Pseudonyms in a Time of Social Media: It Ain’t the Old Days

[cross-posted at my personal website and Inside the Writers' Studio]

In 1987, Joyce Carol Oates was revealed to be Rosamond Smith, the author of Lives of the Twins, a mystery novel slated for publication the same year as You Must Remember This, a “real” Oates novel.

Oates was disappointed to have been discovered–”I wanted to Continue reading

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A Sticky Spot: Should Authors Review Other Authors?

Last week, I read two new (to me) books, one by Ms. X and one by Ms. Y. I found the books after I found the authors. Ms. Y had been a Facebook friend of mine for some time, but as is common with Facebook friends, I didn’t really know her. As much as I enjoyed her posts, I hadn’t taken the time to visit her page to learn more about her, and she wasn’t someone I’d met outside of Facebook. I don’t even remember when we became Facebook friends, or who initiated it. (I’m usually shy about that kind of thing, so it’s safe to say she sent the invite. She’s also very friendly, and highly encouraging to, and supportive of, other writers, so it makes sense that she would seek out a fellow writer.)

One of her Facebook status updates mentioned her son, a Lieutenant in the Army, and her empathy for military mothers whose kids are deployed. I thought, “She might enjoy Pretty Much True…,” which at the time wasn’t yet placed with a publisher after having been pulled from distribution and was just sitting around in my computer doing nothing. I sent her a PDF (after she said that, yes, she’d like to read it), and she reminded me that we’d gotten in touch several years ago when both of our books were book-of-the-month picks for the Army Wife Network (I was horrible at making connections back then, frantic with learning how to self-promote and doing a very poor job of it). She then told me about her book and suggested I join the Military Writers’ Society of America (MWSA).

She also told me about Ms. X’s book and recommended I “friend” her on Facebook. So, I did, and Ms. X gifted me a Kindle copy of her book. Because I’d ordered Ms. Y’s book in paperback, I was still waiting for it to arrive when I started reading Ms. X’s.

I have to backtrack for a second: when I sent Ms. Y a message asking if she’d be interested in reading Pretty Much True…, she responded with “Yes,” but she also asked if I was looking for an endorsement. I told her I wasn’t, that it hadn’t even crossed my mind. (It hadn’t. I was out of marketing mode and really just wanted to send her a copy to read when she had the time. We write to be read. [Usually.])

She finished reading Pretty Much True… and wrote very nice things about it on her Facebook page. She also told me she would be happy to endorse it, if I’d like.

Of course I’d like!

In the meantime, I finished reading Ms. X’s book and posted a brief review on Facebook, the only place I intended to share it. I’ve never been comfortable reviewing the writing of people I’ve met, whether in person or online. There’s always the fear someone will think my review is a lie, a favor, a cross-promotional throwaway. There’s also this: “What if I don’t like it?” Or, let’s say I know two people whose books I read: “What if I like A’s book, but I don’t like B’s?”

There’s also always just been something uncomfortable about being a writer reviewing other people’s writing. Depending on whether the review is positive or negative, it can feel either incestuous or cannibalistic.

Both are bad.

So, naturally, although I wrote a brief review of Ms.X’s book and shared it on Facebook, I wasn’t inclined to also post it on Amazon.

But then I remembered the value of small press writers helping promote one another. What I wrote about her book was honest, and it wasn’t originally intended for Amazon, which, to me, added to its value, so I copied and pasted what I’d written on Facebook and published it on Amazon (with a little bit added to it, because it didn’t seem comprehensive enough for an Amazon review). What the hell. It wasn’t like she was providing an endorsement that would call into question the integrity of my review – or her endorsement.

I finished reading Ms. Y’s book. And I posted a review on Facebook. But, because she wrote an outstanding endorsement for Pretty Much True…, I certainly couldn’t publish my own glowing review of her book on Amazon. What would people think?

Problem: Ms. X and Ms. Y are both MWSA members. I thought, “What if Y learns I published a review for X and not for her? How rude would that seem?”

So I sent her an email explaining that I really wanted to write an Amazon review of her book, but that – because she wrote such a wonderful endorsement for Pretty Much True... – I just couldn’t. “Seems like a backward thing, but I hope it makes sense,” I wrote.

(Why bother telling her at all? Because I hate imagining what anyone might be thinking, or that my actions might be misconstrued. Much easier to put things out there right away.)

Sticky spot: I enjoyed Ms. Y’s book, but because readers might think my positive review is a “payment” of some kind for her endorsement, or that her endorsement was payment for my good review, I won’t publish it on Amazon.

Still, as much as I understand why readers might make such assumptions, I’m struggling with the fact that I’m allowing them to dictate my behavior, and since explaining my position to Ms. Y (which she completely understood), I’ve wanted more and more to share the review on Amazon.

Unfortunately, as much as I believe it should be enough that I know I’m being truthful, I’m trying to accept that perception is reality, and that writers reviewing other writers can, in many cases, end up looking like a big [insert nice word for circle-jerk]. Especially if our good reviews aren’t balanced out with bad ones. And I absolutely refuse to write a bad review for a writer I know*. (If I don’t like the book, I’ll just be very quiet about it.)

And it’s a shame, because in these weird writing/publishing days, we’re part of the “all we’ve got.”

_______________

*“Why only if it’s someone you know?” you ask.

Because.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Homefront by Kristen Tsetsi

“I smell yoru shirt sometimes, but not foten,” Mia writes, those slurred keyboard strokes the only connection to her deployed beloved, who she sees everywhere and nowhere in the demure military town. A former English professor, Mia passes the time working as a cab driver, mulling over the intricacies of her encounters with others who are affected by the war: her dramatic future mother in-law who eats bad news for breakfast, a charismatic alcoholic who may have been a medic in Vietnam, a pragmatic but secretive long-time army wife, and a soldier who found a way to stay home. Pretty Much True… is the war story that’s seldom told—the loss and love in every hour of deployment, and a painfully intimate portrait of lives spent waiting in the spaces between.

Pretty Much True… is the new title under which the previously self-published Homefront (read about it in the Stars and Stripes and the Huffington Post) will be released, date and press to be announced.

One of the most powerful and brilliant books I have read in a long time. Make this the next book you read.” – PopCultureZoo

“Haunting and lyrical. Tsetsi has illuminated this part of war with her crystalline prose and near-perfect rendering of a story about those who wait under the awful burden of not knowing an outcome.  Americans are getting a finer sense of who we are at an important time in our history because of the quality of literature from female writers with voices beautifully calibrated to sing out our zeitgeist. And this debut novel by the grandly talented Kristen Tsetsi delivers the best kind of fiction—a story suffused with a brightness that shines truer than the truth.”” –James Moore, Emmy Award-winning former television news correspondent and co-author of the bestselling, Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential and Adios, MoFo.

 

Tsetsi is a former staff writer for the Journal Inquirer newspaper, a former Women’s eNews correspondent, a former English professor, creative writing, playwriting, and screenwriting instructor, an award-winning fiction writer and Pushcart Prize nominee, co-editor of the literary journal American Fiction, and the wife of a former Chinook pilot for the 101st Airborne Division who deployed to Iraq in 2003. Her short fiction collection, Carol’s Aquarium, is available for Kindle.

“This is the sort of narrative voice I like in short fiction. The themes [in Carol's Aquarium] are very pointed, and the writing is confident enough to deliver the emotional payload like a blow to the chest with a knife-blade.” – POD People

PRETTY MUCH TRUE…

. . . . .

“There are many novels about war, most from the battlefield where there’s page-turning tension and drama. But there are few stories written from the point of view of a loved one back home waiting, and waiting some more, not knowing if or how the soldier will return home. Perhaps that’s because so few have found an interesting way to write such a story, but that has changed, thanks to Kristen Tsetsi.” – Carol Hoenig, the Huffington Post

. . . . .

Completely engrossing…totally spellbinding. – Stacy Leiser, the Leaf Chronicle

. . . . .

“Soulful. Seductive.” –Josip Novakovich, author of April Fool’s Day

. . . . .

“[Pretty Much True...] is a powerful novel with wonderful echoes of Viet Nam and our country’s tortured response to that war.””–Paul Griner, author of The German Woman

. . . . .

“Beautiful and stark.” –Feministing.com

. . . . .

Pretty Much True… reads like a long-form haiku written by Charles Bukowski in collaboration with Ann Beattie; almost every paragraph is a stand-alone gem of insight and observation.” –Rick Shefchik, journalist, award-winning columnist, and author of Green Monster and Amen Corner

. . . . .

“Tsetsi’s solid, seamless, and detailed writing has the power to bring us into each scene.” –Sonia Reppe, Bookpleasures

. . . . .

An intensely intimate and affecting story…I was 100 pages into Pretty Much True… before I looked up from the book.” –Steven McDermott, Storyglossia

. . . . .



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Not all Mormons are Vampires

The Avengers are back. But I’m not talking about Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. This is the Mormon Avengers, led by the heavy hammer of Sebastian Taight and the stiletto pen of Knox Hilliard along with the rest of the tribe. Just like the previous Tales of Dunham, this one starts by shooting the reader out of a cannon. But at the same time, there is a subtle nuanced threat of intrigue on a personal level.

Jovan employs all her usual building blocks to construct a huge, oversized epic of Titans butting heads, but this time around she seasons the stew with an outsider. Certainly up for the challenge, but a Titan with an unsavory past, Cassie introduces an intimate personal tension into the mix that adds a new and delicious layer in the ongoing street fight.

The second delight, and one of fascination to the non-Mormon reader, is that Jovan takes us much farther into the mundane and daily life of Mormon society than previously. It is effortless. As Cassie is introduced to the Ward, so are we. In this way, Jovan shakes out the voodoo and urban legends and shows us the actual real flesh and blood folks of this society.

Needless to say, as in the other Tales of Dunham, the last third of the book is a stampede to end. At least that is what it feels like.

And I was lucky. After I finished reading and was catching my breath, I got to have a beer.

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The Wendy House – a preview

The updated release date for The Wendy House (the follow up to Waiting For Spring) is April 2011. I know that’s six months later than originally scheduled, but I want to make sure the book is absolutely the best it can be. I promise it will be worth the wait. In the meantime, as a peace offering, here is chapter one.

 

Chapter 1

MARCH 10, 2007 3:58 A.M.

Rick rubbed his eyes wearily and reached for the Marlboro reds, soft pack, on the kitchen table beside him. He ran his thumb along the cellophane wrapper. He liked to feel them in there before he lit up. It was comforting. His own band of silent soldiers, ready for battle. Stephanie’s pack of menthols sat neatly on the small, battered table beside the sofa bed where she lay sleeping. She preferred her cigarettes in a box. They looked, to him, like a coffin.

He set his lighter down hard, hoping the noise would wake her up. It did. She sat up quickly and croaked, “What time is it?”

“Four,” he said, then took a long drag from his cigarette. He blew it out with, “A.M.”

She nodded and lit a cigarette of her own. She was only twenty-three and still looked it, but he gave her another five years, tops, before the smoking and booze caught up with her face. The almost-white blonde she used to color her hair wouldn’t improve matters any. Not that it mattered to him. In five years she’d be long gone, probably with a couple of snotty noses to wipe. And none of the noses would look like his.

“Rick…you’re sure you’re ready for this?”

“Yeah. Everything’s packed.”

“That’s not what I meant.” She regarded him for a moment, but didn’t give voice to her fears. She didn’t need to. Instead she chuckled and pointed to his head. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”

He ran his hand over the stubbles where his hair had been. She’d shaved it off for him the afternoon before. “You won’t have to get used to it.” He crushed his cigarette out, half-smoked, then noticed her hurt expression. He managed a kind smile. “I mean, it’s gonna grow back.”

She smiled back, relieved. “Oh.”

He waited until she finished her smoke before he walked over, flopped down beside her and pulled her on top of him.

“Rick, you know we don’t have time for that.”

“Sure we do,” he said, slipping off her night shirt.

“Rick—”

“Steph, just…come on. I need it this morning.”

He really did. He was already starting to hear Wendy’s voice, as early as it was, as relatively sober as he was. He had a feeling she was going to be with him all day and he wasn’t sure, yet, if that was a good thing.

She gave in, of course, just like she always did. Just like they all had. But even as she took him inside of her, he knew. They were marking time. He gave her a month, probably less than that, before she was gone. And he didn’t care. She was just another body, just another face, just another cunt. Just like all of them had been. All except for one.

So he held her close, buried his head between her breasts, and dreamt of dark, soft, chocolate-colored eyes.

~~~~~~~~ 

6:03 A.M.

Rick shivered, then flipped the collar of his jacket up against the biting wind as he stepped outside. He didn’t look around him, just followed Steph’s boots. The high wooden heels clink-clonked against the cold asphalt as they crossed the street toward the liquor store. Neither of them spoke until they reached the door. He tilted his head down, away from the security camera, as he asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.”

She didn’t sound it. “It’ll be fine, Steph. Just like we talked about.”

“Okay.”

He pulled the door open and followed her inside.

The place was empty—it was a Saturday morning and most of the regular customers were still sleeping off last night’s revels—except for the store’s owner, Shannon Kinney. She was standing behind the counter, arms crossed, scowling, waiting for them. She was lean and tough, in her early-forties. Her hair reminded Rick of old pennies. She studied his face for a long moment. Then she moved on to Stephanie’s and shook her head.

“Look, doll,” she said. “My cameras don’t pick up any sound, and they aren’t exactly state-of-the-art. But if you look scared—like you do right now—instead of pissed, they’re sure as hell gonna pick up on that.”

Steph sputtered something unintelligible, then looked to Rick for reassurance. She was always looking to him for reassurance, for approval. It’s what he was counting on. He nodded and said, “She’s right.”

Shannon snickered. “Come on. Don’t tell me you’ve never been pissed off at him before. You can play off that.”

The truth was, she’d never been more than mildly irritated with him. Or at least not that she’d ever shown. He sighed and put his hand on the back of her neck, rubbed it gently. It was something he knew she hated. She shuddered at his touch and flung it off.

“That’s more like it,” he said. He replaced his hand, squeezed a little harder this time, and turned his attention back to Shannon. “I need a pint of Senator’s Club. And a pint of Allen’s for my girl here.”

Steph’s shoulders tensed up at his words, and his stomach gave a brief, sickening roll, but he kept his eyes focused firmly on Shannon’s. He noticed, not for the first time, that they were more grey than green. He wondered if there had ever been a time when they’d been happy. He couldn’t imagine it.

She bagged up the whiskey and coffee brandy, then turned her attention once more to Steph. “When you run out of here—hey! Don’t look at me. Look at him. Remember? You’re mad at him right now. Okay, that’s better. You’ll be on camera until you’re about halfway across the street. But keep acting like you’re pissed anyway. Even after you get to your car.”

She nodded up at him almost imperceptibly. “And remember,” he told her, “when you drive off, you need to keep on going until you hit the apartment house two doors down from the intersection. The empty yellow one. Pull over there and wait for me.”

“I know. You told me a hundred times already and—”

“Steph, come on. You gotta do better than that.”

She gave him a good scowl. “Well you shouldn’t have woke me up so early. I’m still a little hung over from last night and now I’m tired, too, and—”

Shannon laughed loudly. “He got you up early to fuck you, didn’t he?”

Steph started to turn toward her, but Rick grabbed her by the arms and said, “No! Look at me. At me.”

“You know he wasn’t thinking about you when he was doing it, don’t you? He was thinking about her. About his wife. At least that’s who he was always thinking about when he was fucking me.”

She was enjoying this, he could tell. Even without looking over at her he knew it. “Shannon,” he said, without turning away from Steph. She was staring up at him with pale, hurt eyes. “I think that’s enough.”

“You fucked her?”

“Steph, no, I—”

But Shannon wasn’t going to let him get away with the lie. “He ever call Wendy’s name out loud while he’s coming?”

She’d pushed the right button. Because, of course, he had. Steph wriggled away from him and let out something that was almost a screech. Then she slapped him hard across the face.

“Jesus Christ!” He rubbed his cheek, surprised. That hadn’t been part of the plan.

“That’s a good girl,” Shannon said. “Now get the hell out of here.”

She did, without another word. Rick watched out the window as she ran across the street and fell into her car. The tires squealed as she took off down the road. It was possible, he knew, that she’d just keep on going, and then what would he do?

“You know something, Shannon? You’re a real bitch.”

“Yes I am. But I’m gonna keep your ass out of jail, aren’t I?”

“Yes. You are.”

Probably.

“And she wasn’t doing her job. She needed to cause a scene for the camera, and I got her to do it. A girlfriend who’s pissed at you is a much more reliable alibi witness than one who isn’t.”

“And a girlfriend who’s too pissed off to lie for me won’t do me any good at all.”

“She’ll be fine, Rick. She isn’t going anywhere. Right now she’s sitting right where you told her to go and she’s gonna tell the cops exactly what you tell her to say. She’s got it for you too bad, poor thing.”

He sighed and handed her a twenty, then grabbed another ten from his wallet. “Throw in two packs of cigarettes while you’re at it. One of mine and one of hers.”

“Already taken care of. There’s a bag in the back seat of her car. Cigarettes, a fifth of cinnamon whiskey and a couple packs of cinnamon gum.” He stared at her blankly, so she continued. “I put it in there last night.”

“What?”

“You know won’t be able to make it there and back without something strong inside you. The cinnamon will hide the smell of the whiskey if you get pulled over. Just pop a few pieces of the gum in your mouth and—”

“How did you—”

“This stuff—” she slid the bag across the counter at him “—needs to make it back your apartment if this alibi is gonna work. They’ll need to find the empty bottles. So don’t forget to drink it or dump it by tomorrow morning. And for God’s sake, don’t forget about it and leave it in her car. Or in that other woman’s truck.”

“Fuck off. I’m not an idiot. Now, how did you get into her car?”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re kidding…right?”

That got a quiet chuckle out of him. She gave him a hint of a smile. It had been awhile since he’d been with her. Maybe a year? More than that? He could only remember that it was a week after her daughter died. She just showed up at his door, unannounced. They spent the weekend drinking and fucking. Then she left. She didn’t talk about it the next time he came into the store, which was just fine with him. And she hadn’t been back. That was good, too. But he could tell she was thinking about it. And he wondered if there was a chance…

“Don’t even think about it,” she said. “Especially not now. You know you have to stay with that girl after this is over. At least until she decides to bail. You can’t be the one to send her packing. Not this time.”

He only nodded. He knew that much. And he didn’t think it would take her long to leave. She was already getting weary of him. There was a guy at the diner where she worked who wanted her. If he could start gently pushing her in that direction in another month or so, he might not have anything to worry about. Her guilt for leaving him could keep her quiet about what was going to happen today.

“And you’ve got the gun.”

“Yes.”

“Just drop it in the—”

“I know where to drop it, Shannon. It’s my goddamn plan. Remember?”

“Yeah. I just want to make sure you do.”

“Well, I do. And I really gotta go. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Tomorrow’s Sunday. Can’t open till nine.”

“But I’ll show up at six. Just for the camera.”

She nodded and watched him silently as he picked the bag up off the counter. She waited till he was almost to the door before saying, “Rick…”

He had to clench his jaw to keep the irritation out of the “What is it?” he threw back at her.

“Make sure you get this asshole. Okay? And I mean get him good. None of this shooting-him-in-the-head bullshit. ”

He nearly dropped the bag at the words, but managed to grab hold of the bottom in time. He didn’t turn back to look at her, though. He couldn’t. The queasiness was back. Even his head was swimming with it. And for the first time he wondered if he’d actually be able to go through with it.

“I want him to suffer, Rick. I want him to suffer. Do you hear me?”

But he said nothing. He just walked out the door. Out into the cold. Out to face the day.

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On Comics and Sci-Fi

In the tradition of Cheryl Anne Gardner’s What a Pod Peep Reads, here’s what I’ve been reading:

and

The trajectory of underground comics is somewhat similar to that of self-publishing – something that no one took seriously, and now is given art exhibitions. From an interview with Dan Clowes:

Early in your career, did you find that people had a difficult time labeling you? The type of work you produced wasn’t your typical style of comic.

They still have a difficult time. I’ve been called everything from a “graphic novelist” to a “comic-strip novelist” to just a “cartoonist.” I’ve always preferred “cartoonist,” because that seems the least obnoxious.

I used to tell people I was a “comic-book artist,” but they’d look at me as if I’d just stepped in dog shit and walked across their Oriental rug. I never knew what to call myself, but I was always opposed to the whole “graphic novelist” label. To me, it just seemed like a scam. I always felt that people would say, “Wait a minute! This is just a comic book!” But now, I’ve given up. Call me whatever you want.

At what point did you notice that people were beginning to understand what a “graphic novel” actually meant?

For me, there was a sea change by 2001 or 2002, around the time the Ghost World movie was released. Average citizens like my parents’ neighbors started to say things like, “Oh, you do graphic novels! I love [Art Spiegelman's] Maus!” A few years earlier, they would have thought of me as the lowest pornographer.

In the past, telling someone you self-published was often met with embarrassment. Now, people are interested.

From an interview with Philip K. Dick:

SFR: Why do you think your books have sold so well in foreign countries, and not as well in America?

DICK: Well, the first answer that comes to mind is “Damned if I know.” Perhaps it’s the general attitude towards science fiction in European countries, accepting it as a legitimate form of literature, instead of relegating it to the ghetto, with the genre, and regarding it as sub-standard. The prejudice is not there in France, Holland, England, and Germany, and Poland that we have in this country against science fiction. The field is accepted, and it doesn’t have anything to do particularly with the quality of my writing, it has to do with the acceptance of the field of science fiction as a legitimate field.

Interesting – I’m in America so I don’t really know if the stigma issue with self-publishing is the same as it is in the States. Philip K. Dick once had to beg for attention, now his books are put out by the Library of America.

All that self-publishing needs to legitimize it is two geniuses on the level of Dan Clowes and Philip K. Dick. That’s all.

But there’s a similarity too between comics, science fiction, and self-publishing, in that self-publishing allows writers to create without constraint – they don’t have to worry about what editors currently think is marketable, so it doesn’t limit the imagination. Any critics of self-publishing should consider this – it’s an amazing advantage. Something, really, to be encouraged. Yes, there’s a difference between a genre and a printing method, but the reaction to each has been similarly condescending. As self-publishing becomes more a part of the culture, it may take on the respectability of graphic novels or science fiction – two mediums that were virtually ignored, even mocked, for decades and are now part of the respectable mainstream.

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“Slush Fatigue” Fatigue

I like this post I wrote at the Self-Publishing Review regarding Laura Miller’s post on Salon – her theory is that the onslaught of self-published books being released out into the wild will lead to “slush fatigue” and it will be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Does she think that self-published books shouldn’t be released?  No, so really she’s complaining without offering any solutions.  A better proposition would be: this is the brave new world of publishing, this is how we navigate it.  Instead she complains.

And the post has gotten much traction.  Stephen Elliot at The Rumpus calls it “excellent.”  The Atlantic doesn’t make much of a criticism either way – her pov, the mainstream view of self-publishing, is left standing.  Basically, it’s a snob’s point of view (and this is coming from, basically, a snob) that what oh what do we do when the peons are publishing and bad writing is flooding the airwaves.  Answer: that’s already happening.  It’s called publishing.  Now there’s just more of it.  The truly ridiculously awful books will be as forgotten as a truly, ridiculously awful blog, mp3, or Youtube video.  At some point, people are going to start seeing that there’s no difference between books and other media.

Here’s what I wrote at SPR:

The article makes the age-old severe generalization that self-publishing is full of “inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés.”  The better point it makes is, “if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours…this possible future doesn’t eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed. How long before the authors neglected by the new breed of tastemaker begin to accuse them of being out-of-touch, biased dinosaurs?”

That’s true, but I prefer the democratization of many, many bloggers and readers making the decision about a book’s success via consensus, rather than that power being put into the hands of a dwindling number of editors.  She’s absolutely right that this system will still reward a certain type of book – mainstream-style books will always be successful, even if the books are published independently.  Independent doesn’t always mean cutting edge.

Where this post misses the mark is that it’s coming at self-publishing from a literary fiction standpoint – i.e. “good” writing.  I’ve given into the fact that the success of self-publishing rests on commercial fiction becoming successful via the self-publishing route.

The fact is when it comes to “inept prose,” many readers don’t care. Inept prose is very frequently extraordinarily popular.  Setting aside Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer – who are monstrously successful – there’s a much larger wing of midlist authors that are doing very well regardless of the quality of their prose. Saying “quality” is subjective is too easy – it’s very obvious when something is more plot-based than character-based. And more often than not, plot-based fiction is not as caught up in sentence structure.  So: self-publishing is on the map for the express reason that “low quality” prose (by Salon.com’s standards) is successful.  One person’s slush is another person’s beach read.

Yes, there is true slush – something that misspells words in the first sentence.  But this type of book will largely be forgotten.  It’ll get limited traction, so most readers won’t have to take the time to wade through it.  A reader should be able to tell a book’s quality from the types of reviews and an excerpt.  Sure, this is more work for a reader, but it also gives more power to both the reader and the writer, as they’ll be making the decisions about a book’s future – not an editor who may be selecting books based on dubious criteria.

All in all, articles like this fault self-publishing for not being perfect.  Flooding the market with bad writing is a side effect of this democratization – just as someone who’s elected might not be the “best” person for the job, it’s still a good system of government.  In the old system of publishing, it’s like only a handful of people selecting who should be in office. That’s just not a fair system.  If “slush fatigue” is the worst side effect of self-publishing being a viable option, this is a fair trade off for good books not being released at all.

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I Love Gatekeepers

Winning a Gold IPPY award recently for my novel is sort of a strange feeling.  In a way, it’s like the acceptance of a publisher, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time arguing that the acceptance of a publisher doesn’t mean that your book is good or bad  – or else all traditionally published books would be good and all self-published books would be bad.  That said, I’ve also made the argument that getting accepted by a publisher is a profoundly good feeling.  How can it not be?  Someone believes in your work.  And one of the things self-publishers miss out on is this very great feeling of finally being accepted by a publisher.  Doesn’t mean your book is automatically a work of genius, but that validation is a good feeling.

And so it is for an award – which, as a self-publisher, is probably the closest thing to being accepted by an editor.  It’s also helped sell the book.  If nothing else, it’s helped the book get a lot of downloads.  I just put the book up on Feedbooks, and I’ve had 2000 downloads in a couple of weeks – in part, I think, because it says “Winner of…”

That’s not the only thing, though.  An award or a publishing house is also a buffer against certain kinds of criticism. A person going into a book by an unknown author might just give up if it doesn’t move them.  An award or a publisher tells a reader that someone believed in this book, I won’t give up.  Or: I won’t write some scathing review saying something like, “Of course this was self-published.”   If you spend any amount of time online, you find that people are mean.  Comment sections are like a collection of playground bullies.  A book could get ripped apart.  A gatekeeper can be a kind of armor.

So gatekeepers are useful.  They help sell books.  It’s just that in the new era of publishing, the term gatekeeper has to be expanded to a much wider degree of sources than just agent or publisher.  Awards, reviews, and word of mouth are all also valid forms of gatekeeping.  Consensus is the best form of gatekeeping – in fact way better than one editor’s stamp of approval.  Why should that one editor’s opinion override the opinions of 100 other readers?  It shouldn’t, and so the definition of gatekeeper needs to change.

The Future of Gatekeeping

Nathan Bransford has a good post about the future of agenting/publishing in the digital world. As someone under 40 (I’m guessing) the bulk of his career as an agent is going to be in the age of ebooks, so he’s more progressive about how the agent process is going to be restructured. About digital publishing, he has this very good point:

No one sits around thinking, “You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages.” Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know? We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we’ve devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.

So what’s the big deal if a few hundred thousand more books hit the digital stores every year? We will find a way to find the books we want to read, just as surely as we’re able to find the restaurants we eat at and the movies we want to see and the shoes we want to buy out of the many, many available options.

My response was:

There’s a major difference though: the internet is free. If you come upon a god-awful blog, you can just move on. If you buy a god-awful book, that’s money you’ve lost. There’s only so much money people can spend.

So that’s what gets people annoyed – the loss of a possible sale. No way around this really. People will just have to get used to it, and readers will have to get more savvy about knowing what something is before they shell out $.

Someone else also counters:

No one sits around thinking, “You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages.”

I say:

Quite the contrary. I think about that A LOT. It’s precisely the problem indicated by phrases such as “drinking from a firehose”, “Finding a needle in a needlestack”. “everybody will be famous to 15 people”, etc.

I call it the problem of finite human bandwidth. Think also signal to noise ratio. The bigger the Internet, the more places for the good stuff to hide.

The thing that people don’t seem to get is that change isn’t always for the better. I’m a self-publishing advocate and I can see the problem with hoards of unreadable books cluttering up the system. That’s the side effect of something that is, on balance, very positive – the lack of a barrier for getting words out into the world. Digital publishing has problems, but those problems don’t outweigh the benefits. With self-publishing people tend to have the knee-jerk reaction that the bad implications outweigh the good. Do you think blogs are, on balance, a good thing, even if most blogs are terrible? I do. Self-publishing is no different, even if there’s money changing hands – the basic purpose is the same: giving people new tools for writing.

Other arguments there are about how gatekeepers ensure quality and people will release books before they’re ready. If writers do that, they’re probably not very good writers. As for the former, there are a lot of other of gatekeepers – namely, readers themselves. They can read an excerpt, read reviews from fellow readers, and weigh whether or not a book is worth reading. With book samples and increasing review sources (despite the complaints that review sections in newspapers are being cut, book reviews are actually growing), readers have a number of ways to make a decision to buy a book. They don’t need someone else to tell them what they’ll enjoy.

In short, self-publishing doesn’t just increase power to the writer, it increases power to the reader.

Posted in Henry Baum | Leave a comment

The looming extinction of everyday art & history.

I was lightly accused, in a recent discussion on the Kindle Boards, of “railing against” ebooks when I posted the following message:

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ebooks, the death of the print book, etc., and after reading yet another such article (on my computer, ironically) I immediately posted this facebook status:

[I]will not give up on print. Say what you will about the unstoppable advancement of technology – the experience of reading a book v. the experience of reading an ebook cannot be compared to anything else but newspaper articles, and articles take an average of maybe 10 minutes to read. I simply don’t see people giving up their books, or the book experience.

[My actual entry goes on, but it isn't interesting enough to include here. For the full, and very enlightening, thread of replies, visit the discussion here.]

Most of the responses were illuminating. Educational. Helpful. A couple were Kindle-defensive, even though I’d said nothing negative about e-readers. My books are available on Kindle and Smashwords – how could I possibly have anything bad to say about devices that allow people to read them, and so inexpensively (minus the cost of the e-reader itself)? I couldn’t. I don’t.

image belongs to www.pmptoday.com

I understand the appeal of Kindles, iPads, Nooks, Sony Readers, and whatever else is out there. I’m certainly not anti-technology.The friendly Kindle readers who responded to my post on the Kindle boards let me know e-readers have many things to offer. You can apparently:

1. highlight passages

2. bookmark pages

3. change font sizes (I have to admit I like this one)

4. carry your whole library in one light container and choose from among hundreds of books while waiting for a bus, say, rather than having to keep reading the one you’re carrying in your bag – and you hate the one in your bag

5. buy individual books very, very, very inexpensively (particularly if they’re released by indie authors; otherwise, the Kindle edition is likely to cost just a bit less than – and sometimes more than – the paperback. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, for example, costs $9.60 for the Kindle edition, and $9.99 for the mass market paperback)

6. discover several new (usually indie) authors easily due to their e-books’ low prices and e-vailability (versus their nonexistence in most big-time – or small-time – bookstores)

7. move (the household, that is) from place to place without having boxes of books to lug with you (which is somewhat, but not entirely, similar to #4)

8. look up words and references within the very “book” you’re reading by touching the screen (pretty cool, I have to admit)

9. hold them comfortably, as they’re light and thin (and not unwieldy and awkward like hardcovers or thick paperbacks – think The Executioner’s Song or Harlot’s Ghost – or any other fat Mailer novel)

10. read without getting ink on your fingers (okay, this is not an “apparently” – this is obviously hard fact)

And all of that sounds great.

Seriously.

However, I know I won’t be dumping out my change jar and rolling dimes and quarters to buy a Sony Reader, a Nook,  a Kindle, or a whatever-else-comes-next.

I like the idea of the immediacy, the volume, the ease. The “Ooh – gadget!” factor and the touch-pad screen.

But I don’t want it, because I’m like everyone else. If I have this new excuse to move away from the long list of  things that have lost their meaningful place in our everydays–the VHS tapes, the record albums, and even the CDs–I will.

And I don’t want to be tempted.

When I was a teenager, we were still buying records. I only had five, but I had them. My dad had them, too. Lined up side-by-side on the shelf under his turntable, the band and singer-songwriter names in small font on the edges. When I wanted to listen to something, I would sit on the floor and flip through the covers until I found something I liked. When I was a little bit older and CDs were mainstream but records hadn’t yet been completely phased out, I flipped through the corner-worn record jackets stuffed tight in the wall-cubby of my new boyfriend’s apartment. What did he like? Who did he listen to? Who was he?

We do the same with books. We walk into the home of a new friend, a new lover, and one of the first things we scan is the bookshelf. What are you reading? Who do you like? Who are you?

The only thing we might notice before that is the art on the walls, but wall-art is intentional. It’s selected carefully, matched to our walls or rugs or living room furniture or personality – because it will be there, hanging at eye-level and on immediate display, for years.

We don’t put the same kind of thought into bringing home books. We walk into a bookstore, pick up a pretty cover, read the back, and buy it. When we’re finished with it, we slide it onto the shelf between a book on houseplants and a collection of short stories we picked up at another store some years ago.

And we take for granted – more often than not – the utter richness of the experience of reading a book. The simplest of activities, yes, but one that appeals to every one of our senses, even if only subtly, peripherally. The art of the cover draws us first, and its connection to the time of its publication is as telling as the subject matter, the details, of the words inside. Living history, it changes with each new printing and offers us, when we’re lucky enough to find a decades-old copy in a used book store, a tangible bit of the past we can take home with us. We open the cover and are intrigued by who may have owned it before and run a finger over the name written in cursive on the inside cover, then wonder what might have happened to her. Who she was, this woman who for some reason included the year beside her name, and where she lived, how her book found its way to the store.

When we fold back the paperback cover, it is slick and stiff with newness or soft and worn like old, time-rubbed money. The pages are white or they’re tanned by dust and years, flat and thin or grainy, bumpy, and thick – almost cringe-inducing, as when tracing a finger along an oxidized car hood – and the pages’ edges are the color of dandelion smear.

We bookmark our places with old business cards, Christmas ribbons, envelopes, or shopping receipts, and  years after reading, we may find a memory tucked between pages 7 and 8. We curl down corners marking sex-hot scenes and glide ballpoint lines under passages we want to recall. We slide our fingers over the words we love, tear out the pages that piss us off, and hurl incomprehensible narrative across the room. Books are our face-umbrellas in bright sunlight, fans in the heat, levelers of uneven tables, and warm decoration in an otherwise nondescript room. They are our age, they are our parents’ age, they are our grandparents’ age. When we turn the pages, we’re touching time.

I don’t want to be tempted away.

Posted in Kristen Tsetsi | 2 Comments

Interview with Eddie Wright

Moxie Mezcal recently reviewed Broken Bulbs and interviewed me (Eddie Wright) about my writing, self-publishing, the future, and Backword Books.

Enjoy.

http://blog.moxiemezcal.com/2010/06/eddie-wright-is-not-nothing-explosive.html

Posted in Eddie Wright | Leave a comment