Ask The Editor

December 7, 2008

Joe the Author? Blame Joe the Reader.

Filed under: Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 10:59 am

Timothy Egan complains that Joe the Plumber is about to become Joe the Author. He rightly points out that Joe wouldn’t want Timothy to fix his toilet. So why shouldn’t an author like Egan feel plumb cantankerous toward someone he suspects has, at best, marginal literary abilities?

I feel for Timothy Egan just as I feel for all of those in our profession whose greatest competitors for publishers’ dollars are non-professionals. But Egan has directed his anger and sarcasm toward the wrong target.

Joe the Plumber isn’t our problem. It’s Joe the Reader.

Plenty of people in non-creative fields dream of success in more creative ones. But only publishing gives those without the most rudimentary ability or proclivity the opportunity for instant “achievement.” It turns those lacking in any of the essential skills, experiences or talents of its profession into immediate stars of said profession. The bookshelves of your local Barnes&Noble sag under the weight of tens of thousands of titles by literary Milli Vanillis.

And the reason real writers find it difficult to compete against those Milli Vanillis is you, dear reader.

Publishers know you’re more likely to buy the book with the recognizable name on the cover even if that name is in no way associated with well-written phrases or heart-stopping stories. You buy the celebrity and assume literary competence. And you usually aren’t completely disappointed because the book will have been written by someone competent. It just won’t be the “author” whose name appears on the cover.

Almost all those books “by” famous non-writers aren’t really by them at all. That doctor’s weight loss bestseller, that lawyer’s courtroom thriller, that celebrity’s tell-all memoir? Milli Vanillis, every one.

Most readers probably realize this, probably understand that a politician who can’t string together a coherent sentence when speaking will have exponentially more trouble when penning a narrative of 60,000 words. But readers go along. They buy the book “by” a doctor they saw on The Today Show or “by” a singer who went through rehab or “by” a lawyer about her most famous case.

Celebrity sells. And it will continue to sell books as long as readers allow themselves to be duped into believing that they are getting the famous person’s own words. Meanwhile, actual writers find themselves losing the competition for publishers’ advance and royalty dollars. Especially in this sinking economy. Fake “authors” get the big bucks; real ones scramble for the pennies.

So, Joe the Reader, assuming that you’re still reading, do an author — a real author — a favor today. Buy a book that’s actually by the author whose name appears on the cover. You’re the only hope we have if we’re to maintain a viable literary culture. We’re counting on you. You really liked us when the Milli Vanillis of the literary world were “lip-synching” to our prose. I suspect you’ll like us even more when you know whose words you’re reading.

December 5, 2008

Better news (for a change)–books are selling

Filed under: News,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 11:09 am

It looks like more people are concluding that books are among the best holiday presents. Publishers Weekly reports that, despite the dismal economy, Nielsen Bookscan (a service that tracks about 70 percent of all U.S. book sales) found that sales were up 6 percent this Thanksgiving week compared with tallies from Thanksgiving 2007. Sales of children’s fiction rose the highest — up almost 38 percent.

With so much dismal news coming from publishing this week alone, this is a sign that, perhaps, the book world will not be hit quite as hard as the rest of the economy. Books make great gifts. They’re also great entertainment for those pinching pennies.

December 3, 2008

Major shake-up at Random House

Filed under: News,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 1:10 pm

No big surprise, given the intelligence that’s been trickling out about the book publishing giant. The New York Times has the details.

Write your memoir. In six words.

Filed under: Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 12:34 pm

Can you sum up your life — or some aspect of it — in six words? Numerous authors, some famous, some not, were asked to do just that. Their six-word memoirs, some surprisingly funny, poignant and/or bizarre, are published in the collection: NOT QUITE WHAT I WAS PLANNING: Six-Word Memoirs from Writers, Famous and Obscure.

Now, Smith Magazine invites you to submit your own six-word tale of angst, betrayal, love, longing, birth, death, joy — or whatever (probably easier for twitter addicts who have already disciplined themselves to condense all communications to 140 characters or less).

It’s a fun exercise. Give it a try. Smith offers some examples to help you get the creative juices flowing:

December 1, 2008

Industry gossip: Random House cutting back on 2009 titles

Filed under: The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 11:50 pm

Like the subject line says, it’s gossip, so I can’t link to a source. But the source of the gossip is quite reliable. Unfortunately. Expect to see other publishers having second thoughts about publishing books they’ve already signed as the economy heads further south.

Kathryn Lance & Jack McDevitt on fiction collaboration

Filed under: Advice for fiction writers,Commentary,Interview — editorialconsultant @ 6:06 pm

What’s it like to collaborate on a work of fiction? Can two award-winning, well-published authors create more fluidly together than either might alone? Or is creative vision so individualistic that a collaboration inevitably breeds creative tension?

To find out, I interviewed *Kathryn Lance, author of fiction and non-fiction, and **Jack McDevitt, Nebula Award-winning author of SEEKER and other works of science fiction. Lance and McDevitt recently collaborated on the short story, “Welcome to Valhalla,” a tale that asks: what might the composer Richard Wagner have done if he’d known that Adolph Hitler would one day use his masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelungs, as a Nazi propaganda tool? The story appears in the December 2008 issue of Asimov’s.

AB: How did the story idea come about?

JM: Not sure. There’s seldom a moment of inspiration. I’ve always loved Wagner’s music, and I was shocked when I learned what had happened during the war. I could never get past wondering how he might have reacted had he known he would become part of so immense an atrocity.

AB:  Who approached whom – and how – or is this something you’ve been discussing for a while?

KL: Maybe ten years ago Jack and I were on a Science Fiction Writers of America committee together. I mentioned my Wagner fanaticism, and he linked me to a story he did about Brunnhilde during the Vietnam
War. (GREAT story, by the way.) He suggested collaborating about a Wagner idea he had. But we never got it together till this past spring.

AB:  Who took the lead?

JM: Kathryn did, in the sense that she provided the fuel to get the operation off the ramp. She said ‘let’s do it,’ and she had a much better idea for the messenger than I did. I kept thinking about a time traveler, and I was never comfortable with the idea. It lacked the emotional high this kind of story demanded. Kathryn produced
Brunnhilde in her first draft. And I knew from that moment the story would have an impact.

AB: Can you tell, when you look at the final published piece, which parts were contributed by which author?

KL: Mostly not, I think.

JM: Except for Brunnhilde, I’d say Kathryn is correct.

AB:  Which of the following feelings pre-dominated: that you compromised on story or character or form to work together – or that you felt energized by the other’s contributions?

KL: I don’t know about Jack, but I felt totally energized by everything he did. There was no real compromise.

JM: We were both headed in the same direction. I don’t think there was any real difference in the way we saw the narrative.

AB:  Have either of you collaborated on fiction previously and if so, with whom?

KL: Not I.

JM:  I’ve done collaborations with Stan Schmidt, Mark Van Name, and Michael Shara.

AB: How was this collaboration different?

KL: Well, for one thing, this was FUN! I much prefer fiction to nonfiction, but have always paid the bills with nonfiction. Most of my nonfiction collaborations were with doctors. And they were similar to this in a way, but usually the doctor provided the material and/or rough draft and I labored to get it into shape.

JM: Because of the context, this was a far more emotional story than any of the others. I suspect we both stood with Wagner outside the theater and thought about what was coming, and how it overwhelmed art, no matter how brilliant the level. There was nothing about this story to divide us. I’d wondered for years how to provide the right vehicle for Wagner’s glimpse at an appalling future, Kathryn provided it, and the rest, as somebody said, is history. “Welcome to Valhalla” is a story of which I’m especially proud.

AB:  Fiction is very personal turf. What advice would you give other writers considering a fiction collaboration?

KL: Go for it! Two heads can sometimes be at least as good as one.

JM: I think you find out early on what your partner’s perspective and priorities are. The question is whether both writers can put their egos aside, and their natural assumption that their contribution is stronger, and work with an open mind. If you don’t bring those qualities to the table, the story won’t work, and you might lose friend.

Bios:
* Kathryn Lance is the author of more than fifty books of fiction and nonfiction, for adults and children. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and four cats.

** Jack McDevitt has written 15 novels and about 60 short stories. He’s won several awards, including the John W. Campbell and the Nebula, each in the novel category. He’s a former naval officer, teacher, customs inspector, and for years conducted leadership seminars for customs managers. He lives in Brunswick, Georgia with his wife Maureen, and six cats. And don’t ask me what it is about all these cats.

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