Ask The Editor

February 1, 2010

The Link Between Method Acting and Writing Believable Characters

In one particularly funny episode of the TV series, Monk, a production company is filming a movie based on one of Mr. Monk’s cases. The method actor (played by Stanley Tucci), cast to play the detective, studies him so intensely, he develops the same phobias, quirks, and crime-solving skills.

We’ve all heard of method actors “inhabiting” their characters, but what does that have to do with writing? If you’re writing character-based narrative, more than you might expect.

For my current project, co-authoring a doctor’s memoir, I spent probably hundreds of hours in interviews, probing her thoughts, experiences, remembrances of places and people, and learning more about her from additional interviews with those close to her. The process was only complete when I felt able to imagine what it was like to be in her skin, experiencing what she experienced.

I joked with her that it’s a little like Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld. But I was half serious too.

Because when you’re writing from the point of view of a character, real or fictional, you can’t do the character justice unless you become so enmeshed, it’s as if you’ve seen through the character’s eyes.

If you can’t inhabit the character to some degree, what you write from that character’s viewpoint won’t feel real to the reader.

– Anita Bartholomew

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October 27, 2009

More.com gets into the writer exploitation game

On a writers listserv I subscribe to, a writer posted a message that she’d been asked to write for More.com — the online presence for More magazine.

But…

More.com wants her to write for free. And this writer wonders if it will be good exposure for her to do so.

Here’s my take. You can expose yourself, night and day, all over the web. And it will get you exactly nothing. Why would you think that the exploiter will pay you for what you’re giving away for free? Why would other magazines rush to offer you big money if they know you’ll write for free (and trust me, they’ll know).

The only time it makes sense to write for exposure is when you’re publicizing something else that you want readers to know about and buy (your book, for example). If you don’t have something to sell to readers, working for nothing gets you exactly that.

Don’t allow profit-making ventures to make money from your labors.

But for those who still aren’t convinced, who think it might make sense to write for “exposure” only, here’s a suggestion. Contact one of your favorite charities and offer to write something that lets the charity spend its limited funds on doing good deeds. In these difficult economic times, that would be a great way to get web exposure while helping out those who really need your help.

– Anita Bartholomew

 

October 26, 2009

Sales of ebooks nearly triple from 2008 to 2009

The headline says it all. E-Reads reports that, from August 2008 to August 2009, ebook sales shot up from $5 million to $14.4 million.

This may be bad news for traditional publishers but it has the potential to be excellent news for the small publisher, especially the one-person shop, publishing his or her own title.

It means that there is a market for ebooks and that market is growing like kudzu.

It does not mean you can simply publish and hope that people find your books, buy them, and recommend them to their friends. You still have to publish a book that is compelling enough to rise above the pack, with a great story, well-told, and a satisfying ending. You still have to promote the hell out of the book. Otherwise, no matter how great it is, nobody will know it exists.

But if you can turn out something that others will want to read and if you know how to reach potential readers, you have an easier entry now that at perhaps any other time in history.

– Anita Bartholomew

October 25, 2009

How Demand Studios’ exploitation of writers turned it into a billion dollar company

Wired has a fascinating article about Demand Studios, one of the word factories that regularly advertises for writers, only to exploit them. You can’t claim Demand pays writers peanuts. It’s more like peanut husks.

It’s worth reading the article to learn how this sweatshop-type operation makes such big bucks. But here, we’re only concerned with the pennies it pays to the people who made it possible for Demand to become the billion-dollar enterprise it now is. The snippet below provides a hint:

It’s the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot. Writers can typically select 10 articles at a time; videographers can hoard 40.

Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal. Demand also offers revenue sharing on some articles, though it can take months to reach even $15 in such payments. Other freelancers sign up for the chance to copyedit ($2.50 an article), fact-check ($1 an article), approve the quality of a film (25 to 50 cents a video), transcribe ($1 to $2 per video), or offer up their expertise to be quoted or filmed (free). Title proofers get 8 cents a headline.

Don’t write for these — or any — exploiters. Leave these crumbs for the amateurs. I know it’s tempting, as newspapers die, and magazines fight for survival, to take whatever work is available. But writers who do so help perpetuate their own exploitation.

Write a book, instead. Either shop it to agents and publishers or invest in publishing and marketing it yourself. There are plenty of new publishing opportunities to explore, from the Espresso Book Machine which is rolling out a few new locations and may soon make the printing of a single book as cost-effective as printing in bulk, to ebooks, which already eliminate the costs of distribution, warehousing and shipping.

– Anita Bartholomew

August 5, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing, part II

Article fees are stagnating at best. Numerous magazines have lowered their per-word rates. I hear reports all the time from  writers that magazines assign an article at, say, 1,000 words but demand extra reporting that can require the writer to up the submitted word count by 50 percent or more, with no extra pay.

Writers, brace yourselves. This is your future if you continue to bank on magazines. Magazines were hurting before the economic downturn and you can’t assume that the situation will reverse once the economy stabilizes. See this article from Min on the prospects for consumer magazines — or simply read the following sobering excerpt:

Magazines did not come into the recession from a position of strength, with a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] at a meager 1.1% from 2003 to 2008.

Virtually all of the main revenue drivers for this industry are being depressed by a shifting media economy and digitization, such that magazine advertising will decline 15.6% in 2009 to $10.53 billion and a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of -6.6% for the 2008-2013 period. This will leave the ad spend on magazines at $8.87 billion in 2013, the lowest level since 1995.

Ever-shrinking ad revenues mean that articles fees must also continue to shrink.

And for those who say, “no problem, I’ll write for the web,” I have to ask: haven’t you noticed that most websites pay less than even the struggling magazines? While some web publications pay at least something, too many are paying so little, the fee offered is an insult. And you can’t pay your bills with the proceeds  of insultingly low fees no matter how quickly you write.

So, what’s left?

My guess is that the writers who continue to make a living from writing will be writing books. Some will get traditional publishers. Some will publish their own books as book publishers also tighten their budgets.

The Espresso Book Machine, or something like it, if it catches on, will make any bookstore that has one a print-on-demand center. That will make it possible for good writers to become publishers without the overhead of warehousing and shipping, and with a lower per-book printing cost than current POD options. But only those who master marketing and publicity will earn enough to make a living.

I know this isn’t a cheery post but I read too many cheery proclamations from writers who keep doing what they’ve been doing while their incomes shrink. We all need to think ahead, not just to the end of the year but to five years from now. Where will publishing be? And where will you be in publishing?

– Anita Bartholomew

July 30, 2009

The exploited writers’ anthem; sing to the tune of “Born Free”

From my friend and colleague, Erik Sherman, a little ditty to remind writers where writing for nothing will get them:

Here’s a snippet. Sing along to the rest on his site at this link:

Write free
As free as the grass grows
Who cares where the cash goes?
Write free, and follow your heart

Work free, and readers surround you
Exposure astounds you
Although you live in a car …

How dumb do these “Dummies” think we are?

I’ve written before about companies that ask writers to write for free or nearly free. Add another would-be exploiter to the list: the ” … for Dummies” folks.

On a writers’ email listserv, someone posted the following forwarded email:


Date: July 21, 2009 1:21:07 PM PDT

Are you a subject area expert who would like to write for Dummies.com?

Because consumers look to Dummies.com for answers on nearly every part of their life, we’re looking for expert authors on all kinds of topics from iPhones to investing. If you’re a topic expert with excellent writing skills and would like to contribute articles to Dummies.com, please visit us.

We’ll review your credentials and writing sample. If there’s a match, we’ll contact you. Unfortunately, we can’t send feedback to everyone, so only the authors that we think are the best match for Dummies.com will be contacted.

I found it curious that Dummies.com mentioned nothing about pay. I know, from a number of writer friends who have authored Dummies books, that the company doesn’t pay well but the work is easy and some books earn out their advances and pay royalties. So I thought these authors might be interested in picking up gigs for the website if the pay were halfway decent. Checking further, here’s what I found:

[You] grant us and our parent, affiliates and licensees the right to use, reproduce, display, perform, adapt, modify, distribute, have distributed, and promote the content in any form, anywhere and for any purpose without compensation

There’s more but the above is all you need to know. Do not write for companies that want your labor and talent but offer nothing in return. This is a profit-making venture for them but it won’t be for you. Give away your knowledge and talent, and you’ve established its value at $0.

Leave the slave labor to a real dummy and keep looking for a paying gig. And, if you’re so inclined,  politely let the Dummies.com folks know that you don’t think much of companies that exploit writers.

– Anita Bartholomew

May 13, 2009

Is Amazon becoming a publisher — or simply promoting its self-publishing options?

From its press release, announcing the new venture:

Amazon customers raved over “Legacy,” a self-published novel by 16-year-old Cayla Kluver, with customer review titles such as “loved it, loved it,” “rich lyrical tapestry and story” and “breathtaking in scope and execution!” Despite winning several prizes from literary groups and accolades like this from readers, Kluver’s debut novel achieved only modest sales. Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) today announced a new program, “AmazonEncore,” to help readers discover exceptional books from emerging authors, such as the program’s first book, “Legacy.”

AmazonEncore is a new program whereby Amazon uses information such as customer reviews on Amazon websites to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors that show potential for greater sales. Amazon then partners with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store, Audible.com, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers. This summer “Legacy” will be revised by the author and re-issued as an AmazonEncore edition in print on Amazon websites around the world, in physical bookstores, as a digital download from the Kindle Store in less than 60 seconds, and via spoken-word audio download on Audible.com.

There’s no word on what Amazon means when it says it “partners” with authors. Amazon may, indeed be acting like a traditional publisher and offering advances, royalties, etc. But AmazonEncore may, instead, be a re-branding or expansion of Amazon’s current self-publishing tools. It’s not clear yet. But, what if Amazon is merely selecting certain self-published books for more favorable design, distribution and marketing treatment? And what if it’s using this as a marketing tool to promote its self-publishing arm?

That seems more likely to me — and, if so, appears to be a smart marketing move.

I hate to be a cynic but, stay tuned for the details.

– Anita Bartholomew

March 4, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing

An article by Francis Wilkinson in The Week asks whether writing is now a career that only the rich can afford to pursue:

The high end of publishing—books, magazines, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—has always contained a contingent of wealthy worker bees who don’t actually live off their often meager salaries. But even a couple decades ago, a writer without independent means could still scrape together a living writing about something other than movie stars. Not a good one necessarily, but a living.

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve.

He also says that “freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years.” Apparently, Wilkinson doesn’t write for many magazines or he’d know that the problem isn’t just that rates haven’t risen; they’re recently begun falling.

Moreover, the trend of stagnating rates isn’t a recent phenomenon. According to Murray Teigh Bloom, one of the original members of the trade organization that is now known as the American Society of Journalist and Authors, told me about 15 years ago that he earned $1 per  when he began freelancing in the 1950s.

Today, many magazines are still stuck at $1 per word and several want to pay less than that. And it’s not simply because they want to exploit writers (although, they often do because too many writers agree to be exploited).

Every week, at least one magazine goes under. Hallmark magazine folded last week, not because it was doing poorly. It was one of the very few magazines where ad revenues were up.

If a magazine folds because (my assumption) it sees dimming prospects for the future, that solidifies my sense that focusing all one’s energy on writing for magazines is like focusing all one’s energy on selling VHS tapes. Not wise.

I recently wrote an article, for far less than I normally get paid, for an online magazine. It was on a controversial topic, close to my libertarian heart, and I wanted it published, even if it meant taking a pay cut. I felt good about getting the word out there. But the online magazine quickly folded (although its content is still up).

Even writing for major magazines that offer $2 per word and up, you have to contend with the possibility that the publication may not still exist when it’s time to pay you.

But books will always be with us, in some form, even if ebooks supplant paper. And that’s where I’d recommend any writer focus the greater share of his or her energy. It may mean that, in the not-too-distant future, you take on the multiple roles of author, publisher, publicist, distributor and warehouser, because major houses are trimming their acquisitions to those they believe (often wrongly, but that’s another post), will be surefire hits.

Only the intrepid, with an entrepreneurial bent can expect to do well under current conditions that are bad for the economy as a whole but worse for publishing. Any writer who sees him- or herself as too delicate to take on the business of marketing probably won’t survive in this climate absent a hefty trust fund or other means of support.

March 2, 2009

The easiest way to get a book deal these days?

It seems that if you want a publisher to make an offer, the quickest route is to make a fool of yourself in an atrociously public way. Examples include Joe the unlicensed, untruthful plumber who isn’t even named Joe; Ann Coulter, the insultaholic female (although some dispute this) Limbaugh wannabe; and now, to add to that list, we have the disgraced ex-governor of Illinois:

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich announced a “six figure” book deal with Phoenix Books this afternoon. It will be published in October.

Words fail me.

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