Monday, October 31, 2011

Another Step Closer to Full Retirement

MileHiCon, our local science–fiction convention, was the weekend before last. The con always leaves me feeling like a real writer (as opposed to a poseur, which is how I tend to feel the rest of the time) and full of enthusiasm for writing. In the past, those positive feelings were tempered by the need to go back to my job on the Monday after the convention ended. Or back to looking desperately for a new job during my periods of being unemployed.

That should have been different during the last two years, a time when I’ve been referring to myself as retired. Except that I wasn’t really retired, not completely.

After I was laid off from Quark in May 2009, I signed up for Social Security as a backup, and I kept looking for a new full–time, permanent job. (Let’s put aside the absurdity of calling modern jobs “permanent”.) In the meantime, I picked up some contract work, both tech writing and Web development. At some point during 2010, I accepted the fact that thanks to the economy and my age, a new full–time, permanent job was extremely unlikely. I also knew, or perhaps admitted to myself, that I really didn’t want one. Instead, I decided that I would keep on looking for contract work, as close to full time as possible.

So, just as I had been doing since being laid off, every day I did the Monster/Dice/Indeed/Craigslist/etc. thing, sending out zillions of resumes, getting some responses by e–mail or phone, going for some interviews –– working almost full time at getting full–time work. I was looking for contracts, but it was no different, in terms of time and psychological investment, from looking for a permanent job. As a result I continued to feel that writing was something temporary, and that time spent doing it was a vacation from reality. On some level, I thought that time spent writing was self–indulgent and self–deception. Nonetheless, just as I did for all those decades–that–felt–like–centuries when I was working full time, I kept daydreaming of the big hit book that would free me from any necessity to work and would convert me into an actual, genuine full–time writer.

I began to burn out on the emotionally draining job search. The return was too small for the investment, which was my life. Bit by bit, I reduced the amount of looking. I dropped some job list Web sites from my search, and I unsubscribed from various e–mail job listings. I also spent some time reissuing my old, previously published novels as e–books. Eventually I self–published my new books the same way. (Naturally, I track the monthly sales of all these e–books in a spreadsheet, with cool line graphs, and I get depressed when the lines dip and elated when they rise.)

I’ve continued to pick up the occasional contract job. Some have been Web development contracts; I do that work at home on my own computer. Others have been technical writing contracts. The writing jobs require spending the working days at the client’s office. Both Leonore and I hate those periods. Of course I worked in offices away from home at a succession of regular, full–time jobs for decades, but the more than two years we’ve spent together, all day and every day –– finally living the life we assumed we’d be living when we got married 43 years ago –– have made us both hate being apart at all now.

No, I don’t mean that we spend our days jammed side by side in a love seat. We have separate studies and separate work. But being together in the house, able to talk to each other whenever we want, able to take long walks together, able to go out to a movie or a restaurant, seems natural. It’s the way we set out to be, and it’s the way the Universe intended the two of us to be.

Except when I go off to do some technical writing somewhere. And except for the times when I’m thinking of the next job away from home or recovering from the effects of the last one. Those effects seem to be worse and to take longer to dissipate each time.

So. Back to MileHiCon.

For various reasons, this year’s con (number 43, the same number of years that Leonore and I have been married) left me feeling even more filled with writerly energy and enthusiasm than in previous years and more optimistic about my writing career than I have for a long time. A flurry of e–book sales, starting on the last day of the con, helped a lot.

Leonore also enjoyed the con and came away feeling more optimistic about our future. On the morning of the last day of the con, October 23, she said something to me that she had been wanting to say for some time. It finally seemed to her to be the right time to say it. She repeated how much she hates having me working away from home, and she said that she really wanted me to no longer accept any contracts other than short ones that I can do by telecommuting. She knew (because she’s always been uncannily able to read my mind) that I had wanted to take this step for a long time but that I would feel guilty if I did so because it would mean turning down the extra income. She told me that rejecting non–telecommuting contracts would not constitute self–indulgence and laziness and selfishness (reading my mind again) because writing is my job, my real job.

I felt suddenly relaxed and calm. Some inner tension I hadn’t realized was there went away immediately. I knew that she was right about taking this step; it was the right step and the right time. This was the right move, an exceptionally good move, and as is usually the case when something exceptionally good happens in my life, I have Leonore to thank for it.

Perhaps you think that I’m making too much of this. After all, I’m not yet talking about full retirement –– or rather, full–time writing –– but simply a step in that direction. But it’s a very major step because it removes the aspect of our situation that was stressing both of us the most before, the periods of separation and the knowledge that more such periods were ahead of us. That’s gone now, completely and permanently.

As for the money -- well, maybe the book I’m working on now will replace that. Or even more than replace it. And if not that book, then maybe the next one. Or the one after that. And so on, from now on.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Those Awful Self-Published Books

A couple of weeks ago, on his excellent blog, Nathan Bransford asked the following question: Have You Ever Read a Self-Published Book? In addition to answering the question, he invited his blog readers to say whether they liked the book(s) in question and whether they would read more self-published books.

The responses, in the comments section, ran the gamut and include positive entries from people who have themselves self-published. I didn’t do a count, but I think most of the comments were negative. Some repeated the condescending putdowns that have become standard whenever self-publishing is discussed. Here’s a good example:

I read a self-published novel … once….

It was horrible.

When I shop for novels I look inside at the publisher, and if I don't recognize the name, I google it. If the book is self-published, it's a major turnoff.

Sorry, but I think gatekeepers are a good thing.

Gee. I’ve read at least one book published by a major publisher that I thought was horrible. I guess that means they all are.

We all know that major publishers ne-v-v-v-er publish bad books. “Bad” is subjective, of course. The prose in any book lavishly praised by literary critics will make some readers shake their heads and laugh at the abominable quality of the writing. The same is true of any bestselling book scorned by critics, although it’s probably truer for books in the first category than for those in the second. Based on my frequent reaction to books in both categories, I can only say that, in my opinion, well known publishers spew out great quantities of bad-to-abominable books.

In fact, I have read parts of self-published books that I considered very bad. It could well be that if I read a huge number of self-published books, I’d conclude that they are more likely to be bad than are books published by established publishing companies. But that’s because I’ve absorbed the same general standards of literary judgment that editors and most readers have. At base, those standards are simply matters of opinion. They can’t be justified in some objective way. They are not laws of nature, no matter how many people have been educated – trained, brainwashed – into agreeing with them. Moreover, they are transitory. They’ve changed greatly in the past and continue to change. Self-publishing – all those “bad” books – is blowing those subjective standards, those mere matters of opinion, to bits. Protest and condemnation will not stop or even slow this process. This is a tide that no one can stem.

I’ll return to this point in a moment.

What about the physical quality of self-published books? No doubt the appearance, layout, covers, and proofreading of the product turned out by big publishing companies are higher and more consistent than is the case with self-published books. Major publishers are far from flawless, but of course they have more people providing quality control than does a writer publishing his own book, and so their error rate is bound to be lower. If a low error rate is your main criterion when choosing reading material, then you should avoid self-published books. I can’t imagine why this would be anyone’s main criterion when choosing what to read, but there have always been people who prefer presentation to content, appearance to substance.

Okay, but what about covers? Shouldn’t the outside of the book at least be attractive? Look at any large number of self-published books, whether e-books or printed books, and you’ll see a few clumsily designed covers and a lot of beautiful ones. Moreover, you’ll see more imagination and originality than you will with books published by major publishers. Self-publishers may create they own covers or they may hire freelance cover designers to do it for them, but in either case, they’re not bound by the guidelines and limitations enforced by a publishing company’s marketing department.

Let’s return to the issue of editing, of the presumed necessity that a book’s prose be modified by a professional editor so that it conforms to the rules of grammar and spelling. This is done to increase the book’s chances of selling well. Editing is not done for art but for commerce.

Because of financial pressures and cutbacks at publishing houses, there’s less such editing being done now than in the past. Moreover, bestselling authors tend to be edited lightly or not at all. And yet they continue to be bestsellers. Why? Because the public likes their writing styles and the stories they tell, and the public doesn’t care about grammatical lapses. In which regard, those writers are no different from self-published writers who hit it big.

Some of the editing done at major publishers is very good. Some of it is quite awful, as many published authors can attest (especially after a few drinks). Even if it were all good, even if the published version of every book were far, far better than the version submitted by the author, that should bother you as a reader. It should bother you to think that, if honesty and transparency prevailed, the bestselling novel Catchy Title by John Smith would be listed as a collaboration credited mostly to the editors and with John Smith listed at the end of the credits under Story Idea by.

Excellent editors and cover designers aren’t limited to major publishing companies. Self-published authors can hire freelancers to edit their manuscripts and/or create covers for them, and many of them do exactly that – with generally better results, I’m convinced, than if the same work had been done for them behind the wall of a big publisher. Where will you find such editors and cover designers? You could start by looking here.

Don't assume that all self-published books are new books being put out by new and inexperienced writers. In fact, many of them are reissued books, revitalized versions of books that were previously published by mainstream, traditional publishers. The lifespan of traditionally published books is short. In the past, authors got the rights to their old books back and tried to find a small publisher to reissue them, usually without success. Nowadays, authors are turning to self-publishing to reissue those books that were previously languishing in a sort of literary limbo, often available only as used copies, which earn the author nothing. These reissued books can be put out either in e-book or print format, from places such as Smashwords and CreateSpace. Then they can earn the author much higher royalties than before, up to 80% of the cover price. This is especially appealing to authors like me whose careers receded into limbo along with their old books.

This is giving me and other previously published authors a great deal of new hope and energy. But what is at least as important is that the authors can now change the previously published texts to suit themselves, free from the interference and inferior judgment of the editors at the traditional publishing houses, who often took it upon themselves to change things as fundamental as the title that the author wanted. In my own case, I have been able to change the text of several of my books to bring them back in line with what I first wanted but was forced to change prior to publication. Not only is the new version the book I actually wrote, but also it’s superior to the version that was published before by the big publisher. The editing done by the publishing house didn’t improve the book; quite the opposite.

I have also been able to create my own cover designs, a process I much enjoy. You can find my creations thus far here.  

Free of all the old editorial bullying and restrictions, I am now getting the last laugh, as well as almost all of the new revenue from sales. I'm also selling many more books in e-book format than I had been selling in print format for the past several years.

Note, too, that many of the great literary classics of long ago were in effect self-published books, or at least author-edited ones. Who knows how much such works would have been harmed and diminished if today’s inspiration-stifling publishing establishment had been in place back then?

The post on Nathan Bransford’s blog to which this is a response was about self-published books in general, but because of the continuing explosion of self-published e-books, and because the rise of e-books has opened self-publishing to far more people than would have considered that avenue before, I look at his question and the commenters’ answers as really, or mostly, applying to self-published e-books. The e-book revolution, or tsunami, is upon us, and that’s the form of self-publishing that really matters now.

That tsunami will do more than destroy the publishing companies that dominate print publishing. It will change the nature of writing itself, especially fiction. This is the real importance and wonder of the great change now underway. This is also the subject of my own most recent e-book, a very long essay titled The Dead Hand of Mrs. Stifle. Check it out. By which, of course, I mean buy it.