Friday, July 3, 2009

It's Better to Be a Hack

Whither the writer? That is, what should a writer do? With the market shrinking by leaps and bounds, and reading seemingly going the way of the General Motors car, all doesn't appear to be going well for our literati these days.

I had a few thoughts on this issue, but first I thought I'd mention that I recently came across an old column by Cory Doctorow that says it better than I can. Still, though it's been done better, I've got to give it my try.

Why Should Writers 'Give it Away'?

The idea that we should give something so personal, so valuable away for free is anathema to the spirit of every mama-san ever to drive off young men with a broomstick when they came sniffing around the garden. In almost every other endeavor in life, giving 'it' away for free, be it your labour, your time, or your virginity, has never been seen as the most astute business move. So why is it different with writing?

The basic notion is that you, the writer, are carrying on a conversation with your readers. You can't be a success if no one listens. Meaning that the biggest threat to any writer is not whether someone might steal your work, it is nobody knowing about your work at all. Obscurity is what should be feared.

You know, I think the publishing industry needs a Maple Music type company. Maple Music basically stepped in and became the distributor for independent musicians and groups in Canada, and has, since its inception, gone on to become one of the major players in Canadian music, benefiting the artists enormously. They mostly distribute online, saving in production and distribution costs, with an on demand inventory system, and split the proceeds with the artists themselves. I think it's a 50-50 split, actually.

Why can't we do that as writers? Honestly, when you take a hardcover book, sold at $40, and subtract the cost of materials, distribution, shelf space, and marketing, and the cut to the publisher, what is left for the author? $1, $2 maybe? Imagine getting $5 for every digital copy someone purchased? Sell a few thousand, and that's a year's salary. That's a mortgage paid, and student loan debt serviced. Amazon and others sell the same books for $10, and guess how much of that is pure profit?

All those marginal writers who subsist on meagre earnings could suddenly increase their earnings very substantially this way.

Why is it that there needs to be an agent - publisher - editor - marketer - pr chain for books? If agents are the gatekeepers, selecting for quality, why can't they be the publishers also, or the editors, marketers, and PR people all in one package? The technology is there to radically alter the business, to make it cost efficient, and more effective.

I'm telling, you there's a massive market there waiting for somebody build the model and exploit.

It is stuff to think about especially with news out that Canadian publishing has not only hit hard times, but as the Calgary Herald says (via Bookninja)

Whither CanLit? Or should that be “wither CanLit”? Seems like the latter, after a new Harris/Decima poll came out showing that 50 per cent of Canadians surveyed do not know the name of any Canadian authors, and of those who do, only four were mentioned by more than four per cent of them.

And there is a good reason why this is happening.

Who are these writers? Where are they? For the average person, CanLit seems remote because it is remote. Authors take too long in between books. Then, beyond the book tour and a few readings, how much connection is there really with the readership?

Kids authors get a following. Murder/Mystery authors get a following. Science Fiction & Fantasy authors get a following. Even Oprah gets a following...

How does Oprah fit into this? Well, have you ever wondered why Oprah Book Club authors sell a gazillion copies? Not because everyone realized that author X is actually really good. Nope. They buy the books because Oprah says they are good, and they care about Oprah. She converses with them every day on television, and every month in her magazine. She cares about them, and they care about her, and they care about the things she says they should care about. Thus the books that she features are forevermore placed in a marketable genre. They become Oprah books, and they sell massively to a massive Oprah audience.

I think CanLit needs to become a real genre. When I go into the bookstore, there is "literature" which takes up most of the space, with gads of books on the shelves, and maybe one or two people shuffling past on the way to the tiny cramped little genre shelves that are packed with people shifting around each other to look at the meagre sampling on offer.

There is no equivalent "literature" section for movies. If a film is independent or foreign, it is marketed as such and directed at a crowd who specifically like independent or foreign films. Those are genres, every bit as much as a genre as horror, romantic comedy, or action. They reach audiences because an audience has been created that is receptive to films created for them

But when it comes to CanLit, what do you get? You don't know. The book could be a family drama, it could be about a murder, or a mother's quest to know her son. Who knows. There is no targeted audience, so when the reader looks at the "literature" shelf, there is no expectation, and no expectation, overall, is a bad thing.

Think about it. When you turn on the TV, or go to the cinema, you ask whoever you are with what they "feel" like seeing. If you go alone, you'll think about what you "feel" like seeing. Then you will choose the film that will fit that feeling. You will know the genre of the film, and thus have an expectation about what you will encounter. But with CanLit, is there an expectation? No. It's a mixed bag, and while you might find a gem, it's often a better bet to play it safe and get the latest James Patterson on the shelf.

In order to thrive, CanLit authors need to become regular genre writers. A few years back I spent some time with Robert J Sawyer at his penthouse condo in Mississauga. I was there to interview him, and while I was there, I got to see his massive, gold plated Hugo Award. It was like I was touching the Holy Grail. Well Robert has long had a site filled with freebies for his audience, and he has built up his readership by being there, on the ground at signings, at Word on the Street, at conventions, by writing on blogs, publishing magazines, and beating the war drum for his own books. One of his novels, Flashback, was optioned and is being filmed for ABC as a pilot for a series. His career has been incredibly successful, and while he will never hit J.K. Rowling levels of wealth, he won't ever be worrying about needing a day job for the rest of his life.

As Cory Doctorow says, "Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet." And why do readers care? Because they know the writers, they speak to them, see them at conventions, read their blogs, go to their writing workshops, etc, etc.

I think CanLit writers need to take page from the the genre hacks.

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