Monthly Archives: February 2010

Independent Musician vs. Independent Author

A few independent musicians have practically become household names. They sell millions of downloads and can fill stadiums with fans. A recent post on the marketing strategies of Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails trumpets them as an example for all to follow. How about novelists? Should they cast off the yokes of their evil publishers? Not so fast. There are some major differences between the independent author and musician. Even successful independent authors are hard pressed to set up a book signing, and most who do sell a bunch of books soon parlay that into a book contract with a traditional publisher.

So what gives? A lot of this is specific to novels and other types of narrative prose. Some who write inspirational or business advice are doing quite well going the independent route, even if they’re not likely to sell out a stadium anytime soon. That aside, here’s a few ideas that may explain the gulf between the independent musician and author:

Musicians form bands. Unlike writers, who toil away in solitude, musicians are social beasts. Music is a collaborative process with lots of instant feedback as it’s created, long before anyone outside the band is asked to pay to hear it. Such collaborations can obviously be heated, which makes for better music but is also why most bands eventually break up. Then the lead singer goes on (more often than not) to produce some less than stellar music on his own. For books, it’s not until an editor enters the scene that the collaboration starts.

Music makes noise. When I was a kid playing my guitar and singing John Denver songs (my guitar teacher’s idea) my whole family made a point of letting me know how terrible I was. This worked. I stopped singing, and the world is a better place for it. If only all the parents of those kids who end up on the early American Idol shows had been so kind to their offspring. No one can tell just from the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard whether my scribbles are any good or not, they’re just happy I’m not singing.

Everyone is taught how to write. Music lessons stop at about the sixth grade. Not many would pick up a saxophone in the morning, blow into it until it made some noise, then start laying down tracks. Yet lots of people think that since they wrote papers in high school, they can write a novel. But what about all the other stuff that goes into a novel, like character, plot, setting, pacing, style, theme? It takes a decade to even begin to master it all, just like it takes a decade to learn how to play a musical instrument well.

No one likes record labels. Listeners and musicians alike have long felt duped by record executives, who seem much keener on producing a stream of one hit wonders than actually making music. They foster a system where musicians starve, originality suffers, and massive profits end up in the pockets of big business. There’s been no publishing equivalent of Milli Vanilli. Authors can be as ugly as they want to be on their back covers. Most readers don’t think much at all about publishers, while authors like John Scalzi and Charles Stross in recent posts actively defend the status quo. If people who make stuff up for a living can be trusted, they truly value these relationships that help them create better books.

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Alexander Calder’s Circus, Play Art

While Michelangelo drew me into the Seattle Art Museum last month, their Alexander Calder exhibit (runs through April 11) may well have rivaled the master’s scribbles. The thick black circles on the floor around the bigger mobiles, that you weren’t supposed to step past, were a tad odd, but overall what’s not to like about art that you’re encouraged to blow on? Art that moves. In the back though, there was one of the more entertaining bits. They had a film playing Cirque Calder, which drew a few of the polite chortles that they allow in museums.

Since then I found the videos on YouTube. I love watching this grown man, and not a young man at that, playing with these elaborate dolls that he built himself. He gets really into it, in poor French no less. Calder explains his thoughts around the circus near the start at 1:12, but my favorite part of this clip is the Western stuff at 2:42. And who is that woman at 3:44? Probably his wife wondering what she got herself into.

It’s interesting that Calder worked on and amused himself with toys before he started on the mobiles that have since become synonymous with his name. Isn’t this what art is really about? That thing you do when everything else gets out of the way. Play. I used to have a post-it note stuck to my desk that read: YOU ARE PLAYING! Eventually it felt a bit too stern, so I took it down. Did I really need to shout about it?

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Lessons from Three Months of Blogging

This blog launched three months ago today. Not very long in the blogosphere, but long enough for my initial web-hosting package to expire. I first set it up on a whim. Saw the domain was available, click, I owned it.  I figured I’d give blogging a whirl and see where things stood in three months, half expecting that I’d have abandoned it by now and have one of those “oh yeah, that thing” moments when the renewal e-mail arrived.

So while a tad presumptuous for this baby blogger to offer blogging advice, here’s my thoughts:

Posts take some time to write. At first I planned on updating the blog once a day, then that fell to five days per week, and then to two days per week. This is manageable. I’m also working full time and writing short stories in the mornings before work, so any more blogging time would take away from writing time. Fiction comes first.

You can blog and write. On a related note, I’m also getting more writing done. The blog hasn’t taken away from the writing, but has cemented it to the rest of the world. Rather than scribbling in my back room, and having it all stay right here, at least some of it leaks out. I’m no longer writing entirely in a vacuum, and that inspires me to write more.

That “publish” button is awesome. My day job is with a major website. I own a handful of pages that get gabonker traffic. Every update is reviewed, every pixel debated, results reported, strategies justified. Which is all as it should be. It’s a business. I have a great job that more than pays the bills and leaves me with enough headspace to write. But I love owning this teensy site here from end to end, and publishing posts that take shape quickly and go live instantly… plus no meetings.

It’s called a “web” site. I just started tweeting, got six whole followers. Woohoo! Never would have done that without the blog. I also got over my perennial lurker status and started commenting on the blogs I visit, when I have something to add. My day job has conditioned me to see websites as destinations, this experience is all about… well, a web. Whether my thoughts are read here, on Twitter, or on someone else’s blog doesn’t matter. It’s that they’re getting read at all that does.

Stop tinkering, just post. At first I thought I should write about 20 posts before I put anything up so I had squirreled away some acorns. Then, once I started the blog I tried about a hundred different themes before picking this one (still not sure about it). Then I decided to play with the CSS to get the link colors just right. Not sure how much of that, if any, matters. And it can always change. Just post, then post again. Take care of all the window dressing as you have time.

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Who’s Afraid of eBooks?

It seems now that most are in agreement that an ebook wave is coming. It’s no longer dismissed as it was even a year ago, but now many of the predictions are loaded with doom. Yet as with any other paradigm shift, there is massive opportunity. Yes, those who resist may get swept under, but those who embrace it can benefit.

Here’s a few predictions on why this transition will, in the end, be good for scribblers:

People will still read books. I’ve heard that people won’t read anymore when their “book” also sends text messages, plays Tetris, and (heaven forbid!) rings. My hunch is the percent of people who read is just as high today as it was in the days of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Most people don’t, some do. My 11-year old niece spends some time on her Nintendo DS, and some time with her favorite authors. She’s a reader. Back in the 18th century, if you didn’t like novels you didn’t spend your time reading, you spent it gossiping. Now, gossip has moved online. And the readers, read. Plus, as the level of disposable income continues to grow in places like India, the number of readers that a digital book can reach will explode.

This isn’t going to happen overnight. While ebooks sales will eventually be higher than paper book sales–once ereaders become essentially free, like cell phones are today–this is not going to happen quickly. Readers tend to harbor Luddite proclivities. Books will continue to be printed. They may get more expensive, but that’s nothing new. Remember the $1.99 paperback? (Yeah, I don’t either.) People who love the look, feel, smell, and touch of books (and there are droves of them) are going to keep buying paper books for a very long time. My hunch is the paper book will never disappear completely, but will instead become a premium, collector’s item for classics and newer ebooks that have proven themselves worthy of paper.

Pirates will stay at sea. Pirating for novels at least won’t be a huge problem. Yes, there will be free pirated versions of every book available from the millisecond the first edition appears. Yes, some otherwise law-abiding folks will download them for free. But readers tend to be an older crowd, and they have more disposable income. Music pirating took off on college campuses. College students are notoriously poor and busy reading what they’re told to read, and drinking. They have little time and inclination to pirate other books. (Though getting a book on a required reading list will no longer be a boon for sales.) Most readers out there are more than willing to pay for books. They demand two things. One, no wait. Two, no price gouging. If publishers make their ebooks available at the same time as their paper counterparts, and price them fairly, all will be good. Whether fair is $9.99 or $14.99 doesn’t matter, the market will figure it out soon enough.

More writers will get published. Small publishers will emerge that focus exclusively on ebooks, as will imprints for all of the majors. These will bring books meant for a mass audience to market quicker and cheaper, just like the paperback pulps did when they were first created. Publishers will see this as a testing ground, a quick and dirty experiment to see what resonates with readers. And writers who get nowhere with the publishing world will have direct access to the reading community. Most will drown in the sea of slush, but a few will sail over it. Everyone gets a bite at the apple. Think your book is the best vampire/werewolf/mummy teenage ménage à trois the world has never seen? Publish it. Market it. See what happens. At the very least, those who fall flat will stop submitting and be one less query for publishers to worry about.

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The 10,000 Year Vanity Press

Writers are vain creatures. If you ever meet one, we’ll tell you all sorts of lies about why we “must” write. Only one is true. We want to be immortal. Could anything else explain all them vampire stories?

This is one of the most worrying things about ebooks. As New Scientist recently explained, digital technology stands almost no chance of surviving the apocalypse. Paper would fare much better. While we’re hard pressed to access floppy disks and memory sticks from even a few years back, paper holds up pretty well. Used bookstores are loaded with the blockbusters from years gone by, attics overflow with discarded tomes, and libraries pile the stuff up and neatly archive it. Each paper book is a shot at immortality. If well tended, it can survive hundreds of years. Yet no one will even know how to turn on today’s ebooks two hundred years from now, let alone access any of the “books” downloaded to them.

Paper is better, most definitely, but even over the very long term paper doesn’t last. It is just paper after all. Surely not one of the paperbacks in the boxes I have piled in my basement will still be kicking around 10,000 years from now. Thankfully that New Scientist article highlighted the work of the Long Now Foundation. They’ve found an answer that can truly stand the test of time. Through their Rosetta Project, they’ve developed a medium that even Megatron wouldn’t be able to scratch:

For the extreme longevity version of the Rosetta database, we have selected a new high density analog storage device as an alternative to the quick obsolescence and fast material decay rate of typical digital storage systems. This technology, developed by Los Alamos Laboratories and Norsam Technologies, can be thought of as a kind of next generation microfiche. However, as an analog storage system, it is far superior. A 2.8 inch diameter nickel disk can be etched at densities of 200,000 page images per disk, and the result is immune to water damage, able to withstand high temperatures, and unaffected by electromagnetic radiation. This makes it an ideal backup for a long-term text image archive. Also, since the encoding is a physical image (no 1’s or 0’s), there is no platform or format dependency, guaranteeing readability despite changes in digital operating systems, applications, and compression algorithms.

Their first prototypes are an archive of 1,500 human languages, with translations into each language of the first three chapters of Genesis and other pertinent information. One of the prototypes was even shot into space on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe, and is currently headed for Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The assumption is that as long as one of the languages on the disk remains known somewhere, the rest can be tapped. This worked well for Egyptian hieroglyphics in the infamous Rosetta stone, which also contained the text in Greek. And avoids the mistake of the Phaitos disk, which only contains one uknown language. It’s 3,600 years old and filled with an amazing script, but no one knows what it says. Hopefully it’s more than a shopping list.

What this means for writers today is that as long as our words are scribbled in one of the 1,500 languages on the Rosetta disk, and survive, someone somewhere will be able to read them. But how can our words survive? Perhaps the Long Now foundation could become the world’s most forward thinking vanity press. They could charge $20 per page, etch on disk, shoot into space. Simple. If 200,000 pages fit on one disk, this Long Now vanity press would collect $4 million per disk (which they could in turn use for good to make up for evil vanity press stuff).

Why should the slush pile that’s currently being uploaded to Kindle perish when the current device is obsolete two years from now? Why not let it all live for 10,000 years? After all, even the most arcane dribble from the worst hack that ancient Egypt ever produced would make for fascinating reading today.

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Beating Buy Button Banishment

j0441439At a writer’s conference I attended a little less than a year ago, the general consensus amongst editors was that ebooks were nothing to fret about. The chorus went something like: parents will never read to their kids from a Kindle. Maybe. But as the feud between Amazon and Macmillan has shown, publishers have started to pay a whole lot of attention to them.

One of the most surprising things about the scuffle was how much it went largely unnoticed by just everyone who isn’t a writer, agent, editor, or publisher. In casual conversation over the course of the week, I met no one who knew about it. I live in Seattle, home of the mighty beast. The husband of one of my coworkers works at Amazon. I asked what he had to say about the delisting, and apparently, nada. It was news to my coworker. The battle didn’t even buzz throughout all of Amazon, though it’s hard to imagine a single Macmillan employee who didn’t follow it closely.

This seems to be what Amazon counts on. They only mentioned the delisting of Macmillan titles in their Kindle boards, presumably assuming that only Kindle customers were likely to notice. Author blogs brought some attention to the tactic, but it’s still surprising how much it flew below the radar. To counter, the Writer’s Guild just launched a site to help authors monitor their own buy buttons. It also details how Amazon has used this technique in the past:

Amazon often chooses to instill fear in a publisher by selectively removing only a portion of a publisher’s list from its online market. It can do this silently, changing the titles that are unavailable on a regular basis, so that only the publisher notices. Both Amazon and the publisher have solid reasons to keep the unpleasantness quiet: Amazon doesn’t really want to be seen as a bully, and the publisher doesn’t want to betray weakness as it succumbs to the pressure.

Macmillan buy buttons returned to Amazon pages last Friday, almost exactly one week after they were taken down. It’s not clear what, if any, concessions Macmillan made, but the impact on them isn’t finished yet. Their titles will take some time to make their way back on top seller lists, customers who bought this… also bought, and all the other automated promotions on the Amazon site. Big titles will return quickly, but what about the backlist? They may take months to recover. Both HarperCollins and Hachette also added their voices to the debate, indicating that they too will soon be moving to the agency pricing model for ebooks. This gives Amazon little room to maneuver. Would they delist half of all the major publishing industry to elicit concessions? No, but “selective” delisting seems a possibility.

Perhaps Amazon overplayed its hand this time. The backlash from authors was probably not expected, and the birth of a new web centric tool to monitor it as an ongoing practice seems wholly out of keeping with the somewhat rarefied Author’s Guild. It’s also interesting that Amazon’s continuous plea for writers to leave their nasty publishers, and bring their books directly to Kindle doesn’t just go unheeded, it gets outright rejected. Writers came come out almost universally in favor of those “nasty” publishers that Amazon is trying so hard to disenfranchise.

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Medieval Helpdesk, No Doom and Gloom

The feud between Amazon and Macmillan continues with the Macmillan buy button yet to return. If Amazon blinked, they must have forgotten to open their eyes again. Undoubtedly much talk continues, not only between the two but also with other publishers.

Reading through the neverending comment threads on the subject, one of the things I’ve found surprising is how much the emergence of ebooks seems to freak out many writers. I feel strongly that digital books will be good for scribblers, but maybe I’m just too starry eyed or read too much science fiction.

Here’s a video clip for a bit of perspective. It’s in Norwegian with English subtitles, but that just makes it better. I’m recklessly stealing this idea from Adrienne Kress, whose blog I came across in one of those comment threads. I just bought her book as a form of repayment. If it weren’t for our digital age, I quite likely never would have heard of Adrienne, Alex, or the Ironic Gentleman.

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