Saturday, December 06, 2008
Facing Reality Backwards
There is a certain discussion subject that continues to surface at the IAG Yahoo Group. It just won't go away. The reason it isn't going away is that it is the Achilles heel of the POD publishing explosion of the past decade. There are no longer any reasons for anybody to sit on the bench. Anybody and everybody can play. Yes, the corporate control empowered by short-term profits has destroyed the traditional publishing industry, absorbing its soul and relentlessly pushing it toward eventual bankruptcy. That does not mean that the opposite strategy is the answer, either. Most of the consumer public has finally realized the folly of its ways. Now that the financial debacle is on the news every day, everyone seems to finally be paying attention. It's too late to turn back the clock. The changes to our marketed lifestyles have already been decided. Now the only choice we have is to work within the parameters set out for us by the controlling corporations, and by these I mean both iUniverse and Random House.
We must face the fact that the race to the bottom is both real and relentless, and this is why America is going down the tubes. The quality of both our publishing and our reading is just one little drop in a very large bucket. American citizens are being purposely devalued. Job has become the dirtiest word in our language. The payment to a person for a job well done has become an anachronistic concept. This is the point from which we must begin this discussion if we want to be grounded in reality.
Everyone has a different opinion as to what exactly defines a bad book, one that is below the reader's particular standards. Is it fun to read? Is it grammatically correct? Was it adequately proofread? Is the subject matter popular? Has the book sold well? Is it a particularly poignant subject for its time? Was it edited correctly? Can the author spell? Was the storyline interesting? Were the characters realistically developed? Did it make you laugh or cry? Do you wish to recommend this book to someone you like? Was the plot accurately developed? Was the presentation and point of view consistent throughout the book? I could go on with this list of questions, but I shall stop because I know you get the point.
Let's move on to the factors that have predetermined the answers to most of these questions. We are going to face this reality in the reverse order that you might expect; however, this is probably the most accurate way to examine the issues. Not coincidentally, one of the founding concepts that I had in mind when I started PODBRAM in July 2006 was to communicate my knowledge of this particular subject to authors and future authors. You could call this the pinnacle of my personal publishing soapbox. I think that if more aspiring and unknown authors out there would take this concept to heart, everyone would benefit. On with the show!
A book sells well because a significant number of readers wish to part with their cash to read it. They are fascinated by the subject matter, and a book communicates that subject matter to them from the cover, the blurbs, the advertising, or whatever. You could say that many of them are obsessed with that subject. You could say that some will buy that book no matter what the cost. Some will buy it no matter how poorly it has been composed, edited, or proofread. Some will buy it just because they will buy anything that seems to appeal to their obsession. Basically, I am saying that due to what both the traditional and POD industries have done to the market, book sales are relatively meaningless as definers of the quality of a book. I read a book a few years ago that in my opinion offered an interesting, original premise and plotline, but the overall compositional quality was nothing more than average. That book was The Da Vinci Code and it has sold sixty million copies, and that was as of 2006! Two of the best selling POD authors I have reviewed at PODBRAM hold the records for the most proofreading errors. The ringleader in sales is also clearly the ringleader in errors, by a wide margin.
The next step in our backward progression is the issue of proofreading. Do all you clowns out there who think you are authors not realize that this is one of the key reasons that the race to the bottom has so affected the publishing industry? Do you not realize that proofreading is one of those tedious, time-consuming, low-paying, labor-intensive jobs that traditional publishers have been working so diligently to minimalize? I refer to the job cutting that has so obviously been done in this field. Why do you think the errors in traditional books have increased in recent years? Do you think all the idiocy we deal with in our everyday lives has simply bypassed the publishing industry? Of course it hasn't. The traditional publishers want to pay as few proofreaders as possible. They want to pay the ones they do employ as little as possible and work them as hard as possible. Why would any POD company employ proofreaders, except as servicers of the small number of clients who have chosen to pay the enormous cost of this optional service? You, the authors, must do your own proofreading, you must teach yourself to do it well, and you must care enough about your readers to do it, even when they choose to buy your books anyway.
Before you can proofread, you have to edit. This is the point at which you have to make sure you stay in the right tense for the concept you are presenting. You have to be certain that your story makes sense to the reader. You have to avoid babbling on about something that you had never intended to take over your subject. You have to make sure that the information you have provided is complete enough to communicate your message. You must make it fun or enjoyable in some way for the reader. You have to make the text flow like a river. You have to make your book memorable in a positive manner.
The compositional style is a complex concept. Let me try to explain by describing the style I know best, my own. My style has been inspired from several particular angles by certain authors that have consistently impressed me with reading material I deeply, memorably enjoyed. Jean Shepherd amazed me with his uncanny ability to wring poignant memorabilia out of anything. Anne Rice astounds me with her stories that take the reader backward through time, covering centuries of history as seen through the eyes of very memorable characters. Al Franken writes about politics as only an SNL alumnus could, with truth splattered beneath the parody. Peter Egan speaks on my level about motorized machines, as if they were all in my garage right now. Kurt Vonnegut could take me to places only he could imagine, yet these magical worlds were eerie reflections of our own. If you step back from the pages of my books and squint just right, you can see the ghosts of these famous authors hiding between the lines. These are the authors who have made me step back and say, Wow! These are the writers I want to emulate. I want to channel them like a spiritualist. I want my words to be as memorable as theirs. Every writer has to find his niche. He has to write until the epiphany arrives. When it does, you will know that you have been shot between the eyes. Until then... keep writing.
We all must write what we know. If you try to write anything else, you are just wasting your own time and that of your readers. I used my own experience in my description of compositional style to show you what I know. These are the writers and the subject matter that interest me, so I have read a lot by these authors, as well as a lot of similar material by others. Do I like to write about politics, motorhead stuff, sex, psychology, sociology, music, culture, consumerism, comedy, trivia, and other stuff emitted from my wildest imagination? Of course. I don't write about sports because I don't give a rat's ass about sports. I'm a nerd, I'll always be a nerd, and I write like a nerd.
The marketing of books is the hard part. Anyone who tells you otherwise, for whatever reason, does not know what he is talking about. Long before you begin publishing a book, you need to formulate, at least within your own mind, exactly what the book is and who is going to read it. You must spend at least some effort in creating a title and a cover, and then picture who is going to see that title and cover combination and what they might think the first moment they see it. Since I write in multiple genres, I planned from the beginning for all my books to have a certain look that I hope appears as nostalgic, psychedelic, and professional, all at the same time. Although my professional career, as well as my lifestyle, was the most satisfying in The Eighties, the period between 1955 and 1975 is what I fondly cherish. This is precisely what makes my books very difficult to market, but if I wrote anything else, I would not be writing what I know and what I am passionate about. I am obsessed with the fact that I think America took an incorrect right turn in 1970, and this is the story I want to communicate to my readers. I want to entertain and inform. If you wish to do only one or the other as an author, you have it easy. If the subject matter of your book is easy to describe and understand, you have it even easier. Was it fun to write? Did it offer anything really different from the other million titles in your genre? Only you can answer the first question and only your readers can answer the second.
The question pondered by the thoughtful authors at IAG cannot be answered in exactly the same way by any two authors. You know what they say: opinions are like the holes that everyone has. A bad book to one person means the proofreading was lax. To another, it means the editing was incompetent. To yet another, it means the plot was a stinker. Another person might say the storyline was too derivative of a thousand others like it. We cannot even discuss this issue accurately among ourselves without difficulty because our own individual use of the language is too diverse. We don't really know at what stage the author failed in his mission. Did he write a wonderful book, but he was just too darn lazy or impatient to proofread his manuscript completely? Has he not read enough books in his genre to know that that subject has been written to death already? Does he simply lack an adequate grasp of spelling and grammar? I could go on with these questions, but as stated above, there is no point. You get the picture.
I have never claimed to have all the answers. After all, I am a closet psychologist. That's what I should have been when I long ago got derailed by the financial services industry. Don't psychologists love to answer a question with another question? It should be obvious that I side with the team who thinks we cannot succeed at any marketing endeavor without properly vetting our authors, yet I know that at some level we have to let everybody in the tent. I feel much the same way about all the current bailout mess. There is no easy answer, nowhere, nohow.