Authors Who Reject Publishers

There’s been a lot of talk recently about traditionally published novelists rejecting their publishers and releasing their books themselves. I can see that these novelists don’t like making a pittance on their books, but it seems churlish to dump the very people that made them a success. Without the publicity departments of those publishing houses behind them, there is little chance that these authors would have ever attained their current popularity. If you are one among millions of unknown writers trying to sell your book to an unaware reading public, it doesn’t matter if your book is stellar. It cannot shine without readers.

Many authors have the idea that wonderful books will always find a readership. Once that might have been true, but in today’s book world, where anyone with a computer and bit of time on their hands can write a novel (sometimes in only a few weeks, including editing — yikes) the sheer numbers of available books can keep even a great book from rising above the flotsam.

Interestingly enough, only a couple of these once traditionally published authors wrote truly original novels. If the rest had to make their own way in the ocean of ebooks and self-published books, they would have not have found much of a readership. The major publishers want what I call blue-jeans books — books that are made from the same fabric as all the others in a genre but with a slightly different styling. They don’t want anything too original because it is hard to sell. (I had several editors tell me they loved Light Bringer, my latest novel, which will be released by Second Wind Publishing this March, but they turned it down because they didn’t know how to sell it.) The blue jeans quality that makes books acceptable to editors of major publishing houses is the very quality that makes them unremarkable in the self-publishing or independent publishing world.

I don’t have much use for the traditional publishers, so I don’t really care that these authors are shunning them, but it does give new writers a false idea of can be accomplished by going it alone. The very fact that these authors are dumping their publishers is news. Publicity, in other words. And it’s only newsworthy because readers know their names. And readers know their names because the authors had the benefit of a big corporation’s publicity department.

I might have been unaware of the situation, but one of these authors contacted me via Goodreads, asking me to be part of a promotional effort. He wrote that he’d send me (along with hundreds of others) an ebook if I promised to write a review and post it on a given date. I turned him down. I don’t like his books, and I don’t like being told when to post a review. Not that I would — I still have not learned the art of reviewing books. And if I did do reviews, I’d post reviews of books released by small, independent publishers. The point is, he sent me the ebook anyway. A story about vampires. Sheesh. Still doing the old blue-jeans dance.

I purposely did not mention any names in this bloggery since I don’t want to help promote the authors. And anyway, it doesn’t matter who they are. I certainly don’t care, and there’s a chance in the not-too-distant future no one else will either.

A Thrill of Books

A murder of crows. A quiver of cobras. A charm of finches. A mischief of mice. A tower of giraffes. A scurry of squirrels. To this list of wonderfully evocative group names, I’m adding “a thrill of books.”

When I was young, I used to love coming home from the bookstore or library with an armful of books. I’d study the covers, read the blurbs and acknowledgments, open the book and sample a few words. It was a special thrill, this stack of new worlds that would soon be a part of me. Where would I go? Who would I meet? What challenges would I have to overcome?

The years did their damage, as they always do. Or maybe the culprit wasn’t the passing years, perhaps it was too many trivial stories, too much homogenization of genre, too much corporate policy infringing on the art. For whatever reason, I lost the thrill of having new books to read, and I thought it was gone forever.

I mentioned in my previous blog that I offered to review a few books, and today I received two of them in the mail: Steel Waters and Toxic Shock Syndrome by Ken Coffman. I looked at the covers (okay, I did more than look, I ran my hand over them, savoring the feel of the brand new books). I read the back covers, the acknowledgements, the author’s signature — “To my friend and fellow writer, Pat Bertram. I wish you all the best with your work.”

Already I could feel the glimmer of that old familiar feeling. Then I opened Steel Waters to the middle and saw, “I looked and smelled like a Bolivian sewer rat.” From comments others had made, I knew this was no homogenized piece of corporate bilge, but right then I felt it — the thrill.

So thank you, Ken, for giving me — one more time — a thrill of books. 

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Glen Wilson, Hero of Five Ken Coffman Novels
                On Writing: Style and Cadence by Ken Coffman
                A Cheapskate Guide to Creating a Publishing Company by Ken Coffman

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The Most Wasted Day of All is That on Which We Have Not Laughed

The first half of a novel comes slowly for me. Some writers can sit down and let the story whoosh out of them, but I have to think of everything, to create everything, to draw in words the images I want readers to see. I castigate myself at times for writing so slowly, but if I finished the book quickly, I’d simply be adding one more unpublished novel to the world. And do we really need that?

So many books seem to be written as a way for writers and then later their readers to kill time. (Odd, how time such an ambiguous villain that we try to kill it while wishing we had more of it.) Perhaps books were always a way of wasting time. I came across this quote the other day: “Most of today’s books have an air of having been written in one day from books read the night before.” I can see you nodding your head in agreement. The interesting thing about this comment is that Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort wrote it in the eighteenth century. (I don’t know who he is, either, other than that during the French revolution, he was an outspoken writer who botched his suicide. He died in 1794; his last words were, “And so I leave this world, where the heart must either break or turn to lead.”)

I try to write most days, but life tends to get in the way. Is it better to write or is it better to watch a movie with a friend? The friend, of course. And I know Chamfort would agree. He also said, “The most wasted day of all is that on which we have not laughed.”

But I am never far from my work-in-progress. As I watched the movie, Krippendorf’s Tribe, I found myself taking notes on all the things I would have to include in my apocalyptic novel to make my new society believable: rituals, games, dancing, stories. So I covered all the bases: I was with my friend, I laughed, I worked. Not bad for a night spent not writing.

Other nights when I can’t write, I edit. I know we’re told not to edit before we’ve written the entire novel, but if the first pages aren’t quite right, they niggle at me and keep me from continuing. But the words do add up, and by the second half of the novel, I know the characters, I have the story firmly entrenched in my mind, and sometimes, just sometimes . . . whoosh!

Words Yipping at My Heels

I just finished taking a look at two thrillers, both big, slick, well-touted works. Although they had interesting plots, there were so many point-of-view characters and so many incidents that the stories never seemed to go anywhere. I finally got tired of the words yip-yip-yipping at me and closed the books.

Ahh. Silence.

Three-hundred-page manuscripts used to be common, but the size of books grew along with the influence of corporate booksellers. Not only did large books make people think they were getting more for their money, they were well suited for mass displays. As with other merchandise, perception of worth apparently supersedes true value.

Big books are divided into short chapters and those chapters divided into smaller and smaller segments that make the book easy to put down and pick up at odd intervals for attention-challenged readers, but those small segments make it hard for a reader who wishes to identify with a character and be pulled into another reality.

Some books don’t lose anything by being big and thick. Although toward the end I did get a trifle tired of Stephen King’s Duma Key, he managed to keep my attention all the way through. No mean feat. But most big books today can do with some serious editing to better focus the plot and give some depth to the characters and stop that incessant yipping.

One of the more enjoyable books I read recently was a mere two hundred and sixty pages, but it didn’t seem like a short book. The character’s plight engaged my interest, and I didn’t keep flipping pages in an effort to finish the book quickly.

I used to feel guilty that my own books were only about three hundred pages long; obviously something is wrong with me if other writers can churn out words by the hundreds of thousands. But I want my words to signify something, to be worth the time it takes to dig them out of my psyche. And I want my characters to be more than mere types. I don’t know if I will ever become the writer I wish to be, but I know one thing: I won’t be creating overblown, yippy works; the words come too hard. Besides, I would rather readers complain that my books are too short than slam them shut to get a bit of silence.

One Word at a Time. That’s All It Takes.

Writing is all about goals. For most of us, the primary goal is to become a published writer, though we all envision that goal differently. Some dream of being the next Stephen King or John Grisham or (insert name here); some dream of making lots of money, and some just want to make a living at it. Except for a very few, that dream is out of reach, at least for now.

But that is not the only goal. Nor is it the most important. That primary goal beckons, but unless you actually write a book, it is not a goal but a fantasy. So, the next goal is to write a book. (If you have written a book, the goal could be to write another one.) This goal is better than the primary goal, because it is in your hands. You can write a book. But this goal is so general as to be almost worthless.

So, the goal would be to decide what story to write. That goal is easy to achieve. Just think of a character, something that character wants, and who or what is going to keep the character from getting it until the end.

The next goal is to write the book. Now this is more difficult. That empty screen, those blank pages — how do you fill them all? By setting more goals. Decide how many pages you would like to write each day or week or month. That still sounds like too much to get your mind around? Fine. Then decide to write a page, a paragraph, a sentence.

Still too much? Then set your goal to write a single word. I can hear your snort of derision: that’s not much of a goal. But in the end, it is the only goal. How do you think every book all through the ages got written?

One word at a time. That’s all it takes to write a novel.

By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book. After that, who knows, you might even reach the pinnacle and become a published author. All because you set your goal to write one word.

Books Are Not Movies

Many writers see their novels as movies, picking a cast to portray their characters, visualizing scenes as they would play on the screen. But books are not movies. A movie set can be seen in an instant and does not detract from the action, while a long passage in a book describing that same scene postpones the action, making today’s readers impatient. (Action in a novel, as I am sure you know, is any forward motion that fosters change in the characters: dialogue, physical interactions, even a simple touch of the hand.)

Nor is a book a movie script. Some novelists are so enamored with envisioning their book as a movie that they omit descriptions altogether. They tell their story mostly by dialogue, which leaves readers untethered, “like water, willy-nilly flowing.”

If two characters are having an argument, for example, it is necessary for readers to know where it is taking place. An argument in a pub is different from an argument in a bedroom, but they don’t need a long description of the bar or the bedroom to get involved with the characters; a few significant details will anchor the scene in their minds. A detailed set is necessary for a movie’s verisimilitude, but those same details negate a novel’s illusion of being true. Do you stop in the middle of an argument to note the contents of the room? If you do, you lose not only your focus, but the argument as well.

Even a short descriptive passage can negate the illusion if the object or setting described has no significance to the story. A lamp may be placed on a side table in a movie set for no reason other than the set designer liked the way it looked, but if an author spends many words describing that same lamp, there has to be a reason. Perhaps it is a source of contention between characters. Or perhaps one character will bash another over the head with it.

So, if you visualize your novel as a movie, don’t describe everything you see. Describe only what is important, (what is important to the characters or to the story, not what is important to you as a writer) and then . . . ACTION!

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