Author Archives: Pat Holt

THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF PUBLISHING, PART 7,326

Lowly Self-Publisher Educates Wise Publishing Veteran

This is the story of a self-publisher who did everything “wrong” to publish a charming and humorous gem that I’m recommending to everyone.

The big lesson I had to learn (again) is that “professionals” in the book business like yours truly can easily lose their trust in the reader and their eye for creativity. Instead of enhancing the publishing process, too often we pros get in the way of very good, very original and often even memorable books.

In my own defense may I say that 99 times out of 100, the self-publishing author needs guidance from a wizened (I used to think that meant wise; now in my declining years I see it’s right on the money) veteran of industry standards and procedures.

Too Shy to Paginate

The author in question is Niko Mayer, a member of the book group I facilitate at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. When Niko asked me to endorse a collection of travel stories that she had written and illustrated, I felt a certain dread creep in.

1. First, there was the title: “Travelin’ Light Is Not for Me: Worries Weigh a Lot.”

Well, it’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, I thought, not to mention a little precious.  A customer may read it several times and still not know what the book is about.

I told Niko a good rule of thumb about titles: If the reader has to look inside the book to understand the title, you’re not there yet. But if the title is catchy, and intriguing enough to lure the reader into the book  — to make us curious, to make us open the book to learn more — you’ve nailed it.

Uh-huh… said Niko. Continue reading

THE DIY AUTHOR RETURNETH (AGAIN)

What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns: Pt 3

I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime: Unpublished authors so smart and so quick on the Internet that they’re selling their work through iPhones apps, iTunes and eBook readers without going through that cranky old sluggish machine called mainstream publishing.

Here’s  author Seth Harwood (see last two columns below), who recently attended Bouchercon, the mystery writers’ conference, and sent this dispatch:Seth Harwood

The New Thing

“The new thing  seems to be authors putting their unpublished works out on Kindle themselves and selling each title for .99 or $1.99, of which they keep 35 or 70 cents respectively.

“The idea is that you can get new Kindle owners to stock up on cheap titles to fill their device when they get it. A few authors have sold upwards of 4,000 copies of unknown books and are using that launching pad to get bigger deals from publishers. Who knows how many of those buyers actually read the book.

“Of course, there are still roughly 40 times more iPhones and iPod Touches out there sold than Kindles, so the biggest action among individual authors lies in getting their books sold through Apps at equally low prices.”

The Old Thing Reacts

I must say I wouldn’t have believed that people who love books would buy titles based on price rather than quality if I hadn’t found myself in the freebie sections of Audible.com and iPhones for months now or warmed to the notion of trying short stories for 45 cents and why-not-take-a-flyer thrillers by unknowns for .99 to $1.99.

(And just to show you those free first-chapter offers can stimulate sales, my apologies to psychologist/author Wayne Dyer for smirking when I saw the title of  his new book, “Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits” from Hay House (288 pages, $24.95). I used to think Dyer has been writing the same self-help book for the last dozen titles, but solid research and reference to a fresh plan of action in Audible’s free Chapter One convinced me to buy the damn thing.)

It’s not that any of these electronic versions replaces traditional books (and let’s stop talking as though they do; we won’t know for a long time). What we see now is new access to the printed word and new ways to build the reading audiences for books in every form possible. (For example, I’m hardly alone when word of a new book arrives  via the Internet and I call my local independent bookstore to get a copy.) Continue reading

THE DIY AUTHOR RETURNS

What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns (and Spends): Pt 2

Often when talking to Seth Harwood (see last column) I’ve been struck (again) by the fact that  American writers are forced to adjust to a publishing industry that has removed authors from the top of the hierarchy and told them to be grateful to be stuck at the bottom.

I’m not talking about the small number of blockbuster authors who pay all the bills.

In fact, the few stars who remain on top seem to encourage publishing excesses like the shamefully overdone Random House book launch for Dan Brown in New York a while ago.

Dan Brown Party

At that party, waiters bedecked in George Washington wigs served lobster BLTs and other expensive noshes to a few hundred guests while “theatrical lighting [was] rigged up under the massive ovoid dome of the former bank that now houses Gotham Hall,” observed New York magazine (see photo at right).

Surrounding this “most lavish publishing cocktail party in a long time” were signs about saving money, such as this wordy mouthful (quoted by the New York Observer): “There is no gain so sure as that which results from economizing what you have.”  (I see. Waiter, could I have another scallop?)

And this one: “Having little, you cannot risk loss; having much, you should the more carefully protect it.”

Protect it? Heavens, you could increase a thousand Random House advances by cutting out the gazpacho shooters alone.

Back to Seth Harwood

No, I’m talking about the talented unknowns and hardworking mid-range authors who need to be nurtured and given time to find their audience but are still getting low advances and dismissive  treatment.

(One has to ask, what are publishers thinking? It’s not healthy for the book industry when a writer who lucks out like Dan Brown is “the only guy who’s in the running,” as the Los Angeles Times observed. “The movie industry couldn’t survive on Meryl Streep alone; the publishing industry might benefit from nurturing more of its own demi-stars to fill out the program.”)

So I thought there was hope when I first heard about up-and-coming authors like  Seth Harwood, a writer with so many rejection slips from the New York mainstream that  he built an audience from zero readers to about 80,000 by podcasting his unpublished book, “Jack Wakes Up,”  with his own equipment in a closet at home — and giving it away free on iTunes. Continue reading

THE DIY AUTHOR

What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns: Part 1

Seth Harwood is the kind of Internet techno-whiz that fuddy-duddy types like me are scared of.

He’s so knowledgeable about podcasting, video-posting, eBook-pricing,  iPhone-apping and what is now called (nostalgically by everyone but me) “the Amazon Rush” that I wanted to run the other way.

Then I read his fiction and became a Seth Harwood fan. Then I watched his video and became a Seth Harwood student.

You can see why Seth is in the vanguard of a new writers’ movement by taking a look at the instructive interim video he made some months ago (see it below on my very own blog! and thank you, Seth, for permission).

Here we learn that no matter how many rejections slips you’ve received or how unknown you are as a new writer, you can create that elusive “platform” that mainstream publishers (so cowardly!) insist authors must bring to the table. And you can build an audience that grows into the tens of thousands.

The first step, says Seth, is to make a podcast of your manuscript (before it’s ever published) and give it away. “Think of a podcast as a free, serialized audiobook,” he says.

With a minimum of equipment, a little music and a lotta passion (plus some blankets absorbing echo-chamber sounds in your closet), you can produce a quality narration that equals anything on Audible.com, and again, you do this long before your manuscript comes out in any kind of print version.

Seth did this one chapter at a time with his detective novel, “Jack Wakes Up,” which he followed by two other “Jack” books in the series. He placed each chapter as a freebie podcast on iTunes, thus tapping into an engaged audience that loves to hear edgy stuff and Tweet about it like mad. Continue reading

A Newspaper Comeback Plan – Part B

PART B: BE BOLD

So now: What can newspapers do to lure readers back to print?

As our quiz last week suggested,  after our 30-year honeymoon with computers, and 20 solid years on the Internet, people are getting tired of screens and starting to miss the newsprint experience.  It’s time for newspapers to earn their way back into readers’ minds and pocketbooks. Here are some suggestions:

Fight for Your Paper

Everybody’s waiting for publishers to do something — to, in the first place, define the benefits of newspapers that computers can’t offer. If you run a newspaper, the time has come to get out there and tell readers: Our paper publishes the kind of stories in print that you can’t find on the Internet.

This means that the newsprint version will be different from the website version, so you  have to believe in it. If you don’t think that newspapers are far ahead of the Internet in key ways, get outta the biz. 

Create an Aggressive Ad Campaign

Billboards, cable TV, talk radio, buses, cabs and yes. computer banners are waiting for newspapers to re-stake their claim.

Run the most simple kind of ad:

*a giant photo of the morning newspaper invitingly spread out on a kitchen counter or desk,  next to

*a cup of steaming coffee

*a blank computer screen.

*a headline like one of these:

GIVE YOUR EYES A BREAK

NO CLICKS, NO BANNERS, NO POP-UPS, NO NOISE

WE PUT  IT ALL ON THE TABLE

YOUR WRISTS, YOUR EYES, YOUR BACK WILL THANK YOU

TAKE A MINI-VACATION EVERY MORNING

WE PAY PEOPLE TO BRING YOU THE WORLD AT A GLANCE

Get Your Executives Behind It

Start right now to train your executive management to place this campain on a person-to-person level. Get your PR department to book these top guys on the media and lecture circuit. You should join them and speak to groups ranging from Rotary to Wiccan, Unitarian to Morman, book clubs to fight clubs and every school and library in town. (Take the Freedom of Speech-in-jeopardy angle and you’re in.)  Go on talk shows, start blogs, help with charities, sponsor events.

This old-fashioned passionate appeal 1) heightens morale, which is currently in the gutter because you’ve cut your staff to shreds and nobody knows who’ll be terminated next, and 2) it stops general readers from feeling sorry for newspapers as expendible dinosaurs and reestablishes high journalistic standards (and deliciously low entertainment values) that work best in newsprint and promise to enrich daily life. Continue reading

A Newspaper Comeback Plan

PART A: TAKE THE QUIZ

If I were a newspaper publisher, I’d be waiting for that great sea change that’s bound to come when people who use computers start pining for newsprint.

Think that’s never going to happen? Take this easy quiz and see:

Dear Reader:

1) Don’t you get tired of looking at screens all day? There’s your computer at work, your computer at home, your TV, your cell phone, your camera, iPod, e-Reader, camcorder, iPhone. That’s about 10 different screens hitting our eyeballs all day.

2) Aren’t you running out of patience with bloggers like me endlessly citing “facts” you have to go verify? Not to mention all the bad writing, poorly expressed opinion and empty blather that parades around as “the democratization of publishing” (still a good idea but perhaps only in theory)?

3) Don’t you find it a blessing to read news sources where people are paid to write responsibly, where facts are already checked for you, where good critical writing has little to do with passing fashion or personal rant?

4) Has your healthcare professional encouraged you to take frequent breaks from the keyboard-and-screen so you won’t get RSL, tension headaches, blurry vision, stiff necks and back pain from holding arms and head at unhealthy angles for hours at a time?

5) Instead of discovering minor (to you) news by accident while you’re streaking around the Internet researching major (to you) news, wouldn’t you like everything that matters laid out for you every day by veteran editors and trained writers who can give you the world at a glance?

One Last Question

If you answered yes to three out of five questions, you may be on your way to a rich cultural mix that didn’t seem possible only a year ago. Here’s one more:

Wouldn’t it be a relief to find a nice resting place for those tired eyes, let’s say a noninteractive print environment that’s easy to read with no pop-ups, videos, podcasts or cookies? Just you and a cup of coffee and the morning paper. The world at your fingertips as you turn each page, the news (truly) factual and intriguing, reviews well stated without the hint of harangue, editorials put together by actual boards of knowledgeable (also paid) people.

But here of course is where newspaper publishers have to be bold. If they’re going to lure people back to newsprint, they have to put something in the newspaper that you can’t find on the Internet.

More in Part B next time.

Why Authors Are Furious, Part 2

I STILL DON’T BLAME THEM

As mentioned last week, I don’t blame authors for blowing up at reviewers who spoil the ending or otherwise ruin the experience for the very readers they’re supposed to serve.

This is a time when newspapers are trying to win back readers by saying, “Don’t bother with those slovenly customer reviews on Amazon! We have professional reviewers for you. We pay them for their skills. You can trust what they say.”

Uh huh. That would be fine if  these same critics weren’t violating every rule in the criticism handbook (not that there is one) about, you know,  blabbing key details that happen midway or stepping in front of the material to point at themselves or digressing endlessly until the subject of review (could be a movie or play, too) dies on the vine of TMI (too much information).

Giving Away the Ending

Here’s the kind of language I hate: After a long and thoughtful review of a certain movie (I’m not going to mention titles),  the otherwise fastidious Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer gives the whole thing away by writing: “In the end, Maggie is reconciled with TomAndrew Sarris as he and Sarah take their child away for further treatment.” That’s great Mr. Sarris: In one swoop of betrayal, you’ve just told us the battling couple gets back together, there’s hope for the child and there’s no reason for readers to stick around for the ending.

Or this: “When it ends, in shocking carnage, the teenage mind briefly and improbably makes perfect sense.” This from another writer yet, Chandra Prasad, giving thumbnail reviews of her favorite books to The Week magazine. Chandra PrasadDon’t you think in a 45-word review you could talk about something else you liked about this book?

This one kills me: “Mr. Hely doesn’t know how to end this book. In the final chapters he torpedoes Pete’s cynicism in ways that will disappoint anyone who was enjoying the jaundiced humor.” First of all, NYT reviewer Janet Maslin who should be ashamed,  it’s not the business of critics to guess what the author does or does not know how to do.Janet MaslinSecond, there’s nothing more deflating for the reader than to learn that all the humor leading up to the end is going to fall flat.

Even a hint at the way a story ends wrecks the entire experience. Readers find themselves anticipating what’s coming rather than enjoy what’s unfolding. As much as I admire the usually disciplined Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York times,  I could not believe her comment that a first novel is “flawed by a predictable and unsatisfying ending.” Oh, how ruinously hath the seed been planted!  It’s hard to get hooked on a novel knowing it’s going to be “unsatisfying” in the end!

Michiko KakutaniHere’s Rule #1 of the (nonexistent) Critical Writing Handbook:  If you want to say something about an ending, or really anything that happens after the first chapter, don’t even allude to the part in the story where it occurs. Make your point but stay away from the timing. In the Prasad case, the critic might say, “the author is capable of shocking carnage, and ….” or in the Kakutani review, “the narrative can be predictable and sometimes unsatisfying, but overall…”

Ruining the Story

And what a let-down to say the least is Maria Russo‘s Sunday NYTBR review of a collection of related stories about a couple’s relationship:  “When, in the collection’s last story … the lovers appear to have drifted back together, even the most hardened cynic might grant them a smile.” Why, you rat, thinks the reader. You want to see a “hardened cynic?” Keep writing.

And I don’t care if it’s a trade magazine like Publishers Weekly reviewing a passing romance by Danielle Steel. There’s something  criminal about a review that says the author  “offers a satisfying twist at book’s end that most readers won’t see coming.” Yeah, well, they will now.

Rex ReedThen there are reviewers like Rex Reed (such a veteran! what a pity!) who announce that they won’t give away the ending but proceed to do just that.    “No spoilers,” says  Reed in the Observer,  “but things take some tragic left turn and two lives are needlessly lost … ” Oh, Rex, honey, two people die in the end? Granted, it may happen that the story forecasts the two deaths early on, so it won’t be a surprise to the viewer. But Rex, you have to deal with the reader now. Even the appearance of spoiling the ending (two people dead, Rex!) spoils the review now.

Here’s another I-promise-not-to-give-the-ending-away-until-I-decide-to-ruin-it review, this one from Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle: “All that can be said about their sojourn without giving away too much is that Carlos brings out the recklessness in Jessie and that she is the only one who boards the next Trans-Siberian train ….” That’s a classic example of “giving away too much.” Continue reading

Two Furious Authors Tell Reviewers Where To Get Off

I DON’T BLAME THEM


1. How To Say ‘Up Yours’: Alice Hoffman

Well, if I were Alice Hoffman, I’d go bonkers myself over the way modern critics not only give away too much plot in the novels they review (and the movies, plays, etc.) but seem determined to spoil the ending. images

Hoffman is in the news because she Twittered out her anger in 27 different Tweets about a mixed-to-negative Boston Globe review by Roberta Silman of her new book, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart/Crown; 325 pages; $25).

Granted, Hoffman got a bit carried away by calling Silman a “moron” and insisting that “any idiot can be a critic” (hey!), and she got a bit vindictive by giving out Silman’s private email and phone number so that readers can “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

Hoffman has apologized for responding “strongly” in the “heat of the moment” and says she’s “sorry if I offended anyone,” which is the usual code for “my publisher won’t let me say ‘up yours.’ ”

But  I think we should listen to Hoffman’s more important and far-reaching statement — one that is true of way too many reviews these days — about being “dismayed” because  the review “gave away the plot of the novel.”

Two Reviewers Give It Away

Which many reviews today often do. Silman refers to “the secret that is the linchpin of the book” and then appears to disclose it. She describes key plot points in Part Two, which is way too far in the book to follow the heart of the novel’s story. She tells us how the book ends by naming the “only” character who “is given a chance to grow,” by revealing the two estranged characters whom we’re hoping will bond but find “no resolution,” and divulging the hero-turned-drug addict who’s institutionalized but “does bear a child and reform,” yet “never really matures.”

No wonder Hoffman went off her feed. I bet she was already smarting from a similar debacle at the Washington Post, where critic Wendy Smith not only follows the development of a key character far too long and with too much detail, she  then drops the bomb that the character is “responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.” Smith spoils the end of the book by telling us about “this radiant finale” in which a wedding in Paris provides the sisters with “a tender opportunity to reconcile.”

Let me just say, too, that it doesn’t matter if any of these salient details are provided at the beginning of the book. It is the reviewer’s charge never to even seem to give the book away, to step in front of the material, to plant a seed in the reader’s mind (she does “reform”) that will one day spoil a fresh reading of the text. (More about this next week.)

The Fall of Lit Crit

I have a theory that the standards of literary criticism have fallen in direct proportion to the “democratization” of publishing and blogging on the Internet. Stands to reason, no? Those first customer reviews on Amazon years ago weren’t (and for the most part still aren’t) notable for their professionalism, heaven knows. But  boy, did they have energy (still do) and how ebulliently they make themselves heard. Read four or five of ’em and you glean enough about the book to know if it’s for you.  At the same time, these charged-up contributors feel they are part of a reading family and would never spoil the fun of others by giving away key aspects of a book. So you can scroll through customer reviews on just about any website without having to keep one eye closed, which I find myself doing with so-called professional criticism of everything from books to movies to theater.

2. Blogging for Revenge: Alain de Botton

In this case I have to say as a reader, what in heck was the New York Times Book Review thinking of last Sunday when a wretched piece of bad writing showed up disguised as a book review of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 327 pages; $26)?images-1

You’d think a book with a straightforward title like that would be easy to describe, but no. I read the full-page review by Caleb Crain three times and I still didn’t know what it was about. Crain accuses de Botton of mockery, condescension, mean-spiritedness, superficial judgment and spite, but he never tells us the “initial goal” of the book, except to say the author “has already lost track of (it)” by Chapter 3.

Of course if I were advising de Botton, I would have tied him to a chair before allowing him to write a vitriolic message to Crain for all on the Internet to see. This part especially is regrettable: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

But I would have spread out the red carpet for de Botton to say this: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon — so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer.” Continue reading

Homophobia? At Amazon?

THEY’RE AT IT AGAIN

I keep thinking about that delicious homophobic snafu that stuck it to Amazon last month and demonstrated the growing power of Twitter, however deliberately flash-in-the-pan it was.

The incident roared to life a month ago and died so fast that it didn’t seem important, but for me, something oddly familiar about it kept pinging away at the old postmenopausal memory. Finally I remembered an event 10 years ago in which Amazon behaved in an even more bizarre and homophobic manner that still has relevance today.

The Latest Episode 

Last month Amazon abruptly removed gay/lesbian-themed titles from its powerful sale ranking system. In a weekend, thousands of books were ineligible for certain title searches, best seller lists and other critical functions.

An author sent a query to Amazon’s customer-service department asking why the books were being removed. Ashley D of Amazon.com Member Services replied that “we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.” 

Well, “adult” is hardly the category to dump an entire classification of books, since the term signifies “pornographic” (think: “adult’ bookstores).  But it is the correct term to use if Amazon officially believes that everything homosexual is offensive and needs to be removed from, you know, normal people’s eyes. 

(A thoughtful explanation of why a sales ranking on Amazon is so important, along with a list of explicitly sexual hetero books that were not censored and non-explicitly sexual gay books that were, can be found here.) Continue reading

The Million-Dollar Sure Thing

 

BRANDING OUR CHILDREN

Last week’s New York Times arts section had a story about a travel writer with an autistic son whose “wild temper tantrums” abated only when he was riding a horse.   

The travel writer had a bent for nonWestern medical traditions, so he and his wife took their son to Mongolia where shamans and horses helped the boy achieve “an amazing ‘recovery’ and ‘healing,’ ” or so the Times quotes the dad. He also said his son’s temper tantrums “all but disappeared” after the trip.

The story is meant to be inspiring, and it is, except for the many business deals that seem to trump and the son’s role in it all. For example:

1) the travel writer dad is well connected in NY, so before the trip he got a $1-million-plus advance from Little, Brown based on a 37-page proposal about the “prospective adventure.”  

2) Dad also took a filmmaker along to create a documentary. 

3) He made YouTube video of himself and his son riding a horse that “stoked interest” in the book’s auction. 

4) He optioned the feature film rights to the producers who made “Lord of the Rings” and “Golden Compass” — with himself as scriptwriter.

5) He says part of the advance is going to a ranch he’s founded to treat autistic kids who like horses. 

HOW THE BIG BOYS DO IT

I’m sure this travel writer dad started out with the idea of helping his son, and hey, maybe he needed to finance the trip so he started pulling deals together. It’s just worrisome to see every related industry kick in to make this a million-dollar sure thing with the boy as a much-scrutinized cog. Perhaps Dad realized he needed the PR value of creating the charity ranch in case somebody accuses him of exploiting both his son and autism. 

At the same time, the NYT article is written as a kind of a model scenario for writers. It says, This Is The Way the Big Boys Do It.  Don’t wait until you write the book or even know how your story ends. Build your power base now. Start the marketing process now. Remember Elizabeth Gilbert? She was writing magazine articles about exotic spas for the rich before jotting down a similar of “prospective adventure” submission, which earned her a sizeable advance that paid for an all-expenses trip around the world and resulted in “Eat Pray Love.” Continue reading