Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 4

While having breakfast with my daughter, Lily, the other morning, I made note of a commercial that came on as we were watching Nickelodeon. (Nickelodeon is pretty much the only channel we do watch these days, and that’s not a bad thing. The writing on I Carly—now canceled, alas—and Victorious, on See Dad Run and Marvin Marvin, is much better than what passes for scripting on most of the legacy broadcast network offerings. And if Supah Ninjas is new to you, be aware: this show has become appointment television in our house on Saturday evenings whenever a new episode premieres.)

The book advertised—I didn’t notice the title—is the latest of many series indebted to the wild success of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. This one was engineered or concocted to reach an audience of Middle Schoolers and has to do with a brother and sister. That the product being advertised is a book or a series of books is subordinate to the fact that the product advertised is a product. This is nothing new in America; we are, after all, the country that developed mass advertising and product promotion and we are the country that created consumerism as a contact sport. The television commercial served to remind me that the commercial success of any writer or author depends on two things: (1) the beginning of a trend that comes from out of nowhere, and then (2) promoting and profiting from that trend by finding the sweet spot that will tickle the Pavlovian response in potential customers. 

Events aligned just once in my life to allow me to hit that sweet spot, matching what I was writing with what a sufficient number of people wanted to read. This was during the late 1970s and early 1980s when sword-and-sorcery fiction was popular. The more profitable commercial possibilities of Tolkeinesque world-building fantasies, however, quickly took precedence in the marketplace. 

The very successful product engineering and promotion of adult world-building fantasy occurred during the enormous shift of publishing books as books to publishing books as product. One of the results of this shift has been the death of the midlist. The midlist is where you used to find sword-and-sorcery and lots of other offbeat or interesting books. The midlist represented the manuscripts chosen and fought for by editors who took chances. Catherine Czerkawska put it very well in her blog of last summer (which can be found here in its entirety: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/self-publishing-midlist/ ):

The midlist used to be the seed bed from which the occasional (almost always unpredictable) blockbuster would spring. Screenwriter William Goldman’s much quoted dictum that ‘nobody knows anything’ applies just as much to fiction as to film. If the publisher got lucky, it might be an author’s first or second book that made the breakthrough. More frequently it would be their fifth, sixth or seventh book. And if a book did become a bestseller or spawn a number of sequels, some of those profits would be ploughed back into nurturing other seedlings. Broadly speaking, that’s how it used to be, before the big corporations ate the smaller companies and changed the whole ethos of publishing in the process.

The past decade or so has seen traditional publishing presiding over the slow decline of the midlist. The slump occurred because many publishers (now part of huge corporations with shareholders to consider) began to be reluctant to buy books which weren’t certain to make shed loads of money from the offset. And this at a time when eBooks were in prospect, POD [print on demand] was becoming a reality and profits from the ‘long tail’ of niche markets were already being exploited by a handful of far-sighted companies in collaboration with creative practitioners in other fields.

The experience of many older writers, even those with agents, is that publishers are now looking for instant gratification in the shape of a ‘stunning debut bestseller’. If the books don’t sell in industrial quantities within a surprisingly short space of time, the author will be quietly dropped after a handful of titles and will find it almost impossible to publish elsewhere. More likely these days, he or she will not be taken on at all. Writers – and agents – tell of deeply frustrating rejection letters from editors all essentially saying the same thing: ‘I love this, I think it’s wonderful, but in the current climate, our marketing department doesn’t know how to sell it.’ It is rather as though a company allowed sales – however competent – to consistently override all product development decisions….

These developments also help to explain why so many older writers like myself are embracing the indie revolution with such enthusiasm. We have either been dropped by publishers who were focused on instant gratification, or by agents because we weren’t making them enough money. We have no chance at all of producing a ‘stunning debut’ because in most cases, our debuts were rather a long time ago. But most of us have a number of novels on file, sometimes reverted backlists, sometimes well edited and highly praised new work which was not deemed to be bestseller material and so remained unpublished. Yet we know that readers enjoy our work because they have taken the time and trouble to tell us so and to ask for more.

When Czerkawska mentions “industrial quantities,” my heart sinks because the situation faced by those of us “older writers” who once used to see our books faced on bookstore shelves is defined precisely by those cold words. I think of a comment I read recently in an AP piece filed by Dan Sewell announcing the death of Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, frontman for the Ohio Players, a funk band of the 1970s ( http://music.yahoo.com/news/ohio-players-frontman-sugarfoot-bonner-dies-171706799.html ). In the AP article, bass player and Ohio Players founding member Marshall Jones is quoted as saying, “I sit back now, and it was all a brilliant blaze. I think, ‘Damn, did I do that? It was just “Zoom!” That was a starburst. And like all things like that, it fizzles.” Which is precisely what it feels like to have been a midlist author whose books showed up on drugstore and bookstore shelves, sold a few copies, and then disappeared, likely forever. Bonner himself is quoted as saying that, these days, “There is nothing but the old school and the new fools.”

I love that.

What has occurred in publishing—the bottom-line dictate that the opening weekend must be huge and the returns instantaneous and enormous—is precisely what has happened with the music industry, with movie production, and on Wall Street among investment bankers. Agents, editors, and publishers want customers. I want readers. Superficially the same, these two entities may occasionally meet in the middle somewhere and agree that certain books are worthy of their time, even though one of the entities sees the story primarily as entertaining product and the other, as sincere, unique expression built on accepted literary protocol. Customers consume and then discard or excrete. Readers, if I may make the distinction, often invest as much of themselves into reading a story as the writer puts into writing it. Readers are not simply page turners; they are thought turners, as well—true imaginative partners, not passive audience members.

Midlist authors reaching their readers in this age of instant gratification brings me to another observation, this one regarding my former agent, Don Maass, who has been spectacularly successful in developing precisely these sorts of instant-gratification, industrial-quantity products that regularly appear on the bestseller lists, where sales “consistently override all product development decisions.” 

Maass and I once talked about the possibility of my writing my breakthrough novel. When I knew him, early in his career and, as it turned out, near the end of mine, he championed my fantasy trilogy The Fall of the First World, then recently out of print, and tried to get it picked up for republication. No one wanted it, but I credit him for his hard work and his appreciation for a book series that had nothing in common with the Tolkienesque clones that were as popular then as they are now. On the other hand, Maass failed me in a number of ways. He refused to show Magicians (later retitled The Fair Rules of Evil) to Doubleday, even after an editor there asked to see it; he preferred to pitch it to paperback houses. It was published under its new title by Avon, who dropped the ball miserably on distributing it. I also recall Don’s dismissing one my pitches (for a manuscript titled Sinister) because it mixed genres. “Is it a horror novel?” he asked me in 1987. “Or is it a police procedural? It has to be one or the other.” Perhaps I was ahead of my time, given the enormous success we’ve seen over the past fifteen or so years with precisely those kind of cross-genre novels.

Don would have no interest in representing me now because I myself am no longer interested in trying to develop the kind of book-as-product that he has so successfully managed to promote in this modern era of readers-as-consumers. (I know this because I recently pitched him with a new idea and never received a response.) But I think it’s important to keep in mind what Don has helped to accomplish for his brand of writer. His methodology has been undeniably profitable and has helped shape the current system of fiction publishing in New York. However, we are moving at the speed of light into fascinating new regions of author-reader exchange as a benefit of digital publishing, web publishing, independent publishing. In a year-end blog dated this past December, Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, reports an encounter he had with Maass in which they came down on two different sides of writers publishing independently. Mark Coker thinks that the future for many writers is in self-publishing; Maass, contrarily, says, “If you don’t care to reach readers, then by all means self-publish.” ( http://blog.smashwords.com/2012/12/mark-cokers-2013-book-publishing.html) As a woman who responded in the Comment sections of Coker’s blog says, Maass turned her down when she pitched him, and if she’d listened to him, she’d still have no readers. Instead, she now has thousands as a result of self-publishing her novels. It’s simply the difference between writing to reach readers, even if the cost-benefit ratio does not look good in a purely business sense, and writing to produce a product that will appeal to customers and succeed in a purely business sense. (Again, there used to be room for both types of story, back when we still had the midlist.)

Much of the discussion in the Comments section of Coker’s blog has to do with the concept of black swans—the outliers in any field that seem to come out of nowhere, exactly in the way that the latest writers or hit novels used to appear from the midlist. Where are these black swans now? They’re coming from the self-published authors and independent publishers.

This democratization of writers, as messy as it is, of course, is a genuinely good thing for those of us who want as many worthy writers as possible to have as good a chance of success as possible—and by success, I do mean reaching one’s readers, not necessarily monetizing some concept into the next get-rich-quick scheme concocted by producers of books as products.

It’s worth remembering, then, that more than a few of the current successfully commercial series started out precisely as black swans that literary agents overlooked, missing the forest for the trees. Diary of a Wimpy Kid originated as a blog on an educational website. 50 Shades of Grey, as kitschy a marvel as anything concocted by Judith Krantz or Danielle Steele in their gloriously imbecilic heydays, began as fan fiction. These are wonderful products to grab a youngster’s attention and introduce him or her to reading, or to enliven a gray, ahem, afternoon. There will be more such successes, many more, as the slapdash nature of democratized self-publishing and independent publishing shows the tired old Midtown dinosaurs, the still-remaining legacy publishers, a thing or three about reaching audiences. Hugh C. Howey sold his self-published dystopian sf novel Wool last year to Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian, in collaboration with 20th Century Fox. Howey also landed a book deal with Random House UK. So the big cheeses—Random House, Fox—still have all the money to throw around, but you can see where this is going. 

The legacy houses and the literary agents are no longer the innovators, if they ever were. They certainly are no longer acting decisively as intelligent discriminators in weeding the possible sure hits from the likely misfires. Pretty soon they will be simply brand-name packagers, maybe offering a little panache or fading glow to the real talent. But that will come to an end, too, sometime. What good are these publishers and agents? They don’t offer copyediting any longer; they won’t promote your book. Maybe they’ll distribute it, but for a big cut. More and more, as independent writers have complained about since the democratization of storytelling got going in earnest, the question is: What good are these traditional publishers? The money spent by readers continues to gravitate more and more to the new independent writers and publishers. As this occurs, more and more editors and artists and PR copywriters will be let go by the old houses. The hustlers who survive will find new ways to make a buck; they always have and always will. But it will no longer be in situations in which they stand between writers and readers, separating them according to corporate whim. They will have to find ways to make a buck by accommodating the new writer-reader dynamic.

As of now, I believe I’ve finally made peace with the fact that I will never have long-term conventional success with my writing—securing a literary agent, receiving substantial advances, having stories optioned for movie or television adaptations, and consequently making enough money to feel that I can pay for my daughter’s college education and earning my livelihood solely from what I write and see published. I’m fine with that.

I also think that I’m now past the endless circle of what-if’s that kept my desire to write in suspended animation for the better part of two decades. What if Dino DeLaurentiis’s people had read my Red Sonja script in 1983 before completing their plans for the movie? What if the Red Sonja they did make had turned out to be a good B movie worthy of a sequel rather than a Golden Turkey nominee? What if Don Maass in 1987 had shown the manuscript of Magicians to Doubleday instead of refusing to do so? (Hell, what if I had gone on for my Master’s in Medieval History and spent the eighties and nineties teaching classes on the Pirenne Thesis or the rule of Baybars, the thirteenth-century Mameluke Sultan of Egypt?)

Where I am now is good. I’ve been a medical editor for more than twenty years, and for the past twelve years I’ve worked with orthopaedic surgeons, copyediting and preparing for publication review articles and other educational material. They do the surgery on children born with spina bifida or on athletes with injured anterior cruciate ligaments; my staff and I may sure the grammar and syntax in the surgeons’s papers help them say what they mean to say.

Recently I was at our annual meeting and, one morning on the shuttle bus that takes attendees to the convention center where the technical exhibits and educational meetings are held, I found myself seated next to one of our doctors. We talked about his line of work, and he used the phrase “good hands.” It is a commonplace among surgeons, that an excellent surgeon has good hands. What, I asked, does that mean precisely? That the surgeon’s hands are steady? I certainly hope that his or her hands would be steady!

It’s more than that, he explained. Orthopaedic surgery is a combination of both carpentry and gardening. The carpentry is repairing the bones and joints and understanding the mechanics and engineering involved in those bones and joints. The gardening is appreciating the tissue you’re working with, disturbing only as necessary everything in the field or area of the surgical repair. The tissue, the human body, is like the soil in a garden, and you work with it carefully to help things be where they need to be or want to be and to help them grow.

Remarkable analogy. I am borrowing it to explain what I mean by the sort of books and stories that allow writers to connect with readers in such a way that there is a partnership. I’ve said many times that, if you’re a sports fan, sometimes you want to watch a baseball game and any baseball game will do. It helps to pass the time with something you’re interested in. The same with books. If you like to read, sometimes you want a book that just helps you pass the time, and any book of the type you like will do. It’s largely the mechanical aspects we appreciate in those baseball games and those books. They do the job well, and we’re in the hands of a good carpenter. It’s sufficient.

But then there are the writers whose books not only rely on the good carpentry and mechanics of storytelling but that also make use of the gardening aspect of good writing. Characters have depth; the characters are people as real as people we know, perhaps even more real, presented with the clarity that comes of precise observation and reporting. The language touches us in ways that we hadn’t anticipated; the words open doors and windows of thought, or expand what we assumed we know. Often, the ordinary is revealed to be full of wonder. This benefit of good writing needn’t be profound, but often it feels just right, the author not using the same words over and over but instead choosing the right words and putting them down so that we are held for a moment in suspension. At its best, good writing is a thing of wonder, as well.

With my writing these days, I am trying to be both a carpenter and a gardener. This puts me out of step with the cleverer authors who are attuned to the zeitgeist or who help create the zeitgeist, who are in the rhythm of the cultural moment. Sometimes these writers are both carpenters and gardeners; certainly they are good carpenters.

I want to try to be more than just a good carpenter, and so I take care with what I write. This is a not a recipe or a formula for turning out copy quickly for publishers! But it does satisfy the writer part of me that hopes to reach readers, even just a few of them.

So I am back at work on Sometime Lofty Towers, my literary sword-and-sorcery novel (if there is such a thing) that is, of course, an adventure story, but an adventure that takes place inside as well as outside the characters. The violence takes place inside as well as outside the characters. The resolutions are incomplete because that is how life is: incomplete. We do our best to draw conclusions, as someone famous once said, from insufficient facts. 

I started Sometime Lofty Towers a month after my father died, in the fall of 1997, and I have occasionally taken out the manuscript to work on in the years since. The basis of the novel is my notion that sword-and-sorcery stories essentially are Westerns in the sense that American Westerns provide us with the same elemental material that has been used since human beings first started telling stories. So my book is set on a frontier; it is about the clash of cultures, one from the East, which has money and power and is determined to take what it wants, and one in the West, represented by the indigenous peoples, who have remained as they are for as long as they have told their history to themselves. They are the People. Sometime Lofty Towers is, all at once, an adventure story, a meditation, and an exercise in which I try to use the language in the best way that I can. I may be trying to do too much. My reach is exceeding my grasp. But here is a passage I have worked and reworked numerous times. Maybe I just about have it where I want it to be. 

The ache of aliveness, the hurt of living, life takenfor what it is: be there gods, be there devils here or hereafter, it comes to nothing, life comes to nothing. Years pass, and the years are nothing. We are complete before we are begun. In all that we do, we charge life with more than it is meant to hold, but to what purpose? We suffer and are gone, and otherwise all is silence, the silence from which we come, the silence to which we go. Did we dream it? Is life so? All is silence. Beyond any dream, beyond any or ever— Nothing that was, was, and we who are, never were meant to be.

I will not find a conventional publisher for this book; I know that already. It has nothing to recommend it in the commercial sense. But I do hope for readers. 

The same is true of a sequel to Seasons of the Moon that I intend to write. I want to explore when and how this gynocentric community came to settle in that small Ohio town and perhaps balance that story with events following those in Seasons, showing what happens to some of these characters during the social upheavals of the 1970s. I want to tell that story. It’s as simple as that. I want to tell a story.

In this frame of mind, I’m reminded of something Igor Stravinsky once said. It speaks to me as an artist and creator as well as to the part of me that tries very hard to appreciate the best that others do, whether they are writers or surgeons or…baseball players: “Everything genuine is rare.”

Everything genuine is rare.

Including writers.

Including readers.

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