I am not one of those given to assume that just because a lot of people like something, then it must be good; after all, Debbie Boone’s warbling of You Light Up My Life was on top of American Top Forty for what seemed like most of the decade in the late 70s, although that damned song sucked with sufficient force to draw in small planets. Everyone that I knew ran gagging and heaving when it came on the radio, but obviously a lot of people somewhere liked it enough to keep it there, week after week after week. A lot of people read The DaVinci Code, deriving amusement and satisfaction thereby, and some take pleasure in Adam Sandler movies or Barbara Cartland romances – no, popularity of something does not guarantee quality, and I often have the feeling that the tastemakers of popular culture are often quite miffed – contemptuous, even – when they pronounce an unfavorable judgment upon an item of mass entertainment which turns out to be wildly, wildly popular anyway.

The popularity of the movie 300 appeared as one of those wildly popular things, for which the intellectual great and good had no explanation. This amused me very much when that movie premiered, because I had some kind of explanation. The story of the Spartans at Thermopylae was one of those stories which has kept a grip on us in the West for nearly three thousand years. Courage, honor, duty, clear-eyed self-sacrifice in a cause, for the lives of those you hold dear, for your city or your country; those are values that hold, that define who we are and what we stand for. I referred to it in Daughter of Texas, when Race Vining recalled the story of Diekenes, with reference to the seige of the Alamo in 1836.

Because you see, it’s all about stories, and our human need for stories; stories about other people, stories that explain, that make things clear for us, that inspire us to great deeds, to set an example or spell out a warning. We need stories nearly as much as we need oxygen. And we will have them, bright and sparkling and new, or worn to paper thinness in the re-telling. We will have stories that have grown, and been embellished by many narrators, with heroes and minor heroes and splendid set-piece scenes, and side-narratives, like one of those sea-creatures that collects ornaments to stick onto its’ shell any which way, or a bower-bird collecting many brilliant scraps and laying them out in intricate patterns. A longing to hear such stories must be as innate in us, as it is to those creatures, for our earliest epic, that of Gilgamesh may be traced back to the beginnings of agriculture, and towns, and the taming of animals, and the making of a written language. It may go back even farther yet, but there is really no way to know for sure what those stories were, although I am sure the anthropologists are giving it the good old college try.

Our values are transmitted in the stories that we go back to, over and over. A long time ago, I read this book, which recommended, rather in the manner of the old Victorians, that children be given improving books to read, that their minds be exercised by good examples. I was initially rather amused – and then I went over the reading list in the back of the book. I realized just then how many of those books the author cited I had read myself, and how many quiet demonstrations of honesty, courage, ethical behavior, loyalty to family, friends and community, of doing the hard right as opposed to the easy wrong had been tidily incorporated into such books as the Little House books, or Caddie Woodlawn, or All of a Kind Family, or Johnny Tremain. We imbibe all these values from stories and lest we think that these sorts of moral lessons are obscure and tangled things, best suited for a long theoretical discussion of the life-boat dilemma in some touchy-feely ethics seminar, the author (or someone that he quoted – it’s been a long time since I re-read the book) brought up the old black and white movie A Night to Remember – the movie account of the sinking of the Titanic. The whole story of the unsinkable ship is laid out, based on research, and with the aid (at the time it was filmed) with many still-living survivors; running full-tilt into an ice-field, hitting an iceberg, loading the relatively few lifeboats while the band plays, and the ships engineers keep the lights and power going, of husbands putting their wives and children into the boats and stepping back to leave more room, knowing that the ship is doomed – of steerage passengers taking matters into their own hands and finding their way up to the boat deck, and deck-hands trying to launch the very last boat as the seawater rises to their knees. Twice a hundred stories, and at the end of it one has a pretty good idea of who has behaved well and honorably – and who has not.

Stories. We need them, and we’ll keep coming back to them. And to the best ones, we will come back again and again.

Author Follies

When a writers’ organization forgets that its primary goal should be to assist and support writers and starts trying to look more politically correct and then to force that image on all members or else they be publicly shamed, it has outlived its time.
(From a comment by Amanda, at the discussion thread here.) For an explanation of glittery hoo-haa, go here – and remember, you have been warned.

Now, aren’t you all glad that I have taken to writing historical fiction? Those organizations which I am interested in joining, or semi-qualified to join based upon scribbling moderately competent, interesting, and OK-selling genre fiction (Women Writing the West, or the Historical Fiction Society) are not having these nuclear-melt-down-sink-through-to-the-core-of-the-earth perturbations. Or at least, none that I know of – mostly because I am interested in writing, not organizational politics, because – what was the reason for the writers’ organization again? Oh, yeah – the care and feeding of writers, and their economic interests, not some kind of neo-Stalinist clique imposing a kind of savage Mean Girls political correctness upon the membership and exiling all those who don’t or won’t go along with it.
Continue reading Author Follies

When the Going Gets Wierd …

(A repost from the archive of one of my other blogs, ruminating on identity and writing)

The weird turn professional, and apparently write a memoir about it, which is all very nice when it sells a LOT of copies, and the writer becomes FAMOUS and sells a mega-jiga-million copies, and everyone remembers that they knew you when – maybe. Journalistic fabrication is so last year (Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, whatsisface at the NYT), the current flave of the moment must be the memoir; One’s own life, but with improvements.

The fun begins when everyone who knew you when — the people next door, brothers and sisters, employers, co-workers, ex-spouses, friends and former friends score a copy and begin to realize that there is a whole ‘nother reality reflected there, one with which they were completely unacquainted. So the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey ruckus was just one of the most current disconnects between real life and life remembered with advantages. The lesson ought to be for memoirists to linger meaningfully in the general vicinity of verifiable facts, either that or wait to write it all when everyone else is dead and can’t argue the point with you. If you really can’t wait that long, perhaps it would be less embarrassing to just call it fiction, loosely based on your own life. Even if the stuff that really happens is sometimes stranger than you can ever make up.

Some time past there was a story about another writer — somewhat less well known since Oprah didn’t personally have to rip him a new one on national television— who wasn’t a Native American at all. What is it with wanting to be a Native American, all that mysticism and wilderness wisdom? And Timothy Barrus wasn’t the first, (Grey Owl, anyone?) only being a porn writer may have been a little less embarrassing than the resume and club membership of this best-selling but unfortunately fraudulent Indian. And Carlos Castenada and Rigoberta Menchu still have passionate defenders willing to deny or discount certain uncomfortable findings.

Really, I feel quite sorry for people who begin with a little fib, a touch of exaggeration and eventually wind up believing it; some of them do not take contradiction well, and it is way too late in the game to get a writer and memoirist like Lillian Hellman a little painful cross-examination (But Mary McCarthy tried, anyway.)

Fraudulent memoirists like Frey and Barrus may be a passing evil, best selling or not. Grey Owl and Asa Carter, although not as advertised, were possessed of a lovely and sympathetic writing style and may even have done good with their output, in the long run. But Menchu and Hellman, with the deeply politicized aspect to their writings and public personas probably have not. After contemplating how their books inflamed or warped the perceptions of certain public issues, it is a positive relieve to contemplate Ern Malley and Penelope Ashe, two last literary frauds which were done for no more reason than to make a point, and for their perpetrators to have a little fun putting one over; A self-consciously literary magazine called Angry Penguins is just begging to be sent up, and as for Naked Came the Stranger – it was proved in 1969, and for a hundred years before and ever since, that trash with a naked woman on the front cover will sell.

Further Adventures in Book Marketing

(This is an archive post, regarding independent publishing, reposted for your delectation and amusement.)

Well, no one ever really considered our family or anyone in it as cutting-edge … although it might be fairly argued that we were mosying so slowly along behind everyone else in our practices and preferences that the cutting-edge, tres-up to the minute actually came around full circle in the last half-decade and caught up to us at last. Home-made everything, home vegetable garden, chores for children, no television, tidy small houses and abstention from debt of every sort, from student to credit-card … an enthusiasm for all such things are now apparently trendy and forward-thinking.

I think about the only time that any of us got ahead of the zeitgeist in any way – and it was only for a brief time – was when I got into blogging and indy-publishing. Even then I wasn’t an early-early-Dark-Ages of Blogging adapter, only more of the first flush of the Renaissance, where practically all of us whose sites were honored by being one of the first major aggregator sites knew each other – in the on-line sense of commenting on each other’s blogs and being free with personal email addresses. Fortunately for my family standing, that all passed about the time that comment-spam became a plague upon the earth and various formerly wide-open websites began requiring registration to comment, or at least acquiring some heavy-duty spam-prevention plug-ins. A blog? Now, everybody had a blog.

Indy publishing – now, when I went ahead and did my first book, cobbled together out of various posts on the original blog – I went with a POD publisher recommended by one of the commenters, and from there I went wandering off into the wilds of independent publishing. Now, there was new territory and relatively un-trodden, being that eBooks were still some years in the future. Self-publishing was, in the eyes of the mainstream media and publishing establishments, a mere half-a step away from vanity publishing, wherein a talentless hack with delusions of adequacy and fairly deep pockets overpaid for a print run of their book, and settled down to a lifetime of giving away copies out of the boxes of them in the garage. But the POD houses had a new twist; only printing as many as were required, and distributing through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all the other on-line vendors … and only costing the author a relative pittance: a couple of hundred dollars instead of a couple of thousands. So, there I was, happily embroiled in writing and marketing my books, moving from that first publisher to a partnership with Alice here at Watercress, ensuring that my print books would be available here, there, and everywhere.

Within the last five years or so some things became pretty obvious: even at the required discount and with returnability, local bookstores still preferred that I supply the books for consignment sales … and the hassle of that just became too much. I laid out my own funds to purchase the books in the first place, got repeatedly stalled on payments, had information lost by the bookstore and was paid with bouncing checks. Borders closed the one big box bookstore that did happily stock my books at their San Antonio outlets. Exasperated, I made the unilateral decision: I’d either do direct sales at special events, especially around the holidays, or refer interested purchasers to Amazon, etc. If a bookstore wanted to stock my books, they could go through Ingram.

So – sales of print books presently trickle along at a pretty steady rate, with an uptick at Christmas. As long as their various Amazon rankings are low-number six figures or less – I’m happy. But digital sales – that’s another kettle of fish. In the final week of may last year, I got a mention on the big aggregator site, and a link to my Amazon author page – and sales of Kindle versions of all six books soared. No kidding – total sales quadrupled almost overnight for the month of May, and so far for June are about twice what I normally expect. Print sales remained fairly consistent through the last of May and the first of June, which demonstrates to me that I really ought to focus more on marketing the eBook editions. Last month was a wake-up call … and the call said ‘Make Facebook pages for your books!’ ‘Do more with Smashwords and coupons!’ and ‘Plug the Kindle and Nook versions more energetically!’

I should have expected that; more and more people that we know have e-readers of some kind or another, even older citizens who are normally resistant to any newfangled electronic toys – being able to change the font size, and instantly acquire any new book that takes their fancy probably has a lot to do with this. I suspect that e-readers will become as ubiquitous as cell-phones and iPods over the next couple of years – just about everyone will have one. Like cellphones, the e-readers will become cheaper. The trend is for indy authors to charge far less for their books than the establishment publishers do for theirs, which can only work to the advantage of indy authors.

Yeah, I know that some of the other indy authors I know have been harping on this for a year or two already … but I never claimed to be out in front of trends.

The Perils of PODing

(This is an update of a post I wrote several years ago for another website – explaining some of the advantages of independent publishing through ‘Print On Demand’ or POD. Yes, and I will explain the difference between Print on Demand and traditional litho printing )

Strictly speaking, unless your last name is Grisham or King, Steele or Rowling or any other scribbling royalty lurking meaningfully on or near the of the NY-Times best seller lists, life is bleak and full of frustrations. And also very short of people who are nice to you as a writer and welcoming to you and your books. No wonder so many of them turn to drink, or otherwise crash and burn. Even the flash in the pan overnight successful ones fall to this – Grace Metalious, anyone?

Those of us at the bottom, toiling and marketing in obscurity take our little successes where we can, lonely beacons shining in a dark and generally frustrating world. Everyone who reads the Book and loves it, or recommends it to a friend, or drops a favorable comment in an on-line forum; that’s a light like Erandil in the dark places of the day. Not quite up there with royalty checks in four figures, but the trick to being happy is to be happy with what you have.

One particularly pleasing comment about my first book was a in a discussion forum about off-road vehicles; a contributor quoted a bit from To Truckee’s Trail about storage arrangements in Dr. Townsends’ wagon and drew a very neat parallel between that, and how modern off-roaders now install storage for long treks. That just about made my evening. Such crumbs as do nourish the writers’ ego on these long winter evenings after looking at my ranking on and wondering why there were links to the reviews for the paperback edition. No idea from the admin responses in the author forum as to why – just another way that the non-royal scribblers are incessantly kicked in the teeth by a cold and unfeeling world.

Ah, yes – reviews; absolutely necessary to have in order to market your book. Think of them as word of mouth, made solid and permanent in print. In the grand halls of the literary industrial complex, competition is fierce to review the books of the scribbling royalty and the well-connected commentariat; even so, it will take months. Almost always, the book is made available to a select few way in advance, and rumor has it that sometimes reviewers are paid and quite healthy sums too. It’s a necessary step in marketing the book, think of all those lovely complimentary quotes on the back jacket, or in the first couple of pages. At a lower level – naturally the one occupied by other indie authors – are also “paid’ by getting a free copy of the book. It’s one of those nice little freebies available to those in the loop and I confess to having scored a nice little collection thereby. (Once I asked to review a book for no other reason that I looked at the description and thought what a wonderful Christmas present a copy would make for a certain friend.)

Alas, it took months and months to assemble my collection of reviews for my first (and subsequent books), and a very good thing that they are all self-published, print-on-demand books, as a traditional publisher would have pulled the plug after six months, outside. On the other hand, a traditional publisher would have been able to squeeze a review out of local newspapers. One newspaper book editor informed me snottily that their policy is not to review POD books of any sort, not even by local authors. Don’t know what their reasoning is, probably afraid of getting literary cooties or something. God knows there are some simply dreadful books out there, but last time I looked, quite a lot of them came out of the traditional publishers. Indie writing may be the next wave, just as indie movies and indie music have offered an alternative to the traditional Hollywood blockbuster and the manufactured and wholly synthetic mega-hit.

Next – why it’s an uphill fight to get the book into traditional bookstores, and why do I bother anyway?

An Experiment

Just to see if this goes to Facebook! Put on your safety goggles and hold tight!

Later – Sigh. Doesn’t look like it. Back to work on an AUTOMATIC PUBLISH TO FACEBOOK widget that does work, without requiring thirty different steps…

Well, Here We Go

WP Logo Sheet So now that I have the keys to the website and my poetic license to drive, I have added a blog page to Watercress. This is to serve several purposes; information for authors and prospective authors who are considering publishing outside of the established, general information about the present-day wild and wacky world of publishing in the wake of a couple of certain recent technological developments, and information about Watercress authors and upcoming local events that we will be participating in.

One of those first things coming up is the San Antonio Book Festival, which is coming up April 5th on the Riverwalk at the Downtown Library/Southwest School of Art. This is only the second annual SA Book Festival, so … it’s as nearly as new to us as it is to the event sponsor, the San Antonio Public Library Foundation. We’ll have an exhibit booth, and some of our Watercress and G&A authors will be there with their books.
We’ll see you there!

First Quality Books – for 35 Years