions of forthcoming titles. These are worth reading. It also pays to see how legendary authors are marketed on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. How is Tony Hillerman marketed? Or Elmore Leonard? Or, for that matter, Willa Cather?

I once did that sort of promotion of print titles for a living when I was a book editor. And even now, I spend a lot of time working and reworking the description of each book. One good thing about electronic publishing is that one can go back in, over and over, until you put together something that works. It takes time. Almost as much time as writing the novel in the first place. It's an art, just as writing fiction is an art, and you need to master it.

You have multiple tasks. One is to highlight what makes your story different. Why should a reader buy it and not any of a hundred others in the same field? Another is to emphasize what is surprising, delightful, unexpected. Give thought to this. Study the promotion of traditional print publishers. And then redo those headstones in your Amazon cemetery.

Friday, February 27, 2015

More About the Amazon Swamp

There are plenty of good novels stuck in Amazon's self-publishing swamp. I have a couple of titles in the swamp that I think are pretty good. They were never published elsewhere. The very reality that digital word processing allows endless revision helps assure that many of the titles are at least edited to some degree. If Ernest Hemingway could rewrite the beginning of his novels over and over in the days of handwritten manuscripts, then modern writers using computers can do it also, and more easily.

The problem here is economics. An enormous supply of new and recent novels, growing exponentially, overwhelms the market. No reader on earth, no matter how avid, can cover even a small fraction of them. As is usually the case, the oversupply reduces the value, and price, to about zero. Even ninety-nine cents is outlandishly high considering the oversupply. Readers are few; titles are endless.

Amazon encourages self-published authors to give away their titles, especially to its Amazon Prime customers, on the ground that handing out the stories gets the word out, and builds future sales. But Amazon has an ulterior motive. The more free stuff available to Amazon Prime customers, the more Amazon can tout the alleged bargains.

If readers are few and their number is static, while new titles enter the swamp in amazing numbers, what does that say about the future of fiction? Amazon offers no good way to publicize these titles, or draw attention to their authors, other than to pay plenty for advertising. So the swamp grows, and readers looking for something worth reading turn to more traditional guides, such as the reputation of a traditional publisher.

So it's not so much about quality; it's about supply overwhelming demand.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Future of Popular Fiction

What I call the Amazon Swamp, that vast and burgeoning collection of self-published cheap books lying in obscurity forever, is just the right response to the digital revolution. As soon as it became possible for most everyone to become an author, there needed to be a vast holding tank for the output. And Amazon has kindly provided it. For anywhere from 99 cents to $2.99, Aunt Mabel's drama about living with a boa constrictor in her shower stall will be available to the world.

That is all to the good. There appears to be no end to the literary output wrought by the computer and word processing software. Before it withers, many more tens of thousands of novels will find their way to the Amazon Swamp and rest serenely there, passed along from one generation to the next.

What this does is free literature from Everyman. Worthwhile fiction will be produced in its own way, mostly by those traditional New York publishers, disdained as legacy publishers, which will remain selective and thus valuable. The one cloud on the horizon is also the result of digital revolution. Fiction, laying down words on pages, may decline as a result of the explosion of motion picture production. Films have been going through the same digital revolution, and can be made cheaply now. When I look around Livingston, I become aware that this film town has all the talent and expertise to make a first-rate feature film, salaries aside, for very little. In short, the world is on the brink of seeing digital movies made by most everyone. We are all authors; now we will all be producers, directors, actors, editors, and musicians. Maybe Amazon can provide us with another swamp, this one for $2.99 self-made films that can languish in happy obscurity forever.

If the Amazon Swamp ultimately revived the famed publishing houses of New York such as Knopf and Viking, maybe the Amazon Film Swamp might revive MGM and Universal and Paramount.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The New Literary World

So I began in one world and am ending in another, all of the change ascribable to digital innovation. The way I write, the way books are produced and distributed, are all changed. Manifestly the biggest change is what I call the Amazon swamp, where tens of thousands of cheap titles, nearly all $2.99 or less, reside obscurely. And the new titles continue to flood in.

Easy production did it. It's no great task to sit down at a computer and produce a book and then market a digital version at no cost. It's not just newcomers at it. I know of western series started by accomplished western authors who thought they could churn out novellas, spending a couple of days on each, and make a tidy sum. They didn't. The swamp devours new titles.

Amazon itself touts the occasional success in its monthly newsletters, but these remind me of jackpot bells in a casino full of slot machines. It's always someone else's bell that is ringing. Amazon's self-publishing program has more to do with Las Vegas than with literature.

Amazon proved to be gifted in some ways. It knows how to produce and sell books cheaply. It turns us all into writers. But there is one thing Amazon cannot do. It has no way of guaranteeing the quality of what it is selling. Reader reviews don't have the necessary authority, and look all too much like a concerted effort on the part of the author to get upbeat comment from his or her friends. So Amazon lacks one of the essentials needed to sell a product: a guarantee of quality. Strangely, the old "legacy publishers" often dismissed as outmoded relics do have that ability. A reader knows, when he considers buying a title produced by Knopf or Harper or Penguin or Viking or Norton or Simon and Schuster, that the book will be well done in all respects. That is exactly the quality that Amazon and all its self-published authors cannot offer.

Somehow or other, through decades of change and turmoil, I continued to be published by those despised "legacy publishers." I would not have it any other way.