The Importance of Links

I visited a friend’s blog the other day and followed some links back to an older post I’d missed, where I left a comment. The blogger contacted me, expressing concern that I got hacked because a) I seldom leave comments — yeah, I know, it’s terrible of me; I’m lucky I have time to respond to the comments so kindly left on my own blog and b) it was an older post.

chainThat episode reminded me of the lastingness of blog posts. (Is lastingness a word? Spellchecker seems to think so. I don’t see that squiggly red line that so often berates me.) Some of my most visited blog posts are older ones — a few from my “writing hints” days, a couple from my “anything goes” days, and several from my early grief days.

Because blog posts are eternal, as eternal as the internet is anyway, the links we include are important.

In the case of my blogger friend, the links I followed were generated by Word Press, so they were all live links. In the case of links we add to our blogs — well, that’s a different story, especially when it comes to my blog. The links to older blog posts that I add to current blog posts are good — I never change the domain or the URL, so those links all work. But links I posted that link to other websites . . . yikes.

I used to link all my books to a certain independent bookseller’s website. Mostly I did it out of loyalty since all those links helped the ranking of the website, but doing so also served as a salvo in my own private war against Amazon. It seemed to me that Amazon overruns its banks and floods everything in its path, and I wanted to do what I could to stem the rushing waters. But I miscalculated, and now the Amazon river gods are laughing at me. Most of the book links in my blogs now go somewhere besides the requisite book page on that independent bookseller’s site, and I have yet to fix the more than five thousand links I have posted over the years. The current links all work (I capitulated and now they go to my book pages on Amazon) but the links in older posts, well, let’s just say they’re defunct and leave it at that.

The webmasters of that other site didn’t seem to see the importance of redirecting the links when the company changed domains, and I could not convince them otherwise. The web is all about links — if there were no links, we’d never be able to move from one page to another. It’s the links that make the internet an interconnecting network. It’s the links that make the web a web. And because the network/web is eternal, those links are eternal. And now I have an eternity of defunct links.

I’m gradually changing the links, but if you ever click on a link that doesn’t take you to the proper page, please let me know so I can fix it.

Thank you.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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Big Brother of the Publishing World

Lots of buzz going around about Amazon lately. They bought Goodreads, the readers social networking site. Stephen King has refused to let his latest book be turned into an ebook. Amazon is supposedly offering a refund to anyone who bought Jaime McGuire’s book now that she is going with a traditional publisher (the refund is at her expense of course). Amazon is trying to corner the new domain market for things such as dot books (.books).  Amazon has acquired a patent for a means to sell “used” ebooks. Amazon and Warner are teaming up to create a fan fiction platform so fans can make money off their derivative fiction. And on and on and on.

I don’t know what of that is true. Some, of course, maybe even all of it. But the overlying truth is that Amazon is the largest retailer on the planet, and they sbookseem to have no plans to curtail their expansion. (People hate Walmart. Why don’t they hate Amazon? I’ve never been able to figure that out. Maybe because Walmart has competition so people can afford to hate Walmart but Amazon is a force beyond reckoning? Or because Walmart has salespeople we see where Amazon’s employees are hidden behind computer screeens?)

As the world’s largest retailer, Amazon has become the controlling partner in the publishing industry, having a say in almost every facet of the business.

Major publishers fight Amazon and bow to them at the same time since their books are sold in great numbers on the site.

Small presses need Amazon, both its Create Space printing arm and its ability to reach readers.

Self-publishers love Amazon because it allows them to “publish” without ever having to do the work of actually publishing their book. (They compare themselves to Dickens and Grisham, though both those men published their books and peddled them on their own without the help of a super-giant monolithic business.)

People think of Amazon as a sales platform, similar to a blog platform, when Amazon is no such thing. They are a retailer, taking the works that others have created, and selling them (or even giving them away). Because people don’t understand the business of Amazon (the business of Amazon is Amazon) they tend to think that it is a service, and when Amazon flexes its considerable financial muscle, these people start complaining.

My publisher uses Amazon, of course. In this book climate, it’s suicidal not to. And as long as my publisher is willing to publish my books, that’s the way things will be, but if they ever turn me loose, I have no intention of republishing on Amazon. I’m not even sure I’d turn my books into ebooks. I might truly self-publish via Crate Space as I’ve heard it called — pay to have the books printed up — and then . . . well, no point in getting ahead of myself. I have a publisher for now, and maybe forever.

A friend, however, is planning on taking her ebook rights back from her publisher and self-publishing via Amazon since she is convinced she can do a better job on her own, and perhaps she might. At the moment, Amazon seems to be favoring self-published authors, and yet, what Amazon gives, Amazon can take away.

I’ll leave you with the same advice I gave her: be careful. You might be fine, but just be aware that Amazon/Kindle isn’t the sinecure it sometimes seems.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What is the Price of Creativity?

The book business continues to dishearten me. The recent pursuit by the government against the major publishers and Apple on antitrust charges gives Amazon a virtual monopoly with the ability to charge whatever prices they want, eternally undercutting the competition. This also gives Amazon control of the royalties the authors earn, which is little enough to begin with, and makes self-publishing on Amazon an even more attractive option. Which gives Amazon even more control.

Perhaps the publishers were charging more than people would have liked, but frankly, as much as I hate the major publishers, there is more at stake here than simple manufacturing costs. Admittedly, it doesn’t cost anything beyond an initial investment to produce an ebook, but what about the value of the contents, the creative output, the artistry of the writing itself? No one complains that the painting they bought for $100,000 is overpriced even though it merely cost the artist a few dollars worth of paint and canvas, so why do readers begrudge writers compensation for their creativity? What didn’t exist now does. Shouldn’t there be value to that?

And that is the real issue here. Value.

Readers don’t seem to care that the art of writing no longer has any value. They can get an endless supply of books free or close to free. They seem to believe that good writing will rise to the top, that bad writing will simply fade away, but that is not true. What sells is adequate writing, writing that is just good enough to get the job done. Some good books might find a readership, but if they don’t, it does not negate the inherent value of the book. Nor does a barely adequate book become a good book simply because it sells.

Huge numbers of people shrug and say, “Ebooks are here, get over it.” They are thrilled at the disappearance of any “elitism” that might once have been conferred upon published authors. Anyone can write. Anyone can publish. What everyone believes they can do, no one values. People are reading more now because of the low cost and ease of ebooks, but are they reading anything of value, are they becoming better human beings because of the books, or are they simply passing time?

I was shocked the first time I heard that books are considered entertainment, that books compete with movies and video games for entertainment dollars. Books are more than entertainment. Or they should be. The written word becomes part of us. What was conceived in one mind comes to life in another. It’s a connection between two human beings who have never met. Isn’t that of greater consideration than a fight over entertainment dollars? Through books you can travel to other places in the world, and you can travel to other places in your own mind. You can experience feelings, ideas, philosophies that you never knew you had. Isn’t that more than mere entertainment?

I’m not sure I want to participate in a book world that places such a small value on the written word. I’ve been trying to find a reason to write again, but frankly, I don’t I see the point.

All Books Are Not Created Equal

This anything-goes publishing world has been perplexing me for quite some time now, both as an author who is trying to find a place in the wild book frontier of throw-everything-out-there-and-see-what-sticks and as a reader who is trying to find sanity and good-editing and great story-telling among the millions of books being offered for sale.

People think that good books will rise to the top, that such books will automatically find a readership, but that is not always the case. Wonderful books are being overlooked, and dreadful books with no redeeming value are filling millions of Kindles. Shrugging off the conundrum as “survival of the fittest” doesn’t help matters, because in this case, it seems to be matter of devolution, of having to accept typos, poor grammar, ridiculous errors of fact, and an appallingly low standard of literacy. Compounding the problem is that many good writers, who have to watch their books stagnate, no longer see the point in writing, which lowers standards even more.

I used to think this was a matter of a breakdown in the filtering process. If authors have to submit their books to publishers, if they have to go through an editing and copyediting process, then books have a minimum of errors and at least a modicum of good storytelling. Or at least they used to. Even the major publishers are lowering their quality control. If their aim has always been to sell the lowest common denominator, and if those people don’t care about quality, then there is no point in adding to the expense by doing the work. Nowadays, when the fastest selling self-published authors are those with an ever growing stream of books, quantity and not quality are the key.

The real problem as I have come to see is not one of filtering, but of strata. There used to be definite strata when it came to readers. People stuck to their own genres, though even within a genre there were definite layers of quality. Some romance writers, such as Colleen McCullough, rose to iconic status. Others, such as Danielle Steele, were firmly entrenched in the lower middle. And still others churned out myriad books for lowest of the low, Harlequin and Silhouette and the other subscription publishers.

And never, except for perhaps the iconic writers, did anyone consider these books to be great writing. (Most could not even fall under the heading of good writing.) And never did the best writers have to compete or be compared to these writers. Yet that is what is happening today. With Amazon taking hold of the book business and running away with it, demarcations between utter trash and high quality books have completely disappeared. All books are thrown into the slush pile, all are ranked by the same classification system, all are treated equally.

But the truth is, all books are not created equal. Just because a book is uploaded to Amazon, just because it sells, it does not mean the book is worthwhile. A badly written book with no redeeming value is still trash, but few people seem to notice, and fewer seem to care.

***

See also:


How Do You Discover the Books You Want to Read?

Two-and-a-half-years ago, I took an informal poll to find out how people discover new authors. I posted the following on discussion boards on both Goodreads and Facebook:

It seems as if there are as many ways of discovering books as there are readers, but I’m curious as to how you choose the books you want to read. Do you go by reviews? By recommendations from friends? Because you’re familiar with other works by the author? Do you ever read a book because of an ad you saw? Because of a blog article? Because of a mention on a website such as Goodreads? Do you cruise book stores, libraries, or online sites like Amazon? Do you find them some way I haven’t mentioned, such as gifts, perhaps?

Admittedly, the questions were loaded, but I still got an interesting and probably quite accurate overview:

Favorite authors or previously read authors: 36
Word of mouth: 26
Blog reviews/Book websites: 26
Goodreads/Shelfari: 24
Local bookstores: 21
Amazon/B&N/other online stores: 15
Library: 13
Publisher sites/newsletters: 5
Social networking sites like Facebook: 5
Book Clubs: 5
Author appearances/writing conferences: 5
NY Times bestseller list: 5
Offline reviews: 5
Yard sales/second hand bookstores: 4
Advertising: 3
Saw the movie: 3
Oprah: 1
Free downloads: 1
Gifts: 1

Recently, I posed the questions and got similar responses (though from a much smaller group):

books by favorite authors: 8
recommendations from friends: 5
browsing in bookstores: 4
libraries: 2
imprints (the trade name under which the book is published): 1
newspaper reviews: 1
blog reviews:1
recommendations from Amazon: 1
book clubs: 1

So, even with small independent publishing houses springing up like new forest growth, and self-published books proliferating like elm tree seeds, the means of finding books are still the same. That means, if you are an author looking for a readership, you need to be everyone’s favorite author and have your readers recommend you. An almost impossible task when most people already have their favorite authors.

What about you? How do you discover the books you want to read? Or rather where. (A lot of people said they found books to read by the front cover or the blurb on the back, but I’m more curious as to where they saw the cover.)

Who Gets to Define What is Art?

I’ve been discussing the wild new frontier of the book business here on this blog, and it turns out the question of what qualifies as a book nowadays is not an isolated conundrum. The music business is going through the same upheaval.

When Lady GaGa’s debut album was released, Amazon sold 400,000 copies of “Born this Way” at 99 cents each as a promotion for their online storage service, and now Billboard has decided those weren’t really album sales, and so they don’t count. What qualifies as an album sale now anyway? It used to be a physical product, first a record album, then a tape, then a CD and now there are digital streaming services, iTunes, Utube, and other possibilities I’m not even aware of. (Turns out I’m not aware of a lot when it comes to music today. Haven’t a clue who Lady GaGa is.)

What seems to be really going on in the creative world today, whether writing, music, painting, is not just about new forms of distribution, but a matter of who gets to define what is art.

I never cared who authors were (except as a means of finding similar stories), why they wrote what they did, or if the books had any meaning other than that which I brought to them. I used to enjoy reading so much more when I saw books as something separate from the author, something that existed in its own right. Then the publishers started putting the author’s name above the title, the author became more important than the work, and books were demoted from art to commodity.

Or perhaps books were always a commodity. The point I am trying to make is that I somehow got the impression there was a great god out there, someone above us mere mortals, judging which books, which paintings, which music pieces were art and which were not. When control of one’s creative output was in the hands of publishers and producers, with professional reviewers handing out their opinions as if they were writ in stone, there was a narrow range of creativity that fell under the heading of ART. Now, anyone can publish, anyone can produce, anyone can review. So who is to say what is art?

Some of the books that have won prestigious awards are so appallingly awful I couldn’t get through them without gagging. Some artworks that command huge prices I wouldn’t even hang in a dark closet. Yet someone, somewhere, decided these things were art. (I wonder at times if they are perpetrating a joke on us, and they know the stuff is bad but want to see how many people they can talk into believing it is good.)

In her blog post “Why is That There?”, Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies and Deadly Traffic asks, “Is it necessary for someone to read books about a writer’s life to enjoy or understand their work? Will a biography or an art historian’s research actually tell you how a creative person thought and felt? . . . Do I really have to explain? Can’t you get whatever meaning you wish to get and be content? Either you like it or you don’t.”

And maybe, that’s the truth of it. Maybe there is no standard, no judgment from on high, and the question of whether something is ART comes down to us mere mortals and whether we like it or not.

Are You Playing The Kindle Game?

People keep saying that Kindle, even more than other reading devices, has revitalized the book industry, making books affordable and reading more accessible. They say the market is expanding, that people who never read are now interested in books. But is this true? Are they interested in reading, or are they interested in playing the Kindle game, downloading books as fast as possible to fill their new toy?

One reason people always gave for not reading is that they don’t have time. Do people suddenly have huge extra blocks of time to read, to get into a book, to explore new ways of thinking and experience new ways of being? I think not. It seems that reading is now part of the multi-tasking generation, where you read while doing something else. Is this reading? People say that reading is not a solitary activity any more, that new enhanced reading apps make it social. If so, is this really reading?

The other half of the Kindle game is the author game, where selling as many books as possible, is all that matters. Whether people actually read the book is immaterial. Of course, the major publishers started this game a long time ago, this game of sales records, and now it’s been taken to the people where anyone can play. But that doesn’t mean the books being sold then or now are worth reading.

When I mentioned in a comment to a fellow blogger that Amazon was a major publisher, she corrected me and said it was a sales platform, like using WordPress. It’s a perfect analogy, and it explains an unusual phenomenon — my rapidly increasing blog rating. It always used to hang around 3,500,000 on Alexa.com, but suddenly, for no reason I could see (my readership is growing, but not enough to explain a leap in rankings), my blog began increasing in rank, and now it’s at 929,990 (out of 346 million sites). Are blogs disappearing (or falling off the scale) because people are now uploading things for Kindle that they once posted on their blogs? If so, then books are being devalued to the level of a bloggerie.

Makes me wonder if I’ll ever take up writing again.

But for now, if you are playing the Kindle game, all my books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. Smashwords is great! The books are available in all ebook formats, including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free.

This is the third post where I’ve been mulling over the current state of the book business. The other two are: Is the Book Business Dying? and First the Bread Wars, Now the Book Wars.

First the Bread Wars, Now the Book Wars

Before a certain well-known bread was manufactured, people bought their bread fresh every day from a local bakery. When bread was first mass-produced and packaged in a colorful wrapping, people were hesitant to buy because they didn’t believe it could be fresh since it hadn’t been baked that very morning. So, what did the bread manufacturer do? They had people drive up and down the streets handing out loaves of their bread to everyone they saw. Who could pass up a free loaf of bread? Not many people, that’s for sure. One free loaf wouldn’t have made an impact. That brand of bread would have become just one choice among many. But . . . the company kept giving away the bread, day after day after day. Soon people began to expect free bread. They stopped buying bread from their local bakers, and eventually, those bakers went out of business. The manufactured bread became the only choice in town, a price was attached, and the price went up and up and up. And people had no idea this coup d’état had taken place or that they had been pawns in a major cultural revolution.

That story might sound like a fairy tale, but it happened. And it’s happening again, though this time it’s about books. There is a war going on between Amazon and the major publishers to determine the course of the book business, and we are all pawns. People laugh at the entrenched publishers, saying they don’t have a clue where the book business is going, but the truth is, they do know, and they are fighting back. It’s a war of price — what to charge readers to buy an ebook (most people who own kindles seem to believe they paid their price of admission by buying the kindle and that anything they download should be free or pretty close to it). And it’s a war of literary value. Dinner and a movie costs a small fortune now, and the pleasure is fleeting. The movie is forgotten, but even before that, the food becomes waste. Why should a book, especially a thoughtful, well-written book be valued less than human waste?

Make no mistake about it. Books are being devalued at this very minute. People think they are in the vanguard of a fight for the people’s right to write and publish whatever they wish without having to kowtow to the old publshing standards. But who are they working for? Amazon. With all the free books people are uploading onto Amazon, Amazon doesn’t even have to manufacture a product like the bread company did. People are standing in line, begging to give them product, hoping to be one of the chosen few who makes a mint selling books. And Amazon is playing them like a violin, choosing certain books to promote, showing everyone that yes, it is possible. But only if you give Amazon the keys to your literary kingdom.

Perhaps people do have the right to write and publish whatever they like, good or bad. The major publishers certainly didn’t do a good job of it, shoving crap down our throats and expecting us to like it, but once upon a time, there were standards. Sure, some good books were rejected out of hand, but others were published, polished, promoted. It was a golden age of reading, but it came to an end because of corporate greed and the first devaluation of books. Bottom line became important, quality was slashed, books were chosen not so much on merit but what a person standing in a grocery story line would be apt to throw in their cart. People didn’t seem to care since there were so many other entertainment choices vying for their spare change.

So now, books are being devalued even more. Amazon is spewing out bestsellers as fast as the major book publishers are. It sounds nice, doesn’t it: let readers decide what they want to read. But it doesn’t happen that way. Readers are inundated with constant demands to “buy my book!” Dross is being over-promoted at both ends of the spectrum — the traditionally published books and the self-published kindle books. The books that come to the general reader’s attention are those the various book publishing companies choose to push (and make no mistake about it — Amazon is a publisher in a major way), and the books that the relentless and shameful marketers are bringing to your attention. Of course there are good books at both ends of the spectrum. But the vast majority are books that any discerning reader couldn’t stomach.

There is a third player in this war, though so far they seem to be standing by, bewildered by the onslaught. These are the small, independent, royalty paying publishing companies who follow the traditional publishing model to the extent that they accept submissions but choose to publish only the best.

People assume I am a kindle author because I am so visible in various places on the internet, but I am not. My books were chosen out of a slushpile, and were accepted by Second Wind Publishing. It would be nice if, after the gunsmoke clears away, that we few, we chosen few, are still left standing.

Is the Book Business Dying?

Is the preponderance of self-published books killing the book business? I’ve been reading articles about how Amazon is promoting self-published ebooks — a few people have been picked by Amazon arbitrarily, and Amazon promoted these books constantly for a week and made them best-sellers. I’ve seen a couple of these best-selling self-published ebooks, and they are so poorly written, I can’t see why anyone would buy them, but since people do buy them, it must mean readers don’t care about good writing or good story-telling. I’ve also seen books go viral for absolutely no reason I can fathom. (And often, the writer has no clue, either.) Most often, these books go viral only on Amazon, with no bleed-over into other ebook formats, which means Amazon has an amazing control of the book business.

There seems to be a movement going on to erode the traditional means of determining a worthwhile book, with vast numbers of people saying book standards are dead and they can write however they choose, without regard to grammar or story-writing skills. Which apparently is true, since such books find a market. (And often, these books get 5-star reviews, which says more about the reviewer than the book.) There is also a growing militancy among self-publishers. If you say anything against the practice, there is a huge backlash of disapproval.

I’m not saying all self-published books are poor quality — some are well written and well-edited and deserve their acclaim. Nor am I saying that traditionally published books are good quality — most are not worth reading. But with books on both ends of the spectrum selling millions of copies, is there any place for those with well written, unique, and perhaps thoughtful books who aren’t self-published and who don’t have a major publisher behind them to push the books? Or have the people spoken and said they have no use for such books?

When books are so prevalent, especially when vast numbers of readers seem to have no ability to determine what is worthwhile, books become devalued. Albert Nock, in the 1930s, disagreed with universal literacy. He contended that when everyone can read, books will be written to appeal to the least common denominator, and there is no doubt that during the subsequent decades, books were published based on their ability to appeal to the most readers possible. If there is any truth that book quality declined with universal literacy, wouldn’t it be even more true if there is universal publishing?

Historically, whenever one product or category of products dominated the market, it presaged the end of that product. If you are old enough, you remember when the streets were clogged with VW Beetles, and now you seldom see one. Is the preponderance of books on the market today the beginning of the end?

Your Cyber Sins Follow You Everywhere

Daughter Am I is going to be published in just a few days, and Amazon is in the process of getting it up on their site. There’s no cover image yet, no blurb, no “look inside”. Nor does the book show up on my Amazon author page. Imagine my surprise then, when I checked the Daughter Am I page and found two editorial reviews. What????

Two years ago I entered the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition and ended up as a semi-finalist. The “prizes” for having reached the new level were reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and two top Amazon reviewers. I only received one Amazon review, and it said simply: Mary didn’t know she had Grandparents till the lawyer called to tell her that she’d inherited everything from them. Turns out, the pair were murdered together. Her father won’t talk about his parents and the more she digs, the more she wants to find out what happened to her mysterious family.  That “review” is simply a rewording of the description I wrote for my submission, and to be honest, mine was better!

The PW review said: A group of spunky octogenarians joins a woman on a search to discover the truth about the grandparents she never knew she had. After inheriting the farm of her estranged, murdered grandparents, Mary Louise Stuart discovers photos and an address book in the Colorado farmhouse and becomes obsessed with finding out who her grandparents were and who would want them dead. With each question, another senior citizen joins the quest – former friends and gangsters with names like Crunchy, Iron Sam, Happy, Lila Lorraine. The mystery deepens with each stop in their whirlwind tour of the Midwest: who’s following them? A love interest ensues between Mary and Tim Olsen, whose grandpa was good friends with her great-grandfather. While the author certainly researched the history of the Mafia, too many of the numerous historical asides – and subplots – are tacked on under the guise of story time, making the story drag with detail abut Wyatt Earp, the JFK assassination and bootleggers. But underneath the relentless bouts of story time is a delightful treasure-hunting tale of finding one’s self in a most unlikely way

It’s not a bad review, all things considered, but the book that is now being published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC has been rewritten, edited, tightened up, and is  much better than the version  I entered in the contest.

That’s not the point, though. The point is that the reviews have been lurking in cyberspace all this time, and now they have found me again. Makes me what other of my youthful peccadilloes (writely speaking) will come back to haunt me.

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