Sunday, February 24, 2013

… in which she waxes philosophical regarding 50 Shades of Publishing

I get asked questions about publishing frequently, whether by e-mail or at book signings and events. Usually I shrug and mumble something about luck, because it does feel kind of arbitrary. But I thought I’d use this opportunity to answer as many of those questions as I can.
To make it more entertaining, let’s start by discussing Fifty Shades of Grey – since it’s one of those anomalies we really can’t use as a basis for any true conversation about publishing. But it’s always the kind of example writers pull out of their hats when they have dollar signs in their eyes and naiveté in their hearts.
So, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James… The plot isn't exactly new, though I do find this cookie-cutter premise (used widely over the years) slightly creepy; vulnerable young woman, brooding older man, the former wishes to capture the latter's heart, thus achieving equality and love by physically submitting to him. Yeah, good luck with that. I'd expect this couple to either end up Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil's couch if this were real life. But when a book blows up like Fifty Shades, and you can’t get through two paragraphs without cringing or laughing, you want to know WHAT THE MOTHERFUDGESICLE THE BIG DEAL IS. What are you missing? So I went on a quest — and by quest I mean bought my sister a copy for Christmas and told her she had to read it and then be vigorously interrogated. Since I knew I probably wouldn’t get through it, someone had to take one for the team. And by the team, I mean me.
           Oh, I tried. Sweet baby Jesus, I tried. See normally, this is what you do: Pick up a book they say is all the rage. You read a few passages, think Meh and put it down. That’s fine. That’s okay. I shouldn’t judge it by the fifteen or twenty 3 and 4 page samples I managed to choke down. Maybe I just happened upon all the creepiest, most oddly written bits. I should sit down and give it a fair chance in all its read-in-one-sitting glory before I eviscerate it... with love. Right. Fine. I sit down and start turning pages.
          An hour of my life later (which I will never get back) I had to stop. Just not my cuppa. And that’s fine because it certainly is someone’s cuppa. A lot of someones.


~“I pull him deeper into my mouth so I can feel him at the back of my throat and then to the front again. My tongue swirls around the end. He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle. I suck harder and harder … Hmm … My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”

~"‘Why don’t you like to be touched?’ I whisper, staring up into soft gray eyes. ‘Because I’m fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia.’ ” 

The book has its own Wikipedia page, fan clubs, been dubbed mommy porn, inspired chuckles, ire, and newfound sexual shenanigans for flagging married couples… allegedly. It’s even spawned Culinary erotica. I give you Fifty Shades of Chicken.

           One man even assaulted his girlfriend with steak sauce after she refused to stop reading the book. Come on! I wish someone would threaten assault by condiment on their partner after reading passages from one of my books! I’d wear that steak sauce as a badge of honor. And then there’s the Judge in Brazil who ordered 50 Shades of Grey removed from bookstore shelves.
      So, that’s how you do it, people. That’s how you sell books. We can all chuckle to our generic-buying, Walmart-shopping, collective heart’s content. FIST BUMP, E. L. James. You get mad props from me. Who cares what some elitist readers think when you’re raking in the royalties?
        Of course there are valid criticisms to be made. And not just about 50 Shades, but the dumbing down of literature as a whole, an argument that I’ve had all too often, given I’m an avid book buyer/reader and find it harder and harder these days to connect with what the NYT Bestsellers list has to offer. The argument that “at least it gets people reading” is like saying, “another McDonalds will get more people eating.” My answer to both is the same – everything in moderation is great, but too much grease can give you diarrhea. You know what I mean. I’ll let you pull the rest of that metaphor together yourself.
     So, as an obviously biased writer who believes life’s too short to read a badly written book, I took my questions to the readers – two women I respect and admire: one being my sister, another being an “Anonymous Popular Mommy Blogger who refused to use her name because you people are judgmental bitches.” I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

      This is what Sis had to say:
     “The sex part of the book was not good. Childishly written, even. She refers to her vagina as “down there.” That’s creepy as far as I’m concerned. Whenever she's turned on, Anastasia says things like: Holy Crap! or Holy Moses!


“Suddenly, he sits up and tugs my panties off and throws them on the floor. Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow! … He kneels up and pulls a condom onto his considerable length. Oh no … Will it? How?

Sis continues. “In my head I kept picturing Dorothy trotting along the yellow brick road singing Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! Not sure that’s the visual I’m supposed to be having every time Anastasia gets horny. And Christian started speaking like a cowboy half way through. ‘Mighty fine, ma’am.’ Not sure what that was about – but again, creepy. I don’t think the author understands the importance of leaving a little to the imagination, either. I felt like she’d written me into a corner of predictability and I couldn’t get out of it. Also, I wanted to throat-punch her inner goddess by the end of the book. I wasn’t interested in her POV, frankly. I think the author missed an opportunity when she didn’t write it from Christian’s perspective. I was way more interested in what he was thinking, but I never really knew because she just kept referring to him being “in a mood,” but it was never clear what that mood was because it was the only time she wasn’t overly-descriptive in the book.  The rest of the time she used too many adjectives. Bad adjectives, repetitive adjectives.”


“Sitting beside me, he gently pulls my sweatpants down. Up and down like a whores’ drawers, my subconscious remarks bitterly. In my head, I tell her where to go. Christian squirts baby oil into his hand and then rubs my behind with careful tenderness—from makeup remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid.” 

    Whores' drawers, indeed.

    This is what my “Anonymous Popular Mommy Blogger who refused to use her name because you people are judgmental bitches” had to say:
    “Look, I went to college. I've taught English, am a librarian, and actually get paid to write sometimes. I'm supposed to be one of those folks who can discern between Virginia Woolf and E.L. James.  Having said that, I think people just need to sit down, fan themselves, and be calm. Who honestly thought this was going to be great literature? It's a fantasy! And it's a fantasy based upon a monogamous, committed relationship. It doesn't need to defend itself. It's erotica. It just is. As a story, it is of some interest. Can a damaged soul heal enough to love? What is the fine line between sexy and kinky?  Should fantasy become reality? And it's interesting from a psychological point of view. But great prose it is not.  Nor did I expect it to be. So what is the value of shredding her style? I read it for a book group, and read the other two so that I could intelligently moderate our discussion.  (At least, that's the story I'm sticking to.) Though most of the actual writing made me cringe, I was engaged enough to stay up late reading to find out what… happened. My husband didn't read a single page, but he has many favorable things to say about it as well. Which brings us full circle to the point, I think.”
    “You know what, Jeni? Use my name: Leigh Merryday. Feel free to mention that I thought long and hard about being anonymous because of all the judgmental bitches out there but valiantly strove for truth instead.”  *nods sagely*
      (Now you can see why I like Leigh.)
    So, friends, the take-away here is: writing is subjective. What I think is pure shit, someone else might get something from and that’s great. That’s life, baby.
      Now… on to the subject at hand: Publishing!
     Something to remember: Publishing is a business, not an art. Well, there may be an art to it, but everything that’s published certainly can’t be considered art. Agents and publishers are here to make money and you better get nice and cozy with that premise. Sure, they may occasionally get a bee in their bonnet and publish something they personally related to, assuming sales will be low, but for the most part, if it won’t make them money EVEN IF THEY LIKE IT, they’re not going to spend their time and resources on it.
    Okay, so you’ve written the next Great American Novel. (Have you spell checked it, gone over it for flagrant adverb/adjective abuse and point-of-view issues? Have numerous other people (who don’t share your DNA) read it and given constructive feedback? Have you crafted a one page query letter and researched the agents and/or small publishers that might be amenable to what you’ve written?)  
   First, let me say that there is no right answer here. Everyone has to make their own decisions based on what they write and where they want to try and get published. It’s about many things including genre, platform, how much control you wish to have, and the realities of an ever-changing publishing world. If you write genre stuff with mass-market appeal, I’d say get that query letter and synopsis ready and start querying agents. Because that’s really the only way you can get access to the large publishing companies. Most of them don’t take unsolicited queries unless you’ve been referred to them by someone. Plan on dedicating a good year on querying, though. That route isn’t a fast-track. Patience is a virtue.
      Another choice is to query small publishers on your own. Many of them accept submissions directly from writers. But first do your homework. Look at their publishing track record and contact some of their authors to see if they are happy with their experiences. If you find yourself the lucky recipient of a contract offer, treat yourself to a little happy dance. THEN CAREFULLY GO OVER THE CONTRACT. In every case this is important. I can’t stress this enough. CAREFULLY GO OVER THE CONTRACT. Having a lawyer who deals with contract law take a look at it is usually a good idea. 
     Make sure you’re comfortable with the royalties being offered; make sure you understand what’s expected of you as well as what you can expect from the publisher. Things like confidentiality clauses and, let’s say, what happens if they fail to publish after a particular period of time elapses is of particular import. You need to cover yourself in the event that they don’t live up to their end of the bargain, and make sure you’re okay with all of the fine print in that regard.
Another thing: E-book royalties. Pay attention to this. These days, there’s a good chance the bulk of your sales will be digital sales. As far as I’m concerned, any publisher, big or small, offering a paltry 10% royalty on e-books should be ashamed of themselves. Seriously, there is NO OVERHEAD in preparing a book for e-book distribution and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise (other than the editing already done for the dead-tree version) they should be taken out back, dipped into a vat of honey and unceremoniously dumped into the bear cage at the zoo so we can all partake of the ensuing festivities.
Sure, with a publisher, what you’re buying is their ability to get your book to a wide audience. But what THEY are buying are YOUR WORDS. Only you can decide the true value of those words.
Pardon the vulgar metaphor (or don’t, I don’t give a flaming poo) let’s take a look at the pimp/whore relationship:  Sugar Daddy will justify his “business” practices in any number of ways, including the fact that, but for his existence, the whore in question wouldn’t be safe in the shark-infested waters in which they’re… performing. Also, he'd argue, he's the one supplying the “johns” and fishnets, right? Well, I’d argue that it’s still the whore who’s on her knees (or back) doing the dirty job of bringing in the dough for Pimp Daddy so, ultimately, it’s her place to say whether or not her cut is sufficient. Or, find another profession.
Most small publishers worth their salt will offer a 50/50 split on digital royalties, and for my money, that’s fair. I couldn’t tell you what the Big 6 offers, (or is it 5 now?) but I stick to my earlier assessment – if they’re offering less, shame on them.
In some cases, depending on how small the small-publisher is, and how much they are able to market your book, you’d make more money self-publishing than you would even signing their 50/50 split. This is another area you really need to research and consider, since many small publishers don’t have the budget and/or connections to get your name and work out there to a wide audience. That’s just reality.
Then, there’s self-publishing. Perhaps you’ve tried both options outlined above and haven’t had any success. You say, “Fine! I’ll publish this book on my own!” Good for you. Now do your research. I could wax poetic about self-publishing but there are far too many good sites and articles out there — Google self-publishing and prepare to spend an inordinate amount of time learning about everything from preparing an e-book for distribution to marketing. I will say that self-publishing is all about self-promotion. It’s a full-time job so don’t expect sales if you’re not hitting social media hard and on a daily basis. Also, do yourself a favor – get a good editor. There’s nothing worse than a crappily-produced self-published book. (Except, perhaps, a crappily-written, mass-produced, best-selling piece of drivel.) Also a good cover is important.
Basically, it’s up to each individual author to decide where their work fits best and then be informed about what they should expect. With “big publishing” you have less control in exchange for their vast sea of publicists, marketing geniuses, and the mound of cash they have to back that up. You can probably expect to sell a butt-load more books if you’re lucky enough to go that route but it’s not the road for everyone.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have some pretty damn good experiences with both traditional and self-publishing. But I know many who have not. I’ve heard some horror stories this year. Personally, I like working with small publishers. I did have one experience that left me feeling a little… stabby.
The not-so-nice side of publishing, particularly with small-publishers, is that there have been a glut of recent companies who have found themselves floundering in the current economy and their authors have suffered for it. The main thing I’ve heard is a lack of communication with those they’ve promised to publish. Not answering e-mails. Putting off questions. Not paying royalties in a timely manner… or not at all. These are things you’d (hopefully) see less of when working with larger publishers but again, I’ve heard a story or two in that regard as well.
Once you’ve signed that contract, you’re under a legal obligation to stick with the terms of that contract. That goes to the authors as well as the publishers. Getting out of a contract when it appears a company is tanking can be harder than it seems, particularly if they’re not answering their e-mails. Or putting authors off with various and sundry excuses.
So, here’s my final piece of advice and it comes from the purist in me, as a reader: don’t write if you don’t love doing it. As with everything in life, it’s about the journey not the destination. If you don’t have fun getting there, you’ve wasted a shitload of time and that’s a shame. Write because you can, because you’re good at it and you can’t imagine doing anything else. That way, you can’t lose.
I’ll let someone more talented and wise than I have the final word: (It should be noted that this is posted on the corkboard at my local library. Apparently, librarians agree.)

So You Want To Be A Writer
by Charles Bukowski

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.

don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.
and there never was