Two posts on Literarium for writers

I recently wrote two articles over at blog.literarium.net.

The first addresses the need for authors to develop a thick skin against rejection, and the other talks about things you can do to stand out in a general slush pile of submissions.

You can check them out here (Thick Skin) and here (Standing out in the slush pile).

Enjoy, and let me know either here (or there) whether you agree (or don’t).

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I open my mouth only to change feet (with apologies to @jay_lake)

So this is Twitter

I’ve often likened Twitter to a big pub party, where everyone wanders around bumping into and overhearing little conversations about this and that, and where if you say something too loudly or obnoxiously the entire room goes quiet and everyone looks at you.

Well, I’m usually well-behaved on twitter, but I do on occasion post an opinion.

That was a little joke, by the way.

Anyhow, so I regularly contribute to the weekly #spbkchat on twitter, and recently the topic was ‘Antarctic/Artic’ literature. I was trying to think of books that touched on that area, and thought of Mainspring by Jay Lake. Now Jay is an award winning author, and a good one! However, due to personal preferences I was not a fan of that particular book, so I also added that I hated it a lot. I was pretty polite, because it’s Twitter, but there could be no confusion about my opinion:

#spbkchat The end of Mainspring by Jay Lake is in Antarctic. But it’s 1 of my most hated novels & not worth reading that far. #personaltaste

Well, you can see where this is going: Jay Lake reposted the tweet, and onto his facebook wall, too. I don’t really use facebook anymore but it’s not a place your contrary opinion wants to be surrounded by fans! Call this the ‘cold in the pit of my stomach’ moment.

Facing the target of your criticism

Of course I quickly apologised (a little – after all, my opinion is my opinion):

@jay_lake nothing personal, I love your short fiction but I can’t stand Mainspring.

And Mr Lake politely replied:

@cacotopos All good. I didn’t take personally. I never do w/fiction. The story always belongs to the reader. I’m fascinated by the passion.

Whenever people are fascinated I’m also fascinated, and he was absolutely right. Even though I really don’t like the novel (which I think is due to a combination of misplaced expectations on my part through marketing, plus what I consider flaws in the plot, pacing, characters, etc), I did finish reading it, and I did have a very passionate response to it.

I summarised this small revelation:

@jay_lake and you raise an excellent point – a book could never be considered a failure if it provokes such passion. 🙂

Obscurity vs Passion

Imagine reading a book and just putting it down one day and never picking it up again, forgetting its title, its author, etc? I think this is much worse for a writer than an extremely positive or negative response.

Obviously everyone has their own experience. A response to my brief opinion on facebook was that Mainspring was someone’s favourite gifted book! Which is great, it’s just not for me.

Oh yeah, that other foot…

Oh, shit.After that little conversation I remembered that my negative review for Mainspring is the ‘customers found this most helpful’ review on Amazon.

This qualifies as an ‘oh shit’ moment, but what do you do? Pretend yester-you didn’t have an opinion?

I’d like to apologise to Mr Lake for my old…negative passion. I had finished reading the book and pretty much got stuck into the review immediately, and although I didn’t reread the review recently, I hope I didn’t get too ad hominem. Oh well…

This is the internet!

Ah yes, the other side of the internet, where when you don’t hide behind anonymity you are justly called to account for your opinion!

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t post anonymously, and so far I’ve yet to be swamped by personal attacks online.

It would be great to hear similar stories in the comments so I don’t feel so bad. I had another experience like this while passionately tweeting about playing Fable III, but that’s a tale for another time.

Minister for Small Business Trolls Literary Industry

(Title courtesy of my business partner @duckaroy.)

This article appeared in The Age on Tuesday: http://www.theage.com.au/business/booksellers-outraged-over-ministers-predictions-20110614-1g15n.html

The tl;dr version is that Australia’s Minister for Small Business, Nick Sherry, “predicted that online shopping would wipe out general bookstores within five years.”

It caused suitable upset, since the Minister seemed to have singled out bookselling out of the many businesses affected by the changing face of modern retail.

Is he right, though? Jon Page, the Australian Bookseller’s Association President (@pnpbookseller) said:

@ebookish minister has demonstrated a distinct lack of understanding about the Australian book industry

I’m also pretty ignorant about the Australian book industry, though I know we have a much higher proportion of independent booksellers servicing the community than the US and UK.

I’m not sure what the Minister was referring to with ‘general bookstores’ – did he mean large chain retail shops such as the now-defunct Borders? It seems pretty clear to me as a reader and customer that there is no place for impersonal chain bookshops without any community integration, not with the cost of books at retail in Australia.

I see the next five years as a period of time in which the only surviving book shops are independent booksellers with a community focus, literary community hubs that happen to sell books.

Analogy time: people don’t go to their local pub to buy beer with a 50% or more markup, not when they can buy it more conveniently and cheaper elsewhere; they go for the community, and they go because they see themselves as a supporter of that identity, someone who goes to the pub and hangs with their friends.

I see future bookshops the same way. Why would anyone think ‘I need to buy a book?’ and then drive to a bookshop? Outside of edge cases where you are looking for a last minute gift, it doesn’t make sense in the modern world: the books are more expensive, and the range is smaller. No one will be going to bookshops just to buy books; you can order online and drink them at home. (I’m stretching the analogy a bit, here.)

However, if you go to a bookshop because it is a community hub for people who love books, or because you are sitting down for a coffee outside the bookshop, or you are writing your next novel in the bookshop…then you end up paying for the more expensive beer because that’s what you pay for beer in a…bookshop. And you’re a bookshop-beer buying person.

Ok, let’s end that analogy there before I hurt myself…

I see a future where everyone who is interested in books knows their ‘local’ – I’d love to see an advertising campaign like this to raise awareness for independent booksellers.

What’s your local? Mine is Riverbend Books (@RiverbendBooks).

So if you live in Australia, show your support; find your local bookshop: http://www.aba.org.au/index.php/find-a-bookshop

eBooks: When the container has no value, what are you actually paying for?

I recently stumbled into a conversation with the lovely @Virginia from Booki.sh, on twitter. I’d waded into some discussion about the excessive price of ebooks in Australia vs Amazon’s pricing (for non-Agency pricing, obviously).

@PnPBookseller @fangbooks I’m yet to understand (as a reader) how an ebook is worth $15+. I get costings etc, but as a _reader_ it’s crazy.

@PnPBookseller @fangbooks personally $10 is the utter maximum I’d pay for a non-DRM book. $5 would be reasonable. #themarketdoesntlikeittho

Twitter is a great medium for forcing you to refine your point, but subtlety is often lost. What I meant is that, purely from a reader/consumer perspective and disregarding any production costs of an ebook, $15 is a ridiculous price to pay for a digital file. Virginia challenged me with:

@Cacotopos But as a reader, you’re used to paying $30 for books! And most of the enjoyment is derived from the words, is it not?

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My Curse (of Art and Artists)

This brief post is too long for twitter. It’s about artists who are douchebags.

I have this annoying habit that if I discover that an artist is a douchebag, my opinion of their art is affected. If they’re lucky, the art is so good that it doesn’t matter enough that I won’t buy it. If  they’re unlucky, their personality (or at least the perception of their personality) tips the balance.

A good local example is the writer John Birmingham. I’ve never read any of his work, not even Falafel, though I am familiar with some of the people who inspired several of its stories. Nonetheless, his apparent congeniality and positive attitude towards his fans strongly tips the balance in favour of the art that he produces.

Continue reading

It is time to opine. Today we talk digital publishing.

Let’s begin this with some manner of controversial statement. Specifically:

The trade paperback is dead.

I attended an excellent talk about the future of the digital book hosted by Kate Eltham (@Kate_eltham) and Richard Nash (@R_Nash), and it crystallised many of the thoughts that had already been coalescing in my mind and bumping into each other to create ill-formed monstrosities.

To whit: it is important to separate the book as container and the book as content. I won’t delve into these insights as Kate did a far better job and I would only be paraphrasing her poorly. The point is, separating the container from the content gives us a perspective that will allow me to clarify my earlier statement: the paperback book is dead.

Let us ignore the faux-hardcover volumes that have been polluting the Australian marketplace for years. These are books that are the same proportion as hardcover books, and attract a similar price, yet have none of the quality or durability of the originals that they so poorly shadow. I’m referring more specifically to the trade paperbacks that I grew up with and of which I have several shelves full.

Trade paperbacks exist because there was a market need to provide content as cheaply as possible. They have no artistic or other merit; they clutter your shelves but add no aesthetic or collectible value. Unless you read them carefully (as I do) they present a vista of crushed, flaking, discoloured spines to your visitors. They exist only to get the story into your brain as cheaply as possible.

Clearly, digital books done right are superior to trade paperbacks in every way, except that of providing an eyesore and filling your shelves. At this time (July 2010), and especially in Australia, the digital publishing industry is lagging approximately 10 years behind the music publishing industry, and seems doomed to repeat all its many mistakes, even while authors such as Scott Sigler, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross are reaping amazing rewards from their approach to digital distribution. Of course, digital files still need to be affordable, unlocked, and in a standardised format (at this stage .epub seems the best, but I am no expert), before they are any threat to paperbacks, but the cheap unlocked digital book is an inevitability, given market forces, so I won’t rant further about that at this time,

A digital book, even in its most simplistic form as plain text in digital format, allows us to enjoy books like we enjoy movies: an on-demand access to our entertainment. Plain old digital books allow us to download a book each time we want to read it, instead of acquiring it and storing it in the interim. Remember, for the vast majority of the time that you own a book, you are not reading it. It makes more sense to simply pull the digital file out of storage when, every year or so, you get the urge to revisit a narrative you remember fondly.

What we are left with then, to offset the purely digital, disposable future of books, is a resurgence in the value of the book-as-container. As I said earlier, most of your time with a book is spent not reading it, and the quality-bound, beautiful, durable (and sometimes collectible) container has a new lease on life in this world; it serves an aesthetic purpose while it’s not being read.

What all this rambling is trying to show is that hardcover books are a better container than a trade paperback, and a digital file is a cheaper medium for content than a trade paperback.

The trade paperback no longer has a purpose in the publishing world. The trade paperback is dead.

Opinions and counterarguments from people in the actual publishing industry who have an actual clue about it, as opposed to my ill-informed rambling, are very welcome in the comments section below.